Things just go a little askew...
'I am so sorry Mr. Lennox is not here,—he could have done it so much better than I can. He is my adviser in this'—
'I am sorry that I came, if it troubles you. Shall I go to Mr. Lennox's chambers and try and find him?'
'No, thank you. I wanted to tell you, how grieved I was to find that I am to lose you as a tenant. But, Mr. Lennox says, things are sure to brighten'—
'Mr. Lennox knows little about it,' said Mr. Thornton quietly. 'Happy and fortunate in all a man cares for, he does not understand what it is to find oneself no longer young—yet thrown back to the starting-point which requires the hopeful energy of youth—to feel one half of life gone, and nothing done—nothing remaining of wasted opportunity, but the bitter recollection that it has been. Miss Hale, I would rather not hear Mr. Lennox's opinion of my affairs. Those who are happy and successful themselves are too apt to make light of the misfortunes of others.'
'You are unjust,' said Margaret, gently. 'Mr. Lennox has only spoken of the great probability which he believes there to be of your redeeming—your more than redeeming what you have lost—don't speak till I have ended—pray don't!' And collecting herself once more, she went on rapidly turning over some law papers, and statements of accounts in a trembling hurried manner. 'Oh! here it is! and—he drew me out a proposal—I wish he was here to explain it—showing that if you would take some money of mine, eighteen thousand and fifty-seven pounds, lying just at this moment unused in the bank, and bringing me in only two and a half per cent.—you could pay me much better interest, and might go on working Marlborough Mills.'
The room was silent but for the rasp of paper on paper as she looked for this precious document, her dark eyes attending to the task with far more intensity than one could say it was due. She would have been the very model of self-possession, if no-one looked at how the sheets shook as she shifted them.
The moment was torn as Mr. Thornton opened his mouth to utter one word.
Her eyes met his for but a moment, but before a syllable could be said, there was a sharp rap at the doors to the end of the drawing room and they opened to admit Henry Lennox.
The current inhabitants of the room could not welcome him with all due sincerity.
Mr. Lennox made hasty apologies for his delay, the sort that sounds like - 'A client, a most importune fellow - more money than sense, what else was I to do?' and 'At that very point I was called for in the Temple, as the Borridge case had all fallen through on a technicality relating to-'
Margaret could barely hear him. She did not know where to look. There was nothing so very terrible about her name - she had heard it thousands of times, dozens of people had called her name.
But never like that. She could not look anywhere. Looking at Mr. Thornton was out of the question. She no more knew what to say with her eyes than her words. Looking at Henry Lennox seemed equally risky - he knew her too well, perhaps, and would see the transcript of that word in her expression.
The gentlemen were exchanging pleasantries as she decided it was safest to take up one of the papers in front of her, anything, and peruse it fixedly.
She started from her reverie, and forced a smile at Henry.
'I do beg your pardon, Mr. Lennox. I was thinking-' she glanced at the proposal in her hand to inspire her lie '- of the workers, and how much good this will do them.'
'Ah!' said Henry with relish. 'Do you see the angel before us, Thornton? She would never have come to me with such a proposal as this for her own benefit. Miss Hale is always thinking of others. Now, if you would consider these terms…'
Henry Lennox knew too harshly the truth he spoke, even as he kept the bitterness out of his words. He had been so eager to assist Margaret with her mysterious project - until he recognised the intent, and for whom it was really intended.
He had not wanted to go to Harley Street that morning; he had had no intention at all. Even if she was a woman, Margaret had a fair head for the business and would have got on without him - especially as he suspected that the real business of the day was not business at all.
But as Henry sat in his rooms that morning, half an hour late for his appointment, a lad from the Lennox household had run in with a note in one hand and an empty palm in the other. A shilling later, he was contemplating a note from Margaret admonishing his tardiness and expecting him promptly.
He supposed he had… misinterpreted Miss Hale's intentions. She was, after all, a very good sort of girl, prone to fits of generosity (albeit, never yet to the tune of eighteen thousand pounds). If she would spend all her days in the slums of London, was it so unexpected she might invest in a failing mill and save the jobs of the common workers she had thought her friends? Milton had been her home for a time, after all.
These were the arguments running through his mind as he weaved towards Harley Street, convincing himself his suit was not in vain.
Not that Thornton wasn't a good sort of chap, but it was, after all, absurd to think that he and Miss Hale…
So Henry Lennox chuckled and bantered with Mr. Thornton over the terms of the proposal, and felt that he was putting himself in a very good light. This was him in his element, the land of the careful word and the subtle detail. He couldn't help but think that Thornton must seem a little dull in his shadow - the man was clearly enthused by the proposal, but could barely bring a sentence together.
Henry took a few liberties, and contrived a better settlement for Miss Hale where he could. Thornton barely noticed! Surely he knew that the annuities would in time… Henry privately wondered whether the initial success of Marlborough Mills had been a spot of luck, and its failure the natural sequel of the owner's abilities. Thornton had always seemed such a sharp fellow.
It was of no consequence. Henry smiled, only slightly predatorily, as he shuffled the drafts away and laid out the final deed.
'Well, are we settled, then?'
Margaret was most certainly not settled. She felt taut, like a thread stretched to the limit, ready to snap.
Thread. Cotton. The Mill. She would struggle to attend to the conversation, but every time she murmured an interjection or amendment, a pair of dark eyes would meet hers and confuse her all over again.
She had not expected this. Margaret was aware that she wanted very much for- well, she wasn't sure what it was, but she became keenly sensible of the fact she wanted it. She wanted to look Mr. Thornton in the eye, and maybe even be confused. She wanted to discuss the Mill, and all his plans for its re-opening and improvement, and she wanted them discussed with her. She knew, bitterly, that she wanted Henry to leave, not twenty minutes after regretting his absence as she ushered Mr Thornton into the room.
And most of all, she wanted to hear her name again, as though it was the only word worth saying. Or whispered, in some private moment.
Until that second, Margaret had not admitted, even to herself, that she loved John Thornton. She valued his esteem, she wished for his success. There was nothing more than a genuine wish for the good fortune of a faithful family friend.
But it became, in that moment, completely transparent what she had done. She loved John Thornton, and she was going to do what she could to save him. Margaret was paralysed in her seat with emotion - shame, pride and passion. Shame that she would be found out - all would think her to be buying a husband, keeping him in her debt. It had seemed the most natural thing…
She felt her pride still. It was not wrong, it could not be wrong, to help out a friend in need.
But passion - Margaret felt it stir within her as she stole glances across the desk at the broad hands drumming on the table, at the strong line of his chin and the brilliant flash of a momentary smile.
'Margaret!' The word had kindled hope within her, a fire she did not know she was keeping. Hope, that the regard he had held for her remained.
John Thornton had loved her once. Margaret was almost delirious with the new, secret knowledge he loved her still.
'Well, are we settled, then?'
Margaret stood, slowly, and took the proffered pen from Henry as she glanced over the details a final time. She couldn't make sense of it in her current state, but it was the form that mattered. She signed it, and stepped back to let Mr. Thornton do the same. The deal done, he turned to face her with a gentle smile she could not recall seeing him wear before.
She cleared her throat. 'I am much obliged to you, Mr. Thornton.'
'Miss Hale…' He shook his head. 'You must know you are too modest. I only hope I can repay the trust you have placed on my account.'
'Oh! There is no doubt. Of your talents - I have complete faith in my investment.' She coloured a little and proceeded. 'I know that your current... circumstances are in part due to that strike-'
Margaret felt the blood rush into her face as she remembered that day, and she could see the colour reflected in his. It charmed her, to know he could blush.
The silence hung there for another moment, and then Henry - again, Henry.
'I think, yes, I think that should do very well for us both, Mr. Thornton. It's a fine bit of business if I say so myself. Will you want a copy sent to your Milton attorneys?'
Mr. Thornton murmured his assent.
'Jeffers, isn't it? I'll get my clerk to attend to it immediately. I suppose you will need to return to Milton rather quickly?' Henry lent the suggestion more than usual power.
Mr. Thornton jerked his eyes away from Margaret's, where they had rested throughout this little exchange, and paid the lawyer some attention.
'Yes, indeed. My business here-' he looked again, at Margaret, with meaning, '-being completed, I suppose I must return before the world moves on. I'm quite sure the suitors, so to speak, are closing in on my Ithaca as I linger here.'
'But who is Penelope?' asked Margaret, before she could think of what she was saying. The implications could not have been lost on either man, she thought, but Mr. Thornton only nodded politely and said,
'You are correct, Miss Hale, there is no Penelope waiting for me. Perhaps I was too hasty with my allusions. I fear it has often been my fault to have spoken too soon.'
'It may be that others have listened too late.'
'But is it not the case, with great art-' a glance at Mr. Lennox, '- that it waits for us? You know, Miss Hale, that I did not attend to Homer until late, and yet I found him waiting. There is always time to consider art.'
'I cannot disagree.'
'Well!' cried Henry Lennox, who could not at all follow this train of conversation and could only fear its meaning, 'Which train were you planning on, Thornton?'
Mr. Thornton consulted his watch. 'There is an express this evening I should not miss. Indeed…' He closed his watch with a snap and tucked it away briskly. 'I must be away directly. My most sincere gratitude to you both - Mr. Lennox,' he bowed, 'Miss Hale.'
She offered her hand first, and his handshake was tender and firm.
'I wish you well,' said Margaret warmly.
'I don't think I can do otherwise, with what you have done for me, for Marlborough.'
'Nor I.' He turned away from her with almost palpable regret. 'I must get to the train,' he repeated, mechanically.
'I'll see you out,' offered Henry.
'Thank you, Mr. Lennox' said Mr. Thornton. He turned back to Margaret. 'I trust that if there is any… change of circumstance, you will let me know directly.'
'Of course, of course! I can't imagine that there are too many details neglected in this new settlement. Your agents may have other advice, but the advantages are such that there cannot be any doubt-'
The men passed into the hall, and out of her hearing. Margaret's legs felt limp and she sank into the chair she had occupied earlier, her thoughts racing. A change of circumstance…
There could be no doubt in her mind regarding the import of his communications. He must have forgiven her, must have found out the truth of that terrible night at the station. That made her gladder than the strange warmth his renewed regard kindled within her, to know that he did not think her a liar. Margaret felt that weight lift from her, and thought she might float from the chair and rise into the fog above London, so light was her spirit.
Henry found her there when he came back to the drawing-room, sitting in the chair with a distracted half-smile on her face. He did not know how to interpret it. They could not be engaged, and yet…
'That was a pretty bit of business!' he exulted, breaking her reverie. 'I dare say I managed a better settlement on your part than what we could have hoped for yesterday. Yes, a very pretty bit of business.'
'Oh, Mr. Lennox!' she cried, and there was a note of reproach he had not expected in her voice. 'You should not have tried to cheat Mr. Thornton.'
His face set into darker lines at this. 'No one said anything about cheating, Miss Margaret. I merely contrived a fine agreement-'
'Oh! I know it well, Henry,' and the use of his Christian name mollified his indignation somewhat. 'Forgive my sharpness, I am a little tired.'
'Of course you are; I forget how dull this all must have seemed to a lady. Why, it is nearly dinner-time.'
'Indeed.' Margaret rose with some ungainly haste, realising suddenly what she had to do. 'Please excuse me, I must rest before dinner. Will you stay?'
Henry felt the delight of this request keenly. They could not be engaged.
'Please give my regards to your cousin, but I should be back to the Temple before long. There is always more work in a settlement than one can appreciate at the outset, you must understand.'
'I cannot thank you enough Mr. Lennox,' said Margaret, with real feeling. 'We will see you at dinner on Thursday, then?'
He agreed, and she almost ran from the room. She had something to do. Her feet clattered up the stairs to her own chamber. The door she shut behind her, and as an afterthought, locked. It would not do for Edith to come upon her now.
Margaret sat at her desk with a heavy breath and took out a single sheet of note-paper. Barely conscious of writing anything, with trembling pen she scrawled a few short lines.
I only write to tell you that the circumstances are changed.
Her face burned as she looked at these words, her words. Such a note! She could hardly be more indiscreet. And yet, that lightness of spirit that had descended upon her earlier kept her from throwing it in the fire.
But it was written, and it would do. Margaret sealed it well and crept down the back stairs to the kitchen, blessing whatever business kept Edith from the hallways. The cook had a boy, a lad of ten who was allowed to linger and play in the kitchen on the unspoken condition that he run whatever errands the ladies of the house required, and not set the house on fire.
'David!' she whispered, finding the boy unoccupied and alone. 'Come here.'
Sensing the opportunity for a shilling, he obeyed without question.
'Take this,' she handed him the note with only a little reluctance, 'And deliver it to this address. It is a hotel in town, called Sherwood. There is a gentleman there called Thornton. The note is for him and him alone. It is for business,' she added, but the lad hardly cared. He was nodding in vigorous assent; there had been a coin in the hand that passed him the note.
'You should not tell your mamma or the mistress, David, is that clear?'
Another, more enthusiastic bout of nodding: he had felt the cool print of another shilling in his palm.
'It is a surprise,' Margaret whispered conspiratorially, but boys of ten do not care particularly for the proprieties of ladies as much as two shillings, and there was little to fear on his account. She watched him dash out the back door and down the street, and hoped that she was not too late.
Dinner that night was a subdued affair. Margaret spoke little but coloured much, and Edith was far too concerned with her observations to talk. Mrs Shaw was in a particularly indolent mood, and it fell to Captain Lennox to carry the weight of conversation. It was not a task he was particularly well suited for, and most of the meal was spent in silence, companionable as it was.
Margaret did not linger long in the drawing-room after dinner, and pleading fatigue from her long day of business, escaped to her room and the luxury of more private contemplation. She had cornered the little David on her way to her room, and extracted a confession that yes, he had taken the note to the Hotel Sherwood and given it to the man Thornton. Margaret did not know whether to exult or shudder, but thought it prudent nonetheless to seal the boy's silence with another shilling.
Dixon suspected something in her manner, she thought, as she undressed for bed. Margaret was thankful that she did not press her on the matter - she could not talk to any one until it was all settled.
Dixon had gone, and Margaret was taking down her hair when a knock came at the door.
Edith slipped in, still dressed, and sat down by the fire. 'Are you well, Margaret? You did not seem yourself, at dinner.'
'Oh, Edith, I am quite well. It was a long day, you know, with all that business of the mill.'
Edith shuddered. 'I do not know how you could stand it. I am sure I would have drowsed off promptly if I was shut up in that stuffy little drawing room with all those papers. Surely the gentlemen could have attended to it without you.'
'Surely. But I think it prudent to know what is going on with my property - Henry may not always be here to explain. He nearly was not today.'
'Indeed.' Edith began to look a little wicked. 'It is just as well you sent that note.'
Margaret started violently. 'The note!'
'Oh, you will be terribly angry with me, darling, when you know what I did.' Edith bit her lip. 'I saw that Henry was late, and I did not want you to have to deal with that man all yourself - it was a complicated business and I thought it best - Oh! I sent a little note to Henry pleading him to come directly and - I signed it as you.'
'Margaret! He would not have hurried if I had asked. You know he regards you so highly and - Margaret! Really! Why would you not just accept him?'
Margaret sighed heavily, feeling very tired. 'Edith, it was very wrong of you.'
'I know it was, and I did feel so naughty, but he is such a fine- Oh Margaret, I hope you will not hate me for it.'
Margaret got up from her dressing table, and kissed her cousin on the forehead. 'You know I cannot. But Edith - you must stop meddling.'
'I will, I will. I would not need to meddle, though, if you would just-'
Her cousin dropped the subject, sensing even through her hope that there was no good in pressing the poor Henry Lennox's case.
'I will let you ready for bed. Now, I know you are not one for fashion, but will you not come with me to the Promenade tomorrow? There are some very fine muslins that have just come from France.'
Margaret did not care one whit for muslins, but was eager to make peace with her cousin. The expedition was duly planned, good-nights exchanged, and Edith left the room.
Margaret readied herself for a bed she knew would offer her no comfort. There was too much to think about. To know that that letter had been delivered, a letter in which her future was written - that was everything.
The letter had been delivered. David was far too eager to prove himself to the young lady to neglect his charge. He was a sweet boy, but spent his days in the company of young women in service, and was not so naive as perhaps Miss Hale would have liked. He knew enough of the ways of ladies to suspect that where one secret note to a gentleman was sent, many more would follow. Messages need messengers, after all.
So he carried out his mission with serious care. The footman of the Sherwood directed him to the rooms Mr. Thornton had taken, and he rapped on the door smartly, and held himself high with the full knowledge of his importance.
The door opened to reveal a middle-aged man with a thick, greying moustache. David was momentarily startled, but of course ladies could not be understood.
'I have a message for Mr. Thornton, sir,' he chirped, and he held up the note like a holy sacrifice.
The hotel manservant grunted - he had been given twenty minutes to pack up all of Thornton's belongings while the gent ran to secure his ticket, and was late as it was - and tossed the boy a penny for his troubles. David would have been affronted if he had not been too busy scrambling over the hallway for his fee.
The note was tucked carelessly into a valise opened, half-packed on the ground. An inspection of the valise would have revealed the rip in the lining that formed a false pocket. More care in packing would have prevented the note from slipping therein.
But the man was too busy for such care. He may have mentioned that the gentleman had received a letter at the hotel to the footman who was escorting the luggage to the station, but the message never got any further than that. The valise returned to Milton and its contents were happily unpacked by servants giddy with the good fortune of their master - and the valise returned to the box-room.
The letter that had caused Margaret as much distress as joy was as secure as it had ever been three months later, when the valise was taken down and packed again for another journey to London.