I have been deeply buried into my Pride and Prejudice lately, hoping to finish up a (very long) variation soon. My typical m.o. has always been to alternate stories whenever a scene sticks in my mind, keeping everything fresh, but I have been like a parent forcing their child to just finish their plate. “You took it, you eat it,” that’s the rule, right? Ahem, but I digress.
I have been loving my time with Darcy and Elizabeth, but I have also been missing John and Margaret. Right about a year ago, I started a new N&S variation which was inspired by the blog tour for Northern Rain. Many of those blog posts were vignettes that I wrote to accompany the story, but were not in it. Many of them reflected back on John Thornton’s early years and some of the key events which shaped him.
I was having so much fun with the project that when Rita Deodato suggested that I write a prequel to N&S, such as I did with Edward Gardiner, I couldn’t resist. However, what is N&S without John and Margaret together? I had to find a way to make that happen as well.
These Dreams, the Pride and Prejudice variation, is nearing the homestretch, and I am doing my best to ride just one horse all the way to the wire. However, I know I’m not the only one missing John and Margaret these days. And so, without further ado, I give you the first chapter of Nowhere But North.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.”
John Thornton’s throat constricted and his chest hammered. Those words had sealed his future- words he had once desperately longed to hear spoken over himself and this woman who stood at his side, but words which seemed unwelcome to her ears. She had not desired his hand.
His limbs quivered with apprehension as he turned to face the woman who was now his wife. Her gaze was cast down as she, likewise, performed the scripted manoeuvre. The white veil frosted over her face heightened the pallor of her bloodless cheeks, and set startlingly against the black of her mourning dress. She tipped up her chin dutifully, waiting for him to complete the required motions.
Swallowing hard, his eyes full of regret, he reached to lift her veil. His fingers brushed only the filmy gauze concealing her face, careful not to touch her more than was necessary. He would ask nothing more of her after this one public intimacy, but the proper forms and customs must be observed. He dropped the lace behind her back as her eyes, wide with alarm, at last found his. He drew a reckless breath, girding up his courage, and then bent to inaugurate their union with a quick brush of his lips against hers. There was no feeling exchanged, no sweet promise of hope and love shared. It was simply done. For better or worse, Margaret Thornton was his problem now.
Four Days Earlier:
“May I please speak with Miss Hale?” John Thornton shifted his hat nervously between his hands as he dared to confront the Hales’ disapproving maid. Dixon glared up at him, her eyes swollen and red, but her manner no less vigilant over her mistress than it had ever been. In fact, he might say that now it was a good deal more so.
Dixon’s mouth worked sulkily. She, like he, seemed to know that there was no other recourse, but she did not like letting him to her young lady just now. “This way,” she finally grumbled, not caring in the least that her manners were less than exemplary.
Thornton followed her up the stairs. To his surprise, Dixon led him past the small sitting room on the second floor, and up to Mr Hale’s old study. She stopped before the door, crossing her arms. “You’ll take care of her, Mr Thornton,” she demanded bluntly. It was not a question.
His eyes, which had drifted to the closed door, snapped back to the woman. “I shall try,” he vowed.
This seemed to satisfy her. With a grunt and a lurch, she worked her way past him to lumber back down the stairs, leaving him alone. He turned back to the door, clenching his fist. His task was before him, and he would not shrink from it.
Since three mornings before, when his old friend had failed to awaken, Margaret had been without a protector. No concerned family had descended upon the little Crampton house, no benevolent godfather came to offer aid, and no valiant suitor had arrived to carry her away from her grief. Her only comfort had been the bitter maid and the grizzled old weaver who had first brought him the news of Mr Hale’s passing. She had nowhere else to turn.
Slowly, he eased the door open. He did not see her at first, scanning, as he was, the chair and the desk which had belonged to his friend. The room was dim, lit only by the low afternoon sun filtering through the curtains. At last, his searching gaze settled on her forlorn figure.
She looked to have fallen into her father’s worn settee before a dying fire, her beautiful head draped over a small end table where a stack of Mr Hale’s books formed a pillow of sorts. Her eyes were closed, but her lashes shimmered with sorrow in the glow of the fire’s embers. Pity tugged at his heart.
How he yearned to cast himself at her feet and pull her into his loving arms! Would that she had longed for his comfort, and waited only for his voice to release her anguish into his strong embrace! Moisture pricked his own eyes. It could not be so, but at least he could offer her some measure of protection. He owed his friend that much.
John stepped softly into the room, afraid to disturb her repose, but knowing that he must. He stopped before her, his fingers twitching uncomfortably when she did not seem to hear his approach. “Miss Hale?” he spoke gently.
Her head jerked up, her eyes blinking rapidly as she tried to see him clearly through unshed tears. She straightened wordlessly. Apparently she had been expecting him, for her face held no questions- only what appeared to be resignation.
Pressing his lips together, he drew one step closer to her, then cautiously lowered himself to his knees before her chair. She dropped her gaze modestly.
Now that it was time, and he was all but assured of her acceptance, he could not form the words. He had spoken them once before, and that memory choked his throat and caused his pulse to drum with uncertainty. He knew she did not care for him, and likely loved another. It was no virtue of his own which would require her to accept him, and there would be no affection he could expect once she had. They had little to offer one another, apart from respectability and security. It seemed a paltry consolation.
During his hesitation, Margaret’s eyes had begun to travel up once more. Her voice was trembling and scarcely audible when she spoke. “You have been to the funeral,” she observed quietly.
He glanced down at the black arm band he wore, sorry that its presence might cause her additional pain. “Yes,” he answered simply. His mouth went dry. Get it over with, man! he chided himself. There was no sense in drawing things out.
“Miss Hale, will you do me the honour of becoming my wife?” he blurted, his voice quavering with hope.
Her stricken eyes finally met his. She held him for a long, suspense-filled pause, before answering. “Yes,” she whispered.
He hissed out the tense breath he had been restraining. At least she had determined to be sensible about all of this, even if she were not happy. It would spare him the distress of arguing with a woman in mourning for her lost father. He ought rightly to be overjoyed in this moment, having secured the promise of the woman who delighted his heart, but he could not. He had just asked her to commit to a life with a man she did not love, and she simply had no other choice but to accept. Rather than pleasure at her answer, he felt only remorse for her sacrifice.
He gave a firm nod, indicating that he had heard her hushed reply, and that their deal was struck. “I shall make the necessary arrangements. Do you…” he hesitated in distaste for the indelicacy of the questions he must ask. “You will wish to marry without delay? A simple ceremony?”
She looked down, her gaze hovering somewhere near the centre of his waistcoat as her eyes fluttered once more. There was no possible solution which would not require some breach of propriety. They could not hold a traditional ceremony with the bride in deep mourning, nor could they decently wait the prescribed period of time without some chaperoned living situation for her. The best answer was a quiet ceremony by the minister’s leave, granting her his name and honour- for there was none other to offer it.
She was silent for a moment, causing him to stir in some discomfort. At last, another whispered “yes” reached his ears.
“I will speak to the minister directly. Perhaps I will ask my mother to assist you?”
Her bodice was trembling with short, shallow breaths. “I think… I think that is not necessary, sir. There will be little for me to do until….” She bit her lip, her eyes refusing to lift again to his.
She was correct, of course. The silk mourning gown she wore would suffice for their simple marriage ceremony, and her belongings would not need to be moved until she came to his home. There could be no cause to disrupt the little Crampton household until then.
“I dislike leaving you alone here,” he murmured. “Are you certain you will be well until other arrangements can be made?”
“I have Dixon,” was the short answer.
He sighed. “Of course.” He began to rise to his feet. She did not follow his movements, and he turned reluctantly away. Within seconds, however, he appeared once more at her side. She looked up in swift surprise.
“I will take care of you!” he promised hoarsely. “You need have no fear, Miss Hale.”
Her mouth twitched into a bare approximation of a smile, but it did not travel to her eyes. “I know, Mr Thornton.”
Margaret Thornton- for that was her name, now- stood in the centre of the spacious chamber. She clutched a small bag of personal items as she took in the opulently decorated room which was to be hers. Her new mother-in-law had offered a brisk tour, then had taken her leave. It was likely a relief to them both to quickly part company.
Her marriage that morning had passed with little recognition. There had been no wedding breakfast out of consideration for her state of mourning, and there would be no wedding tour. It was just as well, for she scarcely knew what she would say to her new husband if they were required to spend days alone together. She swallowed.
It had been noble of him to offer marriage. She certainly did not deserve such consideration from him, but she expected that he was only rendering this one final homage to her father. Oh, Papa! The tears flooded her eyes before she could restrain them.
Her breast heaved with the effort of controlling herself. She could not fall apart now! Not when her new life and duties spread before her. She could not disappoint her father’s memory! She choked on the lump in her throat. It was for her father’s sake that Mr Thornton had overcome his disenchantment with her to offer a future. She could do no less than to respond with dignity. She would honour the man who was her husband, regardless of his lost respect. Perhaps, one day, she might find a way to earn it back.
“Do you find the room to your liking?” The low, even tones startled her. She would have to become accustomed to a man’s voice in her chambers!
Margaret turned. Mr Thornton stood in the doorway, apparently uncertain of his welcome. She made an effort to smile. “Yes,” she replied softly. “It is a lovely room.”
He entered hesitantly, his eyes scanning the walls. The room which had seemed much too large a moment ago shrank before his towering presence, and she felt stifled for breath. “I am afraid the décor may not be to your taste,” he reflected quietly. “We will repaper it whenever you wish. I expect you would prefer your own furnishings as well? I shall have a few articles brought directly. Your own writing desk and vanity, and perhaps the settee to start?”
She was watching his feet as he walked toward her. “There is no need to go to such trouble.”
“Margaret,” he voiced her name softly, haltingly. She glanced up. It was the first time he had spoken thus. “This is to be your home, and I wish for you to be comfortable. Will you not tell me how I can help you to settle in?”
“You have already been more than generous, sir,” she breathed. It had not escaped her that she was now a married woman, and the man who held claim over her stood not three feet away in her bedroom. She could not know what he might ask of her, nor when he would do so. She only understood that she belonged to him now, just as surely as did everything else in this room.
His lips thinned. “Margaret…” he paused, waiting for her to meet his eyes. “I would have you know that I am sorry. I know this is not what you desired, nor what I would have wished for you. I hope that one day you might be content here with me.”
She blinked rapidly again. “Thank you… John.”
He took a tremulous step nearer, his eyes soft. “I have already sent Williams with a few men for your most immediate belongings. Dixon has agreed to remain at the house to supervise the disposition of the larger items, but I imagine that once you feel able, you will wish to take part in that process. There is no hurry- I will keep the rent on the house for as long as you need.”
She thanked him again, recognizing the full kindness of his gesture. She was required to stay here with him, but he would not rip her maidenly home from her just yet. How much was it all going to cost him?
“Well…” he stood a moment more, as if unsure what his bounds were. “I have some work to do. Mother is here, should you require anything for your comfort, and her maid Jane or one of the other girls will assist you until Dixon is installed here permanently.”
She remained still and silent as he left her, closing the door carefully behind himself. Somehow, she had never pictured herself abandoned in a strange house while her husband went back to work on their wedding day. She had certainly never imagined this day would be marked by only Dixon and a tired old weaver and his daughter to pay their respects in her honour.
Margaret forced herself to move methodically toward the bed to begin unpacking the few things she had brought with her. She would not cry. John Thornton had plucked her from poverty and solitude to offer a home, unwelcome though she felt. Her own family- what was left of them- could not have done more. She was grateful- truly, she was. And those were not tears cupping in the corners of her eyes.
Helstone, April 1837
“Margaret, why are you crying?”
Frederick Hale, a gangly youth at twelve, playfully scooped his little sister down from her nest in the wood shed. One scruffy kitten clung wildly to her dress, its eyes staring in fright as Margaret fumbled to clutch it safely to her middle.
“Fred!” she cried, “Helen is falling!” She pushed indignantly away from her brother with her free hand once she had gained the relative safety of the shed floor, then bent to croon to the terrified cat.
Fred muttered a colourful phrase he had heard from one of the local farmers- one which his father had sternly forbidden. “What a ridiculous name for a cat!” he rolled his eyes. He softened some when a few more tears slid down his little sister’s face. “Tell me, sweetheart, what is the matter?”
Margaret was cradling the kitten to her face to wipe the tears away. “Mama s-says I can-not take Hel- Helen to London!” she sniffled. “She s-says Aunt does not l-like animals!”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” he grumbled. “She will be here when we return! We are only going for a month.”
“But she will not remember me!” wailed the plaintive little voice. “She will be all grown almost, and she will forget all about me.”
He sighed. “Look, Margaret, cats care little enough for people as it is. They only like being fed. I daresay Helen likes the back door of the house as well as the front. Bring her some milk when you get back, I suppose, and she will remember you well enough.”
A pair of scandalized green eyes met his dismissal, and her lip began to quiver. “Helen is my f-friend!” she blubbered.
“Oh, come, Margaret, we do not leave for three more days yet. Why all of this fuss?”
She scrunched the limp, pliant little creature to her face once more. “Edith’s nurse won’t let her play with me,” she murmured into the cat’s fur. “She says I am a hoo- a hool….” Another little sob shuddered the small child.
“A hooligan!” Frederick doubled over, bellowing with laughter. “Dearest little sister, now I see!” Fred chuckled. “Edith’s nurse is pretty strict. Perhaps if you stayed in one room, instead of wandering and frightening her!”
“She doesn’t like me at all,” pouted the quivering little mouth. “I don’t want to go, Fred!” she began to snivel.
“Oh, Margaret! You do take it to heart so. Last time was quite a bore, I confess. Perhaps if we are very polite, we may go back to the park, like we did last year. Do you remember the fountain?”
Sanguine eyes looked up to him once more. Silently, she nodded. “Will the geese still be there?”
He laughed. “I think so, but you had best not chase them this year. Do you remember how angry Uncle was?”
“I did not chase them. I was only watching the babies.” Her little face fell gloomily. The cat, at last weary of being held against its will, spun about in her grip, and in no uncertain terms exerted its independence. Margaret released it readily, for she had already encountered unpleasant scratches from this particular feline. When it had gone, however, she stood grumpy and dejected, watching the crooked tail as the adolescent cat stalked from the woodshed.
Frederick could not help a little chuckle. “Come, Margaret, cheer up. Let us think of something fun we may do before we leave for London.”
Her innocent face gazed up to him, and his boyish frame warmed with affection. She was adorable, his little sister. Dark, wayward curls sprang for expression beneath her prim little bonnet. Clear, intense eyes surveyed him gravely, and soft, pure cheeks rounded down to a purposeful little chin. It was Edith who always claimed the beauty when the two cousins were together, but if a twelve-year-old boy could have an opinion on the subject, he much preferred his own sister’s vibrant personality and the way it shone forth so markedly, even at four years of age.
That determined character sparkled now with renewed inspiration. “What can we do, Fred?” she asked hopefully.
He made a show of deep thought, chewing the sides of his cheek and holding her in a playful, suspenseful stare. “I know!” he declared at last. “Let us go peek into the parish charity basket. Do you suppose that ugly green dress is still there? I wager no one has taken it yet.”
Her cheek dimpled in dismay. “I know it is. I saw it yesterday,” she informed him. That was not an interesting idea at all!
“Hmm.” He tapped his finger to his lips, as if deliberating a great plot. “What do you think we could do with it? Make a straw man and dress it? We could stand it up in front of the house and frighten Dixon!”
Margaret did not immediately leap at the idea, as he thought she might. She turned pensively away, gazing over the yard toward their mother’s rose garden. Frederick nearly chuckled again. She could be so serious for such a small girl!
A moment later, however, it became obvious to him that Margaret’s eyes and ears had been sharper than his own. Beneath the prickly bushes rooted a brown nose. Old Dane, Farmer Grady’s greying hound, emerged soon after. Spotting the children, he wagged his tail and made his friendly way toward them. Children, as any dog knows, are always good for a little petting, and the two Hale children were no exception.
A wicked thought struck the boy, and he laughed aloud. “Margaret, would it not be funny to put the dress on Dane here? Oh, only think of him running through the church yard tomorrow!” He dissolved into hoots of laughter, imagining the scene. He would never do it, of course, but the shocked faces of the assembled parishioners would almost make up for the punishment he would be sure to receive later.
Margaret had gone very still, her eyes bright and wide. She stared up to him in mute astonishment, and if he had to conjecture, he might have feared that she would carry out his suggestion. He almost thought to warn her off, but just then they heard their mother’s voice from the house.
He sighed. “Well, come along, Margaret. I suppose it is time for tea.”
The evening meal had been a silent affair. Thornton had taken his customary place at the head of the table, but at the foot now was the new mistress of his home. It was not without some tense disquiet that he had observed his mother starting for her old place, then thinking better of it. Margaret had glanced between them with a look of regret as she had taken the seat which was now hers, but whether it was related to sorrow over her new circumstances or remorse for his mother’s discomfort, he could not say.
His mother had been firmly set against this course. He fingered his silverware as his gaze flitted between the two women at his table. Margaret kept her head bowed and scarcely touched her food, unable to help being troubled by her mother-in-law’s frosty reception. His mother, seated halfway between them, looked only straight ahead with a serene hardness to her countenance.
He sighed. He would have to speak with her again. He had offered Margaret a home, and he would not see it become a place of misery for her. Perhaps he would have done better to have asked his mother to stay with Fanny some days while Margaret became accustomed to her new surroundings, but to do so at this juncture would cause even more discomfort for all.
At last the uncomfortable proceedings were ended, and the Thornton family- all three of them, now- retired to the drawing room for a quiet evening. John found his paper, but his eyes were ever lifted over the top edge of it as he watched his new wife in the firelight. Heavens, but she took his breath away! Even now, in full mourning as she was, there was a peaceful grace about her figure which cried out to him, drawing him to her in a way he was helpless to deny.
She held a book in her hands, but it seemed her mind would not exert itself this evening, for it slanted listlessly away from her as she gazed vacantly into the fire. The flames glowed softly over her ivory features, stony and expressionless as her thoughts wandered. He would have given a great deal to know what lay on her heart this night, and with what measure of optimism she looked to the future. Perhaps she, like he, was not entirely without hope.
How long, he wondered to himself, will I be able to bear it? To have Margaret in his home every day, carrying his name and presiding over his household, was simply too tempting. He was well aware that only a thin door would stand between his room and hers, and… well, dash it all, it was his right!
But there, she had sworn only her life and her future. Her heart was not his, nor could he force it to become so. To ask what he wished of her, when she would respond only out of obligation… he shuddered in revulsion. It was in every way abhorrent to him.
His hands had begun to tremble as they gripped the edges of his paper. Swallowing hard, he bade himself to look away from the haunting vision which was his legally wedded wife. If he did not, he would not be able to vouch for his state of mind!
He stared unseeingly at the headlines scripted out before him, his jaw clenched. Somewhere to his right, he heard his mother at last setting her needlework aside, and he nearly shuddered in relief. Finally, the uncomfortable evening was drawing to a close!
Margaret had noted the change as well, and was looking curiously to Hannah Thornton. He shifted his paper and caught her eye. “Margaret, it is Mother’s custom to lead the household in prayers every night before we retire,” he explained. “I hope you will feel inclined to join us.”
“Oh,” she murmured softly. She dipped her head in deference to her mother-in-law. “Of course, Mrs Thornton.”
Hannah lifted a cool brow as she surveyed the younger Thornton lady. It seemed they would have to come to some agreement about what they were to call one another, but she was content for now to keep Margaret in her place as an outsider. Her son, however, was scowling very faintly in her direction.
The household had gathered, the evening devotional completed, and at length John rose from his seat. He extended a shaking arm to his wife. “Margaret, may I see you upstairs?”
Her eyes wide, her lips pale, she accepted. Her small fingers dug painfully into the flesh of his inner arm as she conveyed to him far more tension than she likely realised. Her unease abated only slightly as they left his mother behind and her concentration was required to mount the stairs with her thick skirts.
His heart twisted in sympathy. There seemed nothing he could say or do to alleviate her suffering. He could but grant her space and see to her every want, and perhaps in time, she might grow to be more at home. Drawing up at her door, he moved his arm slightly and her hand slid away.
“Have you everything you need?” he queried gently. He could see her throat working as she gulped nervously and nodded. She was looking at his feet again.
“Jane should be in shortly to help you. I…” he stopped, his brow furrowed. It seemed unjust to tell her how his soul leapt for joy that she had come into his life, regardless of the circumstances, but churlish somehow to leave her without some assurances of his felicity in their new relationship. He reached hesitantly for her hand. “I wish you a pleasant evening,” was all he could manage.
She lifted curious eyes to him. Round, and softly dilated, those eyes studied him for a breathless second. “You… you will wish to…” she paused and took a gasping breath. “You will knock later?”
His stomach pitted. So, he had not made his intentions clear enough. He released a taut sigh. “Let us speak in privacy,” he suggested, tipping his head toward her door.
Her nervous hands fumbled with the perfectly smooth doorknob, and then they stood together in the dusky room. “Listen, Margaret,” he began, his tense finger kneading his brow. “It is only right,” he offered weakly. “After all, you are in mourning, and… and you know, it has surely been a trying day for you….”
She gazed at him in complete silence, no emotion flickering across her vivid features.
“After all, there can be no need,” he grit out, his teeth biting down on his tongue and his left fist clenching. He must escape this room soon, or he would make a liar of himself! Her skin looked so soft, and she smelled of roses…. He began to groan in self-pity, but covered the sound swiftly by clearing his throat.
“I see.” That was it. No change in expression, no movement to step away from the door and release him from the confrontation. Her nostrils fluttered very slightly, the only symptom to betray her angst.
“I thought you would be relieved,” he furnished. He rubbed his palms surreptitiously along his trousers. They were positively aching with his need to reach for her!
She blinked. “I can see that you are.”
His mouth fell open. “I only think of you!”
He watched her cheek muscles tighten and her eyes harden. “Mr Thornton, we both know that I brought nothing to this marriage but myself. I wonder, sir, why you took the trouble if you do not intend to…” she stopped and squeezed a sudden tear from her eye.
“Margaret!” he objected. “You cannot think that I-”
“Please hear me out, sir!” she interrupted.
He swallowed his protests and waited for her to compose herself.
She seemed to be choking, exerting every shed of her remaining strength to bite out the words before her shattered tones betrayed her. “I am the interloper here, Mr Thornton,” she quavered at last. “Your mother does not welcome me, your staff no doubt wonder what you are about, and my support must have come at a very dear price just now. I pledged my obedience to you, sir, but if you do not intend to treat me as a wife, I beg you would reconsider before it is too late!”
He stared, absolutely flabbergasted. Of all the complaints he might have expected from her, to be attacked over his consideration for her lack of affection was the last thing he would have imagined!
“What would you prefer?” he snapped at last. “That I force you? That I demand your compliance without regard for your own feelings? A fine proof that would be, that I truly am the monster you have always believed!”
“I neither believed nor implied any such thing!” she lashed back. “But I am not such a fool as to fail to acknowledge the reality of our circumstances. It is your duty, and your right….” Here, her voice at last failed her, and her features pinched, as she clenched her eyes and covered her mouth with a gasp.
“A duty, you say?” he snarled bitterly. “I should say my duty now is to care for my wife! You speak of rights, as though I had hired your services! I know well enough that I am no more than a tradesman, capable of thinking only in terms of buying and selling, but I shall never intrude where I am not welcome. Rights, indeed! You may be pleased to consider yourself the martyr- the noble wife who silently bears all manner of humiliation in the name of feminine dignity- but I would be no better than a beast who takes a woman against her will. I am sorry, Margaret, but you have judged me wrongly if you thought me capable of that!”
Her body was heaving now with restrained sobs, the cords in her neck raised as she sniffled and strove valiantly to remain on her feet to meet his heated gaze. “You would shame me, then?” she choked.
He turned away with a furious hiss, raking his sweating hands through his hair. There was no pleasing the woman! He thrust his fists to his hips and began to pace away from her, taking care to give a wide berth to both the woman and the largest piece of furniture in the room, lest he should sweep her to it and kiss her until he could think clearly!
“You and I both know that it would be noticed,” she continued through growing tears. “Your mother has a poor enough opinion of me!”
He stopped, narrowing his eyes in tight scrutiny. “Is that what this is about? You fear that my mother will make things harder for you if she assumes that you have refused me?”
She made no immediate answer but the continued working of her jaw. He almost turned away in finality, but a desperate whisper called him back. “There are worse things for her to think!”
He jerked his head round, staring at her pale face. He had not considered this! He began to breathe again, deliberating. He would tolerate neither disgrace to be attached to his wife- and she was correct in assuming his mother knew intimately all of the workings of the house. He nodded, sighing in resignation. “Very well.”
She flinched as he started toward her again, but froze in wonder when he did not come to her, but to the writing desk. He searched the top drawer until he found the pen knife, then rolled up his sleeve. “Sir?” she questioned anxiously.
He glanced back to her, pressing his lips tightly, then drew the blade lightly across the hard muscle of his forearm.
“John!” she cried in dismay. “What have you done?”
“Pull back the counterpane,” he commanded brusquely.
Her brow furrowed, she did as he directed. He pinched the shallow wound until a respectable pool of blood had formed, then quickly bent to create a gory smear across the sheet. Grimacing at the vulgarity of it all, he straightened.
Margaret looked as though she were about to faint. He started in concern. “You are not troubled by the sight of blood?”
She shook her head, dazed. “No, but… I had not expected you to….” Her hands gestured vaguely in the direction of his wounded arm.
He clenched his jaw and began to roll his sleeve down once more. The slight cut was already closing up, but he did not wish to distress her further by making her look upon it.
“I cannot ask it of you yet,” he rasped at length, his eyes still on his sleeve. He completed the task of buttoning it, and looked back to her. Some of the colour had returned to her cheeks.
He drew near and held out his hand. Hesitantly, she received it. “I am pleased that you are here, Margaret. It is not my wish that you should feel unwelcome in any way. My mother… it will take time, Margaret. For all of us. Do you understand?”
She swallowed and nodded blankly. His expression softened. “I will bid you a good night, then.” A flicker of hope shone in his eyes as he gingerly lifted her fingers to his lips.
She allowed the intimacy without comment. Only after he had returned her hand did she offer a quiet, “Good night, John.”
He retreated to his own room via the hallway, rather than through the shared door. There was no need to emphasise to her so early that he would be little more than thirty feet away as she slept… nor did he think he could walk across her room again without somehow stumbling and humiliating himself.
He felt like a gangling youth again with her in his house! The intent way she scrutinised his every move, as if weighing him against the ideal gentleman she had not married, wholly unnerved him. Fool that he was, however, he could not help thrilling in the fact that her attention was fixated on him alone, and none but he had access to her bedroom. His hands trembled as he fumbled with his own door latch- in much the same way Margaret had struggled with hers.
He stripped down until his chest was bare, then found the mirror at his washbasin. The only possible relief he would find this night was cold water, and for a mercy, there was plenty of it. He splashed raucously, heedless of the mess he created on the floor and the aching protests of his chilled muscles. If he could not seek divine blessing in the arms of the enticing woman in the next room, he would chastise his own flesh until it yielded in humbled submission! He almost succeeded.
His head finally beginning to clear somewhat, he reached for a hand towel to dry his face. It was in the mirror that his eyes caught the unfamiliar flash of candlelight pouring from beneath the shared door, and the faint shadow dimming it as a figure moved within the room. Without the noise of splashing water to distract him, he could hear each sound clearly… bare feet… a sigh… the counterpane as it rustled… the groaning of the bed frame.
The towel was shaking in his hands. He stared at it, clumsy and awkward once more as his fingers stumbled to make sense of the damp cloth. Something dulled his vision- perhaps it was the memory of how her sheets had felt against his skin, or the warmth of her mouth still lingering on his lips from that one kiss they had shared all of those hours ago.
Numbly, he reached to hang up his towel, but like the novice he suddenly felt himself to be, he missed the hook entirely. He jerked his hand in correction, but his body had quite simply forgotten the mature grace it had known only yesterday. He reached to halt the swing of the towel and the arch of his elbow, but was too late- the pitcher, now mercifully emptied of water, crashed to the floor and shattered into a hopeless pile of shards.
“Did you break something, John? What in thunder are you doing up here?” The voice made its way up the hall and into the room long before its owner did.
Twelve-year-old John glanced up shamefacedly from the odd-shaped contraption in his hands. “I was trying to make it work, Father.”
George Thornton lowered himself easily to the nearest chair. He was a tall, squarely-built man of five and thirty, with keen dark eyes and a ready smile. “May I?” He held out his hand, and his son passed him the apparatus which had befuddled him.
“Oh, yes!” the father enthused when he recognised it. “Is it not Barlow’s wheel that I brought home from London? My partner wished me to show this next week to a group of investors. But why is it not working? Was this the crash I just heard?”
John reddened as his father returned it. “I dropped it. I am sorry, Father. Now it is misaligned, and I lost some of the mercury.”
Thornton fixed his son with a serious expression. “That is rather wasteful, my son. This was quite costly. You will have to find some way to repair it.”
Young John straightened. “I have some money set aside. I will go tomorrow to purchase more mercury, Father, and I am quite certain I will have it good as new by tomorrow!”
The elder Thornton returned the wheel to his son with a cheerful grin. “See that you do. I ought to discipline you- what will Wright say if he hears the model was destroyed before the investors even see it! However,” he eyed his boy with a look that made him squirm, “I doubt you will make that same mistake again. Have you thought how to repair the frame?”
John turned it about in his hands, then pointed to a particular weak point in the design. “If I heat it here, I think I can bend it to allow the wheel to spin easily again without compromising the strength of the metal.”
Thornton nodded in curt satisfaction. “That should work. It is a remarkable discovery, is it not?” he gestured to the machine.
The boy’s eyes lit. “Father, only think what technology like this can achieve! If it were large enough, we could power anything! We would not need horses to pull our carriages, and perhaps even the steam engine itself will be replaced!”
“That will be a long way off, John, if it ever happens! I think nothing else could ever produce so much power.”
John looked back to the marvel in his hands, unconvinced by his father’s scepticism. “I should like to see it tried,” he maintained stubbornly.
George Thornton shrugged with an easy grin. “Perhaps someday it will be. Wright, my partner, seems to think as you do. Now, set that aside. I have something of rather great import to discuss with you. Tell me, John, how have you been getting on with your studies?”
The boy shuffled uncomfortably in his chair, suddenly looking anywhere but at his father. “Well enough,” he mumbled unwillingly.
“Would you still claim that, if you knew that I had spoken with your master?” Thornton queried, his expression searching and hard. Jovial though he could be, his temper was not to be tried, and his son knew it.
The lad dared to meet his father’s eyes. His father was a kind man, and even a good-humoured man when times were plentiful, but he seemed to place an inordinate emphasis on dusty old books! “I expect that I should not, Father,” he admitted.
Thornton’s face revealed nothing; waiting, as he was, for his son to confess all.
“I did not complete my report on Constantine,” John continued sulkily. “And I did not memorize the third declension irregular verbs as I should have.”
“Yet your master claims that you are the ablest boy in his schoolroom. Your scores in mathematics are perfect, and the master says that even with half the effort applied by the other boys, you typically excel in your Latin and Greek. Why is it, John, that my son should not be giving his very best, when he is capable of far more than he achieves?”
John stared at the floor, swallowing. He had already grown ashamed of himself, but it needed the convicting humiliation of his father’s discovery to truly galvanize his resolve to improve himself. “I shall do better, Father!” he promised.
“John,” George leaned back in his chair, “I know you would rather be building machines like this,” he gestured to the wheel, “or working like some other boys already do, but I would see you take the opportunity to improve yourself while you are yet young. It is a chance few have had, and I confess, I am quite envious of you.”
A reluctant sigh rose from the lad. “Yes, Father.”
“John…” Thornton hesitated, glancing at his son’s downturned face, and continued. “I have decided to send you to London for school.”
The boy’s face jerked up in horror. “Father, I promise I will do better!”
“It is more than that, John. I speak of your future advantages. I am afraid it will not be a prestigious school, but Mr Wright’s family in Bentinck Street has offered to sponsor you, along with their own boys. I think with them, you will learn a great deal more than you can here. Many things are within Wright’s reach which are beyond mine, and you may even establish some connections which will be useful in your future.”
John forced himself to look up from the floor, his incredulous gaze seeking his father’s. “Will Mother be very unhappy that I am to go?”
Thornton gave a short, wry laugh. “It has taken me two years to persuade her to it! I wanted to send you to Rugby, but she was firmly set against it- even could I have afforded it. At least with the Wrights, she has the comfort that you will be looked after by someone she knows and people of or own class.”
Regret dimmed the boy’s usually bright features. “I will be sorry to leave her, though, Father.”
“Your mother is quite occupied with Fanny at present. She is not strong, you know, and your mother fears….” The man’s voice trailed off as his cheek flinched in pain.
“She fears losing Fanny as she did Sara,” John finished in a hushed tone. “Father, if… if the worst happens, may I return so that she may have some comfort?”
Thornton smiled at his son. “I expect your mother will insist upon it. She will miss you a great deal, John, but I am convinced this is for the best.”
The boy lowered his head, then with a firm jaw and a determined glint in his eyes, met his father’s gaze once more. “I will not disappoint you, Father.”
George Thornton stood, and his son followed. He placed a strong, work-hardened hand on his boy’s shoulder. “I know you will not, John. I am already more proud of you than you can know- although, I do have hopes that your new physical education lessons in London will help you at last become master of this lanky frame of yours! I cannot afford for you to keep dropping my models.”
A sheepish smile grew on the adolescent face. “I am sorry, Father. I know I ought not to have touched it, but….”
“But you found it too intriguing to ignore? That’s the Thornton blood, John. We cannot help but dream of the future! Industry needs men like us. Perhaps someday you will turn this mechanical fascination of yours into something truly remarkable. You might even grow to be one of the greatest men in Milton, with a fine house and a business of your own.”
Young John turned adoring eyes to his father. None understood his ambitions quite so well! “Perhaps, Father,” he grinned.
“Come,” Thornton ruffled his son’s hair. “I expect your mother is waiting for us to join her at breakfast.”
Well, what do you think? I hope you are as eager as I am to spend time with these two again. They will command all my attention very soon.