For the second time in less than two months, life — the real stuff of the drama, the poetry of the stage, not the humdrum filler in the middle — was happening all around Rob. Some might even say that he ought to be a principal player in this part of the drama, that the main speech belonged to him. Yet once again, he wasn’t making that speech. He wasn’t even standing on the stage. He was out in the audience.
Ever the observer, that was Rob.
He ought, he supposed, to take a seat around that table and join the men who were ostensibly there to keep his spirits up while Dannie labored upstairs. But right now, he didn’t see much of a point. It was impossible, still in the wake of what had happened to Josh and Isabel, to be just excited if a little worried. The alternate possibilities were only too stark in his mind. He could end the day a father of a second child, a husband, happy to have dodged yet another of Fortune’s arrows.
Or perhaps he would not.
Rob wandered to Dannie’s loom and, even as the men talked behind and around his visible absence at the table, started to absently pluck the warp as if he were plucking the strings of a lyre. He couldn’t produce a melody with this …
But he would take what he could get.
Rob wished, not for the first time, that Stevie had been allowed to stay here with them. Darius had still been in the house when Isabel gave birth to Baby Belle. He was quite sure Josh had been around when he was born, and he when Heloise was born, and when Babette was born … actually, he and Josh had been in school. But that was because Helena had gone into labor shortly after they left, and given birth shortly before they came home. They had not been there — but they had not been sent away.
But when Dannie went into labor, she shoved Stevie into Rob’s arms and told him to get Clarice, and quickly. So Rob had ridden to the palace, not far, and fetched Clarice. She had been brought over in a royal coach, and Rob had meant to ride with Stevie to get Bianca and Richard. But the Queen — the Queen, who had received him since Princess Lynn still wasn’t ready to be receiving guests — wouldn’t hear of it. She sent a royal runner to Port Finessa for Bianca and Richard, and insisted on watching Stevie herself — or rather having the royal nursemaids watch him, which at least was what Rob thought she must have meant.
“… so it’s his first chance at social climbing!” Rob heard Richard laughing. “Ah, I should have known Stevie would have gotten a jump on all of us.”
Rob paused in his absent plucking to listen — then started up again. But more softly. He would hear better this way and hopefully not be noticed as an eavesdropper.
Though how somebody could accuse him of “eavesdropping” when Rob was standing in the same room in plain view of the conversationalists — when said room was in his house — was beyond Rob. Perhaps no one could. All the same, when observing, it was best to be as unobserved as possible. It had taken many a rabbit and bird startled away mid-drawing before Rob truly learned that.
“Tell me someone told Dannie,” Josh laughed. “I know she’s been swearing that Stevie-weevie will be marrying the little Princess someday. She must be happy to know they’re playing together now.”
Rob wondered if anyone had. Hopefully Clarice had said something. But Clarice could be so serious …
If anything — if there was even a hint of anything happening to Dannie, Lord forbid it, but if there was, Rob was going to run up the stairs, burst into the birthing room and tell her. Dannie deserved to know that much. And she would get such a kick from it! How could Rob not tell her, with that in mind?
If — if Rob could do nothing else for Dannie today — he could at least give her something to laugh over, something to crow about.
His fingers ran over the half-finished cloth. There was always cloth half-finished on the loom. It wasn’t that Dannie never finished anything. Quite the opposite. She always had new ideas for her clothes, was always making something for somebody. Look at Freddy’s new outfit, am impromptu “just because” — or, in Dannie’s parlance, “why the hell not” gift. She was working on something similar for Josh, Rob knew, even if she hadn’t gotten near to finishing it yet. And so, even though Dannie wove as quickly as anyone could wish her to, she was always finishing a bolt and starting on another. So any fool who came often into her kitchen and did not understand Dannie’s drive might think her a laggard housewife, constantly leaving things half-finished and undone.
But she wasn’t. Not Dannie. Dannie was anything but that …
Too late Rob realized that he was so close — dangerously close — to considering his vivacious and vital wife in the past tense, and he threw himself into the chair at the head of the table. When the other men looked at him in surprise, he forced himself to ask. “So. What — what did I miss?”
“We’re trying to figure out how to get your son betrothed to the little Princess,” Josh replied. “But Freddy isn’t helping.”
“I’m just saying –” Freddy began.
“What he’s trying to do is be the voice of reason in a room consisting of an ambitious young man, an old man who’s given up on his own ambition–” Mark began.
“Speak for yourself!” Richard laughed.
“I was — and, as I was about to say, another old man who used ambition to play a hand consisting of maybe one or two good cards into a place as far beyond his stars at birth as the stars themselves are beyond us,” Mark finished.
Rob blinked. When had his father grown so poetic? Was this was what happened to Wesleyan men in their old age? If that was the case … Rob supposed he would spend his gray-haired years wandering the land and mumbling nonsense into his knee-length, raggedy beard, like the mad bards in the old songs.
Richard, however, tilted his head from side to side and finally stroked his immaculately styled beard with one hand. “Hmm. I think I had a few better cards than just one or two,” he murmured.
“You had a wife and a mother-in-law with admirable business sense who were able to hold down the home front while you went adventuring,” Mark replied. “And you were lucky enough to be born in a time and place where you could move to country where you could rise. That’s only two cards I can count — unless you want to count the ‘time’ and ‘place’ as separate cards.”
“Bah!” Richard laughed. “You’re forgetting my time before the mast and behind a counter — and my nose for opportunities — and my keen business acumen!”
Mark didn’t answer. Rob didn’t give him time. “Those weren’t part of your hand, sir. Those were how you played the hand the Lord gave you.”
Josh sent up a hoot of laughter. “Good Lord, Rob, you too? I thought I could count on you to keep the common sense in this family!”
Rob raised an eyebrow at his brother. “And what on earth gave you that idea?”
“Because you spend most of your time lost in … in your paintings, or your sculptures, or in whatever else you’re working on at the moment, but you’ve yet to do any of the really stupid things that artists like to indulge in.”
Rob blinked. “Like … what?”
“Like too much drink, or not paying attention to where your money is coming from or where it’s going, or sleeping with any woman who happens to cross your path …”
“I’d prefer not to end up castrated, thanks,” Rob muttered. It wasn’t that he forgot that Richard and Freddy were sitting there and may not take the remark kindly — it was that he remembered they were sitting there and figured they would probably see the justice in.
Richard did; he threw his head back and laughed. Freddy grinned and barely hid a snicker. And Josh shouted, “You see? You see? I’m right! The most common sense in the whole family!”
“I’d like to know,” Freddy murmured slyly, “what that says about you, Josh. Or Heloise. Or you, Master Wesleyan.”
“Oh, I gave up sense in my old age,” Mark replied. Rob wondered if he was the only one who caught the sharp look Josh sent his father.
“For the love of Wright!” Richard half-exploded, “would you stop with the old age nonsense? You’re only three years older than I am!”
“You’d be amazed –”
“And,” Josh interrupted Mark, “I can answer the rest of your question, Freddy. As for Heloise, I’ve yet to see her sense be put to the test — so no matter how much she vaunts her brains over the rest of us, I won’t believe there’s a speck of sense there until I see it. Geniuses aren’t always as sensible as the rest of us.”
Rob snorted, and Freddy pursed his lips together in the desperate grimace of a man trying not to laugh. How could they not, with thoughts of Galahad dancing through their heads?
“As for me …” Josh began. He stopped and stared at Rob. “Well,” he shrugged, “I just … always pegged Rob as having more common sense than me.”
And why the hell would you do a foolish thing like that?
Josh seemed to sense the question and turned away from it. “So there you have it. Why Rob is the one of us most likely to have sense — and I’ll notice you didn’t mention Babette at all, you scoundrel. What problems have you with my sister, eh?”
Freddy paled and shot Josh a sickly grin. “Um …”
“Relax, kid, I’m teasing. We all know Babette hasn’t the sense of a kitten.”
Rob thought that was unfair. Babette had exactly the sense of a kitten. Playful, with a knack for looking cute when she thought it would get her what she wanted. Perfectly ready to let one pet her when she was in the mood — but when she wasn’t, out came the blood-drawing claws. Yes, Babette had a kitten’s sense, all right. The pity was that she hadn’t any more.
“She’s got an innocent heart,” Mark replied. “That’s … that’s something that will stand a woman through all sorts of toil and trouble. Don’t ask your sister to give that up, Josh,” Mark replied.
Another sharp look from Josh to Mark. “I always thought an innocent heart was overrated, myself,” Josh replied.
“What, even in a woman?” Mark gasped.
“Especially in a woman,” Josh replied. “It’s cute, I’ll grant you, in a girl. But in a woman … no. It’s one of two things, Dad. Either she’s faking it … or she’s still a girl.”
Mark shook his head. “I don’t agree.”
“Oh, come on, Mark!” laughed Richard. “Is there any man at this table whose lady could or could have been called innocent — or at least, any man who has been married more than a year?” He shot a warning glance at Freddy.
“Clarice isn’t innocent,” Freddy murmured. “Sheltered, maybe. But not — innocent.”
“Look, Rob! Even the newlywed is with us!” Richard laughed. He could do that because he wasn’t looking at Freddy’s face, couldn’t see the faintly troubled frown on it.
As for Rob, he might have considered asking Richard just what it was about his daughter that couldn’t be called “innocent” … but refrained, because the answer, he knew, might well be “everything.”
Dannie. Lord, how was she doing up there?
The conversation ebbed and flowed around him, and Rob silently retreated from all of it. What more did he have to say? Dannie was up there waging the greatest battle of life and death there was, and what could Rob do to help? Nothing. He wasn’t even allowed in the same room.
That, he decided, was the part he hated most about all of this. It wasn’t the waiting so much as the helplessness. Yet all the same, he’d been given a starring role in the drama, at least in the minds of his fellow players here around the kitchen table, and some might say that he owed it to them to come up with a rousing speech for all of them.
But Rob couldn’t, because he had observed often enough to know what was real and what was not. This was less real than a play acted on the stage. His part in this drama had been played nine months ago. Now? All he could do was sit here.
Sit here, he rapidly began to realize, and be stared at by his fellow men, who were probably wondering why he had suddenly gone so quiet.
“You — you know,” Rob murmured, “it’s getting a bit later, isn’t it? Maybe — maybe we ought to think about supper. Something for Clarice and Bianca and — and Dannie to nibble on, too.”
It was pretty terrible, as far as lines went. The playwright ought to have his pen stripped from him and broken while he watched, even as treasonous noblemen had their chains of office stripped and broken before their eyes. But it was something.
And for a little while longer, at least, it would give them all something to do.
But only for a little while longer. The sun had barely gone down before their supper was over, and Rob was shooed to sit on the couch, Freddy and Josh to keep him company.
They ought to have cooked something. Rob was quite sure of that now. It would have taken longer, and given that they all had competent — or had competent — women at home, none of them really knew how the trick of taking food from its raw state, like a piece of marble fresh from the quarry, to its finished. So to make something decent would have kept the five of them occupied for quite some time.
Instead, Freddy had been sent to the nearest pub to procure what he could, which was fine and plenty … but hadn’t taken very long. As for the plates and such, Mark and Richard together were seeing to the washing-up. Rob ought to have helped, it was his house, but the older men wouldn’t hear of it.
Maybe they wanted a talk of their own, and covered it by sending the younger men to keep Rob cheerful.
“You know,” Josh murmured, “you’re bearing up really well, Rob.”
Rob’s head snapped to his brother. “I mean it. There’s no sign of nervous wreckage from you, little brother. None.”
Rob blinked. “You don’t know what’s going on inside my head.”
Josh snorted. “No man does, little brother. It’s …” He relaxed against the chair, against the pillows that Dannie had plucked from her father’s warehouse and arranged just so. “It’s the how you fake it that matters more than how you try to make it.”
“That can’t be true!” Freddy protested. “I mean …” He flushed as both men’s eyes turned to him. “Not the part about nobody knowing what goes on in a man’s head, of course — but you can’t — you can’t fake everything. You — you have to be true to yourself sometimes — most of the time!”
“Ah, Freddy,” Josh murmured, “how did an apple from such a fine pair of trees as your mother and father manage to fall so far? How often do you think your parents were true and entirely honest in the shop, eh?”
“That’s different!” Freddy protested. “They — they were still being true to themselves, to who they were and are, in the shop. And they didn’t outright lie to people.” Proving that even Freddy had a good helping of sense in him, he added, “You go out of business if you make a habit of lying to your customers.”
Perhaps it was the spectacle of Freddy impassioned, nearly angry, that kept Rob from noticing the creak of footsteps advancing down the stairs. Certainly it was Josh who first shut up, motioning to Freddy to do the same. Freddy’s jaw fell open, then he looked. Then, he too fell entirely silent.
Thus, it was all too easy for Rob to hear the soft voice calling his name. Bianca’s voice.
He stumbled to his feet and tried to turn around at the same time, his legs tangling together. His throat sealed shut and his lungs called for air. But his eyes — his eyes were focused on only one thing. The baby in Bianca’s arms.
He hadn’t even heard it cry!
But his mouth, when he could breathe again, could only choke out one question. “Dannie?”
“She’s doing just fine!” Bianca beamed. “Everything went without a hitch. Clarice is getting her cleaned up now, but Dannie,” Bianca jiggled the baby and grinned, “wanted you to see your daughter.”
“My — my daughter?”
The first wave that crashed over him as he stumbled to see the baby was relief. Pure relief. Not for Dannie’s safety — that wave had already broken, rushed up the shore, and rushed back out to sea. But relief that the baby was a girl. He wouldn’t have to talk her out of naming their son Maude.
A daughter … they had a daughter …
And Rob remembered a stray remark Dannie had let fly at breakfast a few days after his mother’s death. “You know,” she had said, popping a bit of pancake into her mouth, “if we have a girl … we can name her Helena if you want.”
If he wanted? If he wanted? To name his daughter for his mother — it was the least he could do, the best mark of respect, wasn’t it? And maybe it would get Helena’s favor, if she was looking down and watching, as Rob was sure she was. Who knows? She might be allowed to be a guardian angel for this baby.
And maybe, in a way, this daughter ought to be named Helena.
She had his eyes. Rob knew he was technically supposed to wait for one of the women to point that out to him, but he was an artist and he noticed these things. More than his eyes, she had … well, her little eyebrows showed not his hair, but the golden brown that Josh sported. The hair of Mark mixed with the hair of Helena. And while the baby took her paleness from Dannie — well, that was still two out of three in favor of Helena, wasn’t it?
Then his daughter — well, the women would say she was too young to smile. But Rob knew better. That couldn’t be gas. Not when he knew that smile so well.
So he held out his arms, and Bianca smiled and slipped her into them. Rob was dimly aware that the grandfathers were hooting and hollering, that Josh had stepped up beside him, that Freddy was joining in on the cheering. But he only cared about the daughter he was bringing up to his shoulder with far more confidence than he had when Stevie was that age.
“Hello, Maude,” Rob whispered into her ear. “Welcome to the world.”