Falling Forwards (1267 Words)
But oh, what joy to see him! To find him, alive! I could not stop but embraced him. Rupert patted my back with light affection. I was surprised, cavalier as he was in nature, that he did not withdraw entirely.
“Thank God,” I said, “thank God!”
“Steady on,” said Rupert, the smile in his voice as plain as any wholesome laugh. “What’s this, then?”
I collected my wits and released him.
“How…?” I asked.
“Simple,” he said. “I’ll tell you later.”
“Sarge will be overjoyed,” I said. “He has not been the same, since we lost you. Here, let me—”
Rupert caught my arm. The motion was swift and firm.
“No, Winston,” he said. “Don’t call him. Not yet.”
There was a strange look to him. I hadn’t recognized it before.
“What is it?” I said, frightened. “You’re not hurt—ill—?”
Rupert shook his head. “Not in the way you imagine,” he said.
“Pa-pa? Who is this?”
I turned. There, not three feet from us, stood a little girl, a child.
Rupert left me to kneel beside her, resting a slim hand on her shoulder.
“Why this is Winston, dearie,” he said, “do you remember the American I told you of? See the funny hat he wears?”
The girl followed his pointing finger, laughed, and clapped her hands.
Rupert met my astonished glance with incorrigible ease.
“I am wed, Winston,” he said—“Wed, to Belinda Gaellie.”
My heart stopped. I could not speak in front of the child.
Rupert’s eyes shone as I had never seen before. The little girl stopped smiling, seeing my alarm. She did not know what to think of this stranger who was one moment overcome with gladness and stricken with alarm the next.
I cleared my throat. “She is yours,” I said, of the child.
“The first,” said Rupert. “She is Gracie.”
“Gracie Litz,” I said. “It has a ring, and your madness, to it.”
Rupert chuckled softly. He kissed the infant’s tumbled locks.
“Perhaps,” he said.
I shook my head.
“If Sarge were to see this—”
“He cannot.” Rupert spoke low but with a certain forcefulness. “He would not take it as you. I love Sarge as a father, but he would never forgive me this. I would rather have him think me dead than curse me as a traitor to his cause–or worse yet, condemn those I hold higher than my own life.”
“Sarge is a good man,” I said, “and he will not harm you or your own.”
The captain’s lips bent up in a rueful, sorrowing smile.
“You do not know him as I,” he said. “Or, I know him less well than you. I have taken an enemy of his blood to wife. There is little he would see past that.”
I was not so sure of this. Yet, seeing Rupert as he was, I could not deny him.
“Very well,” I said. “Incredible, to find you here—even more so, like this!”
“And you,” he said. “More than I can say, I am glad that you and Sarge are still in one piece. Oh! I’ll not rest until you have met Belinda. You must see our home.”
“I’ve met Belinda,” I said, dryly.
Rupert rose, lifting the child in his arms.
“’Tis time you knew her better,” he said. “Why, earlier—”
He stopped. His face went white, dead white.
I craned my neck about and with a heavy, sinking feeling, understood.
“Sarge,” I said. “Hello, my man. Do you see who we have found? It is Rupert—Captain Litz! He lives!”
Sarge did not reply. His face was hard and void of expression.
“I know,” he said. “I know, too, that you meant to keep it from me.”
I was not about to let his temper dampen my spirits. For Rupert’s sake I would feign a levity I did not feel.
“Come here,” I said, “come here and embrace him, dear fellow.”
Sarge did not move. His attention was fixed on Rupert.
“What have you done?” he said. He looked at the child. “What is this?”
“She is my daughter,” said Rupert. His voice quiet, but there was an edge to it. “I know the Gaellies have not been good to you, nor to me. But even a family of black sheep may have a white lamb in their midst, and so it is with Belinda.”
Sarge stared at him. “How could you.”
Rupert’s fire countered his frozen dispassion. “Because I fell in love,” he said. “What reason else is there? Or do you think she ensnared me with magic or poisoned my wits, and I am her thrall with no will of my own?”
He spoke harshly because he was frightened. I could see it in the way he held his daughter, as if he were already shielding her from an invisible foe, his slim frame bent almost double as he cradled her at his chest. I saw it as he shifted, just slightly, into a fighting stance, though he could not draw his blade.
If Sarge recognized all this, he gave no sign.
“You speak like one who has a fever,” he said. “It’s not like you. Nor is it like you, to fall in love.”
Rupert threw back his head and laughed.
“Not like me!” he said. “Well, you are right. But what can we do, after the fact?”
There was challenge in his voice. His glance was pleading.
Sarge was silent.
Little Gracie, sensing her father’s distress, whimpered into Rupert’s neck.
Sarge stirred then. He shook his head.
“Let me see your child,” he said.
Rupert came, not slowly but guardedly, forward.
Sarge did not look pleased.
“She is filthy,” he said. “You are filthy.”
“We are very poor,” said Rupert.
“That is no excuse.”
“We have been engaged in saving your ship,” said Rupert.
“Aye. Who else would hold the lamp aloft that led you here, while I managed the longboat?”
Sarge’s look was thunderous. “You wrecked my craft, on purpose.”
“I could have let her drown on purpose, too, with all of you yet aboard.”
The old soldier was not amused. Rupert, meeting his gaze levelly, was similarly if somewhat more archly reserved.
“She has your eyes,” said Sarge. “She will be a troublemaker. I don’t doubt she is one now. And you deserve every moment of it.”
At this, Rupert’s features softened. He smiled.
“What more can I ask for,” he said, “but your blessing.”
“You don’t need my blessing,” said the old soldier. “Hasn’t God blessed you enough already? Even so—”
He held out his arms.
Rupert yielded his daughter to her. He looked as if the old soldier were holding a dagger to his heart, but he still smiled, serene and poised, in the face of death.
Sarge frowned at him. He rested his hand on the girl’s head.
“All the same,” he said, “God bless you, little one. You and your mother and siblings, should you have any. God bless your witless father. And God bless us all.”
“Amen,” I said, lowly.
Rupert was greatly moved. His hands shook as he reached for his child, but he did not take her, merely stroking his finger along her turned cheek.
“Winston—Sarge,” he said. “I had never dreamed to see you both again.”
“Nor I you,” he said. “Though I admit, it does not please me to learn that you would hide from me like a timorous rabbit,”
“Well,” said Rupert, carelessly, “there was a bit of risk involved in the telling.”