Two things preoccupied John Thornton’s thoughts at any given moment: the mill’s precarious finances, and Miss Margaret Hale. Neither gave him much pleasure lately.
The former held fast as he stalked his way through the smoky streets of Milton, on his way to procure fresh ink from the stationer’s. Ordinarily he would have sent someone else on this errand, but when the inkwell ran dry he’d decided a break from his office would do him good. For too many hours he had toiled over paperwork, until his hand cramped and his thoughts dulled. Alas, his preoccupation had followed him out into the world, numbers and calculations chasing each other in a whirlwind inside his head.
The strike had cut deeper than he’d feared and it would be a bitter struggle to ensure the mill’s survival.
It was hard to believe the strike had come to an end only a few weeks ago. Events had accelerated in the intervening days, and it seemed every time he stepped outside his office, some new calamity had occurred. First, the passing of Mrs Hale, then his witnessing of Margaret—Miss Hale, he corrected himself—on the station platform in an embrace with a stranger. That had led to his intervention on her behalf despite his better instincts, his tender feelings leading him to protect her from the damage an inquest would bring.
Yet the turmoil it brought to him personally—the bile of his envy towards this stranger and the anger Miss Hale’s actions stirred—bade him lock himself away from the world under the guise of steadying his ship. He didn’t need to spend so many hours pouring over figures, ink-stained and sleep-deprived, but it seemed a better alternative than retiring to the house and listening to the servants chatter. For Miss Hale’s carelessness had ensured that her actions reached the servants’ ears, and through them his mother and sister, even if the constabulary remained unaware of the events at Outwood station.
Though he’d forbidden the household to speak of her any further, if only to ensure he did not have to be reminded of her existence in the place which was meant to be his sanctuary, he knew the damage was done. Mrs Thornton believed the worst of Miss Hale, and Fanny was thrilled to have a minor scandal to chew over. At least he could trust his sister to hold her tongue outside the house, on pain of sullying her own reputation by gossiping like a common fishwife.
Still, how could Miss Hale have done such a foolish thing? Her social position was already precarious—her father had no great wealth to protect her with, and she’d already caused one round of rumours on the day of the riot. It would not take much for her reputation to be shredded entirely, and then even Milton’s course excuse for society would be done with her.
Ah. Yes. His thoughts had inevitably turned from one preoccupation to another.
As if to taunt him further, the source of his second torment appeared on the street before him. Her back was to him, her head covered in the wide bonnet she often wore, but he would recognise that fine posture, the determined set of those shoulders from any angle, in any light. So firmly had he committed her form to his memory, shameful as the idea was, that it would only take the barest glance for him to identify her.
He slowed his pace, not eager to face her for the first time since he had intervened with the Leonard’s case. She clutched a basket under her arm, running her own errands though her dark dress announced to the world her recent loss. As she approached the grocer’s, two women left the draper’s shop three doors down. They existed in the periphery of his consciousness, only coming into focus when they crossed paths with Miss Hale.
She nodded her head and uttered a greeting—he heard the soft melody of her voice if not the words—and they ignored her. Turned from her, noses held high, and made to cross the street.
Unbidden, his concern at their strange behaviour propelled him along the flagstones until he was nearly level with the women, though they took no notice of his arrival. He recognised the pair now—Slickson’s wife and her sister.
“Have I done something to offend?” he heard Miss Hale call after them, shock making her more hesitant than she’d ever seemed around him.
They did not respond to her, but Mrs Slickson caught John’s eye. She halted, as did her sister, though she addressed Miss Hale when she responded. “We would prefer it if you refrained from attempting to converse with us—we have our own reputations to consider, and little enough in common with the likes of you.”
“Excuse me?” This response had more of Miss Hale’s customary fire, though she didn’t get to wield it before Mrs Slickson continued.
“We are aware of your disgrace. All of Milton is! If I were you I wouldn’t dare show my face in the grocer’s—not that he’s likely to serve you anymore.”
Miss Hale gasped, and for the first time she noticed Mrs Slickson’s eye line, whirling to find Mr Thornton behind them. He would have spoken, but was struggling to contain his own shock, and the boiling rage that was beginning to bubble through him. It was inappropriate for him to shout at another man’s wife, but if he opened his mouth to speak to Mrs Slickson, he wasn’t sure he could contain his temper.
Not that it mattered. Margaret had coloured, her cheeks stained with her humiliation, her eyes wide and glassy. Her mouth opened, moving as she fought for words, but none came. Instead she ducked her head, hiding her face from them all as she hitched her skirts and fled.
He turned, ready to give chase—to offer comfort—but he knew she would allow him no such thing. Besides, his anger was better served here, bled out where it could not be drawn by the girl’s ability to exasperate him.
“That was a poor display towards a young woman in mourning,” he bit out to Mrs Slickson, every syllable a battle not to become a roar.
Mrs Slickson’s sister raised her chin haughtily. “From what we’ve heard, she has provided quite the display of her own while in mourning.”
“What you’ve heard are the idle words of shop hands, I’ve no doubt.” That was all it took—the grocer’s assistant speaking to the draper’s workers. Careless words and eager ears, famished for entertainment in the dullness of their lives.
“Oh no, Mr Thornton.” She smiled, a narrow slit of malice which suggested she might have some small inkling of his regard for Miss Hale, and was relishing the chance to reduce her in his eyes. “We heard this from your own sister.”
His ire had a new target then, one which had him abandoning his errand and walking away from the women without any further attempt at good manners. His sister had ignored his warnings and run to others with her snippet of titillation. Now, her inclinations had done another woman real harm.
Miss Hale was no longer in danger of losing her reputation; the damage was done. She would be ruined.
John knew what he must do.