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Fiction Historical Fiction


Percy Walton fell ill on Wednesday morning. The eight-year-old begged his mother to permit him to stay in his bed, claiming he was too ill for daily lessons, complaining of chills and a headache. Harriet Walton acquiesced to her youngest son’s pleas. After supplanting his brother Victor as the youngest of the Walton children, Percy was accustomed to getting his way as the baby of the family. He was frail child; Harriet noted Percy did seem a bit paler than usual. 

She thought that competing for attention with six rambunctious siblings couldn’t have been easy for sickly Percy, so Harriet permitted him to stay in bed. 

            By Thursday Percy was suffering from fever-fueled hallucinations but Harriet refused to consider the most likely cause. By Friday, his face and arms were peppered with the characteristic, dreaded red rash. Neither Percy’s father or mother wanted to acknowledge that the scourge that had taken so many children in Marylebone had finally touched their family. Nonetheless, the boy’s father arranged for Wentworth, the stableman, to transport his six other children by coach with their nanny, Justine, from London to the Walton ancestral home on the shores of Lake Geneva.  Harriet moved her delirious son to the divan in the parlor, and despite the mild summer weather, lit the fireplace in the sitting room and burned the linens from the bed Percy shared with his nine-year-old brother, Victor. She burned Victor’s bedclothes, too.      

By Saturday, Percy’s spotty rashes were full of pus. Dr. Last traveled by carriage from his suite of offices near Trafalgar Square to assess the child. He was not surprised. Several of the children in and around Harley Road had succumbed in the past six weeks. After examining Percy, the doctor advised the boy’s parents to make the child as comfortable as possible. He  avoided facing them directly as he closed the clasp on his weathered leather physician’s bag.

       “I suppose your Percy contracted it from the Westbrook twins. He and Victor were their playmates, yes? Of course, it pains me to say it -- both of the Westbrook lads, David and Peter, succumbed to the disease not more than a fortnight ago. It will be a miracle if Percy survives another week. Be thankful Victor and your other children show no sign of illness. You must prepare yourself for what is to come. You must ready yourselves.”

Harriet wept heavily, beseeching the doctor for a miracle, holding her head with both hands, as if to keep from banging it against the parlor wall. 

            “Is there nothing more to be done? Just sit with my son and watch him die? Surely, there must be something more you can do! I will not stand idly by while smallpox snatches our baby, our Percy from us!”

William Walton seemed embarrassed by his wife’s outburst. 

“Thank you, doctor,” was all he said.

Dr. Last sighed deeply, searching for words that might at once console the woman and make real the imminent death of her youngest son.

 “With all respect Mrs. Walton, even if I could convince my colleague, Dr. Jenner, to consult on the case, it is too late. Much has been made of his work. You may be aware he has been experimenting with an injection developed from cowpox, but it is intended to prevent the malady. It is not a treatment or cure for those already infected with the disease.”

            “But we must try! Please, doctor! Please!”

The medical man took his leave, knowing he’d never again see Percy alive.

            By Thursday, without ever regaining consciousness, Percy breathed his last breath. William Walton sent for the undertaker, then dragged the divan, linens, and his son’s faded blue bedclothes into the stone courtyard and burned them. In the weeks following Percy’s demise, Harriet repeatedly aired the house, scrubbed the floors and walls, and beat the drapery and rugs to rid the Walton home of any remaining contagion. 

She’d sent word of Percy’s death to Justine.  Harriet supposed it was a blessing not to have had to tell the children the devastating news. She hoped Justine would know just how to do it without causing undo alarm or anguish to Percy’s surviving brothers and sisters.

Two months hence, Percy’s six siblings returned from Switzerland with Wentworth and Justine. They were rosy and robust from a summer spent at Lake Geneva. Although they were in generally good spirits, there was an awkwardness to the household in the days following their return. Somber silence was replaced by the cacophony four rowdy boys and two chatty girls, yet the children’s gaiety often seemed forced.  Harriet Walton did her best to cheerfully deliver daily reading and mathematics lessons to her surviving offspring. Justine kept the children occupied with songs and games. William was no more or less dour than he’d ever been with his children before Percy’s death, greeting them each day with a terse “Good Morning” at breakfast, and directing them each evening at bedtime to “sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.” The Walton family carried on, with commendable British reserve; yet a sense of normalcy was slow to return to the household. 

All of the Walton brood pined for Percy, but no one more than Victor. The brothers’ closeness in age created a bond as close as the one enjoyed by twins. Victor was not accustomed to sleeping alone. Not accustomed to playing hide-and-seek without his younger brother. He longed for Percy’s comforting company next to him as he slept. Since returning from Lake Geneva, Victor’s carefree dreams transformed into nightmares, gruesome scenes of his deceased brother Percy reanimated and rotting -- returning from his grave to reclaim his coveted status as youngest child in the family. Some of the horrible night fantasies were ghastly visions of his surviving siblings tearing Victor limb from limb in a grotesque contest to claim his bed, a bed that was Victor’s alone. Sometimes Justine sat near his bed all night, humming quietly to coax him into sleep.  With time, Victor’s nightmares finally faded. Each night, as he outstretched his growing body to fill the slim bed,  Victor took guilty pleasure in the restoration of his privileged position as baby of the family, ever the baby of the family.  

September 13, 2021 22:08

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1 comment

19:29 Sep 20, 2021

This is a really well written piece that captures the feel of the time while telling a heartbreaking story. I really like some of the phrases you use and the way the story spins so fluidly as a tale with hardly any dialogue to slow it down. It's clever. I like the final thoughts too, that there is secretly an upside to for Victor in all this. I chose smallpox as my inspiration too if you want to have a look?


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