I’ve recently fell down the North and South fan fiction rabbit hole. I lost many hours of sleep due to Trudy Brasure’s A Heart for Milton and In Consequence last weekend. This week, I started Nicole Clarkston’s Nowhere but North, but am pacing myself more. I’ve also reread North and South this week. This time, the riot scene struck me.
There is much to talk about in this scene but I’d like to consider Mr. Thornton’s actions under this pressure.
‘Who is Boucher?’ asked Mr. Thornton, coolly, and coming close to the window to discover the man in whom Margaret took such an interest. As soon as they saw Mr. Thornton, they set up a yell,—to call it not human is nothing,—it was as the demoniac desire of some terrible wild beast for the food that is withheld from his ravening. Even he drew back for a moment, dismayed at the intensity of hatred he had provoked.
At first, he approaches without fear–and this is after apologizing to Margaret for the timing of her visit. Then, he does draw away for a moment, but not out of fear. He can hardly fathom the anger his image provokes.
‘Let them yell!’ said he. ‘In five minutes more—. I only hope my poor Irishmen are not terrified out of their wits by such a fiendlike noise. Keep up your courage for five minutes, Miss Hale.’
His first thought is for his Irishmen–even before he thinks of Margaret. However, he does not worry about the safety of the Irish. Why?
‘Don’t be afraid for me,’ she said hastily. ‘But what in five minutes? Can you do nothing to soothe these poor creatures? It is awful to see them.’
‘The soldiers will be here directly, and that will bring them to reason.’
‘To reason!’ said Margaret, quickly. ‘What kind of reason?’
‘The only reason that does with men that make themselves into wild beasts. By heaven! they’ve turned to the mill door!’
His first words seem to denote security in thought because of the soldiers and yet he’s surprised and alarmed when they turn on the mill.
‘Mr. Thornton,’ said Margaret, shaking all over with her passion, ‘go down this instant, if you are not a coward. Go down and face them like a man. Save these poor strangers, whom you have decoyed here. Speak to your workmen as if they were human beings. Speak to them kindly. Don’t let the soldiers come in and cut down poor creatures who are driven mad. I see one there who is. If you have any courage or noble quality in you, go out and speak to them, man to man.’
He turned and looked at her while she spoke. A dark cloud came over his face while he listened. He set his teeth as he heard her words. ‘I will go. Perhaps I may ask you to accompany me downstairs, and bar the door behind me; my mother and sister will need that protection.’
‘Oh! Mr. Thornton! I do not know—I may be wrong—only—’ But he was gone; he was downstairs in the hall; he had unbarred the front door; all she could do, was to follow him quickly, and fasten it behind him, and clamber up the stairs again with a sick heart and a dizzy head.
Would he be willing to go and potentially face death simply because he wanted to impress Margaret? No! He went because he saw the justice of her words. Granted, she’s rather naive, but she has a point about talking to them like human equals.
During his proposal the following day, Thornton says so.
I ought rather,’ said she, hastily, ‘to apologize to you, for having said thoughtless words which sent you down into the danger.’
‘It was not your words; it was the truth they conveyed, pungently as it was expressed.’
Thornton is downstairs, willing to sacrifice himself to try and convince his workers to go home lest they do something stupid and deserve the wrath of soldiers. Margaret is also downstairs and has urged them to leave as Thornton has yet to speak. I don’t think the book ever says it, but I assume he was trying to find the right words. Margaret rushed down the stairs when she saw people take up their heavy wood clogs to use as projectiles. Rather than listen to Margaret’s well-said reason, the workers remain rooted and implacable in their hatred. One speaks up.
‘Shall them Irish blackguards be packed back again?’ asked one from out the crowd, with fierce threatening in his voice.
‘Never, for your bidding!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton. And instantly the storm broke. The hootings rose and filled the air,—
How reasonable was this of Thornton? Could he have foreseen it would infuriate them so? Even if he could have guessed it, should he have lied to placate them? Dishonesty in business tactics and worker relations is a consistent issue Thornton faces. His desire for honesty contrasts him with the other masters of the area.
Despite Margaret’s best efforts, the crowd does intend to assault Thornton. However, she tries to shield him and they miss their target, hurting her instead.
‘You do well!’ said he. ‘You come to oust the innocent stranger. You fall—you hundreds—on one man; and when a woman comes before you, to ask you for your own sakes to be reasonable creatures, your cowardly wrath falls upon her! You do well!’ They were silent while he spoke. They were watching, open-eyed and open-mouthed, the thread of dark-red blood which wakened them up from their trance of passion. Those nearest the gate stole out ashamed; there was a movement through all the crowd—a retreating movement.
Only one voice cried out: ‘Th’ stone were meant for thee; but thou wert sheltered behind a woman!’
Mr. Thornton quivered with rage. The blood flowing had made Margaret conscious—dimly, vaguely conscious. He placed her gently on the doorstep, her head leaning against the frame.
‘Can you rest there?’ he asked. But without waiting for her answer, he went slowly down the steps right into the middle of the crowd. ‘Now kill me, if it is your brutal will. There is no woman to shield me here. You may beat me to death—you will never move me from what I have determined upon—not you!’ He stood amongst them, with his arms folded, in precisely the same attitude as he had been in on the steps.
Now, Thornton acts the hero. Yet, he doesn’t charge senselessly into the crowd. He stands his ground and is ready to face the consequences of his actions–right or wrong. At this moment, he’s the most mature person in the story. The workers certainly aren’t ready for the consequences of a strike or violence. Margaret immediately regretted the consequences of sending Thornton down to the workers and later will regret her shielding him. Mrs. Hale has period of regret over her marriage, Mr. Hale regrets leaving the church and moving to Milton. Soon in the book we meet Margaret’s brother, Frederick, who certainly has his own regrets in the mutiny he caused. This a theme I could talk on for a long time. However, it is Thornton who Margaret has always viewed as oppressive and honorless who proves his integrity in this scene, even if she is slow to recognize it.
The moment that retreat had changed into a flight (as it was sure from its very character to do), he darted up the steps to Margaret. She tried to rise without his help.
‘It is nothing,’ she said, with a sickly smile. ‘The skin is grazed, and I was stunned at the moment. Oh, I am so thankful they are gone!’ And she cried without restraint.
He could not sympathize with her. His anger had not abated; it was rather rising the more as his sense of immediate danger was passing away. The distant clank of the soldiers was heard just five minutes too late to make this vanished mob feel the power of authority and order. He hoped they would see the troops, and be quelled by the thought of their narrow escape.
Even after their assault of Margaret, he does not wish true violence upon the people. He simply wants them to realize it could have been much worse.
He bore her into the dining room, and laid her on the sofa there; laid her down softly, and looking on her pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain:
‘Oh, my Margaret—my Margaret! no one can tell what you are to me! Dead—cold as you lie there, you are the only woman I ever loved! Oh, Margaret—Margaret!’ Inarticulately as he spoke, kneeling by her, and rather moaning than saying the words, he started up, ashamed of himself, as his mother came in.
When Margaret collapses again, he brings her into his house to tend to her. Suddenly, he realizes his love for her–something he had resisted for so long. I honor him all the more for not being consumed with it when he had to focus instead on the riot.
He went away as if weights were tied to every limb that bore him from her. He called Jane; he called his sister. She should have all womanly care, all gentle tendance. But every pulse beat in him as he remembered how she had come down and placed herself in foremost danger,—could it be to save him? At the time, he had pushed her aside, and spoken gruffly; he had seen nothing but the unnecessary danger she had placed herself in. He went to his Irish people, with every nerve in his body thrilling at the thought of her, and found it difficult to understand enough of what they were saying to soothe and comfort away their fears. There, they declared, they would not stop; they claimed to be sent back. And so he had to think, and talk, and reason.
Once more, Thornton must make hard choices and deal with the repurcussions. He would rather stay with Margaret but he has other responsibilities. What will Margaret think of him leaving? As much as he loves her, there is a great pull on him–that of duty. He owes the Irishmen his attention. He meets them They are innocent in all of this, and he knows it. If only Margaret could see that while he might need to learn to communicate with his workers better, to try and understand their grievances more, he’s not brutish to those he can see are victims of circumstance. The riot at Marlborough Mills proves Mr. Thornton’s true worth and his real integrity.