The Heiresses

The Heiresses

Allison Rushby

St. Martin's Griffin

Reunited
 
 
Mayfair, London, 1908
The doorbell at the Craven-Towneley home emitted a sharp buzz under Hestia Craven’s finger. Despite her red cheeks, hot from the exertion of running to her sister’s town house, she shivered slightly under her coat in the damp air, anticipating what she would find inside. When no one came directly to answer the door, she stepped forward and pressed the buzzer impatiently once more.
Still nothing.
Just as she was about to turn and make for the servant’s entrance, the door opened. “Miss Craven.” Hobbs, the butler, did not look at all surprised to see her. Then again, if Hobbs had opened the door on the king himself, Hestia doubted he would have looked surprised.
She stepped forward to gain admittance and Hobbs moved almost imperceptibly to one side, blocking her entrance. Beyond him, she could see the vast expanse of marble floor that led to the wide staircase, which, she knew, led upstairs to Demeter, her beloved sister.
Welcome or not, she wasn’t about to let the elderly Hobbs keep her from her sister’s bedside. Nor from ejecting the odious Dr. Hollingsworth, who D’s lady’s maid, Agnes, had informed her was in attendance. Both sisters despised him and he was widely regarded by many as the most useless physician in London. That is, of course, unless you were searching for a drinking partner, in which case you would find exactly what D’s husband had found—a lifelong friend. Most likely the pair was upstairs now, enjoying an early-morning celebratory cognac or two (or five, or ten), while her sister suffered in childbirth.
Hestia pulled herself up to her full height. “I am coming in, Hobbs, whether your master likes it or not. You can either let me pass, or have me push my way inside. Whichever you would prefer.”
Hobbs paused upon hearing this and then, after a moment or two, shifted once more so that there was just enough room for Hestia to squeeze past him, but not enough to seem as if he had granted her ready admittance.
She lost no time in flying across the floor, the heels of her boots making sharp little clicks as she ran. She did not stop to take off her coat or her hat, but threw the items on a decorative marble table and then over the balustrade as she went, pulling off her gloves in readiness to help out in any way D needed her to. It was only as she put her first foot on the stairs that she felt the second set of eyes on her and looked up. It was Mrs. Blount, the housekeeper.
Hobbs was one thing, Mrs. Blount, quite another.
Hestia paused for only a second before continuing to stride up the stairs, her left hand now gripping the balustrade tightly. It would be far more difficult to deal with Mrs. Blount than Hobbs. Hobbs was interested only in his duty. Mrs. Blount, however, had shown herself in the past to be both devious and sly, disobeying requests—orders even—from D, her mistress, meddling in D’s private affairs, sneaking behind her mistress’s back, questioning expenses, and whispering all manner of suggestions in the ear of D’s husband, William, about the way a household should be run, as compared to how D wanted to run hers. Hestia had always had her suspicions about Mrs. Blount. There was something in the way she behaved around William—something overly familiar, almost intimate. And, for a housekeeper, she was a remarkably fine woman. Tall, with rather striking looks and, Hestia had to admit to herself, the most exquisite cheekbones she had ever seen. Mrs. Blount had married the year before and Hestia had assumed she would leave service upon her marriage. Unbelievably, she had not. Both Hestia and Demeter had hoped since that day that she would soon have a child, which would mean she would most definitely have to leave William’s employ. So far, this had not eventuated, though just last week the sisters had been avidly discussing the fact that Mrs. Blount did seem slightly more rotund of late and that their luck might be turning.
Hestia avoided Mrs. Blount’s gaze until her foot alighted on the very last stair, when a low moan floated down the corridor.
D.
She froze until the noise subsided, the light hairs on her arms standing at attention. Hestia knew her sister—she was not one to fuss. And she now knew all was far from well. “How long has this been going on?” Her blue eyes flew to Mrs. Blount’s formidable dark brown ones as she took the last stair to the landing. Dependable Agnes had come for her as soon as she was able to slip away, but Hestia feared she may have come too late.
“Since the early hours.” Mrs. Blount looked quite pleased with how long the deception had been kept up.
Staring at the woman, Hestia had the sickening feeling—not for the first time—there was something more between her and William than there should be. But the early hours! It was now past ten in the morning. “And Demeter’s own doctor?” Agnes had told her that Demeter’s doctor, chosen by the sisters after much research and known to be both progressive and respected, had been sent away, but it was difficult to believe even William could be so foolish in the face of his wife’s precarious situation.
Mrs. Blount’s expression, however, remained nonplussed. “His Lordship informed the other doctor that his services were not required and that he should not return.”
“You fool.” Hestia took a step forward now, hissing back at her. “Dr. Hollingsworth could not even fathom how to deal with a situation such as this. He was too stupid even to realize Demeter is carrying triplets, not twins! You’ve as good as signed her death papers, leaving her this long without decent medical attention.” She had sent Agnes off to locate Dr. Russell and persuade him to return, and hoped she was able to.
Mrs. Blount made no reply.
Another moan made its way down the long corridor. “Get out of my way, you odious woman,” Hestia said as she started toward the noise, pushing the housekeeper aside with her shoulder. “And when Dr. Russell arrives once more, you see that you send him straight up to me or I will make quite sure that you are never employed in this country again.”
*   *   *
Leaving Mrs. Blount on the landing, Hestia flew down the corridor and paused outside Demeter’s door. She raised her hand as if to knock and then decided against it. It was D’s bedroom and she knew that her sister would have wanted her—been pleading for her—for hours now. Knocking would only mean either William or Dr. Hollingsworth would be alerted to her presence and somehow send her on her way before she could get in the room.
Holding her breath, she reached for the cold brass of the doorknob and turned it quickly, opening and shutting the door behind her as fast as she could manage while dealing with the folds of her skirt. It was only after the door was closed that she was able to take in the scene, which she attempted to absorb all at once.
Demeter lay in the middle of her elaborate gilt, four-poster bed, which resided in the middle of the large room. There was Dr. Hollingsworth, half reclined on a chaise longue, uninterested in his patient’s presence entirely, almost half asleep. And there, in the corner, in D’s reading chair, was William. He glared at her on entering, but Hestia knew instantly he was no threat to her. He appeared tired and rather pale and not at all up to starting in on one of his rages. For a moment, she wondered why he was even present, considering his squeamishness. William had never been one for the sick room. Her thoughts turned to the time he had broken his wrist while riding. What a scene that had been. He had cried out in pain like a small child wailing for his mother. Then she remembered how he had sent Dr. Russell on his way, and realized he was asserting his authority over the household.
“So, you have come after all,” William bothered to say, with a sigh. Hestia looked at him scornfully. Not for the first time, she wondered how her sister could have married such a man. But she already knew. Demeter’s true love match had been thwarted. Her secret engagement was broken and the man involved paid off and sent abroad. Not caring what happened to her, Demeter had simply agreed to marry the next man who asked for her hand. Her parents had not been happy about this choice, either, because William was already known to be a scoundrel, but with his title, his well-known family, and Demeter’s ready acceptance, there was little they could do without causing further embarrassment to their good family name.
Hestia chose not to look at him, instead taking the few steps over to her sister’s bedside and kneeling beside her. “D?” She reached out to grasp one of her sister’s hands, which felt weak and clammy to her touch. Something was wrong. There was no response to her words. “Demeter?” She quickly ran her other hand over her sister’s forehead. Finally, Demeter turned her pale face toward her, opening her eyes.
“Oh, Hestia. I thought you would never come.” There was a weak squeeze from D’s hand.
“I came as soon as I had word, I promise you. The very second.” Hestia looked over at Dr. Hollingsworth, now with his eyes fully closed, then at William. “What have you given her? We had decided—no chloroform.”
“And who are you to decide what a woman requires in childbirth?” William guffawed, sitting up slightly in his chair.
Hestia’s eyes moved to the small table beside him, where several dirtied glasses had taken up residence. The room stank of cognac. “I know enough not to be attending to my patients at ten in the morning already drunk.” She noted the minuscule amount of amber liquid left in the decanter.
“Oh, now, that is unfair,” William said with a smirk, turning toward his friend. “I say, Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth!”
Dr. Hollingsworth grunted and started, opening his eyes again.
“Hestia here has the notion that you are attending to your patients drunk, at ten in the morning!” He turned back to Hestia now. “The truth of it is, he was drunk hours before that. By midnight, I’d bear witness. Perfectly respectable time to be drunk, midnight.”
Hestia sucked in her breath in disbelief. She began to arise from her position beside the bed, but D’s grip, tightening on her hand, pulled her back. She returned her attention to her sister. There would be more than enough time to bicker with William later.
“Have you seen them?” Demeter asked her, her eyes resting on Hestia’s in a glazed and unfocused fashion. “They’re lovely. So lovely. I wish they would bring them back to me.”
At first, Hestia believed her sister to be delirious. But just then, she heard the first soft noise emanate from the next room. Like the soft mew of a newborn kitten, it was an unmistakable sound that, for a moment, made the clock in the room cease its overbearing ticking. “The babies are here? They are well?” she asked, gripping her sister’s hand tightly.
Demeter smiled a weary smile. “Two girls. Two beautiful, beautiful girls. Fair and blue-eyed and altogether the likeness of us and Mama. But the third is proving rather unwilling…” She stopped as her face contracted with pain, almost beyond recognition. D’s sudden, vicious sinking of her nails into her sister’s palm took Hestia’s breath away. “I know this one is a girl as well,” D continued. “I can feel it. And she’s as strong as the others. Stronger, even, because she’s had to wait the longest.” Despite her slightly shaking body, D’s grip strengthened still. “I’m going to name them as Papa named us, from his love of Greek mythology. Thalia, Erato, and Clio. Three of the Muses. You will make sure of it, Hestia? You will watch over them for me? My three girls?”
Hestia smoothed her sister’s brow with her free hand. “Of course I will. As if they were my own. But you shall look after them yourself. You must believe it to be so for their sakes.”
Demeter smiled slightly and rested her head back further on her pillow. “I—” she started, before being racked with pain once more, so much so that she pushed back against the bed and cried out.
Hestia stood up, shocked, her breath quickening to match D’s, as she realized that even if Dr. Russell walked through the door at this very moment it would be too late.
“Are you leaving, Hestia?” William watched her movements carefully. “Do you have another of your amusing little rallies to attend with your good friend, Mrs. Pankhurst? Oh, dear. I’d forgotten that was quite a secret. I’ll make sure not to mention it in front of dear Mama and Papa.”
Hestia closed her eyes for a moment, trying her very best to ignore the insufferable William. One of his foul friends had spotted her at a protest outside Parliament and had informed him. William had been threatening to tell her parents about her attendance ever since. In this moment, however, she did not care what he did. All that mattered right now was D.
Opening her eyes once more, Hestia glanced over at her sister. There were obviously very serious problems with the third child. She realized D had become even more pale than she seemed minutes before. Her usually lovely, radiant face was pinched and drawn. Hestia decided then and there that she must forget everyone else in the room and concentrate only on her. Once more, she dropped to the side of the bed. “D? Demeter?” She brushed some wet strands of hair from her sister’s temples.
It took a few moments for Demeter to respond. “Have you still not seen them?” She smiled slightly again. “You must see them. Go, now. Go and see. I must hear your thoughts on your beautiful nieces.”
Hestia paused, reluctant to leave, then decided it was best she do as she was bidden by her sister. She rose and crossed the room in the direction of the sound she had heard before. Dr. Hollingsworth’s and William’s eyes followed her, but neither came after her. However, when she opened the door to what was Hestia’s dressing room, she made sure to leave it ajar. She needed to make sure she would be free to reenter the room at will.
A woman she had never seen before was attending to two tightly wrapped, sleeping bundles in small, wooden cradles. The woman started when Hestia entered and looked confused as she took in her features. “I am her Ladyship’s sister,” Hestia explained. They were often mistaken for twins themselves.
“Oh,” was all the woman said, her hand patting her chest. “You gave me quite the shock. Now, Miss, no picking them up, mind. They’ve both just gone back to sleep, you know.”
Hestia had been bracing herself to fight to see her nieces, but it seemed no force was required. “Have you come with Dr. Hollingsworth?” she inquired, not quite understanding the situation.
“No, Miss. I’m Agnes’s aunt. When Dr. Hollingsworth could find no other help, Agnes sent for me. I’m very experienced, Miss. I’ve delivered hundreds of babies. And none more healthy than these two. Lovely specimens, they are. Pretty, too.”
“I see.” Hestia smiled, and turned her attention to her nieces, whose small faces twitched with their dreams. “Thalia and Erato. My sister claims the third will be a girl also. Clio. They are lovely, just as Demeter said.…”
“Thalia, Erato, and Clio,” the woman repeated. “Beautiful names. And very like you and her Ladyship, if I may say so, Miss.”
“That you most certainly may, for I am most proud to be an aunt.” Hestia smiled again, broadly this time, barely able to release her eyes from the two babes. But she was needed most by Demeter’s bedside. Just one last look and …
The scream ripped through the walls of the house—it was like nothing Hestia had ever heard before, or hoped to hear again—and startled both the babies, whose eyes flicked open simultaneously, revealing their deep blue color. They both immediately began to cry.
“Oh, dear.” The woman began to bustle about after the girls, but Hestia was already halfway to Demeter’s bedside.
In the time she had been out of the room, both Dr. Hollingsworth and William had bothered to stir from their seats. And, as she approached the bed, she saw why. Demeter’s bedclothes had been wrenched aside and she was now swathed in only a thin sheet.
A thin sheet covered in blood.
So much blood.
Despite her voracious reading over the past months since hearing of her sister’s precarious situation, Hestia felt everything she had learned suddenly flee from her mind. It was no Demeter she knew in that bed. There was nothing she recognized in the person who writhed before her, possessed. She looked on in horror as her sister’s body was racked with pain once more and yet another scream seemingly shook the windows in the room.
There was another scream. And another.
Then voices. Dr. Hollingsworth’s. William’s.
Hestia took all of this in as if it were a dream playing out around her. Perhaps minutes passed, perhaps hours. And the whole time, she longed to be by her sister’s side, but found herself frozen.
It was not until William passed by, knocking into her and forcing her to take a step sideways, that her situation changed.
This one step was all it took for her to be able to see beyond the girth of Dr. Hollingsworth.
Her sister lay, supine, staring upward, unseeing.
The blood now seeped through the sheet, flowed down the side of the bed, and dripped onto the thick, woven rug covering the floor below. The smell was overwhelming. Rich and metallic, it permeated the room.
And Demeter was slowly drowning in it. Sinking beyond reach.
Hestia began to scream then. Louder than the babies. Louder than Dr. Hollingsworth. Louder, even, than William.
Once she had begun, she could not cease. The scream continued. On and on and on, without pause.
She wondered, vaguely, if it would ever end. If she would ever be able to stop.
Hestia screamed until she hit the floor and everything went suddenly black.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Allison Rushby