John paced about anxiously outside his closed bedroom doors, the rushing of his steps surprisingly in sync with his wife's screams of pain, which, oddly, came at even intervals. The raucous symphony (or cacophony to others) of childbirth was punctuated with the midwife's "Push!" as a meter for time, much like a metronome for a piano concerto, except much shriller.
The father-to-be bit his fingernails (something he had never done previously) as the occasion called for such unseemly behavior. In fact, John took to chewing on quite a lot of things while he fretfully meandered by the bedchamber. Aside from his fingernails, he also clamped teeth on his fingers themselves, the occasional handkerchief, and, when a manservant came by with water for him to drink (he was sweating like a hog roasting in the summer heat), he would wedge the rim of the glass between his lips. He preferred the fingernails overall, as they were easily accessible and, while disgusting, could be digested. He could not swallow his handkerchief or a shard of wine glass no matter how nervous he became. His linear way of thinking was only challenged when he heard another cry join the female shouts reverberating out of his bedroom.
John felt as though his heart plummeted into his stomach. In fact, he felt as though all matter in his body plunged south, anchoring him to the ground as the same new cry echoed solo to his ears. But in just as a quick an instant as it took for his heart to drop, it rose back up again, beating as fervently as the wings of a hummingbird. If the thump pounding in his chest grew any faster, he swore his heart would sing.
He looked down at his hands and the short, jaggedly cut stubs of fingernail he had left. With the cry of his newborn still pulsing in his ears, John rushed to find a bowl and a pitcher of water. He had to wash his hands. How could he have not thought of that? He would have to hold his child with clean hands.
"A bowl and pitcher, please!" he ordered, scanning frantically around for a servant. "This instant!" he continued, stamping his foot and muttering a mild oath under his breath when no one came. And by the time he did hear footsteps start to scale up the stairs, the doors behind him parted, and John instantly spun around on his heel.
Before the maid standing in the entrance could say a word, John whisked by her into the room and ran straight for his wife, who was holding a burbling little bundle in her arms. And before Justine could say a word to her husband, John planted so many kisses on her face that she ended up laughing until tears streamed out of her eyes. John rubbed her sweat-glistened forehead tenderly with his hand, wiping back clumps of damp golden hair from her tired face.
"It's a girl," she told him. John looked wide-eyed at the quiet thing in his wife's hold, his mouth going dry and his hands, timid and shaking, faintly beckoning for the child.
When the babe was slid into his arms, he let out a breath of amazement. He gently touched the curled, balled up fists resting beneath the baby's chin and the little tuft of light brown hair atop the newborn's head.
"She's beautiful," he said, looking back at his wife for a moment. Justine smiled and John took a seat on the bedside facing her, their daughter still in his arms.
"I haven't named her yet." Justine grimaced as she tried to adjust herself to sit more upright. "I was thinking Jeanine."
"Jeanine?" John raised an eyebrow before looking back at his daughter.
"Yes. Jeanine Lenore."
"Sounds a bit French, don't you think?"
His wife sighed and set her blue eyes on him.
"John, we live in Dover, and as you well know, Dover is the closest English city to France. The French practically breathe on our doorstep."
"And all the more reason to name her Jane or Elizabeth or Mary or—"
He was cut short when the nameless daughter squirmed in his arms and opened its previously slumbering eyes.
John would have said more, if he could, but when his green eyes set their gaze on his newborn's, all color and emotion fled from his face.
Justine squinted at him.
"What's the matter?" she asked.
"Her eyes. Something's wrong, Justine. Her eyes—"
"Oh, that," said Justine mildly, giggling afterwards. "The midwife's says it is nothing to worry about. Our daughter is not blind in one eye, John. She sees you perfectly, I am certain."
"How can you be sure? I have yet to come across anyone with one blue eye and one green, Justine." John studied his daughter with concern. He might have not been versed in the conundrums of the human body, but his brother was a physician and discolored eyes were never mentioned in young Dr. Stephen Ellison's frequent and lengthy health lectures.
"Well," declared his wife with just a hint of disdain, "I think it is a lovely peculiarity. Depending on the light, it is hardly noticeable."
John meant to argue about the issue further, but he reconsidered and looked back at his daughter, who was pink and healthy and clearly absorbed in observing him and everything else around them. The large eyes gradually wandered back and forth, soaking every image with wonder.
"I like Jeanine," he said at length. He met Justine's eyes with a smile, and she, in turn, said:
"I thought you would" before she leaned forward and kissed him.
After a few more kisses here and there and a couple of inserted, I-love-you's, and the midwife's "You just had one baby, Mr. and Mrs. Ellison. Don't get too eager to have more," John returned his daughter to Justine's arms and calmly exited the room.
He did not get far before his easy walk turned into a spirited saunter, and by the time he was down the stairs and heading for the front doors, he was into a full, happy sprint. And out he ran into the open air, facing the sunset as the bright sky faded into sparkling violet. With the pump of a fist, John leapt into the air and let out one booming whoop for the entire town of Dover to hear.
The first few weeks after Jeanine's birth were an important trial for the young married couple. Justine took longer than she would have liked to heal from her daughter's birth, which left Jeanine in the care of her inexperienced father or her newly hired nurse. John crawled into bed exhausted every night during those few weeks, complaining about how he smelled like baby. It was not because Jeanine was a difficult child. In truth, she was very well-behaved for a newborn. John, loving new father that he was, could not relax for even one second. He was constantly on edge, for there was no telling when Jeanine would be hungry, when she would need to be changed, when she needed to be patted on the back or cuddled. His mistrust of the new nurse also strained him and robbed him of sleep. He insisted that the baby's basinet was placed in their bedroom, and he himself would get up to tend to the baby girl during Justine's recovery—hence the reason why he worried that he smelled like baby.
"You smell like my husband," Justine comforted one night.
"And what will you do when your husband has the permanent odor of your baby daughter's?" questioned John. He stared blankly at the canopy of their bed.
"My daughter does not smell foul, John," she said firmly. She would change her mind but a few weeks later, when she was well enough to resume her duties as wife and attentive mother.
News of the Ellisons' newborn spread like wildfire through the neighborhood, and as soon as John, Justine and the household had fallen back into their daily routines, friends, family and neighbors poured through their front doors to pay their visits and to give their congratulations. All visitors contended that baby Jeanine was a handsome child, but all had also displayed some sort of shock or concern over the matter of her eyes. Though they dared not speak their thoughts before the parents, they thought Jeanie's one blue and one green eye as queer, odd, and troublesome; it also made her face look slightly disproportioned, as the darker eye drew focus in and the lighter eye drew focus out. Many of the older visitors, including John's and Justine's parents, interpreted the dual-colored irises as a reflection of Jeanie's future character.
"Sweet and salty, she'll be," declared Captain Travers, with a firm nod of the head.
"Or sweet and sour," Admiral Ellison contributed. Both seasoned seamen chuckled. Their children, however, looked uneasily at each other. Justine gave her father nothing short of a glare, which Captain Travers accepted with a wink; and John gave his father his sternest look, which Admiral Ellison simply deflected with a, "Oh, you know I meant no harm, John. Really. Your daughter is fine."
And then there were those who mistook Jeanine's true identity and purpose altogether. The most common culprit was a neighbor whom neither John nor Justine knew particularly well, but their close friends were not exempt from such faux pas, either. When Mr. Nicholson, an older man who worked with John in the merchant company, came to see the babe, he took her for a boy.
"What's its name again?" he asked, looking back at the queer pair of eyes that gazed owlishly up at him. "Johnny you said?"
"Jeanine." The young couple both said it through tight teeth.
"Oh. It's a girl, then?"
Mr. Nicholson's visit upset Justine to such an extent that she announced, through a fit of manic cleaning, that her daughter would be raised to be so ladylike that the man would never mistake her for a male ever again.
"Really, John," she muttered angrily. "How could my child suffer such ignorant observations? To be mistaken for a boy. I'll be damned."
John kindly reminded his wife to keep her voice down, as said child was napping snuggly in the arms of her nurse.
"Admittedly, Mr. Nicholson is not known for his keen eyesight, my dear," he said. "That is why I keep him in charge of cargo and not of finances. All those numbers could blind any man."
Justine acted as though she did not hear him—vindication of Mr. Nicholson for his profound error was disallowed—and she said a few things about getting Jeanine a governess as soon as she could walk and raising the finest lady Dover had ever seen.
"And supersede you, my dear Mrs. Ellison?" John teased. He came to her, arms extended at his sides. She accepted the embrace gladly and rested her chin on his chest.
"On the contrary. We will rule together, my daughters and I."
"Daughters?" John raised his eyebrows. "Looking into the future, I see. And what about sons?"
"Well, if my sons resemble their father in any way—which they will, you understand—then I have no need to worry about them. They will be fine gentlemen, and no one shall question nor forget that fact."
The issue of siblings for Jeanine, however, was pushed aside as the young parents pampered and spoiled their firstborn with everything that their parental love and instincts allowed them. They took the child on outings to the white cliffs of Dover, letting her play in the sand or dipping her kicking feet into the ocean waves. They dressed her up like a doll and played numerous and endless games of peek-a-boo. They covered her with kisses, especially on the nose, cheek and tummy, and sang her lullabies while gently swaying her back and forth in their arms.
As Justine placed Jeanie in her basinet one evening, smoothing a curl away from the child's sleeping face, John came up behind her, arms linking around her waist and chin resting on her shoulder.
"I can't believe she's gotten so big already," said Justine softly. "Just four months ago she was placed into my arms, and now…" A tear welled up in her eye and she blinked it away.
John gently turned her around to face him. He held her face in his hands and placed his lips on her forehead before letting the side of his face rest against her cheek.
"Do you think it's time we try for another?" he asked delicately, his voice barely above a whisper.
His hand slid down her arm till he got to her wrist where his fingers filled the gaps between her own.
Justine did not say anything for a very long time and simply enjoyed the moment standing there with her husband and watching her baby sleep safely in her cradle. Then,
"Yes," she said. "Yes."
Some month later, as a giggling maid left the parlor after bringing in a pot of tea and tray of biscuits, John stared, mouth agape, at his wife who stood smiling before him, her hands clasped beneath her chin.
"You're sure?" he asked, the corners of his mouth gravitating upwards.
"Yes," Justine said, softly at first, and then, "Yes!"
She wrapped her arms around her husband's neck as he picked her up and briefly swung her around. By the time, the couple had embraced, the maid who had just left them had hurried to the kitchen where she spilled the news to the rest of the servants. More voices joined those of the gleeful pair and the house became filled with merry laughter. Though, by the time the nurse had scooped baby Jeanine up and told the clueless babe that she would soon have a brother or sister, Mr. and Mrs. Ellison had elected to resume celebration of the news with kisses rather than with excited cries of joy.