A/N: I cannot ignore the pleading any longer. I had to update. Forgive my long absence--I have had major Real Life Issues.
Now hold onto your hats. This chapter is going to be a shocker.
I held Anne for a while, awkwardly patting her shoulder while she cried. I wasn't sure what to do, other than that. Also, holding her was…problematic. While I knew all I was doing at that moment was comforting her, my body didn't understand that. As far as it was concerned, I was holding an extremely attractive woman very, very close. Anne was bound to notice my discomfort sooner or later, so I suggested we move to the settee in the next room. She nodded and gulped.
She began to sit, but popped back up again, pulling a parcel of something that jangled from her pocket. "Praise God, I haven't bent them!"
"What are they?" I asked.
"What Sophie left us—me and the lad. There wasn't much she had as I didn't provide her, but she told Father Anselm she wanted us to have these."
She handed me a set of silver teaspoons, half a dozen of them, bound together with a ribbon, and a wooden rosary worn dark and smooth by many years of devoted prayer. "She was the one as taught him his first prayers, see? She said as it was her grandmother's, and it was blessed by the Pope. She couldn't remember which one."
"As poor as she was, she still kept these little treasures." I fanned the spoons apart. They were at least a century old, and they were quite beautiful—heart-shaped bowls with delicate fluting, and slender, graceful handles. The interiors of the bowls still held the remnants of gilding. "These would have bought her a few hot meals."
"It was all she had left, after her son ran out on her. She had to sell off everything else." Anne wiped at her face with her apron.
"I didn't know she had a son." I said, absently.
"It was more nor twenty years ago when he run off. She never spoke of him—what I know, I had to find out from Father Anselm and others what remembered. He isn't dead. He's just a selfish bugger, is all." She started crying again.
"Oh—now look, Anne. You had something—tomato seeds, I think—on your apron, and now they're all over your face." That made her chuckle, even while she cried.
"Let me get a wet washcloth." I went to the water closet and dampened a cloth. On my way back to Anne, I picked up a stray piece of paper that was lying around on the floor, and set it on the worktable. "Here you are." I wiped her face, which crumpled up even as I brushed the blob of seeds away.
"It was my fault." she sobbed. "She wouldn't be lying dead if I hadn't been neglectful of her."
"Neglectful? You did everything you could for her comfort and happiness—getting her cushions and cups of tea, listening to her—. How did you neglect her?" I asked.
She told me. Sophie had cut her toe, and it had turned septic and killed her. Anne had never checked to see how the cut was healing, so she blamed herself. "Anne—I know you're grieving, and you should grieve. Sophie was very dear to you. But her death was not your fault."
"But--." She was on the verge of tears again.
"It wasn't. You didn't remember to look at her foot when she asked, it's true. However, she could have asked again. You might as well say her death was her fault." That wasn't wise of me; she began sobbing again. "Anne—you're only making yourself feel worse, and for no real reason. You're not responsible for everything—and you can't control everything, either. No matter how hard you try."
I wasn't very good at this comforting business. She dissolved completely. What was I supposed to do about it? I had done everything I knew how. I looked down at the paper I had picked up, and read:
I hope you and yours is all as well as could be wished for. I don't know when you shall get this on account of you traveling abroad like what you is doing, so like as not we shall be married when you reads this, the day being set for three days from now. My lad's father having found us, and some to-do being made, as you might think, we talked and come to an understanding.'
I smiled, a bit ruefully. Anne was writing to Christine. There was a bittersweet tinge to my thoughts of Christine these days, as of a bowl of dried flowers, holding only a hint of the perfume of summer, laid over with the mustiness of time. I had loved Christine because she was beautiful and because she had a beautiful voice; I loved Anne because she had a generous heart. I could tell now, as I could not before, which love would be the deeper, even if it were quieter.
'As you might guess, he has got a lot of questions, but I said as I couldn't give him many answers till that I wrote to you and the others what you knows of, not naming any names. So I am asking now that you should let me tell him. He's not angry with you nor with me, and matters is such between us that I doubt he'll get too mad when he finds out. He loves the lad right well already, and the boy has taken to his Da like a house afire.'
That was where the letter ended. She was correct about the last part, but my eyes kept traveling to the sentence above. 'I doubt he'll get too mad when he finds out.' I had guessed already, and let Anne know as much. What more was there for me to find out?
I went over to close the door to our son's room, and the light fell across his sleeping face—and then I saw what I had not let myself see before.
He had freckles.
Just like Anne's.
Christine's skin was as even in color as a bowl of milk. It was as unmarked in the height of summer as in the dead of winter. She grew a little tanned in the summer, perhaps a bit pink if she stayed out too long, but she never, never freckled. I didn't have freckles. They had to have come from somewhere…
Now that I saw his freckles—which I had been looking at all along—I could not stop seeing other traces in him, not only of Anne, but hints of Amelié and Claude. His sturdy frame was more like Claude, the shape of his ears like Amelié.
Anne was his mother—which meant that Anne had been the one I embraced, in that room, in the absolute darkness of that bed…
I turned around, to look at her. Impossible. Anne was built so differently from Christine, surely I would have noticed…
…but she had been only sixteen then. I winced. So young. She would still have been growing, and she hadn't had a baby then. She would have been slimmer, shorter, her bosom not so full.
But Anne was passionate, and Christine—or the girl I thought was Christine—had been so still and stiff—and absolutely silent. Silent. Yes. And given the circumstances, who would not have been unresponsive? In bed with a stranger, and he was a murderer as well.
It wasn't as if I would know the difference between a virgin and…well, a non-virgin.
If Anne had been hiding there, naked under a dressing gown, then when the candle went out…
"It was you." I said. My face felt prickly and cold, more like a mask than the mask itself.
"It was you all along."