The next morning, Margaret resolves not to think about the Thornton family, planning to visit Bessy instead. Soon, however, Mr. Thornton arrives and asks to see Margaret. Thornton, waiting nervously in the drawing-room, can’t stop thinking about Margaret’s protective embrace the day before.
In attempting to be brave and do the right thing, Margaret has brought more trouble and heartache on herself than she had foreseen.
Margaret stands before Thornton like someone “falsely accused of a crime that she loathed and despised.” When Thornton begins to apologize for his “ingratitude” the day before, Margaret protests, “It was only a natural instinct; any woman would have done just the same. We all feel the sanctity of our sex as a high privilege when we see danger.”
Margaret takes for granted that a woman “naturally” acts to prevent violence, trusting that the taboo against harming a woman will protect her. This assumption doesn’t seem to be shared by most of those around her—suggesting that her action has more to do with her own unique blend of strength, courage, and compassion than she realizes.
Unable to keep the tenderness from his voice, Thornton tells Margaret that he chooses to believe he owes her his life—“to the one whom I love, as I do not believe man ever loved woman before.” Icily, Margaret responds that his speech “shocks me. It is blasphemous…your whole manner offends me.”
Margaret takes Thornton’s words as a violation of the “sanctity” of her self-sacrificing act; the attribution of romantic feelings degrades it.
Blushing with indignation, Margaret reiterates that her behavior yesterday was in no way “a personal act between you and me,” and that a gentleman would understand “that any woman…would come forward to shield, with her reverenced helplessness, a man in danger from the violence of numbers.” She would more readily have sympathized with any other man in the crowd than with Thornton.
Margaret sees “helplessness” as a tool that enables her to act as a man in a comparable position could not have; thus, her weakness endows her with a special strength in the face of the crowd that unjustly threatened Thornton.
Thornton scorns her “misplaced sympathies,” now believing that her “innate sense of oppression” motivated Margaret’s noble act. He says that Margaret despises him because she doesn’t understand him. Despite the bitterness of his words, he would still “[throw] himself at her feet, and [kiss] the hem of her garment.” Margaret sees tears in his eyes and is sorry to have caused him pain, but does not see how she could act otherwise.
Thornton finally understands Margaret’s motivations, but, despite his hurt and anger, he can’t stifle his love and reverence for Margaret now that it’s been stirred.