As Margaret goes over her conversation with Mrs. Thornton, she is distressed all over again to realize that Thornton must believe Frederick to have been her lover. She thinks about how miserable the past year has been, and how she’s been prematurely thrust into old age: “I anticipate cares and sorrows just as if I were an old woman, and with the same fearful spirit. I am weary of this continual call upon me for strength.”
Later Margaret visits Higgins and finds him playing with some of the Boucher children; he describes his unsatisfactory conversation with Thornton but repeats that he would “break stones on the road” before he’ll allow these children to starve. Margaret says she is disappointed in Thornton. Just then, Mr. Thornton walks in. Margaret flees, mortified.
Higgins has resolved to care for the Boucher children, no matter what it costs him. Meanwhile, Margaret has a completely unexpected encounter with Thornton; he seems completely out of context in these surroundings.
Thornton is equally uncomfortable at unexpectedly seeing Margaret. He has come to Higgins because he believes he behaved unjustly toward Higgins the day before, especially upon hearing that Higgins had waited five hours to see him; Thornton had subsequently taken the time to investigate Higgins’ character and story and found his words to be true. He is so impressed by Higgins’ generosity toward the Boucher children that it “[touches] the latent tenderness of his heart…[and makes] him forget entirely the mere reasonings of justice, and overleap them by a diviner instinct.”
Thornton takes times and goes to considerable lengths to follow up on Higgins’s claims, showing that his character is not prejudiced like his mother’s, and far more tender-hearted. His showing up in person in the Higgins’ neighborhood shows how far he is willing to go, even across class lines, to correct his mistake.
Higgins speaks fiercely to Thornton at first, but Thornton says that he has spoken as he had no right to do, and that he could not have acted as generously toward the children of a man who’d acted as Boucher did. He begs Higgins’ pardon. He asks Higgins if he will work at the mill, and they shake on it.
Thornton follows Margaret when he sees her coming out of the Bouchers’ house. He tells her about his hiring of Higgins, and asks whether she has any explanations of her own to give him. Though strangely tempted to do so, she can think of nothing to say that doesn’t threaten her loyalty to Frederick. Thornton promises that her “secret” is safe with him and says that he’s no longer interested in pursuing her. Margaret wonders why he goes to such pains to tell her that she’s nothing to him.
Thornton seems to think that his own act of honesty might prompt Margaret to respond in kind. However, Margaret’s loyalty to Frederick is unshakable.
Back at home, Margaret receives a letter from Edith mentioning that the Lennoxes might move back to Harley Street. Unable to escape from hearing about Thornton or from her own confusing feelings, she finds herself yearning for the “placid tranquility of that old well-ordered, monotonous life.”
Overwhelmed by the grief and drama of life in Milton, Margaret looks back on Harley Street with nostalgia, although she doesn’t account for the fact that she has changed since she last lived that “monotonous” life.