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.