Cleaning in this new house felt … different. It wasn’t that the drudgery was different, that Joyce’s knees hurt less or her hands were softer and smoother thanks to the water drawn from the new well. No. The difference was that in this house, there were some things that Joyce didn’t have to clean, because nobody other than her own family would see them.
But she cleaned them anyway, because her family would see them.
Her mother would have a field day with that if Joyce ever told her of it. Of course, Joyce had always been a relatively neat and organized child, in some ways better (or worse, depending on how you wanted to look at it) than her own mother. She had never needed as much prompting about folding her clothing neatly or organizing her things as Meg, and the Lord knew she didn’t need as much yelling at as Lukas or Davy. No, those things had come to Joyce naturally. But some things … like making one’s bed … well, show Joyce a child who actually enjoyed and wanted to make her bed, and Joyce would show you a freak of nature. It had been her one neatness-related fight with her mother. “Why bother?” she had said through one difficult phase, just before she ceased being a girl and became a maid. “Ye’re jest gonna have ter unmake it in the evenin’!”
“Because ye’re in me house an’ ye’ll live by me rules, that’s why,” had been Betsy’s frustrated reply. “When ye’re a married woman an’ keep yer own house, ye can do things as ye please, but until they, ye’ll do what I say.”
And now Joyce was a married woman in her very own house, a house that had two stories, too, where the beds were completely hidden from view. She could leave the beds unmade if she wanted to and she wouldn’t face any snide smiles or snickers from her guests. But still she made the bed.
It didn’t matter that no one else would ever see if Joyce didn’t want them to. She would sleep in this bed, and so would Berach.That was reason enough to make it, to keep it presentable and neat.
Besides, she finally had a bed that was off the floor, away from the mites and creepy-crawlies. It wouldn’t do her much good to have the bed high up and protected, at least in theory, if the blankets were all bunched in a pile on the floor, collecting all the dirt and grime Joyce was trying to avoid. She gave the sheets one last pat and slowly straightened.
Joyce winced with every creak of her muscles. Her back was aching — and she knew what that meant. Never mind that Lilibeth was only just weaned. She’d be having a new brother or sister before a quarter of the next year was out. Hopefully she would be as patient with her new sibling as Leah had been with her.
And speaking of Lilibeth … Joyce tip-toed to the nursery door and slowly opened it. She could just see into the cradle from where she was standing. Good — Lilibeth was still sleeping, her breathing deep and even. Trying to get her to sleep through the night was wearing on all of them. But at least Lilibeth was getting to catch up on her rest.
Ma’s here! Joyce shut the nursery door and hurried down the ladder. “Comin’!” she called as soon as she was safely out of Lilibeth’s earshot.
The tapping didn’t come again, but that was only to be expected.
Betsy Pelles was nothing if not polite.
“Ma!” Joyce had known she was due to come, but what kind of daughter would she be if she wasn’t thrilled to see her ma? And what kind of ma would Betsy be if she didn’t grin with all her might and catch Joyce in her arms, holding her as securely as she had when Joyce was a baby? Joyce closed her eyes and inhaled — the crisp and clean winter-smell that emanated from Betsy’s cloak, then the familiar scents of soap and woodsmoke, and finally a pressed-lavender, clean scent that was just Betsy.
Joyce was never sure who pulled away first, but they did pull away, Betsy was still smiling her gentle smile, the one that had caused all of those crow’s feet to gather around her eyes. But on Betsy, the crow’s feet lent not an air of age, of wear, but of wisdom and kindness.
“Can I get yer cloak, Ma?” Joyce asked.
“Aww, thank’ee, sweet.” Betsy handed her cloak over, and Joyce put it away.
No sooner was it safely stowed, though, than Joyce rounded on her mother. “So, Ma — how’s Lisette?”
“How’s Lisette? How’s Lisette? I like that!” Betsy half-scolded, half-laughed. “No axin’ after yer poor mother, standin’ here right in front o’ ye, but all about the new baby!”
“Well, what can I say, Ma?” asked Joyce. “Lisette’s new.”
She was indeed new: Meg’s new baby, scarcely a few weeks old. Cute as a wee button she was, with Meg’s eyes in that pretty little face. Her hair — what little there was of it — was dark like Meg’s, too, not reddish like Pierre’s, Basil’s, and Felix’s. But more importantly, finally Meg had a girl — and so close in age to Lilibeth, too! Joyce had already decided that the two would be best of friends, and the girls in question would just have to live with that decision.
“Care to sit?” asked Joyce, even as Betsy was still chuckling and shaking her head.
Betsy nodded. “Aye, thank’ee love, I’d like that. It’s a wee bit o’ a longer walk here than ter yer old place.” Joyce barely avoided wincing in guilt — but why should she feel guilty? It was a nicer house, and a better one, even if it was farther and used to be Finley’s! Still, she followed her mother as Betsy settled herself on the bench.
“Well!” Betsy asked as soon as they were settled. “Where were we?”
“Axin’ how Lisette was doin’.”
“Ah, Lisette’s doin’ fine, fine,” sighed Betsy, leaning against the wall in contentment. “Pierre is claimin’ that she’s almost as pretty as her ma already, an’ ye know, I have ter agree with him. An’ speakin’ o’ her ma,” Betsy added, “she’s recoverin’ nicely, and speakin’ o’ mas in general, yer own ma is doin’ quite well, too.”
“Glad to hear it,” replied Joyce, schooling her face into straightness.
Not that it fooled her mother. Betsy aimed for a swat for her arm, and Joyce let her make contact. “You’re incorrigible, missie!”
“Thanks, Ma, I try.”
Betsy rolled her eyes, but it was hard to keep the proper stern expression when there was a smile threatening to break free at any moment. “She does look an awful lot like Meg did when she was a baby,” Betsy continued, “an’ I think — I think her bein’ born has done that whole family a lot o’ good.”
“Really?” asked Joyce.
“Oh, aye,” Betsy said softly. “After little Marie … an’ then Aileen … I think a new granddaughter bein’ born, that is a sign o’ hope. O’ beginnin’ again. May the Lord let it work out better this time, o’ course,” Betsy added, making the sign of the plumbbob over herself. Joyce followed suit.
She added in an extra one — because, of course, hearing of losing little lasses made her think of her own little lass upstairs, and of Leah. If anything happened to either of her girls … Joyce barely restrained a shudder.
Betsy reached across and squeezed her hand, and Joyce knew that she had understood — had read the thoughts Joyce scarcely dared to think. She didn’t say anything, either. When faced with the possibility of that kind of loss, there really was nothing to say.
But the moment soon passed — thankfully — and Betsy and Joyce both relaxed. Betsy, however, relaxed to a greater degree than Joyce. It wasn’t the first time this had happened, either. Of course to a certain extent this was only to be expected and hoped for, but on the other hand …
Well, Joyce had a theory about her mother’s increased relaxation. Maybe she could even work up the courage to voice it today. “Ye know, Ma,” she began, “ye’re lookin’ awful well lately, I must say.”
Betsy laughed. “Oh, stop! I see what ye’re doin’!”
“Eh?” Joyce blinked. She can’t have caught on that fast …
“Sayin’ I look well now, ter make up fer not even axin’ after me earlier! I see yer game.” Betsy chortled. “But all the same, I’m thankin’ ye fer the compliment, honey.”
“Ma! That’s not why I said it! I mean it, ye look really well!”
Betsy snorted and shook her head, at least until she got another look at her daughter’s face. “Oh …” She murmured. “Ye mean that.”
“O’ course I mean it, Ma! Ye think ye raised a liar?”
“Ye know that’s not what I mean. An’ — an’ I thank ye, honey, I really do. I shouldn’t o’ doubted yer motives like that.” She laughed. “Amazin’, what havin’ a daughter-in-law ter order about will do fer an old woman’s looks!”
Joyce laughed. “Oh, Ma! First o’ all, ye ain’t old, second, I bet ye a hundred gold pieces that ye don’t axe Ella ter do as much as pass the salt without a ‘please’ an’ a ‘thank’ee.’ Ye wouldn’t know how ter order a daughter-in-law about.”
“Now ye stop that. Ella’s a big help around the house, she is — even if she is gettin’ nice an’ big about the middle, she’s got twice as much energy as I have, some days. She ain’t afraid o’ hard work, neither. Lukas picked a good girl.”
Even if she is a bit silly, Joyce added for Betsy, because Betsy would never say the words out loud. But Ella was a bit silly, and Joyce thought she may well always be a bit silly. Not that it was bad — it did take all types to make a world, after all. Ella’s children would love her for her fun-loving spirit, just as Davy and Bert loved her for it. Lukas, too, would probably like having an upbeat and happy wife to keep him young. But it was fun to imagine the two of them white-haired and crotchety, Ella hobbling along on her cane to keep up with the kids and Lukas vainly trailing after her and trying to keep her from hurting herself.
“He did indeed,” Joyce agreed, both to keep Betsy from guessing her thoughts and because, well, it was true. But that wasn’t why she thought Betsy was looking better than she had in recent years, even if Ella — and the income Ella brought it from working for Master Wesleyan — was part of it.
“Ma …” Joyce began, and hesitated, as she always did, just at the brink.
Joyce bit her lip, took a breath, and took the plunge. “D’ye think … maybe the reason ye’re feelin’ an’ lookin’ so good might have ter be because ye don’t have ter work fer the Orkneys no more? I mean,” Joyce hurriedly added, lest Betsy guess her real meaning and take offense to it, “now ye’re only responsible fer keepin’ one small cottage clean an’ tidy, not that cottage an’ a huge castle!”
“Oh, Joyce,” Betsy sighed, and Joyce knew she had guessed her meaning anyway, “I don’t like sayin’ nothin’ bad against the Orkneys.”
“I didn’t say nothin’ bad! Jest that they have a big castle. That ain’t –“
Betsy glared at Joyce, and Joyce shut her mouth. “They’re still our lords,” Betsy continued, slow and even. “We still — we still gotter be loyal to Sir Mordred. Because we’re good folk.”
Bullshit, Joyce thought, but didn’t say. Martin and Betsy should have gone to Lady Morgan the day after the verdict against Lady Morgause came in and begged her to help them get away from Sir Mordred. But they wouldn’t do that. They were too stubborn, set in their ways. They wouldn’t look disloyal by trying to get a different lord.
More importantly, even if Lady Morgan was successful in getting King Arthur to lean on Sir Mordred and get them a new lord, Sir Mordred would insist on having another peasant family in trade. There wasn’t any peasant family in Albion Joyce would wish that on. No, the Pelleses were well and truly stuck — and if they were stuck, they had to do everything they could to assure Sir Mordred that they were still loyal to the family, if not to the felons in it. That meant behaving.
And even more importantly, the care and worry that had slipped away from Betsy when she no longer had to deal with mad Lady Morgause and that whole brood on a daily basis was starting to settle again on her shoulders and around her eyes. A change of subject was in order. “Oh, Ma!” Joyce grabbed her mother’s arm and pulled her up. “Ye’ll never guess what I did with the newlyweds’ room!”
“An’ what would that be?” asked Betsy.
“Come see!” replied Joyce, dragging her mother through the small door.
Joyce let Betsy get well inside and blink in surprise as Joyce flung her arms out. “Ta da! It’s a sewing room!”
“Oh — oh my!”
“Jest like the fine ladies have,” Joyce smirked with no small amount of pride.
“But — but Joyce! Ye ain’t no fine lady!”
“Oh, thanks, Ma,” Joyce replied, tapping her mother on the shoulder. “Ye can’t even pretend fer five minutes?”
“Ye know what I mean, Joyce.”
And Joyce did know what she meant: that it did no good to put on airs, to pretend she was better than she was. Joyce had no intention of doing that.
But she did have other intentions, and they were innocuous to lay out clearly. “Anyway, Ma, we got this big room jest sittin’ here, an’ I thought — I know! I’ll put all me sewin’ stuff in here, so’s in the evenin’s, Berach can roughhouse with Leah and Lilibeth as much as he wants out there, an’ I can do me sewin’ in peace. Or Lilibeth can play in here with me, while Leah gets some time alone with her pa.” Joyce paused. “I think — I think gettin’ that time does her some good.”
“It probably does,” Betsy agreed. “Kids needs time alone with both their das an’ their mas.”
Yes — yes, that was true enough. Joyce decided that she wouldn’t think about the relief that flooded through her with that explanation. “Anyway, Ma, have ye seen all Berach an’ I did with the upstairs yet?”
“Lemme show ye, then!”
Both of them were up the ladder in a trice, leaving Joyce to show off her new domain — and be grateful that she had made the bed.
Betsy’s eyes were drawn to the cradle first. Lilibeth? she mouthed.
Joyce gestured to the nursery door. “In there,” she replied — though in a low voice, for Lilibeth had to still be asleep. She’d been blessed with strong lungs, and usually when she woke up, the whole house — indeed, probably the whole shire — knew it.
“Ah!” Betsy answered in a voice equally low. She glanced at the cradle again. “Then why …”
“Berach found it,” Joyce answered. “In the cellar — with a bunch o’ kindlin’. We guess that’s why none o’ the folks Finley owed money to took it. They might not o’ noticed.”
“Kind o’ them,” Betsy murmured, “leavin’ ye kindlin’ fer the winter.”
Joyce doubted kindness had much to do with it — it was more, she supposed, that the cellar was filled with junk, old jugs and bottles along with the kindling, and none of the creditors could be bothered to sort through it in search of hidden treasure. That, and perhaps the amount Grady had paid for the old dog — twice the worth of her hide at the tanner’s — might have spilled over to enough of them that some of Finley’s debts got settled that way. But she wouldn’t mention that to Betsy.
There were kinder stories to tell. “Berach axed Grady,” Joyce continued, “an’ he thinks that this might be the cradle that they all slept in — Grady an’ Ailís an’ Berach. So Berach sanded it up smooth an’ made sure all the nails were in tight, an’ … well, he wanted Lilibeth ter sleep in it, ’cause o’ her name an’ all. But she’s too big, an’ she likes her own crib jest fine. So we decided that our next baby will be sleepin’ in that.”
“Next baby?” asked Betsy, and there was no hiding the hopeful look in her eyes.
“Ma!” Joyce laughed. “Stop bein’ greedy. Ye jest got a new grandbaby, an’ Ella’s will be here before ye know it.”
“I know,” Betsy replied, “but a ma can hope, can’t she?”
“Well, I guess …” Joyce made a great show of sighing before she smirked. “But Lilibeth’s jest weaned, an’ I’ve got a backache already — so ye can guess what that might be meanin’.”
“Ye done too many backflips?” asked Betsy with a wink.
“Could be that!” Joyce chuckled. “But I’m thinkin’ it’s somethin’ different. A mother knows, ye know.”
Betsy tried to smack her arm in return for the tease, but there was no suppressing that grin. “How late are ye?”
“Not late enough ter be tellin’ anythin’ — but ye’ll be knowin’ as soon as I am. Well, ye an’ Berach an’ Meg, o’ course.”
“O’ course,” Betsy nodded sagely. “Well, I wish ye joy an’ health, ye know that, Joyce me lass. An’ if ye need anythin’, all ye gotta do is say so. Like I said, I got a strong daughter-in-law helpin’ me out, so I can be spared ter help ye if ye’re needin’ it.”
And Betsy no longer had the Orkneys blighting her each and every day — but Joyce wouldn’t mention that. “Aye,” she replied with a joke instead, “an’ with any luck, by the time ye get tired o’ Lisette, an’ Ella’s babe, an’ me new babe, Meg will be expectin’ again, so we can start the whole thing over again!”
“Joyce!” Betsy laughed.
“Ye’ll be havin’ plenty o’ grandbabies ter be keepin’ ye occupied until Davy an’ Bert get old enough ter start makin’ babies o’ their own, an’ then ye can be –“
Joyce and Betsy both jumped, Joyce rubbing her ear. But there was no hiding the eager smile that bloomed across Betsy’s face.
Joyce smiled too. “Ma, can ye do me a favor an’ go get Lilibeth out o’ her crib before –“
“– the neighbors start complainin’?”
Betsy bustled into the nursery, not needing to be asked twice.
And Joyce followed, and beamed to see Lilibeth’s delighted face, even more delighted when Betsy pulled her up and held her close.
An’ with any luck, thought Joyce, now that them rotten Orkneys ain’t takin’ up more o’ her time than she ought ter be givin’, she can stay here until Leah comes, an’ give Leah a treat, too.
And that would be almost like a perfect day.