THE PARTING GLASS
But since it fell into my lot
that I should rise and you should not
I'll gently rise and softly call
Goodnight and joy be with you all
Scottish folk song
It was after three when he got home and he crept up the stairs in an effort not to wake her. When he passed the bedroom he could hear soft cooing, a gentle hush, then his name.
He placed his hand on the door, breathed in the smell of carbolic under his nails.
'Yes, I'm back. Goodnight.'
'Don't go –'
Gilbert pressed his head against the door, it was cool against his skin and he let out a sigh. He tried not to go into this room if he could help it, and held the handle uncertainly.
'Gilbert, are you there?'
His face appeared, hazel eyes lowered to the floor.
'If you wouldn't mind putting some wood on the fire... I have my hands full.'
Gilbert allowed himself a brief glance to where her voice had come from. She was sitting in the rocker his wife had bought last year, in the corner by the window looking out at the sea. Light fell in gossamer beams across the woman's bare shoulders. Her nightdress had been unbuttoned and it gathered by her elbows. Resting in the crook of each were two fuzzy heads, one larger than the other. Another glance confirmed the cribs were empty. She was nursing both babies at once.
He went to the pile of apple logs stacked in a copper pail and began to bank the fire. The scent of carbolic grew stronger as he warmed his hands near the embers.
'You must be exhausted,' she said.
'I was about to say the same. I didn't think older babies required night feeds.'
'He doesn't,' she said, hugging him closer. 'he's just a greedy little goose. The moment I have your daughter in my arms he seems to know about it and won't stop squawking till I feed him too.'
'It's your milk,' said Gilbert unthinkingly, 'it's so sweet he can smell it – I...' He stood up and rubbed his hands over his thighs. 'Sorry, that was – I'll leave you to it.'
'Don't you want to say goodnight to your girl? You haven't seen her all day.'
'I've just set Peter Ingham's ankle, I have to wash up.'
'You smell plenty clean to me,' she said, then smiling added, 'though perhaps not as sweet.'
'Diana – '
'Come over here and say goodnight to your daughter. Come,' she commanded, 'it's not like you haven't seen this a hundred times before.'
He walked to her stiffly, hands now crossed against his chest. The fire threw amber light over the room and his daughter's hair glinted softly. He reached out to cup her head, hovered, touched a single curl, then dug his hands into his pockets.
'Hair's getting darker.'
'And Jack's getting balder. Look at him, the little fatty, just like his father.'
'Fred's coming for you tomorrow, isn't he?'
Diana shook her head.
'No, it's harvest, but my sister can come... I hate leaving you, Gil, hate to leave Joy, but I can't do this forever. Fred needs me, my other children need me...'
She didn't look at Gilbert as she said this, her dark eyes were on the little girl sucking fiercely on her nipple. Gilbert found himself watching too. She was a delicate wee thing, small and white, with sandy coloured ringlets and her mother's eyes. He was struck with a sudden impulse to snatch her from Diana and hold her to his chest. But he didn't. It would only make her cry.
His gaze no longer embarrassed Diana. She had long given up any sense that her breasts were hers; they belonged to the babies, and were scooped out and tucked in so many times during the day she often left her bodice unbuttoned and threw a shawl on top. She didn't notice when Jack unlatched, his pink mouth full of unswallowed milk. It spilled down his chin and over Diana's nightdress. It wasn't until the wet cotton began to cool against her skin that she realised what had happened.
'Oh Jack,' she sighed.
'Couldn't take another drop, could you fella?' Gilbert said, and scooped Jack into his arms. 'May I?' he added as an afterthought, and positioned him over his shoulder.
The room reverberated with a good solid burp then Jack was laid back in his cot.
It struck Diana how confident Gilbert was with her son, how swift and instinctive his movements. He held his own child as though she was made of glass. Not for the first time she wished she could bring Joy back to Avonlea. What did he plan to do with a twelve week old baby, take her on his rounds? She tucked one half of her nightgown over her breast as she watched him tuck her son into his crib. Jack was nine months old now, he would surely miss Joy too.
'Shall I put her down?' Gilbert asked her, staring at the sleeping boy.
'No, she's got a while yet. She's a slow feeder, Gil. '
'Yes. I know.'
'Have you organised a wet nurse?'
'I told you I made arrangements.'
'I can't help worrying that's all. Joy's so little. I'm afraid these professional types will lose patience, they might not understand, she's different to other babies.'
Gilbert rubbed his eyes. They'd had this conversation many times before.
'I know what you think – of me, I know you think I won't manage, but I can't give her up, Diana. She's all I have of her.'
As if to underline his right to the child he strode over and stroked her head, his fingers fluffing up the little curls at her nape. Joy stirred but did not wake. A tiny smile spread over her lips and a drop of milk slid over her cheek, then she resumed sucking again.
'Clever girl,' he said to her softly, and he squatted down and brought his lips to her forehead.
Her skin was as soft as the breast she was latched to. The sweet milky smell overpowered him and lowered his head and closed his eyes. He wanted this, he wanted just what he had right now. Her, all creamy and alive, heavy breasts veined and bursting. Dimpled hands cradling his daughter, giving her life and love. His was hand resting on Diana's knee and it curled into a fist, knuckles white with want.
When he looked up he found Diana had shifted the baby to her shoulder, and was patting him on the back as though he was a child. There had been moments, of course there had, when she forgot this was temporary; when she came to see herself as Gilbert's wife. Joy was their daughter, Jack their son. She had loved Gilbert once. She called it a school girl fancy, but no, it had been love. She was sixteen before she gave it up. There was nothing else for it – Gilbert was in love with Anne. Fred was one of his closest friends, it was inevitable they would soon pair off. She was only eighteen when he proposed. It was the most impulsive thing Fred would ever do, though he later admitted a practical aim to his asking. He knew if Anne kept rebuffing his chum Gilbert might very well turn to her.
Gilbert turned to her now. There were bruised shadows under his eyes and flecks of white in his close cropped curls. He looked older than twenty eight; tired and gaunt and simmering. She could tell by the way he moved; the sounds he made, like the clap clap clap of a lid on a boiling pot. She knew this because she felt the same. Her hand hit his back so hard he winced.
'Hell Diana, I'm not choking.'
'Yes you are. And I wish to God you'd spit it out.'
Gilbert got to his feet.
'Give Joy to me, I'll put her to bed.'
'No, you're angry – '
'I'm tired, and so are you. Give me my daughter.'
'I'll do it – '
'No, it's time I got used to doing this myself.'
'Let her come with me, Gil – let me bring her to Avonlea. She could grow up with brothers and sisters, be close to your folks, to Marilla – '
'So she can raise another orphan? No fear. If you want Joy you'll have to stay here – '
'I can't, it's not right.'
'No, it's not right,' he said, taking Joy in his arms and laying her in her cradle.
'You have to swaddle her – '
'I know what to do,' he hissed and wrapped her with practiced hands as if she was just another baby he'd delivered.
Joy woke as he pulled up the quilt, her grey eyes large and lucent. She stared into him for a moment, then closed her lids and turned away to suckle an imaginary breast. If he'd blinked he would have missed it; a look that pierced what was left of his heart. He staggered to the door and clenched the handle, before his legs gave out and he slid to the floor.
'She doesn't need me,' he muttered.
Diana left her chair and carefully knelt down next to him, cradling his head against her shoulder. He looked beyond it to the corner where she had sat. The chair was still rocking.
'Anne – she's here – ' he said, dazedly, and tried to get up.
Diana held him fast.
'No Gil. Anne isn't here. Our darling girl is gone forever. But you're here, Gilbert. Joy is here... I'm here.'
'What good is that to me, I want a wife, I want my wife. I had her for a year, one year to love her – hold her – lie with her – '
'Lie with me.'
She stood up and led him to the bed, pulling down the blankets on what used to be his side. Her long black braid fell over her shoulder and she tossed it back the exact same way she'd done since she was a girl. Her eyes were the same too, deep brown and utterly constant. She was short, plump, and properly beautiful. Everything Anne was not.
'That wasn't what I meant,' he said hoarsely.
'I know that,' she said. 'But I don't think you did.' She walked around to the other side of the bed and ducked under the covers. 'Don't go to the spare room. I know very well you're not sleeping. Stay here. With me. With Joy and Jack – '
'I can't... Anne died in this bed – '
'And Joy lived. I dare say she was made here.'
At that Diana lifted her head from her pillow and extinguished the lamp.
Gilbert stood in the darkened room, heard the crackle of the fire and the snuffling breaths of the babies; watched the light from the window lay a long creamy line along her waist and her hip. When he crept in next to her she was buttoning up her nightgown.
'Don't,' he said. 'I want to smell you.'
Then he nestled close to her breasts and fell instantly asleep.
She had only slept an hour or two before Gilbert reached for her. She wasn't surprised. In truth a part of her wanted him to, another part longed to give in. She rolled away slowly, and he swiftly followed. His nose nuzzled the damp curls at her nape and his hands began kneading her breasts. It didn't take long for them to fill with milk and her nightgown was soon wet again. She shrank away to the edge of the bed.
'Stay,' he said, sleepily.
There was no question of her doing so, though the part that didn't want him now was almost to small to see. In sleep he looked much younger. By the pale light of morning she saw the crease between his brows had gone, and his lips were no longer clamped together but full and almost smiling. How easy to slip off her nightgown and slip onto him. She wouldn't be sorry, not for all the sweet minutes he possessed her. It would feel like a kindness, a sort of balm for all the weeks they had lived side by side in their grief. But the moment it ended it would feel like a lie, and for every hour after it would eat at her, and him. Her breasts ached and milk fell in a steady drip down her rounded belly and onto the floor.
Gilbert woke at nine and found Joy lying next to him. She had wriggled out of her swaddling rags and was gazing raptly at her toes. Jack's cot was gone, and so had Diana, his housekeeper informed him.
'She thought it best to let you sleep, said you never went to bed last night.'
Susan was telling him, not asking him. It was clear she had seen the empty bed in the spare room and suggested Mrs Wright might like to meet her sister at the station.
'She's been a blessing, I don't deny it, but Joycie's over the worst of it now. We can take care of her, can't we Doctor dear?'
At that Joy began to whimper and chew on her hand.
'I've nothing to feed her,' Gilbert mumbled.
'Oh that. Don't fret, Mrs Wright left a parting gift,' said Susan.
She lifted a teacloth that lay over a bowl of milk and went to fetch a spoon.
'I'll do it,' said Gilbert firmly.
He didn't even wash his hands. He sat on the sofa, the bowl on the arm, and gripped the tiny spoon. Then lovingly, reverently he fed his baby daughter.