Tragedy rarely comes alone and two children, born to a wealthy Lord and a fine grand house, were about to discover this.
Through the eyes of the youngest, a girl no older than ten, the house looked darker that day. The weather was ashen, the shadows had grown and no one smiled. The black dress she had been handed to wear itched at her neck and fell too long, dragging noisily across the floor as she walked.
She was hurried quickly past her little brother’s bedroom. Nana Chadwick refused to allow her to go in, no matter how much the girl insisted. She was reminded of when she had been locked in her own room for teasing her brothers, but something was different. Her little brother wasn’t crying. He didn’t knock on the door until the ridges of his knuckles grazed red with blood, in the way she had done. Beyond the door came no sound, his eyes and lips stayed closed.
The girl turned to see Nana Chadwick’s firm stare as she ushered her along the corridor and down the stairs.
“Do not dawdle. We must still go to church.” Despite the harsh words, the stout woman pressed an embroidered handkerchief to Rosanna’s cheeks and dried some tears the girl had not noticed.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, her elder brother passed her a prayer book. They each had their own copy given to them by their mother. Yet the boy did not look at his sister as the book passed hands, his gaze was fixed on his father. His blonde head did not turn away from Lord Babyngton’s face as he paced up and down the vaulted entrance hall ˗ his laced dandies striking the black and white tiled floor with empty echoes.
“Where is she?” Lord Babyngton barked suddenly, his thumb brushing the spindles of hair from his moustache.
“We do not know, sir. She is not in her room,” Nana Chadwick firmly wrapped a set of rosary beads round her fingers, the cross clenched tight in her palm. Rosanna frowned as she watched her try to hide the beads between the folds of her gaping sleeve.
“Have you checked all the rooms?”
“The servants have, sir.”
The manor had been in an eerie silence of confusion and sadness since the events of the night before. To have misplaced the Lady of the house only offered more alarm, yet the Lord did not have the same apprehensions.
The death of a child has a habit of causing anger rather than fear. The young boy had been ill, but depending on which parent confided the details, the severity of the sickness was somewhat opposing.
To the father, it was only a trifling cough, but a tickle of the throat. Yet all children suffer an innumerous number of irritating colds and this one was no different. His youngest son had just been coughing a little worse for the last week. It was an annoyance that was disturbing the Lord’s want of a good night’s sleep.
To his mother, Lady Camille, each cough was a declaration of tuberculosis and each groan a proof of influenza. A woman who was never far away from stress, she demanded the physician’s presence when Rosanna had a splinter or her eldest, Ellis, wasn’t hungry. So her husband barely adjusted in his seat when she made repeated requests for the youngest.
Each wheezing breath from the boy tore as much pain from her own chest. She acted as his nurse, feeding him, washing him and holding him when he cried.
As she moved to begging her husband, it bore little difference. Lord Babyngton was far too accustomed to her overreactions and his mind was occupied with a woman other than his wife.
They had argued after supper the night before, whilst the snow fell heavily beyond the windows as though attempting to shield their anger from listeners. Yet his stubbornness was no motive to make Camille give up. Her demanding voice had carried through the walls of the manor, causing Nana Chadwick to hide Rosanna and Ellis in one of the guest rooms on the far side of the house, where they passed the time asking her about the beads she carried and why she took pains to hide them.
Lord Babyngton could not compete with his wife’s high pitch, but the shattering of his port glass on the wall by her head silenced her. She had stared as the plum liquid streaked the plaster in a fork of lightning.
“Then I will go.”
He had been too exasperated, too fixated on another woman to consider how ridiculous Camille’s determination was. It had been snowing for two days and that night the trenches of ice reached as high as the handle on the front door. Lord Babyngton did not point out how dangerous an idea it was. He did not offer to go. Instead, he searched his library for another port glass and turned his back as Camille marched out of the room. He thought he may have caught a glimpse of her on horseback twenty minutes later from his bedroom window, slowly moving through the darkness, but he wasn’t sure.
Only as the mantelpiece clock chimed three in the morning and Nana Chadwick had knocked at his door, begging his presence, did the sight of the boy bring reality to cutt through his exasperation.
Gaunt, grey, soft skin and breathing as though there were stones behind his ribs, the boy had changed.
The Lord sat an hour by his side, until he stopped coughing.
Then he spent the rest of the night alone, in a winged armchair pushed far into the corner of the room, watching the boy who would never breathe again.
Now as the Lord paced over his same steps, haphazardly stroking his long grey wig, his exasperation had returned. They were going to be late for church.
Rosanna gripped tightly to her prayer book, looking between the warm leather and her father, unsure what thoughts to think.
The knock at the door made them all start, the sound loud against the silence, but the surprise was outshone by their wonder when the Physician walked in.
“My lord,” the tall doctor bowed curtly.
“You’re too late,” the Lord said harshly turning away from the intruder.
“Late? For what, sir?”
“Who is dead?”
Rosanna watched the shock on her father’s face as he turned back to the Physician.
“You do not know? Didn’t my wife come to you last night?”
“If that was her destination, then I am afraid she never reached it.” He scrunched his hands up in the flat hat he took from his head, wringing it together between his palms. “I do not know who you know to be dead, my Lord, but I have the unhappy task of informing you of another. Lady Camille was discovered in Lymington High Street this morning. From her injuries, I believe in the snow the horse fell and landed on her. The horse has turned up on a nearby farm. The saddle was twisted.”
Lord Babyngton’s mouth opened and closed, waiting for words to reach his tongue, but they never came. It was his daughter who found them.
“She’s dead?” The simple and light intonation drew all attention. The Physician turned to look at the little girl, having not noticed the children’s presence before.
“I am sorry to say she is.”
Rosanna sat down on the steps suddenly, her feet falling loose beneath her like a doll propped on its seat. In one night she had lost two of the people she loved to someone with no mercy, be him the Devil, Death or something else. Then her eyes dropped down to the prayer book in her hand. The top-right corner of the pages curled with damp and it all felt so heavy between her fingers. This book was everything Camille had taught her children about the Church of England. Yet despite the rhetoric on God’s love, she was gone.
The prayer book slipped out of Rosanna’s hands onto the floor. The slap of the brown leather on stone broke the stillness.
Lord Babyngton was shouting at the Physician, but about what no one knew.
Ellis retreated to his sister’s side and the two children sat together on the steps, holding hands tightly.