THE morning brought change. I woke up with a painful crick in my neck from sleeping in the chair all night.
Charles was awake. I was aware of my dishevelled appearance and sleep-lined face. He smiled. The fever had broken. He was no longer delirious, nor in a stupor.
“How are you?” I said, stupidly.
“I am much better. I’m sure I have you to thank for that,” he replied softly.
“Not at all,” I said. “You must thank your own strong constitution for fighting off the infection. There was nothing to be done.”
“I was aware of cool hands tending me.”
“I had to bring the fever down with cold water and sponges.”
“So practical. But you didn’t leave me, did you? I felt comforted by your presence.”
Did he remember how he’d called out my name? And hers? He was still in love with his late wife, I thought.
Awkwardly, I got up. My limbs were stiff and my head ached. I longed for a hot bath and a cup of tea.
The door was flung open and Peggy stood there agitated.
“Begging your pardon, your Lordship, Amelia.”
“What is it?” I felt the tension rise at her panicked expression.
“It’s Miss Mary – I can’t rouse her. I think she’s…!” Peggy gulped and tears sprang to her eyes.
I ran from the room and Peggy followed me. I burst into the nursery and straight to Mary’s bedroom.
She lay there, eyes closed, pale and still. I put my hand to her head only to find it clammy and cold.
“No wonder she was out of sorts last night!” Peggy sobbed. “She was sickening for the fever. I’m so stupid, I should have realised something was wrong.”
“It’s not your fault,” I reassured her. “You’ve been a huge help, looking after her. She’s very fond of you. Now you must dry your eyes, we have work to do. Please fetch water and more blankets.”
Peggy rushed away, almost colliding with a tall figure on her way out. Charles walked unsteadily over to Mary.
“You should not be up, you’re not strong enough,” I said. “Please, your Lordship, go back to bed. Let me help you.”
But he brushed me gently aside and knelt beside his child. He stroked her hair and Mary murmured in her sleep.
“This is what I have dreaded. I lost Mary’s mama to a fever and now I may lose my only child, too!” His voice was anguished.
“Is that why you keep your distance from her?” I asked tentatively.
“The pain of losing a loved child… after losing Catherine, I couldn’t bear it. It was easier to disassociate myself from Mary. If I didn’t know her too well, then if I lost her, would it not be easier to survive?” He groaned.
“How could I have thought that? Now, if I lose her, it will be for ever in my memory that I did not make full use of the time we had.” His head fell forward on to her pillow, his hair mingling with her brighter locks.
I didn’t know what to say to ease his pain. Suddenly I understood. Under his stiff exterior lay a heart of passion. It was simply that he was afraid to show it. He had lost so much.
I felt ashamed of myself for feeling jealous of Lady Catherine. If my wishes could have come true, I’d have brought her back for him. To reunite the little family. To bring Mary her dear mother back and Charles his soulmate.
I slipped quietly out of the room. I wanted to allow Charles to be alone with Mary. For soon, I would have to nurse her the way I had her father.
Downstairs, all was in an uproar. Mrs Dane’s voice rose as she barked orders at the flustered maids.
Peggy had a bowl of sloshing water in her arms. She looked as if she didn’t know what to do. The other girls fled before Mrs Dane’s clicking footsteps.
“Peggy, what are you doing? I require you to dust and polish upstairs. Right now.”
“Oh, but Mrs Dane…”
“Don’t answer back, girl. Hop to it. Put that bowl of water down and find the dusters.”
Peggy threw me a frightened look and hurried off. The bowl of water was left on a small table. The butler glided across the polished floor, a sheaf of papers in hand. One of the footmen took a tray of bottles and pushed through the dining-room doors.
“What is going on?” I asked Mrs Dane.
“Mrs Williams and her son are arriving this afternoon. Quite unexpected. The house is in no fit state for a visit.”
She had just finished speaking when Lady Anne came towards us, looking distressed.
“How is Mary? Peggy has told me she is not well. Please tell me she hasn’t caught the fever?”
“I don’t know yet. His Lordship is with her. I will tend to her with utmost care and I’ll send Peggy with a message once I’ve checked Mary properly.”
For some reason, I was reluctant to say that the fever had struck again. I wanted to see Mary and hopefully to wake her and get her to take some sustenance.
“Lady Anne, Mrs Williams and your nephew have sent a message to say they will visit with you this afternoon,” Mrs Dane said politely.
Only her stiff posture gave away her annoyance. She was too good a housekeeper to complain about the inconvenience.
“Oh, no.” Lady Anne waved her hands in agitation. “No, that won’t do at all. They mustn’t come to Bowerly. What if Francis was to get ill? I would never forgive myself. You must send a message by return and tell them not to come. Tell them of the fever. Besides, Charles is in no fit state to receive guests. He is still weak. Make sure there are no visitors this week, Mrs Dane.”