A/N: Thank you to everyone who has read/reviewed/followed/ favorited this story so far. I'm sorry that I don't get around to PM'ing you all individually but it's wonderful to read your words of encouragement and know that you are all enjoying this little tale. I hope this next installment won't disappoint…
"Miss Hale, forgive me, I didn't know that you were in here; I merely came in search of a book which Fanny had asked to borrow," said Mrs. Thornton innocently as she entered the study one morning, pretending to be surprised by Margaret's presence there.
Margaret was not convinced – she had been living at Marlborough mills for near on a week and had taken to sitting in Mr. Thornton's study nearly every day since her arrival there – Mrs. Thornton; the all seeing all knowing woman that she was, had to know exactly where Margaret was to be found.
"There is nothing to forgive Mrs. Thornton," replied Margaret demurely.
"Indeed, I wonder at you sitting all alone in this study, feeling sorry for yourself. Forgive my interference but having had some experience of loss myself I always found that the best way to overcome my sadness was to remain active and busy. These books obviously hold a great deal of sentiment to you, and as such they are perhaps not the best way to overcome your pain."
Mrs. Thornton was not unfeeling towards her fellow man but she couldn't abide self-pity. A deeply pragmatic woman, she felt that each person had enough strength within them to conquer their own fears and tribulations and that God would not present someone with a problem which they would not be able to cope with if they just looked deep enough within themselves to find the courage. This belief was one of the reasons that she found it so hard to accept her own husbands passing.
"I feel sure you are right Mrs. Thornton," answered Margaret, trying not to let her irritation with Mrs. Thornton show; "but I do not have anything other than these books to occupy my time."
"Then you should take your example from me and take up your needle and thread. Nothing helps pass the time of day more effectively than needlework, and at the end of the day you have not only occupied your time and your thoughts but you have done so In a productive manner and have the finished article to show for your hours of toil."
"I fear my mother had often attempted to improve my needle work skills, but to no avail. There always seemed to be something more exciting to be doing." Margaret's face fell slightly at the memory of her mother scolding her as she had been out visiting the neighbors when she should have been at home for her sewing lessons. "My mother was very skilled with a needle. She embroidered the most beautiful things: table cloths, handkerchiefs…; she was busy embroidering a beautiful piece of silk before her passing, but I fear it shall forever remain incomplete. My talents could never do the cloth justice."
"Will you show me this cloth?" asked Mrs. Thornton, curiously. The image of Mrs. Hale which she had in her mind's eye was not one of a particularly industrious or talented lady but more of one who lay about on a chez-long all day complaining of her aches or that the fire had died out.
"Certainly… if you wish it," replied Margaret. She wasn't sure why Mrs. Thornton had taken a sudden interest in her. She could only assume that her son must have asked her to, which only made her hasten her step in her attempt to retrieve her mother's embroidery ring, lest Mrs. Thornton notice her blushes and question her further.
However; Hannah Thornton, when finally presented with the article, forgot all about her promise to her son to try and make friends with Miss Hale. She was truly impressed by the craftsmanship before her and could not hide her interest or her praise.
"It is indeed beautiful Miss Hale," she commented, running her short fingers across the ridges of thread pulled taught by the embroidery ring it was stretched around. " The colours are so rich and life like and the stitches so fine and intricate; it is a small wonder that your mother was even able to see to make them. I'm sure I should go half blind were I to attempt to emulate her style."
"Thank you. I am perhaps a rather biased judge but I always admired my mother's skill, and her patience; for a work like this one would often take weeks or even months to complete, yet she always seemed so fulfilled by the task that time didn't seem to matter to her, the joy was in the perfect finished article – no matter how long it took to attain."
"It seems such a shame to think that this cloth must remain incomplete. Would you not even attempt to finish it to honour your mother's memory?" asked Mrs. Thornton, gently running the soft fabric through her white hands.
"It is precisely for that sake that I shall make no attempt of the kind," replied Margaret ironically, sadly ogling the cloth in Mrs. Thornton's hands
"But with a bit of practice, and me to guide you, your needlework would undoubtedly improve. Would you not be willing to even try Miss Hale?"
"You would teach me?" hesitantly asked Margaret.
"Fanny never had much enthusiasm for sewing; it requires more focus and dedication than she was willing to spare for it, but should you so desire, Miss Hale, it would please me to help you finish your mothers cloth."
Margaret was skeptical of Mrs. Thornton's motives, but the drought of affection which she had so lately suffered through left her aching to cling to any parental figure willing to give her even a scrap of sympathy or friendship.
"I hope you will not regret your offer Mrs. Thornton as I feel sure that even Fanny must be more accomplished than I, but I should be very grateful for your help. I think that I should enjoy it very much."
Work at the mill had been taxing. They were still trying to catch up with all the lost production of the strike, and though the bills seemed to be arriving every day, the payments from the debtors were not. Mr. Thornton had been working himself and his men hard in order to meet the orders and could little afford the time away from the office, but he had tried to make it home everyday to sit down to dinner with his mother and Miss Hale.
He wasn't exactly sure why it was so important for him to be there, as had it just been him and his mother he would undoubtedly have just asked a servant to bring him a plate in his office rather than attend a formal dinner service. Now, however, the lure of Margaret's presence and his curiosity to see her spirits improving drew him back to the house everyday without fail.
He had just stepped through the door one evening when he was greeted by his mother coming into the hall.
"John! What a pleasant surprise! You are to join us again for dinner?" she asked, a slight hint of jealousy creeping into her question.
Mr. Thornton was not ignorant of his mother's feelings towards Margaret as well as her feelings about his previous interest in her, but as he believed the risk of him losing his heart to Miss Hale was now all in the past he tried to behave as if he didn't catch his mothers meaning.
"We do have a guest mother. Would it not appear rude if I did not at least lend my appearance at dinner time, if for nothing more than to at least spare you from each other's company for at least an hour?"
"Well I'm sure Miss Hale would understand if your business prevented you from being present at the dinner table."
"If I didn't know any better I would think you were trying to get rid of me," said Mr. Thornton mockingly as he removed his coat and bent down to give his mother a gentle kiss on her cheek.
Her icy demeanor seemed to melt at her son's touch and she smiled fondly at him as she replied to his mild sally. "I am glad that you will at least be eating properly during the time that Miss Hale is with us. You too often neglect your own health when you are so preoccupied with business."
"See mother, Miss Hale's presence is not all bad," he said as he followed his mother into the dining room. After scanning the otherwise empty room he enquired from his mother as to the whereabouts of Miss Hale. He tried to keep his voice light and casual but though he would later deny it to himself, he felt a physical ache at her absence.
"She is nursing her wounds."
"Wounds? Surely she is not injured?" asked Thornton, his frustration and panic growing with every breath. "Or have you two argued? I asked you to make a concerted effort to be kind to…"
"And I have done all and more than you asked of me my son," interrupted Mrs. Thornton irritably, no longer able to bear witness to her son's seemingly inexplicable affection for this girl. "She stabbed her finger with her needle while I was attempting to teach her a more intricate stitch and she has merely retired to her room in order to bind the wound and remove her apron which had been stained with a few droplets of blood."
"Oh…I beg your pardon mother. You are…teaching her?" he asked contritely.
"I am trying. She is not very proficient but she is at least more eager to learn than Fanny ever was."
"I am glad, Thank you mother. It pleases me to think that you can be her friend; Lord knows she needs one!"
"Well we shall see," was all the reply his mother would make, other than a slight roll of her eyes as she whispered the words.
"I hope you are not lamenting taking me on as your student to your son Mrs. Thornton. Indeed, I did warn you, as if my thumb was not evidence enough of my inadequacy," said Margaret as she entered the room, and held up her now bandaged thumb as proof of her statement.
Mr. Thornton turned to welcome her into the conversation. He saw, with a small stab of pain, that though she was attempting to appear cordial and gay, her face was still gaunt and pale. He glanced at her thumb as well as the slightly stern look on his mothers face and could not help himself from trying to come to Margaret's aid. "You should not be so hard upon yourself Miss Hale. I cannot tell you the countless times I have had to bandage my mother's fingers just so," he said indicating Margaret's thumb, "After she too had punctured them with a needle. She still does upon occasion." He smiled affectionately at his mother while saying this.
"As I have informed Miss Hale, one cannot take up a needle and thread when one's concentration is not entirely on the task at hand. It requires focus, as Miss Hale and I have both learnt to our detriment. The sting of today's wound will hopefully serve as a forceful reminder during tomorrow's lesson," said Mrs. Thornton, who though appearing harsh in her criticism was secretly impressed with the progress that Margaret had already shown in just a few short hours.
"I hope I shall improve with practice."
"My mother is an excellent tutor," replied Thornton soothingly.
Margaret didn't quite know how to respond to Mr. Thornton's gentle and friendly manner. Since she had moved into his house he had been very cordial on the few occasions she had seen him, and at mealtimes he had seemed …preoccupied. He was never rude or cold but she had felt as if veil had been drawn between them. She knew of course what the cause was and she could tell that in order to forget the past he had decided to bury himself in his work. She wished more than ever that she was able to finally tell him the truth about Frederick, but with her brothers fate unknown at this point she just couldn't take the risk.
Mrs. Thornton watched as Mr. Thornton helped Margaret be seated at the dinner table. She watched too how when that young lady's head was turned toward her plate his eyes were riveted to her. He couldn't seem to help himself; they would try to look cool and unaffected while under Margaret's heady gaze but as soon as she looked away they immediately jumped back into their previous position, scrutinizing her every feature, shining with renewed life and vigour, though still shadowed by worry and sadness.
She knew that despite her son's protestations he was still very much in love with Ms Hale. She could say that she failed to understand his infatuation but she was beginning to realise that either way, there was very little that she could do about it. She had many months ago come to the realisation that there was not one in one million women whom she would feel happy welcoming as her daughter-in-law; and with this realization had also come the recognition that if she didn't want to lose her son's love altogether, she would have to keep her opinions of his prospective wife to herself. But though there were many character flaws which Mrs Thornton was prepared to over look in her potential daughter-in-law, the one point on which she was determined to hold firm was that she would not see her son marry a woman who did not love him as much as she did.
Previously she had always believed Margaret and her family to be nothing but fortune hunters, but since the events of the riot and Margaret's subsequent refusal of her son's offer she was forced to rethink her initial judgment. She could quite easily believe that she was proud and haughty but seeing her now under closer inspection she had to admit that she was a lot more level headed and mature than she had expected and more to the point, as evidenced by Margaret's blushes every time her son's name is mentioned or whenever he enters a room, Mrs. Thornton had begun to doubt whether Margaret was as indifferent and uninterested in her son as he himself would believe.
If only she had not behaved so recklessly and caused her reputation to be dragged through the mud, Mrs. Thornton thought that she could almost reconcile herself to the thought of Margaret Hale becoming her daughter-in-law…almost.
"I saw Nicolas Higgins today," commented Margaret, bravely cutting through the awkward silence that had descended on the little party as they noiselessly sipped their soup.
"Not in this house I hope!" declared Mrs. Thornton curtly, her upper lip curling in indignation.
"No," answered Margaret coolly.
Thornton didn't respond, but merely gave his mother an admonishing glare. Though he knew how improper it would appear for one of his hands to be welcomed into his house, he had also grown to like Nicholas Higgins. He knew too that he was a good friend of Margaret's and wished his mother could remember this and be more temperate in her treatment of Miss Hale, most especially at this sad time.
Margaret continued her story but now addressed her next words directly to Mr. Thornton; "I had decided that a little fresh air may do me some good and so set out on a walk after breakfast - I met him as I was crossing the yard. He could not spare me many minutes as he was busy helping Mary unload groceries. When I asked him what he was doing unloading groceries he told me briefly about the canteen you have set up at the mill for the hands. I think it is truly a wonderful idea Mr. Thornton."
"Well, thank you Ms Hale, but I feel I must correct you. You no doubt would like to believe that it was done purely for humanitarian reasons but I'm afraid I am not a philanthropist, as you are no doubt well aware. I am a businessman and it made good business sense to set up the kitchen – that is all. And in any event, the credit for the idea should go to Nicholas Higgins; it was his frustrations with the butcher that set the cogs in motion."
"So you did not do it because it would help the starving workers but because it would benefit your business?" asked Margaret incredulously. She thought that he had changed, could he really still be so cold and unfeeling towards his fellow humans? No, she wouldn't believe it. Her old prejudice had long since died away; she did not fully understand his desire to appear so hard-hearted but she knew he was not as calculating as he would have her believe.
"Certainly; a hungry hand is weak and slow and preoccupied by his grumbling belly, but a hand who has had a warm nourishing meal soon grows strong. He is soon able to do double the work he was previously doing. Not to mention that having full bellies seems to make the men a lot more docile; we hardly have any fighting or disputes anymore."
"I cannot believe it. Surely you must see that the kitchen will also help the families of your workers. Before, they would have had to feed themselves as well as their wives and children out of their wages, but now their pay can go a lot further towards provided for their children."
"I do not doubt your logic Ms Hale, but despite that being an added advantage of the scheme I can assure you it was not the motive. My mill has already increased production by almost twenty three percent and all for a few extra groceries bought every month. That it was I would call a good investment Ms Hale."
"But what of Mary and the Boucher children?"
"What about them?"
"You hired Mary to cook in the kitchen and are helping the Boucher children with their schooling. How is that a good investment? These wretched children have no impact on the increased efficiency of your mill. I have to believe that this was purely an act of goodness and kindness…"
"When I had discussed the idea of the kitchen with Nicolas he had mentioned that his daughter was a good cook, so naturally based on his recommendation, I hired her. As for the children's education, I'm sorry to have to correct you again but it is only one child and I am merely helping him learn his letters at this point, and perhaps later his numbers. He is bright and need not end up in the mill one day like his father, if he chooses not to."
Thornton shifted uneasily in his chair. He always wanted Margaret to think well of him but somehow when she tried to he clumsily kept contradicting her, making her loathe him more than ever he was sure! Why could he not simply admit to caring about the Boucher boy? Admit that he had taken him under his wing, so to speak, as he was reminded so strongly of himself when he was a lad? And even the kitchen; Margaret seemed determined to see the best in his motives behind the kitchen and yet he had to break her idealistic image of him, shattering it into tiny pieces, by declaring that the only consideration that he had was money.
He couldn't decide if his anger was driving him to confirm her accusations of that fateful day after the riot, when she had declared he thought only in terms of buying and selling; or if in reality she was entirely correct in her summation of his character – and he was nothing more than a cold calculating master, bent on greed and profits!
Thornton watched Margaret's face intently during this exchange. He watched how it had paled during his first declaration; and saw now with self-loathing how her blood began to boil anew at his arrogance and conceit. It would seem as though Thornton's plan (if you could call it such), had succeeded. He was sure that all Margaret could think of was that day in her father's study after he had offered her his hand and she had refused him. He knew as he sat lost in his thoughts that she must now think him just as smug and unfeeling as she had thought him that day.
As he sat there at the head of the table feeling the disappointment and hurt, which he imagined to be radiating out of Margaret, slowly strangling his heart, Thornton had to admit that his initial plan to keep her at arm's length would now be oh too easy…she would likely never speak to him again!
In truth, Margaret was angry, but she hadn't believed a word of it. She was angry with Thornton over his continual refusal to admit his humanity,( except it seemed when it came to his feelings for her). She didn't loath him as he imagined, she cared for him as a friend, as one of the few people left in Milton who had known her father; and though her naivety and confusion would not credit it, as she began to understand him better she had also begun to care for him in other ways as well.
Their friendly argument was cut short by Mrs. Thornton. She had interrupted them, declaring that she could not be expected to eat her meal without the hazard of choking if she was made to listen to talk of dead workers and their orphaned offspring at the dinner table. This had caused the topic to be dropped and the rest of the meal to continue in peace, with the conversation vacillating between idle chatter of household chores and how much progress Margaret was making with her embroidery project, though Thornton had once again disappeared behind the veil of self pity and immense sadness which always seemed to cloud the air between himself and Margaret these days.
That night as she sat in the now familiar wing-back chair in Mr. Thornton's study, after everyone else had retired for bed, Margaret was able to give the subject more thought. She realized that despite his protestations of being a business man and not concerned about the welfare of those around him other than how it would affect his bottom line, his claims were somewhat rubbished when she considered all the things he had done to help others.
He may argue that the introduction of the wheel in his mill was to ensure that his workers stayed healthy and could therefore produce more, but Margaret remembered her father discussing the issue with her one day and telling her that the wheel was more expensive to install and run than could ever be recouped through its operation which was why so few masters had had it installed.
She also remembered how he had gone out of his way to protect the poor wretches from Ireland that he had brought over during the strike. They had all been comforted, fed and sheltered and then he had personally seen to it they were all transported back to their homeland once the strike had broken. When they had first arrived in Milton he had befriended her father and found them a house, as well as referring Mr. Hale to other potential students. He had brought her mother fruit while she had been so ill; and now, perhaps the greatest act of kindness he had yet to bestow, (especially considering the circumstances surrounding their uneasy acquaintance), he had taken Margaret into his home to be cared for and looked after for so long as she should wish to remain.
How could she have mistaken his goodness for selfishness, his honesty for crudeness and his declaration of love for self-promotion?
She sat, hunched wretchedly in Mr. Thornton's chair, gentle sobs wracking her small frame as she shed hot tears of shame into her small cupped hands as they shielded her face. If fate was indeed punishing her, then perhaps she was beginning to understand why.