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.