The end is nearly in sight. There is only one more chapter after this one, and I will try and submit it soon. With thanks, as always, for your reviews.
Annunciata did not return to Hillside by way of the kitchen door, as she had done when she visited last, for the baptism of the twins. Rather, she swept up the steps of the porch and let herself into the house-space in a swirling, whirling mass of black lace and taffeta. Paul, concealed among the aspens, knew she had come by the gutteral moaning of the car that had come from the station and the click of the latch as she stepped out. As her skirts began to swish their way over the grasses he scrambled out of his tree and into the kitchen and said to Di all in a rush, 'Aunt Nancy's come, Aunt Nancy's come, and I must go find Richard.'
Before Di could stop him he was barrelling out of the house and going cross-lots down the hill towards the sea to avoid his aunt. He just registered Di's 'take care of the cliffs,' but it did not matter, he hardly needed the telling.
When Richard came back to the house he crept in quietly, with less noise even than St. Christopher. Annunciata was sitting in the house-space, what she called the drawing room, and Di sat opposite her, with Ruthie and Caro at her feet. A little ways away, shielded by the mantelpiece, stood Colette, seemingly separate to the drama that was playing out before her, her elegant and childish hands occupied with that day's mending, but ever ready to rush in if needed. At that moment though, she was auxiliary; Ruthie was asleep, and Caro, kneeling as though in prayer, watched over her sister and seemed to hear her aunt from the depths of some unreachable place, her eyes wide and blue as robin's eggs. Her mouth had the trembling set to it that suggested tears were nigh and soundlessly Richard came into the shadows and sensing that he too, was for the time being, an extension of the house-space, lay down like a dog around his baby sister's basket. He fixed his eyes on Colette's needle as she worked, and sensing his eyes on her, Colette looked his way and shaped without ever saying, sois silencieux, dis-arien.
'Naturally,' Annunciata was saying, 'I can't be expected to take care of all of them.'
'No, of course,' said Di, 'I quite see that.'
You seem to think they would like you to, she thought, absentmindedly rubbing one of Caro's shoulders where it was made tense from bending long over Ruthie. The gesture soothed Caro and her mouth ceased to tremble. In fact, thought Di, we've been going along tolerably well, all things considered. They had been too; Colette had put to one side whatever work was generally demanded of her by the women in Burnt Church and Alnwick and charging doctor Gregory with looking after them, came with renewed regularity to Hillside, doing all those things she h been used to do, skimming milk and helping indoors, even coaxing Richard into working alongside Peter –a thing only she could make him do –so that there was another pair of hands, even small and unpractised ones, to do help with the out-of-doors tasks. Paul might have helped, had he been older, but as it was Colette coaxed and soothed until Richard went off to help with laying straw or driving the animals or building up a rick as occasion demanded.
None of this, though, mattered to Annunciata. She had not seen them in the weeks since her brother's death, had probably not stopped to think how the house had held together. She knew only that there were six children that needed to be cared for and she couldn't see to all of them.
'I might be able to have one of the girls,' Annunciata said now, 'though not Laura Lee –she's too much like her mother, always answering back. Caro though, or Ruthie…what is it?' this impatiently to Caro, who had begun to whimper at the thought of having her baby sister taken from her. She had hovered over Ruthie's basket almost since she was born, she had sung to her and kissed and cuddled and held her in her still-growing arms, and loved her fiercely. Ruthie was hers had been from the moment she first clumsily shaped Caro's name, opened her eyes and really looked at her, and here was Annunciata threatening to take her away. In spite of her resolution to be as grown up as Laura Lee and collected as Richard, Caro began to cry.
'All these tears over nothing,' said Annunciata. 'Anyone would think you didn't want to leave, Caro. Perhaps, after all,' turning her attention back to Di, 'it had better be Ruthie that comes with me. I couldn't do anything with such a nervous child as Caro is.'
Richard had had enough. He had sat patiently through this discussion of what to do with his sisters and where to send them as if they were parcels being trussed up at the butcher's, he had stuffed a fist in his mouth when Annunciata took exception to Caro's softness and crying –of course she was crying, anyone would cry at the thought of going to live with awful Aunt Nancy –and now she rose, a rustling mass of black lace and taffeta and crossed the room to take Ruthie's basket in hand. Richard uncoiled himself from round it, and rearing his head like the dragon in Beowulf, bit Annunciata's ankle. He had not meant to do it but neither was he sorry he had done.
'Just like a little savage,' said his aunt as she shook him off, 'well at any rate, I shan't be taking you away with me.'
'You aren't to take Ruthie either,' said Richard, 'or Caro, or any of them. I won't let you. I'll bite you again if you try.' He sat back on his haunches and stared up at Annunciata, his deep black eyes the size of dinner plates in their earnestness.
'Icitte,' said Colette, coming away from the mantelpiece and gathering Richard up into her arms, 'vein-icitte, that's enough now,' but she kissed his forehead and he knew she wasn't remotely cross with him.
'Richard,' said Annunciata with severity, and quite as though Colette had never taken him in hand, 'you must go somewhere.'
'I don't want to,' he said sullenly. 'None of us wants to go away. Look at Caro if you don't believe me. We would much rather stay here always. Mummy was here -and daddy too.'
'You can't very well suppose they're here now,' said Annunciata crisply.
'No,' conceded Richard from the safety of Colette's arms, 'but they were, that's the whole point. They wouldn't be wherever we went away to. I've talked about it with Paul and Laura Lee -we'd much rather be here than anywhere else.'
'You know,' said Di carefully, ' I do wonder if that wouldn't be better. It would be a constant of sorts, their staying here.'
'It might be,' said Annunciata dubiously, 'but it can't be done. Who would look after them? Tell me that.' She made it sound like a riddle to rival the convoluted as I was going to St. Ives.
It was Colette, smoothing Richard's hair with the back of her small and capable left hand, who said, 'we would.'
'What,' said Annunciata, 'not you, you haven't lived here in ages. Even you can't think that two people could run this house and manage those children –and Richard half wild? Paul probably is too if it comes to that…it would never work.'
'Three of us,' said Colette, still holding Richard close. She was not sure which of them she did it for, if it was her nervousness he had caught off of her or if he was trembling in her arms out of anxiety all his own.
'I would come back then –otherwise il etait chavirer –it would be madness to try otherwise. We could look after the children between us, they are good children, even Richard–and they need not go away from home with the three of us to look after them. That would surely be best?'
Di did not dare look at Annunciata. It was too much to suppose she would agree. Instead she fixed her eyes on Colette inquiringly; are you sure, said the look she gave her. It was the idea Di had gone over most in an effort to keep the Harris children all together. In it she did not go away but stayed at Hillside –wasn't that after all what she had promised Caro not so long ago –and she and Peter and Colette had seen to the running of the house, the children, the maintaining of order and routine at Hillside. But she had never, in this sketched projection of the future, imagined Colette as staying at the house, not after all that had happened. Coming up to the house and working and helping, yes, but living here again was something else entirely. Are you sure, said Di's eyes as they caught Colette's, and Colette nodded, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards. I'll be all right, said the look she gave Di, and meant it. This is not to do with me, and she dropped a kiss on the top of Richard's head. She might have said more but by then, Caro, usually so still and quiet had begun to wail. It was an anguished noise that rose up out of her abdomen and travelled as a ball on a jet of water, up through her diaphragm and larynx, her throat and lungs until her mouth gave it voice.
'Please,' Caro was saying, the word drawn out to the point of being inarticulate, 'pleeeease, pleease, please.'