Happy Valentine's Day to all of you, Dear Readers! My wish for you is a day filled with love and happiness. My Valentine to you is a special treat I'm sure you will enjoy. It's even better than chocolate! Do I have your attention?
Enjoy a short story by Nicole Clarkston starring John Thornton and Margaret Hale! It is utterly delicious! Maybe the best thing to do is have some chocolate while you read! Now that is a good idea!
One of the reasons we enjoy variations is because we wish, with all our hearts, that our favourite characters would just figure it out! Period-inappropriate or out of character, sometimes we just want to see them get it right without quite so much angst.
Often when I have been digging deeply into some of our beloved characters, a scene starring them will pop into my head that has nothing to do with the story I am writing. It doesn't fit, the circumstances are insupportable, but it won't leave me alone. It simply demands to be written. This is one of those scenes.
Enjoy, and Happy Valentines Day!
Margaret Hale stood before the unlocked gates, gazing in at the barren courtyard. It seemed to her that the entire property had been lain waste. The monuments to industry remained in the great stone walls, the shadows of equipment through the windows, but Marlborough Mills was desolate and lifeless.
Her heart lurched. She tried to tell herself that she had come on behalf of the several hundred people who had suddenly lost their employment, that her offer was for the good of their children and even those others whose livelihoods were impacted by the closing of the mill... but it was no good. She could not help searching every window, every corner of the yard, to see if he were there somewhere, exulting her penitent approach.
The excruciating pleasure of seeing him once more, she would gladly bear; but what mortification her presence might cause him, she earnestly lamented. She must present her offer as a matter of business, refusing to let him see the regret she would surely make plain if she spoke one word from personal motive. His lost regard would be hers to mourn after this business had been completed, and she could not wound him by seeming to act out of pity.
She ought to go to the house. Surely that was where he would be, perhaps even removing his belongings at this very moment. She drew breath and her eyes fluttered closed... Mrs Thornton would be there as well. She was already terrified to face the son– much more daunting still was the mother who guarded the way to him! How would she manage to breach the gates?
Her eyes skimmed round the courtyard once more, delaying just a few more seconds as she tested her courage... and then her breath caught. Was that movement in one of the upper windows of the mill? She blinked, hope daring to kindle in her breast. It was.
It took her several minutes to find a door that led to that part of the building. She began walking toward it and then drew up sharply when it opened before her. Expecting it to be Mr Thornton, she wetted her lips and rehearsed the beginnings of the speech she had prepared. The words died when none other than Nicholas Higgins appeared, carting one of the Boucher children at his hip.
"Nicholas!" she cried in joy.
The battered weaver's cap swung in her direction, the grizzled face split into a grin, and he sauntered toward her. "Miss Marg'et," he seemed to sigh in relief. "I knew yo'd come."
"What can you mean, you knew?"
"Well, the mill, 'tis yo'r property. I dinna yo'd come so soon, but I told my Mary we'd be seeing yo' again."
She smiled sadly. "How is your family, Nicholas?"
He ruffled the child's hair, forcing a bit of bravado. "Well enough, Miss Marg'et." He glanced over his shoulder. "He's up there, Miss. Second floor."
She opened her mouth to protest. Was she so obvious? But Nicholas only set the boy on the ground and took the small hand in his own. "Stop by before yo' go, if yo' will."
She touched his shoulder as he passed by. "I will, Nicholas," she promised. She looked up at the imposing door, steeled her courage, and pushed.
The building was perfectly still, somehow even more dead than during the strikes. From somewhere above, she could hear slow, measured footsteps. Her heart began to pound again, but she would not shrink. She only prayed she would not offend him.
She tiptoed up a narrow iron staircase, her breath coming more loudly than her steps. At the top she stopped, searching the cavernous room for movement but finding none. She scanned the room more carefully... and then she saw him.
He was scarcely ten paces away, slightly concealed by his position half-seated on a loom, leaning his weight against it as he gazed across the expanse of machinery. Her fingers clutched one another tightly and she stepped onto the long wooden planks of the floor.
His head twitched in acknowledgment– not quite turning to see her, but a welcome of sorts. His voice– that deep tone which sent shivers through her even now– resounded in the still of the room.
"I have been a fool, Mother."
Margaret's steps faltered. She gasped, ready to speak, to alert him to her identity, but he interrupted.
"No, do not try to tell me otherwise. I was blinded, by envy and wounded pride. This blow is the harshest of them all, far worse than failure. Many men fail in business, but only a cursed few cut their own hearts out. I was wrong, but I am glad of it."
She swallowed, daring to step softly nearer, but her courage failed when she tried to summon speech. Walking was enough– more than enough.
"Aye, you must wonder what I can mean! Yes, I am glad. Mother, I judged her wrongly. She never once traded her dignity. No shame ever touched her but that which I tried, in my own arrogance, to cast her way. She has a brother! I never knew...." he heaved an agonised groan, as if his chest were rent in two. "And I was so quick to condemn her who could never care for me. There, now you know the whole measure of my vanity."
Margaret felt her cheeks burning with a conscious guilt at listening to the heartfelt confession meant for another's ears. Yet her spirit had begun to soar. He did not despise her! And somehow, he knew the truth that she had wished but never dared to disclose. Eagerly, she came to stand behind his shoulder, her eyes brimming with tears and her throat now too tight for speech.
"You need not fear for me, Mother. I will content myself with allowing myself now to remember her as my heart wished to, with no shadow of recrimination. I know not yet where we will go, but I go with my conscience clear, save for one thing. I have done all I could, I have paid all men, failed with my honour intact. I could wish..." he drew a ragged breath, bit his lips together, and forged on.
"I could only have asked for the chance to see her once more, to beg her forgiveness. Aye, I go to London to give up my lease, but I will not force her to speak with me. Her agent will settle the matter, and that will be the end, but I could wish for her to know the truth of my humility. Pray for me, Mother, that in this, too, I will guard against disgrace and have the strength to walk away as I must."
He awaited an answer now, but she had none to give him. She ought to speak, to pardon herself, to apologise in her turn, but all she could think to do was to offer him the sort of tender consolation she herself yearned for. She reached to touch his shoulder, and as she did, the shadow of his lashes fell low upon his cheek and his head turned slightly to her. She reached, instead, beyond his stiff white collar, her fingers brushing hesitantly over his chin.
She felt his jaw flex, then drop into her hand. He tipped his head slightly, as if drawing courage from the caress before he opened his eyes. Margaret choked back a sob.
A rush of air warmed her thumb, so near his mouth, and those brilliant blue eyes that had haunted her dreams fluttered open. He blinked again in disbelief, his lips slightly parted as he huffed in astonishment. "Margaret!" he whispered.
She allowed her fingers to fall, but her gaze, unable yet to meet his, remained fixed on the mouth which was again speaking her name.
His own hand had raised, longing to touch, and he caught hers as it fell. He was shaking his head in glad disbelief. "Margaret, forgive me," he murmured.
"There is nothing to forgive," she answered softly, and deliberately twined her fingers with his. His chest filled sharply, then he abruptly bent and his warm lips caressed hers.
Margaret stiffened in mild surprise, but closed her eyes and savoured the taste of him for a few sweet seconds. When he pulled away, she tottered forward, her natural balance following him and her eyes still closed. He leaned back down and kissed her again, as if he could not deny himself this one indulgence, and his arms slid hungrily about her waist. He was pulling her against him, and she could feel him trembling through his thin cotton shirtsleeves.
Margaret's lips teased his in answer to every gentle stroke, her mouth opening slightly more. She was standing on her toes now, her breath was growing ragged, her head light as the room seemed to spin. He released her, his own shoulders heaving as his hand raised to cup her cheek. "I am sorry," he rasped, his eyes roving lovingly over her face.
She shook her head with a bashful smile as he breath slowed. "I am just not accustomed to... I had not expected, and I have never...."
"Nor have I. I hope I have not frightened you."
"No!" she answered quickly. "Please do not apologise. I did not come here to cause you any distress."
His hand slid down to capture hers again and he pulled it to his chest, gently stroking each of her fingers. "Why did you come? It was not for this," he touched his forehead to hers.
"I came on an errand of business, but perhaps it is unimportant now."
He pulled back to look at her. "It cannot be ignored. I will not manipulate you, nor will I be in your debt."
"I would not have considered you so. I came to offer an... an investment, if you will. One that would permit you to go on working the mill. But... I did not know that... that matters could be different than I had imagined."
His mouth lifted into a roguish half-smile. "You speak of a personal end now?"
"I thought... well, yes," she faltered.
He touched her chin, lifting her lips within inches of his own until she could feel his breath on her cheek. "Would you have a failed tradesman, Margaret?" he asked, his tones low and uncertain. "Would you have a man who does not even deserve a kind word from you, who gave his heart away and thereafter swore like a fool that he never had one?"
"I would have John Thornton," she whispered back. "
He smiled and tugged her close, clasping her to his heart. Margaret wound her arms around his neck and drank in his presence, free at last to confess her love.
Hannah Thornton had searched the premises, and had begun to think her son might have already left for London without speaking again to her. She feared for him, for the shame which should never be his, for the heartbreak and trial he had yet to endure. One moment of encouragement was all she had wished to bestow, but he was not to be found.
On her final pass through the mill buildings, just before she was set upon giving up, she saw him... but he was not inclined to notice her. His coat was gone, his hair disheveled, but his face, what she could see of it, bore the most blissfully content expression she had ever known upon his features. And the cause of such a feeling, certainly, was the woman cradled to his chest, whose fingers even now raked through his hair, and whose slim neck arched to meet his ardent caresses.
The mother gasped aloud, but neither her son nor Margaret Hale– for it could be no other– were deterred from their occupation. Their hapless observer was then treated to a shocking display of forfeited decorum, of propriety thrown over in favour of a greater prize. Lips and hands moved in frantic expression, bodies swayed in concert, and two hearts appeared to be learning to beat as one.
She backed softly from the room and descended the stairs as quietly as she might. There would be time enough for explanations later. For now, one thing was sure: John had everything he needed.
'Sigh' So, what do you think about this Valentine's Day treat? Isn't it absolutely swoon-worthy?! Do you think I got carried away with the kissing scenes? lol This short story or scene is one to read slowly and savour! :)
I love John and Margaret from North & South, by Elizabeth Gaskell. If you haven't read this book yet, what are you waiting for? It is excellent! Nicole Clarkston has some excellent N&S fanfiction, too...No Such Thing as Luck, Northern Rain, and she is writing another one now. :) Nicole is the author of three JAFF novels, Rumours & Recklessness, The Courtship of Edward Gardiner, and These Dreams, with another P&P variation in progress.
Thank you, Nicole, for letting me post your story at More Agreeably Engaged. Happy Valentine's Day to you and to all my readers!
The pictures that were in the post were stills I photographed from the 2004 North & South miniseries starring Richard Armitage as John Thornton and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale.