Joshua had never managed to make his way to the cheerful thatched cottage alone.
He supposed he should be ashamed of that. He was ashamed of that; that was why he was here. Isabel’s daughter was here, the only one she would ever have, and Joshua had to be … not dragged, but definitely coaxed into going to see her. If Isabel was watching him, she was probably calling him all sorts of names in Simspanish that wouldn’t translate, but sure sounded bad.
But he was here now, all by himself, like a big boy. No father to make conversation with the Porters and distract him from the warm, living bundle in his arms. No brother to make funny faces to make the baby laugh. No mother to take the baby the first time she showed signs of discomfort, no sister to only give him five minutes with her before snatching her away to cuddle and coo. No other sister to roll her eyes at the antics of all of them. Just Joshua.
He glanced up at the house, swallowed, and knocked on the door.
“Mistress Porter?” Joshua called, knocking again. “It’s …” Damn, he’d never had to handle this part by himself. What did the Porters think of him as? “It’s me!” probably wouldn’t cut it. “It’s Master Wesleyan — the baby’s father!” That would have to do.
No answer. Or so he thought.
Joshua looked up to see a red-haired woman leaning out one of the dormer windows. “Master Wesleyan! Up here!”
“Aye! I’ll be down in a minute — but ye can let yerself in, it ain’t locked!”
Down in a minute … Joshua shrugged to himself and did as he was told.
He walked in to find a dark-skinned child playing with a wooden rabbit head. There was also a cradle pushed up against one of the walls, but Joshua hadn’t the heart to look inside. So there was one, possibly two, children down here — which meant there were at least two missing.
The little girl pushed her rabbit head away, turned around and stared up at him with huge eyes. It was so like how Darius reacted when presented with a stranger — or an adult that he didn’t see every day — that Joshua felt his most reassuring smile begin to creep across his face before he could properly realize it was there. “Hello …”
Drat, what was the girl’s name? He knew the Porters had two little girls who ran around as he endured the visits, and he knew they were Nellie and Josie — but which one Nellie the bigger, more aloof red-haired blur, and which one was the smaller one that he would call cloyingly affectionate if she didn’t put him so much in mind of Darius?
He glanced around the room and realized that there was no milk spilled, or blocks dumped all over the floor, or dolls tossed every which way — all of which were likely to elicit a snapped, “Josie!” out of Mistress Porter when they presented themselves. “Nellie?”
Nellie, if it was Nellie, eyed him with suspicion. Then again, it had to be Nellie. There was no way a three- or four-year-old, as this girl looked to be, would let someone call her by her wrong name without correcting them. Even Darius corrected the adults who called him by the wrong name.
“Hello, Nellie,” Joshua repeated. He didn’t try to touch her, that sort of thing always set Darius off. “I’m just here to see your mama. You don’t mind if I wait here for her, do you?”
She turned her head a little to one side, then glanced away from him. “Baby Belle?” she asked.
“Baby …” He followed her gaze to the crib. “Aye — aye, and … and Baby Belle.”
It was easier to say that than Isabel.
“Phew!” Joshua almost jumped to the see the door opening. “Well, that’s done. Sorry ter keep ye waitin’, Master Wesleyan.”
“No — no trouble.” Watching the way she dusted herself off again and again, he felt compelled to ask, “Er … are you all right?”
“Josie’s sick,” put in Nellie, apparently emboldened by her mother’s presence.
“Sick?” Joshua asked and looked at the cradle, while elemental fear grabbed his heart and squeezed it. Interesting. He still could feel that kind of fear. He still had enough of a heart to fear it breaking further.
“Nothin’ ter worry about, sir,” Mistress Porter replied, so quickly that Joshua barely had time to look from the cradle to her. “She’ll be right as rain, soon enough. It’s jest … it’s jest somethin’ that ain’t worth worryin’ about, that’s all.”
“Are — are you sure? I could …” What he could do, Joshua had no idea. Offer to come back another time? Offer to find alternate care for the baby? But who could he ask?
“Oh, it’s nothin’, sir. Ye came all this way, an’ it’d be a right shame fer ye ter go back again without gettin’ what ye came for, wouldn’t — Nellie, if I’ve told ye an’ yer sister once, I’ve told ye a thousand times, please don’t play with that right in the middle o’ the floor.”
“Sorry, Mama.” Nellie grabbed the rabbit by the ear and brought it over to the wall.
“An’ now!” Mistress Porter smiled, wiped her hands on her apron, and walked to the cradle. “Now ye get ter see yer beautiful little girl!”
Joshua followed like a duck led on a string.
With the practiced easy of a mother of many, Mistress Porter bent to pick up the baby. But in that moment, bending over, the flow of her curves — Joshua had to turn away and close his eyes.
But that did him no good, for before those closed eyes arose a similar image of Isabel, bending over the crib with Darius and smoothing his fine dark hair back. “Oh, Joshua! Come here, come here! He was awake, all this time!”
“Ah, she’s awake!” Joshua gasped even as his eyes flew open. “Awake an’ jest dyin’ ter see her papa, I’ll bet!”
It was all he could do not to cry out. He did not want to think of “Isabel” and “dying” in the same world, let alone in the same sentence. He stared at the baby to put his mind on something, anything else.
“Hello …” He could not say it. He could not force the word “Isabel” off his tongue when faced with this tiny wriggling infant, not when it was the long-limbed, graceful woman who he still dreamed of every night. But this was Isabel’s daughter, and he had to say something. “Hello, Baby Belle.”
“Baby Belle?” Mistress Porter gasped. She glanced at Nellie. “Ye got ‘er ter talk ter ye?”
“Nellie?” Joshua asked. “Aye, aye, I did. A little.”
“She usually don’t like strangers! Er, not that ye’re a stranger, Master Wesleyan, seein’ as it’s been right regular ye’ve been comin’ by ter see yer sweet little girl. But …”
“I understand,” Joshua replied. “My son — Darius — he’s the same way. If you don’t see him every day …”
“Ye might as well be a Reman soldier batterin’ the door down, fer all she’ll give ye the time o’ day! Oh, ain’t they funny at that age, Master Wesleyan?”
Darius wasn’t quite as old as Nellie — Master Porter had said something about her starting school soon — but Joshua doubted Darius could change that much in a year. “Yes, they are.”
“Oh!” Mistress Porter shifted the baby. “She’s gettin’ squirmy, she is! Now, now, Baby Belle, be good an’ quiet so yer papa can get a good look at ye.”
Baby Belle seemed to be looking at him just as much as Joshua was looking at her. Indeed, more so. That steady, unblinking gaze — Joshua could never look at her.
“I think,” Joshua said, trying to laugh, “that she’s trying to remember who I am, and figure out why I’m staring at her so.”
“Figure out who ye are? Nonsense! Ye’re her papa, she knows ye.”
How could she? He came by every day or two, it was true, but before now he had never come alone. He was only one of anywhere between two and six — seven, if they brought Darius! — visitors. Why should she remember him any better than any of the others?
The baby blinked, then grinned and called out, “Ah! Ah!” Her chubby fingers reached for his chin.
“What’s that?” he asked — this, this he could do. He had done it any number of times with Darius, while Babette scowled, his father chuckled, his mother rolled her eyes, and Isabel —
He wouldn’t think of Isabel.
“You want me to …” Shave the unsightly fuzz off? he thought to ask.
But then he remembered Isabel’s baleful stare, and how it was she who had called his beard that “unsightly fuzz,” and how she had complained about it right before …
Why didn’t I just shave it off? he asked himself again. It would have made her happy. Would it have cost you that much to make her happy?
The only reason he didn’t shave it off now was he went to a barber every second day, and it was easier to just say “the usual” than to ask for something to be changed. To change would require thought, and sometimes it was enough work of a morning simply to get out of bed, never mind to think of how he wanted his hair and his beard to look. The barber was worth every farthing just for that. And to think, he’d never meant to go! He just went because he had no razor, having somehow lost track of it during those mind-fogged few weeks after …
After Baby Belle was born.
“Master Wesleyan?” Mistress Porter asked. “Ye all right?”
Joshua looked up. “Aye — aye, I’m fine.”
She frowned. “Ye want ter hold her for a bit? Quiet-like?”
“I –” he started, but got no further, for suddenly Baby Belle was in his arms and Mistress Porter was walking away.
For a moment he froze — as well as one could freeze with a breathing baby in one’s arms. But just as soon, he relaxed. This wasn’t so different. How many hundreds of times had he done this with Darius? He remembered those first few days and weeks, when he was still red-faced and so new that part of the cord was still attached at his belly button, when he had scarcely dared to breathe when he held his son for fear he might break. But soon Joshua had grown accustomed, or Darius had gotten big enough that he no longer felt so fragile, and Joshua could relax. Then he was bringing his boy everywhere, tossing him in the air, bestowing noisy kisses on his stomach that made Isabel —
He looked at the baby he had in his arms now, who was well past the breakable stage, if not quite at the tossing-in-the-air stage. He was surprised to find that she was looking back up at him.
Joshua tried to smile, as he generally did when he was faced with such an unrelenting stare. It was his only self-defense. If he did not smile, people frown, would ask questions, or, worse, would ask his father or his mother or his brother questions in a hushed tone. He hated that. He was bereaved, but he wasn’t dead. If somebody had a question for him, they could ask him — otherwise, they could keep it to themselves.
The baby did not seem to take his smiling well, though. Maybe she saw through him. Wright knew her mother always …
She squirmed, and mewed, and scrunched her little face up all wrong.
“What’s wrong?” Joshua asked. He shifted the baby to his shoulder, nose automatically going closer to the diaper. Nothing.
But the baby was sighing, and still moving, but like a cat would move on her basket — kneading and knotting and pressing all the lumps just so. “Oh,” Joshua murmured. “You were uncomfortable? Was that it?”
She had seemed perfectly comfortable lying in Mistress Porter’s arms, though. Was he really that much out of practice?
“She does that sometimes with Neil, too,” Mistress Porter said — Joshua almost jumped; he had forgotten she was there. “I think she might jest like ter be up high, an’ able ter see everythin’.”
“You — you think so?” Joshua asked.
Mistress Porter laughed as her arms went elbow-deep in the soapy barrel. “Well, it’s as good an explanation as any, don’t ye think?”
“I guess so.” He glanced at the infant’s ear. “Do you like to be up high, Baby Belle? Do you like seeing things?”
As an answer, she batted her little fist against his shoulder. Whether that was meant to be a yes or a no, he couldn’t tell. Isabel would have said —
What would she have said?
His stomach dropped. He did not know. He could think of several things she might have said — but not the one thing she would have said. Yesterday, he was sure, he would have known. Or the day before. Or maybe a week before.
Lord Wright, was this his fate? To lose his Isabel once, so suddenly that he was like a soldier on the battlefield who had his heart stabbed but who kept on fighting for a few minutes — it took that long for the shock to catch up with him? And then to lose her again, but slowly, so that he felt every drop of blood draining away from him as he bled to death?
Trembling, his feet brought him closer to Mistress Porter, if only so he could hand off the baby if he had to.
He did not notice her shake off her hands once, twice, even though her face still stared into the soapy water. He did not see how her brow contracted and furrowed. He did not see her take a breath before she spun on one heel to face him.
“Master Wesleyan, I’ve been wantin’ ter tell ye –” She stopped.
“Is somethin’ wrong?”
Joshua felt his lips quivering. “I’m losing her.”
“Pardon?” Her eyes went to the baby.
“No — not — not Baby Belle. Her — her mother — again!”
Mistress Porter said nothing, but she tilted her head a little to one side and kept her eyes focused straight on him.
“I was just thinking,” he blubbered, “about — about what she would say to — I have these conversations with her, in my heads, sometimes, and –”
Mistress Porter nodded.
“I didn’t know what she would say back!” he gasped. “I didn’t know! I — I can’t lose her again!”
“Oh, Master Wesleyan, ye ain’t losin’ her again.”
“How do you know?” Joshua snapped.
“I know because I know yer Isabel is right here with ye — right in yer arms, as a matter of fact.”
Joshua looked down.
“That’s — that’s Baby Belle.”
“But she’s got her ma in her, don’t she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ye don’t? Ye don’t see it?”
“Do you?” Joshua challenged.
She thought about that. “I never knew yer wife, sir, so I can’t say whether I do or don’t. But I know ye, more or less, an’ I see plenty in this little love that ain’t ye, so’s I’m guessin’ she’s got bits of her ma in her.”
Joshua wanted to ask, oh, so badly, what it was that she saw in Baby Belle that wasn’t him and could perhaps be Isabel. But Mistress Porter didn’t give him a chance. “An’ ye know what else I know?”
Joshua shook his head.
“I know what it is ter be a wife an’ a ma. An’ I know that it would take Reman hordes ter drag me away from me husband an’ me little ones, an’ I’d only go kickin’ and screamin’. Yer wife — well, she didn’t have much choice in goin’ away. But she’s come back, I know she has. I think — maybe, in some ways, she never really left.”
Joshua looked up. “You — you think so?”
“I know so. An’ I also knows –”
The wail made them both jump — but more than that, it made a shade of alarm cross over Mistress Porter’s face. “Master Wesleyan –”
“Go,” he said.
“Thank’ee.” She lifted up her skirts and trotted to the door. “Hold on, Josie! Mama’s comin’!”
And so he and Baby Belle were alone.
He waited, bouncing her slightly, until the wailing quieted into soft sobs, and then softer hiccups, and then … he supposed the little one was still crying, but it was too quiet for him to hear. Poor baby, he thought.
But he still had a little one of his own to entertain. “Well,” he murmured, bringing Baby Belle up before his face. “I guess it’s just you and me now. What do you propose we do now?”
Baby Belle proposed nothing, at least not in words. But she did smile.
Joshua caught his breath.
It was Isabel’s very smile.