North & South is my latest 19th century British literature obsession. I simply adore both the book and the mini-series (though I was furious when they left out one particularly romantic scene from the book in the series!), and while I hope to post some more book-centered stories, this one is my tribute to the mini-series. I feel that I should note that I infinitely prefer the ending to the beginning of this story, so if you are struggling through the beginning, I beg you to make it to the end and leave a review!
Black filled John Thornton's vision. Black – such a poisonous color! The ink of despair, the cloth of death, the robe of mourning – all were black. It was the color in which the grieving adorned themselves in order to remind all of their loss. It was the color of despair, anguish, and misery.
How he loathed that color as he saw Margaret – his sweet Margaret! – adorned in it once again, mourning the death of her father so soon after the loss of her mother. In only a few weeks time, she had lost the two people she was closest to, her beloved parents whom she loved best of any person on earth.
His Margaret (he despised himself for thinking of her as such, but it could not be helped) was utterly alone in this world. It was true that she still had an aunt and cousins, but the existence of such relations could not assuage such grief at the loss of one's parents, nor could it bring back those who were gone.
He longed to fall at her feet and offer himself to her again, to whisper to her that he would take care of her for the rest of her life, to promise to always love her, to swear that she would never again be so utterly alone. But he did not – he could not. He knew how she despised him and could not bear to hear her repeat those poisonous words again.
John knew that if he saw Margaret again, it would be difficult – if not impossible – to restrain himself from expressing the feelings that every day threatened to break from the tight grip he held upon them. Guilt filled him each day as he thought of her and her suffering, with none to sympathize or offer soft and genuine condolences. How could he abandon her – he who professed to love her so very dearly – at such a difficult time during her life?
But he feared that seeing her would only increase her pain. Why would she desire the company of a man she detested as she mourned her parents' death? Why would she wish to be disturbed as she grieved by one who was so unwelcome as he?
Days passed and he had heard nothing of her except that which he could casually inquire from mutual acquaintances. Therefore, he had heard nothing of her leaving Milton until she and another woman arrived to pay their farewell visit. He had seen the carriage pull up from his study in the mill, had seen the woman who occupied his every thought alight from the carriage and enter the house, accompanied by a rather loud woman whom he later learned was her aunt, Mrs. Shaw. He had struggled with himself for hours – or perhaps mere minutes – before surrendering and abandoning his work to see Margaret.
It was not until he was able to examine her closely that he realized how much the death of her parents had changed her. Her eyes held a gloom that seemed permanent, a sorrow that would not abate. Her face was hollow and horrifyingly pale; her skin stretched tightly over her bones with a frailty that caused her to bear a rather alarming resemblance to a living corpse. There was an overall tension in her body that betrayed the effort it took to restrain her grief – it made him long to take her in his arms and give her the comfort she needed.
But, most prevalently, John sensed the vulnerability surrounding her, the feeling that one harsh word, one sentence spoken too loudly, would shatter her and she would disappear. He hardly dared approach her, fearing that if he so much as breathed on her, she would break.
She and her aunt were standing as he entered the room, evidently beginning to take their leave. A rather worn book was clutched in Margaret's small white hand. John recognized it as Mr. Hale's book of Plato – the book that he and Mr. Hale had been studying only weeks before. Margaret gave him a sad smile as she slowly approached him, leaving her aunt to converse with Mrs. Thornton and Fanny until the conversation died but a moment later.
She bid him farewell and offered him the book as a token of remembrance of her father. He accepted it gratefully, concealing his emotions with as much strength as he could summon. That control slipped suddenly, however, and he found words slipping from his lips without his volition.
"So you are – going? You'll never come back?" The words were too vulnerable and made him feel almost ashamed, feeling the eyes of the other three women on his face, but the words had been said and he could not retract them.
The sad smile returned. "I wish you well, Mr. Thornton," she said calmly, with a placidity that he knew was false. He could see the grief burning in her eyes and he wanted to embrace her and allow her that release that she needed. She could not suppress her emotions forever. At some point, the dam would break and she would find herself trapped in the dangerous waters of her emotions. He wanted to protect her from that fate.
He turned abruptly and left the room, fearing that more words – growing more dangerous as he considered them – would fall from his tongue. As he departed, he could hear her aunt saying, "I must get her home as soon as possible!"
He clenched his jaw. Her home was here. Her home was with him. Her home, he longed to shout to Mrs. Shaw, was in his arms! Margaret was a strong woman – she belonged in Milton.
He paced agitatedly in the hallway, clutching the book of Plato tightly and struggling with the thoughts that threatened to consume him.
The women issued forth from the room at that moment and he recollected himself enough to insist upon escorting their visitors to their carriage to spare his mother and sister from the cold. Mrs. Shaw gave him a large smile (the woman seemed to be severely lacking the grief that one usually feels at the death of a loved relation), thanked him for his gracious farewell, and led her niece to the carriage.
As John stood there, he considered the situation. He knew quite well that anticipating a highly unpleasant event and watching the event occur were two very different things. The former was but a dull mockery of the utter anguish that accompanied the latter.
As he watched Margaret step into the carriage, the black lace on her bonnet stirring in the wind, John felt anguish that was greater than he could ever have anticipated. He had known, as he paced in the hallway but a few moments before, that Margaret's departure was imminent and that nothing he could do would prevent it. But seeing it occur before his eyes – seeing his beloved leave, never to return – was far worse than anything he had imagined.
It was in this moment of utter anguish and vulnerability, as the carriage door was shut and it began to move, that the words fell from his lips with the whispered plea of one who is so utterly desperate that they can no longer control their actions.
"Look back." His eyes focused upon the small window at the rear of the carriage. All else faded into obscurity – the snow that was softly landing in his hair, the cold biting wind against his face, the book of Plato that was held tightly by his fingers – and was forgotten.
Could she not feel it? Could she not feel how every fiber of his being was calling out to her, begging, pleading for her to look back? Could she not hear his voice beseeching her to give him one last glimpse of her lovely face? Did she not hear whispering in her mind telling her to turn back, to bestow one last glance upon the man who loved her so dearly? Did she not realize that, by leaving, she was taking a part of him with her, leaving behind only a shell of a man who once was, as a body was left to grow cold long after the soul had departed to God?
"Look back at me." The words ripped from his throat, thick with desperation. He needed one last image of her to stay in his mind. She could not disappear from his life without granting him that! Did she not consider the agony he was enduring? Did she not feel compassion for his sufferings of the heart as she held compassion for the sufferings of the body that the poor and needy endured? Surely she did not despise him so entirely as to become completely unfeeling to his anguish!
His hands began to tremble as the carriage turned the corner and the window was still utterly devoid of that angelic countenance. He let out a despairing sigh, lifting both hands to his face. The book slipped from his fingers and fell down the steps, landing in the accumulating snow with a soft sound. He looked up at the noise and hurried down the stairs to rescue the precious item from the snow.
Hastily removing all traces of frozen water from the book with his fingers – red and raw from the cold, he noticed with an uncharacteristic sense of detachment – he held the book to his breast, clumsily running his numb fingers along the book's spine in a manner similar to the way one would caress a beloved relation. He lifted the book to his face and pressed it to his lips before returning it to its place at his heart.
It was all he had left of Margaret and he would cherish it with all the feeling the icy remnants of his heart would allow. He knew not how long he simply stood in the snow, lost in thought, drowning in despair, before he felt a hand grasp his arm gently. He turned to see his mother gazing upon him with concern. He could see the hatred in her eyes at the one who was causing him this pain.
"She did not look back, did she?" Mrs. Thornton said quietly. It was hardly a question.
John was silent for a moment, his eyes lowering to examine the snow that dusted his boots. "No, Mother, and it is only right that she did not. Miss Hale will be much happier in London than she would have been with me."
"I cannot believe that, John!" Mrs. Thornton had raised her voice from a whisper to speak at normal volume, but John still flinched as if she had shouted or struck him. Her voice began to slowly rise in volume as her anger grew. "What right has she to deny you happiness? What right has she to come here, with her airs and her disdain, and make you love her, only to leave and crush the light that you once held within you?"
"You are my son, John! You can hide nothing from me! Where I once saw a young man, content with his life and prosperity, I now see but a husk of what you once were! I know that, had she asked you to give up the mill and run off to the end of the world with her – to China, Australia, wherever it may be! – and live as paupers, you would do it! You would do anything to be with her. And that is what crushes me so! You love her so dearly that you would cut off your right hand if she would marry you, and yet she cares nothing for you!"
John turned away from her and her hand fell from his arm. His voice was tight with repressed emotion. "You are right, Mother. I can hide nothing from you."
"John," Mrs. Thornton sighed, reaching up with one hand to turn her son's face back to her. He did not meet her gaze, his sad eyes focusing upon the toe of his boots instead. "Do you recall when I once told you that a mother's love is much stronger than any girl's could ever hope to be?"
"Yes." His voice was as quiet as if it had merely been the whisper of the wind; had she not seen John's lips move, she would not have known that he had spoken.
"It still holds true. Miss Hale may scorn you, abandon you, ruin you, and insult you, but you will always be my son. You will always be my John."
A small smile flitted across his face. It was a gloomy smile, but a smile nonetheless.
"Thank you, Mother," he said quietly. "We should go inside. It is growing colder and it would not do for you to catch a cold."
She allowed him to escort her inside, but she saw through his mask. She knew that her son would always love Miss Hale, and that the love of his mother, however enduring and unconditional, would always fall short of the love he longed for from Miss Hale.