“Oh, Martin!” Betsy moaned in an odd hybrid of a whisper and a cry. “Look at me! Jest look at me!”
Martin froze with his spoon midway to his porridge. He’d heard Betsy say those words — those very words — before. Four times before, as it would so happen. Each time, she had spoken them in a voice bright with hope and happiness. He remembered the first time, but a few months after they had been married. He remembered her strutting in front of him — naked, as it so happened, but they were newlyweds — turning on her toes, her hips thrust forward to maximize the effect, shouting for the whole neighborhood to hear, “Look at me, Martin! Look at me!”
The second time she had not felt the need to strut about the room naked (a pity, but there it was). But she had danced around the table with little Meg in her arms. “Oh, look at me, Martin! Already! Look at me!”
The third time, Meg had been in school and Joyce had watched, puzzled, as her mother smoothed her dress and walked around her husband so that he could better survey her from all angles. “Look at me, Martin! Ain’t it somethin’?”
And the fourth time … the fourth time, more than ten years after the third, Betsy had barely been able to speak for her happy sobs. But Martin knew what she was saying. “Look at me!” Look at me, he knew she had wanted to say, the last four times, we thought ye’d get to look at me, but it wasn’t to be. And now! Look at me, Martin! Jest look at me! It’ll be all right now, won’t it?
This was the fifth time. Each time, Martin knew, had been a little different — but each time it had been a happy, “Look at me!”, a proud, “Look at me!” Now … now her “Look at me!” was fearful and close to despair. That wasn’t, Martin knew, how either of them were supposed to feel about the situation.
Maybe she wants me ter look at somethin’ else, he thought. That was the notion that gave Martin the courage to look up from his porridge.
“Look at what, Betsy?”
He couldn’t see much unusual to look at; Betsy was much the same as always. True, she was fully dressed and he hadn’t bothered with that yet, but other than that …
No, there was nothing he could see. Not from this angle. He wondered if he should sigh in relief or disappointment.
Then, without another word, Betsy turned and allowed him to survey her from the side. As he stared and tried to swallow the leaden clumps of porridge in his mouth, she whispered, “Look at me, Martin.”
He looked. He saw. As much as he might want not to look, not to see … there was no escaping it now.
Betsy had put on weight after Davy’s birth, and never lost it again — a good thing, too, in Martin’s books, for it meant that his wife was getting adequate feeding and wasn’t working too hard. Besides, she was forty years old, now, and after four babies and four almost-babies … any woman who weren’t pleasantly curved in the hips and bust simply didn’t have husbands who provided well enough for them. Or they were rampaging harpies like Cerise Chevaux, who never sat still long enough to put on weight. But in any case, Martin was glad of his Betsy’s curves.
Still, as much as he liked the curves she had, this was an extra curve in the stomach area. It was just a little bump. He’d been terrified but excited when that bump held Meg, a little less terrified and much more excited when the bump held Joyce, a great deal less terrified and definitely thrilled when the bump held Lukas, and ecstatic when the bump held Davy — for between Lukas and Davy there were ten years and four secrets whispered into his ear that never got to be bumps, let alone babies. But beneath the ecstasy, even with Davy, there had still been fear. Not fear that he would not be a good father, for after Meg and Joyce and Lukas, he thought he was an old hand at the fathering business. But fear that, even though little not-quite-Davy was a visible presence in their lives, everything could still go wrong.
By the way Betsy’s lower lip was quivering, it seemed as if she was worrying as much — if not more — than he was. “Oh, Martin,” she whispered, her voice somehow carrying along the still first story, cutting through even Lukas’s early-morning snores from the floor above. “What are we gonna do?”
“Aw, Bess, it ain’t so bad. We’re used ter late-night feedins an’ napkin-changin’ by now, ain’t we?” Martin asked with as big a smile as he could muster. “An’ if it gets ter be a teenager an’ starts givin’ us sass, why, we’ll send him — or her — over ter Meg, because Meg’ll be in more practice with sassin’ teenagers than we would be.”
Betsy gave a watery smile. “I suppose ye’re right.” She rolled her shoulders and shook herself in that delightful little way she still had — like a terrier climbing out from her bath and removing the water from her fur. “Well! Shall I get ye some more treacle fer yer porridge?” she asked, and not waiting for an answer, she walked toward the cabinets on the other end of the cottage.
But she could move no farther than halfway, when an enormous sob caught in her throat and froze her in place. Martin jumped up from his chair and held her. “Oh, Martin!”
“There there, now, Bess, it’s gonna be all right …”
He didn’t shush her, reminding her that the boys were upstairs and still asleep. He could tell by the shaking of her shoulders that she was holding the sobs back with all the force she could muster. He didn’t tell her that her crying was a shameful thing, that it would make it seem like she wasn’t happy about this new baby, when he knew she was happy. He knew, too well, what it was to fear for a not-yet-born child’s life. This was the ninth time he’d felt that fear, and with every baby and not-quite-baby the fear grew stronger.
Not for the first time, Martin thanked the Lord Wright that he had not been born a woman. Folks liked to say that women were the weaker sex because of their crying and the way they gave into their emotions, but Martin sometimes wondered how true that was. No man ever had another life as completely dependent upon him and his actions as any expecting woman had on her and hers. Even the King, Martin thought, couldn’t compare. If the King didn’t care for his people, or if the King tried to care for his people but something else — war, famine, rebellion — hurt them, the people had other options. They could flee, find a new kingdom, rebel and get a new King. But if a little baby still not born wasn’t cared for by his mother, why, then, no one else would. The babe was helpless.
And even if the mother did everything right, as Martin knew Betsy was doing or trying to do, then everything could still go wrong.
“It weren’t all right fer Bianca Ferreira!” Betsy managed to force out between sobs.
Martin sighed under his breath. He had nothing against Ella Thatcher, he really hadn’t, but it was primarily because of her that Kata Thatcher and Betsy had resumed their long-strained relationship. And of course, with becoming friends again with Kata Thatcher, the gossip about other expectant women — and no-longer-expectant women — around the kingdom had entered his house again. At the worst possible time, as it so happened.
“Mistress Ferreira’s older than ye, an’ she didn’t get so far.”
“But what about Lady de Ganis?” Betsy whispered, shying away from him.
Martin sighed below his breath, but he only turned his head to the side and put on his most attentive face.
“We’re the exact same age,” Betsy continued, “an’ so are Meg an’ Lady Gwendolyn, an’ Joyce an’ Lady Clarice, an’ Lukas an’ Sister Angelique! An’ now — an’ now they’re sayin’ that she’s either run mad or she will, any day now! Oh, Martin! She’s a noblewoman, she’s got nurses ter look after her little ones — who will look after mine, if somethin’ happens ter me?”
“Betsy — Betsy, jest ’cause ye an’ Lady Claire are the same age, that don’t mean nothin’. Lady Claire …” He sighed. “Well, I don’t like ter speak no ill of me betters, but Betsy — she’s a noblewoman. Ye know that sometimes, madness, it … it runs in these families, ye know?”
“Ye ever hear o’ any madness in Lady Claire’s family?”
“Betsy, I ain’t never heard nothin’ about Lady Claire’s family, but I ain’t discountin’ the possibility is all I’m sayin’.”
“But what if it weren’t in her family history? What if — what if she became mad because …” Betsy’s lip started to quiver.
“Did ye ask Mistress Thatcher about that?” Martin asked, as gently as he could.
“How could I?” Betsy whispered. “How could I, without seemin’ the selfishest mother in the world?”
“Betsy, Betsy! It ain’t selfish. Like ye said, if ye ain’t able ter care fer yer little ones, who will be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“An’ Betsy …” Martin laid a hand on her shoulder. “Love, remember this. Aye, Mistress Ferreira an’ Lady Claire didn’t have too good — too good experiences, near yer age. But think o’ Lady Morgause! Why, she’s almost ten years older than ye are, an’ she’s jest fine!”
Betsy sighed. “Ye don’t know her, Martin.”
“What’s that supposed ter mean?”
“It means what it says. Aye, she was older, but — but, Martin, she looks younger than I do!”
“Aw, that’s nothin’, she’s a noblewoman an’ ain’t got half yer cares an’ troubles!”
“There’s more too it than that! It ain’t jest cares and troubles, fer I’d say the good Lord Wright loaded up her plate with ’em when Lord Lot …”
“Ain’t no use dwellin’ on that.”
“I know, I know, but — Martin! She’s been lookin’ even younger since that happened!”
Martin gulped, and it was only by a conscious effort of will that he was able to keep from making the sign of the plumbbob. “Maybe she’s jest usin’ a new cream or cosmetic or — somethin’.”
“It can’t be jest that!”
“It must be. Either that, or she — well, it don’t bear thinkin’ of, it don’t. But in any case it don’t matter. This happened after Lord Lot had his turn, didn’t it? An’ little Lord Agravaine was born before.”
“So, before that, Lady Morgause had Lord Agravaine without doin’ anythin’ — anythin’ — not right, an’ it worked out fine. So, there ain’t no reason ter be sad or frightened. Besides, there’s a reason ter be happy ye’re this far along.”
“An’ what would that be?”
“I can do this!” Martin chuckled as he bent down on an eye-level with Betsy’s bump. “Hello, little baby! It’s yer Da talkin’! When are ye comin’ out ter meet us, I’d like ter know?”
“Oh, Martin!” Betsy laughed. “Ye’re such a clown!”
“Ye hear that, little baby? Yer Ma called me a clown! Why don’t ye tell her how that makes ye feel?” He waited for a few minutes, then looked up at Betsy. “What’d the little one say?”
“Nothin’. I think she agrees with her Ma.”
“Whenever ye said somethin’ like that ter Davy or Lukas …” Betsy’s face, which had been almost smiling, suddenly fell. “Oh, Martin! What are we gonna tell Davy an’ Lukas?”
Martin’s mouth opened, then it shut, then it opened again. “Well, Bess, it would be right rude ter present them with a little brother or sister without givin’ them any warnin’ about it.” He hesitated a moment, then added, “An’ Lukas … Lukas I think, is old enough ter understand, if somethin’ — somethin’ untoward happened. Like the girls.”
“It ain’t fair ter Davy ter tell Lukas an’ not him. It’s different with the girls, they ain’t livin’ with us no more …”
“Well, Lukas is old enough ter guess, and Davy … well, he’s old enough ter notice, an’ whether he guesses right or don’t guess right, it’ll be a learnin’ experience.”
“An’ how is that, Martin Pelles?”
“Well, in the first place, if he guesses correct, he’ll learn ter tell a woman who’s got a baby growin’ inside o’ her from a woman who don’t. An’ if he don’t guess correct, an’ axes ye about it, well! He’ll learn never ter axe a woman about how her waistline’s changin’, an’ that’s a valuable life lesson, it is!”
“Oh, Martin!” Betsy laughed and threw her arms around his neck. “Ye always know how ter make me feel better.”
“It’s what I’m here fer, love.”
“An’ a lot of other things, too.”
“Good ter know I’m appreciated.”
“O’course ye are. Don’t I tell ye that enough?” Betsy nuzzled her face into his neck.
Ye could never tell me enough, he thought as he inhaled the scent of her hair, but said nothing. Nothing for a moment, anyway.
But he could not let the moment — the moment when she was in a good mood — completely pass without putting in his two coppers. “Bess?”
“I think ye should tell the boys.”
She pulled away. “Why?”
“Because … because I think they deserve ter know. No matter — no matter how things turn out, it’s gonna affect them somehow or other. If — if somethin’ untoward were ter happen now …”
“There’s no way they wouldn’t notice.”
“An’ if all goes well …”
“There’s no way they ain’t noticin’ that!”
Betsy chuckled. “Well, I’ll think about it. There ain’t no hurry …”
But there were steps coming down the latter — little steps — and they both turned their heads to look.
Davy made his way to the ladder’s foot, then looked around the kitchen with a bleary yawn. “Good mornin’, Ma — good mornin’, Da.”
“Mornin’, Davy,” answered Martin.
“Sleep all right?” asked Betsy.
“Aye, Ma.” He yawned again. “What’s fer …” He paused, tilting his head to one side. “Mama?”
“Ye look … different.”
“Told ye it’d be a learnin’ experience,” Martin murmured from the corner of his mouth, and Betsy elbowed him.
“… Bigger?” Davy asked, pushing his forelock out of his face and looking ready to run back up the ladder at the first sign of hostility. Maybe the boy didn’t have that much to learn, after all.
Martin and Betsy exchanged glances. Martin let his face do the talking — and with a sigh, Betsy straightened her gown and walked up to Davy.
“I’ve news fer ye an’ yer brother, honey,” she replied, wrapping her youngest — though how long was he to remain her youngest? — in a hug.
“Good news, Ma?”
Betsy’s sigh stirred Davy’s hair. “I hope so, sweetheart.” She sighed again. “I truly hope so.”