John was looking at his Profit and Loss statement when Nicholas came into the office. “Good morning, John.”
“I think it will be,” John answered without looking up.
“What have you there?” Nicholas hung his coat.
“I am just looking over our profit sheet and comparing it to the few notes that I took at our lesson last week.”
“When she spoke about being prepared for meeting our business needs for the next year is a considerable factor to budget. I want to start increasing our purchases by 10 percent. We will steadily increase that during the year. We shall get with the foremen on that. It is probable that we may need another warehouse. We may be looking at a third mill, too.”
“You think she’s fairly accurate on that forecast of the years following the exhibition.”
“I do. I can’t understand why our accountant or we didn’t see that. Check our three-year budget and see what we did. It may be prudent in another five years for one of us to sail to the Americas and collect some facts so we don’t speculate on the assumption we can always buy cotton from there. What do you think about hiring her?”
“Working with our accountants one or two days a week.”
“They will surely love that,” Nicholas said sarcastically.
“Not with our accountants, but looking over their work and our planning. I think I will ask her before some other Master does.”
“Where would she work?”
“There’s that desk over there. Didn’t she say something about taking that class to enable her to support herself?”
“Yes, I think so. I’m not sure where I heard that. It could have been from Bessie.”
“What about her brother. He’s educated?”
“Branson seemed to think he was finding a real interest in driving a coach. I cannot see it myself. He may have money in his own right by now. Perhaps, driving sounds appealing to him. Should he need work, I am sure we could train him up quickly.”
“You may want to drop a hint about that when you see him next before another Master claims him,” Nicholas said in a condescending humorous manner.
Margaret gently returned the poised fork to her plate. “I know I was listening, but what I heard makes little sense.”
“Margaret, Mr. Bell is inviting you out to dinner. How hard is that to understand,” said Fred.
“Margaret, your brother is right. I believe you are now old enough and free of responsibilities to be out in public with a gentleman. Perhaps, I am too old, and that’s what doesn’t make sense.” Spoke Adam.
“No. No, that’s not it at all.”
“Mr. Bell,” began Fred, but was interrupted.
“I wish you both to begin calling me Adam, please.”
“If you wish. I believe Margaret is in awe that she may have another chance to stare at Mr. Thornton,” Fred laughed.
“Fred, stop that. It’s not true. Mr. Bell, Adam, I do not know of your social life, but I cannot believe you would ask me to such an important setting.”
“Margaret, I go every year. I am the only gentleman without a lady in attendance. I would like to escort you to that dinner.”
Fred was laughing inside watching his sister pretending not to be too excited about being in Mr. T’s presence again.
Dixon carried in the fresh teapot, and the conversation was quiet while she poured. Margaret needed that moment to form an answer.
“Margaret, please do not think that I am doing you a kindness. You would be doing a kindness for me. I’ve grown tired of talking to the same masters every year. Invariably, I am placed at the table like a stepchild. I believe Mrs. Thornton purposely places me between the two dullest wives or one that doesn’t have a brain. You would be my salvation.”
“Are you sure I would be welcomed? I am not part of the world of milling.”
“I dare say there will be much talk on that subject. I believe that is why I am situated between two talkative women. I will be told about their latest needlepoint and grandchildren. Heavens, please save me from that.”
“What was this conversation you spoke to father about when you entered the room?”
“Over the years, your father and I have corresponded about everything in our lives. He often spoke about his children and I was eager to hear it. In these last few years, I think we both worried about your social life. You had none. The daughter of a clergyman rarely is introduced to the world outside of the parishioners. As I know, you took a difficult route through your finishing school after which you came home to responsibilities as a caregiver. Past that, you had a bereavement period. I have waited a long time to escort you out and introduce you to the finer amenities that a woman your age should be exposed to. At my age, I think of it as an inoculation, if you will.” Bell laughed. “It’s time to broaden your horizons. And I am harmless.”
“Adam, you and I must have a small conversation regarding my sister. I think she has started off in a manner not befitting a lady.” Fred smiled.
“Adam, don’t listen to him or at least, hear my side later.”
“Now, I am quite intrigued. Yes, Fred, we shall talk. As for dinner, do we have an agreement?”
All eyes once again fell on Margaret.
Holding the tension a moment, she said, “Yes.”
“Just so I am clear, dear Margaret, yes, to what exactly?”
“Yes, I will attend the dinner on one condition.”
“And that is . . . ?”
“That Mrs. Thornton knows that you are engaging me.”
“That is expected of everyone who is invited. She does like to know the names of everyone around the table. Don’t worry about that. Fine. It is settled then!”
Fred tipped back in his chair and clapped his hands at his sister.
“Now, at the risk of your reputation, Margaret, I want to ask if you have been invited to the Master’s Ball?” Adam asked with a grin.
Margaret sighed. “Could I finish my breakfast? I am starting to get too nervous to eat.”
Branson had received permission from his master, to saddle a horse and leave to check on a horse and buggy for the Hales. John, having nothing planned, gave him several hours off. While his master had his lady friend at the house, the evening before, Branson visited with people who gave him a few leads to follow up. He didn’t exactly know what they had to spend, but with Fred’s interest, he figured he would want an exceptional horse.
Bessie was settling on her gown for the ball. She had a reticule which she had received as a gift from her stepmother, Peggy. She had ribbons and flowers for her hair, but when she looked for the long gloves, she had nothing to match. She would have to shop. Telling herself she was not that interested in Margaret’s brother, she felt she needed to visit with her today. Instead of rudely popping in, she sent a note with their driver.
Adam Bell and the Hales had completed their breakfast and moved into the sitting room.
“Margaret, I am serious about the ball. I do go every year but go alone. Don’t answer me now, but should you not be invited by another gentleman more your age, I would like you to attend it with me.”
“Adam, it seems one of us will gain a reputation if seen in both places,” Margaret smiled.
“I am sure it will be me. They will wonder what old man Bell is doing with such a beautiful young woman.”
“Adam, if you really feel that way, I will decline. I should hate for people to think you daft.”
“Au contraire, milady. They shall not think me daft, but they will be envious. Think about it.”
“Bessie Higgins is going with her father due to her mother’s illness and I have been invited to go with them. It’s a first for her and me. I cannot leave her alone. I think we have a pact.”
“A pact, have you?” Bell laughed. “I see. Two young ladies on the prowl, eh?”
“What … on the prowl?”
“Adam,” interjected Fred, “she is prowling now but does not recognize it as such. She was with me when I went to Marlboro Mills yesterday. She stared at Mr. Thornton unabashedly.”
“Adam, that doesn’t mean I was trying to seduce him, does it? That’s what Fred said I was doing. He can’t be right about that.”
Richard Hale was chuckling over the spot Adam was being placed in. Adam certainly knew about the whims of women, where he didn’t.
Fred and Margaret waited for an answer.
“I’m sorry. Am I supposed to be some type of referee in this,” Adam asked. He glimpsed at Richard, who was smiling while reading his paper.
“Father Hale,” asked Adam, “has there not been a reckoning for this young woman?”
“Adam, you don’t have to ask that of my father. I went to finishing school, you know. They said nothing about looking directly at someone.”
“She said that Mr.Thornton is a good-looking man … her words. Sis found it hard to pull her gaze from him. She doesn’t know her own power over men yet. One or both of us have to teach her.”
There was a knock at the door.
Margaret jumped to her feet, “Power over men? Fred, you are getting more ridiculous.”
Dixon handed the note to Margaret. “Miss, the driver is waiting for an answer.”
Margaret read the note from Bessie. “Dixon, tell the driver ‘I will be most happy to be of help,’”
Dixon left the room and again all eyes were on Margaret.
“It seems Mr. Thornton is asking if I can take a look at his profit statement. Excuse my while I get ready.”
Margaret walked into the hall near the stairway and started to laugh. She couldn’t help but enjoy these conversations of impending social skills with men. It had been more than a year ago when she learned proper manners but had not had an occasion to use anything past day-to-day politeness. For a little while, the men were going to think she was to face Mr. Thornton alone. “Whatever will they say next?” She wondered.
Margaret was waiting by the door and saw the coach arrive. She walked out immediately before Bessie, or her driver came to the door.
“I don’t believe it. She is getting into the coach,” Fred gasped.
“Fred, do not worry. She thinks she is fooling us. That is not Mr. Thornton’s coach by any means.”
“So who is she with?”
“I know that coach but cannot remember who it belongs to. Has she made any friends?”
“Just Bessie Higgins.”
“That’s whose coach it is. Nicholas Higgins. Now that we have that cleared tell me about her behavior.”
Fred began the short tale of Margaret and the Man. Richard Hale mentioned about her nervousness when Thornton had asked her a question in the classroom. The men spent two hours talking about Margaret’s introduction to men and what she needed to know. Also, Adam learned of her teaching skill about budgeting. Tea was served several times.
Bessie and Margaret were strolling along the store fronts. The driver was pacing the coach behind them. Margaret stopped at a store window.
“Bessie look at these beautiful crocheted table covers. Oh, and here is a bedcovering. Do you think there might be a nice shawl in here.”
Both ladies entered the small room, hearing the bell clang as the door opened. A woman rocking in the back of the room with her handwork in her lap asked if she could help. Neither Margaret or Bessie could see where the voice came from.
“Here, I am,” she said, standing.
“Miss, we noticed your lovely work in the window and came in to ask perchance you make ladies shawls?” Bessie inquired.
“Yes, miss. I have two over here.”
They were directed to a shelf on the back wall. The owner unfolded each one to show size and pattern.
“They are truly lovely,” Bessie said.
“What do you think Margaret?”
“Exquisite work. Perhaps I should have taken needlework in school,” she grinned.
Both women looked at the intricate work. Margaret had Bessie try on both. The shop owner pointed to a full mirror so she could see herself.
“Oh Margaret, I can’t seem to choose. What do you think?
Margaret walked around Bessie several times with each shawl seeing what it looked like if someone was walking behind her.
“Bessie, they are both grand. If I had to purchase one, it would be the one you have on now.”
“I think so, too.”
The shop owner helped remove the shawl and waited for an affirmative answer.
“I will take this one.” Bessie pointed to the one just removed from her shoulders. “My father is one of the Masters at Marlborough Mills. Can you bill us?”
“I am sorry madam, I cannot afford to do that. However, I can set it aside for a week until you can return to it. Once it’s purchased, then I will open an account for you on any other purchases in the future.”
“Thank you. I’m not sure if my father has this much money on him today, but we shall go ask.”
“Please, miss, your name?”
“It is set aside for you.”
“Thank you. I will go see father now. Otherwise, I will return early in the coming week.”
“Very good, miss.”
They said their goodbyes and hurried to the carriage waiting outside. “Take us to the mill, please..”
“Margaret, I am so glad you noticed that.” Bessie looked at Margaret. There was something strange about the look on her face. “Is anything wrong, Margaret? You look strange. Should I take you home first?”
“No. I will be glad to go with you.”
“Is it Mr. Thornton?”
“Why do you ask that? Of course, it isn’t. It isn’t anything. I guess I was just thinking of something when you looked over at me. I believe I was wondering about my own shawl.”
“All right. We’re here anyway.”
Bessie asked a worker where her father might be and was told the partners were in the office upstairs.
“Oh thank you. Let’s go, Margaret. What is wrong with you, c’mon.”
Margaret promised herself all the way up the steps she would not stare.
Bessie knocked on the door and entered without waiting.
“Well, I see my young lady and her friend have come for money, I would wager.”
John looked up from his profit worksheet.
“Good morning Bessie, Miss Hale.”
Margaret nodded her head and stood next to Bessie in front of her father’s desk while she pled her case for the shawl.
Margeret peeked sideways and saw Mr. Thornton watching her, listening to the conversation.
She quickly snapped her head forward as if mortified being caught looking at him.
He grinned at the thought.
Nicholas pulled some paper money from his pocket and gave it to his daughter.
“Thank you, father. I wanted to look nice for my first ball.”
Margaret looked over again at Mr. Thornton. She noticed he was looking at his profit statement. She hadn’t said a word except for good morning.
“Well, Margaret shall we go?”
“Of course. Good day, Mr. Higgins, Mr. Thornton.”
“Before you leave, Miss Hale, I was wondering how you are coming along for our next lesson,” John asked. “There is more, isn’t there? I’ve had some very complimentary words on your lesson. Please have some water with you this time,” he smiled.
“Thank you, Mr. Thornton. Fairly well, yes, I’m delighted, I will.” Margaret answered all four questions in succession as they were asked and then opened the door and walked out.
Bessie turned to Mr. Thornton and shrugged her shoulders and then followed after Margaret.
John and Nicholas looked at each other in surprise and then started laughing.
“Did you catch all that, John,” Higgins asked laughingly.
“I think so. It was rude of me not to let her answer each question, and she threw it back at me.” John gushed with laughter and rocked back in his chair with his hands behind his head.
After climbing into the carriage, Bessie asked, “What was that all about?”
“What was what?”
“Mr. Thornton asked you a few questions.”
“I know. I answered them, didn’t I?”
“Yes, but …”
“You answered them all in one sentence. You gave four answers in a row.”
“No, I didn’t do that.”
“You surely did, Miss Hale. You left Mr. Thornton and my father laughing as we left. They were surprised. I think you were nervous.”
“Yes, seeing Mr. Thornton. You’re doing that parrot thing again. You didn’t know you would be seeing him today. Now, I know why you looked like you did in the coach coming here. It was either fear or excitement.”
“I assure you, neither is the case.”
“Margaret, he makes you nervous. I remember you feeling that way at the lesson and just now. He’s taken you know?”
“Then I was right, it was Mr. Thornton exciting you. Admit it. You are falling for the man.”
“I am sure you are quite wrong, and as you say, he is taken.”
Margaret asked to be let off at the library which was on the way to Bessie’s shawl shop. She had put that off too long. She only had three more days to accumulate all she wanted to say.
She was left in front of the library and watched as she entered, but Bessie didn’t like leaving her there alone. She decided to get Margaret’s brother so he could walk her home.
Fred answered the door to Bessie.
“Did you happen to forget to bring my sister home?” He grinned. “Come in.”
“That’s why I am here, Fred. She asked to be taken to the library, saying she would walk home. I do not feel comfortable with that. If you or your father would like a ride to the library before I go home, I would feel relieved about leaving her.”
“Wait here. I will tell father, and get my coat.”
Fred was only a minute, and Bessie had the thought that she now felt how Margaret must have felt going to see Mr. Thornton.
“I’m ready.” Fred opened the door for Bessie. “After you, milady,” he jested. “Bessie, I know no one from here. I would like to ask you to have dinner out with me some evening. Do you have to get permission?”
Bessie was caught off guard, but pleasantly. “I didn’t expect that. I’m sorry I look so surprised.”
“You shouldn’t, you know. You’re a lovely young lady. I would be honored to have you on my arm.”
Bessie started to blush. That took Fred aback. The women he had seen in the past few years weren’t the type to blush.
“Fred, you do me honor in asking. I must say that I haven’t been out with a gentleman before. I am sure I will embarrass you in some way.”
“I think it’s impossible to embarrass me and nothing you could do would make me feel that way. I won’t ask for an answer now. But be prepared in the near future. I will say this. I am young, intelligent, a gentleman, who is a bit rough around the corners, headstrong on some points. I love my sister with all my heart. I would like to know you better.”
Fred noticed Bessie’s face was flush with color. She looked away.
“Please, what?” He knew he was close to wooing her. Whether she realized or not, didn’t matter.
“We are at the library. I will think about it. I will give Margaret a note the night of her lesson class.”
“No need for a note. I will be there, too. I have an appointment to talk with Branson.”
“I see.” Fumbling for words, “give me some time to think about this. I’m not sure I would be chaperoned or not.”
“That would be cumbersome. I should think not, considering I am almost part of the family.” Fred laughed.
“You shall have an answer soon.”
“I can wait.” Fred kissed the back of her hand and exited the coach.
As Bessie walked out of the shop with her purchase, there was a nice gentleman standing outside waiting for her.
The man knew her driver was watching intently.
“Excuse me, miss. I am sure you do not recognize me, and perhaps I should wait for a proper introduction. My name is Colby Hunt. I saw you at the Master’s lesson class last week, is that not correct?”
Bessie looked at her driver who jumped down from his seat and stood behind her like a guard.
“Yes, I was there. Are you a mill master?”
“I am. Am I right in assuming you are the daughter of Mr. Higgins of Marlborough Mills?”
“You know my father?”
“Yes, for several years now. I wanted to introduce myself that night, but you and Miss Hale left in a hurry with her condition.”
“How can I help you?”
“Please tell your father that I have introduced myself. Here is my card. I would like to ask him if I may ask you to have tea with me in that small café in town. That is if you are willing.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t even know you.”
“That’s the point of having tea.”
“I’m at a loss for words today. I will talk with father, but I do not think that I will be interested.”
“I see. I am disappointed but understand. I come out of nowhere and ask you out. Perhaps you will reconsider one day. Please excuse me for taking your time. Good day, Miss Higgins.” Mr. Hunt turned and left.
Bessie’s driver opened the door for her and held her package until she was situated. “Home please.”
“Very good, miss.”
Bessie felt like she had just dreamed that.
“Fred, what are you doing here?”
“Miss Bessie didn’t like leaving you to walk home alone, and I am against it, too. You should have more sense.”
“I do this often, Fred.”
“Well, now that I am here, you will have a coachman or me to accompany you. Perhaps mid-town you could walk with little fear, but not the way you have to come and go from here to home. Too many back streets for a young lady to weave her way through.”
“Shush! We don’t talk in here. People are trying to read.”
“What are you looking for?”
“Books on milling accountability?”
“Let me see. I’ll look through the first thousand and you can look through the rest.”
“Stop it, Fred. You’re here to walk me home not to assist me in my lesson planning. Now, go sit down or look through books on … horse and buggies.”
“Not a bad idea.” Fred went strolling off looking for books about horse ownership.”
Margaret let out a sigh and headed toward the milling section, which was exceptionally large. There were books for the twine used to bundle the end bolts to books on “Taxes and Tariffs” when shipping to other ports. She knew little of that and decided to bring that one book home. Estimating building structures, machines, and start-up costs were a good find. The ledger accounting was all the same, but she was looking for specific line-items they could massage or improve from one month to the next. There were few if any books on businesses the size of a cotton mill. Margaret couldn’t find any type of business that hired as many as a mill. She would like to walk a mill so she could visualize changes that could be made if a master had a mind to. Did she dare go to Marlborough Mills again?
Margaret went to the front desk and asked for a piece of paper. She was going to send Marlborough Mills a note and ask for a guided tour.
When they left the library, she had the driver take them to John Thornton’s mill yard. When the coach stopped outside the yard, the gateman walked her way.
“Please sir, could you see that one of the masters receives this today?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He thumbed his cap as a polite gesture and backed away as the driver turned their coach around.