With maturity, money and fatherhood came a new outlook on life and now, with a brace of grandchildren to call his own, the youthful villain has grown into a gentleman with just a glint of naughtiness in his eye. Though Mr Wickham would never wish to be truly respectable, it is with some delight that on a tour of the north, he finds himself once again involved in a little matter of romance.
-Catherine Curzon and Nicole Clarkston
John Thornton had never been the man to gaze long into his mirror. Such an exercise, he had always thought, wasted valuable minutes and did not reveal one’s true reflection half so well as a day spent in satisfying labour. This day, however, was different, for this was the last day he would look into it as merely himself. In scarcely an hour, he would become one half of a glorious whole- the darkness to her light, the strength to her grace- in short, a man at last fulfilling the perfect design which he had never before understood.
He smoothed a trembling hand over the lapels of his best coat. Was it fine enough for the occasion? Would she be pleased by what he could offer? His fingers nervously straightened his tie for at least the third time before he forced them down to his sides and stared blankly back at the mirror. It was not his attire which he hoped might be pleasing, but the man who wore it. How could he dare aspire to her, when every aspect bespoke his rough beginnings, his past stained with sweat and some little blood, and even his recent fall from hard-earned grace?
For one blinding second, panic broke out on his forehead and his breath came short. Such an impostor was he! If she could read the inner man, as she would soon learn to do if she had not already done so, she would surely see him for the fraud he was- a working man daring to take home with him a porcelain doll, to keep to himself and admire- he, with the untrained sensibilities, stealing away a masterpiece from its proper place for his own selfish reasons. His mouth ran dry.
He jumped when a soft knock sounded at his door. His mother had already paid her visit to bless him, and ought to be with Margaret by now. He had politely declined the offer of Captain Lennox’s valet for the occasion, and as it was yet twenty minutes before he was expected, he could think of no other who would bother. Curiously, he beckoned the caller to enter.
“Here’s the fellow of the hour!” George Wickham, Margaret’s grandfatherly correspondant, strode through the door and dropped into a low bow more suited to the Winter Palace, an exotic, subtly botanic scent accompanying the twirl of his wrist. “Readying the ship for sail, eh?”
Thornton straightened. “I… yes, sir.” His eyes darted self-consciously over Mr Wickham’s gleaming coat- a luxury whose cost he well knew. Margaret’s friend was impeccably attired as he had been on the previous evening, the fine weave of his coat fairly shining in the window’s light. John fought to still his fingers from smoothing once more down his own jacket. Fine enough it had always seemed in Milton, but here among Margaret’s family and London connections, it seemed unaccountably ragged.
Wickham’s back straightened and he met Thornton with a smile, his dark eyes alight with encouragement– or could it be mischief? Surely not.
“Ah, well I remember my own happy day.” Wickham’s face dropped into a theatrical frown. “I recall my own wedding too, but let us not dwell on such things!”
John Thornton stared, somewhat scandalised as he pondered the man’s words.
Wickham let a moment or two pass before laughing and assuring Thornton, “Allow an old soldier his jests. Heavens, you’re white as milk; are you ailing, sir?”
Thornton cleared his throat. “Not at all, sir. I had no appetite this morning, that is all. Is Mrs Wickham…” he swallowed, “has she come to attend Margaret?”
“Mrs Wickham is currently refreshing her feathers before she turns her hawk-like eye on your fragrant empress.” Wickham reached out and plucked an invisible thread from Thornton’s sleeve. “Now, have we some brandy? It is, of course, the only thing one should enjoy for a wedding breakfast.”
Thornton cast his gaze about the room somewhat blankly. “I believe Captain Lennox had some sent up. I am not in the habit of misplacing things, but- oh, it is there near the window.”
Wickham’s walk was a confident stroll, He picked up the decanter and unstoppered it, bringing his nose to twitch at the neck. “Captain Lennox is a friend indeed; this bouquet reminds me of a time long ago on a French bea- but I digress. Brandy, and plenty of it!”
John took the glass the older man proffered with hands only marginally more steady than before. “Just a little, thank you. Perhaps you are right, this day deserves some celebration.” He swallowed fire, causing him to inhale a sharp breath and shake himself slightly. He blinked in astonishment at the strength of the vintage. “Excellent, sir!”
“And this time tomorrow, my friend, your lips will tasting something sweeter than brandy, one hopes!” Wickham raised his glass in a toast. “To launching the good ship, matrimony!”
John began to shake, his body verily trembling from head to foot as he set the glass down on the bureau. “I hope so, sir.” He bit his lip, stopping up all the fears and insecurities which continued to wind round his chest. Only yesterday he had felt so confident, so triumphant! Where had all his courage fled?
“Come now, why so kittenish?” Wickham added a little more brandy to Thornton’s glass. “Speak, sir, and I shall give you the benefit of my admittedly limited experience, whatever you might have heard in your clubs!”
Thornton’s eyes widened. “Oh, I beg you, sir, I do not require-”
“Forgive me, young pup.” Wickham pressed his hand to his expensively-clad breast. “I am an aged upstart!”
Thornton heaved an unsteady breath. “I am grateful for your offer of encouragement, sir. I suspect my experience is common to all grooms on their wedding day. There is nothing I would wish more than to prove worthy of the woman who will take my name.”
“Common?” Wickham blinked. “Times have indeed changed; or perhaps one’s army days rather clouded one’s experience of innocence. You have a most fetching bride, Mr Thornton, you are to be heartily congratulated! Why, when she is festooned in feathers and scents of the east and beset by your grandchildren many years from now, you will look back on today and remember that first glass of brandy.”
Thornton smiled distantly, his eyes focused somewhere beyond Mr Wickham. “She is anything but common,” he agreed softly. “She is… she is what I never dreamt could exist, and now find I cannot live without.”
“To hear a man of the world speak so,” Wickham nodded approvingly. “It heartens an old soldier!”
Thornton’s cheeks darkened. “I hardly think myself a ‘man of the world,’ sir. Well-known and perhaps even respected, but in my own circles only. I know little of the world of women, save that I have found a precious gem amongst mere pebbles.”
Wickham blinked and, as his lips quirked into the ghost of a smile, blinked again. He opened his mouth and closed it, then took another sip of brandy. “Then, sir, little wonder you are anxious about taking to the parade ground!”
Thornton cleared his throat again, looked down at his shifting feet, and finally drained the second glass of brandy. His mouth worked as he savoured it, but he made no reply. Outside the birds sang and the morning sun shone down, casting a golden sheen over the brandy decanter that was resting in the window. Wickham crossed to peer through the glass, a nostalgic look crossing his face.
Thornton set his glass down with finality. The last trouble he needed on such a day was to over-indulge due to a case of adolescent nerves! “Forgive my presumption, sir, but you have known many years of wedded bliss, have you not? Had you any doubts or misgivings prior to entering the marital state?”
“My dear boy!” Wickham turned to look at Thornton, his expression as bright as the ray that shone through the white clouds. “I have seduced, eloped, duelled, battled, and married! Of all of my exploits, matrimony was the only one that held any fear for me; good heavens, what a precipice to step from, what fate might await? Embrace it, sir, doubts, misgivings and ultimately, that peculiarly fractious bliss that only marriage can provide.”
“I’ve no doubts about my desire to marry Miss Hale,” Thornton sought to correct any possible misunderstanding. “I have wished for that since- well, for a very long while, sir. Marriage never held any allure for me until I met her, but I knew rather quickly that it was all I ever wished for. I speak not out of fear that my loyalties or wishes might change, but-” He sighed in frustration and abruptly changed the subject. “Have you ever seen the inner workings of a cotton mill, sir?”
“Is this a metaphor?” Wickham’s eyes crinkled with mirth. “I jest; alas, I have never explored the delightful confines of a cotton mill.”
“I was always impressed by the power and the ingenuity of it all. To think that mankind had harnessed such force, bent it to his will, and then coaxed the most delicate of weaves from steel and coal and that hardy plant which lends us its fibres. You might think we treat it gently to yield up such a product, but quite the reverse is true. We fairly abuse it, wringing and stretching and steaming it until it submits to our design. We then congratulate ourselves that we have taken what was once useless and made it into something fine, all by sheer force of will.”
“I am but a simple soldier,” his companion attested. “Devilishly handsome still, highly decorated, with a stable full of fine winners and modest to a fault, but simple and humble, of course. I confess, I had not considered the finer morals of cotton manufacture.”
Thornton paced to the window and gazed down on the street, where a cart had just drawn to the front of the house to collect the last of Margaret’s belongings as she left it forever. “What, then, becomes of the one who comes to such a place already fine and perfect?” he wondered in a scarcely audible voice. “Does she fall, crushed as refined crystal before the giant of our industry? Or does she have the strength to gleam more brightly still?”
“As one who has made an art of confounding expectations, I believe your fiancée will not be stretched, steamed and wrung out.” Wickham strolled across the room and stood beside Thornton. With him he brought the suggestion of brandy and that subtle, exotic scent. “The whole world held expectations of the fragrant Mrs Wickham and myself. We were happy to confound them all. I rather think the presence of the new Mrs Thornton will cast quite a gleam over this world of mills and cotton.”
“She has done as much already.” Thornton leaned closer to the glass, watching as a trunk was carted from the house to the waiting conveyance below. It was secured aboard with a fateful thump. Mr Wickham was still listening patiently, and he tried to place his panicked thoughts of the day into some semblance of order. “She has a strength I admired from the first moment I met her. I would never have taken a second look otherwise, for no doubt many a beautiful woman has waltzed before me without troubling me to take an interest. Margaret is iron clad in satin, and I pity the one who seeks to crush her, but I cannot believe she could marry me and not eventually suffer for it.”
He turned back at last, his eyes flicking suggestively over the whole of the elegant room which had been his for two days. “She leaves behind comfort and beauty, accepting coal smoke and dirty streets. She knows Milton for what it is now- no harsh surprise will it be to her this time. I do not fool myself quite so far as to think that she loves the scene, and I can scarcely credit her affections for myself as strong enough to bind her to such a place. How can I dare take one who was brought up to this,” he gestured, “and expect her to be happy the rest of her life in a place whose goal is to crush and dominate, and so often succeeds?”
“Might I hazard to suggest that you have a most… masculine way of looking at the world? Indeed, I confess I have never heard anyone quite like you for it. Sir, my own wife followed me into the mouth of hell itself and remained as fragrant and silken as ever.” He placed his hand firmly on Thornton’s shoulder. “Consider this. Perhaps the lady might bring some of her considerable feminine charms to bear on that industrial heartland? I can tell you that no encampment was the same once Mrs Wickham’s influence spread over it!”
Thornton allowed himself a small smile. “Mrs Wickham has my respect, sir. I thank you for reminding me- yes, Margaret’s influence in Milton can already be felt. I suppose my fear was that she would one day tire of fighting- that the strength of her affections would fail, or would seem to be wasted on one such as I.”
“Have a little confidence, lad!” Wickham’s hand landed on his shoulder again, a harder slap of camaraderie this time. “Good heavens, have you not the means at your disposal to keep those affections blazing?”
Thornton tilted his head quizzically. “I shall treat her with every consideration, of course. What, specifically, can you mean? Ought I to take her to the theatres? To the parks? I am afraid Milton has little of that sort of sophistication to please her.”
“One was thinking of the entertainments that might be found closer to home. Mrs Wickham and I did not acquire our legion of grandchildren by trips to the theatre or strolls in the park!” He chuckled and dropped his voice to confide, “Though parks do have the occasional secluded point of interest, it must be said.”
Thornton paled slightly. “Mr Wickham! Are you suggesting that I-” he glanced at the door to be certain it was closed, “seduce my wife? And even attempt to compromise her in public? I cannot think she would thank me for such behaviour!”
“I would hope she would be too busy enjoying herself to write a missive of appreciation, Mr Thornton!” Wickham also glanced at the door, mischievously mimicking the younger man. “Good Lord, man, show me the wife who does not wish to be seduced and I shall show you the husband who should dismiss his most strapping footman forthwith!”
“Margaret is a lady!” he protested. “Surely I dare not take more liberties than she might have been led to expect. What would she think of me? I cannot act beastly with a gentlewoman, sir!”
“Are you suggesting, sir, that Mrs Wickham is somehow not a lady?” Wickham’s face darkened, his mouth setting into a tight line. “Is she not a gentlewoman?”
“Forgive me, sir!” Thornton apologised quickly. “I meant no disrespect. It is only that I fear Margaret would not approach matters with the same enthusiasm.” He gritted his teeth, wondering how they had gotten on the subject and how he could express himself without giving further offence. “I know she is a woman of strong feelings, but to ask of her what you suggest- I do not know how to do it!”
“I jest with you,” Wickham laughed, the stern expression replaced by one of jollity. “Forgive me, I should hardly sport so. I confess though, I had not expected you to be so pure, you are a rare sort indeed!”
Thornton straightened his shoulders. “My experiences with women have likely been very different from yours. From the age of fourteen, I cared for my mother and sister as a father would do. I cannot deny that I have not on occasion looked on a woman as a man, but nothing in my experience has taught me… what you suggest.”
“Ah.” Wickham nodded sagely. “Certainly one or two fellows in the army looked on men as women but rarely the other way around!”
Thornton’s eyes widened, but he appeared speechless.
“One sees all sorts in the forces.”
Thornton cleared his throat. “I am not entirely naïve, sir. However, outside of the ‘gentleman’s’ club, I have seldom heard anyone speak so frankly.”
“A blessing and a curse.” Wickham lifted his hand from Thornton’s shoulder. “You must forgive an old soldier his indulgences. Women aren’t delicate pieces of china or fragile flowers waiting to be plucked.”
He paced across the room, his hands knitted behind his back. When he reached the door he turned, gesturing expansively. “One tells them that they are, of course, because that’s one one must do, but in my experience – and I am not lacking in experience – no woman really wants to spend her evenings reading the good book and watching her husband smoke his pipe until the time comes to retire to their separate chambers. What red blooded wife would dream of such mundanity?”
His gestures grew ever more theatrical, his voice that of an orator on such matters.
“Miss Hale is a remarkable creature, possessed of wit and intelligence and, yes, beauty too. I’ll wager she has depths to her that it will take a lifetime to explore and you, sir, you are the lucky pup about to embark on the voyage! You cannot act beastly indeed, many’s the husband who has professed such a thing only to find that, come the bridal night, the choice was no longer his to make anyway. Those fragile flowers suddenly grow thorns, my lad, and they ensnare one most delightfully.”
Thornton raised a brow. “I think I should like to be ‘ensnared’ by her, as you say. Indeed, such a thing has been the subject of many a flight of fancy, but I am not a man given to fancy. I prefer to remain anchored in reality. I rather hope my wife does learn to enjoy my attentions, but I expect that shall take some years of practice.”
“Picture this.” Wickham’s arm encircled Thornton’s shoulders as he gestured before them like a magician. “The finest, most exotic vista known to any man and tonight, Mr Thornton, you shall set sail for it. Whether you choose to walk the path as poet or warrior, look to her for your lead and you shall not go far wrong. They will tell you that ladies swoon as the mere hint of passion and I tell you that is a patent fraud. Ladies swoon at nothing, they are fearless, they put us to shame and one day, mark me, this world shall realise that.”
Thornton was beginning to smile broadly now, a foolish pleasure glimmering in his eyes, but he would not have cared even if he had been aware of it. “Fearless. Yes, that describes my Margaret! You are correct, sir, she will be unafraid and strong for herself, but I believe gentle with me, little as I deserve it! She was most tender when-” he stopped, reddened, and huffed a little. “Well, I beg your pardon, but I had suddenly recalled a recent moment with her when she displayed precisely those qualities that you claimed she would possess.”
“In a park, sir? One can also recommend the unexpectedly illuminating confines of a carriage!”
Thornton cleared his throat once more. “My affianced is a great reader. She thought I would enjoy exploring the library where she spent many a happy hour in her childhood. She was correct; I thought it the loveliest room in the house.”
“When we commissioned the library in our own home, Mrs Wickham was most keen to include what she referred to as reading nooks. Many’s the chapter we have since enjoyed in those private spots!”
Thornton smiled. “An excellent suggestion, sir. I shall recommend it to Margaret when I bring her to my- to our home.” His cheeks warmed and his eyes began to take on a distant quality again. “Our home! I can scarcely believe it is true! Yet it is, and she shall make her home with me. Today I am the most blessed of all men!”
“Most blessed young man, let us say.”
“I take it you mean to imply that I have many years yet to learn all that wisdom and experience have taught you. I think I shall relish them- after all, I will have a most delightful tutor.”
“And what finer way to learn than by practical experience?”
The young groom’s colour changed. “I hope she will feel the same. Do you recommend any particular strategies to… set her at her ease?”
“Take your time,” was Wickham’s considered opinion. “These are moments – well, one hopes more than moments – to be savoured, new shores to be chartered, and nothing can be gained by racing at it as though challenging for the post at Epsom.”
Thornton stifled a chuckle. “I shall remember that. I thank you for indulging me, sir. I know not whence these sudden doubts have arisen, for I know the truth. You have reminded me most… colourfully… of all that I had temporarily lost sight of, and your advice has been most constructive. I think I shall survive the morning now, and hopefully the night as well.”
“Of that, sir, I have no doubt.”