Both Karen and Carin had been entranced of course by the old man and his shared and perhaps painful family memories that must have reached back some fifty years or more into his youth. It had been fascinating for them both then to listen to him slowly reminisce. Serious signs of noticeable fatigue were seen now etched deeply around his aged cracked face. Carin then suggested that they pause and he happily agreed with a silent nod. She beckoned to Otto to collect some cool drinks from the hamper in the car. The afternoon warmth was sadly slowly disappearing into an unwelcome cooler evening. But for Karen, she could only hope now that this perhaps mistreated old man had confided in them this story that was placed in his mind long ago. And not because of their own curiosity and interest, but because of a new but brief friendship that had bloomed between the three of them in the last 24 hours. But she was seriously aware it could quickly expire due to his unknown age and nervous temperament. She then slowly reached out and gently clasped his gnarled arthritic hand and gently awoke him. Then she offered him his brought refreshment. He rewarded her through tired eyes with a smile and a nod of appreciation as he wiped his chapped lips, after swallowing several welcomed mouthfuls.
Then for some strange reason, that unforgettable melody of Rachmaninoff’s tragic theme of the timeless variations of Paganini drifted into her head like a lost but welcome afternoon summer breeze. But she was really not sure of the relevance of its meaning. She also silently suspected that this old man and like so many others of his generation had suffered and gained so very little after a lifetime of war, death, debt and disappointment. Those hopes of his of long ago and an era now lost forever, that he and so many others perhaps had once entertained, had now departed never to return. Carin always noticed her friend’s pain, so she reached over and grasped Karen’s hand in comfort, but she remained silent herself. Perhaps she herself was now adrift in her own hidden memories of the Sweden of her youth and sadly her failed first marriage.
The warm sun and cloudless sky brought with it a backdrop of expectation to the listening women of what he was about to now confide in and to hopefully conclude the mystery of that solitary cliff edged situated house that had captured their imaginations.
He gazed into the distance preparing his own well oiled slither of memories. Otto meanwhile returned to the open car climbed inside then made himself comfortable and closed his heavy eyelids. He had no interest in anything the old man had to share with him or anyone else. He really would have loved to have lit and enjoyed an American cigarette if he had one that is, but the countess frowned on its use and addiction except of course for her husband’s cigar addiction.
He had even heard it rumoured that when and if Hitler came to power the man wanted to prohibit all smoking in public places can you believe? That would never happen of course. Just try separating any person away from their tobacco fix and the pleasure it offered them and there would be serious riots on the streets of Germany!
(In 2007 the UK government in collaboration with the EU announced a no smoking ban in public places and also in Europe as well. There was hardly any objection. This was something Hitler wanted to personally achieve but was unable to do so which now seems rather ironic!)
Now from those lost projected kaleidoscope images of his failing mind, the old man began preparing his final shared testimonial that had been retained in his failing memory: “These were long dark sometimes lonely nights in that chamber that reeked of sickness and fear. Followed then by uncertain days as the dying duke emerged from that nether region that he was inhabiting.”
To induce a restful sleep the brother had concocted a drink of laudanum with some absinthe, cinnamon and a sliced mandrake root maybe with a dash of saffron and some other liquid? At least the suffering duke was not in discomfort as long as he remained under that offered secret mixture he hoped!
For their own sustenance in the early mornings and during the days’ heavy plates of bread and cheese and apples and tankards of ale were brought to them frequently from the kitchen below. “Although my father did more of the eating and drinking and had become happily accustomed to this daily treat” he laughed sheepishly.
But the dear brother hardly touched or examined any tasty food at all that was placed before him. His attention was always centred on his patient and his requirements to ease that constant pain and find a cure if possible before it was too late.
Now lady Louisa had a faithful happy young maid in waiting named Heather. She was a strong but friendly girl and very popular with most of the workers in and out of the castle. She hailed from Scotland from a little village with the strange name of Hillyland. Her father, she informed me one day, was the village blacksmith and she learnt that trade. And could still shoe a horse of any size on her own from an early age. I thought this achievement was amazing, especially for a young girl to even attempt and succeed. My father apparently could not understand her strange accent, he often recalled later. During the day Wilfred would somehow suddenly materialise into the chamber like an unwanted apparition from I suppose hidden doors in the walls erected behind the tapestries and on well-oiled springs it seemed. It was very uncomfortable to observe him always watching and scowling at both of them as they aided and washed the duke’s wound and pleading eyes.
Frequently lady Louise would quietly arrive herself followed by her faithful maids in waiting. Then she would place herself by the crumbled stained bedspread and gently hold his hand and talk to him in almost a whisper. The dogs rarely left his bedside, faithful of course to the very end as usual.
The brother frequently and gently irrigated, cleaned and treated the gaping wound as only he could. But my father could see it was having little effect and the infection was spreading at an alarming rate on the patient.
“I’m worried, my lad, that the creeping infection will advance quickly and destroy the healthy tissues” the brother confided in a whisper. My father was flattered that he had been taken into his confidence, a mere slip of a boy only twelve years old, and being allowed to share what was happening before him.
The brother then returned to the small room and consulted his used books measuring and concocting various remedies, but sadly it would be to no avail. And the time for any healing was fleeing from that room, with Wilfred ready to pounce on the brother if he failed in his desperate desire to save the duke’s ebbing life. My father was also probably aware and concerned that they were being spied upon constantly at night from a large hung hunting picture on the wall. It could only be Wilfred watching, but my father did not inform the brother if he was indeed aware or cared about this invasion of our privacy, he never mentioned it. For he never confided to anyone about such mundane matters. His patient was his only priority and that is all he cared about.
Then at a minute to 12 on the third day, the dogs grew restless and a sudden rainstorm assaulted the castle windows.
This castle bedchamber was where some glass panes had been recently fitted and with some difficulty it seemed. The village cottages of course had no such comfort or protection from the winter elements and were at the mercy of snow and rain and biting winds.
“Maybe that’s why they built such small windows” the old man remarked with a wry but sad smile to Carin.
Now using a thin wine glass my father watched intently as the brother placed it upon the duke’s exposed sunken chest and listened for those faint heart murmurs. His face was now set in a concerned manner during the examination. He then shook his head whispering to me: “He is deteriorating much too quickly Rory … sadly I fear we are about to lose him … and there is not much more I can do but hope and pray.” He seemed so dejected at these final words. And the rain continued to pummel the glass like pellets causing the dogs to become even more restless.
Lady Louse must have heard his hopeless words and asked with concern: “Is there nothing you can do brother Jerome? she pleaded with tears in her eyes.
Then Wilfred butted in for he had silently again returned to the sick chamber and noticed what was now happening before him: “OH YES there is” he shouted at the brother who surprisingly did not flinch from the verbal spital assault. ”The limb could be amputated and should be performed by a qualified doctor. So cut away the infection you foolish medicine man immediately to save my brother’s life … that is if you CAN, you fool! It’s the only way to save him! he barked as he stood in front of the brother with menace in his piggy eyes with his fists clenching and unclenching: “It’s impossible, sire,” replied the brother quietly.” His heart will not withstand the sudden shock for there is now just a mere flicker of life from what I can just hear. This way – if we wait – he will die with a degree of peace in his heart and some dignity and without added pain” argued the brother helplessly against this personal assault on his integrity and coming danger to his life.
Then Wilfred gripped the brother’s shawl and attempted to drag him into the small medical room. Then a raised voice was heard above the chamber and with an ordered authority that only a woman of her privilege can command and expect to be obeyed by all around her: “Leave the brother alone Wilfred. Just leave him to continue what he started because he knows best. YOU DO NOT!” There was an unmistakable strength in her strident command as she emphasised the three final words and her piercing eyes now boarded no opposition from him. Wilfred then surprisingly paused, looked at her with undisguised loathing, then pushed the brother to the floor saying to her face with venom: “Do whatever you like Louisa … but remember this” he hissed … “I will never forget or forgive your open defiance of my ordained command.” He spat out these final words like sharpened splinters as if granted to him by a supposed divine right. He then strode towards the heavy oaken door and slammed its timber frame firmly shut. Leaving all who remained with a welcomed relief that he had finally departed and the confrontation with lady Louise was closed for the time being.
To be continued….
(C) Copyright G. Patrick Battell
May 1 2021