Thursday, December 28th, 2017
A Marriage. Two untimely deaths. Protecting a family.
By the time Simpkins, the reverend, new to the area, arrived out of breath at his exertion following Thomas, William was just finishing off a newly presented plate of hot stew and much of the bread. They waited in the parlor for the ladies to appear or at least give them some direction as to what was now expected of them.
William took the needed step of introducing himself to a man about his own age and found that he was not a complete stranger to the gentleman, for he seemed to know something of him and his family from other sources, and clearly not too much to his disadvantage. Once beyond the initial introductions and decrying the unfortunate turn of events that had brought them both to this house and at this time, they somehow put the existing circumstance to one side and launched into a quiet discussion of smuggling, much to William’s surprise, for he had not raised the subject. The reverend seemed to know more of him than was desirable yet had not seemed disapproving of that illegal activity.
Within minutes, there was a steady procession of servants from the upstairs, which quite cut off their conversation, seeing the reverend fall quickly back into his expected role of sober and somber cleric. The last to appear was Mrs. Barristow herself, also breathless, carrying various items of clothing, some still stained with blood. She nervously bundled them into the ready hands of a servant without anything being said, though both were heavily choked up with emotion and futilely fighting back the tears that were evident.
She dried her eyes on her bloodstained smock and turned to her guest and the reverend. “Gentlemen—Mr. Devane, Reverend Simpkins—I see you have met, and I hope you have introduced yourselves to each other for we have no time to waste. You were able to obtain the license, I hope, sir?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I did. I explained the circumstances to my bishop not three hours ago, and he kindly supplied what we needed.”
She sighed. “My husband is slipped off again now for the last time and will not live much longer I think, but we cannot yet mourn nor dwell upon that at this moment. He will soon be in good hands. Now we must see to the rest before that is too late. Please follow me.” She led the way up the narrow stairs again. The servants were aware now that the large military-looking gentleman in the parlor, in company of the new vicar, was there to marry Miss Bella before she might die, but could not fully understand it at all and were not aware why it had to be done so hastily or why it had to be done at all with her on her death bed. There had been the occasional rumor that Bella was soon to be married but that her fiancée, who was not yet her fiancée—all confusing—was abroad and in the war.
But that rumor had been bandied about for the last year or more and had gradually lost any credibility as it did not seem to be well known, for there were a string of other suitors who would not have either been easily tolerated nor would have been paying attendance had they known of any such firm engagement. She had been seen to turn off one of the local beaux after another, though gently, and with consideration for their feelings. It began to seem that she might not marry at all, for it was rare that the family ever went as far as Basildon, never mind London, which is where a young lady as beautiful as Bella should be able to find a suitable husband. It was also rumored that her intended had been killed abroad, though no one said anything of it to confirm it or deny it.
Mrs. Barristow turned before they got to the top of the stairs and spoke as an afterthought to a servant in the doorway below. “If we need anything, Molly—though I doubt we will at this late stage—I will ring or send one of the girls. Thomas is sitting with Mr. Barristow and will alert us if he recovers consciousness again.”
She turned to William. “We should not waste further time, gentlemen. We have little enough of it as it is.” She continued upstairs on suddenly heavily stressed and loudly complaining stairs with three adults upon them, and led the way into a nearby area of the house, where the floors sloped even more noticeably, and into a small room—they were all small and with low ceilings—brightly lit with candles, though the bed itself was in some measure of shade to protect the patient from the discomfort of too bright a light, even that from a candle.
It was obvious that Mrs. Barristow was exercising considerable discipline upon herself to stave off the growing sense of helplessness and overwhelming sadness and the need to see all of this brought to an acceptable if unfortunate end. Only then might she be able to remove herself from this painful reality and to dissolve into tears. But this was the wrong time and place. She was needed in another way that now demanded her full attention. She drew upon that inner strength that all women have in abundance when the situation is the most hopeless and they are needed in other directions.
The patient, a young lady, in little better state than her father, was awake and watching with conscious awareness of what was intended perhaps, as they entered her room. Her attentiveness was a good sign, if it were possible to believe that any good might exist in the midst of such pain and approaching finality. There was the untidiness and smell of a sick room, even overlaying the cloying smell of smoky candles. There was but one girl—probably another sister—administering to the needs and wiping the face and mouth of the young lady lying propped up in bed. There was blood upon the invalid’s lips and blood leaking from her nostrils, and there was a bloody towel across the coverlet over her abdomen. A bloody basin and other soiled towels had been moved off to one side. Her injuries were obscured by the coverlet over her but were clearly serious, for there to be so much blood evident.
Her helper moved to join others in the shadows, out of the way of her mother and the two gentlemen who had entered the room.
William could see that there were dark lines under her eyes and the drawn look of pain across her face and in her expression—as there had been with her father—as she labored and breathed with difficulty while attempting to hold a cloth up to her face to avoid any blood being thrown about if she were to cough. There were other young ladies in the room—Sophia and the girl who had tended to her sister. That must be the third daughter—Charlotte. It was not difficult to see their resemblance to their sister and to their mother, and there may have been another—Annis—perhaps overcome by what was happening, and behind the other two, but it was difficult to make out figures and faces in the shadows.
Their mother spoke. “Now, young man, William, we have come this far and need to complete this task, or all of this will become history around us, and we shall likely lose….”—her voice caught—“but you need to hear none of that at this moment.”
Now was not the time to be asking for any kind of explanation of the circumstance. He almost regretted giving in to the impulse to see this adventure unfold, for it was clearly much more a tragedy than an adventure, but his difficulties with this were Lilliputian compared to theirs. It was obvious that he might indeed be a widower before morning. He might lose a wife he had never before met and knew nothing of, but they would lose a sister and a daughter as well as losing a father and husband. Now was not the time to ask questions and expect a rational answer nor to become difficult over the strange situation that was already tragic enough without it being added to. He had given his word, but even if he had not, it was not the time to shrink from what seemed to be needed.
The deep tragedy of the events that so clearly and painfully surrounded him reminded him too well of those similar situations that he had just quit on the battlefield. He had felt helpless then, and he felt helpless now to do anything but what was needed of him to ease the obvious pain of such a cruel loss—two of them—to this family of bereaved women. He suddenly felt a great loss himself, in that he had never met the young lady before this circumstance occurred, nor had had a chance to make her acquaintance. He suddenly felt that he would like to have known her, for beneath all of the pain her face was well shaped and in any other circumstance, perhaps even this one, would have been described as beautiful. There was clear intelligence in those bright eyes. She and he were but two ships that pass in the night, unknown, and who was to know with what unfulfilled promises aboard. What might have been possible in life with a slightly different course and a possibly different outcome to this?
The only obvious things to him in the dim candlelight were her long and loose dark hair, untidily framing a pale face—still marked with blood that her sister had missed—and drawn with pain as her father’s had been. She may have been his one true love if such a one existed. But all of that was nothing but the romantic dreams of foolish women who threw themselves headlong into seeking that one supposedly true love, which might not exist, yet his sister Elizabeth, seemed to have found hers. But for him, nothing could come of it now, even if she were that one special person. Nonetheless, he resolved that he would make an effort to find out more about her from her family when a better opportunity was presented, and time had had a chance to allow their grief to fade and their thoughts to be less tragic. Now was not the time to express reservations, caution, or to hold back from what was needed; but those thoughts never entered his head. It would have taken a poor specimen of manhood indeed to deny them this final completion to what seemingly must go forward without delay and for whatever reason.
Undoubtedly, they might just wish to see him gone as soon as maybe, after all of this, so it might be difficult to keep his promise to their father, but he would do as much along that direction as he was able until the problem might be resolved. To welcome a complete stranger into their home at the best of times was trial enough, but at a time such as this, with all of the other baggage going with it, it was unthinkably painful for everyone. But afterward? When the grief and sorrow could be given free rein and with him in the midst of it, both he and they might wish him long gone.
He might have reservations about what he was about to do, but it all paled into insignificance compared to what they were feeling. Besides, he would soon be free of it all. From the looks of her she was not long for this world.
He seemed caught up in a dream and became aware that the reverend had opened his book and was droning on in some formal way as the young ladies sobbed and cried behind him as they held tightly onto each other for what little comfort and support they might find in each other’s embrace. Her mother had a hand laid lightly on her dying daughter’s shoulder as though to keep her in touch with this world she would soon be forced to leave. To lose one member of a family was traumatic enough, but to lose two at the same time was unthinkably devastating. The older girl holding Sophia close, appeared to be much more mature than the sixteen years of age that the record downstairs had indicated. With the responsibilities likely to drop on them all, they would all be changed in ways that no one should have to encounter at so young an age. They were all far too young to lose their father or a sister so close in age to themselves. Their mother stood rigid and pale beside them all, a link between the living and the dying, striving to hold her daughter in this world for as long as she might—the bulwark against all buffeting seas. She would be the strength that they would need now to move forward.
He had made his promise to their father and would provide whatever help they might allow him to provide and in whatever way was necessary moving forward. He had nothing else that needed his attention so urgently that he needed to rush away to attend to his own affairs.
He noticed that the other daughter, Annis, was no longer with her sisters but had left the room as quietly as she may and without disruption of any kind, explaining her position behind her sisters earlier. She had seemed to not fully approve of this union from the little he had seen of her as she had looked at him. As the eldest girl now, or soon to be, she would likely be with her father at this moment, though perhaps from the look she had directed at him as she came down the stairs when he had first seen her, she may not have felt up to attending such a hasty and possibly ill-conceived wedding with one such as him. If they knew anything of him at all—and they seemed to—from what Sophia had let slip, she may have had cause to doubt the wisdom of even such a fleeting alliance. From the intensity of the glance she had directed at him, William had the feeling that Annis, may have known more of him than he might be comfortable with.
It seemed peculiar to him, but the dreadful loss to all of them, so obviously surrounded by such tragedy, began to hit him hard also. It was a strange feeling and entirely foreign to him to commiserate with others so deeply. He had viewed death many times with only men about him, and that was sad enough, but he had remained detached from it out of necessity so that his judgment might not be impaired or slowed down—a reality of war, bottling away his feelings, his grief, his anger at the futility of war, even as the dying man, with stark fear in his eyes, had lain in his arms surrounded by relative strangers, and knowing that his last minutes on earth were now here.
Now, he could let go of all of that pent-up anger and frustrated anguish that had fermented in his own bosom, unexpressed, and bottled up for too many years. He had never seen it so poignantly or painfully displayed as within this tearful family of women and girls, who strove so hard and bravely to hold back their undoubted pain and emotions in the presence of strangers and with the formality of the ceremony, however abbreviated and simple it needed to be. He had seen many men die, friend and enemy alike, and felt some pity for them all, for they were all the sons of women like his own mother. They, unlike these ladies, lived with death every day they arose from their beds.
These gentle women by comparison, not caught up in war, could give in to pain and grief and tears in a way the others did not. This feeling was borne of love. The other had been used to stoke up anger. His heart went out to them all, especially the girls, at their intense and hard-felt grief and loss. Adults grew closer to death with age and recognized that they would one day need to deal with it. But not so suddenly nor tragically as this. He felt a lump rising in his own throat then, felt his lips start to tremble completely beyond his control, and had to blink back a tear himself at the wall of sudden and starkly-felt emotions surrounding him on all sides but did not entirely succeed as he felt first one and then another escape down his cheek. It was a strange sensation. He had never been caught up in anything quite like this before, nor to such a degree in any of the previous five years. Such luxuries as sorrow and grief and gentle mourning had been foreign to him until now. Then, he had felt anger, pity, and frustration and had been caught up for a while in vengeful actions—coldly and calmly thought-through; pitiless, ruthless, and devastatingly effective, with no fear or consideration of death.
He noticed then, through the haze clouding his vision, that the young lady lying in the bed, dying, had fixed him with an intense stare, much like her father had, knowing death was near, and with a furrow across her pale brow. That brief moment of horrified clarity just before the end. She was fighting her own battles and demons. She seemed momentarily confused, and must wonder who he might be and why he might be here and even why he might be shedding tears, for was he not a stranger to them all and to her? Did she know what was happening even?
Then he feared for a moment that she was dead even before the knot had been tied, defeating all of their efforts. He began to feel cheated. A strange response, considering his earlier feelings concerning a marriage he had had no warning of or desire to participate in. He was relieved then to see her blink, to see her glance lessen in intensity and flicker off to her mother and then to her sisters, who had their heads bowed and were keeping their own feelings under as much control as they could but with little success.
It seemed that all of the years of holding back any show of emotion as he had held one after another of his comrades as they died, was now suddenly let loose. How many of them? He had lost count over the years. He felt the tears coursing down his face and dripping to the floor and could do nothing about it.
She suffered a few moments of painful coughing as she held a towel over her mouth and then settled uneasily once more.
His heart went out to them all. He responded as he knew he must. He took her hand, sensing the feverish temperature and trembling and the weakness. He felt suddenly overpowered by the heat in the small room from numerous candles hurriedly moved off to the side before they had entered. He felt anxious to be out of it and heard his wife-to-be, haltingly, in a grating voice and with obvious difficulty, give her responses. She was conscious of what was happening and knew that her death was not far off—a feeling no one needs to be conscious of, though he had seen it often enough himself in the Peninsula as he had cradled one after another of his own dying comrades. He had tried to comfort them as they knew full-well that their last conscious moments on earth were also here before them and in some strange foreign field far from home with nothing he or they could do about it. So much to think about and say, but too little time to say anything before death removed all of their memories and heartaches and feelings and even most of their entire living history as though they had never even lived.
His heart went out to her, where it had not been able to go out to even his own comrades in the heat of the moment and in the rush back to battle. He knew that his own end would eventually be the same, amidst the screams of the dying. A brief pain from a saber cut or thrust, or a lead ball or flying pieces of wood or metal thrown about by a cannon ball. Perhaps a fall from a horse. A helpless bed upon the grass, surrounded by others in the same state. Stony, angry faces of silent pity surrounding him and looking down upon him one last time before turning away. They were the faces of those who would follow him to the grave, and all too soon. Knowing it. This might be how they would end in a few hours, days, or not at all. Regrets? Would he be missed? By some, perhaps. Would anyone notice his passing? Too few. Fading consciousness—all enveloping and final death. Oblivion. There would be memories of him that might survive with others for a little time but not far beyond that generation that entered the world with him. But by some trick of fate, he had survived, whereas better men, more deserving of life, had not. He was here to face the tragedy of death yet again.
From somewhere, rings were produced and according to custom he had encountered in his reading, he placed the one he was given, first a little way upon her thumb, then upon her forefinger, then the same upon her second finger and then finally slid it fully upon her third finger. He omitted the recitation that usually accompanied that gentle custom, seeing the reverend suddenly looking at him with a puzzled look on his face. It slid on her ring finger easily and was clearly the property of others as it was too loose fitting—probably from either her mother or her father. He placed his hand close to hers. With difficulty, she attempted to slide the ring she had been given upon his ring finger, dropping it once into the coverlet from her weak fingers. He retrieved it for her, put it back into her hand, and then assisted her.
He listened as the reverend Simpkins pronounced them husband and wife and told him that he may now kiss the bride. Simpkins had hesitated briefly after that, feeling that it was perhaps inappropriate with the young lady’s condition, but then realized that it could not matter now. It should be done to bring some formal finality to it all. William leaned over and placed a gentle kiss upon his wife’s lips as she looked up at him and into his eyes with a sudden flush upon her face and then he placed another upon her forehead. There was a taste of blood, and salt from one of his own tears, albeit faint, in his mouth. She had flinched as he had unexpectedly kissed her. He hoped he had not caused her pain.
His bride’s hand lay weakly on the coverlet, starkly pale on the darker fabric. He was then given a pen, dipped it into ink, and signed the register that the reverend offered to him, and then watched as his bride attempted to focus upon the page and tried clumsily to sign her name too. She fought to dredge up the strength to do so while he held the book for her to sign which she was able to do once she became focused upon it. Afterward, she relaxed back into the pillows. She could now die with the knowledge that she had somehow saved her family…but in what way and from what?
With that final act, as the quill dropped from her fingers, there was a sudden spatter of rain and leaves blown against the window, causing everyone to pause in wonderment. Her mother had looked up startled, and glanced toward the room next door where her husband lay with her other daughter in attendance, wondering if this might be some sign of his passing as his soul sought to escape. There was no sound from the other room of that daughter alerting them to anything untoward with a cry or other noise. The uneasiness soon passed. Wind was wind, and it had picked up, as a shower had moved through the area and had blown rain and leaves against the window as it had often done in the past. It was all natural, one did not need to seek spiritual meaning in any of it.
As their momentary alertness and bewilderment subsided, her mother and sisters sobbed in some relief at that moment as though a massive burden had been lifted from them, but it was nothing that he needed to be concerned about. The relief could almost be felt pervading the entire room. Mrs. Barristow lifted her head and silently thanked him with her eyes as the tears rolled down her cheeks. In another world not so far behind him, all of this would have fired him up to go out and to kill relentlessly, ruthlessly, without mercy, like the Berserks in all of their ancestry and without concern for his own safety, but there was nothing he might do here except fight back his sudden feelings and control his emotions lest he upset these women even more than they were.
“Charlotte. See the reverend has a glass of port or some other refreshment before he leaves, please. There are those who believe that those who are…a toast to their memory and to their life…to ease them on their way. Unless, sir, you are like your predecessor who abjured all forms of alcohol?”
The reverend cast a strange look at her and spoke gently. “I have no such strictures, Ma’am, and I have no objection to those older customs or beliefs. They all serve a purpose that I shall not question. I will raise my glass as needed, but I should not stay longer. I have preparations to make for tomorrow.” His predecessor, Reverend Coles, had no such feelings against imbibing alcohol either. He did not know how they had managed to obtain that impression of him, for the old vicar had a reputation of sometimes digging too deep into the wine and whatever else was offered.
Mrs. Barristow seemed now relaxed and to some small degree much more contented in all of her pain, having achieved her main goal of seeing her daughter married and, apparently, their future somehow secured.
“Charlotte, see that Mr. Devane, your sister’s husband now….” she hesitated as she said that and her voice caught for a moment as she looked at him in gratitude “…goes to the living room or the parlor. The parlor is the more comfortable at the moment, and we shall join you shortly, sir. At least for a while.”
Her voice dropped so that she might not be overheard by the young lady lying back on her deathbed. “I fear there is not long to go here. After that, Charlotte, you may return here and join Sophia, Annis and me, and we shall see to your father and sister and make their last moments as peaceful and comfortable as we may.”
They had tied the knot with too little time remaining, for the news soon spread throughout the house that the elder daughter died not ten minutes later after slipping back into unconsciousness. Their father had died sometime during the brief ceremony that had seen his daughter married to a relative stranger. Perhaps his passing had caused his daughter at that moment to drop the ring she had been putting on his finger, and the suddenly gusting wind and rain had truly been a sign of some kind, of his passing.
Later that evening, it had been a tearful gathering in the parlor once all of the surviving sisters were there, following their preparations of their father and eldest sister. They seemed to need to do it themselves rather than have the servants involved in such deeply personal matters.
William felt immensely out of place—an interloper, a fraud in the midst of all of their outpourings of pain and grief and had been relieved to have excused himself and gone off to bed in some area of the house near where his dead bride and her dead father now lay. It would obviously be an uneasy and restless house all night. Sleep would come easily to no one. He would rather have been a hundred miles away than in this place at this moment, but he could not desert them.