"Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life."


Chapter Three

"Are you certain we could not send a note quick enough to reach her, Miss Margaret, and encourage her to come another day? You know they call her the dragon of Marlborough Mills and I would so hate it if you had to meet her head on and all alone."

Dixon was fussing with the collar on Margaret's newest gown. Newest being not very new, nearly eight months old already. The fashion of London society had likely moved on to wider skirts and fuller petticoats but it hardly seemed to matter in Milton. Here more women wore garments fit for Aunt Shaw's rag bag than an evening at an assembly.

"Mama has given me no choice in the matter. Yet again my parents expect that I take charge of the situation. First, Papa would not tell Mama his decision to leave the church. Then, his cowardice prevented him from telling her of the removal to Milton. It was you and I who decided which furniture and goods to transport here to the north, and which ones should be left behind for sale. And now… now here I am once again, forced to entertain Mrs. Thornton, when she was coming expressly to meet Mama."

Margaret shook her head on a sigh. "Dixon the collar will not lay flat. I should have ironed it." That was another task which had fallen upon her shoulders. "I will ask Mrs. Thornton where I might find a young girl to help you. Papa said he would, but since arriving here he has not mentioned it again."

"I wish we could afford to bring Charlotte from Helstone," Dixon said.

"As do I. She was such a fine girl." Margaret said. "Perhaps we could find a way. I know she did not want to move so far from her family, though. We will find such a girl here, or someone who shall suit you equally well."

"Thank you." Dixon fixed a pin in the back of Margaret's hair and took a step back from the dressing table. "I am not as young as I once was, and I fear if your mother will continue to require so much of my attention, the housekeeping will become disorderly. If your father continues to meet with students here, the house must be kept in good order at all times."

Margaret stood from her table with a frown. "Who is it that calls Mrs. Thornton a dragon?"

"I was speaking with Mrs. Williams just this morning as I returned from the market. She caught sight of Mr. Thornton leaving our house last evening, and felt she had to tell me more of the family. She did not imagine Mrs. Thornton would be calling today, was quite shocked when I told her. Mrs. Thornton is not known for making calls, any calls!"

Margaret's stomach dropped as the doorbell chimed. She covered her stomach with her hand as if to ward off the fear that suddenly gripped her. It was that fear that prevented her mother from exiting her bedchamber to do her duty as hostess, passing the obligation along to Margaret instead.

"The dragon is here," Margaret said. She took a deep, steadying breath and followed Dixon from her bedroom. "Ought I find a sword of some sort? Is that not how dragons can be slayed?"

"Use your wit and fine manners instead, Miss Margaret. You will do fine. She will be here no longer than thirty minutes, I am sure. She is likely no worse than the many difficult women you encountered in London Society."

Dixon was correct, of course. Margaret had met many a wicked, mean woman in London and survived each and every encounter, perhaps even emerging stronger from them. They reached the landing and Dixon proceeded to the door. Margaret had only a moment to wonder what Mrs. Thornton might look like before the woman was welcomed inside, followed by a younger girl, who, based on her looks, could only be Miss Thornton.

Margaret smiled in greeting, and as Dixon collected their cloaks and gloves walked forward. "Welcome to our home. I am Margaret Hale."

It was Mrs. Thornton who walked to Margaret first, and held out a hand in greeting, just as her son had the night before. Margaret was prepared this time, however, and felt no awkwardness as she clasped the older lady's hand.

"I am Mrs. Thornton as I am certain you surmised." She turned toward the younger girl. "This is my daughter, John's sister, Fanny."

Fanny did not shake Margaret's hand, only bowed her head as was the traditional greeting among London society. Fanny was dressed very fine, while Mrs. Thornton wore what could only be described as mourning garb. Margaret knew her husband had been deceased for many, many years so there was little reason she continued to wear such clothing.

"It's such a pleasure, and an honor to have you call so soon after our arrival," Margaret said, leading them toward the drawing room.

"John asked us to visit and so we have."

Her replies were as curt and succinct as her son's had been the night before. Certainly not rude, but rather concise and to the point.

Margaret caught sight of Mrs. Thornton studying the home. Looking from the ceiling down to the flooring. Her scrutiny seemed to intensify as she entered the drawing room. Margaret had dusted again that morning, it seemed to be a daily chore in this new home, where soot and dirt permeated the very walls of the place. She had spent a bit of her own money for Dixon to find flowers to decorate the main table in this drawing room, fluffed the pillows and added sprigs of dried lavender in various, concealed places to scent the room just as her Aunt Shaw did in London.

"You may notice my study of your home, Miss Hale. Forgive me if I seem a bit curious." She sat on the davenport near the window, where the lighting was the best on such a gloomy day. "I was in this home, many years ago prior to Mrs. Bell's purchase of these townhomes. He had asked my son to visit them and determine the quality of their construction and whether the price the man was asking was fair. I came along as a second set of eyes."

"Oh, I see." Margaret looked around the room herself, wondering what such lodgings might cost to purchase in a town such as this. Mr. Bell had been very generous with her father in creating a lower rent than many others likely paid. Margaret had been surprised Mr. Bell had required any money from her father at all, given that he was Bell's dearest friend.

"Since the time I was here, obnoxious wallpapers have been removed, and the floors appear to have been refinished and are in very fine condition. The rugs seem fresh as well."

Margaret chuckled. "Those hideous papers have just been removed. My father requested that done before we moved in. Not only were they in this room, but also in my mother's room upstairs and in mine as well. They did not disturb me as I was able to cover them up with my stitching and drawings, but Mr. Bell was good enough to hire a man to remove the papers in here and in my mother's room."

"You draw, Miss Hale?" Miss Thornton asked. "Are you very talented at it? I never had the patience to finish such projects. I would start a new picture, make an error and simply toss it away." She flung her hand through the air as if she was batting at a fly. "Same with needlework. I would begin a new design and give it to Mother to finish."

How unlike her brother, who was so motivated to find success in his endeavors.

"I do draw," Margaret answered with a nod. "Landscapes, not portraits. I find it often takes days to achieve the scene exactly as it should be. Since coming to Milton I have not had the time to do any stitching or drawing. We have concentrated on getting ourselves settled in."

"You mentioned your stitching? Do you embroider?" Mrs. Thornton asked.

"Yes! I believe that is my most favorite way to spend my time. I enjoy any type of needlework. That, and reading. In Helstone, I walked a great deal as well."

Dixon came in with the tea tray then, setting it in front of Margaret, who quickly got to work filling the tea cups just the way each lady requested. Dixon left so silently, Margaret had to look over her shoulder to see if she was still there.

"Is your mother not to join us today, Miss Hale?" Mrs. Thornton asked quietly as she accepted the teacup and saucer from Margaret's hand.

She was so pleased her hands were not shaking as she handed off the tea. Her stomach was filled with butterflies, causing her insides to quiver as her legs had the first time she was ever on a ship.

"I am sorry, Mrs. Thornton, but she is… well… indisposed this afternoon." Margaret sat back against the cushions of her chair. "It came on rather suddenly or I would have certainly sent word to reschedule our visit."

Mrs. Thornton's facial expressions did not change at the news, and Margaret wondered what must be going on in her mind.

"Miss Hale, you have no piano!" Miss Thornton suddenly sputtered. She looked around as if in a panic. "How can you live without a piano?"

Margaret tried to hold back a laugh but she failed. "To move a piano from the vicarage in Helstone would have been a Herculean task. Not to mention excessively expensive."

"But do you not play?" Miss Thornton persisted.

"Fanny plays for several hours each day Miss Hale," Mrs. Thornton explained. "It is her greatest talent, and perhaps next to shopping, what she enjoys most in the world."

"That is true, Mama." Miss Thornton reached for one of the lemon biscuits Margaret baked that morning.

"I play," Margaret answered, smiling. "I have had lessons since I was nine, when I first began visiting my aunt in London. I never came to enjoy it, as much as it seems you do, Miss Thornton."

"Oh do call me Fanny! May I call you Margaret?"

Margaret nodded.

"You must come and visit our home and play," Fanny said between bites. "My teacher says I will never play really well unless I practice. It would be so very sad if you lost your skills for wont of practice."

"Thank you for the invitation, Fanny. I am certain I would enjoy that. I did bring with me my sheet music from London. Perhaps you would like to borrow them?"

"Indeed I would! How kind of you, Margaret."

"I believe it is still in one of the boxes I must unpack, so once I do, I will gladly share. Perhaps I will send it home with Mr. Thornton when he studies with my father on Tuesday evening?"

"Yes, that is a fine idea! I imagine you will not be attending the concert this evening? Since you have just arrived, you would not have known of it, and of course the tickets have been claimed for weeks already. They are usually quite… delicious, except the directors seem to allow anyone to attend, regardless of their society."

Meaning who? There was no aristocratic society which Margaret was on the fringes of in London. The Thorntons would be considered tradesmen and merchants and therefore perhaps of a middling class. Could those below the Thorntons even afford concert tickets? She thought of the mill workers she had seen walking from the mills to their neighborhoods following the evening whistle. Did such folks even have time to enjoy concerts and assemblies?

"I do enjoy concerts," Margaret finally said. "I saw as many as I could while in London. Just this morning at breakfast my father was talking of the concert for which you speak. It must have been written of in the newspaper."

"How I long to see London!" Fanny wailed. "But as Mama herself has never been, she fails to understand the importance of me visiting. She thinks since she has made it so long without a visit, there is nothing worthwhile to experience."

How odd she spoke of her mother in such a critical way, right in front of her.

"London is spectacular." Margaret smiled, recalling all the marvelous wonders she had experienced there over the course of her ten years of residence. "I believe every British citizen should witness it at least once. Museums, libraries, the parks, concerts, assemblies, all sorts of things to be done. When my father picked me up from my aunt's and brought me home, I realized just how many opportunities I was blessed to experience."

"Your father is out today?" Mrs. Thornton asked.

"He is." Margaret took a sip of tea. "He has three pupils who prefer to visit with him at their home. Today he will meet with two of them."

"How many students does he have at present?" Mrs. Thornton asked.

"Seven. Mr. Bell had lined up five of them before we even left Helstone."

"You are close to Mr. Bell?" Mrs. Thornton continued.

"Yes." Margaret smiled. "He is my godfather. He was my father's mentor when he attended Oxford and since then has become like an uncle to me, part of the family."

"Mr. Bell knew my husband and has been helpful to John over the years."

"He is a good man," Margaret said. She looked between the women. "Would you like more tea?"

"I would," Fanny said quickly, handing Margaret her cup. "A bit more sugar if you please and I would love another lemon biscuit. I have never had anything like it." She took a large bite as Margaret filled the cup. "Mama you must try them."

"Please do, Mrs. Thornton. They were made fresh this morning." By me.

Margaret handed the cup back to Fanny and filled her own as well. She remembered one of the things she needed to ask Mrs. Thornton just as the older woman reached for a biscuit.

"We are trying to find a younger girl to be an assistant to our maid, Dixon. I'm not certain where to look. I thought perhaps you could point me in the right direction?"

Mrs. Thornton set her cup down and she seemed to be pondering the question. Finally, she answered, "It is hard in this town, and in mill towns in general to find such girls. Most go to the mills where they can receive better wages. I have been lucky to have most of the same servants for years. Of course, I pay them better than the mill and require shorter hours and provide better housing than they could expect in Princeton or the other small neighborhoods where most of the mill employees live."

"The hours would be quite flexible. We would not expect her to work the same long hours as the mill, but we could not provide housing as there is barely room here for the four of us."
She sat quietly for several moments before answering. "I will ask some of the mothers that work in John's carding room. A few have daughters who do not wish to work in the factories. Some are shop girls who might be able to arrange their schedules to help."

Margaret smiled. "Thank you very much."

"Miss Hale," Mrs. Thornton turned quite serious. "I think I must tell you that I rarely pay calls. It is not in my nature to meet new people and visit acquaintances in general. My son asked that I come to see your mother, and so I have, despite her being indisposed. What I am trying to say is that if I do not call again, you must not be offended. It is just not my way."

"I wish my mother could have met you, then."

"Oh, Margaret, you may call any time, but Mama will not call upon you. Indeed, as soon as your mother is better, you must come to Marlborough Mills. Just send a note a day ahead and we should be glad to host you."

"Have you been to see our factories or the mammoth warehouses here in Milton?" Mrs. Thornton asked.

"Not yet, no." Margaret shook her head. "With settling the house these past few days, the farthest I have traveled is New Street. I must walk everywhere as well, which will no doubt limit my travels."

"Yes, that must be true," Mrs. Thornton agreed. "I simply thought that with your relocation here, to a town which has risen in eminence and notoriety in not only Britain, but the whole world for its textile businesses you would wish to witness the spectacle."

"You do not wish to know anything about them, Margaret!" Fanny said with a snort. "Loud and dirty. That is all they are!"

"Fanny!" Mrs. Thornton growled.

"I think if I were you, Fanny, I should like to know about them, just as I knew my father's sermons by heart and now know what subjects he is tutoring." She turned to the older woman. "Mrs. Thornton I would be pleased to see how a textile business operates. Perhaps on a day I come and play the piano with Fanny, I could also view Marlborough Mills? I do not mean to impose myself upon you, I—"

"Nonsense, you have been invited to our home and I would be pleased to show you John's mill. Every improvement of textile machinery is to be seen there in its highest perfection. As to other businesses in Milton, if you or perhaps your father have an interest seeing a print-works or a reed-making business, I could procure your admission there as well. The Thorntons are well known in Milton, Miss Hale."

The implication was clear. If the Hales had the blessing and approval of the Thorntons, they would be acceptable to the rest of Milton society. It was obvious last evening, John Thornton approved of her father, what would be the report Mrs. Thornton took home with her?

"I would invite your family to join us on Sunday, following church, but we are hosting another family this week. The Slicksons." Mrs. Thornton looked at Fanny and a slow blush crossed the younger woman's cheeks. "The elder Mr. Slickson owns a mill here in Milton, nearly as large as John's."

Mrs. Thornton stood, effectively stating her desire to leave. Margaret rose as well, while Fanny snuck another lemon biscuit and sip of tea before standing.

"Thank you again for calling today," Margaret said, leading them into the hallway where Dixon met them with their outerwear.

"My son asked me to, and I am glad to do the little he asks of me. He does much for our family and this is the least I can do for him. I try to be his anchor in the storm of life."

"How fortunate he is to have such support." Margaret bit the inside of her cheek, nervous about asking for another favor for her new acquaintance. "I wonder, Mrs. Thornton, if I might have a private word with you?"

She frowned, but nodded. "Fanny, do go ahead to the carriage, I shall be but a moment."

"Goodbye Fanny." Margaret smiled at her. "I look forward to seeing you again."

"Likewise, Margaret. Just send a note a day ahead and we shall spend the afternoon playing music together."

When Fanny had departed through the front door, Margaret turned to the maid. "Excuse us, Dixon."

"Yes, Miss Margaret." Dixon walked into the drawing room, likely to clean up the tea leftovers.

"What is it, Miss Hale?" Mrs. Thornton's voice was gruff, but polite.

"My mother…" She swallowed. "I think she needs to be seen by a doctor."

Mrs. Thornton's face softened perceptibly. "She is ill?"

"I am not certain. She has always had a very weak constitution, always seemed fragile and thin. Now, since we have moved here, she has worsened. Her spirits are so very low, Mrs. Thornton, so much so that she refuses to leave her room unless my father is home and only for meals."

"John met her last night." Mrs. Thornton reminded her.

"My father was quite stern with her yesterday. She really did not have a choice but to meet with Mrs. Thornton last evening. I tried to be equally firm today, as she knew you were coming since last night, but she soundly refused to leave her room." Margaret swallowed back the tears that were slowly forming. "I am at a loss, Mrs. Thornton, but perhaps a doctor might be able to provide some guidance on how to help her?"

Mrs. Thornton stared at Margaret for several minutes, not a single expression crossing her face. "Robert Donaldson is the man we see for our medical needs. I will take Fanny home and then go see him for you and ask that he call on your mother."

"Oh, thank you." Margaret squeezed Mrs. Thornton's arm, but pulled back quickly when the older woman's entire body tensed. "Excuse me."

She ignored the contact and instead said, "I will ask that he come yet today, Miss Hale. Thank you for the tea and biscuits."

"It was my pleasure. I do hope you consider coming again one day." Margaret opened the door for Mrs. Thornton and stood aside as she passed by her. She stood on the stair, watching the carriage pull away and only then closed the door.

Margaret slid the plank of wood through the loop and pushed off the door, heading to find Dixon, who was still in the drawing room cleaning up crumbs from Fanny's chair.

"I made it, Dixon."

"So I see, none the worse for wear. And not eve a full thirty minutes!" Dixon laughed. "They ate all your biscuits."

Margaret laughed. "Fanny must have hidden some in her purse when I looked away. She enjoyed them greatly. If I visit their home I shall bring some along for her."

"And you worried they were not fine enough for your guests."

Margaret plopped on a chair with a deep sigh. "Mrs. Thornton is going to ask for names of young girls who might consent to work as your assistant."

"That is very good of her."

"Indeed," Margaret agreed. "She is also sending a doctor to see Mama."

"Oh dear. Your mama will not be pleased by that."

"I suppose not, Dixon, but what else are we to do?"

Dixon sighed. "I have never seen her like this and as you know, I have been with her for nearly forty years."

Margaret gave her a wan smile. "I know, Dixon. She would be lost without your support and friendship. Dr. Donaldson is the man's name. He will come yet today. We should be with her when he visits. I will explain to Papa when he comes home."

Margaret watched Dixon carry the tea tray from the room and then closed her eyes and leaned back against the chair. She didn't know exactly what to think about Mrs. Thornton. It was obvious she was committed to her son, and that her daughter was nothing like her son. Margaret could see how people might see Mrs. Thornton as tough as a dragon. There was nothing gentle or friendly or soft about her. She was all business, all seriousness, so unlike her own mother. Mrs. Thornton had been terribly polite and helpful, however, and because of that, Margaret was happy the Thorntons had visited.

"You have overstepped, Margaret."

She and her mother were sitting at the dining table, waiting for Margaret's father to join them for supper. Finally, her mother had left her room. It was from anger, and a need to chastise Margaret in front of her father, rather than a real desire to leave her room.

"Richard you will not believe what your daughter did today!" her mother started.

"Oh?" he asked. "From the fierce expression on your face, I would gander she did something you did not approve of?" he asked, taking his place at the head of the rectangular table.

"She had Mrs. Thornton fetch a doctor for me," her mother said.

"And you feel that was a bad thing?" he asked.

"Richard I do not need a doctor."

"Well, what do you need, Maria? You can hardly stay in your room for the remainder of your days. You cannot moan and groan and whine about how awful Milton is, without even experiencing in the town." He unfolded his napkin and placed it upon his lap. "Dixon and Margaret have both expressed their concern for your health. Your behavior since arriving here has been very unusual. After thirty years as your husband, I know you well, and something is not as it should be."

Dixon brought in the roast and set it next to Margaret's father. The potatoes were passed from her mother and Margaret added a piece of bread to her plate. She was not very hungry.

When Dixon left, closing the door behind her, Margaret's mother pounced on her father. "Do you mean to tell me you knew she was asking Mrs. Thornton to find a doctor for me?"

"I did not." He shook his head. He added potatoes to his plate. "But, I also did not expect you to refuse to visit with Mrs. Thornton and her daughter. You promised me you would visit with them today and instead you left it up to our young daughter to be hostess to these strangers by herself."

"You told him, Margaret?" How forlorn she looked.

"I did not," Margaret answered.

"Dixon informed me both of the doctor's and the Thornton ladies visits."

"Ladies," her mother snorted. "They are women, not the type of ladies I have known in London."

"Both of them have fine manners, Mama," Margaret stated. "It was not a difficult visit at all. Indeed, I was glad to meet people who were part of Milton, people who have lived here long enough to know the town and its people. Mrs. Thornton not only offered to ask Dr. Donaldson to call, but will also collect the names of young girls who might be willing and able to help Dixon."

"I do not like this involvement with tradespeople. Not one bit." Her mother shook her head so hard, her lace bonnet fell to the ground.

"Papa," Margaret started as she stood to pick up her mother's hat, "Mama is angry because Dr. Donaldson was very firm with her. His wife is part of a sewing circle that meets twice weekly. Altogether, there are twelve women and their daughters in the group. He said it would be a good opportunity for Mama and I to meet the women of our station who reside in Milton."

Margaret returned to her seat and continued eating.

"You do not like this idea, Maria?"

His face was scrunched in confusion, just as Margaret felt. How could she not like the idea? Her mother loved to sew, and if it were with women like her, why would she be so disagreeable?

"He said if I do not go, he will come and pick me up himself! How dare he threaten me in such a way!"

"That is rather disturbing." Her father looked troubled.

"He was jesting with you, Mama. You had worked yourself up into such a hysteria you did not even realize it." She gave her mother a hard look and then turned to her father. "The doctor gave her medicine to take twice daily and Dixon has promised to see that she takes it."

"I do not need medicine. I am not ill."

"If that is so, why did you refuse to meet with Mrs. Thornton today?" Margaret asked.

"I do not wish to associate with anyone in this town, Margaret. I will simply stay cooped up here until your father decides we can leave." Her voice dropped. "Anywhere would be better than here."

Margaret caught her father's eye and shook her head in frustration.

"I have no plans to leave here, Maria."

"You had no plans to leave Helstone but then suddenly Margaret was seeing to the details of a removal. Who's to say you will not make another rash decision?"

"I picked up another student today," he said, perhaps in an attempt to change the subject. "I am pleased how my name is being shared with people who wish to learn and expand their knowledge."

"Congratulations," Margaret said with feeling. "Is he young?"

"He is hoping to pass the entrance exam for Oxford," her father said. "He and I will be working until April, when he will take the test. He is a bright young man, I see no reason for him not to be accepted."

"Perhaps you could even have Mr. Bell recommend him?" Margaret suggested.

"Yes. I did consider that." He took a long sip of wine and wiped his mouth. "Tell me what you discussed with Mrs. Thornton and her daughter. Is the daughter your age?"

"Her name is Fanny and I think she may be three or four years older than I am. I have never been a very good judge of ages. Mrs. Thornton came dressed fully in black." Margaret shook her head. "I do not understand it. She cannot still be in mourning so many years after the elder Mr. Thornton's passing. Even her lace collar was black."

"It is so dirty here, perhaps even dirtier in her home right at the mill, black may be the only thing to keep clean," her mother said on a sigh.

"Fanny was wearing a wide skirted, three-tiered orange and white striped silk gown," Margaret said. "Her skirt was so wide I was concerned she would not fit through the drawing room door."

"My sister tells me the fashionable of London are wearing wider skirts this fall. If you were still with her, Margaret, you could be dressed just as fine."

"Why would I be with her when I can be with my parents? I was in London only as Edith's companion. I was given many benefits as such, but I am right where I belong. If my dresses are a few seasons out of date, who will care? I have no one to impress in Milton, Mama. In London, I was forever trying to live up to Aunt Shaw's expectations for me. Here I can be myself, and no one will expect anything else, because they know me in no other way."

How freeing it was! She could use the manners and behavior she had learned over the years, but also try new things, find what was natural for her, what made her happy, without worry of censure from Aunt Shaw.

"You must comport yourself as my sister has taught you," her mother said. "You will behave as you always have, Margaret. I will not have you gossiped about."

"As I was in London?"

"Who gossiped about you in London?" her father demanded.

"Everyone. Everyone talked about everyone in our circle. It was horrible, always trying to do more or be better in some way than a supposed friend. There were times I did not even trust Edith my thoughts because she often blurted out private things without a second thought." Margaret sighed. "Here, I have no worries about my private business being shared. I can guard my thoughts and activities because no one cares about me and what I do."

"That will change in time, my dear," her father said.

"Why do you say that? I do not expect to be included in many activities," Margaret said. "I will go with Mama to the sewing circle and help out Dixon unless we find a girl. I see very little occasion to meet many people here."

"You will be noticed, my dear," her father assured her. "You carry yourself so well, are such a lovely young girl, you will be remarked upon by many. In fact, today I purchased tickets for the next concert. It is to be held in a fortnight at the Lyceum Concert Hall. It features a pianist named Julius Benedict." He leaned forward excitedly. "Supposedly, he worked with Jenny Lind for a time."

"Jenny Lind? I saw her in London years ago. She's been in American for several years, I believe." How exciting to have such a talented performer here in Milton. "She is an incredible singer."

"I could have gotten a single ticket for tonight's concert, although it was a singer I had never heard of and I did not want to go alone, of course."

"Fanny was going to that concert this evening," Margaret said. "According to her, it had been sold out for quite a few weeks, that all the musicals sell out quickly in Milton."

"At least there is some culture in Milton," her mother said.

Margaret closed her eyes on a sigh. Her mother's dreary attitude was more wearing on her than the Thornton's visit had been.

"Thank you for paying the call to the Hale's home today, Mother. Fanny I am pleased you joined her."

John kissed her on the forehead before heading to the opposite end of the table and sitting down. It had been an exceptionally long day, but he had tickets to take Fanny to the concert that evening and he would do so. Just the thought of the tantrum she would throw if he backed out made him cringe inside.

"Mrs. Hale was indisposed," his mother said. "We visited just with the daughter."

John dug into his boiled potatoes with vigor. He had not taken a lunch today and his stomach had been reminding him for hours of his hunger. Friday was payday, and thus he had extra paperwork to attend to. He always tried to complete the ledgers on Thursday evenings, but now with his lessons, that arrangement would have to change.

He did not want to ask what his mother thought of Miss Hale. He had formed a very favorable opinion of her, but knew she was not someone his mother would immediately like. She was a true lady, a southerner, with London refinements rarely, if ever, seen in Milton. If he gave her an inkling of his attraction to the brown-eyed beauty, she would never let the matter drop, and come up with dozens of excuses why he should avoid any interaction.

"I thought Mrs. Hale looked a bit pale last evening. Of course never having met her before, I could not know. She spoke very little, had a very soft voice."

"I had forgotten how small those Crampton townhomes are," his mother commented. "They have made good use of the space which they have."

"I cannot see how they can live without a piano," Fanny complained. "Margaret, she said I could call her thus, says she enjoys playing but they had to leave their instrument behind. Oh, yes, John." Fanny turned on him. "On Tuesday, when you go to study with Mr. Hale, she said she would give you some sheet music for me that she brought with her from London. I'm not certain if it's music I already have or not, but I am excited to see her taste. You may need to remind her. She said it was still packed."

"It is too bad I did not know of her interest in music," he commented. "I could have gotten tickets to this evening's concert for them."

He looked up from his plate to see his mother staring at him.

"Well?" he asked.

"Do not get too attached to these Hales." Her voice was quite gruff. "I respect your wishes to attend lessons with Mr. Hale. But, to be clear, I do not think we should involve ourselves with them to any greater degree. Miss Hale asked that I send for a doctor for her mother and so I sent Dr. Donaldson. She also asked that I assist her in finding a girl to help her maid around the house. I will also see to that duty, but it is there that my commitment to them ends."

"Mother," he growled. "I have no intention of involving myself with anyone other than Mr. Hale. I know you are concerned I may be snared by Miss Hale, as you always worry when I meet a new young lady, but that connection would be highly unlikely. She and I come from very different worlds, and after meeting her, and her mother, I have real doubt they will be strong enough to survive in Milton for very long."

His mother's eyebrow quirked. "And Mr. Hale?"

"He is a fine man, as fine as Mr. Bell promised." He smiled. Mr. Hale was a real gentleman, just as Mr. Bell. "He will challenge me in ways I have not be challenged for years. I like him. I enjoyed being in his company."

"You deserve happiness, my son, just proceed with caution."

He took a sip of wine and then saluted her. "I will, Mother. I always do."