RETURN TO MILTON
A Continuation of North & South
Composed by Rebecca Arrington Jones
Encounter with Mr. Lawton
“Meeting you was fate, becoming your friend was a choice, but falling in love with you I had no control over.”
As the train pulled into Milton station, Margaret Hale’s anxiety about her brash decision to return with Mr. Thornton had begun to grow. Her aunt would have received the news by now from Henry about the incident upon their return trip to London and how she had publicly declared her feelings for Mr. Thornton. Had not Henry witnessed their kiss? He had indeed and from his stoic goodbye, he was greatly disappointed, as would be Edith. Cousin Edith had tried relentlessly to pair Henry with Margaret and convince her that Henry would make a good, loyal husband. However, her heart could never make the engagement official and instead Margaret was forced to reject Henry, when he had made an attempt for her hand at Helstone many years ago.
Now she had made the choice to give her heart to Mr. Thornton, whom over time she had come to respect and care deeply for his favor. In just the few months that she had been in London, after her father’s death and Mr. Bell’s parting, her feelings for Thornton and Milton had deepened and she missed both immensely. Therefore, she was overwhelmed when she spotted Thornton on the train travelling north. She had not intended for this chance meeting, instead she had hoped she would have made the proper addresses in a more formal meeting. The plan had been to meet Mr. Thornton in Milton, at the factory, and offer her newly acquired wealth in the form of a business arrangement. She hoped to win his favor again and slowly work on the rifts between them, hoping to re-establish their friendship. Margaret could only hope that Mr. Thornton’s attachment to Ann Latimer was not concrete and she secretly wished the friendship would develop into more.
Thornton had been quite different at the train station though and it had enveloped Margaret in the moment. He had looked stern as usual as his carriage had come to a stop, but then when his eyes met hers it had melted away, unlike any other meeting in their past. He had been soft in his tone of address, less stiff, and more informal in his appearance. He had gone to Helstone and returned with a single rose; an unusual trip for him! He had sat next to Margaret on the bench, fixed on her face and very lips as she had made her business proposal known. An aura of desire swirled about him. When he took her hand, she could not contain her feelings any longer. Her angst regarding their turbulent past and how she had rejected Mr. Thornton’s marriage proposal, had driven her to seek his forgiveness and search out his feelings now. The wrenching in her heart had almost brought her to tears and in a split second she had grasped his hand and pursed it to her lips.
When Thornton had not pulled his hand away in disgust and instead gently lifted her face to his, Margaret knew his love for her was not lost and had come to the surface instantly. The return trip together to Milton had been almost magical as Thornton had held her in his arms and again gently pressed kisses to her lips. He had also begun calling her “Margaret” and “dearest”, which she welcomed eagerly. Now that things were beginning to return to normal and her head was coming out of the clouds, the reaction that family and friends may have to her decision was dizzying.
Margaret knew her aunt would be stunned and protest, for her aunt did not find the Thornton’s or Milton agreeable for that matter. As for the rest of her family, Edith would be crushed that Margaret had not chosen Henry and she figured that her Aunt would not permit Edith to make the trip to Milton for any type of service or celebration. She would have to inform her brother of the news and she wasn’t sure how he would take it. She hoped that she would receive a letter of congratulations in response. As for Mrs. Thornton and Mrs. Watson, well they would be at a loss Margaret figured.
Her last meeting with Mrs. Thornton, just hours ago, had been difficult. There was resentment on the part of Mrs. Thornton that Margaret had procured the ownership of Mr. Bell’s properties and investments and that of the real estate her son’s business sat upon. Mrs. Watson, Fanny, had always looked down upon Margaret, as if she were a simpleton and well below Mrs. Watson’s stature in society. How would Mr. Thornton respond to them, she wondered? More importantly how would it look to the town’s people of Milton, who were familiar with both the Thornton’s and the Hales?
Would the people only see a lonely woman, without family, desperate to secure herself with a man whose circumstances required her money; would it be construed as a marriage of convenience? Had she and Mr. Thornton hidden their feels for each other well behind their outward appearance of distaste and reserve for one another? Would it appear as a desperate decision on both of their parts? Finally, what Margaret had not considered is who would give her away? With her parents gone and Mr. Bell departed for South America, who would stand on her side? Surely not Fredrick, he could not return to England - let alone Milton! The thoughts were making her head spin and she reached out and clutched Mr. Thornton by the leg to steady herself as she sat waiting for the train to come to a stop.
“Margaret, are you all right?” John looked at her with concern. The rose color that had brushed her cheeks and the gentle smile she wore during their journey had completely disappeared.
“What do we do?” Her eyes seemed to penetrate deeply looking for the answer to her question, like a drowning man looking for a hand to rescue him.
John had never seen this type of look from Margaret; she had stood up to so many things in the time he had known her. She had stood her ground against him on many occasions and he distinctly remembered their first meeting. She had stood up against the riots and for the treatment of the workers. She had even been strong through the ill health and death of her mother and then her father’s unexpected passing. John’s only thought was that the emotional whirlwind had finally caught up to her and possibly the exhaustion of the train trip with the lack of proper food.
John’s hand gently cupped Margaret’s cheek and he smiled softly at her. With his deep voice he responded, “It will be okay. What has your beautiful mind been tumbling around with?”
“Oh John, will I ever get things right! Where ever will I stay? I cannot stay with your family…why we are not wed yet and I am sure that your mother would not approve…”
With a quick movement John silently put his thumb across her mouth and pulled her face close to his. He whispered now and looked her in the eye saying, “Margaret, are you not my bride to be? Did we not decide our engagement upon the trip home to Milton? Calm yourself, it will all be taken care of...let me deal with mother.”
Mrs. Thornton would be the greatest challenge for Margaret; their relationship was best described as bitter. She knew if she were to love John, part of that would include trying harder to establish a friendship with his mother and sister, Mrs. Watson. Her eyes lowered and cheeks went flush, she had succumbed to a moment’s hysteria and John’s tenderness had quickly brought her spirits back. John Thornton had done the proper, gentlemanly thing and asked for her hand again and this time she had not refused and clearly agreed. “Forgive me, yes… we shall take each moment as they come and figure it out together!”
The train had come to a complete stop now and passengers were disembarking from their carriages. John quickly put on his jacket and gathered up his hat, gloves, and Mrs. Hale’s travelling bag. He turned to her with a smile and opening the compartment door stated, “Shall we my dear.” He stepped from the train and offered Margaret his hand, as she slowly emerged on to the platform. People were quickly moving towards the station entrance and out on to the main thorough-fair of Milton. The smell of coal fires and industry filled Margaret’s nose once again.
As they made their way towards the street, a tall gentleman in a sharp brown suit, apparently catching the train bound for London, stopped short and called out Thornton’s name, “John, how good to see you!” The man’s eyes quickly went from the face of Mr. Thornton to the young beautiful face of Margaret, who gracefully held close to Mr. Thornton’s side. “Is this Miss Latimer, whom I have heard so much about?”
John’s smile disappeared quickly and Margaret could feel him straighten and tense slightly. “Ah Mr. Lawton,” John addressed the man before him in a deep tone. “You are mistaken, this is Miss Hale! I believe you have not met before.”
“Oh! I do apologize Miss Hale… it is a pleasure to meet you. Ernst Lawton at your service, Miss.” Mr. Lawton bowed slightly towards Margaret. “Are you here to visit Miss Hale?”
“No, Mr. Lawton I have returned to Milton again to stay.” Margaret answered with a quick glance at John before lowering her eyes again.
“I see! Do you have family here in Milton then Miss Hale?” Lawton looked at Margaret with curiosity, for he could not believe such a beautiful creature resided in Milton.
“Ah no, Mr. Lawton,” John interceded. “Miss Hale is my fiancée and will be staying with my family until the wedding. Her aunt, Mrs. Shaw resides in London and her brother lives in Spain.” John looked Margaret in the eyes as if to ask if he had handled that well enough. Margaret smiled back at him.
“Well my goodness Thornton, congratulations are in order! To you both.” Mr. Lawton patted Mr. Thornton on the shoulder. The voice of the train conductor could be heard announcing the departure of the London bound train. “Well I must be going then, very nice to meet you Miss Hale. Mr. Thornton.” Mr. Lawton took his leave and John and Margaret continued onward towards the street.
It was getting dark quickly now as John and Margaret walked the road towards the Thornton residence above Marlborough Mills. What an odd sensation this was to Margaret. Her usual course would have been to the familiar townhome on Crampton, but recent events had changed that. Now she walked towards a new home that was not her own, but by circumstances it was. It was true that she technically owned the building in which the Thornton’s resided and John had his business, but it was their home and not the one that she had last spent time with her father and mother in.
Margaret’s mind returned to their recent encounter with Mr. Lawton and she was curious to find out more about this acquaintance. “How do you know Mr. Lawton?”
“Lawton is an investor from London and has been involved in speculating and scheming around the cotton industry for quite a while now.”
“Has he invested in Marlborough Mills?”
“No, he did originally want to, but I turned his offer down years ago when things were quite secure.”
Margaret looked closely at John’s facial expression and she could read the regret that creased his brow, “Will you reconsider now?”
“No, I have all the investment schemes I can handle for now!” John looked at Margaret with such passion, it made her blush.
There was another question that burned into Margaret’s mind following the meeting with Mr. Lawton and she slowed her pace, not quite sure how to start. “How…,” she paused. “How did you come to know about my brother, Fredrick?”
John slowed and turned to face Margaret; she had caught his reference to Fredrick at the train station. “I would have liked to have learnt of his existence from your father or you, but one can trust that it came to me by a mutual friend – concerned for both of us it seems.”
“Was it Mr. Bell… at your last meeting before he departed? I had asked him not to say a word - although I did confess how I had concealed it from you and desperately wished you had known.”
“No! No, not Mr. Bell! Although now I do recall him trying to make something known and I, ungraciously, cutting him off. No… can you not guess?”
“I am at a loss.” Margaret could not figure out who had revealed the family’s secret, it could not have been Dixon.
“If you had not encouraged him to seek me out and ask for work, I would not have found out that the young man I saw you embracing at the train station was not a lover, but rather a brother.” Thornton raised his eyebrows in a knowing manner.
“Higgins!” Margaret was shocked, “Higgins told you! How did he ever…”
“Mary, his daughter, told him about Fredrick’s visit during the time of your mother’s passing. Higgins asked whether or not you would be going to Spain to join him, with Fredrick being your only immediate family. Higgins inquired on the last day, as we shut down the mill. That man has quite the brain about him and I think he knew keenly what my feelings for you were. Do not be mad at him for sharing your secret Margaret, I would thank him a million times over for sharing it.”
“I am so ashamed that I could not tell you the truth about Fredrick. With you being the town magistrate, I felt it would put you in a compromised position - should you know that he was here and the navy looking for him. It is a dark shadow that looms at my feet still and I am sorry to have kept it from you.”
Placing a gloved hand under her chin and gently lifting her face, John responded, “Don’t we all have dark shadows that we must deal with? Come now, we are almost home.”