Someone asked on the C19 N&S board awhile back what Mr. Thornton might have said to Margaret at The Great Exhibition if Fanny had not interrupted them. This is my answer.
Thanks to Lori, Rosy, mackhaggis and zagorka at C19.
Learning from Mistakes
MARVELS OF ART and science surrounded Margaret. Every item commanded her attention. These wonders here - were they monuments to the peoples of the world or were they nothing more than trophies of foreign conquests? Margaret found herself perplexed by their individual grandeur and their possible collective significance.
A familiar voice seemed to pull her from her revelry. Her heart quickened as her gaze was arrested by the face of Mr. Thornton. He was addressing a group of men and did not see her.
Margaret found herself pulled forward, drawn to the group as if by some strange force.
"... technologically, we are the envy of the world. If only there was a mechanism to enable us all to live together, to take advantage of the great benefits that comes from industry. But that will be for future generations."
Margaret smiled. His words seemed to echo what she felt. And then she saw the authority and respect his words and presence inspired in his audience. She felt a swell of pride for him in her chest.
"We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has," he continued.
"Don't you think we can bring about an end to strikes?" one man asked.
"Not in my lifetime," was Thornton's response. "But with time and patience we might try to bleed them of their bitterness."
He seemed tired. Margaret wondered how many such interviews Mr. Thornton had entertained that day.
It was then that Mr. Thornton noticed her. His eyes burned into her with a sudden anger that surprised Margaret. But underneath that anger there seemed to be something else; was it hurt?
Still addressing his audience he spat, "Miss Hale here knows the depth we men in Milton have fallen to. How we masters only strive to grind our workers into the ground."
Hurt, Margaret wanted only to leave. She had no desire to fall into another argument with Mr. Thornton, and definitely not in a public place.
"I certainly do not think that," she rebuffed him, then addressing his listeners, "as Mr. Thornton could tell you, if he would know me at all."
She had started to walk away when she realized that Mr. Thornton had abandon his audience and was following her.
"I have presumed to know you once before," he said in a murmur, "and have been mistaken."
She had stopped at his words; but more than his words, his entire manner had transformed from a moment earlier. His tone of voice and manner begged forgiveness; she found she couldn't meet his gaze. He had come very close to her and her heart had resumed pounding strangely.
After a pause he spoke again. "Although mistakes have been made," his words seemed to catch in his throat, "I hope there is still time to learn from them?"
Margaret was conscious of a warming about her cheeks as she found the courage to raise her eyes to his. He was very near her now and his face was tense with anxiety. She sensed again the fatigue of someone who has had a hard day. But the sadness in his eyes implied more than just fatigue. Wishing to relieve him, and yet not fall victim to another attack, she replied, "Yes ... perhaps." That answer seemed safe. She gave him a weak smile. His demeanor remained rigid but his eyes noticeably relaxed.
There was another long silence.
Margaret didn't know what to say. She wanted Mr. Thornton to forgive her for the past, to stop being angry. Although she was sure she did not love him, she keenly felt the loss of his friendship. Everything had become so awkward between them. And now every topic of conversation seemed fraught with danger.
"I'm here with my aunt," Margaret said at last. "So many pretty things to see." She winced. Couldn't she come up with something better to say?
"Yes?" was all he replied, still looking at her intently.
"I suppose you've seen the machinery?" she said, recovering. "The self-acting cotton mules from Bradford?"
His face brightened and his manner eased. "Of course. Although I see such machines every day, they still impress me. But would you believe I've found much more than machinery to interest me here." He smiled at her, showing his words held no hidden attack. "The treasures from India and Africa are particularly impressive. I saw gold-embroidered saddles from Tunis and I must say, they use more primitive tools than we have, and yet their craftsmanship sometimes exceeds our own."
The truth in his words struck Margaret. As he had observed earlier, there was more to life than technological greatness. In fact, many of the most impressive exhibits here were those that were completely natural.
"Have you seen the plants from the Singapore committee?" she asked.
He had not.
"They're so beautiful," she continued. "Looking at them you could almost imagine yourself in Sumatra or Borneo or some place equally exotic. It's wonderful having them here but strange to see how the park has been transformed. And yet how clever of them to leave the park's elms intact."
"Yes, Mr. Paxton was smart enough to build his Crystal Palace so it would be in harmony with nature." He seemed to hesitate for a moment, perhaps choosing his words carefully. "I wouldn't desire mere mastery over any natural force." He paused, looking her directly in the eye.
Margaret felt her face flush under his gaze. His expression was supplicatory. He seemed to be talking about more than trees.
"No, you wouldn't ..." She averted her eyes to the floor.
A faint smile lit his face. "Thank you."
They discussed the exhibits they had both seen, the Bohemian glassware and the telegraph wire that was to be laid under the English Channel later that year. A "marvel out of a children's story," Margaret had called it.
She learned he had come to London seeking investors for the mill. He had not had much luck, it would seem. He then inquired about her travels and learned she would be remaining in London two more days, while informing her of his plans to return to Milton that evening.
She was sorry he would be unable to see more of the exhibition. Yet she felt pleased he honored his professional obligations so ardently.
Thornton then asked if she would care to stop for tea at one of the refreshment rooms but she, very conscious of keeping her aunt waiting, declined.
"Well, Miss Hale, I'll see you after you return to Milton."
"Yes," she replied. Happiness and gratitude made her impulsive; she reached out her hand toward his.
A small look of surprise dawned across his face; he reached out and clasped her hand in his.
She felt a warmth spread through her. He certainly was like no one else she had ever met. Perhaps there was a chance they could be friends again. With him smiling at her, as he was just then, she could believe anything.
Hope grew in her heart as she released his hand and turned to go and rejoin her aunt