Scotland, in the reign of Queen Victoria, the year 1873
Lady Elspeth McIntosh, the Duchess of Etholl stared and stared, straining her eyes for small changes, any changes, as worry gnawing her heart and she was sick, so much so that she failed to notice the wailing newborn the midwife had presented before her. A baby, which in any other circumstances would have made her jubilant had she not been so distressed about the health of the new mother. “Your Grace,” the midwife called out softly.
Elspeth bit on her lower lip, tension brought such unwanted lines to her face but she could not bring herself to care about that. She was still staring ahead at the mother, who, after suffering such arduous labor became unconscious. “Why isn’t she opening her eyes, Maudie? It has been quite some time.”
Maudie, the midwife, patiently answered, although her tone did sound a bit shaken, “Lady McIntosh did go through such hard labor. And she is so…I mean to say that is, very delicate. It may take quite a bit of time. But,” Maudie looked down at the infant, whose wailing could be heard even from the neighboring Dunbar clan, “Your Grace, she did a very fine job. The bairn is as healthy as they come. And no oddities, Lord be praised.”
This description did help her to turn Elspeth’s attention back to the newborn who was still in Maudie’s arms, crying and protesting so strongly against the world. Some of her tension went off at the sight of that innocence incarnation, the fruit of their prayer, her prayer to become a mother. Sure, the boy would never call her as such but in her heart, Elspeth knew she was his mother too, along with her friend and sister who fought so hard to bring this little one in this world, if not by birth, then by upbringing and that was enough for her.
“Let me see him,” she reached out for the baby. Maudie carefully placed him in her arms, with heaps of blanket covering his small shivering body and suggested how the head should be supported. It was a sad fact that Her Grace did not have a bairn of her own, which was why this boy was the answer to all of their prayers. Merciful Lord! The dukedom was now saved. It’s rightful and ferocious scion had come.
Elspeth was now staring down at the child, her worry, her fear dissolving into a fierce love and a maternal sense of protection for him at that moment, as the child, now became appeased as Maudie had put a honey-soaked cloth into his mouth for suckling and was sleeping soundly in Elspeth’s arms. She hummed a lullaby her mother used to sing to her when she was a child herself and tried to swing him ever so slightly. The boy made a muted gurgled sound and fell asleep, cuddled deeply into his aunt’s arms.
“Such a beautiful boy,” Elspeth whispered with awe in her voice, her eyes glistening over the sheer joy of motherly love that was surging into her soul, making her body quiver with delight, “my beautiful, beautiful baby Duke. My Grace. My love.” She kissed him continuously, cooed over the patch of sable hair from his mother and blue eyes from his father as his smell, his warmth was calling to her and she started to sob softly at the intensity of it; her arms were clutching him to her bosom a bit more firmly unbeknownst to her own consciousness.
But then the Duchess had waited for so long to feel this surge of motherly love, this fierceness, this intensity. And that she had it, she refused to leave it at that and became to her old self. That lonely life was simply unacceptable.
“Careful, milady,” Maudie’s years of teaching in the way of birthing and handling children made her speak up, “the babe should not be squished so hard.”
That pricked Elspeth’s ire. She was normally reasonable, her sweet amicable manner and generosity were, in fact, the talk in the shire. But at this moment, she felt her inability, her failure as a woman in giving birth to a child and handling him was getting picked. She felt she was being reminded that she was somehow…inadequate in this department. That she had failed to do what she had to do. She glared at the midwife, who flinched witnessing her ire firsthand. No one, not a soul had seen the Duchess glaring or abusing the servants working under her before.
Years of training and toiling in the verse of etiquette made Elspeth’s voice calm but as cutting as a whiplash, “Has His Grace been informed of the good news, Maudie? Do take care of it, will you? I am sure Lord McIntosh will be exhilarated of his son’s arrival.”
And there, the servant was rebuked, being put to her place, softly but effectively. Elspeth had already turned her attention to her new love, not caring the least bit if the order was being implemented or not.
Moments later, Lord Lachlan McIntosh, the Duke of Etholl and the newly appointed leader of clan McIntosh burst into the room in a quite unlordly manner, behind him his young brother and the new father. Hubert McIntosh made a straight beeline for his wife, who had given this wonderful gift at the expense of her own life, thus saving the clan and the dukedom. Not to mention she had completed their family, putting the colors of happiness with this baby’s arrival.
Meanwhile, the Duke practically snatched the baby from his wife’s arms, looking at him with such great joy and love and sheer gratefulness, unaware that he was crying unceremoniously. “It’s a boy,” he tremulously whispered, “we…we have a child now, Elspeth,” he looked down at his wife, “and heir.”
“We do, husband, we do now,” Elspeth was openly crying now, “Lord be praised.”
The Duke kissed the baby, clasping him to his chest as if the little boy was his new lifeline now. “Oh,” he closed his eyes blissfully. Anyone and everyone in the society knew how much Lachlan loved children and longed to have one of his own. But the Duchess and his wife was unable to give him this happiness, unfortunately. But now to have someone to love and spoil and to have the burden of providing an heir lifted from his shoulder, he was quite relieved. And mindlessly happy.
“Brother,” Hubert called him out. Although the young lord was happy, delirious even to accomplish such a great feat, making a baby with his loving wife, initiating fatherhood and all, he seemed quite reserved. Babies were a source of ultimate happiness yes, he was very very happy, but his main concern was his wife and it would always be in such order. Yes, their journey might have begun with his intention of creating a family with the wonderful woman but with time he felt the order, the schedule slipped out of his mind. He could only be happy when he could see his wife awakened and healthy as a horse and feeding his child with joy. Yes, then he could only smile and make plans for the celebration. Otherwise, it was all for nothing.
Still, he was a father now. Responsible for this small bundle of joy. His body was calling him to take a glimpse of his newborn. Embracing him, kissing him time and again. But his wife had not been roused. And no joy would be complete without her shy smile gracing it.
“Christ,” Lachlan swore, forgetting his manners in front of his lady wife and that of his brother’s as his face turned down guiltily, “I forgot, Hubert. Sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
No, it was not. It should not be alright. Hubert was, after all, the father of the baby, and therefore had the most priority to hold him, just after his mother. The Duke could understand that. He probably would never tolerate someone touching his boy had he been in his brother’s place. He could relate to the unnecessary protectiveness and selfishness regarding the fatherhood. But bless his brother, Lachlan was given the joy holding the child before he was. It should really be the other way around.
The moment Hubert took the baby, his wife stirred in bed with a soft groan, full of pain and fatigue she might be suffering from. The three of them looked down at her. Forgetting his son, Hubert concentrated his attention to her, cupping her face with one hand so tenderly, one could see the worry being stark in his eyes. “My love? How are you feeling darling?” He put his face closer to her own, his lips slightly touching her brows. His wife moaned, her entire stature seemed so weak, so ghostly, so bloodless. She could barely stare straight, talking became a taxing task for her.
“We must call the doctor, Hubert. Now is a perfect time, I assume” Elspeth wrung her hands quite nervously, as her face again showed off the lines of tension. She felt like a good cry would do her good, but of course, a Duchess should not break down, she must not. That would be cowardly and unreasonable. And while her sister-in-law had done such a brave thing to go through such a difficult pregnancy, she could at least be brave and see to the new mother’s needs.
Even if the mother in question seemed to be in danger. A grave danger.
Hours later, after a thorough examination, not to mention the tearful and bashful refusal on the new mother’s part to show off, to present such intimate facts of her body to an unknown man, the doctor concluded that the lady in question should be well-rested and well-fed and must be observed for any deterioration thoroughly. “As for the baby, I must say, Lady McIntosh did a very good job. The bairn could not be any healthier” the doctor added.
“I say, it’s high time we give him a name” Elspeth spoke up after the doctor’s departure, reverently looking down at the small thing in her arms, her expression was full of maternal love and serenity. From time to time, she leaned down to kiss him on his nose. “What say you darling?” she cooed, “what should be your name?” Elspeth expectantly looked at Hubert, since, by all means, he had the most right to name the boy.
But Hubert shook his head, “No. I cannot.”
Lachlan barked, “What in the devil’s name do you mean, you cannot? That’s your son we are talking about. You must name him. Didn’t you two come up with something in these nine months?” He gave away a mirthless laugh at this as if the question hardly needed to be asking.
“No, we didn’t” Hubert answered, ignoring the jab, while he eyed his son in Elspeth’s arm wistfully. Now that he had been assured of his beloved wife’s recuperation, he was relaxed. And that caused all of the force of paternal longing and the fierce surge of love to course through his body. He was now looking intensely to his son, longing to take him in his own arms, longing for the dreamy scenario when his wife would feed his son her milk and his family would be together, healthy and happy.
But there was another task too; he actually didn’t think of a name for his son. He so deliberately didn’t.
“He is not only my son, Lachlan, but he is also your heir. Your successor. And my wife wants you to name him.”
“Me?!” Lachlan turned gobsmacked, “Good Lord, why? And why the hell didn’t you tell me that before?” The great Duke needed some moment to sit down actually. He seemed he needed a glass of strong malt whiskey too. He groaned, running his fingers through his hair exasperatedly, a habit he practiced in the times of frustration.
Caring for a baby, loving him, playing horsey with him was an easy thing to perform, but to name someone aptly was like…
Hubert kept a solemn face, but Elspeth could see mischief in his eyes. He could sense his brother was hooked by this. She smiled at the brothers’ silly antics.
“That’s it!” Lachlan jumped up from his seating position, the gait entirely comic given the Duke’s fierce looks and equally fearsome temper, but then the occasion did call for some jumpiness, “we should name him Malcolm. After our grandfather.”
“Not to mention our father too.” Hubert reminded him with a guileful smile.
But Elspeth grimaced, “I am not particularly insulting your enthusiasm husband, but to name our child after two men, who had so recently been leaders…”
“Two very fearsome and virile men, Elspeth,” the Duke turned his infamous supercilious glare to his wife, “don’t ever forget that.” He turned unhappy as his wife dismissed the name at the first call. And that was his first attempt too. A man could only take so many insults. First being thrown into a loop by one’s brother, and then one’s wife becoming particularly choosy, Lachlan could do so well if given the task of making a bassinet.
But all he did was glaring at the two of them while gulping down a good amount of whiskey.
“I am not saying that Malcolm is not a good name,” Elspeth readily placated her husband, sensing his growing subversiveness against the task, “but think about it. The baby is his own person and it may not do him good to be shadowed by the deeds of his forefathers. One has to be able to make one’s own choices.”
Hubert also noticed his brother’s growing uneasiness and that forced the chuckle out of him, the first time of that day. “Now now, Your Grace,” he quipped, “this cannot be that hard, is it? Besides you were very excited about the birthing which led me to believe that you would be excited about the naming too.” He winked rather debonairly at the end of the remark and that managed to tick off the Duke. He huffed and if possible glowered at his brother with the promise of murder.
“Alright, alright,” the Duchess intervened, sensing and somewhat amused by the growing animosity between the two brutes of the lords as grinningly she announced, “I will name my boy.” She looked down tenderly at the baby in question, “Although I haven’t suffered from the birth pang, little Iain is still my own son. Therefore, there is it, his name will be Iain Malcolm McIntosh. What say you, Hubert, isn’t it the aptest to take his middle name after what His Grace has suggested?”
“It is, yes. And I am most pleased, Elspeth. Thank you for your coolheadedness.”
While being puffed up about the fact that his wife had chosen his given name for the baby, Lachlan had not missed Hubert’s condescending tone. As much as he would love to break some bones on his face, Lachlan had to get away due to an innumerable amount of duties awaiting his attention. But before that, he didn’t forget to place a tender kiss on the forehead of his sister by marriage, who remained asleep throughout the whole incident due to the doctor’s ministrations.
However, that didn’t prevent her husband from bending down to her, with utmost love and anxiety in his eyes as he whispered sweet nothings after kissing her on the lips again and again. “Did you hear us, love?” he asked, “Did you hear what we named our son? Iain. Isn’t that a strong name? Get up now love, and see for yourself the fruit of our journey together. See for yourself what you have been through and why. And tell me again you love me. Forever.”