June 19th, 1815: A Patient and a Proposal

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...continued  (last in sequence of four starting here.)

 

Of all the bedsides over which Roisin had watched, her vigil over Leo’s was most thankfully kept.

Vainly did Mrs Peachum appeal to her: “When his lordship returns to full consciousness, then you will wish to be restored and refreshed. I do counsel you, my love, to get some rest. My brother and I can take turns at sitting with him.” She sailed into the room in a wrap and a nightcap over her gunmetal grey hair, wielding a branch of candles like Britannia’s trident.

“That is exceeding kind of you, ma’am, but I am perfectly content to stay. Wardle is in the passage-way should I need him.”

When her hostess had gone, Roisin slipped her hand into Leo’s and willed him to recover. He tossed and moaned, though not so violently now, muttering a feverish litany. “The château. The château will not hold. The barns are on fire.the roof….Hougoumont!

Dabbing his wet hair, Roisin’s instinct was to answer him, whether he heard her or not. “The château is safe. Quite safe. There now. According to General Halkett’s brother who was here this evening, the Coldstreamers defended it gallantly. The whole of Bonaparte’s army is in retreat. Listen to them outside. Listen, my love! The city rejoices tonight. The tyrant was beaten at Waterloo.”

The Viscount’s body jerked more vigorously. Roisin wrestled to keep him from turning on to his right side. It seemed that her crooning could do nothing to quieten him. Presently, he grew alarmingly still. She sought his pulse and then put an ear to his chest. In a wave of sweet and overwhelming relief, she heard the strong, steady rhythm of his heart. Her eyes closed. An uprush to tears squeezed between her lashes. He was at peace. The fever was waning, the crisis past.

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It was just before four, as a new day and a new era dawned,  that Leo awoke. In the feeble candlelight, the unfamiliar room slowly impinged upon him. Incomprehension was displaced by a hazy remembrance. With the ghost of a smile, he uttered Roisin’s name.

“My dear love,” she said. “Welcome back to the world.”

“You look exhausted.”

 She smiled uncertainly. Whether he should be gentled into knowledge of his handicap or whether he had taken it for granted, she could not tell. “You kept your promise.”

“Promise?”

“You sent Boney packing.”

“He’s beaten?” Leo started up from the pillows and, wincing, slumped back in a welter of pain. “Thank God. Oh thank God….I….I did not dream it, then?” His brows contracted in puzzlement. “There were crowds….in the street…. Did I dream that?”

She shook her head. “The château is safe,” she ventured softly, “although it is in want of repair.”

“The château? Hougoumont? They….they set fire to it, the French.”

“General Halkett’s brother called here last night. He described how the battle had gone. Hougoumont, he said, had been under siege all day. It was of paramount importance for the defence of the west. You spoke of it much in your sleep.

“Did I so?” Leo appeared to have no recollection of this. The old keen intelligence was back in his eyes and the drawn visage wanted only his usual spry humour to reanimate it. On his cheeks and chin, the stubble had grown rapidly in the hours of high fever. “What day is it?”

“Monday. Monday, the nineteenth of June.”

“Monday?”

“Shall I open the drapes for you?” Roisin doused the candle stubs and flung wide the convoluted folds of percale. In its first magic flush, the sky was milky bright with soft curdling clouds.

“Yesterday - can it only be twenty-four hours ago? – I watched the dawn break over Genappe.” He turned his head towards her and her heart lurched at the miracle of having him close. She could see that he was frustrated. There was something he urgently wanted to convey, but the right words would not come. “During the morning, as it got lighter, the sky changed. There were hints of rainbows.... The château appeared to be made of some pearly, shell-like substance, ethereally frail yet durable…. It was unspeakably lovely. And I saw the trampled rye, the camp fires, the weapons scattered about, and thought: In years to come, long after they have finished exhuming our bones and our brass, the land will be tilled and harvested again, the poppies will blow. The blacksmiths will take up our swords and beat them into ploughshares. There will be peace. His frail thread of energy snapped. He fought for breath. “Hell, I’ve a raging thirst,” he said hoarsely.

“I’ll fetch some fresh water for you. What’s in the ewer will be stale.”

When Roisin returned, he half-raised himself upon his left side. Tilting the tumbler, she supported him as best she could. He sank down on the hastily plumped pillow. “How is it possible,” he demanded with a resurgence of the old spirit, “to derive such acute sensation in a member that does not exist?”

Turning to place the glass on a console table, Roisin breathed a long sigh. The tension slackened in her limbs. All at once she felt exhausted to the utmost degree. Willpower had sustained her during the night. Now, a corner had been turned. Leo was his own man, on the road to recovery. “Dr Redfern left a potion for you,” she said. “Do drink some now and I will make you a little gruel.”

“No. You have done enough. If I engage to be a model patient and take my medicine, shall you go and lie down?”

Half-reluctantly, she assented. “The girl shall make the gruel. Wardle is outside the door. I roused him a few minutes ago to tell him you were much improved.”

“Wardle! Then, pray, ask the good fellow to come in and shave me! I’m certain I am no fit sight for a lady!”

“Leo, dear Leo,” she said, smiling through misted eyes and clasping his hand to her cheek. “I am so profoundly relieved.”

“You….meant what you said out there in the Square, did you not? Shall Meg have her way?”

“I should be extremely proud,” Roisin replied, “to be your Lady Penrose.”

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Excerpts...    from MY MOTHER BIDS ME, A Novel of Jane Austen's England on the Eve of Waterloo