Robert knelt down with them before they approached the bed and held them close around him while he spoke to them, looking at each of them in turn. They accepted that he was now the Master of everything around them, or so they had heard, whatever that might mean. Perhaps even of them. They felt comforted by that, where others didn’t.
They had seen their Aunt Sophia resting in her cot and were not sure what to make of it. Nurse took note, with some surprise, of the clear affection he held for them and strangely, although perhaps not, of them for him.
“Emily, Hester, Anne. Your mother has had some soup and water. She is much better than she was, and she and your Aunt Sophia are both resting quietly now, so we will try to keep it that way, though I doubt you will disturb either of them.”
Before he knew it, Emily had thrown her arms about his neck and hugged him with a sob, almost knocking him over. They had not been sure what to make of being allowed in to see their mother, perhaps fearing the worst, and yet he had said that she had eaten something. He responded almost instinctively and hugged her and the others to him, relieved that he had better news for them than he had feared such a short time earlier. “Now,”—he rose to his feet— “let us go over and visit with your mother. It can only help her.”
Anne immediately moved to Robert and held his hand as the other girls followed him to the side of the bed, looking about them curiously to see all that they could. They had not been allowed in this room for the last week, and no one would tell them anything about their mother.
Nurse watched in astonishment from one side, at the ease with which he had been accepted by the children, even by Miss Sophia from what she could see, and then joined them in case he needed help, though staying back slightly. This was a far different Robert than the one she had known.
He began to realize for himself that he had become a sturdy and available father figure for them in the sudden upset in their lives with the loss of their own father. He easily accepted it. But then his heart had gone out to them the moment he had laid eyes on them. He had not realized that children such as these could affect him the way they did, but they were his brother’s children, and they were special to him for that, and for many other reasons that he could not speak of.
No one paid any attention to Sophia, resting uneasily, and still unable to settle properly until Selena regained consciousness. Sophia’s eyes had fluttered open as the children had entered the room. She lay quietly, more contented than she had been, not sure how she had got onto her cot, but relieved that there was another to help her now. One, she could trust and rely upon to take on the burden, and to be there. One, who was far more capable than she was. She watched and listened. It was devastating for her to realize that her sister was now in much better and more knowledgeable hands, but it was a relief to be able to rest at last.
She had found the need to readjust her own views of some things, and it was a man who had managed it. Yes, he may be a rough sailor and obviously a violent man when the need was there, but he was, nonetheless, a gentle man. She had seen that, as she had first entered the room where his wounds were being treated and had observed the fascination of the children for him, and his responses to them. He had his bloody sword under his hand, and his body told its own tales, but he was nonetheless a gentleman when it was called for.
He had been firm with her, overriding all of her objections about what he needed to do. He was a strange and unusual gentleman, unlike any of those of her acquaintance. Yet his brother would have behaved exactly the same, in the same circumstance. She more than suspected that the rumors and the gossip about him were not as they seemed. She would find out the truth for herself. By observing him as she had, she already knew more of it, and of him, than he might ever choose to tell her.
Most strange of all, was that he had seemed to be an instant magnet for the children as they clustered about him, rapidly losing all shyness. She had been resentful of his easy success there, but then was relieved to see it. He had been here only a few hours and had managed to achieve all of that.
“Is Mama going to be alright, sir?”
“Yes, Emily. She just had a cup of thin soup, and some water, and even lemonade too. We will get her some thicker soup next. When she properly awakens, as I believe she soon should—for I think she is in and out of sleep—we will see if she can take some more solid food. We will see her back on her feet just as soon as we can, with another few pounds on her.” He hoped that what he told them might indeed be true. Children needed hope.
There was some intense fidgeting as Emily wondered if she dared ask a question that had been burning her up for too long.
“You are telling us the truth, are you, sir? She won’t die, will she?” There was a pleading look in her eyes and her face was pale. It was a question that all three girls obviously were in need of a direct answer to, and convincingly, but had been afraid to ask anyone else for fear of being put off with an answer they were not sure could be believed.
“Cross my heart and hope to die.” He executed the actions that went with those words without even thinking about them. He had not said that for twenty, or more years, and surprised even himself that he had blurted it out. The children, however, felt it was the strongest thing he could possibly have said.
“She will not die for a very long time. She will probably outlive me.”
Nurse came along to help. “She seems to have much better color about her face, sir. Yes, indeed she does, and she is breathing better too.”
Emily pushed her hand under the covers, from which her mother’s fingers were showing, and found her mother’s hand to hold on to.
“She is very warm. But”—she almost whispered it, afraid to be told off for suggesting it— “I overheard one of the servants in the kitchen crying, a few days ago, and she was saying that Mama was not expected to live even another week if she did not awaken soon.” Emily had managed to voice that fear that all of them had.
“Mister Benson told her off for saying that in front of us and told her to stop being so foolish.” The girls had all lived with that fear for too long, but they should not hear it so incautiously or foolishly disclosed. At least Benson had dealt with it. Robert added his own comments.
“That was kitchen gossip, and should not be listened to, or believed. One might just as well ask the kitchen cat what he thinks and expect to get a sensible answer. It was also before I came home, Hester. Everything has now changed for the better.” His use of that term ‘home’ was not lost on either Nurse, or Sophia, though each could see a different meaning behind it.
“I told you,” was the look that Hester directed at her sisters. They seemed much more satisfied. That, seemed to explain everything, in their simple world.
“May we get closer, and see her?”
“Yes, of course you may. You can even hold her hand, as Emily is doing, and talk to her if you like, though she is asleep, so she may not hear you. But then again, she might.” He watched as the children moved in closer. Emily looked at him and asked another question.
“Is she in a lot of pain, sir?”
“Not so much now, I think. She even smiles from time to time. Watch.”
They looked at her face, intent on seeing any such changes for the better. They could see nothing change.
“She’s not smiling now. Does she really have a broken leg?”
“Yes, she does.”
“I can see her foot, and some pieces of wood, which I think are splints, and some bandaging, but nothing else.”
“Would you like to see?”
“Oh, yes, sir, we would.” The girls clustered close by him as he lifted the coverlet off their mother’s leg and showed the extent of the splint and the bindings and explained why they were necessary; to hold the bones securely in one place while they knitted.” They did not fully understand what he meant. He was aware of Nurse itching to move in and cover her again but knowing better than to do so.
“That must have hurt a lot!”
“I am sure that it did,” he agreed, knowingly.
Nurse leapt in again, feeling more garrulous than she had for many days, and more grateful for his presence than she might ever admit.
“And you should know. You were a young scallywag, forever into trouble. You’ve had broken legs and arms, and bones enough for two men. Off the roof, out of trees, carriages, off the backs of, I don’t know how many horses, and horse kicks. I lost count.”
The girls looked up at him, and then to Nurse in disbelief and wonderment. They even snickered over it, and then stored that information away for future questions.
“She exaggerates.” He confided to them with a smile, as he also held their mother’s hand upon his own. “I had two broken bones, and one of them was a finger. The rest were sprains and bruises and cracked ribs after I fell out of a tree. Little boys do not bounce very well, and they are so inconsiderate when they leave blood upon everything, and trails of it for others to clean up.” He had done the same thing in the drawing room, earlier. He had a rapt audience.
“Nurse often did not know which of us was which, and loaded all of the injuries, even those that Charles got, upon me, even though your father was not backward in attracting his own injuries.”
Nurse made a noise as she corrected him by reciting other injuries that he had either glossed over or had forgotten. “When you were gored, that cow broke one of your ribs. Then you broke a collar bone when you fell out of that tree house, as well as a toe or two when that log fell onto you. Then…” She could easily have continued.
He laughed. “Enough, Nurse. I had forgotten most of them. They began to doubt that Nurse exaggerated, remembering that Uncle Robert had played down the worst of those injuries that they had seen on his body, and even that recent one they had seen being tended to. He had seemed very fierce then, with his hair mussed up, his clothing bloody, and with an equally bloodied saber in his hand. He had not intimidated them, however, other than when they had first seen him. He brought the coverlet back to cover their mother’s leg, leaving only her foot uncovered.