His mother lay exhausted in the bed they would not let him approach. Her bright hair was damp with sweat, the sheets soaked through with blood and other fluids of her efforts; only now were people starting to clean them up. Just a boy of four, William could remember thinking that no one seemed sure how to react to what they had witnessed"even the midwife seemed hesitant. Her deeply lined face stood out starkly in his memory: joyous as the beady eyes took in one neatly wrapped bundle, not yet handed over to the mother, then sad and almost afraid as they glanced at the still form of the other tiny babe.
At first, people had attempted to shoo him out of the room. He was too young, they had said, to see such things. But eventually his determination wore through their better judgment and he was allowed to stay, but only if he did not get too close. He kept his promise and hovered at the edge of the tiny gathering"his father, the midwife, and two female servants, available to help however they could.
William had been extremely nervous, mostly because he had never seen his father so on edge. The man, a god in his young mind, was surely immune to such human things as nerves, and seeing that this was not the case upset the boy more than his mother’s eventual screaming. He couldn’t understand why everyone had seemed so excited about this if it was causing his mother so much pain, and he remembered asking as much, met only with an impatient waving of hands.
“One more…there yeh be, mistress! It…oh…”
“What?” His mother’s voice was a hoarse whisper, but even from the edge of the room, William could tell she was concerned. She wasn’t given an answer, however, for she was taken by another of the convulsions that had made her scream. William covered his ears and screwed his eyes shut, waiting again for it to be over.
When the screaming stopped, he dared open his eyes and was greeted with the sight of a confused looking midwife, wrapping up two tiny babies. He could only see one infant from his spot in the corner of the luxurious room"it was a rosy pink and mostly quiet, much to his relief. As the midwife moved to grab another blanket from the small pile atop an ornately carved side table, William saw the second babe and had not been able to stop his little eyes from widening or his mouth from crying out.
The infant was partially covered, but William could see that the skin was blue and the eyes were shut. He knew nothing of babies then, but even he could tell that something was wrong. It was smaller than the other and it didn’t move at all.
“Momma,” he said shrilly, and everyone’s eyes were on him as he pointed to the two bundles in the midwife’s arms. He was suddenly shy with the combined weight of several pairs of eyes, and instead of asking about the babe’s condition, he merely pointed.
The midwife nodded gravely, and while the servants began the gruesome task of cleaning up, she laid both of her burdens into their mother’s arms.
His father sat down on the edge of the bed, paternal pride glowing in his strong, angular face. Unusually handsome, William had heard people say, all sharp planes and straight facial bones that somehow worked together to make a pleasant whole. William’s own face, though still round with youth, promised to be a blend of mother and father.
He had crept close then, halting at his father’s leg and peering over the covers. His father looked confused and there were tears in his eyes as he cupped the head of the unmoving child. Shaking his own head, the man stood and, with a nod from his wife, took the babe and set it in the bassinet that had been set up next to the bed. The midwife beckoned him aside then and, curious, William had followed behind.
“Yer Lordship,” the woman began, wringing her hands together though they were still covered in blood and grime, “there’s sumthin’ you should know ‘bout the birth. Since you weren’t lookin’ th’ whole time. Th’ first one came out, you see, stone cold. Dead afore it could live. Then th’ missus had another contraction and th’ second one popped ‘er little head out. Didn’t have time ta cut the cord o’ th’ first one or nuthin’. Which…which be the strange part, sire. You see, the second one…well, she came out holdin’ the cord o’ th’ first one. Holdin’ it tight in both hands, an’ all it were wrapped around the first one’s wee little neck. Like she’d choked him.” The woman gave a great shudder and crossed herself, shaking her head fiercely.
William’s father stood mute, like William himself, who didn’t comprehend enough to make even a noise of protest. After what felt like ages, the man cleared his throat and brought his eyes to meet those of the midwife.
“Tell no one of this. If you are asked, the babe was merely stillborn. A fluke. Do you understand?” His voice was constricted, as though he were fighting back a tide of emotion though he must speak. His fists were balled at his side.
The midwife nodded, and before anymore could be said, she went about helping the other two women clean up. Shaking his head as though to clear it, the man went back to his wife’s side. She was holding the surviving child, staring at it with almost unbearable tenderness.
Smiling distractedly down at part of his family, the man couldn’t stop his wife from reading his expression as she turned to look at him.
“Jonathan? What is it?” Fatigued as she was, her husband’s expression alarmed her.
Jonathan cleared his throat, opened his mouth, closed it again. “I…the other child was a boy, Marie. He would have been our second son. We have a daughter instead.” Whatever significance that held to them went unshared with the others, but Marie’s face fell and her grip on the little girl in her arms slackened.
“Then unless we…William will have to take care of it.”
Jonathan nodded, and both parents looked at the boy who looked up at them, unknowing of what had just been decided between his mother and father. Strong arms reached down and pulled the boy into his father’s lap, held him gently over his mother’s chest so he could see the child cradled there.
“This is your sister, William,” Marie said, shoving aside whatever dark thoughts had been plaguing her in favor of the happiness she should be celebrating. There would be time for mourning later, after she put on a brave face for her son.
“What’s her name?” Even then William remembered thinking she looked delicate, tiny, an impression he would always have of her.
“Claire Mallery Wandesford,” she responded gently, tucking the blanket in around the newborn’s neck. “That is what she shall be called.”
Patting his son on the back after letting him stare for a few moments, Jonathan rose and set William down by the door. “Your mother is tired now, chere, so it’s off with you. You have lessons soon anyway. They won’t be put off just for this.”
William pouted, but his father was having none of it and gave him a little shove toward the door before returning to his wife’s side.
“You chose a different middle name. What does it mean?” Jonathan sat down, eyes on Marie instead of Claire. William could see, through the crack in the door that he’d left open, his father’s finger gently moving aside pieces of hair that had been plastered to his mother’s face during labor.
Marie was silent for a few moments before answering, her voice flat; William regretted not being able to see her face.
“It means luckless.”