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.