This is the twenty-eighth part of a fiction serial, in 840 words.
Following her discovery in the family journals, Cicely suggested to Aileen that they should store the trunk elsewhere, in case it was found and the contents read by the servants. Disguised with brown paper and concealed in a larger travel trunk, it was arranged for it to be stored in the dry loft of the coach-house, where hardly any staff ever ventured. Before the footmen arrived to carry it away, Cicely made a discreet entry in the early journal of Clara, alluding to the love letter from Simeon Rudd, and where it was hidden in the floorboards. She could not shake the feeling that one day, it might be important.
By the autumn, Henry was becoming increasingly obstreperous. His behaviour was such that his meals were now served in his room, and his alcohol intake was severely rationed. But he colluded with Cork by paying him well to supply brandy and port wine in abundance, and in secret. When he ran out of available coin, he gave the butler a fine pocket watch, and on another occasion the sword he had carried at Waterloo. The servants charged with caring for Henry had all but given up on trying to undress him and put him to bed. Most nights they simply left him sleeping in his armchair by the fire, his bandaged legs propped up on an upholstered foot stool.
On one such night, with the rest of the household deeply asleep, and everywhere quiet, Henry awoke with a start, the pain from the gout in his legs causing him to flail out with both feet. His left leg struck the side table next to hm, on which a bottle of brandy was sat, three-quarters full. The bottle fell onto the hearth and smashed, with some of the contents splashing onto the glowing embers, and the rest running under Henry’s armchair.
The spirit ignited with a hiss and flash of flame, quickly setting the dry and dusty upholstery on fire too. As the still-dazed Henry struggled to pull himself from the chair, his ointment-soaked bandages also caught fire, and he fell onto his knees. Years of repeated varnishing had made the boards of the room ripe for ignition, and the thin woven rug served as tinder. Very soon, Henry was kneeling surrounded by flames, and fire that was burning through his bandages and clothes onto his legs and body. He tried shouting for help, but the smoke went into his mouth so quickly, all he could manage was a fit of coughing.
With Henry’s room, and Henry, consumed by fire, it was still some time before his personal servant in the room above was woken up by the smoke coming under the door of his room. He jumped from his bed, bewildered in the dark, and when he opened the door, he recoiled from the thick smoke in the stairwell, and the flames flickering below. With no escape in that direction, he went back into his room and jumped from the window onto the terrace below, breaking both legs in the fall. As he looked back at the East Wing behind him, it was clear that the flames had already spread into the roof space, and were crossing into the main house.
The screams of the maids in their rooms above woke Aileen from a heavy slumber. She could smell the smoke before her eyes opened, and began shouting before she got out of bed. Out in the hallway, she saw Spencer in his nightgown, heading for the rooms that the children slept in. Aileen turned to run to Cicely’s room and the nursery beyond, where baby Edward slept. But the ceiling above collapsed, filling the corridor with smoke and dust. As she flailed around in the darkness, she could hear the ominous crackle of the flames consuming rafters and floorboards above.
The distinctive voice of Penelope could be heard screaming for help from her room, then suddenly a pair of arms raised Aileen from her crouching position, and swept her back to the main staircase. She turned to see Oscar, his sparse hair wild, and his face black with soot. He nodded at the staircase, shouting for her to run. In the main entrance hall, Cork was on his knees, choking on the smoke he had inhaled upstairs. Outside in the dark, Aileen saw the flames rising above the roof, and the red glow beginning to illuminate the sky. She had to run from the front of the house, as roof tiles and pieces of heavy guttering were crashing to the ground like missiles.
Some grooms and the coachman had come running from the stable block, carrying heavy pails of water. But when they tried to enter the house to douse any flames, they were driven back by the choking smoke.The coachman ran back to Aileen, taking off his heavy leather jerkin to cover her as she knelt in horror at the sight before her.
Then the roof of the East Wing collapsed into the building, with a mighty roar.