Thirteen – A Glimpse of Heaven
Consciousness lurked at the edges of his mind but proved too hard to grasp. Extreme weakness prevented him from doing what he most wanted; to open his leaden eyelids, to move his granite limbs, to let words past his cracked lips. It was as if he were immersed in a tepid sea of slowness yet it seemed of vital importance to him that he should fight this drowsy state and become awake.
His body itched something terrible, he realised suddenly. His body … he became fully aware of it, when the itch plagued him so much he wanted to scratch and tear the skin from his flesh in exasperation! That was what gave him the strength to open his drooping eyelids, although it was the hardest thing he had ever done in his life.
He was in familiar surroundings, thank Heaven! All of a sudden, he realised he had been having this terrible fear of being in a bad place but, to his relief, found he was not. His own room, his own bed. His? Like a Jack-in-the-box, his name popped out of his memory. Stephen Fenton, Baron Brixton. He was home, at Brixton Abbey, praise the Lord!
Gingerly, Stephen attempted turning his head to get his bearings, and the first person he saw, was his Beth, slumped in a chair beside his bed. A huge wave of relief and joy washed over him. He could not be in a bad place when his lovely wife was at his side. Poor Beth, she must have fallen into an exhausted sleep in that chair. Why would she be in a chair instead of next to him in their bed? He opened his mouth to ask but no sound escaped his starched lips, and he found his throat dry as the desert. As he raised a hand to touch her, he saw the red, raw spots on his skin, some of them dried, the skin flaking off, some of them still red and aching and finally, some of them ugly blisters that itched like the blaze. He was ill. He had succumbed to a horrid disease and maybe, he was dying. He certainly felt like he had been under a dray cart!
With something of an effort, Stephen managed to sit up and lean over toward Beth by supporting himself on one elbow. That allowed him to touch her arm with one outstretched hand. Immediately, he regretted the gesture because Beth was startled into action with a faint gasp.
“Stephen! Oh, Stephen, my love! Oh, thank God, you are awake!”
She began feeling his brow and stroking his face and then, she hugged him and kissed him, tears running down her cheeks.
“Oh, my heart, my dearest love, oh! We have been so very afraid we might lose you …”
Stephen’s heart nearly burst with joy when he returned his wife’s embraces as best as he could despite the fact it cost him a lot of energy. Soon after, he was reclining against his pillows, gasping and panting, causing Beth to admonish herself for her overzealous demonstrations. After a few moments, however, they just sat gazing at each other, clasping hands tightly.
Stephen managed to make it clear that he had no control over his voice, and Beth instantly helped him to a cup of cold tea, sweetened with honey. It was heaven to Stephen’s parched throat, and he drank with greedy gulps. Afterwards, he began feeling a bit better.
“How are you feeling? Are you still feverish? Are you in pain? Are you hungry?” Beth asked anxiously.
Shaking with silent laughter, Stephen covered his wife’s mouth with one hand, which made her laugh herself. He pointed to his stomach and mouth and Beth understood.
“I will go and fetch some food, my darling. Just lie still, do not move, please.”
She hurried out of the room and Stephen, staring after her with regret and longing, was again hit by an extreme weariness that paralyzed his limbs and made his head spin. Hunger gnawed in his belly, his stomach suddenly rumbling. Lord, but he was absolutely ravenous!
A short time after, the door burst open and a crowd of loudly chattering people entered. In astonishment, Stephen was assaulted by the relieved cries of his mother who smothered him with kisses. That was something he rarely witnessed! Clumsily, he returned her caresses.
After a while his mother withdrew, patting her eyes with a scrap of lace, and Stephen noticed the Reverend Carter and Dr Forrester, who both congratulated him on his recovery. They were followed by those of Raleigh, the butler, Hawkins, his valet, and a bunch of footmen and maids, who all twittered and squeezed in delight, just to see him on the way to recovery. Overseeing it all with a sweet smile on her bright face was his wife.
“Please …” he croaked, stunned to find he had his voice back, “please, all of you, accept my thanks for your good wishes.” Even after those few words, Stephen found his breath gone from his lungs. Closing his eyes in exhaustion, he lay panting for air during the next minutes while Beth thanked everyone and gently ushered them from the room, claiming her husband still needed his rest.
She sat down next to him again and felt his brow with the back of her hand.
“Still slightly feverish, I fear,” she said.
“I feel terrible,” Stephen replied, his voice barely audible. “Tell me, Beth. How bad is it?”
Beth took his hand in his and kissed it, almost reverently.
“You have contracted chickenpox, my love. On adults, it can be fierce because their bodies are not as flexible as a child’s. It is frequently seen that adults develop high fever, so I was not too much concerned at first. I have been mistaken, my love. You were almost taken from us because your fever was so extreme it brought you to the brink of death. I was negligent, my love. I did not apply myself enough at first.”
Again, she pressed his hand to her lips. Her cheeks were wet with tears, Stephen noticed with a shock.
“Well, I am better now, my sweetling and sure to be on my feet again soon. That can only be your doing, my dearest, loveliest Beth.”
For a few, precious moments, they gazed into each other’s eyes, conscious of what they could have lost during the horrible week of Stephen’s illness. Beth felt her heart soar like a lark in a bright, sunlit sky! It was over! All her fears and horrors were laid to rest.
A tentative knock on the door preceded Dr Forrester’s entry. The thin little man looked as haggard and – no doubt – as unkempt as Beth thought she must surely look herself. A stab of pity rose in her chest, and she quickly stood to meet him and take his hands, which startled him.
“Dear Dr Forrester,” she hastily said, “I would like to express my thanks for what you have accomplished here. It is your skill that helped rescue my husband through this ghastly illness. I can never repay you for it.”
The old bachelor blushed suddenly, harrumphing and coughing through his embarrassment.
“Oh, no, my lady! I am sure you are only being gracious and polite. There was not much I could have done for His Lordship if you had not been there for him during those long days of uncertainty. You are the one who …”
“Oh, come on, Forrester!” Stephen’s voice was trembling with suppressed mirth. “Can you not graciously accept a compliment when you are offered one? I assure you my lady wife does not proffer them to just anyone, you know.”
“Erm … yes, … erm, no, I am sorry, my lord, … you are right, of course. Thank you, my lady, for your most generous offer.”
He bowed over Beth’s hand and kissed it in a reverend way.
“But now,” he continued, “we must see to you, my lady. You have outdone yourself caring for His Lordship and without any care for your own needs. I ask of you – no, I demand that you go and rest properly.”
“I beg your pardon?”, Stephen asked, a note of concern in his voice? “What are you implying, Forrester? How long have I been ill?”
Dr Forrester briskly strode to the baron’s sickbed, eagerness making his voice waver.
“My lord, your esteemed spouse has not left your bedside for a whole week. She has not had any concern for her own needs or condition, as long as you were in mortal danger. For you have been on the brink of death, my lord, and without Her Ladyship, you might have not have lived through it.”
Stephen’s heart pinched with pity and overwhelming love as he beheld his wife for the first time since he had awakened. She looked like a scarecrow, her hair wild and come loose from the pins. Her face was ashen and streaked with dirty smudges, and her beautiful eyes were dull with fatigue. Yet, she looked absolutely lovely, had – in fact not looked lovelier than just now.
Stretching out a hand to her, Stephen gazed at her, filling his eyes with all the love he felt for his Beth.
“Well, doctor, then I mean to make her sleep the way she deserves. I will ring for your or any services as soon as my lady wife is properly rested. Pray, close the door on your way out.”