Chapter 11 - Plummeting from the Heights

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As John trudged up the steps to the front door of his home later that day, he exhaled a weary sigh. His afternoon had been consumed with catching up at the mill, mainly recording ledger entries and reviewing new orders acquired since his departure to London, few though they were. Fortunately, a remarkable absence of issues relating to production, employees, or machinery left him uninterrupted as he worked, making his own output effectual and orderly. Business, however, was still suffering the ill effects of the strike, and John was unsure how to bring the mill back from the brink of failure it was so dangerously teetering on.

But the morning – that had been the toughest part of his day. The Thorntons' visit to Jane's home lasted well past noon. With some probing questions, she had offered additional details from that night, including some distinguishable features of the carriage and driver's livery.

It had also taken some time to secure her cooperation in the official investigation. Jane's anxiety over her safety, legitimate as it was, could not be disregarded or minimized. And as much as he wished to, John could offer no assurances regarding her welfare once she gave her testimony. The culprit, whoever they may be, had already employed violence, after all.

These factors left Jane struggling for some time between involvement and remaining silent, but it was a matter of conscience that finally swayed her to submit to an interview with Mason, declaring she must not allow Mr. Thornton to suffer for something he was not responsible for. Relieved, John and his mother had offered to escort Jane to the police station, but she had assured them she would make her way there with Leonards' mother in tow. John was counting on her to follow through. It was essential to clearing his name, as well as recompense for Jane's injuries and justice for Leonards' death.

Making his way upstairs to change for the evening meal, his thoughts shifted once again to the Hales. After supper he planned to make his way to Crampton, though not for tutoring. John had every intention of courting Margaret properly and, despite the difficulties he currently toiled under, he planned to be very deliberate in his actions. There could be no room for further miscommunication or speculation between them.

-----

Margaret sat in the drawing room with her father after supper, looking on worriedly as he gazed absently into the fire, an open book long abandoned on his lap. Since their visit to town and subsequent detour to the cemetery, her father's demeanor had shifted from grief-stricken to distracted, causing her great concern. The invitation to join her, which had been meant to improve his low spirits, had turned into an unfortunate setback that she felt entirely guilt-ridden over, and Margaret struggled with what she should do.

A light knock on the door startled Margaret from her thoughts. Turning, she immediately recognized the dour expression on Dixon's face and, before the woman even uttered a word, Margaret deducted Mr. Thornton must be visiting. A brief impulse to laugh at the absurdity of her servant's unrelenting disdain came over her, but she squelched the urge, knowing it would only earn Dixon's ire and the men's confusion.

"Mr. Thornton, welcome. Please, do come in and join us," she entreated with a smile.

Glancing at her father, she observed the solemnity still written upon his lined face as his lackluster attention was turned to their guest – a rarity in the reception of his esteemed pupil and friend. Absent were the beaming smiles and carefree joviality he usually shared with the younger man.

Margaret turned her attention back to Mr. Thornton, perceiving at once his concerned, almost hesitant, approach toward the elder Hale. As the men shook hands, an unnerving silence dampened any expectation Margaret had of the visit lifting her father's spirits. If his treasured friend's presence didn't bring him joy, what on earth would?

"I hope I am not intruding upon your evening," he queried, looking between the two Hales, his forehead creased with uncertainty.

"No intrusion at all, John," her father sighed. "You must forgive my less than warm welcome." Mr. Hale resumed his seat, gesturing John toward the settee across from him. "Margaret and I happened upon some...well, never mind. I am simply overwhelmed." His shoulders dropped dejectedly.

"How can I help, Mr. Hale?" The authentic care and kindness was palpable in the low timber of his voice and unwavering regard.

Margaret's widened eyes met her father's, and she shook her head discreetly, pleading silently for his discretion. Though she knew of Mr. Thornton's feelings toward her and now returned them in kind, she had no desire for him to press his suit under duress. For all she knew, Mr. Thornton had no intention of renewing his sentiments and risking another rejection, despite his affections for her.

Her father's stolid voice broke into her crushing contemplations. "Margaret, will you not see to some tea?" His half-smile belied the undercurrent of despair seeping from the man.

Panic threatened to constrict her airway, making it hard to breathe. "Of course," she squeaked out, before escaping the room in what must have appeared a mad dash toward the relative safety of the kitchen below.

-----

The scene playing out before him was odd. Very odd indeed. In the past, Margaret and Mr. Hale interacted with such delight and warmth shared between them that a person couldn't help but covet their familial rapport. Theirs was a relationship built on mutual devotion and accord.

However, what he now witnessed was anything but enthusiastic and harmonious. This division between them was disheartening and, above all, mystifying. What could have come between them, especially at such a time of grief? Whatever the matter, John assumed it must be quite serious.

Leaning forward with his arms upon his knees, hands clasped before him, he focused on Mr. Hale as soon as the door closed with a click behind Margaret. If Mr. Hale wanted privacy, he only had a few minutes, and John was determined not to miss a thing.

"John," he paused. "Margaret's reputation has been unjustly compromised by circumstances surrounding Frederick's departure. I know I cannot place much of the blame on you, if at all. You have been most honorable in your actions toward my daughter – all of us, really."

A slight warmth infused his cheeks as John nodded his head slowly in self-conscious acknowledgement, prompting Mr. Hale to continue.

"I have only recently become aware of another set of circumstances, which led you to propose to my daughter. Even then, your honor and sense of duty were commendable, and I thank you for it."

Mr. Hale's eyes bored into him, intense and glistening with unshed tears. "But I must know...do you care for my Margaret, John?"

Without delay John answered, "More than anything. I love her."

It was the first genuine smile John – perhaps anyone – had received from Mr. Hale since his wife's death. "Would you be willing to renew your proposal of marriage then?"

"That is my intention, sir."

The joy rushing through him briefly faltered as his mind flashed back to the recognizable disconnect between father and daughter. Was this the reason for their discord? Perhaps made clearer by the conversation just had, he wondered if Margaret was still in opposition of a union between them. Her father certainly wasn't. In fact, he seemed quite pleased by the prospect.

John's last two visits with Margaret had left him soaring to the highest heights of anticipation and promise, but now, her appalled countenance and sprint from the room had him unexpectedly doubting, sending him plummeting from the heights of hope. Was he doomed to fail again?



**As far as an Author's Note goes on this one, I just want to say it's been a fun chapter to write. Though it's been a long day, I was eager to get a chapter out to my awesome readers! I hope I did not disappoint!

Please let me know your thoughts on this chapter. I value ALL the feedback I receive, because it helps me improve in my writing and inspires me to continue in those moments when I feel like giving up.

It's amazing to me that so many of you have taken time out of your day(s) to read what I have put into this. Can't believe Reputations surpassed 350 views (?) today! You all rock!**

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