Thank you DrEvil818 for suggesting the topic of "first words".
There was little doubt amongst the staff at Delaford that the little girl they had all practically adopted immediately after her birth was very much her father's pride and joy. Little Elinor, Ellie, was cared for by the parents unless it was somehow extremey inconvenient to have an infant at a do or a function. In her first months a nurse maid would be on duty at nights, but even then her parents would get up to see to the little girl's needs unless they were absolutely too tired or held up somewhere socially until late in the evening. Mrs Brandon nursed the baby herself from the start and did not stop until Ellie started to demand more solid foods than milk.
The older women among the staff smiled gently at the young mistress nursing so eagerly – not all ladies would do that – but Mrs Brandon had been overheard to discuss this with her sister.
"It seems odd that nature would provide the nourishment for the child just the same as with animals, and we would not use what has been provided. I never feel more connected to my Ellie than when she feeds," Marianne had said to her sister. Her sister had agreed, having shared the experience with her own offspring.
If Ellie was her father's pride and joy, he became the little girl's everything as she grew older. Her father only needed to come into the same room with the infant and she would rush over to him as fast as her not-quite-steady legs would carry her, making noises of pure joy. He would read to her, ignoring any suggestions that surely she was too young to take the texts in at all. He read and she would settle on his chest or in his lap and listened quietly for ages. Listening to the Colonel read stories to his baby daughter turned into a family pastime for good when Mrs Brandon became pregnant again and was overcome with bouts of fatigue at one point in her pregnancy. Then the family would arrange themselves on a suitably large daybed in one of the parlours, Brandon leaning back, holding one arm around his wife and with baby Ellie cradled in his lap and her head on his chest, and he would read for as long as he could manage.
Colonel Brandon also seemed to have long discussions with his daughter. They would look each other in the eye, Ellie would make up noises and he was heard to answer her as if it was a truly coherent conversation:
"No, we can't go riding today because it's raining. You wouldn't want to get wet now, would you?" And Ellie would answer back, saying something only he seemed to be able to understand. Watching the pair deep in their conversations made Mrs Brandon's face light up with joy and just how much she loved her husband and her daughter was not a secret to anyone who saw her on such a moment.
The time came, though, when these conversations started to alarm Mrs Brandon somewhat. One evening it was time to put Ellie to bed and Mrs Brandon and the nanny, Miss Foyle, were getting her and the bedroom ready.
"I think Ellie will be saying her first words soon," Miss Foyle chatted. Marianne Brandon smiled. She had noticed the same thing: Ellie had started to associate objects and people with specific sounds she was producing. The "glmph!" they had learned to mean "milk" and "shawshaw", they understood, meant "horses".
"Yes, I think you're right. It will be most exciting to see what the first real word will be," Mrs Brandon replied.
"The Colonel is convinced it will be 'Papa', but I told him I was quite certain "Mama" will be her first word. Or 'Ricky", she is her favourite of our dogs after all." Mrs Brandon continued with laughter. Miss Foyle laughed as well.
"I have a feeling, ma'am, that Colonel Brandon is working on the odds for his prediction when you're not looking," Miss Foyle then said with a smile. Mrs Brandon's eyes grew wide and she smiled.
"Is he now? I'm going to have to spy on him in that case." She said and they both laughed.
The next day provided Marianne with a perfect opportunity to "spy" on her dear husband for a moment when he finished his breakfast first and went out into the garden with Ellie. From the distance it looked like he was simply strolling around on the lawn with the baby in his arms, having one of their "conversations", but when Marianne paid closer attention, he was making a fair effort in articulating 'papa', trying to get little Ellie to copy him. Marianne could do nothing but laugh at poor Christopher's efforts. Ellie was his everything. The new baby would be, too, but there is always something special about your first born. Ellie was the baby her husband had thought he'd never have.
"Say 'papa'" he coaxed the girl, and repeated the word many times over when all he got in the way of reply was incoherent garble.
"You can do it, Ellie. Pa-pa." he tried over and over again.
"Bleghrd…" Ellie tried.
"Pa-pa. But don't tell your Mama we're having this conversation." He carried on.
Despite their playful bet on what the girl would say first, Marianne decided she, too, would be working on the odds in her husband's favour. For the following days, whenever Christopher was not around, Marianne would take the girl over to Christopher's portrait, point to the face and keep saying 'papa'. There was no guarantee this would work, but it was worth the try.
Three days into the cunning practice regime both parents were carrying out behind each other's backs, Christopher Brandon came into the bed chambers after a particularly heavy and tedious day of work. Most of the day he'd been doing the books with his accountant and then one of the horses had got its bowels in a twist and after hours of trying to get the poor animal sorted, it had to be shot in the end. At least it wasn't one of his better breeding horses but one of the work horses. All the same, they were all important to him.
In the bed chambers he was greeted with a sight that lifted his spirits straight away: Marianne was in her night gown (worn, strictly, for the benefit of the staff) playing with Ellie on the bed. Ellie was on her back, in the middle of getting changed for the night with her gorgeous, round baby belly and her gorgeous plump arms and legs free of restraints of clothing for a bit, and Marianne was placing sloppy kisses on her belly, tickling the girl. The sounds of his baby laughing uncontrollably like that lifted Brandon's heart no end: it was probably the most beautiful sound in the world. Or among the most beautiful sounds anyways. Marianne whispering, shouting or moaning - take your pick – his name at a height of passion was rather a special sound as well.
"Hello my darlings" he said softly as he approached the bed and sat on the edge. Marianne turned to him and planted a gentle loving kiss on his lips. A soft and warm sort of a kiss instead of one of those slurpy noisy ones she had been showering on Ellie's belly just now. Christopher turned to greet Ellie as well.
"Hello Sweetheart…" he started to say when Ellie interrupted him:
"Pap-pah!" she squealed with delight and a broad smile on her face.
The smile on Christopher's face and the touch of moisture that gathered in his eyes when he realized what had just happened was worth losing a silly bet many times over: Marianne could see how much it meant for her husband to be acknowledged by his little girl this way. Of course it was just a baby word and the child knew him anyways, but all the same: that little word said at the right time confirmed to her ever-doubtful husband his position in the centre of that little girl's universe. Marianne realized her eyes grew moist as well. Oh well, their next child would say 'mama' first.