Amelia went to ring the servants' bell, while Poppy moved the old dressing. She wrinkled her nose at mildly unpleasant scent of the exposed raw flesh. The sisters exchanged worried glances.
Working as gently and quickly as possible, Amelia cleaned the exudate from the oozing wound, applied fresh salve, and covered it. Merripen was quiet and rigid, although his back flinched beneath the treatment. He couldn't stifle an occasional hiss of pain. By the time she had finished, he was trembling.
Poppy wiped his sweating face with a dry cloth. "Poor Merripen." She brought a cup of water to his lips. When he tried to refuse, she slid an arm beneath his head and raised it insistently. "Yes, you must. I should have known you'd be a terrible patient. Drink, dear, or I'll be forced to sing something."
Amelia stifled a grin as Merripen complied. "Your singing isn't that terrible, Poppy. Father always said you sang like a bird."
"He meant a parrot," Merripen said hoarsely, leaning his head on Poppy's arm.
"Just for that," Poppy informed him, "I'm going to send Beatrix in here to look after you today. She'll probably put one of her pets in bed with you, and spread her jacks all over the floor. And if you're very lucky, she'll bring in her glue pots, and you can help make paper-doll clothes."
Merripen gave Amelia a glance rife with muted suffering, and she laughed.
"If that doesn't inspire you to get well quickly, dear, nothing will."
But as the next two days passed, Merripen worsened. The doctor seemed powerless to do anything except offer more of the same treatment. The wound was turning sour, he admitted. One could tell by the way it was bleeding white and the skin around it was blackening, an inevitable process that would eventually poison Merripen's entire body.
Merripen dropped weight faster than one would have thought humanly possible. It was often that way with burn injuries, the doctor said. The body consumed itself in its effort to heal the wounds. What troubled Amelia more than Merripen's appearance was the increasing listlessness that even Win couldn't seem to penetrate. "He can't stand being helpless," Win told Amelia, holding Merripen's hand as he slept.
"No one likes to be helpless," Amelia replied.
"It's not a question of liking or not liking. I think Merripen literally can't tolerate it. And so he withdraws." Win gently stroked the lax brown fingers, so powerful and callused from work.
Watching the tender absorption of her sister's expression, Amelia couldn't help asking softly, "Do you love him, Win?"
And her sister, unreadable as a sphinx, turned mysterious blue eyes to her. "Why, of course. We all love Merripen, don't we?"
Which wasn't at all an answer. But Amelia felt she didn't have the right to pursue the matter.
A matter of increasing worry was Leo's continued absence. He had taken a horse but had packed no belongings, Would he have gone on the long ride to London on horseback? Knowing her brother's dislike of travel, Amelia didn't think so. It was likely Leo had remained in Hampshire, although where he could have been staying was a mystery. He was not at the village tavern, nor was he at Ramsay House, nor anywhere on the Westcliff estate.
To Amelia's relief, Christopher Frost came to call one afternoon, dressed in somber attire. Handsome and scented of expensive cologne water, he brought a perfectly arranged bouquet of flowers wrapped in stylish parchment lace.
Amelia met him in the downstairs parlor. In her distress over Merripen's illness and Leo's disappearance, all the constraint she might have felt toward Christopher was gone. The past hurts had receded to the back of her mind, and at the moment she needed a sympathetic friend.
Taking both her hands in his, Christopher sat with her on a plush settee. "Amelia," he murmured in concern. "I can see the state of your spirits. Don't say Merripen's condition is worse?"
"A great deal worse," she said, grateful for the sustaining grip of his hands. "The doctor seems to have no other remedy, nor does he think any of the local folk cures would have any effect other than to cause Merripen further discomfort. I'm so afraid we'll lose him."
His thumbs rubbed gently over her knuckles. "I'm sorry. I know what he has meant to your family. Shall I send for a doctor from London?"
"I don't think there's time." She felt tears rising, and held them back with an effort.
"If there is any help I can give, you have only to ask."
"There is something ..." She told him about Leo's absence, and that she felt certain he was somewhere in Hampshire. "Someone has to find him," she said. "I would look for him myself, but I'm needed here. And he tends to go to places where..."
"Where respectable people don't go," Christopher finished wryly. "Knowing your brother as I do, sweet, it's probably best to let him stay wherever he is until he's slept it off and the fog has lifted."
"But he could be hurt, or in danger. He? She perceived from his expression that the last thing Christopher wanted to do was search for her scapegrace of a brother. "If you would ask some of the townspeople if they have seen him, I would be very grateful."
"I will. I promise." He surprised her by reaching out for her, his arms closing around her. She stiffened but allowed him to draw her near. "Poor sweet," he murmured. "You have so many burdens to carry."
There had been a time when Amelia had passionately longed for a moment such as this. Being held by Christopher, soothed by him. Once this would have been heaven.