John Coachman was offering his hand to help her up. Anna stared at the appendage. Had her life always been this constrained, her boundaries so narrow that at times it was like walking a tightrope? Was she nothing more than her position in society?
No, she was not. Anna firmed her jaw. “Nevertheless, John, I do bother myself with this woman. Please carry her to the carriage with Tom’s help. We must bring her to my cottage and send for Dr. Billings.”
The two men didn’t look happy with the situation, but under her determined gaze, they bore the slight woman between them to the carriage. Anna got in first and then turned around to help ease the woman onto the carriage seat. She braced the woman against herself with both arms to prevent her from falling off the seat on the way home. When the carriage stopped, she carefully laid the woman down and got out. John was still in the high driver’s seat staring straight ahead with a furrowed brow.
Anna placed her hands on her hips. “John, come and help Tom get her into the cottage.”
John muttered, but climbed down.
“What is it, Anna?” Mother Wren had come to the door.
“An unfortunate lady I found by the roadside.” Anna watched the men maneuver the woman out of the carriage. “Bring her into the cottage, please.”
Mother Wren backed out of the way as the men struggled to get the unconscious woman over the doorsill.
“Where shall we put her, ma’am?” Tom panted.
“I think in my room, up the stairs.”
That earned Anna a disapproving look from John, but she ignored it. They carried the woman up the stairs.
“What is wrong with the lady?” Mother Wren asked.
“I don’t know. I believe she may be ill,” Anna said. “I thought it best to bring her here.”
The men clomped back down the narrow stairs and outside.
“Don’t forget to stop by Dr. Billings’s,” Anna called.
John Coachman waved a hand irritably over his shoulder to signify that he had heard. In a moment, the carriage had rattled away. By this time, Fanny was standing wide-eyed in the hallway.
“Could you put the kettle on for tea, Fanny?” Anna asked. She drew Mother Wren aside as soon as Fanny started for the kitchen. “John and Tom say this poor woman is not entirely respectable. I’ll send her elsewhere if you say so.” She looked anxiously at her mother-in-law.
Mother Wren raised her eyebrows. “Do you mean she’s a whore?” At Anna’s startled glance, she smiled and patted her hand. “It’s very hard to get to my age without hearing the word at least once, dear.”
“No, I suppose not,” Anna replied. “Yes, John and Tom indicated that she is a whore.”
Mother Wren sighed. “You know it would be best to send her away.”
“Yes, undoubtedly.” Anna lifted her chin.
“But”—Mother Wren threw up her hands—“if it is your wish to care for her here, I’ll not stop you.”
Anna blew out a breath in relief and ran upstairs to see to her patient.
A quarter of an hour later, there was a sharp knock on the door. Anna came down the stairs in time to see Mother Wren smooth her skirts and answer the door.
Dr. Billings, in a white bobbed wig, stood outside. “A good day to you, Mrs. Wren, Mrs. Wren.”
“And to you, Dr. Billings,” Mother Wren answered for them both.
Anna led the doctor to her room.
Dr. Billings had to duck to enter the bedroom. He was a tall, gaunt gentleman with a bit of a permanent stoop. The tip of his bony nose was always pink, even in summer. “Well, what have we here?”
“A woman I found in distress, Dr. Billings,” Anna said. “Will you see if she is ill or injured?”
He cleared his throat. “If you’ll leave me alone with this person, Mrs. Wren, I’ll endeavor to examine her.”
Clearly, John had told Dr. Billings the manner of woman they had found.
“I think I shall remain, if you do not mind, Dr. Billings,” Anna said.
The doctor obviously did mind but could think of no reason to order Anna from the room. Despite his opinion of the patient, Dr. Billings was thorough but gentle in his examination. He looked down her throat and asked Anna to turn away so that he might scrutinize the sick woman’s chest.
Then he straightened the covers over her and sighed. “I think we had better discuss this downstairs.”
“Of course.” Anna led the way from the room and down the stairs, stopping to ask Fanny to bring some tea to the sitting room. Then she indicated the only armchair for the doctor and sat across from him on the edge of the tiny settee, clasping her hands tightly in her lap. Was the woman dying?
“She’s quite ill,” Dr. Billings began.
Anna leaned forward. “Yes?”
The doctor avoided her eyes. “She has a fever, perhaps an infection of the lungs. She’ll need some bed rest to recover.”
He hesitated and then apparently saw the alarm in Anna’s face. “Oh, it is nothing grave, I assure you, Mrs. Wren. She’ll recover. She just needs time to heal.”
“I am most relieved.” Anna smiled. “I thought from your manner that the disease was fatal.”
Dr. Billings rubbed his finger along the side of his thin nose. “I’ll send some men around immediately when I get home. She’ll need to be taken to the poorhouse for care, of course.”
Anna frowned. “But I thought you understood, Dr. Billings. We wish to nurse her here at the cottage.”
A red stain seeped up the doctor’s face. “Nonsense. It is entirely inappropriate for you and the elder Mrs. Wren to care for a woman of that sort.”
She set her jaw. “I’ve discussed it with my mother-in-law, and we are both in agreement that we will care for the lady in our home.”
Dr. Billings’s face was now completely red. “It is quite out of the question.”
But Dr. Billings interrupted her. “She’s a prostitute!”
Anna forgot what she was about to say and closed her mouth. She stared at the doctor and saw the truth in his countenance: this was how the majority of the people in Little Battleford would react.
She took a deep breath. “We’ve decided to take care of the woman. Her profession doesn’t change that fact.”
“You must see reason, Mrs. Wren,” the doctor grumbled. “It’s impossible for you to care for that creature.”
“Her condition is not contagious, is it?”
“No, no, probably not anymore,” he admitted.
“Well, then, there is no reason we can’t care for her.” Anna smiled grimly.
Fanny chose that moment to bring in the tea. Anna poured for the doctor and herself, trying to remain as serene as possible. She wasn’t used to having arguments with gentlemen, and she found it was most hard to remain resolute and not apologize. It was a rather unsettling feeling, knowing the doctor disagreed with her course, that in fact he disapproved of her. At the same time, she couldn’t repress a clandestine thrill. How exhilarating to speak her mind frankly, uncaring of a man’s opinion! Really, she ought to feel ashamed at the thought, but she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. No, not at all.
They drank the tea in a charged silence, the good doctor having apparently decided he wasn’t going to change her mind. After finishing his cup, Dr. Billings fished a small brown bottle out of his bag and gave it to Anna with instructions on how to administer the medication. Then the doctor crammed his hat on his head and wound a lavender muffler around his neck several times.
He halted by the front door as Anna was showing him out. “If you change your mind, Mrs. Wren, please call on me. I’ll find an appropriate place for the young woman.”
“Thank you,” she murmured. She closed the door after the doctor and leaned against it, her shoulders slumping.
Mother Wren entered the hall and studied Anna. “What does she have, my dear?”
“A fever and infection of the lungs.” Anna looked at her wearily. “Perhaps it would be better if you and Fanny stayed with friends until this is over.”
Mother Wren raised her brows. “Who would look after her during the day while you are at Ravenhill?”
Anna stared, suddenly stricken. “I’d forgotten that.”
Mother Wren shook her head. “Is it really necessary to stir up this amount of trouble, my dear?”
“I’m sorry.” Anna looked down and noticed a grass stain on her skirts. It wouldn’t come out—grass stains never did. “I don’t mean to drag you into my mess.”
“Then why not take the doctor’s help? It’s so much easier to simply do what people expect of you, Anna.”
“It may be easier, but it isn’t necessarily the right way, Mother. Surely you can see that?” She looked at her mother-in-law pleadingly, trying to find the words to explain. Her actions had made complete sense when she’d been staring at the woman’s sickly face in the ditch. Now, with Mother Wren waiting so patiently, it was harder to articulate her logic. “I’ve always done what was expected, haven’t I? Whether or not it was the right thing to do.”
The older woman frowned. “But you’ve never done anything wrong—”
“But that’s not the point, is it?” Anna bit her lip and found to her horror that she was close to tears. “If I’ve never stepped outside the role that’s been assigned to me since birth, I’ve never tested myself. I’ve been too afraid of others’ opinions, I think. I’ve been a coward. If that woman needs me, why not help her—for her… and for me?”
“All I know is that this way will lead to quite a lot of grief for you.” Mother Wren shook her head again and sighed.
Anna led the way into the kitchen, and the two women prepared a thin beef tea. Anna carried it and the little brown bottle of medicine up the stairs to her room. Quietly, she cracked the door open and peeked in. The woman stirred feebly and tried to raise herself.
Anna put down her burden and crossed the room to her. “Don’t try to move.”
At the sound of Anna’s voice, the woman’s eyes flew open and she looked around wildly. “W-w-who are—?”
“My name is Anna Wren. You’re in my home.”
Anna hurried to bring the beef tea over to the woman. She put her arm around her patient, gently helping her to sit up. The woman sipped the warm broth and swallowed with difficulty. After she had drunk half the cup, her eyes began to close again. Anna lowered her back to the bed and gathered up the cup and spoon.
The woman caught her with a shaking hand as she turned away. “My sister,” she whispered.
Anna knit her brow. “Do you wish me to notify your sister?”
The woman nodded.
“Wait,” Anna said. “Let me get a bit of paper and pencil so I may write down her address.” She hurried to her small dresser and tugged out the bottom drawer. Underneath a stack of old linens was a walnut writing case that had belonged to Peter. Anna took it out and settled on the bedside chair with the writing case on her lap. “Where shall I address a letter to your sister?”
The woman gasped out her sister’s name and place of residence, which was in London, while Anna noted the address with a pencil on a scrap of paper. Then the woman lay back, exhausted, on the pillow.
Anna hesitantly touched her hand. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Pearl,” she whispered without opening her eyes.
Anna carried the writing case from the room, shutting the door gently behind her. She ran down the stairs and went into the sitting room to compose a letter to Pearl’s sister, a Miss Coral Smythe.
Peter’s writing case was a flat rectangular box. The writer could place it on his or her lap and use it as a portable desk. On top was a hinged half lid that opened to reveal a smaller box for quills, a bottle of ink that fit next to it, and papers and other miscellaneous things used for correspondence. Anna hesitated. The writing case was a handsome thing, but she’d not touched it since Peter’s death. While Peter lived, it had been his private possession. She felt almost a trespasser using it, especially as they had not been close toward the end of his life. She shook her head and opened the case.