Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 17
Next: Chapter 19

18

In the morning, Gwen sat at her dressing table and opened a drawer where her mother’s scent was preserved in an embroidered handkerchief. She took it out and sniffed. Fortified by the brief connection, she slipped on her silk dressing gown and some slippers, wrapped a fine woollen shawl round her shoulders and then made her way out of the house by the side entrance.

Verity and McGregor were sitting on the verandah. ‘Darling, how are you?’ Verity said with a broad smile.

‘I thought some fresh air.’

‘Do sit for a while. Here’s your drink.’

Gwen drank the mixture but didn’t sit.

‘Won’t you have some breakfast? It would do you good.’

‘I think I’ll just take a walk.’

‘Hang on.’ Verity opened her bag and took out a folded piece of paper. ‘I’d almost forgotten, but Nick just reminded me,’ she said. ‘I’ve been carrying it around since Hugh was ill.’

‘Oh?’

Verity held out the crumpled paper. ‘Can you give it to Naveena?’

As she handed it over a door slammed somewhere in the house. Gwen felt as if her knees might give way, but she made a show of looking at it, while her heart raced and thoughts scrambled in her head.

‘It’s a drawing of some kind,’ Verity said. ‘For Naveena, from a niece or a cousin or something, in one of the valley villages. It’s a bit blurred, and some of the charcoal seems to have rubbed off.’

Emotionally buffeted, the blood drained from Gwen’s face. She folded the drawing up again and hoped the fear she was feeling didn’t show and that the faint sound of voices was only in her head.

A God-fearing Englishwoman does not give birth to a coloured child.

Nick McGregor, who hadn’t spoken until now, looked up at her. ‘I caught the milk-cart coolie bringing it.’

‘Oh.’

‘I’ve made sure it’s a different coolie doing the milk run now, with strict instructions not to carry messages.’

‘I’ll give it to Naveena.’

‘I wanted to say before, but with Hugh ill …’ He spread his hands in a wide gesture.

Gwen did not dare speak.

‘And I know you haven’t been too well yourself.’ He paused.

‘Gwen, you look pale. Are you all right?’ Verity reached out a hand, but Gwen took a step back. They knew. They both knew and were playing with her.

‘Anyway,’ McGregor continued, ‘I really can’t have my coolies delivering messages, not even for the ayah.’

Gwen searched for words. ‘I shall put a stop to it.’

‘Good. We don’t want the servants thinking they’re entitled to send notes whenever they wish. With the current unrest, albeit minor, there can be no underground channels of communication.’

‘Let us hope the drawing really was from her relative, and not some activist,’ Verity said. ‘I always thought Naveena had no relations.’

Gwen tried not to flinch but she had to get away from the subject of the drawing and, clutching at passing thoughts, she began to speak. Luckily, McGregor stood up, interrupting her, and Gwen took her chance to escape.

The garden was aflame as she wandered past the bushes. With one hand she ran her fingertips over the red and orange blooms, and in the other she held Liyoni’s drawing safely folded up. They would have to find a different method of receiving communications from the village, but at least she now knew what had happened to the one that had been overdue. Its absence had not been caused because she had failed to confess. Liyoni was safe and well and there was nothing to worry about on that score.

She walked down to the lakeside and thought about a swim, but the medicine was already beginning to take effect, and when the threads of gold in the water began to blur and the colours of the sky and lake melded into each other, she felt unsteady on her feet. She shook her head to clear her mind: the lake dissolved back into the lake, the sky into the sky. She walked to the boathouse. That was the place to be – safe and full of happy memories.

She opened the door and glanced around the room.

The fire was unlit, of course, and it was damp, but she was tired, so she picked up a knitted throw, covered herself and lay back on the sofa.

Sometime later, she heard Hugh’s voice. At first she thought she was dreaming and smiled at the thought of him. Her lovely sweet boy. She’d seen so little of him lately. It was always ‘Verity this’ and ‘Verity that’. But when she heard Laurence’s voice too, and then Hugh’s once more, she was filled with the desire to see her boys. She wanted to touch her son’s hair and feel Laurence’s arms round her. She attempted to stand, but feeling as if she had an enormously thick head, she had to steady herself by gripping the arms of the sofa.

‘Shall we see if Mummy is in there?’ Gwen heard.

‘Good idea, old boy.’

‘Daddy, can Wilfred come in too?’

‘Just let me take a peek inside, and then we’ll see.’

Gwen saw Laurence’s dark shape block the door. ‘Oh, Laurence, I –’

As he came towards her, he seemed to loom so large that he filled the entire space. He said a few words to her and then she blacked out.

When Gwen came back to consciousness, she heard Laurence speaking. They were in her bedroom now, and Doctor Partridge was standing next to Laurence by the window. She couldn’t see their faces, but they stood close together, in silhouette, with their hands clasped behind their backs.

She coughed and the doctor turned. ‘I’d like to take a look at you, Gwen, if that’s all right.’

She tried to smooth her hair. ‘Well, I’m sure I must look an absolute fright, but really I’m fine, John.’

‘Nevertheless.’

He looked in her eyes, then listened to her heart. ‘You say she fainted, Laurence?’

‘I found her on the boathouse floor.’

‘And has she seemed confused?’

Gwen watched as Laurence nodded.

‘Her pupils are as small as pinpricks and her heartbeat is fast.’ He looked round at Gwen. ‘Where is the last glass you drank the medication from, Gwen?’

‘I don’t know. Outside, I think. I can’t quite remember.’

Gwen closed her eyes and drifted while Laurence went to find the glass. He came back in and passed it to the doctor.

He sniffed, dipped a finger in the remains and put it to his lips. ‘This seems rather strong.’

‘Where are the packets John prescribed?’ Laurence asked.

As Gwen waved in the direction of the bathroom, Laurence went in and brought out a number of folded paper packets.

The doctor took them from him and his brow furrowed. ‘But these are far too strong.’

Laurence looked at him, horrified.

The doctor seemed bewildered. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t understand how this could have happened.’

‘You must have made a mistake with the prescription.’

The doctor shook his head. ‘Maybe they misread it at the dispensary.’

Laurence glared at him and drew in his breath.

‘In any case, Gwen must stop taking this immediately. It’s not suitable for her constitution. She may have some reactions. Aches, sweating, restlessness. She may feel rather low. Call me if, after five or six days, it doesn’t stop. I will look into it.’

‘I should hope so. This is unforgivable.’

As Doctor Partridge bowed and made his escape, Laurence came over and sat by her bed.

‘You’ll start feeling better soon, sweetheart.’ Then he held out a piece of paper. ‘I found one of Hugh’s drawings on the boathouse floor, near where you fainted.’

‘Oh, I wonder what he was doing in there,’ she said, trying to sound calm, though her stomach was churning. Did Laurence really believe it was Hugh’s?

‘We must have left the place unlocked, but it’s an old drawing I think. His recent stuff is better. At least now you can almost make out a face.’ He grinned as he handed the drawing to her.

She forced herself to smile as she took it. Laurence hadn’t guessed.

Previous: Chapter 17
Next: Chapter 19