Richard was furious. In fact, he could not recall ever having been so outraged in his whole life.
He had done his utmost to provide Manon with the best of opportunities to organize her life, and look what the foolish chit made of it!
What was his niece thinking? Setting up an infirmary, of all things! It was unthinkable! Yet here was her letter, written in a tiny, neat hand, explaining that she would be searching for suitable premises near Brighton Port and that she would need to employ staff to help her. In a totally candid manner, Manon elaborated on the reasons why she would like to establish her infirmary – namely, the wretched conditions of the poor and the total lack of medical assistance for such people. She had been trained by her father, she wrote, and felt she was highly qualified to perform her task. Miss Prudence Butterworth would be her companion and assistant.
With a huff of irritation, Richard put the letter down onto his desk blotter. He heaved a deep sigh, but that did not diminish his concern at all! Suddenly, his mind seemed to be teeming with unwanted images of Manon staggering through filthy rookeries and her being assailed by packs of ruffians. Ravaged, possibly. He jumped to his feet and forcibly pulled open the library door.
“Thornton, send someone to the stables! I want Spartacus ready in ten minutes. I am leaving for Brighton at once.”
Richard covered the sixty-two miles to Brighton in less than eight hours, pushing Spartacus into a steady trot, and occasionally into a swift canter. Spartacus was large, strong, and nearly eighteen hands high, and with enough muscle strength to keep this exhausting pace up until they reached The Wild Rose. Still they did not make it until deep into the night by which time both horse and rider were utterly exhausted.
“Sir, pray, do come in.” Pritchard said. Although roused from his bed at this ungodly hour, the butler nevertheless seemed not at all surprised to see his master.
“What the deuce is going on here, Pritchard?” Richard’s voice sounded harsher than he had meant it to be.
Pritchard cleared his throat. “Well, sir, erm … it is Miss Manon. She … well, we have all been helping her this past week, and I assure you, sir, that nothing improper has been going on, what with Miss Butterworth and Mrs Carson accompanying her, as well as the three footmen, sir.”
All this had come out of his solemn, dignified butler, and Richard was simply stunned to hear him say so much in so short a time. Although, Richard mused, Pritchard had not quite said anything that made sense.
“I have no inkling what you are trying to say, Pritchard. Please, enlighten me.”
Again, the butler swallowed and said, “Miss Favier needed our help to set up Greenhaven, sir, so we all pitched in. The footmen, and some other workers hired by Mrs Carson, have cleared the house Miss Favier rented from top to bottom, whereupon Mrs Carson and the maids directed the placing of the beds and cupboards. We then…”
Richard jerked up a hand to stop the flow. “What on earth is Greenhaven, Pritchard?”
“Why, it is the name of the infirmary Miss Favier has opened in Jermin Street, sir!”
Amidst the grimy, sagging hovels hugging the waterside, the house actually was a haven of green. Even in the grey light of dawn, Richard could see the bright green walls from afar shining like a beacon. Inside, there was a bustling activity. Upon stepping into a small entrance hall, Richard saw a table and a seat on the left, which served as a desk for the young girl who was sitting there; she was scribbling away in a thick ledger. On the right side was a long bench, and it was occupied with people. Grubby, downcast people in rags. Mothers who clutched crying children in their arms, girls barely out of childhood but pregnant, some of them bent over with pain, feverish boys with eyes too old for their years, and men coughing, moaning, even bleeding. It was chaos and utter misery.
“Next!” The loud voice of Mrs Carson, the housekeeper of his Brighton townhouse, boomed from the rear of the hall. A second later, the woman saw him and gasped. “Good heavens, sir! We … we were not expecting you!”
“Where is my niece, Mrs Carson?” Richard demanded, struggling to maintain a constant, calm voice but not succeeding. He felt his temper rise like the tide.
“Forgive me, sir,” his worthy housekeeper told him, “but I have no time to spare. This baby is decidedly sick.”
She snatched a wailing infant from its mother’s arms and gestured the woman to follow her. She then disappeared through the door she had come out. Richard hastened after her, suspecting he might find his niece when he did so.
In contrast to the dimly lit hall, this room was ablaze with light. A bright, white light that came from a multitude of candleholders and shone upon a room with whitewashed walls and a shiny flagstone floor. In the middle of it all stood an unusually large oak table, also painted in white. Mrs Carson deposited the crying baby upon it, and then guided the mother to a row of chairs against one of the walls.
Only then, as if he was waking from a kind of stupor, did Richard see Manon. She was dressed from head to toe in a starched, white apron, and on her bright auburn hair, which was pulled back in a tidy bun, she wore a white mobcap.
Immense relief washed over Richard when he saw that she was her usual, efficient self and that she smiled at him brightly as if she were overjoyed to see him. That smile went straight to his heart. He felt his anger run away like water down a hole. And it was not as if he had not been frightfully furious with her, because he certainly had been. He had wanted to thrash her for putting herself into danger like that, venturing into Brighton’s rookeries. Yet now, he found that he lacked the words as well as the inclination to scold her. He just wanted to take her into his arms and crush her to his chest.
“Good evening, Uncle,” Manon said cheerfully. “What a lovely surprise to see you here! I did not mean for you to come all the way down from Bearsham Manor but I am indeed delighted you did so. Now I can show you what we have accomplished here, I and all those hardworking people of your staff. They have done a splendid job! You ought to give them a raise, because they surely deserve it.”
He blinked, then gave himself a mental shake to chase away his wayward thoughts. It had been unwise of him to come here without preparing himself for seeing her after being away from her for a whole week. She was so beautiful, so heart-wrenching in her innocent enthusiasm. God! How he had missed her!
“However,” Manon went on, still smiling at him, “I shall not be able to show you anything tonight. We are rather swamped with work, I am afraid. So forgive me, Uncle; I must return to my tasks.”
With that, she turned towards the massive oak table, and to the crying infant that was lying on top of it.
For the rest of the night, Richard sat on one of the chairs near the wall and watched Manon perform an endless number of tasks, each one even more horrid than the last. She pierced horrible wounds, cleaned them, and bandaged them. She listened to numerous chests, probed throats and ears, and doled out spoons of syrups to infants of all ages. Gradually, he saw her neat white apron become covered with blood and other, even more repulsive fluids. He abhorred the sight of it, and he loathed to see her being soiled like this, yet he could not take his eyes from her.
He noticed how she inevitably grew tired, yet she never faltered for a second until the very last patient had been dealt with. He acknowledged how radiant and unmistakeably happy she looked, even when the most vicious of tasks was presented to her. How she comforted, and soothed, and made people feel at ease. It was like a second nature to her, Richard realised. This was what she was meant for; this was her true vocation.
Again, he was forced to acknowledge that she was the one he loved, more than anything in the world. God help him but he did love her, and always would. She was the most extraordinary woman he had ever encountered, and the kindest. How could he not love her? How could he not adore his angel?
At some point, Manon lost all track of time and even of place. She just took on every task as it came, and performed all the right gestures, found all the right words, and ploughed on from one patient to the next. That was as Papa had taught her, how one coped with human suffering. One locked off the portion of one’s brain that controlled compassion. These were not only people, but first and foremost, they were patients. Patients had a condition that must be dealt with. For every condition, there was a treatment, and Manon applied that treatment, then went on to the next patient. If only she had not been so utterly tired. And if only Richard had not been there, sitting there and glowering at her. Now she had an additional task to accomplish. She must keep her wits about her and not think of Richard.
She finished her last task and smiled at the young boy whose hand had been crushed under the heavy sack he had been hauling at the docks. There were two small bones that had snapped in that tiny little hand. Manon had put a splint on the palm so that the child would not be able to move his hand until the bones were healed. She had explained to his mother who seemed to be even younger than Manon herself, that her son could not work for several days. The woman had looked at her as if she were insane and said, “I can’t afford to keep ‘m ‘ome. Me ‘young uns ‘ll starve if he doesn’t work.”
In a haze, Manon watched her last patient leave the room.
“Just how long have you been doing this today?”
Richard’s voice broke through her sorrow, warm and so infinitely gentle that her vision blurted all of a sudden.
She turned to him and noticed that he was steadying her with a hand on her arm. How odd, she thought; why would she need steadying?
When Manon crumpled, Richard caught her and held her against his chest, his senses assaulted by her scent of roses. How had that fragrance managed to last against the stench of sickness that seemed to drench the room?
“Oh, sweetling …” he whispered against her temple, lifting her into his arms. How delightful it felt, just to hold her. “My darling …”
He abruptly became aware of every other person in the room when he realised they were staring at him. There was Miss Butterworth, as well as Mrs Carson and three of her maids. Two footmen stood frozen in the tasks they had been performing. Time stood still, it seemed.
Then Miss Butterworth cleared her throat. “Sir Richard,…”
“I am taking my niece home,” Richard felt necessary to explain. “I will send the carriages to bring you all back to The Wild Rose, after you finish here.”
He settled Manon’s head against his shoulder and left the room, and the house. Outside, he signalled to a footman, handed Manon over to him, and mounted his horse. Without any command from his master, the footman lifted Manon so that Richard could take her up and place her in front of him. With one arm clutching her firmly to him, Richard nudged Spartacus into a slow walk.