Louise Louplynk, sixteen, pregnant, with shoulder-length honey-blonde hair, stands by the French windows staring out at the garden which appears to be endless. The room in which she stands is large and has a high ceiling like the bedroom upstairs in which she slept the night before. She leans as close to the glass as her protuberance will allow and feels through the glass the warmth from the sun against the pane. Her small hands which were behind her back now come together over her protruding stomach and rest like white seagulls on the pale blue sea of her dress. Outside in the garden all is colour and brightness. She wishes she could make her way out there amongst the flowers and shrubs; wonders if she’d be permitted to walk along the path that leads off to her right and disappears from sight amongst trees and bushes. Just then a door opens behind her and turning, she sees one of the servants, a maid, dour looking, enter the room. The maid places a small silver tray on the mahogany table; pops up and down in a form of curtsy and turns to leave the room.
- Wait, Louise says. The maid stops and turns round, her face still dour. Do you think I would be permitted to go out in the garden? The maid studies her for a few moments then looks over towards the French windows.
- I’ve no idea, Miss, the maid replies. She looks back at Louise and her eyes settle on the protuberance on which Louise’s hands still rest. I could ask Mrs Versen, I suppose? She looks away from the protruding stomach and lifts her eyes to Louise’s face.
- Maybe you should not disturb her now, Louise says moving forward and placing her hands behind her back again. The maid nods and turns to go, but stops and faces Louise.
- She’s in the garden, the maid informs, nodding with her head towards the French windows. I can ask her.
Louise studies the girl’s face and ponders on the dark eyes and sour expression about the mouth. She wonders how old the girl is and what she is thinking as she stands there in her black dress and white pinafore. – If it’s no trouble, she says, timidly. The maid stands for a moment as if thinking about the task, then turns slowly and leaves the room, closing the door noiselessly behind her.
Her uncle, Mr Versen, had not been pleased about her coming to stay for the duration of the last few months of her pregnancy. But her mother, who was her uncle’s sister, pleaded so much that he relented. Now, as she stands alone the large room, she recalls her father’s rage and her mother’s shock when informed by the family doctor that their sixteen-year old daughter was with child. With child, were the words, she remembers the doctor using. She turns towards the French windows again and stares out on the peacefulness before her. Her father’s anger and words made her feel shame, and pained her as if he’d beaten her, which he hadn’t, but she wished in a way he had. And her mother’s facial expression would never leave her memory as long as she lived, she muses now, lifting her right hand to the glass and sensing the warmth on her skin from the sun. And the father of the child? Who is it? her parents had demanded separately and together, harshly and gently, the interrogation like the Spainish Inquisition.
When she had told them of Cornelius her cousin, their attitude became suddenly mixed; full of confusion; a conjunction of anger and grief; a compound of both vexation and bereavement. Cornelius’s parents had received a telegram from the War Office two months before informing them their son had died on H.M.S Hood. Now as she gazes at the garden, she feels tears on her cheeks and a deep hollow in her breast. Tall, bright, fair haired, fair skinned, Cornelius now dead and me carrying his child, she muses darkly, moving away from the glass and wiping her eyes. The door behind her opens and turning she sees the maid standing there, the sullen expression replaced by one of brightness with a hint of a smile on her lips.
- Mrs Versen says you can come out into the garden, the maid informs gladly as if proclaiming a prized secret.
– She doesn’t mind? Louise asks. The maid shakes her head.
- Madam says you are permitted; she didn’t appear to mind at all, Miss. The maid makes a curtsy and goes to leave the room.
- Wait, Louise says. What’s your name? The maid appears surprised and smiles.
- Ebden, the maid informs, Enid Ebden.
- Have you been here long, Enid? Louise asks.
- Since I was fourteen. About a year or so, Enid says. Louise nods and turns towards the French windows. Enid gazes at the pale-blue dress and white collar of Louise’s dress and wonders if she’d ever get to wear one as good as that, and doubting it, turns away towards the door, and, giving a brief look once more at Louise’s dress, closes the door quietly behind her.
The room is quiet. Louise opens the French windows; hesitantly she walks out in to the garden; feels the warmth of the sun upon her face; hears the sound of birds about her head and feels suddenly awake, as if she’d been long in slumber and was now awoken to things anew. She walks carefully and slowly, her bulge before her and her hands resting there like white tired doves. If only Cornelius was here, she muses sadly, moving by the carnations, red ones and white, fresh and innocent. If only it had not happened the way it had; if only they had been careful; had waited; had not been so much in love. And moving slowly along the path by the trees, she catches sight of her aunt amongst the roses. She hesitates and stands still. What will her aunt say? she wonders, feeling suddenly uneasy, feeble and faded. She approaches ploddingly, sensing perspiration, wetness about herself, her feet as if in water. Her aunt lifts her head from the roses where her nose had been sensing the scent, and beckons the child towards her with her right hand as if wishing to share some secret gossip with her. As she stands beside her aunt she feels the coldness from her aunt’s dark brown eyes as they scan over her.
Mrs Versen studies her niece deeply for a few moments without saying a word; she takes in the pale blue dress and bulge; sweeps over the face; settles temporarily upon the small hands, then slowly lifts her dark brown eyes once again to her niece’s innocent-looking, child-like face. – Don’t get to familiar with the servants, Mrs Versen says stiffly. Don’t speak with them, except when necessarily. The woman stands upright and stares about the roses, as if momentarily dismissing her niece from her mind. Louise stands motionless, sensing the wetness spreading; the air hot.
- I only asked if, Louise begins, but stops when her aunt’s eyes silence her.
- If that, Mrs Versen states, pointing towards the protruding stomach, were not Cornelius’s, you’d not be here. And if your Uncle had his way, you’d not be now, no matter who the father was. She stops; looks back to the roses and putting out her hand towards them, gently brushes her fingers against the dark red petals. Lowering her head, she lets her nose breath slowly over the bloom.
- It’s Cornelius’s baby, Louise says, faint-heartedly, tapping her stomach gently. He would not have rejected it, she adds more confidently, as if Cornelius were there beside her.
- How do you know what he would have done? Mrs Versen asks, without lifting her head from the rose. He was like most men, wanting their pleasure, but not the responsibility. She pauses for a few moments, closing her eyes, seeing her son’s face again, the way she remembers seeing him last. It could be worse, I suppose, she says coolly. It could have been one of the servant girls. She stops, turns to Louise and shakes her head. You are such a fool, Louise. How do you know what he would have done?
– He told me, Louise informs in a whisper. Her aunt’s eyes widen
- Told you what? Mrs Versen says.
- That he was pleased about the baby, Louise says, shyly.
Mrs Versen’s face darkens. She moves towards her niece and grabs her arm. – How did he know about the baby? He’d been at sea for five months or so.
Louise feels her arm gripped tightly and senses the dampness drowning her. – I wrote and told him, she says apprehensively. Her aunt releases her arm. Louise falls backwards, as if into a dark sea that swirls about her, and slumps amongst the roses.
When Louise opens her eyes, she finds herself in her bedroom. The room is silent and cool. But outside in the garden she can still hear the birds; can still sense that sun, even though the curtains are partly drawn. Turning her head, she sees she is alone. She had been laid upon the bed and abandoned; rejected; outcast.
Lifting her head from the pillow, she looks at the place where the baby dwells, surrounded by water, hearing the sound of water about it. Just like Cornelius in his last moments, she muses sadly, laying her head back on the pillow and closing her eyes. Maybe, that’s what he heard, she repeats to herself, putting her small hands over her stomach as if to bless, wishing to hold, knowing she can’t, and sensing more the absence of Cornelius. In the darkness behind her closed eyes, she hears the door knock and someone enter the room. She does not open her eyes, but lays motionless, affecting to be sleeping.
- Miss, a voice whispers. Miss Louise, the voice repeats.
Louise opens her eyes slowly and sees the young maid sitting at the side of the bed. Miss, how are you feeling, now?
- Better, Louise mutters although she doesn’t quite know how she feels. What happened? Louise asks moving her head towards the maid.
- You collapsed in the garden and we had to bring you in. Doctor came some time ago. Everything’s all right though. The maid pauses. Footsteps behind her make her stand up and become silent.
- Ebden, what are you doing here? Mrs Versen asks, coldly.
- Just came to see if Miss Louise needed anything, Madam, Edna says nervously. She moves away from the bedside and makes a short curtsy.
- Leave us, now, Ebden, Mrs Versen states stiffly. She watches as the maid departs from the room, then, turning towards the bed studies her niece in silence. As she scans over the young woman, she takes in piece by piece, each part of the body and head. Beneath the single sheet covering, the protuberance like a swelling tumour, holds her eyes. After a few minutes she moves her eyes up to the face and the watery eyes looking back at her. She moves around the bed slowly like a sculptor pondering the work of hand and chisel. Better? she says suddenly, breaking the silence.
Louise nods her head. – Yes, she utters weakly. Sorry, she adds seconds later, lifting her head, to cause you pain.
Mrs Versen sighs. She moves away from the bed to the windows and draws back the partly dawn curtains and stares out at the garden below. She remembers Cornelius playing amongst the trees when a boy. And in her mind’s eye she senses that still he plays there; waiting for her to pass and jump out at her as he did those years back.
The garden is her sanctuary. She loves the innocence and new birth about her; enjoys the freshness and sun upon her head; senses the loss more there, but can absorb it better there. – He was my only child, she says quietly, her breath on the pane of glass. I could have no other. We tried, but no more came. She becomes silent again.
Brushing her fingers through her long hair, she sighs deeply. She imagines Cornelius in her arms again; senses his head against her breast.
- We never wanted to cause to pain, Louise says timorously. We loved each other so much; wanted each other for always. She stops the flow of words and becomes silent. The room chills. Light fades. Louise senses her eyes become heavy and close.
Louise opens her eyes to a bedroom engulfed in darkness. A slight chill is in the air and as she reclines and listens, sounds, faint, but audible, swim about her ears. Her hands move down to the swelling womb beneath the blankets and rotate in a ritual as old as time. There the child lies, she reflects, looking over to the window, where the heavy curtains hang and keep out the moonlight and possible stars. And no father to welcome it, no father to protect and provide, she reflects further, moving her eyes from the window and slowly round the room. But there is movement in the room other than her own, breathing just fainter, but audible and almost felt.
- Who’s there? Louise murmurs in an anxious whisper. A muffled movement to her right causes her to sit up and stare into the area of the sound. Who’s there? she asks again.
- It’s only me, Miss Louise, a voice replies from the darkness. Edna Ebden moves into the semi-darkness by the bed.
– What are you doing here? Louise asks apprehensively, staring at the young maid by her bed. What do you want?
- I wanted to make sure you were all right. You seemed so unwell, Edna replies touching Louise’s shoulder.
- Did my Aunt ask you to stay here and keep watch over me? Louise feels the maid’s hand on her shoulder; a small hand, cold and touching her, as if to heal, Louise muses uncertainly, thinking she should move her shoulder away, but doesn’t and is glad.
- No, Miss, Edna replies. She removes her hand and it hides behind her back with the other hand. She’d not like that, if she knew. I should be in my own room up in the attic, but I was concerned about you. A silence beds down between them. Louise moves her head towards the maid and goes to whisper a word or two, but says nothing.
After a few minutes, the maid moves away from the bed. She goes to the opposite side of the room and there is a gentle sound of glass and water pouring. The maid returns to the bed with a glass of water and stands by Louise’s side. – Would you like some water, Miss?
Louise nods and takes the glass from the maid. She sips slowly, looking over the rim. – But why should you be concerned about me? Louise asks, setting the glass away from her lips. What am I to you and why should you care?
– Cornelius’s parents are not happy about this. If you were not who you are, they’d have sent you packing with payment and have done with it. But they can’t with you, you being their niece. Nonetheless, something is going to happen; your parents and the Versens are planning something, Edna informs quietly as if ears were at the door.
- What? Louise asks anxiously. What are they planning?
Edna sits on the side of the bed and puts her hand on Louise’s shoulder again. – Disposing of the baby. Take it from you once it is born.
- What can I do? Louise utters fearfully. Edna takes the glass from Louise and puts it on a side table.
- Get away from here before it’s too late, Edna suggests whispering.
- Where should I go? Louise asks. I’ve no where to go, she adds seconds later.
The Edna leans forward and whispers in Louise’s ear. A look of apprehension comes to her face, but she nods and moves quickly from the bed and begins to dress into clothes that Edna hands her.
After five minutes, in which Edna packs a bag and some other belongings from her attic room, the two women, stealthily and unobtrusively, make their way down the back staircase, through the kitchen and out into the chilly night, beneath the stars and waxing moon, hand in hand across the garden and into dark and welcoming trees and into a future uncertain and unwritten.