Even in these dreadful times, there is hope. Stay safe when you celebrate!
Even in these dreadful times, there is hope. Stay safe when you celebrate!
I came home in a state of shock and disbelief. To find myself betrayed by the first and only woman I had ever loved, was a cruel blow. Granted, she had never been mine to begin with, but I had professed my devotion to her with an honesty that she must have never experienced in the jaded drawing rooms of London. And still she had rejected me.
I knew I was not a gentleman in her eyes, but surely that was to be preferred over the sly pretence of London, where no one ever spoke of what went on in their minds. Apparently, Margaret thought otherwise.
And, moreover, she had been honest to me, when she said she had never known how to behave when a man spoke of love to her. She had indeed had many men who offered her their heart. There must have been that Lennox fellow and now, this new young buck, whom she loved so dearly that she threw away propriety to embrace him at night at the station.
I had never known her. She was still a complete stranger to me.
The news of Mrs Hale’s passing reached us the next morning.
I could only wonder as to how Margaret and her father must be. I had stopped going to Mr Hale for our readings.
I dearly hoped they would have some consolation. Maybe that was why her suitor had come from London, to comfort her in her hour of great sorrow. I could forgive her that, could I not? When one loses their most beloved parent, one is entitled to some comfort. I was not the one allowed to give it to her, unfortunately. My initial, rather infantile burst of jealousy at seeing her with another man had turned into some other, darker feeling of despair. Margaret would never be mine.
I still spent time with Miss Latimer as frequently as I was allowed by her father. Latimer had only one child of whom he was extremely protective. I could not blame him, since I knew, if I had a daughter of my own, I would feel exactly the same.
Mr Hale, it seemed, had not looked after his daughter as best as he could. Margaret had no guidance at all, and never had. She had been allowed to go as she pleased and do as she wished. Her mother had been sickly, and her father indifferent. Maybe that was what she was looking for in the young man she so loved, support and comfort, and commitment, and protection from indifference.
Ah, Margaret, dearest one …
Mother, Fanny and I attended the funeral service in a chapel that was empty but for Margaret’s family and mine. Mr Bell was there, of course, but also, Higgins and his daughter. I recognized her as the girl who had come to the Hales’ house, when Margaret’s suitor had been present.
Why, I asked myself, would Higgins be there? How well did he know the Hales? And the daughter, was she now employed at their house? How was Mr Hale? How was Margaret?
I took the opportunity of speaking with Mr Bell, after the service, and he told me they were well looked after, and that I was not needed. But I knew that already for a long time.
I cast a last look at Margaret, who was supporting her father. Mr Hale seemed truly devastated, and I felt suddenly guilty for not standing by him in his darkest hour.
I startled and turned, to see a constable addressing me. “Yes? Mason, isn’t it? How do you do?”
I knew the man from when the constabulary had come to my mill during the rioting. A most thorough civil servant, I knew. A man of slender built and several inches shorter than me, and younger also. He could not be more than five-and-twenty, yet he had made his way in the constabulary already. He touched his hat.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but with your being the local magistrate …”
“What is it?”
“I must ask you to accompany me to the morgue, sir. We have a suspicious death on our hands.”
We took a cab and at once went to the mortuary room, where the bodies of unknown dead were usually laid out. On a marble table lay a figure covered by a white sheet. Mason folded the sheet back to reveal the face of a man that was vaguely familiar to me. He was thin, with drab blond hair and bulging pale blue eyes. He seemed not have suffered from lack of food or the barest necessities of life.
“This fellow was found along the station embankment two days ago,” Mason continued. “Died in hospital this morning. He’s not from these parts. We’re trying to identify him. Find out who killed him.”
“He did not die a natural death, then?”
“The coroner still has to do his examination, sir, but we found a severe blow at the back of his head. I am only starting my own investigation as if today, but I will keep you informed about what I find.”
“Thanks, Mason, I’d appreciate that.”
Then it came back to me who he was. “Mason, I know that man. He was dating one of our maids. You are free to come to the house and interrogate her.”
“I will, sir! Would now be convenient?”
“Of course, come along.”
I was present, when Mason told Jane that her friend was dead. She burst out in tears, but Mother soon got her calmed down, urging her to confide in the inspector about the man. His name was Leonards, Jane sobbed, he was from Helstone in Hampshire.
I swallowed. That was the place where the Hales came from, was it not? I said nothing, because it had nothing to do with this man’s death.
Jane insisted that he promised marriage to her, but that he had to gain some money first. And yes, the foolish girl had been giving the fellow some money of her own. Now she suspected Leonards might have spent it in the tavern, the night he died. No, she did not know where he went for his ale, but she thought it might be near Milton Outwood station.
When Mason had gone, Mother who had not been present, called me from the parlour where she was doing the household accounts. I was impatient to get back to the mill, but was waylaid on the landing when I heard Jane sobbing disconsolately as a result of the interview.
“Can’t we give Jane the week off? Better off without that scoundrel Leonards, you know,” I said, sighing with frustration.
“You know what the servants are saying about Margaret. Out after dark with a gentleman,” Mother replied, clearly bent on a different path.
I had enough of the whole sorry business. “I do not know or care what they say, Mother. And nor should you.” I knew my reply was a bit rude, but I could no longer concert myself with the events I witnessed.
When I encountered Mason again, a few days later, he asked me some disturbing things.
“Am I right in thinking you are acquainted with a Mr. Hale, sir?”
“Yes, indeed. What of it?” I replied, concern beginning to grow inside me.
“It’s just that that this man Leonards’ death is mixed up with Miss Hale, sir. I have a very secure chain of evidence that a gentleman walking out with Miss Hale at the station was the same that fought with Leonards and may well have caused his death. But the young lady denies she was there at the time.”
“Are you sure the man she was with is connected to the death? What evening was this? What time?”
“Between eleven and twelve. Thursday the 26th.”
I went cold. The 26th was the day I saw Margaret with her lover at the station.
“Sir?” Mason’s voice was insistent. I tried to compose myself.
“Miss Hale denies she was there?” I asked.
He nodded. “So … Well, you can see my problem, sir. I have a witness who’s pretty positive he saw Miss Hale, even though I’ve told him of her denial. There’ll be a coroner’s inquest. Disputed identifications are very awkward. One doesn’t like to doubt the word of a respectable young woman.”
Margaret, Margaret, what have you been involving yourself in?
My mouth dry, I asked again, “She denies she was at the station?”
“Twice. Very emphatic about it. I did tell her I’d have to ask her again. I thought if you were a friend of the family…”
I had to do something. I had to save Margaret from being interrogated at an inquest. She was only saying goodbye to her lover, she could not have been involved in Leonards’ death. Not my dear girl …
“Quite right. Don’t do anything until you see me again. I will look into it.”
I did see into the matter, and most thoroughly so. I supervised the physicians who did the post mortem on Leonards, because I wanted to be fully prepared if there was to be a coroner’s inquiry. Their findings were, I regret to say, inconclusive. The fellow was a drunkard, and a brawler. His body was covered with scars from earlier fisticuffs and even knife fights. When I pressed the head physician, he told me that the man could have just fallen and hit his head. There was no true evidence of foul play, yet his head injury could also have come from a blow.
So I took the decision to give Margaret the benefit of the doubt. I knew, of course, that she could not have done anything so foul as to club a man on the head, but I had no such generous thoughts about her lover.
Remorse plagued me for some days, afterwards. What if I had protected a murderer?
But no, Margaret must be safe at all costs, so I truly had no choice.
Now I had more time to dedicate myself more thoroughly to my mill. We were still struggling to catch up with the orders. The strike had truly disrupted the good functioning of the factory. I would soon be forced to dismiss even more workers in order to secure my pay role.
The fact that my sister Fanny wished to marry Albert Watson next month, thus forcing me to provide for her dowry, was another nail in my coffin. They had been seeing each other frequently since Mother’s last dinner party. Of course, Watson was a very good match for Fanny. He was the wealthiest manufacturer in Milton, although he derived much of his fortune from bank speculations brought on by Latimer. I could not understand why anyone would risk good money on such tomfool schemes. With the disaster Father’s speculating had brought us, I had vowed myself never to be part of it. Nevertheless, I was in sore need of incoming funds, so I worked almost around the clock. I am a very healthy man. I am never ill and I can go on working all hours without the need for sustenance.
I was just getting ready to start working, when Mother burst into my office. This was not new. She did that quite often, because she is concerned over the workings of the mill and its master. This time, however, she seemed in a state of extreme vexation. She drew up a chair and sat upon it heavily, although she is by no means a heavy person. I laid down my pen, folded my hands before me and looked at her.
“John,” she began, “you won’t be pleased by what I have to tell you.”
“What is it, Mother?” I was growing extremely weary because I knew this was about Margaret.
“ I’ve just come from the Hales. You know I promised Mrs Hale to keep an eye on her daughter.”
I had never quite understood that, I must confess. Mother is not one to make such promises. She always keeps her feelings to herself, yet Mrs Hale must have seen past her inscrutable façade.
“Yes, what of it?”
“She refused any explanation about her nightly behaviour at the station, John! She threw my generous offer of guidance back into my face and she left the room before I had even finished my sentence! Oh, she is such a headstrong, arrogant woman! I am glad she will never be your wife, John. She would have overruled you in everything you planned!”
She stood, because I offered no reply. What could one say? “Don’t stay here too late, John. You work too hard, these days.” Whereupon she left me to brood over what she had just said.
What could that dreadful secret be that was so ferociously guarded by Margaret?
I tried again to discover just that, when I went for my reading. When I entered the house, after Margaret let me in, she spoke to me quietly.
She seemed very subdued, even downcast. I fought hard to keep my emotion in check and not let her see my dismay. But she spoke quietly.
“Father is waiting in the sitting room.”
I nodded and hastened towards the stairs. As always, seeing her brought back the humiliation of rejection.
“Mr. Thornton?” She was speaking in a pleading tone, now, so I turned to face her.
“I have to thank you.”
It was my rage talking now. “No. No thanks. I did not do anything for you.”
I stepped closer, allowing my fury to show. She lowered her eyes, and my heart ached. I could not let her see what she did to me, damn! I went on. “Do you not realize the risk that you take in being so indiscreet? Have you no explanation for your behaviour that night at the station? You must imagine what I must think.”
“Mr. Thornton, please… ” She besieged me with luminous eyes. “I’m aware of what you must think of me. I know how it must have appeared, being with a stranger so late at night. The man you saw me with, he…the…the secret is another person’s and I cannot explain it without doing him harm.”
I was wavering under her gaze. I tried to grasp hat she was telling me, when suddenly Mr Hale’s voice rang from above. “Is that you, John? Come on up.”
I was saved from replying, yet I could not help myself putting matters straight between us.
“I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman’s secrets. I’m only concerned as your father’s friend. I hope you realize that any foolish passion for you on my part is entirely over. I’m looking to the future.”
It was what I firmly hoped for myself, at that time.
I walked the streets in a state of numbness, not seeing or hearing a thing. Barely was I able to comprehend what had just happened to me. The pain, however, was already fully in attendance. It was a wound I would carry with me for the rest of my life.
I know not how but eventually I reached Marlborough Mills and the house, where I ascended the stairs to the parlour, feeling drained and utterly cast down. I noticed Mother was not sitting on her usual sofa, but in a smaller chair, closer to the hearth. She was doing needlework, as usual.
Nothing of this must touch her, I promised myself. For Mother’s sake, I must conquer this. However, I needed a fortifying drink, before facing her. What I had to say, was utterly incomprehensible. I walked past her to the window overlooking the courtyard. Words failed me while I drank my port.
“Well,” Mother said, in a matter-of-fact tone, “at least we’ve got the machines going again.”
I nodded, unable to look at her.
“And the Irish?”
My voice gave way as I attempted an answer. “They’re settled. They’ve had a good meal, and… I sent for the Catholic priest, Father Patrick, he seemed to calm them down. I’ll have to send them home, got workers clamouring to come back.”
Mother scoffed, “Serve them right if we kept the Irish workers…”
I could bear it no longer and went to stand behind her chair, supporting myself on the back.
“By the way, I was right, Mother.”
She looked up, and I could not see her face. Her rigid bearing, however, told me she was very tensed.
“Miss Hale will not have me.”
She slumped a bit in her chair, heaving a big sigh. Dear Mother … I bowed to kiss her on the brow. “No one loves me. No one cares for me but you.”
She grasped my arm and drew me down, so that I was forced to kneel before her chair. She took my face in her hands, and stroked my cheeks with her thumbs. “A mother’s love holds fast and forever. A girl’s love is like … a puff of smoke. Changes with every wind.”
“I knew I wasn’t good enough for her… And I think I love her more than ever.”
“I hate he!” My face must have frighten her, because she continued forcefully. “I’ve tried not to, when I thought she would make you happy.”
No, no! I could not have that! I rose and walked back to the window, while Mother spoke in a pleading tone. “I’d give my lives blood for that!”
Then, scoffing vehemently, “Who is she that she dares to reject you!”
“No!” It was the only word I was able to utter, horror flooding me at Mother’s violent disdain of the woman I loved.
“It’s no good John. Your sorrow is mine. And if you won’t hate her, then I must.”
I needed to say something rational, or at least, try. “She does not care for me, and that is enough. The only thing you can do for me is never say her name again. We will never talk of her again.”
“With all my heart … How I wished that she and all her family would be swept back to the place they came from!”
Wishes that would not become true, I feared.
I threw myself into my work. Because of the strike, we were far behind with the orders. Thank God for work.
I was walking back from the law court, one day, when a familiar voice haled me. Mr Bell crossed the street toward me, a jovial smile on his weathered face. So he was still in Milton? That was not his usual way. I touched my hat.
“Congratulations!” Mr Bell said. “On handling the strike. I trust everything’s back to normal?”
“Well, business is a bit more complicated than that. It’ll take a while.” Had he no idea at all how it worked? Two people joined us.
“Ah! You know the Latimers of course,” Mr Bell said.
Again, I touched my hat. “Of course.” I looked at Miss Latimer, whom I had not seen since the dinner party. She was beautiful, in a doll-like way.
Mr Bell’s attention was captured by someone coming down the street. “Ah, Margaret! Over here!”
I inwardly froze and made an effort not to look at her. My face might very well betray me. Bell rambled on.
“Now look at this! What luck! Two of the prettiest girls in Milton. You remember the Latimers, Margaret? My banker and therefore a very important man. And this is Ann, recently arrived home from Switzerland, I believe, and very much finished.”
I could not help myself after all. I had to see her lovely features, drink them in, keep them forever in my heart.
“Now, where’re you off to, my dear?” Mr Bell asked her. She looked startled and answered, a bit too readily, “Nowhere.”
Bell smiled at her, and I wanted to punch him in the face! “That’s all right, you can have your little secrets. All young women must have their secrets, isn’t that one of the joys of life?”
Now he had the effrontery to stare into my face, a sly smile on his. I fear I was a bit short, just then. “I wouldn’t know. Good day.”
Pompous, meddling man! I took Miss Latimer’s arm and walked away with her as quickly as I could.
Miss Ann Latimer would be paramount in conquering my foolish and misplaced feelings for Miss Hale, I had decided. She was a sweet, quiet girl, and I liked her company exceedingly well. We went out for walks, and saw each other at dinner parties, but unfortunately, there was not ample chance of being alone. I could not remember her saying much, and when she did, she always agreed with me. Perhaps that was what made me hesitate in asking her. I would have to forget the woman who never agreed with me, first.
I saw little of Margaret, nowadays. Mr Hale said she stayed with her friends, the Higginses, who had recently lost a daughter. And sure enough, when I came down Canute Street, one evening, to read with her father, I watched Margaret taking her leave of Higgins.
A sort of cold rage filled me. Higgins was allowed to see her, speak to her, and be welcomed in her house, and I was cast out?
She saw me, as the man turned away, and blast it all to hell, she looked at me with … I know not what, but it was a piercing, pleading look. Oh, no, my girl! You are not playing that game with me! I hastily turned away and it almost felt like fleeing.
The winter was long and harsh. My faithful overseer Williams reported daily to me about some worker or other that had fallen ill, due to hunger and disease. It was my task to fill in the open places at the looms as quickly as possible. Fortunately the supply of hands was inexhaustible.
Marlborough Mills was slowly recovering from the strike but it was not fast enough for me to fulfil my obligations to the bank. So it was that in May of the year 1851, I was invited by Latimer to accompany him and Miss Latimer to see the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations, as it was called. Latimer reckoned it would be beneficiary for my mill to introduce me to a number of his business acquaintances who were interested in cotton manufacturing. I had to give a series of lectures on the subject of industrial machines and on the general aspects of weaving and tanning. The meetings were well-attended but they did not result in many investments. Perhaps my behaviour had something to do with it. I had no patience for starry-eyed Londoners who thought it would be great fun to “dabble” in cotton.
When I was explaining – for the umpteenth time – what my business encompassed, we were visiting the Crystal Palace.
“You’re all here to see this fine machinery,” I lectured. “Technologically, we’re the envy of the world. If only there was a mechanism to enable us all to live together, to take advantage of the great benefits that come from industry. But that will be for future generations. We can bring back marmosets from Mozambique, but we cannot stop man from behaving as he always has.”
“Don’t you think we can bring about an end to strikes?” one of my listeners asked.
“Not in my lifetime… but with time and patience, we might try to bleed them of their bitterness,” I replied.
I was surrounded by a few gentlemen when a familiar figure caught my eye. Margaret! She was here? Why?
I decided to taunt her, to let her feel what humiliation felt like. “Miss Hale here knows the depths we men in Milton have fallen to. How we masters only strive to grind our workers into the ground.”
Embarrassment coloured her face, but I failed to find pleasure in it. She said in a firm voice, “I certainly do not think that… as Mr Thornton could tell you, if he would know me at all.”
I broke through the throng of my listeners and stopped by her side. “I presumed to know you once before and have been mistaken.”
“Miss Hale!” Fanny’s voice sounded, a little flatly. “How delightful!”
Blast! I had completely forgotten about my silly sister, who was ambling by with Miss Latimer at her side.
“You’ve managed to come to London at last,” Margaret smiled warmly. I had to admire her gentleness. Fanny always managed to put me off sorts at all times. Now she was giggling aloud, attracting a lot of unwanted attention. “Mother allowed it only because John was coming, and Miss Latimer of course, who she approves of greatly. Seems to think she’s far more sensible than me.”
A man in fashionable attire approached us, and Margaret turned to him. “Henry, do you know Mr Thornton?”
The fellow smirked at me, and I had no inkling why. He was far too glib for my liking, and hell! Margaret had called him by his first name. Now the man looked at me in the most impolite manner and said, “Mr Thornton. All the way from Milton.”
I nodded, and he continued in a leisurely way, “My brother is interested in dabbling in cotton.”
Ah, how I loathe these Londoners and their disdain of the world in general. As coldly as I could I answered. “I’m not sure I’m the one to speak to. I’m not sure I’d know how to dabble.”
Lennox smirked again, and suddenly I had enough. ”I must go. You may enjoy the machinery like an exhibit in the zoo. I have to go and live with it. I must get back to Milton today.”
I turned away when Lennox said smugly. “Give our regards to the Hales. You must tell them how the London break is suiting Miss Hale. Don’t you think, Thornton?”
I glared at him, clenching my fists in anger.
Lennox stubbornly continued. “Doesn’t Miss Hale look well?”
I held my eyes on the fellow, then turned them to Margaret. No doubt she was enjoying this little altercation. ”Good day.”
“Tell Mother I’ll be home soon, with so much to tell her,” Margaret pleaded in a soft voice. I wanted to look at her, but what would be the point? I walked away with large strides.
So that Lennox fellow was what Margaret considered a gentleman. A vain, idle money-maker from London. From the South. How foolish of me to think that she would consider me a suitable husband. During the entire journey home, I was brooding over my folly of loving her. Yet I knew I would eventually master this. Other, more pressing matters claimed my entire attention.
When I alighted from the cab that brought me home, I was surprised to see Mother coming towards the gate, in full attire of black bombazine.
“Where have you been,” I asked, glad to see her, after my weeks in London. I had missed her.
“John! You’re back!” She pressed my hand and I offered her my arm. Together we went inside the house, where we divested ourselves from our coats. Mother ordered Jane to bring us some tea, and we climbed the stairs to the parlour.
“I have visited Mrs Hale, John,” Mother explained. “She is unwell, in fact, she might be dying.”
I was shocked. I had always known Mrs Hale was a sickly woman, but to be on the brink of death! Mother continued, “She is wasting away, and has weakened considerably during the last days. Yet she pressed her daughter to accept her aunt’s invitation to go to the exhibition. I cannot understand such a thing.”
Neither could I. I had gone to read with Mr Hale a few times before I went to London, but my teacher had not mentioned his wife’s predicament to me. Another sign that I was not in their league, no doubt. I was just a low manufacturer after all.
I tried to be civil and brought a basket of fruit to the Hales, one evening. Margaret opened the door, which surprised and delighted me. She did not invite me in, though. Instead she gave my basket to a girl who came up the steps, and asked her to carry the basket to the kitchen.
I was clearly not welcome. I lifted my hat and said, “You must excuse me. I thought that I would still be welcome here despite our…… despite what’s passed between us….. as your father’s guest at least.”
She was uneasy, I could tell. “Indeed. You are welcome but …”
I noticed a man’s hat and coat on the rack in the hallway. Ah …
“I’m sorry, you have company already….,” I all but grumbled and turned.
“No! Indeed we do not! There is no one here!” Yet at the same time, laughter – a man’s laughter – was heard from upstairs. She was lying to me. It was something I never thought she would do. “Good day Miss Hale.”
She called after me, “Mr Thornton, please…. My mother is ill! Things are not as they seem! Please believe me that I mean no discourtesy towards you and that you are most welcome …”
Lies, all lies. I donned my hat and walked away.
She must have suitors aplenty, I brooded, while I left the stationmaster’s office at Milton Outwood Station. I had been enquiring about a cotton shipment from Liverpool Docks, but it had not yet arrived. Now I was on my way home through the chilly evening fog.
That was when I saw them. Margaret and a young man, embracing on the platform. I could not believe my eyes! Had the girl no decency?
I felt a sudden, hot wave of pure jealousy that shook me to the core. Margaret in the arms of another! Must I bear this misery, too? Would there never be an end to my sorrow?
I realised I had halted and was staring at the couple, when Margaret saw me. I hastened away in deep misery. The look of abhorrence that twisted her lovely face will haunt me forever.
The Irish arrived on a gloomy, cold December evening at Milton Outwood Station. I was present with Williams at my side, and we noted the names of the one hundred men and women, who alighted from the ghastly cargo train. Poor wretches, I thought, if they had ben forced to make the journey from Liverpool in these cattle wagons. We hastened them to Marlborough Mills, where we settled them on the top floor of the building that housed the weaving shed. I sent for Father Patrick, the Catholic priest, and instructed food to be given them. The next day, my looms would be going again.
I was glad to have something to wrestle my thoughts away from Margaret. I could not for the life of me forget the look of hurt I brought to her, the evening of the dinner party. That was something else altogether, as I did not understand why she should be offended by my very logical reasoning.
I had found myself brooding over this many times, in the idle days before the coming of the Irish. Sitting in my silent office, now free from the noise of the machinery, I had nothing to fill my mind but to replay the dinner conversation over and over again.
Margaret and I were in a conflict about nearly everything that concerned the workers, that fact was undoubtedly true. She considered them her friends, and although they were not exactly my enemies, they were not my primary concern. My first and foremost attention must always go to my mill, and all the rest was minor to that sacred goal.
Yet I could not be less than worried about what was brewing now in Milton. The town was in absolute silence and had been for over a month. What did these people live on? How did they feed their families? I realised that some of them might be starving or had already died from starvation. Was it really as simple as Hamper stated at the dinner party, that the workers just should go back to work without a pay raise. Somehow I had begun to doubt that seriously. Could it be that the workers really needed their raise badly? That they were unable to survive on what they made until now?
I would give anything for the chance to discuss this with someone, Mr Hale, or better yet, Margaret, in a quiet but thorough talk. It would never be, of course.
The next morning, Williams rushed into my office, panicking.
“Master, master, they’re comin’! Can’t ye hear them? They’re almost upon us!”
“Did you lock the gate?”
“Then leave through the back entrance and go to the barracks. I will wait for the soldiers.”
He left in a hurry, and I headed downstairs to the courtyard.
A rumble like the oncoming of a thunderstorm came from behind the gate. It grew in sound with every second. I ran to the mill door, closing it with my key. Above my head, I could see the scared faces of the Irish, but I knew they were safe, for now. The soldiers would surely come in time to disperse the rioters.
I quickly ran to the house, entered and locked the door behind me.
Fanny’s frantic shrieking greeted me. “They’re coming! They’re coming! They’ll kill us all!”
Foolish girl! Fortunately, I saw Mother holding her close.
“Keep her here at the back of the house, Mother.”
“How soon can the soldiers be here?” she asked, closing her arms about Fanny.
I looked at my watch and back up at Mother. We both understood that the military might not arrive on time, both we said not a word. Fanny, however, seemed to grasp our meaning all the same. She became even more frantic and crumpled to the floor while Mother tried to hold on to her.
“Try to stop her panicking,” I asked, but Mother suddenly said, “Miss Hale!”
I stared at her, then understood. Margaret must be in the house.
Suddenly cold to my very bones with anxiety, I rushed out of the room to find Margaret. Outside the gate, I could hear the mob banging vehemently at the gates. They were howling my name. I reached Margaret who was staring out the parlour window at the unfolding scene.
“Miss Hale,” I gasped, out of breath, “I am sorry you have visited us at this unfortunate moment.”
The crowd’s angry banging had finally succeeded, and the gates gave way to their force. Men and women started running into the courtyard, yelling and screaming, and waving their arms.
“They’re in there somewhere! Go on! Go on, lads! We’ll find ‘em! It’s not right! I’ve a family to feed! Get the Irish out!!” Their voices were hoarse with fury.
I saw to my utter horror that some of them were heading to the mill. “Oh, my God! They’re going for the mill door!”
What was I to do? I could not fend them off on my own, surely. By now, several members of the angry mob were banging on the mill door. “Get the Irish out!!” came their angry cries.
“Oh, no! It’s Boucher!” cried Margaret. I saw rioting strikers gathered beneath the window where we were looking out, and all eyes and shouts were aimed at me. All raised fists, too, of course. It did not bother me. My only concern was for Margaret.
“Let them yell. Keep up your courage for a few minutes longer, Miss Hale.”
She stared at me in bafflement, her blue eyes brilliant. “I’m not afraid. But can’t you pacify them?”
“The soldiers will make them see reason,” I reassured her.
Her eyes widened. “Reason? What kind of reason?”
She was looking straight into my eyes, as if wanting to convey something to me. I could not, for the life of me, grasp her meaning.
“Mr. Thornton,” she said, pleading, now, “go down this instant and face them like a man. Speak to them as if they were human beings!”
Human beings? These savages? Never! But Margaret was still looking straight at me. “They’re driven mad with hunger,” she cried. “Their children are starving. They don’t know what they’re doing. Go and save your innocent Irishmen.”
All of a sudden, I understood. These people were at the end of their tether. They were like crazed animals, and they would inflict violence until they got what they came for. Me.
I rushed out and down the stairs. Margaret’s cry reached my ears from a distance. “Mr. Thornton, take care!”
Outside, they were waiting. When I showed myself, crossing my arms in rightful confidence, their voices rose in furious volume. I was not afraid. I was the master of Marlborough Mills, and they would have to go through me to enter my house. At the moment, they were all bark and no bite. What could they do to me, I thought? Kill me? No, they would not do such a thing.
Then, in a flurry of white skirts, Margaret rushed past me, and my heart stopped.
“In God’s name, stop!”, she cried. “Think of what you’re doing! He is only one man and you are many! Go home! The soldiers are coming!”
Her words seemed to pacify the mob somewhat, and their voices became quieter. Amazing girl! She seemed not in the least afraid, and in that very moment, I knew I would love her always. She could, however not stay there, it was not safe.
She once again addressed the workers. “Go in peace. You shall have an answer to your complaints.”
Some ruffian shouted at me, “Will you send the Irish home?!”
The effrontery! “Never!!” I shouted back. I would never, ever back down when someone threatened me, but I had to get my dear girl away from there.
Taking her arm, I urged, “Go inside, this is not your place!”
She gasped, “They will not want to hurt a woman!”
She threw her arms around my neck, taking me completely off guard. I struggled to release her grasp and get her inside to safety, although I yearned to embrace her, as she was doing to me.
“Go inside or I will take you in!!” Heaven forbid that she come to harm.
The next moment, disaster struck. Something hit Margaret and she fell limp in my hands. In a haze of horror, I lowered her onto the doorstep, as gently as I could. Kneeling over Margaret’s unconscious body, my trembling hand hovered over the bleeding wound on her temple. I had never known fear before, it seemed, as I knew now. I dared not touch her, she was sacred to me. She was my everything, and those scoundrels had … Livid rage engulfed me and I rose, murder in my mind!
“Are you satisfied?!” I yelled, barely recognizing my own voice. “You came here for me so kill me if that’s what you want!!”
I stretched out my arms, ready to face anything, struck down by the worst disaster that could befall me.
The crowd was still standing silently, until the sharp whistles of the soldiers suddenly rang out. The crazed mob scrambled to escape from the courtyard. The soldiers on horseback started knocking out in all directions, but I crouched next to my wounded girl and gathered her into my arms.
Margaret, my love …
Racing up the stairs, I called out, “Mother! Help me, Miss Hale is injured!”
Mother was there in an instant and directed me to the parlour sofa, whereupon I laid my precious girl. “We need a doctor,” I gasped. I desperately wanted to go myself, but I knew I could not. The sergeant would want to have me away from the mill, after the military had driven away the rioters.
I felt numb, all of a sudden. She was lying so still, my Margaret. Despair washed through me.
“Go, John! I will go for Dr Donaldson.” Mother again. She was a rock, as always.
I was staring out of my office windows, and all I saw was Margaret’s unconscious body, and her lovely face stained with blood. I could not bear the thought that she had been injured because of me and my actions. She had come to my rescue, she had saved me. Dare I hope for affection on her part? No, surely not.
Vaguely, I became aware of the sergeant, coming to stand next to me.
“Mr. Thornton? Don’t worry sir. We’ll catch the ringleaders.” As if I cared for anything other than my precious Margaret.
Much, much later, I came up into the parlour, eager to see how Margaret was doing. My sister was lying where Margaret had been earlier. Jane, our maid, was fanning her face. Fanny was sighing and gasping in her usual attitude of a spoilt child. Where was she, where was Margaret?
I asked Mother, who was standing near the window. “Where is Miss Hale?”
“She has gone home.”
Cold sweat broke out on my back. That could not be right! “Gone home? That is not possible.”
“Really, John, she was quite well!”
“Mother, she took a terrible blow. What were you thinking of letting her go home?”
“Everything was done properly. Doctor Donaldson was called. In fact, I went for him myself as no one else seemed to have a mind to go.”
Of course, Mother would always do the right thing. I became aware of my uncalled behaviour against the most courageous of mothers. “Thank you mother. The streets were dangerous. You should have…”
“I’m sure it’s not possible to keep such a headstrong young woman anywhere she does not care to be. She’s such a reckless young woman.”
Also true, but not destined to the ears of servants.
I barked at the maid. “Jane, have you nothing to be getting on with?”
“Miss Fanny, sir, she…
Fanny burst out, “I was so scared John! Believe me, I almost fainted! I thought they would break down the door and murder us all! And…”
Mother silenced her, “Oh Fanny, don’t be so ridiculous.”
“You were in no danger,” I added.
She gasped in shock but I was in no mood for silly behaviour. I picked up my hat.
“Where are you going?” Mother asked, anxiously.
Did I really have to state the obvious? “To see if Miss Hale is well.”
“I sent her home in a carriage with Doctor Donaldson. Everything was done properly. John!”
I halted, looked at her. She was in distress, and I knew why, yet I could not stay a minute longer in this place.
Mother begged, “I’m asking you not to go.”
Yet I went. Sometimes a man has no other choice than the one before him.
It was very late, when I came back from a walk of hours. I had been so deep in thoughts that I did not know where I had wandered. Milton and its surroundings are known to me like the back of my hand. Eventually, I was back within Marlborough Mills’ gates.
Mother was doing embroidery. I was stunned.
“Still up?” I asked. “I thought you’d be exhausted.”
“Why should I be? Where have you been?” Mother did not look up from her needlework.
“Just walking,” I sighed and began untying my cravat. I was exhausted. I walked further into the room and faced Mother.
“Where have you been walking?”
I leaned onto the mantelpiece, my legs suddenly weak. “I promised you I would not go there and I did not.”
“But?” She was still not looking at me.
“ But…” I knelt beside her chair. “Mother, you know I will have to go there tomorrow and you know what I will have to say.”
“Yes. You could hardly do otherwise.” Her tone was short of irritated, and I failed to understand. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you are bound in honour as she has shown her feelings for all the world to see.”
I was baffled. “Her feelings?”
Mother looked me in the eye. “She rushed out in front of an angry mob and saved you from danger. Or are you telling me I imagined that? You think none of the servants saw it? Do you think it’s not become the tittle-tattle of Milton?”
I sat down on the sofa next to her and sighed deeply. “She did save me. But, Mother, I daren’t believe such a woman could care for me.” I looked for guidance, for comfort. I had hoped that she would care for me, foolish man that I was.
“Don’t be so foolish. And what more proof do you need, that she should act in such a shameless way?”
I sighed again. Mother reached out and stroked my cheek, as if I were still a small boy.
“I’m sure she will take you from me,” she said softly. Then she smiled girlishly. “That is why I did not want you to go to see her today. I wanted one last evening of being the first in your affections.”
She looked down at the linen in her lap. “ I will have to change the initials on our linen. It will bear her name now, hers and yours.”
Lord. Was that what she was doing? “I know she does not care for me. But I can’t remain silent. I must ask her.”
Mother again stroked my cheek and said in a confident tone. “Don’t be afraid, John. She has admitted it to the world.”
Now her smile became mischievously. “ I may yet even learn to like her for it. It must have taken a great deal to overcome her pride.”
My heart was heavy with apprehension when I walked through the courtyard, next morning. It was as busy as it had been before the strike, so I had every reason to feel glad that everything was back to normal. However, I was not entire myself, that morning.
Never had I felt so cast down, and yet so exhilarated, at the same time. I was underway to my beloved’s house, to ask her to marry me. I was going to ask Margaret to be my wife, Margaret who despised me but saved me from harm. She would not appreciate it but she would know it was necessary for me to do so. I was happy, of course, that she would now become my wife, even though she did not love me. I was also full of hope that she would come to love me in the years to come, or at least, like me enough to be a pleasant companion.
Those were the thoughts that haunted me s I stood before the small window in the Hales’ parlour, and waited for Margaret to come. I had found the room somewhat tidier than before. The books had been cleared away, and on top of the table stood a bowl of fruit.
Behind me, the door opened and I turned. Margaret stepped inside, wearing her usual, serviceable brown gown. I would never tire from that gown. It was the one she had been wearing on the day that I first beheld her.
I quickly stepped forward to hold the door for her, then closed it, and passed her. She seemed uneasy, and she had every reason to. Her life was about to change considerably, and so was mine.
“I had not noticed the colour of this fruit,” I said, anxious to say something. It came out a bit silly and not at all to the point. I swallowed, then continued. “ Miss Hale, I’m afraid I was very ungrateful yesterday.”
I looked at her. She was looking back at me with the uttermost calmness of mind.
“You’ve nothing to be grateful for,” she replied in an even tone. No warmth was to be seen in her blue eyes. I did not understand her meaning, “I think that I do.”
“Why, I did only the least that anyone would have,” she explained in a concise tone..
“That can’t be true,” I said, disbelief colouring my voice.
“Well, I was, after all, responsible for placing you in danger. I would have done the same for any man there.” Her face was without expression, her voice without feeling. My temper hitched up a notch, but I strove to remain calm.
“Any man? So you approve of that violence. You think I got what I deserved?”
“Oh, no, of course not! But they were desperate. I know if you were to talk to them…”
I cut her off. Again these foolish notions of her! “I forgot. You imagine them to be your friends.”
Now she spoke with urgent insistence. “But if you were to be reasonable…”
She put the blame on me? “Me? Are you saying that I’m unreasonable?”
“If you would talk with them and not set the soldiers on them. I … I know they would…”
That was the best side of enough! “They will get what they deserve.” Blast it! Soon I would get no chance to do what I had come for!
I calmed myself as best as I could. “Miss Hale, I didn’t just come here to thank you. I came because…I think it very likely… I know I’ve never found myself in this position before. It’s difficult to find the words.”
That was an understatement. I forged on, almost in despair, now. “Miss Hale, my feelings for you are very strong.”
Now it was she who cut me off. “Please, stop. Will you … Please don’t go any further.”
While I was struggling to grasp what she was saying, she turned to the window and gave me her back.
My next words could barely pass my lips. “Excuse me?”
“Please don’t continue in that way. It’s not the way of a gentleman.”
Anger overwhelmed me and I came closer to her. “I’m well aware that in your eyes at least I’m not a gentleman. But I think I deserve to know why I am offensive.”
She, too, as angry, now. Her eyes sparkled with heat as she turned to me and spat, “It offends me that you should speak to me as if it were your duty to rescue my reputation.”
Lord! She completely misunderstood me! I walked toward her in three steps, my hands clenched. “I spoke to you about my feelings because I love you. I have no thought for your reputation!”
“You think that because you are rich and my father is in reduced circumstances that you can have me for your possession? I suppose I should expect no less from someone in trade.”
This was unthinkable! Was she deliberately not trying to comprehend my meaning? “I don’t want to possess you, I wish to marry you because I love you!” My voice had risen beyond propriety but I was past caring.
That was when Margaret broke my heart. “You shouldn’t because I do not like you and never have.”
She gave me her back again. I was numb with what I had to face, now. She had rejected me, and left me to live with that horrible notion.
My gaze fell on the bowl of fruit again. “One minute we talk of the colour of fruit… the next of love. How does that happen?” I turned away. The mantelpiece seemed the obvious support for me. Then Margaret spoke again, her voice breaking. “My friend Bessy Higgins is dying.”
Ah. Even now, she was thinking of my workers. In one second she could speak of the misery of others, and in the next cast me off into the deepest misery of all.
Bitterly, I spat, “And that, of course, is my fault, too?”
She faced me again, her eyes bright with tears, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I barked. “That you find my feelings for you offensive? Or that you assume that because I’m in trade I’m only capable of thinking in terms of buying and selling? Or that I take pleasure in sending my employees to an early grave?”
She was deeply upset now. “No! No, no, of course not. I…I’m sorry to be so blunt. I have not learnt how to…h … how to refuse. How to respond when a man talks to me as you just have.”
This was intolerable to the extreme! “Oh, there are others?”
She shook her head, as if in despair, but I forged on. “This happens to you every day? Of course! You must have to disappoint so many men that offer you their heart.”
She said in a pleading voice, “Please understand, Mr. Thornton…”
Ha! Wretched girl! “I do understand,” I said, looking intensely at her. I wanted her to remember this day for the rest of her life, because I was bound never, ever to it. “ I understand you completely.”
I was given more free time at present and used some of it to go reading with Mr Hale more frequently. My teacher was delighted, and we spent many a pleasant evening conversing about the problems of manufacturing. Mr Hale even suggested a few solutions to the workers’ discontent, such as providing food and medical attention on the premises of the mill, but of course, I would never be able to apply them. They were far too fanciful, not to mention the cost of it all. They would also not have worked. In the North, workers did not want to be told where to eat or where to go when they were ill.
My foolish heart had hoped to see more of Margaret, now that she was forced to stay indoors because of the strike and the dangers of hungry workers roaming the streets. Yet it seemed that this hope would be crushed. Mr Hale told me she was dispensing food and coins all day in the most dismal places, such as the alleys in the Princeton district.
When, bewildered, I asked why she would want to go to Princeton, the most destitute of all Milton’s neighbourhoods, Mr Hale explained that she had her friend Bessy Higgins there. The girl was in very bad health and had fluff disease, as she called it. The more scientific word was byssinosis, I believe. It is untreatable and often fatal. I had installed wheels in all my sheds to lower the amount of fluff in the atmosphere. Another six hundred pounds of wasted money, blast it! My workers were on strike, just as the rest of them in the whole of Milton. I knew the Higgins girl worked at my mill, so why had she contracted the illness? Could I ask Margaret about it? And more to the point, would she answer me?
Mother’s annual dinner party was the highlight that betokened the beginning of the winter celebrations which led to Christmas and New Year. That year was no exception, for even when there was a strike going on, all went well regarding to preparations and the evening itself.
When I entered the parlour that evening, the room was already buzzing with the voices of many guests. My attention was instantly claimed by Slickson and his wife, then by Henderson and Watson. I returned their greetings, all the while extremely aware of the one that had conquered my heart. From the corner of my eye, I saw Margaret standing next to Fanny with whom she was chatting.
I could not allow myself to openly gaze at her. Singling her out would damage Margaret’s reputation, because all women present would understand my attraction to her in the wrong way. So I ambled further into the room and was accosted by Mr Bell.
“Ah, Thornton. I took the liberty of inviting myself, knowing your mother’s hospitality,” he said, returning my handshake.
“I hope you’re not worrying about Marlborough Mills. We’ll ride out the strike just as we always have,” I said, feeling the need to reassure my landlord.
Then he answered in that infuriatingly flippant way of his. “I’ve always had complete faith in you Thornton, but obviously in the present situation …”
Damn him. In the most casual way, I answered. “It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“No, of course not.”
He turned his attention to the people next to him, a man I had not met before, but whose name was Latimer, and a pretty young lady, all blond ringlets and cornflower blue eyes.
“Thornton knows everything in matters of business. He has my every confidence”, was his comment.
I shook Mr Latimer’s proffered hand, and Mr Bell now turned to the girl.
“Thornton, you know Miss Latimer?”
I took her gloved hand, and she curtsied at me with a shy smile. My eyes went to Margaret, and a jolt of joy went through me! She was watching us with some strange light in her eyes, as if she did not approve of me making the acquaintance of another woman. No, that could not be so. Margaret had no interest in me. It was only my foolish heart that once again indulged in its wishful thinking. I hastily averted my gaze.
“Thornton, who’s that fine young lady?” Henderson! I had not heard him approaching me and startled. He was pointing at Margaret. Of course, he would notice the most beautiful girl in the room.
From then on, all noise fell away, and all I saw was my gorgeous Margaret. She wore a silk dress in soft sea green that fell away from her beautiful shoulders to hug the onset of her breasts. I dared smile at her, because she was smiling at me. That had never happened before, so my heart was beating erratically at the sight of her. I came nearer, unable to stay where I was, and then – oh, wonder! – she extended her hand to me. She was not wearing gloves. The touch of it seared my skin, and I was uneasy for a moment. She then grasped my hand in both of hers, looking me directly in the face. Her eyes – blue like a summer sky – had a gentle light in them, and her voice was ever so soft, when she addressed me.
“See, I am learning Milton ways, Mr. Thornton.”
Dear, dear girl …
I let go of her slender little hand and forced myself to say something, anything, before someone saw my distress.
“I am sorry your mother was unable to join us.”
She bowed her head, a grateful smile on her lips. I wanted to draw her to me, kiss her, tell her that I loved her! Damn it, but it was true!
“Thornton, I must speak with you.” Blast it all, Slickson! What now?
Wishing Slickson to hell and back, I apologized to Margaret. “Excuse me.”
I was then drawn aside by Slickson, who whispered to me, “Have you left word at the barracks?”
“It’s been done,” I replied, unable to suppress my annoyance. Slickson was a weasel and a blockhead. He saw danger in everything but was too scared to do something when a crisis was on hand.
“Men on horseback, armed?” he continued in an urgent way.
“All those arrangements have been made.”
“If they find out you are planning to break the strike by bringing Irish workers …” His tone became even more wavering.
“I take this risk for myself. You need not join in,” I said, irritated, now. I can and will protect myself and anyone that works for me from any kind of violence.”
Slickson sighed, “I sincerely hope so.”
Margaret, I noticed with infinite regret, had been claimed by Mr Bell.
Mother had sixteen guests at her table. She and I both occupied the heads, while I had Miss Latimer at my left and Henderson at my right. Margaret was seated in the middle of the right side, between Mr Bell and Mr Latimer. She was, I noticed with dismay, again avoiding my gaze, while applying herself to the soup course. I knew I should entertain my guests with some intelligent conversation, yet I could not find the words. My eyes kept wondering to Margaret. I was admiring the gracious movements of her slender hand and arm, when she brought the spoon to her lush, rosy lips.
“I hear Arnold is moving lock, stock and barrel to America,” said Mr Bell in a casual tone, then sampled his wine. I was instantly on guard as I knew that tone well enough.
Watson burst out, “America? I’ll be damned.”
Slickson chimed in, “That’s what I would like to do, pack up and leave. The damn strikers would have no work at all then.”
“Well,” Mr Bell kept teasing in his usual way, “they have no work at the moment.”
And of course, Slickson was drawn into an answer. “There is work. They choose not to do it. Thornton? What do you think?”
I was not so easily baited. I knew Mr Bell very well. “Oh, I think our Mr. Bell is up to his old tricks, playing with words at the expense of us simpler fellows.”
Mr. Bell inclined his head and smiled at me, and so did Margaret, to my surprise. Ah, she, too, knew Mr Bell well enough, it seemed.
I continued, because the subject was to my liking. “But it is a serious question. I do not want to manufacture in another country, but it is logical for others to try if they cannot make enough profit here.”
I considered my answer would be enough, but apparently, my sister thought otherwise.
“What do you think, Miss Hale? Surely you do not condone the strikers?”
“Well, no,” was her immediate answer. “Well, and yes. It is surely good to try to see both sides of a question.”
That was my dear girl showing her upbringing and education. I felt a smile tug at my lips.
Yet Fanny was on the warpath, now. With a sly smile, which I knew was when she had the better of someone, she said, “Mrs. Arthur saw you taking a basket to the Princeton district the other afternoon.”
I was alarmed. Did everybody knew about Margaret’s involving herself with the workers? I fervently hoped this was not the case.
Margaret gave a poised reply. “I have a good friend in Princeton. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”
My breath caught. The cursed name had fallen, and Watson pounced, “Higgins?”
All attention was now on my reckless girl, who as usual, had no inkling to what was happening. I felt frozen by horror because I knew what was coming.
Watson continued, “Isn’t he one of your union leaders, Hamper?”
“Yeah. He’s a terrific firebrand. A dangerous man.”
“I’m surprised, Miss Hale, that you keep such company,” Mother said in a scornful voice. She was annoyed, I could tell. Mother is a stickler for propriety.
Margaret, however, had not noticed anything amiss. “Bessy is my friend. Nicholas is a little …”
Hamper now exclaimed, “Nicholas? She’s on first name terms.”
I could not blame him. It irked me to no end that Margaret should be friends with such a creature of mischief. The only one who stayed unruffled was Margaret.
“Well,” she replied calmly, “Mr. Higgins has been made a little wild by circumstances. But he speaks from his heart, I am sure.”
Hamper tried another tack, damn him. “Well, if he’s so determined, I’m surprised he’ll accept charity.”
Margaret had her answer ready. “Well, he doesn’t for himself. The basket was for a man whose six children are starving.”
Hamper was annoyed now. “Ah, well. Then he knows what to do. Go back to work.”
All were assenting to this, and to my infinite relief, I thought the matter settled.
Until Mr Bell stoked up the fire once more. “I believe this poor starving fellow works at Marlborough Mills, doesn’t he, Margaret?”
I had to say something, and I knew it was going to hurt Margaret, but I had no choice. She must see the errors of her ways.
In a voice as calm as I could muster, I said, “You do the man, whoever he is, more harm than good with your basket. Well, as you could say, the longer you support the strikers, the more you prolong the strike. That is not kindness. They will be defeated, but it will take longer. Their pain will be prolonged.”
Everybody applauded and murmured assent, but not Margaret. She was very defensive, now.
“But surely to give a dying baby food… is not just a question of logic.”
I was speechless with sudden fury. How dare she start a confrontation with her prime host? It was awful, and I could see mother was shocked to the core.
Fortunately, Mr Hale made a valiant attempt to save the moment. “Mrs. Thornton, um, I really must congratulate you on these magnificent… um, table settings.”
I could barely suppress a sigh if relief, when I saw he succeeded in drawing Mother’s attention from Margaret.
Mr. Hale forged on, “Um, I don’t believe I’ve seen finer table decorations even in the grandest gatherings in Harley Street.”
I had to have the last word, though not at Margaret. “Not all masters are the same, Mr. Bell. You do us an injustice to always think we’re all up to some underhand scheme or other.”
I looked on last time at her, deliberately showing my profound dismay. She looked a bit subdued, finally. Well, I thought, you brought that on yourself, dear girl.
I grasped my glass and drank deeply, then turned to Miss Latimer, who I had neglected shamefully all evening.
I had enjoyed my conversation with Margaret so much that I know craved to have that kind of interaction with her on a daily basis. She intrigued me – no, she enthralled me. But it was not to be. Not even when I went to read with Mr Hale did I caught a glimpse of her. She was with her mother, Mr Hale casually informed me, one evening. He smiled a bit sheepishly at me and confessed that Mrs Hale was feeling a bit under the weather. I remembered that Margaret had asked Mother for a doctor. I hoped it would be just a mellow ailment that troubled Mrs Hale.
So I came during the afternoon, one day that I could muster the time. To no avail, however. Mr Hale cheerfully explained that his daughter had made friends amongst my workers, and she was to be found daily at the house of – abomination! – Nicholas Higgins! Why, oh, why, I wondered, for I could not fathom the reason for it.
At the end of November, Mother began engaging in an entirely different kind of activity. I discovered her sitting at the dining room table, busily scribbling, while my sister Fanny was helping her, humming a light melody, out of tune, unfortunately.
“Preparations already?” I asked, looking over her shoulder at her scribbling.
“If we are going to entertain, we must do it properly,” Mother replied, then, out of Fanny’s earshot, quietly continued, “You’re not regretting the invitations, are you?”
“No, no. Spend what you want. May have to be the last dinner party we have for some time, I whispered, then, louder, asked, “So … who is on the list?”
“Slicksons, of course. Fosters. Browns will decline, but we must invite them all the same. Hales will come, I presume?”
Fanny burst in, “They are probably aware of the very great advantage it would be to Mr Hale, to be introduced to people like the Fosters …”
“I am sure that motive would not influence them, Fanny,” I said, irritated by her meddling. My sister could not resist doing all she could to annoy me. I walked away and sat down on the sofa, picking up my newssheet.
Yet Fanny was not done, it seemed. “How you seem to understand these Hales, John. Do you really think they are so very different from any other people we meet?”
“He seems a worthy kind of man …,” Mother mused. “Well, rather too simple for trade. She is a bit of a fine lady, with all her low spirits. As for the daughter, she gives herself airs! And yet they are not rich, and never have been.”
My attention was diverted away from the newssheet as I wondered if Mrs Hale’s low spirits were the only reason she needed a doctor. No one could fall ill just from low spirits, couldn’t they? It was too ridiculous for words, and I was certain I didn’t know what people meant by ‘low spirits’. Of course, Mother would scoff at that.
I was now listening to the conversation between Mother and Fanny, who scolded, “And she’s not accomplished, mother. She can’t play the piano …”
I began to lose my patience, “Go on, Fanny. What else does she lack to bring her up to your standard?”
Of course, Mother heard the irritation in my voice and came to Fanny’s help. “I heard Miss Hale say she could not play myself, John! If you would let us alone, we would perhaps see her merits and like her.”
“I am sure I never could,” cried Fanny and went to sit down at her embroidery table.
I gave up on my paper and wandered across to Mother. In a low, but insistent voice, I asked, “I wish you would try to like Miss Hale, mother.”
Her reply was immediate and urgent. “Why? You have not formed an attachment to her, have you? Mind you, she will never have you. Aye, she once laughed in my face at the thought of it, I am sure she did.”
How right Mother was. Most of the time, Margaret despised me, although she seemed to have become slightly more lenient towards me.
“She would never have me,” I smiled, but wanly.
Mother burst out. “She’s too good of an opinion of herself to take you. I should like to know where she would find any one better.”
I had had enough. Soon they would start listing Margaret’s failures, and I could not bear it.
“You can both believe me then when I say this out of complete indifference to Miss Hale: Mr Hale is my friend, she is his only daughter. I wish you would both make an effort to befriend her.”
But, of course, Fanny was not placated so easily. “Pff … I only wish I knew why you talked about her so much. I am tired of it.”
Now I was truly angry, “What would you like us to talk about? How about a strike for a more pleasant topic?”
Fanny’s jaw dropped in disbelief, but she stopped nagging me, finally.
Tension amongst the workers had risen to a point where they would not be easily placated. They had conveyed their wage demands to Williams, who in turn had told me. I could not give them five percent raise, since all my extra funds had been used for the purchase of new machinery and cotton in bulk. I was standing idly at the mantelpiece in the sitting room when Mother, for once with idle hands, asked. “Are the hands about to turn out?”
I nodded, sudden weariness overcoming me. “They are waiting for the moment I have to turn down their wage demands.”
“Are there many orders in hand, John?”
“Of course, we know that well enough. The Americans are flooding the market. Our only chance is producing at a lower price and faster. But the faster we fill the orders, the longer it takes for us to be paid for them.”
“How much are we owed?”
“The debts at the bank is nearly four hundred pound.” That made Mother wince, and I berated myself for worrying her.
It was, alas, very true. I did not see how I was to remedy this in the near future. Mother must have felt my depression, no indeed, she felt it even more keenly. She sighed and sat down on the sofa.
“The men are less patient,” I said, in an attempt to lift her spirits. “They barely made up pay since their last cut.”
“Why don’t they listen? They think that by just putting their ignorant heads together, they’ll get their way.
I smiled. “Don’t worry mother. It’s a young industry, these problems will iron themselves out. We’re not yet in a position of selling up.”
Mother shrugged, then asked. “Can’t you get men from Ireland? Then you could get rid of the strikers. I would. I would teach them, that I was master and could employ who I liked.”
I crouched down before her, saying in what I hoped was a reassuring voice, “Yes, I can. And I will, too, if the strike lasts. It’ll be trouble and expense, but I will do it, rather than give in.”
Mother nodded, turned and took a pile of cards from a nearby table.
“If there’s to be this extra expense I am sorry we are giving the dinner this year, John.”
“We should go on as before. No more, no less.”
I got up, and touched her shoulder. Nothing pained me more than to see my mother in distress.
The hour had come. Mother and I were watching the activity in the courtyard, and it was now considerably less than on other days.
“You said no?” Mother asked softly.
I nodded. “They were expecting it.”
Mother turned away to sit down, completely dispirited, but I could not tear my eyes from the weaving shed entrance. The noise of the machines was still audible, then, suddenly it slowed, and finally stopped. I pulled out my watch, and it said, a quarter to eight. Over two hours short, damn it.
I ran down the stairs and positioned myself up the front door steps, from where I could watch the workers coming out of the shed.
All grim faces and determined paces. Fools! How was I to continue when I was not producing?
From then on, I lived in a kind of hell.
My mill was silent and deserted. A gloom hung over the immobile looms, still laden with unfinished cloth. The cotton fluff had settled down, resembling a blanket of snow, but inside instead of outside.
As I wandered through the empty sheds, I knew this could not go on for too long. Financially, I could stand it for a certain time, but eventually, I would be forced to close down. I made the necessary arrangements to keep my business alive. I went to an agency that employed Irish workers.
How grateful I was to have my mill so that I could throw myself onto my work and forget the events of that upsetting tea party.
The mill required my full attention at that time, for trouble was most definitively brewing.
It was of such great concern that I called on my fellow mill masters to convene and discuss the situation.
Our assembly hall was next to the Lyceum Hall, and I was standing near the open window. I was watching the comings and goings from above, and to my chagrin, I had recognized several of my workers entering the hall to attend a meeting. Since I had also seen Higgins going in some time before, I presumed he was to be the ringleader for a possible strike.
A slight woman clad in drab brown mounted the steps at a leisurely pace.
Margaret! What was she doing here? What was her business attending a workers’ meeting? Was there no end to my torture, then? Would she aggrieve me over and over again with her inappropriate behaviour?
“Ah …put him down. He’s one of ours isn’t he?” Hamper’s voice nearly made me jump. He was standing next to me, a tankard of ale in his hand.
“Boucher … he’s Thornton’s,” Henderson said. He too had come to join us without me noticing it.
Hamper then challenged me. “Aren’t you interested, Thornton? All mills together if you please. We need to show ‘em. We know what they’re up to and who they are.”
I did not take the bait. Hamper always likes to tease and stir trouble, and when he succeeds he scampers away, leaving it to others to clean after him. “Let them meet, if that’s how they want to spend their leisure time.”
Then it was Henderson again. “We’re all trying to work together Thornton.”
I turned to the room, letting my scepticism show. “Are we?”
“What does that mean?” Henderson asked, sounding surprised, yet I knew better.
“I overheard some of my men talking. It seems you are planning to give in to them. We agreed …. we would all be in line … so that the men would know we meant business and know that we kept our word.”
“Well … I …” Henderson sputtered, then looked at Watson. They were playing their own game behind my back, I knew it well. No matter, I would know what to do if the need should arise.
Later that night – it must have been near eleven o’ clock – I went to close Marlborough Mills’ main gate. God, I was exhausted. And very concerned about the coming days.
Just when I was at the gate, a figure stepped forward from the shadows. I had failed to see him, because a fog was whirling through the deserted streets. Stephens!
“What are you doing here?”
“ Master, I beg you to take me back …”
Sudden red-hot fury engulfed me at the little bastard’s nerve. “Get out!” I growled, but the miscreant chose not to heed my command. He bowed awkwardly and ventured, “I were at meeting this evening … “
I took a step closer, as understanding dawned. The coward continued, “I could tell you what they’re planning … what’s in their thoughts … Please sir… I beg you.”
I grasped the traitorous little bastard by the collar and shouted, ”Get out and do not come near this mill again!”
I shoved him from me in disgust, but then approaching footsteps caught my attention. “Who’s there?” I challenged.
Two familiar figures appeared from the fog. Mr Hale and … Margaret!
“It’s only us,” Mr Hale said jovially. So Margaret had gone to meet her father. I now belatedly recalled that Mr Hale taught at the Lyceum Hall in the evenings. Joy began to blossom in my heart, because she had not gone to attend a union meeting, yet it seemed I was still to be harassed by that bloody good-for-nothing Stephens. He moved forward, yet again. “Master, I promise you …”
My patience had been tried too much, now. “Get away from here!” I bellowed, and raised my fist.
That frightened Stephens enough and he disappeared in the darkness.
“Couldn’t you show a little mercy?” Mr Hale’s reproachful voice sounded.
Blast. I had forgotten about them and was now ashamed of my rudeness, yet it seemed important to me that they understood my meaning.
“Mr Hale! Please … do not try to tell me my business!” I pleaded, but then Margaret’s sarcastic little voice cut me off.
“Remember, they do things differently here! Come, Father.” She threw me a scathing glance and turned away, pulling her father with her. My teacher did not show understanding either.
I stood there like a bloody fool, watching them walk away. A sigh escaped my lungs, realising that I was yet the only one to understand it all. It was a lonely place I found myself in.
I stepped through the gate, giving the pair one last look before closing it.
Thank God for Mother, I thought, as I watched walk calmly through the weaving shed, her hands on her very erect back, and her face displaying imperious authority. Some of the workers were whispering amongst each other, and if their facial expressions were anything to go by, they were having a joke at her expense. Ah, let them be, I mused. Nothing could shake Mother. It was a comforting thought, indeed, to know she at least would always be at my side, and in all circumstances.
The noises in the room were also comforting. I heard someone shout for more supplies, and was glad I had had the foresight to order the cotton in bulk.
“You there! Is the machine mended?” Mother challenged a female weaver.
“Yes,” the woman replied shyly.
“Then use it, for there is many to take your place.”
Next, I saw her striding towards a woman who was holding her coughing child. Ah, the fluff would be disastrous for some of the weaker workers.
“The child is ill. Send her home,” Mother said in a stern voice.”
“I can’t afford to,” replied the woman, on the verge of weeping.
Mother sighed with annoyance but offered, “The child cannot work. Is there another child at home?” The woman nodded, so mother continued, “If you can get her here within the hour you can keep the place”
The woman’s face alighted with relief. “Thank you.”
“In the hour, mind, or lose it,” Mother ordered.
She had by now reached the place where I was standing, and she was looking into my face as if to guess my thoughts, so I was compelled to give her my approval. “Whatever you think best, Mother. You know how this mill works almost better than I do.”
Her grateful smile was a balm to my soul.
Later, I was accosted by Slickson. He had dared come to my mill in the middle of the day, to whine that he had been forced to decline a raise of pay to his workers. I very well could see through the slimy eel’s meaning, though.
“I don’t know why you’re blaming me,” he ventured, trying to keep up with me as I strode down the courtyard.
“You can play your tricks out to Ashley. That’s your decision. But if you get it wrong, we all suffer,” I replied angrily. I had no patience with the man. It was not the first time he had played us for a fool.
“They wanted 5%. Would you have given it them?” he continued with faint surprise.
I turned to him in suppressed rage. “No, but I would’ve told ’em straight. I wouldn’t pretend I were thinking about it and tell them to come back on payday, so that I could turn them down flat and provoke them.”
He was even more surprised, the fool. “Are you accusing me of trying to encourage a strike?”
“You’re telling’ me that it wouldn’t have suited you? It’s their lives and our livelihood you’re playing with.” I set him straight and left him standing there. I had no more patience for him.
Some days later, I saw Margaret again. There had not passed a minute in those days when I had not been thinking of her. It was strange, and it was something I was not used to.
I was thirty-one, and I was a bachelor of means. Of course, I had had my share of female attention, and the assiduous attempts of eager mothers to catch my eye were downright exasperating, at times. Any social gatherings where the ladies were attending, were a torture to me, because I would be assaulted by matrons shoving their daughters into my path. Needless to say that none of these simpering, eye-battering young chits would make me a decent enough wife.
Up until now, I had wanted high standards for my future spouse. She must be strong and steadfast, and prepared to be the companion of a man whose first love would always be his mill. She must bear him a couple of sturdy sons, who could become her husband’s business partners, in time. A few daughters would also not go amiss, since there would be ample possibility to combine my own wealth with that of another mill master. Modesty and integrity, and elegance without spendthrift, and also sweet, balanced disposition were required. But most of all, the woman destined to become Mrs John Thornton would have to be approved by Mother in all things she deems should be present in her daughter-in-law. My mother would always be master in my household, but she might be prepared to relinquish control to my wife in time, should her health require it.
It was not surprising at all then, when I saw Margaret strolling through my courtyard, that I tried to fit her into my ideal image of a wife. Before I could take stock however, she was talking to some piecer girls sitting on a bench during their lunch time. The conversation seemed to be very jolly, because all three of them were laughing.
I edged nearby, puzzled as to why Margaret, an accomplished young lady from the South, would want an acquaintance with some low-born working girls from the North.
“What would you like to spend it on?” Margaret asked eagerly.
“Food, and then more food. I’d pile it up, great big plates,” the piecer girl answered, even more eagerly
I inwardly frowned. Why would that girl waste her money on food? The fact that she earned a living surely was enough not to have her go hungry? Yet Margaret’s next question struck me right in the gut. “So, would you join a strike? Well, I’m not saying there will be one; just if there was.”
How did she know about an upcoming strike? And why was she even interested? Dear Lord, she was interested, then?
But by now, the girls had spotted me and fell silent, their heads bowed. Margaret turned around and saw me, and understood. In her eyes, I had been spying on my workers to see what they were up to. She nevertheless talked to me in a gracious way.
“Your mother has kindly given me the name of a doctor.”
I was instantly alarmed. “You are ill?”
“No. No, it is just a precaution.”
The girls were avidly listening, so I started walking to my office, and to my joy, Margaret followed me.
“Your mother is always accusing me of knowing nothing about Milton and the people who live here,” she said in a voice laced with mirth.
I answered in kind. “Doubt she meant you should hang on to the tittle-tattle of young piecers and spinners.”
A smile spread about her lovely face, setting my heart to beat erratically. “Well,” she said, “they weren’t telling me any secrets.”
Thrilled by the notion that she was actually wishing to converse with me, I explained, “There was a man with a survey here a few weeks ago. It is quite the new thing. They become practiced at telling others their wages and their working conditions.”
“Do you mind that? If they tell the truth?”
“ Course not. I do not apologize to anyone about the wages I pay or how I run Marlborough Mills. It is no secret. It’s in plain sight for all to see.”
Suddenly, she stopped to face me. “And what about how they spend their money?”
She had surprised me there. “Well, that would be none of my business. My duty is to the efficient running of the mill. If I neglect that, all the workers will cease to have an income.”
“But what about your moral duty?”
My, my, she would persevere! I kept up my patience and said, “If she keeps to her hours and does nothing to disrupt the honest and efficient working of the mill, what she does in her own time is not my concern. Here in the North, we value our independence.”
“But surely you must take an interest?” Margaret pressed on.
I was beginning to wonder why she was so determined to know my opinion on all this, but I could not stop myself from explaining further. “I am her employer. I am not her father or her brother that I can command her to do as I please. Sorry to disappoint you, Miss Hale. I would like to play the overbearing master, but I will answer your questions as honestly as I am sure you ask them.”
A look of semi-understanding ran on her face. I smiled, wanting to encourage her further, but then she looked over my shoulder, and dismay appeared. I turned my head. Ah. She had seen Mother standing at the parlour window. Mother always overlooks the courtyard when she has the time for it. This, however, was the first time that it displeased me that she should want to know what I was doing. Time to end the conversation. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve urgent business,” I said brusquely and left Margaret standing on her own.
After the day’s work, I ascended the stairs to prepare myself for my visit to the Hales.
Mother was sitting at the table, absorbed in her needlework. How she managed to be so diligently doing that, with Fanny’s dreadful attempts in doing piano scales upstairs, I do not know.
Once in a while, my sister even sang, and it sounded horrible. I donned my coat and rolled my eyes, saying, “Mother, remember I go to the Hales this evening. I will be home to dress, but then out till late.”
She laid down her needlework and remarked in some surprise, “Dress? Why should you dress up to take tea with an old parson? Ex-parson!”
Dear Mother, she truly did not like the Hales. “Mr. Hale is a gentleman and his daughter is an accomplished young lady,” I smiled.
Mother raised her eyebrows in a way only she can do. It leaves a fellow positively shaken up.
“Don’t worry, Mother. I’m in no danger from Miss Hale. She’s very unlikely to consider me a catch. She’s from the South. She doesn’t care for our Northern ways.”
She scoffed in a most unladylike manner, but then Mother had never claimed to be a lady in her life.
“Huh! Airs and graces!” She stood up and started adjusting my cravat. “What business has she? A renegade clergyman’s daughter, who’s now only fit to play at giving useless lectures to those who do not wish to hear them! What right has she to turn up her nose at you?”
I did not take her bait and would not be drawn into discussing Margaret’s faults, but said warmly, “Board up the windows. There’ll be a storm later.” I kissed her soft cheek and left.
I was still in a good mood when I reached Canute Street. There was a noticeable spring in my step as I walked along Milton’s busy streets. I knocked briskly on the Hales’ door.
Their servant – I believe her name was Dixon – showed me up the stairs to the first floor sitting room, a tolerably pretty chamber done up in a creamy wall paper sprinkled with green leaves. I found only Mr Hale there, who began apologizing to me. His wife, it seemed, was not feeling well, but she had promised to come down later.
I was, of course, not interested in the mother at all, so I wondered where Margaret was. Would I suffer disappointment? Would she not join us? How I longed to ask, but of course, this was not done. I had to swallow down my ardent questions and be civil to my host.
It turned out that my teacher was very interested in the working of my mill, so I obliged and answered his questions about the various procedures involving the making of cotton. I became so enthused that I barely noticed when Margaret came in, carrying the tea tray. Propriety demanded I greet her, and she nodded in response before pouring out the tea.
I carried on with relish about Arkwright’s invention of a mechanical loom, “… All motion and energy but truly a thing of beauty. Classics will have to be re-written to include it.”
I was distractedly sipping my tea, until I became aware of Margaret’s silence. I looked at her. She was asleep, and the sight of her beautiful features, relaxed in sleep, turned my heart into water. I swallowed, put down my cup, and remarked, “Ah… I’m afraid we’re boring Miss Hale with our enthusiasm for Arkwright’s invention.”
Margaret startled and sat up. “No…indeed I’m sure it’s fascinating. I’m a little tired that’s all.”
She got up and began refilling my empty cup. I could not help gazing at her intensely. She was a rare beauty and her graceful manner had me in a spell. She handed me my cup, but I was so fascinated by her slender arm, adorned with a simple gold bracelet, and by her tiny hand and porcelain skin, that I almost forgot to take the cup from her. Our fingers brushed. A sparkle of awareness flitted up my arm, setting my senses ablaze, all of a sudden. Dear Lord! I had never felt anything like it before.
Mr Hale abruptly stood, and I did the same, for Mrs Hale had entered the room. Her smile was positively reluctant, and I gathered I had encountered another member of the family who was not pleased with me.
Mr Hale jovially remarked, “Er…Mr Thornton has been admiring our newly redecorated rooms, Maria.”
I smiled at her, while she answered, “Oh yes, Mr. Thornton. Hmm … well, there … there wasn’t a great deal of choice but these papers are of a similar shade to our drawing room in Helstone. But not quite.”
My smile broadened when I proffered, “Well …. On behalf of Milton taste, I’m glad we’ve almost passed muster.”
The smile was still on my face when I caught Margaret’s gaze, but she abruptly turned away, crushing all my joy in doing so. Margaret was becoming an expert in crushing me, it seemed.
I forced myself to listen to Mrs Hale again. “Yes … yes well … clearly you’re very proud of Milton. My husband admires its energy and its … its people … are very busy making their businesses successful.”
That only required an easy reply, and I promptly gave it. “I won’t deny it – I’d rather be toiling here, success or failure, than leading a dull prosperous life in the south … with their slow careless days of ease.”
All of a sudden, Margaret burst out indignantly. “You are mistaken. You don’t know anything about the South. It may be a little less energetic in its pursuit of competitive trade but then there is less suffering than I have seen in your mills … and all for what?”
Could she really be that dense?
Yet I spelled it out for her. “We make cotton.”
She was not to be persuaded, however. Petulantly, she continued. “Which no one wants to wear!”
By now, my patience had grown very thin. I straightened my shoulders and attempted to reason with her, glad for the chance to do so.
“I think that I might say that you do not know the North. We masters are not all the same whatever your prejudice against Milton men and their ways.”
She actually scoffed! “I’ve seen the way you treat your men. You treat them as you wish because they are beneath you.”
That was far over the limit! I said in a patient voice, “No, I do not.” Control was slipping away from me, I’m sure!
She cut me off again. “You’ve been blessed with good luck and fortune, but others have not.”
She was determined to crush me, to blame me for the misery in all the world, it seemed. Fighting for composure, I resumed, “I do know something of hardship …”
She did seem to collect herself somewhat, now, so I was encouraged to proceed.
“Sixteen years ago my father died … in very miserable circumstances. I became the head of the family very quickly. I was taken out of school. I think that I might say that my only good luck was to have a mother of such strong will and integrity. I went to work in a draper’s shop and my mother managed so that I could put three shillings aside a week. That taught me self-denial. Now I’m able to keep my mother in such comfort as her age requires and I thank her, every day for that early training … so, Miss Hale, I do not think that I was especially blessed with good fortune or luck …”
I looked at her, pleading for her approval, but she lowered her eyes, as if she could not bear the mere sight of me. I was dimly aware of her mother, shifting in her seat as if in great discomfort. I could not, for the life of me, understand what I had done wrong now.
I suddenly realized that it was time to go. “I have outstayed my welcome.”
I stood while Mr Hale was muttering a protest. I needed to try one more attempt to befriend Margaret, so I extended my hand and said in a soothing tone. “Come Miss Hale, let us part friends despite our differences. If we become more familiar with each other’s traditions, we may learn to be more tolerant, I think.”
That was when she hurt me in a most violent way. She shrunk back and left me standing there like a fool with my hand raised. I clenched my fist in deep offence. Never in my life had I encountered a human being who so blatantly refused to take my hand.
I turned to Mr Hale, saying in what I hoped was a normal voice, “I’ll see myself out.”
Mr Hale lamely uttered that I should come again. I hastened to leave this dreadful house.
During the following week, I most assiduously tried to get Miss Margaret Hale out of my thoughts. I had to be honest with myself, though. I had begun developing some sort of attachment to her, and that was not to be tolerated. She was beautiful, I had to give her that, but she was also outspoken and prejudiced and … damn it! Never had I allowed any woman to openly cast me down by her unfounded criticism! Never!
Whenever I started thinking of her, I turned into a completely different man. I became a stranger, stumbling on a path I had known well before, but which had now become uncomfortably unfamiliar. One would think me a boy freshly out of the schoolroom, with no comprehension of females!
I had known my fair share of women, of course. At thirty-one, and still unwed, women vied for my attention, because of my position in Milton society as a successful manufacturer and dutiful magistrate. My mother frequently teased me about that, and my sister Fanny downright mocked me for my reticence in seeking a wife. I keenly felt the need to have a suitable companion in life but had not actively been looking for one.
Now, after I met Margaret, I had come to hope that I had found the woman who would share my life. That was, however, before I knew her. She would never have me for she despised me. She did not think me a gentleman and thus, unworthy of her. That stung, and far more than I cared to admit to myself.
Mother and Fanny went to pay their respects to the Hales on one of October’s brighter days.
When I looked down into the mill’s courtyard, and saw Fanny get into the cab, I wondered how she managed to get in all those many, heavily starched skirts. My sister is vain to the point of silliness. Actually, my sister is silly and hare-brained.
Mother, on the contrary, was her usual dignified self, clad in heavy, black bombazine, and her head held high. I knew she behaved that way to show the whole of Milton that she had managed to overcome her setback from the past, and that she was proud of it.
I wondered what she would make of the whole situation at the Hales’ house. To say the least, it was rather awkward. Mr Hale had given up his living to uproot his family and to come live at a place they perceived as strange and uncomfortable. Mrs Hale seemed constantly unwell and never left the house. The daughter, on the contrary, seemed to be found strolling through town all day. According to Williams, she had struck up friendships with some of my workers, and that, I found most disturbing. No doubt she did it to antagonise me!
I tried to concentrate on the ledgers, after that, but I could not stop scrabbling doodles instead of adding up figure. Checking my ledgers is an activity which normally would give me the greatest satisfaction. Today, it did nothing to distract me from thinking of Margaret Hale, so I rose and went to the weaving shed.
The regular noisy clacking of the looms never failed to calm me, thank the Lord! I wandered over to Williams on his platform and asked, “Everything in order?”
“Yes, master … for now, that is.”
I looked at him sharply. “What? What is the matter? Tell me, man!”
Williams looked about him uneasily, before speaking in a barely audible voice. “I heard rumours about the men wanting a raise. Some union man is asking around how much they make, and from what I hear they are all but too eager to tell him.”
“What is the name of this fellow? Do you know him?”
“Aye, sir. The daughter is over there next to the window. She is a good worker, and a good friend of the young lady that was here last. Her name is Bessy Higgins.”
I directed my gaze at the woman in question, a thin, pale, sickly kind of girl. “And her father? Is he on my pay role, too?”
“No, sir, he works at Hamper’s. A terrific firebrand, I hear, is Nicholas Higgins.”
Deep in thoughts, I went back to my office. So unrest was brewing. I would have to keep an eye on things and be ready when they got awry.
And Margaret had befriended one of my working girls, had she not? What did that mean, a friendship between a lowly factory girl and a lady? Could that even be? Oh, and now I thought of Margaret as a lady, then? Which, of course, she was. And I, on the other hand, was not a gentleman.
At dinnertime that day, Mother could not keep silent about her visit. She was in a state of rigid disapproval about the entire Hale family and she did not stop ranting about it. Mr Hale was a weakling, Mrs Hale was a woman with too much airs and graces, and the daughter …
“John, that young woman is like no one I have ever encountered before. She has an opinion on everything, and she thinks Milton is far beneath London and its attractions. And yet they have not two pennies to rub together. I hope you will not succumb to her wiles when you go reading with her father.”
I shrugged. “Mother, that is all Mr Hale and I do when we meet; we read. And all we drink is a cup of tea. He does not even keep spirits in the house.”
“Oh, and you never see the girl, do you?”
“No, Mother, I do not. I neither see the mother nor the daughter.”
Which was entirely true, to my chagrin. Neither woman entered Mr Hale’s study on the second floor, while I was there. No doubt Margaret could not stand the sight of me.
I had begun to like Mr Hale, both as a teacher and as a friend. He was extremely skilled in literature and culture, and I was quickly catching up with my abandoned education. So I was glad he was one of my guests, next time I gave a dinner party for my fellow mill owners.
The conversation was, of course, entirely about factories, workers and machinery. Nevertheless, Mr Hale did not hesitate in pitching in, once in a while, though his comments were a testimony to his great ignorance of trade and manufacturing.
When Watson began speaking about a wheel he had not had to put in his sheds, I relied I had one in all my rooms. Hamper, seeing Mr Hale’s confusion, explained the wheel’s function to him. It kept the workers’ lungs from clogging, and Mr Hale’s countenance brightened. I realised he was still thinking like a clergyman, when he talked about treating the workers in the Christian way. I simply had to put him straight, saying I did not run a charitable institution but a business. He kept silent after that, and I began to realise I might have hurt him.
There was no chance to apologize to him that evening, so I made a mental note to it when I went reading, next Tuesday. However, before he took his leave, Mr Hale invited me to take tea with him and his family, the day after.
That night, I went to bed, happy as a child, because I would see Margaret again.