all that is gold is rusting (part one)
She struggled to keep balance in the face of this unforeseen complication, but she was suddenly hit by the staggering reality that they could be hosts not just to friends and family soon, but to death as well.
A giggle split the room as the chubby baby reached out for her father’s face. Benj tickled her again and the baby twisted in his grip and let out another gleeful giggle before she promptly stuck a finger up his nose.
“Are you two messing around again?” Tatiana asked as she came down the stairs, dragging a suitcase behind her. It thumped down every stair on the way before she at last placed it against the wall and turned to the man and baby.
Benj had managed to pry Clara’s fingers away from his nose, but she’d already reached out and grabbed a fistful of his golden curls before he could untangle her entirely. “It was her,” he defended quickly, “I told her, ‘Listen, Ignacio, Mummy will want you to be in a good mood for the trip, so it would be best if you took a nap right now’, but she started making trouble so I had no choice but to follow.”
“So I see,” Tatiana replied, reaching forward to take the baby out of her husband’s arms and tuck her into her own. Benj winced before his daughter’s grip finally let up, and he rubbed the side of his head ruefully. “Anyway, her name is Clara.”
“She knows what her name is,” Benj replied, and reached out to tickle the baby now that she was far enough that he couldn’t get his hair pulled. She laughed and raked a hand through her own chocolate curls for something to hold onto, and Tatiana tightened her grip around her baby and looked down at her affectionately.
“It’s so strange that this is the first time my Mama and Nana and Daniel are meeting her, isn’t it?” The brunette mused aloud.
“Well, she’s quite small,” pointed out Benj, “And we haven’t been to Wales since the wedding – the proper one, I mean. And you were pregnant during that, so in a way, your family has sort of met her already?”
“Make sure you don’t mention that to them,” Tatiana said hastily, “I know that we’d technically been married for almost two years by the time we had a proper wedding, but I don’t want them knowing that I was pregnant. I wore white!”
Benj grinned crookedly. “I think that they can count backward, darling, but don’t worry, I’ll keep it quiet. The boys might give us a bit of grief, though.”
“I still haven’t properly met Max and Seth, I just saw them in passing at the wedding. And we have yet to meet Jude! He’s older than Clara, but I think that they’ll still get along fantastically. Babies make friends so easily. Speaking of friends,” she cast a look at her watch and then began to tug Clara’s coat on her, “Lydia’s meeting us at the station in fifteen minutes so we’d better get going or we’ll all miss the train.”
Benj picked up his suitcase as his wife carried his child, and they left behind their small yellow house on Sweethome Lane and headed to the car waiting outside to pick them up.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas at your home,” Benj said with a grin, “The last time I was there was about four years ago, wasn’t it? Will your mother make it as grand as she did back then?”
“Now that the war’s over and there aren’t rations, it’ll be even grander,” Tatiana said dreamily as she settled herself into the car. “Just you wait for her cake. I’ve been thinking about it for the past two days. There won’t be soldiers there this time – well, aside from you and Danny and your lot –but it’ll be just as festive and chaotic. I can hardly wait to see everyone again.”
“It’ll be just like a wartime reunion,” Benj said wistfully. “You know the only thing that’s missing to make it seem just like old times – other than the trenches and rats and near-certain death?” He lowered his voice and said in a low whisper so that the taxi driver couldn’t hear, “Rum.”
Tatiana clapped her hands over Clara’s ears. “Stop it!”
“Oh, she can’t understand me. Can you, love?” He reached out to tickle her again, and despite a roll of Tatiana’s hazel eyes, the woman grinned too.
The bell rang with a resounding ding, and they didn’t have to wait long before it was opened and the woman inside flung herself at her daughter. “Tatty!”
“Hi, Mama,” replied the younger woman with a smile, keeping her balance remarkably well. The baby sandwiched between herself and her mother let out a howl in annoyance and Josie drew back immediately.
“There she is! Come here, darling,” she cooed as she reached out for her granddaughter.
Tatiana passed her over. “Careful, Mama, she’s been irritable for half of the way here. She didn’t like the train whistles.”
Clara, true to what her mother said, was still howling, but quieted slightly as she shifted hands. She plopped a small, chubby fist in her mouth, stared at her grandmother, and then took her hand out and coated her grandmother’s cheek in spit. Josie was delighted.
“Oh, welcome home! Benj, Lydia, I’m so glad you could join us,” the woman said at last when she could take her gaze off of her granddaughter and remembered that she had yet to greet her son-in-law or her daughter’s best friend. “Come in! It’s nearly time for dinner.”
They shuffled in, stretching their limbs after a long trip there, and moved toward the living room, where Daniel, Mia, and the soldiers already sat. Tatiana made a beeline for her brother.
“Dai! Mia! So nice to see you again,” her gaze remained on them for only a moment before she was already looking around, “Where’s my nephew?”
She spotted him sitting on the ground a few seconds later and went rushing toward him, scooping him up in her arms and planting several quick kisses on the top of his head. A few months older than Clara, Jude already felt bigger in her arms, but he was far less irritable due to not having traveled. He merely peered at her as he let her fuss over him, and then reached out a hand when she was done to tangle it in her chocolate locks.
“He’s well behaved, isn’t he?” Tatiana said cheerfully, “What a friendly baby.”
“He is,” agreed Daniel with a smile, “he wasn’t as friendly earlier, though, but the boys wore him down when they met him.”
“I tried to hug him and he poked me in the eye,” Nate remarked cheerfully before he stood and went to clap Benj on the back, “Alright, mate?”
“I’m good,” Benj said, grinning as he took in his former squad of soldiers, now in normal clothes and out of their wartime uniforms.
Tatiana placed down Jude and went over to the soldiers. “And you must be Seth and Max! Well, we’ve sort of met before, but that was only in passing. It’s lovely to see you again.” She extended a hand to each of them with a grin. “I don’t know if you’ve met Lydia – she’s my best friend.”
“We saw her at the wedding,” Max recalled as he shook the woman’s hand with a smile, “but I’m afraid we were a little occupied with teasing Benj, though Lydia did tell us off for drinking all the rum.”
Lydia snorted, and a scandalized Josie clapped a hand over Clara’s ears as the soldiers began to laugh.
“Never change,” Benj said with a grin.
Josie was still fussing over her granddaughter, but she deposited her in Lydia’s arms when the blonde held them out. “Now that you’re all here, shall we get dinner started?”
“Nana’s not here,” protested Tatiana.
“She likes being fashionably late by a little, remember, Tatty?” Daniel said with a laugh as he rose and so did the rest of the people seated on the sofa.
Benj passed by his wife. “We don’t have to get changed or anything, do we?” he asked anxiously, “Because I’ve packed my best clothes but I only really have one pair that’s fancy enough for a proper dinner I was thinking that I’d save that for Christmas.”
“If you’d come here before the war, you would have had to get changed, but things have changed at The Rookery since then. Dai runs it differently than Dad did; besides, he knows that you and the boys probably don’t have too much evening wear,” she assured him.
“Then what does she mean by getting ready?” asked Benj curiously.
Tatiana turned to take her daughter back from her best friend. “Lyds, you want to explain?”
“It means,” Lydia piped up cheerfully, “That you go brush your hair because your curls have gone everywhere and I can tell where you’ve slept on the train because they’re flat on one side of your head. Also, you’ve somehow got mustard on your shirt.”
“I didn’t want to have to be the one who said it,” Tatiana replied with a shrug.
Benj ran a hand through his blonde curls defensively. “You like the curls,” he replied quietly to his wife, and then added louder, “I don’t like when you two gang up on me. It’s like we’re still in London.”
“Now you’ve got your soldiers, so that’s four people on your side,” pointed out Tatiana, “Lydia has to take mine otherwise I’m entirely too outnumbered.”
They were seated at dinner a quarter of an hour later, Benj’s hair lying slightly flatter on his head. Felicity Shaw arrived, perhaps slightly earlier than her normal fashionably late standard, but she waved off any attempt from the butler to help her to her seat.
“I can walk just fine, Mr. Trilby,” she informed him. The Dowager Countess of Bryn Du had arrived, and she liked to make an appearance. Having met all of the soldiers and Lydia already, she turned her gaze instead to Tatiana. “Hello, dear. Where’s my great-granddaughter?”
“Clara’s been irritable for half the day. It turned out she just needed her nap, so I just put her down for one,” answered Tatiana brightly, “and how are you, Nana?”
“A bit bored, really,” admitted Felicity, “There’s nothing really interesting happening here right now. I’m judging a gardening contest tomorrow, though, if you’d like to come.”
The conversation around the table ebbed and flowed, punctuated by laughter or an exclamation made.
“It’s nice to see everyone around again for the holidays,” sighed Josie delightedly to her mother.
“It is,” agreed Flick. She’d been in Wales for the entire war, and though she hadn’t been a nurse like her daughter or her granddaughter, she’d organized the war effort in a different way, in keeping up the spirits of those who lived in the town outside the estate.
On the other side of the table, Seth and Benj, not quite used to high-class dining, were arguing over which spoon to use.
“The soup one is the roundest one,” decided Seth as he pointed at it.
Benj was scrutinizing a row of forks. “Yeah, but which one of these goes with the salad and which one goes with the main course?”
Lydia was too amused by their spectacle. “Just follow my lead,” she informed them, picking up her own spoon as the meal was served.
“How do you know how to do this? You weren’t raised in a family like this, were you?” asked Seth.
“No,” admitted Lydia, “but I can tell apart a salad fork from other forks… partially because I asked Tatty to teach me before we came here.”
“Why didn’t I think of that?” moaned Benj under his breath as a plate was pushed in front of him.
They dug in, switching forks or hands with knives when they noticed what their hosts were doing. To their credit, Felicity and Josie pretended not to notice, and Daniel and Tatiana used exaggerated gestures so that the others could follow their motions. Mia only looked at the men in amusement as she ate.
Benj tried not to pull faces as he ate, but he couldn’t help but mutter to his wife under his breath, “I forgot that I didn’t like Welsh food. Except omelets – do you think they’ll make those at any point while we’re here?”
“Maybe if you ask really nicely,” Tatiana teased him, although even she was frowning at her food. “Living in Italy and England for the last several years means I’m not accustomed to Welsh food again.” She herself wrinkled her nose, though she knew that her husband would tease her about it later.
“I know that I should probably save the sweets for Christmas, but I couldn’t help but bake a cake now that you’re all here,” Josie said with a grin as a cake was put onto the table.
“I take back every complaint I had about fancy dining,” Benj said in wonder, “I take them all back for this cake.”
“Benj. You’ve had cake before.”
“I know, but I didn’t get to eat sugar because of army rations for ages! That means I can eat double the sugar now, doesn’t it?” Benj defended.
Tatiana opened her mouth, found herself stumped in coming up with a reason why that wasn’t true, and then closed it with a shrug in defeat.
After so long in the war, Tatiana was no longer used to the routine of dining in the hall and then retiring back to the living room for coffee and to smoke, but Daniel and Mia, now the heads of The Rookery after Orion’s death, had clearly tried to keep up with old customs while modernizing some. They weren’t as dressed up as they used to be, but the general order of meals remained the same, and soon she found herself seated on the couch, accidentally sandwiched between two soldiers.
“How are things going with you and Ariel?” Tatiana asked Nate conversationally.
His shoulders shrugged. “They’re alright,” he replied, and she could detect a hint of hesitation in his voice.
“Is there a reason she’s not here?” Tatiana asked. She would have invited her friend herself, but knowing that she was Nate’s girl, she expected the man to do it on her own.
“Oh, she’s in Spain! They’ve got some nasty flu illness going on there, so they just sent her out to help contain it a few days ago. She said to send you her best, though,” Nate added, though he deflated slightly, “I really wanted to spend this Christmas with her. We’ve spent so many apart.”
“She’ll be home by next Christmas. We’re not in war anymore,” reassured Tatiana, laying a quick hand on his shoulder and waiting for him to smile at her in acceptance before she let go.
Across the room, Danny, Flick, and Benj were engaged in an animated discussion.
“I’m not being funny, but I think that you should get a toaster,” Benj said, his blue eyes bright.
Felicity looked up at him in alarm. “What’s that?”
“It’s this device that toasts bread – and yes, it’s run by electricity,” Benj added quickly.
This only added to Flick’s alarm. “But why would you use that when you have a pan?”
“It’s more efficient, Nana,” Daniel explained patiently. “Making toast on the toaster would be far quicker than on the pan. I really think you should get one for your home. Benj knows all about them since he’s working with a mechanic right now, so he’s seen them being put together, and there’s nothing dangerous about them.”
“Even the electricity?”
“We’ll get one for The Rookery and test it out first if you’re so concerned,” he assured his grandmother, who was still alarmed.
“More electricity? In The Rookery? Don’t you have enough?”
“Well, gas lamps are becoming a bit outdated,” Benj said with a shrug, “Maybe it’s time for more efficiency!” Flick turned her gaze to him and he added hurriedly, “Like the lights! All the better to see how radiant you are in. The glow from the gas lamps wouldn’t be enough.”
Felicity narrowed her eyes slightly at him, but the smile playing on her lips belied her amusement. “Maybe if you try it here first,” she decided at last, “And then, if it works out here, you can install it in my house.”
It was a difficult battle to have won, but Daniel exchanged a grin with his brother-in-law.
Elsewhere, Lydia and Mia were engaged in a conversation about injuries they’d seen in their respective hospitals, which had caused Max and Seth, who were sitting near them, to go slightly green before they loudly began discussing a new model of car that they’d seen on their way to The Rookery.
Josie returned a few minutes later, pressing her hands to her hips as the butler followed her in and began to collect discarded cups. “The children are still asleep,” she informed the others, “And perhaps it’s time we follow their lead. I’ll see you all in the morning.”
“Do you want me to hold back your hair?” Mia called to Daniel helpfully as she stood hesitantly by the bathroom.
Daniel was bent rather inelegantly over the toilet and looked up, wiping at his sweaty forehead. “That’s hilarious,” he replied, deadpan as always and seemed about to say something else when he was doubled over and throwing up in the toilet again.
“I’ll go get a towel,” promised Mia as she shrugged on a dressing gown and quickly slipped out of the room.
A few rooms down the hall, Tatiana found herself in a similar position.
“It’s this Welsh food,” moaned Benj as he leaned against the toilet, “You’re all trying to poison me.”
Tatiana swatted his arm with her hand, and then regretted it immediately as Benj moved forward to throw up again in the toilet. “You’re burning up,” she said then as she laid a hand on his forehead and then pushed his blonde curls away from his face. “You sure that you didn’t eat anything bad yesterday?”
Benj opened his mouth but she cut him off, “And I don’t want to hear one more thing from you about Welsh food.” He reluctantly closed his mouth, scowled, and then bent over the toilet again.
“Right, stay here, I’ll get a glass of water.” Tatiana clasped a hand to her husband’s shoulder and started out of the room.
She’d made it only a step into the hallway before she ran straight into Mia. The older woman spilled the cup of water she was holding all over the other woman, and both gasped in surprise.
“Sorry,” Mia apologized quickly, handing Tatiana the towel on her shoulder. “That was meant for Danny. He’s been vomiting since the sun rose.”
“I was just on my way down to get a glass of water for Benj, too,” Tatiana explained as the two of them started back downstairs toward the kitchen to get another. “He’s also been throwing up for a while, but I can’t imagine why. Was the food off yesterday? I thought that it tasted a bit odd too, but I just thought that was because I hadn’t eaten it in a long time.”
“It doesn’t seem to have affected anyone else yet,” pointed out Mia as they walked down the staircase, “It just looks like a case of the flu.”
Lydia had been at the bottom of the stairs, admiring a painting on the wall, but at Mia’s words, she stiffened and turned. “Who has the flu?”
“Dai and Benj, we think,” explained Tatiana, “Have you seen my mother around? I’ll ask her to have something hot prepared for them.”
Lydia had paled. “Exactly what’s wrong with them?” she asked.
“They’ve both been vomiting for at least an hour. Oh, and Benj has a fever, but it’s only a small elevation in temperature, it’s nowhere near as bad as it was in the hospital in Verona,” added Tatiana quickly, and then her lips curved up, “You’re not going to make jokes about me getting into bed with a soldier again?”
“Do either of them have diarrhea?” asked Lydia briskly without appearing to have heard half of what her best friend had said.
Mia appeared affronted. “I didn’t check! Either way, it’ll be fine. Daniel’s throat is a little bit swollen, but I expect that’s partially from the throwing up, and besides, he wants to take the boys into Bryn Du today to see the town.”
Lydia was shaking her head, and Tatiana knew that something was wrong before her friend even spoke. “You can’t. We have to quarantine them – not just them, actually, we all have to be quarantined,” she added, her pale eyes widening as she suddenly realized the gravity of their situation.
“Oh, they can’t be that contagious,” Mia said, waving off the blonde’s concern. “They just need a little bit of rest.”
Lydia lowered her voice as not to alarm the butler passing by. “It could be the Spanish flu.”
Ever since the war had been over and Mia and Tatty had become pregnant, they’d spent much of their time as midwives rather than working with war wounds or the contagious illnesses so that they could keep themselves and their children safe. Lydia, on the other hand, had continued working with the contagious diseases as she had no reason to stop. She’d seen far more of the ailment than they had.
The sound of Christmas carolers approaching in the distance, the butler whistling a tune under his breath, and the holly hung around the staircases suddenly dulled in her vision. She struggled to keep balance in the face of this unforeseen complication, but she was suddenly hit by the staggering reality that they could be hosts not just to friends and family soon, but to death as well.
“You don’t think –“ started Tatiana unsteadily, trying to get over this momentary pause as the weight of Lydia’s statement hit her, but she was cut off by the sound of a voice at the top of the stairs.
“Could I bother one of you ladies for a glass of water?” Benj asked, supporting himself on the railing.
“Where’s Clara?” asked Tatiana at once.
Benj looked around, distracted. “The nanny came to take her with Jude a few minutes ago. Where’s Daniel? Why are the three of you looking at me like that?”
In true nurse’s fashion, all of them had their heads tilted at him clinically, surveying him through narrowed, analytical gazes. Tatiana was the first one to snap out of it. She cast a glance back at the other two and then started back up to help him down the stairs.
“I’ve stopped vomiting,” Benj said helpfully, “Really, it must have just been something I ate. I’m fine now.” His forehead was still sweaty, but at least he wasn’t vomiting, and Tatiana gave him only a small nod before she led him down the stairs, past the other two young women whose gazes were still following them. After a few seconds, Mia returned back up the stairs to check on her husband while Lydia followed her friend in.
The soldiers, minus Daniel, were all sitting in the dining room and convincing an affronted Felicity Shaw that it was time she got rid of the gas lights in her house by the time that Tatiana and Benjamin walked in.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Seth at once.
“It’s the Welsh food,” complained Benj before Tatiana could stop him, and then cast a sudden look at Flick when he realized she was there.
To her credit, Flick gave only a shrug. “I’m not Welsh,” she said simply.
“Stop it,” Tatiana scolded him, and then pushed a cup of hot tea in front of him. “Drink. If Daniel’s better soon, you’re all meant to be going out with him.”
Lydia’s words played on her mind; if this was the Spanish flu that she’d heard so much about but had yet to see for herself, then they were all in grave danger indeed.
“What’s wrong with Daniel?” asked Max.
“Mia says that he’s been throwing up for a bit,” Tatiana said, and was met with a noise of surprise from her grandmother.
“Tatiana! That’s not appropriate mealtime conversation.”
“He’s ill, Nana. I’m a nurse, so I have to report it without being embarrassed,” defended Tatiana quickly.
“Do you notice it’s only the ones who got married and had kids who got sick?” Nate pointed out to Seth, who nodded sagely.
“Marriage makes you more susceptible to disease,” Seth replied in a deadpan tone.
“You could be next,” muttered Benj darkly over his cup of tea.
Tatiana laid a hand on his forehead. “You’re still burning up – oh, no,” she added quickly when she saw him go green again. “Don’t speak,” she said when he made to open his mouth. “Sorry to cut breakfast short, gentlemen, but I’m going to take my husband to bed.”
There was an immediate response of laughter from the soldiers, and Benj reddened. “Tatiana!” Flick said, her eyes wide in shock, “That is not –“
“Appropriate mealtime conversation, I know,” Tatiana added quickly, her own cheeks turning pink, before she quickly justified. “I meant to bed to rest!”
“Remember the last time you got in bed with Benj when he had a fever?” Lydia reminded her friend as she stood by the door, crossing her arms over her chest and cocking an eyebrow as an amused smile played gently on her tight-lipped countenance. The soldiers and Flick directed their respective amusement and shock to her instead.
“Now is not the time, Lyds,” groaned Tatiana as she helped Benj back out the door. “Anyway, you’re coming with me. I need you to check Benj and Dai.” She gave the other nurse a look to indicate that they needed to be secret now; if it turned out not to be the flu, then they would have put a quarantine on The Rookery and panicked all the soldiers for no reason.
Used to nonverbal communication with Tatiana, it didn’t take Lydia long to catch on. “I think it’s a little too late for me to act as your chaperone, Tatty,” she replied breezily as she followed the witch out, closing the door behind them to contain the laughter of the soldiers (and even Flick) inside.
“Oh, he’s ill,” Lydia said grimly as she bent over Daniel and pressed two of her fingers to the hollow of his neck to check his pulse. “There’s no mistaking it. Danny has all the signs of it.”
Daniel was dozing, apparently unaware of the four women clustered in a tight circle around his bed. Josie and Mia put their hands up to cover their mouths in simultaneous shock, but Tatiana frowned and stepped closer.
The young woman tried to recall all that she could about the Spanish flu, but Lydia had had more experience than her. If this was delivering a baby, or sewing up wounds caused by gunshots, or even helping amputate a body part, then Tatty knew how to do it in her sleep, but she had never dealt with a case of this herself.
“Is that what Benj has?” the brunette asked after she paused for a few seconds.
Her own husband was tucked up in bed with a bin placed at his side in case he was sick again. He was quite sweaty, but at least he was clearly not as bad as Daniel was. Not yet, at least.
“I would assume so. Daniel must have given it to Benj,” Lydia explained as she stepped back with a sigh, and then she turned to Josie. “Mrs. Penvrane, we’re going to have to Quarantine of The Rookery. There’s simply no way we can let anyone leave and risk spreading this, because some of the others might be sick too without realizing.”
Josie had taken her hands away from her mouth and had clasped them in front of her tightly. She gave a slow, stiff nod. “I’ll alert the others.” She disappeared from the room.
Mia too slowly took her hands away from her mouth. “What can we do?” she asked at last, as her gaze roved up to meet Lydia’s.
Lydia was already pouring a glass of water from the pitcher and placing it at Daniel’s bedside. “We have to treat it like the regular flu,” she said finally The flu itself was deadly at its worst, but it was something that they’d all had to treat before. Lydia didn’t say more, but they all knew what she was thinking. This was the worst strain of the flu that the world had ever seen, and though Daniel and Benj were strong, healthy young men, this illness was entirely capable of wiping them out.
They devised a plan of action, then, in the quick, swift way that they’d learned during the war. Lydia would check the other soldiers for Spanish flu symptoms; Mia would stay at Daniel’s bedside and Tatiana would stay at Benj’s; Josephine would take care of everything else.
“What about the babies?” whispered Tatiana, suddenly struck cold by the fear that this virulent disease could affect her daughter and her nephew as well.
“We have to quarantine them,” said Lydia immediately. “Your grandmother too,” she added after a moment. “If this illness can affect perfectly healthy, strong young men, it could be disastrous for old women or for infants. You have to move them to the farthest corner of the house with the nanny and keep them there until we ride this out.”
Tatiana and Mia did exactly that, running to inform the nanny and kissing their children goodbye. Then, Tatiana and Josephine turned to the monumental task of getting Felicity Shaw to isolate herself.
“No,” Flick said resolutely.
“It’s for your own good,” said Josie for the millionth time. “Mum, you know that you could get ill too.”
“What, and you two can’t?” scoffed Flick in reply. “No thank you, I’ll stay here.”
“We’re nurses, Nana! We have to stay and treat the others. You can’t leave the house, but you have to get away from anyone who’s sick right now. This’ll hurt you harder than the rest,” sighed Tatiana.
“Are you calling me old?” Flick asked, clearly ruffled.
“Yes,” answered Josie, “This flu is already deadly enough, Mum, it could be catastrophic for you.”
“I’ve weathered worse storms than this one,” declared Fick, “I am staying here, and nothing you say will change my mind.”
Both her daughter and her granddaughter soon gave up. When Felicity Shaw set her mind to something, there was little that could be done to change it.
Lydia had returned from her examination of the soldiers. “I think Seth looks as if he’s displaying some early symptoms. His temperature is a little high, and his throat is starting to swell,” she informed the other two as she passed them in the hall. “I’m going to have him quarantined in his room. How are the others doing?”
“No change in Daniel,” Mia said, clearly trying to keep calm.
“My mother refuses to go into quarantine, but the babies are isolated in the west wing,” Josie declared.
“Benj is still throwing up,” reported Tatiana.
They split up again. It was difficult enough to treat a ward full of soldiers who all came in half-dead from battle, but they couldn’t fix this the same way. It would take a lot more than stitches or bandages to heal these men from what they had been afflicted by, and Tatiana, at least, wasn’t sure that repeated plying them with water or laying cool cloths on their head would be effective.
Benj was awake by the time she returned to his room from fetching a fresh pitcher of water. “Why can’t I leave?” he asked suspiciously.
“Did you make Danny stay in his bed too?”
“Yes, but he’s not throwing up as much as you are, he’s just sleeping.”
“Did he eat something dodgy too?” Benj asked in confusion.
Tatiana pressed her lips together. “Darling, we don’t think this is food poisoning.” She hesitated, fearing that bad news would make this worse, but she had to be honest. The woman took a tentative seat at the very edge of his bed. “We’ve put The Rookery on quarantine. Lydia believes that you, er, have the flu.”
Her words had been said in a soothing tone, but Benj still sat bolt upright. “The Spanish Flu?” he asked, his blue eyes wide. Even him, who hadn’t been in a hospital spare to pick up his wife from work, had heard and seen people who had been afflicted by the notorious disease currently ravaging the world.
Tatiana let out a small nod and Benj sighed and flopped back into the pillows.
“This is bad, Tats,” he said at last.
She felt compelled to reach out and take his hand, and even the risk of illness couldn’t stop her. She did just that anyway. “You will be alright. You have four excellent nurses looking after you, and I wouldn’t ever let anything bad happen to you.”
The color was still drained from his face. “What about Clara? Jude? The boys?”
“Clara and Jude are on their own quarantine far away in this house from the rest of us so that there’s no threat of infection at all. The boys are alright too, but Lydia suspects that Seth could be at risk so she’s quarantined him preemptively.” Tatiana gave her husband’s hand a squeeze. “Can you do something for me?”
Benj let out a small laugh. “In this state? I can hardly do anything when you won’t let me out of bed.”
“I didn’t finish,” Tatiana said with a roll of her hazel eyes, “I want you to stay and get better. Please, just drink your water and do as I say and don’t argue. Can you do that for me?”
She was trying very hard to keep her features neutral, but he saw the fear straight through it. This time, he was the one who squeezed her hand. “Don’t worry,” he assured her, “I’ll do what you say. With minimal complaint this time.” He cracked a smile but then, wracked by a sudden urge to vomit, suddenly turned sideways and grabbed for the bin.
The next morning, the nurses regrouped once more.
“I’ve been up all night, but Daniel’s barely improved,” fretted Mia, wringing her hands together absently. “I don’t think he’s delirious, but he’s woken up and asked for water or something to eat a few times. He asked about Jude around midnight.” She closed her mouth, clearly at a loss for what to do.
“Seth’s gotten worse,” confirmed Lydia plainly. “He’s definitely developing the flu as well. He isn’t as bad as the other two yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“I’ve already had Nate and Max moved to rooms farther,” Josie said with a firm nod.
They were interrupted by another voice in the room. “Oh, Josephine, you’re doing it all wrong,” Flick sighed from where she was seated very rigidly on an armchair in the room. “You’re supposed to check if they’re ill first if you move them, so that they won’t affect anyone else along the way.”
“I know, Mum,” sighed back Josie, and then turned to her daughter.
“Benj just kept throwing up,” Tatiana informed the others. “He doesn’t seem to have a temperature anymore, but he’s still a bit sweaty.” She hesitated. “Are you sure he has the flu, Lydia?”
“Let’s check,” the nurse said, and started up the stairs.
Benj looked alarmed to have the four woman crowded around his bed. “Can’t I at least button my shirt back up first?” he asked, reaching down to do just that before Tatiana grabbed his hands to stop him. Instead, she put her fingers against the side of his neck to check his pulse and then put the back of her hand against his head.
Lydia, meanwhile, was feeling his lymph nodes. “Don’t laugh,” she instructed him, seeing the giggle rising in his throat as she poked about around his neck. “Tatty, they’re not inflamed.”
“He doesn’t seem to have flu symptoms, either,” replied Tatiana as she dropped her hand. “In fact, it just looks like –“
“Food poisoning,” both women said together.
Benj looked between the two of them and then grinned. “I told you it was the Welsh food! That’s why I’ve been throwing up.”
“None of the rest of us have it, though,” Tatiana pointed out.
“What about Daniel?”
“That’s definitely the Spanish flu,” Lydia insisted.
Mia stepped in now. “What did you eat the day you arrived?”
Benj began to count on his fingers. “Some toast in the morning, a bit of milk, that ham sandwich on the train –“
Both Lydia and Tatiana recoiled visibly. “What?” he said, suddenly defensive.
“The one that you bought at the train station? Benj, that sandwich looked revolting,” Lydia said, wrinkling her nose.
“I told you not to eat it,” scolded Tatiana.
Benj raised his arms in sudden self-defense. “It looked good, alright?” He lowered them then as another thought passed through his mind. “So I don’t have the Spanish flu.”
“No,” his wife replied confidently, nudging forward the bucket beside his bed. “You just have an unfortunate case of food poisoning that was not at all caused by Welsh food. You might be vomiting for a little while longer.”
“I haven’t been,” Benj replied earnestly. “Look, you can check in there if you want!”
“I’d rather not,” murmured Mia, looking at the bucket he’d indicated with some apprehension.
Josie seemed relieved; her son was still affected and one of her house guests, but her son in law, at least, was unaffected. “Perhaps we should check on the others again now that we know that Benjamin is alright?” she suggested, and the three younger woman nodded before moving away from his bedside.
As she was about to pass out through the doorframe, Lydia coughed, and she felt it wrack through her entire body.
“Lydia is very ill,” Mia reported.
“How do you know that?” questioned Tatiana in alarm, trying not to drop the tray that she balanced in her arms. The butler and everyone else who worked in the Rookery had all been quarantined away downstairs with strict orders to keep themselves isolated lest they rest the same sort of sickness, so she was the one currently shuttling supplies back and forth.
“She’s been sitting with Seth and watching him for the last few hours, so I came in to see if she wanted to switch and I found her deliriously arguing with him about Spartan warriors?” Mia said with a question in her voice.
Tatiana clicked her tongue. “That’s not delirium, that’s just Lydia.” She paused. “I do think that she’s getting sick, though. Did you see her cough earlier this morning?”
“It could just be the cold,” Mia said optimistically.
Tatiana, who had once been hopelessly optimistic even in the face of serious illness herself, had to be more realistic now. “It’s the flu,” she corrected, and then started up the stairs. “Come on, let’s get her into bed.”
It took no less than both nurses, a feverish Seth’s verbal support, and then Max’s strong grip to convince Lydia to leave behind her patients as they all but dragged her into bed. She stopped squirming only when Tatiana threatened to both chain her to the bed and sit on her, and instead lied still, looking mutinously at her friend.
“Make sure you check Daniel,” she said at last. “He’s got it the worst.”
Mia and Tatty did as she asked while Josie began to fuss over Lydia’s quickly sickening form. Daniel was awake this time, and as soon as he saw his wife and sister, he tried to sit up. “Why won’t you let me leave?” he protested as Mia tried to settle him back down.
“You’ve been sick for the past two days, remember?” Mia reminded him. “The Spanish Flu, I told you this already.”
It was clear that he’d been feverish when she’d last told him. His eyes widened and he tried to get out of bed again. “We have to quarantine the house and send a message into town so they know we’ve been afflicted!”
“Your mother’s already done that,” Mia replied, trying to soothe him in tones that Tatiana was sure that she used on her child. “The only thing that you can do right now is rest.”
Tatiana didn’t expect her brother to accept that without arguing with it at least a little bit. “What about the boys? The babies? Lydia?”
“Lydia and Seth are ill, but they’re both in quarantine as well. The babies are on the other end of the house and safe,” affirmed Tatiana, and busied herself briefly with pouring another cup of water that she handed to him. “You have to stay hydrated. Mia, keep putting cool cloths on his head, I think he’s getting feverish again.”
“I’m in charge, you can’t keep me confined to my bed like this,” complained Daniel.
Josephine chose then to walk in through the open door. “I’m both your mother and your nurse and the previous lady of this house,” she informed her son severely, “You will stay in bed.”
There were no complaints from Daniel after that.
“How’s Lydia?” Benj asked Tatiana a few hours later as she stood apprehensively at the railing, twisting her wedding ring round and around her finger as she gazed through the open door at Lydia’s sleeping form.
“Not good,” whispered Tatiana, her heart clenching in fear. “She said that Daniel was the worst, but she’s definitely deteriorated far more quickly. She’s already delirious.”
“Not talking about Sparta, is she?” Benj tried to joke to lighten up his wife’s mood, but her gaze didn’t drift away from the other nurse curled up in bed.
Tatiana merely shook her head. “Derek,” she said, and that was it. Derek had died of the Spanish Flu only a few months prior. Lydia hadn’t mentioned him to Tatiana since, but now she could hear the conversation that her best friend was having with what seemed like some invisible figure, whose answers only Lydia could hear and decipher.
She then turned suddenly to her husband as if realizing that he was there for the first time. “What are you doing out of bed?”
“I haven’t thrown up since last night, and my fever’s gone. Look,” he grabbed her arm, making her jump, and then pressed her hand to his forehead. “I’m well again. You don’t need to fuss over me any longer.” Benj paused. “Actually, it’s you who probably needs to be fussed over a little bit. Did you sleep much last night? Have you had any rest today?”
“I’ve had enough,” Tatiana lied, but her husband shook his head, knowing her lies when he heard them.
“It’s getting late. I’ve already spoken to your Mama and Mia, and they said that they’ll be up tonight to tend to all the sick.”
“I can’t just leave them to do that all on their own!” protested Tatiana.
“You’ll take it in shifts,” justified Benj. “Tomorrow it’ll be your turn, but tonight, they’ve allowed you to rest. You can’t all run yourselves into the ground simultaneously, Tatty, you know this. Didn’t you have to switch shifts on and off in Verona or at the VAD Hospital?”
She had to concede that this was true. Daniel would be well looked after by Mia. Her mother had already prepared several tubs of cool water and cloth to tend to Seth with. And yet – her gaze drifted back to her best friend.
“She’ll be alright,” Benj said gently, “What would she tell you to do if she saw what you were doing?”
“She’d be out there doing the same thing if it were me in there,” murmured Tatiana.
“And then she’d have one of us forcing her to go to bed so that both of you could rest,” corrected Benj, and then cleared his throat. “Come on, darling, come to bed. I’ve even changed the sheets so you don’t need to worry about vomit on them.”
This caught her attention. She turned in surprise and asked, “You know how to change sheets?”
“It’s not exactly as tricky as laying down mines, Tatty. We weren’t all raised in houses that had maids.”
She conceded that this was fair, and let her husband wrap an arm around her and guide her back to their room.
Benj awoke to the sound of retching next morning.
This time, it was Tatiana who was bent over the toilet, violently heaving up the contents of her stomach. He’d seen her do something like this before, of course, when he’d held back her hair as she complained of nausea and back pain and her feet swelling, but that had been under very different circumstances. She had been pregnant, and they had had Clara to look forward at the end of that. He could see nothing but bleakness going forward from here. This was how Daniel had started to get sick, and he knew that soon it would be Tatiana who was bed-ridden as well.
Benj dropped to his knees beside her and placed an arm on her shoulder. She turned, looking about as exhausted and horrified as he felt, and he felt an icy hand suddenly swoop in to encircle his heart in fear.
“Oh, God,” Benj murmured, “No, no, not you too.”