Slanting rays of evening sunlight, delicately tinged with orange, illuminated the picture window and cast a soft glow over the room. After hours of difficult labor, the Duchess had finally given birth. The room was silent; there were no squalling cries to announce her little bundle of joy. The English midwife, Ellen, stood at the foot of the bed, toweling the child clean, her forehead wrinkled in an undeniable expression of concern and disgust.
"I am sorry my Lady, but your son is…is…is stillborn," she stammered, looking carefully away from both mother and child.
Before the Lady could burst into tears, though, a healthy wail proved the midwife wrong. Still, she did not hand the child to his mother.
"Let me see him, Ellen! Give me my baby." The Duchess Margot de Valliere was a woman of power, a woman used to being obeyed promptly. The midwife's hesitation infuriated her.
"What is wrong with you, woman?" she snapped, holding out her hands. "I can hear that he lives."
Ellen shook her head slowly. The Duchess noticed that the normally nurturing midwife held the baby out and away from her body. Ellen's next words froze her blood in her veins.
"I don't think you should see him, Madame. He is…" she paused, forcing herself to look at the squirming baby, "…ill made. I have never seen a child in such a condition survive."
The baby's lusty wails didn't sound like those of a dying child. The Duchess held firm in her demand. "Let me see him, Ellen, or you will discover yourself without a station in my duchy." Her livelihood threatened, Ellen handed the baby to his mother, and watched her face crumple into itself. Dutifully, the Duchess put the child to her breast, staring at the ceiling, away from its terrible face.
The baby's face was mottled china-white and blood-red. The flesh was lumpy and twisted. Instead of a nose, a thin flap of skin covered the nasal passages. Had her husband not been in England on a mission of diplomacy, he would have ordered the wretched thing disposed of. The Duchess was not a kind woman, but it was not in her nature to kill infants.
"Ellen, here are my orders. Tell everyone the child was stillborn. Find a good nurse who will care for this…this. Tell her that she will be well compensated, but that her job and the child will remain a secret. You know many nurses, Ellen. I'm sure you can find someone. Acquire goat's milk, or whatever we can feed it until it can eat solid food. Move all of the things out of the nursery and into the back wing of the house, above the servant's quarters. We'll keep it there until it is old enough to survive on its own."
The baby had finished nursing and slept peacefully. The Duchess made a gesture for Ellen to take him away. Gingerly, Ellen lifted the baby and placed him in his bassinet with a spine-wracking shudder.
Once mother and child were asleep, Ellen passed on the orders to the servants and retrieved her horse from the stables. The Duchess's orders seemed just to her - many noblewomen would simply have ordered the child cast into a river. Still, it would not be easy to find a nursemaid. She scoured her mind. Who would nurse such a horror? Even for a good salary and a sure future, most would be repulsed by the creature.
Hannah was home, cooking a stew and humming softly to herself. Despite her advanced age, her voice was still smooth, low and sweet. It was a pleasure to stand outside her door and listen, but Ellen could not forget the urgency of her mission. The Duchess would only suffer the presence of the deformed little thing for so long. She tapped at the door, and let herself in.
"You should give an old woman time, girl. What if I had been in my pettis?" growled Hannah, but a smile deepened the creases in her homely face. She did love visitors, even ones that came at the glimmering of twilight.
"Good evening, Hannah," Ellen murmured apologetically.
Hannah's bleared vision was good enough to see the worry etched across the younger woman's face. "What is it, child. Out with it, or I shan't serve you any tea."
"No time for tea." Ellen cleared her throat. "I've come to offer a proposition to you. "
"A proposition, you say?" Hannah was amused. Who came to seventy-year-old women with propositions? It was absurd.
Ellen cleared her throat in annoyance at the flippant tone. "From the Duchess."
Silence greeted the remark. Nobility did not trouble themselves with the peasantry unless there was hard and unpleasant work to be done. I am far too old for such things! thought Hannah. Outwardly she only nodded. "What does she want?"
"She wants a baby nurse. A good one. But under some very strange conditions." Ellen's voice faltered, as the spectacle of the child's face flashed in her mind.
"And what are these conditions? I'm delighted for the Lady, that her child was born healthy and all that congratulatory mess, but I'm hardly a fitting nursemaid for nobility. If you take much longer my stew will burn, and I haven't money for more ingredients. All I have goes to those people who care for my poor boy."
Hannah's mention of her feeble son was the cue Ellen had been waiting for. "This will fix that, Hannah. She wants to offer you a position as nursemaid for twenty-five thousand a year. The conditions are that you keep the baby alive and well, tell no one that he lives, and keep him out of her sight."
Hannah's eyes grew round and her mouth dropped open. Twenty-five thousand a year would feed, clothe, and house her entire family - all five living generations! But the conditions…how strange that a mother would want her child kept secret and hidden even from her own eyes.
"There's something you're not telling me, child. What's wrong with the boy? Is he sickly?" her voice dropped to a whisper, "Is he a bastard?"
Ellen shook her head. "No. He's…quite healthy…as far as we can tell. And he is the Duke's, to a certainty," She swallowed hard, as the image of the newborn's face floated hideously in her mind. "But he's deformed, Hannah. I've never seen anything to beat it, and I've seen a lot."
She described the baby, taking care to emphasize his mother's coldness. Hannah listened, her faded eyes never leaving the younger woman's, her wrinkled face showing no emotion. Deep in her heart the buds of pity bloomed for this tiny child, new to the world and already outcast. Her own son was far from perfect, but he had at least always enjoyed his mother's love. She would be nursemaid to this baby, even if the money turned out to be an exaggeration on Ellen's part. She'd do it for room, board, and enough money to pay for her son's care.
"Ellen, that's the saddest thing I've ever heard. I think you're trying to break an old woman's heart. I'll come with you, see the babe, and talk with his mother. If the position suits me, and she agrees to my conditions, I'll do it."
The midwife sat back and sighed with relief. She wouldn't be blackballed from her trade. Hannah would take the position; it was evident in her tone. The baby would have the best care any child could have, regardless of his face. Hannah was getting so blind she probably wouldn't even be able to see it.
Relieved, Ellen had a generous helping of the stew and put the rest in the pig trough. Then she mounted her horse and led Hannah on her slow old mare back to the Duchess's mansion.
The old woman in her bedraggled peasant's clothing looked wildly out of place walking down the halls with marble pillars and parquet floors. She didn't seem to care, though, and walked with her accustomed hobbledy gait. When Ellen opened the door of the birthing room, she hobbled right on in and bent over the bassinet. After a brief inspection, she looked up to the where the Duchess lay sleeping and heaved a sigh.
"Poor woman. Poor baby. It seems a shame anyone should make good off of this, but that's that."
The baby started to mewl, and she tenderly lifted it in her arms and cradled it, humming a sweet song. Ellen looked on, seeing the old woman do easily what she could not bring herself to do at all.
Yes. Hannah was a good choice.