Children of One Family
by Pam

Part Nine

 

Coming down the hall towards the breakfast room the following morning,
Margaret paused at the sound of her son's treble raised in some query, then
her brother's light, clear voice answering. Curious, she stole up to the
doorway, peered into the room . . . and smiled at the scene that met her eyes.

Archie and Robin had been breakfasting together. Even now, the fair and dark
heads were bent over their respective plates, as they lavishly applied butter
and jam to the steaming interiors of Mrs. Polwhele's famous scones. Much
concentration and diligence that task required-- although Robin wielded his
own knife with more enthusiasm than skill, christening the tablecloth, his
napkin, and his smock with flecks of blackberry jam.

"Like jam," Robin informed Archie with great seriousness, just before taking
a huge bite of something that looked to be more jam than scone.

"So I see," his uncle returned with equal gravity, reaching over to wipe a
purple streak from his nephew's chin.

Margaret's smile widened. If Archie's behavior with Robin was anything to go
by, he would make an affectionate and attentive father himself one day. Her
son had quickly become attached to his newest uncle; now he accepted Archie
as if he had always lived at Keverne. Which meant, she acknowledged ruefully,
that there would likely be tears at parting--although she suspected that not
all of those tears would be Robin's.

Just then Archie looked up from his plate, caught sight of her, and smiled
back. "Good morning, sister. Look who's here," he added to Robin.

"Mama!" the child hailed her through a mouthful of scone.

Margaret came forward into the room, shaking her head indulgently
"Goodness! Is that my little boy there, under all that jam?" She dropped a
kiss on Robin's unsticky forehead, set about cleaning the rest of his face
with a napkin. He squirmed and attempted to protest, but the resistance was
only token and he submitted soon enough to her ministrations.

"Would you like a scone?" Archie offered, as she finally took her seat at the
table and poured herself a cup of tea. "Young Robin and I just managed not to
pig the lot."

"No, thank you. Tea and toast will do--I believe I'm still full up from
yesterday." Margaret selected a piece of thinly buttered toast from the rack
and spread it with the blackberry jam of which Robin was so fond. "If I ate
like that all the time, none of my gowns would fit."

"Mm." Archie's eyes scanned her critically, as if he were about to say
something. To forestall him, she hurried on, "Medora's still abed. So is
Henry, I think. Dinner at Tresilian Manor appears to have taken a toll."

"Hardly surprising, under the circumstances. I think I've lived through
battles that were less frightening."

"For once I shall not accuse you of exaggeration."

"Better Frogs than fishwives, eh?"

"What's a fishwife?" Robin piped up.

Margaret gave her brother a mildly admonitory look. "'Pitchers have ears.'"

"Women who sell fish, young Robin," Archie replied, without missing a beat.
"Finish your breakfast?"

Obedient to his uncle's suggestion, the little boy stuffed the last part of a
jam-laden scone into his mouth. Margaret shook her head again, smiling,
and added milk to her tea. "That reminds me, Archie. When you're finished
with *your* breakfast, there's something I want to show you."

*****

Once the breakfast things had been cleared away and a much-besmeared Robin
borne off by his nurse for a quick bath, Archie followed his sister upstairs
to her own room. Walking into the bedchamber, Margaret opened another door
leading into what seemed to be a small sitting-room and motioned him inside.

Archie raised his brows at what he saw gleaming on the nearest table. "A
treasure trove?"

"In a manner of speaking." Margaret gestured towards a chair drawn up to the
table, seated herself directly opposite. "I overheard part of your
conversation with Medora last night--about how nice it must be to have a
memento of one's mother. And I thought it only fair that you should have a
memento--*mementos*, if you like--of ours."

Archie sat down abruptly. "That's--that's very generous, but I couldn't
possibly--"

"Don't be silly. She was mother to us all--it is right that you have
something of hers as a keepsake. Except for a few bequests, most of her
things came to Alice and me--we divided everything between us the year of her
coming-out.

"Much of it is jewelry, but not all--and I tried to select things that would
be to your taste. I did not think that you would be interested in Mama's
pearl necklace. Or her diamond earrings. Although," she added thoughtfully,
reaching out and tweaking his earlobe, "I have heard that some sailors favor
such trinkets."

"Not this sailor!" Archie rejoined hastily, batting her hand away.
"Margaret, are you sure about this?"

"Perfectly sure. I'd do the same for Malcolm and Duncan, if they ever
expressed interest in having something of Mama's." Margaret pushed a carved
wooden jewel box towards him. "Will you not at least look, my dear?"

Archie dutifully began to sift through the contents of the box. In spite of
himself, he felt a flicker of interest as the trinkets and treasures of the
past came to light. He paused over an ornate coffer, heavy with gold leaf and
no bigger than the palm of his hand. "Is this--"

"A snuff box," his sister confirmed. "I understand that some women partook
of snuff, though I don't believe Mama ever did. There was a tortoiseshell
one that she used for her needles and pins. I think, though," she added,
leaning forward for a closer inspection, "that Mama inherited various items
from male relations and could not bear to dispose of them, for all they were
no use to *her.*"

"Mm." Archie set the snuff box aside--he'd never understood the habit's
appeal in the first place--and resumed his excavations.

More boxes, but much smaller, designed to hold toothpicks. Various pairs of
shoe-buckles--pinchbeck, silver, one studded with what appeared to be
diamonds but Margaret assured him were only paste. A heavy gold watch chain
that he contemplated for a few minutes before rejecting as a little too
ostentatious for his taste. Heavy brooches meant to gleam among the snowy
folds of a cravat, stock pins plain or ornamented with gems. A fan of painted
chicken-skin . . . the absurd image of himself wielding such an object in
front of his shipmates moved Archie to incredulous laughter, in which
Margaret readily joined.

At the bottom of the jewel box were rings, some signets and seals, others set
with stones as large as a man's knuckle. Archie glanced at his square,
capable hands and shook his head--even if he ever had the opportunity to wear
rings, most of them just wouldn't look right on him. It would take long,
tapering fingers like Horatio's to do justice to rings. Still, he admired the
dusky sheen of a black pearl, then the cut of a huge square emerald,
appearing dark and lightless one moment, flashing green sparks the next. And
there was a ruby, flanked on either side by a milky seed pearl, set in a slim
band of gold. Archie slipped the ring on his little finger, the only one on
which it would fit, and watched the light awaken deeper fires in the stone.

"I remember that ring," his sister remarked. "Pearl and ruby--Mama called it
'tears and fire.'"

Archie smiled. It must be a sign of the ruby's quality that he could look at
it and think of roses, sunsets, and rich red wine, rather than drops of
blood. "It's very fine, but too dainty for me." He slipped it off his
finger. "It would look best on the hand of a prince--or a lady."

"That could be arranged." Margaret eyed him speculatively. "You could save
it, for when you have a sweetheart. It would make a lovely betrothal ring."

Sweetheart. Betrothal. And everything those words implied. Oh, God . . .
Archie shivered suddenly, his throat closing, as memory took over.

//Hands on him, rough and hurting . . . pain in places no one should ever
have to feel it. A knee on his chest, driving the breath from his lungs. A
face looming over him, its gloating expression thankfully blurred by the
tears in his eyes . . . //

"Archie!" Margaret's voice, yanking him back to the present. He surfaced,
shuddering, found himself once more in his sister's sitting-room, staring
into worried blue eyes so like his own.

"No." It came out half-strangled, but distinct enough for the purpose. He
cleared his throat, repeated more forcefully, "No. I do not think that
likely," he added, belatedly remembering what they had been discussing.

"What, having a sweetheart? Or getting married one day?" His sister's gaze
was still perturbed.

"Either. Both." He mustered a small smile that he hoped looked more
convincing than it felt. "In the Navy, they advise against any officer
marrying until he's made captain. I'm a long way from that--only an Acting
Lieutenant."

"You won't *always* be an Acting Lieutenant," she pointed out. "Once you
earn your commission--"

"*If* I earn my commission," he corrected her glumly. "I need a surer grasp
of navigational maths before I can even think of taking the examination for
lieutenant. God and Horatio willing, I can somehow avoid the fate of being
the oldest midshipman in the fleet!"

"You're being far too hard on yourself," Margaret reproved. Falling silent,
she studied him for several minutes; Archie tried not to squirm under her
scrutiny. "So, that is why you will not consider any sort of--involvement?
The fear of . . . failing to advance?"

No, not entirely, Archie admitted to himself, but it would do well enough as
an explanation. He tried to infuse his voice with as much conviction as
possible. "I've no right to wed unless I'm in a position to support a wife.
And it's asking a great deal of any woman to marry a sailor, especially in
wartime."

"Perhaps," she conceded. "But I think you would be surprised--to learn just
what sacrifices love is willing to make." Again, the blue eyes surveyed him
intently. "And that is *all* that's troubling you? My dear, I do not wish
to pry, but for a few moments, you looked positively ill."

"Well, what man wouldn't, to think of his bachelor days coming to a premature
close?" Archie offered flippantly. He replaced the ring in the jewel box.
"I'm afraid I'll have no occasion to wear rings or brooches in my current
profession. But perhaps the silver shoe buckles--the plainer pair. If I *do*
pass my examination someday, I shall need to purchase a new rig, from top to
toe!"

"Of course." Margaret picked out the chosen buckles, set them by his right
hand. "And I've something else for you to look at as well." She pushed
another box towards him, this one large, flat, and far less ornamental.

Opening the lid, Archie exclaimed in pleased surprise as his mother's face
smiled up at him from several miniatures. "I had not thought there would be
so many!"

Margaret smiled serenely. "Nor had I, but it seems that Mama--along with her
sisters, for that matter--was a favorite subject of portrait painters. You
remember the Reynolds in Kennedy Manor, the painting of her our father liked
best? When Alice married, she asked for a reproduction of it as a wedding
present. Sadly, Reynolds himself wasn't up to the task by that time, but he
did have some able apprentices. The miniature you're holding now," she
added, "must have been done when she was about twelve."

Archie looked down at the rosy, dimpled face of a young girl, dressed all in
white. Her two companions in the painting were similarly clad. "And these
would be our aunts?"

"Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Cecilia, yes," Margaret confirmed, studying the
miniature in her turn. "I suspect the artist may have had a 'Three Graces'
conceit in mind when he painted them--otherwise, why dress them all alike?"

"Very possibly. Classical subjects are still quite popular." Archie reached
for another likeness. It seemed that Margaret had been right: their mother
*had* been much admired. Granted, artists worked by commission, but
nonetheless, the details in each portrait were rendered so carefully--one
might even venture to say, tenderly--as to suggest at least some affection
for the subject. Mother had not been a raving beauty, he conceded
reluctantly--her features had lacked perfect symmetry and she herself had
lacked inches--but her countenance had held an expression of ineffable
sweetness. All the painters had captured some of that quality, along with
the brightness of her red-gold hair and the warmth in her cornflower-blue
eyes.

There were several fine miniatures showing their mother at various ages, but
Archie's favorite was of a young matron, perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six
years of age. The early bloom had ripened into a mature glow, though the
merry eyes still revealed a laughing, girlish spirit. Gazing down into the
pictured face, he felt again the sharp pang of loss, then, to his horror, his
eyes began to sting. He set the miniature down hurriedly, pressed his
fingers hard against his brow, blinking furiously until the threat of tears
receded. "Forgive me, I . . . " His voice choked to a stop.

"Oh, love! " His sister's cool fingers caressed his cheek. "There's no need
to ask forgiveness--not when I've turned into a watering pot over these
myself." She picked up the miniature, smiling wistfully. "She was just a
few years older in this one than I am now. And there's so much I wish I could
tell her."

Archie nodded, still not trusting himself to speak.

"She always gave so much of herself, without stinting, without counting the
cost. And she was never robust . . . oh, she wasn't a weakling, but she had
to husband her strength--and she often forgot to do so, until it was
practically spent."

Archie's mouth twisted. "I don't suppose having a youngest son with fits
helped."

Margaret stared at him. "Mama adored you."

"It might have been better for her if she hadn't!" The words wrenched
themselves free, bitter and still raw after all these years. "I remember how
she and Father would quarrel--about *me.* He wanted to send me away, to live
with a cousin in Scotland. She wouldn't allow it. Those battles . . . they
had to have taken their toll on her."

"They were battles she *chose* to fight, Archie!" Margaret leaned forward,
taking his hands in hers. "And in the end, Papa gave in. He never could deny
her when she had her heart set on something. You cannot suppose any of us
blame you for that!"

"Why not?" Archie asked painfully, through a thickening throat. "I've--I've
always *felt* somewhat responsible. That she mightn't have been ill,
mightn't have died . . . if I had not been such a bone of contention between
her and Father--"

"Archie!" His sister's voice was sterner than he had ever heard it. Through a
haze of tears, he saw anger and indignation etched upon her face . . . but
not directed at him. "You are *not* to blame! I don't ever want to hear you
speak as if you were, ever again." Her hands tightened their grip, burning
blue eyes locked with his, seeming to bore into his very soul . . .

. . . and what she appeared to see there made her recoil, her expression
altering to one of undisguised dismay.

"Oh, my poor dear," she breathed, in an entirely different tone. "You don't
know! No one has ever *told* you . . . "

"Told me what?" He barely recognized the hoarse croak that emerged as his own
voice.

"That Mama died in childbirth."

 

END PART NINE