A/N: Title from the Louise Gluck poem "A Myth of Devotion." Things will hopefully work out better for John and Margaret than the poem suggests.
Margaret sits in the drawing room, her sewing held loosely in her idle hands. Across from her, John is at his desk, his head bent close to the ledgers in the dim light of evening. She can see a last ray of sun where it stretches along the width of his shoulders and slides down his back. Soon it will be time to turn up the lamps.
It has been nearly a month since they married, she thinks, listening absently to the slight hum that always filters in from the mill, even after the workers have gone home. She's noticed since their wedding that he doesn't look at her. She is sure that he used to, before – she can remember that odd, slow heat that used to spread through her whenever he did – but now he keeps his head down as if she hardly exists. He calls her 'Miss Hale' when he speaks to her and every time it pulls at the raw edges of her heart.
The drawing room fills itself with shadow and Margaret rises from the sofa to take care of the lamps. John tilts his head slightly as she adjusts the lamp nearest to his desk, but he says nothing, and so she returns to her seat.
Sighing quietly, she leans back and allows her eyes to fall shut, allows herself to indulge in her favorite daydream, the one in which his proposal comes not from her father but from his own mouth. In that hazy world they exchange vows with giddy smiles and he whispers her new, altered name in her ear as a carriage takes them away from the church. If she were there in that world now, she thinks, she might get up and go to him, might rest her hands on his shoulders and feel the tension there ease.
But that image warps and shatters – he would shrink from her, she is certain. How fitting that she should find love in her heart just as he should cast it from his. After all, it is just what she deserves for lying about Fred, for allowing John to lift her from disgrace at his own expense.
His proposal had come in the form of a letter addressed to her father. It had been brief but polite and had explained that, as a result of the incident at the train station and the forestalling of the inquest, Margaret's reputation was deteriorating and that, feeling responsible, he was offering a way out.
When her father had asked her what she thought, something had wrapped around her tongue – love, it had been, she knows that now – and spoken her answer for her. She'd said yes so quickly and so firmly that her father had raised his eyebrows and very nearly laughed. Later that evening, guilt had pressed in on her and she'd knelt by the side of her bed and prayed that she might one day be able to repay John Thornton. Now, she repeats this prayer every night, alone in a room down the hall from her husband's.
John shifts in his chair and she starts, her eyes snapping open and her hands grasping reflexively at her sewing. The ledgers on his desk are shut and he has turned towards her, his eyes fixed on the floor. She waits. When he speaks, his voice is low and measured.
"I've written to your father," he says. "He will join us for dinner tomorrow evening."
"That is good news."
John takes a long breath. "There is something he will ask you."
He does not reply. Rather, he gets up and goes to the window where the courtyard of the mill is just visible. There is something shuttered about him, Margaret thinks, something closed about the set of his shoulders.
"He is going to Oxford soon," John says finally, "for a reunion. I think he intends to remain there some time."
"Is that so?"
"It is." He turns, staring determinedly at a spot above her left shoulder. "He will ask you to go with him."
"Yes, to stay."
She nods. There is a wild sort of panic beginning to writhe at the bottom of her stomach, and she cannot look at him without feeling as though she ought to grab hold of something. "And what is your opinion?"
"Me, Miss Hale?"
"Yes." She swallows hard, and then lifts her chin proudly. "What do you think?"
"I think I would not stop you." He looks unhappy with the words the minute they leave his mouth, and he takes a half step towards her. "I mean that nothing will hold you here, Miss Hale, should you wish to leave."
She looks down at her sewing, at the folds of her skirt, and hears him move towards the door.
"I will leave you to rest," he says quietly. "You seemed tired, before."
When she looks up, he is gone, and with his chair pushed in and the ledgers closed and lined up neatly, it is almost as if he has never been there at all.