One Year Later
Catherine’s skin crawled as she lifted the python out of its cage. It was still a baby, so it was manageable, but she wasn’t going to be so keen to deal with it once it reached its full length and weight.
“Can someone else clean the cage, please?” she begged. “I do not think I shall be able to stand the stench.”
She could already smell an unpleasant odour coming from the enclosure, making her tummy turn.
Marjorie took the snake from her and put it around her neck. “You don’t particularly like snakes, but you keep pushing yourself to touch them. Why?”
“You should always face what you’re afraid of. If you don’t, it wins.”
Marjorie shook her head. “You’re supposed to stay away from whatever scares you like a normal person would. I, on the other hand, like snakes.”
“Yes, but you hate birds, spiders, frogs, grass …”
“Yes, yes,” Marjorie interrupted. “I see your point. Must you always win an argument?”
“Only if you choose to criticise me,” Catherine said with a laugh. “You cannot be critical of another’s faults when you have your own. Will you clean the cage, or shall I ask one of the younger men?”
Marjorie grimaced. “I just had a bowl of beef stew. I doubt I can dare to clean snake faeces.”
Catherine’s belly lurched. “Do not speak of that word; the baby does not like it.”
She rubbed her little bump that had only begun to show in the past week, willing her nausea to ease. Catherine could never tell what would set off her sickness. Yesterday, she couldn’t bear to have Captain anywhere near her, but she was glad to have him in the bed this morning. At one point, most of the soaps in the house had to be changed because she hated the smell of roses, and this morning she couldn’t put any jam on her toast. She had yet to hear of another pregnant woman with such varied dislikes that could last anything from a few hours to an entire week.
Marjorie put the snake into another glass case and closed the lid tightly. The snake had escaped yesterday and caused a panic because they had a few pet hamsters, chickens, rabbits, mice, and a few other smaller animals that the snake would eat as food.
“I take it that your morning sickness has not become any better?” Marjorie asked.
“Why do people call it morning sickness when it can happen during the afternoon and evening? Sometimes, I get up in the dead of night and use the bucket I keep beside my bed. Poor Hugh doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
“Poor Hugh?” Marjorie repeated. “You are the one suffering. He is merely watching you suffer.”
“Which make him suffer as well. You should see how pale he becomes, but he still tries to comfort me. He is a wonderful husband.”
Catherine winced when Marjorie’s face fell.
Why did I say that? I think this baby is addling my brain. I must be carrying a boy–they tend to confuse everyone!
“I’m sorry, Marj,” Catherine apologised. “I didn’t think when I mentioned the word husband.”
“No, you have nothing to apologise for. I’m the sensitive one who needs to move on.”
When Owen didn’t propose as Marjorie expected him to, she ended their courtship. Since then, Owen had not sent her a letter or attempted to come and see her. The woman had expected to be married by now and assumed she was destined to be an old maid. Marjorie was only twenty-two, but one would think she had passed the age of twenty-five from how she spoke about her future.
Catherine hugged her friend’s side, leaning her temple against hers. “I’m certain he is struggling as much as you are, but you both have too much pride. Someone has to set their pride aside.”
“Well, it won’t be me,” said Marjorie. “I have waited a year to marry him, but all I have heard are excuses. He clearly does not wish to marry me, Cathy. I cannot continue to carry a candle in my heart for a man who does not love me.”
Catherine was so confused. She was convinced that Owen loved Marjorie, so none of this made any sense to her.
“Why don’t we clean up and have some tea?” Catherine suggested. “Nellie has packed quite a bit of food to eat, and I cannot possibly finish it all. She keeps insisting that I must eat for two, but I’m confident that what I eat is enough.”
“Food might be the only thing left for me,” Marjorie said miserably.
Catherine wanted to laugh, but that would only upset her best friend. “Come along; the food is in Hugh’s office. It saves me the trip of going back to the house if I have it here.”
Catherine’s pregnancy tended to take away her energy at the oddest times of the day. One moment she might be doing something with no fatigue, and suddenly, her bones would feel weary, and she would have to lie down. Hugh’s office also had a chaise longue for her to sleep on when these moments of tiredness set in.
Catherine called out to the new assistant, Timothy, to keep watch at the office’s front and have someone clean the snake’s cage. It still amazed her as to how many exotic pets people brought in from other countries. Many of them eventually became unmanageable, and they came to Hugh, begging for assistance. As a result, their animal sanctuary at home could probably be considered a zoo. They had monkeys, a rhino, two tigers, a bear, a wildebeest, three warthogs, an Asian elephant and many regular animals that people kept as pets. Many people had requested he open the animal sanctuary to the public for a fee, but Hugh wasn’t keen on the idea.
Catherine took her husband’s chair, loving how big and comfortable it was. It even had his lemony scent.
“I have never seen a woman become so happy from just smelling her husband’s scent,” Marjorie commented.
“I love the way he smells,” Catherine admitted. “In fact, I do not think there is anything I do not love about him.”
“I feel precisely the same way, my love,” said Hugh, walking into the room. “How are you, Marjorie? I didn’t get a chance to see you this morning.”
“I’m well, thank you. Cathy said you had an errand to run.”
“I did, and it’s waiting for you out in the front,” he informed the woman.
Marjorie pulled her eyebrows together. “What is waiting for me?”
Catherine had a feeling she knew where this was going. She was willing to bet the plum cake in the picnic basket that Owen was at the front.
“Not what, but who,” Hugh corrected. “He is waiting for you and wishes to speak to you.”
Marjorie put down the roll she had bitten into and wiped her mouth. “Is it Owen? Tell me if it is. I, I don’t have anything to say to him.”
Hugh briefly looked at Catherine, who understood what her husband was trying to say. They were so attuned to each other that they could pick up minute details about the other that others missed.
“Marjorie, do you not owe it to yourself to listen to him?” Catherine asked. “If what he says still displeases you, then can say that you tried and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Do not live your life wondering what could have happened if you had said yes.”
Marjorie sighed and got to her feet. “I suppose I must. I did give him a year of my life.”
The woman left them and made her way to the front, her shoulders slumped forward. She expected the worst, but she was still going.
“Has Owen come to make right what he did wrong?” Catherine asked.
Owen had arrived yesterday and sent Hugh a note about meeting him in town, hence the errand he spoke about.
“He looks worse off than Marjorie,” said Hugh. “He confessed he was so scared of commitment that he wasn’t able to do what his heart wanted, which was ask for Marjorie’s hand. He had already spoken to her father, so you can imagine what happened when she returned home. I had to accompany Owen to Mr Nicholson so he could apologise and ask for his daughter’s hand again.”
“So, he is finally willing to marry her?”
“Yes,” Hugh confirmed. “He should be getting down on one knee right now.”
Catherine sighed. “Finally. I am so happy for her.”
“Owen just had some issues with his father to work out. He was worried that he would turn into him if he got married, and he didn’t want that for Marjorie. I explained that I could have felt the same and missed out on so much happiness. Marrying you has been the best thing for me, as will marrying Marjorie be the best for him.”
“I would like to eavesdrop on their conversation, but I’m also rather hungry. I think my hunger will win this battle.”
Hugh chuckled and laid a kiss on her brow. “What did Nellie pack for you today? I think she is more worried about this pregnancy than you are.”
“Bread, cheese, cold meat, some fruit, and a plum cake. And yes, she hovers around me like a mother hen. Much like you do.”
“It’s my responsibility to ensure that you are perfectly healthy and happy. I would not be a good husband if I didn’t take care of you.”
“Well, I need some company, so you might as well sit down and talk to me while I eat. I intend to start with the plum cake. I wonder if Nellie included some custard.”
Catherine’s sweet tooth had significantly increased since falling pregnant, and now she always started with dessert. She looked through the basket, finding a little jug of the thick, yellow cream.
“I take it that she did?” asked Hugh. “You’re grinning from ear-to-ear.”
“I absolutely adore Nellie!” Catherine exclaimed. “She knows just what I need before I even say it. I’m glad Mama allowed me to take her when we moved into our own home.”
The maid was now Catherine’s lady’s maid and was thriving in her new role. It also allowed her to continue her learning. She was currently reading with ease and wished to start learning French soon.
“I heard you talking about opening a small school to teach the disadvantaged children,” Hugh said, taking a piece of cheese. “How will you have the time with the new baby? You already do so much here at the practice.”
“I love working beside you, so I wouldn’t be the one teaching them. Nellie will take on the classes herself.”
Hugh raised his eyebrows. “Indeed? Do you think she is prepared for such a responsibility?”
“Certainly, but I do not intend to open the school now, not without discussing it with you. Nellie and I were merely talking about possibilities. She has become passionate about educating people like herself.”
“Some people of our class would frown upon that,” Hugh warned. “They do not take lightly to the lower classes putting on airs.”
“Being able to read is not putting on airs,” Catherine insisted. “And isn’t it wonderful that we are not like everyone else? We do not judge people on what class they were born in.”
“I know, my love, but I do worry about you taking on so much. I think it is time for you to stay at home. You are four months into your pregnancy, and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”
Catherine took a big mouthful of the plum cake, giving her time to answer her husband. He was always so concerned about her, but she wasn’t a piece of porcelain that broke after falling to the ground.
“You’re avoiding giving me an answer,” said Hugh, shaking his head.
“I’m taking my time,” Catherine argued. “I do not know how else to assure you that I am just fine. Other than feeling a little ill at times, I am perfectly fine. I want to be with you while you take care of the animals. I want to support your practice every step of the way. Surely I can do that as your wife?”
“Of course, but I cannot stop worrying about you. I’m concerned that you’re working too hard. I do not know of any other wife who does nearly as much as you do.”
Catherine had been here every single day since they opened up a new practice in town. It had become a success seemingly overnight, and she was happy learning all the things she could about animals. This was precisely what she had told him she wanted to do during one of the very first conversations they had last year. Had he forgotten already?
“I love that you worry about me,” she said, smiling at him. “Why don’t I promise to reduce my work once I am six months along? Apparently, my belly will have grown by then, and it might become a little more challenging to do some things.”
Hugh sighed. “Very well, six months it is. I would like to close the practice a little earlier today so we can enjoy the last of the summer afternoons.”
“That sounds lovely. Let me finish my meal before our baby protests, and Nellie scolds me. Why don’t you let the others know as well?”
Hugh kissed her brow. “I’ll do that and return soon. I think I’d like a little plum cake as well before you and my baby eat it all.”
Catherine chuckled. “You do that, my love. I’ll try to control myself, but it is just a little cake.”
Hugh laughed and left the office, returning shortly with Captain in his arms. “It seems that he came to say hello. He must have escaped Nellie to come here. Captain hates to be away from you.”
Hugh put him down, allowing the dog to run to her. Catherine bent down to scratch him behind the ears.
“Have you been a naughty boy?” she asked him. “Nellie must be wondering where you are.”
The dog barked, which she supposed was his way of saying he wasn’t concerned about that. He settled at her feet and fell asleep as though that was all he wished to do.
“Do you see?” said Hugh. “He cannot rest unless he is with you.”
“He is my dog, after all. Come and have something to eat, my love.”
Hugh pulled a chair to sit beside her and shared her lunch. They spoke about Owen and Marjorie, who had left shortly after he proposed. Catherine was a little disappointed that they didn’t come to share their good news, but she understood their need to be alone. Hopefully, they were wise enough to have someone with them, or there would be trouble.
Catherine didn’t realise the time until she noticed shadows in the office. “I thought we were going to close early? We’ve been talking for over an hour!”
“Do not fret, my love,” Hugh assured her. “I closed the front and told the workers to go home before I returned with Captain. We’ve been alone since then.”
“Oh. No wonder no one has come in to say anything. Why don’t we leave now? We’ll reach home just before the sun sets.”
Hugh helped her to her feet, waking Captain up with the movement. He stretched and yawned before looking up at them expectantly.
“We’re going home, boy,” she told him.
After locking up the back, they set out to their home just like they did every afternoon. The walk home was the perfect time to discuss their day, plans for the future, and whatever was on their minds. It was always the perfect end to a busy day.
“Someone else approached me about opening a zoo,” Hugh said. “I turned them down.”
“I do not blame you, my love. Zoos are fun for humans, but not for animals.”
“Precisely. Who would want people staring at them the whole day? I certainly wouldn’t.”
“Which is precisely why I love you,” Catherine said. “You always put the animals first.”
They were quiet for a while until Hugh brought up a subject she would rather avoid.
“What did you think of the letter Robert wrote to us? He seems sincere.”
“He could apologise one hundred times for all the good it will do him,” said Catherine. “I have only just come to terms with what happened, and that is only because you have helped me. I do not think I can handle anything about Robert right now.”
The man had sent a letter to apologise for his deeds, which Catherine appreciated, but she wasn’t ready to forgive him just yet. Her anger had slowly left her over time, but there was still the hurdle of forgiveness.
“Well, put him out of your mind for now then,” Hugh suggested. “You have come a long way. That is enough for now.”
Catherine certainly wasn’t going to allow thoughts about Robert to ruin her happiness or her future.
“When do you think we can visit your family?” Catherine asked, changing the subject. “We can speak to Marjorie and Owen about it so we can all go together.”
“I would love that,” Hugh said, drawing her close.
“Hugh,” she complained, pushing him slightly. “People will talk.”
“We’re on our own land now, my love. I can hold you however I want. Now, come back here.”
Catherine giggled as he pulled her close, allowing him one kiss before holding hands. Being here with him in the setting sun while Captain ran in front of them was just perfect.
“This peace feels wonderful, does it not?” she said. “I just feel so wonderfully happy.”
“I know what you mean, my love. My soul is still, and my mind is clear–that only comes from being with you. You are my very peace.”
“And you are mine.”
They smiled at each other for a moment before laughing at Captain’s antics as he spotted a squirrel and attempted to climb the tree. This indeed was a tranquil moment, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.