Chapter Six (continued)
Feeling gingerly at the bandage on his brow, Alex groaned. “Could you not have made it just a tiny bit smaller, Porter? I am sure to scare Mrs Hall and Miss Drake, when next they set eyes on me.”
“It’s a big gash, major. I ‘ad to do three stitches. Ye know ye’re lucky not t’ ‘ave broken yer skull again, don’t ye? Ye really must be plenty more careful in the future. An’ wha’ about ridin’ a horse? I don’ like it, an’ well ye know it!”
“Let it be, man. I had to stop cowering indoors at some point. You or Miss Drake can accompany me when I have to go on estate matters.”
“Ah, and why did I ‘ave the feeling I jolly well know who’s gonna accompany ye? It won’t be me, aint it? Ye’ve taken a fancy to the chit, is wha’ I’m reckoning.”
Trust Porter to try and lure him out, Alex thought, inwardly chuckling at the too obvious attempt.
“Might I remind you of your position as my subordinate, Sergeant Porter? As the lowest in rank, you owe me respect, remember? Mind your bloody mouth in the future, if you please.”
Porter did not respond but turned away from his master and began tidying up the room, grumbling under his breath. Alex stood and … found himself at a loss as to where exactly he was in the room. Damnation! The whole wretched business of him banging his head had brought on a complete loss of orientation.
He took a deep breath and focussed on where he had been when Rowena was tending to him. In no way would he ask Porter to point him in the right direction, blast it all.
He had been sitting in an armchair, and if no one had moved that chair since the last time he was in the room, he would have been with his back to the large windows. Alex turned … and saw the deep red ball of the setting sun. It shone right into his eyes, although its contours were blurred. Right, so now he knew where the door was. He walked toward it and swung to the left when he reached the corridor. Soon he stretched out his right hand and found the banister on the landing. After that, it was easy to descend the stairs and find his room on the first floor.
He sank onto the deep armchair next to the fireplace and stared into the flames. That was when he realized that his vision had become noticeably clearer …
Armed with her small oil lamp and taper, Rowena did the rounds to lighten candles. It was part of her tasks as a housekeeper. Dusk settled in early, now that Christmas was fast approaching.
She began downstairs and lit the large candelabras in the drawing room. The library was next, but John Wallis was working there, and he had already lit several candles on the earl’s vast desk. Rowena told him that dinner would be served at seven.
“Thank you, my girl, but Mrs Hall said she would bring up a tray for Meg and me in our rooms.”
“Pish and nonsense, John. I am sure His Lordship will welcome the company. He is a lonely man, John. Nobody except his solicitor seems to come here, ever. I shall ask him whether he has any objections.”
“Well … Rowie, to be honest, I do not feel at ease with those arrangements. We are far below His Lordship’s station. We are part of his staff. You on the other hand …”
“No, John. My station is also below His Lordship’s. At one point, we might have been on appropriately equal terms, but now, I am also part of the staff. But John, in the few days, I have been here, I have come to know enough of the earl to be certain that he will not make objections.”
With that remark, she left the library and climbed the stairs. It was true; Lord Raventhorpe would not be overly insisting on society rules.
The first floor bedchambers were in excellent condition, thanks to Rowena’s hard work over the few days she had been at Ketteridge. They housed the earl, Porter, Rowena herself and now, the Wallisses. Only four of the six rooms were presently occupied, but the rest was also at the ready, in case an unexpected guest arrived. Rowena tapped on the double doors leading to the earl’s suite.
Alex had meant to have a quick wash and then dress for dinner. He had a mind of asking the Wallisses and Rowena to share the evening meal, since formalities were unnecessary in the absence of other guests. He had shed all his clothes and washed himself in his dressing room, finding it not as difficult as it had been to do it properly without Porter’s usual help. It still astonished him, but he could almost imagine that his vision was indeed clearing. Now he donned his dressing gown and touched the wall to find the door to his room.
He had not bothered to light candles, since they were of little help to him. Unless the large ceiling chandelier and the four ones in the room were lit, candlelight was usually too weak to provide him with enough light. In daylight, on a sunny day, he could also vaguely discern objects, so in this time of the year, with the gloomy days of winter, even daylight was inadequate. Therefore, it was rather normal that Alex felt disorientated when he entered his bedroom. And, to be honest, a bit queasy. His head still hurt like hell.
A faint gasp reached his oversensitive ears, and as he turned towards it, he promptly lost his balance, to land on hands and knees on the vast carpet.
“Alex! Oh, heavens!”
Again Rowena’s hands were there to support him, Alex registered. She had used his given name, filling him with an unexpected but most welcome joy. Yet he had a distinct notion that she had done it in an impulse which she might regret in an instant, when she would come to realise it.
Christ, his head was killing him! Alex retched in sudden nausea, sweat breaking out all over his body.
“My lord … my lord …” That was the last thing he heard, before the blackness engulfed him.
Rowena was frantic! What was she to do? Alex was thoroughly ill, that much was clear!
“Step away, Miss Drake. I can handle him.” Porter’s deep voice rumbled above her, and Rowena heaved a sigh of sheer relieve.
“He collapsed, Mr Porter! I think he has a concussion. Oh, God! What are we to do?”
Porter did not reply but lifted Alex’ torso from the floor, then shoved his big hands under his master’s arms and began dragging him toward the large four-poster, that occupied a part of the wall.
Rowena suddenly came to her senses again. She hurried to go and help Porter as he hauled Alex’ large body onto the bed. Together they managed to install him under the covers. “Go for a doctor, Mr Porter, and ask Mrs Wallis to come and help me.” She spoke with as much authority she could muster, and to her surprise, Porter nodded.
“You stay ‘ere, Miss Drake, while I go fer Dr Orme. I think that last bang on ‘is ‘ead was too much.”
Alone with Alex, Rowena sighed and swallowed back her fear. She filled a bowl with fresh water and began bathing Alex’ wide brow, carefully avoiding the bandage on it. That had been what had her in turmoil, earlier on, when she had stepped into the room. The enormous size of that bandage suggested an equally large wound, but when Rowena cautiously lifted it, she saw to her relief that it covered but a gash of barely an inch. Porter had applied three tiny stitches with a finesse one rarely witnessed, even with regular surgeons.
Gazing at Alex’ pale face, Rowena worried about the new lines bracketing his long nose and white-lipped mouth. Touching his sunken cheek with the back of her hand, she found it warm and damp. He might be developing a fever, she knew, and that was an ill omen.
Meg entered together with two maids carrying hot water and bandages. Porter was high on their heels to send all the women out of the room. Rowena refused, declaring that it was her task as His Lordship’s housekeeper to see to his requirements. Porter stared at her for a second, then nodded.
Rowena remained by the bed, ready to help the valet if needed, and listened to Porter, tending to his master, all the while grumbling under his breath. She had to strain her ears to understand what he said.
“Yeah, and ain’t that jus’ wha’ ‘e needed, eh? Another fever burnin’ ‘im up, jus’ like the las’ time! ‘E were almos’ gone, back in August. Jus’ barely managed te keep ‘im alive. Drat, major, wha’ ‘ave ye done te yesself now?”
“Mr Porter, let us not lose faith. His Lordship is a strong man, and you nursed him from a bad spell earlier, did you not?”
“I ‘ad a ‘ell of a time, miss. Fever nearly killed ‘im, ye know. I ‘ave to bathe ‘im, that’s the only thing I can do.”
“I nursed my father during his last illness, Mr Porter, so if you would be so kind to lift him, I can bathe his chest.”
Rowena and Porter worked together on sponging Alex’ face and torso, then drying him with a fresh towel. All through the ministrations, Alex stayed unconscious, which worried Rowena exceedingly. From her conversations with Mrs Hall, she had gathered that he had indeed been on the brink of death, just a few months ago. Apparently, he was not back to his usual strength. The arrival of Dr Orme and Meg interrupted her and Porter’s work.