Margaret could not help but compare Mr. Thornton and Mr. Lennox, believing that with Henry it was as if he had crossed a line from friendship to love. With Mr. Thornton it was puzzling because they had never been friends, and their opinions clashed so conspicuously. She wondered at his audacity in claiming that he would continue to love her even if she did not reciprocate. Did she have the power to daunt him?
She was not able to be alone with her thoughts and thus went to Bessy Higgins's house. When she arrived Bessy was glad because she was not doing well and feared she would not get to see Margaret again before she died. Bessy worried over her father after the strike; he was a committee man and had objected to the strike. He never wanted the Union members to strike a blow, and now it looked as if all his good work was done by Boucher and the others. As Bessy talked she became more and more distressed, and finally just asked Margaret to read a "story chapter" from the Bible, not a sermon.
Back at home, Margaret saw that Mrs. Hale was doing better, especially on account of the water-bed. Mrs. Hale mentioned Frederick and Margaret eagerly asked her mother to talk about him, and tell her what he was like as a baby. After a little talking Mrs. Hale could not help but cry bitterly. She confessed to Margaret that she had to see Frederick before she died; she charged Margaret with finding a way to get him to her bedside. Margaret did not find this order odd; her mother's wish was so just that "Margaret felt as if, on Frederick's account as well as on her mother's she ought to overlook all intermediate chances of danger, and pledge herself to do everything in her power for its realization."
Mrs. Hale convinced Margaret to write a letter before Mr. Hale even came home, though Margaret wished to consult her father first. When she came back from the post office where she mailed the letter, her father sighed that while she should have asked him first, it was the right thing to do. The danger was very great to Frederick, but Mr. Hale said he would have done the same.
Mr. Thornton had true bodily pain after his rejection. He felt like raging and screaming like a child, and took comfort only in the thought that she could do nothing about his forcefully continuing to love her. Without knowing why, he hopped on an omnibus and rode it to the country, dwelling over every moment of the earlier scene. He tried to remember every detail so he could then forget her. When he returned to accustomed places, his mind was able to return to accustomed thoughts –he had much to do regarding the strike.
Mrs. Thornton meanwhile had been sitting in the dining-room all day, waiting for new of her son's engagement to Miss Hale. She experienced pangs of jealousy at the thought of this young woman displacing her as the object of love in her son's affections. This young woman would take the place as the mistress of the house, "only one of the rich consequences which decked out the supreme glory." Mrs. Thornton admitted she would have liked Margaret if she was a Milton girl, for she was "pungent, had taste, and spirit, and flavour in her." She had pride and was ignorant, but she was even preferable to Fanny in some regards.
Mr. Thornton entered the room; she heard him pause and asked quietly, "Well, John?" he replied "No one loves me, -no one cares for me, but you, mother." He had tears in his eyes and Mrs. Thornton tottered for the first time in her life. She burst out that she hated Margaret and would do so with all her heart. Mr. Thornton urged her not to do so, and simply not to mention the subject again. The conversation turned to the strike, and their tones of voice were calm and cool.
Mr. Thornton worked the next day to organize his affairs. He felt that his "deep mortification" of yesterday was vanished; the mists were cleared from his intellect and "he felt his power and reveled in it." The evidence against Boucher and the other ring-leaders was not enough to convict, but he counseled the police to be on their watch. When he left the court however, his thoughts became disorganized and languid and could not be fixed on any one subject.
He encountered Dr. Donaldson on his walk and the two men spoke for a few moments. The doctor told the mill owner that Mrs. Hale was much worse and only had a few weeks to live. Mr. Thornton asked what he could do for her, and the doctor replied that she loved jargonelle pears and craved them during her illness. Mr. Thornton immediately went to the best fruit shop in Milton and picked out the best and most luscious fruits and had them put into a basket.
He decided to go to the Hales' house, not allowing the events of the previous day to preclude his visit. When he presented the fruit Mrs. Hale was extremely surprised and gratified. Mr. Thornton paid no heed to Margaret but was conscious of her every move.
When Margaret went up to her chamber a bit later, Dixon came to speak with her. She told her that Bessy Higgins had died that morning and that Mary Higgins was downstairs wanting to speak with her. Margaret began to weep. Dixon further startled her by saying that Mary requested Margaret to come see Bessy's body, a request that Margaret found abhorrent.
When she went downstairs to see Bessy's crying sister, Margaret agreed to visit even though she did not want to. Mary explained that Bessy had died that morning while Nicholas was out; she had only come in minutes before her sister died.
Margaret was glad she had come to see Bessy when she saw her friend's now-peaceful and serene countenance. When Nicholas came in Margaret felt that she had no place being there, and rose to leave. After a moment of silence Nicholas threw himself across his daughter's body, wracked with violent sobs. Margaret held Mary's hand while the girl's father wept. When he rose to leave, Mary screamed out that she knew he was going to drown his sorrows in drink. Margaret stood in the doorway, "silent yet commanding." Nicholas yelled at her to move, but grudgingly accepted her authority when he observed her calm, unyielding manner.
Margaret took him over to the body and informed him that Mary told her that Bessy's last words were, "Keep my father fro' drink." He began wailing and talking about Bessy again. Margaret distracted him by asking where he was all day; he responded that he was at the Committee. He cursed Boucher who had ruined their plans.
Margaret had a bold proposal –she invited him to come home with her to speak with her father. Nicholas was intrigued at this, and said there were many things he always wanted to say to a parson. Margaret was a little nervous, as her father would be caught off guard and her mother was ill, but she could not retract the invitation. Mary went to stay with friends and Margaret and Nicholas Higgins set off for the Hale home.
Nicholas hurriedly cleaned himself up a bit in the yard and Margaret went inside to talk to her father. Her mother was resting upstairs. Margaret tried to inform her father about Nicholas but rather complicated and misrepresented the situation and the man as to sufficiently perplex her father, who became wary of the "drunken weaver" he was to speak with.
Margaret went upstairs to see her mother, who was now very nervous about Frederick and the dangers of his visit. It was too late to change anything, however, and Frederick must come. Dixon helped calm Mrs. Hale down while Margaret sat silently in her mother's room. She decided to return downstairs to see how her father and Mr. Higgins were faring.
To her surprise and delight, "she found her father and Higgins in earnest conversation –each speaking with gentle politeness to the other, however their opinions might clash." Her father was not in the habit of making distinctions between anyone. Higgins was speaking of how the lack of proof regarding the veracity of religion was a problem for him. Mr. Hale told Higgins he knew he could not convince him in one conversation but hoped there would be more and that they could speak freely to each other.
Nicholas expressed his sorrow at Bessy's death and the lack of reason surrounding it, as well as the fact that the strike had failed. He was coming home to seek solace from Bessy about that when he learned she had died. Margaret and Mr. Hale listened to his account. He told them that the workers' calculations were based on false premises; they expected too much of their fellow men, did not expect that the Irish would not be sympathetic to them, and those who were roused into the rabble doomed the cause. Margaret asked if he might get work back but he said his former master would cut off his own hand before allowing Nicholas back.
After more conversation about the strike, Mr. Thornton's name came up and Higgins criticized the man harshly; he said even Hamper would have waited longer before hiring the Irish, and that "it's a word and a blow wi' Thornton." Margaret asked a few questions about the Union, which Higgins was loath to answer until he saw the innocent curiosity and calmness in the girl's face. He explained a bit about its ways and means, such as treating those who were not part of the Union in a very cold manner by not speaking or looking at them. Margaret was surprised at this information and rebuked the Union for being as bad as the masters. Higgins replied that "in those days of sore oppression th' Unions began; it were a necessity. It's a necessity now, according to me. It's a withstanding of injustice, past, present or to come...our only chance is binding men together in one common interest."
Higgins rose to leave and Mr. Hale asked if he might join them in prayer. He was doubtful but agreed, and "Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm."
In these chapters several important events occur and others are foreshadowed. Mr. Thornton is dismayed over his rejection and informs his mother of Margaret's dislike for him; Bessy Higgins dies; Nicholas enters into conversation with Mr. Hale on the subjects of religion and the failed strike; and Frederick is summoned from abroad.
Mr. Thornton's character is developed further; he is in love with Margaret despite her fierce rejection of his proposal, and means to go on loving her even if she never reciprocates. He is intensely affected by the negative turn of events; he can only escape from Milton to set his thoughts in order. Working at the mill relieves him of them for some time, but once he leaves work his thoughts continue to oppress him. Margaret's rejection of his love is made worse by his pride, the blow to which he acutely feels. This pride causes him to make sure that his behavior is not otherwise altered, and he sends the ailing Mrs. Hale baskets of fruit as if nothing had transpired between himself and her daughter.
As for Margaret, she proves herself an effective moral leader when she dissuades the grieving Nicholas from drowning his sorrows in drink and encourages him to speak with her father instead. Her domestic authority allows her to direct the behavior of a man not even related to her; she is a paragon of Victorian womanhood as she curbs a man's immoral tendencies and sets him on the path to righteousness.
The different religious affiliations of the main characters are brought to the fore in chapter XXVIII. Bessy's interest in Revelations characterizes her view of death and the afterlife. Margaret embraces her moral role, and Nicholas and Mr. Hale discuss the former's inability to believe in the things he could not see. He explained that there were plenty of good people that he knew that did not believe in the Bible, and had greater concerns than wondering about eternal life; in Nicholas's opinion, "the purse and the gold and the notes is real things; things as can be felt and touched; them's realities; and eternal life is all a talk..." (223). However, the kind and open demeanor of Mr. Hale softens Nicholas, and he grudgingly agrees to pray with father and daughter at the close of his visit. Gaskell writes, "Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm" (230).
Finally, Higgins explains that the strike has failed. He credits this to the workmen's false premises and miscalculations. They did not expect the masters to bring in Irish hands, nor did the Committee men expect "passions getting the better of reason, as in the case of Boucher and the rioters" (225). These Milton workmen were the cruelest blow to the cause. Higgins was now out of work; he knew that Hamper would never give him his job back and he chafed at asking Mr. Thornton, even though he eventually would agree to do this at Margaret's insistence. The strike thus ended the way Bessy predicted it would –the masters appeared to have triumphed and the workers would need to return to work for the same wages –but as the novel progresses, the reader discovers that this strike was in fact unique. Mr. Thornton was affected; his business fails (until Margaret rescues it) and he eventually learns that a more humanitarian way of conducting business is personally and professionally profitable.