"Goodbye Hes". His voice was soft but hoarse. Brow drawn together and mouth tight to a frown.
She didn't look at him, she stared at the wall. Several things suddenly rushing through her mind. But above all else, the pain welled-up inside her. The thought of seeing him leave through the door and never returning crushed her heart and soul. Her gaze darted down then deliberately looked at Freddie. For a moment she just stared, memorizing every inch of him. She tried to speak but nothing came out, she hesitated. Her mouth tightened but relaxed as it finally came, words that coursed through her throat like acid. Burning her to the very core.
"Goodbye... Freddie." She forced a smile trying to hide her evident heartache.
He looked back at her, his eyes moist, almost remorseful. But he remained defiant and cold. "I'm gonna miss you." He blinked, preventing tears from trickling down. "Thanks... For everything."
Hesther gazed at the floor once more, her heart thudding loudly in her chest. It shot pain throughout her body, making it hard to breathe. She heaves a deep sigh and forced a response.
He tilts his head up and swallowed. "Be safe."
She smiled at him for a moment then her gaze started toward the floor. Suddenly as if realizing something, she looks up sharply. "Be good." Her chest contracted as she inhaled a deep breath, her mouth tightened to a frown.
Freddie blinked at her words and genuinely smiled. Then wordlessly, he turned around and gripped the doorknob. He opened it halfway and paused for a moment.
He stared at the stairs before him, as if waiting for something... A sign. His grip tightened around the door knob making his palm sore with red marks as he swallowed a lump lodged in his throat.
Hesther stayed still and closely watched him. She puts a hand on her chest to pacify her heart jolting wildly within her, the violent reaction causing her rib cage to ache. She breathed unevenly and waited.
"Hes..." His soft voice, almost a whisper, broke the silence.
At the mention of her familiar name, she straightened and her lips parted. But the shock forbade her for any response. She just stood, her eyes wide.
"Come with me." He continued and looked back through his shoulders. His expression seemed confused and scared but his gaze didn't falter, he kept his eyes to her.
A tear trickled down Hesther's cheeks, followed by another until she let out a soft sob. "What?" Her voice trembled with unsurety. She could not believe what she heard.
Freddie lets go of the door and walks up to her, stopping only less than a few feet away from where she stood. For a moment his gaze wavered and looked down at the floor.
Hesther shuddered as she realized how close he was to her. She suddenly became aware of his uneven breathing or his hands clenched resting on his sides. How his brow furrowed, creating lines on his forehead.
"Mrs. Page!" Mrs. Elton repeatedly screamed from the door. Gripping its frame as she struggles to free herself from Mr. Miller's hold that prevented her from dashing into the blazing room.
Black smoke rose from the roof, covering the once morning sky with darkness. The fire has quickly spread and consuming Mrs. Elton's flat almost to ashes. The crowd could only watch in awe and horror as wood cackle and break from the heat and windows burst with its glittering shards falling onto the street.
Tenants of the flat who have managed to escape wept as their possessions burn before their eyes. Cherished treasures disappearing into mere memories.
"Come with me." Freddie repeated.
Mrs. Elton continues to scream Hesther's name, for it was only a matter of time before the whole flat succumbs to the great fire.
But Hesther didn't stir. She lays silently on the floor and not minding the flames slowly eating away her robe and incinerating locks of her hair. Her wet eyes remain closed and her lips curled to a faint smile.
"Mrs. Page!" Mrs. Elton once more hysterically screams. Then her strength escapes her and collapses in Mr. Miller's arms. Tears falling endlessly as she wails for the fate of the woman.
"Get on your feet Mrs. Elton!" Mr. Miller's harsh and urgent voice roars over the flames. "This bloody place is about to be burned to the ground!"
"But Mrs. Page..." The landlady spoke in between sobs. Her voice hoarse and weak.
"Don't be daft woman!" He yells and violently pulls her up, putting her arm over his neck and securing his right arm on her waist. "She's done for! There's nothing you could do!" Holding her tight, Mr. Miller quickly motions down the stairs. For a moment Mrs. Elton paused and halted on the first step down. Through her tears, she looks back at the room that had once been occupied by Freddie and Hesther. Pain wells up inside her as she became aware of the gruesome end for one so young and beautiful. It was too much for her to bear that she starts to weep again. Then putting a hand over her mouth, she straightens and stifles her cries, allowing Mr. Miller to guide her out of the burning flat.
She wept like she had not wept before and fell onto Freddie's chest. He smiled and held her tight in his arms. As he gazed upon her frail, trembling body and listened to her soft wails, guilt slowly seeped through his chest and burned him with the realization of how much pain he had caused her. Every drop of tear was the result of his selfishness, arrogance, and pride. He gave a small sigh and gently stroked her hair, intending to hush her eternal tears. Then something within him changed... The once carefree and pompous boy had vanished, replaced with a man determined to redeem himself to the woman he loved. He knew not how, but knew well in his heart that he will do anything to make her happy.
Freddie gently pulled her away and looked into her dampened eyes. He smiled to himself, observing how pink her flustered cheeks were and her lips almost swollen. This was one of those rare occasions where he felt he was the senior and Hesther, who in reality was older, seemed like an innocent, little child. He tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and caressed her cheeks softly with his knuckles. "Yes, I must start somewhere." He told himself .
"Hesther, I may not afford one right now but I promise the moment we arrive in South America I'll find good work to buy the diamond ring you always wanted..." He kneeled down in one knee and held Hesther's hands together to his heart. He did not look up and for a moment stared at the floor, straining to find the right words. She could only stare, wide-eyed and in shock, unbelieving what had just happened.
"Your first marriage may not matter there and we could marry and start our lives all over again. I may not be able to provide you all the wealth and abundance you've once had but I offer you my heart, my life... Anything to make you happy."
Hesther cried and unlike the tears she had shed before, they were tears of pure joy. The pain that once resided within her has disappeared and her battered heart began to heal. It felt light in her chest and she breathed easily. For the first time in her life she was truly happy.
Members of the fire brigade yell and walk briskly in and around, careful not to be crushed by the large, falling debris as more and more of the flat were being swallowed by the monstrous flames. While the crowd continues to gather and watch the tragedy that has befallen their street, Mrs. Elton sits quietly in the ambulance parked nearby. Earlier, she had been treated for a shallow bruise on her forehead and some second degree burns that were lightly bandaged. Mr. Miller was also treated for his injuries but compared to Mrs. Elton, he was inflicted with less.
After speaking with the constable, Mr. Miller comes up to join her in the ambulance and hands her a cup of tea. She takes it and faintly thanks him. For a while they sit in silence and watch as the men tirelessly put in their best efforts to extinguish the fire.
"I'm sorry." Mr. Miller suddenly tells her.
She looks at him, shocked, but didn't say a word. Mr. Miller gives her a faint smile and holds her hand that rests in her lap beside the untouched tea. She smiles back, teary-eyed and returns her attention back to the burning flat.
"Hesther!" Freddie sits up, breathing heavily, his shirt damped in cold sweat. For a moment he couldn't recognize where he was until he hears the train running on its tracks, whistling noisily as it heads down its destination. Then he remembers boarding the afternoon train, sitting by the window and two gentlemen taking the opposite seat.
"Hesther" He thought as he repeatedly rubs his temples. Then he puts an arm up and looks keenly at his watch, his vision still a blur from waking too prematurely. "Ten minutes past twelve... I hadn't slept long"
"Are you alright?" One of the gentlemen asks.
"I'm fine." He forces himself to answer and gives a nod.
The gentleman nods back and continues his conversation with his friend.
He sits quietly for a while, contemplating what he needs to do as he feels a headache coming. Then decides a little food and drink will surely ease a blasted pain in the head. Feeling his pocket, he takes out his coins and counts five shillings, two crowns and a guinea. It's more than enough to buy a decent meal. He stands, picks up his coat and places his coins back in his pocket then heads for the dining car. As he passes by the two gentlemen, he overhears their dialogue about a certain fire in London. For a moment it catches his attention but in the end shrugs and continues on.
"Have you heard of the terrible news?" Asks the gentleman to his friend, looking gravely at him.
"Ah yes, a flat burned down this morning. The name of the street escapes me. But terrible, terrible indeed."
"I heard that an unfortunate woman burned down with it."
"Truly? Such tragedy! A most dreadful way to go. I pity her family."
"The woman lived there with her husband but left this morning, only less than an hour before the fire started."
"Poor fool... Not a clue in the world."