Her father was shouting now, words thrown into a maelstrom of syllables, devoid of sense. He lay in bed, looking upwards, and Margaret felt cold steal over her hands.
“Should we dose him with laudanum?” the footman asked.
“I don’t know.” It would keep him quiet, but laudanum was tricky—too much at the wrong time, and he might lose hold of his grasp on life instead.
And what if this was the beginning of the end? What if, after all this time, the words he spouted were an apology, and she just couldn’t understand it? Could she simply cut them off? What if he still loved her and would not be able to say it at the end because she’d drugged him?
“I don’t know anything. He’s not thrashing about. If he had gone mad, wouldn’t he be thrashing?”
Tollin looked at her, frozen in horror. And that much recalled her to her position. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t really a nurse. It certainly didn’t matter that she wasn’t Lady Anna Margaret any longer. She had to act like her today. An untrained, inefficient girl would be of no use here, and so she couldn’t be an untrained girl. There was no room for her anxiety.
She took a deep breath.
Miss Lowell, you magnificent creature, I want you to paint your own canvas. I want you to unveil yourself before the world.
Margaret straightened her spine and walked briskly forwards.
She took his wrist and felt for his pulse. His hand trembled in hers, but she found the beat, steady despite the tumultuous flow of his words. “No,” she pronounced, with more sureness than she felt. “He’s not mad.” She laid her hand against his forehead. “The only thing he’s doing is talking, and there’s no harm in that.”
Margaret looked behind her to discover that Tollin was no longer alone. Several other servants had joined him—two of the upstairs maids, their hands clasped together, and behind them, Mrs. Benedict. Word would spread. This was how panic started. The last thing she needed was a household in chaos. She had to hold them together, to make sure that her father lived until the physician could come and see what was wrong. The physician would fix everything.
Until then, she needed to keep the servants orderly. They all needed something to do.
Margaret pulled her hand from her father’s forehead. “He’s overly warm. Tollin, I am going to need you to fetch some ice water. And extra ice from the icehouse, while you are down there.”
A few seconds of faint patter at the windows, and then came the sound of rain, pelting from the sky. Margaret shut her eyes and thought of Josephs, who was no doubt riding for the physician on horseback through the breaking storm. She felt that thread of fear pulling at her, and tamped it down. He would arrive safely. He had to.
Tollin nodded, his muscles relaxing slightly. He seemed grateful to be given something to do. She would have to assign them all tasks until the physician arrived. Yet another wave of people crowded through the door. If Margaret didn’t act, her father would be smothered by well-meaning servants.
“Mrs. Benedict,” Margaret said, “we’ll need a posset. Something sustaining—the duke will need to keep up his strength. I’m sure that Mrs. Lorens can arrange something suitable. Please send someone to the kitchens.” Mrs. Benedict met her eyes and then nodded.
Margaret leaned over her father. He was still speaking, but he was no longer shouting. Now his words came out on a whisper, a wistful stream of babble flowing over her with as much meaning as the passing water of a brook.
“I believe,” she announced with as much conviction as she could muster, “that his chest has taken an ill humor, which has caused his lungs to react in this unfavorable manner.”
Nobody contradicted this blatant idiocy; instead, heads nodded, pleased to be able to put words to his condition. Even she felt better, and she knew that she’d just invented the mysterious problem herself. Not madness, nor failure; just a lung condition, like a cough or a cold.
“We’re going to need to prepare something to draw the inflammation from his chest.” Something harmless. Something with a great many ingredients, which would keep everyone occupied until the physician arrived. “I’m going to need a brazier for the fire and some heated water. Willow water,” she said, because that would take longer to fetch. “Then cloves. A handful of crushed calendula flowers…”
She rattled off every innocuous ingredient that came to mind. So long as they kept him cool and comfortable, it was unlikely to hurt.
Outside, thunder rumbled again, and rain continued to splash down.
As an afterthought, Margaret tasked two of the maids with standing outside the room and barring entry to anyone else.
As the servants streamed out to fetch their respective items, one more person ducked his head in. It was Ash.
He frowned at Margaret and leaned against the door frame. “Miss Lowell. What’s happened?”
For the first time, a thread of fear crept through her. She’d stayed behind in part to watch over her father. The notion that Ash might do the duke harm seemed ludicrous now that she knew him. And so she didn’t fear Ash himself. But she did fear for him. She pointed her finger at him. “Don’t come any farther into the room than that chair, Mr. Turner. I mean it. Stop moving.”
“Good God, Margaret.”
“The duke is in serious condition. If anything happens while you’re present, they will say you killed him. If he dies before Parliament votes on the Dalrymples’ Act of Legitimation, you’ll inherit everything. You have a reason to harm him. I’ll not let anyone say you took the opportunity.”
Ash’s jaw set. “You don’t think I would actually do him harm.”
Margaret put her hands on her hips. “No. Of course not. But if you imagine I’ll let anyone say you did, you’ve gone mad. And so not another step. If you don’t come into the room, I can attest that you didn’t come within ten yards.”
“What difference could your testimony make? You and I—” he glanced urgently at the other servants in the room “—we’re friends.” His voice was low. “The Dalrymples will never believe you, not when they learn the truth of our relationship.”
“They’ll believe me.” Her jaw set. “Trust me. They’ll believe. Stay there, Ash.” Her father stopped babbling, his voice trailing off into nothing. The duke didn’t move—which frightened her even more than his nonsense words had done. She reached for his wrist again, and was gratified when she still found a steady pulse. The fingers of his hand contracted.
And then: “Anna?” he said. His voice was quiet. “Anna, where are you?”
“I’m here.” Margaret took his hand and held it. There was nothing else for her to do, nothing but to offer this scant comfort.
From his vantage point against the wall, Ash spoke. “Why is he calling you An
Tell him. Tell him now. But this wasn’t the time for it, not now, not when all of her strength needed to be concentrated on her father.
“He thinks I’m his daughter.” Margaret held her father’s hand in hers. “Or, perhaps his wife.”
“Anna,” her father said. “Don’t leave me.”
Perhaps this was what she’d waited for, all these weeks. Margaret bowed her head and sank into the chair beside the bed. Somewhere, somewhere inside this demanding stranger who had taken her father’s place, there was someone who still remembered her. Someone who still took comfort from her presence. The man he’d once been hadn’t disappeared entirely.
She held on to his hand, afraid to squeeze for fear that her father would disappear before she had a chance to greet him again. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, with the rain beating against the window pane. Long enough that the servants came and went; long enough that his forehead grew hotter, that she soaked a towel in ice water, over and over, in an attempt to cool him. Long enough that the useless herbs she’d ordered steeped in the brazier and released their wild scent into the air.
Through it all, Ash stayed in the room, leaning against the entryway, watching her. He’d made no effort to come any closer. But then, he hadn’t gone away, either. No doubt he had things to do—far more important things than watching her pray for his bitterest enemy.
From behind him, Josephs pushed past him in the doorway, dripping water. He’d obviously just returned from his errand.
“Thank God, Josephs. Where is the physician?”
She saw the despair in the man’s eyes before he shook his head briefly. “He’s off in Witcombe, my lady, twelve miles distant. Attending a birth, his housekeeper says. No doubt with the storm, he’ll spend the night. No point risking his horse returning in this weather.”
Behind Josephs, Ash pushed off from the wall. “Lower Odcombe has a physician.”