As they started for home on the gas-lit, empty streets, Margaret fondly linked arms with her father. Their leisurely walk in the cool night air lifted her spirits and she enjoyed the pretty way her skirts rustled and swayed about her ankles, as if she were a grand lady.
“I thought Mr. Thornton looked anxious tonight,” Mr. Hale remarked thoughtfully as they passed the first street corner. “I rather think that his mind is not quite at ease about all this trouble with the strike.”
“I shouldn’t wonder that he might be troubled, but he spoke so coolly tonight. He stands so firm in his stance that I cannot detect in him any wavering fear that he will not prevail. He must know something of the growing anger of his workpeople and their suffering, but the manner in which he spoke of them made me wonder if he has any feelings at all,” she replied with a touch of reproach.
Mr. Hale turned his head sharply in surprise to gaze at her. “I believe you are quite set against him, Margaret. You judge him too harshly, I fear. Remember that he has forged his way in this life with great determination, judgment, and self-control. I believe that he is too proud to show his feelings overmuch, but it does not signify that he does not consider such matters greatly in his mind. Truly, I should have thought him just the type of man you would admire, given his exemplary self-discipline,” he lightly admonished her.
“Oh, I do admire his strong character, Father. His intellect and bearing exceed what I would expect for someone of his kind. Perhaps I just need time to understand these manufacturers. Their conversations are alive with ambition for accomplishment – which is not at all like the tepid, sophisticated talk one endures in London. I quite like their honest zeal, although I do not care for their shortsightedness in dealing with their own workers,” she remarked. “I don’t imagine I made a very good impression tonight,” she added with a rueful smile.
Her father gave her a sympathetic grin and patted her arm.
When they finally arrived at their house, Dixon met them at the door, her face white with fear. “Thank God you are come! The doctor is here. She’s better now, but an hour ago I’d thought she would leave us!” she exclaimed in agitation.
Mr. Hale gripped his daughter’s arm for support, his own face now still and pale. Father and daughter rushed into the house.
Mr. Thornton walked into his darkened bedroom, lit the lamp, and shut the door behind him. After all the bustle and conversation of the evening, the house was eerily silent. He let out a long breath and removed his cravat. His mother would count the evening a success. It had begun very well, he thought. There had been such promise in the manner in which Miss Hale had received him. She had never before bestowed such a welcoming smile or warm clasp of hands upon him. He had begun to hope that her opinion of him had undergone a favorable change.
But whatever warmth he had detected had chilled at the dinner table when he had condemned her compassionate motives and she had seen fit to castigate him in return for his heartlessness.
He muttered a curse for his sister’s malevolent remark and for the way Mr. Bell had played his hand. But it did not change the facts. Miss Hale was of a different mind, and did not view him or his like in any high regard. He was angry and vexed that she should think him cruel and uncaring.
He endeavored to brush off the feelings of ill-ease at her disapproval, but was confused and not a little annoyed that he should have to expend so much effort to do so. He had much more important matters to think of at present. He sighed in defeat as sat on his bed and wearily reclined himself for sleep.
He had managed, for the evening, to put off the worries which weighed on him more pressingly every day since the strike had begun. His plans to hire Irish replacements were underway – he could no longer wait for the union men to return to work. His profits were sliding, and the machinery lay idle.
He knew the risks involved in this move, the anger that would arise from those whose places would be filled by the Irish. They had made their choice and now he would make his.
Mr. Slickson had voiced frightened concern that the strikers would riot and the violence spill to other mills. All these things he had taken under consideration. Had not these concerns swallowed up his every conscious thought these past weeks?
The thought of Slickson caused his mind to return to the beautiful woman to whom he had been speaking when Slickson interrupted.
Her presence had entranced him the moment his eyes had taken in her exquisite form. He had been aware of her all evening – noting who she spoke with, when she was unattended, how the other men had appraised her for her startling beauty. It had taken great strength of character to act indifferently toward her, when all he had longed to do was let his eyes follow her or bring himself to her side.
He quickly withdrew from the indulgence of such thoughts. It was fruitless to harbor any hope of winning her hand or imagine that such a woman would consider him an acceptable match. She would not have him. Was that not evident by the way she had so pointedly rebuked him in front of his company? No, it was best to put her out of his mind entirely.
And so he directed his thoughts to matters of money, and workers, and cotton production. However, her image persistently returned, and he found himself recalling every expression, every gesture, and every word she had spoken that evening as an enchanting torment to his soul.