Chapter 8 was quite a long chapter, but it ends today. I was told that some readers were going through weekend withdrawls - can't have that, so I'll do my best to keep the story going along. Happy Saturday everyone!
CHAPTER 8 CONT'D...
Surprise flickered briefly across his face when he saw Emilie sitting on the floor, with a herd of small children surrounding her, and then his face broke out into a wonderful smile as he spotted his two children in the group.
“Dadda,” Raymond and Anne-Marie both said at the same time, as they jumped up from the floor and hurried to where their father stood.
Emilie didn’t know whether to be more affected by Anne-Marie’s first spoken word, or the sight of Karl, reaching down to scoop both of his children into his arms at once. When he straightened with them firmly in his grasp, his eyes met Emilie’s, and he smiled.
“Karl, you’re home!” She rose from the floor and brushed off her skirt. Forgotten for a moment were the others in the room. Her heart beat a steady staccato as she regarded him happily reuniting with his family.
Karl’s eye caught the movement of the rocking chair, he was surprised to see Annie sitting there rocking a sleeping child. His smile gradually faded as his gaze went from child to child where they waited on the floor for Emilie to return. Realization hit him like a slap in the face. These were the Bell children . . . he counted silently. The two oldest boys were missing, as was the father. His eyes swept the room quickly…. the mother was missing as well.
He slowly lowered Raymond and Anne-Marie to the floor and searched first Emilie’s face and then Annie’s, for the answers to his as yet unasked questions.
“Karl, there has been a tragedy,” Emilie could feel that he had some knowledge by the look on his face. “The Bell family’s home has been destroyed . . .”
“Yes I know,” he answered quietly, “I passed it on my way home.”
“The mother was … she is gone,” her eyes pleaded his understanding, “And Frederich has just taken Charles into town to see Dr. Smith,” she said in a whisper.
Karl’s eyes searched hers for a moment. There were questions behind his guarded look, but his expression told her that the questions would have to wait. He slowly began to remove his heavy winter clothes with hands that visibly shook, he deposited his coat on the hook that had been bare all the while he had been gone.
“Was Charles injured?”
“Not physically,” This response came from Annie, spoken softly so as not to disturb the sleeping child in her arms.
Karl ran his large hand through his hair, his understanding of the situation becoming clearer by the minute. “How long ago did this happen?”
“Three days ago,” Emilie informed him softly, her eyes not leaving his anguished face for a moment.
“Charles and the four youngest children have been staying here, the three eldest have been with Annie and Frederich.” Emilie walked around Karl and made her way to the kitchen to warm a meal for him.
He followed her, leaving Annie alone with the children in the living room. The minute he was out of hearing distance of the children he asked, “Was it a chimney fire?” He waited for Emilie’s answer, although he was already sure of what her answer would be.
Her back faced him as she went about slicing some cold roast beef onto a plate for his meal. She didn’t hear his approach from behind, and she jumped and spun around quickly when he touched her shoulder.
Karl noticed the purple smudges lingering beneath Emilie’s usually bright eyes. He noticed the firm stretch of skin around her mouth, so tight and stressed did it look, that he instantly wished for the return of the relaxed and happy expression that was usually there. He knew without asking, that her life had been filled with trials in the last few days that many would find insurmountable, but he also knew deep in his heart, that Emilie had faced those trials head on, and made a difference to every life that she had touched.
“You look worn-out. Are you okay?” He left his hand on her shoulder where it lay ready to console, to comfort, if the need arose.
Emilie crumbled, “Oh Karl, it has all been so horrible,” tears obscured her vision and her voice broke into a hoarse whisper. “They have lost everything; their home, their Mother, and now I think Charles has lost his mind as well!” Her eyes grew frantic as they searched his face for a deeper understanding of all the pain and suffering she had witnessed in the past few days. She started to cry; first a steady trickle of tears slowly making their way down her cheeks, then a choked sob, almost a cough - and the last - a gut-wrenching moan of one who is torn in two with grief.
Karl gathered her close and wrapped his strong arms around her slender body. He held her tightly and lowered his face until it rested upon her head. He felt the movement of her chest as it rose and fell with her anxiety; he felt her arms, clench tightly around his midriff like a band of steel, and he wondered from where she drew her strength. He closed his eyes and listened to her pitiful sobbing and knew that in all probability she was letting her guard down for the first time since taking in the Bell family and all their troubles. Gently he rocked her, back and forth and back and forth in his arms, and when she stilled he continued to hold her some more.
Emilie cried until there were no tears left to shed. Her head rested against Karl’s wide chest, and just beneath her ear she could feel the strong steady beat of his heart. The steady thump - thump comforted her as nothing ever had in all the tragedies she had experienced during her life. It soothed and relaxed, and it promised the continuance of life that she needed so much at this moment. She raised her head and pulled herself away from the comfort of Karl’s warm embrace. Embarrassed that she had let herself fall to pieces in the manner that she had, she turned away from him and returned to the counter where his cold meal waited.
“Emilie, turn around and look at me!”
Emilie turned as he asked, but refused to meet his gaze.
She lifted her head, and their eyes met.
“I’m sorry you had to go through all of this. It is much more than you were hired for . . .” he started to tell her but was interrupted by her look of displeasure.
“I don’t care about what I had to go through, Karl – I’m an adult – I don’t count! But the Kinder – they are who I worry about! What will happen with them now? Their mother is dead, their father is out of his mind, and they are left all alone! I tell you Karl, I won’t see them separated; not after what they have already been through!”
“I don’t know what you want me to do about it - I can’t keep them all, Emilie – surely you can understand that! I can barely provide for my own family, let alone someone else’s!”
“Oh Karl,” Emilie pleaded her case, “Please . . . we can’t break them up, not now! They are going to need each other so much in the next few months!”
Karl took a step toward her; he was tired and hungry and now he was getting angry. How could she make such demands on him, when she knew full well that he had little means of supporting a large family? Surely in the time she had lived in his home she had come to realize that he was not a prosperous farmer, he barely had enough to make ends meet as it was – taking on this many more mouths to feed would bankrupt him in no time!
“Look Emilie,” he said with a frustrated sigh, “I don’t want to be the one to break up any family, but this is something that is beyond my control. If Charles is as bad as you have implied, then the authorities are going to be called into this situation. I have no control over how the outcome will be.”
“What do you mean the authorities?” Emilie asked, not liking the way that Karl had brushed aside his responsibilities to his neighbors’ children.
“There are agencies that are called in when something such as this happens to a family. They will come and see the children - see how they are living and where they are living and make decisions about what to do with them. For sure they will come into this cramped little house, see all these people trying to live here and decide that it is not possible for everyone to stay.”
“Then what will they do?” Emilie asked as her heart beat erratically in fear of his answer.
“They will split the family up, and move them into temporary homes until something is decided about their Father or maybe even put them in an orphanage. I don’t know, Emilie; I can’t tell you for sure!”
Her knees buckled and she slid into the nearest kitchen chair. Dismay clouded her mind and anger clouded her judgment.
“You could keep some of the children if you wanted to, Karl,” she accused him with a glare.
“I am widower with two small children of my own. I have no wife and not much to offer even my own children. What makes you think they would allow me to take those children?”
“You have me . . . I would gladly look after them!”
“You are not my wife, you are my housekeeper. To the authorities you would not be considered a permanent figure in this household!”
He should have slapped her - it would have been less painful if he had. At least now she knew where she stood. She was here to keep house, to wash and keep things tidy, to make sure there was food on the table, but she was not considered a permanent fixture of his home. He could at any time replace her with a different house keeper, or a wife - maybe he already had someone more suitable in mind!
“As far as I can see, most women around here are not permanent fixtures of their homes,” she said bitterly. “Look around you Karl - all you will see is motherless children! Where are the mother’s of these children? They were supposed to be here forever for their families!” she shouted at him, before rising from the table and leaving the room on the run.
Karl let out an exhausted sigh, what a mess he had made of everything. Her parting words pealed through his head, like a loud bell in a quiet room. He sat down on a chair and let his body slump forward in the chair. His elbows rested on his heavy thighs and his hands cushioned the weight of his head. He gazed at the floor between his widespread knees and then closed his eyes in weariness.
Emilie was right about one thing, women were a scarcity in these parts, but that didn’t change the fact that he just could not afford to keep all these extra children under his roof. No matter how much he wanted to help, and he truly did, he was afraid that he was just not capable enough to be of any use to this bereaved family. They needed a strong man, a much stronger man than he - someone who could be counted on to provide for them, to teach them and show them their way in world, and he was just not sure if he could be that man. Why just look at the way he had failed his own two children.
His little daughter no longer spoke and he knew that he was in some way responsible for that. Today she had said “Dadda”, it was a miracle that she was once again talking – but that miracle had nothing to do with him – that had been someone else’s doing, not his. He was a failure as a father, just as he had been a failure as a husband. He must never loose sight of those two very important facts.
What about Emilie? Was she going to stay on here with his family, or would she meet some young farmer, and marry him and move away to start her own family. It had happened to other widowers and their housekeepers. What made him think it would not happen to him. His heart pounded at the thought of her leaving them, but it was a very real possibility that she would want a husband and children of her own. The good Lord above knew that there were enough single men who were looking for a wife - Emilie would be snapped up in a flash, if half of the men folk in the area were to fasten their eyes on her.
He was tired, confused and more discouraged than he’d ever been, and he had absolutely no right to have such intense feelings for his young housekeeper, especially not after so short a time. But he couldn’t help feeling that he never wanted her to leave – not only for his children’s sake, but also for his own. They needed her - he needed her, and now it appeared others needed her as well.
Knowing that he had in some way made everything much worse, he sighed wearily once more and rose from the chair before making his way back to the living room, where the rest of the inhabitants of his small home had resumed their activities as if he had not come home at all.