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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (10)

We have named this child – my fourth – after me, and I pray that this precious daughter will fare better in life than her two brothers and her sister, none of whom lived to see their first birthday. Her birth was easy, and she seems far livelier and more lusty than those who came before her. I worry that there is some weakness in our family, for of all my parents’ thirteen children, only five daughters survived into adulthood, and of our own offspring, many seem not to live long. Mary has lost but one of her brood, but two of Dilly’s have died, and one of Harriet’s. Pen remains staunch in her desire never to marry, and seems content enough to live still at home – for I will always think of it as home, however long I dwell in my Tom’s house – with our mother and father. I have teased her that she will die an old maid, and she laughs at me, and says that she can think of worse fates. She is still young, of course, only twenty-five, so hardly at her last prayers, and she has a warm and lively beauty that draws men to her, but none, it seems, can match up to her exacting standards.

I sit now in the window seat, comfortably propped up with cushions, and gaze at my daughter, and she, with intent eyes that seem already to be turning darker, gazes back at me. I can see my Tom in her light and gently curling hair, scant though it is as yet, and in the shape of her brows. And that small, determined mouth, I fear, is mine. She yawns, and her small face creases up, and then she begins those small rooting movements that mean she is hungry. Unlike my previous babies, I have decided to feed her myself, though my mother strongly disapproves, saying that women of high degree should not demean themselves thus, and that it will spoil my figure. Mary, however, has supported me in my determination, and so has Tom, and now I revel in this warm, delicious closeness between myself and my daughter.

As she suckles, my mind drifts back to my own childhood, those far-off, happy days when I had no cares beyond the creation of my beloved casket. It sits on the table near me now, outside its box, because I have something to put inside it, in the secret compartment where I keep all my most precious treasures. I have a lock of hair from my beloved only brother, and also wisps of hair much finer, from my two sons and my daughter who died. A few moments ago I took out my beautiful scissors, that I bought in London when I was a child, and so gently, carefully snipped one of the curls from my babe’s head. I had chosen a piece of fine shot silk for her, cut from one of my old gowns which I had altered to make it more fashionable, and in a subtle shimmer of green and blue. I laid the soft strands of hair upon it, and on a little piece of paper I carefully inscribed her name and the date of her birth: the second day of October, in the year of Our Lord, 1695. Then I wrapped it up with a silver lace, tied with a neat bow. Like her dead sister, she carries my name, which was made for me when I was born, and I hope will be passed to her daughter, and to hers after her, just as I plan to pass my beloved casket to her and so on down my female line, if God wills that my children live and prosper.

There is a commotion below stairs, and I try not to start, for fear of upsetting the baby, but she suckles on regardless, busily taking in nourishment. Soon I can hear voices, that of my Tom, cheerful and full of happiness, and those, unmistakeably loud and lively, of several of my sisters. The door to my chamber opens, and there they all are, my husband young and tall in his everyday suit of mulberry wool, for he has been going over the estate accounts with his steward, and Harriet, Dilly and Pen, like a flock of bright birds in their blue and gold and crimson riding habits with the trailing skirts looped over their arms. My eldest sister Mary is not with them, but I do not expect her to be, for scarcely three weeks ago she was brought to bed of another son, Henry, her ninth child.

It joys me to see them, for although I have made a friend of Tom’s sister Sarah, she is three years younger than I am, and seems very much the girl still. Whereas my sisters and I, though we do not always accord, are bound together by the ties of our blood and family, and by our childhood and the sadness and griefs we all share. And though they once took delight in teasing me, and making great play of the fact that I was the last and least, now I am wed, with a home and a husband and a child, I am their equal at last, and if anything it is Pen, still a spinster (but not a sad one as Dilly claims, in jest so she says), who is the butt of their play, and who gives as good as she gets.

“Oh, look, Pen,” says Dilly now, coming closer to me. “It’s a baby! Would you like one of those for your very own?”

My daughter chooses this moment to withdraw her mouth and use it instead to cry lustily at the interruption to our peace. Tom, who I have noticed tends to be inflicted with embarrassment in such exclusively female company, murmurs something about the accounts, and withdraws. I hand the babe to Harriet, who rocks her in her arms, making soft cooing noises, before passing her on to Dilly. There is much discussion about her hair, her plump and solid weight, and her likeness, or not, to either of her parents and other members of the family.

“She is one of us,” says Pen, who through much practice as an aunt can hold infants as safely and securely as any of her sisters. “I can see little sign of your Tom in her.”

“I think she has a look of our mother,” Harriet says. “It is in the shape of her eyes, I think. She is delightful,” she adds to me, with a warm smile. “A thriving babe at last! You must be so relieved.”

“I am,” I say, and though I welcome my sister’s praise, I wish she would refrain from counting my chickens. No life is certain, and even the most healthy and sturdy children can succumb in a few days to fever, or convulsions, or other misfortune.

“And you have given her your name,” says Pen, kissing the child on her brow and giving her back to me. “It does suit her, for she is very like you.”

“You are very brave, to feed her yourself,” Dilly comments, in her tactless way. “I tried it with little Dilly, and I found it hurt so much I could not endure it.”

“It was a little painful to begin with,” I confess, bringing the babe to my breast again. “But I soon grew used to it.”

“And she is obviously thriving on it,” says Dilly. “For my part, if I have any more children – and for myself, I think my brood is quite enough – I fully intend to send them out to nurse, as I have done all the others.”

That does not surprise me, for although Dilly has five surviving offspring, two girls and three boys, she sees little of them, preferring to leave them to the care of nursemaids and tutors while she rides around the countryside in company with her sisters and her husband, or plays at cards with friends and neighbours. Of all of us, she is the least maternal. In fact, knowing my sisters as I do, I feel that it should have been Dilly who remained a spinster, and Pen, kind and loving, who should know the joys of marriage and children. But I can never say so, even to my Tom, in whom I have confided so much.

“I see you still have your casket,” says Harriet, noticing it on the table. “It is such a beautiful piece of work – far better than mine, I must allow. May I look at the garden?”

“Of course,” I say, liking that she has asked permission: Dilly would just have thrown up the lid to examine it, whether I wanted her to or not.

My sister examines the flowers, and the tiny unicorn, and the lady beside the mirror pool. “I had forgotten how exquisite it is. Will you pass it on to your daughter? I will give mine to Henrietta, as she is the elder, but she has no talent for the needle, and I fear she will not appreciate it.”

“Oh, I am sure she will,” I say, but without much hope, for Henrietta is a clumsy girl who bids fair to becoming quite the hoyden, and would rather ride her pony in all weathers than sit at home stitching. And I wonder what my daughter will be like, when she grows. Will she take pleasure in the small details of a woman’s life, embroidery and fashions and housewifely pursuits? Or will she, like young Henrietta, yearn for livelier pastimes? Will she have sisters with whom she can play and laugh and argue, as I do with mine? Or a beloved brother? I do not know, and of course her future – all our futures – hides behind a veil of unknowing. But I wish her joy, and long life, and happiness, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that she achieves such riches.

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