This is the thirty-first part of a fiction serial, in 900 words.
The same summer that young Queen Victoria was crowned, Edward returned from his studies. He had excelled in Latin and sciences, and informed Aileen that he intended to become a doctor. A letter had been sent to Saint Bartholemew’s Hospital, along with a glowing recommendation from the Dean of his college. But he was concerned to see Aileen suffering from the cold in what was a warm enough summer, and to find her in front of a roaring fire, covered in a blanket. He chided Nancy for not summoning a doctor, waving away her excuses that Aileen would not allow it.
Edward had no memory of life at Dakin Hall, nor of any of the family save his father. He had only seen him on a few occasions, and their meetings had been formal, stilted, and awkward. Aileen was the closest he had ever known to a mother, and he called her ‘Dear Aunt’. He sent for a young doctor he had heard good things about. The man exuded professionalism and calm, and after the most cursory of examinations, he noticed the smallest of swellings at the base of her neck. His diagnosis was that the glands in her neck were not working properly, hence the fact that she always felt cold. He advised that she might have increased appetite, but the metabolic changes were such that she was unlikely to put on any weight. There was no treatment available, but he declared there was no reason why she should not live to old age.
Nancy Priest had not been called upon to perform any duties since Edward had gone away to school. But Aileen had kept her on, partly as a companion, but mainly because Nancy had nowhere else to go. Edward now treated her much like an older sister, referrring to her as ‘Dearest Nancy’. Over dinner on his second night at home, he told Aileen that he had no intention of managing the family business. Farming and Railways would never be of any interest to him, and she would do well to appoint people to run them for her. This would cost money of course, but then he could continue to train as a surgeon, and Aileen would have little to do except sign papers occasionally, and manage the day to day finances required to run the house. This was readily agreed, and a letter was sent to Richard in Yorkshire seeking his agreement.
That same week, on a different continent, far to the south, Oliver Dakin was riding home from a particularly acrimonious altercation with one of his tenant farmers. Now over sixty, and very portly, he had never married. He preferred to get his pleasures from the native girls in nearby villages, their favours purchased for as little as a couple of scrawny goats. He had no desire for children, and no need of a nagging wife. Besides, he still liked to ride around his vast cattle empire, and keep a close eye on his managers and overseers. He now had a fine black stallion as his mount, and had named it Hercules.
The argument had delayed him, and as he rode home, he could see the sun setting rapidly. Although he knew the land well, he had no desire to try to traverse the rough ground in the dark. Kicking the stirrups into the side of Hercules, he urged the horse into a gallop, and held onto his hat with one hand as the speed increased. Something spooked the horse though, and it stopped suddenly, tipping the surprised Oliver forward over its neck. As he lay dazed on the hard ground, the animal carried on galloping, ignoring Oliver’s shouts and whistles. Dusting himself down, Oliver stood up to discover he had turned an ankle. It was painful, but he knew it could have been much worse. He decided to rest for the night in the long grass, as it would be madness to attempt the long walk in the dark.
The sun woke him early, and he remembered that his water bottle and rifle had been slung on his saddle. He was out in the bush with no protection, and nothing to drink. His first thought was to wait, to see if Hercules returned. But it was winter season there, and he feared being caught in heavy rain. So he began to walk as best he could, trying not to work out how long it would take to walk what might take a couple of hours to ride.
He heard the lion before he saw it. A low burbling sound, ominous in the empty plains. Turning to his right, he spotted the huge male. Its dark mane was catching the breeze, and it stood stock still, gazing at him almost absent-mindedly from some distance. Oliver knew what they said to do. Stand firm, wave your arms, shout defiantly. But being told that, and having the courage to do it, are two different things once faced with the reality. As it was, there was no time to decide. He had not seen the lionesses in the long grass behind him, and the first one took him in the buttocks, dragging him flat to the ground. The second closed her jaws around his throat, crushing his windpipe.
By the time the third one began ripping the flesh from his thigh, it was a mercy that he was already dead.