Strawberries and Champagne
Henry Tilney settled his reading spectacles on his nose and opened the book. He had barely begun to read when he heard the door to his wife's dressing-room close. He looked up and smiled as she walked toward the bed. You are still so lovely, dearest Catherine, he thought fondly. She disliked wearing a nightcap, and with her still-dark curls tumbling down her back, it did not take much imagination to see the young girl with whom he had fallen in love.
Catherine returned her husband's smile. She privately thought that his reading spectacles, along with the touch of silver scattered through his dark hair, made him appear truly distinguished. She climbed into bed next to him and took the volume from his hands. "Udolpho!" she exclaimed, laughing. "What made you get out that old chestnut after all these years?"
"What better way to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary?" he asked archly. "Were it not for Mrs. Radcliffe, we may never have reached an understanding."
In five and twenty years of marriage, Catherine Tilney had learned to recognize when her husband was teasing her, and had even learned to respond in kind. "Between Mr. King and Mrs. Radcliffe, my love, our union was inevitable." She yawned and stretched. "I am sorry I have not been better company. I am terribly fatigued tonight."
He looked at her with concern. "Are you quite well, dearest? You have had that bilious complaint the past few days, and now this fatigue--I think perhaps you should consult Dr. Goodwin."
Catherine smiled rather secretively. "I do not think that will be necessary, Henry."
"Well, if you are sure," he responded doubtfully.
"I am quite sure."
"I am going to take you away," he declared. "We shall go to Bath, or London, wherever you like. Now that James has gone away to school, you have no young ones to keep you at home, and you deserve a holiday."
"Will you take me to the South of France?" she teased. "I would so like to follow in the footsteps of Emily and her father in Udolpho!"
"Anywhere you like, my sweet," Henry cried gallantly, laughing along with her. He removed his spectacles and placed them on the bedside table with the book. "Come here." He took her in his arms, and she happily snuggled into his chest. "Five and twenty years tomorrow we are married, Catherine! How quickly the time has flown."
"Indeed. Young Henry will be taking orders next month, and Eleanor will be getting married shortly after." Catherine yawned again. "She is already several years older than I was when I married you."
"You are eternally young, my sweet."
"Oh, you do flatter me so very well, Mr. Tilney."
"I tell only the truth."
Catherine raised her head and smiled at him lovingly, then leaned closer for a kiss. She looked into his eyes and said, "We have a good life, have we not?"
"We have indeed, my love," he said, serious for once. "And we have a fine family." He smiled, never able to maintain a serious tone for long. "A family of eight children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number."
She traced circles on his chest with her fingers. "Do you think that is too many children?" she asked, not meeting his eyes.
Henry was startled. "Why, Catherine!" he exclaimed. "What can have possessed you to say such a thing? I am delighted with each and every one of our children."
"Would you consider a family of nine children a fine family as well?"
"Would I con--" The import of her words struck him forcibly. "Do you mean--?"
She raised her head again and looked at him, smiling slightly. "Yes, Henry, I am once again with child."
Henry stared at her in amazement. "Are you sure?"
"After eight children, my love, I am intimately familiar with all the symptoms."
He fell back heavily against the pillow. "How did this happen?"
His wife's only answer was a quiet trill of laughter.
"Of course, I know how it happened, but--"
"Is it so fantastic, Mr. Tilney? You have always been a most attentive husband, after all."
Henry grinned. "And you, Mrs. Tilney, have always been a most obliging wife." They laughed together quietly. "But it has been eight years since the last child. I suppose I considered our family complete."
Catherine took pity on her husband's confusion. "Do you remember that evening in July, when the children were visiting your sister? Mrs. Brown had brought us some strawberries, and you insisted on opening a bottle of champagne to go along with them."
"Yes," he said dreamily. "And such wonderful champagne it was. Although the strawberries were not nearly as sweet as you, Catherine." He smiled at her. "Do you think it happened that night?"
"I suspect that it did, my love."
"Then," he said, pulling her closer, "you shall give birth to a precious child indeed, my sweet, conceived as he was in such a state of love."
"You are happy about this, then?"
"Of course! How could I not be happy?" He stroked her hair. "Another little girl, resembling her mother, with beautiful dark curls and a sweetly serious turn of mind."
"Or another little boy, resembling his father, with dark hair and eyes and a tendency to tease his sisters and, someday, his wife."
They lay together silently for a moment. "We are truly blessed, Catherine," said Henry quietly.
"I know it."
"Are you prepared for another infant?" he said, laughing. "Another demanding creature claiming all your attention?"
"Much like his father, you mean?"
"Touche, my love." He reached toward the bedside table, took up the extinguisher, and put out the candle. "Good night, Catherine. Sleep well, my dearest wife."
"Good night, Henry. I am honoured to have been your wife all these years, and I love you so very much."
"And I love you. Thank you for being my wife, for bearing my children, for making my house a home. And thank you for your wonderful companionship. There is no other woman with whom I would have spent these five and twenty years."
"It has been a pleasure, sir."
Catherine felt her husband's hand toying with the ribbons on the front of her nightdress. "Precisely how fatigued are you, my sweet?"
She smiled in the darkness. "Suddenly not so much."
"As I said previously, Mrs. Tilney, you are a most obliging wife."
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