Monday, 18 July 2016

Chapter Nine

The Dead London Chronicles: Vol I, June 2016 is now available FREE at SmashwordsApple and Kobo!

On with the tale...

The journey back to the village was one of which Alice knew nothing and one that was, happily, conducted without attack or even the suggestion of incident, no wolf howl to rend the night. Insensible, she felt not a second of the passage of the carriage over the snow-covered ground, nor heard Daniel Miller's shouts of encouragement to the horses in harness. She did not feel Mary's tender hand bathing her fevered brow, nor knew the sudden silence when they drew into the courtyard of a country inn where the doctor was preparing to return back to his bed, his consultation with the elderly and vulnerable of the village now at a close. In fact, it was not until she was safely gathered into the arms of that same doctor, who was carrying her into the inn, that she began to stir. Her mind was foggy, everything unclear, and she struggled to remember something, anything, forcing her eyelids open, wetting her lips in an attempt to speak.

"You've a fever," a soft Scottish voice told her, and she felt the edges of a blanket around her face, realising vaguely that she was cocooned in warmth, in an embrace.

It couldn't possibly be him, she knew, he had left her, abandoned her as he had done before, leaving her to her sorry fate. Yet the fever allowed her to pretend, a soft smile on her lips as she whispered, "I was looking for my boy...."

"Alice?" Her boy's voice was suddenly clear as day, full of surprise at the sight of her and she felt a gentle hand drawing the blanket back from her face, followed by the warmth and glow of what must be a roaring fire. The embrace around Alice lessened then and she felt a soft mattress beneath her, heard that gentle voice again asking, "Ed, what--"

"We got snowed in on the road," another man joined the conversation, "And by the time we got to the party, this lady was in dire straits; her lassie said she needed a doctor and I knew there was one in the village. Didn't know it was you though."

"The snow was unexpected," Faulkner was saying, his hands moving softly on the blanket again to ensure Alice was warm as she could be. "I thought there might be people who needed help... I walked from the house to see if I was needed."

"I thought--" she couldn't find the words, darkness threatening again, everything too hot, the insides of her eyelids burning.

"I would not go; I was coming back to see you," Faulkner's voice was soothing, kindly. A palm pressed to her forehead and then he spoke again, tone considerably more urgent and seemingly not  addressed to her, "What can you tell me of your mistress's illness?"

"It came on very suddenly," she heard Mary's voice as if from a distance, "her back--"

No she tried to warn, no, don't tell him, don't--

"Tell him," Alice heard Dan ask Mary gently as Faulkner gave a murmured hush, his hand closing around her own and squeezing softly, "He's the best doctor you'll find."

She heard her maid haltingly betray her, telling Faulkner that her mistress had fallen, a cut on her back sore and angry, her concern that it had turned bad. Alice closed her eyes, concentrating on breathing, wishing that she could not, that she could resign her life here in utter despair and shame.

"Would you be able to help Lady Brandenburg undress?" The doctor squeezed Alice's hand again, "Just enough that I might see the wound; Mr Miller and I shall wait outside, of course."

As Mary murmured her assent, Alice found herself holding tightly to the hand that grasped hers, too many words, too many feelings, too hot to be able to even start to say what she wanted.

"I'll be in the bar," Dan told them, the sound of the door opening and closing a moment later yet still the doctor's hand held Alice's tightly in turn, fingers twined with hers as they used to all those years ago.

"Are you really here?" She asked, deciding quickly, "No, don't tell me, if you're not I don't want to know..."

"I am here," the reply was gentle, almost a whisper, "I shall only be gone a few seconds whilst your maid helps you to undress."

"No," she shook her head, the movement sending the world spinning as she clutched him tighter. If he left he would not return, would vanish once and for all.

"I will stay," she heard something in his tone, almost a tremble somehow and then he asked Mary,  “Might you assist with your mistress's clothing?"

"No," she heard her own voice again, "No,  just us, just you and I--" She suddenly did not care what anyone thought, even Mary,  the need to have back even a moment of what had been lost, overwhelming above all else.

"Would you--" he sounded almost timid, not at all the man who had seemed so in control. "Your mistress is in safe hands, would you entrust her to me?"

"Of course." Mary's tone was far from sure, but when bidden by both she had little choice, Alice feeling a flicker of guilt at putting her maid in such a position before her attention returned once more to Faulkner, to the fact that he was there, expression so soft she could almost believe that he cared for her as she had thought he had of old. Yet this was, she knew, the face he presented to all of those noble patients whose ill she tended, professional concerns as learned as the medicine he practised. It was just the firelight that had softened it so, the blue of this eyes that she stiller recalled of old.

"What has happened to you?"

Did he mean her injury, or the entire sorry story of her life? She laughed, the sound becoming close to a sob, finally managing, "I fell-"

"Will you allow me to look?" The doctor's hands were assured as he helped her to sit a little, bringing the blanket down around her shoulders. "Where on your back is the injury?"

She gestured, caught again by his voice, his hands, his softness, telling him, "Mary is just fussing..."

"And now I will fuss too," those hands moved to unlace her dress with utmost care, the warm arm from the fire touching her bare skin as he parted the sides of Alice's gown and eased it down her shoulders somewhat. With a gentle touch he swept her hair, which had fallen loose somewhere, somehow, over one shoulder, the other hand shifting the edge of her chemise so he could better examine the wound.

"It's nothing," she murmured again, everything about his touch kinder than any she had known in years, "I have grown clumsy..."

"What on earth..." Alice felt his fingertip skim the wound, cool and soft​ and more gentle than any touch she had known in years, even that of her faithful maid.​ "Where did you fall?"

"In my room...." She tried to focus on the question, "Against the fire place..."

"I just need my bag," Alice closed her eyes, feeling his absence as soon as he drew away  enough to retrieve his case from where it say closed beside the bed. "Your maid has done a fine job, but let's see if we can't ease it a little more."

"It's hot," she murmured, finally giving voice to the thought, "Too hot in here."

"Any other pains?"

Had she? There was the pain her heart suffered daily, the deadness in her soul that was a constant gnawing weight, but he would not want to hear that she was certain. "I hit my head..."

"I wanted to see you, to apologise--"

"Apologise?" The words didn't make sense. 

"I was far from polite this morning," he opened the case, but she saw a faint flush on his cheek.

"No more," She coughed, the strange heat in her veins colouring everything again for a moment, "Than I deserve."

"You say you are hot..." He knelt beside the bed on one knee, studying her face. "Have there been chills too?"

She found she didn't know, the only thing she was certain of now the concern in those eyes that held her own, that he was here with her, whatever had happened in the past. "I can't think..."

"There may be some infection, a fever," his words were more formal than his tone, the look in his gaze betraying something... friendship? "I'll clean and dress the wound then check your head." His hand strayed out, brushing her hair, "You'll soon be well again."

She would never be well, she knew, not in this life that she found herself in. "Is that why I can see you? Are you part of the fever?"

"I am quite solid," Faulkner gave a self deprecating smile and took her hand in one of his own whilst the other patted his stomach, coming to rest against the understated finery of his black waistcoat. "Rather too solid nowadays!"

"Am I going to die?" she asked then, uncertain in that moment whether an answer in the affirmative would being her more sorrow or relief. 

"I have never lost a patient," he smiled. "Nor a friend."

She had been a friend, she wanted to point out, a friend that he had cast aside, abandoned. Through the fever she felt anger rise again, hopelessness following quickly on its heels, her hand tightening on his. 

"It will be all right," was the doctor's gentle promise before he gently retrieved his hand and set about his business. His hands were assured and confident yet tender too as he mixed salves and potions, applying something with a strong floral scent to the wound, the mixture cooling her burning skin almost immediately. With utmost care he massaged the potion into the injury, all the time telling her that this would take away the infection, that the fever would pass. 

"Don't make me go back...." She heard herself whisper, "Don't make me..."

"Don't upset yourself any further," he hushed, "Just concentrate on being well."

She felt herself floating then, eyes closed, even as she tried to tell him something, something that was, she knew, of utmost importance.

"There are some bruises..." he murmured, concern in the words. "Do you fall often?"

Clumsy..." She managed, "Own fault..." 

"I can prepare you a balm to ease it," she felt his hands trace the bruises her husband had left, the touch gossamer light, "The wound is dressed, so just turn onto your back and I shall prepare something for the fever..."

She did so with effort, wincing at the movement of her aching body. Forcing her gaze to focus on him she found the words she had been struggling for. "I've missed you..."

"I don't think a day has passed that I have not thought about you," he paused, one hand in the medical case, his gaze settling on her with a look of ruefulness. "And missed you."

His words were, she was sure, a kindness more than truth, though the thought that he might have missed her, thought of her even a little, brought with it a flicker of something that might have been happiness. The soothing salve was working its magic, the relief, however slight, more than welcome as she felt herself slowly start to relax, eyes fluttering for a moment before she forced them open once more, certain he would vanish if she did not keep watching. 

"Does that feel any easier?" Faulkner asked, watching her closely. "The wound had some dirt in it, but it's clean now." 

"You have worked magic..." Alice focused again on his eyes, "I cannot stay too long...." 

"We shall travel back to the house together," was his gentle reply, "And I will keep an eye on that fever of yours, if you will permit it." 

"I would never," she assured him, a small laugh at how ludicrous the suggestion was, "Send you away." 

His gaze flitted away from hers for a moment, no longer than that, and he nodded, telling her, "You would have been very ill, had you not come tonight." 

"Then perhaps fate has been kind for once...." 

"It has smiled." She tried to keep her eyes open then but the effort proved beyond her, closing despite her best efforts. 

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