In the Company of Children

Since I’ve taken to sharing all sorts of things, it’s about time that I post a bit of my fan fiction. No, don’t all run away! Hopefully it’s not that bad!

To start is the first chapter of In the Company of Children, the North and South-based story that I wrote.

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The winter had gone on but it was noticeably milder in London where there was at least hope in the buds that were beginning to form. Edith and Aunt Shaw had gone to pay an afternoon visit and had insisted I joined them. That was until Sholto threw one of his well-timed fits of passion.

“Oh Sholto, why do you always choose to cry when your mamma is almost out the door?”

“Don’t worry, Edith.” I assured her, “I will stay and calm him down.”

“But Margaret, I counted on you to come with me to the Pipers! We must call after the glorious ball they gave last week.”

I did not tell Edith that the ball was like any other in the London season – the usual empty spectacle of society stalwarts alongside new money desperate to make their mark. I spent the entire night beside Aunt Shaw and thought it remarkable that it was not so long since Edith and I talked of dresses, balls and prospective suitors. She and Aunt Shaw of course made countless entreaties for me to dance, and there were offers – none successful.

Aunt Shaw shook her head at my refusals, remarking, “My dear, I’m sure the North has made you forget the ways of polite society. We must get you back on track. No man wants to marry a lady so… wilful and outspoken, you know!”

I hardly listened to her lectures, instead letting my mind wander back to that little terrace house in Milton. Three months in London could not erase my memories there. For the first month I hardly left the house. Papa’s passing and its aftermath had exhausted all my reserves. I was numb and wallowed in the self-pity that came from losing everyone I had cared for. Tears formed as I thought of my father, so gentle, so good to everyone. I missed him dreadfully and this longing renewed my grief for Mama and Bessy. Yet equal to this grief was my ache for the one who did not even care for me – Mr. Thornton – whose disapproving looks and speeches were almost a joy to recall now that they were no more.

Gradually the pain receded bringing reality that seeped through the numbness. I found myself cocooned in the luxury of Harley Street where everything was perfect, from the décor to the teas that appeared like clockwork. The occupants of Harley Street languished in style, unaware of the world outside or below in the dark corridors of the servant halls. In all my years in this house I had never noticed how easy life was here. The mundane Milton activities of taking Papa his tea, talking to Nicholas or helping Dixon in the kitchen seemed enthralling compared to the dull ease of London life.

After a time, I longed to be amongst people who cared not for frippery but for the land. As a child, the simplicity of a walk in the forest with Papa was enough to fill my day with joy and I yearned to experience that joy again. My childhood home of Helstone became the embodiment of perfection and a much-needed constant in my turbulent life, but even progress had not bypassed Helstone.

On my return with Mr. Bell I found that children grew, the elderly passed away, families came and went. Even the parsonage was almost unrecognisable after much renovation by the new vicar. Attitudes changed too, or perhaps mine did as I could no longer see things as I used to.

I used to be wary of love. I was afraid of its power to consume, to override reason and dilute identity. From observation I knew that love often went astray. Mother and Father may have started out in love but lack of communication and years of misunderstandings had wearied them into shadows of their former selves. With my whole future at stake, how was I to recognise love when I had never loved before? How could I be certain that that love was right? With these questions plaguing my mind, I asked Edith how she knew that she loved Captain Lennox, that he was the one she wanted to marry. Her answer was frustratingly simple – she felt it in her heart.

There was truth in Edith’s words. When Henry proposed I rejected him – I knew that what I felt could never be more than brotherly love. What I felt for Mr Thornton could never be mistaken as ‘brotherly’. My first sight of him was in his mill where he stood majestically above the roar of the machines, the swirling cotton and the multitude of workers. His upright and masculine figure invoked feelings so far removed from the gentle affection I held for Henry that I hardly knew what to call it.

Around him I felt so combustible, so self-conscious, so unlike myself. Mr. Thornton was the only person who could consistently make me lose my sanguine temper, whose blue eyes could look with such intensity as to see right through my pretences. The lightest of touches felt like a brand on my skin and I was certain that my heart physically swayed at the sound of his voice. Little did I realise that these symptoms were the inklings of love.

When Sholto’s cries grew louder Edith finally agreed to my assistance and gladly departed with Aunt Shaw. I sought out Sholto by following the echo of his wails.

“I want Mamma!” he cried as he tossed his little body about the nursery floor. Hanley, the nursemaid, tried to scold him into silence without success but I did not indulge him in his want for attention. Instead, I silently dismissed Hanley and then seated myself at Sholto’s small table. Gathering the toy infantry, horses, cannons and officers that were strewn about, I picked up what looked to be a captain and called out,

“Look Sholto, here is Papa!”

“No!” he replied.

“He’s riding a horse…” I said playfully, galloping the ‘Captain’ around the table.

“I don’t want to play.”

I continued on regardless and gradually his sobs lessened. By the time I had manoeuvred the opposing armies into position he was at my side. Lifting Sholto into my lap, I kissed his tear-stained cheek while he took command. It reminded me of the times Frederick and I would play with his toy soldiers on rainy afternoons. Afterwards Papa would tell us stories of Greek gods and their battles long ago. We sat spellbound at his feet, wishing we could be as strong as Achilles or as beautiful as Helen. Our family was so happy in the days before Frederick went to sea. What sorrows had we suffered since!

Sholto and I played happily, our soldiers fighting duels, our horses charging across the table. The sight of him so immersed in play turned my thoughts again to Mr. Thornton. What was he like as a child? It was initially difficult to see him as anything but a man, but when he was in animated discussion with Papa he seemed years younger. The vibrancy of his smile dispelled all shadow and his rumbling laughter filled the room.

How delightful a boy he must have been! I could comprehend his mother’s pride at rearing such an intelligent, studious, and energetic son, who worked tirelessly to redeem the integrity of his family. The mill was a testament to his strength and resolve but what would he become if it was lost as his growing financial difficulties foretold? It was distressing to think that his childlike qualities may vanish forever.

At the sound of the bell, Hanley returned. “It’s time for Master’s bath now, ma’am. And tea is ready for you in the drawing room.”

“Thank you, Hanley.” I replied, only to be seized by Sholto.

“Don’t go, Aunty!” he cried as he tugged at my sleeve.

I gave way at the sight of his crumpled face. “Alright, Sholto. Still, you must have your bath but I will read you a story afterwards.”

He threw his arms around my neck. “I love you, Aunt Margaret!” he cried, kissing my cheek. Oh, little Sholto! How I wished you were my own! My heart was too full to do anything but kiss his brow in return before Hanley led him away.

I made my way to the drawing room where the tea and cakes had been so elegantly laid out on the sideboard. After carefully pouring the tea into a fine bone china cup I seated myself on the sofa and listened to the faint clattering of the carts and carriages outside. I could not help but ponder further about the one utmost in my mind.

It was astonishing that my acquaintance with Mr. Thornton could spurn any level of affection, let alone love. And yet love did emerge, though unexpected and initially unwonted. I was shocked when Mr. Thornton proposed after I had thrown my arms around him in defence against the rioters. My cheeks burned as I imagined how I must have appeared. He should have been ashamed of my behaviour, yet somehow he admired me for it, loved me for it, and wanted to marry me!

How could he love me when I had previously been so uncivil to him? I reasoned at the time that he must have proposed out of obligation, and accused him so. I bitterly declared that he was not a gentleman, was incapable of love, but he defended his feelings so passionately that it left me in no doubt his intentions were genuine. I wanted to retract my spiteful words as soon as he departed, but they had already penetrated, and deeply, judging by the hurt evident in his eyes whenever we met. Nonetheless, though it pained him to see me he became more caring than I had ever known him to be.

He was attentive to my mother during her illness, took on Nicholas at the mill and showed interest in Tom Boucher’s schooling. More recently he had sponsored a dinner scheme for his workers and I was astounded to hear Dixon declare him “exceedingly helpful” in finding a tenant for the house. His continued civility made me acutely aware of how much I misjudged him. Though hard, he was not heartless. Unlike my own treatment of him, he had not let his bitterness overcome his kindness or his justice.

All of this strengthened my regard for him and re-enforced just how extraordinary he was. He was courageous enough to declare his love even though he knew it was not reciprocated. If I had not let my prejudice rule over my heart I would have been conscious of the honour that his love brought and loved him in return. To the chagrin of my mind, my heart had plunged headlong into an impossible love for one who held me in contempt.

There will be no opportunities to redeem myself. I will never be able to tell him of Frederick, of the incident at the station or why I had lied. With knowledge of my deceit, thinking me indifferent and attached to another, he will not renew his love. How I empathised with his pain now that I was experiencing the very same despair! It was agonising to know that the one you loved was the one most indifferent. My sins had truly earned me this lifetime of exile.

A knock announced the return of Hanley. “Miss Hale, the master is ready now.” I followed Hanley to Sholto’s bedchamber. As I entered I saw that he was sitting up in bed, eagerly awaiting my arrival.

“Are you ready for your story?” I asked.

“Yes, Aunty!”

I smiled at his keenness and caressed his soft hair. Taking the large volume from the bedside table and I opened it to read the familiar opening,

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…”

The story was one that I had read many times in childhood – a princess who was cursed from birth and at a prick of a finger fell asleep for a hundred years until awakened by the kiss of a handsome prince. This indolent life felt like a deep sleep, but I had no prince to come to my rescue.

I read the familiar story, acting out the various characters, but the day’s exertions had taken its toll on Sholto and after a time his eyes drooped into a peaceful slumber. I set aside the book and studied his little form. How angelic he looked in his sleep! Gently stroking his hair, I marvelled at his innocence and beauty. These were golden moments of pleasure, rare in the grey landscape of my life. I wished that this sense of peace could be as constant as sunlight on a clear day yet I knew that they would merely be intermittent shafts in a storm.

If a fairy godmother could grant me all the wishes of my heart, then instead of being burdened by this unbearable guilt I would explain my indiscretions to Mr. Thornton and be free.

Instead of merely giving Mr. Thornton Father’s Plato, I would give him my heart.

Instead of rejecting him so emphatically I would take his strong hands and kiss them with gratitude, so unspeakably precious he was to me.

Instead of scorn, his piercing eyes would be filled with love.

Instead of this eternal separation we would be together in Milton, our future full of the smiles and the laughter of our children.

So I closed my eyes. And wished.

****

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