42 Plymouth Grove
I trust that both you and your family benefited from your sojourn in Rome and that all are in good health.
May I, in the first instance, add my congratulations to the many I am sure you have received, on publication of The Life of Charlotte Bronte. The wide public acclaim and critical praise, illustrated impeccably by Mr Henry Chorley’s remarks in the Athenaeum, must surely prevail over the threatened suit. Such exigencies are an ever-present evil in the publishing world and I would advise you not to be downcast.
My second acknowledgement must be of your gracious permission for our client to undertake a sequel to North & South. The success of this work, both in its serialised form in Mr Dickens excellent periodical Household Words and the subsequent novel which we had the privilege to publish, is much at odds, I would venture to say, with your depreciation of its concluding chapters. However, I am cognizant of the constraint you experienced when writing for serialisation and your disappointment at the necessary premature curtailment. Nevertheless, this knowledge does not detract from the magnanimity of your gesture in permitting our client to disregard the final chapters and continue the narrative from the conclusion of Part II Chapter 25, and I must reiterate both my own and our client’s gratitude.
I will be writing to you separately with reference to your suggestion of publishing revised editions of your earlier works, with which we will be delighted to comply, and I therefore remain
your humble servant
Edward and Frederick Chapman
Collection of little hills, surrounded by thirty or forty ‘palaces of industry’ emitting black smoke over a ravaged landscape, where fine stone buildings were found cheek by jowl with decrepit one-story houses and repulsive cellar-dwellings. Factories and warehouses eclipsed almost everything in the town centre. These vast structures keep air and light out of human habitations which they dominate; they envelope them in perpetual fog.
Alexis de Tocqueville on visiting Manchester in 1835
“Why, Miss ‘ale, we never thought to see you back in Milton.” Wellings opened the gate a little more and Margaret stepped through into the deserted mill yard.
She almost whispered, “It’s so quiet.”
“Aye, Miss. ‘Tis only me ‘ere to keep eye on the place. Is it the Master you’re wanting?”
She merely nodded in reply, distracted by the strange stillness.
“He weren’t around this morning, but I’ll go and ask.”
Without the chaos of human industry, the buildings appeared larger; their great dark bulk almost menacing, seeming to lean towards her. She turned into the spinning hall and gazed over the silent machinery; each cog and wheel and belt draped in cotton fluff like Old Man’s Beard on the autumn hedgerows of her native Hampshire. The sun beams held only dust motes, not whirling fluff; the only sound that of her footfalls; not the ear-shattering, mind-ripping clatter of the looms; and not a soul where there had been so many. As she walked through the mill buildings, Margaret felt the sadness of the empty place weigh down upon her. How much harder it must be for him; the years of toil; the pride of achievement, all ending in failure. There would be no comfort to him in knowing that the strike had been the blow that felled his enterprise; she knew his pride.
She recollected her purpose and made to leave this desolate place, but her way was barred by the tall black-clad figure of Mrs Thornton.
“Come to gloat have you, Miss Hale? Over our misfortunes and your inheritance.”
“Surely not even you, Mrs Thornton, could think me capable of such sentiments. I feel only a great sadness and sympathy.”
Mrs Thornton stepped closer and Margaret saw how the perpetually austere expression held resentment and hurt. “We don’t need your sympathy. He’s not done for. My son is made of sterner stuff than most and has no call for pity. You know nothing of the man you rejected.”
“And you have never troubled yourself to know me at all. If you think that I would stand idly by and not offer whatever help I can, then you do me yet another injustice.”
“Well, your tenant is not here to receive his new landlady’s pretty words of commiseration, so I’ll bid you good day.” She stood to one side, her arms folded, hugging her anger.
Despite the woman’s vitriol, Margaret felt her suffering and would have embraced her had she not known that any display of compassion would be detested, so shut up was this woman with pain and pride.
“There are matters I need to discuss with Mr Thornton. I shall call again tomorrow.”
As she passed between the massive gates of the silent Mill, knowing she was being watched from the steps of the mill-house, Margaret considered her dilemma. Henry could not afford to linger in Milton but must return to London that afternoon and she would not depart without accomplishing her task. Her cousin must be persuaded that she was capable of the enterprise without his support. This would be the first testing of her declared resolve to take charge of her life and the proposal was not so complicated that she could not lay it before Mr Thornton in a business-like manner and that, surely, was all that was required. However, Mrs Thornton’s bitter words had thrown up doubts as to the acceptance of the proposition. She seemed almost to consider Margaret an accomplice in her son’s downfall; perhaps this was a reflection of his own feelings, if so he was hardly likely to look upon her gesture with any favour.
Henry had no such doubts. Being ignorant of the more personal aspects of Margaret and John’s previous encounters, he could see no reason why a sensible businessman should reject an offer of investment which would enable him to continue trading and, with the good practices John Thornton had previously employed, regain the sound financial position he had held prior to the turn-out. Henry knew the man’s reputation and had no doubt that the transaction would be no mere speculation but had the potential to increase Margaret’s fortune substantially. The only obstacle Henry had considered pertinent was the fact that the proposition was being made by a woman and therefore would not engender the confidence required for Milton’s businessmen to resume trading with Marlborough Mills. Nevertheless, as he explained to Margaret, this seemingly insurmountable problem would be as nothing once it was known that the venture was embarked upon with the full approval of a successful lawyer and prospective Parliamentary candidate. These credentials should be more than sufficient to imbue the investment with the required gravitas. Although Margaret had not appeared overwhelmed by this observation and in fact seemed to be about to argue the point, she had, after a moment’s reflection, declared that it did in fact fall in with her determination for the true investor not to become a matter of public knowledge and added how fortunate she was to have such an astute friend and advisor. It was therefore most galling that with Thornton being absent, the proposition would have to be delayed.
“It is unfortunate that among the many other matters I have concluded for you today, the Marlborough Mills business could not also be resolved, but I will be back from circuit within a fortnight, we can return then.” He smiled indulgently at his cousin. “Or, if you find the journeying too onerous, I can deal with Thornton myself.”
Rather than returning his smile or thanking him for his gallantry, Margaret adopted her ‘fierce face’ as his sister Edith called it.
“Henry, I intend to remain in Milton until this business is concluded. I know you have commitments which you cannot neglect and so you must return to London as planned.” Margaret held up her hand to prevent his intervention. “I am conscious that my business is taking you away from your own enterprises and the best way of expressing my gratitude for all the advice and assistance you have given me, is to release you from any further inconvenience in this matter.”
Henry was only too well acquainted with the absence of any equivocation in Margaret’s personality. Her rejection of him those years ago when he had followed her down to Hampshire and her Helstone parsonage home, had been complete and absolute, but he had been persuaded that her recent acceptance of him as advocate and mentor was proof of a warming in her feelings towards him and he could not countenance abandoning such a prize.
“My dear Margaret, I deem it a privilege to undertake these tasks for you, which with your godfather’s excellent provisions have hardly been onerous. I trust that I have been able to relieve you of the burdens that inevitably accompany such an inheritance and that in turn you will continue to be guided by me. You must understand that there are those who would not be as scrupulous in their counsel and may persuade you to act contrary to your own benefit. I therefore consider it most ill-advised that you should remain in Milton alone.”
A frown appeared on Margaret’s face and her whole demeanour was challenging. “Are you including Mr Thornton among these charlatans? Surely you cannot think him so consumed by pride and ambition that he would cheat to achieve his ends.”
Henry rarely repeated mistakes, so how could he now have forgotten that impugning Milton or its inhabitants was the surest way of alienating Margaret? He hastened to retrieve the ground lost.
“You see offence where none is intended, Margaret. I merely voice my fears for your safety in such a metropolis without a companion or protector.”
But Margaret was not to be placated. She disliked being so beholden to one who appeared to view their relationship as something more personal than mere cousins and therefore Henry’s reference to being her protector rankled. It was true that she owed him much. He had put a deal of effort into trying to refute the treason charges brought against her brother Frederic, with little hope of success, and in the months after her parents deaths, when she had so sorely needed support and advice, he had been assiduous in his efforts to relieve her of the burden of her sudden inheritance, so much so that it was only on her repeated insistence that he deigned to explain the investments and securities entailed. Henry, she knew, would have been more than content for her to remain in ignorance and therefore complete dependency. She had no intention of embracing either.
“You forget, Henry, I am quite used to navigating the City unaccompanied. Unlike Cousin Edith, my parents’ reduced circumstances hardly ran to the employment of a footman to accompany me about the streets of Milton, even should I have wished for such.” She had to allow herself a small inward smile at the thought of exposing a footman’s sensibilities to some of the town’s less salubrious environs. “I shall stay at Mrs Bright’s Lodging House, a most respectable establishment, and call upon Mr Thornton as soon as he is available. Now, please, let this be an end to the matter.”
“I must say, Margaret, I find your determination almost selfish. Can you imagine the distress you will cause at Harley Street? Your cousin Edith will consider herself deserted and your Aunt Shaw, convinced as she is that Milton is the home of the devil himself, will believe you ruined.”
Margaret was losing patience. “Come Henry, it is only for a few days and I know it is not beyond your powers of oratory to explain in the most compelling fashion the necessity for the completion of this transaction as speedily as possible. We do not want Marlborough Mills to be idle any longer than necessary, do we? So let us not fall out, but part in good heart.”
Whether it was the threat to their association or the march of time which persuaded him, she was not sure, but he finally acquiesced and after a review of the salient points of the investment plan, much advice on her personal safety and the extraction of a promise to return to London as soon as the business was concluded, he departed and Margaret could no longer avoid the powerful feelings her return had engendered. She had persuaded herself that the months spent in London had not only brought about a recovery from her grief at her father’s sudden death, but had also inured her to the events of the previous two years in Milton. She had been grateful for the days of solitude when her relations had departed on the usual rounds of visiting, for she had been able to devote the time to the important task of regaining some perspective on her life. It was strange that her childhood in her beloved Helstone and the growing-up years in Harley Street seemed mere instants of time in comparison to all that had happened in the north. She had hoped that the days of playing with her little brother in the fields and lanes around the country parsonage and then the several seasons of balls and dinners in London, would be as real to her as more recent events, but now they were once more relegated to being merely pretty pictures from a past she had once inhabited, and longed sometimes to relive, but knew she had out-grown. Perhaps it was always thus; that the further away one became from events, so the period in which they occurred would appear to shorten. More likely it was the experiences of death and struggle and heartache that had changed her to the extent that she could hardly recognise the child and the young woman she had been before Milton. So, the detachment her absence had achieved, was as nought now that she was once more in this hard place, and the protective balm she had managed to apply was beginning to wear away.
Her encounter with Mrs Thornton had affected Margaret deeply. Although the words had been harsh and unjust, Margaret tried to imagine the depths of the pain that provoked them. This woman had already been through the degradation of her husband’s debt and the monstrous tragedy of his eventual suicide, followed by years of self-sacrifice to raise a son never to make the mistakes of the father, and having been rewarded by knowing his name was respected not only in Milton, but known throughout the cotton trading world, how could Margaret even guess at the torture the loss of the mill must be to her. Her life’s work; her heart’s passion; and all her pride destroyed, and no one to comfort her, for Margaret was sure that she would never show the depths of her despair to her son; and her daughter Fanny, the new Mrs Watson, would be uncomprehending of these deep, complex emotions. Friends, they had none, only acquaintances and most of those were involved in the trade and would, no doubt, be keeping a safe distance from the contamination of failure.
As to Mr Thornton’s state of mind, this was more difficult to imagine. She had tried many times to put herself in his position, but it was impossible. Their backgrounds were so entirely different; hadn’t this always been the source of their misunderstandings and opposing ideals? And had not he, on many occasions, reacted completely to the contrary to her expectations? No, try as she might, she could not gauge the variety or the priority of his feelings, only that she knew he must be in great pain.
Margaret could not be in Milton without seeing Nicholas Higgins and Mary, so, having deposited her bag and refreshed herself, she made her way to Princetown once again, knowing well that due to the Mill’s closure, she would be almost certain to find the family at home. Although she no longer found Henry’s company the embarrassment it once was, Margaret was nevertheless glad to be alone as she walked the familiar streets. Even with the closeness of the buildings, the malodorous smoke and incessant noise, she still felt a warmth and affection for these alleyways and their occupants that Henry would never have understood. This was real; this was life as it was lived by the men and women on whose labour the rest of the country, most in complete ignorance and manifest disinterest, relied upon for their comfort and wealth. The noise never quietened even during the hours of darkness, and the sense of purposeful movement was all around, no corner uninhabited, no carriageway safe to cross without vigilance. Whereas in Hampshire, Nature had wrapped its fecund arms around its carers and plunderers, in Milton Nature was reduced to its human manifestation alone and its face was not always uplifting. After a few days in the dark, cramped, inconvenient Milton house, cheek by jowl with others just as mean, she had been convinced she would never find peace again. Her poor father had never given up the conviction that Mrs Hale would not have died, or at least not succumbed so speedily, had they not settled in a town where the air was perpetually clogged with unparliamentary smoke and the sun struggled to light streets darkened by gigantic brick industrial temples; his heart was broken by her death and his spirit by the regret of his conscience-driven decision to relinquish his living. Milton, therefore, could be said to have been the death of her father as well. Add that to the loneliness of the first few months, the horror of the strike-driven riot and the terror of Frederick’s close escape and Milton should have been an anathema to her.
So why did she experience this feeling of homecoming so strongly? On her return to London from the holidays in Hampshire, she had never experienced this emotion. The years of Seasons in her Aunt Shaw’s Harley Street home had not been unhappy but she viewed them now as a strangely fantastical existence, lived within a doll’s house, a perfect world of gentility and order with only a tiny portion of the world beyond glimpsed through the tall, spotless windows; a small segment deemed suitable for her gaze. The family, now including cousin Edith’s husband, Captain Lennox and their child, welcomed her return after her father’s death, not only as a perfectly natural consequence but also a delight. However, once her distress had lessened, Margaret had felt again the singularity of her daily life. There was no variation of class or condition in her acquaintance, they were pleasant or not; interesting or dull; clever or stupid, but they never touched her heart or raised her passion. Of those of a lower social order, she had no knowledge other than the services they provided and the small pleasantries of the day, whereas it was the great range of people in Milton who had become part of her. They had allowed her into their lives and even if at times harsh, work-worn and cheerless, they inspired her and cried to her soul as none had done before.
Nicholas’ face on opening the door completed the restoration of her well-being. Mary fell upon her with a greater and freer show of affection than her reserved little being had ever displayed all those months before; perhaps her older sister Bessy’s death had freed her from the shadows. Having asked after Margaret’s health and happiness – the former easy to answer, the latter taking a little evasion, Nicholas was impatient to tell her of the improvements and innovations at Marlborough Mills; impressing upon her the new easiness he had with the Master and the interest Mr Thornton had taken in little Tom Boucher after Nicholas' adoption of the family the strike had orphaned and, inevitably, the great sadness both he and the Master felt at the closure. He told of how he had pressed upon him the petition, and how cast down the Master had been at the thought that these workers, willingly signing their desire to work for him in the future, and no longer mere names on a tally sheet, were to be sent away. Margaret marvelled at this evidence of such a change wrought in a man she had always considered immovable. Could it have been only a little over two years ago that Mr Thornton had sat in their Crampton Crescent parlour and so disgusted her with his impersonal and dismissive referral to his mill ‘hands’?
Margaret so wanted to tell Nicholas of her offer but felt it wholly wrong to speak of it to anyone other than Mr Thornton himself, so, in answer to his inquiry as to why she was in Milton, said she was here to do whatever she could to help in this saddest of times but was not sure that the Master would countenance her assistance, given that their relationship had suffered so much.
“You think he cares no more for you – you are wrong, Margaret. After you went to London, he were a changed man. It were as if there was nowt to think about now but the worrying things. Please give him any comfort you can. We,’ and he took his daughter’s work-reddened hand in his, ‘have come to care for him as well, old bull-dog that he still is. He has been sore tried these past months but he has not had a harsh or unkindly word for anyone. Mary’s stew and my badgering have brought him into the dining room, otherwise I don’t think he would have taken a mouthful all day, and many a night the light has been burning in the office long after shift’s finished.”
Although she was delighted to hear of this new understanding between Nicholas and John Thornton, Margaret was much affected by the scene she imagined from his description, coming so soon upon her own visit to the deserted mill. It renewed her determination to push the investment through whatever it’s welcome. She was somewhat surprised by the Master’s patronage of Tom Boucher, the eldest of Nicholas’ dead neighbour’s children. It was understandable that Nicholas should offer them succour, for had it not been the Union’s ostracism after the riot that had driven the man to suicide; but Mr Thornton? Could it be that he had found some compassion for the family of the weak man he had considered so contemptible?
With a promise to see them again before she left Milton, she made her way back to the Ladies Boarding House, where she was greeted by the intelligence that Mr Thornton was awaiting her in the Withdrawing Room. She tried to compose herself while removing her hat and gloves, pausing before the door to take a deep breath and try to calm her flushed cheeks.
He was standing at the window with his back to her, just as he had been in the Crampton Crescent drawing room the day after the riot. If she had any doubt of this proud and stubborn man still affecting her the vividness of that memory, of his proposal and her violent rejection, engendered a tide of feelings so complex that she had to thrust them from her ’less she fall into a nearby chair. He turned at the sound of the closing door.
She had expected the signs of care and tiredness to show upon that strong, angular face, but what else was there? Anger, despair, pain? No, his expression was masked and his face was unreadable.
Having asked after her health and received the perfunctory reply, he immediately went to the point. “I presumed that your visit to the Mill today was to discuss the future tenancy and therefore I have made myself available. My mother and I will, of course, vacate the house as soon as alternative accommodation can be found.” His voice had lingering traces of the Master of Marlborough Mills but was overlaid with the timbre of inevitability.
“Oh, please, I hope that will not be necessary.” Margaret was quick to say, making a little start towards him. She could hardly continue but knew that this had to be said, no matter how it was to be received. “I have a business proposition. I am advised that a recent investment made on my behalf has made a deal of money and putting it into manufacturing would be far more profitable than leaving it in the bank. Therefore I would like to invest in Marlborough Mills and I would ask you to continue as Master…” At this last word she had hardly any breath left in her and although so afraid of what she would see, must lift her eyes to his.
The passage of emotions across John Thornton’s face was so quick that it was difficult to catch what she saw. Finally though, his countenance hardened. “I don’t know that you appreciate how great the troubles are. I have managed to pay the hands – that I would never have reneged upon, but the bank is still owed and the sale of the stored-up cotton and the forward orders will not be enough to cover the debt.” How awful for him to contemplate repaying this new debt as he had his father’s all those years before. But the door was not closed upon her, so Margaret continued. “I have fifteen thousand pounds ready to be transferred – I have the papers with me.”
One eyebrow rose, an expression she knew so well, as it had often been accompanied by an arch comment on one of her contrary opinions. “And you are prepared to place this much in my hands?” His surprise seemed to be touched with sarcasm, but perhaps Margaret was too feeling.
“I cannot think of a Master in whom I would have as much faith to put the money to use wisely and carefully. My financial adviser agrees.”
“Your cousin, Henry Lennox, I presume.” There was no doubting the curl of the lip that accompanied the words this time.
“Henry - Mr Lennox, has been extremely helpful in teaching me to manage Mr Bell’s legacy and it was he, through a recent successful investment on my behalf, that made this proposal possible.”
Mr Thornton put his head on one side as he quizzed her, “This wouldn’t be Watson’s speculation, would it? A venture you can hardly be surprised I declined, since you presumed to know my inclinations sufficiently to declare to my sister that I would not hazard upon her husband’s scheme.” So Fanny had told him of her impertinence. Margaret had hoped to avoid admitting to a venture that he had been so set against, but which, it transpired, could have cleared his debts completely.
“The scheme was among a number that Mr Lennox undertook and I did not realise its significance until two days ago.”
Perhaps it was the realisation that she had acted so promptly after her windfall – with Marlborough Mills obviously the first in her thoughts, or it may have been the serious sincerity in her large, clear eyes, whichever it was, he believed her and the moment of the plan’s possible failure passed.
There was silence in the room, then, lowering his eyes to the ground, he said “With so many people reliant on Marlborough Mills, not least my own mother, I cannot in all conscience, refuse your offer.”
“Would you wish to, otherwise?” She could not stop herself asking, but in a second wished the words unsaid. He looked at her for a long moment, as if trying to look inside her soul, or was it her heart? But all he said was, “If it is convenient to you, I can sign the relevant papers tomorrow at the Mill Office – will 10 o’clock suit you?”
“Then I will bid you good evening.” And he was gone. Margaret could not believe the encounter was over. It was the feeling one experienced when, standing on the railway platform, an express train rushed through the station. No sooner was it in view with all the attendant anticipation, than it was gone, leaving you breathless and wondering whether you had imagined it. Many times she had played the scene in her head, excusing this unacknowledged indulgence by telling herself she must practice so as to explain the proposal clearly and in a business-like manner. Never had her imaginings ended so abruptly. Still, Margaret said to cheer herself, although he had not appeared overcome by the offer, at least he had not refused.
As he walked down the steps of the boarding house, John Thornton had to admit to himself that he was no more in control of his feelings than he ever had been – a difficult situation for a man of his character. Since Margaret’s departure to London, convinced he would never see her again, he had hardened his heart. Each time she came to mind, he turned his thoughts elsewhere. The financial worries of late had made that easier but Nicholas Higgins was a constant reminder. He was, however, loathe to relinquish the unexpected bond they had formed, especially when their joint accomplishments gave him some respite from his despair.
When news had reached him of Margaret being represented by her cousin, Henry Lennox, he remembered the natural antagonism he had felt towards so obvious a rival. Henry was a London gentleman, a barrister and, some said, destined for Parliament; how perfect a partner for the beautiful Margaret Hale, so recently become Miss Hale, the heiress. But then, back in those unenlightened days, he had reminded himself that she had never been free anyway. The man he had seen her embracing at Outwood Station and the lie she had told the inspector to disguise his existence, was proof to that. Nicholas’ eventual revelation that this man was her fugitive brother, had burst upon him like sunlight after a long, frozen winter and at first he had rejoiced – she had no secret lover, she had not given her heart to someone else; there was a chance yet.
This euphoria did not last. That very revelation had once again placed her beyond his reach, and he persuaded himself that all her reasons for rejecting him that day after the riot, were still valid; he was not a true gentleman; she disagreed with almost every view he expressed; she always seemed to misinterpret or misconstrue his actions and most importantly, she did not belong in the North and her remove here had brought her only great suffering. The months of her proximity that had afforded him such bitter-sweet enjoyment had only provided sorrow and heartbreak for her. She belonged in Harley Street, with her wealthy aunt to entertain her with parties and dinners – all no doubt attended by such people as Henry Lennox, with their sophisticated tastes, flattering ways and pleasing chatter. This investment was just as she said, a way of increasing her capital, only tinged with a little nostalgia perhaps. Tomorrow they would sign the papers and she could return to her cosseted life in London and he . . . But he didn’t want to think any further and even the prospect of restarting the Mill could not lift his leaden footsteps.
That night, as Margaret lay waiting for the blessed respite of sleep, her thoughts turned, as they had many nights in the past year, to how different things could have been. It was now quite obvious from Mr Thornton’s demeanour, that she could never expect to redeem herself in his eyes, and why should she think it would be possible for this was her punishment for her mistakes and lack of trust in the truth and she must bear it. She tried to turn her mind to other things but the events that made any reconciliation so impossible could not be banished: that fateful day when the striking men had battered down the mill gates and thronged the yard; their desperate faces, eager for vengeance, staring up at the imported Irish workers huddled in the upper rooms, lured to this situation by escape from the starvation in their own country. The harsh cries were there in her head; the deep-throated threat of violence. It was she who had enjoined Thornton to speak to them, to protect those he had brought to replace these despairing men. Would that he had never taken heed of her entreaties, for then she need not have been bound to place herself between the enraged mill hands and their stubborn Master, flinging her arms around him to both shield him and to lead him away from harm; taking the blow that was meant for him. That he should then be surprised by her rejection of his proposal the following day, when it was so clearly instigated by honour rather than love no matter how he protested to the contrary, was incomprehensible. His witnessing of her farewell to Frederick; her loving embrace of a man unknown to him and her subsequent denial of such a event, could only have degraded her beyond measure; he must find her behaviour both inexplicable and unforgivable.
However, she could not say with perfect certainty that she would do differently if presented with the same circumstances and therefore she could not claim repentance and without repentance there would be no forgiveness. As she refused to reward herself with tears, her sleep was restless and feverish.
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