July 1919 Oxfordshire, England
ARTHUR STUART HADN’T WANTED to be a footman for a number of reasons. The first reason was that he couldn’t stand the livery. The starched shirts and woollen trousers were itchy and he had sensitive skin. The spit-polished shoes he was required to wear were narrow and stiff. Arthur had the misfortune of having two wide, block-like feet, like his grandmother. They were terribly un-English feet, and more suited to a German or a Russian than to a young man from Oxfordshire.
The second reason was that Arthur’s brother, Harold, had been a footman before the war and hadn’t returned to his post as third footman when it ended. It wasn’t that he hadn’t wanted to return—he just never got the chance. Being a footman reminded Arthur of what those last, wasted years of his brother’s life must have been like. Harold had wanted to be a farmer—a sheep farmer, to be exact. But a farmer needs capital and their family had none to get him started. So instead of tending a herd, he had gone into waiting for a historied and moneyed family, who had been unappreciative and ignorant of how fine a lad he was. Arthur could imagine how defeated Harold must have felt every time a bell was rung to summon him. Day after day, night after night—the drudgery of it all. A life in service was as far away from the pastoral idyll as one could possibly get.
As far as footmen went, Arthur wasn’t sure he was very well suited to the large and imposing house he resided in now. He hadn’t had much experience, and, if truth be told, he was more interested in trying his hand as a salesman in his friend’s wool shop on Broad Street instead. As with his brother, service wasn’t Arthur’s particular calling. When he had said as much to his mother, she had replied, “Hush now, lad. You are as good as anyone else they might have gotten, and a great deal smarter.” She had tapped the end of his nose, the way she always did when she was finished speaking her mind, and dismissed him.Nobody cares if a footman is smart or not, he thought. In fact, it was an advantage to be rather dimwitted—that way, the repeti- tion of it all was less likely to affect one’s mental state.
Now, two months after he had started, he stood at the threshold of the drawing room and great hall and thought about how much he wished he had stood his ground and told his family he was taking that job in the wool shop. The late afternoon heat was stifling. A whisper of a breeze would have been a welcome relief, but there was none forthcoming. Outside, the usually lush gardens were starting to wilt. In the fields to the north, sheep grazed lazily under mammoth oak trees, their canopies a refuge from the glaring sun. It was time for a good summer rain.
Arthur watched the father and son of the house pace back and forth in the drawing room. Lord Swindon and Edgar Swindon—intermittently alternating between sitting and standing as though no spot were restful. The drapes were drawn, shutting out the afternoon light. A housekeeper brought in pots of tea and laid sandwiches and sweets, hoping to tempt the men to eat. Arthur knew she wanted to take their minds off what was going on upstairs. But neither had an appetite, and soon flies began to buzz around the food. An attendant maid swatted at them.
The minutes ticked by painfully slowly, turning into hours. Arthur shuffled from one foot to the other, hoping his discom- fort wouldn’t be noticed. There was nothing to do but wait, and nothing to alleviate the waiting. Servants came and went quietly. Hushed whispers in the hallways were the only sounds, save for the ticking of the clock. An ebony Labrador retriever wandered in and out of the room from time to time, exhausted from the heat. He eventually flopped down on the stone hearth, clearly hoping the cool surface would give him some reprieve.
Arthur heard a creak on the landing and turned to see a regretful man with a stethoscope around his neck standing in the foyer, a black, weathered medical bag in his hand. Arthur wondered fleetingly how he had gotten down the stairs without him noticing. The doctor was certainly light on his feet. The men in the drawing room saw Arthur’s head turn and looked up at him, as if he was about to tell them the earth-shattering news himself. But Arthur nodded and stepped back with a sweeping gesture of his hand, signalling to the men that the doctor had returned from upstairs. They quickly made their way into the foyer. Arthur settled back into his post, chin slightly raised and eyes set above the men’s heads, trying to make himself invisible.
“I’m afraid I have done all I can,” the doctor began quietly, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen a case like this in all my time in medicine. She is declining at a rapid rate and the interven- tions I have employed have been futile. If it is Spanish flu, it is a strain I have never seen before. I dare say it may be something completely different. If you would allow me, sirs, I have a theory—but I stress that it is only a theory at this point. The symptoms she is showing are consistent with poisoning.” He paused, clearly uncomfortable. “She is bleeding from within, and blood is now showing up in her vomit and stool. She has open sores on her back and arms that are getting worse, and she is beginning to lose her hair. I am going back to the hospital for medication to help with her comfort level and will be back within the hour. It is time to pray, gentlemen. Only God can save her now.”
Both men stood speechless.
With a final apology, the doctor turned and left them. Arthur barely got to the door in time to open it for him. Mr. Groves certainly picked a fine day to go into town, Arthur thought resentfully. Their mistress was obviously dying and he had been left to shoulder the grief, while the butler strolled the village markets looking for God knows what.
The two men of the house looked at one another as Arthur closed the door after the doctor. Tears welled in the older man’s eyes. The younger one walked forward to him and they hugged. Arthur knew they now understood their loss was imminent. The woman they loved, mother and wife, was about to be gone forever. If it really were poisoning, as the doctor suspected, this was more sinister than Arthur could have ever imagined.
He wished he were sorting bolts of the finest tartan over on Broad Street. This was the last time he would ever listen to his mother.