John Thornton, Look Back at Me – pt 20

Chapter 20

     A Dinner and a Rose

 

The following week, John visited Slickson to talk about the rumors of his retirement from the cotton business.

“John, I admit that I’ve been giving it some thought and somehow a rumor has spread that I’m getting ready to sell.  That part is not exactly true because I’ve not made a firm decision.  However, my wife is in a state of health that will not allow us to travel for many more years.

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”  John said.

“Thank you, I know that you mean that, John.  Over the years we’ve been fierce competitors and good friends.  You are to be commended for all the advancements you’ve brought, not only to the mill owners, but this new industry, itself.  If I only learned one thing about you after all this time, it’s that you are a compassionate and honest man.”

“Thank you, Slickson,” John said as he reached out to firmly grasp Slickson’s extended hand, surprised at his sincerity.

Slickson recommended a chair to him and then sat himself.  “Brandy, John?”

John waved it off.

“So, I take it John that you are considering adding another mill to that spread you have going over there.”

“Well . . . my thoughts are not completely formed on this idea yet.  New interests are rising that may take up my time.”

Slickson interrupted.  “Yes, I see Miss Hale is back living in Milton.”  He smiled at John while he lit his cigar.  Oh, Thornton, don’t look so surprised.  I think all the Masters were aware of your feelings back then.  I must say, we were pulling for you, but you are such a private man, that none of us wanted to bring it up.  We were sorry when she left so suddenly and have since been aware of your masked self-imposed loneliness.  You dated the ladies, and who wouldn’t, but you always seemed to return to the solitary confinement in your mind.  It became apparent what was happening to you, but only from those of us that new you best.  It’s none of my business now, but I wish you good luck this time.

John lowered his head, as if in embarrassment, but remained silent, while twirling the brim of his top hat.  He finally looked back into Slickson’s face, giving no indication whether Slickson’s words were true or not, but his lack of rebuttal said volumes, he feared.

Slickson, looking for some comment or gesture from John was cheated of it once again, which was no surprise, but he chuckled.  “John, I admire that you’ve come straight to me to ask about this mill.  That shows me some respect and respect for my workers.  I’m going to let you have total access to the buildings and I’ll have my overseer show you around.  Talk to the workers, look at the machinery, check the repair logs, and inspect the building.  Take what you find home with you and give it thought.  Of all the Masters in Milton, if I decide to sell, I’ll hope that you’ll be able to make a decent offer.  I feel like my workers would be well taken care of and that has become important to me over the years, as it has you.  I admire the other Masters and I think most of them run their mills just fine, but I envy your way of doing business the most.  When I set a date and make an announcement, I will open my books to all prospective buyers.  I hope maybe we can shake hands over a sale in the future, if both you and I see eye-to-eye and your other interests are also agreeable.”  He smiled at John.

John thanked Slickson for his time and the opportunity to see everything first hand.  John left with a handshake and followed Slickson’s overseer to the mill.

 

Margaret was quite busy the following two months, after getting her new home set up properly, and then spending all her days at the Professor’s office.

Working with the Professor proved to be very interesting but it had become some form of literary torture, she was sure.  Margaret was certain he knew where he put everything but there was no organization that she could see.  He was either going to have to learn her way or he was going to teach her his way.  She started making piles of similarities until the Professor could find those books that he wanted her to see.  She would use that system as a guideline for storage of research, waiting to be penned.

The Professor would have one or two visitors a day, who he would spend a long time discussing their connection to Milton.  The Professor, while scribbling his notes, wanted to know what role they played in the science of the industry and machinery.  Several manufacturers were interested in only knowing Margaret more thoroughly, to her dismay.  Everyone was charming, she thought, but she wasn’t prepared for their advances.  One particular gentleman, named Mr. Albert, who was mature, but most particularly in his mannerisms and distinguished in dress, preferred to overtly observe Margaret while he was there.  She was becoming somewhat uncomfortable about his and other’s attentions.  The first week Margaret worked there, Mr. Albert seemed to find reasons to return to the Professor another two times, and he didn’t run a mill, but was part of the Milton growth.  She felt like a bug under glass.  He was a very polite gentleman, tall, fine body and a handsome face, but was possibly forty years her senior.

“Professor, I do not know how to ask you for advice on this but I am becoming aware of . . . the . . .”

“. . . the interest that these fine gentlemen have in you?”  asked the Professor, raising his eyebrows and smiling broadly.

“Well . . . yes.  I don’t know how to react.  I’ve never encountered this very often and it seems almost daily here.”

The Professor laughed, “That does not surprise me.  Before, you were among very young men and the older men knew that you were married to a friend of theirs.  That is another fault that Booker had; he never let you know of your beauty and attraction to men; he never gave you that confidence in yourself.”

“Professor, you are trying to embarrass me.”

“Margaret, I am only stating fact.”  He laughed.

“What am I to do about it?”  Margaret asked.

“What do you feel like doing about it?  I mean really feel?”

Margaret blushed again, “As embarrassing as it is, I like the feeling of being complimented in that way.  It makes me feel very feminine, a little sanguine, and courageous, too.  But I don’t know how to react to it.”

“Margaret, your thoughts are valid and healthy and I am glad to see them rising from the ash.  I cannot tell you how to react.  That must come from your heart.  You will do what is right for you.  Measure each approach for what it is.  It would probably do you good to be in the company of other men occasionally, to absorb that confidence that you seem to need.”

 

The following week, John invited Margaret out for diner in the city.  He had picked out an elegant restaurant called The Dove, one of Milton’s finest.  They had seen very little of each other since that exotic Christmas night.  She had been busy with home and work, while John was reacting to the potential movement of managerial workers, should he successfully win the Slickson mill bid.  After the preliminary conversation on how things were going in their lives, John launched into some unpleasant news.  “Next month is the Chamber’s semi-annual ball and I am afraid I have an unavoidable commitment.  I wanted so much to dance with you all night at the ball, but I have an engagement with the Bristol Commerce Association.  I will be gone four to five days as the travel is quite long from here.

“John, please, do not worry yourself.  I won’t miss attending it.”

“Margaret, I would like you to go with whoever asks you.  Even though we no longer have the proclamation in effect, I would like you to experience something like that.  I have enough confidence in our relationship to want you to go.  Nicholas and Peggy will be there as well as Fanny and Watson.  Most especially for me wanting you to go is that the Chamber is inviting the Professor and will introduce him at the podium, which he knows nothing about.  I know he’s been trying very hard to speak to the Members briefly and I want to give him his chance.  I want to expose him to many more than he would see at a normal meeting.  If, and I seriously doubt this will happen, if no one invites you because you are not yet known to them, then you can be the guest of the Professor.  Also, I would like to have you and the Professor over for dinner next week and I will extend the invitation to him, myself.

“Actually, John, I’ve had three invitations.  I’ll be so pleased for the Professor, but not so pleased about the other, but I will do it.  How formal is the ball?”  Margaret asked, already wondering what she had in her wardrobe.

“Four!  Four?  May I ask who they are?”  John said, feeling the bottom fall out of his confidence about which he had just boldly boasted.

“Yes, let’s see.  There is Mr. Cavanaugh from next door, the lawyer that you know.  Mr. Albert, a man that comes to the Professor’s often; he’s the one who likes to stare at me a lot, and a Mr. Cribb, and a Mr. Steen.  The latter having something to do with guns, I believe.  Mr. McGregor seems like he’s trying to find the courage to ask, too.

Do you know any of these gentlemen besides Mr. Cavanaugh?”

“I know all of them.  Gentleman, all.  Mr. Steen, Mr. Cribb, and Mr. Albert are quite familiar to the Chamber.  Mr. Albert owns the ‘The Sterling Theater’ in the city.  He’s a very fine distinguished mature gentleman, much older than you, but I understand he is bringing nice cultural entertainment to the city.  We must go sometime, at least it isn’t opera.  Mr. Cribb is a recently retired mill overseer and holds a financial office in the Chamber.  Mr. Steen.  He’s probably been in Milton less than two years.  He manufactures gun barrels for small hand guns.  Most gun making is done in pieces mainly in Birmingham, but they ship here, Steen tools the barrels and assembles them for export to the latest war around the globe.  I guess he’s a nice enough chap.  I feel he’ll be a gentleman with you.  Mr. McGregor is relatively new to the area.  He has a small looming mill that weaves the different tartans for the Scots.  He only came here to learn the machinery, but has stayed, I think, longer than he anticipated.  You know, this is hard for me to watch you go to a ball with another man, but I think you could choose any of them.”

“Well, not knowing I might have to choose someone, other than yourself, I have given it very little thought.  I’ll talk with the Professor about who he thinks, since he’s interviewed them all.  Tell me about this ball,” Margaret asked.

“Please do not think Milton as having a gala as you may have seen in London.  Formal wear is required, but not the latest fashions or dances, except maybe the waltz.”

“I shall like to dance, but I will miss being with you.”  Margaret said.

Their evening came to an eventual end and John was relieved that Margaret would approach it as he had hoped.  He placed Margaret’s wrap around her shoulders and escorted her out of the, still busy, restaurant.  Branson waited with the coach and John handed her in.  All the way to her house, John kissed her and hugged her tightly, and whispered endearments into her ear.  It had been too long since he could touch her.  He escorted her to her door and opened it with her key.

“I would invite you in for a cup of tea, but it is getting late, and I don’t think Dixon is home yet.”

“Would that be so bad?”  John asked with a smile.

“Thank you for such a lovely evening.”  Margaret said, ignoring his blatant smile.

“I will see you next week for dinner with the Professor.”

John waited while Margaret entered her home and then said goodnight, kissing her inside the doorstep.

Margaret closed the door and rested herself against it.  She was in a dreamy mood thinking about John, how wonderful he was, and how she had missed him.

Leaving a light on for Dixon, she climbed the stairs to her room feeling the sleepiness starting to take her.  Turning on the gaslight, she noticed something on her pillow.  She walked over to see that it was a white rose with a note attached.  How did this get here?  She opened the note but did not recognize the handwriting, as it was printed and not written.  The note said,

I WILL HAVE YOU SOON AND I KNOW YOU WANT ME.

No signature.  She sighed and smiled wondering what type of tricks John was up to.  She knew he had a key and must have had Branson do this while they were at dinner.  If the rose was still nice by John’s dinner, she would wear in her hair.