So, a couple of notes about this story/chapter. For one, I know that Mother's Day didn't become a custom until the early 20th century, but I ask that you indulge me here while I bend the historical dates a bit. Also, this story does contain a few modern elements, (although it's still authentic in both its facts and language), but again, let's just roll with it, as I have chosen to blend the traditional with the contemporary here, highlighting that the bond between parents and children is something which transcends time.

Secondly, PLEASE NOTE: For anyone currently reading, "A Mother's Final Gift," then this story does contain spoilers for chapters not yet posted.

On this special day during a complex and chaotic time internationally, I would like to dedicate this story of happiness and togetherness to all the mothers around the world, past, present and future. But I would like to dedicate this in particular to…

Mothers who have lost their children; children who have lost their mothers; those who have strained relationships with their mother or children; those who have elected not to conform to social expectations and have chosen not to be mothers; those who long to be mothers, but have sadly not, (yet), been blessed; and those who are separated from their families on this day due to the pandemic. I send my socially distanced hugs to you all.

A Mother's Love Is True Love

A mother's love is a wonderful love packaged from heaven with special care.

A mother's love is like no other love that you can compare.

A mother's love is purified by angels and flows directly from her soul.

A mother's love is justified by God, and by his hands he created the mould.

This mould that was shaped and fashioned by God has endured the test of time.

This mould that was taped and recorded by women rang out like a heavenly chime.

A mother's love is unconditional, and from her heart this can be told.

A mother's love is nutritional; it is the fruit that feeds our soul.

A mother's love 'IS' true love, and from her heart she cannot lie.

A mother's love is eternal, the kind that won't ever die.

A mother's love is the tie that binds, and her bond can never be broken.

A mother's love is branded in our hearts, even when her words aren't spoken.

Leotha Brown


From The Thornton Tales


Margaret's eyes fluttered open.

She blinked as a shaft of gilded sunshine shyly peered at her through a gap in the curtains and pleasantly kissed her face with its warm lips.


Margaret sighed dreamily.

She was being awoken by a pool of bright sunlight, the sovereign star spreading its arms cloaked in fine robes spun with threads of golden rays. It winked and waved at her, beckoning Margaret to bask in the endless delights that were born in the genesis of this fresh morn.

Margaret smiled privately to herself.

With her eyelashes still flickering in sleepy wake, Margaret moved her hand to the other side of the bed, her fingers sneaking away from her, checking for a dip in the mattress, for a bundle of bed covers, for an increase in heat. With her lithe fingers strained and spread, Margaret held her breath in suspense, every fibre of her being on tenterhooks. She turned her head to the other side of the bed, hoping to see…no, he was not there.

Margaret nodded peacefully.

Never mind.

She was not alarmed, or insulted, or saddened, she had no reason to be.

John was often not there when Margaret woke first thing, given that he rose at ludicrous hours in order to attend to matters at the mill, his punctilious schedule unrelenting, his list of undertakings and responsibilities never ending. Then again, it was not only the requirements of commerce and the law which made demands on her husband's time and kept him occupied from dawn until dusk. Indeed, for it did not help that the man himself was of an innately industrious temperament, his head constantly bursting at the seams with plans and projects which he felt restlessly obliged to complete to the highest and timeliest of standards. To be sure, for while some men gained their energy from worldly refreshments such as rest or food, John Thornton received his nourishment from the spiritual spring of hard and honest work. This shaped the humility of his character, stimulating his integrity, vitality, and his sense of self-respect, each finely tuned quality allowing him to sleep soundly at night.

All of this meant that from the moment John opened his eyes, he would instantly fling off his sheets, roll out of bed, splash his face with water, haul on his starched clothes, and march out of the door, ready to face the fresh possibilities and challenges of the uncharted day with motivated anticipation. Of course, one could not forget that nowadays, there may have been one or two, (or three or four), additional responsibilities which competed for the master's attention. Nevertheless, it was undeniable that these small, yet significant cares were a most welcome distraction for the Master of Marlborough Mills, something, (or perhaps better described as someone), that made him want to hurry home every day, his mind missing them, his arms aching for them, his heart overflowing with love for them.

However, this entrenched and intuitive morning ritual of productivity described above could not be counted as complete, since John would never quit his chamber before he had guardedly leaned over the bed and lowered himself to leave a fond kiss of farewell on his wife's slumbering cheek. Gazing at her in worship, John found that his instincts tugged him between a selfless need to let her sleep, and a selfish want to wake her up, so that he might relish her company, bask in the beauty of her smile, and savour the sweetness of her pleas for him to delay and stay just a little longer. He could never resist such an alluring entreaty, and it often caused the master to be terribly late for work as he eagerly clambered back into their marital bed, a decision that was always well and truly rewarded. Of course, there were the refreshingly rare instances when John would wake to find his wife also stirring, and on those delectable occasions, he would grin broadly from cheek to cheek, shuffle closer, draw her into his tender embrace, and no amount of bartering, bribing, or bullying, could drag the Master of Marlborough Mills from this intimate cocoon of cosy kisses and caresses.

Nevertheless, as she glanced at his empty side of the bed on this particular March morn, Margaret was far from surprised to find it vacant, for she knew what the darling man would be doing.

She giggled.

Oh, John!

Her dear, dear John.

How she loved him!

Margaret yawned and stretched, her legs extending far down the bed and her arms reaching high above her head. She wiggled her toes and fingers, grateful for the space to elongate her aching limbs, her muscles and joints moaning as she disturbed them, groaning into alertness. As she did this, Margaret felt a stirring in her abdomen. Peering down, she surveyed the swell of her stomach, a mound which was rising gradually every day, growing at a healthy and heartening rate.

Rubbing at her stomach and feeling the tight skin that taughtened the surface, she patted it gently. 'Well, good morning you,' she murmured. 'Tell me, little one, do you know what today is?'

The baby did not answer, not with a spin, nor a kick, nor a punch, not even a nudge, so the mother relaxed back against the soothing padding of her goose-feather pillows and let the angel be, since they were surely still fast asleep, and she would not disturb her darling dove, not for all the tea in China.

This baby would be Margaret and John's eighth child, her sixth pregnancy in ten years. As Margaret placed her splayed hands on her tummy, little did she know that this baby really would forever be her baby, because due to a complication during labour, this would be their last child. But do not be disheartened, dear reader, no, be of good cheer, for both baby and mother would not only survive the ordeal, but would also thrive. To be sure, John and Margaret had loved, did love, and would love, each and every one of their treasured Thorntons with a fierce and faithful devotion, simply grateful to God that he had granted them such a wholesome family to be born from their blissful union, the branches of their family tree stretching tall and proud, reaching far and wide.

It was at that moment, as Margaret lolled back against her cushions and wondered what adventures the day would bring, that she heard a muffled melody drifting towards her from along the passageway. Turning to the door, she listened to an amusing medley of jumbled sounds, a blended symphony which consisted of various clashing components. It included: the pitter-patter of bare feet, hushed whisperings, high-pitched giggles, petulant whimpers, grouchy tickings-off, and a pinch of pushing and shoving thrown into the bargain for good measure.

'Shh!' came the throaty growl of a man, his rich voice subdued in a rumbling murmur. 'Mind she might still be sleepin','

Margaret smirked.

'Here they come,' she whispered, bracing herself for what was to come, an inevitable onslaught of affection.

Gazing at the slit in the door that sat slightly ajar, Margaret spied a gathering of eyes peeking and peeping at her, gawking as if she were some fascinating spectacle in Manchester Zoo. Margaret simpered. What a bunch! Lifting her hand, she winkled her fingers in greeting, alerting the goggling spectators to the fact that she was well and truly awake, ready to receive visitors.

Oh, my! ─ that did it!

Next thing Margaret knew, the door flew open with a forceful swing, and it crashed against the wall, the poor framework suffering a terribly unfair clout, which split the plaster, the cracks establishing an indecorous labyrinth of crevasses. This rowdy clamour was quickly followed by a riot of running feet, which all rushed towards the bed as if in a race, each spirited and sprinting participant determined to win first prize. In a series of impressive leaps and bounds, seven pairs of scrawny arms and legs jumped on Margaret and wrapped or weaved themselves around her in impetuous how-do-you-do.

'Hey-hey-hey!' John's baritone tenor boomed from behind them, the helpless man unable to drag the unruly pack of affable yet utterly wild animals off of his wife, since he was currently preoccupied in carefully carrying in a tray which he set down on a nearby bureau. 'What did I tell you, hmm? Be careful!' he reprimanded. 'You don't want to go hurting your mama or your baby brother or sister,' he rebuked, although, if Margaret looked closely, she could detect the tell-tale signs of a humorous grin curling the corners of his seemingly stern lips.

Darling John! He liked to play the overbearing father, the grumpy bear, but really, inside, he was just their gentle giant, a man who was a strong yet equally sensitive head of their little, (although ever-increasing), family. Indeed, he was a man and a master who, without fail, embodied and exemplified fairness, faithfulness, fortitude, and an unwavering representation of fatherliness in his every look, his every touch, his every word, and his every deed. Without a doubt, John Thornton had come to personify the divine devotion of one who is both a partner and a parent, a dual role and responsibility which he had treated with an unswerving constancy since the day Margaret had married him….and, in many ways, even since the day she had met him.

Margaret hauled herself up into a more comfortable sitting position, her gaze scanning the sea of smiling faces that encircled her, fourteen eyes which watched her intently. All of her little ones were here. Maria, aged nine, was lugging one of the youngest twins in her arms, Frederick, who was now one year old. The infant sucked his soggy thumb, and with a spare hand, idly looped one of his sister's chestnut locks around his fingers as he stared at his mother with drowsy eyes, piercing spheres that were exact replicas of John's cobalt orbs.

Maria herself was growing up into a fine young woman, her features matching that of her mother's, with the same russet hair, dainty nose, high and mighty chin, and effortlessly regal poise. The girl was of a polite, studious nature, always a credit to her parents with her impeccable manners and graceful refinements. However, her inherent sense of courtesy and modesty did not render her dull, for the girl's wits were as sharp as flints, awarding her with an astute aptitude for learning and a sense of right and wrong which was grounded in a resolutely compassionate conscience. What was more, much like her mother, while Maria may have been as virtuous as an angel most of the time, when she took it upon herself to throw a hissy-fit, the Thornton men soon learnt that hell hath no fury like a Hale woman in a huff.

Richard, who was the spitting image of his father, now eight years old, leaned against the bedpost, striking a remarkably roguish figure with his rumpled shirt and ruffled black mane. Margaret always comically considered that her eldest son would make a rather dashing and daring sort of highwayman or pirate, but alas, John did not concur that such unlawful, (not to mention volatile), professions were fitting for a son of a magistrate. Richard was currently mimicking that idiosyncratic habit that John often unconsciously employed, with his head slanted forwards, his eyes narrowed broodingly, and his lips sealed in a thin line, the rigidity of it affecting his jaw to stiffen and flex of its own accord. The whole guise gave the boy a wolfish presence, and some might think him terribly formidable, frightening even, if they did not know him better, and were not acquainted with the thoughtful soul which shyly resided beneath that reserved veneer. Goodness! When Margaret looked at Ricky, she often wondered if she was gazing at an otherworldly vision of John from the past. It made her question if her dear boy had actually inherited any of her looks at all, (his nature most decidedly like hers), but as Richard crooked his chiselled jaw to the side, an image of Margaret's own father fleetingly flashed into her mind, so there must have been a Hale strand or two hidden deep within the lad's blood and bones.

Daniel, his unidentical twin, was carrying Fred's twin, Hannie, who was currently straddling her brother in an undignified piggyback, her ankles kicking at his flanks, ordering her horsey to giddy-up! John had recently been riding, and had taken her for the first time, the child guardedly held in his secure arms. While her father had cautiously trotted, he had chuckled at her shrill giggles, not to mention the sulky way in which she had sobbed when John, at last, after indulging her enthusiasm for several hours, had been obliged to take Hannie down from her new-found throne. Needless to say, the toddler had found the novel experience thrilling, and now horses were all she could gibber on about, never missing a chance to try and spring onto her brothers' backs, her officious spirit breaking the wild stallions in.

Danny was fairly different to his twin, because while the pair were as close as crooks when it came to their shenanigans, the younger of the set had taken after Margaret's side of the family in both his appearance and attitudes. With his sandy-blonde mop of hair and cloudy eyes, he was an imitation of his Uncle Frederick, the lad also assuming his relation's rash and fervent personality, meaning that he was more obstinate and outspoken than his restrained and reflective brother, always willing to stand up for himself and others when he believed that a grave, (or even trivial), injustice had been committed. In fact, Margaret often supposed that if there were ever to be a mutiny in the Thornton household, then Danny would undoubtedly be the unequivocal ringleader behind the coup d'état.

That left just two. Nicholas, now five, was criss-crossing between his father's lofty legs, the timid lad being of a dependent disposition, always keen to stay close at hand. Elizabeth, who was three, an inquisitive child, was kneeling on the bed, her eyes swooping up and down Margaret with unblinking alertness, ever intrigued by her mother's bulging belly.

Well, dear reader, you may be forgiven if you feel overwhelmed and befuddled by such a lengthy list of names, but I assure you that you are not alone, for John and Margaret themselves found the task of keeping track of seven Thorntons to be a full-time occupation, one which tested their patience, their guile, and even their sanity morning, noon, and night. But alas, it was a charge which they accepted with wholehearted gladness.

So, to line them up in our minds…with Maria, Richard, Daniel, Nicholas, Elizabeth, Frederick, and Hannie, all watching her, patiently waiting for her to induce and incite their show of love, an overflowing need that itched in their dear little hearts, Margaret broadly opened her arms in affectionate welcome. 'Come here, my angels,' she invited, and hooted as they all collectively climbed and crawled onto, and in some cases, into, the bed, snuggling close into her maternal embrace.

'Happy Mother's Day!' they all cheered in chorus.

'Why thank you,' she clucked, letting her figure relax into the assortment of cosy bodies that clung to hers.

It was incredible, because no matter how tired or tender she felt during her pregnancies, Margaret always found that she could draw such astonishing strength and succour from her children, who through their kind-hearted care, reminded her for whom she endured the pains and perils of confinement and labour. In truth, at times like this, she trusted that in the end, when she held the new life, the new love in her arms, with its wide, sleepy yawns, soft, warm skin, and the way its tiny, wrinkly fingers curled around hers in a way that was unconditional in its unquestioning affection, then Margaret would appreciate that it had all been worth it.

'We─we─we has presents for you, Mama!' Lizzie stuttered impatiently, wriggling about like a worm on a line, the prospect of giving a gift leaving her tongue-tied. Sweet Lizzie, she was always more delighted to give than to receive, her mother's daughter to be sure.

Margaret gasped in astonishment. 'Presents?' she echoed. 'For me?' she asked, laying a hand over her heart, her wedded rings glinting in the sunlight which now spilled across the room, bathing it in a pool of pale gold. 'How exciting! May I see?'

All at once, the children hollered their support for this plan in raucous unison, with their heads bobbling up and down so vigorously that it was a wonder they did not topple off their perches. With loud barks and bellows that grappled for attention, they each began rudely talking over each other, every child shouting, snipping, or snapping crossly, so that they might be the first to bestow their gift upon their mother.

'Oye!' John hollered over the top of the hubbub, his deafening roar instantly silencing them all. 'All right, all right, what a racket!' he complained, rubbing at his brow wearily. 'One at a time, if you don't mind. How about we start with the eldest and work our way down?' John advocated, keen to implement methodical practices in both his public and private spheres. Although, listening carefully, his children could always detect when his uncompromising tone implied that the master would not sanction any arguments, and today was one of those days.

'That sounds sensible to me…and will keep me sane,' he muttered. 'Maria, love, you go first,' he instructed, picking up Fred, who immediately hurtled his head into his father's sturdy chest and concealed it there, the skittish lad startled by all the hullabaloo.

Maria smiled, her nose crinkling in that adorable way it did. Delicately rising from her chair, she stood up straight, her shoulders rolled back, her head held high, her slender swan-like neck sloped in stately gracefulness. After she had unhurriedly smoothed down the skirts of her lilac dress and rearranged the twisting ringlets of her tresses, she pulled out a piece of paper from her pocket. Clearing her throat with a dainty cough, and with the imprint of her mother's southern inflection intermingling with her lyrical pronunciation, she read with loud and clear oration:

"The heart of a home is a mother,

Whose love is warm and true,

And home has always been "sweet home,"

With a wonderful mother like you!

I said a Mother's Day prayer for you,

to thank the Lord above,

for blessing me with a lifetime,

filled with your tenderhearted love.

I thanked God for the caring,

you've shown me through the years,

for the closeness we've enjoyed,

in time of laughter and of tears.

And so, I thank you from the heart,

for all you've done for me,

and I bless the Lord for giving me thee,

the best mother there could ever be!"

As their daughter recited her poem, John and Margaret shared a paternal glance, one which spoke of the abundance of appreciation they felt for their baby chicks. These saplings of their seed and womb never ceased to amaze them with their acumen, empathy, humility, and captivating personalities as they grew to become astonishingly interesting and independent young people with every passing day.

'That was lovely, poppet,' Margaret lauded, wiping away a stray tear that moistened her lashes. 'Did you write that yourself?'

The girl nodded bashfully, her ears turning pink at the tips.

'Oh!' Margaret cooed. 'Well done, my clever one!' she acclaimed.

'Aye, well done, pet,' John added, his heart puffing out with pride for his eldest daughter, the apple of his eye.

John revered and respected all of his children with an even equality of adoration, but there was no denying that he shared a distinctive bond with Maria, for while they were first and foremost father and daughter, they were also firm friends. When she had been a new-born, the master had been known to place Maria in her hamper and carry her across the mill yard so that she could doze beside his office hearth while her mother benefitted from a brief period of respite. The mill hands would all stop and stare as the man who had once-upon-a-time been so severe as he stalked across his property, now simply strolled with a satisfied smile, striding past them peaceably with a basket and a babe in arms. As the months rolled on, John had discovered with delight that the child would soon wake from her slumber, and sitting up, she would watch him working away at his desk, the sweet thing babbling away as she teethed and tried to totter about.

From then on, John's firstborn had become his constant companion, the pair spending many a contented hour together in sociable silence. With their noses constantly buried in books, they would employ their time by organising mill documents, reading newspapers and journals, or discussing philosophy and politics, her shrewd faculties a testament to the Thornton blood that ran through her veins. In Maria, John was gifted with a steadfast assistant and confidant, one who knew how to put up with is many menacing moods, and in turn, she was rewarded with a figure who championed her inquisitive and independent spirit. Indeed, as a father, John would feel the bittersweet conflict in his paternal breast when one day, ten years from now, he would have to let her go, so that his little girl could spread her wings and fly the nest, quitting her beloved Marlborough Mills so that she might dwell in her own husband's heart and home.

Turning their attention to their next litter of pups, Richard and Daniel stood tall and straight like sentinel soldiers on parade. The boys had been a spirited handful when they were small, always up to tricks and plotting pranks of the most rascally tomfoolery, and sometimes, they still were, the two of them as thick as thieves. Nonetheless, it had been their grandmother who had contrived the idea that the devilish duo should strive to master a musical instrument. She insisted that idle hands led people into all sorts of mischief, hence why she believed that it was imperative that young girls should commence with their needlework instruction from an early age. She contended that this not only kept them occupied, but that at the same time, their minds would be improved by the establishment and exercise of focus, attention to detail, dedication to one's endeavours, and a sense of satisfaction in personal accomplishment.

Therefore, sticking to this assiduous point of view, Hannah had recommended that the boys pursue and persist in a pastime that would absorb their interest and divert their excessive and seemingly endless reserves of energy. Consequently, after considerable consultation, in which their father tried to dissuade them from taking a fancy to anything too strident or grating, they had decided that they both wished to attempt the violin, and now, two years later, they were rather skilful young players, with a natural talent for composing.

Pushing themselves away from the wall, the twins renounced their slouched stances, erecting their towering Thornton frames to their full and impressive heights. Margaret's neck was forced to angle backwards, just so that she could watch them properly, dumbfounded that they were both nearly as tall as her already. It would not be long before she found it difficult to discipline them, what with her own sons, not even adolescents yet, looming over her like a set of gangly goliaths.

Collecting up their instruments, they each raised their chins in that haughty way that always reminded John of his magnificent wife, a charming comparison which enticed a private smirk to tug at his lips. Resting the exquisitely crafted wooden violins on their shoulders, they hoisted their bows, and after a fleeting nod of coordinated agreement passing between the brothers, they began their performance.

The room listened in raptured silence as the boys deftly moved their nimble fingers back and forth, side to side, up and down, the long bows sliding along the strings and tickling them with precision, so that they hummed ethereally, the fiddles bringing into being the enchanting spell of sweet song.

After a while, in harmonious accord, their hands stilled, and a hauntingly bewitching note lingered in the air, continuing to hold its soulful vibration for as long as it could, unwilling to evaporate and fade away. Eventually, when all went quiet, the room erupted into a round of applause.

'Bravo! Bravo!' Margaret hailed. 'Was that not good? Weren't your brothers marvellous?' she encouraged, looking around at the rest of her children, who each nodded, their hands stinging with the enthusiasm of their clapping. Margaret knew that traditional Milton mentalities bred progenies who were competitive and clutching in their pursuit of accomplishment and achievement, this energetic drive an intrinsic part of their industrious heritage and hearts. However, even although Margaret had always considered it important that her little ones be brought up as true Milton men and women, in her benevolence, she also wished to instil in them a willingness to recognise and respect the triumphs of their fellow brethren. For indeed, anyone may feel sympathy and offer support for a friend in their failure, but it takes great generosity and gallantry of character to cheer on a friend in their success.

'That was very good indeed, boys,' John complimented, kneading them both on the shoulder affectionately. To be sure, on many an evening while John sat late in his study sifting through tedious piles of ledgers and letters, he would intentionally leave the door agape, just so that he might hear the lads practising, and every high and low note of their efforts, every squeak, every scrape, every decibel of their playing made his soul sing. It may not have been flawless, but to John, it was the sound of perfection, often leaving him wondering whether that was how his own late father had felt about Fanny's, (much more irksome), piano playing.

The boys bowed in unison.

Margaret then whipped her head round as she felt something tug at the sleeve of her nightdress, her glossy hair fanning out as it whirled. As she looked down, she gazed into a pair of big treacle-brown eyes which regarded her raptly.

With a row of crooked milky-white teeth, Nikko grinned. 'My turn, Ma!' he announced proudly.

Thrusting out a piece of paper, Nikko showed her a picture that he had drawn. With a collection of squiggly sticks that each bore wafer-thin twigs of arms and legs, frizzy hair, spike-like noses, and cheerful smiles, she counted one, two, three…nine people. A mother, (with a rather excessively and unattractively round belly), a father, and seven children.

'Is this us?' she asked him, holding it high so that she could present it to his siblings.

The boy nodded, delighted that his mother had correctly interpreted his illustration after just one deduction. Nikko had been miffed to show his elder brothers the sketch earlier, each of them screwing up their faces, turning the parchment in rotation, and making a series of ill-educated guesses as to what this fine example of impressionist artwork depicted.

'Look, Meg,' John pointed out, 'I'm taller than the house,' he chuckled good-naturedly, noting the way his son had drawn him looming over the top of the mill, the tip of his head skimming a jolly looking jamboree of fluffy pink and purple shaded clouds speckled with green dots.

'You're big, Papa,' Nikko reminded him giddily, his neck craned so that he could gaze up at his father. He then stretched out his arms, so that John might lift him high into the sky, a request that he could never seem to refuse. Bending down and ignoring his creaking back, John picked up his son and hoisted him onto his robust shoulders, so that he near enough hit the roof.

'You're right about that, son,' he laughed, revelling in the way his boy sniggered and seized big fistfuls of John's dark hair in his surprisingly powerful grasp as a precautionary measure, lest he fall. For all his teasing, John adored his children's creative experiments, and he felt certain that this particular masterpiece would make it into a select collection that he kept in his mill office, an anthology that he would turn to whenever he felt overwhelmed by the burdens of trade, a reminder of why he toiled, and, more importantly, for whom.

John then leaned forward and pretended to drop Nicholas, who toppled off his shoulders with an ear-splitting squeal, but John soon caught him before he hit the ground, this rough-and-tumble example of horseplay a well-practised routine. Holding the lad upside down by his ankles, John tickled the boy mercilessly behind his knees before tossing him onto the bed.

'Now then, let's see what Lizzie has brought you,' John suggested, keen to move things along, so that the family might still have time to make it to church without being sinfully late ─ yet again! It had only been last week that the drove of tardy Thorntons had made a sly bid to sneak into the church and slide unnoticed into the back pews. But unfortunately, such wily ways were not to be, for Hannie, (who insisted on walking independently, despite her lack of skill or stability), had tripped and toppled into Maria, who had stumbled into Danny, who had inevitably blamed Richard, and Lord knows the blasphemous bickering that it had caused in his holy house. To be sure, all the heads of Milton had swivelled round to scrutinise the Thorntons with thinly veiled scorn, and all John and Margaret had been able to do was mumble their apologies and pray that God chose here and now to conduct his long-awaited rapture. Really! – it was as if none of them had children of their own.

Picking up the tray that he had warily carried in earlier, John positioned it with painstaking care across Margaret's middle, vigilant that the weight did not press down on his wife or his unborn babe. Removing a hefty silver lid, he revealed a plate of mouth-watering food. There were crumpets, figs, pancakes, eggs, toasted marmalade fingers, bacon, omelette ─ all her favourites – a real feast!

'Oh, my goodness!' Margaret lauded, very nearly drooling at the sight of such a spread. 'What is all this? This is enough to feed an entire army…you must help me eat it,' she offered, discerning the way that the youngest twins licked their lips and crept forward with greedy, bulging eyes like bugs. On heeding her invitation, they both snatched out their hands and filched a scrumptious crumpet, great globules of melted butter dripping down their chins.

'I think we shall need to increase Cook's wages,' John smirked, taking a handkerchief out of his breast pocket to clean up their lard-covered mouths, the infants squirming and scowling in complaint as he hindered their chewing.

Margaret wrinkled her nose as she lifted a china cup to her mouth, the porcelain decorated in a whirl of gold and silver swirls, a genteel set which Fanny had given them for their fifth wedding anniversary. Needless to say, it was their finest china, and Mrs Watson only sanctioned its use on the most prestigious of occasions, today most likely not meeting her strict stipulations.

'Why?' Margaret enquired, taking a sip of the piquant Indian tea, the tart taste tantalising her tastebuds and slipping down her throat, warming her through and through. This baby had a real partiality for all things spicy, so John had instructed the kitchen to order in as many delicacies from abroad as possible, their table laden with exotic treats. 'What have we done to offend Mrs Patmore now?'

'Well, let's just say that our Lizzie did not leave the kitchen in the typically spick and span state that Mrs P is used to,' he explained, giving his little girl a knowing wink, the child giggling in response. 'By the end of it, I think the poor woman was tearing out her already thinning hair.'

John was merely joking, since he knew that despite her griping, Mrs Patmore relished it when the children rambled down to the kitchen to keep her company, something which happened more often than one might think, given her fondness for handing out freshly baked biscuits, fluffy wafers that tasted like droplets of Heaven that crumbled in the mouth. At any rate, the chirpy cook had been more than delighted to have a sous-chef to assist her in preparing this all-important breakfast this morning, even if half the contents had mysteriously ended up caked on the ceiling.

'Oh, dearie-me!' Margaret tittered, reshuffling her daughter's blonde curls so that they did not cover her dazzling eyes. 'Well, so long as my Lizzie-Lu enjoyed herself,' she decreed, rubbing her nose against the child's, a petite one that was just like her mother's. 'I shall go and thank Mrs Patmore later for her patience and beg her forgiveness,' she promised, letting out a sigh of satisfaction as she popped a kipper glazed in apricot chutney into her mouth, a peculiar craving that Margaret always experienced during her pregnancies. It was this very hankering that had alerted Dixon to Margaret's first pregnancy many moons ago, the servant trying her best to convince the young lady that she was indeed with child, even if she had only been married for a few short weeks.

Finally, the youngest two, Freddie and Hannie, impatiently scrambled up the bed and with John sitting beside them, he whispered into their ears with a conspiratorial titter: 'Now then, do you remember what you have for your mama?'

Their heads bobbed up and down.

'Good,' he granted. Then, giving them a helping hand, the three of them placed their palms on their lips and blew her big, slobbery kisses, the wetness of their mouths making noisy sucking sounds.

'Kisses, Mama, kisses!' they screeched gleefully.

'Oh!' Margaret applauded. 'How lovely! You know mama loves kisses!' she cheered, pulling them close and peppering their faces with her own soft smooches.

Gazing around at her brood, Margaret felt tears of joy prick behind her glassy eyes. 'Thank you, my darling doves, thank you! How lovely! How perfect!' she snivelled. 'You are all so generous, so thoughtful.'

'We have something else,' Maria reminded her family. Reaching behind her back, she pulled out a garlanded wreath of flowers fashioned into a crown. Margaret gasped. It was beautiful, with its vivid spray of red, blue, orange and pink floras, some lean, some short, some plump, some tall, each braided in a joyous botanical coronet of colour. What a sight it was!

'My-my-my!' Margaret blew, her breath sending out a burst of cold air that unsettled Hannie's sweeping fringe. 'What a garden of blossoms! Where did you get these?'

'We went for a walk yesterday with grandmother,' Ricky explained, tucking all the buds into their proper place, taking after his father in his need to have everything neat and orderly. 'It was her idea. She knows how well you like flowers and asked us to bring them back in baskets so that she might show us how to make you a diadem. She thought they would make you smile, especially since you cannot leave the house as much now that you are faaatt ─ having a baby,' he swiftly amended, cursing himself for his tactless carelessness.

Margaret did smile. Dear Hannah! ─ how thoughtful she could be. Sometimes, when Margaret's mind wandered to days gone by, she found herself quietly mourning the loss of her own beloved parents. She often wished her mother could have lived long enough to see even one of her grandchildren, to hold her namesake, Maria, in her arms. But sadly, it was not to be. However, during these times when a wave of sentimental sorrow flooded and dampened her spirits, Margaret was grateful to have the steadfast friendship of her mother-in-law, a woman who provided such stoic strength and stability in their household. Margaret often thought that one day, when they were all long gone, Hannah in her durability would still be here, watching over Marlborough Mills and keeping everyone and everything in Milton shipshape.

Danny, who had been carnivorously chewing a strip of bacon, retrieved the laurel from his sister, and came to stand before his mother. Stooping flamboyantly in formal obeisance, he declared with a rich voice that was twanged with his northern accent: 'Here ye! Here ye! I crown thee: Margaret Thornton, Queen of the world!' he pronounced sensationally, laying the crown delicately upon her head with ceremonial theatricality.

They all exploded into a howl of hearty laughter. 'The world?' Margaret repeated. 'Goodness! That sounds terribly grand, and like a tiresome amount of work when I already have my hands full managing all of you,' she joshed, giving her husband a sassy simper, implying that she included him in this. But far from being offended by her light-hearted witticism, the master of the house merely grinned in return, his brow creasing and his cheeks dimpling. 'May I not be queen of somewhere smaller?' Margaret requested, not keen to relinquish her distinguished title altogether.

The children scratched their heads as they hummed and hawed.

'The Moon!' Lizzie exclaimed.

'Hmm, I am glad to learn that you know that the Moon is smaller than the Earth, my duck, but I fear that it is a bit far to travel to and from every day,' John estimated glibly. 'I hear the train timetables leave much to be desired,' he chortled.

'And cotton does not grow on the Moon,' Margaret remarked, trying to keep a straight face. 'So, what would your father do with himself all day? After all, all play and no work makes John a dull boy….and a grumpy one.'

'Excellent point!' John concurred sagely. 'Your mother will not want me under her feet while she is trying to rule her kingdom! I need somewhere to keep me out of mischief.'

'What about England?' Nicholas suggested.

John winced. 'Careful there!' he cautioned, an exaggerated grimace etching his face. 'That's treason. We already have a queen, mind. She might not take too kindly to your mama stealing her throne, even if she is majestic enough for it,' he jested, pinching a stray sausage from Margaret's tray before the gluttonous gannets that were his children gobbled the lot.

Then, sitting down on the bed and staring into his wife's eyes, John modestly proposed, his voice husky with adoration: 'How about the Queen of Marlborough Mills?'

Margaret gazed back at her husband with starry eyes brimming with fondness.

'Tell me, Margaret Thornton,' he began, so quietly that only she could hear. 'Will you be my queen?' he asked, taking her hand and kissing it like a prince kissing a princess in a fairy-tale, reminding her that from the day they had first met, the lovesick fool in him had become, and still remained, her humble and obedient servant.

Their infatuated eyes remained locked on one another.

John continued to hold Margaret's hand securely in his, and together, they were transported back to that night when they had first clasped hands at the dinner party, each reluctant to release their intertwined fingers and end the thrilling touch that tantalised their nerves and scorched the very skin of their palms, branding them forever with the memory of that sacred moment. Now, ten years later, they never needed to let each other go again, and never would. John could still not believe that Margaret, Miss Hale, was his bride, his treasure, his salvation. But here she was, sitting before him in his dressing gown, in his bed, surrounded by his children, her belly full with his babe. It was a miracle, and John thanked God every day for his mercy in allowing him to steal Margaret out of Heaven, and for granting him permission to make this angel his earthly wife.

With their children watching, Mr and Mrs Thornton sat in silence for several heartbeats, their souls conveying a thousand precious and private truths that not even I can hope to penetrate and pronounce.

Their hypnotic trance was finally broken by Fred, who whilst practising his wobbly walking on the mattress, found himself crashing into John's arms. But the couple did not mind the interruption, for as much as they relished their rare spells of exclusive intimacy, they were always overjoyed to include their children in their utopia, the evidence and expression of their everlasting love.

'Well, come on then, Pa!' Danny piped up, slapping his old man on the back. 'What did you get Ma?' he pestered.

All at once, seven heads spun round simultaneously to scrutinise John, their eyes wide as they waited and wondered, each guessing as to what offering the mill master had brought his queen.

But instead of smiling, John frowned. With slumped shoulders, he let out a heavy sigh. Rubbing sheepishly at his neck, he reluctantly admitted: 'I…I didn't get you anything, Meg…I…I am sorry, love.'

'Da!' Nikko shouted, covering his eyes in dismay.

'Pa!' Ricky blustered; his eyebrows knitted in derision.

'You forgot?! Maria scolded, shaking her head, her brunette curls bouncing.

'No!' John protested with a splutter. 'I've been occupied with affairs at the mill and the court! And,' he affixed pointedly, 'I have been a bit busy with rounding you impertinent lot up,' he objected, trying to defend himself, his hands reaching out to them in a petition of pardon.

Margaret sprang into action. 'Come now!' she urged. 'You are being terribly uncharitable and extremely unfair! Your father showers me with love, loyalty, and laughter every single day, and that is everything I could ever wish for,' she championed, a tender hand caressing his unshaven jaw. 'Besides,' she simpered, 'he has already given me the most precious present of all,' she added knowingly.

The children cocked their heads and stared at her with a look of sheer bewilderment. Looking around inquisitively, they each twisted and twirled in dizzy circles, hunting for what she meant.

'What?! Lizzie demanded to know, the suspense too much for her. 'What Dada get Mama?'

Margaret threw her head back and laughed gaily. 'Why, all of you,' she clarified, her hand circling to gesture to them all. 'And this little one,' she tallied, jiggling her stomach. 'Eight treasured Thornton pups.'

All the children let out a loud snort or sneer, their eyes rolling in mockery. 'Oh, Ma!' they baulked, each thinking that their mother had lost her marbles, for they would all much rather have sweeties or toys opposed to a boring old baby.

John smiled, one of his small, sweet, smouldering smiles, and he leaned in to place a soft kiss on his wife's honeyed lips, their fusion deliciously unhurried, the marriage of their mouths communicating all of the steadfast love they felt for each other, even after all these years.

'YUCK!' came a chorus of disgusted and disgruntled voices, the children all scrunching and screwing up their faces, so that they might be spared such a hideous sight as their parents engaging in such a nauseating display of affection.

'Watch it!' John warned, tracing his nose along Margaret's velvety cheek. 'One day you'll be doing the same with your husbands and wives,' he foretold.

'Never!' Richard dissented, affronted that his father should spout such an outrageous and stomach-churning prophecy, not knowing that out of all the Thornton children, he would be the first to walk down the aisle, (most willingly, one might add).

'Aww - gad!' Danny protested, turning an amusing shade of green. 'I think I might be sick!'

'Ugh!' the smallest twins spat out, their tongues dangling like a dog's, neither of them even remotely aware of what they were supposed to find revolting, simply enjoying being part of the high jinks.

Maria was the only one who did not recoil in exaggerated repulsion, for as she observed her parents, the pair still lost in their own world, all she could feel was hope in her young heart that she would one day meet a man who looked at her the way her father looked at her mother. Perhaps then, if she were lucky, she and her husband would know even a fraction of the happiness that John and Margaret Thornton enjoyed every day of their well-matched marriage. To be sure, such a rare and rewarding connection and contentment was not something to retreat from, but something to aspire to.

At that moment, the family were interrupted by the door creaking open. Filling the gap with her generous frame, Dixon materialised, her presence a humdrum reminder that it was time for the merriment to conclude so that they might all get a move on.

'Come on then, my cheeky cherubs, let's get you all washed and dressed for church!' she called blithely, nodding her head to her mistress in greeting. With her apron strapped tightly around her portly waist, she brandished a scrubbing brush in one hand and a tablet of soap in the other, a clear and ominous sign that she meant business. When Dixon appeared like this, her face flushed with determination, it was an indication that the matronly maid would brook no whiff of insurrection, (or whiff of smelliness), from her grubby charges, as she dragged them kicking and screaming into their foamy, copper-plated tubs.

'Oh! What?! No! Do we have to?' they each carped and complained, never keen to fall foul to one of Dixon's fastidious grooming sessions.

The problem was that for reasons unknown, the Thornton tykes had a somewhat impressive proclivity for transforming themselves from spotless children who shined like a new penny, into slimy and sooty tearaways that looked like they had never been introduced to a bath in their life. An exasperated Dixon had no idea how the children did it, but after an hour of playing outdoors, the troop somehow managed to traipse back into the house with their sullied clothes, stained cheeks, and shoes that trampled mud all over the rugs. However, when Sunday arrived, the Lord's holy day, the servant could not countenance a pack of scruffy rascals parading through the church like a bunch of street urchins, or worse, vagabonds! So, every Sabbath, it was Dixon's mission that by hook or by crook, she would scour, polish, and rinse those mucky mischief-makers until they gleamed like proper ladies and gentlemen.

'Yes, you do,' Margaret reminded them, a mock quality of high-handedness to her tone. 'Off you go now, my loves, I will see you later,' she promised, gently shooing them off the bed like a cluster of lazy cats. 'Remember, be good to Dixon, or else she might wash between your toes!' she cautioned, knowing that the children could not abide such merciless tickling, their sniggering screams and shrieks always resounding throughout the whole house from top to bottom, laughter filling the air.

John and Margaret grinned affectionately as they watched their children make to leave. With noisy groans and grunts, and irritable glares and grimaces, the party staggered to their feet and trudged out of the room in an orderly procession, with the miserable manner of those being sentenced to a stint in gaol.

After the final child had petulantly departed, Dixon smiled at the couple and thoughtfully closed the door behind her, understanding that the master and mistress might appreciate a quiet moment alone together, knowing all too well that such seclusion and silence was a sacred scarcity in a house teeming with Thornton scallywags.

Once they heard her footsteps plod along the corridor, Margaret turned to her husband with earnest unease.

'John, darling,' she started, resting a hand on his chest, his heartbeat drumming through his shirt.

'You do not need to be sorry that you have no gift. Do not be silly!' she mollified, desperate to appease his guilt, for she could not bear it when her sweet husband was so downcast with unjustified shame, his sensitive nature meaning that he took even the smallest perceived failure to heart. 'You give me so much as it is, so I do not need more, nor do I deserve it,' she soothed, stroking his stubbled jaw, the scratchy feeling of his whiskers grazing her skin and causing her heart to flutter.

John did not respond at first, but merely delicately took a hold of her wrist and began to pepper a trail of moist kisses along the edge of Margaret's hand.

Margaret's pulse raced.

Looking up at her with eyes glinting in puckish impishness, he offered her a charmingly roguish grin, one which unravelled her senses, abandoning her to his mercy.

Margaret's breath hitched.

'Now then, wife,' John started, his tone low and rumbling with mischief. 'Do you really think that I would have neglected to get my darling girl something on her special day?' he asked, his thumb skimming down the length of her neck.

Margaret's eyes widened as she took in his playful smirk.

'John Thornton!' she breathed, her lips curling with delight. 'What have you done?'

Yes, I know it is a bit sad about Margaret not being able to have any more children, but I needed a way for them to still be a young(ish) couple and to not have to go on to have a ridiculous number of children forever and ever. But we shall cover that in another story down the line.

The poem that Maria reads is anonymous in its authorship, so I sadly can't give credit to the writer.

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