“I do not think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.” ― Abraham Lincoln
“What are you doing?”
Margaret looked up from her writing and a smile lit her face. Behind her, the weak winter sun shone through the thick icicles that edged the window of the morning room, creating delicate rainbows that danced over her lovely blue gown and made her silky hair shine. John felt his throat go dry.
“I’m working on the—mpfh! Mmm? Mmmmmm.”
Several minutes later, John pulled back. “I apologize,” he said breathlessly. “Do go on.”
Margaret rolled her eyes, but she had a small, secretive smile on her lips as she tucked her hair back into place and when she spoke, her voice was rich with warmth and humor. “As I was saying, I’m working on the guest list for the Christmas party.”
John frowned and shifted around the desk to sit down so he wasn’t towering over Margaret. “I thought we were just having Fanny and her husband and Mother.” The elder Mrs. Thornton had opted to move in with her daughter for a few months after Fanny’s first child was born. Ostensibly she was helping with her grandson. John suspected she’d moved to give him and Margaret some time to settle into their marriage, at least to the point that they could keep their hands to themselves outside the bedroom.
Not that he could blame Margaret; her control had been excellent from the beginning. John, on the other hand, kept getting distracted by Margaret’s hands and her hair and the way that her dresses curved around the side of her waist and…
Margaret laughed and pushed him away. “I’m never going to finish this list if you keep distracting me.”
John went back to the other side of the desk and told himself quite firmly that he was going to stay in his chair. “Who’s on this list, then?”
“Nicholas, of course, and Mary and the Boucher children.”
John sighed, but held his peace. He’d long since given up trying to explain to Margaret why it was inappropriate for a woman to have a close friendship with a man who wasn’t her husband. He’d thought the risks of an improper relationship forming were obvious, but Margaret was raised in a different world, one where a romantic attachment between her and a factory worker was as likely as one between her and another woman. John, who’d briefly worked in a factory while trying to pay off his father’s debt, didn’t like to think about that aspect of Margaret’s upbringing.
“I’m also thinking of inviting Beth, since we’ve gotten rather close of late, but then I’ll also need to include the Fetner twins, and, really, I couldn’t invite them without including their parents.” She frowned at her list, which made her forehead wrinkle up in the most adorably distracting manner.
John grabbed the seat of his chair and dragged his attention back to the matter at hand. “Really, Margaret, at this rate you might as well invite the entire factory.” The words were barely out of his mouth before he realized that he’d made a tactical error.
Margaret beamed. “Oh, what a wonderful idea!”
Margaret undertook the planning of the Marlborough Mills Christmas Dinner like a general undertaking a war. John had made one early attempt to dissuade her from her mission through the use of logic – “Don’t you think the mill workers will look on this as charity?” – but that resulted in Nicholas Higgins being drafted into the operations and John retired from the field before he made the situation even worse.
In no time at all, Margaret and Higgins had mapped out their strategy. The Christmas dinner would be presented to the mill workers as a gesture of appreciation for all of their hard work and loyalty through the difficult reopening of Marlborough Mills, which would prevent anyone from thinking they were being offered charity. Each mill worker would be allowed to bring his or her family to the meal, because Margaret couldn’t imagine anyone being able to enjoy a good meal while his or her family was at home starving. The meal itself would be during working hours, so there could be no suspicion that this was a way to get more work out of the men without the appropriate pay.
Personally, John thought they were being ridiculous. Of course this dinner was charity; that was what free food was. And no able-bodied man or woman would turn down a free meal, no matter whether their family was invited or not. In fact, any family with an ounce of sense would insist on it – the person with the greatest earning potential should be eating more, to ensure that he or she was able to achieve that potential. During the difficult early years, John himself had eaten better than both Fanny and his mother. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have had the strength to do his work well, and then they all would have starved.
As for the closing of the mill for several hours just so his workers could enjoy a free meal that he himself paid for – John took a deep breath and reminded himself that he only owned Marlborough Mills because Margaret brought it to their marriage, along with enough money to keep the mill open for a year or more without taking a penny from their product. If it would make his wife happy to shut the mill down for a few hours, then surely that happiness was worth the cost.
When it came to the logistical nightmare that was feeding nearly a hundred people, however, John had to step in. There was no way he was allowing Margaret to set up tables in the mill itself. Not only was it unsafe, but it risked damage to any product currently in progress when the mill closed for the meal.
“What about the hall where your father used to teach his classes?”
“You mean where the union meets?” Higgins asked. The death of the union in Milton had lasted only a few months before a fire at Hampers had brought about its resurrection. Thus far, Marlborough Mills had been spared any union action, which more than made up for the pay increase that John had given the mill workers as a wedding present to Margaret. On the other hand, it made meetings with the other mill owners increasingly uncomfortable. John would mind more, if he didn’t prefer to spend all of his free time with Margaret.
John eyed Higgins narrowly. “What of your promise to avoid the unions?”
“I promised not to pay into the union, and I haven’t,” Higgins said, not sounding cowed in the slightest. “But I still have people I could talk to. If you want the hall, it’s yours. Might be a bit tight for the crowd we’re expecting, though.”
They both looked thoughtful for a long minute.
“You could have the children’s tables in the lobby,” John offered grudgingly.
“Won’t they feel excluded?” Margaret asked.
“Not at all,” Higgins said, giving John an approving nod. “They’ll be with their friends.”
“And after they eat, they can go out and play,” John added. He was rewarded by a brilliant smile from Margaret as she reached out to squeeze his hand tightly.
Take that, Nicholas Higgins!
After that, the planning pace picked up considerably. Higgins’s daughter, Mary, found half-a-dozen women to help with the cooking, and Margaret immediately set them all to preparing Christmas puddings, though it was already quite late for doing so. Still, John suspected the abundance of coins being baked into the cake would make up for any lack of flavor due to insufficient aging.
Coming up with a way to roast a dozen geese on the day of the dinner was a more significant challenge; in the end it was decided to build a bonfire in the cobbled yard of the mill and do the roasting there. John resigned himself to losing an entire day of production; there was no way his workers would be able to focus when they were breathing in the smells of a highly anticipated Christmas dinner.
Once the cooking arrangements were handled, the rest of the pieces fell into place. After running the mill’s cafeteria for over a year, Mary had connections with all of the local food vendors and obtained a promise for all of the meat, potatoes, vegetables, and bread that they would need.
Higgins spoke to the mill workers; not one issued a peep of protest at being offered a free meal for their entire family.
With the help of the local parson, Margaret procured nearly a dozen young ladies who were eager to help with serving the food in exchange for a hot meal and a fair wage. They were all women with rather dubious reputations in the town, but John overlooked that fact in the spirit of the season. Besides, at least three of the girls were from Slickson Mill and, knowing Slickson, he doubted their disgrace was entirely their own fault. Maybe he’d have a quiet word with Margaret after; it was impossible to hire them on in Milton, but there might be possibilities for them in the South.
John himself was charged with the most difficult task of all, which was why he found himself outside Fanny’s house, stoically waiting for a response to the bell. It didn’t take long; John hadn’t been visiting quite as often as he’d promised. He did have to wait a good fifteen minutes for his mother to come down; Mother always did know the most effective ways to punish a busy man.
When she did come, however, she was smiling warmly. “John, how are you?”
John smiled back, feeling comforted by the very sight of her. They may have had their disagreements, but her knowledge of business and her fierce support made her a partner beyond compare. “Mother, it’s so good to see you.”
“It’s been an age,” she answered, rather pointedly.
“I’ve been busy. Our business has doubled since the mill reopened.”
“Doubled!” Hannah Thornton smiled. “I knew it would happen. Marlborough Mills makes the finest cotton in all of Darkshire. Quality comes through in the end.”
“Quality has little to do with it, Mother. Margaret’s aunt has been procuring orders for us in London.”
“I’m surprised she would consider stooping to our level. I know what she thinks of us here in Milton. Should I take this to mean that she’s finally accepted your marriage?”
“Yes. That lawyer fellow is recently engaged, which I’m sure made a difference.” John cleared his throat. There was no point in putting this off any longer. “Actually, I came to inform you of a new tradition at the mill.”
“What is it now? Another pay rise? Or has Margaret decided that a half-day wasn’t enough and that the workers should have all of Saturday off instead?”
“Nothing so dramatic, Mother.” Or so expensive, he added to himself. Hopefully Mrs. Thornton would refrain from saying any of this to Margaret; his wife had plenty of ideas all her own without his mother inadvertently providing inspiration. “We’ve decided to gift our workers with a meal to celebrate the holiday and to demonstrate our appreciation.”
Mrs. Thornton stared. “You already give them a shilling on Boxing Day. How much more appreciation do they need?”
John tried to keep his face impassive; no need for his mother to know that he’d made that exact same argument. “They’ve worked hard for us this last year.”
“And they’ve been well paid for it!” She huffed. “This is clearly Margaret’s doing. She’s going to run the mill into the ground if you don’t rein her in.”
“Mother,” John said warningly; this was exactly why he hadn’t been visiting as often as he’d said he would. “Margaret is my wife. I’ll not have you speak ill of her.”
They stared at each other for a few seconds. “It’s almost time for the baby to wake,” Mrs. Thornton said abruptly. “Fanny needs me.”
John sighed. “Very well. I’ll visit again soon.”
Mrs. Thornton just nodded and left, her back held rigid as she swept from the room.
That night, John was rather bold – some might even say scandalous – in his marriage bed.
After she’d caught her breath, Margaret asked, “Is everything all right?”
“Of course,” John said, pulling her close. “I love you.”
Margaret curled up against his side. “I know.” There was humor in her voice as she added, “Does this mean you had another fight with your mother?”
John sighed. “She wasn’t like this before. When I made a decision about the mill, she respected it.”
“She thinks I’m the one making the decisions now.”
“But you don’t. I run the mill.”
“And you listen to my suggestions.”
“But I listened to her suggestions, too—oh.”
Margaret laughed, but it was a gentle sound and not at all mocking. “Just give her some time, John. It’s a big change for her.”
John tilted his head to look down at his wife. “You’re being very understanding.”
“I can afford to be,” Margaret said. “After all, I get to live with you and see you every day. She, on the other hand, has to live with Fanny. If there is any sort of competition between us, I am clearly the winner.”
The day of the dinner was clear and cold, with a crisp layer of frost covering the ground and a dark blue sky overhead. Even before the workers arose for the day, the wood for the fire was being laid, and Mary’s team of cooks were busy preparing the vegetables and potatoes in the cafeteria.
The geese were just beginning to cook when the workers streamed through the courtyard, and by the time the looms were running, the entire mill smelled of roasting meat. Sure enough, even with John personally walking the floor, work ground down to a near-halt. After a few minutes, John realized he was actually making things worse – the looms required workers to move together to keep the threads from tangling, but every person he stood next to picked up the pace and knots started forming almost immediately.
Deciding that one missed day of work was better than a day wasting materials on product that couldn’t be used, John went outside to track down Margaret. He found her in the cafeteria, slicing bread. “John, what are you doing here? I thought you were spending the morning in the mill.”
“I was and the bolt of fabric they were working on while I was there will likely have to be discarded. So, I left.” He looked over the piles of vegetables and cauldrons of bubbling bread sauce. “I’d offer to help, but you clearly have everything in hand. If you need me, I’ll be working on the accounts.”
Margaret smiled, then quickly glanced around the room. No one was paying them any attention in the slightest. “I have something to show you first. Come on.”
Curious, John followed Margaret outside the cafeteria, into the house, up the stairs and… into the bedroom. “Margaret, wha—mpfh! Mmmmm.”
One thing that could be said for Margaret – when she wanted something, she made it happen. Since she clearly wanted John present and amiable at the Christmas dinner, the remainder of the morning passed quickly and quite pleasantly.
As they made their way back downstairs, Margaret paused to look out through the window over the door. John stopped as well and saw the courtyard below, where a crowd of Marlborough Mill workers were gathered around the roasting geese, caps in hand and smiles on their faces.
“I’m glad we’re doing this dinner,” Margaret said.
After the morning he’d had, John could only agree.
“Maybe this will just be the first of many.”
John caught himself before reflexively agreeing to that as well. “I’ll think about it.”
Margaret just smiled, and John sighed and silently resigned himself to this Christmas dinner becoming a tradition.
The geese were in tatters, the vegetable bowls were empty, the bread gone but for a smear of butter on the table. Mill workers had gathered together in small clusters and were talking and laughing and enjoying the last of the ale. Children were running around showing off the coins they’d found in the Christmas pudding. (It was a miracle no one had broken a tooth; those puddings proved to be more coin than cake.)
Due to the tight quarters of the hall, Margaret was sitting so close to John that he could feel the brush of her dress every time she breathed. Her attention was on her other side, where Mary was sitting, with Higgins beyond her. Margaret and Higgins were exclaiming over the success of the dinner and strategizing ways to encourage other mill owners to follow suit; John thought pigs would fly first, but kept his opinion to himself. Mary was silent; she looked tired, but pleased.
Looking over the crowd, John decided that he was pleased as well. Maybe this had been an unproductive day, but that didn’t necessarily mean that it had been a wasted one. The level of goodwill he was seeing was unheard of among mill workers; with any luck – and maybe a few more years of Christmas dinners – Marlborough Mill would become virtually strike-proof.
Yes, this Christmas dinner would undoubtedly be the first of many. John looked over at his shining wife and decided to count his blessings.