Mrs. Banks looked down over the sodden lawn and tried to ignore the wailing coming from the upstairs bedroom. Thick clouds rolled in over the lake with the grim promise of more rain. The flames of Edward’s fire glowed orange in the wet haze, flickering out of his hut window, down by the lake. Mrs. Banks knew he too had retreated from the wails coming from the upstairs bedroom.
A flushed maid, one Mrs. Banks didn’t recognise, as they’d drafted in extra help from the village, appeared at the doorway and stuck her head out into the fresh air. She stood there for a moment, breathing deeply. She caught Mrs. Banks’ eye. Embarrassed, she fled back into the house. Mrs. Banks might’ve asked how the Lady was faring had the girl not been so skittish, but the maid was only young and fresh-faced.
Mrs. Banks understood completely.
Plucked from the village, more used to serving warm bread to drunken carriage drivers and foresters, and introduced to a plush world tarnished with copper-green screams. Mrs. Banks understood completely.
The Lady continued to scream. The upstairs window was thrown open and a yellow liquid splashed onto the terrace. Mrs. Banks closed her eyes against the noise. A crash of thunder shouted its unearthly reply from across the lake. The sounds – the screaming, the splashing of bile on the terracotta and the roar of thunder – joined in a natural harmony. Mrs. Banks was reminded of Edward’s lectures on the ancient men, more beast than man, who rolled in the dirt and hollered at the moon.
Another maid burst onto the terrace, retching and holding her stomach.
‘How is she?’ asked Mrs. Banks, rushing to the girls side.
The girl didn’t look into the mistress’ face. ‘She’s dying, m’am.’
Mrs. Banks clutched at her chest. ‘Hurry down and fetch Mr. Edward. Mind the grass. Don’t slip. Hitch your skirt up. Go, go.’
The girl rushed across the grass and Mrs. Banks rushed into the house. She paused in the musty hallway.
The wailing had stopped.
Mrs. Banks approached the stairs, looking up to the darkened hallway, illuminated only by the dark grey light of the approaching storm. Each window was blanketed with thick, dusty curtains. Only a thin shard showed Mrs. Banks the way up the carpeted stairs. After all the screaming, the silence was lifeless. The whole house held its breath. Another girl, white as silk, and as light, ghost-like and ethereal, floated along the corridor and passed Mrs. Banks in a daze, without a glance, without a sound.
Mrs. Banks stopped at the door of the upstairs bedroom. The door was ajar, slightly: a tiny crack through which poured quiet sobs and the sounds of desperate, heavy breathing. The air smelled like blood, a smell so acrid and horrid that Mrs. Banks could only compare it to the stench of the village butcher’s shop. She felt faint. There was another smell, whether it was the faint tinge of electricity in the air from the distant thunder, or the damp heat of the throbbing house, the smell was at once alive and rotten, a charged, putrid smell that Mrs. Banks, in all her life, had never encountered before.
The doctor opened the door. His hands were dyed red. The liquid was thick, as if he’d dipped his hands in a vat of red wax.
‘I -‘ the doctor faltered. ‘This was inhuman, m’am.’
Mrs. Banks covered her mouth.
‘I could save neither of them. Your Lady, or -‘ the doctor gulped, ‘whatever that was.’
The doctor gagged on his words and pushed past Mrs. Banks leaving a red smear on the arm of her smock. Three more girls followed the doctor out, faces down. All their cheeks were pale and their hair messy, dotted with freckles of red. As the girls left, that fetid smell came gushing out of the sticky bedroom, and Mrs. Banks knew at once the explanation that had been eluding her. The smell was death.
A hot, sweaty smell, a smell that was almost sweet. It was like apples lying discarded under their mother tree, turning rotten in the hot, wet summer.
Holding her breath, Mrs. Banks looked into the room.
The Lady was strewn across the bed, as if thrown there: she was composting in stained yellow sheets, they were crusty with blood. The humours from Edward’s lectures. Blood, bile, yellow, red, black. Mrs. Banks, for the first time that evening, felt an anger creeping up between the wispy reeds of her sadness. The Lady looked so helpless. Her hair fanned out behind her, some streaks of her fine blonde hair twisted into crispy, hardened slashes across her pale skin. Mrs. Banks followed her twisted body down, down, down, towards the bottom of the bed.
A lumpy pile of sheets stained a deep crimson, almost black, lay by the Lady’s feet.
Mrs. Banks ran from the room.
She ran down the stairs, past the doctor who lay crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, past two girls hugging on the terrace, and flew in a mad rush down the steps towards Edward’s hut by the lake. The girl she’d sent to fetch him was nowhere in sight. Flames still flickered orange. She charged across the grass, the anger rearing inside of her. How dare he? How dare he?
Edward’s door was open and the air was hot with choking smoke. She stormed through the door, but Edward’s hut was empty. Surgical equipment, test tubes and a pot bubbling over the fire. A table covered in scattered drawings, thin, striking pencil lines, drawings of skeletons and animals that Mrs. Banks had never seen before. The air was heavy with smoke and she backed out of the hut, coughing, holding her chest.
He was gone.
A one hour write from this morning’s train journey.