Here’s another excerpt from my historical novel, A Weaver’s Web. This one was ranked 1 of about 140 excerpts at the Helium writing site under the novel excerpts category Life for quite some time. Helium is finishing soon and the rankings are no longer shown. (Henry doesn’t know that his new daughter-in-law Charlotte is expecting.)
A few weeks later, the Wakefields were at their dining table finishing supper when Charlotte held her hand to her lower abdomen and grimaced and groaned.
“I think I’ve eaten too much,” she said, pushing away her pudding bowl with half a dumpling left in it. “I might go upstairs and rest.”
“Yes, you look quite pale, dear,” Sarah said.
Charlotte struggled to get off her chair and walked slowly from the room.
“She’s been eating too much for months,” Henry said. “Look at the weight she’s put on.”
Sarah cast an eye at Henry’s stomach. She then turned to Benjamin. “I’ll go and make sure she’s comfortable.”
“No, I’ll go,” he said, jumping up.
He raced upstairs to their bedroom. Charlotte lay on the bed, breathless.
She nodded. “Worse than usual.”
“But it’s not due for two weeks.”
He sat on the side of the bed and held her hand. The contractions soon eased. But before long they started again.
In the soft candlelight, she looked him in the eyes. “Benjamin, I think I’m going to have the baby.”
He stood up and took several steps backwards. “What shall I do?”
“Go and get your mother, and Martha and Alice.”
“How can I? No one knows. We’ll be thrown out of the house.”
“Only if your father finds out,” she said, as the contractions got milder again. “The women will understand.”
Benjamin ran downstairs. Everyone had gone from the dining room except Emily who was eating a second helping of dumplings and treacle. He crept along the hall looking for Henry and was greatly relieved when he saw him in his study, the door being ajar. He went to the kitchen, where Sarah was helping Alice clean up.
“Mum, come quick,” he said.
They rushed upstairs. As soon as she went into the bedroom and saw Charlotte, Sarah knew.
“She … she’s having a …” Benjamin started.
“Yes, I can see,” Sarah said sternly.
“We wanted to tell you.” He was surprised when his mother’s face softened and she smiled and then beamed at him and hugged him.
“A baby, a baby.” She danced around with delight. “I’ll get Martha, and Alice, and Emily. No, Alice had better stay in the kitchen for the moment,” she said, knowing Henry might go in there for a drink or something to eat and see it not tidied up and wonder why. “Stay here till I get back.”
In her hurry to get down the stairs, she almost tripped over her dress. She squealed and grabbed hold of the handrail. From his study, Henry heard her and put his book down. He strained to hear further sounds. Suddenly there was excited chatter a few rooms away. He got up and went to investigate. The talking got louder. It was mainly Sarah’s voice and was coming from the sewing room. As he opened the door, she and Martha came out and nearly bowled him over. Both had an armful of cloths. It was too late to hide them. They looked at him in shock.
“Everything in order?” he asked Sarah.
“Yes. I was, er, getting Martha’s advice on what medicine to give Charlotte. She’s a little off-colour.”
“Why are you taking your sewing with you?”
“Sewing?” Sarah said. “Oh yes. We should leave it here, shouldn’t we.” She put the cloths down.
He frowned at them and returned to his study shaking his head. Sarah and Martha stood in the hall until he pulled the study door to, and let out a sigh of relief. They went quietly to the dining room where Emily was still swallowing the last morsel of dessert and licking her lips. Sarah beckoned her.
“Come quickly, girl.”
“Just come. You’ll see.”
When they got to Benjamin and Charlotte’s room, she was in the middle of more contractions. They put plenty of cloths under her. Martha got the basin and went to the kitchen, filled it with water and lugged it upstairs.
“You’ll have to leave now, Benjamin,” Sarah said.
He gazed at his true love and slowly backed out of the room and shut the door.
Sarah locked it and took Charlotte’s hand. “How are you, dear? Does it hurt?”
“I keep getting terrible pains every few minutes,” she said, “and they’re getting worse.”
“That’s quite normal when the baby’s nearly ready.” She turned to Martha. “Go and make some medicine for her, with a generous dash of gin. Quick.”
Martha went down to the kitchen again and partly filled two cups with water. She and Alice opened jars of certain plants already finely chopped, and sprinkled some into each cup. They topped up the cups with gin and Martha went back upstairs with them.
“Here, drink these,” Sarah said.
“Yes, you can. Here.” Sarah put a cup to Charlotte’s mouth and she reluctantly drank about half of it.
Her groans got louder and Sarah was worried Henry might hear and without warning be at the door.
“Emily, go and check outside,” Sarah said.
It was Emily’s first attendance and she wasn’t enthusiastic. She had never been impressed with Charlotte and even less so now. Almost unwillingly she opened the door and had a quick look outside. “There’s no one,” she said in a flat voice, as she came back in.
Sarah eased her hands under Charlotte’s back and massaged it while Martha held her hand. Charlotte started pushing with all her might.
“Ease up, dear,” Sarah said. “Only push when you have a contraction. You’re wasting energy otherwise.” She looked up and saw her daughter sitting on a chair near the window. “Emily, bring the medicine.”
She got up slowly, picked up both cups from the table and gave the one Charlotte had started to Martha.
“You’ve got to have this,” Martha said, “or the pain will be great.”
Charlotte drank it.
“And the second one,” Sarah said.
No sooner had she finished the second cup when the contractions came on again. This happened several more times. Sarah and Martha encouraged her to push at the right moments. Charlotte then gave a tremendous heave and Sarah knew the baby was coming. She quickly came round in front of her.
“I can see the head,” Sarah said. “Push. That’s a good girl.” She held its head and helped ease it out. “It’s a boy, it’s a boy. I’m a grandmother.”
Sarah held it up for Charlotte to see. Memories of her own last childbirth and of Baby became vivid. She hoped this tiny infant would be given a better chance at life than her own baby. It gave a good, healthy cry. Martha clamped and cut the umbilical cord and urged Charlotte to push again to expel the placenta while Sarah washed the baby and wrapped it in cloth and held it. She looked for Emily. There was no sign of her. But Sarah was too happy to worry about her and was sure she and Martha could cope without a third person.
Emily had gone downstairs. She knocked on the study door.
“Yes,” came Henry’s voice from inside.
“Can I come in? It’s Emily.”
She went in to find Henry slouched in his armchair. He kept reading his book.
“Excuse me, Sir.”
“What is it?” Still he didn’t look at her.
“Charlotte’s had a baby.”
He dropped his book onto his lap and it slid to the floor with a thud. He looked at her popeyed. She could see his rage building and he began to shake. It frightened her.
“Pardon,” he said as calmly as he could.
“Charlotte … she’s had a …”
“Yes, I heard. But it’s not six months since the wedding. How …?”
He got up, unsteady on his feet after several drinks. Not bothering to pick up his book, he lurched across the room and along the hallway, almost falling forward in his rush, and up the stairs two at a time. Emily ran behind him, hands to her face, wondering what she had done and wishing she hadn’t said anything. But she had disliked Charlotte from the first day she saw her, regarding her as lower class, unsophisticated and rude. She was sure her brother could have done better.
Henry banged on Charlotte’s door so hard Emily thought he was going to break it down.
“What’s the meaning of this?” he roared.