The Lady’s Wish – Audrey Abbott

The H.M.S. Valiant, her crew, and her cargo had vanished, leaving behind only the shadowy memory of the storm and its two survivors. The shoreline, scavenged by villagers and ravaged by new storms, reveals few signs of the shipwreck’s debris. The villagers and the inhabitants of the convent have moved on, resuming the daily pace of their simple lives. Salt air caresses the shoreline while gentle waves whisper over the glistening sand. Sea gulls soar overhead, their shrill cries piercing the azure sky. From the convent on the hill another voice spills out of a window and echoes the sound of the birds. Within the convent, a young female patient, groaning and panting, lies on one of the beds in a small room reserved as an infirmary. Another woman kneels beside her as several nuns clad in coarse gray serge hover nearby. For twelve hours, they have taken turns at this vigil, patiently waiting for Nature to complete her task. A wrinkled village woman waits on the floor beside the patient’s bed, her gnarled brown limbs folded under her. Her head is bowed, but she does not sleep. Each time the lady groans, she sits up and stretching out a thin arm, she touches the lady’s abdomen.

The lady’s face, pale and anxious, tenses as a series of pains stab through her frail body. Finally, as the agony increases in frequency and intensity, she cries out, “Celia, are you here?” Her whimper floats through the open window and mingles with the sounds of the sea birds in flight. “Aye, milady. I am here.” Celia grasps her lady’s hand while she clenches her own teeth through each contraction. “Ye are doing very well, milady. Ye can do this.” The lady offers a feeble smile as the pains blessedly diminish, providing her a few brief merciful minutes of respite from the wrenching agony that seems to want to tear her apart. A sheen of perspiration clings to her face which Celia endeavors to relieve with a cool damp cloth as the lady passes in and out of consciousness. She clutches Celia’s hand, appalled by her own weakness.

“How long will this last? I . I am so very weary.” Her voice is barely a whisper. As she drifts off for a few minutes of precious sleep, Celia looks for an answer from the village woman who speaks only broken Portuguese, yet seems to understand Celia’s unspoken question. Under her thin cotton shift, her response is a barely perceptible shrug. However, when the next contraction arrives, the old woman begins to shout at the lady to push. The nuns translate the word “push” into French. Celia and the patient do not speak Portuguese, but have managed for several months to communicate with the residents of the convent, using the lady’s schoolgirl French. The lady understands the word and tries to push out her child, but her attempts are feeble. This continues for another hour, endless cycles of pain and oblivion as agony wrenches her back to awareness, to her screams, to her tears.

After each contraction the lady falls back onto the bed exhausted, clinging to the unconscious state that spares her from, at least briefly, the piercing, jagged pains. Within each momentary slumber, she steps into a dream. She rocks in a pleasant room where moonlight glows through dimity curtains; she sits at a church piano as a tall handsome man smiles down at her; she watches from the deck of a ship as the man with hazel eyes filled now with misery fades from sight. She mumbles something through her parched lips. Celia leans closer and hears the faint whisper of “William . William.” Celia blinks back her own tears as she hears her lady’s pleading voice cracked with pain and despair, “Where are you? Do you love me still?” “Aye, milady, he does love ye. Of that I have no doubt.” The lady slips into a state of unconsciousness so rapidly that Celia wonders if she even heard her answer. Privately Celia curses Captain Ferguson and all men.

Celia attempts to smooth her lady’s linen shift, damp and crumpled about her body, and spreads it modestly over her knees. Then she presses a moist cloth to her dry lips. Only a minute passes and the lady stiffens and resumes her cries. The village woman touches her abdomen, looks beneath the shift, and shouts as she presses on the lady’s distended stomach and with the last vestige of her strength, the lady gives one final push. A sudden stillness descends on the room and its occupants before the space fills with the mewling sounds of a newborn infant. The gray doves spring into action and after the old woman cuts the cord, the babe is lifted gently from the bed and carried to a low table where it is blessed, celebrated, washed, and enveloped within the folds of clean linen. Celia stays with the lady who seems stunned by her accomplishment. Answering her unvoiced question, “It is a girl, milady, and she is beautiful,” she offers the lady a drink of cool water that she swallows greedily. The nuns reappear and wrap themselves around the bed and the lady’s arms are filled with a swaddled bundle. The new mother gazes with awe at the newborn babe.

The child’s head bears a mass of auburn curls. She has a tiny nose and round cheeks. But she is pale, so very pale. She opens her small mouth and yawns. “Oh, Celia, she is so small . so sweet,” the mother whispers in awe. Celia smiles in agreement. “What shall ye name her, milady?” “Rose. She will be Rose. That is the name of her father’s mother.

” “Aye, milady.” Celia recalls their conversation in Calcutta. “And she is as sweet as a rose like her mother.” The lady’s body aches all over and she is exhausted. Her arms are heavy and her legs tremble. She wants nothing more than to sleep, but she is enchanted by the child and cannot stop gazing at her. She holds her babe close as she ponders this tiny miracle. Dear God, could anything be more precious? Thank you. Thank you! When a new pressure grips her abdomen, she tenses, anticipating another wave of pain, but none arrives. Perplexed, she glances mutely up at the other women for an explanation while she clings to her child, tears rolling down her cheeks.

They are tears of joy, of sadness, of despair. William, we have a child, a baby girl! She is a treasure! Will you ever see our child, your sweet daughter? William, where are you now? As the pressure in her abdomen retreats, her thoughts fade and she drifts into unconsciousness. The nuns remove the infant from its sleeping mother’s arms and cluck over her like proud brood hens in a barnyard. The village woman rises to examine the baby and frowns. Turning to the nuns, she utters a few words as her features crumble into a scowl. One of the nuns steps away and returns in a few moments with Father Tiago. He peers over the hunched gray shoulders and gazes at the petite infant. He nods gravely as they bear away the baby and Celia hears the priest mutter the words batismo and rapidamente. Unperturbed, Celia retrieves a fresh bowl of water and prepares to cleanse her lady after her ordeal. Celia herself is weary.

Her very bones ache. It was a long night, but she ponders in amazement how much poor Lady Anne has endured and yet survived. “Ye were very brave, milady. Ye rest now.” With her simple good nature, Celia believes that the birth is complete, that now the worst is over, that all will be well. As she reaches for a fresh cloth, she hears the lady stir. Bending around, she finds her lady wide-awake with a look of shocked surprise and anguish frozen on her face. The lady grips her arm and screams. A scarlet show spreads on the sheet as fresh blood gushes forth unchecked. Now it is Celia’s turn to scream.

The nuns hasten back to the bedside and huddle there. They begin to pray . while Celia sobs. Cold seeps into the lady’s body. She grips the sheets as she is falling. The light fades and darkness envelops her, dragging her down into a stygian abyss. She does not go willingly. She fights and claws toward the light. No. NO! Someone waits for her.

She reaches for the light. A tall man is waiting there . But he is not smiling . William. Chapter 2 June 1815 Belgium For fifty long miles, the weary British army trudges south through the Belgian countryside toward their unknown fate. In a cold heavy relentless rain, William Ferguson rides with them. He has never experienced such a torrential downpour, not even in India. Lightning slashes through black clouds as thunder blasts the air around them. A violent wind lashes out as the horses and men struggle through a viscous sludge. It takes hours to plod forward just a few miles.

William’s body aches from the endless shuddering cold. Before nightfall, the exhausted Royal Scots Greys cavalry unit bivouacs on a clover field wrapped in their cloaks with mud as their mattress. Their commander, Lt. Colonel Hamilton, shelters with them. It is a cold, black, miserable night and the drenching rainfall never ceases. Their tired horses are partially shielded under a few nearby trees. All night long, lightning slices overhead while the fierce wind whips through the surrounding branches as icy rain pours on their heads. No one sleeps. Neither man nor beast. A few bonfires and some liquor help to keep the men from freezing.

William shivers as he clutches his sodden cloak against his own wretched body. Only thoughts of Anne keep him warm. Of eager arms wrapped around his neck. Of blue eyes, like cornflowers at dusk, gazing up at him. Of soft lips seeking his as her dulcet voice, whispers his name . over and over in the dark. William. William. William . William shudders as reality collapses around him.

Anne was dead. The Times said so. Both Anne and her unborn child were dead. Dead. The dreadful finality of that one word grips him with despair. Dead. His beloved lass was dead. Tomorrow he will face his own death. He welcomes it. But should he survive this battle, he resolves to return to England and attempt to discover the true fate of his beloved Anne and of the ship, the HMS Valiant.

Was there a shipwreck? Were there indeed no survivors? What was the truth? With a deep sigh, William wraps his weary arms around an imaginary Anne and falls into a restless sleep. Chapter 3 September 1815 London, England The riders ascend a high narrow mountain pass where the ceiling of the world is so achingly blue and the cold air so thin that every breath is torture. The exhausted pack animals struggle upwards. Any misstep and the animals and their human cargo will plunge to certain death. When the pony in front slips on some loose stones, it disappears silently over the edge, while the rider’s screams echo across the mountain escarpments. William Ferguson jolts awake. He gasps for air while his mind struggles for succor, for understanding. Gradually, the mountain scene fades and his befogged brain realizes that it was a dream . another evil dream. Night terrors have plagued him routinely, leaving him shaken and disoriented, and his cot damp with sweat.

He relives his most dangerous adventures, recalling bloody battlefields, barren deserts, high mountain passes, forsaken prison cells, and floggings so severe that his decorticated skin lies in bloody tatters at his feet. On other nights, he dreams of a lovely lass with cornflower blue eyes who smiles at him and beckons for him to follow her. He reaches for her, his yearning for her so intense he feels it as a hole pierced into his chest. Then her image fades from sight, leaving him alone with a shattered heart and his pillow damp with tears. Since his departure from America in December, William’s sleep rarely brought him any respite or comfort. He retired each night exhausted and was accustomed to meeting the dawn still fatigued and shouldering despair. He had no desire to rise, to eat, to breathe. He was haunted by his past, his present, his future. His Anne . his beloved Anne .

was dead. The obituary in the Times said as much. Anne was dead. That immutable fact anchored him to his cot each morning with chains of misery and pain. But each morning, he somehow broke those chains and dragged himself back from either a frightening abyss or from heartrending anguish. Each morning, he somehow garnered an inner strength. Each morning with a wounded body and a weary heart, he managed to rise from his bed. This daybreak was no different. God he felt so old. Sitting on the edge of his bed with his head buried in his hands, he expelled a long deep breath.

Looking up, William gazed at the unfamiliar surroundings. The space was devoid of any adornment or extravagance. The silence confused and oppressed him. In the still gloom of early morning, two shuttered windows darkened the chamber, blocking out all but a pale gray ribbon of dawn. Fumbling for his pocket watch, he opened it and by the feeble light managed to discern the time. Six o’clock. He sank back onto the bed as he tried to remember . anything. His left thigh ached where a lance had pierced him through. He grimaced at that memory as he massaged his muscle, considering, not for the first time, that it was a damn pity he had not perished on that battlefield.

Closing his eyes, he rubbed his face, scraping stubble. He exhaled and mentally prepared for another day. But where was he and why was he here? Muffled sounds of traffic, the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestones, the sharp bark of a dog seeped through the wooden shutters. The shrill cries of women and young girls echoed down the street. “Any milk today, mistress?” “Ripe cherries here!” Their feminine voices moved away to be replaced by the rougher sounds of men shouting. The costermongers’ barrow wheels creaked against the cobblestones. From a distance, church bells tolled. Closer still, William’s ear identified a ruffle of drums, beating to a military cadence. London! He had arrived at the Thames Wharf only yesterday, his voyage home finally complete . or almost complete.

He had immediately sought out the British Army’s War Office on Horse Guards Avenue and had been provided with this room. That explained the drums. He remembered his objective, to report to his Royal Scots Greys duty officer and inquire about his status. His intention was to initiate the preliminary steps toward resigning his commission that would in due course honorably free him from his military obligations. Once that was accomplished, he would lease a horse and travel either north to Scotland or south to Surrey. Surrey . His ultimate destination was probably Edinburgh, but after landing in London, his heart pressed him south toward Surrey and Abbey Mead . to where he first met Anne. But what would he find there? Well, first he must collect Angus at Addiscombe. His last letter from Major Mayhew stated that Angus was alive and well.

At the memory of his gray charger, a slight smile creased his face. Aye, he must fetch Angus. Then a visit further south to the village of Abbey Mead to inquire about Anne. Had her family perhaps erected a marker to her memory in the local churchyard? Yes. He must go there next. He must . A fleeting image of Lord Westmeare pierced his thoughts. Where is he? Still in India? Had he learned of his wife’s death? Was he even now, seeking a new bride? William thrust those disagreeable questions aside as he pulled the bell chord. In a few minutes a firm knock sounded on his door, announcing the arrival of an orderly ready to attend to his needs. A bath, a shave, clean clothes.

In less than an hour William Ferguson was dressed and ready to begin this day’s campaign. He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and marched into his unknown future.


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