Reserve and Reticence – Part Eleven

Eleven – A Struggle For Life

 

Now that she had managed to negotiate a truce with her mother-in-law, Beth was able to concentrate on Stephen to the full. She certainly needed to do just that. Stephen was getting sicker by the hour, his fever rising to an incredible pitch. After a couple of hours, he became completely oblivious to his surroundings, suffering from long spells of heat, which left him soaked in sweat. Shivers of cold raked his body, breaking even more perspiration. After a few hours, the rash broke out, and it was worse than any Beth had seen on the children. It literally covered every square inch of his body, especially his face, and the pimps quickly turned into blisters.

Beth got really worried after Dr Forrester made an appearance and told her the situation was in fact desperate.

“My dear lady Brixton, I have to point out to you that His Lordship could very possibly die if we do not succeed in bringing down the fever. If it rises any higher, irreparable damage will ensue. So, at all cost, we must try and cool him.”

Consequently, the master bedroom was quickly transformed into a war zone and became a world apart. Stephen was carried to his dressing room by two footmen, who let him down into his bath tub, filled with cold water. The state of complete lethargy he was in, tore at Beth’s very heart. There was no reaction or cooperation coming from Stephen, which made it very hard for the footmen to handle him. Beth sponged his entire body while she supported his head with a hand, numb from the icy water. It brought down the fever only slightly. After a quarter of an hour, Dr Forrester ordered the baron to be put back into bed again.

Beth treated the blisters on his skin with talcum powder laced with lavender oil and dressed Stephen in a clean nightshirt. She made sure Trixie and the other maids had changed the sheets on the bed beforehand. She then tried to feed him some infusion of meadowsweet and lavender, sweetened with honey, but he would not swallow. Half an hour later, the fever was back in full force yet again, and the whole process had to be done over.

After a night of trying to lower Stephen’s fever to no avail, Beth had no strength left yet she did not give up. Dr Forrester had fallen asleep on one of the sofas, and the maids and footmen had been twice replaced by fresh ones, except for Trixie who had stayed by Beth’s side. The little maid meticulously looked after her mistress, making sure Beth took an occasional nap, when Stephen’s fever had diminished between baths. She also forced some food on her though she was not very successful there. Beth was hanging onto her fear that Stephen was in mortal danger, as long as the fever would not be broken. Her strength came from the love they shared and the fact that she could simply not abide the thought that she might lose her husband. Stephen simply could, would not die. She would rather die herself trying to prevent that!

 

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Henrietta, dowager baroness Brixton, was in sheer agony over her son’s fate yet she would prefer dying first rather than going to see how he was. But, how she longed to do just that! Stephen was her son, after all. The gift she received thirty years ago from her darling Septimus, and would she now lose him? The thought was unbearable!

So Henrietta finely cut the knot and marched into the sickroom after half a week of misery and waiting … and stopped right away in her tracks. The room was a mess! On every sofa and seat, there were people sprawled as if they had died there. One of them was her son’s physician, Dr Forrester. Henrietta had never seen him in such a deplorable state of dishabille, without a coat and with his shirt sleeves rolled up over his scrawny arms. A couple of bath tubs must have been added, and they were surrounded by huge copper jars, used for carrying hot water from the kitchens. Then, finally, her gaze was drawn to the large four poster bed, and her heart stopped with overwhelming fear!

The figure in the bed could have been a stranger she failed to recognize and surely not her beloved Stephen. The man was lying absolutely still, bony hands above the covers, face an ugly shade of grey and cheeks sunken so that the bones stood out like those of a skull. Stephen’s thin nose was like a blade jutting out of his face, and his lips were colourless and cracked. His eyes were closed and ugly dark pouches showed beneath them. His body showed a greyish white sheen that Henrietta recognized as a layer of talcum powder, through which the ugly blisters of the rash shone in a horrible way.

Henrietta became aware of something else – someone else, to be precise. Her hated daughter-in-law was sitting next to Stephen and was trying to make him drink something. She was holding Stephen’s head with one hand, and with the other, she was raising a cup to his lips, coaxing and enticing him to drink in a voice barely audible with hoarseness.

“Please, my love, drink this? Come, my darling, you must drink it. It will make you better, I promise you. Dearest, please, do not leave me. Please, Stephen, I love you so, do not die on me.”

This woman must indeed care a great deal about her son, Henrietta realised as she swallowed at the lump in her throat. She must have been at Stephen’s side the whole time, judging by the extreme state of sloppiness she was in. Her hair was like that of a scare crow, coming down from its pins, and it was obvious it had not seen a brush or comb for several days. Her clothes were filthy and wet, she wore shoes nor stockings and her face was ghastly and tear-stained. It was clear to the dowager that Beth was near complete exhaustion. How had she managed to hold up until now?

Beth’s monotone voice, coaxing her husband to drink, tore Henrietta back to reality. She resolutely stepped toward the bed, gently took the cup from Beth’s hand and spoke in a sweet voice.

“Come away, child. I will take over so that you can rest a while. You do not need to leave his side. I will order a cot to be placed here, next to Stephen’s bed, so that you can watch him while you rest.”

Dr Forrester, who had woken shortly after Henrietta came in, agreed whole-heartedly with these arguments.

“My lady dowager is right, Lady Brixton. You are wearing yourself out, and it would not help your husband at all, should you collapse.”

Beth seemed in a state of shock, and it was not until the cot was brought in and Henrietta gently led her to it, that she finally looked at her mother-in-law.

“He is dying, Mama-in-law,” she croaked, “ I did all I could but I will … lose him … nevertheless.”

The last words came out in bits and pieces, as if Beth had no breath left. Tears were running down her face now and heart-rendering sobs were raking her chest. Without thinking, Henrietta took the trembling girl into her arms and hugged her.

“Now, now, child, do not despair yet. He is still breathing, but we must join forces to make him better again. I have left you on your own far too long to deal with this wretched disease. Now, go and lie down.” With gentle but firm gestures, she pushed Beth onto the cot and tucked her in herself.

 

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The rest of that week – the second of Beth’s only-too-fresh marriage to Stephen – passed in a haze of misery and hard labour. Trice the Reverend Carter, who had come over as soon as he learnt about the Baron’s dire condition, administered the last rites to Stephen, so convinced as the minister was of his lordship’s imminent demise.

Henrietta and Beth, too exhausted to cry, had equally been certain they would lose Stephen. His colour was deathly pale, the skin of his face parched and dry, and his crackled lips revealed his teeth as they parted to fight for air. In his state of extreme fatigue, Stephen’s chest heaved as he laboured for breath, making Beth cringe every time he managed the effort.

Yet Stephen kept clinging to life, hour after hour and day after day. Dr Forrester professed he had never had a patient so strong and tenacious as to resist death for so long. Yet, although Stephen was still alive after seven days of high fever, his health was rapidly failing since his nurses did not get much sustenance into him. He was too weak to swallow so Beth and Henrietta took turns in trying to get fluids past his dry lips. It failed – most of the time – yet the two women stubbornly held on, refusing all defeat.

One day, Raleigh asked Beth to come down with him to the great entrance hall, which – to her astonishment – was crowding with people. Stephen’s tenants and their families and the entire population of Woolworth had come to pay their respects to their master and his lady. The Reverend Carter and Mr Sage had been chosen to convey the assembly’s support. Beth was near to tears yet she did not give in to weakness. Her voice but slightly trembling, she thanked them all on behalf of her husband, her mother-in-law and herself. Knowing she was not alone in her suffering meant the world to her.

The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.