Falmouth, Cornwall. 1816.
Bridget was stirring the mixture with so much vigor that she nearly spilled the golden liquid over the sides of the bowl. She scooped some more honey and orange into the bowl and lifted it to her nose for a quick sniff.
“Perfect!” she declared with glee as she set the bowl back down on the kitchen table. She pulled the copper mold toward her on the workbench and began to pour in the liquid. Within a few hours, once the mixture had hardened, she would have the perfect lozenges for Jeremiah’s patients.
As the bowl emptied, she stepped back from the counter and looked down at her work with satisfaction. She was certain Jeremiah would be proud of her work.
“Here again?” A voice reached her from the doorway. She looked up to see her younger brother, standing at the kitchen door with something in his hands. “Our cook will think you are trying to take her place.”
“On the contrary. Harriet does not mind me being here.” Bridget waved the wooden spoon through the air in a flourish. “Especially since Jeremiah and I cured her aunt last year. She encourages me to be in here as much as possible. What have you got there?” She pointed to his clasped hands.
“Take a look.” He hurried forward and opened his hands, revealing a large toad sat between his palms, with knobby, warty skin, bright amber eyes, and tiny webbed toes.
“Ew! Winston!” she cried, jumping away from it. “Why do you have that?”
“I am going to pull a prank on Harriet. This should give her the fright of her life!” He started wandering the room, looking for somewhere to hide the toad. “What are you doing with those things?” He pointed down to the copper molds with his hands that held the toad.
“Making cough lozenges.” She pulled the molds to the side, worried he would drop the toad right on top of all her hard work.
“Don’t let Mama see you,” Winston warned, pointing down at the molds now covered in shining golden liquid. “You know what she and Papa think of your pastime.”
“You do see the irony in your words when you are currently carrying a toad, don’t you?” Bridget laughed, pointing to the creature in his hand. “You should be in greater trouble than me!”
“Ah, but this is just an innocent prank.” Winston chuckled and placed the toad down on the workbench. The little creature tried to get away, its warty legs crawling across the wood.
“Winston! Get that poor toad away from the medicine!” She tried to waft it away with her hand as it sat between the copper molds, but it looked back up at her, its amber eyes blinking with blankness.
“Seems rather apt to me.” Winston sat down on the other side of the bench, smiling and making his normally red cheeks redden even more. It went with his coloring and with his dark auburn hair. He had much more color to his skin than Bridget.
“Why apt?” Bridget frowned, still trying to wave the toad away.
“Well, isn’t there a phrase about having a ‘frog in your throat’?” He smiled up at her mischievously, prompting her to roll her eyes.
“Very funny,” she said, not laughing herself. “In all seriousness, Winston, this is medicine. This is to help people. Please take the toad away before it eats one of the lozenges.” As she spoke, the toad’s warty limb reached out toward the copper mold. “Ew!” She pushed the mold to the side before it could touch it.
“All right.” Winston chuckled again and picked up the toad, holding it safely away from the lozenges.
“Where did you find the little fella, anyway?” She gestured to the toad as she began to gather the mixing bowl and pots for washing later.
“On the path outside, just beyond the door.” Winston lifted the toad to look him straight in the eye. “Really ugly, isn’t he?”
“Rather cute, I think.” Bridget laughed and looked up from the sink toward her brother. “It’s supposed to be bad luck, you know.”
“What is?” Winston looked over the toad toward her.
“Finding a toad just beyond the door!” Bridget said with a spooky voice for emphasis. “Jeremiah says it’s an old wives’ tale now. Finding a toad beyond your door was supposed to signify death and sickness fast approaching.”
“You and Uncle Jeremiah talk of such cheery things.” Winston shook his head with a laugh.
“He is a physician,” Bridget pointed out as she turned back to face him, picking up the molds and placing them on a shelf, far out of reach of either Winston or the toad. “Did you expect us to talk of wonderful things all the time? He deals with evil every day.”
“Evil? You make physicians sound like angels.” Winston stood again and began to search around the kitchen.
“Perhaps they are.” Bridget’s eyes settled beyond the window for a second, looking out across the grand grounds of the estate. At the end of the garden, she could just about see a glimpse of the cliff edge that overlooked the sea. She knew that if she stood at the edge of that cliff, she would have a great view of Falmouth port town, with all of its colorful houses, where Jeremiah did most of his work.
She loved working with Jeremiah, and she admired him greatly for his work. She had always tried to help him with it. She knew it was not something her parents exactly approved of.
As the daughter of an earl, she was expected to be a fine lady of the ton, attend balls and assemblies, venturing out into town to do charity work, but not to act as a physician! She disagreed. Fortunately, so did her Uncle Jeremiah, who she looked at as more of an older brother than as her uncle.
Jeremiah was only too happy to have her as his protégé, and from an early age, he had taken her under his wing and showed her all the tricks of the trade. She was still learning from him, she knew that, but she also knew she was good at the work. She just wished her parents could see it as something more than just a pastime.
The opportunity to help people, to ward off the unseen evil and darkness that crept into their life in the form of sickness, well, that opportunity to help them meant more to her than she could say.
“How about here? What do you think?” Winston asked, prompting Bridget to turn back and see him trying to place the poor toad in a jug. “That should startle Harriet to no end!”
“Our poor cook.” Bridget shook her head, just as the kitchen door opened again. Someone with similar auburn hair walked through, Winston’s twin sister, Wilhelmina.
“Winston!” Wilhelmina’s high-pitched voice made both Bridget and Winston flinch. “Take that poor thing back to the pond at once.”
“But it would be such a good laugh. Come on, Will.” Winston lowered the toad completely into the jug.
“You are a fool.” Wilhelmina moved to his side and picked up the toad once again, making Bridget wriggle with the thought of the poor toad now tired of being poked and prodded. “We need to keep Harriet on our side. With Mama cutting down on sweet treats, Harriet can still make our secret stash of biscuits.”
“Worth the risk I think.” Winston tried to take the toad back, with the creature waving its limbs in the air, like a sailor dropped in the ocean and waving for help.
Bridget felt she had to help it. It was what she always did – helped anyone in need.
“That’s enough!” She stepped toward them and took the toad from their hands, trying to stave off her urge to recoil from its slimy skin. “I am returning this poor creature to the pond. You two go and prepare for breakfast.”
“But Bridget,” Winston complained loudly.
“Now!” Bridget’s sharp tone sent her two younger siblings scrambling away.
There is an advantage to being an older sister!
With four years between them and the twins being just fifteen, they would often bend to her instruction when needed. As they disappeared through the door, she heard Winston complaining to his twin.
“Do-gooder, spoils all the fun.” His voice faded from earshot as he wandered down the corridor. Bridget was tempted to laugh.
She hurried beyond the door of the kitchen and out into the garden. As she reached the pond, set between a fountain and a border of beautiful light-purple coneflowers, she lowered the toad down to the pond and let it step out onto a lily pad.
As the toad dove straight off the leaf and into the watery depths, Bridget felt a smile take over her cheeks, feeling the same enveloping warmth she always felt when helping someone.
Despite her parents’ disapproval, she would always help people.
It is the purpose of my life. I am quite certain of it.
A minute later, she stood straight and hurried inside. As Bridget neared the breakfast room, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in a window in the corridor. She stopped and analyzed it, trying to smooth the creases from her pale blue dress that had been caused from her work that morning. It did little use – there were a couple of stains across the skirt from where she had spilled drops of honey too.
She sighed and looked up to see her face in the vague reflection. Her coloring was rather different from Winston’s and Wilhelmina’s. While they had the auburn hair passed on to them by their mother, Bridget had inherited their father’s dark hair.
It was currently bundled at the back of her head in a rushed chignon, with a couple of loose wisps falling around her neck and chin. Her eyes she had inherited from her mother. Bright green, they were the thing she liked best about her appearance. Still, she often wished she had the auburn hair of her brother and sister.
“Bridget? Is that you?” A voice came from the breakfast room beside her.
“Coming, Mama,” Bridget called back and tried to brush the honey stains out one last time, but to no avail.
Opening the door, she found her family already at breakfast. Winston and Wilhelmina had followed her instructions and come straight away; both were now tucking into their food.
Her father, Henry Garvey, the Earl of Exeter, was peacefully reading a newspaper at the far end of the table, his dark hair now beginning to grey as he was getting older. Her mother, Victoria, was sat at the other end of the table, her bright green eyes turned to Bridget in expectation.
“There you are! What have you been up to?” There was already suspicion in her eyes.
“Preparing some cough lozenges for Jeremiah.” Bridget saw no need to lie. She was determined to persist with her wish to follow Jeremiah’s path in life. She had to press her mother into accepting the fact.
In response, Victoria tutted in the air.
“Hmm, let us not talk of my brother’s occupation again.”
“Are you not proud of him for it?” Bridget found her spine straightening, ready to argue with her mother. Bridget was aware she was stubborn, but she did not mind. It merely meant she stood up for what she believed in, even if that meant occasionally bickering with her mother.
“Of course I am, sweetheart.” Her mother’s face softened. She reached forward and tapped the back of Bridget’s hand with warmth.
She opened her mouth to speak again. Bridget knew what she would say. She would argue it was not the occupation of a young lady, but Victoria closed her mouth again, apparently seeing no point in making the argument. “Let us talk of something else. Have you heard of the Duchess of Dalwater’s garden tea party? It is said that it will be quite the event of the Season. Have you prepared your dress?”
“Yes,” she lied, lowering her gaze down to her plate as she began to butter some bread.
As Victoria continued to talk of the garden party and the preparations, Bridget’s eyes lifted to look at Winston and Wilhelmina. In turn, they were rolling their eyes at their mother’s antics, knowing full well Victoria’s dislike for Bridget’s ‘pastime’.
She did not care. As she focused on the bread, her mind went back to the pond and the moment she released the toad into the water. She repeated in her mind the same thought she had had before.
I will not stop. This is the purpose of my life. I have to help people.
As Bridget helped the elderly woman out of her bedchamber and into her front room, she found her hope growing with each step her patient took. Old Mrs. Doyle’s legs had grown worse with sores over the last few months, to the point that she had been struggling to walk at all.
Thanks to an ointment that Bridget had prepared, Mrs. Doyle was practically barely leaning on Bridget at all, quite capable of making the walk herself.
“There, now!” Jeremiah’s voice greeted them in the front room. “Quite the transformed woman, Mrs. Doyle.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” Mrs. Doyle reached out and took his hand, releasing Bridget. She squeezed Jeremiah’s hand tightly, her wrinkled hands wrinkling even more with the action. “What would I do without you?”
“Thank Bridget for this one.” Jeremiah peered over his glasses and looked at Bridget. “The ointment was practically all of her own concoction. I had very little to do with it.”
He is just being kind.
It was true the ointment was her idea, but she knew Jeremiah had watched over her during the preparations.
“Oh, thank you, Lady Bridget.” Mrs. Doyle turned to look at her, her old eyes alight with gratitude. “I will be able to walk down to town again now.” She smiled. “I can go down to the beach! Oh, it has been months since I went to look at the sea.”
“Well, you will be able to do that very soon indeed.” Bridget smiled back and helped her into a nearby chair, overwhelmed with the feeling of having helped.
With the ointment she had made, Mrs. Doyle would have some quality of life back. That was a feeling she could barely describe. As she stood straight beside the old lady, she placed a hand to her chest, trying to calm the feeling of happiness that swelled inside.
She looked at Jeremiah. In his thirties, he was a thin and wiry man, with more kindness than money, but that was why Bridget liked him so much. He put the happiness of others before himself, every time.
All three of them jumped as a loud rapping noise began on the door of the small-terraced house.
“Jeremiah!? Doctor Crawford? Are you in there?” The knocking persisted. Whoever was on the other side was unrelenting in their task to speak with the physician. “Doctor Crawford! Are you there?”
Mrs. Doyle had a hand clutched to her chest.
“Why do they have to knock so loudly?” She looked up at Bridget with surprise. “Another strike and he could knock my door clean off its hinges!”
“I’m sure the door can handle a little robustness.” Bridget laughed, trying to comfort Mrs. Doyle as Jeremiah went to open the door.
“Yes, I am here.” He pulled the door back. “Who’s there?”
Bridget stepped to the side to peer around the door frame. On the other side of the door was a young lad, just a boy with a flat cap, mud on his cheeks and threadbare clothes that were rather short for his growing height.
“I’m Bertie.” The boy nodded in greeting. “I work down at the docks. I have an urgent message for you.” He pushed forward a missive that had hasty scrawl written across it.
Jeremiah took it with a nod of thanks and unfolded the paper. Bridget watched Jeremiah’s face, seeing the dark eyes quiver slightly behind the glasses. His face that usually bore a smile fell into an expression that was much grimmer.
He looked up from the letter to the boy at the door.
“Go to the captain. Tell him I will be there at once.” He gestured forward and the boy ran away as instructed. Jeremiah then looked back at Bridget as he folded up the letter and put it in his pocket.
“Uncle? What is wrong?” she asked, stepping toward him. “Is someone injured on one of the ships?”
“In a manner of speaking.” He winced at his own words. “Bridget.” He stepped forward, suddenly animated. “You must return home at once.”
“What? No! I always come with you on your calls,” she said instantly, her voice stubborn.
It is what I do! Do not send me away now.
“It is something I must see to on my own.” He grabbed his black leather bag and packed up his things. “Good day, Mrs. Doyle. Continue applying the ointment. I will see you later, Bridget.”
“Wait, Jeremiah.” Yet to her words, he was already hurrying out of the door. “Jeremiah!” she called loudly after him from the doorway as she watched him running through the narrow streets of the port town.
Bridget sighed in frustration and leaned on the doorframe, utterly miserable at the idea of being sent home. She hoped Jeremiah had not just sent her away from an exciting case.
If he has, I am quite determined to make sure he never hears the end of it!
Aaron had been looking at the ledgers for hours. He pushed the books to the side and rubbed his blue eyes. With his eyes closed, he did not see his mother coming, but he heard her heeled shoes clicking across the corridor and moving to the open door of his study.
“Take a break, Aaron dear.” Her bold voice came from the doorway, urging him to open his eyes and drop his hands from his face.
He sat back in his chair and looked up at his mother. She stood before him, tall, with her blonde hair coiffed at the top of her head, a formidable presence to be around. He had inherited the blonde hair from her, though his own was darker and never so neatly styled.
“Come with me into town.” Her regal countenance spread into a smile of eagerness.
Aaron felt his body recoil from the idea. It was impulse these days, a practical reflex to any invitation she made to him to leave the house.
“No, thank you.” It was his standard response to everything these days.
“Please, Aaron.” She walked into the room, pulling on her navy silk gloves, preparing to leave. “A ship has arrived in Falmouth this week from Africa. I am going to see what supplies they have brought and also talk to the crew. What a journey they have had!”
Aaron smiled at his mother as he fidgeted in his chair. His mother’s propensity to fulfill the responsibilities of the Dukedom was admirable and he was very thankful for it. In particular, she was excellent with the duties relating to the port town, and she always checked up on the ships that had come back from long journeys.
“You are very good, Mother. I am sure you have everything under control.” He pulled the ledger back toward him, making an appearance of readying himself for work again, but he glimpsed his mother’s expression.
Matilda had the same blue eyes he did, and he could see them close at that moment, in a kind of despairing action. She opened them again and breathed deeply. Aaron recognized the signs. He had seen the same look many times over the last three years.
“Mother, please do not –”
“Do you expect to stay in this house forever?” she asked, her voice more exasperated than usual, surprising Aaron.
“We have been over this subject.” Aaron closed the ledger and stood from his chair. “I have no wish to leave the estate. There is nothing out there for me.”
“How do you know if you do not go and look outside?” She stepped forward again, moving to the other side of the desk, her face open and pleading.
Usually in this argument, she would be kind, though persistent. Aaron could tell she was just as tired with the argument as he was. He had never seen her so exasperated by it before.
“What of your duties? Hmm?” She pressed the matter, trying to hold his gaze. He looked away from it, not liking the penetrating feel of those blue eyes. “You are the Duke of Falmouth! You have a duty that goes beyond the walls of this house.”
“I do my duties perfectly well from within.” He kept his voice calm. It was true, he kept the books, he wrote letters, he did everything he could from inside the house, but any responsibility that required him to leave the house resided with two others. He trusted his mother to go in his place, as Dowager Duchess, and his steward, Aldrich Barlow. They would report back to him and he would make decisions. “You and Aldrich are perfectly capable of tackling any issue that may need my attention beyond these walls.”
“And what if I were to die tomorrow? What would you do then?” Her harsh voice made him flinch.
“That is not going to happen.”
“You do not know that. You cannot do everything for the Dukedom while staying in this room. It’s not enough, Aaron,” Matilda persisted, shaking her head. “You cannot possibly be happy locked up here like a recluse.”
“Who calls me a recluse?” He laughed at these words, relieved to see his laughter brought her a smile through the frustrated tone. “I am perfectly happy here.”
“The townspeople call you a recluse. They call you worse too.”
“Like what?” He looked back at her in surprise.
“It does not matter. The point is…” She paused and breathed deeply again. “You are not happy here. Please, this has to change. You are far too young to be a hermit.”
He turned away, walking out from beside the desk and looking out through the window at his estate. The town of Falmouth itself was a little distance away, easily within riding distance, but he never went there. He ventured into the gardens, but that was about it.
“I worry for you.” Her words made him fall still, his eyes still on the gardens beyond the glass. He knew her next words. They were always the same, with a few tweaks here and there. “It has been three years.”
“What does that matter?” He scoffed with a shake of his head.
“Rachel is gone.”
“Please don’t say her name!” His voice reverberated around the room. He had to stop this conversation in its tracks before it took on full force.
What followed was just silence, with him staring out of the window and his mother standing a little distance behind him.
“You have been grieving for three years,” she began again, softer this time.
“Why does time matter?” He shook his head and turned back to look at his mother. “I still love her. As though she only left yesterday. That love does not just… vanish.” He emphasized the word with a wave of his hand. “Do you not still love my father?” he asked, suddenly clinging to the idea. Surely, she was as heartbroken as he was.
“Of course, I still love him.” She smiled sadly and rearranged the gloves on her hands, as though steeling herself. “But I found another reason to live. Another reason to be happy.” She smiled again; this one had more life to it. “It is high time you did too.”
“Find happiness?” He shuffled his feet. “You expect me to find love again? That is not possible. She was the love of my life.”
“You can be happy without love, Aaron.” She shook her head, looking at him as though he were but a boy again, not a man of twenty-seven. “There are many things in this world to be happy for. Yet, if life was to change, I like to think that if love was offered to you again, you would not be such a fool as to reject it outright.”
Her words startled him. He frowned at her for a moment.
“You think it is possible to fall in love more than once in your life?” he asked with surprise.
No. I had my one chance, and the physicians could not save her.
“I do.” She nodded, turning her blue eyes away from him and down to her gloves.
The suggestion that his mother may have been in love more than once in her own life made him step forward.
What does this mean? Did she ever love someone else besides my father?
He was about to ask her, to push her on this point and discover an answer when a shadow appeared in the open door. It was Aldrich, knocking softly on the door, signaling his arrival.
“Ah, Aldrich?” Matilda turned to the door, affecting a smile.
Aaron watched her expression carefully this time. There was something else there beyond the smile she bestowed on the steward, suggesting she was hiding something from Aaron.
“The carriage is ready for you, Your Grace.” Aldrich stepped through the door and offered his usual bow.
Similar in height to Aaron, Aldrich was tall with dusky hair and grey eyes. Aaron imagined he was quite a striking figure in his youth, but as he ventured into older age, his face was taking on an air of kindness. Aaron had often heard stories of how strangers confessed their secrets to Aldrich, and looking at the steward now as he offered his hand to Matilda, Aaron could well see why. He had an appearance that suggested trustworthiness.
“Thank you.” She nodded with a smile and took his hand, preparing to let him escort her to the carriage. She paused and looked back at Aaron. “I cannot persuade you to accompany me today, Aaron? Are you not even curious to hear what the ship has brought back for trade?”
Aaron moved back to the desk and sat in the chair heavily.
“Not today, thank you.” He was firm, though his voice was much softer than before.
“Very well.” She nodded, her countenance rather stiff compared to before as she lifted her chin, finding poise after their disagreement. “I hope you will think about what I said. Enjoy your day.”
“And you, Mother.” Aaron nodded goodbye. “You too, Aldrich.”
“Thank you, Your Grace.” Aldrich offered one of his friendly smiles and escorted Matilda from the room. As steward to his father before Aaron, Aldrich had been with them for many years. Aaron knew that Aldrich was the only one beyond his mother who he would trust with completing the duties of the Dukedom.
As he looked down at the desk, his mind went back to the argument with his mother. He was certain she did not understand him.
Clearly, she never knew the love I felt, otherwise she would understand it!
He pulled the ledgers forward again, attempting to return to work, but it was futile. Now, his eyes would not settle on the writing, or even the ink pot and quill at his side. His eyes were dancing across the room instead, thinking of the last time Rachel had come to him in that room.
They had been betrothed, due to marry within months when her sickness took her from this world. The doctors had not saved her.
Useless physicians. They did nothing to help her!
He pushed away from the table and stood to his feet, hoping some amount of pacing up and down the small study would help to calm his whirring thoughts, but it did nothing.
He needed something else to distract him instead.
He tore from the room, practically sprinting through the corridors and up the staircase. He made his way to a small chamber at the back of the house, one rarely entered these days and only by him. He flung open the door and froze in the doorway as his eyes settled on the only thing that occupied the room.
It was an unfinished painting, with a mixture of pencil lines and the beginnings of paint. The faint form of Rachel’s face could just be seen on the canvas. She had died before it could be finished.
This time, Aaron did not walk into the room to look closer at it. He stayed in the doorway, looking at it from a distance. Once more, he imagined what Rachel would say if she were standing beside him.
He imagined her walking up behind him in the corridor. She was much smaller than him, she would have been able to peer beneath his arm that was braced on the door frame and look under his tall figure toward the painting.
He knew exactly what she would say.
“Why are you in here, you fool?” She would laugh at him. “It is not me, you know. It is a painting!” She was always laughing, pointing out the follies of his ways.
It was why he had loved her so much. When his father had died, Aaron had been thrust into the world of being a duke extremely early on. He had relied an extraordinary amount on his mother and steward. When Rachel came into his life, the seriousness of that world suddenly lightened. The responsibilities did not seem so daunting or heavy to undertake.
Then… she was gone.
The version of her he imagined as looking beneath his arm at the painting disappeared.
She is not here anymore.
He closed the door again, hiding the painting from view.
After her death, life had seemed rather pointless. He did his duties as instructed, but from within his house. His mother had to take up the mantle again, and he relied on Aldrich more than he could say.
It was just the way he was now.
He walked away from the door, determined to return to the study and his work with the ledgers.
Yes, this is my life now. It is not happy, but it is my life. Each of us must deal with what we are given.
That was what he told himself, although it brought him no comfort at all.
Even as he was nearing the ship in the docks, he could see something was not right. The letter sent from Captain Smith of the Marianna had filled Jeremiah with fear, so much so that he decided to send Bridget home.
He always valued Bridget’s advice. She had a way of looking at the world of medicine with fresh eyes, taking what she had learned and applying something new to it, but he could not risk it today. He could not put his niece in harm’s way. Not after what the letter said.
As he reached the side of the ship, he expected the sailors to be running up and down the deck, hurrying the deliveries of their supplies and the stock they had collected from trading partners in Africa and Europe, yet the deck was eerily quiet.
“Is anyone there?” he called up to the deck from the ladder that had been lowered down to the docks. A moment later, the face of the young lad, Bertie, appeared at the top of the ladder.
“Doctor Crawford, Captain Smith is waiting for you in his cabin.” He beckoned him up.
Jeremiah swung his black leather bag over his shoulder and hauled himself up the last few rungs. As he reached the top, he followed the boy across the deck, his eyes dancing across the sights around him.
The deck was completely empty except for them. Ropes were left half tied, the ship not completely safe in the port, and there was even some blood upon one of the ropes that was bundled in a spiral on the deck. Jeremiah swallowed at the sight of it. The fact that no one had bothered, or been capable, of cleaning the mess up made his blood run cold.
Some boxes had been unloaded though. He could see a few empty crates piled at the side of the ship.
What is happening here?
As they neared the captain’s cabin, Jeremiah noticed the smell. It was cold and damp, with a stench that cloyed at his nostrils. He wrinkled his nose in response, as though trying to recoil away from it.
Bertie knocked on the cabin door and it was quickly answered by a shout within. Jeremiah went in, leaving the boy on the other side.
Slumped by a desk in the cabin was Captain Smith, resting his head in one hand, with the elbow propped on the surface of the desk. The smell had grown inextricably worse upon crossing the threshold.
“Captain?” Jeremiah stepped in. “I am Doctor Jeremiah Crawford. Bertie gave me your letter.”
“Ah, thank you for coming.” The captain’s voice was raspy, bringing Jeremiah’s feet to a harsh halt.
“Captain, do you have the same illness that you spoke of in your letter?” He stayed back near the door now, fear filling him.
“I fear I do.” The captain stayed at the desk. “Best stay back, Doctor.”
“Tell me what has happened.” Jeremiah’s eyes quickly danced about the captain’s face. He was flushed, probably burning with a fever. With his raspy voice, he was likely to be suffering a sore throat and his nose was almost as bright red as a lady’s rouge. Clearly the man was afflicted with a runny nose, or some kind of cold.
“We have been trading in many ports along the Italian and African borders. Our last stop was Marrakesh.” The captain wheezed slightly as he leaned back in his seat. “Two days after leaving the port, the quartermaster took ill.”
“The symptoms?” Jeremiah watched as the man brushed his brow, evidently sweating.
“A type of influenza, I’d say. I have seen it before, but never this bad.” The captain shook his head. His dark hair plastered to his forehead with the sweat. “A few days later, he died.”
Jeremiah winced at the news. He sent a silent prayer to heaven for the quartermaster.
“Yet no one else fell ill straight away?” Jeremiah leaned back and opened the cabin door again, trying to bring in some fresh air. He had been a physician for enough years to know that being in close contact with someone who carried such a sickness could result in catching it yourself. The fresh air would hopefully help to ward off such an eventuality.
“Not immediately.” The captain rested his head back in his hand again, his manner weary and exhausted. “A couple began sneezing when we were a day away from Falmouth, but nothing serious. After we arrived back, things took a turn for the worse. Those that have stayed with the ship have fallen gravely ill indeed.”
“How many?” Jeremiah pressed the matter.
“About seven at present.” The captain tried to wipe one of his palms on his shirt, clearly trying to dry his clammy hand.
Jeremiah felt his stomach tighten. He passed the bag between his hands in thought. Whatever this type of influenza was, it was spreading already.
“What about the rest of the crew?” Jeremiah looked up from his bag, back at the captain. The suggestion that some of the crew had left the ship made the fear grow within him. He needed an answer.
“They left to visit friends and families. About a week ago now.” The captain turned his gaze down to his hand now resting on the desk surface.
“How many of them are there? The ones that left?” Jeremiah felt his body grow tense.
“Eighteen.” At his words, Jeremiah turned away, looking back out through the open door.
Eighteen… Think how far they could spread this disease. The thought is just… abhorrent!
“Dear God,” he mumbled, before turning back. “Have any others passed? Or does it still stand at one?”
“Not yet.” The captain shook his head. “But I would say that one person below deck is on his deathbed.”
Jeremiah looked away again. His stomach was now so tense that he thought it would turn to stone. It was fear, pure unadulterated fear.
This will soon become an epidemic. God have mercy on us…
Jeremiah arranged to view all the sick sailors one at a time, but he knew he could not risk going down into the cabins below. If this was just the beginning of an epidemic, then he needed to stay well. There were few physicians in the town, and he had the best reputation.
I have to stay healthy if I am to do any good for the town.
He stayed on the deck, open to the air and far away from what he assumed would be a highly contaminated place to be in, the cabins. He persuaded Captain Smith to organize the sailors to come up to see him one by one. With such close contact and trying to help them, the risk of him catching the infection was high again. Jeremiah knew he would have to take other precautions.
As a child, he had learned his father’s trade and he remembered how his father once said that sickness could be passed through breathing the same air. He remembered some people had argued with his father at the time, claiming it was a foolish idea. The older people in the community had still thought back then that sickness was a punishment from God, but these days those beliefs were long outdated. Progression of science showed sickness had little to do with divine intervention.
Jeremiah knew there had to be some truth in his father’s words, otherwise how else could the contagion spread? He had seen it with the smallpox when he was much younger and he had read Doctor Jenner’s paper on inoculation. That sickness had been passed either through touch or through breathing the same air.
This illness could be passed the same way. He would take precautions, just in case.
He reached into his black leather bag and pulled out an old clean cloth. He placed it half over his face, covering his mouth and nose and tying it at the back of his head. At first, his small glasses, perched across the bridge of his nose, steamed up.
Well, this is useless. I won’t be able to see my patients!
He thought about abandoning the endeavor, but he adjusted the glasses slightly, until the steam passed, and he could be certain that his mouth and nose were still covered.
Well, it is better than nothing.
He placed two empty crates opposite each other, allowing a little distance between him and his patients, then he nodded for the captain stationed by the cabin door to bring the sailors up.
One by one, he examined them all, noticing similar symptoms. He deduced quickly enough that the captain was right, it was a kind of influenza.
Some of the sailors were suffering more than others. Whereas some just had aches and a sniffle, constantly sneezing, others were almost completely debilitated, coughing and complaining of feeling dizzy. All had fevers and were sweating profusely.
One of the older sailors was struggling the most. He was complaining of headaches and could barely stand straight from the dizziness. When he coughed into his hand, there were signs of blood in his palm, though the poor fella tried to hide it. It was this man Jeremiah was most worried about. He gave him more medicine than the others, but in truth, Jeremiah feared the worst. He had been called to the patient’s side too late.
He prescribed something for the rest of the sailors, lozenges to soothe the sore throats in particular, but the final and most imperative instruction he gave to the captain, who had left himself last for examination.
“I want you all to stay aboard the ship until you are well again.” Jeremiah saw his words were met with not only surprise, but irritation.
“You cannot ask that, Doctor. These men all want to go home to their families!” His complaint was irate, his voice cracking with the effort of it. “You have seen old Travers; he could die any moment. You want my men to be locked in a cabin and be forced to watch this nightmare unfold?”
“I do not pretend it is a nice thing to have to ask.” Jeremiah held out his hand, trying to placate him.
“It is an insane thing to ask!” Captain Smith waved his arms madly.
“Captain, how would you feel if you let your men leave and they passed this sickness to all of their families? And they began to die too?” It was unusual for Jeremiah to be so blunt. He always adopted a tone of kindness with his patients, but this was a new situation. He knew he needed to stress to the captain how grave their position was if they were going to prevent more people from falling into Travers’ fate.
“What if all the men have it just because we went to Marrakesh? It could be something we picked up there?” The captain was shaking his head. “Perhaps we ate something funny. It does not necessarily mean we would pass it on.”
“Listen to me, Captain.” Jeremiah found his kind tone once more, and leaned toward the captain, relieved the cloth on his face was still in place, though he could smell a little of the horrid stench that seemed to linger on the ship. “One of your men initially contracted it. Just one. That suggests he caught it from Marrakesh, or any of the ports that you visited on your journey. Only once aboard the ship, and after days had passed, did the rest of the sailors develop the symptoms. They caught it from him. Do you understand? It is contagious.” To his words, he saw the captain adjust in his seat.
He seemed to think on this for a minute before nodding.
“Thank you,” Jeremiah said, smiling through the cloth before realizing the captain could of course not see him smiling. “Here, take some of these lozenges.” He tossed a small bag of lozenges through the air for the captain to catch. He could see there was something in the captain’s face, something troubling. “What is it, Captain?”
“There is something else.” Captain Smith looked down at the bag of lozenges in his hand and fiddled with it for a moment. “You are certain it is contagious? Through touch or something?”
“Yes,” Jeremiah stressed with a nod.
“And all the sailors who have left this ship, they could give it to their families, to everyone they meet? They… they could die?” There was agony in the captain’s face at the thought.
Jeremiah wished he could say no, hoping he could bring some relief to the poor man, but to say so would be a lie.
“I fear it is the case, but time will tell.” Jeremiah sat back.
“Some of the sailors did not leave to see their families. They left for trade, for business reasons,” said the captain as he looked out over the deck and into the town.
Jeremiah followed his gaze, allowing his eyes to dart between the colorfully painted cottages of Falmouth. Even from the distance in the docks, he could see the streets teeming with people, some accidentally bumping into each other on their journeys, others just laughing with friends, breathing close to one another.
To think how this thing could spread…
“Who did they go to see?” Jeremiah pressed the point, fearing the answer.
“One sailor went to the market, one to the cloth merchant, and one to the spice merchant, then another went to meet the Dowager Duchess of Falmouth, Matilda Barnet.” At the captain’s words, Jeremiah recoiled back in his seat on the box.
His eyes were fixed now on the town and the people that wandered the streets. With so many sources, so many people to be infected, who could each spread this thing to even more people… It could not be controlled. It was out there already.
Jeremiah saw some grey clouds in the distance, further down the coast of Cornwall and quickly making their way toward the port town.
You are too late, dark clouds. He thought to himself. The evil, the darkness, well, it is already here.
Bridget was pacing up and down the kitchen as Winston and Wilhelmina sat at the table beside her. They were eating the biscuits that Harriet had made for them. The cook piled up their plates again with fresh shortbread.
“Feed you up, that’s what we need to do,” she said with a smile as she offered one to Bridget, but she shook her head in a polite refusal.
Whereas Winston and Wilhelmina were able to distract themselves from what was happening down in the town with a couple of biscuits, Bridget was restless. She paced back the other way across the kitchen.
It had been a week since Jeremiah had come to the house after visiting the Marianna in the docks. He had refused to come in. Instead, the family had gone to the door and talked to him as he stood outside and revealed the news of the contagious influenza.
The news had hit Bridget as though it were a physical blow, making her clutch the wall for support. The thought that all the people in town were in such danger was terrifying to her. Her mind went to Mrs. Doyle, who had been so excited about walking again and being able to walk down to the beach. That was not possible for the moment.
Jeremiah had asked them all to reduce the number of trips they made into town. He also asked that when they did go out, they wear a scarf or some cloth over their mouth and nose, to reduce the risk of them catching the disease. He had given the same advice to all his patients in town and anyone he met, but still, the illness was out there.
As Bridget paced back and forth, she thought of how quickly the sickness was spreading. Some had died already, and it had only been two weeks since the Marianna had arrived in the port.
She wanted to help, she was desperate to do so, but Jeremiah had insisted for the time being that she did not attend his appointments with him.
I could be of help though. This is foolish, to stay here and protect myself when I could help others!
As though in response to the thought, she heard Jeremiah’s voice in the distance. She stopped her pacing and looked around the kitchen to see Winston and Wilhelmina looking up from their shortbread to the kitchen door.
“Is that Uncle Jeremiah?” Wilhelmina asked, her face curious.
Bridget did not answer. She rushed from the room, determined to see him, hoping he had changed his mind and would allow her to help. She pushed through the door and practically ran down the corridor, holding the skirt of her empire gown around her knees to allow her to sprint without tripping.
When she found Jeremiah, she came to a sharp halt. He was standing in the entrance of the house, another cloth wrapped around his nose and mouth. He had deposited a bag nearby, apparently full of food, having brought them supplies.
“Jeremiah?” Her voice faltered as she looked at his face. “You must be exhausted!” She could see he was. His dark eyes were bloodshot, there were shadows under them, and his pallor was prominent. “Please, tell me you are not ill.”
“I am not ill.” He shook his head with a smile, evident only around his eyes above the cloth. “Merely exhausted, as you say.”
“How many now?” she asked, wringing her hands together.
“I am not sure.” He shook his head. “Too many.”
“Please, let me help.” She stepped toward him, eager to be of assistance. “You are tired, and the situation is growing out of hand. You need all the help you can get.”
“I admit I do, but I cannot ask it of you, Bridget.” He shook his head with kindness, but it only annoyed her. She understood why he was saying no, but it made little sense to her when she was offering much needed help.
“You are not asking for my help; I am volunteering it. Willingly!” she cried, stepping forward again, but he stepped back the other way.
“Careful, Bridget. I have been treating more patients today.” He gestured to his clothes, clearly fearful of infecting her. “What would your mother say to me if I took you down to help me and you fell ill?” He spoke plainly, with his eyes wide.
She was tempted to shout that she did not care for what her mother would think when people were so ill, some dying, but she kept her lips closed as she looked up the staircase nearby. In such a house, it was perfectly possible for someone to be listening to their conversation.
“You need help, Jeremiah,” she whispered, seeking out his gaze. There was something in his eyes that subsided at her words.
“That I cannot deny.” He nodded. “I have asked for volunteers to help. This afternoon, people are coming to the clock tower by the docks if they wish to be of assistance.”
“That is good news.” She smiled, trying to show her optimism for the idea.
Why can I not be a part of it?
“Jeremiah!” Her mother’s voice broke through their conversation. “How are you, brother?”
Bridget turned to see Victoria rushing down the stairs toward Jeremiah. Bridget stepped back and allowed the two of them to talk in private for a moment.
Her last thought came back to her, growing suddenly stronger in her mind.
Wait, why can I not be a part of it? No one need know!
She looked at Jeremiah and the cloth around his face. If she were to disguise herself, wear such a cloth or scarf around her face, dress differently and cover her hair… It could just work. There could be a way that she could do her part.
I will do what I was born to, whether they like it or not!
Bridget put her plan in place with rigor. She was surprised Winston and Wilhelmina were so willing to help her. They had been shockingly easy to convince to cover up for her absence.
“It seems you have the propensity to be just as rebellious as us, after all,” Winston had declared with glee as he tossed her a cap that he found in the back of his wardrobe.
“Must be a family trait!” she said as she tried it on for size. It worked quite well. With her hair now fastened into a low braid, the kind of thing she never wore, she pulled the cap low over her brow. It helped hide her bright green eyes a bit. She attached an old handkerchief she had found to cover the lower half of her face and as a result, she was barely recognizable. “This could work.”
“Not dressed like that.” Wilhelmina appeared in the doorway with something bundled up in her arms. “Here, try this on.” She tossed the fabric in her hands through the air, and Bridget caught it in surprise, unraveling the garment.
It was a dress, a cheap thing, tattered in places, perfect for pretending to be a young girl from the town!
“Where did you get this?” Bridget looked at Wilhelmina in surprise.
“I borrowed it from the maid’s laundry,” she said with innocence, closing the chamber door again.
“Borrowed it?” Bridget laughed.
“Do you know,” Winston said as he jumped to his feet and looked at his sister, “I sometimes wonder who the most mischievous one among us is.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Wilhelmina pointed out with a mocking frown. “I was not the one trying to put a toad in the milk jug to scare dear Harriet!”
“Not now.” Bridget waved away their antics and held the gown in front of her body, turning to face both of them. “So, what do you think? Will it work?”
“Yes,” Winston and Wilhelmina said in unison.
“Just make sure we get out payment.” Winston slumped down in a chair nearby. “Mama has now banned us from chocolates too.”
“I promise.” Bridget rolled her eyes. The twins had promised to cover for her absence as long as she brought them something sweet from town. It was an easy deal to make, especially when her end of the bargain would mean she could finally help people get well.
She looked out from under the cap and back to the mirror. Her eyes were very recognizable, but there was nothing she could do about that. If Jeremiah looked at her properly, she knew her ruse would be over, but if she could avoid eye contact for long enough, then it could work. Just long enough to persuade Jeremiah that he should allow her to help.
This evil will not take us yet. Not whilst there is still something that we can do to help fight it.
Bridget concealed herself amongst the volunteers well enough. A fair few people had turned up, but listening to the chatter around them, not everyone had medical knowledge and would be relying on information passed to them by Jeremiah. It made Bridget even more certain in her decision.
I could truly be of some use here.
At the front of the group, she saw her uncle climb up onto the steps that surrounded the tower. As he beckoned for quiet, the crowd fell silent, all faces turned to him.
“Thank you all for coming,” Jeremiah spoke through a handkerchief around his mouth. He sighed before continuing. “I know that all of you will have seen the dire situation we are now in. So, I am incredibly grateful for all of you coming forward to help.”
There was a general murmur in response. Slowly, Jeremiah began to allocate duties, dividing the people up. It seemed the Duke of Falmouth had offered money to help pay for those who could no longer work because of the sickness. Bridget smiled at such an idea, surprised by it.
She did not know much about the Duke. Only the rumors she had heard, but such a move clearly showed a propensity for kindness.
Soon, Jeremiah was coming to the end of his speech.
“There is one last thing I must ask for.” He shifted between his feet. “For those of you who do not know, the Dowager Duchess Matilda Barnet has fallen ill with the sickness.”
In response, there was a horrid gasp that ran through the crowd. Bridget tried to peer beneath her cap a little more, affording herself a view of all the faces and the fear that resided there.
She had met the Dowager Duchess a couple of times at events in the ton, just in passing, but she had heard much of the woman’s kindness. She had always seemed a particularly fine and strong woman. The idea of such a lady falling prey of the dreaded sickness turned Bridget’s stomach.
She bit her lip and lowered her gaze again.
“I must ask, are there any volunteers to assist me in the care of the Dowager Duchess?” Jeremiah’s words were met with a stony silence. When there was no reply, she saw the shock on Jeremiah’s face. “No one?”
“Her son will be there, won’t he?” A voice tore up from the crowd. Bridget’s eyes turned to him, seeing the judgment in the man’s face.
“Of course.” Jeremiah shifted between his feet. “It is his house, after all.”
“I do not think many people here want to help a man like him, Doctor.” The man shook his head.
“A man like what, exactly?” Jeremiah said, keeping the kind tone he always adopted.
“Well, you know.” The man shrugged. “All those rumors!”
“If I believed every rumor that went through Falmouth, I would believe in a great many ludicrous things by now.” Jeremiah’s face was a picture of astonishment. “I remember hearing a rumor that a ship sank at sea because of a giant pig that lived under the ocean. Do you expect me to believe such claptrap?”
“Of course not!” the man said defensively. “But this is different!”
“Is it?” There was a little outrage in Jeremiah’s voice. He cleared his throat, as though trying to calm himself. “I see no difference. The Duke’s mother is sick. That is the fact. As far as I can see, it is the only fact many of us know about the Duke at present.”
In response, more whispers erupted through the crowd. Bridget tried to listen into some of the conversations around her.
“I heard he is a brute,” one young girl said, arm in arm with her friend. “That’s why his mother keeps him in the house.”
“Are you sure?” Her friend gasped.
“It’s what I heard.”
“Nah, you’re wrong,” a young man standing on the other side of Bridget cut into the conversation, talking to the two girls. “I heard the Duke is deformed. A face like an animal rather than a man. That’s why he stays indoors.”
Hearing the rumors uttered back and forth made Bridget’s spine straighten. For a man, any man, to be talked of in such spiteful, derogatory terms was unthinkable. Just because the Duke had kept to himself all of these years, no one wanted to go and help his sick mother.
Has everyone here lost their senses? They would risk a life just because they fear rumors?
She sighed and put up her hand, knowing it would draw Jeremiah’s attention to her, but she had no choice. She would not allow this travesty to happen.
She pulled her hat lower over her eyes and tried to keep her face reasonably hidden by the person standing in front of her.
“Ah, you there – is that a volunteer?” Jeremiah’s voice called to her. At these words, the crowd fell silent again.
“Yes!” Bridget called back, being sure to adopt a higher-pitched voice than she would usually use, so that her uncle would not recognize her.
“Excellent. Tell me your name?” He called to her over the heads of the crowd.
“Brenna,” she said quickly, uncertain why she had gone for the name at all. It was a name she had known long ago. It had been used for a dog of her family’s when she was just a child. She had panicked.
Why did I choose that name!?
“Very well,” Jeremiah continued. “If you wait by the cart, after the meeting, we will head to the Duke’s house straight away.”
Bridget followed her uncle’s instructions, moving through the crowd and trying to avoid touching people all the way. With this new endeavor in front of her, she realized she would have to wear the cap and mask at all times. She could not risk the Dowager recognizing her, even if there was only a slight chance she remembered her face.
As she hovered by the cart, she looked back at Jeremiah standing on the clock tower, thinking of how much the people had not wanted to go to the Duke and his mother’s aid.
A small doubt crept into her mind, wondering if there could be any truth in the rumors.
Have I made a mistake?
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