Rosetta backed away, shaken. She had no idea her lover’s father knew anything about her or her family. It was disturbing. Even her Henley appeared surprised, but curious more than upset. He held her hand tightly to keep her from running off.
“Don’t be alarmed, child,” said the ill man in his weak voice. “I just can’t help commenting.” He coughed, and Randolph rushed over to his side with a warm, moist towel to wipe the drip from his mouth. “I have wanted to see you, ever since you were born.” He paused for a very long time. “But I didn’t know how to find you...and then, distractions and daily life, you know how it goes...” His voice trailed off, and he closed his eyes. Speaking was clearly a lot of work.
“Father, we should leave you now. You need to rest.” Henley III had turned pale as even he began to feel uncomfortable about this awkward familiarity his father had with Rosetta, his lover. Maybe if he gets some rest, he’ll be able to explain this more thoroughly, Henley thought, but really he wanted more time to process things.
“No!” protested the elderly Henley, keeping as firm a grip on Rosetta’s hand as possible for a man so ill. Rosetta leaned over and stroked his whiskered cheek with her other hand.
“Master Hornbrook, don’t trouble yourself with too much right now. We will have many hours ahead to share stories, and all will come to pass, with time.”
Henley II stared into her clear eyes through a haze of incoherency, due in large part to the drugs given to him by Dr. Handover. He wondered if she was an angel come to take him away, her face like a cherub, her smile comforting and serene. His previous recognition of Rosetta was now gone, faded into the jumble of memories he was trying to make sense of in his fevered, stroked mind. Yet, he was still drawn into her gaze, into the purity of her soul, and although he wasn’t sure why, he felt an affinity toward her. Again, he closed his eyes, feeling at peace with the way things were, for the moment.
Rosetta quietly let go of his hand and laid it softly on top of the feather quilt. She and Henley moved away from the bed and tiptoed out of the room. The other’s followed. Once out in the hall, they began talking in normal voices rather than whispers.
“So, I think that’s just about enough of that nonsense,” Edith complained. “I, for one, am going to the drawing room for some tea. If you’d like to join me, that would be fine, but there’ll be no talk of your father’s babbling.” Edith looked directly at her son and held his gaze.
“What ever you say, Mother.”
Henley, Rosetta and Randolph stayed outside the door, while Edith, skirt swishing, almost ran down the hall toward the staircase. She was determinedly flustered so, as intended, her departure did not go unnoticed. Insisting on tending to Master Hornbrook, Randolph reassured the two young lovers all would be well before her returned to the darkened room. Young Henley and Rosetta had no choice but to join a grouchy Edith in the drawing room, however, Henley felt more for a whiskey than a cup of tea, and this time, Rosetta agreed.
“Ah, you two decided to join me after all,” Edith said snidely. She took a dainty sip of tea and stared out the window into the bright sunshine. Birds were singing merrily and the day was commencing as if there was not a care in the world.
Rosetta took the glass of whiskey Henley handed her and walked over to the window seat to have closer proximity to the outdoors. She needed to feel the sun’s heat and the soft breeze coming in through a crack in the open window, and smell the freshly cut grass. She also wanted to avoid settling into any sort of discussion with Henley and his mother, who, one on one, was tolerable enough, but was utterly intolerable when in a social environment. As Rosetta let her mind wander out to the estate grounds, taking in the swans floating dreamily on the pond, the gardener cutting the roses back, two squirrels chasing each other around a tree, she tried to shake the gnawing in the pit of her stomach. What had the old man meant when he said I look just like my mother? She thought. How would he know anything about my mother? All of a sudden, two figures appeared in shadow over by the edge of the forest. They looked familiar, and moreover, they looked to be locked in some sort of embrace, either wrestling or...could it be? She leaned in to get a closer look when she was startled by Randolph’s distressed voice as he entered the room.
“Please Madam, Sir, and,” he paused for a moment not sure what to call Rosetta. “And Madam Rosetta, please come quickly. It’s Master Hornbrook. He’s taken a turn.”
Edith leapt to her feet. Henley’s glass almost toppled to the ground and shattered as he hastily set it on the side table. He reached for Rosetta’s hand and followed Randolph and his mother back upstairs. The room was darker, or was it that being down in the sunlit drawing room altered their vision? The stale air smelled horribly of disinfectant, fever, and sickness. Rosetta picked her basket of herbs and tinctures up off the floor and moved in toward the sick man, ready to apply the necessary remedies to help him. She knew what he needed. Hawthorne. The dried, crushed berries she held in a vial would make his weak heart stronger, the dried leaves would be used as a sedative, allowing the sleep required for him to heal. She was certain about this, so she was shocked and amazed when Edith pushed her away.
“Madam, with all due respect, you know my healing ways will help him. Why do you resist at such an important time?”
Edith ignored her. “Dr. Handover has given my husband everything he needs, Rosetta. You shouldn’t mix your sorcery with modern medicine. The good doctor has been treating my husband since before you were born. Don’t meddle.”
“Mother!” Henley broke in. “Don’t be foolish. Father needs all the help we can give him. You know as well as I do - as well as everyone here - that Rosetta is right. She knows what she’s doing, despite what Dr. Handover might say.”
“Edith, Edith,” her failing husband called feebly. “Come closer, so you can hear me, Edith. I have something to tell you before I go.” His eyes were closed but he was awake, alert. Edith moved in so that her body was touching the side of the bed, and took his frail hand in hers.
“Oh, don’t talk nonsense, dear. Really. You’re not going anywhere.” She patted her eyes with the handkerchief that was tucked inside the cuff of her sleeve, trying to keep her tears from spilling forth like they wanted to do.
“Edith, please, listen...I...I want you to accept our son’s love. Accept it, you must accept it and be happy for the two of them.” Edith tensed up.
“No, Henley, I can’t, I won’t, and you know perfectly well why.”
Henley II began to cough uncontrollably. He looked as if he was in severe pain. Randolph rushed over, lifted his head up from the pillow and fed him a small amount of water to try to quench his dry throat.
“Please, Madam, this tincture will help. Please, allow me to help,” Rosetta urged.
“Edith, darling, please listen to me,” Henley II began again, as if his life depended on it, and it did. “Let our son be who he wants to be, who he needs to be. It’s his only hope, our only hope. Please...please.”
Edith was turning red in the face, barely able to contain her fury. Was this to be her last moments with her husband? Did he have no compassion for her, no words of love or devotion? She supposed in all fairness she didn’t really deserve any, but then, Henley II was the kinder of the two of them. She thought he might at least fulfill his duty as the good husband by leaving her with some tender final words. But before Edith could stop herself, venomous words flew out of her mouth.
“What?” she blurted. “And let that whore’s daughter marry our son? Not on my life, or yours.” The room was so quiet now, they could hear a pin drop.
“Mother, what on earth are you talking about?” Henley whispered, not wanting to upset his father any more than he probably was. “Now is not the time for quarrels.”
“Well, when is the time, Henley? We may as well get this out in the open, so you have the whole story before your father dies.” Henley, Rosetta, and even Randolph gasped at her insensitivity. “Come now, we are not children, and if I have a chance of protecting my own, I will do whatever it takes.” Edith turned away from her husband and for a moment looked as if she was having second thoughts about what she was saying, what she was doing. Her face softened, she faltered, but then she stood tall again.
“Your father wants you to fulfill his fantasy, don’t you darling?” she said to her dying husband, trapped helplessly in his bed. “He couldn’t keep what he wanted, so he wants you to have a chance at it, isn’t that right, my dear.” She looked at her husband lying listless on his deathbed. His eyes were shut, as if in defeat, as if wishing it all away. Then she turned to her son and Rosetta.
“You cannot marry Rosetta, Henley, and do you want to know why?” By now, Edith’s face was burning, her hands shaking. Her son and Rosetta waited in silence for her to reveal her secret to them all. No one moved. The only sound was the ticking clock from the bedside table and the rhythmical death rattle getting fainter and fainter. It bore into each one of them until Henley could stand it no longer.
“What is it, Mother? What is so horrible that you disapprove of Rosetta so much, that you feel we cannot marry? Why now, Mother?” Henley looked mournfully over at his father. Edith avoided Rosetta now, and looked her son squarely in the eye.
“She is your sister.”
Silence filled the vacant space in the room. The wheezing became raspier, softer. The sick man stirred slightly, and although clearly losing all strength, still managed to reach out his thin hand. He was quivering.
“Rosetta, dear...” There was a long pause while he caught his breath. “Rosetta,” he struggled with forming the words, but persevered. “I meant no harm, my dear,” he coughed, gasped. “I’m sorry.” Then he was gone.
...stay tuned...Chapter Fourteen will be posted next Tuesday, April 10th...