Author's Note: I'm incredibly excited to present you with my first ever story offering. I've really enjoyed the writing process and I hope you derive some measure of enjoyment from reading as well. Since I've never done any creative writing in the past, I'm sure there is much room for improvement, so please feel free to leave suggestions.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to several people for their invaluable help with this story. To silverduck, who first encouraged me to write and tirelessly provided feedback about my plot. To OrangeShipper, who acted as my first beta reader and was unfailingly kind as she gently whipped this product into shape. To Lady Grantham, who provided a final polish and endless encouragement. And finally, to my sister, who graciously watched Downton Abbey at my behest and served by turn as a history consultant, cheerleader and critic. Heartfelt thanks to each of you for your help.
Disclaimer: Downton Abbey and its recognizable characters and plots are the product of ITV Network, its associates, and the writers, producers, and directors who created the show. I am merely playing in the sandbox.
She knew the telegram contained ominous news the moment it arrived. She had prayed such a day would never come but now the inevitable was here. She crossed the room to sit next to her husband and took his free hand, waiting for him to confirm the news for her.
He read the two lines of text quickly and felt grateful for her sudden presence at his side. There was no need to prevaricate; she'd read the signs as well as he and they'd shared a joint, if unspoken, dread of this day.
"We are issuing an ultimatum to Germany. If no reply is received by Sunday at 11 in the morning, we- we shall be at war," he said simply, letting the bald words speak for themselves.
"Perhaps Germany will withdraw from Poland?" she asked, desperate for some hope to cling to, though she knew the answer as well as he.
"We must hope," he replied, but his tone said what his words would not.
She tried to sound flippant, but couldn't quite manage it. "So, despite our prayers, it seems our children shall be so fortunate as to experience war first hand. Perhaps our talented leaders will even manage to outdo the consequences of our last involvement. How many years and how many lives will it be this time?"
He had no answer to offer. The autumn afternoon, previously crisp but sunny, seemed to have lost its light and warmth. He reached for her to pull her closer, but she drew away to stand up and pace restlessly, emotions too discordant to accept any comfort, her fingers flying to twist her necklace in her familiar nervous gesture. He watched her agitated movements until she crossed the room again to stare out the window and he was struck with a fleeting, grainy memory of a parallel scene from another war, another life.
"Sometimes I think Kropp had the right of it," she murmured after a while.
"The character, from All Quiet on the Western Front. He suggested we should just arm the ministers and generals with clubs and send them into a ring in their bathing-drawers to have it out amongst themselves. Much more fitting, don't you think?"
"You know Hitler's rise and the fascist beliefs he espouses are no laughing matter," he chided her gently.
"Neither is the thought of Chamberlain without his shirt on."
His lips twitched slightly, but he refused to give in to her frivolity. He knew the impudence was merely her attempt to cope with her feelings of helplessness and terror, but he did not want to make light of Britain's moral obligation to stand against fascism. "You shouldn't treat Germany's aggression so lightly," he said.
"But I should the lives of our sons and husbands?" She whirled to face him, eyes flashing. "Only men would ever play at war, unafraid to condemn thousands to their death with a single decision. No mother would ever willingly send her sons out to battle, but you men think nothing of our suffering because it's not yours to bear. What are a few more lives to throw away on the altar of one man's ambition?"
"That's hardly fair. Women are involved in the decisions too now."
"Oh yes, I forgot about our Queen Georgia and Prime Minister Nevina Chamberlain. Or were you thinking of Lady Clementine Attlee and Winifred Churchill?"
He came forward and gently took her hands. "You know that's not what I meant. Besides, these men are fathers, with sons they'll need to risk. And I served with Attlee in the Great War. I know he doesn't desire a repeat experience and I trust none of them take this decision lightly."
"Not all of them have children and not all at the right age," she countered, refusing to meet his eyes.
"Really, darling, you didn't at all approve of Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, so if anything, you should be pleased with his new hard stance."
"I only disapproved of appeasement because I thought he was taking too soft a line with Germany. I wanted him to address the issue promptly, not dither till he had to declare war." She sighed. "Why must our men go fight for one man's mistake?"
"Because we have a duty to God, King, and Country."
"How can you say that?" she asked incredulously, now lifting her face towards his. He was alarmed to find tearstains on her cheeks. "You aren't a naïve young man any more; you've lived through a war. You have the scars to remind you, at least, if your memory is going so fast. How can you still believe in that duty?"
In answer he drew her toward his chest, reaching up gently to stroke her hair. "You know I wish as much as you that it would never come to this."
"I know," she sighed, leaning into his embrace and feeling remorseful for taking her anger out on him so undeservedly. "I'm sorry; I shouldn't be spending my frustration on you. But I'm just so-" her voice hitched, "so frightened for Robert. If he's anything like his father, he will want to enlist. And I prayed so fervently our daughters would never know the deprivations of war or that desperate fear for their loved ones. What will happen to our children?" Her voice faltered. "It's almost too much to bear."
He was troubled as much by her desolate tone as by her words. Even after all these years of marriage, it was rare when she allowed herself to display vulnerability or fear. He had so often drawn on her strength and her unwavering faith in his abilities; now it seemed his turn to return the favor.
"I am sure they will find a way through," he assured her with a confidence he didn't feel. "They are young, they are capable, they're blessed with your intelligence and charm and courage. We survived the last war; they can weather this one too."
"But so many never made it," she protested, unable to stop her fear from tumbling out of her mouth. "You remember what happened last time, especially to the aristocracy. One-fifth of our men never made it back. One-fifth! If they fight…" she left the words hanging, unable to complete that terrible thought. She felt a prickling behind her eyes again as she looked up at her husband. "And I nearly lost you."
"But you didn't," he pointed out gently. "I came home and we must have faith that Robert will too. There's nothing else we can do."
"No, there is nothing else we can do," she agreed.
"My love, this is terrible to say, I'd admit it to no one but you, but sometimes I can't find the heart to fully regret the war. I truly believe it brought us together. Perhaps we would have ended up together anyway, but…"
"…we probably wouldn't have otherwise. You're right, I am thankful for that." Her lips lifted into a self-deprecating smile. "Of course, I probably still don't deserve you, but luckily, we don't always get what we deserve and who am I to object?"
He made no answer except to capture her lips with his own, the two of them drawing comfort from each other and the knowledge that war, for them at least, had offered a gift amidst all the loss.
A/N: Thanks for having made it so far; I'd love to know what you think!
I once hoped to maintain decent historical accuracy, but we're not off to a great start since I've already fudged history in the prologue. (Ooops!) Details if anyone is interested...
I've read some surprisingly conflicting accounts about when the British ultimatum was actually delivered to Germany. By most accounts, it was sent two hours before the deadline of 11am on Sunday, September 3, 1939, though it could have been as early as the day prior, which is why I've purposely kept the timeframe vague in the story. I am assuming that the nation's top leadership knew they would be sending the ultimatum many hours before everything was "officially" decided and announced to the press. This would give them enough time to notify various individuals discretely, which is why the telegram arrives at least a day before September 3rd.
The "women" are of course King George, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Opposition Leader Lord Clement Attlee (who was actually sick and missed the excitement leading directly up to WWII, but that fact probably wasn't well known yet) and Winston Churchill (whom I threw in for fun).
The statistic mentioned of a 20% death rate is only accurate for graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, the elite boarding schools, and the aristocracy. It was closer to one-eighth or 12% for mobilized men overall.
On that cheerful note, chapter 1 will bring us back twenty-five years and into the right era, before our characters have a proper inkling of what is to come. I hope you will join me there!