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Sick Room, Tyler Hall:
It was late in the afternoon as the warning groans of thunder approached ominously from the distance. The storm had grown worse as the hours passed and now dark, rumbling clouds were passing slowly overhead, bringing with them an eerie silence that sent all sane men running for shelter. Within minutes, a thick rain was blanketing the land and a cold wind was howling around the stony corners of the ailing mansion.
Gladys Humphrey, head of the servants at Tyler Hall, was not one to be rattled by the dramatic whimsy of Mother Nature. Instead, she paced herself between securing the shutters and stoking the fires throughout the three-story building. Still, despite her outward show of confidence, even she had to admit that this was quite a ferocious storm arriving so early in spring. From experience, she knew that the worst of it had yet to come. Ah, just as well, she reasoned. The sooner the storm arrived, the sooner it would leave this family to rest in peace.
Poor Isabel Tyler, the Baroness, had gone through sheer agony trying to calm her young daughter. Little Serena was terrified of the booming thunder and fiery lightning. Only a few minutes had passed since the child was finally calmed down to sleep, yet each second since then had seemed an eternity as everyone waited to hear the child pitifully wailing once more.
Normally the baroness would have let the nanny put Serena to bed. This night though, the child had thrown a great tantrum, begging her mother to tuck her in. It moved Isabel to tears to see her nine year old daughter so distraught. Unable to calm her by any other means, Isabel relented and pulled Serena into her arms, intent to put her own daughter to bed for a change.
It had been touching to see Isabel carry the sniffling nine-year-old child up the stairs like an infant. It might have been the storm that had caused Serena to throw such a fit, but Mrs. Humphrey had her suspicions.
Four years earlier, when Serena had just turned five, she was still clinging to her mother like a baby. That was when Baron Sherman Tyler declared that Isabel lavished far too much attention on their daughter. He demanded a nanny be hired full-time despite his wife's pleading. He insisted Serena would grow up spoiled if they didn't break her of her childish ways. He would not have it, he'd declared.
Heidi, the new nanny, took over most of Isabel's nightly activities with Serena. She dressed and bathed the young girl without Isabel's assistance. Then, at Sherman's insistence, Heidi began tucking Serena into bed at such an early hour that Isabel scarcely had a chance to see her some days. Isabel had begged Sherman to let her do more with Serena, but he refused, saying it was for the best. Of course, it was standard practice at the time to have hired help tending to the children, but Isabel had never wanted to raise her children in that manner.
Watching it all play out from a distance, Gladys Humphrey had her suspicions about the baron's motives. She suspected the Baron was actually jealous of his own daughter. It was greed for his wife, not love for his needful daughter that brought about the changes in the household. Gladys did not believe Sherman had given a single thought for the girl's well being in the dictates he'd made over the last few years.
For nearly four years, the Baron persisted in trying to separate Isabel and the girl. It started with the nanny seeing to the child's basic needs. Then, he'd insisted on hiring professional tutors to teach their daughter the more domestic affairs of sewing and serving tea. Soon it seemed there was nothing left for Isabel to do with Serena except to watch her grow. Sherman seemed driven to deny Isabel every right as a mother.
Isabel lived with such indignity in silence. She quietly yearned to be with her daughter but, out of respect for her husband's authority, she refrained from interfering with Serena's care.
Tonight though, Serena's panicked screams must have been the breaking point for them both. The baron had come close to striking Serena when she clung to Isabel's side, refusing to let go. With agonized screams, she begged her father to let her mother be the one to tuck her in that evening.
At some point Sherman began to lose control and reacted completely without thinking. As he raised his hand toward Serena in anger, Isabel decided that she'd tolerated his overbearing nature long enough. She was practically moved to tears to see Sherman's hand rising within arm's reach of their daughter.
She pulled Serena close to her bosom and raged, "You will let me pass to the stairs with her this minute, Sherman. Step aside! If you can be so barbaric as to strike our child when she only wants our love and comfort, then there is nothing more that I have to say to you. I could never love a man who would deny me the right to soothe my own daughter when she is frightened. I won't tolerate this petty jealousy you have over her any longer. She is mine and I will do with her as I please. Now let me pass to the stairs or I'll be going through the front door instead!"
That tirade, the first to ever come from Isabel, must have finally gotten through to Sherman. He sobered from his anger and looked almost bewildered. It was the first time she had ever voiced her outrage against him. His eyes, having grown so wide and cruel before, now closed in defeat. He sighed deeply and stepped aside allowing them both access to the stairs.
When she reached the second step, he shouted beseechingly to her. His voice cracked as he spoke, but he couldn't stop himself even when the servants watched with something akin to pity for him. "Isabel!" He cried. "Please forgive me! I would never wish to hurt you. I love you more than I can say... All I've ever dreamed to gain is your love, devotion and attention... Please..." These last words were whispered so softly she almost didn't hear him. She didn't turn when he walked to the front door and left the house. The sound of the enormous door closing was the only hint that he had gone out.
Gladys had seen the look in his eyes when he walked out. The dejected look on his face resembled a man who had just lost his best friend. Never had Sherman looked so assaulted. Knowing how few friends he did have, Mrs. Humphrey didn't doubt that was exactly how he felt when Isabel raised her voice to him. Still, she couldn't muster any sympathy for his plight. Sherman was a greedy man who thought of no one but himself when it came to getting what he wanted.
That argument had transpired several hours ago now. Gladys raised her eyes to the staircase as Isabel finally emerged from the upper floors. She appeared to be walking with an air of peace surrounding her that the servant hadn't seen in years. The tense and unhappy gloom that normally shrouded the delicate Baroness was gone.
"Does the child sleep at last," Gladys asked her mistress. She could still hear the echoes of the child's tantrum even now.
"She is peaceful under her covers. I sang her a few quiet songs and that seemed to soothe her enough to relax. I might need to speak with Heidi though. I was a bit cross with her upstairs when she tried to intervene on Sherman's behalf. It just seemed to heighten Serena's misery and' I don't know... I just lost my temper I suppose."
A new growl of thunder passed overhead as the house lit up brightly from a sharp bolt of lightning. Both women fairly jumped and stared wide-eyed at one another. A moment later they were nervously laughing over the unexpectedness of it. After all, they were grown women.
"I don't imagine this storm will last much longer. It seems to be moving quickly, now that it's here," Mrs. Humphrey's encouraged. Her voice sounded most certain of it, almost...
"I agree, but I do hope My Lord will be back soon. It is such a fierce night out there." Isabel stared at the huge oak doors, willing them to open with her mind.
Gladys eyed Isabel with a curious grin. She wondered how such a delicate woman had come to be with a man like Sherman. The two were nothing alike. Until tonight Isabel had never shown a hint of being anything but the mild tempered mistress. She showered her affection on all of her servants equally. Everyone loved her.
Sherman was absolutely nothing of the kind. He was harsh and cruel to everyone. The only person he had ever shown the kinder side of himself to was Isabel. Yet, even his kind side was a bitter thing. The man was filled with nothing but greed and contempt for the world. He had cold, rancid green eyes that easily matched his dour disposition. Despite his nature though, Isabel was staring out the front window, fearing he might fall ill out in the storm.
Gladys thought Sherman had gotten exactly what he deserved, but it would do no good to tell that to Isabel. Instead, she said, "My apologies, Your Grace, but I would assume he's out for the night. However, I think he just might be treating you as his lordship when he finally does make his way back home. Pardon my plain speaking."
Of course Isabel would forgive the older woman. She'd grown accustomed to the woman's ways long ago. Gladys Humphrey never found much control over her tongue, as more than once she'd added her two cents where the Baron was concerned. Somehow it fit her appearance. The woman had to be well into her fifties, though she hadn't slowed a day in her life. Her hair was a mass of gray curls and she had put on a good amount of weight over the years, but she always passed on sage advice to Isabel. She was wise beyond her years, with very little ever intimidating her, not even the Baron's foul temper. That was probably the reason she and Gladys got along so well. There were very few people in Tyler Hall who would dare to speak against Sherman or question his authority. Gladys did. Whether right or wrong, she always let loose her opinion of things.
Long ago, Gladys had voiced her opinion about Sherman's determination to keep mother and daughter separated. She had told Isabel that she needed to stand up to the man. But sadly, Isabel never did. She had never even considered it was her right to do so. Only now, did Isabel admit that perhaps the older woman had been right all along. She should have stood up to her husband a long time ago. It was time for her to grow out of her weak minded ways and become the Baroness she was entitled to be.
She found herself standing a bit taller now, as she admitted it to herself. She saw the minute change as she looked at her reflection in the darkened window. She also noticed a few new wisps of gray shining through her naturally dark hair, although she smiled at them, realizing they were a sure sign of the mature woman inside her skin. That part was just now growing out for the world to see.
As a fresh wave of thunder boomed overhead, the wind picked up tremendously. Heavy raindrops were beginning to pelt the front door. Isabel had to shout to be heard over the deafening noise.
"I'm going to secure these front windows! Why don't you check the shutters in the kitchen and the back rooms," she called out.
"Aye, Your Grace!" Gladys shouted with a nod, grateful for something to do.
As the old woman scuttled through the kitchen door, the stiff breeze half closed it behind her. Isabel turned and began to work quickly to prevent the wind from chilling the house any further than it already had.
In order to secure the shutters, she had to open each window in turn. The cold rain had already drenched her shirtfront, and the wind was chilling her straight through. She had no doubt she might come down with the flu for this, but it had to be done. She was surprised they hadn't already lost a window to the frenzied weather outside.
At last the final shutter was secured and she slammed the window behind it. For a moment the room seemed unusually calm. Isabel breathed a sigh of relief then. Opening her eyes as she started to pull back, she breathed a sweet sigh of relief that it was over. Then the sound of a faint noise caught her attention.
Her eyes turned to focus on the front door as she listened quietly for a long moment. She soon noticed a strange sort of tapping, continuing to persist against the tall wooden frame. The sound of it haunted her almost immediately. It seemed odd that the rain should continue hitting the door so repetitively since the wind outside had finally started to die down. It stopped for a second, and then it picked up with fervor.
Isabel was frozen in place. It took her a few seconds to realize it, but that continuous rhythm was not coming from the tapping of raindrops. She nearly stepped forward as her hand lifted involuntarily toward the door latch, but instinctive fear caused her to pull back into the room.
"Gladys!" she shouted out in fright. She swallowed convulsively and began to turn, but her servant was already bolting into the room through the kitchen door.
The old woman had grabbed a small iron pot the moment she heard the alarm in her mistress's voice. As she entered the room she held the weapon high in her hands. It was a menacing sight to behold.
"Lord," Gladys shouted back. "From the sound of your voice I thought a man had grabbed you from the window." She immediately lowered the pan, but not entirely when Isabel held a finger to her lips and shushed her.
Isabel pointed to the door and whispered, "There is someone out on the doorstep."
Mrs. Humphrey heard it too now. The persistent tapping was only a little louder than rain hitting the windows.
"Who do you suppose it is?" Isabel asked nervously. Sherman was gone. She wasn't certain when he'd be back if there was trouble. She could only continue to stare at the door indecisively as the knocking began to drown out all other noise in the room. It seemed an eternity that she stood there so pensive and hesitant.
"There is only one way we're going to find out who is calling,' Gladys finally complained with a loud huff of resignation. She was the one who finally broke out of that moment of paralysis. Straightening her backbone, she stepped forward and reached out to open the door. 'I can't imagine who'd be fool enough to be out on a night like this one''
"No!" Isabel rushed forward to block her path. "It could be a stranger come for trouble. Why would someone knock continuously like that?" As she spoke the person on the other side of the door began knocking with greater urgency.
"Your Grace, I'll take that responsibility if you'll step aside. Trust me when I say there'll be no one pushing his way past me!" Stiffening her lips and bracing herself, Gladys raised the pan and deftly set Isabel away from the door. "No need to fret, Your Grace. If it's a beggar here to cause trouble, I'll see a quick end to his begging."
Isabel stood behind her with wide eyes. As Gladys poised herself, Isabel reached around her to open the door. Gladys held the pan high.
The moment the door was thrown open a long ear-piercing scream came from a ragged young girl who was kneeling on the front step. The tiny hand that had been knocking flew up defensively to ward off the women who seemed ready to attack. Her other arm gripped her waist stiffly. She was obviously in pain. Her clothes were drenched from the force of the rain, though she'd pressed herself as tightly under the doorjamb as possible. At her feet, a trail of blood and dirt was streaming down the steps to pool in a small puddle below.
Both women gasped at the horrific sight. "Oh, my Lord!" they shouted in unison.
Gladys immediately dropped the pan. As large as the old woman was, she swiftly bent to lift up the child, carrying her into the house.
Isabel followed behind. She bade Gladys to bring the girl into the living room to sit the girl close to the fire, but carrying the child was no easy task. The girl was squirming feverishly, frightened to be manhandled so quickly. "Now, now... Be still, girl!" Mrs. Humphrey tried her best.
It didn't take long for her strength to give out. The child soon won the battle to be freed. Unable to contain her any longer, Gladys moved to the nearest sofa and set the girl down as gently as possible.
The moment the child landed, she grabbed her side in distress and curled herself up into a tight ball. Her eyes closed as the blood drained from her face. For an endless second she lay that way, still as death.
Isabel felt at a loss for what to do first. She'd never witnessed anything so horrific in her life.
"Gladys, she needs warmth. I think we should try to move the couch toward the fire and just leave her be." Blinking in an effort to pull her eyes away from the girl's lifeless features, she turned and walked to the end of the sofa. As large as the overstuffed couch was, they moved it with surprising ease.
"Now, go awake the staff," Isabel ordered firmly. "Tell them we need to find a doctor quickly!"
Isabel hurried to the child's side and started to remove some of her saturated clothing. Without a thought, she whipped off her thick housecoat and used it to cover the girl's shivering body. Concerned that the girl had not been wearing shoes, she began rubbing her feet to get some circulation into them. It was only just turning to spring. The ground was still as cold as ice. If she had walked very far without shoes, she might have gotten frostbite.
Servants began scurrying in and out of the room then. Candles were quickly lit and blankets were piled onto the girl. Everyone seemed eager to help, but Isabel ignored them all. Gladys could pull her away but once, merely to put on a fresh night robe. After that, Isabel refused to let her attention be swayed.
It was obvious the girl had been attacked. The dirt covering her dress was faded from the rain, but Isabel could clearly see the imprint of a boot on the material that was now laid by the fire to dry. She must have been kicked in the ribs. Rope burns had torn the flesh from one wrist and dark burn marks marred the skin of her arm. Her face was covered in bruises and her bottom lip was split open. At just that moment, the girl slowly peeped open one eye to take a squeamish glimpse of Isabel who was protectively sitting watch over her on the sofa.
Although they said nothing, Isabel could sense the overwhelming gratitude pouring from the girl's dazed stare. Her eyes were a beautiful shade of green, the most enchanting shade of it, she mused silently. She could barely believe what a beauty this young girl must surely be.
Looking her over for a moment, weighing this girl's size against Serena's, Isabel guessed the girl must be nearly the same age as her daughter was. Perhaps she might even be a bit younger than that. The horror of anyone hurting someone so slight made her feel rather ill. Isabel realized sickeningly that this could have been her own daughter lying here in such pain this evening. The very thought was beyond comprehension.
She and the child stared at one another for long moments sharing their feelings through looks and gestures. Isabel touched the girl's tender face and the girl tentatively reached her good arm to touch Isabel's hand, showing her gratitude and trust.
Just then, Gladys walked into the room with a doctor who lived nearby. The girl started to fall limp at that moment and Isabel nearly jumped back in fear, shouting for them to hurry. The doctor strode over to the sofa with an air of efficiency about himself, his hands touching the girl about the neck and chest before nodding to Isabel. He reassured her that they were not too late.
After some contemplation, he decided to forgo immediate treatment of her injuries in favor of easing the girl's discomfort first. Though she was already unconscious, he knew it wouldn't take much prodding to awaken her once he began working. He encouraged Isabel to help him gently rouse her. Then, together they forced her to swallow a small vial of a very bitter liquid. The girl sputtered and coughed all the while, but soon she was starting to relax once more.
Her eyes closed in a heavy haze at which point the doctor felt confident to begin his work. He silently bandaged her wounds and assessed the damage done to her throughout the next hour. Her ribs were easily bound and the broken skin on her wrist was covered in cream before he bandaged that too. Throughout the ordeal, he repeatedly wrapped the burns on her arm in cool cloths eventually asking Gladys to take over the task as he started to clean up the mess he'd made. There was no mistaking the tinge of anger in his eyes as his mind drew a mental picture of what had happened to the girl.
Coming to the end of things, he directed two male servants to carefully lift her using a sheet as a stretcher. They transported her to a spare room in the servant's wing, as Isabel looked on rather nervously in wait. He was soon giving her a long list of instructions to follow as she walked with him back to the front of the house.
Though her injuries were extensive, he felt confident the bulk of it would all heal given a little time. He suggested it would be most humane to keep her sedated for the next few days, at least until the worst of her pain had passed.
Isabel bid him goodbye with a measure of gratitude as he left the house. She closed the door behind him and turned with a worried brow as she released a long pent up breath.
What in the world could have happened to that child, she wondered helplessly. There was no way to know for sure.
It was sad to think that her parents might be out looking for her at that very moment, unable to find her. But, what kind of people must they be? Could they be the ones who were responsible for this tragedy? Even if they had not caused the girl's injuries, it was unthinkable that anyone would allow such a small child out to roam the countryside alone. She nearly scoffed at the idea of that utter carelessness. Isabel shook her head with a weary sigh, knowing no answers would be found tonight.
Turning her thoughts to Serena, Isabel bound towards the staircase with purpose. She wanted nothing more than to take her own daughter in her arms. Intent on doing just that, she headed to Serena's bedchamber, completely forgetting her earlier concern for Sherman's well being.
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