Virginia henley unmask.., p.30
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       Virginia Henley - Unmasked, p.30

           Virginia Henley
 
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  "Right away, my lord. Your wife wouldn't listen— she insisted on nursing you herself."

  "Yes, we both know she can be an imp of Satan."

  "I'm so glad you understand. Do you fancy some ale?"

  "I'd kill for a jug of ale. Can you brew me some bor­age for Velvet's fever?"

  "We have some in the kitchen. It's so bitter, you re­fused to drink much of what we made for you."

  "Leave it at the top of the stairs." Greysteel hurried to the linen press for clean sheets and towels, then re­turned to Velvet. He stripped the bed and remade it. Then he filled the washbowl with cool water and knelt before his wife.

  He removed her clothing with gentle hands and his gut knotted when he saw how flushed her skin was beneath her garments. He sponged her face, arms, shoulders and breasts, over and over with the cool water, and then dabbed her dry with the towel. He touched his lips to her temple. "My angel love."

  He picked her up tenderly and laid her on the bed naked. There was no way he was going to struggle putting on and taking off a nightgown. A sheet would do to cover her nakedness until she began to shiver.

  When he heard noises in the hall, he went out to retrieve a kettle of stew, a jug of ale, and the decoction of borage and water. Thank God he brought stew and not broth. I'll likely need all my strength to get that vile potion into Velvet.

  Greysteel ate the food slowly. He didn't want to ag­gravate his empty stomach. When he had eaten, he quaffed the ale, relishing every mouthful. He set down the empty tankard and focused his full attention on Velvet.

  "You asked me to give my control to you and though it was difficult, I did it, sweetheart. You saved my life, and now I am going to save yours. But I need your help, Velvet—I cannot do it alone. Do you under­stand me?"

  Her eyes, which were a dark glittering green, sought his. Her fevered lips could form no words.

  His big calloused hands raised her head and he tipped the borage drink against her lips. When she took a few sips, he praised her and encouraged her to take more. He knew she still understood him. Later on, when she became delirious, he knew, she would not.

  "Velvet, my love, in the past I know you have had trouble putting your trust in me. This time, however, I am giving you no choice. You must trust me with your entire mind, your heart and your soul when I tell you that you will recover. I would never lie to you about something this crucial."

  May God forgive me!

  He tipped the cup once more and was amazed that she did not balk at the bitter potion. Perhaps females are better patients than males. This particular female has every bit as much courage as a soldier. The thought brought a lump to his throat.

  Greysteel sat beside her until she slept. Then he went to the mirror and examined his torso, twisting about and counting his smallpox scabs. It's a miracle I survived! He picked up a pot of the face cream Velvet had made and daubed a little on each of his sores. It was common belief that they were better off left open to the air, to dry, but his experience had taught him that wounds healed better if they were soaked until the scabs came off, and then kept moist with ointment. Firsthand knowledge had taught him that a moist en­vironment sped healing and reduced scarring. He de­cided to experiment with his own pox, so that he could use the knowledge on Velvet, if she survived. He slipped on a shirt. Take that thought out of the air imme­diately. She will survive!

  During the next three days, Velvet's survival be­came doubtful as her fever raged higher until she became delirious and then began to vomit.

  She looked at him with terrified eyes. "Anne lost her baby and I'll lose mine! She was bleeding in the Presence Chamber and I tried to keep it hidden from everyone."

  Greysteel made no sense of what she said. "You are not bleeding, darling, I promise you. Trust me, Velvet."

  That night, Greysteel lay beside her on top of the bed. It helped him regain his strength, and Velvet seemed much calmer when he talked and murmured comforting, reassuring words to her. He held her hand tightly so she could not leave him.

  In the morning, he saw that the water blisters had formed, and knew that for the time being, her fever would subside. Her vesicles rose up along the sides of her torso, rather than her back or front. She had a few on the insides of her arms and up underneath her armpits on the warmest parts of her body. She had one above her left breast, and the one that almost broke Greysteel's heart had formed on her right cheek.

  Her skin was so perfect, without blemish. How could a loving God be this cruel? How could you do this to Velvet and leave my face unscathed? He quickly told himself that this did not matter; all that mattered was that she survive. It makes no difference to me, but it will matter to Velvet.

  He knew the worst stage was still to come. When the vesicles filled with yellow pus, how would his beloved bear it? He knew that during the days of her fever, when she had eaten nothing, she had lost weight. He feared she would not be strong enough to endure this grave illness. They had already received one miracle when he survived smallpox; they would need divine intervention to be blessed by two. Grey-steel had scant time to pray, however; Velvet needed a drink and a sponge bath.

  Between sips, she asked fearfully, "My baby?"

  "The baby is safe, love. Trust me, Velvet."

  She finished the bitter borage. "It's your baby." Her whisper was intense.

  "I know that, sweetheart." He began to bathe her. I don't care if it's the bloody pope's baby. All I care about is you! Grey steel sponged over the vesicles, rather than avoiding them, but he did it with infinite care.

  "I want you to rest now and try to sleep. It will give you strength to fight what lies ahead."

  She nodded and closed her eyes, content her baby was safe.

  Greysteel's appetite was improving daily and he ate his food at the stair head, where Mr. Burke had left it. He didn't want the smell of it to nauseate Velvet. She had vomited too much.

  Today, a letter sat beside his jug of ale. He picked it up and saw that it was from Christian Cavendish to Velvet. He hurried back to the bedchamber, but found his wife asleep. He hesitated only a moment before he opened it. Even if she was lucid when she awoke, Vel­vet would ask him to read it to her.

  He sat down in the chair beside her and opened the envelope.

  Dearest Velvet:

  When I learned of Princess Mary's tragic death from smallpox, I hurried to Whitehall and learned from Emma that you had gone to Roehampton, to warn your husband that he had been exposed. I am extremely worried for you and Montgomery and beg that you immediately let me know that you are well.

  The contagion is spreading, I'm afraid. My grandson, William, came down with a mild dose, but unfortunately for him his once handsome face will be badly pockmarked. You will likely believe this is just punishment for steal­ing the portrait you were having painted for Greysteel. Using it to blackmail you into exchanging it for Roe­hampton was an evil deed for which he has now paid.

  Henrietta Maria is in deepest mourning for her daughter and I believe the queen is secretly suffering from guilt over the way she treated her son Henry. I war­rant she now realizes that the estrangement can never be rectified. It's a. lesson we should all heed; never let silly quarrels separate us from those we love.

  I feel great empathy for Charles. Ruling a kingdom does not protect him from tragedy and sorrow. Though surrounded by both fawners and friends, I believe he is the loneliest of men.

  If I do not hear from you shortly, I shall come to Roehampton to see for myself how you are faring.

  Fondest love,

  Christian

  Greysteel set aside the letter and approached the crate in the corner of the chamber. He lifted out the portrait and gazed at it with new eyes. Velvet had this painted for me! She is exquisite—far lovelier than Venus. That bastard Cavendish was blackmailing her and she didn't dare come to me.

  Montgomery's heart was heavy. With shame he re­lived the confrontation over the painting and how he had closed his ears when she protested that he did
n't understand. He glanced over at his sleeping wife. I vow to make it up to her.

  Quietly, he carried the portrait over to the fireplace and set it on the mantel. She'll see it when she awakens. He changed his shirt and sat down beside his wife. "I love you, Velvet," he whispered softly. When you open your eyes, I'm going to tell you just how much. I've waited far too long to tell you how I cherish you.

  Another disturbing thought struck him. I denied her Bolsover Castle, the only thing she ever asked of me. I said I wanted it for our children, but I also wanted it for myself, to breed horses. He searched for the deed in his strongbox and signed it over to his wife. He immediately felt bet­ter.

  Greysteel jerked awake. He had no idea how long he'd been asleep, but the chamber was bathed in darkness. Velvet was thrashing about and moaning piti­fully. He quickly lit a branch of candles and set mem on the bedside table. He went rigid when he saw that her blisters had ruined into pustules. He knew she was suffering and cursed heaven.

  Desperately, he began to murmur comforting, calm­ing words. "Lie quietly, my sweetheart. Breathe deeply, slowly. Hold on to my hands and use my strength to carry you through your pain. I love you, Velvet; feel my love/'

  The sweat stood out on his brow as he knelt beside her, clasping her burning hands. To his great relief, he saw that his words were having an effect and she was quieting. Finally, she lay still and her breathing calmed. Then to his great horror, her breathing slowed and finally stilled. "Stay with me," he ordered franti­cally, but he knew in his bones that Velvet had drawn her last breath.

  Chapter 28

  Greysteel let go of his wife's hands and pressed down on her chest as if he were working a pair of bellows to get air into her lungs. The vesicle on her breast burst open and the pus sprayed across his chin. "Breathe, Velvet, breathe!"

  He lifted his hands to see if she was breathing on her own and cursed that she was not. Then he took the curse back and began to mutter a plea. "Christ, please help me. Don't take her from me. Give me strength and guide me."

  A desperate idea came to him. Since she wasn't breathing for herself, he would simply have to do it for her. Without hesitation he lowered his head, covered her mouth with his and breathed into her mouth. He felt air on his cheek coming from her nostrils and real­ized it was his own. He firmly pinched her nose and breathed again. Once, twice, three times he blew air into her mouth before he felt her shudder. The pustule on her cheek erupted. Greysteel wiped the matter from his eye and resumed his mission with unwavering intent.

  * * *

  Velvet was in an unknown place that frightened her. It was quiet and then someone calling her name broke the stillness. She turned and saw a tall, dark figure beckoning to her, and she felt something was familiar. Had she had this dream before?

  "Charles!" She felt weak with relief as she took a step toward him. Suddenly, she stopped. That isn't the king beckoning to me; that is Death!

  "Greysteel! Greysteel! Where are you?" Velvet turned and saw another tall, dark figure that spoke her name.

  "Velvet."

  It was Greysteel.... She would know him any­where. She realized what her mother had told her long ago was true: He will always keep me safe. Without hesi­tation Velvet went to her husband.

  Greysteel had no idea how long he persisted, but slowly, miraculously, he realized that Velvet was breathing on her own. Her breaths were shallow, and he hung over her, ready to resume his labor of love. His eyes flooded with tears of relief as he realized he had succeeded in snatching her from Death.

  He feared she still hovered on the brink, and clutched her hands to keep her from leaving again. "Stay with me, Velvet!"

  For the next thirty hours, Montgomery did not dare to close his eyes as he watched over his beloved wife. Finally, sleep seduced him and he drifted off to a place that was rife with danger. He drew his sword and slew a score of dragons.

  When he awoke the chamber was filled with day­light and he found Velvet watching him. His dark face lit with a smile and to his great joy she responded in kind. He immediately brought her a drink. All he had was ale, but she gulped it thirstily.

  He went out to the stair head and called down. "Mr. Burke, Mrs. Clegg, I think Velvet is over the worst—I believe she's going to recover! Is everyone else all right?"

  Burke came to the bottom of the stairs. "Thank God! All has been so silent up there, we feared the worst. How blessed we are that no one else at Roehampton has been infected."

  "That's a relief. Best to keep your distance—I war­rant Velvet is still contagious. Would you ask Bertha to make her some barley water? She needs something to give her strength."

  "A letter has arrived for Lady Montgomery from His Majesty the King at Whitehall."

  "When I go back into our bedchamber, bring it up­stairs."

  Greysteel returned to his wife and found that the ale had made her sleep. He took the opportunity to bathe and change his clothes, and then he went out to get fresh linen for her bed.

  He picked up the letter from Charles and brought it back with the clean sheets. He sat down and pondered if he dare open and read his wife's personal corre­spondence.

  Since he'd played the role of spy before and his con­science had recovered, he slit the red wax with his thumbnail. He knew that reading a letter from Charles to Velvet was playing with fire and he fully expected to get scorched.

  As Montgomery read the letter, he felt Charles's overwhelming sadness at losing both a brother and a sister. Somehow it didn't seem right that royalty was not immune to infectious diseases. He read the words that showed the king's concern for him.

  I will never forget the look of fear on your face for your husband when you learned that he had been in close con­tact with a victim of smallpox. It told me how deeply you love him. You should never have gone to Roehampton to warn him, risking the infection to yourself, but I know nothing in this world could have prevented you from going to him. I envy Montgomery your devotion, because I know I will never have so great a love.

  Greysteel sat stunned. He was the one who had al­ways envied Charles. The words revealed that the king and Velvet did not love each other, except as friends, and Montgomery felt shame at his suspicion. / swear by Almighty God that I will never be jealous again. He low­ered his eyes and finished reading the letter.

  Charles is right. He could have no more worthy Lady of the Bedchamber to serve Queen Catherine than Velvet.

  Montgomery lit a candle and melted the wax seal so that she wouldn't know he had acted dishonorably and read her letter.

  He put it on the bedside table along with the one from Christian. Greysteel felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his heart, and went out to the stair head.

  "Mr. Burke, I'm starving to death. Would you ask Mrs. Clegg to cook me a rump steak?"

  "I hear you, my lord," Bertha shouted. "If your ap­petite is restored, all must be well with your world."

  "It is indeed, Bertha. I could eat an ox, tail an' all."

  When he returned, Velvet roused and looked at him with large emerald eyes. She held her arms away from the sides of her body. "I hurt," she whispered.

  "I know, love, but that's such an encouraging sign." I feared you had gone beyond pain. Greysteel grinned. "I'm going to bathe your scabs and matter with some borage water."

  Velvet attempted a smile. "Scabs and matter... how amusing."

  "If we don't laugh, sweetheart, we'll cry."

  When Greysteel began to sponge her pustules that were now starting to crust over, he handled her so gently that she did feel like crying.

  "I don't mean to upset you, Velvet, but I acciden­tally broke open one on your breast and the one on your cheek. I'd like to try an experiment and keep them moist and covered."

  "Experiment on my face?" She smiled at his audac­ity.

  He brought fresh water and cleansed her cheek. Then he dabbed the weeping sore with her face cream, cut a small square from a linen sheet and pressed it over the cream.

  V
elvet gazed up at her portrait. "I'll never look the same."

  "You are far lovelier than the painting, you know."

  "The eye of the beholder ..."

  He carefully sponged the sore on her breast, daubed it with cream and covered it with a square of linen. "Let's hope these stay put." He took away the dirty washbowl. "Now you are going to drink some barley water to put some spunk in you."

  "Controlling swine," she murmured tenderly.

  He grinned. "I wonder if there's an herb I could brew to control your tongue?"

  "Hemlock."

  He couldn't bring himself to smile at her deadly humor. He heard a noise on the landing and went out to find a jug of barley water and a fresh goblet.

  Greysteel went about the procedure of getting the restorative drink inside her the quickest way he could. Some spilled onto the bedding and he was glad he'd had enough foresight to feed her before putting clean sheets on the bed.

  By the time he finished his ministrations, he could see that his wife was exhausted. "Try and rest, love. I'll go and eat; hopefully, it will give me enough strength to keep the upper hand over you."

  Montgomery was ravenous by the time his dinner tray was laid at the top of the stairs. He carried it into a guest bedchamber and devoured everything Bertha had cooked for him, including a jug of autumn ale. Food had never tasted better in his life and he knew his health was returning to normal.

  That night, Greysteel lay on top of the bed next to Velvet and held her hand. She was restless and he had to fetch her drinks and help her use the chamber pot, but he was gratified to see that she did sleep for a few hours.

  In the morning, he began all over again with her ablutions. Greysteel changed the small dressings on her breast and cheek and dreaded the moment when she would ask for a mirror. When she was clean and fed, he handed her a parchment. "Here is the morning gift you asked me for after we were married."

  Velvet unfolded the deed to Bolsover Castle and saw that he had signed the ownership over to Elizabeth Montgomery. Her eyes searched his face and she saw that though it was a sacrifice, it was one he was eager to make. "Thank you, Greysteel."

 
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