A/N: I would like to extend a few warm bits of gratitude:
Kelly—Beta-extraordinaire! She has an amazing talent for wording and punctuation and has truly improved this chapter.
Kristina—Thank you so much for your encouragement.
Val—For helping to give Fanny her voice!
Thank you to all of my reviewers. Feedback is welcome and encouraged. This was a very difficult chapter to write and receiving feedback from the previous chapter helped me to push through! Please consider taking a moment to let me know what you think.
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
Chapter 4 - Respite
It was no more than half of an hour before Margaret joined the men in the study. Her mother used every bit of energy that she possessed expressing her approval of John Thornton. She went so far as to tell Margaret that, though it was a shame that he was a manufacturer, she considered him to be the equal of any other in their acquaintance. Something within Margaret was pleased to hear such accolades from her mother. If her mind had not been so clouded by a flurry of events, she may have understood that within her a slight bending of her heart had occurred in a direction that she would not have expected. As she was unable to read the inner workings of her being, Margaret simply attributed the warmth that now resided within to the thought that her mother did not despise everything about Milton and therefore could live the rest of her days in some semblance of peace.
Before taking her seat, Margaret made quick work of preparing a small plate of meat, cheese and fruit along with a cup of tea for both men. All were happy for the company. Once she saw to it that everyone was situated, Margaret picked up a novel that had captivated her over the past few days. She poured herself into the pages, enjoying this bit of respite for what it was. She was so engaged with the words before her that she failed to take notice of anything—or anyone—else in the room. When her father finally repeated himself just after clearing his throat, Margaret looked up, embarrassed.
"I am sorry, Papa, did you ask something of me?" Margaret asked, taking that moment to refresh the tea cups.
"Mr. Thornton only wished to know what you were reading. I explained that you generally enjoy novels when you are at your leisure." Richard Hale's words were enrobed in a slight tone of chastisement.
Margaret looked toward Mr. Thornton. His countenance held neither frustration nor signs of impatience. If she were to assign an emotion to his present state, she would designate that of contentment. Margaret thought it strange that this man—this great man—could feel satisfaction after such a day. The feeling of tenderness that that realization brought filled her to the core.
"I apologize for my rudeness, Mr. Thornton. You see, this story has just become so interesting that I seem to have simply lost myself within its pages." Looking between her father and Mr. Thornton, Margaret added, "I imagine you would take pleasure in lighter reading yourself, if you would give it a chance." Margaret was speaking completely in jest. She knew him to be an incredibly important, rather structured man, one of the sorts that did not have time for novels.
"I would like that," Mr. Thornton said, the corners of his eyes creased. "So long as I have someone with whom to discuss such reading." Margaret blushed at the implication. "You seem to be enjoying what you are reading now; do you think that it would do for me as well?"
Margaret was taken aback by Mr. Thornton's forward suggestion. When she made the suggestion, she in no way thought that he would earnestly consider it; moreover, she would never dream that he would genuinely have any desire to read a novel—with her or otherwise. She could not help but notice that her father was not attempting to steer the conversation and did not seem to mind the derailment of his time with his one friend in this northern town.
"Well, I think that this book is quite good, though I cannot say for sure that you would enjoy it." After thinking for a moment, she added, "I cannot imagine what type of books you would enjoy." Margaret meant it as a question, yet became uncomfortable when she was answered in silence. "We could certainly try this one if you would like." She looked down at the book in her hand, her delicate index finger slipped between its pages as a place holder. "This is an American novel, though I do not know the author well. It is not a classic; in fact, it is rather sensational compared to Plato!"
"I would be interested in anything that could appeal to you so fully," Mr. Thornton remarked.
Margaret spoke in a conspiratorial tone, though not so low as to keep the words from her father's ears. "I do not believe that father approves of novels." Mr. Thornton laughed at Margaret's playfulness. He had seen hints of her lighthearted nature, though never had they been aimed at him. The idea of continuing to receive such attentions made him wish to never leave her presence. Oh, that he would not have to!
"Now, Margaret, I do not disapprove of novels, so long as they are tempered with more educational readings." Mr. Hale turned his attention toward Mr. Thornton, who was leaning on the right arm of his chair and smiling in such a way that made him appear five, perhaps ten, years younger. It did Mr. Hale's heart good to see these young ones getting on so well. "I think that it is an excellent idea for you to read with Margaret and would hope that you could both garner some enjoyment from the task," Richard Hale declared.
"What is the title of your book, Miss Hale?" Mr. Thornton asked, not wishing for this conversation, this connection, to end.
"It is called The Scarlet Letter." Margaret fumbled through the sewing basket until her fingers found what they were seeking and then slipped the scrap of calico fabric between the pages of her book allowing her finger the freedom to fidget with the handle of her teacup. She handed the book to Mr. Thornton who thoroughly examined it as if it were a mystical object—perhaps in some small way, it was.
"It sounds fascinating; perhaps I could read it along with you, if that would be alright." Mr. Thornton suggested, allowing his fingers to follow the text on the first page.
"That sounds like a splendid idea, so long as you have time," Margaret pronounced. When she was met with no refusal, she continued, "I must warn you that you should be prepared, for I plan to teach you a great deal, Mr. Thornton," she said in a very diplomatic manner.
"What am I to learn from this exercise, Miss Hale?" Mr. Thornton asked.
"Why, to enjoy yourself, of course." Margaret watched his expression fall, not comprehending the new seriousness that filled his expression. Neither noticed Richard Hale's steady eye on the scene that played before him.
"What is our book about?" Mr. Thornton finally asked after clearing his throat.
"Well, let me see." Margaret thought on it for a moment. "It is the tale of a woman, Hester Prynne, who believes herself to be a widow."
"Believes herself to be a widow?" Mr. Thornton interjected.
"Yes, but she is not!" Margaret exclaimed. "I do not believe that I am giving too much away, as we find that out in the beginning. Hester comes out on the town scaffold holding an infant, which is hers. You see, she and her husband have been separated for long enough to know unequivocally that the child is not his. It turns out that her husband is in the crowd—she does not discover that until later I think, but is sworn to secrecy. While she is before the town, they pin a scarlet letter 'A' on her chest and attempt to draw out the identity of her secret lover, whom-"
Margaret then took note of the faces before her. It was not until saw Mr. Thornton's raised brow and her own father's mouth agape that she realized what she had said. "Perhaps we should read a different book." Margaret finished.
Mr. Thornton breathed out a laugh before covering his mouth with his hand; Mr. Hale looked at his daughter surprised, though his features held a hint of amusement.
Falling back into his serious demeanor, Mr. Thornton said, "Perhaps we can find a happy alternative. I am certain that if I make a plea to my mother, we could borrow the first volume of Matthew Henry's Bible Commentaries'." *
Aghast less at the realization of what she had said than Mr. Thornton's apparent judgment of her reading material, Margaret felt incredibly self-conscious—rather infuriated, actually. She was attempting to decide between chastising Mr. Thornton or leaving the room outright when she heard hearty laughter come freely from both her father and his pupil. Despite her discomfiture, Margaret managed to offer an uncomfortable little grin. She did not know that Mr. Thornton had a sense of humor; she was surprised and more than a little relieved to have found it.
Still, Margaret's discomfort lingered and she found that she desired nothing more than to change the subject.
"Father, what are you and Mr. Thornton reading?" Margaret asked, only to bring about more laughter followed by apologies. "I am sorry, Mr. Thornton. Goodness, what you must think of me!" Mr. Thornton detected her mortification and his mirth quickly faded.
"Do not be sorry." The silken threads that wove Mr. Thornton's voice were tender yet unassailable; his tone took command of the room. "And, Miss Hale?" Something in the manner in which he spoke her name caused Margaret's breath to catch. "I would be honored to read any book of your choosing."
*There was not a book about in the room, with the exception of Matthew Henry's Bible Commentaries, six volumes of which lay in the centre of the massive side-board, flanked by a tea-urn on one side, and a lamp on the other. – From Dressing For Tea, North and South.
The morning after meeting Mr. Thornton at the market, Margaret awoke in her mother's room. This had become usual practice for her over the past week, though this morning presented itself with a very pleasant surprise. Having become accustomed to waking to the ashen face of her mother's restless form, Margaret could not contain the gasp that escaped her lips when she saw a set of bright green eyes upon her. As if the simple act of wakefulness was not enough, Margaret was astonished to see that her mother's color had also returned. Wasting no time, she bestowed a kiss upon her mother's warm brow and made her way to her father's study to alert him to the good news.
Once all inhabitants of the Hale home were aware of the mistress's change in health, Margaret suggested that they call for the doctor.
"A call to Dr. Donaldson might make me seem like a bit of a spendthrift in a time such as this, Margaret," her father suggested. She spent the better part of the morning arguing the point, explaining that the doctor's specific instructions were to call with any change. This was, indeed, a change. Mr. Hale responded as little as possible. He, after all, had known that his wife's illness was not as serious as Margaret and that heavy-handed doctor would like to think, and he had no intention of wasting any more money—his or otherwise—where it was not needed.
Margaret looked in on her father sitting on the edge of the bed beside his wife. She could not remember a time that she had actually heard them simply speak to one another as they were now. She knew that they had once shared a great love, though had never observed any evidence of that actuality. Here, in this moment, Margaret could see it. Their love was not spoken in sonnets or flowered prose; it was whispered in soft tones, expressed through a gentle stroke of the brow, articulated through a single tear on a cheek. Their love, which had never ceased to elude Margaret, now silently surrounded her.
Just before dusk there was a ring at the door. Much to Mr. Hale's chagrin and his daughter's relief, the doctor had arrived to pay his usual visit. Consulting with Margaret, as was his custom, Dr. Donaldson admitted that Maria Hale did seem to be greatly improved. This was the extent of his good news. The good doctor confided to Margaret that in such cases as her mother's, wakeful periods were not wholly uncommon. These occurrences may last hours, days; in very rare cases a week was not unheard of. He made sure to impress upon Margaret that this episode—as episode it indeed was—would come to an end. Margaret listened gravely to the doctor's words standing in the hallway outside of her parents' bedroom. She noticed the light in her father's features and could not bear think of what would replace it if the doctor was correct in his prognosis. Deciding that it would be best to push that thought away until the time came to think on it, she thanked Dr. Donaldson for coming out so late at night and saw him to the door.
The days that followed Mrs. Hale's turn in health brought quite a few changes to occur in the Hale household. Mrs. Hale strongly lamented any daughter of hers working in the kitchen; coincidentally, Dixon also felt that it was high time for things to return to normal in the household and undertook her normal duties. Though Margaret was not completely without domestic tasks, as Dixon was the only servant, she was able to resume her walks and sleep a full night in her own bed. Despite Mrs. Hale's inability to get out of bed, her newfound strength allowed the house to nearly return to a state that it had once seen.
Though Margaret seemingly had more time to herself, nothing that she did was without lingering worry over her mother's wellbeing. After three days of relative stability, Margaret tied on her heavy winter bonnet and coat and made her way to the shops in Milton. Finding her mind much better employed walking to the bookseller than it had been sitting in her quaint bedroom; Margaret began to think on the purpose of her trip. As the last conversation that she had held with Mr. Thornton pervaded her thoughts, Margaret could not keep the corners of her mouth from turning up.
With her mind so happily occupied, Margaret hardly noticed the crisp winter air nipping her nose and coloring her cheeks as she made her way to the shop that she had set out to visit. The Milton bookshop was a far cry from any of the book sellers in London. The selection was decent, if a little limited, and the building itself also housed the town chemist and a confectioner. These strange inconsistencies had once seemed so foreign to Margaret, yet now felt fitting.
It was not long before a clerk approached her; he tried to turn Margaret onto several of the latest titles from London, though none of the storylines seemed suitable. After some time, she was left to her own devices and began to wish that she had gotten a better insight into the type of books that Mr. Thornton might enjoy. While browsing the French section, a title caught Margaret's eye. As she ran her finger down the blue cloth, gold-inlaid cover and something within her said that this would be the book. The title sounded familiar, but she was sure she knew nothing of the book. Surely, neither did Mr. Thornton; what better way would there be to begin this adventure than on equal footing? She picked up the two rather large tomes and walked to the front to make her purchase.
"Miss Hale!" Margaret heard the distinctive voice well before she could locate its source.
Two familiar ladies stepped into Margaret's path with smiles no more genuine than the one that adorned Margaret's face. Suddenly feeling very aware of the books that she held in her hands, Margaret shuffled them uneasily against her chest.
"Miss Thornton, Miss Latimer." Margaret nodded to both women as she addressed them.
"Hello there," Fanny said. "It looks as though you are quite a reader. I of course love reading; it is a particular passion of mine." Margaret nodded uncomfortably. "You remember my friend, Miss Latimer. Oh, of course you do." Fanny paused long enough to allow the two women to offer a slight curtsey to the other before continuing. "Anne and I were just stopping in to see if they had a few copies of a novel called The Scarlet Letter. Have you heard of it, Miss Hale?" Fanny did not wait for a response. "I am certain that I read it years ago, though after John asked us about it the other night, Anne insisted that we read it at our earliest convenience, so, here we are."
Hardly knowing how to respond, Margaret attempted to unravel the information that had just been tossed her way. "I have only just finished The Scarlet Letter, Miss Thornton. I enjoyed it very much." Margaret stood uncomfortably before them, not knowing what more to say on the subject. "You are more than welcome to borrow my copy if you would like."
Fanny could not help but laugh at the offer. "That is very good of you, Miss Hale; however, if I were to borrow your copy and decided that I truly enjoyed the book, how could I revisit it at my leisure?" Fanny asked with genuine concern, in her own particularly artless manner. "No, I do not think that is a wise idea."
"I suppose that you have a point." Margaret said half hoping that their conversation was at its end.
"I was telling Miss Latimer on our trip here that I remember the story so well, only I could not locate the book in our library." Miss Thornton looked as though she had just had a groundbreaking realization. "Perhaps I could not find it because I borrowed it back then. This is why I shall have to have my own copy," Miss Thornton said, relief filling her words.
"Your brother said that the book sounded interesting, Fanny. What was it about?" Miss Latimer asked in her quiet questioning manner.
"Oh, it was very interesting. There is this governess who was abused horribly as a child and eventually goes to live with a man and his child or ward or something of the sort. They eventually fall in love but the man has a dark secret that shrouds the entire book with delicious suspense." Fanny began to continue when Margaret interceded.
"Miss Thornton, I believe that you are thinking of a book by Brontë."
"No, Miss Hale, The Scarlet Letter is written by Hawthorne, he is American." Fanny said. Margaret began to correct her once more when she was taken aback by what appeared to be a smirk on Miss Latimer's countenance. It was gone nearly the instant that it had appeared, though it took Margaret by such surprise that she forgot what she had intended to say to Mr. Thornton's sister.
"It is so odd to find you here in this bookshop, Miss Hale; we have been here so many times and not once have we run into you," Fanny said.
"Not so very odd, I would venture," Margaret said hesitantly. "We did, after all, find one another in London, and Milton is not nearly so large."
"This is a much more rare a sighting." Fanny said in an enlightening tone. "You see, in London, we were all at the same exhibition." Fanny looked toward Miss Latimer who pressed her lips together in agreement. Margaret did not agree but saw little point in continuing the subject.
"Did you enjoy yourselves in London?" Margaret asked, remembering how terribly Miss Thornton had wished to travel.
"Oh, yes!" Fanny exclaimed in a tone that made Miss Latimer flinch ever so slightly. "How it must have been for you to have lived there! What in the world ever made you leave? If I could only have stayed, I would have."
"I believe that every place holds delights as well as disappointments," Margaret said. She made an effort to understand Miss Thornton, for though she knew her to be brash and to easily cause offense, Margaret was fairly convinced that it was not truly her intention to do so.
"What have you found to please you in Milton, Miss Hale?" Miss Latimer said, much to Margaret's astonishment. Margaret then noticed Miss Latimer look pointedly at the books in her arms, then back up with a raised brow. Margaret did not understand Miss Latimer's implication, though suddenly felt uncomfortable under her appraising gape. Fanny missed the exchange completely.
Up to this point, Margaret had convinced herself that there was nothing wrong in her reading with Mr. Thornton. She went so far as to receive her father's approval before purchasing the books; however, in that moment, in the midst of their discussion, Margaret felt a need for concealment. Her attention rallied as she realized that Miss Thornton was still speaking.
"-I must say that though I have always fancied the thought of meeting a London gentleman like yours who would sweep me up and take me away, I do not imagine that I would give up what I have here, especially now that I have such prospects before me."
It took Margaret a moment to realize that Miss Thornton was speaking to her when she referred to some London gentleman. Margaret's words spilled out perhaps too quickly. "Miss Thornton, I do not have a London gentleman," Margaret urged.
"Say no more Miss Hale," Fanny said in a conspiratorial tone. "I understand precisely."
"I do not think that you do," Margaret continued rather harried, concern flooding her mind.
"Very well then." Miss Thornton dismissed the idea as quickly as it had entered her mind. "Mr. Watson and I have an understanding!"
Anne Latimer turned wide eyes in her friend's direction. Margaret could hardly remember who Mr. Watson was, truth be told, though she was certain that he was one of Mr. Thornton's peers. She was merely relieved to have the attention drawn from her.
"Congratulations, Miss Thornton," Margaret genuinely extended her well-wishes.
"Congratulations are not yet in order. You see, our understanding is not an understanding as many understand an understanding to be, you understand?" Margaret did not understand. "I am certain that he will ask with time. My only requirement will be that we have a house far from the mill, which I am certain that he will have no trouble meeting." Margaret began to speak once more, though Fanny continued, "I could not see John making such a concession for any woman, which it is why it is so wonderful that dear Anne is so agreeable."
Margaret's eyes met Miss Latimer's and in that moment, she felt that she understood the woman that had so recently displayed such a fondness for Miss Thornton. Fanny Thornton was trying on her best days; even so, Margaret could not help but feel sorry for her. There had never been anything comparable to warmth between Margaret and Anne Latimer, but Margaret had never thought that the woman had any mercenary intent before that moment. Ashamed of her thoughts, Margaret decided to give Miss Latimer the benefit of the doubt. It was likely that the women truly did enjoy each other's company.
"I suppose that there would be benefits with whomever you choose. Perhaps we should place a greater emphasis on reciprocated feelings rather than on living arrangements," Margaret said. "If our hearts are in the right place, then I believe that where we live would be of little concern." Margaret watched Anne Latimer press her lips into a thin red line once more.
"Perhaps you are right, Miss Hale." Miss Thornton said before unexpectedly taking a book from Margaret's stack. "What is this about?"
"I am not certain." Margaret responded. She watched Fanny flip to the last page of the book and begin perusing the text.
"I will let you in on a little secret, Miss Hale: Always read the last page of a book before you buy it, then you will know if it is going to be a worthwhile endeavor." Fanny then began at the front and started flipping through pages rather quickly. "This one is difficult to judge. You see, I hate to find myself halfway through a book only to discover that I have wasted my time. This book has some lovely illustrations." she looked around to ensure that they were not overheard before continuing, "Though could you imagine the men of today in such trousers?" Fanny laughed enough at her statement to account for the lack of laughter from her party. After making it to the last page, she snapped the book closed. "I approve of this selection, Miss Hale, Fanny pronounced. "Only I do not understand why you would need two copies." Margaret shrank beneath the critical eye of Miss Latimer and thought on how she might respond.
It was in that blessed moment that the clerk came from the back of the shop and approached the party with two copies of The Scarlet Letter, freeing Margaret from the obligation of answering and supplying her with the freedom to politely excuse herself. As she finally made it up to the desk, Margaret requested that the books be wrapped separately, paid and was finally on her way. After such an afternoon, Margaret thought that she needed a dose of sense and made her way to the Princeton district for a long overdue visit.
The dinner bell rang through the Thornton home only a moment after John stepped through the door. It had not slipped his notice that anytime he was late in coming home from the mill, that dinner was always late as well. It was in these little details that John felt his mother's devotion. After changing coats, he quickly made his way to the formal dining room where his mother and sister were awaiting him.
"How were things at the mill today, John?" Mrs. Hale asked while the soup was being placed before them.
"Things are beginning to get back to normal. I wrote Smith, the banker I met in London." He could see that this had piqued his mother's interest. "When I met him on the Wednesday before we came home, he seemed very interested in investing. We will see if anything comes of it." His statement was followed by silence which remained until the second course was brought out.
"Did you do anything in town today, Fanny?" Mr. Thornton asked, catching his sister off guard.
"Anne Latimer and I went shopping." Fanny smiled at both her brother and mother. Hoping for more of a reaction, Fanny continued, "You remember Anne, don't you John?"
"Of course I remember your friend, Fanny," Mr. Thornton said. He never elaborated on the subject of women in front of his mother or sister, as he had learned that any misplaced words often lead to speculation.
"We went to a book seller today to pick up that book that you suggested and you will never guess who we met." Fanny waited for a response for only a few seconds before continuing, "Miss Hale, of all people."
Mrs. Thornton did not miss her son's head snap to attention at the mere mention of that woman's name. A blind man could see that his heart was still engaged.
"What did you speak of, Fanny?" His sister was happy to hear a thawing in her brother's tone.
Fanny began to wax poetic on all subjects breached that afternoon at the bookshop and otherwise. Mr. Thornton sifted through the abundance of information that he garnered from his sister's chaotic discourse.
When he retired to his room that evening, his mind was filled with anticipation of the following day. It would not be long before he would be able to speak to her, before he would be welcomed into her warm affections.
After readying himself for bed, he banked the fire and walked to the window. The moon was low and full and clouded by a night sky filled with smoke and soot. Leaning against the sill he thought over his sister's words from earlier that evening; a smile inadvertently made its way to his lips.
Fanny had spent some time speaking on the idea of living away from a mill; this was always a favorite topic of his sister's. It was when Miss Hale's name was brought into the discussion that he began to become genuinely interested in the discussion. Mr. Thornton's complete attention was engaged when Fanny described Margaret's silly ideas of affection having a greater bearing on future happiness than that of physical location. In the next breath she said that she had thought for certain that that man from the exhibition had been Miss Hale's beau, but as it turns out, she had been mistaken. Though he was eternally grateful for loose lips at that moment, Mr. Thornton felt it necessary to gently chastise his sister for propagating rumors, especially those of a particular friend of theirs. Fanny defended herself by saying that she would say no more about it, as she and Anne had spent most of the afternoon at it and that the topic had been fully exhausted.
Forcing himself climb into bed, Mr. Thornton attempted to assuage the desires of his heart, the hope that this day had brought. He endeavored to keep a firm foot on solid ground, to not give in to his foolhardy longings. There was little that could be done for it; he had lived on hopelessness for so long that the encouragement that his sister had unwittingly brought coupled with the knowledge that in less than a day's time he would see Margaret, was more than enough kindling to feed his aching heart a good long while.