Excerpt of The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger
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It was terrible. It was one of those times when the coughing was so violent, it was as though her lungs were tearing themselves apart in their attempt to escape her breast. Phlegm and vomit - and thin streaks of bloody tissue with it. She coughed and coughed and then her breath became so ratty and weak I thought she must faint, surely, if only for a moment's relief. She wouldn't let me treat her; instead, my Lady gasped her way through. After a time the fit ended and, with it, the wretched coughing. She sat for a while, shivering cold, her body's heat dissipated through fever. A few minutes and a sip of broth later, she was on her feet, adjusting her shawl. I accompanied her back into the dining room, where the guests had moved on to the sweet. She waved me away as though I'd been pestering her (I didn't mind) and said to Mr. Meredith, "Now, George, what have I been missing?" When he expressed his concern over her health - Mr. Meredith was always observant of my Lady - she said, "It was Rainey. She woke from a bad dream and the girl could not calm her." I could see Mr. Meredith did not believe her, but he kept this to himself, wisely.
Later, when I looked in once again, she was smoking a cigar and arguing her point with such animation that no guest new to the house would have believed my Lady was unwell. Her husband, Sir Alick, gave me a smile and winked, as though to say, "Look at her. She is a marvel, isn't she?"
Our travels first started two years before. We spent that winter, 1860, in the Isle of Wight at the behest of Doctor Izod, who was adamant that the Esher climate was too harsh for my Lady to bear. It was a low time. I often wondered if Doctor Izod had ever been to the Isle of Wight as it was never dry, nor light, nor warm, nor in any way resembled a place that might effect a cure for my Lady. We crept about the corridors of that tawdry hotel - it was not completely sordid, but near enough - while my Lady lay in bed, all of us, my Lady included, feeling as though she was about to die.
The next winter we embarked on our very own odyssey, all the way to the southernmost tip of Africa and back again. Just the two of us this time, a Lady and her lady's maid. There was no money for any kind of entourage. The Duff Gordons are always hard-pressed financially, though since Sir Alick moved from the Treasury to the Inland Revenue in Somerset House, my Lady says things have become a little easier, and I can attest to that. My wages are almost always paid on time these days. And so, an adventure - a brilliant escapade in fact. I loved it on that ship, I loved the port cities and the sights, ever more exotic as we traveled south. I loved it best when we were far out to sea: no sign of land, no trees, no buildings, no people; just water, the ship, my mistress, and me. "Don't you miss the household?" she asked one day. "The other servants. The companionship?"
I smiled. I could tell she was missing her family. "Not one bit," I said. "I don't miss anything about England."
My Lady laughed. "Well then," she said, "you are a peculiar creature, Sally Naldrett, but you're perfect for me."
I laughed too, but the truth was I was relieved to get away from Esher, to get away from the gossip and malice, the too-close proximity of other servants. I liked being on my own; I liked being in sole charge of my Lady; I liked being away from the younger female staff and their demands, the male staff and their unhelpful expectations. "I'd happily stay at sea forever," I said.
But that trip, though immensely satisfying for me, had not suited Lady Duff Gordon's needs. All that sea-travel, all those thousands of miles of water, when what she wants is clear, dry air and hot, dry sunshine. She needs to parch her lungs, to set them out in the sun and warm their very roots, that's what I think, so she can cough out what ails her once and forever.
And so we returned to England, yet again, after a full year aboard ship. For my Lady, the reunion was sweet. There they were on Victoria Dock, the whole of her family: Sir Alick, waving a white handkerchief; her elder daughter, Miss Janet, Mrs. Henry Ross now, heavily pregnant with her own first child; Master Maurice, grown tall, almost thirteen; and Miss Urania - Rainey - now all of three years of age. My Lady rushed off the ship as though she was one of the lions the captain was transporting below deck, freed from its cage. And I thought, oh, look how my Lady has missed her family! Why didn't I see how much she missed her family while we were away? At first it was as though Miss Rainey did not know her mother, this pale woman with the smell of sea-salt in her hair, but in the carriage the little girl stared and stared at her mother, who could not stop talking of Africa, of crocodiles and elephants and lions and all the wonders we had seen, and after a while she climbed down from where she was sitting on her father's knee and climbed up into her mother's lap. And my Lady stopped talking, and smiled very broadly.
Excerpted from The Mistress of Nothing
by Kate Pullinger. Copyright © 2011 by Kate Pullinger.
Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.