“Thank you for taking the time to see me, Mister Higgins.”
Higgins gave his usual enigmatic smile and said, “Just so long as the master doesn’t mind my meeting with his wife, Mrs. Thornton.”
“Please, Higgins, it’s Margaret to you. It was you and Bessie who showed me the strength of Milton. I know the workers are a bit stiff-necked, but I think I understand at least a little of the reason why.”
“Well, Miss Margaret, we’re probably stiff necked, but a stiff neck makes it easier to be stiff-kneed so that no one kneels to the masters. God and the Queen are the only ones we bow to, and, honestly, some of the lads might not to God.”
When she first moved to Milton, this would have seemed a casual blasphemy, but now after living here, and befriending Higgins and his family, she understood it as a warning -- to himself as much as to her -- about the nature of free-born men. “I’m sure John wouldn’t want the men kneeling to them. He’s more worried about the work being done well.”
Higgins nodded thoughtfully. “If you’d told me two years ago that I’d have a better understanding of the masters, well, I’d’ve had a hard time putting my sentiments into words fit for a lady to hear. But Thornton’s different. And it always angers me when I see others taking advantage of it.”
“That’s a matter to be taken up with John.”
“I know, Miss Margaret, but I also know you’ll argue against a man bein’ fired in the cold of winter even if he’s not turning a fair hand to the job.”
Margaret leaned back on the bench until her back felt the wall. “I assume he’s been tried at different positions, that it’s a lack of will not lack of wit.”
“Nah, Miss -- ma’am, I should say -- them as lacks wits will often work the harder at the things they can do. Some of them is excellent sweepers and the like, but this man was born lazy. Worse, others see him and think if he can get away with less and still get a fare wage, why can’t they?”
“Has he been tried in the lunchroom?”
Higgins thought for a moment. “No, ma’am, Don’t think he has. The pay won’t be the same.”
“Offer it to him after Christmas. I mean tell John the situation and the suggestion, and I’ll ask him to wait until after Christmas.”
“Fair enough, Miss Margaret. But I’m certain that’s not why you asked me to speak with you after my shift.”
“I’m so sorry, Higgins. Of course, I shouldn’t keep you from your family. It’s just… I know the mills will be quiet on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but I wondered if it would be an imposition to ask everyone to stay on Christmas Eve. I thought we might have a celebration in the lunchroom. Food for everyone -- families, too -- but also presents for the children.”
“You could just order it yourself, Miss Margaret. Why ask me?”
“I know how the people of the north can be about anything they might see as charity. And I truly don’t want to impose on time with family or at church.”
“Well, then, I think it could be a good idea. Ask some of the ones who don’t work at the mill, children and some of the mothers of young ones to help with the decorating and the cooking. That way the supper feels earned.”
“And gifts for the children? I’m afraid it would probably be hobby horses for the boys and dolls for the girls.”
“For them that’s not getting schooling yet, that would be well, I think, Miss Margaret. Now, if that’s all you needed…”
“Of course, go home to your family. I wanted to make certain it wouldn’t be taken amiss before I took the idea to John. Thank you, Higgins.”
“Good night to you, Mrs. Thornton.”
“You pay your workers too much, John,” Fanny said over supper that night. “And feeding them in that shed, it’s scandalous my husband says, just scandalous.”
“I pay a cook and a serving girl and provide the room. The workers pay for the food themselves. If their bellies are full, they work better. If their children have a warm place to do their schoolwork and play, they work better. So for two small salaries, I get a hefty profit from my investment.”
“I don’t see there’s much profit in it at all, do you mother,” Fanny asked.
“The books say otherwise, Fanny, and you were asked to dinner while your husband’s in London, not to a business meeting,” her mother said.
“My husband says he finds my opinion very worthwhile.”
Her mother looked skeptical, and John stared resolutely at his soup. It was left to Margaret to pour oil on troubled waters. “I’m certain your insights are most welcome to him.”
Fanny was mollified enough to change the subject to her latest room decorations and how much they cost. It was something of a relief when dinner was over and they could safely put Fanny into a carriage home.
“I’ve no idea how a daughter of mine could be so flighty,” Mrs. Thornton said.
“I assume the good Lord had a reason for giving her such a nature.”
John looked at his wife. “Margaret, I believe that’s the first time I’ve heard you even imply something less than kind about anyone, other than myself, of course.”
“I always said Fanny could try the patience of a saint,” his mother said, drily.
“I admit she became a bit vexing,” Margaret said, “but I truly believe God does things for a reason.”
John kissed her forehead. “It would be lovely to think so.”
“Well, I shall take myself to bed,” Mrs. Thornton said. “Don’t forget to bank the fire before you come up.”
“We shan’t. Good night.”
“Good night, mother.”
They sat in the parlor in front of the fire, Margaret with embroidery in her hands and John with a book. Before he opened it he said, “Should I be jealous of you and Higgins?”
“John!” she hissed as she stabbed her finger with the needle. He was immediately on his knees in front of her, taking her finger into his mouth to ease the sting. “I shan’t forgive you if I get blood on this.”
“Who’s it for?”
“Another addition to Edith’s family. I shall go back to knitting booties for the parish to give out as soon as it’s done.”
“I see. I didn’t mean to upset you, wife. It was only teasing.”
“I know, that and my own clumsiness”
“But you did have quite a long meeting with Higgins in the lunchroom.”
“I have had an idea,” Margaret said, and John settled himself at her feet leaning his head against her skirt. “But I know that I still often mistake northerners, and they sometimes mistake me, so…”
“It made sense to talk to Higgins. Did he give his imprimatur to your idea?”
“He did. Now I just have to think how best to broach it to you.”
“A difficult problem indeed. Why don’t you tell me all about it and I’ll have a word with your husband.”
Margaret laughed and ruffled his hair. “I thought a gathering on Christmas eve would be a good thing. Once the mill closes for the day, have the workers and their families get food and drink and gifts for the children, if we can.”
“And Higgins approved?”
“He suggested that we ask some of the women who stay home to help with the preparations -- the children, too -- that way it wouldn’t feel like charity.”
“We’ve made a good profit this quarter. Investing some of it in good will among the workers won’t hurt anything and may help the next time there’s a dry spell. Bread, oyster stew, and fish pie?”
“Since it’s advent, yes, that was my thought. Maybe baskets for people to take home?”
John thought, staring into the fire. “I think oranges or the like and mince pies for everyone to take home, not more, but,” he began before she could interject, “We’ll give everyone a ticket at the door. No one will mind winning a prize, but giving them more would begin to smack of charity.”
“Gifts for the children? Higgins said to keep it to the ones who are too small for schooling.”
“Let me think on that a bit. I’ll order some cases of satsumas tomorrow. I hope I won’t be too late.”
Margaret leaned over to kiss the top of his head. John smiled up at her and turned around for a proper kiss.
After a couple of minutes, he said, “I don’t think I’ll get to my book tonight. Just give me a minute to bank the fire.”
Margaret blushed and began putting away her sewing.
The square at Thornton’s Mill had small fires burning, to light people between the lunchroom where the food was laid out and the warehouse. John had managed to get the last shipment out the day before, so the warehouse was garlanded and had a large tree at one end and dancing in the middle. As the workers picked up their pay packets at the end of the shift, a box with ginger biscuits, a small mince pie, and satsumas in it was given as a thank you for their loyalty. Between dances there were contests for the school aged children and the winner of each spelling bee or multiplication recital received a book. The youngest, infants and toddlers, were given socks and the ones older than the toddlers and too young for school got either tops or dolls.
Every half hour Higgins would get up and call a number and someone won a hoop of cheese, crock of preserves, basket of eggs, length of cloth, or some other simple thing.
John and Margaret walked through the festivities getting thanks from the workers and sticky handshakes from some of the older children. Mrs. Thornton had ensconced herself by the tree and Margaret and John were surprised to notice that she’d been dragooned into telling stories.
“How much longer?” Margaret asked.
“At nine, the final two prizes will be given, and we’ll make certain everyone’s lantern is lit to get home.”
“What are the final two prizes?”
John pointed to a huge goose. “That and a half bolt of good wool.”
“I probably shouldn’t tell you, but most of the cloth for prizes is from orders that were rejected or repossessed.”
“But you could still sell it, and instead you’re giving it out. You’re a generous man, my husband.”
Higgins got up on the barrel he’d been using and called, “Master Thornton, I think the last three prizes should be yours to call.”
As he passed Higgins, he said, “I thought there were only two left.”
“Should have called every twenty minutes, I reckon, instead of the half hour.”
John shook his head and took his place on top of the barrel. “The first drawing is for a half bolt of wool.” He drew a marked sheet and called out the numbers. One of his newest workers, a fourteen year old who’d started on the shop floor in September, had won it and John could tell it would be put to good use by his mother for his younger siblings.
“Next, we have a bushel of salt fish.” Again, he was pleased to see that the prize had gone to one of the families who would most need help through the winter.
“And last of all, this fine Christmas goose.” He called the numbers and one of his oldest workers came up to claim it.
The parents began to herd their children together and food and prizes were packed away as they took their lanterns to the front door of the warehouse. Margaret or her mother-in-law lit each family's lantern and as the first group began to pass through the gates, someone with a fine voice began to sing The First Nowell.
The women who’d worked in the kitchens, packed up the leftovers for their families and left soon after. John and Margaret said good night to Mrs.Thornton before making certain that all the fires and candles were out.
After locking the buildings and the mill gates, John took their lantern in one hand and his wife’s hand in the other.
“It was a good thought Margaret. Everyone got something for their Christmas dinner.”
“Even if it was only a satsuma and ginger biscuits.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
“I did, but I must admit I find being surrounded by revelers exhausting.”
“You’re a bookish girl.”
“Not a girl, John. I’m definitely a woman.”
John stopped and held up the lantern to look at her. “That’s an odd remark.”
Margaret swallowed hard. “A girl would not, I hope, be … John, we’re going to be parents. In late April, probably.”
John stood there with his mouth gaping for some little time.
“I’ll be a father?”
“And I a mother.”
He caught the teasing in her voice and put the lantern down. John took her in his arms and kissed her deeply. “I never thought I’d get this happiness, Margaret. The shock, surprise, I’m … happy.” He said the last word in wonder. “Thanks to you, I’m truly happy.”