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  • Pamela Belle

MJ (Final)

I know my time is almost done. I can see it in the physician's face as he bends over me, and the tears in the eyes of my daughters as they sit beside the bed. I am suffering from a wasting sickness, which came over me so slowly and insidiously that I did not notice, until Molly pointed it out when she visited, that all my gowns hung over my thin shoulders as if on a stick. I do not think that anything could have been done to avert it, even if I had realised earlier. Mercifully, I feel little pain, just a great tiredness, a longing for sleep, and I know, without being told, that one day soon I will close my eyes and never wake.

And so I will leave this world, leave my lovely girls and my fine son and my little grandchild, leave them to the mercies of fate without my guidance. I do fear for them. Will is tall and handsome, and could have his pick of a dozen eager girls of good fortune and family, but he shows no inclination to marry, to continue his line. Merelina, or Merry as we call her, likewise seems doomed to remain a spinster, though I know she has a partiality for a man who seems not to notice her. Harriet and Dilly are still giddy girls, though they are both nearer thirty than twenty, and they lack discretion and spend their lives in merriment and pleasure. They too show no sign of wishing to marry, indeed Dilly has many times spoken against it, avowing that she would rather live her present life and be happy, than submit to the rule of a husband and the trials and cares of being a mother. And really I cannot blame her, for I have seen how a woman can make the wrong choice, through infatuation or inexperience, and find herself trapped in a cage of misery and suffering. I was so fortunate in both my husbands, much more fortunate than many women.

Only Molly, who had seemed the most giddy of all, seems truly happy and settled. She has her baby, Jermyn, though he is a frail child who always seems to be ill, and she is expecting another next year, which I will not live to see. She and her husband display great affection for each other, which is a pleasure to witness, and she has taken to the humdrum existence of a parson's wife with enthusiasm, though I fear some of the older and more hidebound residents of the parish have been a little shocked by the arrival of this bright exotic flower in their midst. She is the only one of my children whose future I can see, a smooth and shining path. God grant that I am right.

I have disposed of most of my possessions. The process of my dying has been long, and it has given me ample time to set my affairs in order. I have bestowed small gifts and keepsakes amongst my servants, and my girls know who is to have various items of jewellery. There is one possession I have not yet allocated, because I cannot decide which of my daughters shall have my casket, on which I embroidered my beloved home and family, into which I have put so much of my life, whether happy or sad, good or ill.

If Merelina were married, it would be easy. She is my eldest surviving child, she loves it as I do, she will tend it and cherish it as I have done. But she is not married, and she may never be married, and so might not have children of her own, to whom she can bequeath it. For more than anything I wish that my casket may be passed down through the generations of my descendants, an heirloom as precious as any jewel, for I fancy it contains my soul. You may say that is sinful vanity, that when we die we are as dust on the wind on this earth, for our souls go to God - but I wish to be remembered by my children, and their children, and their children's children, and so on down the ages, and remembered not for my name, unusual though it is, for it was made new-minted just for me, nor for my piety nor my devotion to my two very different but beloved husbands or my love for my children - though those are lovely and most worthy things - but for the skill and delight with which I made my casket, and the joy of its creation.

Molly is married, and has one child and another due, and in the opinion of most of my friends and family, she would be the most appropriate recipient of the casket. But she cares little for it, she would not look after it - she would take its box to use for a tea caddy or her jewellery or some such frivolity, and leave it unprotected in the sunlight until the threads had grown feeble and the colours faded away to nothing, and then it would be chopped up for kindling. I love my Molly dearly, but I know her nature, and despite her marriage and her new responsibilities, she can still be careless and she lacks her elder sister's thoughtfulness and sense.

Dilly and Harriet I can barely consider, for they are neither married nor sensible nor thoughtful, and if Molly would not be a suitable person to take charge of such a precious thing, they certainly would not. No, it must be Merelina's, and if she does not marry, perhaps Molly will produce a daughter to whom she can leave it, who can cherish the casket and hand it on down the years.

Much relieved by this decision, I summon my eldest daughter to my chamber. She comes quickly and quietly, as is her habit, and I wonder again that no man has offered for her, since she has a simple beauty of face and expression that to my eyes is very attractive, but that air of firm confidence, that comes from knowing her own mind, might be less alluring to a young man than her sister Molly's brilliance and dash. "Yes, Mama? Are you feeling better?" she asks, with hope in her eyes.

"No better, no worse," I say, with perfect truth. "Merry, I have something to give you." And I nod to my maid Sarah, who has been with me for some years now, and knows what I wish her to do, almost before I wish it myself. She goes over to the chest in the window bay, and lifts out the gleaming box which contains my casket.

Merry's eyes follow her, and widen with sudden joy. "Mama - do you mean to give me the casket? But will not Molly want it for her daughter, when she has one?"

"You will have a daughter," I tell her, with such absolute conviction that I can see she believes me. "You will marry the man you wish, in the fullness of time, and you will have a daughter, perhaps two, and you can pass it to them, and tell them the stories that I have embroidered into it. I love your sisters dearly, but I know them, they have no interest in the casket, and they will not cherish it as you will. I have made sure to give them a little more of my jewellery than I am giving to you, so they will not feel slighted."

"They will not," says Merry firmly, and I know she is right, for though my daughters have not always got on together, they are neither greedy nor spiteful. "Mama, thank you so much. I will take the greatest care of it, and teach any daughter of mine to do the same." She bends to kiss me, and I see that her eyes are wet - as indeed are my own. And I think again of how I have been blessed with my children, that whatever might befall them, whatever their flaws and foibles, they are kind, generous and good-natured people, whom it has been a pleasure to know and to love.

"May I look at it?" she asks a little later. I am holding her hand, so Sarah comes forward and opens the box and brings it out very gently, and puts it on the bed beside us. She helps me sit up so that I am more comfortable, and I lift the lid to reveal the garden, though the effort is almost beyond my strength now. Once more, as so often, I talk about how I made it, and the people depicted on it, now all departed, though I know that I will meet them again very soon, in a better place than this.

"And I love the little treasures you have kept," Merry says softly, as I begin to open the doors and drawers. "Especially those tiny silver things from your baby house - the plates and candlesticks, that lovely little coffee pot and the skillets and a warming pan, so beautifully made, that you let me play with when I was a little girl. And letters too - are they from Papa?"

"Of course - I have bound them in blue ribbon. You may read them if you wish, they speak only of joy and love."

"And this?" She lifts out a folded scrap of paper, and I smile, thinking of when it was written, so long, long ago. "Yes, that is also from your Papa. It is a little poem, hardly more than doggerel, that was composed by him when first we knew each other, when we were hardly more than children. I kept it because it reminds me so much of him, and also of my sisters who were so beloved, though, like you and your sisters, we did not always agree."

Merry reads it, and laughs. "Was it true? I know it is true of you, Mama, but what of your sisters?"

"Oh, very true," I say, and laugh with her, though mine soon turns into a cough, and Sarah brings watered wine for me, and another dose of the foul draught that the physician will insist I take, though both he and I know that it is futile.

Much later, when the girls and Will are all dining downstairs, I lie back on my pillows, feeling my breath falter, for even Merry's brief visit has left me exhausted. Sarah is making up the fire, though it is August, and later she will close the windows against the night. I close my eyes and listen to the sounds she makes, and to the birds singing in the garden, and the tuneful whistle of someone in the court below, and further away, the wind in the trees and a dog barking far off. Soon I will be gone, and I will greet again those whom I have loved - my mother and father, my lovely, lively sisters, the little girl I lost when she was a delightful moppet of seven years old, my second husband, so unexpectedly dear. There will also be that bright, heedless boy whom we loved so much, perhaps too much, who had five elder sisters to spoil him, and yet was not spoilt: the little boy who forever runs with his dog on the side of my casket, immortalised in silks and threads. And above all my own Tom, the love of my life, the father of my children, taken from us too soon, and remembered with joy and sadness mingled.

I do not need to look again at the paper on which he wrote his little verse, for I have known it by heart all these years. But as the room grows darker, and the sounds fade, I recite it to myself with a last smile.

'Mary, quiet, sweet and kind

Harriet ever speaks her mind

Dilly argues night is day

Pen insists on her own way

And Merry, without guile or art

Will always love with her whole heart.'

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