So. She was expecting a baby. This was not unreasonable. Her husband, Lt Oswald Morrison, had only left to rejoin the militia not two months back. It was not unreasonable. It was unfortunate.
The doctor was gone, and only a trail of dust was left behind him. Melinda glanced at the sky. It was a nice day. The sky was a bright blue behind those clouds. She began to walk, quite forgetting that she had no hat, no reticule, and no maid to accompany her. Rather than take the road to town, she turned right down a lane that stretched and wound between farmer’s fields.
Naturally, even in the midst of her odd behavior, thoughts came to her mind that she would likely be set upon by footpads, highwaymen, or even unsavory characters that might call out impertinent remarks. In her delicate state, she would be too tired to walk back when the time came. She might even collapse on the narrow trail and have to be revived with the brown water running in the irrigation ditch to her left. It was even possible that she might lose her footing and drown in the ditch, though that was the least likely.
She walked for quite some time despite these dark prophecies, until someone called out to her. She looked up at a youngish woman she didn’t recognize. The woman had on a plain blue dress with an apron, and an old lace cap covered her fair hair. Behind her was a small farm cottage with flowers planted near the door and chickens scratching in the yard.
“Mrs. Morrison,” the woman repeated. “Are you all right?”
Melinda considered this. “Do we know each other?”
The woman smiled, though she could have been offended. “For me, only by sight. I’m Mary Oscarson, your neighbor-- of sorts. We’re not likely to meet in the same circles.” She nodded her head towards her humble abode, which was quite a different quality than the Morrison’s ancestral home. Although it was clear from her dress and house that she wasn’t in the same social circle, her quality of speech suggested that she might have been.
Melinda had vaguely heard the names of the farmers living nearby. While her London-bred friends were the people she thought she ought to have confided in instantly, she found no desire to tell them her news, which would be considered a wonderful piece of gossip. A complete stranger whose opinion wouldn’t shatter her world was a different matter.
“Well, then,” Melinda decided. “Since we are strangers, Miss Oscarson, I may answer your question without reservation. I am not all right. I am with child, I feel sick, and it is very inconvenient.”
“Dear me,” Mary Oscarson said after a pause. “Would you like to come in and have a cup of tea?”
“I would very much like to,” Melinda found herself saying. The sunny day had become hot, after all.
She followed her new confidante into the little cottage and remembered to wipe her feet on the doormat. Through the entryway was a small kitchen and a little square table with two chairs pushed against one whitewashed wall.
“Do sit down,” her host waved to one of the chairs on her way to the stove. “I’m a Missus too, by the by, but you can call me Mary.”
“Delighted to meet you,” Melinda replied automatically. There was a slim vase with a bunch of violets on the table. She smoothed a wrinkle on the tablecloth without thinking.
“Did you only just find out?” Mary asked while hanging the kettle over the fire.
“About the baby.”
“Oh. Yes. The doctor just left. He seemed to think that he’d done me a favor.”
Mary laid out two cups upside down on their saucers. “But for you it’s not happy news?”
Melinda very slowly turned her cup over and set the bottom into the saucer’s groove with a small chink. “No.”
Mary put the sugar bowl down on the table. “Then I am very sorry. Would you like some fruitcake?”
Melinda tilted her head. “I don’t know if I’ve ever tried it.”
The host sliced off a piece of of brown cake with nuts and bits of candied fruit and handed it to her guest along with a napkin. Melinda tried it.
“What is this?!” She exclaimed. “I’ve never had the like!”
Mary laughed. “You don’t like it?”
“It reminds me of Christmas, but not in a good way!”
Mary’s peal of laughter echoed through the small house.
“I-- I’m sorry to be rude,” Melinda said sheepishly.
“Not at all. You are just so genuine,” Mary wiped her eyes. “Any more and I may call you eccentric, but it is quite refreshing.”
Melinda, who had been called many a stronger word than “eccentric,” was relieved. She ventured to ask, “You were not born a farmer, were you?”
The kettle began to whistle, and Mary got up to take it off its hook. “Indeed I wasn’t. I had no dowry to speak of, but my parents did hope that I would marry well. As you can see, they were disappointed. My mother especially was, but my father had always cherished a secret romance for cottages and farms, so in the end he was still pleased. He visits quite often. Last year he even said he wanted to try ploughing a field, but Robert wouldn’t allow it.”
“My husband.” Mary smiled. “He was born a farmer, and he is very good at it. My father holds him in high esteem.”
“And you do too,” Melinda surmised.
“Naturally,” Mary raised her eyebrows. “I should not have married him if I didn’t.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Melinda said thoughtfully.
Mary poured the steaming tea into their cups and dribbled cream into hers before sitting down. Melinda tried to take another bite of the fruitcake, but just couldn’t face it. Instead, she put two lumps of sugar and a lot of cream into her tea, slowly stirring it in with her spoon.
“Tell me about Lieutenant Morrison,” Mary suggested lightly.
Melinda heaved a sigh. “We had a dreadful fight before he left. It’s been nearly two months. He doesn’t write.”
“Is he usually a good writer?”
“No, never, but he used to send me a line or two now and then. At first I thought I could not bear to be away from him so long,” Melinda almost smiled in reminiscence at her young naivete, but regret made her eyes heavy. “It is better to remain home after all.”
Mary was silent for a moment, taking a sip of her tea. “Have you written him?”
Mrs. Morrison bit her lip. “Why should I?”
“I’m not saying you should,” Mary held up her hands diplomatically. “For all I know, he’s a ghastly, neglectful person who doesn’t deserve a single line, let alone a letter. But if you don’t mind telling me, what did you fight about?”
Melinda did mind, so she merely said “It doesn’t signify.”
“I don’t know if the kind doctor told you anything besides his cheerful diagnosis, but heightened emotions are symptoms of your condition. If you found yourself outraged by something unusually small, it could have been related. Naturally, I am not suggesting it was your fault. But could it have been a contributing factor?”
“I did tell him to go to blazes,” Melinda admitted. “I don’t usually say that.”
“Once, when I was also expecting a child,” Mary smiled hugely. “I nearly threw Robert out of the house for eating eggs.”
“What? Eggs?” Melinda repeated incredulously.
“He insisted on eggs for breakfast! With onions and pepper, and cheese, no less! And then he had the nerve to breathe in my face. It would have served him right if I’d thrown up all over him, but the poor man had no idea what he’d done wrong.”
“I didn’t realize you had children.” Melinda looked about her as though expecting a child or two to suddenly pop out of a cupboard.
“I don’t,” Mary said bluntly. “I miscarried.”
Blood drained from Melinda’s face and then rushed back in a hurry. “I’m very sorry.”
Mary nodded. “It was quite a few years ago. I didn’t want to lose it, but I remember feeling terrified all the time. And sick. It was very uncomfortable. Have you thrown up at all?”
“Only a few times,” Melinda shuddered.
“Well, let’s hope you don’t continue,” Mary said kindly. “You really don’t have to try to eat the fruitcake. The chickens will enjoy it more.”
Melinda gratefully put down the atrocious cake. “Do you think you will want children again?”
“... I think so,” Mary replied lightly. “But I don’t know. Maybe I’ll wait until yours comes out to decide. If it’s a horrid, squalling brat with no redeeming qualities, perhaps I shan’t.” Her eyes twinkled behind her tea cup.
“I was an ugly child, so the odds aren’t good,” Melinda said with uncompromising pessimism, though one corner of her mouth turned up.
“Well, if there is one good point that your husband has for certain, he is at least good looking. There is still hope for our families’ future generations.”
Melinda’s face fell again, so Mary asked,
“Why did you fight?”
“He wanted me to come with him. I didn’t want to go.” Her tale was halting at first, but then it all came out at once. “There are only his friends there. Gossiping and flirting wives of the officers, all backbiting and vain-- why on earth would I want to go?! It’s all gunpowder and card parties. Here at least I can take care of affairs on the estate! Look after my own linens and such! He only wants me on his arm so he can show me off, as part of his status. Last time he kept insisting that I dress as fine as the other wives, to make sure they’ve no reason to look down on us! As if they needed a reason,” Melinda finished darkly.
“I see,” Mary nodded.
“You know,” Melinda continued. “After he left, I thought that I could leave too. I could just wander off somewhere and he’d never know. More realistically, I could stay with distant cousins on the continent, but barring that, I could change my name, become a milliner, or a housekeeper, or find some old dowager without nearby children and read to her for a living.” She raised her eyes, wide with tragedy. “But then I started feeling ill every day. I suspected what it might be, so I put off calling the doctor, but the housekeeper was worried. Now I can’t leave. I can’t be reckless anymore. The both of us can’t survive without him. I am completely trapped.”
Mary slowly and calmly extended her hand to rest over Melinda’s hand. “Is he a horrid, insufferable man?”
“N-no,” Melinda’s voice wavered, and she began to sniff. “No, he really isn’t!”
“Then you are not trapped. You are very fortunate.”
Melinda blinked back her tears and willed her breathing to slow back down. It took a few moments, and Mary gave her the time. Melinda gulped down the rest of her tea, only just realizing that the peppermint had, for the moment, soothed her angry stomach.
Mary sat back in her chair. “You know, I quite like you. For complete strangers with very little reserve, we might have begun screaming or come to blows over some of the things we’ve said.”
Having brought no handkerchief, Melinda dabbed at her eyes and nose with her napkin and replied with dignity, “Though you have driven me most cruelly to tears, I am very grateful for the tea-- and the company.”
Nearly an hour later, Mary insisted on lending her guest a hat for the walk home. She even walked Melinda back to the main road after she confessed that she hadn’t paid the least attention to which way she went to get to the cottage. They bid each other a pleasant goodbye. Melinda began to walk home, but before she had gone many paces, Mary called out, “I’m making scones tomorrow. They are much better than the fruitcake.”
“Well,” Melinda answered shyly. “I shall have to return your hat anyway.”
“Please do,” Mary smiled. “I only have two others, and one of them is very ugly.”