Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 16
Next: Chapter 18

17

Luckily, the doctor had been able to call soon after Gwen had telephoned him and, knowing the powder he intended to prescribe would be on its way, she wanted to do something while she waited. In her troubled state, she was hardly in a position to attend to the cheesemaking and, in any case, she had trained one of the kitchen boys to do the job, so instead she turned her attention to the household accounts.

Over the years she had cleared up the discrepancies between the orders that had been paid for and the deliveries that actually appeared in the house. She’d insisted on seeing for herself when deliveries came, and had checked them off against the bills that were presented for payment. The irregularities had been sorted out, and though at one point she had suspected the appu of stealing, it was difficult to prove. She didn’t expect to see any discrepancy now.

While Naveena looked after Hugh, she sat at her desk and forced herself not to think of her worries. As she rubbed her temple to try to ease the headache there, she noticed a payment for an unusual amount of rice, whisky and oil, during the time Hugh had been ill. She went to the supplies cupboard expecting to see a much larger supply of the goods, but even less than the normal amount was there. Only the appu had the other key.

In the kitchen, she’d hoped to confront the appu about it, but McGregor was there smoking his pipe, with a pot of tea in front of him.

‘Mrs Hooper,’ he said as he lifted the pot and, holding it high, poured. ‘How are you? Tea?’

‘A little tired, Mr McGregor. No tea, thanks. I was hoping to speak to the appu.’

‘He’s gone to Hatton with Verity. She’s taken the Daimler.’

‘Really? Why have they gone together?’

‘A bit of business, she said.’

Gwen frowned. ‘What kind of business?’

‘She has been seeing to the ordering while you’ve been occupied with Hugh. I expect they must be picking up supplies.’

‘And she has been making the payments too?’

‘I imagine she must have been.’

‘And are you the one who still goes to the bank in Colombo?’

‘Yes, I bring back the labourers’ wages and the money for the household expenses.’ He paused. ‘Well, usually I do, but we had a huge amount of tea to process this month, and with Laurence so preoccupied, Verity went in my place.’

‘In the Daimler, I suppose?’

He nodded.

Gwen settled Hugh for the night and, hoping the sleeping draught would soon arrive, she asked Naveena to come to her room.

As soon as the woman was sitting, Gwen looked into her calm dark eyes. ‘Why is this month’s drawing late? I need to know.’

Naveena shrugged. What did it mean, that shrug?

‘Is she still thriving? Has something happened to her?’ Gwen continued.

‘Waiting a little longer, Lady,’ Naveena said. ‘If girl is sick I am already hearing by now.’

Gwen felt so tired; it was hard for her to keep track of simple conversations, but she needed to know if Liyoni was safe.

As they were talking, Verity came in. ‘Hello. I’ve got something for you.’

‘Thank you, Naveena,’ Gwen said as she nodded a dismissal.

‘We were in Hatton,’ Verity said after the woman had gone.

‘I heard.’

‘I bumped into old Doc Partridge.’

‘Really, Verity, he isn’t old at all. Just that his hair’s thinning.’ She smiled weakly. ‘You know he’s awfully nice. You could do a lot worse.’

Verity blushed. ‘Don’t be silly. He gave me a prescription to have made up in the dispensary. He was on his way to do it himself, but I saved him the bother. Shall I stir a dose into some hot milk now?’

‘Oh, please, would you mind?’

‘You just settle down in bed and I’ll go to the kitchen and sweeten it with a good squirt of jaggery to take the unpleasant taste away. What do you say?’

‘Thank you. That is kind.’

‘If anyone knows how ghastly sleeplessness can be, it’s me. Though I was surprised, given that Hugh is so much better – I thought you’d be out like a light.’

‘It seems to have made me rather anxious generally.’

‘Right. Be back in a jiffy.’

Gwen got out of her clothes and picked up the white nightdress Naveena had laid on her bed. She held it to her nose and breathed in the fresh flowery smell, then pulled it over her head and fumbled with the buttons. Her guilt had cemented her within a fearful inner space, but squeezing her hands together and wanting to think of happier times, she tried to banish the black thoughts. If Naveena was right, maybe Liyoni wasn’t ill after all, but it was still possible that the drawing had been intercepted.

If she were to lose it all, the very best she could hope for would be to be sent back to Owl Tree, never to see her darling Hugh again. She trembled at the thought of her son without his mother, and pictured Florence and the other women with the same look of superiority on their faces if it all came out. With sly eyes they’d smile and congratulate themselves that it was she, and not they, who had succumbed to the advances of a charming native man.

By the time Verity came back, she was trembling with fear.

‘Goodness. You are in a bad way. Here you are. It’s not too hot, so drink it down straight away. I’ll sit with you while you fall asleep.’

Gwen drank the pink milky mixture, which, though bitter, wasn’t as bad as she’d expected, and very quickly felt her eyes close. She drifted for a few minutes, feeling comfortably drowsy, realized her headache had lifted, wondered what it was that she’d been worrying about and then lost all feeling of wakefulness.

The next morning, she could barely lift her head from the pillow, even though at the same time it also hurt to rest her head on the pillow. She heard raised voices going on in the corridor sounding a bit like Naveena and Verity arguing.

A few minutes later Naveena came in. ‘I am bringing bed tea earlier, Lady, but could not wake you. I was shaking you.’

‘Is there a problem with Verity?’ Gwen asked and glanced at the door.

The old ayah looked troubled but didn’t speak.

Gwen felt cold and clammy, as if she was about to go down with influenza. ‘I need to get up,’ she said, and tried to swing her feet to the floor, just as Verity entered the room.

‘Oh, no you don’t. Rest for you, until you feel better. You can go, Naveena.’

‘I’m not ill, just tired. I need to look after Hugh.’

‘Leave Hugh to me.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Absolutely. In fact, leave everything to me. I’ve already discussed the menus and paid the household staff.’

‘I wanted to talk to you.’ Gwen felt unfocussed and drifted for a moment. ‘I can’t remember. Deliveries, was it? Or something …’

‘There’s a daytime powder for you too. I’ll mix it up with bee honey and tea. You probably don’t need milk for this.’

Verity went to the kitchen and came back in with a glass of cloudy reddish-brown liquid.

‘What is it?’

Verity tilted her head. ‘Hmmm? Not sure. I’ve followed his directions exactly.’

Almost as soon as she had drunk the potion, Gwen relaxed, feeling the most delicious floating sensation. Blanched of all distress and feeling wiped clean, she drifted off again.

Gwen began to long for the ‘magic potion’ as she now thought of it. When she drank it, she floated in a mist, free from painful headaches and free from worry, but with the stupor came a complete lack of appetite and an inability to hold a normal conversation. When Laurence looked in on her one evening, she tried her best to be herself, but it was clear from the worry in his eyes she was not succeeding.

‘Partridge will be here in the morning,’ he said. ‘God knows what he’s been giving you.’

Gwen shrugged as he took her hand. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Your skin feels clammy.’

‘I just said, I’m fine.’

‘Gwen, you really are not. Perhaps don’t take the mixture tonight. I don’t think it’s doing you any good, and neither does Naveena.’

‘Did she say that?’

‘Yes. She came to me worried sick.’

Her throat constricted. ‘Laurence, I must have it. It does do me good. Naveena’s wrong. It gets rid of the headaches completely.’

‘Stand up.’

‘What?’

‘Stand up.’

She shuffled her bottom towards the edge of the bed and lowered her feet to the floor. She held out a hand to him. ‘Help me, Laurence.’

‘I want to see you do it, Gwen.’

She bit her lip and made an effort to stand, but the room was moving, dipping back and forth, and the furniture was shifting. She sat back down again. ‘What did you ask me to do, Laurence? I can’t remember.’

‘I asked you to stand.’

‘Well, that was a silly thing, wasn’t it?’ She laughed, crawled back under the sheet and stared at him.

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Next: Chapter 18