The Ball concluded, and many people were making their way to the arched doors. Margaret was walking with Adam, Fred, and Bessie behind her, Nicholas behind them. John Thornton and another Master were exiting the attendees. Margaret heard him explain that the coach names would be called out as they pulled in front of the courthouse. Another long wait, Margaret thought. Besides finding a suitable punishment for Adam, she was determined to have a good sulk about how she treated John. She couldn’t ignore him again, the way she did tonight. Fred would have to guide her, not Adam.
It was a pitiful scene for Fred, thought Margaret, as he had to yield Bessie to her father. A beautiful evening like this and he couldn’t even kiss her goodnight.
Adam, Fred, and Margaret entered their coach after a wait.
“Margaret, once again, I am most dreadfully sorry for my comment. It was quite true by the way. I saw them being served when I visited America. It came out of the blue saying that to you. I do remember having the same reaction as to what was on my plate, like you. I couldn’t help myself. But so help me, I never expected that reaction from you. I was looking for a scrunched nose or a shocked look. You really gave us a great performance.
“Fred, stop laughing,” Margaret sneered.
“I’ve had the most delightful night of my life, as you probably could tell. Having to put all that behind me and rush you to the ladies, I was only hoping you wouldn’t puke on my uniform. That would have ruined the rest of my evening.”
“Well, I appeared the fool tonight. Everyone finding some form of amusement with me. Even Mr. Thornton. I had many comments about this being my first night out.”
“Sis, that may be how it felt to you, but it wasn’t visible on the outside.”
“No? Adam had to hand Master Brentstone my dance card while I retracted my hand. Then I had to return for my dance slippers that were beneath the table. I almost vomited as everyone looked on. I insulted Mr. Thornton both times I danced with him.”
“You only danced with him once, sis. What stayed you from the floor? You two were really talking.”
“Oh yes, I was busy insulting him.”
“Oh, I’m too tired to go into it all now. Adam, you’re not coming for a final drink unless Fred invites you. I am going to bed.”
“Adam, how about having a drink with me when we get to our house.”
“I’d be delighted, Fred. I feel we need a plan.”
“Oh, yes. Do make a plan on how Margaret Hale may redeem herself. By the way, that Fanny lady, she seems familiar.”
“A… ah . . . Margaret, she is John’s sister. And she’s a real gossipy woman.” Adam broke the news.
“Do we have a train schedule at home?”
“Margaret, it will be better in the morning.”
The coach stopped, and Margaret went straight to her room. For a few moments, the sound of leaving Milton for a while was a comforting thought.
“Well, Bessie what did you think of the Ball?”
“Father, I think you know the answer to that.”
“Is Fred good to you? Is he speaking or hinting of anything untoward with you?”
“He’s been a complete gentleman in all regards. I told Margaret he’s a man she’s never known.”
“So, you feel he has some serious interest in you. I mean more than having dinner out occasionally?”
“Yes, I think there are serious times ahead for both of us. I know what you’re thinking father. I am conscious as well that he is a young man recently released from the Navy. I know your worries, and I want you to trust me. Do remember, I was raised by you and I am ‘of age,’ now. I will be making my own decisions. I will try to use my head and not my heart.”
“Bessie, do know one thing . . . that is impossible. It’s not only your heart working on you but other more physical impulses. Just be careful.”
“Thank you, father. Good night.” Bessie headed for her room with new memories and planning for the future.
As Margaret began to undress for bed, she let her mind wander through the new wisdom that was shown to her tonight. Nervousness was not a malady that she had endured much of her lifetime. She didn’t handle it very well. Margaret knew she would have embarrassed her father, had he been there. Fred was too engaged to pay much attention, and John said that he had been watching her. “Oof!” she shouted quietly as she slammed her two fists on the dresser top. She was disappointed in herself.
Slipping into bed, she must allow for what went right. Master Brentstone didn’t seem that he felt she was idiotic. He showed genuine concern. There were many other dance partners that asked to extend their introductions further at other times. Was that a courtesy that a gentleman naturally expresses? Is that in the handbook? Or is it meant to mollify the lady upon separating when the music stopped? Once Fred’s own feet hit the ground tomorrow, Margaret would be taken for a ride in their new carriage, and he would be asked many questions.
John Thornton, arriving home late, checked with his overnight foremen to know if there had been any difficulties. Finding there hadn’t, he slowly climbed the stairs to the sitting room. He removed his greatcoat, his tails, cravat, and waistcoat. John had done very little imbibing for the evening, but now felt the need for a rather large scotch. After attending or presiding over these balls for a few years, few stood out in his mind except tonight. Fortunately, the masters were gentlemen and with no instances of arguments or loud voices. The dances were well received, the food had no complaints. The waiters were prompt, and his short speech was adequate. He danced many dances, but Miss Hale was dug into his mind like a tick on a horse. If she had been his lady this evening, he’d been torn between hugging her or spanking her. Margaret was popping up in his life in very unfamiliar territory. He had no idea that a young woman stepping into the world of men and her own maturity could be fraught with such confusion. Nervousness, he could understand, but he couldn’t see why his own attentions were received so poorly. It wasn’t vanity that seemed to have clipped his wings, it was something which he would search for an answer. What kind of worker would she be? There was now a question on that.
The next morning Margaret woke in a poor state. Dixon knocked on the door because there was some worry among the family.
“Miss Margaret.” She knocked again. “Miss Margaret?”
Through the door a groggy, “What is it, Dixon?” was heard.
Dixon entered and found her miss looking feverish. Her bedclothes were in a terrible heap, winding all around her. “Miss Margaret, you have had a very bad night.” Laying her hand on Margaret’s head, she asked, “How are you feeling. You look ill.”
“I am ill. I haven’t slept all night. Could you bring me a cup of tea? I will stay in my bed until I feel myself again. I don’t have a temperature, do I?”
“You don’t feel warm, but your face is flushed. Did you eat something disagreeable last night.”
Margaret whined into her pillow. “Please don’t speak of my dinner. I couldn’t eat it.”
“I will bring you tea and a buttered biscuit, right away.”
“Thank you.” Margaret rolled over on her pillow and continued to sniffle from small crying bouts all night.
By that time, Fred had had a long chat with his father about the previous evening and in hearing of Margaret’s incapacity to rise from her bed, Fred went to her.
He didn’t knock upon entering and immediately sat on the side of her bed.
“Margaret, did a badger get on your bed last night? I’ve only seen bedsheets in this disarray for one reason, and I know that is not your excuse.” Since Margaret wouldn’t face him, he got off the bed, walked around it and pulled up a chair, and looked closely at her.
“Do I have to unpack my crystal ball, or will you tell me what bothers you this much?”
Margaret placed her face on the pillow and shook her head no.
Fred thought he heard a muffled, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“But you are talking to me, now. Not Thornton, not Adam. I’m the one that knows you. I could ask Father up here, but I think you’d rather it be me.”
Dixon returned with two cups of tea, and biscuits, prompting Margaret to finally sit up in the bed.
“Do you know how beautiful you are with your hair like it is now?”
“Oh, stop it, Fred. Only the biscuits need buttering.”
“You are just eaten up with self-doubts, and guilt, aren’t you? I believe my next words should be, ‘Where is my sister? What have you done with her?”
Margaret couldn’t resist a little smile.
Fred handed her the teacup and set the biscuit plate on the bed space between them. “I admit, I was not fully cognizant of what was going on around me, but hazarding a guess, I’d say you had problems with Mr. Thornton. Of all nights for you to look forward to being with him, something went wrong. Now spit it out. You don’t want to see what I learned about interrogation practices. I could stick a plank out your window.”
Margaret was able to giggle while the biscuit crumbs sailed from her mouth.
“Did your commander say, ‘Fire at will!’ Avast your tears and biscuit, young maiden.”
“What does Avast mean,” Margaret finally spoke.
“That is a naval secret.”
“Pirates say it.”
“And who was the last pirate you spoke to? They don’t know what it means either. They just thought we sounded smart, so they emulated us.”
Fred now had Margaret smiling and laughing. The first objective completed. Fred removed the empty biscuit plate and proceeded to prop his feet on the bed, leaned back in his chair, cradling his teacup. “Now, I do have extra wood in the stable for a plank. Should I get it or will you talk?”
“Did you ever think raising a sister would be this difficult?”
“Actually when I was about ten years old, I did think that. No one told me to expect the ‘coming of age’ issues. I always thought I would be around to guide you from the beginning since I knew it would fall to me. And I wanted it to be me. I know ‘the nothing’ I got from my father, and surely mother still wonders how we got here. I don’t want to even think about the pleasures they never knew about. I felt confident that Dixon would teach you about the woman’s week and that kind of thing. The school would teach about conception, but there isn’t a book out there about us men.”
“I stared at Mr. Thornton because he is a handsome man. You said I was seducing him. You and Adam encouraged me to ignore him, becoming a mystery to him. Therefore, an investigation into me may begin. I had so many things in my head last night, even if he never was there, that I managed to be the “immature debutante.” When I was near Mr. Thornton, in my head, it was don’t do that, don’t do this, try this instead . . . being so close made me nervous on top of it all. I ended up insulting him trying to prove my indifference. As the ball ended, he walked away. He told me if he became too prideful, he would seek me out.”
Margaret told him the whole conversation of how she remembered it, starting with the ragdoll.
“Ouch!” Fred comically shuddered.
“Yes, that’s just what happened. I have nowhere to go now.”
“Other than your first missteps at the beginning and anything Thornton, are there other issues?”
“Just some general questions about men and their handbook.”
Now Fred was laughing. “Let me see if I can cast them overboard quickly.”
“Do men offer false praise?”
“Sure. All the time. Men, not gentlemen and not all men only have one thing on their mind when meeting a beautiful lady, that they will say whatever is needed to … umm . . . have their way. But that isn’t to say that those same men aren’t in earnest.” Fred saw the confusion on his sister’s face. “I’m sorry, but there it is. You do know about our needs which only God gave us. We are not greedy, we are needy. Few women believe that.”
“So how do men take care of that need on long voyages?”
Fred blanched at that question. “That is another naval secret. Land or sea, deserts, mountain tops, it makes no difference. Let’s move along. I don’t have time for that question.”
“You don’t pop, do you?”
Fred fell out of his chair, laughing. “I promise to have that discussion at a later time. Now, stop.” Fred righted his chair and sat again. “Don’t worry. We have had centuries to figure out what works best.” Fred continued to laugh.
“All right, but don’t forget about it. After your dance partner returns you to the table, is he expected to give a compliment.”
“Not really. A polite ‘Thank you, Miss Hale’ is about the minimum. He may say it was ‘his honor’ which isn’t indebting him to further progress with you. Usually, when he brings you to the floor, more often than not, his first words are sincere. That usually is in regards to your appearance. That’s pretty simple. All women look lovely at balls. Do I take it that you want to understand the difference between his natural or practiced tendencies.”
“I can’t be much help there. He either does what he feels or does what he must and circumstances can change that. There is no easy sign for you to watch for.”
Margaret pondered. “With men being so tall, am I to look away during dancing or look into his face?”
“That is your prerogative. You do what you feel. There is no must.”
“Can he hold you against his body?”
“A gentleman should never do that. Not even one head-over-heels in love with you. I can’t say it doesn’t happen, though. Your breast may skim him, and that is sometimes unavoidable, but nothing below the waist.”
“I didn’t get much time to watch but how does he find his footing around our awfully full frocks. Some gowns sweep the ground.”
“I have never had a discussion of that. I don’t know. I think we must notice if your gown is touching the floor. If it is not, there isn’t a problem. So, to get to the bottom of this, Thornton walked away from you with his own little insult, and you think you two shall never speak again?”
“Yes, I think that’s what bothers me the most.”
“You insult the man and then lay the blame at his feet? Someday you must teach me about women.”
“When I think about it all together, I feel you must be right. How does one apologize for such actions that have been taught and then tried? I could ask forgiveness from anyone other than John. He’ll see how weak I am.”
“I am sorry, Margaret that I don’t have all the answers and I am not in Thornton’s skin to know how he actually feels. When do you expect to hear from him about a position at the mill?”
“I doubt that will ever be offered, now. Unless I receive a note from him tomorrow, I will ask you to carry me to several other mills. I want to answer everyone’s inquiry’s if I can.”
“Let me leave you with this for now. Last night your only drawback was with Thornton. I know he means a lot to you, but you did meet many other masters of nice character. You are not lost to the society, such as it is here, at all. You may have burned your little bridge with Mr. Thornton. Let’s face it, it was only a bridge that you were trying to build, not him. I don’t see any fault with the man, nor you – only the advice you were given. I hope some day you will find an opportunity to explain your behavior. You may not work for him, but I think it was felt that someone would hire you quickly. Were any offers of work extended to you last night?”
“Two. I said I had another offer ahead of theirs so I could not answer just yet.”
“Did you have any offers to be taken out to dinner by any other gentlemen?”
“Three? That’s significant. You will find someone that loves you. You will not be alone in your life. You will see Thornton at the dinner party. You just have to prepare yourself for that. I take it he will have no partner at the table. Try to be amiable, not sorrowful. It breaks men’s hearts when they see women cry. They feel helpless, and that doesn’t sit well with a man if he cannot rescue a woman for whatever reason. They can give no assurance that things will work out.”
“I’m having second thoughts about going. I am mad at Adam right now.”
“I think he was really pleased to have you with him last night and imbibed more than he should. He’s always had fun with you, or don’t you know that?”
“That was so crude what he said.”
“Well, I laughed, too. It’s something I might have done to you.” Fred laughed.
“Am I going to have to share Bessie with you now?”
“That will be up to her. We don’t know what we have yet, but I think we’re both eager to see where we are led. There is a strong attraction there. Like you, last night was her first time out, too. For a while, I will not know if her interest in me is genuine, or it’s a matter of the first man in her life. She knows no others. I do not have means. There are many out there that have a lot more going for them than I. I have very little to offer. I don’t want her looking down to me or feeling pity for me. We will be working through a lot. I will accept no gratitude.”
“I’m beginning to see the man that Bessie has glimpsed. I do think you grew into a good man.”
“I bet you thought I only had good looks,” Fred laughed. “Now get out of bed and plan your day for tomorrow. If you want, I will take you out back and start training you for the buggy.”
“Yes, I will like that.” Margaret pulled the coverlet off of her legs and swiveled out of bed to stand. “Out brother! And Fred, thank you.”
He saluted her and left the room.
After Margaret had dressed, she decided to do what her heart was telling her; sit down and write a brief apology. She wasn’t asking for forgiveness, that was weak. Just a short letter to explain her actions as best she could.
I find this type of note hard to begin, but begin I must. In all good conscience, for which no doubt you think I lack, I was rude to you specifically. The other dance partners suffered no humiliation from my verbal assault. The nervousness you may understand. Being an admired gentlemen with an abundant group of lady friends, it was suggested that I show you no interest. Having some belief that you must tire of the constant attention that women seek from you, I felt this advice to be sound. Having no experience with men, I now know my exaggerated indifference went sadly astray. Discussing my concerns this morning with my brother, it has been pointed out to me the idiocy and stupidity of my remarks. I was guided by bad advice with good intentions. For this, I must apologize. I was not, at all, the woman that you met at the Lyceum. I thoroughly enjoyed the other parts of my evening, but my guilt holds me back from thinking last night was the best in my life. It is passed, the damage is done.
With my actions which I am unable to undo, I hereby release you from any statements you made to eventual employment. I am sure there are now questions in your mind about my capacity to withstand the rigors of a position. Tomorrow, I will begin making my rounds to the other Master’s who had asked for my advice at the Lyceum. I have had two other offers of work, so you need not have any worries about me.
Again, with embarrassment and humility, I am sorry.
John poured some coffee into an enamel clad pitcher and walked across to the office. It was Nicholas’s turn to take the Sunday watch, but John knew they should discuss Miss Hale’s position.
“I thought I’d see you this morning,” said Nicholas. And the coffee smells good. How do you think the Ball was received?”
“I think quite well as it does every year. Maybe we should consider having two a year – spring and fall. One would have the association pay for it, like last night and the other could have tickets sold and open to anyone who could afford to go. Think on that. It would have a smaller representation, I imagine but still I think Milton needs a little more distraction from the daily toil.”
“Not bad. Maybe you should approach the Masters about the idea at your next meeting. Selling tickets would require an extra layer of work, but sold over one or two months time wouldn’t be hard.”
John handed Nicholas his coffee cup. “I think we need to discuss whether or not we have a position for Miss Hale.”
“I thought that was decided,” replied Nicholas.
“I’m not sure we finished our complete ideas for her responsibility. I know we discussed her salary. I must admit I found her acting strangely last night. Perhaps, she could not handle the impact on her life, day-to-day. The constant pressure to perform at the high level we expect may wear her down. I saw a different Margaret last night than I did at the Lyceum.”
“You mean the great John Thornton couldn’t see what was going on with her? I believe it plain to see for myself and Fred as we sat with her all night.” Nicholas was smiling.
“Why are you smiling. You don’t know the discussions that she and I had.”
“We didn’t have to. We saw how she reacted to the other partners, but it changed when you returned to the table each time. I haven’t talked with Fred, but I think he and I are of the same opinion. Bessie is silent on the issue.”
“Bloody hell, what are you talking about? And don’t tell me she was trying to gain my favors. She insulted me all night. No woman has ever taken a tact such as that with me. And it’s not what she said that bothered me at all. I lost no confidence as evidenced by my other dance partners. I am just concerned for her. That’s why I question her working here.”
“I see. She did not seek favor with you, but you have concern for her. Do I have that correct?”
“Your words sound true when you say them fast, but you’re twisting something around.”
“You know you are. Am I intimidating? You’re using or say she’s using some type of reverse approach? Ridiculous!”