A knock on the dining room door interrupted what most certainly would have been the beginning of a tedious explanation by him of the night's events and a scathing set down by his mother. He knew his reprieve would only be temporary, but it was appreciated all the same.
Beth, one of the housemaids, entered the room to announce the arrival of a visitor. Knowing Jane usually carried out that duty, he immediately wondered why she wasn't doing so now. Remembering the late morning hour, he thought it likely she was assisting somewhere else or running errands. After all, he was rarely home at this time of day – excluding Sundays, which were a day of rest for staff – leaving him completely unaware of the household routines carried out, as well as the comings and goings of servants, in the hours he usually spent at the mill.
"A visitor to see you, sir."
"I would prefer not to be disturbed this morning. Do you know who it is?" He had no appointments and rarely received business inquiries at home.
"Yes sir, it's a police inspector."
John's eyebrows rose in alarm. Police inspectors had never been received at his home regarding cases he handled as a magistrate, so it was an odd thing indeed to have such a visitor – even more so after the strange events of last night. John wondered if the call had something to do with Margaret's brother. The drunk man who had accosted them had seemed resolved to claim a reward.
John sighed in resignation. "See him to my study and let the man know I will be with him shortly."
"Yes sir," she bobbed a hasty curtsy in acknowledgement, before turning to leave mother and son together in silence, closing the door quietly behind her.
Turning back to his mother, John said, "I would like to know what you have heard before I speak with the police inspector."
"Nothing I have heard would warrant such a visit, I assure you."
He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead in irritation. "Let me be the judge of that. Please, what have you heard?"
"No one has spoken to me directly." She turned her gaze toward the window, her eyes roaming the activity there. "But I did overhear several conversations this morning, both in the mill yard and in the servants' quarters."
She had eavesdropped? John shook his head in exasperation. She had always disapproved of servants listening in on conversations meant to be private, and now here she was knee-deep in the mire herself! The idea of his mother stooping to gossip gathering in such a scheming way was almost laughable. Almost.
"I see you were serious when you said you 'took the liberty of looking into it', though 'listening into it' might have been a more accurate statement, Mother." He couldn't resist the oozing sarcasm that dripped from each word, bitter and antagonistic.
Turning back to him, she said, "Fine, you may scold me if you want, John, but I was not about to settle for our conversation last night." Raising her chin in defiance, she added "I knew you were hiding something."
"And what does all of Milton have to say about what I have been hiding?"
She looked down at her hands, which were now wringing her handkerchief, her boldness suddenly dissolving into a rare fretfulness, the likes of which John had only ever witnessed on life-altering occasions.
"John, they say you met Margaret upon your arrival at the train station last night!" Her voice trembled in a fusion of anger and distress. "Did you ask such a thing of the girl? You must have known how it would look to everyone in the middle of the night! Oh, she is such a reckless girl!"
His mouth fell open in astonishment, and though he attempted to close it, his body refused to cooperate, leaving him frozen in disbelief. How could he have asked Margaret to do anything when his departure from London had been delayed so unexpectedly?
Besides, did his mother not know him at all? He would never willingly jeopardize any lady's reputation, least of all Margaret's, by asking them to meet him anywhere at night. He was a gentleman, after all.
It also angered him that his mother condemned Margaret's involvement, believing her capable of agreeing to such an assignation as though she were a lady with loose morals. On the contrary, Margaret should be commended for her upstanding convictions, which would place her at the mercy of others just so she could see her beloved brother safely off at the train station.
Yes, he had considered rumors a possibility, but the reality of such hurtful words reaching his ears, sensitive as they were when it came to Margaret, was much, much different. If this was how people were speaking of her, he thought it might be a good idea to avoid the mill that day – and his mother. His control over his temper was already on shaky ground.
"Enough!" He removed the napkin from his lap and threw it onto the table next to his tea cup, disgusted by the conversation and what it was doing to his emotions.
"I will only say that the gossip you have taken at face value is entirely inaccurate. Margaret would never conduct herself in such a shameful way." Rising from his seat, he placed his palms upon on the table and leaned slightly over them toward his mother to emphasize his next point. "And you should know your own son enough to realize that I would never request such a favor from a lady."
Removing his hands from the table with a jerk, he turned on his heel to leave the room, ignoring his mother's appeals for him to come back.
**To all of my wonderful readers, what are your thoughts on this chapter and the overall story so far? Are my versions of John and Margaret consistent with those in the book/miniseries?
What do you think of Hannah's machinations? And her pique of anxiety? Too OOC? I hope not. To me, Hannah would do whatever it took to look out for her son, even if it meant a bit of scheming. And perhaps it was that slip of her morals in my story that contributed to her anxiety, because we all know how upstanding she usually is.
Thank you for reading my story! I love receiving your comments and feedback, and hope you are enjoying it so far. Happy reading!**
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Reputations - A North and South FanfictionFanfiction
Reputations, like the delicate petals of a Helstone rose, are fragile things indeed... Upon discovering Margaret in the arms of an unknown man, John intervenes. How will their story end when reputations are questioned? **This is a North and South fa...