The next morning, after Dr. Heskitt had left, Nelle called Annie to her bedside.
"I must tell you," she said, "of what has taken place. I wanted to be strong...for the sake of...the boys, Annie. Alas, I fear that you must be strong for all of us now."
Cooing softly, Annie leaned over to stroke Nelle's fevered brow as she had done long ago with Little Bart's mother and again with Doctor Will. After telling all to Annie, Nelle shuddered and turned her head away, soaking her pillow with tears.
Crumpled in a chair from the unspeakable shock, Annie remained silent until Nelle finally said,"You may ask me anything."
Annie looked fixedly at her mistress. "I knows it got to be a baby you done lost, Miz Nelle. But it cain't be! You ain't see Mastah Angel Hair goin' on two years!"
Nelle leaned back and sighed deeply. "Not so, Annie. We met in secret at Winter's Run on Chesapeake Bay just four months ago, that time you thought I was staying with my sick friend. My husband was engaged in very important work for the Navy and President Lincoln. Our meeting was arranged through the President's office."
Still dazed by the revelations, Annie came fully to her senses when Nelle groaned, rolled over and buried her face in the pillow, her body racked with sobs.
Trickles of blood spewed across Nelle's pillow.
Terrified anew, Annie fled from the room.
"Tell Li'l Bart to git de doctuh agin," she shouted down the stairs to Bessie. "Miz Nelle...she doin' poorly!"
Doctor Heskitt wasted no time in rushing back to Nelle in response to Little Bart's frantic plea for help.
Annie waited for him anxiously at the top of the stairs. The look of deep concern on his face told her more than any words could have done.
After an examination, he patted Nelle's hand and gave a sigh of relief. "It's nothing more than a nose bleed! But I insist that you keep her quiet, Annie."
He drew a bottle of laudanum from his case and lifted a spoonful to Nelle's lips.
"Tincture of opium will help you sleep," he soothed. "Rest, dear lady. I shall come again when you wake."
When Nelle drifted into unconsciousness, he motioned silently to Annie to join him in the hall.
Stepping away from the door, he asked, "Annie, I do not mean to pry into Missus Duncan's affairs, but I must know more than I do. As you have undoubtedly guessed, she has suffered a miscarriage. She did not inform me of her condition, I think, because I had warned her many times to take precautions to insure that she would never carry another child."
Annie related the story of Nelle's secret meeting with Philo at Winter's Run in September. She spared Doctor Heskitt none of the details.
He sighed. "And now, what do you know of the stressful situation which precipitated the disaster of last evening? Some tremendous emotional strain must have occurred for her body to have reacted so violently. It's as if a bomb exploded inside....." He caught his breath, unable to continue.
Annie touched his hand compassionately. "I knows how you feels, Doctuh. I knows. We so grateful foh you, suh," she murmured.
She told him then of Abraham Lincoln's visit and of the terrible news the President had brought about the Belle of Savannah, and Philo's execution.
Lowering his head, the doctor lifted both hands to his temples, the fingertips coming to rest in his thick mane of white hair. He was a picture of despair.
"Oh, sweet Jesus," he sobbed, "take those dear ones to Your bosom, and give me the power to save Nelle Duncan if that be Your will!"
Annie closed her eyes and murmured, "Amen!"
When his hands dropped to his sides, he squared his shoulders and lifted his head. He looked at Annie straight on.
"Do the children know?" he questioned.
"No, suh. Miz Nelle, she only tol' me awhile ago."
"I cannot place so dreadful a burden upon you, Annie," he stated adamantly. "It is my duty as a friend of this family's and as he who delivered both Philo Duncan and Ardie into this world to tell those children that their father is dead."
Annie's fingers shot to her mouth as she let out a groan. "Oh, no, suh! Oh, no! Dem babies don' need to know till mebbe aftah de New Year afore dey goes back to school. Please, suh! Dey gots 'nuff troubles awready wif Miz Nelle doin' so poorly."
Doctor Heskitt's eyes softened. "Precious Annie, how you do love your boys! Very well then, we'll wait. But I shall have to bring in Captain Duncan's attorney to set things in motion with regard to the estate. A mountain of responsibility must be scaled. Simon Shirley needs to be notified at once. I'll see to everything today."
"God bless you, Doctuh!" Annie said earnestly. "I don' know what we do wifout you!"
As Doctor Heskitt turned to descend, Bessie started up with a tray of cookies and milk.
"Missus Duncan is sleeping now, Bessie," he called down. "Anyway, I think some warm broth might be better for her when she wakes."
"Yes, Doctor," she replied, continuing to climb, "but this is for the children."
The doctor paused. "I thought they were downstairs with you."
"No, sir," she answered, "they are in the alcove right there, waiting to see their mother."
Both he and Annie looked to the other side of Nelle's doorway where draped portieres framed a cozy nook.
Side by side among the pillows heaped on the divan sat Ardie and Little Bart. Silently, they stared back at the adults, too stunned to cry.
They had heard every word.