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Froda's Return

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"Ride on, ye knights: but ye never may see
What the light of song has shown to me:
Loveliest, gentlest, and wisest of all,
Bold be the deeds that her name shall recall;
What though she ne'er bless my earthly sight?"

January 1919
The first thing Dan saw when he walked in the room was Bess's golden hair, coiled up on top of her head just as she'd worn it five years ago. A novel lay on the table next to where she sat at the foot of her mother's bed, place marked- she'd clearly been reading aloud before he arrived. She was still focused on her mother and did not turn around as he walked in.

Mrs. Laurence's eyes were open and alert, for while her body was bedridden her mind was clearly sharp as ever. The influenza that had taken Esau, her great-niece, and too many others of the ones she loved had also weakened her badly, but she fought hard to not let it show. The letter he'd received earlier in the week had been in her usual graceful penmanship- looking at how her hands shook now, he wondered how long that had taken to write. Mrs. Laurence had never much understood or even liked Dan, her sister's favorite, he knew. But she was loyal to her sisters, and so her letter had been prompt, informative, and friendly enough.

The look on Ted's face when he'd come to pick Dan up at the train station had told him what he'd needed to know. Mother Jo had faded quickly, so quickly that Mrs. Laurence's letter had not brought him fast enough. He was too late.

He and Ted had not talked much on their way back to the College. This was not a time to bring up politics, the end of the war, or even their shared experiences on the lecture circuit. Ted looked so completely lost that Dan was barely willing to offer his condolences in public at all, lest the man break down. He explained in a subdued voice that due to the number of people arriving for the funeral, Rob had asked if Dan could stay at Parnassus with some of the other Plumfield boys and their families. Between Rob's, Ted's, and Josie's clans, and a few more distant relations who had already arrived, the house would be full to the rafters.

Dan had agreed, secretly shamed at the thrill that went through his heart at the thought of sharing a roof with his Aslauga. It wasn't a thought worthy of her, widowed only a year ago. Dan had met her husband in passing only a few times- he'd tried to gently avoid Bess and all her doings for years (without obvious snubs) since his time of convalescence. Dr. Esau Breech had been a good man, and a good doctor. His insistence on spending so much time with his patients had been his downfall, as the influenza had weakened his body and let the pneumonia get a strong enough grip to end his life. Nat's letter had been one of genuine sorrow.

Ted dropped Dan off at Parnassus, and promised to spend some time catching up after the funeral the next day. Dan was shown into Mrs. Laurence's room first thing. Mrs. Laurence herself was in full black- Nat had written that she'd kept to the old ways when Mr. Laurence died just after Mrs. Brooke a few years ago, and didn't seem likely to ever go into half-mourning. Bess, of a younger generation, had paid some tribute to the old ways but not worn the full widow's weeds. Her dress now seemed somehow plainer than what she'd worn when Dan had seen her last, and was of dark purple fabric. Her only jewelry was her wedding ring and a necklace of jet, but then she'd never worn much jewelry.

After offering his condolences to both widows, Mrs. Laurence asked him a few polite questions about his lecture tour. He explained that while he seemed to be a fair enough speaker, in that people laughed at his jokes and such, his topic didn't seem very popular. A lot of America had high hopes for the Indian boarding schools, and they didn't want to hear his criticisms. He got a much better reception when he spoke among immigrant populations, and when he spoke out of doors or in mixed populations, those not of the white race seemed thoughtful. But he was having trouble setting up new lectures, and thought his tour would be over soon, and perhaps three years wasn't that bad of a run.

"And what will you do then, Dan? Go back to the Office of Indian Affairs?" Bess asked.

"I don't think they'd welcome me too kindly after this lecture tour, no. I'm thinking about Wyoming, Cheyenne is a booming town. And a friend of mine wants me to help get a man elected governor, William Ross. He and his wife sound like good people, and they both know how things work out there. It could be a good place to settle down, sensible people you know, women can vote out there." He tried to grin, but it didn't quite come through.

"It sounds wonderful." Mrs. Laurence sighed, and Bess looked worriedly toward her mother. "Dear, I think I should rest awhile. Dan, I'm so glad you could be here, you will excuse me for not showing you to your room? Bess, would you?"

The two younger people agreed and quietly left the room. Bess gestured for him to follow her. "Davis will have taken your bags to your room. I'm sorry if it isn't very quiet tonight, we've had to put you between Ned and Jack's families, can you believe they both came? And brought their entire broods. I hope you'll be comfortable in any case."

"I'm sure I will be, Princess." Dan colored a little, he hadn't meant to call her that, it just slipped out. She just turned and gave a ghost of a smile, though.

"You know, no one calls me that anymore? Not even Demi. I haven't heard it in years."

There were all sorts of replies to that running through Dan's head, but the decades had given him some measure of control. "Not even the doctor?"

She paused only an instant at the mention of her late husband. "He never picked up the habit, to be honest. He called me 'Milady' now and then to make Mother smile, but 'Princess' was always more of a childhood name, and we've all grown up so much now." She paused at a doorway. "Why, to think I've lived to hear you speak of settling down!"

"I am nearing sixty, there are limits, you know."

Bess looked into his eyes. "For you, Dan? I wouldn't have thought so." She opened the door and gestured him in. "This is your room, I hope you find it comfortable."

It was far more comfortable than any of the rooms he'd had on the road, and he said so.

"I'm glad. Please let us know if you need anything. I should go check on the supper preparations, we'll see you downstairs in half an hour?" Dan agreed, and she left.

The meal and the rest of the night passed in something of a haze. There were several of the old Plumfield boys about and their families- Jack, Ned, Dolly, Stuffy, and a few younger ones he didn't know as well. He knew Nat and Daisy would be over at the old Brooke place, and Demi and Alice with them, in from Boston. But he didn't feel comfortable barging in, and he'd see them tomorrow. He went to bed early, and the noise of the children to either side was no match for his exhaustion.

***

The next morning dawned cold and fogbound. Breakfast was subdued, and they left the house together to walk to the church. The service was filled with women, old men, and children- no young people were present, as all were either on their way home from the front, or in a hospital somewhere, working or otherwise. If they hadn't died of the influenza. His eyes strayed to Dolly, and Nat and Daisy, who had lost children in the scourge. Several others present nearly had, and Nan still walked with a cane, having worked herself to exhaustion and nearly to death, as Dr. Breech had.

He'd never really expected to be a father, not after what his had been like, but with the state of the world these days, he couldn't say he'd want that pain.

At the meal afterward, the group split in two as people discussed their children's doings. The soldiers were expected back soon, and Ned, Jack, Demi, Tommy, Dolly, Emil and Ted could talk of little else but the return of their sons- as no one was truly ready to talk about Mother Jo yet.

Dan was pulled into the other group by Nat. His son, the twin of the daughter who had died of influenza, was an Army doctor, and likely to stay in London for some time yet. They sat with Franz and Ludmilla, who had moved to America years ago after the Kaiser's disastrous interview with the Daily Telegraph signaled things were likely to change in Germany. Franz's son was also an Army doctor, but the Army hadn't quite trusted him enough to send him overseas, so he was in New York and had been carefully watched during his time there. Stuffy, Josie and Rob all had daughters who were nurses scattered around the globe, and they all sat nearby, discussing their doings.

Bess and her mother sat with Josie, and at one point, Dan and Bess shared a glance across the table- the wordless chasm of the childless surrounded by worried parents. Later, it would be one of the clearest memories he had of the day.

Most of the Parnassus guests cleared out after that, and when Dan went over to the Dovecote to spend the afternoon and evening with Ted and Nat and the rest, Bess and her mother came with. There was little music and less joy, but as the hours together wore on, they shared many happy memories of Mother Jo and laughter began to return. Mrs. Laurence, the last of the sisters now, told many stories of their shared girlhood, and by the evening's end, some of the worst of the grief had passed.

Near the evening's end, Ted gathered them for a short, heartfelt prayer. He spoke movingly of his mother's gifts of words and laughter, of the strength of her love, and the steadiness of her heart. He finished by giving thanks for their children's safety and the war's end, and Daisy was heard to sob when he spoke of Mother Jo getting to see her grand-niece again.

And then Bess surprised them all. "Daisy, would you help me get the surprise for Mother? I think everyone should see it, before we part again." Daisy wiped her tears and nodded, quickly going into the other room.

"I've been working on this for most of the last year, and especially during the last few weeks, Mother. I wanted it to be done so that Aunt Jo could see it, but I'm afraid I just wasn't fast enough. It was meant for both of you." Daisy brought out a large canvas, and set it carefully on a chair. Several people gasped aloud, and Mrs. Laurence put her hand over her mouth.

In the center, seated, were four young women. Two clearly a little older, two a little younger. Three brunettes, one with golden hair. Each looked at the viewer with a different expression- the eldest, in red, was all calm assurance. The next, in dark green, clearly had a passionate spirit and looked as though she was about to spring out of her chair. The third looked oddly young, and radiated love and peace in her blue dress. And the littlest, the blond dressed in pink, was clearly attempting to be regal, but not quite getting there.

Each young woman had someone standing behind her. The young man behind the eldest seemed to share her sense of calm. The older, bearded man behind the second woman was all bluff kindness. And the curly headed fellow behind the youngest had a face wreathed in smiles. Behind the girl in blue two people stood, a man and woman, the man wearing a chaplain's uniform, and the woman smiling, with her hand on the girl's shoulder.

Everyone there knew who the young women were. Mrs. Laurence wept quite openly for a few minutes, and several people had tears in their eyes. Once she had collected herself, Bess's mother thanked her. "My dear girl, I haven't seen us all together in so long. And you have Beth and John and Marmee all quite perfect. Thank you, my dear, so much." Mother and daughter embraced.

People started to file out slowly after that, though Demi and Daisy stood together staring at their long departed father for quite some time. Josie stood with them for awhile, looking at the father she never truly knew.

***

When they were ready, Dan helped Bess get her mother back to Parnassus. When Mrs. Laurence was settled in her room, Bess and Dan walked together until they reached the corner where they would go their separate ways.

"I suppose you have to leave us soon?" Bess asked.

"I have a few lectures left, none too far away. Afterwards, Ted asked if I could come back for awhile first, before going out west again. I'd like to see his son come home, if I can, and Nat's."

Bess looked into his eyes again, as she had the night before. "We'd like that. I hope you won't neglect us, up here at Parnassus, when you come back?"

There was something in her tone. Something neither of them was willing to name yet, but it gave Dan a hope he'd never really had before. He took a moment and allowed himself to truly look at her, in a way he'd been avoiding out of deference to grief, and widowhood, and years gone by. She was older now, yes, there were a few lines around her eyes and her mouth, laugh lines. Her figure was quite good for a woman of her age, but she was not the girl she had been. She seemed warmer, more careworn than his cool queen of old. And had she flushed a little at his gaze?

Dan's voice was measured when he spoke. "No, Aslauga, I would be very happy to see you again."

Bess's smile was slight, but honest. "I quite look forward to seeing you as well, Froda. Sleep well." And she turned and walked quickly down the corridor.

That night, before he slept, Dan thought mostly of Mother Jo and years gone by. But those thoughts were interspersed with old hopes as well, long gone to seed, just starting to sprout again. No promises made, nothing truly said aloud, but still enough to hope on.

And that night, when he slept, Dan dreamed.