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Elizabeth's Child

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The day after Emily arrived at New Moon Farm, her Aunt Elizabeth rose early, just as she always did. She removed her nightgown behind the painted screen in her bedroom, as she had always done, though until now she had always been alone in her room. She dressed carefully in the clothes she had laid out the evening before. First her underwear before she washed her face and hands in the cool water in the basin. Then the corset, snugly, but not tightly laced. A Murray lady would never stoop to tight-lacing like a servant girl, and Elizabeth had dressed sensibly even in her youth. Stockings and shoes, corset cover and several petticoats, carefully smoothed down over her hips. The mourning dress, the silk stiff and rustling under her hands. Standing in front of the mirror on her bureau she combed her hair, styling it in the same way she had done for years. But then, instead of briskly walking out and starting her day, she continued to stare into the mirror. Not really seeing her own aging face but instead travelling back in time, to that day so many years ago when Juliet had been born.

Elizabeth had never expected to love her little sister. She certainly didn’t love her stepmother, a girl younger than herself. She had never understood why her father had chosen to remarry and to pick such a foolish and unsuitable bride. She hadn’t hated her either, but had maintained a cool civility and continued with the tasks of running the farm, which had been hers since her own mother had died. To have a half-sibling when one was nearing thirty was, if anything, faintly embarrassing and Elizabeth had never thought she would have much to do with it. But the first time she held the infant in her arms her heart opened and she loved like she had never loved before. Not that she didn’t love Laura, and, to a lesser extent, her other sister and brothers. A dutiful daughter loved her father too, even if that love mostly seemed to be a mixture of fear and respect. But in that moment, with the baby in her arms, she realized that she loved her like she would have loved a child of her own. As her stepmother quietly slipped from life, Elizabeth knew that the closest thing Juliet would ever have to a mother would be her. She vowed that her baby sister would lack nothing it was in her power to give her.

Juliet grew up the darling of New Moon where everyone, even her aging and ill-tempered father, doted on her, but Elizabeth was sure that no one cared for Juliet the way she did. She envisioned a future where she and Laura and Juliet would live together on the old farm. They would be the three unmarried ladies at New Moon and they would be happy together. It never occurred to her that Juliet, lively and beautiful, wouldn’t want that life as well. So when her sister went to Charlottetown to get an education, Elizabeth hadn’t even an inkling this would lead to a separation that would last a lifetime.

She, along with the rest of her family, except Jimmy, had been shocked when Juliet announced her engagement with the completely unsuitable Douglas Starr. She had been speechless when her little sister for once didn’t look to her oldest sister for advice, but had, in fact, done the exact opposite. What ought to have been a trifle, easy to dismiss and forget, evolved into a catastrophe with Juliet running away and her family severing all ties to her.

There were letters from Juliet, which Elizabeth burned unopened. Three times she had written and then the letters stopped coming. She was a Murray too and with her own share of the famous pride. Gossip brought the news of a baby girl being born and then nothing, years of nothing, until a messenger came with the news of Juliet’s death. The shock silenced New Moon and in the first awful hours Elizabeth wavered and regretted her silence. If she had only known Juliet was ill, if she had only been there with her beloved sister as she passed away. It were her own actions she had to blame for not being able to kiss her sister one last time. She cried silently alone in her bedroom, far away from Laura’s more voluble grief, but then she dried her tears and told herself that she had done what was righteous and proper. It was Juliet, after all, who had shamed her family when she eloped.

But Elizabeth was still so distraught she let Oliver talk with Douglas Starr about taking care of Emily. Not that she had taken much notice of the girl who had just been a pale and quiet shadow in her father’s arms. But it was the proper thing to do, to bring Juliet’s child back to New Moon especially as they couldn’t bring Juliet herself back to the family grave. To her surprise they didn’t get the girl. She blamed Oliver for that. If she, Elizabeth, had done the talking, she was certain that she could have made Douglas come to his senses, instead of returning to New Moon angry and humiliated and grieving. And now, fours years later, when she hadn’t wanted Emily anymore, it was Emily she got.

Elizabeth shrugged off her memories and returned to the bed where Emily was still sleeping. It was too late to love her now, of course. If she had been able to have her when Emily had been a young child, then perhaps she would have loved her. Or if Emily had looked like her dead mother. But how could she love this strange pale child with an even stranger temper and a peculiar way of speaking? Laura already did, she knew, but then Laura had always had a very soft heart.

Emily turned, but didn’t wake up, and the blanket slipped down. Elizabeth carefully tucked it back, making sure the child was warm and comfortable. The girl was much too pale and even her long lashes couldn’t hide the shadows under her eyes. The fear of consumption reared its head inside Elizabeth. What if the child had already caught her father’s illness? She straightened and quietly went out of the room. Better to let Emily sleep. And she, Elizabeth Murray, had a duty and she would do it properly. She wouldn’t let Juliet’s daughter die young; no, she would see her grown up and healthy. Let Laura love the girl, but no one would ever say that Elizabeth hadn’t done her very best for her niece.