The next morning, Margaret's spirits were much improved, and she found herself eager to leave the narrowing confines of her home. With Frederick's sequestering visit, it had been some days since she wandered the various neighborhoods of Milton to carry out errands and visit with the Higgins family. Having decided to fetch the few groceries they needed in Dixon's stead as the perfect excuse to go out, she made her way downstairs to obtain a list from the servant, as well as a basket.
To her surprise, the door to her father's study was wide open. A welcome sight to behold, it was also one she was determined to take advantage of. Stepping over the threshold into her father's domain, she perused the room with a faint smile. His beloved books and mementos were scattered about the room haphazardly as though they had been set down mid-use. Her fingers itched to resume her usual task of keeping the study tidied, but knowing her father's melancholy, she forced herself to ignore the neglected room for the present.
"Good morning, Papa." She leaned down and kissed his cheek, receiving a half-smile in return as he lifted his absent gaze to her from the window. "I am going to the grocer's this morning. Would you like to join me? It's a beautiful day." She inwardly cringed. No day could accurately be described as 'beautiful' in Milton, but she hoped her positivity would overshadow the irony.
Her father patted her cheek affectionately. "I quite agree. Yes, I think perhaps a walk is just what I need."
She couldn't contain the smile that broke across her face. Regardless of whether this improvement in his spirits was temporary or not, she looked at his agreement as a leap forward worth celebrating. "Wonderful! Just give me a moment to gather up a few things."
By the time she wrangled items she needed from Dixon, her father was waiting in the entry. Wrapping her arm through his, they made their way outside into the lingering haze and bustle of Crampton.
At a leisurely pace, they walked toward the grocer's. With practiced ease, she blocked out the barking of vendors, as well as the unpleasant sights and smells of city life. What she couldn't ignore, however, were the curious stares and critical glares that seemed to follow her, replacing the once pleasant 'hellos' and acknowledging nods she had grown so used to receiving from her neighbors and friends.
Margaret glanced at her father, relieved to see he remained blissfully unaware of their cold reception. If only she could say the same for herself.
It was apparent more than cotton was being manufactured in the mills of Milton. Rumors had been fabricated and conveyed across the city about her, formed and twisted without consideration of how they would affect her reputation and that of her father's.
Despite her growing exasperation with those who believed whatever gossip was circulating about her, Margaret found she was angrier with herself for overlooking the mess at the train station in her eagerness to free herself from the somber walls she now lived within. Because of her thoughtlessness, she had hastily stumbled into something far worse.
Her skin burned under the blistering gazes of those around her. Turning the corner to approach the grocer's, Margaret hoped the shop would provide some kind of relief, a balm to her embarrassment and distress. She quickened her step, whisking her confused father with her. However, upon crossing the threshold, she found their entrance to be anything but alleviating.
Customers froze mid-motion to gawk at them, sending Margaret's steps faltering momentarily as she felt her father tense up beside her. Whispers meant to be shared privately could be heard through the shop, which drained her father's face of what remaining color he had.
Without explanation, Margaret steered him away from where most of the customers were conducting their business and over to a deserted corner where a few books were on display. Gently removing her arm from his and averting her eyes, she spoke in a quiet and deceptively calm voice. "See if there is anything you like, Papa, while I fetch the items on Dixon's list."
Moving away from her father before he could thwart her, she efficiently circulated through the store, selecting the items she needed and placing them in her basket. Unlike her previous visits, she made no effort to socialize with the occupants of the shop, opting instead to nod a silent greeting in passing. In little time, Margaret had gathered what she needed and paid the very grocer Mary Higgins had implicated the day before, all the while wordlessly rebuffing his smug disapproval.
Drawing up beside her solemn father, who had since moved toward the door, she once again wrapped her arm through his. As soon as they were outdoors, he mutely pointed in the direction of the cemetery. The silence reigning between them was tense and immediately left Margaret uneasy. So rarely disappointing her father, she had little experience to refer back to in terms of what to expect.
Now at her mother's grave, she could see her father priming his words. When they finally came, his voice was low and gently reproving, his eyes direct, reminding her of the evening she had refused to shake Mr. Thornton's hand. But this time, there was a desperation in the air that alarmed her.
"I cannot believe it of you, but I must ask." He paused, his shoulders drooping under the heavy burden. "Have you..." he shook his head, his discomfort palpable. "Have you been sneaking out at night?"
It broke her heart to see the unshed tears clouding his eyes as he looked at her. "No, Papa, I would never...it is not true. Please, let me explain." She gestured toward a nearby bench, concerned about her father's wellbeing. "When Frederick left, I accompanied him."
His eyes widened in surprise, but before he could say anything, she interjected.
"I couldn't bear to send him off all alone, Papa. I had to go."
An unusual show of exasperation broke into his tone, making his words harsh. "But why didn't you take Dixon with you, Margaret? Didn't you think at all for your safety? Your reputation?"
Her response was reticent, almost apologetic. "She offered, but I asked her to stay with you. I was worried, Papa. Very worried."
He nodded gravely. "So these rumors...what is this about you seeing two men? And what have they to do with Mr. Thornton?" At her both horrified and questioning look, he added, "As you shopped, his name was brought up in the conversations around me."
Her heart sank, for she had no desire to risk her father's opinion of Mr. Thornton. However, she did her duty, hoping to exonerate herself from the very idea of meeting two men. She described the night at the station and the consequent rumors floating around, as well as the mysterious death of Leonards. At the conclusion of her account, she noted the grimace upon his face, as though he were pained by what he heard.
"I know how little you care for the man, but Mr. Thornton will have to do his duty by you. I insist upon it."
"What?" She shook her head vigorously. "No, Papa. It is best not to pursue this."
Running his fingers through his thinning hair, he asked "What kind of father would I be if I did not insist he restore your reputation? He is a worthy man, Margaret, one of the finest I have known. Why do you refuse the very idea?"
She ducked her head, humiliated and regretful. "Because I have already refused him."
**I really wanted to include a chapter about the rumors Mrs. Thornton referred to as the tittle-tattle of Milton. Hope you liked the reference to what is essentially Milton's rumor mill about mid-chapter.
I thought it would be interesting for Margaret to face the gossip about her in a way that was much more eye-opening and humiliating in comparison to the situation with the riot, which she got away with pretty well, considering.
I also wanted to involve Mr. Hale this time, since he seemed pretty clueless in canon, as well as the series. It was important to me that he be aware of the burden Margaret carried in escorting Frederick to the station alone, as well as worrying about him in his time of sorrow.
Let me know your thoughts on this chapter please...pretty please!**
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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...