Deception By Proxy. Ch 24. We Are Forever in Your Debt.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018



William was having such a wonderful dream in serene surroundings with peaceful and charming young women, rather than his usual fare of fighting old battles afresh and losing them in some frustrating way that made no sense and was contrary to what he had experienced.

A feeling of sudden panic gripped him when he awoke to find his room gradually filling with smoke from the corridor beyond, for he always left his door open. There was the smell of smoldering wood.

He threw the bed covers to one side and rushed out, shouting to warn the house of the danger, staying as low as he could to avoid the thicker blanket of smoke in the upper part of the corridor.

Within seconds, there were raised voices from other parts of the house and various sounds of confusion and even of panic amidst the smoke.

There was coughing from the master bedroom, close to that end of the house in which the problem seemed to have begun. He did not bother to knock but burst in to find Mrs. Barristow on the floor and crawling toward him and gasping for air. He grabbed her along with a sheet, which he threw over her, and carried her off to the head of the stairs, where she struggled and fought to return for her daughters. “My children. My children.” He realized she would not submit to be put outside with her children still trapped within. “I will see to them, Ma’am. Please just let me get you out into the yard for safety.”

She had no intention of being saved with her children still in the house. He chose not to argue with her but carried her off resolutely to find Thomas and the other servants—all awake by then and in the yard. “You will need to hold her here, Thomas, or we will create a worse problem, and I do not need to find that she has re-entered the house. She might be difficult to find. I will see to the others better if I do not have to worry about her.”

“Yes, sir. One of the stable lads is off raising the alarm nearby and toward the village for assistance. It looks like it is in the ceiling area and toward that end of the house, for the downstairs is still free of smoke, though I can see some glimmer of flames there, so it won’t stay that way for long. I’ll see what I can get organized.”

“Better if you see to Mrs. Barristow here first. People are the most important thing.”

“Aye, reckon your right there.”

“I’ll get everyone out. Just the three girls I hope, unless they came out and are somewhere else?”

“No one else is out here yet, sir. No one had time just yet.”

Some water was already being thrown in downstairs through a broken window where the fire appeared to have started and was still growing.

He ran back upstairs to rescue the two younger daughters before they might panic and lose themselves in the house, for it was easy to lose one’s orientation in smoke, or do something foolish like trying to get themselves out and losing direction. Easily done, he knew.

He did not notice that Mrs. Barristow had broken free of the servants’ restraining hands and had rushed back in behind him, followed closely by Thomas and two others, grabbing at her arms and nightdress as she desperately fought them off. As they mounted the stairs behind him, the entire flimsy structure collapsed under their combined weight.

William was on the top landing when she started after him and did not see the stairway give way. For by then, he was just about up to the girls’ room.

Mrs. Barristow was knocked senseless by her fall with the stairs, and the servants were able to carry her out into the fresh air. By then, more men were arriving with buckets and ladders. Fortunately, there was plenty of water flowing in the stream after all the recent rains.

William entered the girls bedroom, relieved to see them huddled under the covers and easily found. He lifted Charlotte into his arms and spoke to Sophia, telling her to take hold of him around his neck and to hang on. They were both coughing and fighting for breath, but Sophia had enough wit to be able to hang onto him. He readjusted his hold on Charlotte to include Sophia’s legs against him, trapped by her sister’s legs and headed for the stairs. He was having difficulty himself now as the smoke was getting steadily thicker, and he would not be able to move quickly, or move at all if he dropped to the less smoky air near the floor. He was thankful to notice that there were no obvious flames to contend with. He became aware of the problem with the stairs before he blundered blindly over the empty space where they had once stood. He put Sophia down at the edge of where the stairs had been and then set Charlotte on her feet. “I want you both to sit on the edge here, and then I will be able to reach you.” He watched them follow his instructions as he climbed over the edge and down onto the remains of the wreckage beneath and out of the smoke. Once he had a firm footing, awkward in his bare feet, he reached up, and Sophia took hold of his outreached arms and slid into them as he turned and set her where she could hold onto part of the remaining banister, and then turned back for Charlotte. She slid to the edge and then fell forward into his arms where he caught her and held her securely. Once onto the even floor at the edge of where the stairs had been, he turned and picked Sophia up in his other arm and carried both of them outside.

In a way, it was a blessing the stairs had gone, else Mrs. Barristow would have followed him in. He could see her sitting off in the dim morning light at the edge of the lawn and being tended to by Mrs. Rogers, as she looked eagerly for her girls to appear from the house. He dropped the two girls off with her, noticing that Annis was now the only one missing.

“Is Annis out yet, Thomas?” He spoke to him as they formed a human chain to fill and transfer buckets of water to throw onto the flames that were still visible in the downstairs parlor.

“No, sir. Just Mrs. Barristow and the two younger girls now. She is the only one left. Up there, that side of the house, sir.” He pointed. “No one else went in or came out but you.”

He knew where to go. “Make sure no one follows me.”

By then, more men were arriving with buckets and were putting a ladder up to an upper window where the fire and smoke seemed thickest now and had broken in a window to gain access to that level to throw water in upon the fire There was no one residing in that part of the house to worry about.

He quickly returned to the trough, emptied a bucket of cold water over himself, and wet down the sheet that he had picked up with Mrs. Barristow, threw it across his shoulder, and then headed back in to climb up onto the upper floor. He forgot how low the door was and almost knocked himself out as he walked into the lintel in the dark. He swore at his own stupidity, feeling suddenly sick and dizzy. He put the pain aside, climbing easily to the upper floor again. The smoke was thicker now, and he could feel some warmth coming at him.

He entered Annis’s room and was surprised to find that she was not there, though the bed covers were in disarray and a water jug recently knocked over. Where she had been lying was warm to his touch. He called her name and looked about carefully to see that she was not hiding out of the way of the smoke. The room was empty. He left that room and closed the door to limit the spread of any flames as far as it was possible to do so.

Staying below as much of the smoke as he could, he could see no one else in the corridor. He shouted again. The thick pall of smoke was still hanging and drifting above his head, but there was no obvious increase in the heat coming along the corridor from where the fire seemed to have started. He rechecked the master bedroom. That was empty too, so he left that and closed that door too. He shouted Annis’s name again. There was a faint noise and the sound of coughing from the girls’ bedroom that he had recently left. He moved to check that room again and walked into an open closet door before he got there. Through blurry eyes and a curtain of pain following on from his first encounter with the downstairs doorway, he could see a vague shape near the window and coughing in the smoke. Annis had gone looking for her sisters, intent on seeing the other girls out, and was now overcome herself. She was sitting in a tight bundle on the floor and had covered her mouth and eyes with the neck of her nightdress to protect her ability to breathe, but she would soon be overcome if she stayed where she was.

He immediately draped the wet sheet over them both and pulled her fully to the floor where the air was clearer. She began to recover her breathing under the damp sheet.

“William.” She grabbed his arm. Her breath caught in her throat as she spoke into his ear.

“The girls? Mama? I do not know where they are.” She was oblivious to all else around them. Her only concern was for her sisters and their mother.

“They are all safe now. We are the last.” He kicked the door closed to block off a thicker billowing of smoke that had suddenly started to fill the corridor. We shall stay on the floor as we are, where the smoke is less thick for the moment, and crawl to the window. I will see to us getting out. Courage, my dear. I have been in worse predicaments than this.”

“William.” She stopped him and looked up at him. “if we cannot get out of here then….” She sobbed, and held on to him and looked pleadingly up at him as she kissed him almost desperately in the dim light filtering in through the lower part of the window.

He smiled at her, noticing she had moved her nightdress out of the way on her body, and was shyly beginning on his, lifting it up from him, and moving closer to him. He knew what she intended would happen between them, and was surprised.

He kissed her. “I am flattered and tempted, as I think you know, but there is really no need for such a sacrifice yet, my dear. We shall get out. I have seen no flames so far, nor felt quite the heat that there normally is with a raging fire. It all seems to be only thick smoke so far, so if we stay close to the floor and avoid the smoke as much as possible, there is no reason we cannot get out. If you let go of me, my dear, and not hold onto me so tightly, I will see to us getting out.”

“Oh.” He felt her reluctantly let go of him. She lifted the neck of her nightdress back over her mouth and nose and breathed through its folds to keep as much of the smoke from her lungs as possible. He moved away from her as she watched him drape the wet sheet further over her and pull her to the window along the floor. He took a deep breath then stood up and poked the windows and frame out with the chair from beside the bed, feeling a rush of cooler clear air in upon them, and then he pushed the mattress from the bed through the opening to clear off glass and wood fragments and dropped it out so that they would have something to cushion their fall and protect them from the glass outside on the ground.

“The captain! The captain!” Annis was holding his arm and speaking with difficulty to him. “Hiding in the corner there. He must have been with them.”

He had not seen the cat earlier. He left her and crawled over to the corner through the thin smoke near the floor and scooped up the cat. He was thankful that he had shut the door, or the cat might have gone off in a panic into the rest of the house and might never have been found alive. He was tempted to drop it out of the window but decided against it. He was not sure how it might fare.

Annis opened the sheet up from around herself as she took it from him, holding it firmly for fear it might break free by grasping the fur at the neck as a mother cat might. It settled uneasily with wild and darting eyes, between her breasts, and was obviously ready to head off in a total panic if she were to let it go, yet was trusting enough not to use its claws to escape and lacerate her thinly covered body where she held it to her. William wrapped them both securely in the sheet once more so that the cat could not escape and then covered Annis’s head and hair and pulled her closer to the window. Had the cat not been there, he could have put her over his shoulder and made short work of getting out, but this was more difficult.

He noticed, as the air cleared, that he was beginning to feel nauseated from the combined pain in his head and the effects of the smoke. His forehead felt like it was split. Damn fool walking into two doors like that!

“I will get you to the window and onto the sill, then I want you to take a hold of my arm as tightly as you can above the elbow, and do not let go. I will need my other hand free to hold on to the frame and get us both outside and to safety. Tell me if I am hurting you.”

He bunched up the sheet to trap her securely, trying not to trap her skin or the cat in his grasp, and held it tightly in his fist as she, for her part, held onto his upper arm with one of her own through a gap that was left, and the other hand comforting and holding the cat which had settled uneasily. He picked her up. In that position, he leaned out with her clear of the window. He then let go of her with one hand while she continued holding his arm above the elbow. He held onto the lower part of the window frame with his other hand. Once his upper body and his burden were out of the window, he allowed himself to step out over the sill, followed by his leg from inside the room. Her weight pulled him out, as he knew it would, but he maintained his hold on the window frame to stop them both from falling while being cautious of getting cut by any remaining glass in the frame.

She sensed the desperate strength that lay in his arm as he held her and before she could lose her grip, though he would not lose his on her. He maneuvered himself out of the window to hang down the outside of the building and then dropped the short distance to the ground and onto the mattress. They slowly fell over together as he quickly lowered her to the ground without dropping her. She let go of him and clambered unsteadily to her feet as the cat escaped and ran off into the lessening dark. He steadied her from falling over again as she grasped him tightly in some relief at being out of the smoke-filled room.

He leaned back against the building for a few seconds to be sure of not losing his balance again as he fought for some clear breaths of air. His hand, with which he had held onto the window frame, was sore. He stood up, gathering her back up into his arms as he let the sheet fall away from her, and they stood together, relieved to be out of it all. She seemed unable to let him go for the moment, so they stood embracing each other for some little time until they recovered, oblivious to everything that might be going on around them in the dim light. She staggered as he let her go for a brief moment before holding her steady again. When she had recovered, he wrapped the wet sheet close about her again, picked her up into his arms and walked off around the corner of the building and into the main yard—a hive of activity at that moment. He placed her on the grass at the edge of the drive with her mother and sisters. Only then did he remove the sodden sheet from about her. Mrs. Barristow sat back down in sudden relief that all of her daughters were now safely with her and gathered them close to her.

William could see possibly ten or more people there, bringing buckets of water to bear inside the house downstairs, with another on a ladder up to an upper floor window and dealing with whatever might be visible there. He began to help with the task of filling buckets with water, to put out the fire, but there was little to do that had not already been done, and his help was not needed. There were others close by, who would also keep an eye on the nearby structures if any sparks began to fly. He still could not see any obvious flames.

Thomas met him and spoke, taking in the superficial injuries to his head and hand. “It is good to see everyone is out. It seems to be mostly confined to the downstairs in the wall next to the chimney, and with more men arriving, we stand a good chance of getting ahead of it. With any luck, it may have been nothing more than a bad chimney fire that dropped burning fragments onto the floor. Perhaps even a bird’s nest falling down the chimney. It must have been smoldering for some time before it caught fire.”

It took almost a further ten minutes and a lot of water to be sure that they could save the structure. Most of the fire damage had been confined to just two rooms, one downstairs and the other directly above it, with some damage to ceiling and walls. The fire had smoldered for long enough to give everyone time to get out before it began to erupt further, and by then, there were enough people from the nearby village to lend a hand and get water onto the situation.

Once there were men inside to receive buckets of water that could be better used effectively, their reports indicated that damage seemed to be confined mostly to the chimney surrounds and from smoke which was rapidly clearing.

“That was a lucky escape, sir.” Thomas stood beside him.

“Yes, it was.”

“Squire brought all of his men over when they saw the glow of a fire from the top of the chimney and through a window where there should have been none, and then smoke starting to get thicker and heavier. Never thought I’d live to see the day hemight be of help to this family, but without him, we may not have got ahead of it so easily. They got on top of it fast enough. I think they’ve gone now except for a couple of men and the squire himself. I told ’em we could keep an eye on everything now, though how we’ll go forward from this for a while, I do not know. But we will. Quite a mess to clean up and repairs to make. I doubt anyone could live here easily for a while, for there’ll be a devil of a mess from smoke and a little bit of water damage to clean up.”

He took a closer look at William. “You’ve got an awful bump raised on your forehead, sir.”

“Yes. I blundered into too many things in the smoke. I had to break out of a window at the back with Annis. When the smoke clears better, as it soon will, we can put a ladder up where the staircase was and can get in there to get enough clothing to get everyone more warmly dressed. It seems like most of the worst effect is from smoke. Thank God everyone got out, including the Captain. We can all get ourselves settled in that wing of the house that is untouched by any of this and decide how best to go forward.”

“Aye, sir, you could. But I doubt anyone could sleep for a while after something like that on top of all of the rest of it. I know I couldn’t. But then it’s almost full daylight anyway. I suspect it will take some good men a while to do repairs here, for the beams might need to be replaced—they were already weak with age and beetles boring into them—as well as those windows we broke to get water in and the one you broke to get out. It wouldn’t surprise me if the whole chimney needs to be rebuilt too, for I would be surprised if it was not a soot fire that started the whole thing going. And I would not trust it after that without needed work, for the masonry may be rotten with age too. The years are not kind to buildings or people.”

“We were lucky, Thomas. It could have been much worse. I’ll go and thank the squire and his men for their timely and most-welcome help before they go, and then see what I can do to help out with the human element now. Quite a shakeup to go through a fire like that and, fortunately, no one too badly injured.”

“Mrs. Barristow has a twisted ankle out of it. It’s all I can say for injuries apart from your head. When that staircase let go, she came down hard and fainted at the pain, but at least it stopped her following you as was her intent, and getting into harm’s way again and creating a bigger problem. The girls are all right and so is Annis too from what I can see.”

William turned away and checked up on the ladies. They were all grouped together in their nightclothes, though one of the scullery maids had managed to retrieve some coats, and he saw Mrs. Barristow and the girls had been draped in those before he went off in search of the squire, whom he greeted with thanks enough to warm the older man’s heart.

“Well what are neighbors for, sir, if not to help out at such a time and glad to do so? I’ll leave some of my men close by to keep an eye on things too, for it looks like you’ll have your hands full for a while.”

“Thank you.” William returned to the small group in the driveway and could hear sounds of human activity in the upstairs of the house to ensure that the fire was truly out, with other sounds from the servant’s end of the house, where there had been no damage at all and where a stove was now sending smoke from its legitimate chimney.

“William, you are all sooty.”

“Yes, Sophia, I am.” He put his hand upon her head.

“And there is blood on your hand. Again. There is even a bump growing on your forehead and some blood there too.”

“Not too much damage then for what we managed to do, and the cat may have scratched me in his panic. Well, if that is the extent of our injuries; a twisted ankle and a small cut, bumps, scrapes and bruises, and some smoke damage to our persons, then we can count ourselves lucky. I can see that you and Charlotte are not too badly off, for you were out quite soon.”

She threw her arms around his waist, caring nothing for his relative state of undress and held him close, taking him quite by surprise and then pulled his head down and planted a kiss on his cheek as she snuggled her head into his shoulder and then kissed the raising bump on his head. He held her there.

“Thank you. Mama says you deserve a big hug for all of that, but I thought a kiss was better.” She suggested he pick her up so that she might kiss and hug him again, and properly. He did so. “Well then, young lady, a kiss and a hug are entirely appropriate and always welcomed from you.”

“And me.” Charlotte came over to him and thanked him with a hug around his waist as she held him close. She seemed to have lost her shyness around him after that.

“William.” Mrs. Barristow had hobbled over, leaning on a stick that had been furnished for her. She also took his head into her hands as she looked deep into his eyes and then folded him into her matronly arms, neither caring that she was but as poorly dressed as they all were, in nothing but nightclothes, and draped by a coat.

“I think truly that providence did bring you to us.” Her eyes were wet with tears. “Where would we now be without you being here? I dare not consider. Too much has happened about us of a dreadful nature, and yet, you have been a pillar of strength to all of us throughout and saved us from who knows what?” She saw a carriage stop in the lane outside of the driveway. “Ah. I see the doctor has come at last. Please, sir, see to Annis. She seems to have been affected by this more than the rest of us if that is possible.”

“Yes, Ma’am, I shall do so.” He walked over to Annis who was now sitting on the edge of the trough, where she had been washing her hands and drinking to ease her throat from inhaling some of the acrid smoke.

“And what about you, Miss?” He spoke as he touched her face. She was still clearing her throat and looking the worse for wear, with her hair askew, though they all had hair like that. There was a scared look still in her eyes. “What might I do to help you?” He smoothed the hair from her face.

She was sobbing almost out of control at their escape and captured his hand to kiss it tenderly. “I think you deserve a hug and a kiss from me too, sir, but not just at this moment if you do not mind. I am still shaking.” She reached up and held onto his other hand too, trembling and close to tears.

He knelt before her and leaned into her to see into her face. She pulled him closer and held him tightly between her knees. He looked into her eyes with far more showing in his own than might have been expected upon such a short acquaintance, but then they had grown disturbingly close over the last two days. “That was brave of you, Annis, to go looking for your sisters like that.”

She responded quietly and with a hoarseness to her voice as she looked at him. “I would preferably have lost myself in that fire before any of them, especially after our last misfortunes, and might have, but for you. But you… thank you.” Her eyes said more than she could put into words.

He knew the feeling, but it did not surprise him, for it had been his own exactly. “You would even have been prepared to shoot a villain like me too at one time, I do not doubt, and for the same protective reason.”

She appeared not to have heard him. “Will Mama and the others be all right?”

“I believe so. The doctor has just arrived and is seeing to your mother even now, and he can pass judgment about her twisted ankle. It does not seem to be any worse injured, so Thomas tells me. Cuts, scrapes, bruises, and twists. If that is the full extent of it then we were lucky.”

“We were lucky youwere here to give us warning and to get us out. For you did, didn’t you? You got us all out. Mama too. I am glad I did not shoot you now.”

“So am I. Fortunately it seems to have been more smoke than fire, and it is mostly out now, so I am afraid I did very little. We still have a home.”

We?He smiled at his considering it his own home now. “I think you would all have been safe in any case, even if smoke blackened and hoarse with it all.”

“No. Without your warning I don’t think it would have finished as it did, for it would not have been discovered so quickly, and the fire would have been worse, and there may have been no recovery from that. I overheard Thomas saying as much to Mama.”

His head sank momentarily onto her lap as a sudden dizzy moment overcame him. She held his head there and supported him as it seemed he might fall over.

He soon raised his head. “I am sorry. I felt dizzy for a moment.” He sat back hard onto the ground in front of her, still unsteady as he tried to support himself and closed his eyes against the pain as she leaned forward and held his upper arm, concern for him written all over her face.

She looked closely at him. “But Sophia was right. You do have a bloody hand and a horrendous bump raising above your eyes. No wonder you almost fell. Oh. Why did I not see it before? The skin is even split. Here we are thinking only of ourselves, and you are injured yet again on our behalf. You also cut yourself on the window getting me and the Captain out. Well we are both already damp and grubby, so it can make little difference now. No, do not try to get up. If you have got over your dizzy spell, you can sit there while I bathe your brow and rinse off your hand, and you can hold onto me for support. There is light enough now to see what I need to do. We should get the doctor to see to you too when he has finished with Mama, for you seem as badly injured as anyone, if not the worst.”

She sat herself on the ground in front of him with her legs over the top of his and her knees on either side of him to give him support. She gave no thought to how their wet nightclothes were clinging closely to them both, nor how indecorous their position might appear to others, and pulled his head down toward her, placed his free hand upon her shoulder to give him more support, and then picked up his bloody hand and dabbed at its lacerated palm with a cloth dampened in the trough overflow, keeping away from the open cut as she did so.

“We do not have any hot water at the moment to wash it off better I am afraid, though there soon will be, and then I shall see that there is no wood or glass in it and get you bound up until the doctor can see to it.”

She reached out and retrieved a basket of wrappings, which had been placed within reach for her use by Sophia, and changed her position to kneel before him. She moved closer into him, not caring how anything might look to others, and sat back on her heels as she took his hand and put it into her lap. She looked it over carefully and dabbed at it. She saw that he had his eyes closed, probably against the pain from his head. “It is a nasty little gash, but I do not see wood or glass in it.” She then surprised him by putting his hand up to her mouth and letting her tongue touch the wound several times and then licking at it as she looked into his face. His eyes were open now. He flinched at the personal, even intimate aspect of it initially. “No. There is no glass there, or I would have felt it with my tongue. That is the way Mama is able to feel for such things if they cannot be seen. It may sting at first. I hope it does not shock you.” She licked at it again.

“Nothing would surprise me now…other than the change in myself over the last two weeks.”

His comment was not clear to her.

“I am also beginning to feel better, though I will have a bump the size of a goose egg on my brow soon if I do not have one already.” He touched gingerly at his forehead. “Ouch.” He smiled at her and was surprised to find her blushing as she completely refused to avert her eyes from his intense gaze but even returned it. They were sitting far too close together, close enough to feel the heat from each other’s legs and even bodies and were not at all suitably dressed for any of this, but they had no choice and neither cared what it might look like to others under the circumstances.

She bandaged him and then tied his hand up.

She then surprised him as had her sisters as she reached out and took his head into her hands and pulled him into her, avoiding that tender and swollen part of his forehead and hugged him to her breast as the tears ran down her face and then kissed him on his cheek.

“I can do little for that bump other than to bathe it with cold water. That might help.” She wet down another cloth and then proceeded to wipe around his forehead, staying clear of the raised bruise and the split skin in the middle of it.

She noticed the stubble on his face and had felt it earlier as he had brushed his cheek with her own. “I think we still have a home, so I can think of other things now. You will need to shave soon, William, and with your right hand out of commission and your other injuries, I shall be pleased to do that service for you if you will not object, but only when there is suitable opportunity, and I see that you also need your hair to be cut. We have been neglecting you dreadfully. I used to cut my father’s hair, and I shaved him once or twice when he could not.”

“Thank you. I fear that I would be likely to cut my throat if I tried to shave with my left, and as unsteady as I am likely to be for a while, but there is no hurry. We can deal with those things after we are able to decide what needs to be done to give us a home back. I doubt society is missing my carelessly coifed or un-groomed presence any.”

She struggled to her feet and then helped him rise also. He was still unsteady.

Thomas approached. “We’ve got your clothes ready, Miss, and others for your sisters. They were in the closet or drawers and do not smell obviously of smoke. There was also some still drying in the washhouse, so that’s clean too. They will be properly aired out in but a few minutes, I would say, for there is a good fire going in the stove now. After that, Mrs. Rogers says you can all change out of your damp nightclothes in the summer kitchen before you catch a death of cold, and she would like you there now to get out of this morning dampness and off the wet grass.

“We are bringing your clothes down too, sir. Your room escaped most of the smoke. The main damage seems to be to the parlor and the dining room and some of the upstairs rooms where the smoke seemed thickest. The rest is water damage and a few windows gone, but that other end of the house and the back wing is just a little bit smoky.”

Annis took him by the arm. “Come, William. You are shivering as we are. You need to get yourself dried out in a warm kitchen too.”

“But I should not, if you and the girls will be changing.”

“What. Suddenly shy sir? You are not generally shy. I have seen you watching us in that way. You are as cold and as wet as we are, so the need is there. Besides, as you earlier said, you are now family. I think you have persuaded me of that now by your unselfish acts. We will trust you to close your eyes again.”

“Trust. A dangerous sentiment that, and no fun at all.”

“Yes, I see you are recovering.” Annis took his hand. “I doubt that they will care overmuch after what you did for them. Well, Sophia won’t, nor Charlotte either, and why should I care after… and what I was prepared to do?” she blushed. “We would none of us be here but for you. Besides, I will have you by the stove to get warm, for you are shivering too, and you will be facing away from everyone.”

She led him into the kitchen, where there was a large stove radiating heat into the furthest corners of the small room and sat him by the stove, throwing out its heat. He heard them changing behind him. He sat there with his eyes closed, not from any sense of protecting anyone’s modesty, but as it tended to alleviate some of his own personal discomfort which, fortunately, was beginning to lessen as he became warmer.

 

After the girls had left and the doctor had seen to him and given a few words of praise to Annis’s handiwork, which he felt he could not improve upon except for the application of some powder, which stung as it bit into the wounds, William washed in the basin of warm water left for him and dressed slowly and thoughtfully. He turned over various possibilities in his mind before he pulled on his boots and went off into the morning air to inspect the damage to the house as he could see in daylight. Inside, the damage was not extensive, confined as it was to part of one wing. Thomas was right about beams needing to be replaced and the chimney rebuilt. It seemed likely that the floor and other parts would benefit from being repaired and replaced too. It would not harm to do a thorough inspection from top to bottom, but that could come later. The house would be a mess for some time and would need several days of cleaning and repair where the family had lived, though the servants’ quarters had not been damaged.

He knew what he would suggest to Mrs. Barristow. If she agreed, then the servants could continue living here and doing what they would normally have been involved with to keep the animals looked after and the garden and house tended to, but with fewer persons to look after if the family were not there. The diminution in their labor from that, would be more than made up for by the suddenly augmented wash load that they had inherited and the need to clean up and down, and inside and out, more extensively. Major repairs were also needed, for it was an old house that had settled in some strange ways over the years, which was one reason why the stairs had collapsed. He would see to that himself too.

 

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