Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (9 page)

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Relief. Just a nightmare. But it wasn't, was it? Seth either had been, or was about to be, flogged. Seth, who had resigned his army commission because he was never the fighting sort; who wanted a quiet life, a good night's sleep after an honest day's hard work. Seth, who knew and cared for God's creatures, and had saved the stunted puppy's life. Had done the same for the wretch in the dark Tavistock back street, and had ended up in hell because of it.

Rose's eyes flew open and she tossed her head from side to side in a torment of frustration. How could she go back to sleep when Seth would be suffering such agony, helplessly restrained while his back was cut to ribbons. And God alone knew what had happened to poor Gospel. Where was he now? Was he frightened and alone in a strange place? In the unfamiliar surroundings of a town, perhaps? Was someone caring for him, winning his trust, or was he being subjected to beatings to make him behave, or to a harsh martingale? Or was a cruel, pinching bit being forced into his strong, sensitive mouth? A great wave of exasperated fury threatened to drown her, so powerful that it was beyond tears, and she ground her teeth like some demented harpy.

Dawn was breaking, and she judged it must be just after four in the morning. In the faint light, she gazed on her husband's slumbering face. It was Ned's fault, not Charles's, that Seth had been recaptured. And without that, Charles would never have sold Gospel. Charles had been appalled at what she had done, she understood that. Despite the promises he had made on that terrible day, in his mind, a convicted criminal must be guilty. It was against the law to help an escapee, and the Charles Chadwicks of this world never broke the law. They adhered to every rule of society. And Rose defied them at every turn. She had pushed him too far and so it was no wonder she had incurred his wrath. She did not love him, and he could be blamed for that no more than he could for Seth's punishment. And she knew he had been genuinely shocked at the sergeant's brutality. But he had broken his promise at least to listen to Seth's story, betrayed her trust. And as for selling Gospel, she could never,
ever
forgive him.

But it didn't help. Oh, Seth. Seth . . .

She couldn't lie there a minute longer. She heaved the bulk of the unborn child upwards and, wrapping her dressing gown about her, silently let herself out of the room and padded along the richly carpeted landing. Perhaps she should go down to the kitchen, bring the banked-up range into life and make herself a soothing hot drink? But what she really needed was to talk, and there was only one person . . .

‘Florrie!' she whispered urgently up in the servant's room on the top floor, wanting to wake Florrie but without too much of a start.

The older woman's eyes flickered and then stretched wide with surprise. But apart from being slightly arthritic and on the wrong side of plump, at barely fifty years old, Florrie Bennett enjoyed good health and could easily cope with being woken at the crack of dawn, though her round face immediately creased with concern.

‘What is it, cheel?' she answered, her mind at once alert.

‘Oh, Florrie,' Rose groaned, ‘I just can't get Seth out of my mind. What they'll do to him. And 'tis so unfair . . . so unjust. And Gospel. Oh, what'll become of him? I want him back!'

Her face crumpled, her lovely eyes spangling with tears and her throat raked with pain. Her quivering lips drew back from her teeth and she managed to gasp one shuddering breath before the first howl of despair strained from her lungs. Florrie was out of bed in an instant, her arms awkwardly about the frail form of the girl who, in Florrie's heart, was her own daughter. Rose buried her head in Florrie's ample bosom, trembling against her as closely as her bulge allowed. Without a thought for the propriety of the situation, Florrie drew her into the warm bed beside her.

‘If only Father were still alive,' the girl muttered desolately, and all the pent-up grief seemed to escape from her soul in an exploding stream. She shook, weeping against Florrie until the anxious woman thought the child's heart would break. ‘He'd have done something about it, I know he would. Oh, I miss him so much . . .'

She was lost again in the swirl of her misery, and Florrie calmly patted her shoulder. She wasn't the only one who missed her dear Henry. If only he was still alive. Alive and fit and running the Cherrybrook gunpowder mills. Then Rose would never have married Charles, Florrie was not such a fool that she hadn't always known the truth, despite what Rose had said. The marriage must work. For the sake of Rose's sanity, it had to. But Florrie was terrified for her. The story of the wrongly convicted man was one thing. The way Rose had told it to her was another. Anger over the injustice of it was fair enough, but when Rose had spoken of the fellow himself, her eyes had shone, her face lit with something the girl herself did not recognize. But Florrie did. And Rose would hate Charles for ever for selling Gospel. The future hardly dared thinking about!

A sudden intake of breath pulled them apart.

‘What? 'Tis not the babby?' Florrie demanded in a fluster.

She waited while Rose let out the breath in a slow stream. ‘No.' And then she smiled at Florrie's worried face. ‘'Tis not due for a few weeks yet. But Dr Seaton said I'd start getting practice contractions about now. So 'tis quite normal. I've had one or two in the last few days.'

‘Oh, right then,' Florrie sighed with relief. ‘Now let's try to get a little more sleep, my young maid.'

Rose nodded in reply, warmed and comforted by Florrie's compassion. Her red-rimmed eyes felt tired, and it wasn't long before she drifted into a restless slumber until she at last felt Florrie stir beside her.

‘I reckon as you ought to get back to your husband,' she whispered softly.

‘Oh, yes, I must!'

Rose sprang to her feet, in her haste forgetting the burden of the child. A sharp pain stabbed through her as her belly hardened, taking her breath away and stopping her in her tracks. She felt something snap inside her, and then her eyes met Florrie's in horror as the warm liquid flooded down her legs and settled in a puddle on the rug.

Six

‘W
ell?' Charles demanded tersely as Patsy showed the physician into the drawing room and then hastily retreated.

Dr Seaton glared at him darkly as he came towards him, but did not reply until he had finished rolling down his shirtsleeves. ‘Your wife, Mr Chadwick,' he began guardedly, ‘has been through a most difficult labour, as I'm sure you will have realized by my sending for Dr Ratcliffe to assist. Forty-eight hours is not unusual in a first child, but the contractions were strong and close together from the start, and there is always a risk when the waters break first. Mrs Chadwick became weak and exhausted, and I had to administer chloroform. And it was a forceps delivery.'

Charles leapt to his feet, his cheeks flushed a bitter puce, and he slammed his fist so hard on the table beside him that the empty cup there rattled in its saucer. ‘This is all that bastard's fault, isn't it?' he snarled, his handsome face twisted into a hideous mask. ‘She's been pining for him . . . Yes,
pining
,' he repeated acidly as the doctor raised one bushy grey eyebrow, ‘ever since he was rearrested. That's what brought the baby on before its time, isn't it? And you're as much to blame! Helping them like that! I had to perjure myself to get you out of trouble!' Charles barked, poking his head forward so that his nose was only inches away from Dr Seaton's.

The brittle air crackled between them, but the doctor regarded his patient's husband with a steady eye. ‘I was, of course, interviewed by the authorities myself,' he said levelly, ‘and perhaps I should remind you that I have a sworn duty to heal the sick no matter who they are. As for bringing on your wife's labour prematurely, well, I believe I can say quite categorically that it had nothing to do with it. She is a most passionate young woman, but emotions cannot induce labour. However, she is small of frame and not as robust as many women of her age, which may have been a contributory factor. So please, Mr Chadwick, do not make a fool of yourself by blaming things that are physically impossible.'

Charles appeared to gasp for breath, struggling to regain his composure, but one thing his pride could never allow him was to stand down from a situation. ‘And what about my son, then?' he pressed menacingly.

‘Your
daughter
,' Dr Seaton answered pointedly, ‘is very small, as is to be expected. That in itself is not so much of a problem, but her early arrival has meant that her lungs are not quite as stable as I should have liked. And, I'm afraid, her heart is not strong.'

Charles stared at him, the colour draining from his skin, and he fumbled to sit down again in his chair. But his next words dumbfounded the doctor. ‘A daughter, you say?' he mumbled. ‘But . . . Rose will be able to give me a son? In the future? Next year, perhaps?'

It was Dr Seaton's turn to feel the flood of anger in his blood. ‘Your wife, sir, is very ill,' he stated through tight lips. ‘She is utterly exhausted, and I have given her a sleeping draught to ensure she has a proper rest. She has lost a lot of blood, and has many stitches which will be most uncomfortable for her. We have done everything in our power to save her and avoid infection, but you never can tell. Dr Ratcliffe will stay with her for the next twenty-four hours. I will return to Tavistock and arrange a wet nurse, for I doubt Mrs Chadwick will have either the strength or the milk to suckle the infant herself. She will need careful nursing, but I believe Mrs Bennett is capable of that. I can see you are . . .
disappointed
that you do not have a son,' he observed bluntly, ‘but I beg you to keep that to yourself. For your wife's sake. Let us have her fully recovered before we start talking of other children.'

But he could see from the vexed expression on the man's face that it would be a tall order.

‘Oh, Florrie, isn't she beautiful!'

All through her pregnancy, Rose had never really been sure that she wanted this child. She had hoped that it might heal the growing rift between herself and Charles, but she feared that his domineering attitude would extend to the nursery and that it might only lead to further rows. But now, she scarcely dared breathe as she gazed with rapt eyes on the tiny scrap of humanity that lay peacefully in the crook of her arm. She sat, propped up on a bank of pillows, her drawn face as white as their snowy covers, and her mantle of waving raven hair tangled about her in untidy confusion. She had slept for several hours, a deep, drugged unconsciousness that had nevertheless been punctuated with tormented, anguished moans that folded Florrie's brow, for she alone understood the turmoil in Rose's tortured mind.

‘She certainly is!' Florrie's homely face split with an enchanted grin. ‘Just like you when you was a babby.'

‘Really?' Rose's sunken eyes lit with stars. She felt drained, her body so heavy it seemed welded to the soft and comfortable bed, her brain being the only part of her that seemed to have any energy. The screwed-up eyes, the rosebud mouth had instantly captivated her heart. She wanted to move the warm shawl about her daughter's head so that she could see her face a little better, but her hand felt like lead and refused to obey the order her brain was sending to it.

‘Oh, yes,' Florrie smiled again. ‘And you just like your mother, too.'

‘Then . . . I shall call her Alice,' Rose stated fiercely.

Dr Ratcliffe's eyebrows shot up as he came across the room to them. It had been an incredibly difficult birth, the young mother struggling to bring her child into the world. It had left her in a frail and exhausted condition, and yet her voice just now had rung with defiance.

He cleared his throat. ‘Now, Mrs Bennett, if you could wash Mrs Chadwick's hands and her breasts, we should get the baby to feed again. Dr Seaton should be returning with the wet nurse later this afternoon. He has someone in mind and I think she will take little persuasion. But in the meantime, we believe the mother's milk in the first few days has some particular quality . . .'

The younger physician had the same balance of confidence and understanding as his senior partner, and with his help, little Alice was persuaded to take another small feed. She was weak and reluctant, preferring just to sleep and slip quietly from life, but Dr Ratcliffe was having none of it. He showed Rose how to place a pillow on her lap to raise the child to the right height so that she had both hands free; to express a few drops of the thick, yellowy milk on to the baby's lips, and then stroke her nipple against the child's cheek to stimulate her instinct to turn her head to suckle; to gather up her breast and be ready to thrust the entire nipple into Alice's mouth as she opened it, and hold the back of her head firmly against the breast so that she would not slip from the precious, life-giving hold. For the inexperienced mother, it seemed so much more complicated than she had imagined, especially as the infant was so lacking in strength that she was unwilling to take her part in the operation. The doctor had to resort to removing the warm and cosy shawl, and even to pinching the tiny pink feet, but eventually Alice fed for three minutes on one breast and was successfully transferred to the other. Dr Ratcliffe smiled with satisfaction as Rose experienced the drawing, gratifying sensation of giving life-sustaining nourishment to her own child.

‘The waxy substance on her skin,' the doctor explained as he watched the contentment on his patient's face. ‘That's because she was so early. It'll rub off on its own, and that fine down will come with it. And the tiny spots on her face, they're quite normal to any baby. But,' he continued, and a cloud passed over his brow, ‘she will need the greatest care. Early babies lose their body heat even more quickly than full-term ones. And we must build up her strength, protect her from infection. But she is really lucky in that she is in the correct sort of . . . environment, shall we say, to survive.'

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