The next few days passed as usual for the household. Violet tried to concentrate on her duties by day. She did give in to some daydreaming, but on the whole there were no mishaps. Agnes was insufferable but that was no change. She’d got her uniform now. It was a smart grey striped dress with a white starched apron over the top. The cuffs we turned back and there was a hint of lace round the collar. It was rather drab but next to the scullery maids it was the height of luxury.
Violet hated her scratchy woollen black dress and rough linen apron. She remembered the dresses of her childhood made by her mother, a talented seamstress. Bright ginghams and floral cottons sometimes edged with wavy trimmings. They were light and made her feel free and alive when she ran around outdoors. As a maid now, she could not expect to wear anything like that again. Even her Sunday frock was plain and understated, in neutral muddy colours, as befitted her station.
Sometimes, sat at the back of church, she looked with envy at the dresses of the well-to-do girls in their Family Pews. The colours were jewel-like in their brightness and the way they reflected the candlelight, shimmering and gleaming in the darkness. Fur muffs and shiny black boots kept them warm when the weather was cold, while Violet and her sisters shivered in thin shawls.
Over the next week Agnes was crowing about how she would be looking after the wardrobes of the three Dearing daughters, how she would be sewing beads that had come lose or sequins that needed replacing. She was in her element and Lottie was visibly jealous.
“Don’t encourage her!” warned Violet as Lottie asked her once again to describe the newest additions to their range of ball gowns. But there was no stopping them and Violet tried to switch off as they folded sheets together down in the linen press.
She was thinking that she hadn’t seen David for a few days. She’d even risked sneaking off to the Orangery the night before just on the off chance that she might bump into him accidentally. There had been no sign. She guessed that he was keeping away from her to placate his father. She also noticed however, that nothing had been done to prick out the new seedlings that had been delivered the week before. She tenderly separated each delicate green shoot, crowded together in the same box and transferred each into its own pot in a mixture of earth and composted material. She had done it many times before under her father’s tutelage.
She ensured each was well watered and left them, determined to check on them each day.
“Violet!” Agnes interrupted her thoughts “Take care – you are getting that sheet dirty on the floor!”
She pulled it up higher, folded it and put it on top of the pile. When they’d finished she went down to the kitchen for her evening meal. There was talk from above stairs as Katie one of the above stairs girls gossiped about how the family were very quiet at dinner.
“Was everyone there?” asked Violet
“Yes” she replied “Oh – except for Master David. I don’t know where he was, probably out in the gardens, having forgotten the time. It’s not the first time he’s missed dinner.” She grumbled “I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t ring down later to have some dinner taken up to his room!”
Violet was quiet as she ate her stew, mopping up the thin gravy with a chunk of bread. She seemed to have lost her appetite.
She went to bed early as her back was aching from the laundry duties, but she couldn’t settle off to sleep. There was a cold draft coming in from the attic window which was broken and wouldn’t close properly.
Later as she was settling off, floating somewhere between awake and asleep she heard a sudden noise outside. She woke Lottie as there were frantic voices and the sound of a horse’s hooves on the gravel at the front of the house.
“What is it?” Lottie asked wide-eyed with fear.
Violet pulled a stool over to the window, stood precariously on tiptoes and tried to peer out below. There was a cloaked figure with a big leather bag in his grasp dismounting from a panting horse. She could see its breath steaming in the cold air, it had obviously been ridden hard.
“Looks like Doctor Lee from the village” said Violet “I wonder who’s ill?”
A fear clutched at Violet’s stomach and she looked at Lottie.
“How can we find out?”
“Lordy, I don’t know” said Lottie “Shall I go and ask Katie? She might know, if she’s awake.
She slipped out of the attic door and went up a few stairs to the garret where three of the girls slept.
After what seemed like an age she came back.
“There was no one there”
“That’s not right, something’s going on”
“We’ll just have to sit tight and wait until the morning. I’m sure we’ll be told then.”
Violet couldn’t sleep at all now. She shivered under her blanket and tried not to let her imagination run away with her. All she could think was that there was something wrong with David.
Morning arrived eventually, and Violet was up first and downstairs in the kitchen early. Mrs Salt was there already and was boiling water on the fire.
“What happened last night?” asked Violet “I heard noises”
She expected Mrs Salt to tell her to get on with her work and mind her own business, but to her surprise she turned to her, looking worried
“They had to call out the doctor, its Master David, looks like a return of his malarial fever.”
Violet sat down heavily on the kitchen bench
“Is it dangerous?”
“Last time they did not think that he would get through it”
“And this time?” she hardly dared listen to the answer
“Well, if they can’t get his fever down…” she shook her head “He’s been delirious all night”
“How did they cure it last time?”
“The doctor has done all he can. He is coming back later this afternoon to see how he is. Now Violet I want you to prepare Lady Dearing’s breakfast on a tray and I’ll get it taken up to her room.”
Violet set to work, her mind reeling with the morning’s news. He wondered what she could do to help. There must be something.
“Garlic, that’s what ’e needs” Old Bert, who worked in the stables was sitting in the corner of the kitchen drinking tea.
“Does he need to eat it?” She asked, desperate for any glimmer of hope
“Nah” he replied cackling to himself “you ground it up to a paste and put it on the soles of his feel. Wrap ’em up in rags and leave them for a day and a night”
“I’ve heard that before “Mrs Salt agreed “Or put an onion in his pillowcase”
Violet was thinking of a book that her father had in his possession. An encyclopaedia of medicinal herbs and plants. She was sure she could find something in there that would be effective. She was trying to calculate how to get half an hour free during the day to go and have a look for it back at the cottage.
“Last time it happened after his first trip to that tropical place” Mrs Salt waved her hand at the vague distance “I’m not surprised, the air there must be full of noxious substances. All that change of air don’t do no-one no good.”
“Do you want me to take this up?” asked Violet
“Goodness, no! Look at the state of you!” Mrs Salt looked around in exasperation. “Where’s that Katie or Polly? Never around when you need them.”
She shouted up the back stairs, but no one answered.
“Well all right,” she relented “But here change your apron – and brush your hair before you go up there.”
Violet tidied herself up quickly and then carefully put the china tea pot and toast onto a tray and headed up the stairs to the great hall.
She crept up the grand staircase and almost enjoyed the softness of the carpet beneath her feet. She put the tray down on the chair on the landing, and gingerly knocked on the door of Lady Dearing’s bedroom.
There was no answer, so she tried again, a little louder this time, then pushed the door open and lifted the tray and entered the room.
It was dim as the drapes had not been opened. She saw her ladyship was sitting up in her bed.
“I…I… have brought breakfast, your ladyship”
“Just put it down there, I am not sure I will be able to manage anything.”
Violet hesitated, she could still hear Mrs Salt telling her not to speak under any circumstances.
“Don’t worry, she murmured, as if to console herself too “I’m sure he will recover.” She curtseyed and backed out of the room.
Lady Dearing looked at her sadly, grateful for any hope. She closed her eyes and leaned back on her pillows.
She headed back down the landing towards the staircase, when she heard voices. It was Lord Dearing. She hid behind an armoire as he came out of the room at the far end of the landing. He walked slowly down the stairs and Violet looked at the door he had just exited.
That must be David’s.
She didn’t think, she couldn’t help herself, she just walked towards it, turned the brass handle and slipped inside.
There he lay, face flushed against the white pillowslip, his dark hair damp with sweat stuck to his forehead in curls, framing his face.
He seemed to be sleeping although he did shift fitfully under his covers as Violet gazed down at him. She whispered his name, but he did not respond. She looked around her and saw the water jug nearby. Taking a cloth she dipped it into the cool water and gently wiped his face. With trembling fingers she carefully moved the hair from over his eyes and dabbed his forehead. She dipped her fingers into the water and placed them on his lips. They were hot and dry and she repeated this movement a few times until he flicked out his tongue to taste the wetness.
His eyes flickered and opened, she stepped back. He looked at her, brows furrowed and then turned his head and slept once more.
Violet stood with tears in her eyes. Suddenly there was the sound of movement outside and the door opened and Tom came in with fresh water and a steaming cup.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Oh, I just came to take the water jug away” she improvised
“Right” Tom seemed satisfied “Has he woken?”
“He opened his eyes, but only for a second”
“Has he woken while you’ve been here?”
“No, just talking in his sleep, he’s been delirious. I’m sure he was babbling about pirates.”
Violet tried to hide a smile
“Well, if you need a rest, you can call on me – I could sit with him?” she suggested hopefully.
“I’m not really supposed to” he looked doubtful
“I won’t tell anyone” Violet gave him her best conspiratorial look “You need a rest now and again, especially if you have to sit with him through the night”
“Weeell,” he hesitated “Would you come and get me right away if anything changes?”
“Maybe later, then” he conceded.
“How about eleven o’clock? I will have finished all my duties. I could do a couple of hours so you can get a bit of sleep before your vigil.”
“All right” Tom agreed at last.
“I’d better get back to the kitchen” Violet skipped down the stairs.
“Where on God’s earth have you been? demanded Mrs Salt as she re-entered the kitchen.
“Sorry, had to wait for her ladyship’s tray”
“Well, did you bring it back down?”
“Oh no – she decided to have some toast after all”
Mrs Salt sighed and turned back to stirring her pot of soup.
“That smells nice, what is it?”
“Oh, my famous nettle soup. It will fortify Master David, once he starts eating again.”
“What’s in it?”
“Well potatoes to thicken it and onions for flavour and some of my chicken stock for nourishment. Plus, of course handfuls and handfuls of fresh young nettle shoots. It is good for invalids.”
“Didn’t you get stung?” interrupted Lottie, wincing at the thought of it.
“No I wore gloves while preparing them and the gardeners have got hardy hands, it doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Violet hoped fervently that the soup would help give him the strength to fight this fever.