Four – Besieged
Life settled into a strange pattern in the quiet village of Woolworth on the Brixton Abbey estate in Leicestershire. Every activity plied itself to the routine of St Mary’s Primary School, yet the school was no longer a school, it had become a hospital. Nevertheless, there was a strict schedule to its activities.
First tasks every day were the ablutions and breakfast, which took a part of the morning. The children were not so ill that they could not take care of their personal hygiene nor help Beth preparing bacon and eggs. At least, not all of them were bedridden, but some were.
Little Josie Robinson and her brother Crispin suffered a fairly high fever and had to be cared for as if they would have been small children. This was a very distressing fact since there was a third child in the Abbey steward’s home, a seven-month-old baby brother, named Joshua. Beth’s first message to the outer world was to warn the Robinsons to keep watch over the baby and bring it to her as soon as he would break a fever. The receiver of the messages was Lord Brixton. He volunteered to be at the little garden’s gate between the two cottages every morning at eleven.
On the morning of the third day of her self-imposed quarantine, Beth provided Stephen with an alarming message. Most of the children now showed a rash – small red spots which appeared on the face, arms and torso of the afflicted. Their fever had also mounted but not alarmingly so. Only Josie and Crispin were lethargic with high fever. Their bodies were covered head-to toe with the red rash.
Beth was now constantly and solely in charge of the sick children. She washed and fed them, cooled their bodies by sponging them down with tepid water, applied ointments on the rash when necessary. It itched considerably on some of the patients.
All those intensive activities left her completely exhausted. When she stepped out onto the cottage’s yard, one evening at sunset, the crisp night air of March cooled her hot face with a gentle breeze. She welcomed it and sank down onto the bench beside the well, closing her eyes and leaning back to rest her aching limbs.
“How are they?” a soft and well-known baritone voice sounded behind Beth. Lord Stephen Fenton was standing just a few feet away from her, his features unreadable in the fading light of the setting sun.
“My lord, you should not be here! I … I am in close contact with the disease, I could contaminate you!” Beth gasped, getting up to make her curtsy. Fenton hastened toward her and took her arm.
“No, please, Miss Williams. I beg you to stay seated. You must be very tired.”
He helped her onto the bench but did not let go of her hand, not even after he say down next to her.
“How are they?” he repeated his question.
Beth enjoyed the warm pressure of Fenton’s hand for a while before answering. Although she feared for him to be affected, after another hard day of caring for the sick children, it was beyond her skills to deny herself the pleasure of Stephen’s touch. She closed her eyes and answered him.
“All things considered, it is not as bad as I anticipated, my lord. I feared the children would be more affected with stomach trouble, and that has not occurred. The rash appeared five days ago, and I expected there would be vomiting and diarrhoea, but none of the patients were subjected to it. Their fever is not very high, except with Josie and Crispin, and even they are a little better now. You may tell Mr and Mrs Robinson they are on the mending.”
“Thank you, Miss Williams. I will convey that happy message to them. You will be pleased to hear that little Joshua still enjoys the best of health. No fever, no rash.”
“Oh, thank God!” Beth exclaimed, tears suddenly welling up in her eyes. She dashed them away, not wanting the baron to see them. She did not succeed. The next moment, she was in his arms and crying against his shoulder. Oh, it felt so good, to feel the strength of a fellow human being and be comforted. After a short moment, Beth realised it was the baron against whose shoulder she was resting but that was all she was doing, resting her cheek against his well-clad shoulder. His arms lay around her own shoulders without pressure or squeezing. Beth’s nose picked up his discrete cologne, revelling in the cleanliness of his garments and the warmth of his skin as his cheek touched hers. He was not asking for more, she mused. Quietly and gently, he was just giving her comfort. Oh, how good it felt!
Stephen’s soft voice broke into her thoughts.
“Miss Williams, I cannot let you go on like that. You are exhausted and the end of the whole wretched affair is not even in sight. You need help, so please, let me take care of it!”
“No, my lord! No one is to be put in danger of being affected with the disease. I am the only one who is safe.”
His sigh ruffled the strands of hair that had escaped her bun and now framed her face. Stephen gently let go of her, took her by the shoulders and gravely gazed into her eyes.
“No one will be put in danger, Miss Williams. I will stay to help you.”
Beth was not sure she heard correctly. The baron, to move into the hospital and help out with the patients? Impossible! And very foolish! He would contract the disease! She suddenly stood and began to retreat to the house.
“No, my lord, out of the question! I will not allow you to endanger yourself. Goodnight!”
The next minute, she was inside, and Stephen heard the key turn in the lock.
The next morning dawned cold and grey, the last remnants of winter settling on the village with a biting frost. Beth rose, washed and dressed in a hurry and went to the kitchen to stir up the stove and start preparing breakfast. On a bench, next to the hearth lay the sleeping form of Baron Stephen Fenton. He was dressed in simple clothes, a black woollen coat and grey breeches and black boots. Beth stood watching him in bewilderment. What was he doing here? How did he get in? She became aware of very ambiguous feeling battling inside her. She was distressed having Stephen risking himself and at the same time, she was extremely happy to have him at the hospital. She had to keep herself from weeping with relief, simply because he was here to help her.
But … he could not stay here! Panic rushed over her when she realised the danger he had brought himself into!
“My lord? My lord, wake up! You must leave immediately!”
Fenton opened his eyes and sat up, raking a hand through his badly ruffled hair.
“Oh, good morning, Miss Williams! What do you want me to do? I have come to help you.”
“But … but … you cannot! It is too dangerous! You must leave at once!”
Fenton stood up and went to the stove.
“Now,” he said, “I shall light the stove. Oh, you are out of coal and wood. Maybe, I will first replenish those, hey?”
And he picked up the coal bucket and went out into the yard. Bet stared through the window and stood frozen to the spot as she watched the baron shovelling coal and chopping wood. The full coal bucket dangling in one hand and the other arm full of logs, he then came back into the kitchen. Kneeling before the stove, he cleaned it out, pilled wood into it, lighted it and rose. A bright smile alighted his featured and beaming cheerfully at Beth, he asked:
“What next, Miss Williams?”
The lovely drawing I used in my story is by Mrs Joyce Mould.