I was given more free time now and I spent it to go and read with Mr Hale more frequently. My teacher was delighted, and we had many a pleasant evening conversing about the problems of manufacturing. Mr Hale even suggested a few solutions to the workers’ discontent, such as providing food and medical attention on the premises of the mill, but of course, I could not apply them. They were far too fanciful and would not have worked.
My foolish heart had hoped to see more of Margaret, now that she was forced to stay indoors because of the strike and the dangers of hungry workers roaming the streets. Yet it seemed that this hope would be crushed. Mr Hale told me she was dispensing food and coins all day in the most dismal places, such as the alleys in Princeton.
Bewildered, I asked why she would want to go to Princeton, the most destitute of all Milton’s neighbourhoods.
“Margaret has a friend there,” Mr Hale explained. “Her name is Bessy Higgins and she is in very bad health. She coughs dreadfully and I am worried about Margaret catching it. But then Margaret argues that it is called “fluff disease”. The more scientific word was byssinosis, I believe. It is untreatable and often fatal.”
“Ah,” I said, “I have tried to lower the amount of fluff in the sheds by installing wheels.”
“Yes, you said so when we were gathered around your table earlier. You did right, John. You tried to lessen your workers’ sorrow.”
I kept silent because there was nothing to say. Another six hundred pounds of wasted money, blast it! My workers were on strike, just as the rest of them in the whole of Milton.
Mother’s annual dinner party was the highlight that betokened the beginning of the winter celebrations which led to Christmas and New Year. That year was no exception, for even when there was a strike going on, all went well regarding to preparations and realization.
When I entered the parlour that evening, the room was already buzzing with the voices of many guests. My attention was instantly claimed by Slickson and his wife, then Henderson and Watson. I returned their greetings, all the while quite aware of the one that had conquered my heart. From the corner of my eye, I saw Margaret standing next to Fanny with whom she was chatting.
I could not allow myself to openly gaze at her. Singling her out would damage Margaret’s reputation, because all women present would understand my attraction to her in the wrong way. So I ambled further into the room, and was accosted by Mr Bell.
“Ah, Thornton. I took the liberty of inviting myself, knowing your mother’s hospitality,” he said, returning my handshake.
“I hope you’re not worrying about Marlborough Mills. We’ll ride out the strike just as we always have,” I said, feeling the need to reassure my landlord.
Then he answered, in that infuriatingly flippant way of his, “I’ve always had complete faith in you Thornton, but obviously in the present situation …”
Damn him. In the most casual way, I answered, “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“No, of course not.”
He turned his attention to the people next to him, my banker Latimer, and a pretty young lady, all blond ringlets and cornflower blue eyes, I had not met before.
“Thornton knows everything in matters of business. He has my every confidence,” was his comment.
I shook Mr Latimer’s proffered hand, and Mr Bell now turned to the girl.
“Thornton, you know Miss Latimer?”
I took her gloved hand, and she curtsied at me with a shy smile. My eyes went to Margaret. My breath was taken with some strange awareness. She was watching us with some strange light in her eyes, as if she did not approve of me making the acquaintance of another woman. No, that could not be. Margaret had no interest in me. It was only my foolish heart that once again indulged in its wishful thinking. I hastily averted my gaze.
“Thornton, who’s that fine young lady?” Henderson! I had not heard him approaching me and was startled. He was pointing at Margaret. Of course, he would notice the most beautiful girl in the room.
At that moment of time, all noise was dulled, and all I saw was my gorgeous Margaret. She wore a silk dress in soft sea green that fell away from her beautiful shoulders to hug the onset of her breasts. I dared smile at her, because she was smiling at me. That had never happened before, so my heart was beating erratically at the sight of her. I came nearer, unable to stay where I was, and then – oh, wonder! – she extended her hand to me. She was not wearing gloves. The delicate touch of it seared my skin, and I was uneasy for a moment. She then grasped my hand in both of hers, looking me directly in the face. Her eyes – blue like a summer sky – had a gentle light in them, and her voice was ever so soft, when she addressed me.
“See, I am learning Milton ways, Mr. Thornton.”
Dear, dear girl …
I let go of her slender little hand and forced myself to say something, anything, before someone saw my distress.
“I am sorry your mother was unable to join us.”
She bowed her head, a grateful smile on her lips. I wanted to draw her to me, kiss her, tell her that I loved her! Damn it, but it was true!
“Thornton, I must speak with you.” Blast it all to hell! Slickson! What now?
Wishing Slickson to hell and back, I apologized to Margaret. “Excuse me.”
I was then drawn aside by Slickson, who whispered to me, “Have you left word at the barracks?”
“It’s been done,” I replied, unable to suppress my annoyance. Slickson was an idiot, sometimes. He saw danger in everything but was too scared to do something when a crisis was on hand.
“Men on horseback, armed?” he continued in an urgent way.
“All those arrangements have been made.”
“If they find out you are planning to break the strike by bringing Irish workers …” His tone became even more wavering.
“I take this risk for myself. You need not join in,” I said, irritated, now. I can and will protect myself and anyone that works for me from any kind of violence.”
Slickson sighed, “I sincerely hope so.”
Margaret, I noticed with infinite regret, had been claimed by Mr Bell. But I was rewarded as she looked back at me.
Mother had sixteen guests at her table. She and I both occupied the heads, while I had Miss Latimer at my left and Henderson at my right. Margaret was seated in the middle of the right side, between Mr Bell and Mr Latimer. She was, I noticed with dismay, again avoiding my gaze, while applying herself to the soup course. I knew I should entertain my guests with some intelligent conversation, yet I could not find the words. My eyes kept wondering to Margaret. I could not help admiring the gracious movements with which she brought her spoon to her lips. She was not the only elegant female guest tonight, but to me, she stood out from all the others. She captured my full attention whenever she was near me.
“I hear Arnold is moving lock, stock and barrel to America,” said Mr Bell, then sampled his wine.
Watson burst out, “America? I’ll be damned.”
Slickson chimed in, “That’s what I would like to do, pack up and leave. The damn strikers would have no work at all then.”
“Well,” Mr Bell teased in his usual way, “they have no work at the moment.”
And of course, Slickson was drawn into an answer. “There is work. They choose not to do it. Thornton? What do you think?”
I was not so easily baited. I knew Mr Bell very well. “Oh, I think our Mr. Bell is up to his old tricks, playing with words at the expense of us simpler fellows.”
Mr. Bell inclined his head and smiled at me, and so did Margaret, to my surprise. Ah, she, too, knew Mr Bell well enough, it seemed.
I continued, because the subject was to my liking. “But it is a serious question. I do not want to manufacture in another country, but it is logical for others to try if they cannot make enough profit here.”
I considered my answer would be enough, but apparently, my sister thought otherwise.
“What do you think, Miss Hale? Surely you do not condone the strikers?”
“Well, no,” was her immediate answer. “Well, and yes. It is surely good to try to see both sides of a question.”
That was my dear girl showing her upbringing and education. I felt a smile tug at my lips.
Yet Fanny was on the warpath, now. With a sly smile, which I knew was when she had the better of someone, she said, “Mrs. Arthur saw you taking a basket to the Princeton district the other afternoon.”
I was instantly alarmed. Did everybody knew about Margaret’s involving herself with the workers? I fervently hoped this was not the case.
Margaret gave a poised reply. “I have a good friend in Princeton. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”
My breath caught. The cursed name had fallen, and Watson pounced, “Higgins?”
All attention was now on my spirited girl, who as usual, had no inkling to what was happening. I felt frozen by horror because I knew what was coming.
Watson continued, “Isn’t he one of your union leaders, Hamper?”
“Yeah. He’s a terrific firebrand. A dangerous man.”
“I’m surprised, Miss Hale, that you keep such company,” Mother said in a scornful voice. She was annoyed, I could tell. Mother is a stickler for propriety.
I felt sick with helplessness because I could not come to her defence.
Margaret, however, had not noticed anything amiss. “Bessy is my friend. Nicholas is a little …”
Hamper now exclaimed, “Nicholas? She’s on first name terms.”
I could not blame him. It irked me to no end that Margaret should be friends with such a creature of mischief. The only one who stayed unruffled was Margaret.
“Well,” she replied calmly, “Mr. Higgins has been made a little wild by circumstances. But he speaks from his heart, I am sure.”
Hamper tried another tack, damn him. “Well, if he’s so determined, I’m surprised he’ll accept charity.”
Margaret had her answer ready. “Well, he doesn’t for himself. The basket was for a man whose six children are starving.”
Hamper was annoyed now. “Ah, well. Then he knows what to do. Go back to work.”
All were assenting to this, and to my infinite relief, I thought the matter settled.
Until Mr Bell stoked up the fire once more. “I believe this poor starving fellow works at Marlborough Mills, doesn’t he, Margaret?”
I had to say something, and I knew it was going to hurt Margaret, but I had no choice. She must see the errors of her ways.
In a voice as calm as I could muster, I said, “You do the man, whoever he is, more harm than good with your basket. Well, as you could say, the longer you support the strikers, the more you prolong the strike. That is not kindness. They will be defeated, but it will take longer. Their pain will be prolonged.”
Everybody applauded and murmured assent, but not Margaret. She was very defensive, now.
“But surely to give a dying baby food… is not just a question of logic.”
I was speechless with sudden fury. How dare she start a confrontation with her prime host? It was awful, and I could see mother was shocked to the core.
Fortunately, Mr Hale made a valiant attempt to save the moment. “Mrs. Thornton, um, I really must congratulate you on these magnificent… um, table settings.”
I could barely suppress a sigh if relief, when I saw he succeeded in drawing Mother’s attention from Margaret.
Mr. Hale forged on, “Um, I don’t believe I’ve seen finer table decorations even in the grandest gatherings in Harley Street.”
I had to have the last word, though not at Margaret. “Not all masters are the same, Mr. Bell. You do us an injustice to always think we’re all up to some underhand scheme or other.”
I looked one last time at her, deliberately showing my profound dismay. She looked a bit subdued, finally. Well, I thought, you brought that on yourself, dear girl.
I grasped my glass and drank deeply, then turned to Miss Latimer, who I had neglected shamefully all evening.
This lovely art work is not mine. I found it somewhere on the internet. Would the artist please contact me so that I can acknowledge his/her work?