A/N: This is my take on chelsie-prompts latest prompt: "In Sickness."
Unbeta'ed, so please forgive any errors.
Thanks to brenna-louise for finding the "Suppose a bomb goes off?" quote for me.
Hope you enjoy! Please drop me a little review if you have a chance. Thank you all for your support!
She is working in the kitchen, doing the after-supper washing up, when she hears it: a pronounced thud followed by a crash and a subsequent, sharply-uttered "Dammit!" from upstairs. The tone of his voice sets her on edge and raises the hairs on the back of her neck.
She takes the stairs two at a time; she cannot get to him quickly enough. When she reaches their bedroom she is confronted by the sight of him on his knees on the floor beside the bed. His back is to her so she cannot ascertain just what has taken place. Has he fallen? Fear closes like a vise around her heart at the thought.
She approaches him swiftly but gently, laying a hand upon his shoulder. "Charles," she says, willing her voice calm, "what's happened, my love?" She surveys the scene before her: the bedside table on her side of the bed is tilted perilously, two of its legs off the floor. The adjacent wall has stopped it from toppling over entirely, also preventing the oil lamp from crashing to the floor. She says a silent prayer of thanks for the fire hazard that was avoided before her eyes alight on the shattered remains of the vase that held a bouquet of peonies cut from her garden. Beside it lies the book she has been reading, the collected works of the Scots poet William Dunbar. And there, bowed low, looking utterly helpless and lost, is her husband.
He's yet to answer her, so she kneels beside him and tries again. "Charles? Are you all right?"
"Can't even pick up a book without causing a disturbance," he huffs, unwilling to meet her eyes. Upon closer inspection she understands why, as his own eyes glisten with the sheen of tears she knows he is fighting hard to rein in.
"Are you hurt?" she asks, silently giving him the once-over.
He raises a shaking hand and it's then that she sees it: an angry gash on his palm between the thumb and forefinger.
"Charles! Why didn't you say anything?" She gets to her feet straightaway. "Stay there. I'll just be a moment." She goes to the lavatory, filling a basin with warm water. She collects an armful of towels and bandaging and returns to his side.
She reaches for his uninjured hand and helps him to his feet. "Sit," she orders, indicating the bed. Carefully she takes his wounded hand in hers. "Let me see," she says more gently. Inspecting the cut, she notes that while it is sizable it does not appear to be deep. "It's going to be all right," she soothes. Perhaps in saying so she will begin to feel it for herself.
She swallows down her trepidation. Dr. Clarkson said there would be days like this. Minor's tremor, he called it. Little was known about the condition, except that it appeared to be familial in nature, to improve with rest and to worsen with fatigue, mental agitation and overexertion of a physical nature.
She dips a flannel in the basin and holds it gently to his wound. "Going to tell me what happened?"
She watches as he frowns, his considerable brows knitting together. "I only meant to borrow your Dunbar," he begins, and then pauses, heaving a sigh, "but my hand slipped … and in my attempt to rescue the book I managed to upset the entire table."
"Yes, well, that can be sorted. What matters is that you've not come to serious harm. Hold this against the wound." She takes his other hand in hers and directs him to hold the flannel as she unwinds a strip of bandaging.
"Elsie," he says, incredulous at the air of calmness about her when he feels anything but.
She removes the flannel and examines his hand. "The bleeding has stopped. Now hold very still." He watches as she applies ointment and wraps the bandage with practiced ease, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
"Elsie."He says it again, more insistently.
"There you are. We'll change the dressing each evening and as long as you keep it dry, you should be right as rain in no time." She gives the back of his hand a reassuring pat and moves to return the basin and bandaging to the lavatory.
"Elsie." He catches her hand in his uninjured one and pulls her gently back toward him until she stands between his knees.
"Charles, we knew there would be days like this," she says with a gentle straightforwardness.
He nods somewhat stiffly, saying nothing. It's one thing to know the name of the condition with which he is afflicted, its triggers and mitigating factors and uncertain prognosis. It's another thing entirely to assimilate that information, to accept it as his new reality. To accept its limitations.
There is a storm brewing inside him; a sense of pride diminished, of dignity eroded. He needs her to be strong now. Strong for him. Strong for herself. He needs for there to be one of them who does not falter and waver and doubt.
She reaches deep within herself as she inhales a steadying breath. Suddenly she sees before her eyes the image of them standing at the altar, hears the words she spoke; her vow to love him "in sickness and in health."
"Undress and get into bed," she says, smiling softly. "Let me put this right and I'll join you."
He watches in awe as she moves around him, soaking up the water from the vase with the towels. Her book is damp (he cringes) and she opens it, laying it pages-down on the heat register in the floor. When she lights the fire in the woodstove later, the rising heat will dry the pages … no harm, no foul. She disappears for a moment - gone to fetch the broom - and he steps out of his trousers, draping them over the chair beside the bed. But when he attempts to undo the buttons of his shirt, his hands begin to shake violently.
She returns with the broom, and from the doorway she can see him struggling. She steps up to him, takes each hand in hers in turn, kissing them both, and places them at his sides. She then proceeds to open his buttons, pulling his arms out of the sleeves. She tosses the shirt on top of his pants and looks pointedly from him to the bed. "Lie down," she says in a tone that brooks no argument.
He turns back the covers and climbs beneath them in his vest and shorts, watching as she sweeps up the scattered blooms, the shattered fragments of her vase. How she loved that vase, he thinks ruefully. It had been a beautiful piece of Belleek china in the shape of a thistle blossom, the flower of her native Scotland; his gift to her on her sixty-fifth birthday.
As if reading his thoughts, she interrupts his self-flagellating inner monologue. "Don't, Charles. It doesn't matter, not one wit. The vase can be replaced. You, on the other hand …" She rights the table, checks to see that none of the oil from the lamp has spilled and returns the broom downstairs to the pantry.
When she returns to the room she has already begun to remove the pins from her hair. She sets them atop her vanity, running her fingers through her tresses to loosen them. He looks on with fascination as auburn waves cascade down her back and shoulders. She unfastens her skirt; it pools at her feet and she steps out of it, leaving it where it falls. Her blouse follows swiftly, joining the skirt. She places one foot on the bed and begins to roll down her stocking, but he shifts over, covering both of her hands with one of his, brushing the tips of his fingers over the sensitive skin of her inner thigh.
Let me, his eyes entreat. This, I can do.
She meets his eyes and nods, watching as he rolls the stocking down inch by inch, caressing her as he goes.
"Other foot up," he rumbles, his voice at once gruff and tender. She switches feet and he repeats the action, lifting her foot to place a kiss to the top of it.
When she is down to only her knickers and a soft, satin chemise, she strikes a match to light the lamp and climbs into bed beside him. Many nights, most nights, it is he who gathers her into his arms. But tonight she reclines against the headboard, opening her arms to him. He rests his head on her chest, soothed at once by the beating of her heart.
"Tell me, Charles, what troubles you?" She runs her fingers through his hair and observes how his eyes slip closed. It will likely be easier for him to speak freely to her this way.
"When you agreed to marry me, this can't have been what you thought our life would be; your husband forced into retirement, unable to dress and undress and shave without assistance because his body cannot be trusted to function properly. Surely you didn't forego marriage all these years only to end up less a wife and more nursemaid to an invalid."
She closes her eyes for a moment, smoothing the tips of her fingers across his temples. She had supposed he might be thinking along these lines, though she is taken a bit by surprise at the extent of his self-loathing.
"What I thought our life would be," she begins steadily and deliberately, "is one of sharing our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, all of our faults and virtues, and loving each other through it all. Now tell me, will you please, how the life we have differs from my expectations?"
He thinks for a time, his fingers toying with the satin shoulder strap of her chemise. "I've fallen short of the mark," he replies.
"How so?" She refuses to accept it, but she will not push him too far. She needs him to know that he is safe with her.
"I've failed to provide for you. I always saw myself as the one who would take care of you, not the other way round."
"Really?" she counters. "Because the last I knew, the roof over our heads was purchased entirely by you. You will recall that I was the one who came penniless to this marriage, and it was your careful management of the money you earned all your life that made it possible to retire. Charles, I have never lived more comfortably in all my life than I do with you. Surely you must know that." She pauses to allow her words time to sink in.
"When have I ever gone without, or wanted for anything you haven't joyously gone out of your way to find for me? If anything, you've spoiled me, love." Her tone softens, and he doesn't need to look at her to know that a soft smile graces her lips. But he does anyway, and as he glances at her she kisses the bridge of his nose. "So you see, as far as a husband providing for his wife, I'd be hard pressed to find anyone who does it better than you."
His heart soars at these words. How does she know - how can she possibly - how much he needs this affirmation? But then she always has known him better than he knows himself. It's a fact that has served to frustrate him at certain times and to fill him with gratitude at others, but either way her insight has always served to make him a better man.
What can he say? She's said it all. He cannot argue with her point and even if he could it would be fruitless to try. He lifts his head from her chest to look at her and brushes his lips against hers in a gentle whisper of a kiss. She senses his desire to do for her and so she comes into his arms, letting him gather her close.
"My Elsie," he whispers, his thumb tracing along her cheekbone. "My darling girl, how I love you. All that I want in this life is to love you well."
"And you have, my love," she replies with wide, earnest blue eyes, "and you do. And you will, for as many as are our days together. I've no doubt of it, Charles. That's the man you are."
He kisses her deeply and she responds, cradling his face in her hands. When their lips part, he speaks from his heart once more. "Suppose it gets worse? Suppose I can no longer care for myself at all? Suppose the burden becomes too much for you to bear?"
She attempts to lighten the mood. "Suppose a bomb goes off? Suppose we're hit by a falling star? In all honesty, Charles, we can't know what the future will bring. Dr. Clarkson seems optimistic that you'll be able to live a full life. Suppose you do require assistance with some things? Don't I as well? Heavens, even with a stepstool I can't reach the top shelf of the kitchen cupboards! And …" She trails off long enough to lift his chin, meeting his eyes with a mischievous glint in her own. "While I may be perfectly capable of removing my own stockings, I don't get the same thrill as when you do it for me."
"Elsie," he sighs, dropping his head into the warm crook of her neck and resting there for some moments. "Suppose I can't love you in the way you deserve?" He skims his hand along her curves from shoulder to hip and back, cupping the warm weight of her breast in his palm.
She glories in his touch and cannot help the moan that escapes her lips. "Ohhh, love … Please don't go borrowing trouble for yourself. Haven't you heard that each day has enough of its own? Whatever tomorrow brings, we will face it together. If at some point we require help, we'll get it. You will never lose my love and affection. It's yours, Charles, forever. Do you honestly think I'd have married you if I didn't mean it, you old booby?"
"You never have done anything you didn't believe in," he replies, pressing kisses along her collarbone.
"And I don't plan to start! Now, you're knackered, and that's likely the cause of your trouble this evening. We'll have to wait for Dunbar to dry out, but may I read something else to you before we turn out the lights?"
"Always, my love," he answers. "You know I've a weakness for listening to you read."
"Very well, then." She retrieves the Bible from the bedside table and opens to the book of Ecclesiastes. "You know, the older I get, the more I appreciate the wisdom of King Solomon. Do you want to know how I can be so sure we'll be all right, that no matter what comes we can face it so long as we're together?"
He nods, settling back against his pillow. She smiles, thinking for a moment that he must have looked like this as a boy waiting for his mother to read him a bedtime story.
"Listen to Solomon's words. 'Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, and hath not another to lift him up.
Again, if two lie together, then they have warmth; but how can one be warm alone? And if a man prevail against him that is alone, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.'"
She finishes reading and closes the book, setting it back on the table. When she turns to look at him she sees he has fallen asleep with the slightest of smiles upon his lips. She smiles in turn, pulling the covers up over them both and snuggling into his side.
"I will always be there to lift you up, my darling man," she whispers just before sleep claims her too.
*Minor's tremor - I've chosen to believe that Charles' palsy is caused by essential tremor, as suggested by Julian Fellowes. This is a tremor disorder associated with use of an affected limb, one that resolves when the limb is at rest. It runs in my family; my grandma suffered with it for the last ten years of her life and it affects an uncle of mine as well. The condition is exacerbated by stress, fatigue, illness, and excessive physical exertion. Before it became known as essential tremor it was referred to as Minor's tremor after the Russian neurologist Lazar Salomowitch Minor who, in 1922, published research on a type of postural tremor disorder known to be familial in nature and to affect limbs only during use. Essential tremor is now known not to be degenerative in its nature, thus differentiating it from Parkinson's Disease.
*Belleek china - Belleek Pottery Works Company Ltd was founded in Belleek, County Fermanagh (in what is now Northern Ireland) in 1884. One of its classic patterns features the thistle, the official flower of Scotland
*Ecclesiastes - Elsie quotes Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. I've used the English Revised Version, as it's closest to what they would have read in the Church of England in the 1920's.