‘Tis the season to share stories!
It has been ages since I posted anything of my current work in progress. I am still tapping away, trying to get the story just right. This one is a tangle, but it is beginning take shape. The working title is Nowhere But North, and it is still a month or two from completion (not including edits, etc.). Without giving away too much of the plot, I can say that the story is a prequel, a sequel, and a variation, all rolled into one.
Some of the scenes in the book run on an earlier timeline, and we see young John Thornton and Margaret Hale in some of the defining moments of their lives. This is one such scene, set when John Thornton is fifteen years old and is just learning to shoulder the family’s burdens. It is set in the fictional town of “Weston,” because the family was obliged to leave Milton after George Thornton’s death. This scene takes place approximately six months after that.
I hope you enjoy it!
Weston, March, 1838
“John, you are going to starve yourself!” Hannah Thornton, the young widow of Darley Street, had been hovering near the rear exit of the draper’s shop where her son spent all of his days. She knew it was often one of his duties to tote crates of scraps or empty bolts to the back of the shop, and here, more than once, her patient attendance had been rewarded.
Fifteen-year-old John, coated in dust and caked in sweat, turned in the darkness at his mother’s voice. “Another hour and I will have done, Mother. You need not have come so far!”
“I came because it is nearly ten. You have not had a bite since five this morning, and that only water-porridge. Here, take this.” She reached for the pocket of his coat and stuffed a small, dense parcel inside.
He felt of it curiously. “The last of the bread loaf? Mother, you must give this to Fanny.” He began to tug it free of his clothing, but his mother put a staying hand to him.
“John, you are too thin. A pretty thing it would be if I should let you, who provide for us all, drop at your work for want of a few bites of dinner!”
“I am to be paid tomorrow, and because of the additional shipments this week, Mr Davis has promised me an extra shilling. I shall eat like a king out of that.” He flashed her a gleaming smile in the moonlight – charming and carefree, and almost believable.
“John,” the perceptive mother halted him, placing a tender hand upon his cheek. “You need not bear all of this burden alone.”
She felt his jaw tense as he blinked rapidly, his breath quickening in his chest. He had never shed a single tear since that harrowing day five months earlier, but she was no fool. The wrenching trauma of all he had seen – and would not tell her of – had never yet ceased to haunt his gaze.
In word and deed, his manner ranged from gentle stoicism to forced cheer, but beneath his maturing exterior simmered a raging torrent of hurt, confusion, and anger. Though he never spoke the words aloud, the guilt he was determined to bear over that day’s horror yet darkened his spirits. One day, she feared greatly, it would all be brought to a head by some crisis of the heart. She could but pray, and do all within her power to sustain him against that eventuality.
She felt his mouth shift in determination beneath her hand, and he gave a minuscule nod of gratitude. “I know I needn’t, Mother,” he almost whispered. “But I would spare you what troubles I can. It is not right that you should have had to suffer so.”
“Many things are not right in this world, my boy,” she soothed. “That is no reason that my son should hang his head. Whose infinite wisdom has sent us these days of hardship, and who saw fit to first give us many good years of plenty to strengthen our constitutions?”
He swallowed as his face dipped and he nodded in resignation. Her hand slipped from his cheek, and as it did, her sensitive fingers noted the first traces of a masculine roughness at his jaw. Her boy was growing to a man, and at the moment, he was a bewildered, tortured one indeed.
“My faith must be weak, Mother,” he murmured to the darkness. “I cannot think that this good Lord you speak of could have permitted all of this!”
“It is not weakness to doubt, my son,” she whispered back, taking his hand. “Mankind has crafted himself a wretched world, far short of the perfection which was intended – that is what we are to understand. Many things have not been revealed to us, but there is always a reason. You are being shaped for some purpose. I know not if we will ever see it clearly in this world, but you must trust in that!”
The pale glow of his eyes in the moonlight eclipsed to blackness. His tall form bent before her in some agony of feeling, and she placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. His head bowed, he reached suddenly to enclose her in a tight hug, trembling all the while.
Hannah rumpled her young man’s dark hair; a thing she might seldom, if ever, have opportunity to do again. She tried to sniffle back a rush of her own tears, but they stubbornly fell as an anointing on the shoulder of her son – the one person who had stepped into the gap between her and despair. “Bless you, my son!” she choked.
He drew back, his deepening voice cracking and hoarse. “I am blessed already, to have a wise, strong, faithful mother such as you. I could not do without….” She heard him swallow, saw his face turn away in the shadows.
She took his face again between her hands. “John, you are my comfort and my joy. I will ever do what little I can, but you deserve so much more.”
He shook his head, then reached to clasp her roughened fingers. “One day, Mother, it will be I who will care for you, and you will not need to smuggle meals to me out in the cold night. You may do your needlework comfortably enthroned by a warm fire, and we will all retire for the evening with satisfied bellies and contented hearts. I would see you proud and happy, cared for in every way!”
“One day, John,” she agreed with a wistful smile. “Until then, I would have you see to your duties with constant fidelity. Become the man that I know you to be, my John, for your mother is already proud of you.”