Darid 13, 1013
“For he’sh a jolly good fellow, for he’sh a jolly good fellow –”
“Josh! For the love of Wright, not so loud! I’ve got two babies sleeping upstairs!” Not to mention the wife that will kill both of us if you wake the kids up!
“– that nobody can deny!” Joshua finished, sending his voice echoing into the cool night.
Rob glanced up at the windows of his house, biting his lip. But there was no slow glow of light indicating that Dannie had woken up and lit a candle. Nor was there a sudden throwing open of the shudders and raising of the sash to say that Dannie was going to demand that Joshua shut himself up before he woke the kids or by the Lord, she would shut him up. They seemed safe enough, for now.
But Rob still had to get Josh into the house.
Joshua chose that moment to embark upon a second, slightly altered verse. “For I’m a jolly good fellow, for I’m a jolly good fellow –”
Somebody might end up denying that in a hurry if Joshua didn’t start to pull himself together.
Rob looked over his shoulder, at Joshua and Mark’s — and tomorrow, Cressida’s too — house. Could he take Joshua there, get him into his own bed, and … no. Rob didn’t want to know what scene awaited him at the other house. Mark had declined going out with them on the night before the wedding. Heloise was home, so he wanted to spend some time with her, and he always wanted to watch the kids, and, as he put it, “spoil them properly.” He’d even taken Cressida’s Ned for the night, too. No doubt they’d wound all of them up with honeyed candy and all the baked goods he could carry home from Richard and Bianca’s fancy bakery. The kids would have had a great time. So too would Mark and Heloise. And tomorrow, as soon as the vows were said, they were going to foist the kids onto their parents and have a great time watching them try to calm the kids down. Such were the pleasures of being a grandparent and aunt.
And maybe, on Mark’s part, there was a little subtle revenge against Joshua there, too — not just for being Joshua and being a little hellion to raise, which, in Rob’s opinion, would justify a great deal of grandchild-spoiling. But revenge for figuring out a way to solve their domestic problems that didn’t involve being able to bring the exotic Wei Li into their home. Rob still wasn’t sure what his father saw in her. But Mark at least had seen sense and had realized that bringing a woman like that into their family was bound to be the ruin of them all.
Joshua took a deep breath, no doubt about to start on a third verse that would just be a repeat of the second, when Rob pushed him into the vestibule, opened the door to the house, and dragged him inside.
The warm air in the house — Dannie had left a log burning cheerfully in the grate against their return — seemed to hit Joshua all at once. He swayed a bit. “Whoa,” he whispered. “Rob, I didn’t know you had four shtaircashesh.”
“Four stair–no, Josh, I don’t. You’re just seeing double.”
“Huh,” Joshua muttered. “That would eshplain why you’ve shuddenly got a twin …”
Rob grabbed his brother’s arm and frog-marched him over to the sofa. “I think you should have a seat. I’ll fix some coffee for you.”
“How come you’re so darned shober, eh?” Joshua asked, weaving as best he could with Rob’s firm grasp on his arm.
I could ask how you got so drunk. Rob rubbed the bridge of his nose with his spare hand. They’d just wanted a little celebration to mark the fact that Joshua was getting married in the morning. It had seemed so sensible when he and Freddy had planned it. They would go to the Dragon’s Teeth in Port Finessa. They would invite a few friends — Grady Brogan, Bart Andavri and his father Jessiah, some of the other merchants of Albion. They would drink a few sedate ales, play some pool, lose some money at cards to Joshua. It would all be very calm and respectable. After all, Joshua — and Jessiah Andavri — was the only single man in the bunch!
But … something had happened … It had been a fun party, but somewhere in the middle of it, probably when Jessiah was regaling them with salty sea stories that probably ought not to be true, but which Rob suspected had all happened to the old captain, Joshua had managed to drink twice as much as anyone else.
“Now, Josh,” Rob replied, steering Joshua into one of the armchairs by the fire, “you sit tight, and I’ll fix you some coffee. That ought to help you sober up. All right? You stay here.”
Joshua rolled his eyes at him. “I’m hardly a dog, Rob. You don’t have to tell me to shtay.”
“Of course you’re not a dog. Dogs don’t get drunk.”
“Ha!” Joshua laughed. “Aye, right! Don’t you remember, Josh? The time we broke into the wine, poured all of it into Abelard’s dish just to shee what he’d do?”
Rob blinked. He’d forgotten about that. But it had been funny, to watch the poor old mastiff sniff at the bowl, then lap it up eagerly, then weave around the room and house in a parody of a drunk man’s round around the pub. He’d finally collapsed what seemed to be a state of drunken ecstasy.
“Good Lord,” Rob laughed, “how long ago was that?”
“I was fourteen. You were … ten. So it would have been … fifteen years.” Joshua gulped. “That was a long time.”
“You’re telling me.”
“I mish that dog.”
Rob gulped, remembering the mastiff’s wagging tail, his unabashed joy whenever Rob walked in the door. He didn’t think he’d want a mastiff of his own, unless he needed dogs to protect the family, but Abelard … He choked down a flood of emotion. “I’ll get that coffee. You sit tight.”
Rob marched over to the stove. He quickly boiled a pan of water, then poured it into the coffee brewer to get things going.
He couldn’t believe that tonight of all nights, he was getting misty-eyed about a dog. He wasn’t even a dog person! He would never admit to Joshua, but Dannie’s cat Pepe actually suited him better. The cat sat on his lap and purred whenever he had a mind and Rob had a minute to sit, and it climbed off when he had had enough. He was small enough to fit comfortable in the bed with Dannie and Rob — Abelard would have taken up half the bed on his own — even if they did have to lock him out of the room when they wanted the bed for things other than sleep. His air of self-sufficient independence appealed to Rob. Abelard had, on the other hand, been big and dumb and loving …
And he had been Rob’s dog as a boy and a young man, or rather the Wesleyan family’s dog, because he loved them all equally. He had laid by Helena’s bed as she faded away — he wasn’t good for much other than sleeping at that point — and shortly after she died, so had he.
You never forgot your first dog.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” asked Joshua from just behind Rob. “You never forget your first dog …”
Rob jumped. How the hell had Joshua known exactly what he was thinking? But he couldn’t show Joshua that — even if it was only a coincidence, Joshua would never let him forget it. Instead, Rob, with a shaking hand, poured the just-ready coffee into two cups. He pressed one into Joshua’s hand. “I thought I told you to sit tight.”
“You think I’d lishten?” laughed Joshua. The speech was still slurred, but his eyes weren’t nearly as fogged. And he took the coffee cup, and even took a sip, without a hint of protest.
“Come on. Let’s sit.” Rob led the way to the sofa, and Joshua followed. It would be warm there — maybe Joshua would sweat some of the ale out. Rob took a seat and Joshua followed in his wake.
“It’s amazing what you don’t forget, ishn’t it?” Joshua murmured. “And what you do forget.”
“Sim memory is a wondrous thing,” Rob agreed, blowing on his cooling coffee.
“I shometimes wonder if I’d remember what Isabel’s eyesh looked up if Baby Belle didn’t have ’em,” Joshua admitted into his coffee cup.
Rob was halfway into his sip. He stopped.
So this was why Joshua had gotten so drunk.
“You would,” Rob replied. “Of course you would. Nobody — nobody could forget something like that.” He would never forget what Dannie’s eyes looked like, in the unlikely (he hoped) event she preceded him to the grave by a long time. Their light brown charm, the way they appeared golden in certain lights … the quizzical eyebrow she’d turn to him over breakfast, or anytime when they supped with others, as if to ask, Can you believe this? He’d sooner forget how to use his hands than forget that.
“But they scarshely look like Isabel’s eyes,” Joshua continued, mournfully. “They look like … Baby Belle’s eyes, now. They are Baby Belle’s eyes.”
“But they’re all I’ve got left of her,” Joshua sighed. “Darius and Baby Belle. And …” He glanced at his left hand, where his wedding ring, Isabel’s legacy, still rested. “I won’t even be wearing this tomorrow …”
“You could wear it on a chain around your neck,” Rob suggested wildly. “Cressida would hardly …”
Joshua turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, she wouldn’t mind,” Rob muttered to his coffee cup. “She might be doing the same with her old ring.”
“She sold her old ring to help pay for their passage to Albion,” Joshua murmured.
“They all did — all three of them. Bianca, Pamela, and Cressida. Of course, Bianca’s ring was Pamela’s old ring, but still … she doesn’t even have that to remember her Edward by. Do you think she remembers him a lot?”
“How couldn’t she?” Rob asked.
“I wonder how much Ned looks like him …”
“Why don’t you ask her?” Rob shrugged. “It’s … it’s bound to come up, isn’t it? And it’s a natural enough question …”
Joshua swirled his coffee, then took a long swallow. “He and she and I — we could look like a family. Ned looks like he could be mine, if you didn’t know. We’ve both got light hair, just like he has.”
“His is a shade lighter, I think. And he’s got lighter skin than either of you.”
“So does your son.”
“And Freddy’s,” Rob chuckled. Being able to pin Stevie-weevie’s pallor on Dannie had been a sweet, sweet pinning indeed.
“Exactly. Exactly. But my kids …”
“Josh, knock it off.” Rob nudged him. “It’s the love you have for each other that makes you a family. Not whether all the kids have the same hair color. Who cares about that? Nobody will look strangely at all of you, if that’s what you’re worried about. Widows with young children marry widowers with young children every day of the week.”
He must have taken the criticism to heart — or else that wasn’t what was bothering him at all — for he asked, quietly, “Do you think Isabel will forgive me?”
Rob froze. Then he gulped. “Josh …”
“Don’t try to sell me a line of bullshit, Rob.”
“I wasn’t going to. I — Josh, do you really think that Isabel wouldn’t have wanted you to be happy? To have your children have a mother?”
“They have a mother.”
“A stepmother, then, who will love them just as much as their mother would have, and will care for them just as Isabel would have.”
“But Cressida won’t. Not just as Isabel would have. They’re too different.”
They were more alike than Joshua suspected, Rob thought. They were both women tossed into the cold by an unfeeling, uncaring world, women who grew tough because it was either toughen up or die. They were survivors. Isabel had grown soft again, during her marriage to Joshua, because she had that luxury. But there was always that steel core underneath. Rob didn’t doubt that she would have grown bored once the children grew older, more independent of her, and she would have needed some kind of release — some kind of business, or maybe a quest to make Joshua into Albion’s second baron. Cressida didn’t that kind of ambition, Rob thought, but she was like Isabel in that it would probably take more than just being a wife to make her completely happy and fulfilled.
But on the other hand … Rob could imagine that the women were different enough to have slightly different philosophies of child-rearing.
Still, Rob had to say something. “Cressida will do the best she can with the abilities she has. How is that different from what Isabel would have done — in any way that matters?”
Joshua frowned, but he didn’t argue.
“In fact …” Rob continued, a burst of inspiration striking him, “she’ll treat your children just like you’ll treat Ned. You’ll do the best you can–”
“But what if that’s not good enough?”
“For Ned?” Rob asked incredulously. “Or for –”
“For Ned,” Joshua nodded. “I … I don’t know. Darius loves him … Baby Belle tolerates him …”
“I’d call that an excellent sign already, from both quarters.”
“But what if I’m not as good a father to Ned as his father would have been? I — I’ll try, but what if –”
“Josh. Josh, stop. You said you’ll try. Isn’t that enough?”
“Dad tried to keep Mother happy,” Joshua whispered. “That wasn’t enough.”
Rob leaned his head back against the sofa back. “Josh …”
“You can try and try and try all you want, and still — it might not –”
“Josh! Enough!” Rob rested his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Stop it. You’re going to be a fine father to Ned. And Cressida will be a fine mother to Darius and Baby Belle. So there’s nothing to …” Rob trailed off. “Josh?”
“Are you getting … cold feet?” Rob could still remember the late-night panic that had come upon him the night before he married Dannie. He’d wondered what he was getting into, what was he thinking, he was still so young (well, for a man who wasn’t heir to anything contemplating a first-time marriage), he’d scarcely even gotten to know other girls —
And then there was the other terror, the terror of marrying Dannie, loving her, making a child with her, and murdering her with that child as thoroughly as if he’d used a knife.
Of course Rob had swallowed it all, gone to the wedding arch the next day, and watched Dannie walk down the aisle and known he was doing the right thing. But from the darkness of the night before, it had hardly seemed to simple, or so sure. And sometimes, in his nightmares, Rob still worried about the risks Dannie took every time she carried his child.
“I got cold feet, too,” Rob said, hoping to spur a confession. “It — it might seem bad, but –”
“I don’t have cold feet.”
“Josh, get over yourself and –”
“I don’t, Rob. I don’t …” Joshua stared into the flames. “I want to marry Cressida tomorrow. I want it. I just …” He rested his head in his free hand. “I had cold feet the night before I was to marry Isabel!”
Rob gulped. “Josh …”
“It was only seven years ago. Not that long. And I was so nervous and afraid –”
“That’s normal –”
“Then why am I not nervous now?”
“And don’t say I am! All right — maybe I am, but it’s not the same kind of nervousness! I’m — I’m worried about everybody else. Am I doing right by them? I’m not worried about me.” He laughed, bitterly. “I know I’m doing right by me.”
“Then I would call you a lucky man, Joshua Wesleyan.”
Joshua shook his head. “I have to do what’s right by — by all of them. It’s not just about me and Cressida …”
“No, it isn’t. But you’ll be fine.”
“How can you be so sure? Answer that for me, Rob. How — how can anyone be sure of anything, when it comes to … to …?”
If Heloise had been the sibling on Rob’s end of this conversation, she would have protested that Joshua was asking two very different questions, and the latter required a complex philosophical explanation that she wasn’t going to waste on a man who probably wouldn’t remember it, come morning. It was a good thing that Heloise was probably sleeping the sleep of the innocent (or, given her hand in spoiling the kids, thoroughly guilty) and the exhausted, because that would not have been the answer Joshua needed.
“Can I be sure that everything will end all fine and dandy, when the only game you and Cressida can still play in the bedroom is ‘Hunt the False Teeth’? No. But I can be sure that you’ll do your best whatever happens, Josh. You’ll help the people who depend on you. And at the end of the day … nobody else can ask anything else of you.”
Joshua blinked; he might have replied, but he was forestalled by a voice from the foot of the stairs. “Well said, Rob.”
Joshua slumped back against the seat, his eyes staring into the fire in horror. “We’re doomed!”
Rob rolled his eyes and put the coffee cup to the side. He stood to see Dannie, still in her nightgown, with her hair pulled back messily for bed, watching them both. “Hello, honey.”
“Hello to you, too.”
Rob gulped. “We — we didn’t wake the kids, did we?”
Dannie shook her head. “I was feeding Maude when you came in — and Stevie sleeps like the dead.”
Rob barely managed a sigh of relief.
Then Dannie broke it. “Can we talk for a minute?”
Oh, hell! He smiled, sickly, and led Dannie over to the kitchen area.
Before she could start on him, though, he took a deep breath and apologized in advance. “Look, Dannie — I know I maybe shouldn’t have brought him here, but he was three sheets to the wind, and Lord only knew what Heloise and Dad managed between them with the kids –”
“– and I just wanted him to sober up a bit before bringing him home –”
“– and I was trying to keep him quiet, too. I suppose that didn’t work out as well as I –”
“Rob! Calm down.” Dannie laughed. “I’m not mad. Like I said, Maude and I were already up, and Stevie didn’t wake. And I had no idea your brother had such a fine voice.” She laughed again. “I wonder how drunk I’d have to get him tomorrow to get him to repeat that …”
Dannie smiled, then her face became serious again as she looked over her shoulder at Joshua. “How is he?”
“He’ll be fine.”
“Cressida really cares about him, you know.”
“And he cares about her. It’s everyone else that’s got him worried.”
“Ah.” Dannie smiled, that faint smile that said she was thinking, but wouldn’t share the results with Rob for some time yet. That was fine. He could wait. “He’ll be fine.”
“I know. That’s what I was …” He trailed off, biting his lip.
“Dannie — can I just say something?”
“I — I’m glad you’re — we’re — here.”
She didn’t answer quite the way Rob was expecting she would. She didn’t pooh-pooh his fears, or look nervous, or plumb bob herself. Instead she stood on tiptoe, pulled him close, and rested her head on Rob’s shoulder.
“I know, Robby-boy. I am, too.”
Darid 14, 1013