A/N: This is my second North and South Story: The Sum of All Wisdom. This first chapter is a prologue and merely a summation of the 'Great Exhibition' Scene from the BBC adaptation. The first true chapter will be posted very shortly. This story will explore what would happen if Margaret finds Mr. Thornton after their confrontation at the exhibition allowing them to develop a tentative post-proposal friendship. If you enjoy my story, feedback would be appreciated!
The Sum of All Wisdom
"the sum of all human wisdom will be contained in these two words: Wait and Hope."
Alexander Dumas – The Count of Monte Cristo
"... 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."
Of all of the wonders that Margaret Hale had seen at the Great Exhibition, the most unexpected was certainly that of John Thornton. She looked upon him in awe, having never seen him so much in his element. He stood before both gentlemen and men in his trade, respected. The words that he spoke were so similar to the sentiments that she had heard argued in her father's study during their many discussions. Margaret felt a strange swell of pride and felt some unknown force drawing her to him.
"We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has," he continued.
"Don't you think that we can bring about an end to strikes?" One of the spectators questioned.
It was with a look of resignation that Mr. Thornton replied. "Not in my lifetime. But with time and patience, we may be able to bleed them of their bitterness." It was then that Mr. Thornton noticed her. His eyes burned into her with a sudden anger that caught Margaret completely off her guard.
Mr. Thornton had not removed his eyes from her, yet continued to address the businessmen that surrounded him. "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."
She and Mr. Thornton had no doubt had their differences, however she would never have thought that he would address them in such a public place. She wished to be anywhere but here and consciously fought the driving force within her that was urging her to flee. If her time in Milton had proven anything, it had shown that Margaret Hale was no coward.
"I certainly do not think that," she rebuffed him, and then addressed his listeners, "as Mr. Thornton could tell you, if he would know me at all."
Margaret began to walk away, unable to hear anything but the sound of her own heartbeat pounding within herself. She wanted to find somewhere to be alone, somewhere that she could forget the north and cotton and John Thornton all together. Margaret realized that there was little chance of finding such solace, as Mr. Thornton had abandoned his audience and was following her much more quickly than she herself was moving.
"I have presumed to know you once before," he said in a low voice which stopped her mid-stride, "and have been mistaken."
There was a pain in his tone that she knew herself to be the cause of, but she did not how to cure it without undue encouragement. Margaret could not allow her gaze to meet his and she was all too aware of his nearness. Her heart began to pound with twice the force that it had only a moment ago, she felt it most likely due to the public display that she found herself within. They stood in this manner for what seemed hours, Margaret was certain that he expected her to reply, but how could she? He had 'presumed to know her once before,' how? What possible indication could she have given him that would have both made him believe himself to know her, and believe that his addresses would be accepted?
'Miss Hale,' A shrill voice came chiming in from behind Mr. Thornton, his sister had the worst timing imaginable. "How delightful." She added in a tone that suggested that seeing Miss Hale was anything but.
Mr. Thornton glanced over his shoulder, allowing himself to see that in fact, both his sister and Anne Latimer were standing behind them. He turned back to Margaret, hoping that if he simply ignored them, that they would receive the message that they were not welcome in this conversation and leave both he and Miss Hale be.
"You have managed to come to London, at last." Margaret said, he could read the embarrassment in her dripping through her entire being. She had to admit that she was relieved to have the interruption, despite its awkwardness. Mr. Thornton kept his eyes trained on Miss Hale, in hopes that he could reengage her into continuing their conversation. He needed to speak to her. Simply standing this close to her made his heart soar and ache all at once.
"Mother agreed upon it only because John was coming." Fanny gestured to Miss Latimer, and with wide eyes added, "and Miss Latimer of course, who she approves of, greatly. Seems to think he's far more sensible than me." Fanny laughed as though she had not a care in the world, apparently oblivious to the tension standing right before her. Mr. Thornton wondered if Fanny could make her disapproval of Miss Hale any more apparent.
Mr. Thornton turned to face Margaret, composed himself, and thought to begin again. Perhaps she would agree to walk with him—"Henry!" the instant that the name left her lips every ounce of Mr. Thornton's composure was shaken. "Do you know Mr. Thornton." Thornton turned hesitantly to be faced with a very well dressed London gentleman. He immediately disliked this man.
Margaret was relieved that Henry had approached, as she felt heavily outnumbered. "Mr. Thornton, all the way from Milton." Henry's eyes darted to Margaret for a moment before settling upon Thornton, and with an overconfident smirk, he continued. "My brother is interested in dabbling in cotton."
Mr. Thornton squared his shoulders before he addressed Henry. "I'm not sure that I'm the one to speak to, I'm not sure that I would know how to dabble." Henry did not even attempt to stifle his laugh. Margaret was fairly certain that Mr. Thornton was speaking the truth on this point. She had never known him to put himself in any situation without full force. A 'bulldog,' she thought, remembering the laughter that she shared with Bessy over describing him thus. The humor had somehow lost itself in this moment.
"I must go, you may enjoy the machinery like an exhibit in a zoo, I have to go and live with it." Mr. Thornton turned from the small crowd. "I must get back to Milton today."
"Give my regard to the Hales." Henry's words stopped Mr. Thornton in his tracks. Henry's eyes were upon Margaret. "You must tell them how the London break is suiting Miss Hale." Mr. Thornton stared at Henry, who met him with a glare of his own. "Don't you think, Thornton? Doesn't Miss Hale look well?"
Mr. Thornton looked to the floor and then to Margaret, there it was, for one fleeting moment Margaret was faced with a mixture of pain and vulnerability that caused an unprecedented ache on the left side of her chest. Mr. Thornton seemed to shake it off as easily as it had come on, he turned once more to leave, "Good day," was all that he could trust himself to utter.
Margaret was thoroughly ashamed of Henry's intentional attempt at humiliation and turned to Mr. Thornton. "Tell mother I will be home soon," The word 'home' coming from Margaret's mouth stilled him, but he did not face her, he could not. "With so much to tell her." Mr. Thornton considered his options, but decided that nothing good would come from staying in this crowd, even if Margaret was among them. Without another word, he disappeared into the swarm, lost from sight within a matter of moments.
"John is such a stick in the mud." Fanny complained, she had certainly not intended on going back today, but she knew better than to argue with her brother when he was in one of his moods, it was a lost cause. Perhaps, she thought, he would allow her to travel back with the Latimers later in the week. Fanny decided to allow John time to cool off before addressing such a request.
"Who was that, anyone we should know?" Margaret's Aunt Shaw joined the party. Margaret felt mortification over Mr. Thornton's sister and friend hearing her aunt speak as such. Margaret loved her extended family, though wished that there was more to London society than simply who you know.
Mr. Latimer approached the party, having overheard most of the conversation. "Poor Thornton, I tempted him down here to try to raise finance for Marlborough Mills. He has had to face all kinds of inquiries." He focused his energies on Henry, who rolled his eyes, the insult unable to penetrate him. "Starry eyed Londoners, thinking that they only have to snap their fingers to make a fortune in cotton."
"I would have hardly thought that a manufacturer could appreciate a show like this." Henry's steel gaze never faltered under scrutiny.
"No you're wrong," Margaret's challenge caught Henry slightly off guard. "I have heard him talk often with my father, he is quite interested in the world." Her last words were accompanied by a set of piercing eyes. "Really, I know him to be."