Book Blurb: Sometimes described as the female Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell's classic novel, North and South, dealt with issues of class, feminism, social reform and the plight of the working classes, entwining those themes seamlessly with a timeless romance between Margaret Hale and John Thornton. Northern Light is a continuation of that novel which sees John and Margaret embarking on their lives together whilst working to improve the lives of their work force.
With the threat of another strike, a series of bad mill accidents, a lethal fire and failed speculation, life in Milton is not easy for anyone and it won't be long before the mill masters and their workers clash once more, with devastating consequences.
Getting married and starting a family is difficult enough at the best of times but for John and Margaret, married life will present unique challenges and despite the reforms they are making, even they will not escape Milton's troubles unscathed.
John laughed at Margaret's teasing.
“Then let us run away,” John suggested with a teasing smile. “We can be in Gretna Green by nightfall.”
“Oh, if only that were possible.” Margaret sounded rueful.
John had only been jesting but Margaret's words held more than a note of longing.
“Just say the word, Margaret, and it will be.”
Margaret smiled and cupped his face with her hand, running her thumb over his cheek.
“I fear that is the coward's way out. No, people must be told.”
“But there is nothing to say that they must be told today.”
Margaret was about to argue when she realised that he was right.
“Although,” she cautioned, “The longer we wait, the longer it will be until we can be together.”
“Nonsense.” He smiled and Margaret's heart skipped a beat, for truly his was the most handsome smile she had ever seen. “If it is your wish, I shall return to Milton today and start making the arrangements.”
Margaret frowned and John felt a brief sense of foreboding. “You do want to return to Milton?” he asked.
“Yes, of course.” She removed her hand from his cheek and took hold of his hand, squeezing it firmly. “Actually I was just wondering how long it will be before I am allowed to return.”
John felt his spirits soar once again at her words, pleased that she was eager to return to him. He reached out to gently push an escaped tendril of hair off her forehead and paused, for she was looking at him with such adoration in her eyes that it took his breath away for a moment. On impulse he leaned forward and kissed her lips gently.
At first he thought that Margaret would not respond, and why would she approve of such an indecent move? Not only was his behaviour inappropriate but they would be inviting censure, for someone could happen upon them at any moment. Margaret only hesitated for a moment though and as he was about to pull away, she returned the kiss.
John Thornton had not thought it possible to be any more in love with Margaret Hale than he already was, but these last few seconds had proved him wrong.
When he finally found the strength to pull away from her, Margaret kept her eyes closed, not wanting the moment to end but when she finally looked at him, she saw the love that he clearly felt for her was written on his every feature. Indeed she had never seen him looking so relaxed and happy. Truly, he looked as if an unimaginable weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“Margaret.” Her name sounded like a sweet caress on his lips.
“John”, she said, cupping his face in both her hands. “My John.”
Never had two words filled him with such pleasure before. “My Margaret,” he replied, gratified to see how his possessive words pleased her.
Drawing his face towards her, she kissed him again, marvelling at how right it felt.
“You must return to Milton,” she said, when she finally released him, lowering her hands demurely into her lap, where they probably should have stayed.
“I don't want to leave you here alone. At least let me stay until you have told your aunt.”
“No.” She shook her head. “I have waited long enough for this and I am impatient to begin our life together. You have waited even longer; do you not feel the same?”
“Aye.” John nodded, accepting her logic, though it still pained him to leave her. “I will write every day,” he promised.
John knew that he should probably leave now before the temptation became unbearable, but he couldn't bring himself to walk away. Once again he claimed another kiss from her, this one tinged with sadness though, for they both knew it would be probably be many days, though more likely weeks before they were reunited again.
“I'll miss you,” John said, resting his forehead against hers.
“And I you,” she replied. “Now, you must go before my will fails me and I make a dreadful scene as I beg you to stay.”
And as it was her request, he found that he was suddenly able to stand and move away. He backed away to the door, unwilling to lose sight of her a second before he had to. He paused at the door and they stared at each other for a long while, then finally he reached behind himself, opened the door and exited.
|Richard Armitage as John Thornton (© BBC)|
He stood there for longer than was reasonable, staring up at the house until finally reason made him turn away and head towards the station. The sooner he got back to Milton, the sooner they could begin their lives together.
Margaret stayed where she was for a few moments while she regained her composure. She gathered up the legal documents before her and took them with her to her room. She expected to be stopped and questioned on the way but she made it to her bedroom without encountering anyone. She went straight to the window, though she knew John would be long gone by now. To her surprise, she was in time to see him turn and leave. He had obviously found their parting as difficult as she.
Margaret watched until he was out of sight and tried to fight the longing she felt to go after him. She wanted nothing more than to follow him home to Milton and as she considered the idea, she realised that she looked forward to seeing Milton again.
She knew how impulsive her desire was but she also knew that these next few weeks would be interminable as she waited for the rest of her life to begin.
“So near and yet so far,” she whispered, pressing her forehead to the cool glass.
She thought of going to speak with her aunt; she would have to be told at some point so it may as well be sooner rather than later, but she couldn't bring herself to taint the happiness she felt with her aunt's almost certain disdain for her losing her heart to a tradesman. She went to her writing desk, resolving to write to John immediately but as she picked up the pen, another thought occurred to her. With much haste she wrote a note and slipped it into an envelope.
Though it had been less than an hour since he had left Margaret, John's heart felt heavy from their separation. How cruel life was that they should discover their feelings for one another while living so very far apart.
He saw the train to Milton pull in and with a sigh, he left the waiting room and stepped onto the platform, staying near the edge until the departing passengers had exited the train. He walked along the concourse until he found an empty carriage, for he found that he was not in the mood for company but as he reached forward to open the door, a lady's hand rested on his arm.
“Margaret! What are you doing here?” he asked, confused that she should have followed him. His confusion deepened when she handed him her bag.
|John Thornton and Margaret Hale (© BBC)|
“I have come to join you,” she stated.
“You're coming home with me?”
“Yes.” She smiled.
“And what of your aunt?”
“I left her a note.”
“Yes, explaining that I have returned to Milton and will write again as soon as I arrive.”
“Why didn't you speak to her?”
“Because I am happy, and she will surely try to steal my pleasure from me.”
John couldn't find fault with that logic. “But what will people say?”
“I am of age and I am self sufficient, so whilst I do not like being the subject of gossip, I find that I can bear the idea with equanimity. My heart is pure before God and that is what matters.”
Realising that the train would be moving again very soon, Margaret reached out to open the door and stepped into the carriage, taking a seat by the window and looking to where John still stood in the doorway. After a moment's hesitation, he stepped in and closed the door behind himself; none too soon as the whistle sounded to signify that the train was about to depart.
He stowed Margaret's bag in the rack above her head then looked from her seat to the opposite one. He knew where he should sit but when Margaret smiled at him, he ignored his better judgement and sat beside her, stealing another kiss.
When they separated he smirked. “Do you have any idea how many people you will have upset with this impulsive decision?”
“I do, but as long as you are not upset with me, I find that I am not too concerned.”
“Margaret, how you continue to impress me with your strong and free spirit.”
“I shall remind you of that one day, when we are bickering like an old married couple.”
“As long as we are together long enough to be called an old married couple, I shan't mind very much.”
The journey passed in a pleasurable haze as they held hands, kissed and enjoyed the feeling of contentment that they both had now that they had finally found each other, but as the train drew closer to Milton, the relaxed atmosphere in their carriage began to disperse as reality threatened to encroach on their magical time together.
These last few hours had felt like a dream to them both and in the privacy of their carriage, they had been free to show their affection for one another, free from fear of censure.
As though he knew this might be one of the last kisses they were able to share for quite some time, John cupped Margaret's cheek with his hand and stared at her for a few moments as if committing her face to his memory, before he leaned in and gently kissed her.
When he pulled away, they both looked slightly forlorn.
“Will you come home with me?” he asked.
“There is nothing I would like more,” Margaret smiled, “but I feel we both know that won't be possible until we are married.”
John nodded, knowing that she could give no other answer.
“I could leave until our wedding day,” he offered. “At least then I would know you were taken care of.”
Margaret smiled sweetly at his consideration and reached a hand up to cup his cheek, much as he had done earlier, brushing her thumb over the slight stubble she found there.
“I fear that such an unusual arrangement would only incite gossip. Besides, I know how deeply your mother cares for you, I would not like to separate you from her prematurely. I think she will need this time to adjust to our new situation. No, I shall stay at a hotel for now and try and find more permanent lodgings tomorrow.”
“As you wish.” John placed his hand over hers, savouring her touch.
“Do you...” Margaret was unsure how to word her fear.
Knowing she had something grave to ask, he took her hand from his face and clasped it between both of his.
“Do you think she will accept me?” she asked hesitantly.
“How could she not?” he asked.
“I have done little to incite her warm feelings. Indeed, considering how dreadfully I have behaved towards you, I am still shocked that you feel anything other than disdain for me.”
“Mother has only ever wanted what is best for me, and your gesture of faith in me will be more than enough to convince her of your deep feeling. She may find it difficult at first but I'm certain that she will come to love you as I do.”
Margaret couldn't help the sly smile that crept onto her lips.
“Not exactly as you do, I hope.”
John laughed. He had been aware of Margaret's courage, integrity, sharp wit and strong mind but until now he had been unaware of her sense of humour. Now that she was showing this new side of herself to him, he found it a very pleasing addition to her character.
For her part, until now Margaret had never realised how little John smiled or laughed. She had seen quite a few examples of both since this morning and she found him all the more attractive for it.
“Will you allow me to escort you to the hotel, at least?” John asked when his laughter faded.
“I would like nothing more.”
“And would you join mother and me for dinner this evening?”
“I probably shouldn't; I will have much to do this evening. I must first write to my aunt and cousin to explain properly what has happened, then I must write to Dixon and arrange for my things to be sent to me.”
John nodded and looked out of the window. By his reckoning they had perhaps only ten minutes before they arrived in Milton.
“And you are sure about this?” he asked, turning back to her. “You would trust me with your investment.”
“I can think of few people I would trust more.”
“But there are some?” he asked.
Margaret looked up, fearing she had offended him but she was relieved when she saw the smile on his lips. He was teasing her.
She glanced out of the window then down at their joined hands.
“I cannot believe that we will soon be separated, unable to show the affection we have enjoyed these past few hours.”
“We will soon be free to show our love,” he assured her. “We shall be wed at the very first opportunity.”
“I fear that will not come soon enough for my tastes,” she confessed.
“It will be difficult,” he agreed. “But the promise of what is to come will help us both endure.”
“Yes.” She smiled.
“Have you given much thought to a wedding?” he asked, knowing that Fannie's wedding had taken months to arrange because of her extravagant tastes.
“I would like something simple,” she said. “I do not wish to attend any engagement balls or parties, though I am certain we will have to endure some. I simply wish to declare my love for you in front of God and our friends.”
His heart swelled with pride.
“Even given your new found wealth?” he asked, still finding to hard to believe she didn't want something more extravagant.
“Even then. I love you, John.” His name still sounded strange on her lips but she enjoyed saying it and was getting used to it. “I would much rather our resources were put towards our life together than spent on expensive lace and exotic flowers.”
“People will say I am a gold digger,” he warned her. “That I am simply marrying you to save my factory.”
“Yes,” she looked down, feeling guilty for the slight it might place on his character. “But we know the truth and that surely is all that counts.” She risked looking up into his eyes, worried that he might be pained by the thought of the gossip that would follow him.
“I do not much care for the idle speculation of others,” he assured her. “I care only for you, and I thank you for your faith in me. You don't know how much that means to me.”
“I have had complete faith in you for a while now, I only wish I had been brave enough to tell you how I felt.”
“I might still have denied my feelings,” he said, honestly. His words might be hurtful but they were truthful and he wasn't in the habit of deceit. “I was so hurt, jealous even, I-”
“Yes,” Margaret cut him off, knowing full well of what he spoke. “There is something I must share with you, about that night at the railway station and why I lied.”
“Hush,” he said. “He was your brother, I know that now. I am sorry that I ever doubted you.”
“You know?” She sounded surprised. “How?”
“Your old friend Higgins told me.
“But how did he-”
“His younger daughter, Mary, helped Dixon in the kitchen while he was over and shared what she picked up with her father. I don't know all the details because Higgins doesn't, but I know enough to understand that you were protecting him.”
“I shall tell you everything,” she assured him. “I know I can trust you to keep Frederick's secret.”
“Is that his name?”
“Yes,” she smiled as she thought of him. “He joined the Navy after school but he had not been in the service long when he was assigned to a new ship. His new captain was a tyrant, a monster, beating those weaker than himself to within an inch of their lives, including the children. Frederick and a few of the others felt they had no choice but to revolt and they set the captain and those loyal to him adrift in a row boat. The Navy called it a mutiny and until Mother fell ill, he had not set foot in this county since. “
“That was very brave of him,” John observed.
“Or very foolish, though I confess, I do feel very proud of him. We write but even after all this time, he is still in grave danger should the Navy ever find him. He lived in South America for a while but now lives in Spain, a town called Cadiz.” She smiled wistfully. “We were very close as children and I only wish that he could meet you.”
“Maybe, once the mill is up and running, we could take a delayed honeymoon there.”
“Yes,” she smiled. “I believe I would like that very much, though I wouldn't want to take you away from the mill if you felt you couldn't leave it.”
“Mother is quite capable of managing it for a time in my absence.”
“Well, let us see,” she said. “There are many changes to come and I feel our attentions would be best focused elsewhere, for a while at least.”
“How soon do you think we can be married?” he asked.
“I hope within the month. Now that I have found you, I find I do not wish to wait a moment longer than necessary.” She smiled. “And what of the mill, how long will it take for you to resume operations?”
“Almost immediately,” he assured her. “The mill closed without any debts left to settle and I still have some funds in reserve, plus we are still owed money from a few filled orders. I also have a few new orders in the pipeline that I may still be able to bid for.”
“And what of ordering more cotton?”
“There is enough in the storage sheds to get things started, though I will have to order more immediately if we are not to face a shortage.”
“Good.” She smiled though it quickly faded as the next thought occurred to her. “I fear it might be bad form to ask Henry to continue as my financial advisor. Do you think Mr. Latimer might be willing to undertake the transfer of funds for me? He was, after all, Mr. Bell's banker.”
“I'm sure he would be delighted,” John assured her. He didn't want to ask the next question, fearing her answer, but he felt compelled to. “Margaret, I must ask you, was there ever anything between you and Mr. Lennox?”
“No,” she assured him. “Though I must confess that he did ask for my hand once, just before we left Helstone.”
“You refused him?” He felt a pang of jealousy as he realised someone else had asked for her hand.
“Yes. I have never viewed him as anything more than a friend.”
John swallowed, pleased to realise that although Lennox had asked her, she had chosen him.
As the train began to slow he kissed her once more, knowing that their time together was nearly over. She responded fervently, realising, as he did, that propriety would keep them from displaying any affection in public until they were married. As the train slowed further they separated, and none too soon as the station buildings appeared through the carriage window.
“We're here,” she said sadly as she looked out of the window.
John didn't reply.
“These past hours have felt like a dream,” she continued, unable to turn and look at him yet. “I can't help thinking that reality will soon intrude and spoil things.”
“We will not let it,” John assured her. “Reality must be faced but I don't believe someone as strong as you would ever let a little thing like reality keep you from living your dreams.”
“No.” She turned to him and smiled. “Nor you, I believe.”
“Never. You are mine now, Margaret, in all but name and I intend to rectify that as soon as is humanly possible.”
With heavy hearts they exited the carriage and climbed into a waiting hansom cab outside the station. John dropped her at the Mitre Hotel and saw her to the reception desk. He wanted to accompany her to her room and make sure that she was settled, but he knew that would harm her reputation.
“Will you come to dinner tomorrow evening?” he asked her.
|Margaret Hale & John Thornton (© BBC)|
“I shall be glad to.” She smiled. “I will speak with Mr. Latimer tomorrow and find out how quickly I can transfer the funds to you.”
“Do you wish me to accompany you?”
“No, I'm sure the arrangements will be long winded and tedious. Your time is better spent getting the mill running again.”
John took her hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a dry kiss to the back of it.
“I will send a carriage for you at seven. Until tomorrow.”
The thought of being parted from him was almost unbearable and she wanted to throw her arms around him and demand that he stay with her, but Margaret was not a fool and she knew they had taken too many risks already. So instead, she smiled and bit her lip to stop herself from saying something quite indecent as she reluctantly stepped back.
“I look forward to it,” she said, truthfully.
John backed away, unwilling to lose sight of her a moment sooner than absolutely necessary.
When he neared the entrance he hesitated, smiled, then finally turned and took his leave of her.
Margaret took a few moments to compose herself before turning to the reception desk.
To continue reading, Half Past is available is available in paperback and kindle formats
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on Amazon UK and Amazon US
Review by C. Stewart on Amazon UK: A lovely read