04. April 2013 · Comments Off on From The Quivera Trail – Chapter 22 · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Old West · Tags: , ,

(From the work in progress:Chapter 22 – Daughters and Sons. Isobel Becker, staying in Liesel and Hansi Richter’s San Antonio mansion. has just given birth. Her husband Dolph is in the Palo Duro country at the new ranch property, coping with the threat from a clan of rustlers, the deadly Whitmire family.)

Isobel drifted up from the grey depths to just below the surface of wakefulness, aware of the sound of a woman’s voice, a sweet cracked voice, singing in words that she didn’t understand … because she was so tired. She would have gone all the way up, opened her eyes and came awake, but for the awareness that her body pained her – or that it would, if she came entirely awake. So she lay quiet, soothed by the song and the voice, content to float in the grey world and keep the knowledge that she ached in every bone at a distance. Gradually, she became aware that she was alone in her body again; that the almost incessant twitch and flutter of the baby within her belly had ceased. This both saddened her – for now she felt quite empty and alone – but also relieved her immensely, as this meant that the birthing was done. The last thing she could recall was someone lowering a gauze tea-strainer over her mouth and nose and a sickly-sweet odor, which mercifully wiped out the sight of the heavy-set bearded man in shirtsleeves, standing at the foot of the bed brandishing a heavy, gleaming metal instrument . . . and telling Aunt Richter to have it boiled. The man also had blood on his hands and wrists, and Isobel knew without a possibility of doubt that it was her own blood.
But it was over now, and Isobel listened drowsily to the woman singing and was comforted. She floated a little farther away from the surface, covering herself like a cozy quilt with the grey unthinkingness, and when she floated up again the woman was no longer singing – but the bedroom was flooded with the golden light of late afternoon. No – no longer could she pull that blissful greyness around herself; her mouth tasted like a cast iron pot boiled dry and she was aware of an urgent need to use the chamber pot. She opened her eyes; yes, she was still lying in the bed of that room which Aunt Richter had allocated to her, with a smaller one adjacent which Aunt Richter had seen fitted out as a nursery. There was someone standing by the window, watching the sunset; Anna Vining. Isobel must have made a sound, because Anna turned around; she had a baby in her arms, a bundle swathed all in white, and too large to be Anna’s own little daughter.
“Ah… you are awake at last,” Anna observed without any surprise. “How do you feel? I need not ask, but it is considered courteous to do so. Three times have I done this … although not for two at once. I assume the discomfort was not doubled.”
“Two?” Isobel croaked. Well, Dr. Herff had said something about twins, once Aunt Richter had suggested the possibility.
“Twin girls,” Anna answered. “You would like to see them, I think. They are very well. This one was born first … see where Dr. Herff’s patent forceps made a little bruise on her forehead?” She brought the child to Isobel’s bedside. “The other is not marked … but Mama said we should tie colored ribbons on their wrists, so that we may learn to tell them apart.” Isobel sat up, wincing as she did so. Below her belly, she felt that she had been ripped into tattered rags of flesh. Anna laid the baby in her lap, and capably settled some pillows behind her so that she could rest against them. Isobel and the infant regarded each other with no particular sentiments at all. Her daughter was a pink-faced mite with a wide-open, unfocused blue gaze, regarding Isobel solemnly over a pink fist balled against its mouth. There was a narrow length of yellow ribbon tied around her wrist, and a faint blue bruise in the center of her forehead. Anna went to a cradle at the foot of the bed and bent over it, drawing out another white-wrapped baby; this one was not awake, but sleeping with brief pale eyebrows drawn in an accusing scowl. Anna laid the second baby next to Isobel on the bed, where it stirred and then settled into sleep again. This one had a pink ribbon. “They have been fed. Mama engaged a wet-nurse for them, one of Dr. Herff’s recommending. What had you thought to name them?”
“In my last letter to my husband, we had agreed; a boy should have our father’s names, a girl our mother’s.”
“So … a name for each.” Anna sounded pleased. “Auntie Magda would like that. Her name in English is Margaret, which would honor my husband’s mother also. What is your mother’s name, then?”
“Caroline,” Isobel answered. “I think the oldest should be Margaret … and this one should be Caroline.” It must have been a trick of the light, or of familial blood, but the sleeping infant’s unformed features looked so like Lady Caroline when she was most displeased with her youngest daughter. Isobel hoped that wouldn’t prove to be an omen. It was bad enough knowing that her mother was unhappy with her; having her daughter similarly disproving would be unendurably horrible.

“I should write to my husband,” Isobel ventured at last. Anna answered briskly, “Yes – about what you have named them. Papa sent a messenger to him once they were safely delivered. Dolph will be most pleased, I am certain. Children of his own instead of dogs, or those orphan boys … and that pleases Auntie Magda.”
“I hope he will be happy with the news.” Isobel looked at the faces of her children and wondered why she felt so … bleak. Empty, as if she could not feel any emotions at all. These were her children, mothers were supposed to love their children dearly … was there yet something else wrong with her that she didn’t?
“Of course – he will be overjoyed.” Anna answered. Well, at least she was acting if everything were perfectly straight-forward, and nothing at all was wrong with Isobel’s cool reaction to hers’ and Dolph’s children. “You look tired, still. When you have had enough of admiring your daughters, I will return them to their cradle, and tell Mama and Aunt Magda that you are awake. Doubtless, they will want to pay a call, hein?”
“Yes,” Isobel agreed. It was too much trouble not to. She wished that Anna would just take away the children now. She wanted to wrap that grey unthinkingness around her, and sleep and sleep, to dream of the blue sky over the steep carved canyons of the Palo Duro, or of hunting in the green hills around Acton … anywhere but here, any time but now. Eventually Anna took the babies back, laying them each in the cradle with a casual familiarity which Isobel only hoped she could manage in time. They were so tiny, as helpless as puppies – and so fragile!
“I go downstairs,” Anna announced. “To tell Mama and Auntie Magda that you are awake – do you wish to see them, or would you rather rest more?”
“I need to … wash …” Isobel answered, miserably, having made the unfortunate discovery that the necessary rag was saturated. Without turning a hair, Anna pointed out where the fresh rags were, and brought out a clean nightgown. There was something bracing about her very matter-of-factness, but Isobel was quite relieved when Anna said, “Ten minutes … I can only restrain Mama for that long.”
Isobel couldn’t think of anything other than to thank her for her consideration, and then to wonder if Anna didn’t think she was responding to kindness by being rude. There were moments when she didn’t know how to talk to her husbands’ relatives, even the ones who spoke English well.
Ten minutes was just barely long enough to wash and refresh herself, before there was a brief knock on the door. Aunt Richter opened it unbidden, her pleasant plump countenance beaming with happiness. She embraced Isobel in a flurry of flower-scented ruffles, exclaiming in her usual affectionate muddle of languages, of which Isobel could only understand, ‘darling’ and ‘sweet girl’. For some inexplicable reason, such frank and unfettered approval moved Isobel beyond speaking. To her secret humiliation, she found herself weeping uncontrollably. She sank onto the edge of the bed and cried a fountain, a veritable river of tears on Aunt Richter’s shoulder. Aunt Richter patted her and held her as if she were as small and in need of comfort as one of the babies, completely heedless of Isobel’s tears spotting her silk afternoon gown. When Isobel finally hiccupped, realizing that she had cried her eyes entirely dry, Aunt Richter dabbed her cheeks with a tiny embroidered handkerchief and observed fondly,
“Ach – no wonder … it is one of those t’ings, Liebchen. It is over now, and you are still tired. The little ones – they are beautiful, not so? Little Dolph, he will be so proud!” Isobel almost felt like crying again. Aunt Richter – so funny and vulgar and over-dressed – yet she was such a dear! Her affection encompassed the world; she did not judge, she only loved unstintingly. More than anything, Isobel wished that Lady Caroline could have been so kind and loving, so devoid of harsh judgments on her children. Having a mother like Aunt Richter, Isobel would never have never left England to marry a foreigner, bear children to a man that she still hardly knew and move in a society so strange and violent. In that moment, Isobel envied Anna for having the unreserved affections of such a parent.

By degrees, Aunt Richter soothed Isobel, making her feel as if all that storm of emotions, and acute bodily discomfort were a thing only normal and to be expected. Isobel reclined against the high-piled pillows; she already felt tired again, but she was buoyed up by the interest of the older women. Mrs. Becker was soberly admiring the children in their cradle; she demonstrated little in the way of Aunt Richter’s overflowing emotions, but she also glowed with satisfaction.
“To have children together,” she remarked with simple honesty, “and to see that they are part of you, and part of your husband, yet are a person of themselves – that is to complete and bless a marriage. You and Dolphchen – now you are truly married.”
“I suppose we are,” Isobel answered, although she certainly did not feel that anything between herself and Dolph had been completed – in fact, very much the reverse. After the honeymoon journey and those brief blissful months in the Palo Duro, she had been set aside like a toy too fragile for ordinary play, while Dolph went about his own business. It felt, Isobel thought savagely, rather like being a cow; the bull did his duty and the heifer retired to the home paddock to produce a calf or two. Dolph’s letters were regular in their arrival – but it was plain to Isobel, scrutinizing every word as if it were a lover’s Valentine, that the interests in his life lay elsewhere. His inquiries as to her wellbeing and the doings of his family were perfunctory, and he never seemed to recall her answers to them from one letter to the next. He was a man, Isobel concluded with some resentment, and no poet like Browning, who could make a woman fall in love with him through the medium of words, ink and paper. Whatever his father had in character – which could make his wife love him with such devotion that she still wore black for him and seemed disinclined to ever marry again – that quality had not devolved upon his son. Would she have ever consented to marry him, if she had not been desperate to marry anyone and escape the humiliation of India and the ‘fishing fleet? Isobel was fairly certain that she would not. Oh, for a proposal from some solid country squire with a small estate, as Mrs. Kittredge had envisioned for her – then she would never have had to face such a situation as this. Would that Fa would come to her rescue, as he had when she was in such dire need. But Fa was far away in England, and she was here – wed to a man whom she was not sure she loved at all, event though she might be cosseted in the bosom of his family! She thought that she might commence weeping again, but that it would distress Aunt Richter and Mrs. Becker. She pleaded exhaustion and promised she would call for the wet-nurse and Aunt Richter’s maid if and when she thought that the babies required attention. The senior ladies departed with some hesitancy – they were plainly worried at leaving Isobel alone – but Isobel didn’t mind at all. She rested against the pillows, wondering yet again if there were something wrong with her. She ought to feel something more than indifference after birthing two children. She thought about this until she fell asleep.

Within a few days, Isobel found herself able to dress, by dint of pulling her corsets very tight, and venture downstairs and into the garden once again. She rejoiced at the fact that her feet and ankles were no longer swollen, and her belly was beginning to retreat from a grotesquely huge form – although, alas, not not as shapely as she had been, even if she had never been a stick-thin ivory doll like her sister Victoria. Lottie attended on her in the afternoons after school, charmed and excited by the presence of the babies. Isobel had also begun – to her relief – to feel a proprietary interest in them. They were not very much different from puppies or foals; helpless, small and trusting, and on that account she was becoming rather fond of them.
“You forgot their ribbons!” Lottie exclaimed one afternoon, as they sat with the children on the deep and shaded verandah which overlooked the lawn and the cypress trees which framed the riverbank beyond. “How can we tell them apart now?”
“I can,” Isobel answered. She held small Caroline in her lap, while Lottie cuddled her sister. “Look – Caro’s face is not so round as Maggie’s, and her hair is more brown, while Maggie’s is so fair that you’d think she had no hair at all.”
“They are still twins enough,” Lottie lifted the ruffle of Maggie’s cap to peer at the head underneath it. “Oh, you are right. They will not look anything alike when they are older.”
“They re different in temperament, too,” Isobel pointed out. “Maggie cries often and loudly – but she is always readily soothed. Caro cries rarely, but when she does – I must hold her for hours … don’t I, little Miss Fussy?” Isobel added to the baby, who lay in her arms with her head tilted sideways to look up at her mother’s face. The baby had such a look of intense trust and adoration in her infant features that Isobel’s heart seemed to turn over in her breast. How could anyone ever ignore or mistreat a tiny being, who looked at one with such worship? In that instant, Isobel fell deeply in love with her children, especially Caro. Now she experienced that intense mother-love which she had not felt on the night they were born – and it relieved her very much. She was not an unnatural mother, after all. She knew without a doubt that she would put herself in the way of any danger which threatened Maggie and Caro, defend them with any weapon at all, even if only her own bare hands. The strength of that conviction unsettled her a little, being so sudden and so strong, so like an animal – a bitch with her litter, a tigress with her kittens.

She was privately rather glad that being a new mother excused her from obligatory participation in Aunt Richter’s rather exhausting social rounds. She could pick and choose among those occasions which truly engaged her interest, much as her mother-in-law did. There was a performance by a traveling Shakespeare troop at the German ‘casino’, and a concert by the singing society, and an afternoon garden party at the home of Aunt Richter’s friends, the Guenthers. They were in trade – the older Mr. Guenther owned a very prosperous flour mill – but they had a lovely house in the most modern taste, situated on the banks of the river a short way from the Richter mansion. To Isobel’s relief, most of the younger Guenthers and their friends spoke English very well, and she enjoyed that outing very much. They were old and dear friends of Aunt and Uncle Richter, and they admired and cherished Caro and Maggie as if they were kin – which, given the close ties among the Germans of San Antonio should hardly have come as a surprise.
“Oh, they all came over from the Old Country at about the same time,” Lottie explained carelessly, when Isobel remarked on this. “When Mama and Auntie Liesel were young, and Onkel Fredi and Johann were just boys. They came on a sailing ship and it was horrid. And then they were landed at Indianola – but it was just a camp on the seashore. Can you imagine? Mama says it was even more awful – people were dying there in the hundreds – even thousands. Our old Opa and the rest of the family came to Friedrichsburg then – but it wasn’t built, it was just a clearing among the trees between two creeks. And then the War came,” Lottie’s earnest young face turned even more serious, between the two schoolgirl plaits of hair the color of pale wheat. “We – that is, Opa and Papa and Onkel Hansi – they were all for the Union. All the older folk here – they remember the hard times they suffered together, and they remember how things were back in Germany, so they are inclined to trust each other rather more than someone from outside. It’s different for Dolph and Sam and I, though. We’re Americans – we’ve never lived anywhere else. Germany is just the old country. Everyone else here came from another country, even if their families came over so long ago that they don’t remember.” Abruptly, she changed the subject, tossing her braids back over her shoulders. “Are you going to come to the Casino with us tonight? Mr. Steves is talking all about his grand new house, and Onkel says he may give us a tour of what has been built so far.”
“It sounds exhausting,” Isobel answered. Mr. Steves was another one of Onkel Richter’s good friends, and an old neighbor of the Beckers from Comfort. He was a lumber magnate, and frenetically active in various German clubs and societies. “No, I think I shall stay in tonight, pleading that Maggie has the colic.”
“Does she?” Lottie asked, in swift concern, and Isobel giggled. “No, she does not – but I had never considered what a grand excuse children are for not doing something that one really doesn’t want to do.”

That evening, Isobel waved from the verandah to the Richter’s open barouche as it rolled away down the gravel drive, filled as if with a basket of flowers by the ladies’ dresses; Aunt Richter, her daughters and Lottie. Uncle Richter sat next to the driver; Isobel did not doubt that he would take the reins himself, if the notion took him. Only the elder Mrs. Becker’s plain black dress ruined the flower vision. Isobel recalled again how she had mistaken Lottie and Dolph’s mother for the governess on that first meeting in Galveston. Heavens, could that have been a year ago? Isobel supposed that it must be. The red-bud trees were in flower, just exactly as they had been a year ago. She was tired – as Anna had said she would be – adding with a cheerfully cynical laugh that a mother would be tired until her children were of an age to go to school at least. Aunt Richter’s cook – a stern and precise woman who sometimes reminded Isobel of her mother-in-law – provided a bounteous supper on a tray for Isobel. On nights like this, she preferred withdrawing to her own room to contemplate the pink perfection of her daughters, and read in bed until it was time to nurse them. Once that done, Isobel laid them in the cradle at her bedside and fell asleep, although it was only mid-evening. In England at this hour, she would have still been at the dining table, somewhere between the third course and the fourth. Now she could luxuriate in freedom and Aunt Richter’s crisp cotton sheets, the cradle with her baby daughters in it close at hand.

Perfectly content, Isobel fell asleep and slept soundly … so soundly that in the deep of the night, she had no idea of what had roused her from it. Downstairs the parlor clock chimed faintly – a musical quarter-hour. But something had wakened her; no, not the clock. Something snuffling faintly in the room… a dog, Isobel thought drowsily. It sounded like Gawain or Sorsha, sleeping at the foot of their bed in the little ranch house in the Palo Duro country. What a comfort the presence of the dogs was – there was no danger from fire or intruders that the dogs would not alert … and then Isobel came entirely awake. No, the dogs were at the northern ranch with Dolph. She must have dreamt of them, half-asleep. The children … she rolled over in the bed and made as if to reach for the cradle where they slept, at the side of the big bed, but there was a presence in the bed with her, a long solid bulwark of human warmth. Isobel sat bolt-upright, and in the dim light of the spirit lamp on the bedside table, she recognized her husband’s tousle of fair hair on the pillow next to her own. Isobel was dumbfounded; How had be come to be in San Antonio – and however had he managed to slip into their bed without waking her? She slept lightly, the slightest noise woke her from slumber, especially now with the children. Dolph stirred as Caro began to fuss in the cradle, and opened his eyes. He smiled impishly, upon seeing Isobel awake, staring at him with astonished disbelief.
“Hullo, Bell,” he drawled. “I thought I’d surprise you.”
“You have,” Isobel whispered, still not quite certain she was entirely awake and his presence was real. “Surprised me, I mean. You were not expected until August. I thought you had gone to … where is it you were taking the herd this year…”
“Dodge City,” Her husband yawned. “As soon as we got a good price, I turned over matters to Seb, and hopped on the train east. Onkel was still awake – he let me in.” In the cradle, one of the babies began to fuss. “Hell … do they make that noise all the time?” He added, as Isobel sat up, plumping the pillows behind her so that she could set up.
“No … sometimes they are even louder. Hand her to me, Dolph. I’d best nurse her before … oh, botheration … now they’re both awake.”
“Here.” Dolph pushed back the blankets over him, and reached into the cradle. With casual tenderness, he gathered up one of the babies – Caro, of course, whose cry had achieved a new level of urgency, and handed her to Isobel, who hastily unbuttoned the front of her nightgown. This was no time to waken the wet-nurse, and in any case, Isobel didn’t want to have anyone else present. This would be her husband’s first encounter with his children. Caro’s unhappy cries ceased immediately as soon as she latched onto Isobel’s breast. Isobel sank back onto her pillows, cradling the now-silent child, barely aware of her husband’s approving regard.

“Which one is this?” Dolph asked presently, and Isobel smiled. He was holding Maggie, propped against his knees, and gently bouncing her while she made happy gurgling noises. “That’s Margaret,” Isobel answered. “Maggie, I call her. She’s the happy little one. This is Caroline – Caro for short. She’s over-sensitive – ow!” She added, as Caro suckled a little too vigorously.
“They’re beautiful, anyway,” Dolph remarked, the emotion in his voice belying the casual tones in which he said it. “My daughters…”
“I’m told that most men want sons, above all else.” Isobel said, for she had rather feared him saying so, as if that would put all the miseries of pregnancy and delivering them at naught, but Dolph shook his head.
“Perhaps most men might,” he answered. “But we’re not most men, Opa and Papa and Onkel Hansi and me. They thought as much of their daughters as of their sons. Looking at Mama and Cousin Anna, you can see why. Now, Maggie here – she’ll be sitting a horse as soon as she can walk. They’ll ride and learn cattle and manage a ranch – they’ll have to, ‘cause they’ll be older than any brothers they might have … an’ I sure as hell don’t want my daughters to be helpless little fools at the mercy of whomever they marry… oh, no you won’t, Maggie-pumpkin,” he added to the infant, which elicited another gurgle. Isobel giggled.
“My mother will be thoroughly shocked, hearing that plan,” she said. “She will consider it terribly unseemly.”
“That’s her problem,” Dolph answered, curtly. “I know she’s your mother, Bell – but she is the last woman on earth that I would take advice from on how to bring up my daughters. Look …” his voice softened. “Bell, darlin’ – weren’t you happier last year with Seb and I in the Palo Duro, then you were the year before that, dragged around through all those society doings with your mother?”
“I was, of course,” Isobel answered, without a second thought. “Happier than I ever was before … I had a purpose to the day, and the cut of my dress and color of my hat didn’t matter to anyone at all.” She cuddled the now-content Caro close to her and her husband continued, in his calm remorseless voice. “Well then, you see. Our girls – my daughters – they’re born Americans. They’ll want a life with a purpose, like Cousin Anna – not one where they’ll sit around the parlor being ornamental, like Cousin Amelia.” Isobel snorted, and ventured a rude word about Cousin Amelia, and her husband laughed. “She is that, isn’t she? I’d have said vicious, as well – after the way she told tales about your little Miss Jane.”
“So you did read my letters,” Isobel sighed, much contented after the fact. “I am glad of that – I sometimes thought you had not paid them much mind at all …”
“Every word,” Dolph answered. “Let’s trade. I b’lieve Maggie is hungry now. She’s making faces at me.”
“She is,” Isobel replied, with all the assurance those ten weeks of motherhood had given her. “Here, take Caro … you manage very well,” she added as they exchanged babies, and her husband settled the now-somnolent Caro between them. “The girls – I was afraid for simply days to pick them up. They were so tiny I thought I might hurt them in some way.”
“I had years of little cousins,” Dolph answered. “Not to mention calves and puppies. Onkel Fredi said once they were all very alike when they are small. Keep them warm, dry, fed and safe … and love them, of course.”

In the dim light of the spirit lamp, Isobel could see the expression on his face, more fond and frank than she had seen in months, even on the trail with the cattle, even more than on their wedding night. It was only logical, she thought – she loved Caro and Maggie dearly, and it was only right and fitting that he would also. And at moment, she was lapped in contentment and quiet happiness; her children and her husband, together and close.
She wondered briefly about the danger from the Whitmires; Dolph had written nothing of them in his letters over the last four or five months, and Uncle Richter hadn’t been forthcoming, either. Considering it, Isobel wondered if she were being particularly sheltered from the knowledge of what might be going on, because of the babies. Very likely she was, she concluded. She ought to ask her husband now … but no. This moment of utter content was too precious to mar.