|Apparently with no Surprise|
Disclaimer: The characters and situations of the TV program "Big Valley" are the creations of Four Star/Republic Pictures and have been used without permission. No copyright infringement is intended. No infringement is intended in any part by the author, however, the ideas expressed within this story are copyrighted to the author.
|This story takes place well before the events in "September."|
|He sat on the porch's side steps, smoking. He'd given it up months ago because Augusta didn't
like it, but he'd never thrown away his pouch. He was glad of it now, even though the papers
were brittle and the tobacco dry and bitter. It left an acid taste on his tongue. In the heavy still
air of late June, the smoke didn't dissipate, but hung, ever denser, just above his head.
"Heath," Victoria said again, more loudly this time. He turned his head a little, enough for her to realize she'd finally gotten his attention. In a kinder tone, she continued, "Heath, I hate to press you on this, but there are things that need to be decided now. Augusta's parents," who were crowding in just behind her, "would like to have the funeral tomorrow morning."
Heath nodded a little.
"Is there," she hesitated, then pressed on, for it was her way, "is there any particular dress you'd like her to wear?"
He sat, immobile again. She took that for a no.
"They would like to bury Augusta in San Francisco," Victoria said, a note of disapproval creeping into her voice.
He shrugged. "I don't care," he said finally.
She was surprised. Behind her the Taylors were angry. They had gotten what they wanted, but it seemed the method of victory didn't please them. They stalked back into the house. Victoria could have tried to correct their misunderstanding. It wasn't lack of feeling that made Heath so dull; it was excess, and his unreadiness to deal with the mess. Augusta's death had caught them all by surprise, but he was younger and less limber. She could tell, just by the hunch of his shoulders, how desperate his effort was to keep back the tide. He sat as if, by achieving a perfect degree of stillness, he could stop time, deny the future.
Victoria had never been particularly fond of her daughter-in-law. Marry in haste, repent in leisure, as they say. She'd always had a feeling that the marriage would end in disaster somehow. But she'd never foreseen this particular disaster. And it was a disaster. For all her faults Augusta had appeared to love her young husband even if, as Victoria suspected, she did not adequately value him. And though she might have been idle about the house she had been much excited by the prospect of motherhood.
Now there was a motherless child to be cared for. And Heath--well, Victoria thought, this would ruin him. Perhaps not permanently. But he'd brood over it for years. She could see him, long into the future, still locked into this moment. She wished she could say something. But she knew there were no words that would really help. Nor did she attempt any firm discussion of the future and the need to face responsibility despite grief. There was, after all, a child to be considered. But, she knew, he would come around to that. The sense of duty rang strong in all of them.
She could see from the litter on the steps that he'd been here quite a while. Augusta had died early that morning after only a few days' illness. He had been with her constantly those few days, but he'd slipped away this morning, just before it happened. He must have been down here ever since. From the looks of it he'd be here all night. To each his own, Victoria thought. He was a grown man and had taken care of himself for a long time. Perhaps this was what he needed.
There was one more thing. "Heath, Mr. Morton--the undertaker--is here now. If you'd like to see..."
"No," he said sharply.
Gently she said, "Sometimes it helps..."
He shook his head. His back was rigid. She sighed but said no more. She turned away, was already through the door, when he said, "The blue one."
"What?" she asked. "Blue what?"
"Dress. The blue one."
Victoria frowned. Augusta had liked blue; most of her wardrobe was blue. "Which one?"
"The fancy one," he said finally.
"Her wedding dress?" Victoria asked dubiously.
"Yes," he said. "That one."
"All right," Victoria said. In the darkened hallway Cynthia stood tentatively, holding the baby. Victoria didn't much like this one, either, and she'd wondered what Jarrod saw in this thin-faced, sharp-featured girl with a tart tongue. The last few days, though, Cynthia had been a real help. She had come down to see a good friend and celebrate the glad tidings, and had found herself caught in the maelstrom of illness and death. But she'd borne up well.
"I thought..." Cynthia said.
Victoria shook her head. "Not now. I think the best thing is to leave him be." Victoria found a small smile. "It was a good thought, dear. But men...well, you have to let them find their own way. Here, I'll take her."
Cynthia handed the baby back to Victoria. Now she had nothing to do. She saw the still form of her friend's husband on the porch. She would have liked to have said something, or done something. But she felt she didn't know him well enough to try. She was young and this was her first real experience with death. If she hadn't seen it with her own eyes she would not have believed it, wouldn't believe that anyone like Augusta--young, healthy, willful, headstrong--could actually die.
Her hands useless, her heart heavy, she, too, turned away from the porch and went into the house.
Every now and then there was a thin cry from somewhere in the house, and it would strike him afresh that there was a baby in the house. Their baby. No; only his, now. Hard to believe. But not enough to pry him away from this seat, this stillness.
There was so much--so much that couldn't be thought of, or remembered. Terrible to remember Augusta ill. Her pretty face, pale and twisted in pain. Her high spirits vanquished in the unequal contest with death. Even her memory blotted by delirium. How terrible it was to have so little to offer--all he had was his presence, he had no magic or medicine to heal her--and to realize that even that was useless and comfortless. Toward the end she hadn't even known him. Too terrible to think of her going down that dark corridor, alone.
No; you couldn't think of Augusta ill. Even worse to think of her dead. He had heard the deadly rattle in her breath and he'd left. He'd seen his mother die, he knew what that sound meant. Knew, too, how dreadful it was to see familiar features robbed of their animation. Waxy, lifeless, yellow. Enough to make a believer out of you, for, after death, there was nothing but a clay envelope, all its uniqueness gone. He had seen that happen to his mother. He would not, would not see Augusta that way. No. In time, he thought, he would forget the sights of these last days and remember Augusta as she'd truly been. Seeing her dead would be too final; it would be the image that would stay with him and blot all the others. He would not do it.
Funeral details; what they matter? Bury her here or there, in this or that. It did not matter. An empty shell. Augusta was not in that box old man Morton had hauled up the stairs. If she wasn't in it, what did it matter where they put the box?
No; you couldn't think of Augusta ill, or Augusta dead. Even worse, then, to remember her alive. A few nights ago, just after the baby had come, tired and pale and a little haggard, but still distinctly pleased, very much herself. Or earlier that same day, when he'd lain close to her in the early morning humidity while she still dozed. Or a few weeks before, at the picnic to celebrate Nick and Florry's engagement, when she'd worn a pretty pink dress and cherry red ribbons in her hair. That had been a hot day, too, and there'd been a fine sheen of perspiration on her face, but nothing that could dim her pleasure in the prospect of a party. Or...
No; you couldn't think of Augusta ill, or Augusta dead, or Augusta alive. You couldn't think of her child, either. The child she'd carried with such confidence. How she'd talked about that baby, what she would be like, what she would be named. It would be a girl; it would be Josephine. He'd been amused by her certainty and a little anxious at the thought of her disappointment if she were wrong. She wasn't wrong; her girl-child, her Josephine, came into the world safe and sound, and already with a decided resemblance to her mother. Augusta had held her once.
No; there were far too many things that could not be thought of, or remembered. There was just enough tobacco in the pouch for one more smoke. After that he might have to go into the house for a cigar. He might have to go into the house and meet the kindly, helpless faces of his family. That, too, was something he couldn't think about. Jarrod might be smartest man in California, Nick, the toughest, Audra the sweetest, and Victoria--well, there wasn't much Victoria couldn't do or face. But none of them could help him and their sympathy was just another weight.
So there was nothing to do for it but to sit here, stare through the stale smoke, not moving, not thinking. It took all your energy, all your concentration. Surely if you could just be still enough, long enough, it would all become manageable.
In the morning he put on a suit, his good suit, the suit bought for his wedding. If you were ghoulish enough there was a strange similarity: they would meet, one last time, in church, wearing their wedding best. The familiar room, now empty. When Augusta's labor had started Victoria had put her in the back guest room, hard by the back stairs and the kitchen. Easier. And there she'd stayed. At least this room, their room, was uncontaminated by her suffering. As uncontaminated as anything could be.
Their room; his room, now. Housekeeping had never interested her much and there was usually a good deal of feminine clutter underfoot--her books, her brushes, her gloves, her jewelry. The sight of them had been unbearable: all those things she had loved and chosen, all those things she would not touch again. He'd put them all away, out of sight.
Victoria met him on the landing, grave. "I'm not going to the funeral," she said. "The baby's running a fever. I think I'd better stay."
Cynthia was instantly alert. She'd spent more time with Josephine these last few days than anyone. She offered to stay, but Victoria shook her head; there was no need for both of them to stay. Under her breath she asked Nick to find Dr. Merar, to send him out. Heath's numb face. He'd scarcely looked at the child since Augusta had taken ill. The baby had seemed well enough--but then so had Augusta. Babies died all the time. How on earth would he take that?
The ride into town. Another humid day. His mother-in-law weeping the whole way. During the service there were more than a few other tears, Florry's, Cynthia's. How they'd admired Augusta, her daring, her courage, her high spirits. He, though, had no tears. It was a lie that men don't cry; he knew it was a lie, he'd done it himself. In front of Augusta, even. There were none in him now.
Then the panic. They were heading for the train. He realized he couldn't do it. He couldn't stand by an open hole in the ground. He couldn't see that shiny box lowered into the ground. He couldn't stand by and hear the clods dropping on wood. Augusta, who loved light and color and noise and company. He couldn't do it.
And the baby. Augusta's baby. Shouldn't he be there? What if the worst happened? Their child, his child now. All that was left. He said to Jarrod: "I'm not going."
Jarrod eye's met Cynthia's in quick understanding and sympathy. Gently, he said, "Heath, you have to go."
He shook his head. "I can't. I won't. I'm going home." His voice wavered a little. "The baby..."
Jarrod thought briefly about lecturing Heath about the need to go. Seeing his own father lowered into the ground had been a blow, yet it had brought a kind of peace, a finality. Dust thou art, to dust thou shalt return. The return suddenly not so painful. But he realized that those words would meaning nothing to his brother. He was uncomfortable sending his brother home alone, worrying that there might be fresh trouble to face.
And now Cynthia did not want to go either. Jarrod, a diplomat even in his grief, could not let the Taylors be so insulted at a time like this. Someone from the family had to go.
It was Nick, blunt, unpredictable Nick, who came through. He and Florry got on the train with the Taylors, with an anxious backward look.
Back home Heath took the stairs two at a time. All the way home a dread had risen in him. Their child. His child, now. What if?
But Victoria met him on the stairs. "It's nothing," she said. "Gone al ready. I shouldn't have worried everyone. With babies..."
The relief. He looked in, saw the child asleep. A great weariness overtook him. How long since he'd slept? Victoria took his arm. "She just went down, she'll sleep for a while," she said. "You, too."
He shook his head; the thought of sleep was good, but dreams? But he let her steer him down the hall, into his room. When she looked in later he was sound asleep, still wearing his good suit and his shiny black dress boots.
Jarrod sat with Cynthia on the porch. Silas had come through this morning, tidying up the litter from Heath's long vigil. There was no movement in the air, no breeze. Cynthia fanned herself a little. She was terribly tired, too.
Jarrod was thoughtful. He had liked this young woman for sometime. Yet he'd held back. Was she too sharp, too terse, too--well, too smart? He'd been uneasy just with the thought. But Cynthia had a kind of intelligence he didn't have, a shrewdness about the people around her, a disconcerting ability to see through cant. Talking to her was invigorating. Still, he'd seen no tenderness in the girl. Now he'd seen it these last few days, in her hollow-eyed grief, in her care for the child. He supposed it was wrong to be thinking of such things at a time like this, to be thinking of one's own future happiness. And yet he could not quite suppress his relief. This was the one; this was the woman he'd been seeking. Couldn't speak of it now, it would be insensitive. At the end of the summer, perhaps, at Nick and Florry's wedding. There would be a nice symmetry there. They could be engaged this fall, perhaps wed at Christmas. Or next spring. She was the one.
Cynthia had no idea of his thoughts. Two weeks ago she'd been anxious and impatient, realizing that Florry was engaged, Augusta was married and almost a mother, yet she was still looking to her girlfriends for invitations back to Stockton. How Augusta had laughed. I'll make you both godparents, she'd said, with a conspiratorial gleam. That'll give you a chance to stand next to him in church. Might give him ideas.
Augusta's naughtiness had made Cynthia smile then. Now the memory just made her sad, and a little fearful. If Augusta could die--anyone could. She herself could. In fact, she realized sadly, she would, someday. Would anyone care? Would someone--would Jarrod?--sit hour after hour in the still humidity, missing her?
Her sigh was so melancholy that Jarrod put an arm around her. There was an intimacy that had been lacking in his touch before. Later she would remember it and take heart; now, though, she was merely grateful.
Weariness got the better even of Victoria. She took a nap downstairs; she believed it was cooler. It took time for her to hear the baby's cries and go upstairs.
Heath had gotten there first. He knew how to hold a baby; already the cries were quieting into more of a whimper. His face showed the battle so clearly. His grief; the despair that the future had crumbled just at the moment it seemed most secure, and most rich.
Against that was the instinctive wonder, the surge of unadulterated love prompted by this child. The wisps of dark hair; his own blue eyes; her mother's nose and chin, in miniature. The perfection, one tiny perfect fist, five fingers in the air. Their child. Perfect, beautiful. Alive.
To Victoria, he said hoarsely, "I don't think I can do this."
Now or never, Victoria thought. This is what would save him. "Of course you can," she said. Of course you must, her tone said. "I'll bring up a bottle. Sit in that rocking chair. It's about time you got to know your daughter a little."
Obediently he sat down. He didn't even think to rock, his eyes caught by that small face, hungry for any spark of resemblance. His child, now. He couldn't let her be tainted by the desperation of his loss and his grief. She was new, separate, perfect. It would be his work to keep her separate from that grief. When he looked up Cynthia was standing in the doorway.
From the strange look on his face Cynthia wondered if he even recognized her. "I have a daughter," he said slowly.
Cynthia nodded gravely. "Yes, you do."
Josephine. Miss Josephine Barkley. When Augusta had insisted on the name he'd laughed, for it seemed too big and too grand. But she'd insisted, and, as usual, he'd yielded. Miss Josephine Barkley. It was too big and too grand; they called her Josie.
Many years later--Josie was a grown woman--Heath picked up a book his daughter had left lying open. She'd marked a passage. He read the lines over several times; they stayed with him long after. He wondered why those lines had struck Josie. He understood them too well. Accidental power, the sun proceeding unmoved. Yes, he understood.