Days in Milton had a keen way of turning into weeks: especially if you were preoccupied with business and the threat of a workers' strike. John continued in his routine the best he could to try and relieve some of the anxiety that he was sure the unceasing whispers were causing his mother. Fanny on the other hand went through life with blinders; spending his money at every opportunity and without thought or regret. It was a bit of a relief to John that Robert Watson, a fellow mill master, had started to show Fanny particular attention. He would not have been the obvious choice as he was at least 10 years Fanny's senior, but he was a sound financial choice, seemed to have a genuine liking of Fanny and, perhaps most importantly, it would be a blessing to have one less mouth to feed should it come to a strike.
John had dismissed his last encounter with Miss Hale. He was glad that his years of self-denial had afforded him the skill of removing the desire for things that were unattainable. He did keep his standing appointments with Mr. Hale, however. It was a welcome break in his day-to-day and he had come to look upon Mr. Hale as a father-figure: something that had been missing in his life for far too many years. Mr. Hale became a confidant and John felt that his dealings with his fellow man were improving because of Mr. Hale's very different perspective on life. He secretly hoped that Mr. Hale enjoyed their meetings with similar feelings and that he would likewise view John as a son he never had. At the very least, the friendship that John had formed with Mr. Hale was important enough for him to ignore the days that he would chance upon Margaret at their tutoring sessions. It was a strange mix of feelings that the woman conjured up in him. Approaching the house every Wednesday evening, John would pray that she would not be home. Upon leaving the house John would feel regret when he did not see her. The few occasions that Margaret did bring tea to them during his lessons were no more comforting for often she entered and exited without a word which left John empty or she would stop to show her father some daughterly affection or another. Simple things really, like fixing his tea for him or placing a kiss on the top of his head as she handed him his cup. These exchanges left John with feelings of jealousy. Regardless, his time with Mr. Hale had become precious to him, and John was willing to undergo the torture of Miss Hale if necessary to keep this friendship.
Upon his request, Mrs. Thornton and Fanny had called upon the Hales. John was not surprised to learn of their opinions upon their return. Both ladies had found Mrs. Hale to be tolerable although much too frail for Mrs. Thornton's taste; Fanny did not really have an opinion of this member of the Hale family. The brunt of the criticism was reserved for Miss Hale. Of course Fanny's distaste for Margaret Hale was born of jealousy and fear that Mr. Watson might find this young woman more interesting than she. Mrs. Thornton's disapproval stemmed from her belief that John had set his sights on this young lady and that she was, in Mrs. Thornton's view at least, not worthy to occupy the same space as John, let alone be his wife.
"Mother, I wish that you would try to like the Hales." John stated. "Mr. Hale has been very kind to me and I do not wish to jeopardize our friendship by having you slighting the rest of his family."
"I was nothing but kind John." Mrs. Thornton replied in defense. "I can assure you that Miss Hale holds us all in contempt more than we do her. In fact, I shouldn't give her a second thought. But if you are insistent on carry on this academic pursuit with Mr. Hale then I suppose I can keep a civil tongue in my head when I am in Miss Hale's presence. I should think those occasions should be few enough that I can demonstrate the necessary decorum to be polite. But I don't like her. Her and her haughty southern manners. Who is she to look down her nose at us; the daughter of an ex-clergyman and practically living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Milton. I would bet that she has no idea what it is to truly work for anything and therefore, can't respect any one that has truly worked to make their place in this world. I think you should forget about these Hales, John, especially that Miss."
"Well I hear that she spends a great deal of her time down in the Princeton district." Fanny chimed in. Her whining voice, at times, raked John's nerves like fingernails being scratched down a slate board. He could feel his ire rising. "I understand that she keeps company with the Higgins family. Can you imagine, snubbing us and keeping company with the likes of common working folks. It just isn't natural."
Mrs. Thornton shot John a knowing look. Not because Margaret preferred the Princeton district to the more elite parts of town but because it was well known about the Masters of the mills that Higgins was the man heading up the union and pushing the workers toward a strike. What in the world could Miss Hale have to do with such trouble makers?
"I have no concern with whom Miss Hale chooses to send her time." John shot at Fanny. "It is her business. I am sure that she is trying to help the less fortunate; it is the way in which she was raised as a pastor's daughter. It wouldn't hurt you, Fanny, to reach out to those less fortunate every once in a while."
Fanny shot up looking shocked at John and then at her mother, who sat and did nothing to scold her son for chiding his sister in such a way. Realizing that she had no ally in the room, she stomped out of the parlor and up the stairs, slamming the door to her chambers.
"Really, John," Mrs. Thornton began. "You shouldn't scold your sister so unjustly. She does make a good point about Miss Hale. I too find it odd that she would associate with such trouble makers as this Higgins fellow. You, of all people know that you are judged by the company you keep. We know nothing of these Hales. It would not surprise me at all that they were union sympathizers. You need to be careful John. Everything you worked for is in jeopardy if the workers decide to strike; you will need the kinship of all the mill Masters if such an event is to be survived with little effect. Don't alienate yourself from your own by being attached to a lady we know nothing of."
John put his newspaper down and rested his head in his hands. He knew that what his mother said was true. He had not been himself ever since the Hales arrived in Milton. He tried to tell himself that the anxiety over the strike was the source of his restlessness. He knew it was a lie. No matter how much he tried to deny it to himself, he knew that Margaret Hale was the source of his ills. His mother was right, he did need to be sure not to become attached to Margaret. She clearly did not like him, so it should not be difficult. Still John found it to be impossible thus far. He was sure that she did not have any motive in the strike, but it was true that she kept strange company in the Higgins. He chuckled aloud realizing that he would have had more of a chance to win Margaret's favor if he was still a poor man working at the drapers than he did now as an accomplished Master of Marlborough Mills. Irony was a cruel thing.
"I don't think it's funny John." Mrs. Thornton scoffed.
"Neither do I mother. I was just struck by the cruelty of life in thinking that working hard can keep you secure when, in fact, we are never truly safe and free until we die. And then who knows what is in store for us."
Mrs. Thornton walked over to her son and placed a hand on his shoulder. She was not sure that was truly what was on his mind. John easily covered her small hand with his and gave his mother a tired smile. She thought about how strange it was that his hand now enveloped her own. It had seemed not too long ago that he could hide his tiny hand in hers and she could make him feel safe. Making him feel safe from starvation and desolation was easy, shielding him from the pain that she feared Miss Hale would bring upon him was another story. She felt helpless for him.
The following Sunday found John at his gentleman's club. He did not particularly enjoy spending Sunday afternoons there; it actually seemed like a waste of time. He had no wife or children to escape at home. This was the motive of most of the Milton men that came to the club to play billiards, smoke cigars and drink bourbon. John would much rather spend his time in quiet at home reading the newspaper or catching up on his chapters assigned that week by Mr. Hale. However, as a sound businessman, he knew the value of being seen with his fellow mill Masters. He also knew that he needed to stay apprised of the talk of the strike. The club was the best place to do this so he endured the three hours on Sunday afternoon for the sake of good business. As was his custom, John stationed himself near the window that looked over the courtyard outside of the building. From there he could see the front steps of the Lyceum. John recalled that Mr. Hale mentioned that he taught the workers in that building on Sunday afternoons. Therefore, at first it did not seem odd to him that there was a steady line of mill workers streaming into the building. It was only after watching the activity for 15 minutes did John become suspicious. Odder still was the sight of a familiar straw bonnet that seemed to float among the masses of workers moving up the steps and into the building.
"There they are the poor saps, eh Thornton?" John had not noticed Mr. Watson move next to him to share the view out of the window. John did not answer but only narrowed his gaze on the familiar head dress.
"Oh, and there's the worst of it. Isn't that the Hale girl? Odd lot that family. Fanny told me that the young Miss likes to spend her time cavorting with the enemy so to speak. I understand she is a particular favorite of that Higgins chap. What do ya think, Thornton? Perhaps this Miss Hale is the future Mrs. Higgins." Watson laughed at his self-perceived wit. John felt the pounding in his head quicken and only shot Watson an icy look of disapproval careful not to protest too harshly to his mocking of Margaret lest his true feelings be found out.
"Oh, come on now Thornton," Mr. Watson continued. "I was only poking fun. Besides, what is this Miss Hale to you?"
"She is nothing to me." John replied regretfully. "However, her father is a dear friend and the family is good and kind. I don't approve of your type of humor, Watson." John had had enough of the club for the day. He grabbed his hat and coat and set out for home. Before heading into the house, John decided to check the lock on the back door at the mill. It had been malfunctioning as of late and he wanted to be sure that the cotton bales were secure. As he turned, Jasper, a man that Thornton had dismissed for smoking in the bale house approached him.
"Begging your pardon Mr. Thorton." Jasper began.
"You, what the devil do you want. I told you to never step foot near my mill again." John's eyes flashed with renewed anger with the thoughts of the damage that that man's pipe could have brought upon his mill and the lives of his workers.
"Please, sir, 'ear me out. I've been to the Union meet'in, I can tell ya whats Higgins and the lot 'as planned."
John grabbed Jasper by the collar and pushed him hard up against the mill door. "I've no interest in anything you have to say. I told you never to set foot on my mill property again and I meant it. Now off with you before I call the police." John released the man and turned to watch him go realizing that they were not the only people on the street. Margaret and Mr. Hale were standing across the street watching the seemingly ruthless exchange. They had left the Lyceum early since there the Union meeting meant that there would be no lectures. John set his jaw and met Margaret's disapproving look with cold indifference. When the Hales had moved on, John dropped his head into his hands realizing how, without prior knowledge of the dealings with Jasper, the exchange must have looked to them. Damn these feelings of unworthiness. Why could he not be given the opportunity to show Miss Hale his true character so that she might have a better understanding of his person? And damn himself for caring about her opinion at all.