Richard sat on a marble bench inside the courtyard. A warm breeze ruffled the small trees surrounding him. He sat, back straight with his hat sitting on his knee. A dark walking stick leaned against his leg - a gift from his father when he was younger. Here and there little birds flitted through the slightly overgrown topiary, singing as they did. The entrance to the asylum loomed before him. The wings of the building spread out east and west, turning north so he couldn't see the ends of them. The massive, three story building sat on over forty acres of land.
"And what am I going to do with you?" He said out loud. A little finch landed in front of him. Its head ticked up to the left and then right as it regarded him with both eyes. It took off again when Richard didn't throw any crumbs for it. He could almost hear faint voices being carried over the wind but no sounds coming from the asylum itself. The clock on the central tower stood still at nearly 3:50. Whether morning or not, he didn't know. The building itself looked the worse for wear. By all accounts his father had been an able superintendent but an abysmal caretaker. Now he was off in the tropics, leaving Richard with the asylum and a small sum of money.
Richard sighed and gripped his walking stick. The cool metal felt reassuring in his hand, as it always did when he was considering a problem. He twisted the stick in a half circle, back and forth against the ground.
"Really, father. Of all the times you would do me this dubious honor..." He had only recently found he was accepted into St. George's and was still celebrating a week later when the solicitor showed up at his apartments to deliver the letter from his father. As always, his father was brief and overly formal but the solicitor made everything more clear. The Miller-Chatham Asylum and all of its associated properties, taxes, debts, et cetera were assigned to Richard for his disposal. Included in the bequeath was money sufficient to pay for the asylum's costs for an entire year. If he chose to keep the property in the family name.
He stood, settling his top hat tightly on his head. He pulled his old pocket watch from his vest to check the time. "And now I shall be late for Miss Havers. Confound it." The loose gravel of the path crunched beneath his feet as he made his way to the gates and the waiting carriage. The driver, an old man with rough whiskers, lay back with his eyes closed. One of the two horses whickered and stamped its feet. Richard patted the brown mare on her thick neck.
"I am finished here, driver. It's back to Whittaker Park for me." Richard stepped up into the carriage, pulling himself into the interior.
"Sir." The driver said, his voice rough from his nap.
Richard watched the asylum dwindle away through the small window of the carriage. He leaned back into the seat and let his mind wander over the past week. He wouldn't have to keep the old building. He could sell it off, pay the creditors and use the money for his studies and eventually his own private practice if he was careful enough. And then Mary... Ah, Mary. His thoughts went off on an entirely different path - one he wasn't comfortable with. He studied the countryside rather than follow those indecent thoughts any further.
Soon the laughter and squeals of small children told him they were close to the park. Richard arranged his clothing and checked his watch again. Thirteen minutes late. Miss Havers will not be pleased with me. He stepped out of the carriage and handed the driver his money, with a little extra. His father would frown if he were here but Richard didn't care. He had grown up into wealth, rarely needing to work for anything; why should he be tight with his own money that he didn't earn when others needed it more?
He found Mary sitting in her usual spot - a small iron wrought bench beneath a large oak tree. Her shoulder length, chestnut brown hair shifted around her elegant shoulders with the wind. Her ankle-length dress had clever flowers woven in a pleasing but simple pattern. He watched the slim curve of her neck before stepping around to her front. As usual, she had a small book in her lap. Mary was seldom without a book. She looked up when he approached and her easy smile warmed his heart.
"Richard. I was just beginning to wonder if you'd taken up residence in that wicked place." She closed her book with her gloved hands, not bothering to mark her place.
Richard smiled back. She was beautiful. His childhood friend had grown into a stunning young woman. "Hello, Mary. I'm sorry for being late again. Will you walk with me?"
"Of course, Mr. Miller." She smiled even wider at her small joke and stood. She reached her hand out for his arm but pulled back when Richard didn't freely offer his arm. "My steadfast friend." She said, her voice a little sad this time.
They walked slowly through the park, between running children and around tall trees. Their talk ranged from the news of the day to Richard's acceptance into St. George's.
"I must say, Richard. Everyone is awfully pleased for you. We always assumed you'd follow your father into medicine but to be accepted at such a young age is wonderful. I... I shall miss you when you go."
"And I, you, Mary. I..." He stopped and turned to her. "I intend to ask your uncle for your hand in marriage when I am finished with my studies."
"Richard! I... I..." Her eyes glistened wetly as she struggled with her voice. She reached for him again and, this time he let her rest her hand on his arm.
"If you'll have me, Mary. I will sell the asylum and use the money to set up a good life for the both of us."
"Oh, Richard! But why must we wait until your studies are finished? That's a frightfully long time from now."
"No. It must be then. When I am finished, I will be 'Dr. Miller' and worthy of you. Worthy of asking your uncle." He gently took her hand away from his arm.
"My uncle...!" Anger flashed briefly across Mary's face. She looked away. "My uncle is a cruel man and I worry about his intentions. You don't know him like I do, Richard. I've seen the desire he has for me in his eyes."
Richard ground his teeth. "I can do nothing, Mary. Whether your uncle desires you or not, he is your guardian."
Mary bowed her head in defeat. "As you say. Only, please hurry. Whether I am imagining his advances or not, he and his manservant are not my friend. They're brutish and, and..." She reached out, touching his chest briefly. "Hurry back." She finished, quietly.
"Cheer up, Mary. You'll see - the time will go by quickly. Let me walk you home and we'll speak no more of it. How goes your training?"
"Wonderfully. The new litter is nursing well and even the sire has shown interest in them. He has an affection heart, does our Edward. Although, the bitch is still overly protective of her pups and won't let him too close. I visit them when... Oh!"
A small, dirty child ran between them laughing while stomping through small puddles in his bare feet and mismatched clothing. "Here now!" Richard called after him.
"Check your pockets, Richard; that was a little gypsy boy. They're all thieves and beggars. I wish the town council would see fit to run them off. They're a dirty people, everyone says so."
"That child is no worse than any of the other small children in the park, Mary. A little more wild and a little dirtier but they have morals as much as any of us do. I've visited their camp a few times, in fact."
"Richard! You most certainly did not!"
Richard studied his company from the side. Beautiful and meek but oddly argumentative at times. "I most certainly did. As you say, they are a poor people - poor in wealth so how should they pay for medicinal treatment from our learned society? I brought my meager services and ended up drinking late into the night with them. They're a hale and hearty folk, Mary. Only... only don't try to compete with them in drink. I woke in one of their tents with the most horrible head-ache. Fully clothed! And with all of my personal items laid out beside me. Nothing was missing. An old crone gave me something for my head that helped immensely. I went again to ask her for advice on the herbs they use but she wouldn't see me."
Mary breathed out heavily. "I suppose you are right. Still, drinking with those people... what a wicked idea, Richard. Oh! The party this evening! Are you coming? Please do! Everyone will be there and Thomas will bring his violin. My uncle and his servant are away another night so I've invited our friends over. Please go - everyone is anxious to hear about your plans."
"No, I can not. I'm attending Widow Belford tonight on her rounds and there's a small chance I will witness a birth." He chuckled. "She tells me it's quite different than a bitch whelping her puppies. Here we are, Mary. Safe to your home, unmolested by little gypsy children."
"Now you make light of me." She looked down. "I'll miss you and your company tonight, Richard. You are the voice of reason in our small group. I shall be too shy to speak to anyone without you there." She suddenly smiled up at him and her small, delicate face was mischievous. "Pray, don't faint tonight when the little one is born." She darted away, holding onto her skirts.
Richard chuckled as he watched Mary vanish into the doorway. From inside he heard the excited barking of one of her many mastiffs welcoming her home. The thought of being surrounded by friends, laughter and Mary herself was almost enough to make him change his mind about his plans. Almost. But, if he were to finish his studies quickly and return for her hand then he would forsake any pleasurable activity.
I will be the man Mary needs. A man worthy of her gentle hand. He told himself.
His dreams were random, chaotic images that made no sense but they all faded when he became aware of the banging sound. He woke disoriented and unsure of where he was. Pale early sunlight was trying to burn through the thick ground mist their area was well known for and a gentle rhythm of rain beat against his cottage.
"RICHARD! OPEN YOUR BLEEDIN' DOOR BEFORE I KICK IT IN!" The voice cut through Richard's confusion and he sat up immediately in bed, throwing the covers aside. He stumbled into his bed side table before making his way to the door, clad only in his long night shirt.
"RICHARD!" The voice yelled. More thumps shook the door before Richard unlatched it. A gust of cold wet wind swept through the room.
"Who...?" Richard swallowed the words in his throat and wondered if he might not still be dreaming. The figure before him was massive and inhuman. It was several moments before Richard could see that it was just a man with someone slung over their shoulders. The man stepped into the cottage and Richard took several steps back.
"Took your time, didn't you?" The figure told him. Something about him was familiar but all Richard could feel was terror, whether from being woken badly at such an unusual time from a short sleep or because of the man in front of him, he couldn't tell.
The figure pushed past Richard and crouched before his bed. He shrugged his shoulder ungently and the person on his shoulder slumped into the bed with a moan. The man stood again and pushed his hood back. Richard gasped. "William! What...?"
Mary's uncle frowned at Richard. He was an imposing man at well over six feet tall and his face was not made for smiles or kindness. He pushed a bit of his long hair out of his eyes. "Mind your questions and look to your patient, boy. If she dies then it's on your head."
"She?" Richard walked around William to study the figure on his bed. "Mary!"
"That's right, boy. Your precious Mary. I got back in time to catch one of her bloody dogs worrying at her throat like some crazed beast. I killed the damned thing and brought her here to you." William stepped close to Richard and looked down into the boy's face. The man's breath reeked. "You save her, boy. Like your life depends on it. I'll return to check on her health."
Richard barely heard him leave; he was already cutting through Mary's ruined clothing - clothing she was wearing when he'd met her at the park - to expose her shoulder. The dim light showed a terrible wound on the left of her neck but little else. He lit the small oil lamp on his bedside table and sucked in his breath at the amount of blood on her. He could see bone through the skin of shoulder. Bone and raw muscle. Richard grabbed a jug of water, a basin and some cloth. Snatches of memory from earlier in the night came to him - the midwife in her commanding voice telling him what she needed to stop the bleeding from the baby being born. He cleaned what he could as gently as possible but at every touch, Mary groaned and twisted below him. He put his feelings aside and set to work, cleaning and sewing.
Much later, he sat back. He'd done what he could but Mary's breathing was still shallow, her face still too pale. He'd made a sling to keep her left arm as still as possible but she still moved against it, making inarticulate sounds as if in some bad dream.
Richard clasped his bloody hands tightly together. "Dear Lord in Heaven, please see to Mary's health for I am yet inexperienced in the gift you've given to me. She's one of your angels, Lord and I pray you are not yet ready to welcome her back into your loving embrace. In your name, I pray. Amen."
He leaned closer to her, hesitating slightly before kissing her brow. "I'll be back quickly, Mary. Hold on." With that, he ran out to find Widow Belford.
She was not much pleased to be awake after a long night of visiting pregnant women but Widow Belford came quickly enough when he was finally able to explain what was wrong. She took one look at Mary and turned to Richard. "You've not fed her, have you?"
He stammered. "I... no. I..."
"Aye, I imagine not. Check her wrapping - she's bleedin' through. Tsk. A shame to have such a beauty be stitched by a hand like yours. She'll have to marry you now; no other man'll want to look on those scars. I'll need some more water and save some for yerself as well, she'll be wantin' you to cool her. Likely she has a fever. Now, boy!"
Richard did as he was told while Widow Belford dug through his small kitchen. He was changing Mary's bandages when he smelled the broth cooking. His own stomach gurgled at him before he realized he hadn't had anything to eat yet. He ignored the small pains and peeled the last bandage away from Mary's shoulders. He tried to pull gently but the bandage was sticky with blood. He couldn't look at the stitched flesh. Not because he was squeamish but because he was terrified the old woman was right and that he'd handled her badly. He wiped the wound carefully before setting a new bandage.
"Aye, you be gentle like that with all yer patients and they'll be thanking you for it. Go on t' my sister and ask for some of my niece's clothes. Tell her I sent you and why. I won't have you changing her but she needs changing. Your sheets as well, it smells like. Well, no shame in it. Off with you. I'll feed her and when you've brought me the clothes, you go and feed yourself. I don't want you here hauntin' the room."
Nearly an hour later Richard sat staring at his plate of food at The Fighting Cock. Half of the food was gone but he couldn't remember eating any of it. Friends had stopped by to say hello but stayed away when he answered them. He couldn't remember what he'd told them. His thoughts kept turning to Mary and her ruined shoulder. Growing up with his father, he'd seen plenty of horrible diseases, amputations and madness but never one so personal to him. Never one that struck at his core like... He leaned over, vomiting the food he'd just eaten. Big Tom himself came over when he was done.
"Here, lad, I've known you since you were a child but I've never seen you like this before. Not even when your friend Daniel drinks you under the table. No, don't worry about the mess, I'll clean it up. Only, you should go home and sleep off whatever it is. I'll send one of my boys over with some food later. Do you need some help?" Bit Tom rested his large hands on Richard's shoulder.
Richard waved him away and stood, swaying with his hands on the table. "No, I'm fine. I'll go but I'm fine. I just, I'm sorry about the mess." He left some coins on the table and made his way out. Big Tom called after him but Richard didn't hear the words. He found himself walking home and remembering the bloody wound. Every thought kept going back to it.
Eventually he found himself standing in front of his own door. He stared, barely recognizing the plain wooden door with the brass door handle. His hand reached out, hesitated and then opened the door. Widow Belford glanced over at him. A young girl was tidying up the room.
"Back already? You smell like death. Wash up and eat; my sister sent over her youngest and some food. Your girl will live."
He stared at the old woman hearing the words repeat over and over. Your girl will live. Richard fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face. He sobbed quietly to himself while the old woman pretended to check over Mary. When he brought himself under control, he stood to walk over to Mary. Her color was improved and she was taking deep, regular breaths. He stroked the side of her face tenderly.
"Wash up and eat, boy. I won't tell you twice. I'll stay the night and then leave her to you tomorrow. Go on home now, Jenny. Tell your mother to send you along with more food later tonight."
The little girl curtseyed. "Yes, nana."
"That one wants to birth babies, too. Better her than any of your doctors." She inclined her head towards Mary. "Her uncle was here briefly with his man." The old woman shivered in her think coat. "Someone like that has no right walking around in human skin. Wanted to take her back home. Took everything I had to keep her here. Be back tomorrow, that one."
Richard carefully washed himself, making a note to shave in the morning. A whole small chicken and still warm bread was set out on the small table he used for eating at and sometimes for studying. He hadn't realized how hungry he was but now that Mary was going to live he found he could keep everything down. He took turns watching Mary with the old widow but couldn't sleep, even when the sun passed below the horizon.
Finally, when the moon hung fat in the starry sky, Widow Belford cleared her throat. "I'm tired. That means you're tired, too, boy. I'll not be wanting to come here again to deliver a babe from her so you make up your bed on the floor over there."
"I wouldn't dare!" Richard sputtered.
"No, I don't imagine you would. Not you. But I'll take no chances. Love can make people foolish. Aye and blind. Sleep, young Richard."
Much later Richard lay on his back listening to the old woman's snores. He found himself counting knotholes in the ceiling over and over while he lay on the hard floor.
Years. I'll be gone years. Is it worth it? I could marry her now and take her away. Surely the money from the asylum would be enough for a life. Enough to start a life. He thought to himself. A life with Mary whether I was a proper doctor or not. I could... I could take her with me while I studied. He imagined living with Mary - his perfect Mary without a blemish on her. They would have children and he would be a father to them. He'd watch them grow up and they would be whatever they wanted. They'd want for nothing. And his wife, oh, his wife.
He couldn't tell when he fell asleep but something suddenly woke him up. The moon is higher so I must've fallen asleep. He sat up to check on Mary but froze. She wasn't there. The old woman was mumbling to herself in her sleep. Richard searched the house quietly but it was small and there weren't many places for an adult to hide. Turning again, he saw the latch on the door was undone.