Seryl 21, 1013
If Cressida’s mother was around, she would surely be scolding her for lying on her back in the middle of the day. There was Work to Be Done. What that work was might have put Pamela at a loss for a moment. A maid came in every day and took care of all the heavy cleaning, leaving Cressida only to tidy up every now and then. Lunch was already over and the dishes cleaned, so Cressida didn’t have to worry about that. The boys were at school, and Baby Belle was playing in the next room. There was no shop that Cressida needed to run. Still, Pamela would have doubtless found some work that Cressida ought to be doing.
However, Cressida had a trump card in that if she hadn’t been lying here quietly, she surely would have been heaving her guts into the close stool. Either way, no work was getting done. The universe would doubtless forgive her, and as for Pamela … what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. Or Cressida, for that matter.
What I want to know, she wondered, staring at the ceiling above her head, is why they call it “morning sickness” if you’re not even sick in the mornings. When she had been expecting Ned, she had been sick mostly in the afternoons and evenings. Now she always felt sick to her stomach after lunch, without fail. Or whenever she caught a whiff of a strong scent. For some reason, the lavender she always used to press between her clothes and now Joshua’s had nearly made her faint last week. She still hadn’t found something to replace it with, and had instead taken to holding her breath whenever she opened the wardrobe. Besides, was the search really worth it? The morning sickness usually went away by the start of the third month, and Cressida reckoned she was about halfway to that point.
Of course, that meant that she would have to be telling Joshua soon … the sooner the better … and she had no idea how to begin to do that. Dannie had told her how nervous Rob had been when Dannie was pregnant, and Rob wasn’t even the one who had lost his wife.
But Cressida would not think of that now. Now, she would think of driving the nausea away, and that meant lying down and smell the snapdragons she kept by the bed. With luck, she would soon be right as rain.
Cressida reached up and rubbed one of the leaves between her fingers. The waxy repetitiveness was almost as soothing as the smell. Almost. There was very little as soothing as the smell of a good snapdragon, Cressida was finding. Amazing — she had never responded to a flower this positively before. And it couldn’t just be the pregnancy. Joshua had bought her a bouquet of them for their one-week anniversary and every week since, and from the very start, Cressida had always felt refreshed and energized after a single whiff of snapdragons.
Maybe, next market day, she would go to the flower stall run by the Plantsim and his wife and buy a bouquet of snapdragons to go in the parlor, on top of the one that Joshua would (hopefully) buy for their bedroom. She would bring Baby Belle with her, too. She would love the market. She would want to run around, talk to everyone, see everything. They would have a grand time, they two.
Cressida closed her eyes, took a deep breath of the flower-scent, and took stock of the state of her stomach. Things felt much calmer down there. Good. As much as the idea of lazing around all day like a countess or duchess might be appealing in theory, in practice, it tended to get very dull very quickly.
She would go and check on Baby Belle.
The moment the door opened, Baby Belle looked up and dropped her unicorn toy. “Mama!”
It had only taken a fortnight for Baby Belle to go from calling her “Mama Cressida” to just “Mama.” But Cressida’s heart still melted to hear it. One of the stupid, foolish things that had kept her up at nights after Edward had died and Ned had been born had been the thought that she, the youngest of four sisters, might never have a daughter of her very own. She wondered what she would have said if someone had told her that the first little girl to call her “Mama” would be born sooner than she could ever imagined.
How sad, though, that Isabel never got to hear her daughter call her “Mama.” Joshua had told Cressida that Isabel was both an only child and a very fashionable, consummately feminine woman. She must have longed for a daughter as much as Cressida did. And now Cressida was the one blessed with the raising of that daughter — and maybe more daughters, Wright Willing. Maybe she was carrying one now.
“Hello there, Baby,” Cressida did, picking Baby Belle up and lifting her to her hip. Baby Belle would be getting too big for this soon. “Were you having fun with Hornie?”
“Uh huh!” Baby Belle nodded.
“That’s lovely.” Once again, Cressida was grateful that she could manage to say the unicorn’s name without so much as a slight snicker. The unicorn had been her gift to Baby Belle after the wedding, but the name had been Baby Belle’s idea. Joshua would have made Baby Belle change it, too, if Cressida hadn’t begged, cajoled, and finally persuaded him that it was too hilarious not to leave the name exactly was it was. She had been proven right, too. The first time Dannie and Rob came for dinner after the wedding and Baby Belle had insisted on showing them Hornie, Rob had nearly spit his ale halfway across the table and Dannie had laughed herself under the table.
“Mama?” Baby Belle asked, eyes going round and pleading.
“Can you read to me, Mama? Please?”
“Of course I will,” Cressida answered. It still amazed her, how Darius and Baby Belle both took reading and being read to as a matter of course. Cressida had learned her letters at school, and she could read and write well enough to keep accounts and write and read letters from her sisters back in Port Graal. But when she was growing up, the only book in the Chausseur household had been the Book of Wright, and being read to wasn’t a treat, it was a chore. It was always the last thing that happened on Saturday night: her father, and later her mother, would take the next day’s lesson and read it aloud to the girls. They were expected to sit still and be quiet for it, then go to bed and think about it. And then, the next morning, they were expected to sit still and be quiet while they listened to it again and were told what to think about it.
“Come on,” Cressida said, putting Baby Belle down so she could walk with her to the study, “let’s pick out what book you want to read from, shall we?”
“Aye!” Baby Belle ran forward on her little legs, leaving Cressida to follow.
The books that the children liked were always kept on the bottom shelves, in easy reach. Between Rob and Heloise, the Wesleyans had amassed a fine collection of child-friendly texts. But there was one that was getting much more well-thumbed than all of the others, and that was the one that Baby Belle dashed to and pulled out. “This one!”
Of course that one — the collection of old wives’ tales, stories of magic and princesses and adventure. According to Joshua, that had been Babette’s favorite when they were growing up. But according to Mark, the tales that Babette had requested over and over again were not the same tales that Baby Belle wanted to hear.
Cressida settled herself on the floor in front of Baby Belle. “Which story do you want to hear?”
Ah, yes, of course — that was only Baby Belle’s favorite story. Cressida cleared her throat and began, much less haltingly than she used to be begin, “Once upon a time, there was a woman who wanted to marry a widower. She had a daughter and he had a daughter, and to convince him to marry her, she promised that her daughter would drink water and bathe in water, while his daughter would drink wine and bathe in milk. The man agreed and they were married. And on the first day, the man’s daughter drank wine and bathed in milk, while the woman’s daughter drank water and bathed in water. On the second day, both girls had water to drink and water to bathe in. And on the third day, the woman’s daughter drank wine and bathed in milk, while the man’s daughter drank water and bathed in water. And so it continued on in that fashion for a long time, until one day …”
The story went on, but Cressida barely had to concentrate on it any more. Instead, her thoughts wondered and wandered. Why was Baby Belle so drawn to this story? It wasn’t — it couldn’t be because of her, could it? Cressida did her best to treat all of the children equally. If anything, she spent the most time with Baby Belle, because Baby Belle didn’t go to school all day …
Cressida worried over this problem until she got to the part when the duck was flying into the woman and turning into the dead queen. Then she had no time for more worrying — the door opened and an absent-looking Mark came in.
“Grandpa!” Baby Belle cried out, hurrying to her feet.
Mark jumped — looked around — and finally looked down. “Baby Belle! What are you doing in here?”
“Mama’s reading to me!”
“Is that so?” he asked. Mark sent a brief, strained smile to Cressida. Cressida smiled back. She barely had time to do so before Mark swooped in and picked Baby Belle up.
“So, my dear,” he asked, hoisting her up to better look into her eyes, “what’s Mama reading to you?”
Without a word, Cressida too rose and put the book on the desk. She wished she knew what she had done to make Mark so … distant with her. She never thought of him as an unfriendly man, or an unkind one. He certainly wasn’t anything of the kind with Dannie. But with Cressida, he was all politeness and firmly maintained distance. Had he been this way with Isabel? Or was there something else at play?
Dannie had said something about Mark having a “mad” idea shortly after Helena had died, and somehow or other, Cressida marrying Joshua had kept that idea from coming into fruition …
Maybe things would change after the baby came. He would have to accept her then, wouldn’t he?
The baby …
Maybe she could …
Cressida bit her lip, sized up her opponent — laughing with Baby Belle over her favorite story still — and decided in that moment that she would go for it. What did she have to lose?
Still, she waited for a natural lull in Mark and Baby Belle’s conversation. No point in ruining her approach with rudeness. “Ma–Grandpa?” she asked, running a nervous hand through her hair. “When you have a moment, can we … talk?”
Mark turned to her with wide, surprise-ridden eyes. “Talk? Aye–aye, of course.” He gulped. Poor man. He probably thought he was going to get a tongue-lashing of some kind. But Cressida knew better than that. You caught more flies with honey than with vinegar. And seeing how Mark always was with Darius, Baby Belle, Stevie-weevie, Maude, Morien — even Ned! — she thought she had some very sweet honey on offer indeed.
Besides, she could kill two birds with one stone this way. What could possibly go wrong with her plan?
Mark bounced Baby Belle once or twice, uncertainly, looking around the room. Baby Belle looked uncertainly around the room, too. “I, uh …” Mark shrugged. “I have some time now …”
“Now is good for me, too. Baby Belle? Would you mind if I finished the story later?”
Baby Belle pondered that, eyebrows furrowed together, bottom lip protruding. “All right!” she finally said. “I already know how it ends.”
Neither Cressida nor Mark looked at each other as Mark put down Baby Belle and she scampered off. It was the only way to keep from laughing.
Then, without a further word, Mark followed her until she went into the nursery, and Cressida followed Mark. Mark sat himself down by the nursery door, smiling faintly at Cressida as she too sat.
“Well?” he asked. “What did you need to discuss … Cressida?”
He was definitely expecting a tongue-lashing. At least Cressida could disabuse him of that. “Well …” She smiled, winsomely, turning her head so that her dimples showed. “I have some news, and, as long as promise not to tell Josh before I do, I want you to be the first Wesleyan to know it.”
“Ne–news?” he asked, brow furrowing.
He didn’t guess? Well, perhaps it had been a long time. “Aye, good news! But I admit, I also have an ulterior motive.” She laughed. “I need your advice about how to tell Josh.”
There was nothing else, now, but to spill and spell it out. “Aye! You see,” Cressida made certain to grin, “I’m all but certain that I’m with child.”
There was no hiding the fear and dismay that flashed, so briefly, over his face.
But it was replaced — almost immediately! — by a smile. A wide smile. “Why — Cressida! That’s wonderful news! Congratulations!”
The saddest thing, Cressida saw, was that the smile and the congratulations were both just as genuine as the surprise and the fear. Amazing, how Isabel’s ghost still lingered over these men: Joshua, Rob, and even Mark. Cressida wished she could have met this paragon. She must have been something, if the hole she left in these men’s lives still haunted them almost four years later.
And how was Cressida ever to grow to fill that hole?
“So, tell me!” Mark went on, keeping that smile plastered on his lips. “When is the newest little Wesleyan due to make his appearance, eh?”
Cressida hesitated. Should she give the old man his moment and answer? Or should she pounce?
His grin was starting to waver. Cressida pounced. “Mark … could you answer one question for me, please?”
“Are you more happy than worried, or more worried than happy?”
Mark blinked, his mouth falling open in a silent gasp. Then, a quiet chuckle. “My word. You don’t pull any punches, do you?”
“With all due respect, I’d hardly call that a punch.”
“Still.” Mark pulled out a handkerchief and mopped at his brow. “What would you want me to say, Cressida? Of course I’m thrilled that you and Josh are having a baby. I just wish …”
I never thought you wouldn’t be happy about that. I just wondered what would be stronger: your happiness, or your fear?
Mark sighed and leaned his head against the wall. “Do you know,” he murmured, “I was sleeping on this very couch right before Isabel went into labor the first time. And Josh … Josh said she was napping here right before she went into labor the second time.” He sighed. “We weren’t worried then, with either of those times. Not like we are now. We were just excited and happy.”
“If it makes you feel better, I have no intention of going anywhere, either when this baby is born or for a long time afterward.”
She wondered how he would react to that. He only shook his head. “I don’t think Isabel had any intention of going anywhere, either.”
Well, so much for telling Joshua that, if she had to.
Cressida sighed. “You see why I wanted to ask your advice? If you’re this frightened and worried already … what will Josh be like?”
“Worse,” Mark answered. “Much worse. He … he cares about you deeply, Cressida. And after Isabel … after Helena … we can’t lose another woman. I don’t think we’d survive it.”
“We … or he?”
Mark turned to her in shock.
Cressida only shrugged. “I’m not a fool, Mark. Nor am I unobservant.”
“I like you just fine!” Mark gasped.
“But Josh married me to keep you from doing … something,” Cressida replied. “Something that you wanted to do. That he didn’t want you to do.” She shrugged again. “I wouldn’t blame you if you blamed me for that. It’s only Sim nature.”
“Josh told you?”
“Dannie dropped some hints.”
“Ah. Dannie.” Mark nodded. “Of course.”
Cressida folded her hands in her lap, crossed one leg over the other, and waited.
Mark watched her out of the corner of his eye. “Do you … truly want to know?” The very thought that she might seemed to both startle and confuse him.
“If you want to tell me,” Cressida answered. That, after all, was a far more polite answer than, YES!!
Mark’s mouth opened, and shut, and opened again. Finally he sighed. “There was … a woman. A beautiful … wonderful … woman.” He laughed. “I had this … this mad idea of marrying her. Because — oh, you’ll hate this — because after Helena died, the house was in an uproar, Josh and I didn’t know what to do, and all I could think was, ‘We need a woman around here.’ And then I thought, ‘Wei Li is a woman.’ But I see now that it never would have worked.”
Mark’s jaw fell — then his eyes narrowed. “You have no idea who Wei Li is … do you?”
“… Should I?”
Mark pondered that. “… Probably not,” he admitted. “She’s — well — she’s the type of woman you don’t bring up in polite company.”
Cressida blinked. “And you wanted to marry her?”
“Like I said — it never would have worked.” He sighed.
“She must have been some … woman,” Cressida finished. Even if she knew plenty of words to describe this Wei Li … well, you didn’t bring them up in polite company.
A sudden drawing back on Mark’s part — then a leaning forward, peering at her with squinting eyes. “You … you mean that, don’t you?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Everyone else,” Mark murmured, head turning, staring at the piano even if Cressida doubted he actually saw it, “seems to think I’m a fool to have even considered it. A doddering old fool, infatuated and out of his senses, ripe to be taken advantage of by some … woman.”
“Do you think she was trying to take advantage of you?”
Mark blinked at her. “I — well — don’t you?”
“How should I know? I’ve never met her. But you have.”
“… She never acted like she was trying to — to trap me for more …” Mark bit his lower lip. “She even said … well, she was very comforting to me after Helena died. And she seemed to mean it …” Mark sighed. “Sometimes I even think she might like me.”
“Then why don’t you find out?”
Mark gaped at her.
“Talk to her,” Cressida replied. “Ask her how she feels. Even if marrying her is out of the question, if she makes you happy, then why shouldn’t you be happy?”
Mark stared at Cressida. He turned to stare at the piano. Then he stared at Cressida again.
He had probably never asked himself the question before. Cressida wished she could be surprised. But in her experience, her question was one few ever bothered to ask themselves.
“I don’t know,” Mark mumbled. “I … how? How would I even begin?”
“Mark, you’re — what? Fifty years old? If, by this point in your life, you haven’t some idea about how to talk to a woman and find out what she feels, I feel you’ll never learn.”
“But Josh … Rob …”
“What business is it of theirs? If you were to marry her, perhaps it would be their business — but if you just spend your time with her? You’re a wonderful father to them, and a widower besides. What right have they to dictate your pleasures to you?”
Mark chuckled. “Are you willing to tell that to Josh?”
“Only if you’re willing to help me figure out how to break my news to him,” Cressida winked.
Mark did not laugh. He didn’t even smile. “He’s going to worry, Cressida. There’s nothing you can do or say to stop him from worrying.”
“I want him to be more happy than worried, though.”
“Then … I don’t know. I don’t know how you can make him more happy than afraid. But …” He bit his lip.
“But … think of it like this. If everything goes well — then all of his worry now will only make him happier in the end.”
Cressida sighed. It wasn’t the answer she wanted. She did not want to spend the next seven and a half months with her husband worrying himself sick over what should be a happy time.
But she had a feeling that that was the best answer she was going to get.
Perhaps … perhaps the best way to show Joshua that this was supposed to be a happy time was to do her best to make it a happy time, and let the chips fall where they may.
So, that night, when Joshua came home, Cressida made sure to park herself at the front door with a smile on her face.
Joshua stared at her in some surprise — even more surprise when she launched herself into his arms. “Well! What did I do to deserve this greeting?”
Cressida grinned up at him. “You gave me a very fine gift, sir!”
“A gift?” Joshua asked. “It’s not bouquet day.”
“Ah, you didn’t give it to me on bouquet day.” At least, Cressida didn’t think he had. Not that it mattered.
“Uh oh,” Joshua laughed. “Is this the kind of gift that I give you unawares, and get the bill for later?”
Oh, he was just playing right into her hands, wasn’t he? Cressida laughed. “You might say that.”
“Oh boy. How big of a bill is this going to be?”
“Hmm …” Cressida pursed her lips together. “With luck, a very big one.”
“Lots of luck,” Cressida replied. While Joshua was staring at her in what was looking dangerously close to terror, she added, “But don’t worry. I’ll be making the … the down payment, shall we say? In labor, though, not in coin.”
“In labor? What kind of labor?”
“Women’s labor,” Cressida replied. Joshua’s eyes narrowed — she could see the gears in his mind starting to turn. Good. “Because you see, that gift you gave me … it was kind of like you planted a seed.”
Joshua’s eyes went wide.
“And for some time, I have to take care of that little seedling … feed it … water it … keep it nice and warm and safe. And in, oh, seven and a half months or so … I’ll be able to show you what kind of fruit we both made.”
“And we will both be very happy.”
Joshua did not look happy. He looked terrified. “Cressida …”
“Shush.” She tapped a finger against his nose. “This is good news. Wonderful news. There’s no reason to worry.”
“No buts, Josh.” She leaned in and kissed him, slowly, gently. “We’re both going to be very happy. And so will our baby. Just you wait and see.”