Margaret sat, curled into a tiny ball, lost in her father's old armchair. Not lost in thought; simply…lost, as she had been for many weeks now.
For days after her father's death, she barely stirred from the couch. After that, just as Dixon was beginning to fear that Miss Margaret should not recover, she arose; but she did not return to life.
Something had cracked badly inside of Margaret, and she would not be the same again.
It was only the two of them, now. As the days passed, Dixon despaired of Margaret ever eating more than a few bites at any meal. She sat up long hours in her father's chair, ignoring Dixon's entreaties to her to retire to her bed. She talked little and received no one. Her face grew ever paler. The bones began to show through her elbows and even her soft round cheeks grew gaunt.
Many people came to call: Nicholas and Mary Higgins; several of Mr. Hale's former pupils; Mrs. Thornton and John and even Fanny all tried to pay their respects. Margaret turned them all away. She simply could not imagine speaking to anyone about anything; it was too great an effort. The only way for her to continue her existence was for her to live in as complete a solitude as possible, as she waited for…something…to change. Some lessening of this profound grief...
But when Margaret was really honest with herself, she did not believe that it would lessen. She had lost her childhood home and all of her family; Frederick was forever lost to her in Spain; Bessie was gone; and John Thorton despised her.
Whatever point was there left in her life?
Margaret's daily walks were another casualty of her father's death. It wasn't until a month after her father's passing that Margaret was able to even leave the house.
That was a grey, wintry February day. Margaret hid herself behind her black bonnet and avoided all eye contact. She was thankful that no one tried to speak to her.
Without planning to, she found herself following her usual path through the Milton churchyard.
She stood by the Boucher graves, gazing out over the city. She pulled her mourning cloak tightly around her. The wind cut through the thin material.
Margaret was, of course, a vicar's daughter, raised in and around churches. Graveyards had been her playgrounds; her father's workplace; a part of the landscape; a restful place to sit and read, or contemplate. But no more.
In this new stark and angry and empty world, not even graveyards gave her respite. There was no restful place for her anywhere, anymore. But the graveyard felt real. Boucher was here. Bessie was here. Her mother was here. And here they would always stay. Unchanging; with no false hopes created of anything better, or of any meaning to be gleaned from the realities of a short and often brutal existence. No artifice. No lies.
It was something that made sense in the way the rest of life no longer did.
Everyone dies, she thought. Everyone. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, indeed…
She did not notice when John Thornton came over the hill behind her.
The sight of her made him stop dead; made the air rush from his lungs and his legs turn to lead. He forgot to breathe as he stared at her, the blood roaring in his ears.
He had not seen her since before her father died, and he had longed for the sight of her every day since. But how changed she was! How pale and sickly! How deep were the circles under her eyes, and the shadows on her cheeks. She seemed so very lost. So fragile.
He wanted to rush over and sweep her up in his arms; to kiss her pain away. I will be your new family, he wanted to say. You are the center of my world; let me help you rebuild yours. Oh my dearest Margaret, please let me help you…
But of course he could not say any of these things. He could only stand there, frozen. A great hand squeezed his heart.
She turned, and saw him.
He still could not move, but watched as she seemed to grow even paler and sadder before him. But of course; she despised him. How could his presence now, in her darkest hour, bring her anything but pain? He felt desperately ashamed that he had interrupted her solitude, and thought frantically: should I just turn and walk away, and pretend this never happened? Would it be better to speak now, or would that just make it worse? What can I –
She interrupted his racing thoughts. "Mr. Thornton. I did not see you there." Her voice was low, and steady. Her lovely eyes rested briefly on his, and his heart sang to see them again; then they dropped away.
The choice had been made for him, and though he hated himself for it, he was glad. He could stay in her presence a moment longer. "Miss Hale." He paused, searching for the right words. "I was so sorry to hear of the loss of Mr. Hale. He…he was a good friend to me."
She nodded, still not looking at him. He saw her shiver; he longed to offer her his coat.
"Thank you," she said simply. And then, slowly, "He…he thought very highly of you."
But you do not, he finished silently. The self-loathing, and self-pity, that he always carried inside of him would not be silenced; but still, he fought to try to hold a normal conversation with her. This creature who held his heart, unknowing, in her hands.
He cleared his throat. "If…if there is anything that I or my family can do…" he began.
She smiled, if it could even be called that; a pale imitation of her former smile. Her voice was so low he struggled to hear her. "Thank you, Mr. Thornton. You are very kind."
He knew the words were meaningless. He could not help. He had nothing to offer her.
She took her leave, then, and turned away to walk down the path back to town. He watched her go, feeling the weight of his own grief. She was so alone. And he could not ease her pain.
Early one morning there was a sudden frantic knocking on the door.
Margaret's head was heavy, and it ached so. But she lifted it and listened as Dixon spoke to whomever it was.
Margaret was surprised to hear Mary's voice, raised and anxious in a way she had not heard since the day Bessie's illness worsened, so long ago. The sound of it made her heart pound, and she found herself standing up with no memory of making the decision to do so.
Nicholas, she thought. Dear God, not him too.
She was at the top of the stairs when Dixon appeared at the bottom, her face lined with concern. "Miss Hale, it's Miss Higgins…"
Margaret flew down the stairs with more energy than she had felt in many weeks. There was a metallic taste of panic in her mouth. Mary was standing in the doorway, wrapped in her thin grey shawl. She looked careworn and exhausted, and there were tear-tracks in the dust on her face.
"Oh, Miss Margaret, I'm so sorry to bother ye. I know ye're not taking visitors. But my father – my father – "
"What is it? Tell me!"
"He was hurt yesterday. At the mill. His foot was crushed, miss Margaret. They carried him home and the doctor tended him, but oh! Miss! I am so afeared for him! He cannot sleep, and it is so swollen, miss. Please, won't you come?"
"Of course," Margaret reassured her. She fought back her own panic. He is not dead. It is just his foot. He is not dead. "I will come, and if we need to send for the doctor to return, we will do so. Do not fear, Mary. Dixon, where is my cloak?"
Nicholas sat up in bed, his foot propped up before him. Several Boucher children sprawled on the bed or lay across the floor, intent in their play. Nicholas seemed exhausted and a little green, and his hair was matted to his head with grease and sweat. But still, he smiled a genuine smile when Margaret and Mary entered the room.
"Miss Margaret! I should break my foot more often if this is the reward I get. Ah, but you are a sight for sore eyes." As he talked, he looked at her, and he, too, saw what Thornton had seen: the starved face; the circles under her eyes. In one short month she had changed so much. He tried to hide his concern with jolly talk. "I'm not sorry to see you, but you should know that Mary didn't need to disturb you. I am perfectly fine. Doc says I'll be able to walk on it in a week, and Thornton says he will let me keep my job."
Margaret hardly heard him as she lowered herself to the bed to examine his foot. It did look bad and was greatly swollen. But Nicholas was in better shape than she'd feared; he clearly was not feverish, and his leg was bruised, but had not the angry red of infection.
She allowed herself a breath, feeling as if it were the first one she'd taken since she'd heard the doorbell.
She raised her eyes to Nicholas', and took his hand in relief. She worked hard to conceal her exhaustion and weakness, and tried to make her smile bright. It was not as much of an effort as she'd feared; she was surprised by how much it gladdened her heart to be in the company of friends.
"Oh, Nicholas, it is good to see you, too. Mary led me to believe that you were at death's door. I am very glad to know that you are not."
Behind her, Mary blushed, but Nicholas smiled fondly at her.
Margaret looked around the small room. She glimpsed a fruit basket and did not let her mind dwell on the probable sender. "Is there something that I can do, to make you more comfortable?"
"No. Doc's coming again tomorrow. Just your visit is a great treat, Miss Margaret. It has been too long. Many a time we tried to visit since…" He paused, and then started again. "We…we are so sorry. Mr Hale was a right good man."
As soon as he said this, Nicholas wished it unsaid. Margaret had been smiling, distracted from her own life; even a little rosy-cheeked from running through the streets to his house. But now the grief returned to her face, and all other things fled.
Turning her face away, she spoke quietly. The same words she had she'd said to Mr. Thornton, in the same hushed tone; a formula; a routine she would never have wanted to learn.
"Thank you. He thought very highly of you. You are very kind."
She stayed a little longer, and tried her best to have a conversation with these two dear people, the six smaller children clamoring for their attention around her. But she was weak from grief and lack of food; from days without sunshine or fresh air; and the adrenaline of their travels across town had long faded. She felt herself growing weary, even a little dizzy, and felt she should return home.
She embraced them both as she left. It had been a month since she felt the touch of another human being. She trembled as she said goodbye; for the first time, she she did not wish to return to the house that was now so very desolate.