In the waning light of a warm evening, two voices arguing could be heard carrying through the still air, the deep rumbling growl of an angry man and the high-pitched screams of a pleading woman. Across the courtyard of the villa, a two-summers-old child sat on the stone floor of the nursery while her scandalised nurse pressed her ear up against the shutters of the window, listening, with baited breath, to the argument between the master and his wife.
“Four children, I have given you four children. I am your wife and I can give you more...” the woman’s voice was desperate and pleading but the man’s voice, her husband’s voice, was resentful and remorseless.
“No. You have given me four daughters, four worthless and expensive daughters. I need sons, and you, woman, have not given me sons. What good wife would give her husband daughters when he only wanted sons to inherit his name and his business?”
“I will give you sons, we just have to be patient and pray to the gods that they bless us soon.”
“No. You cannot carry any more children. The last three pregnancies slithered from you too soon for any child to live. You can no longer birth living children and what good is a dead son to me?” The man was incensed with rage; a wife’s duty was to provide a male heir and the more the better. Daughters were a costly addition to any family. An intelligent man may be able to marry his daughter into a wealthier or political family, which would give him an opportunity to advance himself and his sons. But to do that, the man had to hope that his daughter would grow up to be pretty, because a plain or ugly daughter would be expensive to endow, to ensure that another family took the responsibility of care out of his hands and his coffers.
As the prying nurse listened she could hear the sobs wracking her mistress’ body and imagined the tears that would be running down her grimacing face, making her look older and more ugly than was good for her. All the servants knew that the master’s eye had been wandering over other, younger, prettier women who had been to visit the villa over the past few months. His desire for a male heir had driven him to consider the costly venture of putting aside his current wife and marrying a younger woman who could give him what he wanted. The master, being a stingy man to the servants, showed how desperate he was for a boy child, that he would spend so much money to acquire a legitimate new wife. There was even gossip that he may already have his eye on a particular young woman.
The mistress began trying to reason with her husband. “But your daughters, they married well. You gained from their marriages to the other families, and Ama will make another good marriage when she is old enough.” The nurse glanced back at the child sitting on the floor. Her face was trusting and uncomprehending of the argument between her parents; an argument that sounded as if she would become a bastard child or stepchild to a new mistress, a new wife, very soon.
“Your daughters,” he corrected, “were as plain and ugly as you are now. I did not benefit from their marriages; it was those families who benefited from marrying into mine! I am the master trader in this city. I am the richest and the most sought-after. What possible advantage could those lesser families bring to me? We are not noble, so they could not marry up and what noble would wed an ugly bride? Why would Ama be any different from the older three? She will be just as ugly, and as expensive, to convince some other man that she should be a wife to his son, and I still have no son of my own! You are done, woman! You must leave my property tomorrow morning with your own belongings, not what I have given you!” His tone was final, the anger and resentment gone, just the sharp tone of the end of nearly twenty-two years of marriage.
The woman’s sobs could still be heard but they were pitiful, quiet and defeated. “Ama. Give me Ama. I will take her away with me.” The silence that followed the request seemed even louder to the nurse than the argument did, but the master’s voice seemed to boom with conviction as he finally ruined the woman who had been his wife for over two decades.
“Ama will stay here. She is my daughter, and you are no longer my wife, and you shall not have what belongs to me. When she is older, she may be the lucky daughter and have the looks you used to have before they withered and died with age.”
The nurse gasped at this final insult to her mistress – her former mistress- she corrected herself. Footsteps slapped across the stone floors. Somebody had left the argument and she guessed it was her master. She turned once more to the child she was hired to care for and studied her features. Whilst only two, she still had the baby chubbiness in her cheeks and plump body; the nurse could see some of the resemblance to her mother. Her skin was smooth and warm with no imperfections. She had a pink, well-sculpted mouth, which was parted slightly as the child watched her nurse with her golden eyes – a rare feature in people who typically had brown eyes and dark hair. Already it looked as if the baby’s hair might turn to a light auburn colour, matching her golden eyes. Yes, the nurse agreed, there is the potential in you to be pretty and that would be an advantage for your master and me if you married up. I might be able to go with you! she thought excitedly, imagining the life of an upper class, or noble’s servant, instead of a rich merchant’s servant. As the nurse dreamed of a future where she was a servant to a noble lady, she picked up the child from off the stone floor and put her into her cot, then tucked her in firmly, before arranging the small pallet and blanket she was given to sleep on while watching over the master’s youngest daughter. She fell asleep quickly, knowing she would have to wake before dawn to start the housework, breakfast and to gossip with the other servants, before the master awoke, about the argument she overheard tonight.
Soft snores broke the silence of the night, but little baby Ama was not sleeping. Too young to comprehend how her life had just changed in one night, she lay there trying to move, trying to reach out for something familiar, something she could hold on to – someone to love her.