HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA?

PART 2 OF 2

From The Thornton Tales

While John stood on the steps of his mill office, his ears pricked as he listened to the sound which was being carried down to him by a gust of wind, the strident decibel whipping up around him and whistling in his ears, so abrasively that the master feared the drums hidden within might burst and bleed away until he could hear no more.

With his heart breaking into a thousand pieces in response to the noise which now drowned out the harried hubbub of machines, carts, horses, and chattering which usually filled his mill yard, John's head swivelled round and his neck creaked so that he could look up towards his house, and there, drifting through an open window, was the shrill pitch of a baby crying, the sound of which caused a spasm of distress to ache in his masculine breast. Recoiling in reflexive anguish, he listened to the disconcerting din that wafted towards him in the blustery northern breeze. It was an unbearable symphony of blubs and bleats, screams which were punctuated with the resonance of congested sobs as the wean fought to draw breath, a dreadful choking yowl being the end and most upsetting result.

John gripped onto the frame of his door to try and steady himself, because even although he may have been as strong as an ox in body, his power of physique was no match for the hefty burden which weighed down heavily on his heart at the sound of a baby crying in such sorrow, most especially when that baby was his.

Before he even had time to think rationally, the primal part of John which was instinctively paternal, had impulsively abandoned his office, the man tripping down the steps and racing across the yard towards the house. In his state of alarm, John's anxieties had rendered him a tad tetchy, so when he discerned the sea of snooping eyes which followed his every agitated step, his temper, (something which was already wearing thin), snapped in two like a twig. On spotting the way his workers loitered like idle loafs and tracked him with nosy inquisitiveness, the master halted, veered round, stood tall and intimidating, and then snarled at them with bared teeth like a savage wolf, almost as if he were an alpha protecting his den from the unwanted attention of a pack of hyaenas who were all giggling away at his expense.

'Have none of you got any work to be gettin' on with?' barked the incensed bulldog. 'Because I can easily give you more!' John challenged as he hauled himself to his full and formidable height before glowering at them furiously from his stance halfway up the steps of his house, the elevated position giving him the aura of God himself looking down and chastening his people with self-righteous anger.

As quick as a flash, they all startled and quaked in their boots, each man, woman and child scurrying off like mice to promptly attend to their tasks, leaving John free to put aside his part of the overbearing master, the man choosing instead to take up the much more meaningful role and responsibility of a supportive spouse and devoted father.

Once inside, John nearly had to cover his own ears as the jarring screech of the babe's howling was enough to leave any innocent bystander with a splitting headache, his unfairly-put-upon servants all probably hiding in the refuge of the kitchen below until the clamour finally ceased. John grumbled, since it was more than likely that he would have to increase their wages to induce them to stay, his mother always saying how difficult it was to find good help these days. Nonetheless, John was not deterred, and rushing up the stairs, his long legs quickly took him to his bedroom at the end of the upper hallway, where throwing open the door, John paused in his hurrying as he witnessed a most sorry sight indeed.

Standing squarely in the middle of the framed doorway, John watched as Margaret, dressed in no more than her nightdress, her feet bare, her hair a tangle of untidy curls, and her face blanched with fretfulness, paced back and forth across the room, trying her very best to soothe the weeping baby girl who she held in her arms, their Maria.

'Shhh!' she calmed. 'Please do not cry, darling, please,' she lulled with a pitiful appeal, her voice cracking and giving it a childlike quality all of its own. 'Mama's here, I'm right here, it is alright, my love, it is alright,' Margaret mollified, lifting the baby higher and trying to bounce and swing her at the same time, the woman trying every trick of the trade she could think of to stop the devastating and deafening crying which had been going on for what felt like days.

However, it made not a smidgen of a difference, since the child only continued to wail with as much puff as her little lungs could manage, and John felt his soul twist in torment as he detected the combination of worry and weariness in his wife's countenance, his lioness of a woman clearly at her wits end as she tried with all her maternal might to pacify her cub.

John was about to say something, but then all of a sudden, after spying a movement in the reflective glass of the window, Margaret whirled round towards him at a speed which was quite remarkable, her feet pirouetting as she twirled on the spot, those pithy and graceless years of ballet dancing with Edith finally paying off. As she did this, Margaret jumped slightly in fright, and as she clung the baby tighter to her chest, she took in the unexpected sight of her husband gawking at her like she was some sort of spectacle in the zoo, something which only served to fuel the dander of the already exasperated mother.

With a pale face, snivelling nose, and puffy eyes, Margaret added to her unhappy appearance by frowning. Then with a somewhat accusatory tone, she demanded to know: 'What are you doing here?' Looking him up and down suspiciously as she rocked the baby from side-to-side, Margaret glared at her husband, the one who had put her in this position in the first place with his amorous attentions. 'You are not supposed to be here,' she alleged, her teeth clicking in that way they did when she was cross. 'You should go.'

Taken aback by Margaret's brusque and biting manner, John quelled the urge to respond with a correspondingly vindictive retort, a tremor of resentment boiling and blistering away inside him at being spoken down to and dismissed as if he were some sort of bothersome prop who had no use or purpose here. He was about to remind her that this was his house, and he could come and go when he damned well pleased, but thinking better of it, John bit down on his cantankerous tongue, for he knew that Margaret was not really displeased with him, but just oh-so-very tired, the woman spent after three joyous, yet equally arduous weeks of motherhood.

Clearing his throat, John did his best to dispel any notes of negativity which might upset his wife further, since the husband had recently learnt that without even trying, with no more than a single word, his tenor apparently possessed the tactless talent of conveying some rather insensitive sentiments. This included concerns that Margaret was struggling, criticisms of her parenting abilities, and comments about her tousled appearance, all unsympathetic condemnations that he had never even been thinking in the first place, proving that a new mother's ears were more finely tuned to insult than any other instrument in the world.

'I came to see you and Maria,' he said with as much circumspect sensitivity as he could. 'I heard…,' John trailed off, but he then shook his head lamely, because there was no hiding the truth in this instance. 'I heard her crying from my office,' he admitted, since there was no doubt that the whole of Milton had picked up the racket that was taking place at Marlborough Mills, the town most likely both incensed and impressed that one tiny person had the lung capacity to produce such a ruckus.

As her eyes widened in embarrassment, Margaret spun her head sharply towards the window, and with her bottom lip wobbling, she plodded right on over and closed it with a firm slam, mortified to think that the whole mill had been listening to her shortcomings and knew what an incompetent mother she was to the master's child.

'Oh,' she nipped glumly, trying to regain her composure, her shoulders rolled back and her head held high in stately dignity, even if the rest of her appearance gave her discomfiture away as Margaret stood there in a state of scruffy shambles. 'Well, you did not need to come to our relief, we are just fine, John, just fine, and I do not need your help,' she insisted, raising her chin into the air in officious defiance, and in turn, John could not help but smirk to himself to see that even in the midst of the stress she was enduring, (most heroically, he might add), his magnificent Margaret could still find it in her to be as stubborn as a mule and as imperial as a damn queen.

John decided to take a risk, and with one bold move, he took a step closer into the fractious fray that was the nursery. 'I can see that, love,' he said tenderly, for it was true, because even although Margaret was terribly hard on herself, always putting herself down as a new mother, John knew that she was doing splendidly, and he could not be more proud of her if he tried. She was marvellous with their baby, and there was no reservation in his mind that Margaret was the most caring and competent mother that had ever graced God's good earth. But still, John did wish that Margaret would admit that sometimes, just sometimes mind, she needed just a little bit of help.

'Where are my mother and Dixon?' John asked, trying to sound offhand in his query.

'Oh, they are gone!' Margaret grumbled, waving a hand off into the distance as if to imply that they had done a flit and were now far, far away, never to be seen again. Placing Maria over her shoulder while she patted the baby's back, the child hiccuping amidst a series of hysterical sobs, Margaret rubbed at her own jaded eyes which were encircled by splodges of darkened skin. 'They have fled, so it would seem. They have both had enough of me and have escaped, even going so far as to take a walk – together!' she laughed sarcastically, a meanness which did not become her.

'Can you imagine it, John, hmm? Your mother and my maid actually choosing to spend time together and go for a leisurely stroll? I must really have driven them mad,' she joked, although, if John listened carefully, he could discern a hint of hurt in Margaret's speech, her voice waning from exhaustion, the constant insecurity of her self-conscious self-deprecation weighing her down.

John and Margaret did not have a wet-nurse or a nursery maid, (much to Fanny's horror), since the couple had agreed that they would much rather be the ones to look after their child, and they would both feel ill at ease handing her over to somebody else. Therefore, for the past three weeks, Margaret had been with Maria most of the time, but every now and again, she was fortunate enough to have the support of Hannah or Dixon, the two matrons setting their differences aside so that they might assist the new parents, and what was even more important, so that they might fuss over the little one, the two older ladies captivated by her and simply delighted to have a baby in the house.

John was silent for an interval while he waited for Margaret's latest strop to subside and a subsequent wave of calm to wash over her, the man fighting every urge in his body to march across the room there and then and envelope his wife and babe in his arms, holding them both close in a comforting embrace.

'Meg,' he began softly, 'darlin', please let me help,' he solicited. 'Just tell me what you need me to do and I will do it,' he vowed.

Margaret turned to face her husband, and far from scoffing at him in irritation as she sometimes did these days, John's heart broke to observed the look of shame and sadness which spread across her sweet face, and as her long eyelashes blinked rapidly, he saw a stream of tears begin to roll down her cheeks.

That did it!

In an instant, John's self-restraint shattered, and unable to stand back any longer and let his wife push him away in the name of self-preservation, he rapidly made his way across the room and wrapped his arms around the two of them in one swift and strong movement. Pulling his wife close, and wary not to crush the bundle which she clasped over her shoulder, John peppered the top of her head with kisses, and then propped Margaret up against his chest, her slight frame sagging against his solid one in a fit of fatigue which she no longer had the oomph to fight.

'Now, now, my love, none of that,' he begged, his baritone timbre thick with tension, because John could not stand it when either of his precious girls wept so much as a single tear. 'I can't have you both crying, Meg, because that is too much for any one man to endure,' he said in half-truth, half jest, his tone playful in the hopes of coaxing Margaret out of her melancholy.

'Oh, John!' Margaret sobbed against his chest, her free hand clenching a fistful of his now soaked shirt and balling it between her fingers. 'I am sorry. I am so sorry that I am so useless! What must you think of me?!' she sniffed in humiliation. 'I am pathetic!'

John's fingers tightened on Margaret's back as her unforgiving slanders assaulted his ears. 'Hush now!' John asserted, his low pitch insistent, for he was having none of this, because he could not stomach hearing the mother of his child judging and degrading herself in such a merciless way. 'What nonsense you talk, wife, what utter rot,' he contended. 'I thought you had more sense in that clever head of yours, Mrs Thornton.'

Crooking his finger below her chin, John raised it so that Margaret was looking up at him, and with her eyes blurred, her cheeks flushed, and her hair in such a matted disarray that it looked as if a flock of birds had nested there, he thought that she had never looked so incredibly lovely. It was true, Margaret was so disarmingly beautiful, and even although John would never wish her to be sad, there was still something endearingly symbolic and saintly about seeing her not as a proud and poised woman, but as a raw and real one, his goddess who was not afraid to be herself with her mortal husband and let him share in her joys and woes. It was the naked intimacy that they shared in moments such as this which made John appreciate just how much he loved Margaret, a richness of respect and reverence that overflowed from his soul, his heart hardly able to contain such an abundance of pure adulation.

Placing one hand on her cheek and the other on Maria's head, John deposited an adoring kiss on each, his wet lips anointing the two of them with his loyalty and love. 'Margaret, we have been through all of this before, have we not, snuffles?' he appeased, intentionally using her pet name so that he might entice a smile out of her, a ruse which thankfully worked, a row of pearly white teeth peeking out as Margaret's previously tapered lips parted and curved into a grin.

Then, with his head inclining towards the posy of baby's breath sitting beside the nursery bed, a private reminder between the new parents that no matter what doubts they confronted in their new and unfamiliar role, they would always face them together as one, John kissed the tip of Margaret's nose, and it wrinkled in that way it always did, one of the many traits about his wife which John found more enchanting than she would ever know.

Rubbing soothing circles on her back, John thought carefully about what he should say next, knowing that one false blunder would be the ruin of him. 'Sweetheart, you are a wonderful mother,' he started slowly, determined that she would heed the sincerity of his words. 'I know that. My mother knows that. Dixon knows that. And Maria knows that. It is just you who does not, and such a despairing thought breaks my heart, Margaret, you have no idea how much,' he admitted regrettably. 'I want to help, I do, since this little one is as much mine as she is yours,' John reminded her fondly, still unable to believe that out of all the men that she could have chosen to gift her heart and hand to, Margaret had elected for some mysterious reason to join with him and to inevitably conceive, carry and care for his babe.

'We are lucky, you and I, given that many a man toils far away from his home, but you can see my office right from the nursery window,' he enlightened, gently tugging her arm and drawing Margaret across the room so that she might stand by it and see for herself. Of course, both husband and wife realised that she already knew this, given that Margaret frequently hovered there and watched as her husband went about his business, her spirits soaring to see her handsome man working away, her John being a true master among men. It was a sacred ritual between the two of them to catch each other's eye, then momentarily stop and smile, showing one another that while one might be busy working away in a mercantile sphere, the other in a domestic one, they were still working side-by-side to create their happy life together. Yes, Margaret already knew all of this, but it was still nice to be reminded all the same.

'There,' John went on, pointing to his office window, his chair just visible if he ducked his head down to the right. 'I will move my desk around so that I can look up at you, and all you need to do is tap or wave, and I will know that you need me to come home, and I will be here by your side before you know it.'

Margaret lifted a hand so that she might wipe away the tears which stained her cheeks, and after gulping down a ball of pent-up emotion which had become lodged in her throat, she nodded sagely. Yes, it was true, she really did know that John wanted to help, of course she did, for his allegiance to his family was something she had never once questioned, even long before she had loved him, his steadfast resolve in looking after his mother and sister being one of his many honourable virtues which had always stood out to her. What was more, since the moment he had found out that Margaret was with child, John had been a most committed father, his little girl the apple of his eye even before he had met her.

But it was more that she felt terribly guilty, since you see, Margaret knew that being close at hand meant that John had spent so much of his time here with them over the past three weeks, hours which he probably should have been devoting to his work. This was especially true of late, what with the Master of Marlborough Mills finding himself high in demand after being hailed the wonder-boy of cotton, his textiles considered second to none, his skill, veracity, and drive as a businessman giving him an advantage over his rivals, meaning that customers and investors were queuing up to be part of his bourgeoning enterprise.

Indeed, John's triumph was applauded wherever he went, which is why Margaret had begun to feel paranoid that everyone would think her silly and selfish for relying on her husband so habitually, even although Hannah had told her that such a thing was utter poppycock, the lady declaring that she would soon be correcting any insolent gossipmonger who spouted such an unfounded falsehood. Indeed, the new grandmother was simply pleased that her son was taking to fatherhood like a duck to water, thinking that her boy had never seemed so jubilant, the joy of having a baby affecting a permanent smile to cheer up his once solemn face. At the same time, Hannah had been privately praising her daughter-in-law for managing so well in her first weeks of motherhood, even if she were a little drained and irritable at times, something which was only natural after all, given that it was a trial for any woman, and she found herself thankful that John had been rewarded with such a sensible wife as their Margaret.

It was at times like this that Margaret wished her own dear mother was still alive. She would have been so gentle, so patient, and Margaret would have felt no fear of appearing foolish or frail around her, the woman's encouragement being offered alongside her various meek and mild suggestions. But even although her mother was not here in person, Margaret still felt sure she was here in spirit, and that comforted her more than she could say.

All the same, it was because of these feelings of culpability that Margaret felt like she was the one to blame for taking her husband away from his beloved mill, the place which put the spring in his step and the song in his heart, for you see, when the southern lass had married the northern tradesman, she had been under no illusion that she would have to share him with another, and that love was not made of flesh and bone, but bricks, mortar, machines, and a great deal of cotton. Again, Margaret considered that it would have been a completely different kettle of fish if John was coming back to a cheerful and contented house to find some respite from the bothersome demands of trade, but no, since a medley of screaming and sleep deprivation seemed to be the undisputed routine in the Thornton household these days.

'But John, other men are not expected to be home with their wives and children, they are allowed to get on with…,' Margaret creased her brow as she thought on how to put it, 'manly things,' she said with a muddled mien on her face, and John had to stifle back a smirk at her absurd argument.

'Now then, if you think such a thing, wife of mine, then you are not the woman I fell in love with,' he told her decisively. 'Margaret, since when have you or I cared a fig for convention? It is trivial twaddle. I do not give a damn about what other men do, because all I know is that I want to be right here, with you, the two of you, us three Thorntons together. Besides, I cannot think of any more manly matter than a fellow taking responsibility for his family,' John contended as he folded his arms tenaciously, because to his mind, there was no greater definition of a gentleman than a man who provided for and protected those in his care, whether that be his workers, his wife, or his weans.

'I know, John, dearest, but…,' she faltered. 'I just feel as if I have spoiled everything for you. You like everything to be just so. You like routine, you like reliability, and now here I am, and I have rendered all the portions of your once ordered life higgledy-piggledy, so much so that the Master of Marlborough Mills cannot even get five minutes peace without feeling he must return home to rescue me from myself,' Margaret huffed, her nose all snotty as she snivelled.

But John merely kissed the tip of her nose yet again and bumped his against hers like an affectionate tomcat nuzzling its mistress. 'Margaret….I love you,' he said plainly. 'And I love our Maria, you are my girls, my everything, and there is nowhere else I would rather be,' he maintained. 'In fact, while I sat in my office just now, I was thinking on how much I hate spending my days stuck over there when it means that I am missing the chance to be here with the two of you. I am even thinking about moving the contents of my office over to my study here, and then the three of us can sit together while I work, and that way, I am not forced to be separated from the ones I love.'

But as Margaret shook her head, John only felt compelled to continue more vehemently. 'Sweetheart, yes, you have turned my life upside down, and it shall never be the same again, but Lord knows I would not want it to be, and far from resenting you for it, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. What is more, I offer up my gratitude to God every day that he allowed our paths to cross, and that by some strange hand of fate, a boy from the north was allowed to meet a girl from the south, and now, she is my wife, and I could not be happier,' John described, his finger skimming the two circles of their wedding rings which rested next to each other as their hands caressed in the space between them.

Margaret chewed her lip hesitantly, telling John that she was still not convinced, so he made one last attempt to persuade her. 'The mill is thriving, Margaret, all is well, so I have no qualms about being here with the two of you, since what is the point of me working to secure our fortunes if it is not to build a life for my family for whom I now live and breathe?' Then pouting puckishly, he added, 'Please, snuffles, smooch wants to come home.'

At this, Margaret finally smiled, and after a moment, she nodded. 'Very well, John,' she agreed, 'very well.'

Gently prising the baby away from her, she settled Maria in John's arms, his face lighting up as he cradled her, his large body a cosy shelter for one so small. Thankfully, even although the baby was still grumpy, she had managed to calm down just a fraction, the child allowing herself a brief break from her shrieking so that she might regain her strength before starting up all over again in a minute or two. However, all of a sudden, something miraculous happened. As she shifted between one parent to the other, Maria opened her eyes, and as she caught sight of her father peering down at her with awestruck affection, her crying ceased in an instant.

As she parcelled her floret lips and her rosy cheeks dimpled, her parents could have sworn that their baby girl smiled, just for a moment, even if it was perhaps too soon for such things. But then again, Maria was no ordinary baby, no, she was half Thornton, half Hale, and such a combination meant that she was quite extraordinary, and a young lady such as her could surely do whatever she put her little mind to.

'She misses you,' Margaret disclosed, 'she really does. She knows you, John, she knows the smell of you, the sight of you, the sound of you. She knows when she is in your arms, and I think she misses you when you are not here. It seems that she is her father's daughter, and you are as much the apple of her eye as she is yours.' Margaret then let out a merry laugh. 'I think you must have a hold over us Hale women, Mr Thornton, since we cannot help but fall in love with you,' her joke causing her husband to smile smugly, the man thinking that there was no finer knack he would rather boast.

As Margaret watched the way John stared down at his daughter with unveiled adoration, the woman could not help but beam from cheek to cheek, her heart bursting with such immeasurable happiness to see her husband so smitten with his daughter. When Maria had been born, Margaret could confess that she had fretted for a second or two that John might be disappointed, that he might love her less because she was a girl, and somehow he would feel let down by his wife for delivering him a daughter rather than a son, a prize which most men coveted. Deep down, Margaret had known that such anxieties were preposterous, since both she and John had talked of how they would be as equally delighted with their child regardless of its sex, so long as their baby was healthy and happy, and preferably coming out with ten fingers and ten toes.

Still, as a woman, Margaret had found that she had experienced an innate twinge of worry on the matter when the doctor had announced that the first in line to the Thornton throne was in fact a girl, a princess and not a prince. However, Margaret's apprehension had been short-lived, because from the moment John clapped eyes on Maria, it had been love at first sight, and there was no doubt that he was besotted with his babe, and whether it was a girl or a boy was neither here nor there, because John was a father at last, and that meant more to him than anyone would ever know.

As Maria's tiny finger clenched John's in a surprisingly strong grip, (her father's daughter, to be sure), Margaret laughed yet again. 'Perhaps I should be jealous, husband,' she started, feigning concern, this causing John's eyes to dart up and gawp at her questioningly, the devoted husband's brow furrowed in puzzlement. 'It would appear that I now have a rival for your affections,' she quipped, nodding her head to the beautiful girl in his arms to clarify her meaning and alleviate his misgivings. 'It appears that another girl has entirely stolen your heart away, and I fear that I shall never get it back,' she sighed wistfully, an impish gleam to her eyes.

John smiled broadly, the lines of his previously tense temple now creasing in relief. 'Aye, woman, it is true, I will admit that I love many a Thornton lass, one my mother, one my sister, one my daughter. But believe me when I say that there will always be a special place reserved in the most hallowed chamber of my heart for the one who looks after it for me, my wife,' he contended fondly as he reached out a finger to move a stray strand of hair which had fallen over Margaret's eyes, the man tucking it behind her ear and then chuckling as it disobediently fell right back down again, his wife's curls just as wonderfully uncontrollable as her untamed character.

'And I imagine you will be just the same, Meg,' John foretold as he rocked his baby rhythmically, the father having perfected his pace and turning it into a fine art. 'If we ever have a son, I am certain that I will be deposed in your affections the moment you meet him, and you shall soon forget all about me when our lad replaces me as your dear boy,' John guffawed good-naturedly, quoting Margaret's name for him, she being his darling girl in turn. 'Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons,' he expounded, thinking on his unbreakable bond with his own remarkable mother. 'It is the way of things.'

Lowering his head to leave a kiss on his baby's cheek, John smiled and leaned his forehead against his wife's. 'Oh, but it is true! I love her so much, Meg, so darned much that I wonder how my heart manages to cope with this wealth of wholesome love which I never knew I had the ability to feel before I met you.'

John and Margaret lingered there for some time and gazed into each other's eyes, orbs which sparkled with a fierce and faithful love for each other, all the while bright with amazement to think that John Thornton and Margaret Hale had ever managed to find their way into each other's hearts at all, and now, here they stood together, not only man and wife, but father and mother, a real family of three.

'She's hungry,' Margaret tutted after a while, the mother distracted by her baby's fractious gurgling. 'But with all her crying, she could not calm herself long enough to suckle, and try as I might, she just spits it out and continues squawking more frantically than ever,' Margaret explained, motioning to her breasts which were swollen with milk, the material of her nightdress sodden from where she had leaked during her involuntary lactating.

As John peeked furtively at his wife's enlarged breasts, he tried not to dwell on the fact that he considered that anyone who expelled one of those flawlessly shaped mounds of flesh out of their mouths must be mad, the master thinking on how it had been weeks since he had been granted the privilege of wrapping his lips around them. But no, no, this was definitely not the time to be thinking such crude or greedy thoughts, since as much as he missed having exclusive access to his wife's tantalising lumps and bumps, John appreciated that there was somebody far more important than he who had a prior claim to those succulent summits.

Nodding his head perceptively, and with his baby still in his arms, John stretched out a hand and took Margaret's before leading her towards the bed. 'Well then, Mrs Thornton, let's remedy that together,' he suggested encouragingly. 'Let us see if we can convince our Miss Thornton here to have her lunch.'

Margaret giggled as she let her husband drag her across the room, her legs too weary to help him. 'Yes, Mr Thornton, I think that sounds like a splendid idea.'

Sitting down, John sat up straight against the bed-frame, and after moving his legs apart, he carefully helped his wife to sit down between his thighs and shuffle backwards so that her back was leaning against his front. Then, taking Maria in her arms, Margaret lowered her nightdress and exposed one of her breasts. With bated breath, the parents waited to see what the baby would do, but then, much to their relief, her little mouth instinctively opened wide and took in Margaret's teat, and before long, she was suckling serenely, drawing sustenance from her dear mama.

Resting their heads together, John and Margaret both sighed contentedly and cooed as Maria's fingers curled around Margaret's nipple and her mouth sucked away, all the while her eyes wide and full of wonder as she stared up at her parents, the little lamb learning the shape, sight, sound and smell of her ma and pa, two fellow Thorntons who loved her with all their hearts.

As he watched her nurse, John thought of how he adored seeing his wife's bosom employed in such a way, and it filled him with a strange manly pride to think that those plump and perfect peaks were being used for their proper purpose, all so that Margaret's maternal breast could nourish the babe which he had given her with both his love and loins.

'I still cannot believe she is ours,' John confessed broodingly, his throat hoarse with emotion.

'I know,' Margaret concurred, 'she is so perfect,' she lauded, the mother making funny noises with her gums and teeth as her baby's eyes twinkled in amusement.

'Aye, I know,' John agreed, 'but it is more than that. It is just that I cannot believe that you and I are together like this, Meg, married, happy, and with a family of our own. I still find it inconceivable that Miss Margaret Hale ever consented to become my wife and share my life, so much so that she allowed me to take her to my bed and after countless assignations between the sheets − as well as a few other places − we ended up with this little one,' he said, chuckling darkly into her ear and smirking at the way Margaret blushed at his references to their couplings, encounters which had been both regular and passionate until mere days before she had gone into labour.

'Well, there is certainly no denying that she is your daughter, John,' Margaret said croakily, her throat rasping in response to his frisky flirting. 'Just look,' Margaret went on, her finger gliding alongside Maria's long eyelashes. 'She has your eyes, John. They are dark, dazzling, and delightfully fetching. I could get lost in that sea of hypnotising blue all day,' she said dreamily.

'That is true,' he grunted arrogantly, pleased as punch that his little girl looked like him at all, but then again, John would much rather Maria took after her beautiful mama, something which he was gratified to see that she did in most ways. But then again, that could well change as she grew into her features, the man worrying that she would end up with his beak of a nose.

'But she is clearly your daughter too, Meg,' John insisted. 'She might have a shock of locks like I did when I was born, but I think rather than being black, it will be chestnut coloured to match yours,' he guessed, his hand cupping the thick turf of brunette hair on his baby's head. 'And look at that chin,' he sniggered, tickling beneath it. 'That noble jaw of hers which I am sure she will jut up in haughty insolence as she defies me before too long, just as you do, this young lady no doubt making many a man feel small in her time with her regal ways.'

Margaret scoffed. 'Oh, John!' she objected. 'What lies! I am not in the least bit haughty,' she protested, her chin unconsciously lifting into the air without her even knowing it.

John let out a jolly laugh from deep in his belly, and in turn, Maria's eyes blinked as she followed the sound of his rich voice which reverberated around the room like a hearty hum. 'Alright, if you say so, love,' John allowed, kissing the crown of Margaret's head. 'If you say so.'

As he sat back and relaxed, John thought on how once Maria had finished her feed, she would undoubtedly grow sleepy as she always did, and as she dozed away with her tummy full, that would be the ideal opportunity for Margaret to get some much needed rest herself. Nodding to himself, John decided that while the baby slumbered, he would carry her in her basket across the yard and into his office. There, as John attended to his affairs of business, he could watch over his angel while she slept, affording her mother some precious respite, meaning that the master would at last be at ease, because he could cheerfully work away satisfied in the knowledge that at least one of his darling girls was close at hand, one of his two cherished Ms.

However, John was soon brought back to the moment as Margaret murmured a drowsy: 'John?'

'Yes, love?' he replied blithely, secretly helping her to get ready to go to sleep as he hauled the blankets up around Margaret's tired limbs and tucked her in like a snug bug in a rug, just like his grandmother used to say.

'Will you come back later when I need to feed her again?' Margaret asked, her voice tinted with shy hopefulness as she plucked at the sleeves of his shirt and lolled her head back against him, the strain and stress of the morning taking its toll on the Mistress of Marlborough Mills.

John smiled, the kind of smile that has a hundred humble origins that only the heart can truly understand.

Gazing at his daughter lovingly, John wound his arms around Margaret's middle, and as he kissed her ear, he whispered into her lobe:

'Just you try and stop me.'


I hope you enjoyed this short story. One of the things I want to try and do with my N&S fanfic is to marry the contemporary with the classic. This means attempting to keep in tune with a realistic historical basis, whilst also simultaneously striving to project more "modern" themes upon that backdrop. For instance, in this story, I have tried to look at the concept of the baby blues and a new mother struggling a bit in her role, whilst her other half also struggles to understand how to be a supportive partner and husband. To me, I think there are a lot of topics which we feel able to discuss together more openly in the 21st century, partly because we have more knowledge and partly because we feel at liberty to do so. However, as an historian, I still think areas such as mental health, sexuality, feminism, and family dynamics were just as relevant and prevalent in the Victorian period as they are now, albeit presenting themselves differently, but people were less educated and free to discuss them, hence why they are less evident in fictional literature from that period. At any rate, I know you already know all of that, but I wanted to explain why I hope to use fanfic to allow my stories to meet with more current experiences and expectations, sentiments which we can all relate to as contemporary readers, yet also hopefully maintaining that connection with the authentic feel of classical literature. Anyway, you might feel it works, or you might feel it doesn't, but I can at least try.

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