The rest of the day passed as a blur, and after a night spent alone in his bed, Mr. Thornton felt less than energetic as he rose to dress for work the following morning. When he sat in his office chair later holding his quill, he found that he had lost his purpose. He had no desire or interest to work.
Higgins passed the open door and stopped to retrace his steps at the sight of the Master. “Am I to offer you congratulations?” he asked with a cheery grin as he stood in the doorway.
The Master’s face illuminated at his friend’s words. “I am the father of a daughter,” he announced with pride.
“Aye! Congratulations, Thornton!” he said as he stepped forward to shake his friend’s hand. “She’ll steal your heart, and you’ll not get it back,” he warned with a knowing smile.
Mr. Thornton let out a breathy laugh and nodded his head.
“How’s Margaret?” Higgins asked more seriously.
“She’s doing well. She’s resting,” the new father answered.
Higgins studied his friend’s stooped posture and slightly tousled hair. “Looks like you could use a little rest yourself. Why don’t you go back to your wife and child? The mill can manage a day or two without you,” he encouraged the Master with fond respect.
Mr. Thornton gazed at his employee with some surprise. He had never even considered taking a day off, so ingrained was his daily habit. “I believe I will,” he answered, giving his friend a grateful smile.
Higgins turned to leave.
“Higgins,” the Master called out to stay him a moment more. “Tell the men there will be cake and ale to celebrate. The lunch hour can be extended today,” he happily pronounced with a beaming face.
Nicholas gave an approving nod with a twitch of a smile.
Mr. Thornton was already out the door and crossing the mill yard when a hearty cheer erupted from the workers at Higgins’ announcement. The Master’s friend could not suppress the grin that pulled at his face. He felt a fatherly pride to share in the Thorntons’ happiness for their recent blessings and good fortune. No other master in town would receive such good wishes from his workers. But then, no other mill owner reached the stature and decency of the Master at Marlborough Mills.
In the days that followed, Mr. Thornton felt his home life was turned upside down. Retiring early, his wife slept in her room while Dixon dozed on a cot nearby. Dixon brought the baby to the mistress for feedings and took the babe away to the nursery for the latter part of each night to give the new mother peaceful rest.
Although he knew the arrangement was meant to be convenient for the nursing mother as well as to give him undisturbed sleep, Mr. Thornton missed the comfort of his wife’s presence at night. Restless and lonely, he slept fitfully, and woke often to the sound his daughter’s cries, lying awake afterward as he tried to imagine the scene that lay just beyond the wall of his room.
One evening, Mr. Thornton woke to the cries of his child and lay with his eyes open as the babe continued to cry between a few short lulls of silence. When he could take no more, he threw back his covers and pulled on his trousers to see if he could be of assistance.
Dixon looked surprised as the disheveled Master suddenly entered the room without announcement. Margaret looked pleadingly at her husband. Holding the wailing infant in her arms, she appeared on the verge of tears. “She will not stop crying. We have tried everything,” she quavered in desperation.
Mr. Thornton reached forth to take the babe, and his wife willingly handed her bundle to him. He walked slowly about the room, softly crooning his own crafted lullaby to the child as he rocked her in his arms. In moments, the babe was asleep, and he returned the tiny bundle to his wife.
Both women stared at him in astonishment.
“Should she not know her own father’s voice?” he queried with a smile.
Margaret handed the baby to Dixon, who carefully carried the infant to the nursery for the remainder of the evening.
Reluctant to leave, Mr. Thornton remained standing in the middle of the room. “Will you join me in the other room? I have been rather lonely of late,” he humbly confessed with a look of longing.
“I’ve missed you, too,” she answered with a warming smile as she stepped forward to wrap her arms about him.
Mr. Thornton woke the next morning feeling much refreshed. He knew the reason why. A delicate hand loosely clutched at his arm and long auburn tresses nestled against his shoulder. He carefully turned onto his side to watch his wife as she slept. Unable to resist the urge to touch her, he gently brushed her cheek with the back of his fingers before stretching forward to place a light kiss on her forehead.
Margaret gently stirred, and her eyes fluttered open. She stared at her husband for a moment before sitting up with a start. “The baby! Dixon will be bringing her…” she began, flustered at the thought of Dixon’s confusion at her absence.
“She will find you. It’s quite all right,” her husband soothed, sitting up and gently stroking her arm. No sooner had he spoken than a knock was heard at the dressing room door and Margaret beckoned Dixon to enter.
The stout maid gave a disgruntled sigh and wary glance at the Master, whom she was sure had persuaded Margaret to abandon her own bed. She reluctantly handed her mistress the wakeful babe, discomfited at the thought that Margaret would be exposing herself to her husband’s curious gaze by remaining in his bed. She shook her head in helpless resignation as she left the room. There was no use arguing the point with such a strong-willed girl.
“Thank you for helping last night,” Margaret said as she prepared to nurse their child. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you. Perhaps I should move to the nursery.”
“No, I prefer you to be closer. In fact, I rather hoped you could return to this bed – with me,” he confided haltingly, the hopefulness in his voice warming her heart.
“But you need your sleep,” she countered, wanting to know if he was certain of his choice.
“To tell the truth, I have not slept well these last few days. I am awake at our daughter’s every cry, regardless of the wall between us. I see no reason why you should remain apart. Perhaps I could be of assistance,” he suggested.
“If you wish it,” she replied with a searching gaze.
“I do,” he answered with conviction as a warm smile spread over his face.
On the first morning of spring, faint sunshine spilled into the grand bedchamber. Mr. Thornton awoke with a feeling of calm contentment. His wife lay facing him with their babe snuggled between them. He gently stroked his daughter’s tiny head and traced his fingers along her small arm. Then, he reached to lay his arm over his wife’s waist as she slept. He could not help but smile. His world was awash in the glow of love, permeating everything he did with a deep-settled purpose. Not so very long ago, he could not have imagined that such happiness could be possible for one such as he. Gazing with wonder at the beautiful features of his wife’s sleeping face, he thanked the heavens for the thousandth time for having sent the girl from the Hampshire countryside to Milton.
To be continued….
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