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After Mr Bell’s departure, life returned to what it had been before his visit. Four months passed. Margaret tried to keep herself busy visiting the Boucher children, and was always kind and attentive to her father, but the truth was that she felt bored and miserable. Mr Thornton seldom came to his lessons, partly because, as a result of the strike, his business affairs had become more complicated. When he did come, he never asked to see Margaret, and often sent a note at the last moment, saying that he was too busy for a lesson. Although Mr Hale had new pupils to replace Mr Thornton, he missed their conversations and became quite depressed by his pupil’s frequent absences.
One February evening Mr Hale, blushing as he asked the question, suddenly said, ‘Margaret, have you ever had any reason to think that Mr Thornton cared for you?’
Margaret did not answer immediately, then bent her head and said, ‘Yes. I believe - oh, Father, I should have told you.’ And dropping her work, she hid her face in her hands.
‘No dear, there was no need. I am sure you would have told me if you had returned his feelings. Did he speak to you about it?’
No answer at first, then a slow ‘Yes’.
‘And yon refused him?’
A long sigh and another ‘Yes’. Then, blushing even more, she said, ‘Now, Father, I have told you this, but I cannot tell you more - it is too painful for me. Oh, Father, it is because of me that Mr Thornton is no longer your friend, and I am so sorry; but I could not help it.’
They were quiet for some minutes. Mr Hale stroked Margaret’s cheek and was almost shocked to find her face wet with tears. As he touched her, she jumped up, smiling brightly, and began to talk about the Lennoxes with such eagerness to change the subject that he was too kind to refer to it again.
‘Tomorrow - yes, tomorrow the Lennoxes will be back in Harley Street. How strange it will be! Imagine, Edith a mother!’
‘Why don’t you go and see them for a fortnight?’ said her father. ‘It would be very good for you, and Mr Lennox could tell you his latest news about Frederick.’
‘No, Father, you need me here,’ said Margaret. After a pause, she continued sadly, ‘I am losing hope about Frederick. Mr Lennox is trying to tell us the news gently, but you can see from his letters that he thinks there is no hope of finding witnesses.’
A few days later, Margaret’s feelings were confirmed when Frederick wrote saying that he had received a letter from Henry Lennox stating that it was unlikely that the witnesses could be found. Frederick angrily said that he no longer considered himself English, which made Margaret cry. But in March, a much happier letter arrived; Frederick and Dolores had got married. Dolores’s family owned a large manufacturing company and Frederick was now certain to achieve a high position in it. Margaret smiled a little when she learnt this, remembering her former dislike of trade. And now her brother was a trader! Well, it did not matter at all, and Frederick was very, very happy.
Spring came, and Margaret became a little worried about her father, who occasionally had difficulty breathing. When Mr Bell invited them to visit him in Oxford, she persuaded Mr Hale to accept, hoping that it would improve his health. The invitation included Margaret, but she decided to stay at home; with her father away, she would have no responsibilities and would be able to rest, something that she had not been able to do since she came to Milton.
Margaret was astonished at how relieved she felt once her father had left. The pressure was gone; there was no-one who depended on her for comfort and entertainment. For months, she had had no time to think about her problems, but now she could examine them one by one and give each of them the right place in her life. She sat almost motionless for hours, remembering every detail of her relationship with Mr Thornton.
After two days of silent thinking, she decided that if only she could be friends with him again, or even if he would visit her father more often, she would feel happier. But when she went to bed that night, a feeling of sorrow and anxiety still remained.
That April evening, Margaret had found that she could not stop thinking about her father. Strangely, that same night, in Oxford, all Mr Hale’s thoughts were about his daughter. His old friends there were very kind to him, but the unfamiliar social activity had made him feel quite exhausted.
‘I am tired,’ he told Mr Bell. ‘But I am fifty-five years old.’
‘Nonsense! I’m over sixty. You’re quite a young man.’
Mr Hale shook his head. ‘These last few years -‘ he said. And then, after a pause, he went on, ‘About Margaret. If I die - ‘
‘I often think - what will happen to her? I suppose the Lennoxes will ask her to live with them. I hope they will.’
‘You know how fond I am of that girl, Hale. She has made me her slave! I will look after her, and when I die, everything I have will be hers. But you’re a thin, healthy fellow, unlike me. There are no prizes for guessing who will die first.’
But Mr Bell was wrong, and that night Mr Hale lay down in his bed for the last time. The servant who entered in the morning received no answer to his words. Mr Hale’s heart had stopped during the night, but his calm, beautiful face showed no pain, only the white, cold look of death.
Mr Bell was so shocked that he could not speak for some time. Then he told his servant to pack his bags, and took the next train to Milton. There was only one person sitting near him. The man’s face was hidden behind a newspaper and it was some time before Mr Bell realised that it was Mr Thornton.
The two shook hands, and when Mr Bell told the mill owner the bad news, Mr Thornton said nothing for over a quarter of an hour. Finally he said, ‘What about -?’ and stopped suddenly.
‘Margaret, you mean. Yes, I am going to Milton to tell her. I will look after her as if she were my own child. I would like her to come and live me, but there are those Lennoxes!’
‘Who are they?’ asked Mr Thornton, trembling with interest.
‘Oh, fashionable London people. Captain Lennox married her cousin - the girl she was brought up with. And there’s her aunt, Mrs Shaw. And then there’s that brother.’
‘The brother of Captain Lennox - a clever young lawyer. I’m told he’s been interested in Margaret for a long time. Now that she will have money, he will be even more interested in her.’
‘What money?’ asked Mr Thornton, far too interested to realise how rude the question was.
‘Well, she’ll have my money at my death.’
Mr Thornton became very silent when he heard this. Finally, Mr Bell asked him where he had been and the mill owner explained that he had been to France on business.
‘Ah, commerce! Poor old Hale! Milton is so different from Helstone - a charming little village in the New Forest.’
‘I understand it was a great change for Mr Hale.’
When Mr Bell arrived at the house in Compton, Margaret, who was standing at an upstairs window, saw him get out of the carriage alone and guessed the truth immediately. She stood in the middle of the sitting room, looking as if she had been turned into stone.
‘Oh, don’t tell me! I know it from your face! You would not have left him - if he were alive! Oh, Father, Father!’
The shock was very great, and for more than two days Margaret lay on the sitting-room sofa with her eyes closed, hardly speaking at all. Mr Bell needed to return to Oxford and make arrangements for the funeral, which would be held there rather than in Milton, because of the problems of transporting the body. However, it was clear that Margaret was not well enough to travel to Oxford to attend the funeral. After a lot of thought, Mr Bell decided to write to Mrs Shaw, who had returned to England, and ask her to come to Milton. His letter to her had an immediate effect, and the following day she travelled up by train.
Margaret was the first to hear her aunt’s carriage when it stopped in front of the house. Her whole face trembled, and when Mr Bell came up with Mrs Shaw, she was standing up, looking very unsteady. Her aunt opened her arms and Margaret went into them and started to cry.
Mr Bell crept out of the room and went down to the study. There, he tried to forget his troubles by examining the books, but they only reminded him of his dead friend. He was glad to hear the sound of Mr Thornton’s voice at the front door and called out, ‘Thornton, is that you? Come in for a minute or two.’
The mill owner joined him and Mr Bell told him that Mrs Shaw had come to look after Margaret.
‘The woman has brought a servant with her, and I shall have to leave and find somewhere to stay.’
‘Come and stay with us. We have five or six empty bedrooms.’
‘Then I’ll just go upstairs and say goodbye to the poor girl and that aunt, and leave with you immediately.’
It was some time before Mr Bell came down again, and as they set out for Marlborough Street he explained why.
‘Mrs Shaw is anxious to return home with Margaret as soon as possible. She doesn’t seem to understand that the girl cannot travel in her present condition. Margaret said she has friends she must see, but then she started crying and said she was glad to leave a place where she had suffered so much. I must return to Oxford tomorrow, so a decision must be made.’
Mr Thornton did not reply. The words ‘She was glad to leave a place where she had suffered so much’ were going round and round in his head. So that was the way Margaret would remember her time in Milton, when to him every moment he had spent with her had been so precious.
They arrived in Marlborough Street and Mrs Thornton, after welcoming Mr Bell, asked how Margaret was.
‘She seems completely broken. I would like her to live with me but she has relations who want her to live with them in London.’
‘Where have these relations been, when Miss Hale has had so many troubles?’
Having asked the question, Mrs Thornton, who felt no interest in the answer, left to prepare Mr Bell’s room.
‘They have been living abroad,’ Mr Bell said. ‘The aunt brought her up, and Margaret and her cousin have been like sisters. But I wanted her as a child of my own, and I am jealous of these people who don’t seem to have looked after her properly. It would be different if Frederick claimed her.’
‘Frederick!’ exclaimed Mr Thornton. ‘Who is he?’
‘Frederick!’ said Mr Bell in surprise. ‘Don’t you know? He’s her brother. Have you not heard - ?’
‘I have never heard his name before. Where is he? Who is he?’
‘He is the son who was involved in that mutiny.’
‘I had never heard of him until this moment. Where does he live?’
‘In Spain. He’s likely to be arrested if he comes to England.’
‘Was he here in Milton at the time of Mrs Hale’s death?’
‘No, it’s not possible. What made you think he was?’
‘I saw a young man walking with Miss Hale one day,’ replied Mr Thornton, ‘and I think it was about that time.’
‘Oh, that was probably young Lennox, the Captain’s brother. He’s a lawyer and Margaret and he write to each other. Do you know,’ said Mr Bell, watching Mr Thornton carefully, ‘when I last came here I wondered if you perhaps cared for Margaret.’
‘I admired Miss Hale, as everyone must. She is a beautiful creature,’ said Mr Thornton quickly.
‘Is that all? A beautiful creature! You talk about her as if she were a horse or dog!’
Mr Thornton’s eyes flashed for a moment. ‘Mr Bell,’ he said, ‘you should remember that not every man can talk about their feelings as freely as you. Let us talk about something else.’
The two men began to discuss business matters. A new building was being put up in Mr Thornton’s factory yard and Mr Bell asked what it would be. Mr Thornton explained that he planned it as a dining-room for his workers and told Mr Bell the following story. He had slowly become friendly with one of his workers, a man called Higgins. Passing by the man’s house one day, he had called on him, and had been shocked to see how little the family had to eat, and what bad quality the meat was. After discussions with Higgins, the mill owner decided to buy large quantities of good-quality food at a cheap price, and to provide a large oven at the mill and a cook. For some months now, the workers had been able to have a good lunch there. Mr Thornton had even started eating with the men from time to time and was enjoying his conversations with them.
‘I am really getting to know some of them now. They have such a sense of humour! But it is not a charity and the men pay me rent for the oven and the cooking-place at the back of the mill. They will have to pay more for the dining-room.’
Mrs Shaw hated noisy, smoky Milton and wanted to return to London the day after the funeral in Oxford. Margaret was too weak and exhausted to resist her and it was agreed that she would return with her aunt, and that Dixon would stay behind to pack up the furniture.
The day before the funeral Margaret received a letter from Mr Bell in Oxford:
‘My dear Margaret,
I intended to return to Milton after the funeral but unfortunately I have duties here that mean I cannot come. Captain Lennox and Mr Thornton are here. The Captain will come to Milton to take you and his mother home and I have asked my lawyer to arrange the sale of your house. Now, there is something else. You may not know this, but I told your father that when I die you will inherit my money and my possessions. I don’t intend to die yet, of course! But meanwhile, I would like to make a formal arrangement to give you 250 pounds a year. It is yours and you can pay the Lennoxes this for as long as you live with them. They can then pay for Dixon. I will make another arrangement about money for your needs - items such as pretty dresses and chocolate! Now, Margaret, you may be wondering what right an old man has to settle your affairs in this way. But I have loved your father for thirty-five years, and I have no relations to look after or give my money to. Please make an old man happy and tell me that Margaret Hale is not the girl to say no. Write to me, and tell me your answer. But do not thank me.’
After reading this, Margaret took a pen and wrote with a trembling hand, ‘Margaret Hale is not the girl to say no.’
For the next two days, she wandered round the house, trying to decide which things she wanted to keep. She asked Dixon to take one of her father’s books to Mr Thornton after she had left, and wrote a note to him very quickly.
The day after the funeral, she took a carriage to the Higgins’ and said a sad goodbye to them. Feeling that she should also say goodbye to Mrs Thornton, although she did not wish to do this, she went to visit her with her aunt, and Mrs Thornton, looking kinder than ever before, was introduced to Mrs Shaw.
‘Where are you going to live, Miss Hale?’ Mrs Thornton asked. ‘Mr Bell told me that you were going to leave Milton.’
‘My niece will live with me in London. She is almost like a daughter to me,’ said her aunt, looking fondly at Margaret.
At this moment, Mr Thornton entered the room; he had only just returned from Oxford.
‘John,’ said his mother, ‘this lady is Mrs Shaw, Miss Hale’s aunt. I am sorry to say that Miss Hale’s visit is to say goodbye.’
‘You are going then?’ he said in a low voice.
‘Yes,’ said Margaret. ‘We leave tomorrow.’
Mr Thornton turned away and seemed to be examining something on the table. He did not even seem to be aware that they had got up to leave, but he went outside with them and helped Mrs Shaw into the carriage.
He and Margaret were standing close together on the doorstep, and the memory of the day of the riot came back to both of them. He thought of how cruel she had been to him when he had gone to see her the next day, and although his heart was beating fast with his love for her, he told himself, ‘Let her go, with her stony heart and her beauty. How coldly she looks at me! Let her go!’
And there was no tone of regret or emotion in his voice as he said goodbye. He took the hand she offered to him as if it were a dead flower; but no one saw Mr Thornton again that day.
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