Helplessness. It was the feeling Bianca loathed above all others, the one she always sought to avoid. She remembered when she was fourteen, crowded into her father’s bedroom with her sisters and her mothers, shivering on a stool and watching her father’s fever-tossed exit from the world. Able to do nothing. Just — waiting. She couldn’t even think ahead to the problems they would face when her father was past his suffering, because to do that would mean giving up the hope that he would miraculously recover and fix everything.
It was happening again. And this time, she wasn’t even in the room. She was down below, while the doctor completed the examination and she tried to entertain — entertain! — Pamela and Cressida.
Then again, considering who it was upstairs being tended to, they had every right to be here that she did. She just wished she didn’t feel like a hostess now, and that she could be only a worried daughter.
Cressida, at least, knew something about helplessness. Pamela probably did, too. But for Cressida, knowing her man was miles and miles away, and there was nothing she could do to affect his fate? That he might be fighting for his life and she could do nothing to help? Richard’s voyages had been bad enough when Bianca allowed herself to worry; she couldn’t imagine being in Cressida’s position. Bianca had always had the businesses and the children and the house and everything else to worry over. What had Cressida had, other than the chores that couldn’t have changed much from her girlhood, the entertainments that had, and the baby growing inside of her, surely a source of more helplessness than relief from it?
And Pamela … well, Pamela …
Pamela had never much liked helplessness, either. She dealt with it even worse than Bianca did.
“It’s … taking a while, isn’t it?” Cressida asked, hesitantly.
Bianca glared at her her sister’s broad back. Couldn’t she see that Cressida was looking for some reassurance, some hope? Even if Cressida was grown, married and widowed with a baby of her own, she was still Pamela’s child. Sometimes they just wanted to hear from Mum that everything was going to be all right. What kind of mother couldn’t say something so simple and make her child feel a little bit better?
Then again, maybe surprise was the wrong emotion. Certainly child-rearing was only one of the things Bianca and Pamela never could quite manage to see eye-to-eye on. She’d known that from the first time Pamela had been over for a visit after Dannie’s birth. Dannie had cried, Bianca had dropped everything and run for her — and Pamela had scolded her for spoiling the child. “A little crying won’t hurt her!”
As if Pamela could hear those thoughts and was disagreeing with them all over again, twenty-three years after their mother had told her to stop sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, she half-turned and fixed Bianca with a glance she could only interpret as baleful. But maybe it was only worried.
“Is–isn’t it, Mother?” asked Cressida again.
Pamela snorted, again. “It’s a fancy monk-doctor your aunt has hired, Cressida. No telling how long he’ll take.”
“Of course I hired the best doctor I could!” Bianca snapped. “Would you rather me get a cut-rate apothecary for Mother?”
“How much did he set you back?” Pamela asked, eyebrows raised, completely ignoring the question, as was her wont.
Bianca’s eyes narrowed. “Thanks to my hiring Brother Andy,” she replied, “I’ve been assured that the Church will be able to give good meals to five families in need.”
“Good according to whose definition?”
Does it matter? “The Church’s definition, presumably. How should I know?” Why should I care — and why should I tell you?
“I’m just saying … Bianca, you always were extravagant.”
“Extravagant?” Bianca yelped. “Me?” She was the one who had kept the finances under control after their father died and before she resolved the debts! She was the one who wouldn’t let them eat meat that whole first month!
“I remember how you used to dress Dannie. Brand-new linens for her — and those dyes! You could have just cut up some old dresses and called it a day, but no, your daughter had to have –”
“What I could afford,” Bianca snarled. “And her dresses were an investment. She’s now the dressmaker to the Crown Princess. Well worth the extra expense, I think.”
Pamela waved her hand. “You couldn’t have known that.”
“I couldn’t have known that I wouldn’t be having any more girls, either, to wear the dresses once Dannie outgrew them. I would have recouped the losses either way.”
“Extravagant!” Pamela repeated. “You could have used the baby things for Freddy and George!”
Of course she could have, and she had — those she had been able to pack with her when they sold much of what they had and moved to Albion. The ones she hadn’t been able to pack, she gave to Sophia. Sophia’s granddaughters could be wearing the dresses right now, for all either Bianca or Pamela knew. Really, where did Pamela get off?
“Mother, please,” Cressida sighed. “I don’t think now is the time to get into it with Aunt Bianca.”
Bianca could have patted the girl’s knee and grinned in gratitude, but Pamela only replied with a sniff. “We are not ‘getting into it,’ dear. We are having a discussion.”
“Consisting mostly of you bringing up things from twenty years ago and accusing Aunt Bianca of having been a fool back then. I don’t know about you, Mother, but that sounds an awful lot like ‘getting into it’ to me.”
Thank the Lord for Cressida’s lack of patience, even if Pamela’s response to it was to turn to Bianca and say, “She just doesn’t quite understand the way we communicate.”
With Cressida rolling her eyes as a chorus, Bianca replied, “I think she has a point, Pamela. This isn’t the time to be reopening old quarrels.”
Pamela sighed. “You’re only saying that because she agrees with you.”
“And what, I’m supposed to disagree with the person who takes my side?”
She really couldn’t imagine any world where she wasn’t right, could she? Bianca tried not to sigh as she watched Pamela’s face scrunch, her lips pucker, her eyes narrow as she tried to think her way out of that one. Bianca didn’t quite succeed.
Pamela flounced into the seat to Cressida’s left. It was probably a good thing; Bianca had forgotten, over these twenty years and more, just how she and her sister could fight. She was remembering, now, how the day after Pamela’s marriage, her simmering resentment over Pamela’s “abandonment” of them when they needed all hands on deck had melted away in the realization that now she could get things done without having to argue them out with her sister.
“Anyway, Cressida,” said Pamela, switching the subject as she always did when she was bested, “you shouldn’t get involved in these sorts of things. They don’t concern you.”
Cressida rolled her eyes. “Then don’t argue about them in front of me.”
“Cressida! I would hope for –”
“For what, Mother? I’m an adult. If you don’t want me to get involved in your conversation, don’t have it in front of me.”
Pamela’s mouth opened in what was either a shocked gasp or an equally shocked protest, but the creaking of the floorboards above them silenced even her. Bianca stared at the door leading to the stairs.
The floorboards creaked again.
No monk appeared at the doorway.
“Maybe it was just the maid,” Bianca murmured.
“Bianca, you let the maid come at a time like this?” Pamela gasped.
“Why not? The house doesn’t stop getting dirty just because Mother is … ill.” And since it was Maude who was ill … Maude was the one who dealt with stress by cleaning. The dust bunnies might as well gang up on Bianca and murder her in her sleep for all she paid the least bit of attention to them when she was distressed or worried.
“Ill …” Pamela started. “Bianca–”
Bianca’s glare said all she needed to say, for Pamela shut up. Or at least, she shut up on that tactic. “It’s private, Bianca!”
Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. But Bianca knew that when Richard got his barony — which couldn’t be long, now — they would have a keep, and a full-time staff of servants to help keep it up. If having privacy meant having to worry about the housework while your heart was breaking … well, privacy could go hang for all Bianca cared.
“Nobles manage to have ‘private’ moments with servants around all the time,” Cressida pointed out, oddly echoing Bianca’s thoughts. Bianca turned to her, head cocked to one side.
“We’re not nobles,” Pamela replied, waving her hand in dismissal.
“Aunt Bianca and Uncle Richard will be soon enough.”
Pamela’s eyes bugged. “Cressida! I told you –”
“Told her what?” challenging Bianca.
“Not to mention that,” smirked Cressida.
Bianca’s gaze snapped to Pamela, asking all the questions she would not put into words. She would see what Pamela said to that. If it was only superstitious dread — to name a thing made it less likely to happen — well, that would be one thing, but —
Pamela squirmed, and Bianca knew it was not superstitious dread. So there it was. After all these years, Pamela still disagreed with her and Richard for daring to turn their dreams into reality.
Pamela had been mad enough when she was told they were moving, madder when Maude decided to come with them. She had been, however, flabbergasted when Bianca had talked about the opportunity awaiting them in this new land, the fact that Richard could very well own his own ships, sell their wares for his profit in this new place. They had meant to rise, and Pamela could see that, and she could not believe it. She would never approve, of course. In Pamela’s world, men were not born “half-bastard sailors” — as she had sneeringly called Richard during their courtship — and died noblemen. But, Lord willing, Richard would.
And Lord willing, her mother would see it.
The floorboards creaked again — and when Bianca’s head whipped around, there was Brother Andy standing just beyond the archway that led to the stairs.
Bianca was up and over to him before Pamela could do more than shift in preparation for rising. “How is she?” she asked.
The monk, who had seemed to suave, calm, and confident when he came in, opened his mouth … and his facade crumbled. He tried to smile.
Bianca could only lock her jaw in place to keep it from quivering.
“Your mother told me that she is sixty-eight years old. That is a great age, you know.”
Bianca did, in fact, know that. What she did not know was why it was so important, at this juncture, to mention it. She crossed her arms over her chest and gazed levelly at Brother Andy, the same level gaze that had forced wool merchants not to cheat her, sailors to obey her as their captain’s wife, and debtors to cough up the cash.
“And … all things consider, it could be much worse. Your mother is in full possession of her faculties … she could …” He sighed. “Mistress Ferreira, I’m afraid your mother …” Brother Andy gulped and went on. “She is soon to be called home.”
Bianca’s stomach twisted into a knot. That–that was all he had to say? Soon to be called home? As if it were a good thing?
“It … it should not be much pain for her,” he continued. “She says she feels little. If she does, I have left a mixture — it should dea–dull must of it.”
“How long?” Bianca whispered.
“How long does she have left?”
“I …” He shuffled from foot to foot and rubbed the back of his neck. “That sort of thing is … impossible to predict, I fear. It might be a few days … a week, a fortnight …”
“A fortnight? That’s it?” Bianca wailed — if one could wail in a whisper.
“It is plenty of time. Er — that is –” He must have seen her expression. “Mistress Ferreira, surely you would not wish your mother to suffer?”
“You said she wasn’t! Is there no hope?”
“It is best not to struggle against the inevitable,” replied Brother Andy, in a tone he probably thought was gentle. “The Lord is calling her home. She should best spend her time … preparing for the journey.”
“Preparing for the journey?” Bianca spat. Good Lord! Why had she called in a monk-doctor? Why couldn’t she have gotten a regular one? They knew how to fight for life, not prepare for death!
… Of course, the fact that there were no secular doctors in the kingdom did make securing one to tend to her mother rather difficult.
“Mistress Ferreira –”
Bianca gulped, her hands balled into fists so tight that her nails left crescents on her palms. “I can see her, correct? Or would that interfere with preparations for the journey?”
“She is sleeping now, but –”
“Very well.” She wasn’t going to let any doctor who was more defeatist monk than fighting doctor order her about in her own home! “Please — acquaint my sister and her daughter with — this. I –”
There were no words with which to complete that sentence. There was only action. The action of gently pushing past Brother Andy, of lifting her skirts and hurrying up the stairs. Of her hands trembling as one gripped the rail. Of pausing at the head of the stairs, catching her breath, gazing down the hall that had never looked longer or more shadowed and dim. Bianca closed her eyes and gulped.
She had to cling to something — anything — her anger at Brother Andy — to get her though this. There was no room, in her actions, for thought. There was no time for the reflection that perhaps Brother Andy was not merely a defeatist, but that he was skilled enough in doctoring to know when his physic would be no use … but that he was not skilled enough with patients and their families to know how to say this. There was no room for the consideration that perhaps, since Brother Andy had only graduated not half a year ago, that he had never had to hold this conversation before, and everything he had been taught and practiced in Camford might have dried up in the face of a grieving family member.
There was no room for any of this as Bianca hurried down the hall and slipped into her mother’s bedchamber.
“Mother?” Bianca whispered. Stupid to whisper, really. If Maude was only feigning sleep, she would have opened her eyes when Bianca came into the room. If Maude wasn’t, then a whisper wouldn’t wake her. And if Maude wasn’t … well, Bianca wouldn’t wake her. She needed her rest.
Bianca crept closer to the bed, listened to her mother’s heavy breathing. It was heavy, labored. One hand smoothed the counterpane, the other felt Maude’s forehead, just as Maude had done for her — just as Bianca had done for her children — just as Maude had done for Bianca’s children.
It was warm.
She knelt down, slowly, not caring what the floorboards did to the fabric over her knees. She smoothed Maude’s hair back from her brow once, twice, three times. She kept smoothing until her hand started to tremble, as did her lips, and Bianca had cover her mouth to hold back a sob.
“M–” Bianca started, and covered her mouth again. If Maude was sleeping — if the stirring was only an attempt to change position —
“Bee-Bee?” Maude whispered. She didn’t open her eyes.
“That monk gone?”
“He’s downstairs, with Pamela and Cressida.”
“Likely to come back up again?”
“I … would think no.”
“Good,” Maude sighed. “That’s … very good.”
Bianca’s heart beat faster, spurred on by hope. If Maude wasn’t holding any truck with Brother Andy’s prognosis —
Maude took a deep breath, and sighed it out slowly. “See if Mother Julian has time to come over in the next few days, will you?”
She was holding truck with the prognosis.
Bianca gulped. “I will, Mother. I’ll get her over as — as soon as possible.”
“Oh, no need to rush.” One corner of Maude’s mouth twitched upward. “I can wait.”
Bianca slowly grinned.
“And Dannie? You’ll get her here?”
“She’ll be here today.”
“Good … I never mentioned a few tricks to her …” Maude chortled as well as she could. “Maybe I should mention them to you, too. In case things get dull with Dickie.”
“Mother!” Bianca gasped — and kicked herself — and chuckled, when she saw Maude smile. “I think Richard and I have quite a sizable arsenal of tricks, thank you very much.”
“And the last thing you need right now is for me to give you dirty thoughts,” Bianca giggled, and almost sobbed.
“Damn,” Maude sighed. “You know, they say there’s no marrying or giving in marriage up there — and you know what that means.”
“But you’ll see Papa again,” Bianca replied, hoping her voice didn’t tremble as much as her lips.
“Yes, dear, but you contemplate an eternity with Richard with no marrying and all that entails.”
“Maybe the Lord makes an exception for couples who are already married,” Bianca suggested.
“Maybe,” Maude sighed. “Maybe.” She burrowed her shoulders under the blankets. “You’ll get Dannie? And Georgie? And Freddy?”
“I’ll get Dannie. And Georgie. And a message to Freddy will go out tomorrow.”
“Good …” Maude sighed. “… Good …”
Bianca kissed her mother’s forehead. “I’ll let you rest, Mother. I’ll — I’ll be back soon. I’ll send up Pamela?”
But Maude had already slipped back into sleep.
Bianca slowly got up, softly crept from the room. As soon as she was outside the door, she hesitated for a moment, then shut it without a sound. She hurried down the stairs.
As soon as she reached the arch, Pamela and Cressida were staring at her. Cressida looked stunned still. Pamela was wearing what Bianca called her “strong face.” It looked so much more worn in than it had the last time Bianca had seen it.
“Pamela …” Bianca wiped her hands on her skirts. “Could you — could you sit with Mother for a bit? I have to — go out.”
“Go out?” Pamela gasped, and even Cressida looked surprised. “Go out now?”
“Mother wants Mother Julian. I have to make inquiries.”
“… Oh,” Pamela whispered. “Well, then, of course.”
“And,” Bianca added as she strode to the cloak rack, “I need to see Dannie and George.” She gulped. “There — are some things you have to tell someone in person.”