Ten Years Later...
Emma watched with approval while Robert -formerly Robbie- put the last touches on the Kissing Bough that hung between the dining hall and the ballroom. She leaned against Leo, who was still in his formal dress from Parliament. Although Parliament would be in recess until January 7th to give its members a chance to celebrate the holidays, Leo had firmly insisted that they enjoy the season in London this year. Although it was not yet obvious, Emma was expecting their sixth child, and her health had been fragile since the birth of their son the two years previous.
As a result, Mrs. Chambers and Mrs. Able shared an uneasy supervision of the kitchen, since neither of them wanted to be away from their beloved Emma for the holidays. Mrs. Noddicott was enjoying a well-earned holiday in South Wales with relatives, and a skeleton crew of villager dayworkers created merriment for those who remained at Menhiransten for the winter.
Louisa Higginsby, Mary Higginsby’s younger sister, brought the children in to see the hanging of the greens. They entered in a merry clatter of hard-soled winter shoes on the wooden floor, all talking at once. Their cheeks were rosy from the cold outside. Even Garth, whose vocabulary was still somewhat limited, announced “Snow cold, Mama, Papa. Snow cold.”
“He tried to bring some in,” Miss Louisa told them.
“Even though I thed it would melt!” seven-year-old Susan lisped around a missing tooth.
Twelve-year-old Beverly tried valiantly to shush the younger ones, but her efforts came to naught when Leo plucked her up, swung her around, and sat her on his shoulder. “Papa!” She protested. “I’m too old for this!”
“Nonsense,” said her father, scooping up Susan in one arm. Faith and Charity, the two youngest girls, each hugged a knee, begging for their share of attention. Laughing, Leo carefully knelt down, setting the two older girls on their feet. He then, with extreme disregard for his good clothes, got on all fours to act as a mettlesome pony for his burgeoning brood.
This game ended when the Yule Log was brought in and placed beside the dining table so everyone could get a chance to sit on it for luck before it was placed in the great hearth in the ballroom. Charity, who was five years old, discovered that she could walk its length by holding her arms out for balance. Of course, nothing would do but Faith and Garth should try it, too. Garth fell off, and set up a fearsome roaring, more of indignation than hurt.
“I do! I do!” he insisted. So, Beverly held his hand and helped him balance.
“He is going to be frightfully spoiled with four older sisters,” Emma observed.
“Not if we take good care that he is well-grounded in manners and respectful behavior,” Leo reassured her. “Four sisters will teach him humility as well as manners.”
When little Garth tired of log-walking, Beverly approached her mother. “May I go read in the library?” she asked.
“Of course, you may,” Emma said fondly. “If you check the schoolbook shelf, I think you will find that St. Nicholas left an early gift for you.”
Beverly flashed a quick smile at her mother and ran off to claim her prize.
“Did he bwing thumthing more for the retht of us?” Susan asked.
“Perhaps,” Leo replied. “But you will have to wait for dinner to be served.”
“Thooo long to wait. Can’t we have it now? Bev is having hers.”
“Her’s will last longer. Just a little patience brings reward.” Emma said firmly.
Susan sighed. Papa could be wheedled, but when Mama said “Wait,” that was the end of it. Emma hid a smile as she saw her little daughter’s decision.
Fortunately, it was not very long before dinner. Susan, her younger sisters, and Garth found that their patience was, indeed, rewarded. A delicate bon-bon and a toy were beside each youngster’s plate. Beverly had a bon-bon, but her book, The Language of Flowers, with woodcut illustrations and a paint box, took the place of a toy.
Leo was very busy these days and did not often dine with them, although Emma sometimes went to the nursery to share their last meal of the day. Thanks to the Vagrancy Act, she was also had little spare time because she and several of the ladies in her set were raising funds for a shelter for the homeless. Any meal shared with both parents was a rare treat, and the children were on their best behavior to avoid being sent to the nursery in disgrace on this day of all days. Even Garth managed his spoon very well and spilled only a little gravy on the front of his smock.
After dinner, the family sat together, preparing boxes for the servants and for the neighborhood poor who looked to the Duke and Duchess of Menhiransten for the odd bit of support. Outgrown garments, handsewn items made by the ladies’ sewing circle, even some bits made by the serving staff on their precious afternoons off went into boxes for the neighborhood children. Although this year was by no means as wet and cold as 1814, the year when Emma had run away from an unwanted marriage and straight into the arms of her beloved husband, the autumn of 1824 had been both wet and miserable. Therefore, each box had its share of hand-knitted socks, mittens, hats, and scarves.
Many of the boxes would be taken to Menhiransten, where Mr. Hamilton and his beloved Melissa would distribute them in the name of the Duke and Duchess. Emma sighed, thinking about it. She usually rode out to the farms and delivered the boxes herself.
“That was a heavy sigh,” Leo commented.
“Just thinking of home,” Emma replied. “I miss being there for Christmas.”
“Perhaps next year. For now, I’d rather you were a bit closer to medical men who are a little more up to date than the village doctor.”
“Honestly, Your Grace, I rather think that our good Dr. Bonesetter is quite as well educated and perhaps more competent than the popular doctors here in London.”
“You are just saying that because he was the surgeon from Arnie’s regiment, the one who mended your hand when you hurt yourself cutting carrots. Is slighting him the reason I am ‘Your Grace’ tonight?”
“Honestly, Leo, my dearest, you are Your Grace because you just put on that autocratic ‘because I said so’ tone of voice. Be very careful, or I shall call you Cicero.” Emma shook a pair of small drumsticks at him.
This caught Garth’s attention. He captured the drumsticks and picked up a little drum that was only slightly worn and strutted about the room, tapping on it busily and making quite a racket. A few minutes of this was all anyone could tolerate, so Miss Louisa scooped him up and declared that it was bedtime. She then ushered the three littlest ones away to the nursery, leaving only Beverly and Susan, who were alternately looking at the pictures in Bev’s new book and admiring Susan’s marvelous reversible doll that was Snow White in one view and the Wicked Queen in the other.
When the last item was stowed in a box, Emma and Leo ushered the two older girls up to bed, then tucked all of the children into their little beds. Garth and Faith were already asleep, but Charity said softly, “Night Mama, night Papa.”
When the children were all in bed, the Duke and Duchess of Menhiransten snuggled together in the extra-large wing back chair in the sitting room just off their bedchamber. They were terribly unfashionable, for they shared a lovely big four-poster bed, even though they enjoyed the convenience of separate dressing rooms.
“I have a letter from Reginald,” Leo said.
“Oh, read it out, please do!” Emma exclaimed, rousing herself from a pleasant snooze within the circle of her husband’s arm.
“He says that the Wiradjuri uprising has finally been put down at Bathhurst, although not without cost on both sides, and that a great more land has been opened up for settlement.”
“I wonder sometimes if we are doing the right thing to move into these places. How would we feel if the Wiradjuri wanted to take over Menhiransten?”
“That is a very interesting thought, my love. Fortunately, I don’t think we have anything the Wiradjuri want. And whatever would we have done with Reggie without Australia to send him to?”
“That somewhat begs the question of what did Australia do to deserve Reggie? But I’ll own it was convenient to be able to send him abroad. It avoided no end of disgrace. I fear I created quite enough of a stir with my own adventures.”
“And a magnificent stir it was, too. You uncovered a suspected traitor and revealed a viper in our midst before he had a chance to bite.”
“Oh?” Emma ran her fingers along a white scar where the hair had never grown back quite right on Leo’s temple. “He tried very hard to bite. I nearly lost you. I’m afraid I think none too kindly of Reginald. I don’t have any shared childhood memories to soften thoughts of his behavior.”
“But you didn’t lose me,” Leo said. “Instead, we found each other.” He kissed her gently on one corner of her mouth.
“We did, didn’t we? Oh, Leo, I do love you so much.”
“And I love you, Emma.”
They held each other close, reveling in the firelight of their own sitting room, and the wonder of having a life together.
“Uncle Parson was livid, as I recall,” Leo said.
“Uncle Zacharias,” Emma corrected. “Which would have been a small loss, but he tried to forbid Aunt Alicia from seeing me. As it was, we could only meet at Mrs. Pearthorne’s house for a long while.”
“And a very jolly place it was to meet, too. Amazing that she still has not married.”
“Why should she? She has a nice little nest egg that her husband left, and she keeps adding to it with those charming little lampoons she keeps publishing. It is enough to make me think that perhaps I should take up writing.”
“Now that’s a terrifying thought,” Leo said. “Would all of our secrets be displayed for the world?”
“Oh, dear no. I think I should rather emulate Mrs. Shelley and write about imaginary places and times. Or perhaps we should purchase one of those islands near Australia. After your trip there, you said that some of them were just about estate sized. And it was quite unfair of you to go when you knew I couldn’t travel.”
“Love, I think that describes much of the last ten years. But perhaps we can work something out.”
“That would be delightful! I want to see the colorful birds and fish. Oh, and those cute little Koala bears, and those great jumping beasts with the pockets for myself.”
“And the cannibals?”
“Oh, Leo, you know that was just something that Robert said to scare me.”
“Well, I’m not perfectly sure about that. Some of the natives are extremely fierce. Still, there is a good chance that you are right. People are always saying wild things about those who live far away. Look at what the Romans said about the Druids.”
“Indeed. They did seem to take a rather dim view of our native people.” Emma snuggled in a little closer.
Leo held Emma tightly, laying his head against her hair. She relaxed into his arms, enjoying the closeness and the warmth of the fire. “Perhaps we should buy an island one day. We could populate it with some of the homeless people, the ones who work at whatever they can. I worry about them, Leo.”
“As do I,” he replied absently, admiring the glint of the firelight on her hair.
“Do you think it possible, Leo?”
“My dearest Emma, when you set your mind to it, miracles happen. If you want an island to populate with beggars, I am sure we will be able to do it.”
Emma laughed, then kissed him. “You do say the nicest things, Your Grace.”
Leo chuckled. “I won’t ask why I am ‘Your Grace’ this time. Buying an island is rather autocratic.” Then he kissed her back.
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