luni, 3 august 2015

Of life and living

“Birth and death were easy. It was life that was hard.”

My salvation came five weeks later, in the form of a short message, delivered by the royal courier. I recognized the seal, though it was the first time I was seeing it, but I couldn't find any reason why the royal family would want to associate their name with a disgraced woman such as myself. There were two messages, a long letter and a short note, where I made out my brother's crooked signature. How could I have been so naive? My sweet, not so innocent, younger brother, Albrecht, crossed swords with the Marquess' men, chose the right leader and was rewarded with the title of Duke of Leinster as well as the King's second daughter's hand in marriage. His five-line message was, as usual, brief and to the point. No pointless introduction, no uncalled-for courtesy, not even a word about my faux pas. His wife, the Duchess, would give birth to their heir any day from now and he was asking for my assistance. If I hadn't known my brother, I could have misread his bluntness for bad manners.
The letter though, three pages of elegant formulas signed by the Duchess of Leinster herself, was more considerate and included a formal invitation to their residence in the Capital. I wasn't invited at the Court and I still couldn't believe that someone from the royal family would want to associate with me, but ,if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I was free to act as desperately as I wish.
The fact that the Duchess was to give birth only five months after her wedding only intriguied me more. I couldn't help but hope to find some form of support, even frienship from this woman. If my brother chose her and dared to defy the King, who first offered him his oldest daughter's hand, she had to be noteworthy. She too hurled defiance at her father, after all.
I left two days later, chaperoned by my father, who offered to outride me to the Capital. This time I took my daughter with me. If my sister-in-law was desperate enough to send for me, then she could turn a blind eye to a five week old babe born on the wrong side of the blanket, because I wasn't going to make the same mistake I did the last time. My heart still twinged every time I thought about the way Gregory separated me from his children. This child was only mine and I wasn't going to let anyone interfere between us.
The journey proved long and fatiguing, but when we arrived at our destination six days later, I was surprised to find my brother's house, along with everyone in it, family members, servants and even some mislaid pryers, upside-down. I could probably have died laughing seeing my formerly very composed brother now missing his footing upon a clueless lap dog and bitterly yelling at an innocent stable boy to get the creature out of his way and return it to the kitchen where it rightfully belonged, had I not been so exhausted after my own journey.
And then he looked at me briefly and knit his brows. My travelling attire didn't impress him. I probably looked slightly better than his wife's chambermaid on a Sunday morning.
"What do you want? Get out of my way! Or better! See what happened to that harebrained hallboy I sent to look after the midwife more than two hours ago!"
His commanding tone and the annoyance I immediately sensed from his words almost made me instinctively comply and run outside, on the streets, but I resisted my first impulse and reciprocated his politeness.
"I'm sorry I deceived myself and misinterpreted your note, my lord. I know that you are now the Duke of Leinster and I owe you respect and probably my gratitude too, but I don't think I changed so much that my own brother wouldn't recognize me."
"Alleken? Dear God, I thought you wouldn't make it here in time! Agnes is screaming bloody murder upstairs and no one knows what to do! Like that wouldn't be enough, I sent a boy after the midwife and I haven't heard from him in more than two hours. He better have been run by a carriage! I was about to go looking for one too."
And, just like that, I was reunited with my brother after almost six years of absence. In a strange way, he was still the same plainspoken person I knew and that gave me a bizarre sense of comfort.
"Now, pull your hands out of your pockets and come with me! I need you to assist Agnes, do something for her! I'm tired of people twiddling their fingers and lying idle while she is obviously in pain!"
So my first meeting with the Duchess of Leinster would be while assisting her in the efforts of childbirth.
In a minute I was sweept away by a very distressed Albrecht and almost dragged on the stairs, to the Duchess' bedchamber.
The person that I met there was far from the flawless image I expected.
She was probably shorter and smaller than I had anticipated, apparently ten inches shorter than my brother and the massive, encrusted canopy bed only made her look smaller, more fragile and feeble, emphasising her enlarged belly. She was hollering and squalling, frightening the servants that were surrounding her, and despite the fact that she didn't show any sign of shedding a single tear, I had the feeling that she was terrified of what was happening to her. The utter confusion around her was doing nothing to chase her fears away.
So the first thing I did from the moment my brother pushed me inside her bedchamber, taking care to shut the door against me, was to drive away all the fretting help that was only slowing me down and unnerving the poor mother. As soon as we were left alone, I heard her speak to me.
"Thank you! Those imbeciles were running around like a cluster of headless chicken! I assume you're my husband's sister, Alleken, the midwife."
"Why yes, Your Grace."
She still managed to frown at me and look quite overbearing, despite her laboured breathing and dishevelled appearance.
"Don't Your Grace me right now! I'm having your brother's child and you're supposed to help me through it! I have no time for pointless honourifics! We're sisters, you can call me Agnes! Now get here and deliver this baby for me!"
I may have laboured under a delusion from the first time I entered her bedchamber, because the Duchess was anything but fragile or feeble. She may have been frightened, yes, but that was only because no one was telling the young woman what was expected of her in this situation that was so out of the ordinary to her.
"As you wish, Your... Agnes. I want you to take a few deep breaths and allow me to examine you. It may not be pleasant, but it should help me estimate your condition. I assume there have been other persons overseeing your condition, right?"
"Well, there was the Royal Physician appointed by my father, but he never came... very close to me. My father, the King, forbade him from doing ... whatever you're doing right now. He probably wouldn't even know what to do. He used to be my father's barber."
"So, no midwife?"
I wasn't exactly staying abreast with the situation in the kigndom after King Geoffrey's self-coronation, but I knew that only male physicians were allowed to treat the royal family. I still don't understand why would someone appoint a person to look after their health if they are not going to let that person come near them. But a barber doing the work of a midwife? That was simply something I refused to accept.
"And where, pray tell me, is this Royal Physician now? Assisting you from the other side of the door?"
I should probably have kept my toungue in check, because I was in no position to criticize the King's decisions, but I was simply too tired to care any longer.
"Probably four sheets to the wind, collapsed in some damned whorhouse. I sent someone to look for him this morning, but I doubt he'll be of any help to us. Does this have to hurt so much?!"
I knew that if I wanted this to end well for both me and my brother's wife, I had to try to reassure her.
"Listen to me, Agnes. There is a secret that your mother probably never told you. It’s not that birth is painful, it’s that women are strong. So I need you to focus your attention on this and do as I tell you."
I decided not to tell her that I didn't know that from my mother, but from Teacher. She also used to say that men died in battle and women died in childbirth. But I saw no reason why she should hear that from me now.
"My mother was nothing but a depraved woman! She was the reason why this damned war even begun in the first place! Please, I don't want to die like this!"
Gaining a deeper understanding of our late queen's affairs wasn't exactly why my brother sent for me, so I tried to ignore her words and put her at ease.
"There is no way out of this except through it and I'm not going to let you die, Agnes."
In the end, it took her more than 12 hours to get through everything and by then, I didn't know which one of us was more exhausted. But her and my brother's smiles when I presented them their daughter were worth every effort.
"You helped me deliver her, so I see it only fit that you will be her godmother."
Both my brother and his wife seemed to agree on that matter, so I gladly accepted. It wasn't everyday that I was offered the oportunity to become the godmother of the King's grandchild.
After we had the baby cleaned, fed, swaddled and carefully laid to sleep, I drove away Albrecht from his wife's bedchamber and saw to her health.
"Is this really necessary? It doesn't smell very appealing and it's not even comfortable ..."
After endless hours of labour she still had the energy to complain about me wrapping her belly and applying ointments and warm compresses with chickweed, lavender and honey on her skin.
"Well, it is necessary if you want your old figure back. In time. You will never look exactly the same, but not many people will notice that. Until you will have your next one, of course."
"I'm not sure I want a next one ... "
I hear that each time, after every delivery. Every woman, regardless of her rank, education, manners, would swear there won't be a next time. She would mean it, of course. And there always was. So I kept my mouth shut and finished treating her.

"Was it like this for you too? Albrecht told me you have children too."
"I gave birth to my daughter Charlotte almost 6 weeks ago."
"And you're back on your feet and travelling too? Already? You told me I'll get my face wreathed in wrinkles if I get out of bed too soon!"
"Well, my Charlotte was not my first child. I have ... five more."
"What? Six children?! But you're not much older than I am! Albrecht told me that you are his senior only by a year and a half! That makes you ... 26 at the most!"
"Actually, I am still 25 years old, but I got married young. And I had my first four children at one time."
"That's not fair... "
I sensed she was worn down, so I put an end to our less-than-customary chat and let her rest. I needed a good rest too, so I let the servants show me my room, where I found that Albrecht was expecting me.
"She is asleep and she will probably sleep for at least five or six hours, but please send someone to call me if she wakes up."
"But she is fine, right? Out of the wood and recovering?"
"Yes, she did well and she will be fine. She just needs a little time to rest."
"Thank you. I don't know what might have happened to her if it weren't for you arriving here exactly when we needed you the most."
In a way, I was taken aback by my brother's attitude. I suspected the two of them were in love, but I have never seen my brother caring so much for somebody. Not openly at least, because I knew that he cared about me and our parents. I was glad that the two of them had each other.
"You will remain here, right? I'm sure Agnes needs your help and she would be a lot more relaxed if she'll have someone to show her how things work."
"Of course I'll stay."
It wasn't like I was needed somewhere else and somehow, I suspected there won't be many people that will demand a Baroness/Midwife's help. I still wasn't used to the title that my husband received after the war.
"You know ... you and Agnes make beautiful babies. You should have a couple more and introduce them to their cousins."
He answered me with a smile and took his leave, wishing me a good evening.

luni, 16 februarie 2015

Another secret

“It is better to love wisely, no doubt, but to love foolishly is better than not to be able to love at all.”

Life after the war came to an end should have been simpler. Quieter. Uncomplicated. But, like most of the circumstances in my life, it was anything but the thing I longed most.
To everyone around me, my parents, my husband, my former friends, I was a ruined woman. Even my former handmaid regarded me with disfavour and acted as if my immorality, my damnation could spread upon her. The fact that not long after I was captured and then openly absolved of any accuse(a consequence of my father's influence and my brother's newly gained title), I discovered that I was carrying a traitor's offspring could only make things worse for me. That spring, because of my delicate condition, I chose not to take part in the celebrations that were constantly organized at the newly crowned King's residence. How could I even try to justify myself? How could I let the others know that the child that I was carrying could have been a prince or a princess of the blood if it were to be born under different circumstances?
How could I even let my children have knowledge of such a secret? No, I decided, in that very moment, that this was to be my secret, my own burden, even if that implied that my child would always be looked upon as illegitimate. Anything would have been better than the life the Marquis' acknowledged children were sentenced to live, stripped of their rank and locked in a convent, their names erased from history.
My husband must have been apprised about my condition by his new high-born entourage, because only a week after I arrived at my parents' new residence in the south (a castle towering a new marquisate), he came to inquire about my health.
My condition was not noticeable, mainly because it was early spring here and the old manor was damp and still wintry from many years of not being inhabited, despite the constant effort that the servants were putting in tending the fire in almost every room, so I was wearing winter clothes. I waved off my new soubrette (my mother insisted on hiring me a new personal maid, someone suiting our family's new rank), because I suspected what was coming next and I didn't want to involve a stranger in my already precarious marriage.

"Your brother and his new wife inquire about your health and wanted me to send you their love and best wishes, along with their regret that you could not attend their nuptials."
Gregory began pacing out the unfamiliar room, while keeping his head down and avoiding looking directly at me. I suspected he was afraid of what he might see in my eyes, although I was too ashamed of my condition to look him directly into the eyes.
"Yes, please send them my regards as well as my regret that I cannot be present at the Court. I will pay them a visit as soon as ... my condition will allow me to travel such long distances."
I could see him flinch as soon as the words left my mouth and I instantly regretted my artlessness.
"Gregory, you... you have to know something..."
"Well, it feels more like everybody else already knows about your condition, so please don't bother yourself trying to explain it to me. I only need to know one thing, my lady. Who was it? Who is the father of the bastard you're carrying?"
I couldn't help but notice how he attempted to detach himself by not using my name and by trying to offend me. Even if he was in the right.  We have never been close, not even in our first years of marriage, but his sudden change of disposition left me quite unsettled. I knew that he could take my children away from me, that he had every right to do so and I simply couldn't allow something like that to happen to my family. Even so, I've never considered myself the most conciliatory wife and at that moment I was simply too terrified of what power he held over me.
"I think you, more than anyone else, should know very well how such things happen at war."
Thinking about it now, I realize that trying to defend myself by attacking him wasn't the most intelligent decision. I knew how war changed men and maybe attempting to suggest that my baby would be just another war child could have been my only option. The convents and monasteries were already loaded with dozens of unwanted children, fathered by the King's men. What difference could one more such baby make?
"Please don't try to act like you're innocent! I know very well what you must have done during those past five years! The entire Royal Court seems to have knowledge of your actions!"
"Neither one of us is as virtuous as we would like to be."
He seemed tired. Worn out by this war, by his sudden change of lifestyle and even more stricken by my words. Before I could say something more, before I could apologize for my insolent behaviour, he got up and took his coat, heading for the door.
"I already spoke to your mother. I'm taking the children with me, at the Court. The two youngest Princesses are the same age as our daughters and they can play together. As for my son, I hired him a tutor. You are not welcomed to visit them."
His son. Our daughters, but his son. That was his revenge. Separating me from my children and leaving me behind, in the countryside, far away from his new life. I knew that because of all the rumours that must have been circulating, I would never be received at the Court, regardless of how high my rank placed me in society. In their eyes, I would always be an immoral woman, foolish enough to get herself caught and punished for her misbehaviour. Not even the fact that I was suddenly related to the Royal family, though indirectly, could amend for my mistake.
Then he left and I knew I would not see him for many years to come. We were husband and wife and I was still the mother of his children, but I no longer had any right upon them.
He left the next morning, not even bothering to give me a second look. I made my farewells to my children, attempting no to cry, while they regarded me as a stranger. I couldn't help but feel at fault. When all was said and done, I realized that it was my fault. I have been an absent mother most of my children's lives, too engrossed in my work, in other people's sufferings, always pressed for time, while they had to suffer the consequences. And now it was too late.
I was abandoned in the countryside, on my parents' estate, without any hope. Four months later, after the announcement of the Marquis' execution reached us, I gave birth to his daughter. I was only 26 years old, but I felt like I lived for too long.