A/N: Reviews would be welcome! Any at all…? Thanks!
I met the children at dinner. None of them spoke very much, and they kept glancing at their mother's empty chair at the end of the table. Cook put me through my paces straightaway, helping to serve them. My last mistress had been harsh, slapping me across the back of the hand with a spoon if I placed the bowls in the wrong place, or served from the wrong side. I must say I performed flawlessly, for a first night, and as I set the plates down, per Cook's orders, I said the children's names in my head.
Chrissie, the little girl with straight brown hair. Sebastian, the tow-headed sweetie pie. Eric, the ginger with spectacles. Lily, the soon-to-be beauty with long blonde hair and watchful eyes. Tora, with darker, curlier hair and dark eyes. Simon, brown hair, black eyes, with a fey countenance. Mr. Brown…
My eyes fell on him. His hands rested on the table, still, even though his plate was full. He gazed ahead of him, out the door. I leaned toward him.
"Wine this evening, sir?"
"What? Oh, no, Evangeline, thank you," he waved me away. "Go in with Cook and have your own dinner. You've worked hard this evening. Felt like we were being served at Buckingham Palace, didn't it children?"
"Thank you, Mr. Brown," I said, and took my leave, feeling the eyes of the quiet children on my back.
I tapped on Mrs. Brown's door with my knuckles.
Gingerly, I stepped inside. The lady turned her angelic head and smiled.
"Hello, Evangeline! How was dinner?"
"Very good, thank you ma'am," I said coming inside.
"Please sit." She nodded at a short chair near her bedside. I ventured forward, then eased down into it. I sighed. It felt good to rest for a moment in a comfortable seat. A fire blazed in the fireplace—perhaps Cook had started it.
"You have beautiful children, ma'am," I told her, smoothing my skirts.
Her tone stopped me. My eyes flew to hers. Her gaze was bright, solemn. My chest tightened.
"Do you have a black dress with you?" she asked. My fingers closed.
"No, ma'am," I murmured.
"Good." She closed her eyes briefly. "I hate black. I hate all drab colors—that's why I painted the house this way. And I never could stand the idea of a black funeral."
All my blood ran cold.
"Oh, ma'am, please don't say things like that."
Her mouth quirked.
"I'm not a fool, Evangeline. I know that there's something terribly wrong with me."
"I'm sure any difficulties you're having are because you're tired," I tried. She was already shaking her head.
"No. If I thought everything was going to be all right, you would never have been hired. Not that you're not doing a lovely job," she reached out, and I shakily gripped her fingers.
"Why did you hire me, then?" I wondered, though afraid of the answer. Her hand tightened on mine. And I watched two glistening tears trail down her cheeks.
"Because I don't think I'll make it through this baby, Evangeline."
"Nonsense," I snapped, shaking her hand. "You're an old hand at this."
"That is the trouble, isn't it?" she sighed, turning her face toward the ceiling. "Cedric and I always wanted a big family. But it's becoming clear to me that my body wasn't meant for seven."
I didn't know what to say. I couldn't even meet her eyes.
"Evangeline," she said again.
"Look at me."
I fought, and obeyed. Her smile was gentle.
"The baby will be fine. I swear to that, at least. As you said, I'm an old hand."
"Yes, ma'am." It was all I could think of. Her smile faded.
"But promise me this, will you? Take care of my chickadees. They are still so young. And especially," she said ardently, squeezing my hand. "Take care of Cedric. He can be absentminded sometimes, though his heart is the best in the world." Her voice quieted. "It's his heart I worry for, Evangeline."
My eyes clouded with tears. I could not speak.
"You had best go to bed now," she decided, closing her eyes. "Get some rest. Mrs. Blatherwick likes to start breakfast at half five."
I arose, and headed toward the door.
I turned back. Her eyes were still closed.
"Could you do me a great favor and light a fire? I asked Cook to do so earlier, but I believe she forgot. It's too cold in here."
I stared into the fireplace, where the flames leaped high. I bit my lip.
"Yes, ma'am." I hurried to the fireplace, and made a show of starting the fire. Then I got up, turned and smiled broadly at her.
"There you go, ma'am. Nice and toasty for you."
"Thank you, Evangeline," she murmured, eyes shut. "Goodnight."
My smile fell away.
"Goodnight, Mrs. Brown."
The baby began its entrance into the world that very night. At midnight, to be exact, on January the 5th. Mrs. Blatherwick bashed my door in and screamed at me to get dressed and get down to the kitchen to help with the rags and hot water.
I had never delivered a baby before, but Cook had helped deliver all six of the others. I did as I was told, not thinking, not speaking. My long brown hair hung loose to my waist—there was no time to put it up. I wore my nightgown and dressing gown wrapped around me and tied with a sash. No one gave me a second glance.
The children peeked out from their room, gawking and pale at the sounds of screams coming from their parents' bedroom. Mr. Brown, wearing his dress trousers and loose white shirt, paced outside the master door. Mrs. Blatherwick alternated between cheering Mrs. Brown on and snapping orders at me.
I was so lost. Never had I been thrown into such a terrifying and drastic situation on my very first day. I hardly knew which room led to the next, let alone where Cook kept the rags, or the salve, or where the pump stood, or where she had hidden the matches. The house felt huge and looming in the winter night, its corners dark and forbidding, all of its floorboards creaking and groaning with every step.
I did manage to get a single fire going in a stove in the kitchen, with coals that were already there, and boil some water. No sooner had it reached boiling, however, than the flames began to die. Muttering to myself, I grabbed a cloth, took the caldron off the stove and started to carry it up to the bedroom, letting the coal fire perish behind me.
I bore the water carefully, watching every step as it steamed around my fingers. Arriving at the landing, keeping my eyes on the water, I edged toward the bedroom door. Just then, Mr. Brown turned abruptly and paced straight into me. I jerked out of his way.
Boiling water splattered up and all over my hands. I shrieked but gripped the handle all the harder.
"Oh, dear!" Mr. Brown floundered. "I'm so very sorry—"
"No worries, Mr. Brown," I gritted. "It's happened lots of times before this." I pushed past him, ignoring my throbbing hands, and entered the bedroom.
"Good lord," Mrs. Blatherwick snorted from her place at the business end of the bed. "What were you doing? What took you so long?"
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Blatherwick," I murmured, setting the water down. I glanced up at Mrs. Brown. She had flung off all her covers, and lay stiffly in the center of the bed, staring at the ceiling. She was white, and sweating, and her eyes were determined but dulled. As I straightened, a contraction took her, and she clenched her hands around the sheets and wailed. The cry split the air, thudding against my heart.
"Get out of here, Evangeline," Mrs. Blatherwick rolled up her sleeves. "The doctor should be here any minute now—I won't have you fainting and getting in my way."
"But I'd very much like to help—" I tried.
"Then go keep the children occupied!" Her voice rose as Mrs. Brown cried out again.
"And him too, while you're at it." Mrs. Blatherwick's tones lowered to a mutter. "He's doing nothing for my nerves, pacing back and forth like that."
"Mine, either," I admitted, pressing my fingertips to my new welts. Casting one last look at Mrs. Brown, I left, and shut the door behind me.
Mr. Brown, just outside, watched the latch click in the midst of another of his wife's screams.
"But—" he protested.
"Mr. Brown," I cut in. "Would you help me for a moment?"
He hesitated. Shadows waited beneath his eyes, and he looked as pale as Mrs. Brown.
"Certainly," he finally said. "What do you need?"
My mind scrambled.
"It's going to be a long night," I said. "And Mrs. Blatherwick has given me a list of things to do. If I could get your help…" I glanced past him to see Simon standing in the middle of the hall in his nightclothes, watching us. "…and the help of the children—Mrs. Blatherwick needs some tea, and so will the doctor when he gets here."
"Oh, indeed," Mr. Brown agreed quickly.
"We should also put bread in the oven, for I am sure we will all be hungry after the baby is born," I made myself smile, striving to think of more chores. "And we should straighten the kitchen, because Mrs. Blatherwick will be in no mood after all her work."
"Yes, you're definitely right," Mr. Brown nodded. "Excellent notion, Evangeline. Yes. Let's get the children and start to work straightaway."He spun around. Simon jumped as his father saw him, but he did not retreat.
"Simon, are any of your brothers or sisters awake?" Mr. Brown asked.
"We all are," Simon answered.
"Good, good. Get the rest of them and come downstairs to help with the tea and the bread and the kitchen."
"Yes, Father." Simon re-entered the children's bedroom.
"Shall we?" Mr. Brown indicated the stairs. I nodded and headed down, hearing him follow.
"Really, excellent idea," Mr. Brown said quietly. "Gives the children something to occupy themselves rather than pacing back and forth, you know?"
I was glad he could not see my face, for I could only manage to make my voice bright.
"Yes, sir—nothing better than making yourself useful to take your mind off the nerves."
We trailed down to the kitchen, one path I knew, at least—I had been up and down countless times getting Mrs. Blatherwick and Mrs. Brown what they needed.
I pushed open the door, trying not to wince at the messy state of the kitchen.
This is a good thing, I reminded myself. Anything to keep them distracted…
Twelve pounding feet sounded behind us, and the next moment, Simon, Tora, Lily, Eric, Chrissie and Sebastian burst into the room. Then they slowed, and turned to regard their father and me.
"Well?" Simon said. "What shall we do?"
I swallowed, then drew myself up.
"We can start by washing all the pots, pans and dishes from supper last night. Lily, you and Chrissie get the water. Tora, you and Sebastian stack the pots and pans in the sink. Simon, you and Eric handle the breakable dishes. I trust you," I touched Simon's head. "I will mop the floor. " No one moved. I clapped my hands. "Snap to!"
Instantly, they hustled off in various directions. Mr. Brown stood there. I faced him.
"Mr. Brown, would you please start the fire again to heat up the dishwater and the water for the tea?"
"By all means," he said. He started toward the stove, then halted. "Where does Mrs. Blatherwick keep the coals?"
"Er…" I made a face. "I honestly don't know… By the pantry, maybe?"
"Let's have a look see," Mr. Brown decided. We both looked, and found no coals. We searched five other nooks as well, as the children busied themselves with the clattering dishes, but none of our efforts yielded coals.
That's all right, I soothed my impatience. Distraction, distraction…
At last, we discovered the box of coal tucked behind the oven. Mr. Brown had no sooner knelt to start the fire than a knock came at the door.
"I'll get it," I said.
"Thank you, Evangeline," he answered, but I was already out.
It was the doctor—a white-bearded gentleman who had forgotten his tie. He sighed as I opened the door.
"Good day," I said, at a loss for another greeting. "Come in. She's straight upstairs. Come with me."
"I know the way," he told me, stepping past me. He paused on the first step of the main staircase. "And who are you?"
"Evangeline, the new scullery maid," I replied.
"Ah. Good, good," the doctor said, though I did not wish to ask him what he meant. Laboriously, he ascended to the second floor. Clamping my hands, I went back to the kitchen.
The children were babbling and clanking the dishes, but Mr. Brown, his hands blackened, glanced up when I entered.
"Is he here?" he asked, standing and smearing his hands on his trousers.
"Yes," I nodded. "He's gone up."
"I'll go up with him, show him the way." Mr. Brown tried to cross around me. I grabbed his elbow.
"He knows the way. And Mrs. Blatherwick has it sorted."
He stared down at me, searching my face. His glittering brown eyes almost broke me. I quickly let go of him.
"Truly, Mr. Brown," I said, grabbing a rag and trying my hair back. "You will be helping them all very much if you can light the fire."
He heaved a great breath, glanced down, then nodded once.
"Yes. All right." And he knelt down again, hands fumbling with the matches. I glanced at the door and bit my lip.
Oh, God… I prayed, but my heart was so full I could not form words, even in my thoughts.
Distraction, distraction, I repeated—and this time, it was for myself.