The knock on the door was brisk and authoritative.
“Is the lady of the house at home?” a uniformed officer asked of the housekeeper.
“I will let her know you are here, sir. Who say I say is calling?
“Please tell her that I have very important news regarding her brother” the officer said crisply.
“Very well, sir”.
Minutes later a harried-looking Lady Adeline swept into the entrance hall and stood in front of the impressive-looking uniformed air-force officer.
“Are you Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper?” he enquired politely.
“Yes, I am.” Lady Adeline replied. “What’s this all about, please?”
“Ma’am, I am Wing Commander Arthur Westfield. I have sad news to impart” the officer said formally.
“What? Has something happened to Spencer?!” Her question ended with a small squeal, which brought Louisa running to the top of the staircase.
“Is everything alright, Lady Adeline?” she asked, beginning to descend the stairs.
“Are you a friend or relative of Lady Courtenay-Hooper?” Wing Commander Westfield asked.
“I am Lady Adeline’s personal assistant and companion” Louisa told him as she moved across the hallway to stand beside her distressed employer.
“Madam, I regret to inform you that your brother, Lord Spencer, is missing, believed killed in action after engaging with a German pilot during a night-time raid by the German Luftwaffe over London three nights ago. He failed to return to base.”
Although he tried to make his voice as dispassionate and business-like as he was able there was no mistaking the stress and upset in his voice.
“Spencer is dead?” Lady Adeline asked. “My brother Spencer is dead?”
“We believe so, ma’am, yes. I am so sorry to be the bearer of such tragic news. I knew your brother very well. We flew together several times. He was a fine man and will be much missed by everybody who knew him. I am so very sorry for your loss.”
“Spencer!” Lady Adeline cried plaintively before falling to the floor and sobbing uncontrollably.
“Miss, I am so very sorry." the officer said to Louisa. "Please tell Lady Courtenay-Hooper that the squadron chaplain will be in touch with her in a day or two to discuss the arrangements.” he added diplomatically. He departed with a final ‘deep condolences’ to the weeping woman.
Louisa felt a great deal of sympathy for the poor chap. Clearly he was much affected by the death of his friend and colleague as Lady Adeline was the loss of her sibling, but his military bearing and training were enabling him to keep full control of his hurt. Looking at her distraught employer she envied him that level of self-control.
The battle for aerial supremacy over the skies of England between the British Royal Air Force and Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe raged for almost three months in the second year of the conflict. More than two and a half thousand airmen lost their lives – over one thousand seven hundred German and more than nine hundred British – in what became known as the Battle of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill summed-up the sacrifice made by the pilots, many of them little more than boys, when he told the nation “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Now Lord Spencer Courtenay- Hooper was confirmed as one of ‘the few’ Churchill referred to.
As she comforted Lady Adeline Louisa Tavistock assessed her own feelings about the tragedy. Lord Spencer had been a handsome, devilish, happy-go-lucky force of nature who had declared undying love to her. He had proposed marriage, too, a union that was unthinkable, of course. Now, though, Louisa wondered if she had said yes to Lord Spencer’s proposal would he have taken a little more care of himself? Would he have not put himself in harm’s way to ensure that he survived to come home to her, his new wife, and to his ever-loving sister?
Louisa knew the answers to those questions. Lord Spencer Courtenay-Hooper came from a long - and very distinguished – line of military-minded Courtenay-Hooper’s. Many of them had perished in defence of Britain and freedom. Lord Spencer was just the latest in a long honour-roll of conflict-related deaths in the family. Louisa suspected that he probably died a proud man.
His body was recovered two weeks later. A funeral with full military honours was attended by the great and the good of the exalted circles in which he moved throughout his civilian life. His military service was also very well represented right throughout the ranks, the ground crew forming a guard of honour while his fellow pilots carried his casket to the family vault in the local churchyard.
Lady Adeline was inconsolable and wept freely throughout the service. Louisa Tavistock wished that she, too, could so freely express her feelings about the one man to whom she had felt herself attracted, but that would have been unseemly in the extreme. Instead, she stoically sat beside her employer and offered her what words of comfort she was able. It did not feel to her that she was helping Lady Adeline in the least.
The last of the guests who had returned to Lady Adeline's house finally left, leaving the two women alone for the first time in several hours.
"I shall be retiring now, Louisa" Lady Adeline said listlessly. "No, I will manage by myself tonight, thank you" she said as Louisa rose to accompany her. "I want - need - to be alone" she added as she turned and exited the room.
A frown of concern settled on Louisa Tavistock's face. In all the time that she had been in service to Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper she had never been excluded from her presence when she retired for the evening. Louisa would have been far more concerned had she known that Lady Adeline had set a precedent and that she would henceforth frequently retire alone and unaided.
Something died in Lady Adeline the day she was informed of the death of her one and only sibling. The life-force that had sustained her and made her the scion of her social circle seemed to have been blunted to the point of non-existence. Automaton-like she moved through her days with little energy or enthusiasm.
Louisa consulted one of the doctors at Saint Thomas the Apostle hospital where she – and Lady Adeline – were still volunteering.
“It’s as though her whole life has come to an end as well” she told the handsome forty-five year old surgeon.
“I am no expert, Louisa, but grief can affect people like that. It has a funny effect on different people.” He told Louisa.
“I understand that. I saw what it did to my mother” she added, then immediately regretted her words. She had for so many years made it a habit of not speaking about her past that it had become second nature to her. This lapse was most uncharacteristic and she chided herself for her indiscretion.
“You lost your father in the Great War?” It was a statement more than a question.
Louisa nodded ‘yes’, rather than risk speaking and potentially saying something else she didn’t want revealed.
“That must have been a horrendous time for young wives and mothers” the surgeon, Stuart Calleray, said. “And now, unbelievably, those same mothers are going through the same agony again with their own sons this time. I would not want to be a woman or a mother!” he said with a humourless laugh.
“Or a sister of a lost brother, one presumes?” Louisa asked, a small smile playing at the corners of her lips.
“So what do I do about poor Lady Adeline? She is suffering terribly, but refuses all offers of help or to take anything to alleviate her emotional discomfort.”
“You do what you have been doing, Miss Tavistock. You remain the true and loyal friend and companion you have been throughout. When she finally comes back from wherever it is she is at the moment she is going to need someone like you to help her regain her bearings. She is going to experience the most almighty of almighty emotional crashes and it is not going to be pretty when it happens. At the moment her pain and shock and hurt are keeping it at bay. When that crutch falls away she is going to need all of the support and help the people who most love her and care about her can provide. In short, Louisa, she is going to need you.”
Stuart Calleray rose and offered his hand and helped Louisa to her feet.
“Thank you for your time” she said. “I know how busy you are.”
“Never too busy to take time out for one of my most loyal and hard-working volunteers, Louisa” he told her with a smile. “The medical profession was made for you” he told her, holding onto her hands and looking into her eyes, which caused Louisa to blush.
“I’m just doing my bit, that’s all” she said, turning her face away from the intensity of the handsome surgeon’s stare.
“Think about it, that’s all I’m saying” he told her as he at last relinquished his hold of her hands. “We need more people like you. I need more people like you” he added before striding off towards the seemingly endless call of the operating theatre.
The rest of the day passed by so quickly that Louisa found herself reflecting on Stuart Calleray’s words as she lay in her bed that night. Did he really mean what he had said about her being ‘made’ for the medical profession? Certainly, she enjoyed what she did as a volunteer. It was also true that people seemed to respond positively to her ministrations, such as they were, but could she really take-up what she did as her contribution to the war effort as a career? Sleep claimed her before she could reach a definitive answer.
To be continued...