with a lemon


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His Cheek is his Biographer

“Chaplain Hopkins, it’s Mrs. Foster. May I come in?”

Mary called softly at the door to Henry Hopkins’s room. Matron Brannan had said Henry had not been seen yet on the wards and by ten o’clock, an hour after Mary had herself arrived to help where she could, where she was allowed as Mrs. Foster, curiosity had become concern, a concern familiar to her from her former, lofty position. With Mary’s marriage, which still seemed miraculous a full three months after the ceremony, Anne Hastings had also achieved her heart’s desire, the post of Head Nurse and the incontrovertible queen of Mansion House. They two found themselves working more harmoniously now as Anne did not feel the need to constantly berate Mrs. Foster as she had Nurse Mary and Mary had agreed with Jed that she would not work as many hours, mindful of her slow return to health and her responsibilities to their own household, the servants they employed, their few close friends, itinerant, independent Plum who came as she pleased and Tippet who slept in her basket every night. The War ebbed and flowed around them all, seemingly endless and Mary wondered if there could ever be a victor, what it would cost to win; she and Jed talked about it late into the evenings, both feeling obligated to address the greater misery in the face of their own surpassing personal happiness. They had touched upon it more lightly when Henry came to supper the past Sunday, before the men settled down to their chessboard and Mary to hemming the dress she was making for Julia’s baby Miriam and considering who’d had the best of it, LaGrange or Euler. It had been a tranquil night and Henry had even been relaxed enough to kiss her cheek when he bid them good evening.

Now there was silence from his room, or something resembling silence, and Mary knocked again before turning the glass knob and stepping in.

“Mr. Hopkins, I beg your pardon, but you didn’t answer,” she offered, taking in the disarray of the bed linens, the coat draped across the chair, the curtains still drawn against a night that had been burned away hours ago. Henry sat on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands.

“M’sorry, mustn’t’ve heard you, sorry,” he replied, his voice rough, the words slurred a little as if from drink. It could not be that, for she’d never known him to indulge very much and there was no empty bottle in evidence.

“You’re not well, I think,” she said. He had not finished dressing and his feet were bare, his braces haphazardly pulled over his mis-buttoned linen shirt. The cloth around the collar was darkened with sweat, the same that cast a sheen over his cheeks, along his throat. His face was dark with unshaven whiskers except where it was pale. She saw the effort he made to raise his eyes to her and remembered how it had felt when the fever took her, how even to shift her gaze was an agony.

“Nothing really. A catarrh, I didn’t sleep well. Please excuse me, I know they must need me below,” he began. The words might have convinced her if they had been only written on a page but he spoke haltingly, searching too long for each one, and then he shuddered and pressed a hand against his lips as if he might be ill.

“You need a doctor or barring that, a nurse, someone to give you a dose,” she said, startled when his expression changed to a sudden, dreadful apprehension.

“Don’t let her see me this way! I don’t want that, not her pity. Don’t want her, want her,” he cried, trailing off into a dazed muttering. Mary laid her hand on his forehead and felt how he burned, but not dangerously. He was so circumspect generally, so careful and restrained; it had taken the illness to make him ramble, to imagine the mention of a nurse could only mean Emma, in whose eyes he wished to be only that which was good and admirable. There had been some schism between them that both had alluded to indirectly, the break mending well but not quickly, and she understood how he was afraid of Emma’s reaction even as he longed for her to come.

“Now, now, calm down, Henry. You’re ill and you’re to lie down. I may not be the Head Nurse here any longer but I still may nurse you and give you the medicine you require. I’ll have Jedediah come round to look in on you, but no one else. Not yet,” she said, nudging his shoulder as she talked to suggest he follow her direction, helping him arrange his long legs under the drab blanket. He was not seriously ill at the moment though he could well be, if he was not tended to properly, and she thought it would suit Anne Hastings very well if Mrs. Foster spent most of her time focused on the chaplain, allowing the Head Nurse to shine as the sun without the moon still lingering in the pale blue sky.

“Emma?” he said, asking so many questions with hazy eyes, a hand grasping her wrist but gently, his innate kindness making him careful of her.

“Later, perhaps. When you’re settled, feeling a bit better. When I need to go home, she’ll come then,” Mary soothed. Henry’s face showed he had heard her, his forehead less furrowed, the image she had conjured reassuring to them both. Emma would come sit in a chair beside his bed, the door opened for propriety and the healthful circulation of the evening air, and Mary would find herself sitting beside Jed at the table, managing his worries about her overtaxing herself, acceding when he insisted on taking her to bed earlier, brushing out her hair and assessing her for any sign of fever, any alteration in her pulse at her wrist, her throat, where her heart beat itself.

“I’ll fetch a few things and then come back. You’ve only to call,” she reminded him.

“Mary, thank you, like m’sister, having you here,” he mumbled and she laughed quietly, correctly him,

“Your friend, dear Henry, but I take your meaning. Rest now.” She would return with quinine, a jug of water, a basin should be become sick and she was glad of the copy of Boole’s Laws of Thought in her apron pocket, for she had noticed only a Bible in Henry’s room and he was not well enough for her to admit that would not occupy her for the hours she needed to sit beside him. She was his friend not his sweetheart, so his face alone would not entertain her as it would Emma when she came as the sun set and found him sleeping more easily, the pain diminished simply to find her there, his shame forgotten.