“What are you standing there for, you useless girl?” Lady cried, banging her hand on the desk, sending several of the bottles spinning to the floor so they shattered at her feet. “For God’s sake, get the doctor! I don’t give a damn if he’s in the middle of an appointment with a patient! You’re to pull him aside and tell him he’s to get up here immediately! No police, Justine! Just the doctor! Be discreet! Run!”
There was no time for grief in that moment, especially since a good part of me longed to believe that Greg was still alive or could be revived from whatever had happened. Bolting from the study, I rushed downstairs and out the door, returning into town, catching my breath as I stumbled into the doctor’s office where Dr. Greyson was already in the vestibule, donning his coat to head out for his lunch.
“Why, Miss Walcott,” he said, surprised. “I was just about to brave the mob out there –”
“Dr. Greyson—Dr. Greyson,” I panted. “It’s Sir—up at the house—we think he’s dead—you must come quickly—please—Doctor—Lady’s sent for you—please—”
Dr. Greyson whisked his bag from the floor and ushered me out of the office, walking at such a clip, I had difficulty catching up with him. As soon as we were in the house, he was hurrying up the two flights of stairs and into the study, quickly nodding at Lady before he knelt, took Greg’s pulse and dove into his bag for his stethoscope to listen to Greg’s heart.
“It’s as I fear, Lady Wells,” he said quietly, gravely, standing up. “No heartbeat. No pulse. He’s clearly died. I’m terribly, terribly sorry.”
No sooner had Dr. Greyson confirmed Greg’s death than Lady started pacing, crying, wringing her hands, repeating, “No—no—no—this—can’t—be—true. No—no—no.”
“I’m afraid it is, Lady Wells,” the doctor said as softly as he could. “I wish it weren’t so.”
To this day, I still find it hard to articulate my feelings in that moment. The best way to describe would be as if I were out of my own body, observing the scene from above, as if I’d been the one who’d died and was drifting in the rafters, dead but fully conscious. In that state of disassociation, I watched as Lady alternated between weeping and railing, sitting, and standing with Dr. Greyson refusing to focus on Greg until she’d calmed down.
Finally, after an indeterminable stretch of time, Lady wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and stood in front of Dr. Greyson. “You realise what this appears to be,” Lady Emeline said in between subsiding sobs. “And if it is what it appears to be, you are aware of the consequences of such an act? It wasn’t so long ago, they buried Richard Wharton’s body at the Grange and Blackthorn crossroads, driving a stake into his heart, then seized the family’s property, leaving them with nothing. Dr. Greyson. Nothing! They were destitute and bullied out of town. God knows where they ended up.”
“Rest assured, Lady Wells,” Dr. Greyson said as soon as he could get a word in edgewise. “This is not what it appears to be and, even if it was, the barbaric practices of yore are precisely that: of yore. The horrors such as that which happened to Richard Wharton’s body are over.”
“But not the loss of property!” Lady continued through her sobs. “Not the loss of wealth!”
“Lady Wells,” Dr. Greyson said as softly as he could. “What you say is true. If a jury rules that
an individual has committed felo de se, felony of self, the familial forfeiture of the deceased’s property still stands. It’s British law. But – please – I realise this is distressing – tragic – but if you’d please just permit me to speak before you work yourself up anymore. Please – Lady Wells –”
“And what about the family’s reputation, Doctor?” Lady carried on, ignoring the doctor’s plea. “If this gets out, we stand to lose our honour! Our reputation! I don’t know what to do! How to cope!”
“Lady Wells – please – if you’d allow me to –”
But Lady wilted on the spot, collapsing to the floor, leaving Dr. Greyson and I to move her body to the carpet before the fire with him instructing, “Smelling salts, Justine. Bring me some smelling salts and a glass of water. This is a dreadful shock but give her a moment and she’ll come to.”
As I hurried down the two flights of stairs to the kitchen to get the water, then back up the stairs to Lady’s bedroom to get the smelling salts from her dressing table drawer, I was numb. In fact, I felt like I were watching someone else dash down and up the stairs. Where was I, Justine? I must’ve died as well for a while for I wasn’t in my body; the girl obeying Dr. Greyson’s orders was somebody else.
When I got back, Dr. Greyson had slipped one of the chair cushions under Lady’s head and he had his hand on her brow. “There’s no use,” he said to me as I knelt, uncapping the small class bottle, and passing it to him. “Once she comes to, there’ll be no use explaining anything to her until she’s able to settle down and focus. Give her a minute, Justine. Give her a minute. There. She’s stirring. Good –”
Five minutes later, Dr. Greyson and I had Lady in one of the chairs. She was breathing deeply and taking sips from her glass of water, opening, and closing her eyes in long intervals.
“It’s best you stay quiet for a bit,” Dr. Greyson advised kindly from the chair opposite. “If you talk too much, you’ll work yourself up again. So, please, Lady Wells, breathe deeply. That’s right.”
Once Lady was calmer and able to concentrate, Dr. Greyson took a second attempt at explaining.
“Your husband had cancer,” he said quietly. “I knew he had cancer. He knew he had cancer and any pathologist examining his body will find it all over. Cancer is the cause of death, Lady Wells, and this” – he cocked his head toward the empty laudanum bottles – “is what I prescribed him to help him cope. So, believe me, this will not be going any further than this room, or both you and I will have a lot to lose.”
“What?” Lady asked – but barely. “What are you talking about?”
“It was Sir Wells’ right to keep his illness private. It was also his right to decide how to face that illness. But, as his doctor, it was my duty to keep both his diagnosis as well as his course of action or lack thereof private. I advised him to tell you, of course. But he refused, saying he didn’t want to give you grief both before and after his death. So, I had no choice but to keep his disease confidential.”
“Pardon me,” I interrupted from the corner of the room. “I think I need a moment.”
Lady was about to protest when Dr. Greyson raised his hand and said, “This is going to be a trying few days, Lady Wells, and Justine is going to have her hands full, performing the last offices for Sir Wells as well as readying the house. I suggest that, to avoid any more trouble and any more fainting spells, you grant her a moment or two to gather herself. This is a tragedy affecting the household. Rosegate is now officially in mourning.”
“Yes, Doctor, you’re right,” Lady sniffled, pressing her handkerchief into her eyes. “Very well, Justine. You may go, but just for an hour. Then, you’re to go to Foxglove and tell Bertie and get her back to the house to help you with your responsibilities.”
Again, I ran down the two flights of stairs, this time flinging on my cloak, grabbing the scissors from the kitchen drawer bolting out to the garden and down to Cemetery Grove. Sinking onto the bench beneath the oak, I stared at the patch of earth where Gregory would soon be buried.
I had no tears, nor words.
I felt completely hollow.
No. More than hollow. I felt gone.
And yet I was coming to grips with the fact that Greg’s adamance at getting me out of Rosegate into Foxglove and into another man’s arms had been to protect me after he’d gone. And how could he have known and never told me? The loneliness he would’ve felt at bearing that burden alone. But not entirely alone because the doctor had known, and the solicitor must have known.
As I sat there in the cold, watching my own breath, I wished it away. If I could’ve exchanged my life for Greg’s, I would’ve in that moment. I would’ve chosen my own absence over his if I knew that he’d be fireside, reading, writing, and reminiscing in that study of his. I would’ve sacrificed my body to the maggots and the worms if I knew that he’d still have the benefit of flesh and bone. I would’ve given up my twenty years for him to have his fifty, sixty, seventy. I would’ve—would’ve—would’ve. But I couldn’t—couldn’t—couldn’t.
There were no tears, nor words.
I felt completely hollow.
No. More than hollow. I felt gone.
And yet, I still knew what to do, even in that state of emotional rigor mortis.
I rose and, exiting through the wrought-iron gates, went out into the heath, cutting boughs of winter jasmine as I made my way to Foxglove through the gorse, not by way of the lane. The little yellow flowers which twinkled through the diaphanous veil of snow served as a testament to beauty and vitality in the dead of winter. And yet, that day, I cut their twigs mechanically, aware that I was killing them forever. They were like my lover then: alive – but wait – no – dead at a moment’s notice – still shining but on the verge of decomposing. But still, I’d make them my last offering to Greg so, when my heart had thawed, I could at least look back and say I’d made a small display of my affection. And I could only show affection; my love for Greg was so immense, all the gardens in the world could not convey it. But that didn’t matter anyway because, back then, I had to keep it secret.
When I reached the cottage, my bundle of branches was so large, it filled my arms and almost blocked my view so I tapped on the back door with the tip of my boot, shivering as I waited for Bertie.
“Oooooo, lass,” she clucked as she opened the door. “Yer’ve been collectin’ wintur jasmin, I see. Isn’t it pritee? Wat yer gointa do with awl of tha’ then?”
“Greg’s dead, Bertie.” The words hit the floor like ice.
“Dont be daft, lass,” Bertie chided. “I saw him jus’ last week, I did. And I’ve been makin’ him an apple cake fer his birthday tea this afternoon.”
“Greg is dead. Dr. Greyson is at the house with Lady and –”
“No, lass,” Bertie interrupted. “Tha’ cant be right. Tell me yer jokin’, lass. Tell me this is yer idea of a lark. Sir cant be ded. No—no—no. He simply cant.”
“He is,” I said. “Dr. Greyson told us he had cancer.”
I set my bundle on the floor and watched as Bertie paled and started shaking, teeter-shuffling to a chair, dropping into it and looking up at me with disbelief.
“But – but – but – how cud tha’ possible be. He was as right as rain last week.”
Of course, I knew that Greg had accelerated the process, but I couldn’t say a word about it, not after Lady and Dr. Greyson’s conversation.
I stood there stone-cold, watching Bertie’ move through the expected emotions. How fortunate for her that she could feel. Denial—disbelief—shock—sadness crossed her face like the shifting shadows of the clouds over the heath on late autumn afternoons. And then her tears fell like the rain, running into the crevices of her interlocked fingers before they glistened on the table. But I kept standing there frozen because figuratively my heart had stopped beating when Greg’s had. My heart was synchronised with his heart. He was still and so was I. He was out of his mind and so was I. He was gone and so was I.
“I’m taking these branches back to the house,” I said coldly, stooping to pick them up from the floor. “Lady has requested that you come up to help with the preparations. And I’m sorry for being the bearer of this news. But, Bertie, there’s nothing left. I have nothing to give you. It’s all gone now. I’m all gone. Greg has left me cold.”
“No, lass,” she begged, looking at me through her teary eyes. “Please don’t leeve me.”
But I turned away and left her hanging alone in her grief.
I re-entered Rosegate by way of the kitchen to prevent Lady seeing my boughs of winter jasmine which she’d write off as coarse field flowers and order me to discard. Placing them in the pantry, I went back to the foyer where Dr. Greyson was standing just about to leave.
“I’ve given Lady a sedative,” he said. “To calm her down. You’ll have to hold the house together for a while, Justine. Is Bertie going to come and help you?”
“Yes, Doctor. She is.”
“Good,” he said. “We managed to get Sir Wells into the middle bedroom where he’s laid out on the bed and we’ve cleared the mess upstairs away. I’m going to head back to town and have a chat with the coroner and let Hargreaves & Carruthers know they’ll have to get here with a coffin. Lady has expressed her wishes to me and tells me that Sir is to be buried in Cemetery Grove beyond the back garden. I suggest you be discreet, Justine and don’t say a word of what you overheard earlier.”
“No, Doctor, I won’t.”
It was like drifting after that.
I wasn’t there; I was out of myself.
The hands of the clock stopped of their own accord.
The curtains dragged themselves over the panes.
Crape cloaked the mirrors and barred all reflection.
The boxwood wreath tied with black ribbon hung itself on the door.
The lanterns, save a few, withheld their flame.
But it didn’t matter anyway because I wasn’t there to see their lightlessness.
And in the austere kitchen, the boughs of winter jasmine lifted themselves into a large vase and floated into the parlour where Greg’s corpse would lie. The flowers twinkled for their last few hours as absolutely no one left the room.