This story is by C. S. Rambo and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
As Anna Norris saw it, Sir Richard had not taken leave of his senses. His senses had been taken from him. Anna had been the housekeeper at Pollton Estate for the better part of twenty years, and her husband George its steward. It was a good position and she knew herself lucky to have it. But for the past six months, since the accident, she had her hands overfull with the strange and sometimes terrible doings in the baron’s household. She finally entrusted the lion’s share of cleaning and cooking duties to her staff. Her most urgent business at present was the making of teas and tinctures. The doctor came up from the market town once every week. Betweentimes, the health of the household fell firmly on Anna’s aging shoulders.
She liked the stillroom well enough, dark and cool and isolated as it was. Small high windows, one at each end, let in all the light that was to be had. The herbs and decoctions liked the darkness. They lost potency if the light was too long on them.
Her young mistress, Miss Ruth Ackerman, pushed open the door and sat a basket down near the door. “Good morning, Anna,” she called. “I’ve gathered the roses for you.”
“Good morning, Miss Ackerman,” Anna replied quietly. “I cannot promise to begin the rosewater today. I must finish Sir Richard’s willowbark tea before anything else. He will have need of it soon. I fear I am behindhand today.”
“Is Lizzy still abed?” the girl asked gently.
“Ay, Miss, and likely to remain so for a time. Won’t allow anyone near her. The man who did this thing, he still haunts her. In dreams and awake just the same.”
Ruth asked if she might go and see the injured maid, but Anna advised against it. “She’s best left quiet. I gave her a sleeping draught. And, forgive my impertinence ma’am, but you’d best know – she said something as made me think she would try to leave service soon, or perhaps find a position with another family, if her reputation is not ruined all through the county.”
“She has not said who the man was?” Ruth inquired.
Anna looked up sharply. “No, Miss Ackerman. I am quite sure that she will never say.” Anna knew, of course. The servants all did. But Ruth, at least, might be spared the awful truth about the worst facets of her father’s affliction. For a time, at least.
Further inquiries were stilled by the door banging open and George storming in.
“Have you got the willow ready?” the steward demanded, without preface or greeting.
His wife did not look up from her small stove or her stirring, but answered mildly, “not yet, Mr. Norris. If I take it off too early, it will be weak. Better he wait a few extra minutes than take something that won’t help.”
“The pain in Sir Richard’s head is great today. His mood is black as pitch. I needn’t remind you … “ George stopped and looked at Ruth, choosing not to finish his thought.
His wife did not want him to finish it either. “No, Mr. Norris, you need not. I wish his Lordship to be pain free and himself again as much as nearly anyone, I daresay. Apologies, Miss, of course I don’t mean the family.”
“Not at all, Anna, I understand you. Of course Father’s illness has had a great impact on all of the household. I … the doctor told me that no medicine can cause him to be himself again.”
George looked angry for a moment, but composed himself to speak respectfully to the His Lordship’s daughter.
“Head injuries can do this, Miss Ackerman,” he conceded. “I have seen it before, a man fallen from a horse or struck on the head will often behave … differently. We must allow for it, and pray for his full recovery, for his brain to strengthen and cease the fits.”
“Yes, indeed,” Ruth agreed, “and as you are so loyal as to pray for our family, might I beg you also pray for my father and brother to reconcile their differences.”
George Norris’ face clouded at that. Everyone had seen the bruises on sixteen-year old Frank Ackerman’s face, but no one had dared comment on them. The baron’s displeasure with his heir had no reason that Anna or the other servants had been able to discern. After a moment, George nodded.
“I thank you. Both of you. I’ll go and visit Papa now. Perhaps I can amuse him so he needn’t think so much of pain before the willowbark is ready.” She picked up a rose from her basket as she started toward the door, then thought better of it and left the stillroom empty-handed.
George turned to Anna. “That boy is half the reason I fear for the master’s health. The doctor says the brain fits take a toll on his heart. If the baron dies before his time, we’ll be subject to the whims of his half-grown son. I don’t put it past the boy to turn us out without a character. ”
“Then you will have to speak to him more respectful, won’t you?” his wife reproved. “He’s not a spoiled child anymore. Come back for the dose in half an hour. Out now, I’ve work.”
As the door to the stillroom shut behind George, Anna turned her thoughts to what might be done for Lizzy. The maid’s body would mend, and soon enough so long as there were no child made. The mind would need more healing. These things took a terrible toll on a girl. Lizzy could not be much more than fifteen. Anna would have to make sure she did not leave until she was strong enough to get over what needed to be got over. But leave she must, if the baron remained master here.
The sun broke through one of the high windows then, and its beam of light fell on a bottle sitting alone on the highest shelf – the foxglove petals, kept well out of easy reach so they could not be mistaken for anything else. A strong and powerful heart medicine they were, if used in the right amount at the right time – but in inexperienced hands, or given for the wrong condition, they were a deadly poison.
The door banged open again, startling her. Miss Ruth Ackerman was frantic, out of breath, and leading a crying child. It took a moment for Anna to realize that the disheveled mess that held her hand was the gardener’s boy, Evan, and that he was terrified. Anna pointed to the floor in the corner. “Set him down there Miss.”
“I think his arm is broken. Oh, Anna – I got to Papa’s room and heard him yelling at the boy, calling him a nosy good-for-nothing sneak who listens at windows … I … he said that if the boy ever spoke one word about Lizzy or other business of this estate, he would be stopped from speaking for good. I heard a crash and ran in. I found Evan on the floor sobbing, and Papa looked like he was about to have another fit of apoplexy. Oh! I left him in that state! Should I return?”
Anna did not reply. It was Miss Ackerman’s own business, whether to stay with the injured boy or return to the damaged man. Anna busied herself with taking rolled bandages off the shelf, putting a handful of comfrey to soak, bustling in that way she had developed over years. It made people feel she had things well in hand. It served her well, times like these. It calmed Miss Ackerman down a bit, and in turn that calmed the little boy, though he still whimpered.
The baron was worsening. Now it seemed even the children were not safe from his strange fits of temper and unprovoked violence.
Anna handed the bandages and wet herbs to Ruth, who set about doing as Anna had taught her years ago. “He should be carried to the doctor,” Anna told her. “Mr. Norris can find a man to see to it, soon as he returns.”
Ruth looked up at her, tears staining her cheeks. “Anna – we cannot send Papa to an asylum. It would be such a cruel fate, to lock up a man such as he was. Oh, to die in such a place!”
Anna nodded. “I’ll finish preparing his dose. He will need stronger medicine after this upset.”
Miss Ackerman looked up. She seemed startled by the tone in the faithful old housekeeper’s voice. Their eyes met for a second, and then Ruth nodded, once, very slowly.
“He was such a very good man,” she whispered. “Before mama died. Before he fell. A good man and a good father.”
“Yes, Miss Ackerman,” Anna agreed, as she set the willow tea back on the stove and reached for a stool. She needed the extra height to retrieve the jar of foxglove petals.