Read A Bouquet of Thorns Online

Authors: Tania Crosse

Tags: #Romance

A Bouquet of Thorns (10 page)

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Rose raised her eyes to him, and he saw that the doubt had darkened them to the deepest lavender. She swallowed hard.

‘Yes,' she croaked. ‘Dr Seaton explained.' And noticing that Alice was slackening off from her feed, she used her newly learnt skills to rouse her enough so that she continued sucking.

‘There you are! You're doing well!' Dr Ratcliffe encouraged her. ‘Now, when we've finished, I want you on the commode to pass water. Mrs Bennett, I want you ready with a jug of tepid water to rinse over Mrs Chadwick's stitches afterwards. It is
essential
that you do this every time so that we minimize the chance of infection. And you must drink plenty. A glass of water or a cup of tea or whatever every hour. It will help wash out your system and make your urine less concentrated, so it will sting less when you relieve yourself.'

‘Oh, Florrie, I didn't realize it would all be so complicated,' Rose sighed some ten minutes later when she was back in bed, lifeless and floppy as a rag doll and ready to sleep again. ‘Amber didn't have all this terrible trouble with her puppies, did she? And . . . Oh!' She sat up with a start, her eyes wide. ‘Are they all right? Who's looking after them?'

‘Oh, they'm fine. And 'tis Ned who feeds the dogs, just as normal.'

But Rose's face had hardened at the mention of Ned, her heart turning to a bitter stone. ‘He didn't decide to hand in his notice, then,' she snorted, ‘now he's got his handsome reward in his pocket? Oh, I could murder him!' she cried with such vehemence that Florrie caught her breath. ‘Just another couple of weeks, and Seth could have been away! Oh, Florrie!' She caught hold of the older woman's arm with a grip of iron, every last vestige of her strength directed into her hand. ‘You must go to Dr Power for me. Find out what . . . what happened.'

Her voice faded in a choked trail, and she fell back on the pillows, her head tossing frantically in a flurry of agitation. Florrie pursed her lips, for this really would not do!

‘I'm not leaving your side till you and the babby are settled,' she announced determinedly. ‘But don't you fret none. I promise I'll find out for you in a few days. You did all you could, and 'tis no point in worrying your head about it no more. 'Tis the babby and yourself you've to look to now.'

Rose drew in a long breath, her face a picture of wearied consternation. ‘Oh, Florrie, why has everything gone so wrong?' she groaned. ‘All this, and . . . and Charles selling Gospel. And did you notice when he deigned to put in an appearance, he didn't even look at Alice? He doesn't care, because he wanted a son. And don't try telling me otherwise, Florrie, for I know 'tis true. Oh, God, what am I to do?'

She turned away, curled up in a ball on her side, biting on her knuckles as her stomach cramped with an after pain. Her beloved father was dead, she was married to a man she didn't love and who only wanted one thing in the bedroom, her tiny daughter was scarcely clinging to life, she was likely never to see Gospel again, and the one person who had brought her solace was locked away in that horrendous prison, suffering the most gruesome punishment.
If
he was still alive . . .

She wept until her very soul was emptied of its grief, and Mother Nature at last lulled her into the release of sleep.

‘The child, sir, is doing as well as can be expected given the circumstances,' Dr Seaton reported a few days later. ‘The wet nurse is brimming with milk, which is ideal as it means your daughter can suckle without too much effort and hopefully gain some strength that way. The woman's own infant may bawl his head off at any time of the day or night, as I believe you have complained, but his lusty feeding is stimulating his mother's milk even further, so you should be thankful.'

Charles glanced up with a scowl. He had employed Dr Seaton as the most senior and highly respected physician in Tavistock, but the elderly fellow was inclined to be blunt, and Charles, though he knew the doctor was right, resented his tone. ‘And my wife?' he questioned, choosing to ignore Dr Seaton's implication.

‘Ah.' The older man's face fell. ‘I'm not at all happy about Mrs Chadwick's condition. Though I can assure you every precaution has been taken against it, she is a little feverish and, if you don't mind discussing such details, her stitches are showing signs of infection. I can remove them in a day or two and hopefully she will then begin to recover, but until then, I shall remain concerned. But what worries me most is her state of mind,' he went on, unhesitating, never one to beat about the bush. ‘What milk she had has already dried up, which is quite a psychological blow for someone who wanted so desperately to suckle her own daughter. And I believe your own ignoring the child does not help. Your wife cannot be blamed for the gender of her baby, you know.'

Charles lifted his chin stubbornly as he met the doctor's accusing gaze. He should have been delighted at the birth of his child, be it boy or girl, he knew that. No one else knew that as a young man, he had been denied the joys of fatherhood by his young mistress who, without telling him of her condition, had visited a backstreet abortionist. Not only had she taken the infant's life, but the ensuing infection had killed her as well. And all because Charles had once told her that he could not marry her as she was beneath his station. He supposed he had never forgiven himself, which was why Rose's child was so important to him, but there were reasons why he had only wanted a boy.

‘I make no secret of my disappointment,' he said openly. ‘I want a son who can build on the success I have worked hard for all my life. Having a wife and a male heir, or at least what I had hoped would be a male heir, has given me some purpose in life, when I was beginning to wonder quite what was the point of it all. A daughter would be no more able to cope with the business affairs I will one day leave than Rose herself would. But I love my wife dearly, for all her light-headed ways, and what you say grieves me deeply.'

‘I believe you underestimate your wife's capabilities, sir, but that is none of my business. Her health
is
, however, and in my opinion a little more show of support from yourself could well be beneficial.'

Charles studied the closed expression on the doctor's face, and nodded slowly. ‘So be it. I could not bear to lose my wife,' he muttered as he got to his feet and, crossing out into the hallway, made for the stairs.

‘Oh, Rose, Rose, my darling,' Charles pleaded in a broken whisper, wiping her sweat-bedewed face yet again before taking her limp, fragile hand between his strong, brown ones. Her sunken eyes were closed, the long, dark lashes fanned out on her cheeks which were no longer pale, but flushed with fever. Her skin seemed transparent, and she looked more like a child than did the tiny infant up in the nursery, which Charles had not visited since his wife had sunk into the consuming delirium three days previously.

It wasn't puerperal fever, both physicians had confirmed. The bleeding from her womb was quite normal and inoffensive, and the site of the now removed stitches was only minimally infected. It went deeper than that, something Dr Seaton could not explain but had witnessed before, though usually in someone lost in grief. Rose's strength had always been in her mind rather than in her slender, waif-like form, and now that, too, had ebbed away. It was as if she could not face reality, and so had willed herself to drift into some unconscious state where it was peaceful and safe.

‘Why don't you get some rest, Mr Chadwick?' Florrie suggested, for though she had never been fond of Charles and despised him as much as Rose did for getting rid of her beloved horse, he had been sitting at Rose's side for two days without a break. ‘I can take over for a while.'

‘No, no, Mrs Bennett,' he answered wearily. ‘I can't leave her.'

He turned back to the bed, lifting Rose's hand to his lips and kissing each thin finger in turn. He wanted to pump his own strong will, his virility, into her frail body, to fill her again with that maddening resolve he had striven, he realized now, to smother.

‘Rose?'

His heart soared as her eyes half opened, but he saw at once that they were unfocused, lost in some dim fever stare, some daze that she alone could see into. What was it that lurked in the dark shadows of her tortured mind? Had he done this to her, by selling Gospel? By refusing to help that blackguard out in the stable? May God forgive him! She began to whimper, as she had on several occasions in the last few days, as some hideous nightmare slithered into the deepest chasm of her soul. She threw her head against the pillows, her limbs writhing in the bed until the sweat stood out on her forehead in tiny globules and her dry lips muttered in incomprehensible anguish.

‘Oh, my poor lamb,' Florrie breathed in a desperate sigh as she hurried over to the bed, the lines on her face ever deeper. ‘What is it, my sweet?'

As if in reply, a tiny gasp seemed to catch in Rose's throat and a thin moan quavered from her lips. Charles met Florrie's gaze, his eyes hollow as he wrung out the cool face cloth yet again and tried to lay it over Rose's brow. But she flung her head so that the flannel slid on to the pillow.

‘No!' she wailed quite distinctly now. ‘Seth! Oh, Seth!'

She suddenly sat bolt upright and reached out to one side of the bed, which happened to be Florrie's, her eyes somehow wild and yet blank at the same time. Florrie wrapped Rose's wasting form in her arms, rocking her like a child until she appeared to calm, and then carefully settled her back in the bed where her sobs slowly faded and her mind was lost in sleep once more.

Florrie glanced up in despair to see Charles rise to his feet, his face rigid, and walk silently from the room.

‘Right, you can sit back now.'

Dr Power put down his stethoscope. He had been listening to Collingwood's lungs having first examined the healing wounds on his back. With careful nursing, he had managed to avoid infection to the lacerations. Nature would take over now, and though permanently marked, the scars wouldn't be as horrendous as they might have been. The sounds the doctor had heard from the felon's chest, too, were encouraging, and in a few weeks' time, he should be able to leave the prison hospital and be set to some light tasks until he recovered fully.

The physician secretly breathed a sigh of relief. He had taken a huge risk, and it had paid off. He watched Collingwood pull the nightshirt back down over his torso, which was thin now from his illness, but which the doctor's experienced eye could see was normally finely muscled. The fellow's light hair had grown somewhat and he had handsome, hazel eyes. Mrs Rose Chadwick couldn't have helped but be attracted to him. It would have helped her to believe his story. But from the limited conversations Dr Power had held with him, he knew him to be refined, educated and intelligent – certainly not the kind of convict he usually had to deal with!

‘Well, it's about time that plaster cast came off,' he announced gravely, drawing back the blankets from Collingwood's legs. ‘It should be healed by now. Just keep still while I take it off.'

He noted that Collingwood merely looked at him without saying a word. Just as well. He didn't want any discussion over the plaster. It was obvious to him that it had been applied professionally, by his colleague, Dr Seaton, so the least said the better. Thankfully Collingwood remained silent while the doctor worked, but the moment his leg was freed, he was giving it a good scratch and his eyes opened wide.

‘It looks so thin,' he observed in evident surprise.

‘Wasted muscle. Tense your calf and relax it. That's it. Now push against my hand. Good. How does that feel?'

‘A little strange.'

‘No pain? Good. Let's try you on your feet. Take it easily.'

Collingwood swung his legs over the side of the bed and gingerly raised himself upright. Dr Power took his arm as he put his weight on his injured leg and took a few steps, but he seemed to manage without any problem.

‘All right?'

Collingwood nodded, appearing pleased. ‘It feels weak and a little sore, but so much better than before. He did a good job.'

The doctor flashed him a warning glance. ‘Keep your mouth shut, you fool,' he hissed at him, ‘unless you want to get Dr Seaton
and
Mrs Chadwick into trouble.'

‘Oh, God,' Collingwood groaned under his breath. ‘What an idiot.' His eyes swept nervously about the infirmary, but it seemed that no one had heard. He dipped his head, lowering his voice to a whisper. ‘I can trust you, can't I? Is she all right, do you know? No recriminations?'

‘No. Not from the governor, anyway,' the doctor mouthed back, perspiration prickling at his collar.

‘And has she had the baby yet? Dear God, I hope she comes through it safely.'

‘I won't tell you again. I don't want to hear another word about it. Now we're going to walk up and down a few times, and then my assistant will get you an inhalation. You may have stopped coughing up blood and infected matter, but you're not entirely out of the woods yet. But you're supposed to be doing some sort of work, even in here. In my opinion, you're not up to oakum picking yet, but I reckon you can rip some old sheets into bandages for me and roll them up. That should keep the governor happy, anyway.'

And he saw Collingwood nod his gratitude and sigh deeply as he began to hobble up the ward.

Seven

R
ose's heavy eyelids lifted and drooped several times before they remained open, her dulled eyes wandering uncontrolled until they finally began to focus. It was some moments before her disorientated mind placed itself back into reality, her gaze settling on the familiar room. The June sunshine entered through the large open window in a slanting shaft of silvery light, filling Rose's head with peace and tranquillity. Over by the table, a figure she recognized but somehow could not place was busy with some task, but she knew it was someone who was close to her, and inspired her with trust. She sighed softly, too weak to move, but content to float on some buoyant wave of comfort. Tugging at her memory was a horrific, half-remembered dream, but it was far, far away and mingled with a tender sweetness that had once soothed her troubled soul.

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