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.