Table of Contents
¤ CHAPTER 11 ¤
Steed arrived back at the Burrows’ as James and the children were packing to go to his mother’s. He had just put down the carrier bag and his umbrella when he heard a child’s voice shout, “Uncle John! Uncle John!”
He looked in the direction of the voice; it was Gracie, who bounced down the stairs and into his arms. Steed picked her up and gave her a light kiss on the cheek, whereupon she grabbed his bowler and put it on her own head.
“Did you have a good adventure with your father today?”
“Yes, we did!” said Gracie from inside Steed’s hat, which came nearly to her chin. “We went to see a blacksmith. It was frightfully noisy. I like your hat.”
“I’m sure it was. And so do I. Now, where’s your mother?” Steed said as he put her down, recovered his bowler, and began to put away it and his coat.
“Upstairs with Papa, I think. He seems upset. Do you think there’s something wrong?”
Steed froze for a moment in the act of hanging his coat on the peg. He knew that children often could sense things were amiss even when they weren’t told what was going on, but he was unprepared for how difficult it could be to answer when it was a child he himself loved, when he didn’t want to lie to her but didn’t want to frighten her with the truth. He finished putting away his things, then went down on one knee in front of Gracie and gently took her shoulders.
“He might be a little upset, love. Grownups do get upset sometimes. But it won’t last long. And he’s not angry at you or at your mother or at William. So we’re going to treat him kindly and maybe that will help him not be so upset.”
“Maybe he’s worried he will miss Mama and that she will miss us while we’re at Nan’s house?”
“Maybe,” Steed answered, trying hard not to show how relieved he was that she hadn’t asked a more probing question.
Steed was rescued from his interview with Gracie when Helen came down the stairs. Steed stood, and Gracie left her uncle to run back up the stairs past her mother. She paused one step above Helen, faced her, and said, “Uncle says that we’re to be kind to Papa. Do you think it would be kind to help him pack?”
Helen smiled. “Yes, I think that would be very kind. But mind you help him; don’t get in the way.”
Gracie beamed at the suggestion then trotted upstairs and down the hall to her parents’ bedroom.
Steed cocked one eyebrow, then ran his fingers through his hair and let out the breath he had been holding during his conversation with Gracie.
“Uncomfortable questions, eh, little brother?” said Helen.
“Yes,” said Steed. “It was a bit touch and go there, I’m afraid.”
“Gracie can be quite perceptive,” said Helen, descending the rest of the stairs to give her brother a greeting kiss.
“Evidently,” he said, with some intensity. “Is everything in order?”
“It is. More or less. The Jenkinses took the bait without much trouble; they’ve arranged to spend the rest of the week at her sister’s, ostensibly to help with the baby. James’ mother was delighted to hear that he and the children want to visit; she was so distressed over having to miss Christmas. But as Gracie noticed, James is quite concerned over my staying here. Maybe there’s something you can do to reassure him?”
Steed took his sister’s hand lightly in his fingers.
“I doubt very much that I could. But I will try.”
A series of thumps announced William’s arrival on the stairs, lugging his suitcase.
“All packed and ready to go, my lad?” said Helen, putting a hand on the top of her son’s head when he stopped in front of her and dropped his suitcase to the floor.
“Yes, Mama. I have my clothes and pyjamas and toothbrush and everything.”
“Ah, but what you haven’t got is a puzzle,” said Steed as he fished the puzzle of the HMS Hermes out of the carrier bag, which sat near the coat rack behind him. He handed the puzzle to William, who received it, beaming.
“Oh, thank you, Uncle! It’s marvellous!”
“Do you have something for me, Uncle?” said Gracie, descending the stairs with her own small suitcase in hand.
“I do indeed,” said Steed, handing her the paper and watercolors.
“It’s perfect!” she exclaimed, wrapping her arms around her uncle and squeezing him tight.
“I’ll go see whats’s keeping James,” said Helen, leaving her brother to help the children pack their new treasures and tell him all about their trip to the blacksmith’s, which was to get a new gate, this time with spikes on top, to put at the bottom of the drive.
Steed stepped out into the late morning sunshine, carrying the last suitcase to the car, which had been parked at the top of the drive not far from the foot of the front steps, while Helen said goodbye to her children and husband. It was Steed’s favorite kind of sky, a sky that was a clear blue deep as the ring of a church bell, the way it could be only on a very cold and cloudless winter’s day. Steed closed the boot then turned his face up to the sun, feeling the slight breeze in air that was still gloriously crisp. The sound of the door slamming made him turn to find the children hurtling down the front steps arguing about who could eat more of their Nan’s quince jam. Once they had skidded to a halt in front of him, he gave Gracie a kiss on the top of her head and shook hands with William before helping them both into the car, admonishing them to mind their father and not be a trouble to their Nan.
The door opened again: James stepped out onto the porch. Helen remained framed in the doorway. James started to move towards the steps, but then went back to Helen and held the side of her face in his hand. She closed her eyes and laid her own hand over his. Steed turned away so as to give them some privacy. Not until he heard the door close and James’ footsteps crunching on the gravel behind him did he turn back around.
“Well,” said Steed, extending his hand to his brother-in-law. “Safe journey.”
James took Steed’s hand, but his face was grave, and his eyes held a vehemence Steed hadn’t thought possible for this placid, gentle man.
“Her life is in your hands, John,” said James. “Her life.”
Steed nodded, solemn and resolute. “I’ll guard it as my own.”
James nodded curtly and gripped Steed’s hand. Then he let go and got into the car. He rolled down the window and looked up at Steed.
“We’ll ring when we get there,” said James. “Shouldn’t be more than a few hours.”
Steed nodded. James rolled up the window and the car pulled away, the children bouncing in the back seat and waving wildly at their uncle, who waved back rather more reservedly. Steed followed the car down the drive; someone needed to close the gate, and he didn’t want to disturb Helen just yet.
Helen’s life was in his hands, James had said. And, therefore, Steed knew, so were the lives of James and the children.