Margaret sat alone in the half-filled church on Sunday morning. The grand vaulted ceilings and massive stone columns made the mortals quietly seated within the cavernous structure seem small and insignificant. Stained-glass windows illuminated the walls with intricate patterns of color and light, brightening the somber atmosphere with multi-faceted rays of hope.
For the first time since she had moved to this dark, soot-tarnished town, she felt a semblance of peace. Weary of trying to make sense of the changes thrust upon her by her father’s own doubts, she began to believe there had been a purpose to all of the struggles she had endured. A strain of gratitude swelled in her breast and her features lifted in glad response. She had been brought to Milton to find him. Amid all the eager ambition and bleak striving of this place, she had been led to John Thornton - a man as sturdy and solid as the granite hills, but with a heart as true and noble as any she had ever known. She would not have found him in London or Hampshire. It was Milton that had molded him to the man he was, where he had struggled and grown into the full stature of manhood. She would not find his like in all of England.
She loved him. The thought of it struck her anew, filling her with awe. How it had all unfolded to her she could scarcely describe. And when she considered how all of the Milton girls must have undoubtedly cast their eyes his way, it seemed a thing incredible to her that he had chosen her to be his wife.
A shiver traced her spine at the thought of becoming his - body and soul. She shook herself back from her distraction and with mighty effort endeavored to bring her attention back to the vicar’s echoing speech.
Mr. Thornton sat in impassive stillness on the long wooden pew next his mother’s rigid form. From the corner of his eye, he spied Fanny’s gloved hands fidgeting restlessly in her lap. His lips twitched. Everything was the same as it had been for years. His family occupied the same seat each Sunday, following the same familiar routine with every passing season. His existence had been an undeviating pattern of work and obligation, and he had been satisfied to build a respectable home for his mother and sister.
He could no longer endure such an existence. All his former peace, his staid plans and hopes had been upturned and tangled with the appearance of one who revealed the promise of a life so beautiful he hardly dared believe it might be his.
With Margaret’s acceptance of him, the future lay bright before him - days and years in which his home might be filled with tender affection, joy, and laughter. And someday, perhaps not so very far in the future, he might be surrounded by the boundless energy of children.
He felt the commensurate awe of this blessing, deeply grateful for this chance to live a lifetime of love. He knew not if she could ever love him with the depth of feeling that burned so powerfully in his own heart, but he was confident that he could earn her fond affection with his fervent attention. He was ready and eager to show her how complete his devotion was. He yearned to stand before God and man and take the vows that would make him her husband! The thought made him close his eyes to subdue the swell of passion that forced his chest to heave with impatient longing.
With a firmer resolution to keep his mind from straying, he opened his eyes. The solemn words of the sermon, a drone in his ears, once more became the intelligible speech of man’s purpose and place under God.
That afternoon in the Hale’s drawing room, Margaret skimmed the same page of her book countless times without truly reading a word. Her mother was resting quietly on the sofa while her father read from one of his worn tomes. It took all of her determination to remain still and wait for Mr. Thornton’s arrival to take her on their promised walk.