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The Willow

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The Willow

 

She shuts the draw stiffly, almost too forcefully, and Charles looks up from his sketch. He watches her for a moment with a furrowed brow – the angry jerks of her body, and the look of consternation on her face. She had braided her hair straight away tonight, instead of leaving it down the way she knows he likes. She had also donned her nightgown and her dressing gown, despite the fact they are alone in their room and the rest of the house is sleeping. It’s not particularly cold, but combined with her attitude all day it gives a clear warning for him to stay away from her.

“Is something the matter?” he asks kindly. Everyone has bad days, after all, and Laura had once warned him of her temper.

“No, nothing” she says. She promptly shrugs out of her dressing gown and slides under the covers, snuffing out her candle.

“You sure?” he asks, tentative and confused.

“Goodnight Charles” she says with finality, shifting under the blankets in an obvious sign of impending sleep. “Turn out the lamps when you’re done”

He almost gives some smartass reply, but decides against it. Obviously she’s upset about something – maybe even something he did, though he can’t fathom what – and he has been married before, long enough to know not to antagonise.

He is hurt, though; that she won’t talk to him about whatever is troubling her. It stings a little. This might be the first time since he arrived that she hasn’t been an open book to him, and he doesn’t like the distance that is created between them by lack of communication. She had always said that he had to be open and honest with her about his feelings here. He had assumed that went both ways. He leaves it for now, but resolves to confront her about it tomorrow if she isn’t in a better state.

He waits until he can hear her breath even out before he quietly packs his things away and turns out the lamps, sliding under the covers with her. He doesn’t pull her into his arms or wrap himself around her; instead he stays on his side of the bed and ponders what could possibly be wrong.

The house has been going through a bout of colds these last few weeks. Everyone has been feeling miserable, including himself, so maybe it is merely a remnant of that. But she would speak to him if that was the case.

He sighs to himself and forces sleep, hoping that tomorrow will reveal some answers.

When he wakes it’s to an empty bed, and he just makes it downstairs in time to see Laura dressed and walking out the door, Mary and Mrs Clarke seated in their nightwear at the table.

“Oh, Charles, I’m taking Buckle into town early, I have a meeting, if you would be so kind as to see Mary to school in the wagon?”

He just nods dumbly, processing the scene. She’s out the door before he can question it further, and his housemates look at baffled as him. Mrs Clarke has a quirk to her lip that he doesn’t like, but he can’t decipher it at this time of day. Laura never takes the single horse with her; if they split their travel it’s always him on the horse and the rest of them in the wagon.

Frankly he’s finding these couple of days a real head-spin.

He busies himself in breakfast and in Mary’s excited chatter about a school art project, and tries to ignore the knowing look from Mrs Clarke as he eats his porridge. If she has an inkling as to what’s going on, he’d rather she just tell him, instead of eyeing him across the table.

He gets Mary to school and opens the paper without fuss, knowing Laura is at whatever meeting she arranged without him. Fred comes in a while later, and they get busy for the morning, and after a couple of hours he just accepts that Laura must not be coming in before lunch and lets it go. They are not so co-dependant that he will fall apart without her, and he trusts her to tell him what’s happening in her own time.

Just before he goes home for lunch he stops by the post office, and there in beautiful thick parchment is a letter from St Louis, enclosed with a cheque for his first months’ worth of cartoon sketches. The trip to the city had been remarkably uneventful and involved no time travel, and he laughs to himself now over it, glad to be making a regular salary. Glad to still be in 1897, if he’s truthful. Because of the correspondence and the distance involved, he will only be paid every fortnight instead of every week, but it’s still a decent amount and it will add to his nest-egg that he wants to set up for his family.

He makes his way to their small shed out the back of the paper where they keep the horses, and is confused for a moment to see Buckle there. The cart and Turnip are gone, but then he figures Laura must have collected Mary for lunch and taken them both home, so he just gets up on his horse and rides back to the farm, a grin on his face the whole way. Perhaps word of his first payment will put Laura in better spirits. 

Charles bounds inside the house, ready to share his good news, only to stop dead at the scene before him.

Mary is sitting quietly at the table, not saying a word or even greeting him as he walks inside. From down the hall and up the stairs he can hear the mutterings of Mrs Clarke, and then the very soft voice of Laura. She sounds distinctly upset, and he is immediately on alert.

“What’s going on?” he asks Mary gently, placing a hand on her shoulder. She looks up at him, and for the first time in their entire acquaintance looks every bit her eight years. She just shrugs under his hand. Having heard his voice, Mrs Clarke comes storming down the stairs and into the kitchen. Her expression is nothing short of thunderous.

“You’d best get in there and hold her tight, and then have a think about what you’ve done” she chides. Her words seem ridiculous, but have the effect of making him feel about five years old. He has no idea what she’s talking about, and before he can ask her she has stormed out the back door and down the step to go walking in the garden to control her emotions.

“Is Mama alright?” asks Mary, her voice small, looking at him for answers.

“Why don’t I go find out?” he says softly, trying to make it seem like he knows exactly what’s happening when really he has no clue. Mary just nods and he places a quick kiss in her hair, unsure how else to comfort her as she rests her chin on her crossed arms, slouching over the table.

He scrambles upstairs, leaving Mary for the moment, and rushes into the bedroom to see Laura positively beside herself, hiccupping on the bed through her tears.

“Sweetheart” he says, bounding over and sitting down next to her, pulling her into an embrace. “What on earth is going on?”

She huffs a few watery breaths, calming herself, holding his sleeve. He is so far beyond confused. He pets her hair and holds his arms tightly around her, rocking them gently.

“Laura, what is it? Please talk to me. What have I done?”

She sniffs, and then straightens, blinks hard, and meets his eye. He thinks she’s probably the strongest person he knows, considering whatever is happening has shattered her inside. He reaches up and wipes the tears gently from her face, and it almost breaks her resolve, but she pulls herself together and looks at him squarely.

“I went to the doctor today” she says.

A knot immediately forms in his stomach. She went to the doctor and she’s crying. A thousand possibilities run through his mind, and all of them lead morbidly to the vision of him and Mary standing beside a hole in the earth, both dressed in black. He is almost physically sick at the thought, and her expression does little to comfort him, especially after the last two days of stony avoidance.

“I have been feeling poorly this last week, as you know”

“What is it?” he asks. His voice breaks a little.

“Well, it’s not a flu as I expected”

“Laura, please, I can’t… please, just tell me. Please”

Her demeanour crumbles a little and another bout of tears well in her eyes. She runs a hand down the side of his face, and he doesn’t know what that means.

“I’m with child, Charles” she whispers. The fresh tears fall, and her expression looks completely heartbroken. Of all the things he was expecting, this was not it, and it takes his brain another moment to catch up to the fact that she’s not dying a horrible death right here in his arms. It takes a few moments more for the reality of her condition to set it. She waits patiently for him to process it all, waiting for the anger and the worry and the upset.

All she gets is a bewildered blankness and a few long blinks. It could almost be comical.

“Did I just hear you right?” he whispers. “Did you just say-?”

She nods slowly, her lip quivering. “Yes. I’m pregnant”

She starts crying again as soon as the words are said, and he spends several long minutes holding her close and rocking her in comfort, baffled by her reaction. Beyond the reality of a child – an honest to god baby, with Laura, here, in 1897 – he tries to think of this from her perspective. Mrs Clarke had sounded so angry. No, not angry; terrified. And he knows she has a right to be – childbirth is hardly the safest experience to go through at the best of times, and he and Laura are not young parents. They wouldn’t have been young parents in his first time either, but early forties seemed a hell of a lot more acceptable in the 21st century than it does here.

Laura’s mother is not the only one scared of what this will mean. Suddenly Laura’s tension the night before makes so much sense. She must have known it in herself.

“Laura, look at me. Look at me” He holds her face gently between his hands and makes her look into his eyes. She bites her lip. Her hands still hold his arms tightly, as though he might pull away. “This is good news” he whispers.

She sobs again, once, a kind of aching relief coursing through her as she falls back into him. He shushes her, and rocks them again, rubbing her back.

“I’m sorry Charles”

“Sorry? What for, you have nothing to be sorry about”

He pulls away to look at her, and she finally forces the tears to stop, wipes her eyes, and talks to him through her runny nose. All sense of dignity is long out the window, and it’s not like he hasn’t seen someone cry before. He pulls his sleeve over his fingers and helps her wipe her face.

“This wasn’t… we never discussed this” she whispers.

“No, we didn’t”

“I didn’t even think it was possible, you have to believe me, I didn’t-”

They didn’t plan this. They didn’t bank on Laura being able to conceive, not when she’s just past forty and she had so much trouble having Mary. Honestly, he had never thought much about it, too caught up in his wonderful new family; his girls. There is still a decent chance she will lose the child yet, and that’s one more thing to worry about. But even more frightening is that she will carry to term and he will lose her, or both of them. He feels equal parts terror and elation, and he’s never had to balance those two before in his life.

“Laura” he interrupts. “I love you. I love you. I am so unbelievably thrilled, I can’t… I know we didn’t plan this, and I know this is terrifying. But I’m happy, Laura. I’m so damn happy”

“You are?”

She sounds completely confused. She looks like she doesn’t understand what he’s saying; like it never occurred to her that his reaction would be positive. All she can think about is how difficult labour was with Mary, when she was eight years younger. About what would happen to Charles if she died and left him alone here with her bitter mother and grieving daughter, and perhaps without their infant too. And if it does survive and she doesn’t - the burden on him to raise a family by himself, as well as the paper and his new job, all in a foreign time. Or if they lose the child – can the two of them bare it? She feels horrible that of all the options, that one seems easiest to cope with, and that thought just adds to her grief because of course she wants a baby with Charles. It is the ultimate gift of love, to bare his child and call it theirs, and raise a family together.

She looks at him closely and sees tears in his eyes. But they are not tears of anger of grief; they are tears of joy. She never expected this.

“You are giving me the most amazing gift” he continues. “A blessing. And I know how dangerous this is, and I know that a thousand things can go wrong. Don’t think I’m not aware of it Laura, I am, and it scares the shit outta me”

She is so shocked by his delight that she doesn’t even notice his profanity.

“But a baby. Our baby”

He places a hand reverently on her stomach, right where her flesh has become firmer. She had tried to ignore it; tried not to think of the signs she has experienced three times before. When she’d gotten ill she’d first thought it was merely her turn for the household cold; then after a while a stomach bug fit her symptoms. But looking back she’d known. She’d known deep down what was really happening, and maybe that’s why she’d ignored it so long. Denial was better than an unknown future.

But she watches her husband’s face as he looks where his hand rests. He looks in awe. Gleeful, if a bit shell-shocked. She places a hand over his and he looks up at her, smiling.

“Thank you” he whispers, before pulling her into a passionate kiss. She embraces him tightly, overwhelmed by his acceptance and by how unexpected his reaction is, kissing him back. She’d been worried for nothing. She had twisted her fears into something irrational.

But Charles has made no secret of how much he loves her and depends on her here; he never holds back how much he adores her, and the thought that a child would change all of that for him suddenly had her concerned that their balance would be upended. She had focused too much on the negative, and until this very moment hadn’t allowed herself to entertain the dream of watching him hold their infant for the first time as she looked on, exhausted but happy. Healthy, the both of them. It’s a far more pleasant fantasy.

After a long embrace he pulls away and kisses down her neck, quick pecks, and his arms around her back. Then he is suddenly on his knees before her, his arms along the side of her legs as his hands cup her hips, her fingers threaded in his hair. He presses his face to her stomach, his lips right above where their child grows, and she can tell by his breathing that he is crying. Her eyes water again, watching him there practically worshiping this revelation. In that moment she wonders how she could ever think his reaction would be less.

He looks up at her, unashamed of his emotions, and runs his hands along her sides.

“I’m going to take care of you. Both of you”

“I know you will” she whispers, her hands caressing his hair.

“I mean it, Laura. Nothing is going to happen. I will do everything to keep you well. And we’re going to be a family, and I’m going to make sure we have the best of everything”

She laughs at him happily; at how adamant he is, and how overjoyed he is, and how wonderful he finds this. She smiles at him for his seriousness, knowing that he can’t see what she sees; that having him for a father is the greatest gift her children could ever receive; that they could be paupers and still it wouldn’t matter. This richness of life – that which they discussed on the first day they met – is right here, in this moment.

“The only thing I need in this world is you, Charles” she says, cupping his face and pulling him up to kiss her.

“I love you” he says against her lips, and then again “I love you, I love you”

She merely hums against him, and he pulls himself back up next to her, his arm around her back and the other lightly caressing her stomach.

“I’m going to help you” he says.

“You will tell me all you know, from your time?” she asks, her tone imploring more than curious. She wants to know – anything that will see her and this child through this in good health.

“Of course I will. I don’t know much, but anything that will help, I will tell you” She breathes a sigh of relief. “Starting with - this corset has got to go”

She pulls back just far enough to meet his eye, momentarily startled. He almost laughs at her, but doesn’t, because the request it serious. She can feel his hand resting steady on her stomach, right on top of the bone in her corset. She never pulls it very tight, because the physical demands of the printing press and the farm demand able movement. But despite flying in the face of tradition, she still adheres to some of the normalities here, including the fashion. Especially when wearing her finer clothes, a corset is practically necessary to retain their shape and form.

“I mean it” he says lightly. “All that pressure on your stomach, on your lower back. You have to let your body be free to change the way it needs to. You’re growing a tiny human”

She does laugh at him then, nodding, glad that he is being both helpful and light-hearted. She does want his help, but if he suddenly applies a heavy hand and demands bed rest and all nonsense that she just might scream. She’s pregnant, not an invalid. Plus she knows his opinion on corsets – knows that he can’t stand that she still wears one, even if it’s much looser than younger women prefer. It’s a testament to his time that he gets so angry over it, and the next few months will be a welcomed excuse to forgo the uncomfortable garment. Perhaps (though she doesn’t say this) she won’t wear it again once she has the child. This is a country town, after all, and she is an employed woman with an understanding husband and a farm to run. Few would notice, and fewer still would care.

She lets that go to the back of her mind for later consideration.

“Alright, then help me change” she says, standing and pulling him with her. She is in her maroon skirt and vest, so it’s easy enough for her to remove her clothes herself, but he is happy to help while they talk.   

He steps to the door and closes it, aware that Mary and Mrs Clarke are still downstairs. They haven’t been disturbed yet, which means Mrs Clarke must be content with the quiet and is willing to leave them to discuss what they need to. She must have also reassured Mary, because the child hadn’t followed Charles upstairs.

They don’t have much longer before they should head back into town for the afternoon, but they can always take a pack lunch with them to the paper.

He steps back over to Laura and starts to help her undress, the moment intimate but not overly sensual.

“What else?” she asks, placing her vest neatly on the bed while he starts on her shirt buttons.

“No heavy lifting, or straining”

“I know that one” she says with a smile. “Some things are timeless”

“Good. Which means my lessons in the veggie patch might have to become a priority”

She laughs at him as he finishes with her shirt buttons, shrugging out of that too, and placing it on top of her vest.

“I mean it” he says. “I’m taking over the ploughing”

“Well can I at least dig up the vegetables?” she mocks.

“Sure. Just no pulling up stubborn roots. I know my way around a flower bed at least, I can lend a hand”

She hums at him in agreement. There isn’t very much he doesn’t already help with around the house – something else that smarts with her mother – so she thinks this might be a short list of prohibitions. But it’s thoughtful of him to start immediately thinking of her various duties and what he can do to help. Things like chopping firewood and mucking out the stable – things her husband would have done had he lived – he has already taken over, so there isn’t a lot of strenuous work for her to think about.

“And the printing press” he adds. “Any issues with press repairs or jammed levers any of that - you tell me, and let Fred or I sort it out”

“You know, for a man so intent on us being equals, you sure are putting down a lot of rules” she teases. He kisses her nose in reproach, but only smiles. He won’t apologise for being protective, and she doesn’t mean it as a complaint. She thinks it’s cute of him.

“Have you been very sick?” he asks. He feels guilty, because he should know this answer, but for all the time they spend together there still might have been occasions she hid it from him.

“No, not very. I don’t, usually”

He knows better than to pry – than to assume she’s talking only of her pregnancy with Mary. She never told him how far along she was when she lost the first two, but it must have been enough to notice being pregnant in the first place; to have had symptoms. He is unbelievably sad for her. He is also momentarily scared for this life inside her now.

“What did the doctor say?” he asks, reaching behind her to undo the clasp on her skirt. She steps out of it and places it on the bed, quickly undoing her petticoat and stepping out of that too. She risks a look at Charles’ face and almost laughs. He always seems flummoxed by the amount of layers she wears.

“That I am in excellent health for my age” she starts, rolling her eyes at herself as he reaches for the clasps at the front of her corset. It’s not tight, so it’s easy enough for him to do, and she watches him closely with a smile on her face. He only grins at the last part of her answer.

“And that I am perhaps a couple of months along”

“Months?”

She nods and hums, amused by his shock. Obviously women find out much sooner in the future, but for Laura the only real way to detect pregnancy is to monitor her own body and take a guess.

“And that nothing I’ve done seems to have caused injury. He did tell me to include more meat in my diet, so we might have to make some concessions to buy more”

Charles straightens and tosses the corset on the bed with a smug grin. “I might be able to help with that”

“Oh? How so?”

He reaches into his inside vest pocket and pulls out the letter and cheque, unfolding both to show her. She gasps quietly and then looks at him with a smile, her eyes bright. “Charles this is wonderful” she beams, her hand on his chest as she skims her eyes over the letter. “Your first payment. And my, you did work a generous deal, didn’t you”

“This little extra money coming in will help us save for the little one, and for Mary’s school. And we don’t need to worry about buying you red meat. We’ll get you all the iron and protein you need”

She looks at him confusedly, but he just shakes his head and leaves it be. He’s no chemist, and can’t properly go into detail about the discovery of dietary compounds and their effects. She doesn’t press – just assumes it’s another piece of random knowledge that he let slip. He does that sometimes; says something that he knows, but doesn’t have the background knowledge to properly explain to her. She finds it fascinating that in the future people take so much information for granted. But then, Charles is always learning from her too, so perhaps they’re not so different.

“Nothing but the best for you, Laura” he says, kissing her forehead. He remembers something about raw fish, too. Or maybe that was sushi. Either way, they don’t eat much fish, and when they do it’s just trout that they catch in the river. He thinks that should be fine. For the most part they eat fresh-made bread and vegetables from the garden, plus whatever meat they buy in town. The wonderful thing about eating here, despite the lack of refrigeration, is that it’s all fresh and free of chemicals.

“And I know other people might say different, but will you do me a favour and not ride Buckle by yourself?”

She meets his eye again, agreeing with him but also asking him to explain.

“It’s not the riding that worries me so much - it’s the risk that you might fall off. I would feel better knowing you’re in the wagon”

“Very well” she says, nodding in acquiescence. She isn’t put out by his overprotectiveness – she thinks it’s sweet, and besides, the reduced risks and better food is nothing she wouldn’t have suggested herself at the appropriate time. But it’s strange to hear him talk so openly about it; most men here wouldn’t know the first thing about pregnancy, and yet Charles – who has no children of his own – seems to know a great deal about anecdotal care. She wonders for a moment about all the subjects that must be open to discussion in the future; all the barriers that get knocked down to make a man as open as him.

“I want you safe and healthy” he says to her. “Both of you”

He places his hand against her stomach, able to feel it for the first time with only her chemise between them. She hasn’t yet started to grow, but the softness of her stomach has started to give way – taught and firm where before it was flat; a roundness there. He runs his fingers lightly against her, feeling the difference, and runs his hands higher to cup her breasts. They too are fuller – he had wondered if he was imagining it before, but they are. She hums in pleasure at his touch, but a clang from downstairs breaks their spell. Just as well, or they might have continued to undress each other and forget all about going back to work.

He meets her eyes, clouded with want, and grins. “Just you wait until later” he whispers.

She bites back a whimper and closes her eyes, turning from him to collect her discarded clothes. He helps her methodically redress, refraining from teasing her further. In a few short minutes her skirt, shirt and vest are back in place, sitting just slightly different from before. She’s so slight that the corset hardly makes a difference, but he’s happy to know she isn’t wearing it any longer, even if she will complain that her bodice isn’t fashionably slim.

“Let’s go tell Mary the good news, shall we?” he says, gesturing his head towards the door. “She was very worried before. And your mother nearly took my head off”

She smiles a little bit. “She’s just concerned. I think I scared her. And she didn’t know how you would react to the news”

“Laura, she’s worried for her daughter. I understand that now. And I’m going to do all I can to make sure you are well taken care of, so she doesn’t have to worry quite so much”

She just nods at him with a half-smile and he moves to go to the door. “Charles” she says, stopping him. He turns and faces her again. “Does… that… does it… can we-?”

He grins at her and whispers. “Can we still have sex while you’re pregnant?” he asks.

She blushes fiercely and nods, refusing to look him in the eye because she just knows he’s almost laughing at her. She’s heard stories that some people don’t – that it can be harmful, or painful, or it can cause the cord to wrap around the baby’s neck. She’s not sure any of that is true, because she and Will still occasionally made love when she was pregnant with Mary, but what she’s really asking is does he want to.

“Every night” he whispers, and she huffs at him in embarrassment. “So long as you feel comfortable, and we don’t go swinging from chandeliers” he adds.

She covers her mouth and giggles fiercely, burying her face in his shoulder. He chuckles too and wraps his arms around her, kissing the side of her neck in comfort. It’s good that their mood is much better, he thinks. It will be good for Mary to see them happy, and hopefully assuage some of Mrs Clarke’s anxiety.

“We’ll take it one day at a time, okay?” he says.

She nods against him and sighs happily, her stress relieved a little knowing he’ll be with her all the way. She wraps her arms around him in return and enjoys his embrace, content to be joyful about this for just a moment.

“And Laura?”

“Yes?”

“I want you to consider… I mean, I know it’s probably not done, but-”

She pulls back and looks him in the eye. “What?”

“I’d like to be there. In the delivery room”

Her eyes widen and her mouth pops open in shock. That’s one thing she never even thought of.

“I know that’s asking a lot, but I’d like to be there. Not just to make sure everything is okay, but because - the time I come from, that’s what Dad does. He comes in to hold your hand and rub a cold cloth on your head and tell you how beautiful you are. I want to support you through everything, including the hardest bit”

Tears have welled in her eyes again, and she purses her lips to hold them in. He knows he’s probably overwhelmed her, and he doesn’t want to push it when they have to get back to work. But he does want her to know that he’s not just here for the easy stuff, and he wants to help in every way. He has to hold himself back in his excitement – too much can happen in the meantime – but now that the shock has past, he’s looking forward to being a father more than anything in his life.

“Just think about it”

“Okay” she whispers.

“Now come on, we have some news to share” he says, smiling. Ideally they would wait, in case anything went wrong, but it feels right to share the good news with just their little family. They will wait to tell friends, but Mary at least deserves to know, and Mrs Clarke obviously already does.

He takes her hand and leads them to the door.

“Just how mad will your mother be if it’s twins?” he whispers to her on the landing.

She laughs at him and hits him lightly on the arm as they make their way downstairs.

Mary bounds up to them in much better spirits, as Mrs Clarke looks on with a wary look on her face. She must have heard Laura’s laughter, and can see the protective way Charles holds her. Perhaps her fear is not totally abated, but she does take comfort in knowing that her son-in-law will do his utmost to see Laura in good health.

They all gather around the table to tell Mary, and for just a moment the whole house is joyful – no fears or worries, or memories of past regrets. Just the impending joy of new life on the way, and the related excitement through the eyes of a child. An overwhelming sense of family – of rightness – that Charles spent his life looking for he somehow found here, and no matter the stress or concern he can’t wipe the smile from his face.