Chapter Twenty-Four (completed)
The two men doused themselves with a bucket of water, then tied a wet towel over their noses and mouths. Alex leapt up the steps, Porter following hot on his heels.
The hall was large enough not to be completely filled with smoke but from the library door a thick, dark- grey smoke literally spouted into the hall. Alex ran into the room and ducked low to avoid the intense heat that struck him. He looked around and what he saw was not exactly reassuring.
Some of the furniture was fiercely ablaze, as were the rugs and chairs. It was questionable for the room to be saved but that was not was foremost in Alex’ mind. Where was Rowena? He could not see a blasted thing through this thick fog-like smoke. He began groping about him on hands and knees and after what seemed an eternity, he finally found her.
She was unconscious, and Alex knew he was running out of time, so he rose and scooped her up. He turned to the door, relief washing over him as he saw Porter at the head of the bucket line. “Here, take her out, I am going for Daveston.”
Bless his batman, Alex thought, because Porter took over Rowena and got out. Only then could Alex sink to his knees again to search for Daveston.
After several minutes of groping around, Alex finally got hold of a large figure, unconscious and covered with the remnants of a woollen shawl he knew all too well. Rowena must have thrown it over her brother, which meant he must have been on fire. Alex tried to draw him in the direction of the door but got nowhere. A large object, probably the desk, lay on Daveston’s legs, and its top was also on fire. Damn, how was he supposed to remove that without getting burned himself?
The bucket line was now in full operation, to Alex’ immense relief. He grabbed a bucket from the nearest footman and tossed the water over the burning desk, then another, and yet another, until the flames were finally doused. The next bucket was for himself, because he felt nearly cooked inside his clothes. He knew he had to try and lift the heavy oak desk from Daveston’s legs but the large piece would not move higher than a few inches.
“Come on, major. Let’s give ye a ‘and!”
Porter, praise God and all his saints! Together they managed well enough to make the desk shift. It fell away in a bright shower of sparks which made the two men leap backward to avoid being set ablaze. Alex and Porter carried Daveston out and deposited him on the lawn, not far from where they had put Rowena.
Had his heart ever beaten this hard? Deuce take it but he could hardly breathe!
Ever so careful he took his dearest wife onto his lap, and he nearly choked with raw panic when her head fell back against his shoulder. Sweetheart, Rowena dearest, Rowie … please open your eyes? Oh my heart, my love … do not leave me, I beg of you …
Empty words were dashing aimlessly in his head, words he had never ever said in his entire life, so why was he now thinking them, damn it all to hell!
In burning despair, Alex gently patted her cheek, then kissed her parched lips. Parched? Oh, God, what did that signify? Was she dead? He shook her, at a complete loss of what to do to rouse her. Rowie, my love, come back to me, please … Rowie, I love you …
“Major, get a grip!” Porter, as ever in control, gently eased Rowena away and laid her down on the grass. A woman, which Alex now identified as Mrs Philby, began bathing Rowena’s face with a clean, wet cloth.
“She’s only unconscious, sir, and she might have inhaled some of the smoke. Look, she’s coming round already.”
Barely able to believe the woman, Alex took Rowena into his embrace. She blinked, then coughed and gasped. Mrs Philby trust a goblet into Alex’ hand. “Here, sir, she needs water.”
Carefully Alex put the goblet to Rowena’s mouth. “Drink Rowena.” Yes, please, my dearest, drink …
With infinite care, he tilted the goblet until a few drops trickled in her mouth. His heart pounded with anticipation when she swallowed and then drank under her own steam.
“Alex …” Her voice was raw and almost inaudible, but she opened her eyes.
Yes, my love, I am here. Oh, Rowie, my dearest, I was so terrified. I thought I lost you. Do not ever again do this to me! He was fiercely fighting now just to be able to say the words aloud but his voice might as well have died in his very throat.
Rowena could not make sense of what was happening nor had she any notion of where she was. She knew Alex was holding her, but why? Her head was swimming and her right shoulder hurt like fire.
“What has happened, Alex? Why is your face blackened?” She coughed, moaning from the pain this caused.
“Rowena Drake, you scared the hell out of me. What were you thinking going into your scoundrel of a half-brother’s den? I swear I will trash you if you ever do that to me again, do you hear?”
Her reaction was not what he had anticipated. She struggled to sit up and eyes wide, looked around in what looked like real panic. “Alex, where is Roderick? Oh, he must be burnt severely! I was there, I saw that his back was in flames and tried to douse them. But then I fainted and … oh, no! Is he dead? Is he still inside? Oh, where is Roderick?”
What the devil, blast it! He had only just now risked his own life trying to save her and all she could do was blabber about her scoundrel of a brother? A half-brother to be precise, who did not give a wit if she lived or died?
“Do not go on so, madam,” he hissed. “Daveston is out here. Porter and I got him out. He is already being cared for by his servants. Now if you will excuse me, I must see to the house before it burns to the ground.
Stunned, and a bit hurt by his rudeness, Rowena watched him stalk away. She could not at all comprehend why he was so infuriated with her only for caring if her brother lived or not.
Roderick! She got up slowly because every move speared pain through her shoulder. But then, every thought was blown away when she saw her brother stretched out on the grass, on his stomach and covered by blankets. The servants, mainly Philby and his wife, were looking down at him, clearly at a loss as to what to do.
Mrs Philby spotted her and cried out. “My lady, you shouldn’t get up. You’re injured.”
“How is he? Why are you not tending to him? He is severely burnt but surely he is not dead?”
Philby cleared his throat, while his wife bowed her head. “My lady, he is still alive, but we cannot tend to him, we do not know how to.” He carefully lifted the blanket from the body on the lawn, and Rowena blanched in horror.
Roderick’s back was a black mass of charred flesh, from which rose a vile, stomach-turning stench. Rowena turned away as her stomach did just that; she bend down, heaved and cast up her accounts.