With a final brush, John stepped away from Lord Grantham to make sure that no crease or speck of dust had escaped his vigilance, a small smile on his face as he listened to yet another rant about his probably soon-to-be son in law. It had been going for a while now, and John couldn’t say that he hadn’t tuned out his employer’s voice for the past couple of minutes.
It was his luck that Lord Grantham seemed to be in quite the talkative mood when he himself had been feeling a bit under the weather since he woke up. Nothing more than a cold, or so he hoped, but seeing as how many had already been struck down by the flu epidemic, he had to be realistic. His only chance would be to be spared the most severe symptoms, he was after all, in good health and neither young or old enough to be part of the disease’s main group of victims.
“... I’m sure you agree with me on this, right?”
John had to blink a few times to clear the fog in his head and get his brain working properly again, it was getting harder to focus on what his Lordship was saying, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the other man.
“Bates, are you alright? You don’t look too good.”
“I’m fine, my Lord, thank you. It’ll pass, it’s nothing to worry about.”
“On the contrary, it is a worrisome matter,” and indeed, there was concern on the Earl’s face. “God, not you too”, he sighed. “Sit down, I’ll fetch someone to help you to your room.”
“My Lord, please, it’s not necessary, I don’t need -”
“I won’t have you passed out on the floor, sit down, and that’s an order.”
John complied, sitting on the chair by the window, still not ready to admit that it did feel good to rest, if only for a second or two, he told himself. His muscles were stiff, and that wasn’t taking into account the usual throbbing in his knee. It was still morning, and he was feeling as he sometimes did after a particularly long and tiring day, but without the sensation of accomplishment that came with it.
It barely took a couple of minutes before Lord Grantham came back, with Mrs. Hughes in tow, but it was obvious that despite sitting down, the valet was not doing any better. He seemed paler than he was before, and struggled to his feet when he noticed he wasn’t alone anymore.
“My my, you almost look as bad as Mr. Carson does.”
She came to stand near him, but Mr. Bates was keen on acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, and limped out of the room.
“Thank you Mrs. Hughes, but as I already told his Lordship, I can manage perfectly well on my own.” He didn’t catch the infuriated look the woman threw at his back.
“As stubborn as ever as you can see, Mrs. Hughes. Would you mind making sure he makes it to his room? I don’t want to take any chances.” With one last concerned glance, confident that at least one of them would follow his orders, Lord Grantham closed the door of his dressing room, and walked away to eat his breakfast.
“Come on, Mr. Bates, you don’t have any choice in this, so let’s just get on with it.”
Right, thought John, who certainly didn’t feel like climbing the stairs up to the attics. At least, it was Mrs. Hughes, and not Thomas whom Lord Grantham had found first, she had after all already seen him during pretty bad times and he trusted her. Mr. Carson was still bedridden, and Miss O’Brien was being unusually compassionate and was staying day and night with Lady Grantham.
The first part of their walk went well, better than both had expected really, but then John’s steps started to falter after a while, and he had to slow down his pace considerably.
“I don’t have all day, Mr. Bates. Lean on me and we’ll get up there a lot faster.” It was her no-nonsense tone that did it, and he accepted her help, not wanting to delay her any more than he was already doing. With one hand on his cane and the other on her shoulder, they started to ascend the last flight of stairs. “See, I’m sturdier than I look, no worries here.”
Anna knocked on the door, twice, then waited. When no answer came, she didn’t hesitate any longer, and opened it. The room was bathed in sunlight, the sparse furniture as simple as it had ever been, the only signs of it being lived in were a jacket hung on a chair, and a small frame on the nightstand.
She smiled as her eyes settled on the occupant of the room, it was a fond smile, but a bit exasperated too at the state he was in. Her husband was indeed in bed as Mrs. Hughes had said, but she wasn’t expecting him to still be dressed in his valet uniform, laying on top of the sheets. His bad leg was resting on the blanket at the end of the bed, while the other was dangling off one side, all in all he looked as if he sat down and hadn’t had neither the will nor the strength to get back up and change into his night clothes.
With a small sigh, she bent down and shook his shoulder, “John? John, wake up.”
A moan answered her, and it took a couple more tries before she was able to elicit a better response. His eyes fluttered open, unfocused for a second, and then he gifted her with one of those small smiles of his she loved so much.
“Hello yourself,” she huffed. “Need help?”
“Why? I’m fine where I am.” He shot her a smug look, but it didn’t have the desired effect with the few beads of sweat on his forehead and the paleness of his skin.
She ignored his quip, and walked to his wardrobe, quickly found what she was looking for, and turned around to see that he hadn’t moved a single muscle. She sat on the bed next to him. “I’m not doing all the work here, you better help me.”
“My very own valet.”
“And I double as a nurse in my spare time, aren’t you the lucky one.”
She unbuttoned his jacket and shirt, took off his tie and collar, anything she could do while he was still lying down. Taking off his pants was done easily enough thankfully. He then tried to sit up, but he soon found out he barely had the strength, and without Anna’s help would have most likely fallen back on the mattress. Anna lost her humor at the situation fairly quickly when she realized how weak he was. By the time she had her husband shirtless, he was sweating and was struggling to keep his eyes open.
“I’ll help you wash a bit of that sweat off, but I need to get up to reach the bucket of water. Try to stay sit, alright?”
He nodded feebly against her shoulder, and with a squeeze on his arm, she carefully got up, fetched the water, and sat back up as fast as she could. John was swaying a bit, but it appeared he was determined not to fall asleep while she was still caring for him. She wet the cloth with cold water and slowly patted it against his broad chest, letting the drops roll down his skin, just to hear him sigh in pleasure.
“Thank you,” he murmured, barely awake now.
She kissed his brow in answer, and quickly helped him in his pyjama, before telling him to lie back down, and drew the covers up to his shoulders.
“Sleep now, I’ll stay here for as long as I can.”
But he was already gone, eyes closed and breathing even.
Anna, to her great sadness, had to leave her husband’s bedside a lot faster than she would have liked. She could not avoid her duties as a maid any longer, there were too many bedridden servants already and as a result the charge or work had at least doubled since the past couple of days. Mrs. Hughes especially was running herself ragged trying to maintain order without Mr. Carson, and only one footman, and so the only moment Anna find to go to the attics was for lunch. She had only eaten a light sandwich, and carried a tray with three bowls. She first stopped by the room of one of the maids, then Mr. Carson, who thankfully was already doing a bit better than the previous day. Last, she entered John’s room without knocking, quietly slipping in.
She expected to see him still asleep, but she was surprised to see him sitting in his bed, with a book in his hand.
“Enjoying your day off, I see.”
He chuckled at that, though it sounded a bit raw. “I tried getting up, and ended falling back on the bed, twice. I’m glad no one was around to see that.”
Anna set the tray on the small table by the door, took the last bowl in her hands, along with a spoon, and sat down on the bed next to him.
“From Mrs. Patmore. A light broth.” His grimace didn’t escape her. “Are you feeling nauseous?”
“Not really. But I don’t feel like eating at all. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You need your strength, John. And you didn’t throw up what you ate this morning, did you? That’s a good sign, surely.”
He winced then, and his expression took on a slight sheepish turn. “I didn’t eat anything this morning, I just had a cup of tea.”
She frowned, thinking that she certainly would have noticed if he hadn’t eaten a thing at breakfast, but she recalled having been in a deep talk with Mrs. Hughes about new linens for the girl’s bedrooms.
“Well then, even more reasons for you to have something now. At least half of it.” She gave him the spoon, which he reluctantly took, and carefully put the bowl on his lap. It wasn’t filled to the brim so there wasn’t a high risk of him spilling it all on his legs.
She watched him as he ate, grateful that he seemed to have a mild case of the disease like Mr. Carson and Miss Swire. He soon grew tired however, and the spoon began to shake lightly in his grip.
“Here, let me.” She took it from his grasp, and dipped it back into the broth.
“That’s what you were after the whole time, wasn’t it? To feed me like a newborn,” he joked, and she couldn’t even deny it. While she hated the fact that he was unwell, she did relish being the one to care for him.
The moment finished quickly when John declared that he had had enough, she didn’t insist, he had eaten a good enough portion, more than she thought he would in the first place.
“You ought to return to work, they’re going to miss you down there.”
“And won’t you miss me?” she returned playfully, setting back the bowl and spoon on the tray, and handing him the glass of water on his nightstand.
“You occupy my thoughts every second I’m awake, you are always with me, no matter where you are.”
She longed to kiss him right there, it seemed he always knew the perfect things to say to get her going, the charmer. She didn’t of course, since it wouldn’t be the smartest of ideas. He settled back down under the covers at her urging, and it didn’t take long before he was asleep again. It was good, she thought, rest was the best of medicine, and it would only be a couple of days before he was back downstairs with her and the others.
Anna left the room then, her husband was right about the fact that she had to go back to work, there was a lot to be done and not nearly enough time in a day.