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I am afraid I should be a Coward

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Margaret Hale sat at her small dressing table, staring dully into the mirror before her as she pulled an ivory hairbrush through her long, nearly-black hair. The rest of the house was silent and dark, the lamplight casting gentle shadows against her face the only outward evidence of life in the place. 

Life, she thought sadly, knowing that her mother’s was swiftly moving toward its conclusion. The last two days had been trials, and the future offered no respite. Her mother was dying, her father fragile, and her brother, Frederick, in exile and under constant threat of peril. A threat that would grow if he received the letter Margaret had written him today, begging him to return to England to fulfill his mother’s final wish. 

Despite all this, Margaret found her mind wandering elsewhere. She could still see the mark next to her hairline on her left temple, a souvenir left by a sharp pebble during her adventure at Marlborough Mills the day before. The wound no longer hurt her, but as she touched it, a series of partial images and sounds from the riot and its aftermath flooded her mind’s eye and ear. There was the crush of agitated millworkers in the yard. A flying clog. A scarlet stain blooming on her white fichu. John Thornton’s scowling face, and then his voice…angry at first, and then…strangely tender.

“Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead—cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!”

She flinched at that recollection, though she suspected it wasn’t truly a recollection at all, but rather some twisted artifact of unconsciousness caused by her injury. Like a bizarre dream. Or maybe some hallucination of the present, brought on by the events of today. Today. Not to be outdone by yesterday, today had brought another shocking trial. A proposal. 

Margaret swiftly dropped her hand to her lap. At the soft silver sound of her bracelet clinking gently against her nightgown, she realized that she’d forgotten to remove it as she undressed for the night. She unclasped it, placing it inside the small rosewood jewelry box next to her mirror, then quickly set to the task of braiding her wild mane. As exhausted as she was, she’d never be able to face her hair in the morning if she left it free. Dixon had her hands full with Mamma these days, so Margaret had to make do on her own. 

Strands thick as earthworms and twice as unruly, Margaret muttered to herself, struggling to smooth the follicles. The task was still not enough to keep thoughts of the mill, or John Thornton, from reentering her mind. Hannah Thornton was suddenly there, too, as Margaret recalled a conversation from her first visit to the Thornton home. Mrs. Thornton had very pointedly asked her if she were a coward. 

 “I do not know whether I am brave or not till I am tried; but I am afraid I should be a coward.”

Blessed with an insular, loving childhood and sheltered young womanhood, Margaret had passed eighteen years of life with little reason to question the order of her world, or her place in it. But now she knew there was so much left to learn, and so little precious time in which to learn it. 

Before Milton, Margaret had never given much thought to whether or not she was a particularly brave or strong person. She’d never considered herself a snob, either, but Milton had a way of challenging a person’s sense of self straight down to her core. It was not unlike the cold of its northern climate, chilling straight through to the bone. Cold, hard, merciless…well, perhaps Miltonians would consider their city more honest and direct - either way, there was little comfort here, materially or emotionally.  Every brewing crisis, personal or otherwise, came to a head sooner or later. There was no way to hide from the truth in Milton. 

Mrs. Thornton had insisted that Milton was no place for cowards. It was certainly the most trying place Margaret had ever known, for it included more than its fair share of trying people - well, one trying person in particular. She had decided early on that she disliked John Thornton, but it was increasingly apparent that Margaret actually feared him in some confounding way. But why?

He was no monster, and a mere odious personality could not scare Margaret Hale. She certainly could admit to not liking John Thornton very much, but the threat she felt wasn’t just a matter of not getting along. Not even John’s mother - cut from the same cloth as her son, it seemed - raised Margaret’s hackles in anything close to the same manner. 

Margaret was beginning to understand that the threat lay in his being a man. But not just any man, a general representative of the more frustrating sex. Rather, he was a very particular, singular type of man. 

“And so she shuddered away from the threat of his enduring love. What did he mean? Had she not the power to daunt him? She would see. It was more daring than became a man to threaten her so.”

It was distressing enough to for him to force her to hear that he wanted her, but that wasn’t the real problem. This went far beyond the presumption, the audacity of loving her when she thought she did not want to be loved. After all, even tepid Henry had told Margaret he loved her more than ever when he left her that fateful day in Helstone. But she did not fear Henry. With John Thornton, it was not so tidy.

No, the real anguish came when Margaret realized that she might want John Thornton, too. Her own body was betraying her in a battle she was beginning to doubt she could win. There was an…inevitability in this man that she knew she could not outlast, and yet she still could not bring herself to face it. The proper vicar’s daughter within her would rather die.

Margaret had always expected that given the right circumstances, she would fall in love, want to marry, and have children. She knew that meant physical things, but she’d never bargained for the added terror presented by lust. Not just his - which was now obvious - but hers. Those searing thrills and the consuming aches that suddenly knocked the wind out of her weren’t just about righteous anger. John Thornton lit her up, and that was what frightened her most. 

Like Milton itself, he defied every convention she knew. Emotionally and intellectually, he thrust her beyond all her prior experience. His knowledge and opinions challenged her values and worldview. He was determined to speak his mind and demanded justice when he felt he had been mischaracterized or otherwise wronged. His mere presence seemed to make demands. This was enough to raise Margaret’s ire, selfish man, but there was yet more. Simply in existing somewhere in the world, he affected her…intrinsically, and not just by getting the better of her emotions, or in sending jolts of something straight up the center of her body. Margaret knew she had allowed her deepest self to be breached in some fundamental way, and she was left struggling to understand it. 

“…the clear conviction dawned upon her, shined bright upon her, that he did love her; that he had loved her; that he would love her. And she shrank and shuddered as under the fascination of some great power, repugnant to her whole previous life. She crept away, and hid from his idea…She disliked him the more for having mastered her inner will. How dared he say that he would love her still, even though she shook him off with contempt?”

He didn’t mean harm. In fact, she now believed that he truly did care for her. So why did it feel like a personal invasion, a war over some sacred territory within her, to know this? Even Henry, the only other man who came close to treading upon her self-sovereignty, never threatened her equilibrium more than temporarily. Proposal aside, Henry’s brand of inscrutability was self-contained and crafted to minimize offense. Margaret could ignore Henry most of the time. But Thornton was lawless in that regard. He was a different breed of man from a different world, where the southern code of gentlemanly conduct did not apply. Perhaps Margaret could use this code as a way to cut Henry off and save her the trouble of dealing with the inconvenience of other people’s emotions, but there was an insistence about John that constantly put him near the center of her thoughts. Even when he was minding his own business. Even now, when they were apart and she should be enjoying the oblivion of slumber. 

Margaret exhaled quickly, then found herself stifling a yawn as she pressed her palms gently against her her eyelids. Proposals, always inauspicious. She’d now received two, both of them marking a turning in her life. Henry proposed on the day her father announced the family’s removal to Milton, and Thornton declared himself immediately after that mortifying day at the mill. She knew what was coming next. Mamma. Bessy. And God knows what else. 

John’s proposal unleashed a torrent of pent up emotions within Margaret. She wasn’t one to dwell much in self-pity, but she was not impervious to guilt, sorrow, and dread, three feelings with which she had not come to terms in some time. As the swift cloud of feeling began to subside a bit, she realized that her reaction to the proposal was less about John Thornton making her feel things she didn’t want to feel than it was a rebellion against everything that threatened her and those she loved. 

But more than grief and fear, the sharpest sensation she felt on that score, at this moment, was shame. Shame at having endangered both herself and John in the midst of the mill riot. In her haste to help (and if she was completely honest with herself, to prove she wasn’t a coward), she had made a fraught situation even worse. 

She also felt shame for propagating, well - a lie - at his expense. John may have considered his proposal an unmitigated disaster, but Margaret could acknowledge now that it was honest and well-intended. As for her own share in the unfortunate event, Margaret felt she had acted cruelly, even fraudulently. Out of pride, she had buried her confusion, shame and mortification under a thick blanket of moral indignation. Certainly, her immediate reaction had been almost involuntary - she faltered as she grasped not only for words, but for her very feelings. But this could not excuse her. She was not so seriously upset with John to blame him as she did. 

Margaret was most ashamed, however, of her own snobbery. She was contending with the last, dying embers of her assumption that John Thornton could never really love her. This wasn’t because she felt herself so unworthy of true love. Rather, she had fancied up until now that John Thornton was unworthy of feeling it. 

“In Mr. Thornton’s case, as far as Margaret knew, there was no intervening stage of friendship. Their intercourse had been one continued series of opposition. Their opinions clashed; and indeed, she had never perceived that he had cared for her opinions, as belonging to her, the individual.”

Until now, Margaret was satisfied to let the truth about John Thornton lay obscured behind gauzy layers of her own prejudice and naiveté. It was easy enough to belittle and dismiss a man one considered beneath her respect. John Thornton wasn’t worthy because he wasn’t a gentleman, she’d thought. But what made a gentleman, or rather, a worthy man? He wasn’t a gentleman because he was in trade (Really Margaret, he is *a manufacturer* - there is a difference!). Because he valued profits and was sometimes cold to his workers. Because he was a northerner. Because his accent wasn’t genteel. Because he’d never completed a gentleman’s education. Because he was sometimes brutally honest. Because he was sometimes brash and raw and angry. Because he didn’t act like the gentlemen Margaret knew. Because he didn’t have the luxury of seeing the world through Margaret’s yellow-rose-colored glasses. Because, well, he was different. None of this, when she created a mental list of the various ways in which he defied her sense of propriety, seemed like good enough reasons to dislike John Thornton the way she wished to… 

“…not quite a gentleman; but that was hardly to be expected.”

Margaret blinked at the girl in the mirror, casting her eyes downward as her lips twisted into something halfway between a grimace and a frown. Even in the dark, she couldn’t manage to meet her own eyes. Maybe I am a coward, after all.

With a deep breath, she steeled herself to match gazes with Mirror Margaret once again. 

The Allegory of the Cave is backwards, Margaret thought as she doused the lamp and climbed into her bed. It wasn’t the full light of day that provided understanding, but rather the shadows of night in this tiny bedroom which allowed her to finally begin to see things for what they were.

For when she thought of him now, her heart fluttered.