Early the next week, Mr. Thornton woke as usual and dressed for work. He kissed his wife as she lay in bed and headed downstairs for his breakfast where he endeavored to appear to his mother as collected as possible. In truth, however, since the evening of the doctor’s visit he was reluctant to leave his wife’s side, knowing at any time she might begin to feel true birth pangs.
Mrs. Thornton smiled inwardly at her son’s anxious concern as he reminded her once again to call him to the house if there was any change in his wife’s condition. She nodded her accord before he gave her a peck on the cheek and departed.
When she at last arose, Margaret took her time getting dressed. It was not in her capacity to hurry anywhere at the present time with such a girth. Dixon helped her don one of the very few gowns she owned that still fit.
The servant sighed at the remembrance of the confrontation she had experienced with her mistress a few weeks previous. Dixon had reminded Mrs. Margaret that it was high time to seek out a suitable wet nurse. She was aghast to discover that Margaret was determined to nurse her child herself. Dixon shook her head at the thought of a Beresford woman falling to such a low-bred practice, but knew it would be useless to argue against the girl once she was decided.
The expectant young wife fondly passed her hands over her rounded belly. The new expanse of her skin was a source of fascination and wonder every day, even though at times it seemed very much a burden.
She said nothing to Dixon to indicate that this morning might be different from any other, but feared that the twinges she currently felt might increase in strength throughout the day. She was determined not to alarm anyone until she was more certain.
Mrs. Thornton drank her tea at the table with her daughter-in-law and noticed that the girl ate her breakfast more delicately than had been her recent habit. The house was quiet as they removed to the drawing room, where Margaret took up a book while Mrs. Thornton resumed her sewing.
Not an hour had passed when Margaret set her book abruptly to the side and sat stiffly upright. “Mother…” she called out in panic.
Mrs. Thornton raised her head at her daughter-in-law’s cry. At the sight of the girl’s frightened eyes, she put her sewing down. “Margaret…have the pains returned?” she asked.
Margaret nodded meekly, her hands on her belly.
“We must summon the doctor and the midwife. I believe you will have your baby today,” she told the girl gently, giving her a reassuring smile.
Mr. Thornton spoke earnestly with Higgins as the dexterous worker tended a loom in the large weaving shed. The Master twisted his head to follow his friend’s sudden distracted gaze and spotted his house servant timorously looking about in the unfamiliar clamor of the factory. His face went ashen, surmising immediately what Jane was about, and bolted toward the girl without a parting word to his employee.
Nicholas smiled understandingly at his friend’s conduct and prayed that all would be well at the Thornton house this momentous day.
Mr. Thornton bounded up the stairs two at a time to reach the door of his wife’s bedchamber. “Margaret, may I come in?” he asked as he knocked, his stomach roiling in desperation to see her before she was swept into the care of the coming attendants.
His mother opened the door, her doubtful gaze assessing her son’s temperament. “She’s undressing, John, in preparation for the birth,” the steadfast matriarch announced to dissuade him.
“May I see her just this once?” he begged with as much patience and calm as he could muster.
His mother relented wordlessly and opened the door further to allow him in.
Margaret stood in the middle of the room in her undergarments, her face blanched in stupefaction at the enormity of what lay ahead.
Dixon gave a disapproving glance at the Master as she made her way to the wardrobe with her mistress’s gown.
“Margaret!” he exclaimed as he rushed to her side. Taking her hands in his, he brought them to his lips, unwilling to relinquish his contact with her. “Are you well?” he asked, not knowing what to say.
“All is well at the moment,” she replied honestly, a glimmer of a smile breaking through her nervousness.
His every nerve tingled with longing to take her into his arms and protect her from any difficult experience, but he knew his love could not save her from the event that must take place. “What can I do?” he whispered helplessly, knowing that he would soon be whisked from the room as custom and propriety demanded.
“Pray that the birth will be swift and that all will be well. I am certain all will be well, John,” she amended as she noted the fear that flashed in his eyes. “We will rejoice together before long,” she assured him.
Oblivious to all women but the one in front of him, he gently held Margaret’s chin with a curved finger and stroked it with his thumb, staring in wonder at her strong resolve. He bent to kiss her lips tenderly, savoring the touch with an aching heart. He pulled away reluctantly and they gazed at each other without a word until Hannah called her son’s name impatiently, and he turned to leave.
“John!” Margaret called him back to her. She pulled out a handkerchief from her camisole and held it out to him, her eyes communicating with his.
He took the small token from her gently and held it firmly in his grasp. Then, studying her face one last time, he turned and left the room.
Mr. Thornton stood at the drawing room window, staring at the large, wet snowflakes that serenely floated past his view. The sight stilled him, giving him momentary reprieve from the unbearable restlessness that had carried him to the window.
He watched the snow collect on the ground, slowly covering everything in a blanket of white. He gazed upward to follow the smoke that bellowed from the mill’s chimney and disappeared into grayness. Below, a few carts were loaded and unloaded in the yard. The calm normalcy of the scene seemed to mock his agitation. Today his world would change, but the tide of nature and mankind continued unchanged.
He would become a father this day! For months, he had imagined the joys and cares that would come with fatherhood. He was excited and apprehensive to consider that what had once seemed a dream-like concept would soon be a reality. A powerful and tender love swept through him as he envisioned his wife holding their babe in her arms.
Turning abruptly from the window, he glanced toward the stairway before he began to pace the length of the room. He pulled out his pocket watch to check the time, as he had done so many times before. It had been nearly four hours now since he had left Margaret in her room, and over an hour ago that his mother had come to tell him that all seemed well.
He did not know how much longer he could endure the torture of waiting in ignorance. His uselessness was palpable as he strode aimlessly from fireplace to window and back again. If only he could assist in some tangible way, he would be free of this wretched idleness! He wondered if she might need his comfort, if the pain would overwhelm her.
He longed for a surcease from the turmoil of his thoughts, a palliative to put his mind at ease. Fear poised like a viper, ready to strike at his first move toward the dire thoughts that threatened to undo him. He remembered with disturbing clarity the unworldly screams of a neighbor in labor one dark summer night when his family had lived in rented rooms. The memory of that nightmarish evening, when he had only bravely begun his venture as the head of the family, caused him to shudder.
His nerves tensed and he stopped in his tracks to listen for any discerning sound. The silence of the house exacerbated his anxiety, for he half expected to hear screams pierce the quiet from the floor above.
Gripping the mantelpiece for support, Mr. Thornton hung his head and leaned heavily as he struggled to gain dominion over the fears that began to take hold of him. He could not bear to think of Margaret in pain, and gulped to regain his composure which he felt was crumbling. Surely the silence was a good omen, he told himself. She was strong and could bear this experience, he endeavored to reassure himself, remembering something of what his mother had said earlier.
Lifting his head again, he saw the handkerchief Margaret had given him still held tightly within his grasp. This small token calmed him, and he walked over to the window to see it in brighter light.
Mr. Thornton examined the finely stitched initials and the yellow rose embroidered on the fabric. He smiled at the ‘T’ emblazoned next to the ‘M’. The girl from Helstone had taken his name. His thumb brushed gently over the yellow flower – a symbol of the innocence and beauty which was ever his Margaret.
If he should lose her… He froze in terror at the thought, his hand shaking tremulously as he brought the handkerchief to his face. No! He would not allow himself to be shaken with unreasonable fear. He must trust that all would be well. Had she not promised that they would rejoice together today?
He lifted his chin in determined resolve. He would hold on to her words. He had no other choice.
Margaret held fast to the bed post as another strong urge to push overcame her; her eyes were wide with amazement at the power of the contractions.
Dixon attempted once more to coax Margaret to lie down as a lady ought, fretting at the indecorous position her mistress had taken when the pains had grown stronger.
Margaret ignored the plea, focused only on gaining some relief from the heavy weight bearing down on her. She had raised herself to her knees, unable to remain prone upon the bed as she had been bidden. She wore a long chemise that covered her properly, even as she clung unladylike to the wooden column of her four poster bed.
“I’m certain there can be no harm in allowing gravity to assist her,” Mrs. McKnight, the midwife, calmly stated to assuage Dixon and Hannah Thornton’s evident dismay. Dr. Donaldson quietly nodded his head in agreement.
As the strong sensations eased slightly, Margaret found the coherency to speak. “John! Where is John?” she asked, desperate to feel his reassuring strength. Discomfited looks passed between Hannah and the doctor at the girl’s outcry.
“It’s all right, Margaret. John is downstairs, as is proper. I will call him here as soon as the baby is born,” Mrs. Thornton promised, endeavoring to placate the girl.
“Please call him now,” she entreated, the strength of her determination evident in her voice.
Mrs. Thornton’s mouth hung open in flustered alarm and she exchanged a horrified glance with Dixon. “Surely it is not necessary…” the stalwart matriarch began.
“Please, or I shall call out for him myself!” Margaret interjected with panic, her warning delivered with clear resolve.
Hannah blanched, mortified at the thought of her son being summoned in such a way. With great trepidation, she turned to do as she was bidden.
“Perhaps it will comfort the girl. It is not entirely unheard of,” Mrs. McKnight murmured to Mrs. Thornton as she walked to the door to fetch her son.
Mr. Thornton walked swiftly toward the stairs at the sound of descending footsteps and met his mother’s unsmiling gaze with an expectant stare.
“She’s asked for you, John,” his mother relayed evenly with solemn tones.
An exultant joy swept through him to hear that she wanted him. But as he bounded past his mother up the stairs, a frisson of fear tingled his spine. What had impelled her to call for him, he wondered? Instantly, he thrust aside any clamoring fears to steel himself for whatever scene he would face. He must be the strength she would need.
His hand hesitated on the doorknob for the briefest moment, his heart pounding, before he swung wide the door. All eyes watched the Master as he strode with purpose to his wife’s side, his expression one of tender compassion.
Still kneeling on the bed, Margaret released her grip on the bedpost to take hold of her husband’s hands. She grasped him tightly and leaned her weight on him as she looked to him with hopeful trust. Their eyes communicated all that needed to be said.
Mr. Thornton staunchly held her up, relieved to be of assistance at last although inwardly he quaked to see his wife so shaken.
“Oh!” Margaret let out a gasp as her body once again commanded every muscle towards its final purpose. Unprepared for her sudden reaction, Mr. Thornton fairly staggered at the strength with which she held on to him.
The next few minutes went by in a haze of noise and confusion, as Mr. Thornton focused solely on holding his wife while the doctor and midwife spoke soothingly to Margaret as she panted and uttered short groans in her travail.
Although it seemed a small eternity to the strained father and mother-to-be, it was not long before Margaret made a final cry of exertion and relaxed her hold on her husband. The midwife exclaimed with joy and in the next moment the sound of a brand new voice permeated the air – the healthy cries of the infant lifting the heavy atmosphere to one of joyous vibrancy.
“It’s a girl,” Mrs. Mc Knight announced.
Their child was born! In dazed confusion, Mr. Thornton watched the unfolding activity around him as a distant observer. The writhing infant was spirited away to be examined and bathed by the doctor and his assistant, while Dixon and his mother carefully helped Margaret lie down against the pillows. All the while, the cries of his newborn child filled his ears with stupefying wonder.
Tears streamed down Dixon’s face. The girl that she had tended since birth now had a babe of her own.
No one saw the proud new grandmother dab her wrist at her eyes as she witnessed her son’s child kick and boldly announce her entry into the world.
Dr. Donaldson walked over to the Master with a broad grin as he wiped his hands on a cloth. He offered his hand to the new father, breaking the man’s reverie. “Congratulations. Mr. Thornton, you are the father of a healthy young daughter,” he confirmed as the men shook hands.
“Thank you,” the flustered Master replied, his face breaking into a wide smile as the heady realization began to settle in his mind – he was a father now!
Mrs. McKnight carried the tiny bundle to his wife and helped Margaret settle the babe at her breast. John stared transfixed at the sight, unable to move or speak. Everything he had once dreamed to be impossible was now his – the girl he had thought would never love him had borne him a daughter. Was it possible to receive a more profound blessing than this?
“What is her name?” the midwife gently asked the new mother.
“Sophie…Sophie Maria,” Margaret answered with a smile, her voice proudly triumphant despite a trace of weakness. She looked up to her husband to share in her joy.
Mr. Thornton beamed with happiness, and gazed at his wife with tenderness and pride.
“What a lovely name,” Mrs. Mc Knight responded as Hannah and John shared knowing looks.
When the babe had suckled, Hannah brought her sleeping granddaughter to her son and laid him gently in his tentative arms. She smiled fondly at his awkwardness in his new role. “There is still a matter which needs tending to,” she informed him. “Why don’t you take the baby to your room for a while? I will call you when all is through,” she directed him, nudging him in the right direction with a nod of her head.
The snow still gently fell outside, covering everything in white and dispersing the winter’s gray. Reflected brightness streamed into the windows, as if the heavens themselves sent their blessings to this very place.
Mr. Thornton stood still near the foot of the bed, gently holding his new daughter. He looked up for a moment to survey his surroundings.
The silence of the room echoed its sacredness, for here was the place where their lives had co-mingled most tangibly and where their love was spent freely. It was this love that had brought new life into the world in the form of the precious child that lay in his arms.
His eyes welled with tears as he studied the tiny infant with reverent fascination. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Marveling at the perfect shape of her tiny nose, a wavering smile formed on his lips as he noted with affection how she resembled her mother.
He had kept his preference a secret; he had not told a single soul that he had hoped for a daughter. He was certain a son would be born to him soon enough, but ever since it had been revealed that a child was growing in his wife’s womb, he had dreamed of sheltering a daughter. In watching her grow, he imagined he would glimpse the joyful sweetness and innocent exuberance that must have been Margaret’s as a young girl.
He bestowed his first kiss on her forehead and let his lips linger to feel the velvet skin under his soft press. He lifted his head slowly to study her again, amazed that she was finally here.
After some time, his mother entered the room from the connecting door. He turned unabashed to acknowledge her, his glistening blue eyes communicating his awe as he held out the babe in his arms.
Her heart melted to see him thus. “She is beautiful, John,” she said, joining him in gazing at the exquisite perfection of the tiny pink face that peeped from the swaddling flannel. She noted with pride the trace of dark hair on the babe’s forehead.
“You will be a good father,” she told him, moving her gaze to meet his eyes.
“Thank you,” he whispered, unable to find a stronger voice.
“Margaret is an extraordinary young woman. She will make a fine mother,” she remarked with rare praise.
He nodded his agreement, grateful for his mother’s confident assessment.
“Come now, and see your wife,” she beckoned him with an affectionate smile.
Dixon swept the babe to the nursery to allow Margaret to rest, and before Mr. Thornton crossed the room, Dr. Donaldson asked to speak privately with him for a moment.
Just outside the door in the hallway, the doctor informed Mr. Thornton that all had gone very well. “Not every woman is so fortunate. Your wife has a very strong constitution. I expect you will have many more children,” he remarked candidly, making the Master nod with a flushed smile. “Now, she will need to rest for several days and take care that she does not unduly exert herself in the first few weeks; and, as I tell all my new fathers, it is best to refrain from marital relations for at least a month to allow healing,” he solemnly advised.
“Of course,” Mr. Thornton quickly agreed with a creased brow, averting his eyes a moment before meeting the doctor’s gaze with a serious expression. He would need to be patient in reclaiming his wife’s attentions.
Dr. Donaldson offered his congratulations one more time and shook hands with the Master before taking his leave.
All was quiet when Mr. Thornton returned to the room where his wife lay resting with her eyes closed. The recent excitement and activity of the past hour was replaced with a peaceful stillness. Her eyes fluttered open as he gently sat on the bed next to her, and reached out to tenderly caress her cheek, nestling his fingers into her hair.
She turned her face into his hand and kissed his palm, and he rewarded her gesture with a soft kiss on her forehead.
“I find it difficult to believe that women are the weaker sex,” he remarked only half in jest as he pulled back to gaze at her with loving admiration.
Margaret smiled at his observation. “We learn to endure much,” she offered gently.
He took her hand and she happily twined her fingers with his. “You were incredible,” he praised.
“You are now a father,” she announced with joy in an endeavor to deflect attention from herself.
“And you a mother,” he countered with a warm smile. “Are you happy?” he asked, his blue eyes piercing her for her honest answer.
“I am tired, but very content,” she replied with an effusive smile. “She is so beautiful, is she not?” she asked of their new daughter.
“She is,” he agreed. “Very beautiful,” he uttered in a reverent whisper as he bent to kiss his wife’s forehead again.
“You are happy,” she pronounced with tentative certainty, her eyes hopeful as she sought the answer in his eyes.
“I am the happiest husband and father in Milton,” he declared with absolute surety and felt her squeeze his hand tightly in response. “I should let you rest,” he decided, although he made no move to leave.
“Will you stay with me a little longer?” she gently pleaded, enjoying his loving attentions.
“As you desire,” he replied with a broad smile. He stood up, spontaneously deciding to join her in the bed. He hadn’t realized until that moment how weary he felt now that the battle with tension and terror was over. He took off his stockings and shoes and climbed into the bed next to her, taking her hand in his again and bringing it to his lips. They both fell soundly asleep.
Paperback novel and e-book available at Amazon.com