The rain fell outside, hitting the windows of the small townhouse. I sat by the bed in the center of the room, numb, despite the warmth of the fire crackling merrily behind the grate. Mother was sleeping now, peaceful at long last.
As I sat there, watching her, I couldn’t help but remember the day the illness had struck. She had gone to the opera with Father the previous night, and hadn’t gotten back until late. Even so, Mother had gotten up early, as usual, to oversee the servants as they went about their morning chores.
She had looked pale, but assured Father that she was fine. He had then left for work, as usual. Mother had then sent my sister and I off to school, and the day had passed just as many others had.
Julie, my sister, and I had not known that anything was wrong until we had seen the collection of vehicles parked outside our humble townhouse. At the sight of them we had broken into a run, dashing headlong across the street, panic driving us.
We saw no one until we entered the small hall, where the maid, Lizzy- or as she was fondly called by us children ‘Liza-Bet’- took our hats and coats, hushing us and half-heartedly scolding us for tracking mud onto the Gallian rug. She hustled us up the steps, sending us into the old nursery.
“I’ll let your papa know you’re back home,” she said, leaving the room. “And I’ll bring you your supper.”
“Liza-Bet, who do those carriages belong to?” Julie asked before the door had closed completely. Lizzy paused in the doorway, uncertainty flickering across her face.
“I’ll tell you when I bring your supper, Miss Julie,” she said, finally. As the door clicked shut, Julie turned to me.
“Sammy, I’m scared. Why is she bringing our supper here? Why are we not eating with Mother and Papa, like we always do?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling helpless as I held Julie close to me. Gently I stroked her hair, like Mother used to do when we had nightmares. “Liza-Bet will explain it all to us. It will be alright, Julie.”
I held her for several minutes as we waited, not knowing what was happening. Finally the door opened, but it was not Lizzy bringing the food.
Our brother Henry walked in, a serious look on his face. Julie pulled away from me and ran to him, happy to see him once more, as he had been away at University for the previous five months.
“Has anyone told you what’s happening?” he asked, hugging Julie but looking at me.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “We came home from school, but nothing-“ I didn’t know how to express the scene we had come home to.
“Mother took ill this afternoon, so Lizzy sent for Father, who called for Uncle Charlie and the physician,” Henry explained, his face twisting. “The physician says that it’s gone on too long, that he can do nothing more for Mother.”
“But Mother was quite well this morning,” I protested.
“Oh, Samantha, if only,” Henry said, shaking his head. “Mother’s admitted to having pains in her side for quite some time now, but she never complained. If only she had, maybe she’d have more time now.”
“No,” Julie whimpered, searching Henry’s face for some sign he was joking. “She can’t be dying. Surely there’s something that can be done?”
I had frozen, a numbness beginning to spread through me. Henry wouldn’t lie about something so important. Surely not. Horror filled me, choked me. I couldn’t make a sound, though I wanted to scream. My eyes were dry, though I wanted to cry a river. I wanted to flee, to run and never stop running, but my legs wouldn’t move.
“There’s nothing,” Henry murmured. “She has maybe two months, at best.”
“No!” Julie shrieked, tears coming to her eyes. “Stop it, Henry! Tell me this is all a joke? A prank you’re playing!”
“I wish it was a prank,” Henry said bitterly. “If it is a joke, someone has duped us all.”
That had been two months ago, and with every day that came and went, it felt as though our household had fallen apart. Without Mother overseeing the day to day comings and goings, the house seemed darker and dirtier.
I had tried to fill the empty spot, making sure that the house and its inhabitants were clean and presentable, but it still didn’t contain the same comfort, the same warmth that Mother had given everything she touched.
“Samantha, could you come with me to the library for a few minutes, please?” my father stood in the doorway. I didn’t know how long he had been there, but I was so tired from my vigil at my mother’s bedside that I didn’t care to find out.
Reluctantly I rose from my seat, glancing down at her as I moved. She was sleeping peacefully still, though sweat was beginning to give her forehead a shine.
“I’ll be right back,” I promised her quietly. I followed Father out of the room, closing the bedroom door behind me. He didn’t speak again until he had firmly closed the door to the library behind me.
“Samantha, I know these are trying times for our family, but it has not escaped my notice that you have become a beautiful young lady, nor has it escaped the notice of Thomas Cook.”
“Thomas Cook?” I said, confused.
“He has asked me for permission to pay you court.”
“Pay me court?” I repeated slowly, confused. Like a sunrise, his meaning dawned on me, and with it came the anger. “You mean to say that while my mother, your wife, has been sick and dying this last month and a half, you’ve been planning my marriage?”
“Er, not exactly,” he said, looking confused by my reaction. “I mean, I only told Thomas that he could court you. I’m aware that now is not the most opportune of times-“
“Not the most opportune of times? Your wife will be lucky if she lives through the night. She is going to die, and then we will all go into mourning! Don’t you care at all about your wife?” I was hysterical, crying and screaming.
“Samantha!” he said sharply, standing up, angrier than I had seen him in a long time. “I am only trying to do what is best for you!”
“I am your father, and you will do as I say. I have granted Thomas permission to court you. If his courtship of you is interrupted by mourning, then so be it. This is what your mother would have wanted for you. Thomas can provide you with a secure future, a home and a solid income,” his expression softened slightly. “I am just as concerned for my wife as you are, and I had hoped to bring you some happiness in these dark days.”
Guilt for yelling at my father filled my chest and as tears filled my eyes. I was exhausted and all of my emotions were closer to the surface than they should have been. Father walked around his desk and wrapped his arms around me.
I could smell the spices from his shop on his shirt and the clean scent of the soap Mama made for our use mingling with the stale scent of his tobacco. This was my father’s scent, and it soothed me with memories of him comforting me after nightmares had woken me.
“Samantha, all will be well,” he murmured. “I’ll sit with your mother this evening. Go, get some sleep. You’ve carried more than your share of this burden, and I am proud of you.”
“Papa, I am sorry,” I said quietly, feeling like a little girl again. “I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“Don’t think of it,” he said, smiling as he let go of me. “Now go get some sleep.”
~ ~ ~
After I had washed and rested, I prepared Papa a breakfast tray, with Lizzy’s help. When I let myself into my mother’s room, I paused, surprised by what I saw.
Father sat in the chair by her bedside, asleep, her hand in his. The fire still burned in the fireplace, and I stepped in, setting the tray on mama’s bedside table.
“Papa,” I said quietly, so as to not wake mother. “Papa, I brought you breakfast.”
He stirred, and blinked blearily up at me. He looked so old in that moment, as the fire cast shadows across his face.
“What time is it?” he asked, reaching for the mug of coffee that was still steaming.
“It’s just after seven,” I answered, keeping my voice low. He looked up in alarm.
“I need to go,” he said, taking a hasty gulp of the coffee as he bolted from the chair. He set the mug back down and he leaned over my mother to kiss her.
I knew something was wrong when he pulled away, mumbling a mixture of prayers and curses. He fumbled with her linp hand for a couple of moments before his fingers settled on her wrist.
“No,” he murmured. “Meredith, no.”
“Meri, you can’t leave me,” he whispered, ignoring me. I blushed at my father’s nickname for my mother, but I felt the blood drain out of my face as he lifted her to his chest, kissing her chest.
I knew then that she was gone. My mother had died.
I backed out of the room, feeling panic building inside of me as I turned and ran out of the room. Down the stairs I flew, through the halls and the kitchen, into the pantry. I slammed the door behind me and sank down into a sitting position on the floor.
It was then that the tears came with great choking sobs. Alone in the dark room I allowed myself to lose control for the first time in weeks.
It was Lizzy who found me, who convinced me to leave my hiding place. Lizzy who urged me on in my duties. Lizzy who helped me fill my mother’s shoes.
~ ~ ~
I stood, staring down into the coffin, looking at my mother’s body. She was just an empty shell, the hollow skin of my mother.
It was there that I saw Thomas for the first time since Papa had given him permission to pay me court. For all the good that had done. I was now in mourning. He couldn’t do anything for another year now.
“Samantha,” he said quietly, approaching me. “I’m so sorry, for your loss.”
“Thank you, Thomas,” I said quietly, looking up at him.
His hair was a sandy blond color, neatly combed into place as always. Everything about him was tidy, well kept. In the back of my mind I wondered how many maids his mother hired to keep him as he was.
“Has your father told you-?” he began awkwardly.
“Yes, he did,” I cut him off. “Mr. Cook, I don’t believe this is entirely appropriate.” Tears filled my eyes as I thought about where I was. Why we were here.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized, searching my face anxiously. “I didn’t mean to be insensitive-”
“Thomas!” my brother appeared at my side, as if summoned by magic. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here today.”
“I heard about your loss,” he said. “It would be wrong of me to not come and offer your family my sympathies.”
“We’re grateful for it,” Henry said.
“Miss Samantha,” Thomas said, turning back to me. “Before I go, I want you to know, I will wait for you until your mourning period is over.” With that he turned and walked away, leaving me feeling more vulnerable than I had been before.