After hiring a cab from the station John and Margaret had made it back to the mill yard and were both trying desperately to cling to the dream that was the last few hours before facing the cold, hard reality of Mrs. Hannah Thornton.
John hoped that she would see how perfect a match they were for each other right away, but in his heart he knew she would not bend immediately. She was fiercer than a lioness when it came to her son and no one, not even the accomplished Miss. Anne Lattimer would truly be good enough.
For Margaret's part she wished she could simply go to bed, dream of John, and face her future mother in law in the morning. Margaret was not of the idea that you should never go to bed angry or sad. Of course, she was never afraid of facing the consequences of her actions whatever they may be, but she was of the mind that there was very little she could face with one more night's sleep.
Neither of them would be so lucky. As it happened, Mrs. Hannah Thornton had assumed her regular perch near the window after supper, praying her son would return soon. Margaret had nearly seen her break down earlier in the day and could only imagine she was now nearly beside herself.
When they came to a halt Margaret made her way to the door of the cab but felt a strong hand stop her. She turned to her betrothed and looked for the strength she needed in his eyes. He, too, was searching for the very same. Mr. Thornton took hold of Margaret's collar and pulled her face to his. He merely breathed in her scent and felt his resolve return to him. Their noses pressed together, he closed his eyes and smiled. He kissed her softly as her eyelashes tickled his face.
"You are air to me, love. I feel my life has returned to me merely by having you near."
Margaret felt a boldness she had never before known and her arms wrapped tightly around his back and she moved her lips to his open neck. She kissed him gently and heard his sharp intake of breath.
"Steady, darling. You have no idea what that will make me do." His voice was strained and Margaret was utterly mortified, as John could tell well by her expression.
"You mistake me, Margaret. I wish you could do that and never stop, but we must wait. I could not contain my pleasure if you had continued."
The cabby opened the door suddenly and Margaret did not have a chance to question his meaning.
"John – what if. What if she will not see me? Would it not be better if I found lodging at the hotel? I do not wish to impose."
"Beloved Margaret. Where there is love – there can be no imposition. I do not honestly know what my mother will make of our arrangement this evening. But she loves me. And she will see just how much I love you and will deny me, and soon you, nothing. She may be hard in her ways, but there are none that can say my mother is not fiercely loyal, protective and as you will soon see, very generous. If there can be no love between you, then I hope there will be an understanding. But I know that for you, both of you, it will not come today or even tomorrow. But I know in my heart it will come."
Margaret nodded and put her hand in John's extended reach and they made their way into the foyer of the Thornton's home.
From her view, Hannah Thornton had only seen her son's return. She had seen his tall form walk from the carriage but had not stayed to witness the descent of a young lady, as well. Hannah had nearly run to the top of the grand staircase's entrance to the foyer. However, at the door she turned and sat in the parlor. John would need to come through to enter the family's part of the house upstairs and so she would, calmly as she could, wait for him near the fire. It had been a warm day but the nights were getting cooler and a fire was not unwelcome. The fewer amounts of logs in it did not escape her notice. Soon she would likely need to stoke it herself, if there was even to be one. She counted herself lucky to have one now and knew her son would never see her cold.
A maid took their belongings at the door and Margaret recognized her from the mill. Jane had left them when Mrs. Thornton had told her they would not be able to keep her on at her normal pay for long. She was now very happily situated with Fanny at her new home with Mr. Watson. Emma Jones was a young woman of nineteen and was very happy to take the post of the Thornton's housemaid. It paid the same as the work in the mill and unlike the rest of their former employees; she was still able to earn an income. Scary as Mrs. Thornton may be, she was not an unfair mistress to work for and Emma was happy with her new place. She knew who Miss. Hale was, of course, and was very surprised to see her in her master's home. She kept her surprise to herself and merely told the master that his mother awaited his attendance in the parlor.
"Thank you, Emma." Mr. Thornton rarely addressed Emma and when he did it was not often with cordiality, least of all gratitude. "Come, Margaret. It will not be so very bad I hope." He gave her a quick peck on the lips and Emma blushed when she saw it. It seems things would soon be different in the Thornton household and she was very happy to see Mr. Thornton so happy and easygoing.
The young couple ascended the stairs to the parlor and John opened the door, allowing his fiancée to precede him into the room. Mrs. Thornton stood at once upon seeing Margaret.
"Miss. Hale! I do hope everything is quite well that you have come back so soon. Was there not a train to London today? Where is your companion from this afternoon? What is the meaning of this, John?" Hannah Thornton was horrified at the scene before her, as she watched her son take Margaret Hale's hand into his own.
He briefly let it go and embraced his mother and placed her own hands into his.
"John, where have you been? What has happened?" She searched his eyes and saw something in his countenance that had never been there before. The haunted look in his eyes was gone.
"Mother – I. Mother I have been to Helstone, today." John smiled to Margaret.
"Helstone?" She knew she'd heard the place before but could not place it.
"The silence since the mill stopped has been deafening. I sought respite in the country, to fill my ears with wind and the sounds of nature. Helstone is the place of Miss. Hale's youth." Mr. Thornton spoke softly to his mother, hoping this might offer some sort of explanation. "I have returned most refreshed."
"That does not explain why we have a guest at this ungodly hour." Her eyes narrowed coldly toward Margaret.
"Miss. Hale was returning to London this afternoon and out trains crossed paths at a stopover. Upon discussion of the business proposition she had come here to discuss, we came to a rather different agreement."
"I see, and what exactly might that be?" Hannah nearly spat the words out, her icy tone making Margaret remind herself to keep her resolve.
"Mother, Miss. Hale has made me the happiest of men and has accepted my proposal of marriage."
At this announcement Margaret walked to him and took hold of his arm.
"It cannot be true." Hannah nearly whispered the words as her deepest fear was realized. She would lose her son and their livelihood at once. John would live with Margaret in London and become part of her circle of weak-willed Southern friends.
Margaret now touched Hannah's arm and smiled.
"Mrs. Thornton, you must allow me to apologize for the lateness of the hour in which we arrive. I am aware that this news may come as a hearty shock to you; it has surprised me as well. But I wish to make one thing absolutely clear about this. I love Mr. Thornton with every fiber of my being and I know you share that sentiment with me. However, as much as I love him – I know you have loved him longer. I will never come between you. I will never ask him to choose between us, I will always give way to you in that. I am aware of your distaste for me and can even understand your reasoning. However, I hope, with time, of course, that you will let me work to show you how much I love your son and perhaps one day we could even love each other," Margaret spoke softly to Mrs. Thornton.
Now her son was back home Hannah Thornton found her strength again and squared her shoulders, facing Margaret.
"I supposed you think since you own the land, the mill, and soon even this house that he comes along with the package? You do not love him," she spat. "If you did you would stay in London and leave him – leave us – alone!"
John had heard enough.
"Mother!" He did not raise his voice but there was a decided sharpness to it that was clear to both ladies present.
Hannah Thornton's fears were realized. With one word – her name – she'd lost him to the one woman she prayed he would never be lost to. Margaret would, on nearly every other occasion, have lost her temper but she swallowed her pride for the second time that day and walked the few steps to Mrs. Thornton's side.
"Mrs. Thornton. I must tell you what I believe I know you to be experiencing at this moment. You think your son is lost? To a fanciful love that will never last as long as yours? I witnessed the very same agony growing up between my own mother and my elder brother. You see, my brother Frederick got into his head that he loved the sea. So much so he took a commission in the Navy when I was much younger. Things did not go well there but he claimed his love of the ocean would help him weather the storms that came his way. His sorrows and troubles are what gave my mother 'low spirits' as you called them. His downfall from grace, not by his own doing, is what killed my mother." John knew not where Margaret was going with her tale and was worried that soon the claws between the women closest to him would come out.
"Brother? Your mother had a son?" Mrs. Thornton questioned her in nearly the very same way her own son had done with Nicholas Higgins just this morning.
"Indeed, I still have a brother. He must live in Spain, for his safety. But my point, ma'am, is that I wish to impress upon you that my love for Mr. Thornton, for your son, is not some fleeting feeling that I felt when I saw him this afternoon. It is a love that has been coming very slowly, and ever so deeply for some time now. Indeed, perhaps it may always have been so," Margaret paused to look at John and smiled very softly at him. He nodded, almost imperceptibly, for her to continue. "I am not some tempest that wishes to come into your lives and wreak havoc upon all facets of it. No, the love your son and I have is the kind that will weather all storms, and the skies will always be clearer after they come. I will ask you once again, if you will let me show you, in action if not by pretty words, that I do indeed intend to work to show not just him, but you, my worth for his love."
Hannah Thornton was speechless. She turned and said goodnight to John, kissing him on the cheek.
"I will make no promise, Miss. Hale. But we shall see tomorrow just what you have in store. Goodnight. I hope you will sleep well here, it is very quiet, just as you prefer."
She meant the words she said, seeing something in Margaret she'd not seen before. But she knew better than to take her at her word so quickly. She could not help that final jab before taking her leave. She exited but stopped, to see if she could hear Margaret's reaction. She knew listening was beneath her, but it would be telling, she knew that it would.
Inside the parlor Margaret turned to John.
"I hope you know it is not what I prefer. Indeed, the noise of the mill would seem almost a lullaby at this point. I hope tomorrow we can begin the reopening of Marlborough Mills, so that your mother, and I, and you can rest easier?"
"It will not be so simple, I'm afraid." John kissed Margaret's forehead.
"Why ever not? I have the paperwork here. It is all settled and merely requires your signature, and mine. I mean to sign ownership of the property over to you before we are wed, John." Margaret's face flushed in anxiety.
"I will not allow you to do that," he replied, rather more sternly that he would've wished. He sensed an argument was coming.
"Allow?" She was incredulous. "I neither require nor seek your approval on this part of the business plan, and I thank you to not question me in my part of it again." There was an ice in her voice that reminded him of the very first Margaret he met. Still, he loved her then. He merely raised his eyebrows in surprise and almost smiled at her tone.
"Forgive me, John. I did not mean it so forcefully." She found solace in his embrace and breathed his scent deeply as she rest her face against his broad chest.
"This has been the happiest day of my life, my darling. Let us not quarrel about something that has not happened? It may happen soon, but I will not give in so easily, love. I, myself, lost the way in my business and I will not take a payout to begin it so quickly without going through every single detail to make sure it never happens again. I know your intentions are pure and honorable, I too feel the keen loss in the mill. Let us retire? I will show you to a guest room, and we can begin our business plans in the morning, hmm?"
Margaret nodded her approval and took John's hand in her own and kissed it.
"I love you, John. I meant what I said to your mother. I hope I was not mistaken in speaking for you in the depth of our love?" She asked quietly, not sure of his reply.
"I suppose, my sweet little fiancée, that with you in my life I shall have to get used to being spoken for more often that I would wish."
"Indeed, Mr. Thornton. Indeed, you shall."