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A Woman in Love
What most upset Mr Thornton about Margaret’s lie was that it concerned an attractive young man. He could not forget that Margaret had looked at this man as if she loved him. And then there was the fact that she had been with him in the evening, when it was growing dark, at some distance from home. The fact that she had lied showed that she had done something wrong and needed to hide it. Mr Thornton decided that Margaret, who was usually so truthful, was prepared to do something wrong because of her love for this stranger. This thought made him fiercely jealous and very bad-tempered. At home he was more than usually silent, and annoyed his mother by walking up and down the sitting-room without speaking.
‘Can you stop - can you sit down for a moment?’ said his mother crossly one evening. ‘I have something to tell you.’
He sat down and Mrs Thornton continued, ‘Betsy is so upset by her lover’s death that she cannot work for us any more and is going to leave us.’
‘Her lover was Leonards, you told me.’
‘Yes. And she has told me that Miss Hale was with the young man who pushed Leonards off the platform. She was walking in a field with him, apparently, quite late in the evening.’
‘I don’t see why that should concern us.’
‘I am glad to hear you say so,’ said Mrs Thornton, looking pleased. ‘But I - I made a promise to her mother that if her daughter did something wrong, I would speak to her about it.’
‘I don’t see any harm in what she did that evening,’ said Mr Thornton, getting up and turning his face away.
‘You would not have approved if Fanny had done it.’
‘Miss Hale and Fanny are very different. Miss Hale always has a good reason for doing something, unlike Fanny.’
‘How kind you are about your sister! Miss Hale’s behaviour is clear to me now. The man she was with is her lover.’
Mr Thornton turned round to look at his mother, his face very grey and said, ‘Yes, mother, I do believe he is her lover.’
The pain of admitting this was almost too much to bear, and he turned away from her, then immediately turned round again and said, ‘Mother, he is her lover. But she may need help and advice. I know that something is wrong - she is in difficulty. Go to her and advise her.’
‘What do you mean, John?’ said his mother, really shocked. ‘What do you know?’
He did not answer, and after some moments she said, ‘I will go to her and speak to her as if she were Fanny and had gone walking with a young man in the evening. Then I shall have kept my promise to her mother and done my duty.’
‘You cannot talk to her in that way. She is much too proud.’
‘I can and I will.’
‘Well,’ Mr Thornton said, going to the door, ‘don’t tell me any more about it. I can’t bear to think about it.’
‘Oh, Margaret, could you not have loved me?’ he said fiercely to himself, as he locked himself in his office. ‘I may not be a gentleman, but I would never have made you lie for me.’
Margaret was sitting alone, writing a letter to Edith, when Dixon opened the door to announce Mrs Thornton. Margaret was so gentle and polite that Mrs Thornton found it very difficult to say her carefully prepared words. It was only as she stood up to leave that she coughed and said, ‘Miss Hale, I promised your mother that if you behaved badly in any way, I would do my duty and give you my opinion of your behaviour.’
Margaret blushed. She thought that Mrs Thornton was going to speak to her about the lie she had told, and that Mr Thornton had asked her to do this.
Mrs Thornton continued, ‘At first, when I heard that you had been seen walking with a gentleman, in the evening, as far away from home as Outwood station, I could hardly believe it. But my son confirmed the story. It was not at all wise of you, Miss Hale. The story could harm your reputation.’
Margaret’s eyes flashed fire. So Mrs Thornton had not come to talk to her about the fact that she had lied. Instead, Mrs Thornton wanted to discuss her behaviour, when she hardly knew her at all! It was too rude!
Seeing how angry Margaret was, Mrs Thornton became angry too. ‘For your mother’s sake, I felt it was my duty to talk to you about your behaviour.’
‘For my mother’s sake!’ exclaimed Margaret tearfully. ‘She never wished you to insult me, I am sure.’
‘Insult you, Miss Hale!’
‘Yes, madam,’ said Margaret more steadily. ‘What do you know about me that would make you suspect - Oh!’ she said, covering her face with her hands, ‘I know now, Mr Thornton has told you - ‘ ‘No, Miss Hale,’ said Mrs Thornton, ‘Mr Thornton has told me nothing. Listen, young lady, and you will understand what kind of man you have refused. This Milton manufacturer, whom you despise so much, told me that he believed that you were in difficulties because of a gentleman and that you needed some advice. He admitted that you had been seen with a gentleman at Outwood station; but apart from that, he has said nothing.’
Margaret was still crying, with her face hidden in her hands, and Mrs Thornton softened and said, ‘Perhaps there are circumstances that can explain your behaviour.’
Margaret considered what to say but could not find a good explanation. Finally, she said in a low voice, ‘I can give you no explanation. I have done wrong, but not in the way you think. I think Mr Thornton judges me more kindly than you.’
‘It is the last time I shall try to give you advice,’ said Mrs Thornton stiffly. ‘I only came because your mother asked me to. I never liked the fact that my son cared for you. You did not appear to be good enough for him. But your behaviour during the riot showed that you cared for him too. When the servants and workers started talking about you, I felt that it was right for him to ask you to marry him. But when he came to see you, your feelings had changed. I told him that I thought that perhaps your lover - ‘ ‘What must you think of me, madam?’ said Margaret, throwing back her head haughtily. ‘Please do not continue. I will not try to explain my actions. You must allow me to leave.’ And she left the room with the noiseless grace of a princess.
Mrs Thornton was not particularly annoyed by Margaret’s behaviour; she did not care enough about her for that. The fact that her words had upset Margaret pleased her, as it showed that Margaret cared about what people thought of her. ‘I like to see a girl get angry at the idea of being talked about,’ thought Mrs Thornton. ‘It shows that she has the right kind of pride.’
After she had left Mrs Thornton, Margaret went to her room and made herself recall every word they had spoken. Then she said sadly to herself, ‘Her words can’t really affect me because I was not with a lover, I was with Frederick! But it’s awful, knowing that she thinks this about me. She doesn’t know my real sin - that I lied. He never told her - I should have known he would not!’
Then a new thought came to her. ‘He too must think poor Frederick is my lover. I understand now. It’s bad enough that he knows that I lied, but he also believes that someone else cares for me, and that I - Oh dear! Why do I care about what he thinks? I don’t know why, but I am very miserable. He misunderstands me so completely and I feel terrible!’
She jumped up. ‘No, I will not examine my own feelings. It would be useless. If I live to be an old woman, perhaps I’ll sit by the fire and think about the life I might have had. There must be many women who have made the same mistake and only realise when it’s too late. I was so rude to him that day! But I did not understand my feelings then. I don’t even know when they began. I must be strong. It will be difficult, but when I see him I will be very calm and quiet. But I may not see him; he has not called for some days. That would be worst of all.’
To try and forget about her feelings, Margaret decided to visit the Higgins’ next-door-neighbours, the Bouchers, but when she arrived at their house, a neighbour told her that Mrs Boucher was dying. A doctor had been called and the children were being looked after by neighbours. Margaret decided that the best thing she could do was call on the Higgins. She went next door and found Nicholas Higgins playing with the three youngest Boucher children.
‘Have you seen Mr Thornton?’ she asked Nicholas.
‘Yes,’ said Nicholas angrily.
‘He refused you?’ said Margaret sorrowfully.
‘Of course he did. I knew he would.’
‘I am sorry I asked you. You told him I sent you? .
‘I don’t know if I mentioned your name. I said a woman had advised me to ask him.’
‘I am disappointed in Mr Thornton,’ said Margaret.
There was a slight noise behind her. Margaret turned round and saw Mr Thornton standing at the door with a look of angry surprise on his face. In one quick movement, Margaret stood up and left without saying a word. As she hurried to Mrs Boucher’s, she heard the door shut loudly behind her.
Mr Thornton had come to see Higgins because, although he tried to hide it, there was a part of him that was very soft. He had refused Higgins because he had heard reports that the man was a troublemaker, but afterwards he had learnt that Higgins had waited five hours to see him and he was impressed by the man’s patience; he had also learnt that the worker’s story about the Boucher family was true. He had come to Higgins’s house to offer him work.
Higgins was a proud man; there was a long pause before he accepted the offer, but he did and the two men shook hands.
‘Was that the woman who advised you to ask me for work?’ asked Mr Thornton.
Higgins told him that it was. Mr Thornton frowned, disliking the idea that Margaret might think he had given Higgins work because of her, when he was only doing what was right.
As Mr Thornton left, Margaret came out of the Bouchers’ house. She did not see him, and he followed her, admiring her tall, graceful figure. Then he suddenly felt very jealous. He wanted to speak to her and see how she would behave after all that had happened. Also, he had heard her last words and wanted her to know that he had given Higgins work.
He came up to her and she looked at him in surprise.
‘You do not need to be disappointed in me, Miss Hale. I have given Higgins work.’
‘I am glad,’ said Margaret coldly.
There was a silence and then Mr Thornton said, ‘Miss Hale, have you no explanation for the lie that you told? You must know what it has made me think.’
Margaret said nothing. She was wondering whether she could give some kind of an explanation and still be loyal to Frederick.
‘No,’ said Mr Thornton, ‘I will ask no more questions. Believe me, your secret is safe with me. But please be careful. I am now only speaking as a friend of your father.’
‘I am aware of that,’ said Margaret, forcing herself to appear uninterested. ‘But the secret is about another person, and I cannot explain it without harming him.’
I have no desire to know the gentleman’s secrets,’ said Mr Thornton angrily. ‘My only interest in you is - as a friend. That is all, now. You believe me, Miss Hale?’
‘Yes,’ said Margaret quietly and sadly.
‘Then really, I don’t see why we should continue walking together. I thought perhaps that you might have something to say, but I see that we mean nothing to each other. If you are quite certain that I no longer have any strong feelings for you, then I wish you good afternoon.’ And he walked away.
‘What can he mean?’ wondered Margaret. ‘He talks as if I thought he still cared about me, when I know he cannot. His mother will have said all those cruel things about me. But I will try my best not to care about him. Surely I can control this wild, miserable feeling that tempted me to betray Frederick, just so that he would respect me again. I must be strong - I must!’
Several months passed, and although Mr Thornton occasionally came for lessons with Mr Hale, he never asked to see Margaret. After her conversation in the street with Mr Thornton, Margaret’s moods varied strangely, but a letter from Edith made her feel a little less miserable, as her cousin talked about returning to Harley Street in about six months and inviting her to stay. Life became quiet and boring. Margaret looked after the house and her father, visited Mary Higgins and helped to care for the Boucher children after the death of their mother. Then in September, as he had promised, Mr Bell came to visit. Mr Hale’s old friend liked Margaret enormously and they immediately became very good friends.
‘I must say, I think your opinions are very old-fashioned,’ said Margaret jokingly to Mr Bell one afternoon.
‘Listen to this daughter of yours, Hale. What has life in Milton done to her? She has become a democrat!’
‘You say that just because I believe that commerce is good for the country.’
‘I don’t like this rushing around, with everybody trying to get rich. I don’t believe there’s a man in Milton who knows how to sit still. That reminds me, Mr Thornton is coming to tea tonight,’ said Mr Bell, not noticing that Margaret became very quiet.
Mr Thornton was still in love with Margaret, despite all his efforts not to be. He had tried hard not to see her, but in his dreams she came dancing towards him with open arms. He came late to the Hales’ house and, to avoid meeting her, spent a long time talking about business matters with Mr Bell. He was bad-tempered and cross and Mr Bell thought he had become quite a rude fellow. At last they went upstairs and found Margaret holding a letter, which she was eagerly discussing with her father.
‘It is a letter from Henry Lennox,’ said Mr Hale to Mr Bell. ‘It makes Margaret very hopeful.’
Mr Bell nodded. Mr Thornton looked at Margaret, who blushed, and he wanted to leave and never return again.
A conversation began about the differences between Oxford University, where Mr Bell taught, and Milton, where he had lived as a child. Mr Bell talked about the importance of tradition, history and learning, while Mr Thornton felt that action and living in the present mattered more. Mr Bell joked a lot, and Margaret saw that this upset Mr Thornton, who wanted a serious conversation.
Trying to change the subject, she said, ‘Edith says that cotton materials in Corfu are cheaper and better than those in London.’
‘Are you sure?’ said her father. ‘I think Edith is exaggerating.’
‘If Margaret is sure, then I am too,’ said Mr Bell. ‘Margaret, you are such a truthful person, I don’t believe that anyone who is a relation of yours could exaggerate.’
‘Is Miss Hale so well-known for truthfulness?’ said Mr Thornton, bitterly. The moment he said this, he could have bitten his tongue out. Why was he so evil tonight and why was he so cross with Mr Bell, his kind old friend?
Margaret did not get up and leave as she would have done formerly. She glanced at Mr Thornton in sad surprise, with the expression of a hurt child, then bent over her sewing and did not speak again.
Mr Thornton could not help looking at her and he saw that when she sighed, her whole body trembled. He desperately wanted her to look at him and speak to him, so that he could show her he was sorry, but she did not raise her head. She could not care for him, he thought. He gave short, sharp answers to the older men’s questions and left rather suddenly. As he walked home, he thought that he was right to see Margaret as little as possible; her power over him was too great.
When the mill owner left, Margaret silently began to fold up her work, looking completely exhausted. As the three prepared for bed, Mr Bell said, ‘Success has spoiled that man. He used to be a simple, honest fellow. Now, everything offends him.’
‘He was not his usual self tonight,’ Margaret said quickly. ‘Something must have happened to upset him.’
Mr Bell looked at her sharply. After she had left the room, he said, ‘Hale, have you ever thought that Thornton and your daughter might be fond of each other?’
‘Never!’ said Mr Hale, astonished by the idea. ‘I am sure you are wrong. If there is anything, it is all on Mr Thornton’s side.’
‘I would say that she showed quite a few signs tonight!’
‘I am sure you are wrong,’ said Mr Hale. ‘Margaret has been almost rude to Mr Thornton at times.’
‘Well, it was only a suggestion. And whether I’m right or wrong, I’m very sleepy.’
Mr Bell left the next day, telling Margaret that she must come to him if she was in difficulty. To Mr Hale he said, ‘That Margaret of yours has gone deep into my heart. Take care of her - she is a very precious creature. I wish you’d leave Milton, Hale! It is completely unsuitable for you, and I’m sorry I recommended it. You and Margaret could come and live with me. I would like that very much. What do you think?’
‘Never!’ said Mr Hale. ‘My one great change has been made, and it has caused me great suffering. I will live here and I will be buried here.’
‘Well, we will forget it for the moment. Margaret, give me a goodbye kiss. Remember, I am always here for you.’
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