As he exited his study, Richard Hale caught his daughter twirling in the parlor with a note held to her chest. He watched her expressive faces and moves until she noticed him standing there.
“Oh, father. Come sit down. I need to discuss something with you.”
“I certainly hope so after that bit of theatrics. You seem most happy. You must have gotten good news.”
Richard had the note thrust into his hands as he sat. He fidgeted until he found his reading glasses. “Let us see what all this excitement is about.” He slowly read the note and then reread it.
Margaret was watching every twitch on his face. “Well?”
“Very complimentary note about your…” Richard looked back at the note. “your mission, he says here.”
“Well?” Margaret restated.
“Well . . . what is it you want me to say? I agree with him.”
“Don’t you see?” Margaret almost pleaded.
“Are you referring to an invitation to lunch?” Richard knew that’s where she was most likely headed.
“And that is something that causes this much excitement?”
“Well…Is it alright to be seen out with him when he has another lady?”
“When I was your age, it would not have been. You are passed the age of being chaperoned, though. So, you would like to accept but worry about the action Mr. Thornton might receive from his lady? You are worried about him?”
“It seems everyone knows of his current situation. What kind of light does that put me in, father?”
“I’m sure that you are making too much of this. Margaret, he is the most intelligent man I know in Milton. He’s always been considered a gentleman. I would think he knows what he’s doing. Ask your brother on this one. This is a new age breaking, and I am not sure what is proper and what is just politeness. They don’t necessarily mean the same thing. Does this mean a lot to you?”
“I don’t know, father. I think I want it to be. I have nothing to compare this interest in him from anyone else.”
“You’re very likely to be hurt if you expect something of it. He’s just finding a way to thank you for educating his industry. Don’t read more into than this note says.”
“You’re right, father. I don’t know what I am doing or how to behave. I am starting out all wrong.”
“Margaret, you haven’t started out at all. You simply gave a lesson plan. I feel so helpless. I wish your mother was still alive.”
Margaret knelt down and hugged her father. “Father, you will do fine. Mother may have proved to be too proper, anyway.” Margaret wiped her own tears away. Seeing her father beaten down because he didn’t have answers, saddened her.
“Margaret, the question you must ask yourself is what will you do if he offers you work for a few days a month?”
“I would like to accept that. That is why I took that course, you know. I’d like to feel I can depend on myself someday.”
“That is not the way the world works, my dear.”
“I know. And look at all the bad marriages. You and mother were lucky to marry for love. She sacrificed because she loved you. I want that, too, but there are no assurances. I have nothing to offer a man like the girls I schooled with, but I’m not quite as bad as having to settle for just any man. I’m stuck in the middle.”
“Margaret, stop talking such nonsense. You are nothing like that. You haven’t even been seen to know how a situation may steer you. Your brother is home now; you have a ball coming. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”
“Alright, father. I will do as you say. So, what do I tell Mr. Thornton about the offer? How do I answer this note?”
“Thank him for the compliments. Yes, you would be interested if he felt you could be of help in his business and then leave the meeting up to him.”
“That sounds perfect. See, you helped most admirably.”
Richard rested back in his chair, glad to be over that conversation.
Margaret went to her writing desk in her room. Tears filled her eyes as she pulled the sheaf of paper from the walnut drawer. Her father didn’t tell her what she wanted to hear, but she knew he was right. With the paper on the blotting paper, she began.
John heard Nicholas’ carriage pulling into the yard. He gathered his notes from yesterday’s meeting and readied them for a final work schedule for the day.
“Good morning, Nicholas.”
“Is it?” Nicholas laughed. “I’m sorry I was thinking about Miss Hale on my way here. I guess I hadn’t finished my thoughts as I walked in.”
“So, what were your final thoughts?”
“I think we need to find her some work here.”
“Funny you should say that. I proposed such a suggestion in a note she should have received by now. I think we can offer her a day a week to start.”
“You’re just thinking of her working with the accountants, correct?”
“Yes. You have other thoughts?”
“We had quite a good talk in the canteen before you found us. She has some good ideas other than accounting. She had some suggestions for Mary’s kitchen. How to work smarter, things like that. I do like her quoted remark, about pleasure in the job, puts perfection in the work. One of the things I’ve admired about you the most was your sense of fairness and pride in your product. I don’t know what all her ideas are, but I would hate to see some other master take her before we make up our mind about her.”
John set aside his meeting notes and a discussion ensued about offering Miss Hale a decent position.
Branson grabbed a bucket of nails and a hammer while he spoke to Fred about his purchase. They talked at some length about being an independent driver, too.
“Are you seriously thinking about that, Fred?”
“Just kicking it around in my head. I’ve got to get my sister married off to a fine man before I can go about my life. Trouble is . . . I know no one. And to add to that, I think she has a thing for your master,” Fred laughed.
“My master?” Branson repeated.
“Do you know she has never been out with a gentleman? I am beginning to teach her the ways of men. I don’t want her trapped into any situations either by her own naivete or his uncontrollable desires. I never foresaw this coming, but I should have. My mother and father would have been ancient about this. Margaret said our mother never spoke to her about matters of passion, romance or sex. Branson, you cannot believe how she knows nothing. I caught her staring at Mr. Thornton the other day. I told her she was seducing him with her eyes. She thought I was kidding.”
“I don’t envy you. My woman, who I hope to marry one day, had the same innocence when we met. We’ve been seeing each other for a year. Believe it or not, her purity has been beautiful rather than discouraging. I think I’ll leave that there,” Branson smiled.
“As for my master, he has taken more time with this one lady. I don’t know what he sees in this woman. She seems to be like all the rest. Master Thornton is like a puzzle with many pieces. When I met him about five years ago, he had his four corners, pride, intelligence, honesty and he was a gentleman. Over the years of experience and the advances he’s made to this industry, the puzzle has slowly been filling in. I know he had a terrible life before I ever knew him, but he’s risen far above that now and brought pride back to the family name which his father relinquished to drink and gambling. But there’s still these few pieces in the middle that are missing. They are not only missing from the center, but they are missing altogether. He cannot find ‘her.’ I’m afraid he will just settle for someone. I can’t let him do that. She is out there. She has to be!”
“And you don’t think his current lady, Miss Waverly is the missing pieces?”
“Personally, I do not.”
“Are you on terms where you can talk with him?”
“We have a nice situation. He treats me well as his driver but sometimes we can get down on a friendship level when matters need to be discussed. Usually, they have been my issues. But I’ve let him know what I think of a particular lady almost in hints. I hear a lot more about people than he does.”
“So why is she not the one, in your estimation?”
“Like I said, she seems to be like all the rest which eventually he realizes isn’t what he wants in a woman. I don’t think he knows what he wants, but he knows what he doesn’t want, and Miss Waverly seems to be that type. He’s been going out with her too long, and it bothers me. Perhaps your sister will find his lost soul.” Branson sighed.
“I doubt that. My sister will say she has nothing to offer a man such as he. She puts herself up against women like Miss Waverly and feels inferior.”
“She didn’t sound inferior at that lesson.”
“Oh, I know. She’s very intelligent. She puts me to shame, but we no longer come from a decent wage even with a society background that she could have, but shuns it.”
“My mother’s aunt in London would make sure she had a “coming out” event and would line up many men for her to meet. She’d smother her in gowns, but Margaret does not like that society and its snobbish attitudes and secrets. She accepted our aunt’s gift of education, but she used it so she could support herself. She doesn’t want the life of a hostess. I’m really proud of her for that, although I’ve never told her. I was gone from home when she made that decision.”
“I hope to get to know her one of these days.”
“Never fear, you will.”
Bessie had told Margaret that she would be by today. One final time, she laid out her gown and accessories for the ball before calling on Margaret. It was several hours before dinner and Bessie assumed Margaret should be done with her afternoon meal and possibly a nap. She called her driver.
Margaret was on the back porch watching her brother sweat. She had the oddest sensation when he pulled off his wet shirt. His trousers were riding a bit low, especially when he bent over to grab nails from the bucket. Although seeing more of her brother than that since they were young, it set the image of a man’s body adrift as she looked at her brother right now. She wished Bessie was here. Margaret wondered why that form was so stunning at that moment. His glistening, tanned and contoured body wasn’t allowing her to lower her eyes as she should, or should she? He was her brother. She was just admiring her brother and the male physique. Fred lifted the bucket of nails to carry up the ladder and the muscles popped in his arms and his veins shown through. Margaret felt she needed to knock herself on the head to keep these thoughts at bay. Suddenly she felt a nudge on her back and a low whisper, “Oh, my god.”
She turned quickly to see Bessie staring at her brother. Margaret yanked her down to sit and shushed her.
In whispers, their conversation commenced.
“Margaret, you shouldn’t be looking at your brother that way,” Bessie gasped.
“How am I looking at him. I’ve seen him many times this way, only something seems different this time.”
“Yes, I know the feeling.”
“How do you feel watching him up there with no shirt.”
I feel heat . . . near my thighs. Bessie thought to herself.
“How do I feel? I can’t explain it. He’s terribly masculine looking. I should turn my head. The sight gives me a warm feeling.”
“You heard me, Bessie whispered a little too forcefully.
“Sis, I heard her. I don’t know why you didn’t.” Fred looked over at them, smiling.
Margaret started giggling as Bessie ran into the house and she followed. Bessie was so red, Margaret thought she had sun stroke.
“Margaret, I must leave. I am too humiliated. Let’s keep this to ourselves. Oh, my god,” Bessie ran to her driver.
“Bessie, don’t go, please. I want to understand. I thought it was just me feeling strange.”
Bessie stopped as she got to the front door. “I am mortified that he heard me. I can’t show my face here again.”
“Let’s go to my room. Explain it to me. We’re in this together.”
Feeling ill at ease, Bessie followed Margaret to her room, and they shut the door. Margaret wandered over to her window and continued to watch her brother work. “Bessie, just before you made yourself known, I was thinking what an odd sensation was coming over me. I remember him as almost a skeleton without his shirt when we last lived as a family. He doesn’t look like the same brother out there right now.”
“I know. I think we are getting in touch with our sexual self.”
Margaret gasped. “What?”
“I’ve had these feelings before when I worked at the mill. I don’t know what happens to the body, but there is an immediate sense of need like something is missing. The other women felt like that seeing Master Thornton every time he came down the aisles.”
“Maybe that’s what I was feeling, too,” replied Margaret. “But he’s my brother, for heaven’s sake. That doesn’t mean I want to … ah … oh, I can’t even get the words out.”
“Did the area near your thighs feel … well … warm?”
“No. I didn’t feel anything there. Is that all part of it? Should I have felt something?”
“No, Margaret. But I am sure that’s because he is your brother. If that were John Thornton standing out there like that, then you’d know how I feel. You just saw a nice male body, physically fit. I was on the verge of the vapors.”
“Really?” Margaret walked away from the window, and Bessie took her place.”
“If he looks up here, I will faint.”
“Bessie, is it a nice feeling? Remember, I almost fainted with Mr. Thornton at the lessons, but I didn’t feel any warmth.”
“Margaret, the feeling is quite delicious. I don’t know what happens if it goes on much longer.”
“Delicious? What words you use. I think we are both trying not to say what we’re thinking,” Margaret suggested.
Bessie and Margaret settled in for their first in-depth conversation about men and women, sex, love, priorities and expectations.
Outside, Fred continued to work being uplifted by the fragment of a conversation he had heard. He knew he was being watched and he fancied that.
“Margaret, come to the window.”
Bessie and Margaret both watched Fred pump water into a bucket and poured it over his head, rinsing off the sweat.
“I’m leaving now, Margaret. I came to talk about the ball. Maybe tomorrow, I will pick you up, and we spend the day away from here. I can’t look at your brother right now.”
Margaret walked Bessie to her coach and said goodbye. As the driver whipped the horses to a start, Fred came out of the front door.
“Fred, you embarrassed Bessie to no-end. How dare you call out like that. It wasn’t your business.”
“You two were talking about me. I heard my name, and you think it wasn’t my business?” he smiled
“What did you hear exactly?”
Fred deliberated telling his sister all that he had heard. “I think she said I was masculine looking. Well? Was I not? Had I known she was there I would have put on my shirt, wet as it was.”
“Speaking of masculine looking, what happened to your body?”
Fred held his arms out and looked down at himself. “What do you mean, what happened to my body? I’m no taller. I have built on some weight in muscle, which is common for a man my age. There may be more hair on my chest. What are you seeing, sister? Am I an embarrassment to manhood?”
“Quite the opposite.”
“Oh, now I get it. I’m not the skinny brother you once had. I have grown into a man while you weren’t looking. Just as you have grown into a woman, while I was away. I think we’re even.”
“Well, you shouldn’t go around exciting women with your clothes off.” Margaret laughed.
“Is that what I was doing? Well, you shouldn’t go around with those two things popping up.” Fred laughed. “Perhaps I should take off everything for you, sister, so you know where all the growth happened.” Fred doubled over laughing. Margaret started hitting him and laughing at the same time.
“Stop it sis, or I’ll start drawing pictures,” he smiled. “So tell me, was Bessie impressed?”
“I’m not sure you’ll ever see her again. She was humiliated by what you said.”
“I’ll take that as a yes. Please tell her, I didn’t hear all that you two were saying, but I felt complimented in her statement about looking masculine. Men rarely get compliments. We take them where we can get them. You might want to remember that in the future. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but Branson doesn’t think his master is completely happy with his current lady.”
“It doesn’t matter. I will do nothing in that regard again. Besides that, Mr. Thornton needs a woman of bearing and graceful charms. You know that isn’t me.”
“Well, you need to start out with a gentleman that has no entanglements anyway. When and how will you contact these masters who wanted your help or attention after your lesson?”
“Mr. Thornton sent me a note and mentioned possible employment. Since he was first to say the words, I will give him the first opportunity. He wants to take me to lunch?”
“To talk about working for him?”
“I guess so.”
“Where is the note. Can I read it?”
“Yes, you may. Father has seen it, and we have talked.”
Mr. Hale was napping, Fred was in the sitting room, and Margaret went to her room for the note.
John was walking the #2 mill when Adeline and Kit met up with him. He was surprised they ever found him.
“Excuse us, John and good day,” said Kit.”
Adeline had her armed wrapped around John’s, and John could see all the faces at the shed room windows. He rarely saw anyone here. There was no official office, except for the foremen’s room.
He wished Adeline would un-entwine herself. John asked, “What can I do for you, Kit?”
“Do you have any suggestions as to how I could get more acquainted with Miss Hale? I appreciate the invitation to the ball, and I should like to dance with her. However, I do think we should speak one more time.”
John didn’t like doing favors like this. Each man to his own ways, he thought. “I just wrote a note to Miss Hale today expressing to talk with her about a potential position in our mills. My partner and I discussed this early today. Perhaps, I could send another note inviting her to join the three of us for lunch, or would you prefer a dinner?”
“If you will allow me to pay,” he looked at Adeline, “I would prefer the dinner. Is that good for you?”
“Yes, I believe it is. And you want this before the ball, am I clear?”
“You are, sir.”
“Then I will send a note or perhaps stop by after work and ask her about tomorrow evening. Will that suit you?”
“Yes, most admirably. Thank you. We shall leave you to your work and await word. Thank you again.”
Adeline squeezed his arm and made a show of letting go as they left. No doubt it was for the benefit of the on-looking workers. That was the first time that Adeline had embarrassed him. In front of his workers made it worse.
Arriving back at his office where Nicholas was waiting, John slammed the door shut after he entered. He was still steaming.
Looking surprised, Nicholas quickly responded, “What’s happened. Problems at the mill?”
“Yes and no. Never mind that. How many are going to be at our table for the ball?” John asked in a gruff manner.
“Let me count. If Captain Waverly comes, that will make seven.
“I included Adam Bell.”
“Perhaps your sister and Watson will sit with us, too.”
“I doubt that.”
“John, what is bothering you?”
“You need to say no more. Miss Waverly and her brother came by looking for you. Should I have done something different?”
“No, Nicholas. You did nothing wrong.”