Love in the Time of War Ch. 09byjerseyblue©
"Mother, Father, everyone, please, may I have your attention," Charles said, making sure they were listening. "I have an announcement."
Everyone stopped what they were doing and grew quiet.
"Catherine, if I may," he continued, motioning her to his side. "I know this is highly unusual but I want the family to be here."
"What is it, Charles?" Alice asked impatiently.
Charles turned to Catherine and holding both her hands asked, "Catherine, will you marry me?"
The entire room collectively held its breath.
Catherine looked him directly in the face and smiled. "You know already know my answer, Of course, I will."
For a brief moment, no one spoke and of course, it was Alice who broke the spell. She rushed to Catherine and hugged her. "How wonderful!" she exclaimed.
Other gathered around the couple to tender their congratulations. Mother cried happy tears and Father just beamed. James shook his brother's hand and slapped him on the back. "Well done!"
The ladies were all excited and said that it must be a May wedding. They were rapidly making plans when Charles put a damper on it. "You know, we must discuss this with Catherine's parents. What if they object?"
Mother quickly answered. "They wouldn't dare! They are some of our oldest and dearest friends." She turned to Catherine. "When do you plan on going to visit them, my dear?"
"Within a few days, my Lady but I don't see it being a problem." She smiled at Charles.
While at this excitement was going on, Buxton had entered the room and was having a long conversation with his Lordship. Buxton left quickly and his Lordship walked over to the family. "I'm afraid we may have a problem." Everyone looked at him quizzically. "No, not with Charles and Catherine. It seems that influenza has reached Stanhope. At least four of the staff is down and others may follow. I had Buxton ring for the doctor."
"What can we do?" Mother asked.
"Nothing until the doctor comes."
While waiting the doctor to arrive, James and Patricia took the girls and left as planned. They reasoned they be just as safe or safer if they left Stanhope and returned to London. They made their good byes and hurried off, leaving those behind to wait, wonder and worry.
Four of the maids and two of men including McTavish were ill. The doctor examined them and announced that it was indeed the flu. When asked what precautions they should take, his answer wasn't encouraging. "None, I'm afraid. Put them to bed and get them to drink plenty of clear liquids. I'm sorry but that is it. Your Lordship, Charles, May I see you?"
The doctor took the gentlemen aside. "I'm afraid you can expect about half to two thirds of the people here at Stanhope to come down with this and very quickly."
"That many!" Lord Berwick said in a loud whisper.
"Yes, your Lordship, if this runs true to form. And some may die."
His Lordship looked at Charles and then back to the doctor. "Very well. I'm sure you will do your best and all of here will do our best to help."
"I have other patients in village I must see to," the doctor said heading towards the door. "I will return a soon as I can."
The doctor was right in his prediction. Within twenty-four hours a large number of the family and staff were sick and in bed. Of the staff, only Mrs. Williams, Kathleen, her ladyship's lady McHale, his lordship's man, Montgomery, and the cook, Mrs. Hodge were untouched. The family was hit very hard. Only Charles remained healthy.
Mother was the first, taking ill around noon that first day. Father followed by dinner time. Alice and Catherine were struck down around the same time early the next day. Mary was not at home and was spending time with her husband's parents. As far as anyone knew, she was fine. James had left with his family that morning and so far all were well.
Charles and Mrs. Williams met to work out how they were going to run things. To Mrs. Williams' surprise and relief, Charles informed her that all social barriers were down, as far as he was concerned. He would take all his meals in the kitchen with the staff and work right alongside them in trying to get through this.
"Oh, sir, you need not do that," she said.
"Yes, I do," he replied. "I need to keep myself busy. You understand?"
So Charles pitched as best he could. Kathleen and he worked side by side. She liked this idea as she was the one in charge and he was the newcomer. Keeping themselves busy kept their worries down but also avoided what they knew they must. That was to talk about what was decided and how to handle it. There just wasn't enough time.
Slowly those who were ill began to recover. The maids who were the first taken sick were out of danger but as weak as lambs. The doctor visited regularly and had high hope for most of his patients.
"Sir, I feel very confident that your mother and father will recover shortly," he said.
Charles noticed a note of hesitancy in his voice. "And Alice and Catherine?"
The doctor paused and then spoke softly and clearly. "I don't know. The next twenty-four to forty-eight hours are critical. If their fever would only break!"
Charles was stunned by the news. He took in a deep breath. "Is there anything I, we can do?"
"Just hope and pray, sir."
He wandered through the house finally reaching the library. He poured himself a strong drink. Sitting in one of the chairs, he held his head in his hands. "Dear God," he began to think. "How can this be? Both of them?" The thought of losing either of them was too much. Alice, his rock, his best friend, the one that knew him best and Catherine. Poor sweet beautiful Catherine, the one he promised to spend the rest of his life with. He felt he was being overwhelmed.
"Sir." It was Montgomery. "Sir, there is a phone call for you."
"Thank you, Montgomery."
Montgomery led him to the phone. It was Patricia, James' wife.
"Charles," she began. "It's James. He is very sick."
Charles dreaded to ask how sick but from her tone and the fact she didn't ask about the others, he knew it was not good. He had to ask.
"The doctors are very worried and so am I." she replied. "They don't sound hopeful. Oh, Charles, what I am to do?"
"I'm sure they are mistaken. It will be alright. Don't worry. We will be there if you need us." He replied, trying to sound convincing.
"I know that," Charles could hear her voice breaking. "I'm scared."
"There, there Patricia. It will be fine. How are the girls? And you?" He hoped changing the focus would help.
"They are fine. They haven't gotten sick, yet. Either have I," She seemed a little calmer.
"I will call you and check up on you. Remember it will work out." He hung up not knowing what he could do.
"Damn," he said under his breath, "What next?"
He headed for the kitchen where he could smell the sweet aroma of fresh bread. Hodges had been doing wonders through all this. Cooking meals for the well and light fare for those recovering, Charles was duly impressed.
"Hodges, you're a saint," he said sitting at the table. The rest of the staff came in sat down. Charles refused to sit in Buxton's seat, saying it wasn't his place. The meal was a beef stew, hot and comforting. Along with the fresh bread, it was simply marvelous. Each night the staff seemed more relaxed with Charles at the table so the conversation became easier. Tonight Annie and McTavish had returned to their rightful place.
"May I ask, sir?" McTavish asked with his Scottish burr. "How are the others?"
"His Lordship and Lady are doing well. They seem to be out of danger. Correct, McHale? Montgomery?"
They both nodded.
"And the ladies?" Annie quickly asked.
Charles paused and put down his napkin. "We'll know more in twenty-four hours."
Kathleen, who was sitting next to him, slowly reached over and held his hand. There were no more questions.
After dinner, Charles went upstairs to check on his parents. Both were feeling much better. Although tired and looking drained, his father was raring to get out of bed. Charles reminded him of the doctor's orders and convinced him to stay in bed until tomorrow. Mother seemed happy to remaining in bed and grow stronger. Charles filled them both in on how everyone was faring. He lied when it came to Alice and Catherine. He felt it was one less worry. He didn't mention James at all. He spent near two hours talking and taking care of his parents. He had given McHale and Montgomery a break and they both returned after a long deserved rest. He left them and headed back to the kitchen. He knew he was exhausted but he also knew sleep would not come.
Charles poured himself some hot tea and sat down at the table. He thought to himself, "Will this nightmare never end?" He was deep in his thoughts when Kathleen entered and sat next to him. She startled him.
She put her hand on his arm. "You look so tired, Charles. Here come with me." With that she took him by the hand and took him into a small room off the kitchen.
"What is this place?" he asked.
"It is the room where the staff can have a little privacy when a friend visits. Here, sit on the couch."
They sat together on the small couch. Charles looked straight ahead. "I'm sorry, Kathleen, on how this all turned out. I wanted to tell you but with all this, there never seemed to be any time."
"It's all right. I knew what your decision was before you did. I knew you would choose Catherine. You had to."
"You must think me so weak," he answered.
"No, never. I think you are strong, strong in your sense of right and wrong, your duty. That is why I still love you and always will."
Charles turned and looked at her. "Let's leave this place, you and I. We can go to America and marry. We would be just plain Mr. and Mrs. Charles Stewart."
"Think about what you are saying, Charles. As much as I would want to, you know you couldn't do it. You belong here, at Stanhope Manor. It is your duty, your responsibility."
"Responsibility be damned."
"Charles, you know I am right, no matter the cost," Kathleen said softly as she looked into his eyes.
"If I am so strong then why do I feel I am losing my mind? Alice and Catherine may be upstairs dying this very night. James could be dead by now in London! What am I to do?"
"James is dying?"
"It seems so. Patricia called before supper and told me. It didn't sound hopeful."
Kathleen pulled his head to her breast. "My poor sweet Charles. Lie here with me and rest. You're exhausted."
She had him lie on the couch and place his head in her lap. She stroked his forehead and gently held him. Within a few minutes, he was asleep.
Kathleen now knew for sure that her dreams of the two of them ever being together were gone. If James died, Charles would be the next in line. There was no way that a simple house maid, a widow with a child, could marry a Lord. The only thing left was to decide what she was going to do next.
Mrs. Williams happened by about an hour later and looked in. She saw two young people asleep and experiencing the first peace anyone had in a long time. She tiptoed in and draped a blanket over them.