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Tender Care

Chapter Text

They spared no time moving John Thornton from the hospital back to the house. It’s not an easy business moving an unconscious man of his stature across the town, but he was a man of many means and many favours owed to him, and so it was done. Mrs. Thornton dashed back to her home to arrange accommodations for her son’s arrival, impressing the urgency of Margaret’s stay as her black silk skirts bustled out the door. Margaret and Dr. Donaldson remained in the ward to prepare a list of the necessities for her patient’s care, but sent on an express to alert Dixon of her imminent departure, and all that needed to be packed before Margaret’s return to Crampton.

When Margaret finally reached the familiar doorstep, she felt exhausted to her core despite the sun not yet reaching midday. With a deep breath, she turned the knob, bracing for her family’s reaction to her news this morning. 

Mr. Hale attended to her first, his gentle voice calling from the study. “Is that you, Margaret?” She listened for the languid thud of his tread as he descended the stairs, choosing to hover at the threshold of the door lest he urge her to stay. As she feared, his face was flush with concern -- he sought to postpone his call to Mr. Bell upon hearing of Thornton’s injury, but was dissuaded. She hoped this turn of events would not force his hand once more.

They sat together on the bench in the foyer, and she explained to him all that had transpired earlier, and the full extent of her impending employ. 

“Are you certain you are up to the task, my dear?” her father asked, his brow knitting, “You don’t even like the man. To devote so much of your time to caring for him -- I know our home has been less than joyful in Milton, and I have been quite remorseful at the thought of leaving you alone for the coming weeks, but I hope you did not feel pressure to acquiesce to this request on my behalf. I do truly value John and I worry for his recovery, but I would be remiss as a father if I allowed you to take on this burden purely for the sake of my concern for him.”

“You worry too much,” she said, clasping his hands between hers. His worried gaze softened as he met her smile. “I am my own woman, papa, and I took on this duty of my own volition. While I would not consider our relationship a friendly one, I have a great respect for Mr. Thornton. He-- he has shown our family such kindness, and I know he is a very decent man, despite our differences in opinion. You should have seen him at the mill following his injury, father! You would have been proud. He had no concern for his own well-being, so focused he was on ensuring his workers were free from harm. I assure you the only obligation I feel is a moral one -- I do this for him as I would for any man.” 

The apprehension that enlivened Mr. Hale faded as he let himself be comforted, and he became once more the muted figure that Margaret knew following her mother’s death. “You have a good heart, my dear. You outshine us all.” He gently touched her cheek, and turned to retire to his study. 

At the top of the stair, he paused and called down in a voice half carried away by thoughts. “I suppose I might come visit you both tomorrow before I leave for Oxford. I shall bring my Plato. While his mind might be lost to us at this moment, reading goes good for the soul.”

“I would very much enjoy that, papa. I am sure Mr. Thornton would too, however he can.”

“I will see you on the morrow, then. God bless you, Margaret.” The creak of the door closing behind him signalled Mr. Hale’s return into the depths of his grief.

Once the man was safely away, Dixon rushed to her from her vantage in the kitchen. “Miss Margaret!” In contrast to her quiet exchange with her father, Miss Dixon’s agitation was even more grating than usual as the woman hustled into the foyer. “Am I to believe you’ll be leaving me here in Crampton to go tend to that blasted man who lost his leg up at Marlborough Mills?” 

Her weary shoulders pulled back as Margaret rose to her full regal height, the exhaustion that bore upon them now evaporating in a flash. “Dixon!” she chided sharply, keeping her voice low so as to not disturb her father. “To hear you speak of Mr. Thornton that way! The incident at the mill was a great tragedy -- there were people that died and many were gravely injured. We are very fortunate that Mr. Thornton is still here with us. ‘ Blasted man ’ -- to think this is how you refer to him, after all he has done for mother and for our family!”

“But--” Margaret watched the woman’s southern pride slowly deflate before her. 

“I do not wish to hear it, Dixon. Have you packed my trunk as I requested in my letter?”

“Nearly there, miss.” 

“Very good.” The pair stood in stony silence for a minute, Dixon fiddling with the lace on her apron, Margaret with hands clasped at her waist, listening to the impatient rumble of carts just beyond the door. She could not bear it too long -- with a sigh, the girl offered a comforting touch to the servant’s shoulder, and continued in empathetic tones, “Dixon, I can appreciate that my sudden departure is cause for anxiety, but you forget yourself. How I choose to spend my time is none of your concern, and I will not allow myself to be goaded on behalf of my pursuits. Not by you, or by anyone else for that matter.” 

“I know that, miss. My apologies. I’m just stressed by both you and the master leaving, is all. To think I’ll be left all alone in this house -- what am I to do?”

“Enjoy some much-deserved peace and quiet, I’m sure,” Margaret said ruefully, earning herself a watery smile in reply. 

Her usual bustling energy returning, Dixon busied herself with straightening Margaret’s shawl  before resting a friendly hand on hers. “You’re too good to me, miss. But I shan’t apologize for worrying. After you ran off that day into all that screaming-- I feared the worst, I did. Still can’t seem to shake the feeling, even with you here right in front of me. Gave me and your father quite the scare, Miss Margaret. I’m just happy it turned out alright.”

“I am too, Dixon. I am sorry to have put you in that situation.” She offered a reassuring squeeze to the palm that was now nestled between hers. 

“Water under the bridge and all that. Can’t change what’s done. We’d best get you ready though, miss. To think you’re off to stay with those Thornton’s -- what I wouldn’t give to see his face when he wakes up and realizes it was you all along that was helping him. Oh, what a sight that will be!”

“I’m afraid we won’t get that far if we keep his mother waiting much longer. If she even thinks I’ve considered reneging my offer, she’d accuse me of harming a Magistrate and lock me in a cell herself -- or worse!”  

Their laughter warmed the room and the pair hurried off to finalize their preparations. 

***

“Ah -- there he is, in all his glory. My poor, dear brother.” 

John Thornton could never be called small, but the bed of the sick room seemed to swallow him whole. His injury was propped on a board to prevent it being lost in the great sea of mattress beneath him.

“Mother said it was very good of you to help John, Miss Hale,” Fanny Thornton stated matter-of-factly as she led the young woman into the chamber. Margaret had never been in this part of the Thornton home, and was surprised to see its cold, immaculate air permeated even here.

Her chaperone paraded her to the four-poster at the centre of the chamber as if they were on a leisurely tour, and Margaret studied the man intently in their approach. From what skin Margaret could see, he looked sallow, save for the flush the fever brought to his cheeks. Against the stark white sheets, the overall grime that covered him was obvious -- he clearly had not seen a bath or a change of clothes since the accident. She would have to see to that, but balked at the thought of what it entailed.

“Quite a dreadful thing to lose a leg -- that it is, dreadful indeed,” Fanny’s prattling continued in hushed tones as they stopped before him. “But I suppose he’ll manage. He always has. Now, Mother had other things she wanted me to tell you -- give me a moment, Miss Hale. They will come to me!”

Her eyes glanced upon the bolt of cotton leaning on the wall across the bed. “Oh, yes -- this,” she fluttered her hand in its general direction, “is to be used for bandages and dressings and all the trimmings you will need, Miss Hale. I am sure Dr. Donaldson will provide you with some calico of his own, but there is nothing like Marlborough cotton, as John always says, and John deserves nothing but the best of course. Mother said you shouldn’t mind cutting them yourself, what with all the free time you’ll be having. There’s some great, sharp scissors on the ledge behind, and some thread for hemming and sewing and the like.

“You’re to be provided a kettle and a pot for the fire, I’ve been told. For you to prepare the bandages -- and make some tea, I suppose -- you do know how to boil the cloth for bandages, Miss Hale?”

“I am familiar with the practice, yes, Miss Thornton.”

Her guest started as Fanny’s relieved laugh rang out. “Oh, am I glad to hear it! I haven’t a clue of what that entails, but Mother impressed its importance on me this morning and I dare not ask her questions in her current state. Deary, no. Heavens, me! I feared I’d have to explain it and there is no knowing what kind of fiasco that would have turned out to be.”

Margaret schooled her face into a smile. “I am very grateful for Mrs. Thornton’s assistance and guidance, if by proxy. Please do send her my regards when you see her next.”

“Oh yes, Miss Hale, of course. No worries, no worries t’all! I am certain she’d like to be the one in here tending to him herself, but she’s got a great deal of work ahead of her if she’s to keep this place afloat while John is away. I told her to let Williams handle it but no, she would not hear one word of it. I swear there are times she has a mind to run the mill herself, but she would never dare get in John’s way. She thinks far too highly of him for that.”

Their tour around the bed had ended, and Fanny brought her back to the sick room door. She stood awkwardly as her chatter trailed off, unable to look directly at the mask of politeness before her. 

“I believe it is my turn to leave you, Miss Hale. If you should need anything at all, be sure to ring the-- oh! there is no bell. Fancy that- I’ve never seen a room without a bell before! Never you mind, just call out Jane’s name in the hall and she’ll come bustling, I’m sure of it. Dr. Donaldson should arrive within the quarter hour to instruct you, and if you could send him my way upon his departure, that would do me greatly. You mustn't tell Mother if she asks on it -- keep it our own private matter, shall we?” 

Margaret nodded sedately.

Fanny reached out and patted her hand awkwardly, rattling on to fill the silence, “Many thanks to you again, Miss Hale. Not many of us are able to eschew our appointments and duties to spend all day in-doors with the infirm -- yes, we are very grateful for your service.”

“Your brother is a dear friend to my father, we are simply returning his kindness. I hope the rest of your busy day will be most pleasant, Miss Thornton."

“It shall be, indeed,” Fanny Thornton replied proudly, her spirits rallying at the opportunity to gush. “Mr. Watson is to come to tea this afternoon, and hopes to hear me play. I do speak incessantly of music and I believe to have sparked quite the passion in him for it. Perhaps you might hear it if you leave the door open, although we do not often come to this part of the house, so I can’t be too sure. I have a mind to convince him to take me on a drive later if the weather holds, but I daren’t appear too eager I’m afraid -- not quite so soon.”

“I wish it well for you both.” 

“You are too kind, Miss Hale. Too kind.” With the reminder of her beau’s impending arrival, Fanny hastened towards her exit, shaking out some final long-winded platitudes as she went. Before her skirts all disappeared into the hall, she was stopped by Margaret’s voice.

“Miss Thornton, one more question if you please.” 

Fanny’s head poked around the corner as Margaret stood regally in the door, gesturing to the trunk against the wall. “Where am I to put my things?”

“Oh, deary me -- I almost forgot!”

Yes , thought Margaret as her host skittered back into the room, Almost

***

Fanny had tittered on for a few more minutes as she showed her guest to the cordoned-off section in the far corner of the sick room, but now Margaret had a precious period of reprieve before the doctor’s arrival. With the curtains drawn tight, she could almost imagine she were in her own private chamber, were it not for the dark shadow of the four-poster against the white cotton. It would be less obvious at night, she supposed, but she felt so improper at the thought of it -- she had never slept in a room with a man before.

She sat gingerly on the chair beside her, examining all that was enclosed within the fabric walls of her new abode: a small bed, a wardrobe, a vanity with a wash basin, and the door to a dressing room, with an adjoining water closet. She did not know of her anxieties at disrobing (or dealing with other intimacies) in close proximity to her patient -- conscious or not -- until her immediate relief at the sight of the door.

Her little corner was modest and cramped, but so was home, so she allowed herself to feel content, if only for a moment. While the experience thus-far lacked any sort of pleasantness, it was novel, and Margaret relished in the newness of her environment. She almost hummed in anticipation at what was to come next. It was an improvement from her dreary days in Crampton, at the very least. 

When Dr. Donaldson entered, it was with the same exuberance he showed in the hospital -- although in close-quarters, his joviality seemed sharp and grating as it pierced the sombreness of the room. “Miss Hale!” he cried in a voice loud enough to wake the dead.

“Good afternoon, Doctor Donaldson. I am pleased to see you so soon after our last encounter,” came Margaret’s polite response. Her thumb fiddled with the pages of the notebook in her hand as she moved from the safety of her corner, anxious to be alone with a man so overcome with excitement.

“You look well my dear, indeed. I am thankful to see you here, I almost worried you would not come to this dreadful affair.” His tone quieted as he sensed his surroundings -- and Margaret -- did not warrant as welcome of a reception as he hoped. 

“My father taught me to keep to my word, sir.”

“What a wonderful man he is, Miss Hale. I hope he is fairing amiably after the grim events of this past year.”

“He is doing as well as he can, sir, given the current circumstances.”

“Well I am sure that he is very lucky to have you during this time. I say we all are -- aren’t we, Mr. Thornton?” He moved now to his patient as he addressed him, absently checking his pulse. His gaze beckoned Margaret to join his side. 

“Just as stoic as the day I met him,” he quipped as the man made no reply and Margaret caught his wry smile. She allowed herself one in return as she mustered the courage to approach them. 

“Now Miss Hale,” the doctor professed, settling into a more professional cadence as he tended to his subject, but the warm tremor of his affable nature remained. “I feel as though I am one of the premier men in Milton to speak to your fortitude and strength my dear -- I do not think I will soon forget being cornered in your family’s drawing room, incensed to reveal your mother’s most precious secrets! What a force you are, my girl. When I saw your involvement with the wounded at the Mill -- and with Mr. Thornton’s surgery no less -- I cannot say I was surprised in the least. Delighted might be a better descriptor, if I may speak so candidly! You would make a fine nurse, if it weren’t so far beneath your station. I must inquire -- have you practice with these matters in the past or are your talents truly a god-given gift?”

“My experience with the infirm is quite varied sir, as I often aided my father calls to his parishioners,” Margaret began, remarking his nod as he remembered her speech at the hospital. “Admittedly, most dealt less with violence and more with internal diseases -- sitting with patients and offering comfort, as befitting a parson’s daughter. They were not altogether unpleasant visits, outside of the agony of being witness to their suffering. However-” she paused, but was urged on by the raise of his quizzical brow, “-while I did not see the injury itself, I did once attend to a man who was kicked in the chest by a horse, and thus am familiar with the various trials that can result from those afflictions.”

“In the dead of summer, I take it?”

“Unfortunately-- yes, sir.”

“Ghastly business, that is. We are fortuitous to have a cold Milton spring ahead of us, for both your and Thornton’s sake.” He shook his head at the thought. “Your endeavour here shall be of a different kind -- not one for the weak of heart, to be certain. However, your presence alone here today has rendered me wholly confident in your capabilities, Miss Hale -- so I suppose it is time for us to begin?”

Margaret paled as his hand reached to the dressings on John’s leg, but she swallowed hard and managed a weak smile. She spread open the pages of her notebook on the table beside them, and prepared her pen in the inkwell she had set there earlier. “I am ready to proceed, Dr. Donaldson.” 

***

Donaldson explained with great care the steps he was taking as he removed, and replaced, Mr. Thornton’s dressings. Margaret noted down each word dutifully, pausing at times for him to read what she had written and offer amendments until her instructions were of expert clarity. He indicated key landmarks to be mindful of when wrapping the leg, and how to ensure maintenance of proper tension to not suffocate the skin. “There’s little strings,” marked Margaret absent mindedly as he lifted the limb for her to see the underside. 

“Sutures -- made from catgut. We sew the skin together to speed the mending -- you mustn't worry about those, they will deteriorate on their own after a time. Just be mindful to not disturb them else you could affect how the wound heals. You can’t see them, but there are others on the inside as well, to close the arteries and veins and slow the loss of blood.  What a marvellous work of science and anatomy!”

Margaret nodded weakly, but spoke with sincerity: “Truly fascinating, Dr. Donaldson.”

He let her finish the tying of the dressings to great applause -- while patronizing, Margaret appreciated the boost to her confidence after all she had witnessed that afternoon. “Job well done, Miss Hale! Your future husband and children will be blessed to be under your care.” And at that, her mood deflated once again.

“I shall visit tomorrow at noon as I make my rounds to check on how the wound is proceeding. I anticipate it might be a while yet before we hear from Mr. Thornton, although his fever seems to be lessening -- he has gone through quite the shock, and his body and mind need this time to heal. When he awakens, come for me, and I will get you some Laudanum. He will be in a great deal of pain without it.”

The doctor swept her hands up in his and held them gently in his grasp. The soft, papery skin of his palms reminded Margaret of her father. “Now Miss Hale, the final test! Let us recite one last time the instructions I have given you -- no peeking at your notes, this time it must come from the heart!”

Margaret smiled at his tremulous voice, and cleared her throat. Her gaze drifted to the ceiling behind him as she repeated, “Change his dressings every 4 hours to start. Look for the signs of infection you had mentioned, and come to you immediately if any are seen. Keep his brow wet for as long as his fever persists. Encourage him to drink by dripping water down his throat, but do not let it enter his lungs. Do this until he regains consciousness--”

“Or thin gruel, that would do him better, if you can.”

“Thin gruel?” Margaret’s thoughts were in disarray at the sudden interruption of her chant.

“Yes -- in place of water. Whatever nutrition you can offer him. I can send Jane up with a bowl when I depart.”

“Oh -- very well, I shall try that. I believe the last item on my list was to see you when he woke up, unless you wish me to go into specifics of preparing bandages..” 

“I dare not bore you any longer with these things, Miss Hale. You have done quite well, and now you deserve a moment of repose before your patient demands your attentions again. I leave here contended that Mr. Thornton lay in your very capable hands. Good day, my dear!”

With that, he turned, and Margaret was alone with her thoughts once more.

***

It felt so improper. The nearness-- the shadows that clung to the corners of the room, making the areas of light feel warm and inviting and intimate-- the imposing sight of the bed, Mr. Thornton’s bed, as a reminder of all things private and illicit. The sick room was dreary during the day, but at night it was downright terrifying.

Margaret had pulled the heavy winged chair from the corner to serve as her nursing station at John’s side. The great curved back enveloped Margaret, making her feel safe and protected, her own little fortress in the unforgiving house. She could not remember the last time she had sat so closely to him without overwhelming anxiety -- the hospital visit was not considered, in her mind, due to the public nature of their gathering, and the necessity of it. Perhaps during the dinner he had hosted, although it pained her to think the strain on their acquaintance had begun so long ago. Even now, she was not at peace -- were they doomed to be forever at odds even if the other was unconscious of their presence?

Her brow remained furrowed as she tipped the spoon to John’s mouth, urging the gruel between his lips and listening as his body instinctively swallowed. It was no use, as her mind flipped between the moments of kindness -- almost tenderness -- he had shown her, and the bitterness he displayed right up to their last meeting at the Hale house*. Trying to riddle this out would drive her straight to madness.  

Her tired eyes found their way to the clock in the corner, both hands almost standing straight up at attention. One hour more before his dressings are to be changed -- and then, perhaps, sleep. Almost on cue, the door to the room opened, to reveal a bewildered Mrs. Thornton.

“Miss Hale!”

Margaret had not the strength to stand, so she instinctively bowed her head to the visitor from her chair. “Good evening, Mrs. Thornton.”

“Forgive the intrusion. It is a rarity to see young ladies awake at this hour -- although perhaps you make yourself the exception.” The implication woven thickly into her words should not have surprised Margaret, but it stung nonetheless. It was a wonder if she would ever be free from the shadow of Outwood Station. She thought better of beginning her stay with feelings of resentment, so she smoothed away the insult with an elegant smile, and dredged deep into her well of refinement and poise before she continued.

“Dr. Donaldson has provided me a rigid schedule for your son’s care -- it shall be a little while longer until I am able to rest for the night. I hope you have been keeping well, ma’am, during what I understand must be a trying experience for you and your family. Fanny has led me to believe that you have taken on Mr. Thornton’s responsibilities while he takes this time to heal -- he is fortunate to be blessed with such a dedicated mother.” Thinking of the burdens she carried for her own parents, Margaret meant every word.

The glare she received in return was so heated it could have reignited the embers in the hearth behind her. “What I or my family do with our time is no concern of yours, Miss Hale. How is my son?”

Margaret’s serene veneer could not hide her weariness of the day, but she persisted nonetheless. “He is doing well. His fever has lessened, although it still lingers. And I have compelled him to almost finish an entire bowl of gruel, at the doctor’s request.”

Before she could stop it, the girl’s remark tugged a smile at Mrs. Thornton’s heart. Getting her son to eat gruel was a feat indeed -- conscious or not. She had not succeeded at that task for many years, although she would not bless Miss Hale with the story herself.

“And yourself, have you eaten?” Her perfunctory question hung in the air as the matron crossed the room to the bed. 

Margaret’s lids closed slowly in dismay, but she could not avoid what was to come. “I have not, no.” 

Mrs. Thornton’s eyes snapped up from her son’s face. “I beg your pardon, Miss Hale?”

“I have not eaten, Mrs. Thornton,” Margaret replied, meeting her stare. She felt the answers to the matron’s unspoken questions on her tongue, but her tired dregs of gentility were evaporating before her, and she could not find it within her to offer that kindness. If the woman wanted the truth, she would have to ask for it.

“Is my chef’s cooking so abhorrent to you, miss? Perhaps you do not approve of my choice of menu?” Her approach caught Margaret off-guard -- she had expected a modicum of grace from Hannah Thornton, but saw now she had attributed more politesse to her character than was warranted. The woman’s poor opinion of Miss Hale lay bare in front of her.

“I am afraid I am unable to offer you my assessment, as I have not been privy to either of them, ma’am.”

“I know you are unfamiliar with the goings on of grand houses, Miss Hale, but there are servants you can ring for assistance--”

In her exhaustion, the last threads of Margaret’s decorum fell away and her civil tone turned cold. “I lived in a grand home in London for nine years, Mrs. Thornton. I am thoroughly familiar with how they operate.” Margaret’s voice barely rose over a whisper during their exchange, but her ire brought her to her feet, the embarrassment and frustration she had spent the day swallowing now lay hot in her throat. 

Mrs. Thornton could not look at her -- a task that proved especially difficult, as the girl’s very presence seemed to fill the room. Hannah’s sudden aversion seemed to flare Margaret even more, sparking the tinder the matriarch's snide comments had silently placed around her.

“To answer your question, there is no bell in this room for me to ring, Mrs. Thornton. I called out in the hall as Fanny instructed, to no response. No housemaid appeared to tend to the fire; no footman informed me it was time to sup. Your son’s gruel only arrived at the request of Dr. Donaldson at his departure, and it was left at the door without so much as a knock. I had half a mind to call on Dixon so I could receive a modicum of assistance, however I was not raised to venture into the halls of a home that I am a guest in, so here I remained to care for Mr. Thornton as I had promised. My father is to visit us in the morning, and I intended to bring the matter to your attention discreetly then out of regard for your staff -- but I will not sit quietly while my propriety and intelligence is put into question after I have been so thoroughly disrespected!”

As soon as her tirade ended, her rage burned away in a flash, leaving her a charred husk of fatigue. Magaret hid her shaking hands in her lap as she lowered herself back to the safety of her seat. Her eyes never left the woman’s face. 

It was a remarkable feat, rendering Hannah Thornton unable to speak. After a pregnant pause, there was a rustle of black silk as she stood quietly and moved to the door, feeling the sting of Margaret’s stare follow her.

There, she turned, and spoke in a stilted voice that, for her, might be considered gentle, “I apologize on behalf of myself and my staff for the discourtesy we have shown you today, Miss Hale. It is unbecoming of the Thornton name, and I am thankful my son has been spared the shame of witnessing it. If it pleases you, I myself can fetch you a plate of cold meats from the kitchens now, and return for an interview with you in the morning to ensure my staff attends to your needs.”

The fire had settled low in the hearth, casting long flickering shadows about the room. As the soft light danced on Mrs. Thornton’s face, Margaret remarked the deep creases of exhaustion she had not discerned earlier. Yet her shoulders did not sag, her chin arched high. It was no wonder her son was a formidable man, forged from the same iron that she was. 

To think of all she had borne in the short time since the accident -- two days that yet stretched on into eternity -- and all she had accomplished in her duress. The feat it took to prepare this room alone-- Margaret felt a pang of regret in her contemplation, her eyes moving to the clock in the corner. 

“I must attend to his dressings in three quarters of an hour,” she noted plainly, her expression unreadable and shaded in gloom. 

Mrs. Thornton’s posture did not falter. “That leaves you more than enough time to eat, I presume.”

Margaret's only immediate reply was to smooth her skirts, her head gracefully bowed like a preening swan. As her fingers ordered and reordered the pleats, she inventoried her thoughts. When her hands stilled, she met Mrs. Thornton’s gaze once more, her liquid eyes glinting with the warmth of the fire. “That is hardly enough for an adequate visit as-is, less so if you spend half of it in the kitchens.” She resisted the urge to fiddle with her sleeve. “If you intend to stay that late with your son, I shall wait the hour and take my meal once you have retired.”

A truce. Neither woman’s stare faltered until Mrs. Thornton’s head nodded in silent thanks. Perhaps , the matron mused, I could learn to see what had captured my son’s heart after all . “I shall rouse Jane and have her prepare us a plate. I will take over your watch when I return, it’d do you well to take this time to rest while you can.”

Hannah’s words earned her a small smile and Margaret settled deeper into her chair, aching for repose. “At this hour?” Her words barely carried over the crackling of the fire, half meek, half jest. “Are we certain she won’t be tempted to poison it?” 

“Not while I am here at the very least. But I advise we not make a habit of it during your stay.”

A tenuous laugh escaped her, “You have my thanks, Mrs. Thornton.”

“The same to you, Miss Hale.”

***

Margaret’s bleary eyes could not read the clock, but she felt the late hour deep in her bones. Her visit with Mrs. Thornton had passed, her plate cleared, and the wounds redressed-- at last, she could rest. And yet.

She slumped back in her chair. Bed beckoned her. But -- she could not yet leave his side. 

Her hands had burned all day, alighted with sparks each time her skin had grazed his: the gentle rest of her thumb on his chin as she held the spoon to his mouth; the soft brush of his temple as she swept his hair aside; the firm strength of his thigh as she smoothed the bandage across it. For hours she had endured these accidental touches -- only now, in the silence of the night, lit by the flicker of the hearth, did she dare make them intentional.

She was consumed by the thought until her palm tenderly caressed his cheek. Margaret could not begin to understand or question the impulse -- in her exhaustion, she sought only relief. Her fingers rested there a while before they wandered, tracing the fresh crease in his brow, the bold arch of his nose, the soft swell of his lips. They parted beneath her finger tips and his warm breath caused a pleasant shiver to tingle down her spine. 

Margaret had never seen him so unburdened, so open -- even in sleep, he carried an easy confidence that laid beneath his serious countenance. His solemnity was not due to shyness, but from his own sense of importance and duty. Now, that stoic facade faded, and she saw the man that appeared during moments of warmth and joy. The glinting smile he shared with her father after a lively debate; the welcoming pride of a host and Master as he entertained guests at his home; the tender stare of concern-- she shook herself, unable to endure that thread of remembrance, and returned her thoughts to the careful study of his features.

Absently, her hand had moved to cup his unshaven chin, marvelling again at the pleasant coarseness of the hair that grazed her skin, and she remarked the faintest of scars on the edge of his jaw. It was mostly healed -- the shiny streak of pink only visible in the right angle of light.

Drawn by curiosity, she followed the rough shadow of stubble onto his neck, trailing her fingers around his Adam's apple, exploring the dimples above his collarbones, before settling finally into the forbidden tangle of curls at the base of his throat. She stroked little circles into his skin at the edges of his shirt. In her rapture, she would not have noticed her crying if it were not for the hot tears melting into the cotton. 

His words from many months ago echoed in her ears, “ it sharpens the sense of existence till I hardly know if it is pain or pleasure ”**. How she doubted him then. How she understood him now. Her breath caught on the wad of emotion that welled in her breast, and she drew her hand back to her mouth, trying to choke back tears. 

How naive was she to think this endeavour would be anything but agony. To sit in constant reminder of his bitterness and mistrust. “ Is Miss Hale so remarkable for truth? ”*** His voice rang cruelly in the chambers of her mind. 

Truth indeed -- when she offered not a shred of honesty to herself. She endeavoured to hear the pleas of others, led by empathy and compassion to hear their plight, but deafened herself repeatedly to the keening of her own heart. Sobs wracked her body. Her audacity of considering him unfeeling when she dared not even examine her own -- dared not give them a name. For a moment, the grey haze of numbness that had allowed her to endure the winter dissipated, and she saw her own soul laid cast aside behind it, left to fester and rot in the places her thoughts would not reach. Heavens, the ache. 

Her head fell to his chest, his thin shirt soaked through. She yearned for him to rouse and wrap his arms around her, yet he remained still. The steady thrum of his pulse and the rise and fall of his breath were the only comforts he could offer her.

And so she wept. Alone. Back into numbness.

After she eked out the last of her tears, Margaret rose and wiped at her face. She stole one last glance at the man who stole her heart and then clamped it shut. If she lost herself now, she wouldn’t bear the coming weeks.