She kept turning and tossing. The painful frown creased her beautiful face as she groaned a bit through soft succulent lips. Her hands clasped down at her sides to grasp the sheets of the bed as she shook her head from side to side as if disagreeing with something in her dream she alone could see but didn’t want. Her knuckles turned white as her grip on the sheets tightened as if something would seize her any moment she let go. She gave a low groan again and her lips slowly parted trying to utter something. Perspiration coated her face and chest, her face seemed flush. One of the candles at her bed flickered once as if blinking away fear. The room was massive with three large windows covered with heavy expensive drapes of deep green.
The bed chamber, the four poster bed sat close to the left window that overlooked the beautiful garden in the castle. The drapes had been pulled apart and tied with a thick cord to allow the free flow of ventilation within the room and within the very room lay the young maiden, whimpering and groaning restlessly and helplessly in her never-beauty sleep. A gust of wind came from nowhere and extinguished the candle whose thin wisp of smoke rose towards the high ceiling but never reaching it before disappearing into nothingness immediately, the maiden jerked out of her sleep, sitting and panting and gasping.
Her lips parted in utter despair and she wanted to scream when she noticed that the flame of the candle she had gotten accustomed to, was gone. She scrambled down the bed, feet first, reaching the jade rug at the foot of the bed. It was so dark, so so dark, how she hated the dark, it made her feel uncomfortable and frightened as if it hoarded the world’s evil.
“Easy there, little one!” A familiar soothing feminine voice said in the dark.
The maiden halted at the edge of the bed at the sound and turned towards the direction of the familiar voice. “Lady Catherine?”
“Little one!” The graceful silhouette of an older woman in her late fifties emerged from the dark into the faint light the sky offered as if a moon still nestled within it, sipped through one of closed windows.
“You’ve had one restless sleep again child, haven’t you?” Her voice was a relief to the maiden.
Emilia sighed, seeking comfort from the duchess of PearlsWorth as she took the Duchess’ left hand and kissed the Sapphire ring on her finger as a sign of respect and love. The older woman gently patted the maiden’s dishevelled hair, smoothing the scattered strands backwards and downwards.
“How long have you been here?” Emilia asked after slumping her shoulders, showing she was relaxed.
The duchess clapped her hands twice, sharply. Immediately, the door opened and a woman entered, curtsied and went to open the windows as the first sunrays of dawn began to sip in and brighten the room with its slow ascent. Early birds’ calls could be heard from the garden and the rich scent of flowers poured into the room when the window facing the garden was opened. The maiden blinked several times, as her eyes tried to adjust from darkness to light just as the woman approached them.
“What else do you require of me, Your Grace?” the maid asked.
“Prepare her bath. We will be having important visitors today.” The Duchess answered.
The maid curtsied again and exited the room. The duchess took her seat beside her favourite and only niece on the bed.
“You look so pale, Emilia” she said wearily.
Emilia wrapped her arms around herself as the older woman whom she had taken to be her mother for the past six years pulled her into her embrace. “I had the dream again.” She muttered uneasily.
“No…” she looked up at the Duchess. “The recent one with the man that I can’t see his face.” She gently placed her hand on the Duchess’ lap. “He tried to have his way with me…he…he…” she stuttered as her other hand fluttered to her neck in a frightened flashback.
“…he was choking me…” she let out a single sob.
“Shrrr!” said the Duchess, shushing her as she rested her chin on Emilia’s head, gently rubbing her arm to sooth her fear. “No one is going to hurt you, child. I promise you that!”
“Yes Your Grace…” she sniffled as they both rocked back and forth in each other’s embrace.
“You can all have your seats.” Announced the Duchess, hands stretched towards the large dining table covered with several dishes of food, drinks and fruits.
The guests, three in number, two males and a female approached the table and sat down after the duchess had taken her seat and the servants also sat the guest down.
The Marquess and Marchioness of MedianBridge sat at the left, close to each other while the Earl of TorthenShire and nephew of the Duchess’ late husband, William Bennett Junior sat at the right side opposite the couple. The Earl had on one of his best outfit that puzzled the Duchess if he always forgot he was actually being dressed for a dinner not of a ball.
The Earl’s fingers were adorned with expensive rings, all these he did, to impress the old Duchess but besides the impression he tried to create on his Aunt, he did like to look good in expensive wears and command respect with his presence.
“You are looking good, Williams.” Commented the Duchess, idly.
Lord William offered one of his best captivating smile, pleased that the Duchess always acknowledged his outfit. “You too, are always stunning, Your Grace.”
The Duchess acknowledged him with a subtle nod and turned to the couple. “Lord Eugene, I can see your wife is heavy with child already.”
The Marquess smiled proudly. “Yes your Grace, we should be expecting an heir soon enough.”
The Duchess cringed inwardly at the mention of an heir, making her remember her own childlessness. Composing herself, she wore on her smile again and stated genuinely. “I wish your wife safe delivery.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” The Marchioness finally said.
“I was beginning to wonder…” began Lord Williams. “…I noticed we aren’t quite complete here. Where is thy beautiful cousin?”
“Oh!” the Duchess’ smile brightened. “She should join us soon, I believe.”
Just then, Emilia entered the dining room in one of her beautiful gowns. Lord William rose from his seat to welcome her, just noticing the Ferret circling the feet of her flowing skirts.
He hid his disgust with a warmer smile, took her hand and kissed it gently. “My fairest cousin, I longed to have you here with us.” He gave a low bow. Though they were not related by blood but Lord William preferred regarding her as a cousin.
“Thank you.” She replied, twisting her hand away from his and forced a smile for the Duchess’ sake. She approached the chair in between Lord William and the Duchess and before a servant could help her sit down, Lord William did, always trying to play the gentle man.
When Emilia offered him a forceful smile again and sat down, the ferret leapt onto her lap and nestled in the folds of the warm gown. Lord William however, shot it a quick disdainful look, he hated animals!
“Lord Eugene, Lady Frances!” Emilia acknowledged both couple with a nod.
“I can bet, I have never seen any so beholding and beautiful. She would bring forth eligible suitors to your doorstep,Your Grace.” Said the Marquess admiring the duchess’ niece who winced and flushed in embarrassment.
The duchess smiled and clapped her hands twice and the servants standing by began serving the food.
Lord Williams tried to start up a conversation with Emilia. “So, how is schooling in Minxes like?”
“The journey is quite tiring and the lessons given are sometimes stressful but a lady of my class has to be learned.” She replied half-heartedly.
“Of course yes!” replied He. “I wouldn’t mind paying you a visit one of these days when you do return to school. I have been so busy in the Mine, I hardly have time for myself but I could spare one or two for you milady, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Emilia smiled wryly, detesting the thought of his unwanted visit. She was just not comfortable with him. She felt there was something awry about him that she couldn’t quite fathom yet.
“So, how is the Mine coming, William?” asked the Duchess noticing Emilia wasn’t too keen on pushing a topic with him.
Lord William dabbed at his mouth with the serviette. “It has been back-breaking but we are making progress. A lot of diamonds were found near the dry creek at old Stansfield.”
The duchess nodded approvingly as they ate. “I knew I could count on your being in-charge of the Mine after my husband passed away. I bet the Duke will be very proud of you.”
“I am doing my best to keep the Mine running and I promise I won’t let you down, auntie.”
“I trust you to act on your words like you already are.” She stated. “Why don’t we all retire to the drawing room and entertain ourselves with some music.” She suggested.
“My wife here is a good pianist.” Commented the Marquess.
“Good idea!” agreed Lord William. “And I trust my fair cousin should be good in some musical instrument” he said, watching Emilia keenly.
“Of course!” Replied the Duchess. “Emilia here is very good in the Harp, Clarinet and the Piano.”
Lord William smiled warmly. “Then I would say I wasn’t wrong then. She has nothing lacking to be a good wife.”
Emilia cringed again at the word ‘wife’. He leaned closer till Emilia could smell his cologne all around her. “I hope Lady Emilia wouldn’t mind entertaining us a little bit.”
“No… I am not in high spirits for music now, Lord William, maybe some other time.” Emilia quickly countered.
“Alright then…” He straightened up. “There would be a next time before you depart to school.” He turned to the others.
“Shall we proceed to the drawing room, please?” He rose and offered his arm to Emilia who hesitated before slinging hers into his and in silence.
They all departed to the drawing room with the duchess’ lead.
The two men stood beside the carriage while the Marchioness exchanged last pleasantries with the Duchess and Emilia on the large porch of the main large door.
“So, what do you think?” Lord William asked in a low tone, his eyes never leaving the women.
“It’s certain that you alone own a place in her weak fragile heart.” The Marquess replied quietly, their eyes fixed on the women standing out of earshot still talking. “She is fading slowly no matter how hard she tries to conceal it; the signs are palpable.”
“Pardon?” Lord Williams said, faking a smile each time the Duchess glanced their way.
“I mean the woman is dying.” Explained the Marquess.
“Vera is doing a good job in that…” He frowned suddenly. “But I don’t know what’s taking her exit so long.”
“Patience, William! Patience! We need to take things slowly…we do not want to arouse suspicion neither do we want accusing fingers on us.”
“I get your drift, Lord Eugene…you can’t blame an anxious desperate man.”
“I understand! You know very well what is at stake if we are discovered.” The Marquess whispered as they focused on the smiling conversing women again. “Isn’t she so beautiful?” Lord Williams said more to himself as he admired Emilia.
“If you are talking about Lady Emilia, I could not agree less.” Acknowledged the old Marquess who had had his fair share of women, even his pregnant wife was fifteen years younger than he was.
“She fits in quite alright…” Lord William continued, not tearing his gaze from Emilia. “Maybe when all these is over, she will be my wife.”
“You sure have keen eyes for beautiful women William. She will sure make a good wife but I must say, she’s withdrawn and stubborn. I have heard rumours about her strange relish for pets and perhaps other animals and that is so unladylike. I am rather surprised that the duchess does not seem to mind much.” The Marquess said.
Lord William snorted in disgust. “Pets! How I detest them. But! That will stop when she becomes mine, but first, I have to win her heart. I am certain that behind all that hard-innocent look, there’s a fragile heart like all women. Women are easily manipulated, subjective and naïve. I have been with more than enough to prove that.”
“Hmmm…” The old Marquess nodded in silent agreement, pulling absentmindedly at his beard.
“I would be doing her a favour by asking her hand in marriage even though her father was nothing but a disgrace to the family, an idle drunk that wasted away his wealth on ale and gambling. I bet she wouldn’t decline. Women swoon at my presence and she won’t be an exception.”
He finished proudly.
“…And if she refuses?” Tested the Marquess.
“Then she will be nothing more but a serving wench…All but a beauty gone to waste.” Lord William replied coolly.
Just then, Emilia’s eyes locked with his, he faked a smile and gave her a low bow. She managed a polite smile and curtsied.
The Marchioness joined them with the other too women after a short while, got into the carriage with her husband and Lord William while the duchess and Emilia watched the carriage bobble out of the castle on the cobbled ground.
HE burst out into the alley and staggered backward after a curse was hurled at him by the angry inn-keeper who slammed the door after shoving him out. Without glancing back, HE spat spittle mixed with blood on the heap of refuse at the corner of the dirty alley occupied with old baskets and several items that were no longer needed, from the injury the blow had rendered to his mouth by his opponent, during the fight in the inn.
HE wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his arm. His once white shirt which had turned almost cream from the toil and hardship of his daily life had several irremovable faint stains, a part of the end hung loosely over his pants while the rest remained half tucked into his pants. His hair was dishevelled and HE could barely remember when last HE combed the damn thing.
HE staggered again, trying to steady his stance. HE was half drunk but still very conscious of his surroundings.
HE worked his tongue inside his mouth and felt his teeth, HE dipped into his mouth his index finger and thumb and felt a shaky molar, when HE pulled his fingers out, HE spat out again. Damn cocksuckers almost knocked his tooth off! Crazy fellows in there. HE glanced at the left for anybody, deserted, then at the right, deserted too.
HE began to stagger down the left, ignoring the rats groping along the walls and foraging the refuse heaps. He staggered again almost losing his balance but HE quickly supported himself by placing a hand on the dirtied wall. When HE was quite certain that the dizziness had subsided, HE continued down the alley and burst into the open busy market. Traders hawked and advertised their wares while stall owners tried to pull passers-by to their stall to patronize them.
HE was about going across when the passage of a bellowing bull made him stop. As the owner led the bull across, the stupid animal dropped several heaps of faeces on the ground that was still damp from the previous night’s rainfall that had left little puddles of water in the pot holes on the road. Swearing softly at the dung smell of the animal, HE crossed the streets and made his way around a corner where HE found an abandoned barrel of stored rain water. HE dipped his hands into the cold water and splashed it several times on his face and head, shaking his head vigorously sending off several droplets of water flying about him.
“Heey!… watch it, will ya?!” cried out a passer-by.
“Sorry…” HE muttered without even looking at the person who had just complained. HE splashed some more on his face and the droplets cascaded down his neck, wetting his shoulders and chest. HE sighed in relief, straightening up and rolling his shoulders to ease off the cramp when his stomach growled.
Gosh! HE was hungry and he needed to eat something fast. Maybe HE could buy food on credit from one of the traders and pay later but no… HE shook his head…Those greedy bastards won’t pity his plight, they won’t sell him a thing on credit because HE was most times known not to keep to his promises and pay his debts on time or at all.
He owed too many debts already and when he did find work and got paid, HE wasted HIS wages on rum and gambling.
Maybe HE should go to the Dock. Charlie could work out something for him. HE could work, get paid and go eat something nice but if only HE would remember his stomach first when HE did get paid instead of gambling.
To Be Continued…
© Angela Okoduwa