Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Duking Days Revolution

Excerpt 2 - Chapter Six
Helena groped for Chloe’s arm. “I...cannot...have...this...”
“I don’t think you have a choice, Mistress,” Chloe whispered.
Love appeared with what appeared to be the best linen bed sheets in her arms. Helena’s brain screamed, “No, not those!” but her protest tailed off into a moan of despair as the pain returned. Love arranged the soft lengths of expensive cloth around her and Chloe thrust something firm behind her that eased the pressure on her back. In a brief, painless interval, Helena glanced over one shoulder, recognizing the cushions from her finest settle, but no one seemed to register her annoyance. In the next second, her mind quickly emptied of sheets and cushions when a particularly fierce grinding left her whimpering in distress.
Chloe’s face loomed above her. “Is it bad then, Mistress?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Helena growled through gritted teeth, dimly aware of Glover hovering at the door.
“This baby will be here in no time at all,” Chloe told him cheerfully.
Helena opened her mouth to correct her, but the words stayed in her throat and her back threatened to snap her body in two. It was all she could do not to scream. Then the realization dawned. She really was going to give birth now.
“Chloe,” she whimpered. “It is not supposed to happen like this.”
“I’m sorry, Mistress. But the babe decides, not you.”
Her thoughts drifted to the prepared chamber upstairs, to Celia and Amy, who waited for her summons to be her gossips. “What about the midwife?” she groaned.
From the corner of her eye, Helena saw Glover shake his head. “We will never get her through this,” he murmured. To confirm his words, more clamoring came from the street.
“We have to try.” Chloe pointed to the houseboy who peered round the doorjamb. “Send Jeb. He can go the back way.”
Glover disappeared again and the fierce cramps eased. By this time, Helena knew it to be only a temporary respite to prepare for the next onslaught. She brushed a tendril of damp hair from her forehead, wriggling into what she hoped was a more comfortable position but it proved to be merely a less uncomfortable one. Glover reappeared at the same moment another pain hit her and instinctively, she drew her knees up to her chest.
“Not yet, Mistress,” Chloe scrambled to her feet, pressing her skinny hands against Glover’s chest to push him back into the hall.
The sight of the diminutive Chloe manhandling Glover out of the room brought the absurdity of Helena’s situation into sharp relief. Who could imagine she would be lying on the floor of her own parlor, fully clothed and in the worst pain she had ever experienced; her swollen abdomen bobbing in front of her, and a mob rioting out on the cobbles. She couldn’t decide what terrified her more, what was happening inside the house, or the threat gathering force in the street.
Glover returned with the second houseboy, carrying a sheet of thin wood between them. Chloe gave an affronted squeal and held up a bed sheet to conceal her mistress, but Glover barely glanced at either of them.
“It’s in case the mob breaks the window, Mistress.” Glover kept his face averted while they fastened it to the frame; the hammering adding more discordant noise to the general chaos.
With the glow of the fire outside blocked out, the parlor was plunged into almost complete darkness. Helena felt the room closing in around her, relieved when a kitchen maid appeared with more lit candles, followed by the houseboy carrying a bowl of water. And a knife.
Helena moaned — in fear this time and fell into uncontrolled shaking. Could this really be happening? The binding in her back began again and she surrendered herself to it, defeated. Hot tears trickled down her face. Where was Guy? Where was Adella? I wish my mother were here. She choked back a sob. Mother wouldn’t let it hurt this much.
At the peak of each pain, Helena became convinced her whole body lifted clear of the floor. When it faded away, she flopped back down again, breathless. The relief lasted such a short time before the familiar pull and grind heralded another. Her body took on a will of its own, the pains assaulting her body with terrifying regularity. How long had she lain there?
Glass shattered upstairs. Something hit the window behind the sheet of wood, shaking the frame. Love screamed and threw herself on the floor. Lifting a hand, she stared at a trickle of blood running down her wrist. “I’ve hurt myself, Mistress,” she whined.
Chloe sniggered, and Helena glared Love into silence.
The acrid smell of smoke reached Helena’s nostrils, a thin grey plume insinuating itself between the wood and the window frame. The fire was getting closer. From a long way off, Helena heard the slam of a door, followed by light footsteps. Jeb’s face appeared round the doorjamb.
The boy had been running, his scrawny chest heaved and his eyes popped. “The midwife wasn’t there, sir,” he gasped, breathless.
Glover hurried the boy away and Helena’s groan this time was from disappointment.
Chloe knelt on the floor beside her. “Well, Mistress. You will just have to make do with me.” The maid cut off her objection with a laugh. “I’m the eldest of twelve. I delivered my mother’s eighth, ninth and the eleventh with no help at all.” She massaged Helena’s shoulders with strong fingers. “The tenth, she birthed in the lower meadow during harvest, me sister helped that time.”
“And the twelfth?” Helena whispered between pains. Chloe had never spoken of her family before, but then Helena had never enquired. She felt a pang of something akin to shame.
“Oh, I was long gone afore then. Not enough room in their tiny cottage for me. Nor much food neither.” Her voice held no bitterness, and for a moment, mistress and maid exchanged a silent look of understanding.
The next pain seemed to last longer than the others. When a wet cloth was slapped on her brow, Helena threw it off, irritated. It was too wet and much too heavy. Agony twisted her back again and she tried not to cry out.
“You have to push now, Mistress.” Chloe’s voice penetrated the fog in her head.
“It is not enough, push harder.”
“How dare you take that tone with me,” Helena snapped, frustrated that her voice held little conviction.
“I’ll go without tea for a week in punishment.” Chloe grasped her hand, squeezing, hard. “But you must push.”
Helena alternated between furious snarls and child like whimpering while Chloe and Love cajoled her. Helena slumped back on the cushions, her bottom lip jutted forward to blow air upward into her face. Why wouldn’t they listen? I cannot push harder. What was the matter with everyone?
A spark of rebellion ignited in her head. “To the devil with all of them then. I cannot, will not, do this any more. They will just have to find another way to bring this child into the world. It is too hard. It hurts too much. I’m exhausted and have had enough.”
A cool hand smoothed back her hair. “I know, Mistress,” Chloe whispered, and Helena realized she had spoken aloud. “But you are nearly there. Another push or two and it will be over.”
The candles on the tabletops glowed brighter and swirled. The abyss opened and a red mist filled her head. The room and its occupants faded away and the noise from the street became a distant roar. All that existed was the pain, wrapping itself around her body and leaving her limp and helpless.
With quiet detachment, she realised that she must be dying, and if it were true, she welcomed it. The thought of sliding into blissful oblivion beckoned her like an embrace.
Before the darkness closed in, something inside her broke away, and in a rush of warm wetness she released her breath in a low moan. Helena flopped back against the cushions, exhausted. Not dying then, but suddenly light-headed with relief. The pain had stopped.
Chloe fumbled between Helena’s knees, ordering Love to hand her the knife. She whisked something very bloody away, but Helena couldn’t summon the strength to ask questions. Cool towels wiped her clammy skin, and she imagined she was floating.
Then her eyes snapped open. The low, pull and grind had begun again. “I...thought...it…was...over.”
Love Hatchet’s high-pitched squeal broke into her muddled thoughts. “There’s another one.”
What was the idiot girl saying? Helena drew a deep breath to voice her contempt, but the desire to push overwhelmed her. She strained. The same warm wetness flowed again. Chloe lifted something from her, pushing back her hair with an inner elbow. Helena caught sight of the blood on her hands and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Mistress.” Chloe leaned over her. “It’s twins. Boys. Look!”
Helena couldn’t look, nor could she make sense of it. But at last the pain had really stopped. It was all that mattered. Euphoria filled her head and she relaxed back against the cushions with a sigh. “You may all go,” she murmured. “I wish to sleep.”
A gruff, male voice broke through her lethargy, growling close to her ear. “Mistress, you must get up.” Could it be Glover? Surely not. Get up? Was the man mad? Then he asked Chloe, “Is the birth complete?”
“We have to clean her up, Jim. And dispose of…that.” She pointed to the bloody package in which Chloe had wrapped the afterbirth. Bertha returned with another leather bucket of hot water and Chloe applied warm cloths to Helena’s thighs and belly. It felt wonderful.
“Thank you, Chloe,” Helena whispered. “Perhaps you could help me upstairs into my-”
Before she could finish, Glover gripped her arm, hard. “Forgive me, Mistress. But you must move. Now!”
Helena opened her mouth to protest, but he hauled her to her feet, hooking his shoulder into her armpit to half carry, half drag her into the hall. He was surprisingly strong for a slight man. Even had she the energy, Helena could not have resisted. Her nether regions felt damp and sore, her legs shaky, yet she amazed herself at her own mobility.
A rapid hammering on the front door made everyone jump. Glover reached forward to open it with his other arm. On the doorstep was one of Robert Devereux’s grooms.
“We cannot get any closer, sir.” The man’s terrified eyes roved over Helena. “The lady will have to walk to the carriage.”
“Another man telling me what to do,” Helena muttered, peering past him into the street. It was full dark now and the night seemed even blacker in contrast to the red and orange glow of the Fisher house in full flame. The fiery tongues spewed smoke and sparks upwards through a gaping roof.
The coach was on the other side of the mob, the driver grim-faced in an effort to hold the animals steady. Horses hate fire, and with flakes of lit ash falling on their manes, their eyes rolled back in preparation for flight. They wouldn’t stay there much longer.
With a sudden burst of courage, Helena gripped Chloe’s arm. “Keep close to me, and cover the babies’ heads.”
Chloe obeyed without a murmur, fastened a wrapping round one bundle and gathered Love behind her clutching the other.
A wave of weakness overcame her and Helena stumbled on the bottom step.
“Mistress, allow me.” Glover swept her into muscular arms and set off toward the coach. The crowd, heedless of burning debris raining down on them, waved sticks impaled with oranges, shrieking at the burning edifice opposite.
A sudden explosion came from inside the house as they passed, prompting a maniacal scream, followed by abusive laughter. Helena took in the jumble of faces, twisted with hate and the glow of reflected flames.
The fire licked the roof tiles of the house next door, where an orange glow flickered behind a top window. Helena hoped the Anglican bookseller who lived there had managed to escape.
A heavyset man in a torn coat leered at them, screaming, ‘No Popery!’ However no one in the foul-smelling crowd attempted to attack them, or even bar their way.
“Probably because I must look demented,” Helena mumbled.
Once in the coach, she glanced down at her skirt, lifting her hands away from the stains with distaste. “I shan’t wear this again,” she muttered to no one in particular.
“Hurry,” the wide-eyed groom urged the maids, who clambered in after her. The coach lurched away almost before the doors closed.
Helena braced herself against the frame as they took a corner. The sounds of the mob receded and she offered a silent prayer that Guy would come home safely; that her house would survive and the mob would run out of anger, or fuel, or both.
She hoped Henry was safe, then the figures of Celia and Ralf, then Patrick, Amy and their children swam in front of her. She sank back into the padded seat in tearful dismay.
Chloe held a bundle out toward her. “Look, Mistress.”
Helena reached out a shaky hand to lift the wrapper from a tiny, fuzz-covered head. “He’s so small,” she whispered in awe. The carriage bumped and swayed, the tang of smoke drifted in from outside and discordant shouts came from the street, but Helen’s entire attention was focused on the tiny form in Chloe’s arms.
“Well go on. Let the Mistress see her other boy.” Chloe snapped at Love huddled wide-eyed and shaking on the seat opposite.

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