After tea had been offered (and refused), after the children attending Camford had been asked after, after business had been discussed and Maude’s health parsed, it was time to get down to brass tacks. Helena sat down, smoothed her skirt, and gave her friend a long, hard look.
“So, Bianca, how are … things?”
Helena, of course, knew what had happened. She had gotten a garbled hint from Josh the very day it happened — garbled because all he was able to get out of poor George was jibberish — and something closer to the complete story from Mark two days later. For Richard had told Mark, quietly, and Mark had told Helena. It was one of the things you could depend on Mark for; even though their relationship was not … as it once had been, Mark was not one to cause people unnecessary pain, and he would tell Helena what it was necessary for her to know so she would avoid causing Bianca pain.
And so Helena would not cause her pain. She wouldn’t bring up babies or little ones at all, if she could help it. But asking after a friend who had just suffered a devastating loss was not causing pain — it was being a Sim.
Bianca sighed. “They’ve … been better.”
Helena had been expecting that. As long as she wasn’t trying to sell you something, Bianca was nothing if not honest. “I’m sure they have been. Care to say anything else?”
Bianca shook her head. But it wasn’t, to Helena’s eye, a shake to indicate “no.” It was more like there were so many thoughts sliding through Bianca’s head, she hoped that a quick shake might be enough to sift them, sort them, figure out which ones deserved to be voiced.
Helena waited what she thought was a perfectly adequate amount of time, then she said, “You know … I lost one, myself, between Rob and Josh. You — you can talk to me.”
“Mother lost one too,” Bianca sighed.
“I see. You don’t want to hear from us how, painful as it is now, you will recover and someday put it … not behind you, but you’ll be able to live with it.”
“It’s not — it’s not so much that.”
“Then what is it?”
Bianca turned to her with a frown. “Helena, you had three more children after — after your lost one. Mother had one. I’m almost forty-three years old. I’m not going to get another child.”
“You don’t know that.”
Bianca bit her lip. “Helena, if — if I tell you something, do you promise not to judge me?”
Judge you? Helena thought of her own history with childbearing. She remembered the panic she had felt when she knew herself to be pregnant with Josh, the greater panic that had come when she was expecting the second one (with Josh not even a year old). Her gladness, after Rob was born, that she’d had breathing space between Rob and Josh and that Josh could take care of himself a little bit while she ran around like a maniac with Rob. Her anger when she’d gotten pregnant with Heloise so soon after arriving Albion. And finally, her pregnancy with Babette …
Where in all that was there room to judge Bianca?
“They can say a lot of things about me, Bianca,” Helena answered. “Some of them are even true. But I know my own sins too well to start throwing stones when they’re not warranted — and I’ve never been one for calling kettles black.”
Bianca gave a wan smile. “I — I don’t want another baby.”
“You — don’t? But I thought …”
“I — I don’t know. Maybe I’m not thinking clearly yet.” She looked toward the wall. “But I — when I first found out I was pregnant — hell, I completely misread the symptoms, I thought it was the change of life!”
“At our age, that’s not exactly a hard mistake to make.”
“No, no, you don’t understand — at least — well, I don’t feel guilty for thinking that. I feel guilty for — well — when I finally put the pieces together … all I could think was, I’m too old for this! I’ve got two kids at Camford, and George is getting to that age when he’s going to be even more of a handful …”
Wright help us all, Helena thought, while trying to wear her politest and kindest face.
“And Dannie and Rob, now they’ve finally gotten their act together, will be getting married after their graduation — I’ll probably be a grandmother in the next three years! You’re only a year older than I am, and you’re already a grandmother!”
Thank you for reminding me, dear.
“I — when I first realized I was pregnant, all I could think of were those late-night feedings, and having to take all the breakables off the low-lying tables, and then running around after a toddler and a young child, and … and all I could think was, Wright, I’m too old for this. With the shops, and of course Richard’s still working as hard as ever, and Mother — Mother was such a huge help when Dannie and Freddy and George were young, and now …” Bianca’s lip started to quiver.
“Oh, honey!” Helena put an arm around Bianca’s shoulder and pulled her in for a quick hug. Bianca, usually never one for physical affection, did not resist. She didn’t respond warmly, but — she didn’t resist.
“I’d just barely gotten used to the idea,” Bianca whispered, “I’d just barely told myself that we’ve got managers, people we’ve trained, in all the shops and at the shipping company, that I’ve been doing this since I was fourteen and that it was high time I relaxed and got to enjoy my own children, that I’d done this three times before and I could do it again, that I …”
Bianca shook her head. “And that’s why — I don’t want another baby. I can’t — I can’t go through this again, and at my age …”
“Bianca, I hate — I don’t want to make light of your feelings — but do you know you don’t want another one? Or do you think it might just be … just be your hurt talking?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can carry another one to term.”
“That might not be true. What did Kata Thatcher say?”
Bianca laughed without mirth and pulled away. “All she would say was that, at my age, it’d be best to wait six months before thinking about trying again.”
“Well, that’s good, isn’t it? I mean, that’s better than her saying not to think about trying again, period!”
“She wouldn’t even –” Bianca stopped dead, and in a moment Helena saw why. Isabel was walking through, little Darius in her arms.
Isabel smiled politely, Darius buried his head in Isabel’s shoulder, and Bianca — Bianca’s eyes never left the two of them, at least until Isabel passed into the dining room and then out of sight.
Helena gave Bianca thirty seconds of staring at the arch that led into the dining room before she asked, “Kata wouldn’t even what?”
“We were talking about Kata’s advice, dear. You said she told you to wait six months, I said that was better than saying not to try again at all, and then you said she wouldn’t even …” Helena gestured with her hand for Bianca to continue.
“She wouldn’t even … oh! She wouldn’t even talk to me about my chances of — of keeping the child if I …” Bianca trailed off, looking to the dining room again.
“She’s probably feeding Darius, she won’t be back for a while.”
“What?” Bianca asked, startled.
“Isabel … never mind. Listen, Bianca, I wouldn’t worry about Kata’s reticence.”
“You … wouldn’t?”
Helena chuckled. “For Wright’s sake, dear — think about it. When you lost your little one, she had Lady Dindrane ready to pop at any moment, and of course by now Lady Claire is either ready to pop or ready to expire and take the baby with her — poor Kata Thatcher probably just wants a break! Why, if I were her …” But there was no point in continuing, for Bianca’s gaze had traveled again to the arch to the dining room.
One … two … three …
“Come on,” Helena said, grabbing Bianca’s arm and hauling her to her feet.
“Wait — where –”
“No further than the kitchen, I promise. Ah, Isabel, there you are!” Helena said.
Isabel turned. “Er … yes? Mistress Ferreira,” she added with a nod.
“Mistress Wesleyan,” Bianca answered instantly.
“I needed to ask you something,” Helena announced.
“You know Bianca runs a milliner’s shop, don’t you — oh, of course you do, everyone knows that the Ferreiras run the milliner’s shop. Well, I was wondering — what are the odds that you’d part with that lovely hood of yours? You see, Lady Morgause wears one much like it, and I think that Bianca could make it the next craze …”
So Helena babbled, as Bianca inched closer and closer to little Darius. You go, my dear. If being closer to a little one makes you feel better, and not worse, right now — well, allow me to volunteer my grandson for your therapist.
Bianca could not understand why she just wanted to get closer and closer to the little one. Her own mother had told her that after her own miscarriage, she could no more have voluntarily gone near an infant or small child than she could have single-handedly ruled all of Glasonland. And Bianca herself had no desire to be near little babies.
But Darius was … different. Maybe it was because he wasn’t so little, after all. By St. Brandi, he had just turned two years old! He certainly didn’t look or act like the tiny infant she would have had four or five months from now.
And he was different in other ways. Any one of her three, had a family friend come near to them while they were eating, would have looked up with a big smile and probably tried to ask the visitor a question or demand some sort of attention with their toddler lisp, spraying mush, no doubt, all over the kitchen. Bianca had certainly spent more time cleaning up after her three than she ever had feeding them, once they got old enough to look around and pay some sort of attention to their surroundings.
Darius, though … Darius looked up at her as if he was afraid she would come after him with a sharp weapon, his little lip quivering as he sized her up.
Bianca smiled and crouched down to his level. “Hello, Darius. Do you remember me? Auntie Bianca?”
Darius tilted his little head sideways, sideways, sideways — then grinned a grin that set most of what few teeth he had on full display. Then, without a word, he tucked into his lunch.
Isabel should be grateful for that. Especially with the kinds of dresses she wears. There’s nothing harder than getting toddler mush out of silk.
There was no conversation between the two of them, except for the moment when Darius solemnly drew his hand through the mush, cupped some and offered it to her. “No, thank you, sweetie,” Bianca had replied. Darius stared at her for a moment, then, with a shrug that was quite comical, he ate the mush himself.
When he was done, he didn’t make a peep — he just sat there, kicking his feet against the chair, watching his mother and waiting for her to realize he was done.
“Oh, you are so much more patient than my three ever were — still are,” Bianca remarked. “Here. Let me get you out.”
She held him up to her for a moment, just smiling at her. After a quick second of shock, Darius smiled back. With the ease of a mother who had borne three children, Bianca transferred the weight of the little one to her hip.
Darius was not comfortable in her grip; that she could tell instantly. She had held him before, of course; she was too close a family friend to the Wesleyans not to get a chance to hold the new grandbaby. But there was a world of difference between holding a new or even a not-so-new baby and holding a toddler. The baby usually had no idea — nor did he particularly care, unless he was fussy or hungry — who was holding him. The toddler knew, and the toddler was more than capable of expressing his displeasure, should he feel any.
But Darius expressed no displeasure. He simply rested there, tense and unmoving, against Bianca’s side. Another difference between Darius and her children — not only would her three be more comfortable with someone whom they did not see every day, they would have expressed their displeasure if they were not. Loudly. And even if they were perfectly comfortable with whomever was holding them, they would have wanted down as soon as they were out of the high chair.
“You know, I’m not a stranger, mister,” Bianca said, bouncing the little boy. “You act like I’m a mad axe murderer or something. I’m not, really.”
Darius looked at her with wide dark eyes.
“Come now,” Bianca said. “Talk to me. I hear you had a birthday recently. How old did you turn?”
For a moment, Bianca wasn’t sure he had understood the question. Then — so solemnly! — he held up two fingers.
“Two! What a big boy you’re getting to be! Did you get some nice presents?”
“Hmm …” Bianca frowned, trying to think of something to draw the little one out of his shell. “Can you tell me what any of them were … David?”
Darius tilted his head to one side.
“That is your name, isn’t it? David?”
He shook his head.
“No? Then what is it? Daniel? Darren? Demetrius?”
“No!” he called out, shaking his head.
“Oh, Darius! Goodness me, how could I forgotten that! And you’re …” Bianca stopped, realizing that there was a marked silence coming from where Helena and Isabel should have been conversing. She turned around to see both of them looking at her.
Bianca tried to smile. “He was done eating, so I took him out of the chair …”
“And a good thing you did, too, else my poor baby would have been sitting there until Mama and Grandmama were done talking, no?” Isabel asked. “Want to see Mama, neno?”
Darius nodded and Isabel handed him over. “Oh, your fingers are so sticky! Let Mama get you a wash cloth — Auntie Bianca, I hope he didn’t get anything on your dress!”
“I — don’t think so …”
As Bianca checked her dress as best she could, Isabel cleaned Darius up and Helena — or so Bianca thought — watched Isabel. In reality, Helena watched Bianca.
“Bianca, can I tell you something?” Helena asked as Isabel finished up and brought Darius back to them.
Bianca looked up. “I … suppose?”
“I don’t claim to know,” she began, “whether you’re going to be a mother — again — or a grandmother next. But let me tell you this — whatever you end up being next …”
Helena took a deep breath. “Whatever you end up being next, you, Bianca Ferreira, are going to be great at it.”