The next day they arrive in the small seaside town of Heston. Margaret reflects that, even in this small Northern town, “everything looked more ‘purposelike,’” the colors are grayer, the clothing more utilitarian, and the people more relentlessly busy. The family settles into temporary lodgings, and Margaret finally allows herself the luxury of resting in the present, without fretting about past or future.
Margaret notes certain contrasts between North and South, as she will have plenty more occasion to do soon. To her, Northerners seem far more pressed by the needs of the present moment, less open to beauty and enjoyment compared to the South.
One day Mr. Hale and Margaret set out for Milton so that they can search for a house, and so that Mr. Hale can meet his pupil, Mr. Thornton. On the approach to Milton, they see a “deep lead-colored cloud” hanging over the horizon. The scent of vegetation fades and gives way to the smell of smoke. They travel through “long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses” and past puffing factories, having to stop frequently to make way for vehicles loaded with cotton.
Margaret realizes how much industry dominates life in Milton—even her senses are overwhelmed with it. The environment is described as characterless and unvarying, and cotton claims the right-of-way in the streets, emphasizing its importance.
Margaret and Mr. Hale visit a series of houses, finding that their money doesn’t stretch as far in Milton as they are used to; none of their options are suitable. Finally, Margaret suggests that they return to the second house they’d seen, in the suburb of Crampton; Margaret comes up with a plan to maximize the use of the limited number of rooms they will have, joking, “I am overpowered by the discovery of my own genius for management.” The house is marred by excessive ornament, especially the ugly wallpaper, but they hope the landlord can be charmed into changing it.
The cost of living in Milton is higher than they are used to, because of the city’s rapid economic boom. Margaret discovers a knack for adaptability in limited circumstances, responding quickly to their changed environment rather than shrinking from it. The Milton taste for “ornament” signals class difference—the newly prosperous display their wealth, while the genteel classes find this showy and ostentatious.
After Mr. Hale drops Margaret off at the hotel for lunch and goes to speak to the landlord, Margaret discovers that Mr. Thornton has been waiting for them in the hotel. Margaret goes in to see him with “the straight, fearless, dignified presence habitual to her,” having “too much the habits of society” for any awkwardness. Mr. Thornton, meanwhile, is quite surprised to be greeted not by a middle-aged clergyman, but by a dignified young lady “of a different type to most of those he was in the habit of seeing.” He can’t summon words at first, so Margaret greets him with, “Mr. Thornton, I believe!” and invites him to sit down. He finds that Margaret “[assumes] some kind of rule over him at once,” and he does as she bids.
Margaret doesn’t shy from taking initiative in her interactions with Thornton from the very beginning, setting the tone for their entire relationship. Thornton is instantly silenced by Margaret’s dignified bearing, suggesting that she will exert an unusual degree of influence on him as the story continues.
When Margaret tells Thornton about the house they are renting, he knows the place. Now having seen Margaret, “with her superb ways of moving and looking,” he regrets thinking that such a “vulgar” place would suit the Hales. At the same time, Thornton can’t help interpreting Margaret’s proud demeanor as contempt, imagining that she sees him as “a great rough fellow” and almost wanting to leave “these Hales, and their superciliousness.”
Thornton has made assumptions about the Hales based on their status, but now he thinks that Margaret’s environment ought to match her striking beauty. Yet, he also feels self-conscious in front of Margaret and affronted that this educated Southerner might look down on him.
After Thornton and Margaret make halting attempts at conversation, Mr. Hale returns, and Thornton revises his opinion of the family, though Margaret makes him feel so awkward that he declines to stay for lunch with them. When they return to Heston that evening, Margaret struggles to describe Mr. Thornton to Mrs. Hale. She says that he is about thirty, “not quite a gentleman,” with an inflexible look that she should not like to bargain with.
Margaret is likewise perplexed by her first encounter with Thornton and isn’t sure how to categorize him, as he doesn’t resemble her concept of a gentleman. Thornton’s “inflexible” bearing seems to intrigue and challenge Margaret just as Margaret’s dignity and reserve both attract and repel Thornton.
When Margaret further describes Thornton as a “tradesman,” Mr. Hale corrects her, saying that the Milton manufacturers are very different from tradesmen. Margaret concedes. She also warns Mrs. Hale about the gaudy wallpaper in their new home. But when they arrive to settle in Milton, “the obnoxious papers were gone.” The landlord declines to tell them that the papers were removed not at the request of Mr. Hale, but “at the one short sharp remonstrance of Mr. Thornton, the wealthy manufacturer.”
Margaret’s early notion of “shoppy people” is being enlarged and refined. The disappearance of the wallpaper suggests a few things—that Thornton meant what he said about Margaret’s unsuitedness to “vulgar” surroundings; that he’s capable of acts of thoughtfulness; and that Thornton commands great authority in Milton, even outside the gates of the cotton-mill.