So, here it is – the final chapter. Thank you all again for the wonderful reviews and encouragment. Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Of course, this fic would not have been possible without the wonderful stories of Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell and the fabulous BBC series 'Cranford' written by Heidi Thomas.
Chapter 23 – Bearing Fruit
Three months later . . .. March 1844
"Boy or a girl?" queried Lauren.
"Hmmm?" Edward was momentarily distracted from the admiration of his wife's ever increasing girth. As they lay in their bed, his hands gently caressed her rounded stomach, guardian of their most precious hopes. He leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on her swollen abdomen.
She smiled and ran her fingers through his tousled hair as he pressed his ear against her stomach. "I asked whether you would prefer a girl or a boy and…what are you doing?"
"Listening. And no, I have no preferences at all – I just want a healthy child…and a healthy wife of course."
"Of course. Can you hear anything?"
He suddenly jerked back and smiled. "No, but I did feel something!" He placed his hand over the spot where the kick had occurred. "Quite feisty I would say – like their mother."
"I thought you liked women with some spirit," she teased.
"Oh I do," he said sitting up, "I thought I had proved that – many times."
Lauren yawned and stretched and squirmed until she found a comfortable position on the bed. Already she was finding it difficult to stay in one position for too long and especially when lying on her back.
"Is everything well?" Edward said with concern.
"Very well my darling – you must try not to worry so much."
Edward gazed at her as she lay back amongst the plump pillows, the light from the candles flickering, her hair spilling around her shoulders and onto her now voluptuous breasts. There was an inner glow and contentment that shone through her eyes, an inner glow which seduced Edward anew and sent his desire spiralling. She was like some renaissance Madonna – curvaceous and shapely, soft and warm to the touch and bursting with life.
Whatever his fears and doubts might be, and he still had many, he had decided to try and push them to the back of his mind. He did not want Lauren to be afraid, to be somehow infected with his misgivings and so he hid his feelings behind smiles and laughter. But sometimes, when he awoke in the long dark stretches of the night, he would light a candle and just watch her sleeping, drinking in her features even as his fingers skimmed protectively over the swell of her belly.
"A daughter would be lovely," mused Lauren.
Edward imagined a small helpless, little girl, pink and perfect and with Lauren's dark eyes. He would be a protective father of course; there were so many wicked forces in the world, so many dragons to slay to keep her safe…and suitors, there would be suitors! Oh God!
"Or a boy," he muttered. Boys could look after themselves.
"Hmm?" she said.
"Nothing, nothing at all," he said as he lay on the pillow next to her.
As she turned to face him, Lauren could see a flicker of concern reflected in his eyes. She smiled indulgently as her fingers brushed away his hair and then traced patterns over his forehead and cheek. She did not suppose she would ever be able to chase the worry away from his eyes – at least not until the baby was born safely. She had her own concerns too but they were not for the actual process of giving birth – at least not yet. No, she was more concerned about the kind of mother she was going to be. Before she had become pregnant, she had not given a single thought to being a mother. Oh, she liked children in an abstract sort of way but she had never dreamed that she would be a mother one day.
But she had no doubts about Edward's ability to be a good father. His qualities were plain for anyone to see; goodness and kindness and an innate concern for those less fortunate than himself. As she regarded his face, his eyes twinkled with amusement and a wry smile played about his lips. Her heart seemed to flip over and she shook her head slightly and laughed softly; would he always have this effect on her?
"What?" he enquired.
"I was just thinking how lucky I was – and how handsome you are."
"A veritable Adonis," he chortled.
She simply smiled as his hands began to wander over her body. His modesty was another one if his great charms, but she had seen how other women cast furtive glances of admiration when he passed by – she knew she was not alone in her opinion.
"My veritable Adonis," she said softly, as he kissed her neck and a shiver of desire rippled through her body.
She did not resist when he gently pushed her back into the pillows as he nuzzled at her neck, his fingers tracing lightly over her shoulders and then across her rib cage until he met with the soft, ample charms of her breasts. His hands cupped and appreciated her soft flesh, rubbing his thumbs over her nipples and smiling as they peaked in response. She drew in her breath sharply as his lips kissed the heated flesh, gently teasing and licking until he finally drew one nipple into his mouth and suckled. She gasped as the resulting sensations shot through her body, causing her to arch against his mouth.
He continued to torture with his sweet ministrations until she cried out with pleasure; only then did he turn his attentions to her other breast. She tangled her fingers in his hair, holding him tight against her as he continued. Only when her body was molten and pulsing with need did he raise his head. He grinned and kissed her fiercely before kissing his way down her torso, only stopping to part her thighs and settle himself between them.
She shivered in anticipation as first his fingers and then his tongue touched her moist heat. She gasped and bucked as he devoted himself to her pleasure, caressing her intimate folds, teasing without mercy until she begged for more.
He looked up and smiled, even as his magical fingers still moved, "Is that what you want – you want me to please you?"
"Yes," she gasped, sure that if they were not joined soon she would simply burst into flames.
"Shall I tell you what I want to do?" he said raising himself to his knees.
Lauren gulped and simply nodded.
He leaned forward and kissed her lips and then whispered in her ear. "I'm going to satisfy you…release you…pleasure you."
The husky murmur sent a renewed thrill racing through her body, as his fingers grazed her breasts and her swollen stomach. Ingenuity was now becoming a part of their lovemaking as the baby steadily grew within her and she wondered what he planned this evening. She watched as he knelt between her thighs and then reached for her legs, carefully placing her feet against his chest.
She moaned as he moved forward and she felt the tip of straining manhood, felt his slip easily inside her silken warmth as she raised her hips to meet him. She heard him groan as he pressed forward, inch by incredible inch until he was fully enclosed within her silky depths. And then drew back. And then slowly and deliberately he surged forward and back, each stroke causing her to gasp with pleasure as he filled her again and again.
"Yes…yes," she whimpered. But she needed to touch him, needed to feel his body even closer. She quickly repositioned her legs and wrapped them around his torso.
He growled his approval as his hands moved to support her back and thighs. The made love slowly, languidly, neither rushing to the final conclusion instead savouring each thrust, each jolt of wild sensation, until finally the onward rush of pleasure beckoned them, tantalizing and tempting them both. She whimpered and writhed as the pleasure built within her, felt the familiar tingling sensation radiating through her body until she convulsed as waves of ecstasy flooded her body in a dizzying explosion.
Edward felt himself jerking ever more erratically as the shock waves of her pleasure resounded through him; he buried himself deep inside her as he finally lost control and cried her name as he found joyful release, groaning as the exquisite sensations overwhelmed him in a fiery culmination of bliss.
Gasping for breath he collapsed beside her, wrapping his arms tightly around her as they both drifted back to earth. He closed his eyes for a moment and then felt her move, felt the blankets being drawn against his cooling skin, felt her kiss against his cheek as she wrapped her arms around him and they both drifted off to sleepy oblivion.
Three months later. . . . . .
"You must be very proud of the fruits of your labours?" Lizzie Carter said as she strolled slowly, arm in arm with Lauren.
"Yes, I suppose I am." They both stopped to admire the façade of the newly completed schoolhouse. Soon it would be filled to the brim with laughing schoolchildren, but for now they could enjoy the peace and tranquillity it afforded.
"Shall we sit?"
Lauren nodded and gladly lowered herself carefully onto the wooden bench whilst Lizzie looked on with concern.
"How are you feeling? Truthfully now."
"I feel like an elephant," she wailed. "How on earth do women put up with this?"
"I suspect we have no choice," Lizzie laughed. "At least if we want to ensure the survival of our species. But you haven't long to go now. What is it? Another two or three weeks according to your young doctor."
She nodded. "And I am very grateful Lizzie believe me, for I don't think that I could last much longer waddling around like…like…."
"A beached whale?" she suggested, "except from what I hear whales don't actually waddle."
Lauren laughed despite her discomfort. Edward's sister-in-law had only arrived two days ago but already it felt like they had known each other an age. It also helped that Lizzie had four children of her own; the youngest, Tom, had accompanied her on this trip.
"Oh, you don't know how good it feels to laugh Lizzie. You don't mind if I call you that?"
"And what else would you call me I ask?" She looked askance at Lauren. "Has Eddie not been laughing with you then?"
Lauren nodded slowly. "Of course. But then I catch a worried look in his eyes – only when he thinks I'm not looking of course."
"Well, he's bound to be worried after what he's been through don't you think? But what about you? Are you worried?"
"A little I suppose. But right at this moment I'd give anything for this ordeal to be over!" She stretched and tried to ease the pain in her back. "You will stay Lizzie – for the birth I mean?"
"But that's a good two or three weeks away! Are you sure you want me to hang around all that time? Won't I be in the way?"
"Not at all," Lauren said. "Edward is out and about his business on the estate most of the day. I'm sure that he would rest easier knowing you were here with me."
Lizzie Carter pondered on the matter. It couldn't do any harm she supposed. The two eldest boys were taking care of the farm and her daughter Ellen was away visiting Great Aunt Mildred, so she wouldn't be missed. Indeed, that was the very reason she had jumped at the timely invitation from Edward.
"Of course I'll stay – if you'd like. I imagine that Eddie had the idea in mind when he invited me - apart from keeping you company whilst his being in Birmingham these past two days. I'm surprised he left at all to be quite honest."
"It could not be avoided," Lauren sighed. "And I would rather he went now than risk his absence when the baby arrives. Lizzie, I do think he means to be at the birth!"
Lizzie laughed at Lauren's shocked face. "Well, that wouldn't be such a bad thing would it?"
She patted Lauren's hand. "In our way of life, in the farming community, it's quite a natural thing for fathers to be at the birth. Well, they were there at the beginning so I don't see why they shouldn't be there at the end!"
Lauren looked aghast at Lizzie as comprehension slowly dawned, bursting into shocked laughter as Lizzie winked at her. She rested her hands on her large belly as the laughter gradually subsided. It had been such a tonic having her sister-in-law here and she now knew why Edward set so much store by her common sense.
And Lizzie was right. She did feel a sense of accomplishment regarding the new school. Whilst Edward had helped oversee the physical plans and organising the manual labour required, Lauren was responsible for forming the school committee which now governed all aspects of the education of the children and the future running of the school. She had been instrumental in helping to establish the school, interviewing potential teachers and other school staff and gathering support in Cranford for the venture.
"'The Lord Septimus School for Boys and Girls' – it's quite a mouthful," said Lizzie archly.
"It is indeed. But a small price to pay for Lady Ludlow's patronage I assure you. Without her support perhaps the Reverend Hutton and Doctor Morgan would not have been quite so keen to join the endeavour; they are both keen members of the committee now."
"And is your work here done Lauren?"
She patted her stomach. "Whilst I know the baby will be keeping me busy, I do hope to keep up my involvement. In fact I have been asked to head the school committee on a permanent basis; it won't take up too much time and then as the baby gets older perhaps I can spare more time to help out."
Lizzie nodded. "Quite rightly too. It would be a shame to waste that sharp brain of yours."
Lauren closed her eyes and savoured the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine. She was content – or at least she would be when Edward returned. She wished they had not parted on an argument and she regretted the bitter aftertaste that it had left behind. As usual, it had been over nothing of great importance but she felt herself increasingly short-tempered at times and she had taken out her bad mood on the nearest available target - Edward. She shook her head; he was probably glad to get away from her for a short space of time.
As if reading her mind Lizzie spoke. "I shouldn't worry about it too much; Edward will have forgotten by now."
"I swear sometimes you are a mind reader!"
"No, just a woman who's been in the same situation – and overheard you arguing of course."
"Well couldn't help but hear really – you were quite loud," Lizzie laughed.
"I suppose we were – I am sorry."
Lizzie patted her hand. "No apologies necessary. Poor Eddie – he must wonder what's happened to his sweet natured wife."
Lauren snorted. "Well I was never exactly sweet natured to begin with, but these last few weeks are proving to be a trial – for both of us I suspect."
"He'll get over it; a little bickering never hurt a good marriage." A wistful expression crossed her face as she remembered her own good marriage.
"You still miss Dickon of course," Lauren said sympathetically.
She nodded. "He was a good man and we were married over twenty years. Sometimes I can go a whole day without thinking of him – but then I remember and I feel so guilty that it breaks my heart."
Lauren squeezed her hand. "I'm sure that if he was anything like his brother, he wouldn't want you to grieve over him forever."
"No," she said discreetly wiping away a tear, "he wouldn't. But, I'm still in mourning for another few months and even then, I can't imagine I would meet someone to take his place."
"No, not to take his place perhaps, but another chance for love?"
"Maybe one day." Lizzie raised her eyes to the horizon and began to wave when she saw the two small figures bounding towards them. "Well, there's our peace and quiet gone."
Harry Gregson and Tom Carter scampered breathlessly towards them, stopping only when they had reached the wooden seat, collapsing giggling and laughing onto the ground. Tom was somewhat older than Harry but the two had taken to each other's company nonetheless.
"I won, I won," Harry said.
Tom gave him a friendly shove. "Did not!"
"Now then boys, what have you been up to?" Lizzie enquired.
"We've been helping Dada at the school. He's building a pen for when the piglets arrive." Harry said.
"Piglets?" said Lizzie.
"Yes piglets!" Lauren replied. "We thought it a good idea for the children to have some small animals to look after. We don't just want to exercise their brains you understand – they will have practical lessons too. Harry's father is the new caretaker at the school and he is proving most capable." Lauren grimaced as she stretched and tried to ease the dull ache in her back.
"Good, that's good. Because I think we have need of his services. Harry, Tom – run as quick as you like and ask Mr Gregson to come around with the pony and cart."
Lauren frowned as the boys scampered off once more. "I don't understand."
"Quite simple my dear. We need to get you home now before you really start labouring."
"I…I…" she stuttered.
"Lauren, I've been watching you all morning. Those back pains are the first signs that the baby is on the way. Now, while first babies are notoriously tardy and it's going to be a long while yet, I'd rather get you home where you can be comfortable."
"But it's too early," Lauren wailed, as Lizzie helped her to her feet.
"Nonsense," she said casting an appraising eye over Laurens stomach, "you look fit to burst already. I reckon that baby is cooked enough," she laughed.
"But Edward…I need Edward!" she said, as they slowly started to walk towards the school gate.
"And he'll be here in good time trust me. This baby won't be arriving anytime soon I reckon and he'd only be in the way until then." She turned to Lauren. "You'll be fine my honey. Mrs Hodges and I have had eight babes between us and we'll send for Doctor H just to keep Edward happy. You'll see – everything will be fine."
"And if you would just sign here….and here….and finally here," the lawyer instructed.
Edward quickly but carefully appended his signature as instructed. He read the documents for what had seemed like the hundredth time and had no doubts or qualms about the contents.
"Thank you Mr Arkwright, you have been most helpful."
"Not at all Mr Carter. It has been a pleasure doing business with you…a positive pleasure. It is not every day after all, that one has the satisfaction of conducting business that will also benefit greater mankind. The Heywood Charity Foundation is a most excellent and worthy idea," Mr Arkwright beamed.
Edward nodded. "I hope that it will be a success."
"With both of our endeavours I am convinced that it will be so. I believe the new school is already quite advanced and your next project is currently being planned?"
"Indeed. The plans for the yearly scholarship are in place and my wife and I are also looking for a suitable site for a new orphanage."
"Excellent, excellent. You have not given any further thought to my suggestion?"
Edward blushed. "You mean the home for fallen women?"
"Exactly so! It is quite a popular charitable cause you know. Those poor wretched females." Arkwright shook his head and brushed away a tear.
Edward cleared his throat. "I do not believe there is much call for that sort of establishment in Cranford. No fallen women that I know of at least. I would much prefer to help children and improve their education in some way."
"And you are quite sure Mr Arkwright, that my name will not be connected with the foundation in any way?"
"Indeed sir, that is the case – at least until your demise when the true identify of the benefactor of the foundation will be revealed."
Edward nodded. Whilst he had also been on estate business whilst in Birmingham, he had also taken the opportunity to finally put his own affairs in order; which meant endless visits to lawyers and accountants, and all the time he continually stressed the need for complete anonymity. But now finally he was content that all was in order; the charitable foundation established, his personal will and testament changed to reflect his new circumstances and new investments authorised which would provide a stable income for the new school.
Now all he wanted was to go home. To Lauren.
Edward stood and made to shake the lawyer's hand. "Thank you Mr Arkwright. You have been all patience and efficiency."
Arkwright shook Edward's hand vigorously. "A pleasure Mr Carter, a monumental pleasure. And I can assure you of the best attentions of Arkwright, Arkwright and Guppy at all times." He waved as Edward headed towards the door. "And a safe journey to you!"
Edward strode purposefully out of the building and down the street. With a bit of luck, he could catch an earlier coach back to Cranford and be home tomorrow morning.
"You're doing very well Mrs Carter, very well indeed," Dr Harrison said encouragingly. "Now you must rest until you feel the next pain."
Lauren groaned as the pain finally began to ebb away once more. Grateful at least that the respite allowed her to think clearly, she began to wonder what time it was and more importantly where Edward was.
Nothing much had seemed to happen when she and Lizzie had returned to the cottage, and indeed the pains has seemed quite bearable. Doctor Harrison had arrived and examined her and confirmed that she was indeed in labour – the birth would be early but not unduly so. However he had also confirmed that it would be many hours before she actually gave birth and so he left instructions for her to relax as much as possible and that he should be called nearer the time. And then they had been the embarrassing incident where her waters had broken. Why did no-one explain about childbirth and how it actually occurs?
"If I may examine you again Mrs Carter?" Doctor Harrison said.
"Please do Doctor Harrison. I feel that the time for modesty has long since passed!"
Lizzie moved forward and began to dab at her forehead with a cooling cloth. "Soon be over now," she soothed.
Lauren laughed grimly. "Liar. You've been saying that for the past three hours now."
"Well 'soon' is relative term I suppose. It's always hard the first time but it does get easier. How is she Doctor?"
"Almost ready to push - perhaps another hour or so."
Lauren groaned again. "I want Edward. What time is it?"
Lizzie walked over to the window and parted the curtains. "Almost dawn now and it looks fair to be a beautiful day."
"That's easy for you to say," Lauren replied sharply, and then groaned as she felt the pain beginning to build once more. "Ohhhh."
"Come, turn over on your side," Lizzie said, "Remember what I said now. Try and relax, don't fight the pain and breathe nice and deep."
Lizzie reached for the bottle of sweet smelling oil that Mrs Hodges had provided. She slathered her fingers and gently but firmly began to rub Laurens back. "Does that feel better?"
"A little," Lauren replied through gritted teeth. "What is it?"
"An old family recipe apparently – clary sage, jasmine and lavender – smells nice anyway. Perhaps you could get Edward to use this when you let him back into your bed."
"He's never going to get anywhere near me again, I swear!"
Lizzie laughed, "That's what you say now," she dropped her voice to a whisper to spare Doctor Harrison's blushes, "but you'll soon change your mind when he looks at you with those big blue eyes. You'll forget this pain quickly enough trust me."
Lauren merely grunted but she had her doubts. The pain was ripping through her body like a tidal wave and she was seriously beginning to doubt whether this ordeal would ever end. She was so tired and she just wanted to go to sleep and then hopefully when she woke up it would all be over. In many ways she was glad that Edward wasn't here – she doubted whether he would be able to bear seeing her in so much pain. Perhaps it was better that men didn't attend the births of their children!
The next two hours passed in a blur of intermittent agony attended the by proddings of Doctor Harrison and the soothing touch and encouraging words of Lizzie and Mrs Hodges. They had had four children each – surely she could give birth to one? She looked up from her haze of pain to see the doctor and Lizzie whispering in the corner of the room.
"What's wrong? Is something wrong?" she mumbled.
Lizzie rushed back to her side. "No, not really. The baby's just a little slow that's all but you're nearly ready to push now. You should be starting to feel that urge to bear down soon."
"I'm so tired Lizzie…I don't know if I can."
"You can." Lizzie replied confidently.
Lauren turned her head to one side. "I want Edward…I just want Edward."
"Shhh, there now," Lizzie said as she soothed her again, "I'm sure he will be here soon. But you can't wait for him Lauren. You might have to do this without him."
Edward alighted from the coach and stretched his legs, glad to be finally released from the close confines of his chosen mode of transport. He waited as his bag was thrown down and then watched as the coachman cracked the whip and the coach heaved into motion and continued its onward journey to Manchester.
Stretching again to try and ease the creaks in his body, Edward decided he was getting too old to travel long distances in such an uncomfortable fashion, especially as there had been little respite; the coachman had been keen to press on and in the end they had only stopped for a few hours in the darkest part of the night. Perhaps the railway would be a good thing after all!
No matter. He was but a short walk from Rosewood and from his wife. He had thought about making his way to the estate office first but finally settled on going home to refresh and change his clothing and ensuring that Lauren was safe and well. He had no real doubts over that score and he was entirely confident that Lizzie could manage any untoward situation that might have occurred in his absence. After all she had managed four children, his brother and a farmhouse – there seemed little of which she was not capable.
The sun was already high in the sky as he entered the grounds of Hanbury, quickly traversing the outskirts of the main house, across the wide-open spaces of the manicured great lawns, over a fence and across the pasture until he could see Rosewood only a short distance hence. He returned the friendly gestures of greeting from the various estate workers that he encountered, but he did not allow them to distract from his purpose – home and largest cup of tea that Mrs Hodges could provide!
With a smile playing around his lips, his boots crunched over the gravel drive leading to Rosewood as Harry careered around the corner and almost bumped into him.
"Hold there! What's all this commotion so early in the morning?"
Harry stood panting and trying to get his breath back. "Baby!" he finally managed to stammer.
Edward smiled indulgently. "Yes I know – in about three week's time I believe."
"No," Harry panted, "now! Mrs Carter's having a baby now. I just seen Tom and he told me!"
With a feeling of rising panic, he dropped his bag where he stood and ran towards the front door, bursting through and knocking Mr Hodges onto his back.
"Is it true?" he said ripping off his hat and jacket, "speak man – the baby?"
Slightly stunned Mr Hodges nodded. "Yes sir. They've been going at it all night I reckon and still nothing to show for it."
Not again! This could not be happening again! With a speed that would have put a slighter and much younger man to shame, he ran through the house and clattered up the stairs, taking them two steps at a time until he stood outside the main bedroom. The door opened and Mrs Hodges appeared before him, quickly closing the door behind her.
"Now then sir?" she said kindly.
"What is happening Mrs Hodges?" he said tersely.
"The baby just decided to come a little early, is all sir. Mrs Carter is having a bit of a time with it but…"
Edward moved towards the door but Mrs Hodges quickly blocked his way, her arms outstretched to bar his way.
"Mr Carter! It's not proper!"
An agonised scream rent the air.
Steely eyes blazing with intent he moved closer. "Mrs Hodges if you do not move out of my way, I will move you myself."
Seeing the determined look in his eyes, she quickly stepped to one side and Edward placed his hand upon the door handle. He paused as images of the past flashed through his mind, images of chaos and pain and blood.
"Nooooooo!" Lauren screamed.
Bracing himself for the worst he burst through the door and blinked away the painful images of the past. Chaos – yes, there was still plenty of that but not much blood to be seen thank God.
"Eddie! Thank God you've come," said Lizzie, dragging him over to where Lauren lay.
"She's just tired. The baby's been slow in coming but now she really needs to push to get this baby out right now."
Dr Harrison and Lizzie discreetly moved away as he approached her side.
"Lauren," he said quietly as he smoothed away the hair from her brow.
Lauren's eyes opened. "You…you…I hate you!"
"Lauren!" he said, eyes wide with shock.
"Its alright – she doesn't mean it," said Lizzie.
"I do mean it," Lauren said through gritted teeth before she closed her eyes again. "I can't do it," she moaned, tears streaking her face.
"The baby's head is almost out Mrs Carter," Dr Harrison encouraged, "one more push and the hardest work is done."
Edward took her hand. "Do you hear – almost over now?"
She lay silently.
"Open your eyes sweetheart – look at me."
Slowly her eyelids flickered open and she focused on his face. "I'm so tired Edward."
"I know you are but I'm here now – you must take your strength from me. I'm here."
Lauren looked into his eyes, now a shade of deep and eternal blue. Full of love, full of hope; she had to do this somehow. She closed her eyes again and groaned as she felt the beginnings of pain stirring from her very depths.
"Is it the next pain Mrs Carter?" Dr Harrison said urgently.
"Work with it love, like I told you," Lizzie encouraged, as she moved onto to bed at Laurens feet. "Here, put your feet against me and push as hard as you like when you feel it." Lizzie braced herself as Lauren placed her feet on Lizzie's shoulders.
Lauren opened her eyes and gripped Edward's hand tightly.
"You can do it love, you're stronger than anyone I know," he said. "I love you so much."
Intense waves of sensation washed over her as she continued to stare into his eyes and then she bore down with all her might.
"Here it is, here it is!" cried Lizzie, "just one more push."
Lauren pushed with renewed vigour, her fingers biting into Edwards flesh as she bore down until finally there was a sharp pain a something fell away from her.
Dr Harrison moved forward. "You can rest a little. Don't push now until the next pain."
"Is the baby here?" Lauren said weakly.
"Almost," replied Lizzie, "the head's out – just one more push and the rest will follow."
"My brave girl – you're doing so well," Edward said.
Lauren lay panting slightly as she recovered herself. There was going to be another pain but it was almost over – she could feel it now. Her face creased into a grimace as the pain started to gather.
"Ready?" Edward said as he gripped her hand.
She nodded and closed her eyes as the unrelenting urge to push overcame her. "Arghhhhhhh," and with that final push there was a rush and a slithering and an excited whoop from Lizzie.
"Thank God," Lauren said as she collapsed back into the pillows. "Is everything alright?"
A baby's distressed wail rent the quiet of the room and they all laughed with relief. Dr Harrison cut the cord as Lizzie wrapped the baby and brought the precious bundle forward to Edward and Lauren.
"Is it a boy or girl?" Lauren said weakly.
"A healthy baby is what it is," said Edward with tears in his eyes, "a beautiful, pink and healthy baby."
Lizzie placed the loosely swaddled bundle in Lauren's arms. "Here, find out for yourself."
Lauren gently touched her baby's cheek before parting the swathes of cloth. She smiled and then looked into Edward's eyes. "It's a girl," she said.
"Perfect, just…perfect." He touched the tiny fingers with one of his own larger fingers and the little girl held on tightly. "My little girl," he said, as he instantly fell in love.
"You can lie back and try and relax now Mrs Carter," Dr Harrison said as he busied himself examining Lauren.
"Is my wife going to be alright?" said Edward.
"I see no reason why not. There is just the final errr…procedure and all will be complete."
Edward and Lauren looked at each other with a look of puzzlement evident on their faces.
Lizzie raised an eyebrow and whispered into Lauren's ear.
"Oh I see," said Lauren.
Edward and Lauren continued to fuss and coddle the baby as Dr Harrison frowned and continued to examine Lauren, eventually using his stethoscope over her still swollen abdomen.
"How do you feel Mrs Carter?" he said eventually.
"Remarkably well, although…although there is some pain now."
"I see." Dr Harrison's hands moved expertly over her stomach.
"Oh," Lauren's eyes widened as she winced with pain.
"Lauren?" Edward said with concern as he moved to hand the baby over to Lizzie.
"It feels…it feels..."
"Like you are about to have another baby?" supplied Dr Harrison.
Three shocked faces turned towards him.
Edward was the first to recover. "What do you mean 'another baby'?"
Dr Harrison smiled shamefacedly. "It would seem that there is another baby on the way. This can sometimes happen and ……"
"How can this be? How did you not know?" Edward exploded at the young doctor.
"Do you have any twins in your family Mrs Carter?" he said.
Lauren nodded and scowled with pain. "My brother and I are twins."
"Well, no time for discussion now," said Lizzie, "there's another baby to come and we'd best be ready."
"No, no, no! I can't," Lauren whimpered.
"Yes you can love. Just like before." Edward encouraged.
"I promise you Mrs Carter, this will not be nearly as painful or as hard. The first baby has paved the way for the second – you'll see," Dr Harrison said optimistically.
"I hate you," Lauren said, as Edward helped her to sit up slightly.
He laughed. "It's your family that has twins – not mine."
She shook her head in annoyance as she began to bear down once more. Luckily Doctor Harrison proved to be right in his assessment – with help and further encouragement from Edward and Lizzie, the second baby made a swift and noisy appearance, lustily crying from the first moment of birth.
Lauren collapsed back onto the pillows allowing the sounds and commotions to wash over her until Lizzie brought forward another bundle and placed it in Edward's arms. She watched as he tenderly removed the coverings, the baby still crying and wriggling. She saw the look of shock and then pure joy light up his face as he turned towards her.
"A boy…it's a boy," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. He leaned forward and kissed her cheek. "Thank you…I…thank you."
Lauren smiled wearily, as exhaustion and elation combined to make her feel almost giddy. She watched with weary delight as Lizzie returned with her daughter, placing her carefully in the crook of Edward's other arm and he carefully balanced both of his children in his arms, looking from one to the other in amazement. She desperately wanted to brand the image in her mind, wanted to remember forever the sheer delight on Edward's face as he cradled his children.
A short time later she was propped up in bed, feeling weary but content and somewhat more human, as Mrs Hodges and Lizzie had tidied and cleaned and helped her struggle into a fresh nightgown. She ached as never before of course, but she felt wonderfully happy as she watched Edward rock the babies and then heard Mrs Hodges suddenly run off in a panic, shouting for Margaret as she realised they were one cradle and a huge amount of baby clothing short. Lauren had no doubt at all that the momentous news would reach Hanbury Court – and Cranford itself before too long.
Doctor Harrison departed with a quiet sense of satisfaction and assured Edward that he would return to check on Lauren and the babies' condition, but that he was confident that all would be well. Edward watched entranced as one of the babies was handed over to its mother to suckle. Mrs Hodges stood by to instruct and encourage Lauren until the baby finally latched and greedily fed. He watched open mouthed at this miracle of nature played out before him.
"Are you…how do you…I mean..." he stammered.
"I'm fine Edward," she smiled, "it feels strange and very intense – and yet somehow perfectly natural."
Lizzie finished washing her hands and tidying her hair before turning around. A lump gathered in her throat as she watched Edward cradle his daughter and Lauren nursed her son, oblivious now to the outside world. As Edward leaned forward to clasp his wife's hand, Lizzie crept silently from the room and left them to their peace.
"Thank you Lizzie," Edward said as he glanced up, "I will never forget this."
She left the bedroom and closed the door behind her. "And neither will I."
"Well of course in my day, it simply wasn't done," opined Mrs Jamieson. "As soon as ladies found themselves in an interesting condition, they simply disappeared from the social scene." She sighed as the looked around at the rest of the assembled guests. "I blame Mrs Carter of course. She set a very unseemly precedent. Why, she was gallivanting around town until almost the last possible minute."
"Ah, but young Sophie Harrison looks positively blooming," sighed Mrs Forrester, "and surely if Doctor Harrison has no objections."
"Exactly so," said Miss Pole, "some of these young girls look like a stiff breeze would blow them away. Stamina and fortitude – that is what is required of the residents of Cranford."
"I must say, it was very nice of Mr and Mrs Carter to invite everyone back to Rosewood for tea after the christening service," said Mrs Forrester.
"Twins," Mrs Jamieson said, "it's so…indelicate in a lady of good breeding."
Miss Pole nodded. "She has made a rod for her own back I'll be bound. I fancy she'll be wishing she never gave in to the dubious urges of matrimony."
"But more to the point," Mrs Jamieson continued, "since the closure of Mrs Carter's millinery establishment, there simply isn't a decent bonnet to be found in the whole of Cranford! It simply is most vexing."
"Ladies," Edward acknowledged in passing, as he strode towards the orchard to where he guessed he would find his wife. He looked around the gardens and was satisfied that his guests were all happy; the ladies of Cranford were gossiping in groups, the men had also formed into cliques to discuss politics and the railway and even Lady Ludlow and Sir Charles were seated in the shade of an old oak tree as the warm August sun shone brightly overhead. And as for the babies – well, they had so many people to fuss over them today he guessed that he would not get to hold his own children again until everyone else had disappeared.
He smiled and leaned forward to receive his sister-in-law's embrace. "Lizzie. I'm so glad you could come back for the christening."
"You couldn't keep me away. How is my god-daughter?"
He looked around trying to locate his daughter, and guessed by the billing and cooing that she was currently being doted over by Miss Matty and Mrs Mary Jenkyns. "Looks like your namesake is being fussed over by the ladies," he said pointing in their direction.
"'Elizabeth Mary Augusta' is a bit of a mouthful isn't it?" Lizzie laughed.
Edward nodded in agreement. "She'll grow into it – just like her brother will grow into his. Although I happen to think that Richard Edward Philip is quite distinguished. It could have been worse," he leaned over and whispered in Lizzie's ear, "I drew the line at Septimus." They burst out laughing. "It is good to see you almost out of mourning by the way."
"Well, I didn't want to frighten the little mites on their christening day. Where's Lauren?"
"I was just going to find her – if you could just…."
"Go, go," she shooed him away," I'll make sure everyone behaves."
"You're an angel in disguise."
He found Lauren exactly where had surmised; in the love seat which was tucked away in secluded spot in the orchard. Her eyes were closed and her face raised to face the sun and he thought that she was the loveliest sight he had ever seen. He walked quietly and came up behind the seat, gently placing a kiss on the side of her neck.
She smiled. "Edward."
"Well I hope you weren't expecting anyone else!"
"I don't think I've got the energy for anyone else, let alone the inclination," she laughed.
He walked around the bench and sat beside her, quickly folding her into his arms. They had learned to snatch whatever quiet moments they could in the last couple of months and this seemed like a heaven sent opportunity.
"The twins?" she asked.
"Being doted and cosseted and generally spoiled I should imagine. Lizzie is keeping an eye on proceedings."
Lauren relaxed and leaned against his chest, the soft thump-thump of his heartbeat resounding and somehow comforting. "Are you happy?"
He grunted in reply, "More like exhausted," he said, as his arms tightened around her, "but yes, happy above all else. And you?"
She nodded. "Happy, tired, but most of all I feel blessed." She sat up and looked into his eyes, "and it is all down to you. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without you."
"Then lucky for us both that you do not have to imagine such a dreadful fate," he laughed before taking her face in his hands, his own face serious now. "I never imagined falling in love again; I was resigned to my fate. But then you came into my life, and now I feel that a lifetime is not long enough to show you how much I love you." His lips met hers in a gentle but all-encompassing kiss as she melted into his arms, content and happy in the arms of the man she loved.
Lady Ludlow smiled as she caught a glimpse of the happy couple and she steered Sir Charles away from the orchard.
"I suppose you are quite happy with the outcome?" Sir Charles said.
"Outcome?" she said, as they wandered towards the end of the garden and the stream beyond.
"I saw Mr and Mrs Carter in the orchard," he said, "they look almost sickeningly happy – and I think I detect your handiwork my lady?"
She smiled serenely, "Yes, they do look happy don't they?"
He escorted Lady Ludlow to a small wooden bench seat. "And the future of Hanbury?" he enquired.
Lady Ludlow observed the scene as Edward and Lauren rejoined their guests, swiftly retrieving their babies and holding them close as other guests surrounded them, gazing in admiration. She saw young Harry tug on Mr Carter's sleeve and how he was quickly admitted into the intimate circle of affection.
"I think the future of Hanbury is quite safe."