Margaret studied her reflection impassively as the family maid swept her auburn hair up into thick coils upon her head. Her usually expressive blue-gray eyes were placid as she regarded the generous scoop of her neckline, which made her look much older than her nineteen years.
The last time she had worn the pale green gown, she had been eminently pleased with how it had snugly fit her form and fell in easy elegance to the floor. Edith had enthused over it so that she had felt almost as beautiful as her glamorous cousin when they had appeared at a London soiree over a year ago.
It would be her first formal occasion since moving to this rough industrial city in the North, but she could not muster any enthusiasm for dressing in such finery tonight. Not when she had heard and seen the suffering and struggle she had witnessed this week. She could not forget the gaunt figure of her new friend Bessy, who was fast succumbing to the disease sapping her strength, caused by years of breathing in cotton fibers that lingered in the air of the mills where she had worked.
Bessy had never participated in grand dinners or balls in her short life. Margaret had been pleased to observe her friend rally this afternoon as the pale girl had eagerly admired the dress that Margaret intended to wear to the Thornton dinner party.
Dixon teased the last strands of her mistress’ hair into place and gave an exasperated sigh as a few errant curls escaped their bounds to teasingly fall at her temple and at the back of her neck. Margaret smiled faintly in approval at the sight.
“Come now,” the rounded woman urged as she laid the brush and pins down, “let’s show your mother how you’ve turned out,” she directed, shuffling the young miss towards her mother’s sitting room.
“Miss Margaret looks well – doesn’t she, ma’am? I’m sure they’ll not be a finer young lady in attendance,” Dixon declared as they entered the room where her mother was sitting.
Too ill lately to attend any social outing herself, Mrs. Hale was pleased to see her daughter go to this formal affair. “Oh, Margaret, how I should have liked to take you to some grand assembly as my mother, Lady Beresford, used to take me,” she lamented with a smile of approval for her daughter’s becoming attire.
Margaret bent to kiss her mother for her proud maternal instinct, and managed a sympathetic smile. “I would rather stay home with you – much rather, mamma,” she answered. As her friend Bessy had often reminded her, it was an honor to be invited to the annual dinner at the wealthy cotton manufacturer’s house. Still, Margaret had a mind to avoid the loquacious talk, vain posturing, and glittering display of these affairs. She found them abhorrent to her more thoughtful, simpler nature.
“Oh nonsense, darling! Be sure you notice the dinner well. I should like to know how they manage these things in Milton,” her mother admonished lightly. Born to a well-bred family in the South, Mrs. Hale was curious as to how cultured or resplendent a dinner party could be in a city so filled with toil, filth, and unpolished manners.
Margaret kept up with her father’s quick steps as they walked the quieted streets of the city in the last hour of daylight. She did not mind in the least that they would not arrive by carriage. Since renouncing his position as a country vicar, the family had had to manage their money very wisely. Margaret admired her father for his intellectual fervor as well as for his kind-hearted ways, and although she was not pleased that his religious doubts had pressed him to give up the cloth, she respected his decision to take up work as a private teacher in this bustling new place.
She knew his swift pace was congruent with his eager honor to have been invited as a friend of Mr. Thornton’s. The powerful cotton mill master had been her father’s first pupil, and the elder gentleman had grown to respect and admire the stern-looking manufacturer for his intellect and forthright reasoning. Mr. Thornton’s lessons often exceeded the allotted time, the conversations between them extending beyond the realm of literary themes and philosophy. Margaret was pleased that her father had found a friend amongst the strangers of their new hometown, although she was not as readily able to sing his praises.
Tall and dark-haired with strong chiseled features, Mr. Thornton was a formidable figure whose sober expression seemed to suggest that he knew little of gaiety or leisure. Margaret admired the self-discipline and unremitting determination that had enabled him to raise his family from poverty, but she had grave reservations as to his methods in dealing with the working classes. She held him and the other masters’ hardened stance largely responsible for the outbreak of the strike that currently held Milton’s cotton industry at a standstill.
They were among the first guests to arrive at the stone mansion that stood by the mill. While Mr. Hale conversed with Mr. Thornton’s mother, Margaret chatted with his sister, Fanny. Mr. Thornton was nowhere to seen.
“I’m sorry that your mother is ill,” Fanny remarked politely. She elaborated on the physical comfort she had discovered in using a water mattress for her delicate constitution, and wondered if Mrs. Hale might derive some benefit from borrowing it.
Margaret’s attention was diverted at this moment by the entrance of Mr. Thornton into the room. He was resplendent, dressed in dark coattails with a gold brocade waistcoat and matching cravat that fitted his commanding frame perfectly. He moved easily amongst his guests, greeting them and smiling as a perfect host would do.
She watched with fascination as he was introduced to an attractive young lady. He took the proffered hand with a simple elegance. There was no affectation of feeling or gleam of arrogance in his eyes, as she had often seen in the gazes of Edith’s London acquaintances. As the beauty bowed and smiled at his attentions, Margaret realized how strikingly handsome he was.
She caught her breath when he turned and saw her, and smiled as he made his steady approach toward her. She held out her hand to him and clasped his hand warmly in both of hers. “You see, Mr. Thornton, I am learning Milton ways,” she remarked lightly as an apology for the times she had not accepted his amiable gesture.
“I’m sorry your mother was not able to join us,” he returned in a low, silken voice. His tone resonated within her, at once awakening her to the allure of his virile masculinity. She felt his eyes fervently search hers as if he would discern her thoughts and intentions. As she reluctantly pulled her hand from his grasp, his fingertips brushed lightly along her palm and fingers. The sensation sent a flutter through her stomach and she blinked in mute surprise at her reaction.
She had never felt such a strange stirring within her and wondered what it could portend. She had not yet taken anything to drink and yet she felt almost tipsy. Her limbs quaked slightly to stand so closely before him.
She was both relieved and chagrined when his attention was diverted by a fellow manufacturer who compelled him to leave her side. He gave her a penetrating look of sincere regret and excused himself with apparent reluctance. Somewhat stunned and forlorn, she stood alone until Mr. Bell, a close friend of her father, guided her about the room to mingle with other guests until all were called to dine.
Her mother would have been astonished at the opulence of the table settings and the quantity of dishes prepared. Mrs. Thornton’s dinner rivaled any that Margaret had attended in London. She would have been honestly impressed, were it not for her feeling of unease that the surfeit of food and grand elegance seemed incongruous to the lack with which the larger portion of Milton were currently struggling.
But such inequities did not seem to disturb the consciences of the other diners. Conversation drifted comfortably among the men from the cotton industry, while the women listened quietly to their discussion of profits and future opportunities. Margaret observed with great interest that, although he was the youngest master of the assembled group, Mr. Thornton’s opinion was sought by all the others for his sound judgment.
Margaret was taken aback when she was suddenly thrust into the center of attention. Fanny, bored with the conversation of cotton markets and prices of goods, remarked that Margaret had been seen delivering baskets of food to the Princeton district. Conversation stilled, and all eyes turned to Margaret.
Aware that she was being drawn in to take sides on the strike, she attempted to circumvent the issue. “I have a friend in Princeton, Bessy Higgins,” she admitted quietly.
“Higgins? Isn’t he one of your union leaders, Hamper?” Mr. Henderson asked in shocked disdain.
“Yes,” Mr. Hamper answered, “he’s a terrific firebrand – a real dangerous man,” he muttered in bitter annoyance.
“I’m surprised you keep such company, Miss Hale,” Mrs. Thornton chastised haughtily, hoping her son would take note of the girls poor judgment.
“Bessy is my friend and Nicholas…..” Margaret haltingly began to explain when she was swiftly interrupted.
“Nicholas?” Slickson repeated in astonishment. “She’s on first name terms with him,” he announced with incredulous derision.
Margaret valiantly continued. “Mr. Higgins has been made a little wild by circumstances, but he speaks from the heart, I’m sure,” she argued in defense of her friend’s father, whose aims and temperament were well known to her.
She felt the cold disapproval of the well-dressed company surrounding her.
“Well, if he’s so determined, I’m surprised he’ll accept charity,” Hamper retorted.
“He doesn’t – for himself. The basket was for a man whose six children are starving,” Margaret explained. It was the Boucher family, neighbors to the Higgins, who were suffering terribly from the continued strike.
“Ah, well then, he knows what to do — go back to work,” Hamper replied sarcastically as the other men harrumphed in agreement.
“I believe this poor, starving fellow works at Marlborough Mills, doesn’t he, Margaret?” Mr. Bell casually posed.
Margaret’s heart sank at his underlying game. She felt that her father’s friend had intentionally laid bare the opposing motives of Mr. Thornton and herself for his own amusement.
All eyes turned toward the host of the evening, whose jaw was set in unhappy determination. “You do the man, whoever he is, more harm than good with your basket,” Mr. Thornton coldly advised her, his eyes dark and unsmiling. “Logic would say, the longer you support the strikers, the more you prolong the strike. That is not kindness,” he admonished. “They will be defeated, but it will take longer. Their pain will be prolonged,” he added with increasing fervor of conviction. The men applauded and murmured their approval.
Margaret’s eyes flashed with rebellious indignation to be scolded for her benevolence. “But surely, to give a dying baby food is not just a question of logic,” she retorted, bravely meeting his eyes as she questioned his cold reasoning.
Mr. Thornton glanced away uncomfortably from her direct gaze and stinging reply. In the silence that followed, Mr. Hale began to falteringly praise Mrs. Thornton for her beautiful table settings in an endeavor to diffuse the heated debate between his outspoken daughter and the masters of Milton.
Mr. Thornton was determined to have the last word, however. When Mr. Hale ceased speaking, he made his plea. “Not all masters are the same, Mr. Bell. You do us an injustice to think we’re always up to some underhanded scheme,” he charged, shifting the direction of his gaze from Mr. Bell to Margaret as he calmly implicated them both.
In the next instant, he dismissed the entire conversation by turning from them with a charming smile to the young lady seated at his left.
Margaret’s chest rose and fell heavily. She felt the impulse to abandon the table so that she might indulge herself in a few tears. Her pride, however, dictated that she remain and so she continued to eat her soup with composure, betraying little of the turbulence that swelled in her breast.
The remainder of the evening could not pass swiftly enough for Margaret. She silently bemoaned having attended at all. Her father and Mr. Bell kept up pleasant conversations with several others after dinner, but she lost all heart in making talk, feeling very much alone in the company of these people who seemed to bear no compassion for those who dwelt beyond their own walls.
Mr. Thornton neither spoke nor seemed to acknowledge her presence until formal good-byes were given at their parting. Their eyes met briefly with a glimmer of discomfort and he nodded stiffly, his smile somewhat strained. Margaret felt a pang of painful regret to discern it.