Love in the Time of War Ch. 07byjerseyblue©
It was time for Captain Stewart to go. Although not fully recovered, the doctors felt that being home would help speed it along. He had come a long way from when he first arrived. He had gained back most of his strength and he looked fit in his new uniform. Most of the swelling and bruising on his face and body had disappeared. There were some scars on the left side of his face but they were not disfiguring. One of the nurse actually joked that it made him look German, a dueling scar, and mysterious. Each day he went on walks with one of the nurses. Each day the walks got longer as he got stronger. By his stay's end, the nurses would fight over who got the chance to go with him. He still wasn't 100%. He got headaches, some very severe, and if he turned quickly, he got dizzy. He also experienced some memory loss but it was slowly coming back. What concerned him were the nightmares. It was a different one every night and every night, he woke, drenched in sweat and in a panic.
Father and James had visited on numerous occasions. They always brought good news with them and Charles was able to keep up with the latest from Stanhope. They also were able to keep those at Stanhope updated about him. Patricia had come with James once. It was good she did because she was expecting the worse. When she did see him, she was surprised to see how well he looked. She passed the news on to the ladies which carried more weight with them than Father's words did.
Father arrived right on time. Clark had the car shining, looking bright and new. Charles only had one small bag as his worldly possessions he had at the front were all destroyed in the blast. He thanked the doctors and the nurses. To one nurse, Charles took her aside. "Miss Ames, I want to thank you personally. It was you who was there when I returned to this world and it was you I first saw when I found I could see. Thank you for being such a lovely vision. If you ever need anything, you contact me. Words can not describe how grateful I am."
Father and Charles rode towards Stanhope. Even though they got an early start, they would not to be home until dark. Father had changed or at least to Charles he had. He seemed more eager to talk, more open. What Charles didn't know was how much the news of his wounding took from his father. The blow almost was the death of him.
Father updated him on the latest war news. The day after his wounding, the Germans launched a massive offensive aimed on driving the BEF into the sea. A second offensive came close to capturing Paris before the Americans finally put troops into the fight. They stopped the Huns at some place called Chateau Thierry. It seemed the tide was beginning to turn in the Allies' favor. Listening to his father made Charles long to return to the front, to be there at the finish. To have the pleasure to be in on the kill.
Charles fell asleep as the ride continued. As he slept, he dreamt. He was at the bottom of a trench but he couldn't get up. No matter how he tried, it felt like an immense weight was on him. He struggled but he couldn't move it. He called out for help but no one wanted to help him.
His Lordship gently grabbed hold of Charles' arm. "Dear God," he thought, "What did my poor boy go through over there?" He woke him as they stopped for lunch. It was a small inn but passable. Clark knew about it and vouched for the meal. The owners were very nice, about Father's age. They were honored to have a Lord and his son for a meal. Clark had told them who they were feeding. They let the two of them eat in quiet and as the two men made to pay, the couple refused to accept any money. Father said it was unheard of but they insisted. Plus they were not doing it because of his Lordship. No, they were doing it because they lost their only son last month and they made a promise that any soldier who ate there would not pay for his meal. It was because of Captain Stewart. As they left, his Lordship gave Clark the money for his tab only and told him to make sure the people got it.
It was dusk as they reached Stanhope. Clark pulled the car to a stop. His Lordship said, "Are you alright, son?"
The two men walked slowly into the main hall. There stood the entire family and staff of Stanhope. No one spoke for a moment. Buxton stepped forward. "Welcome home, sir!"
"Thank you, Buxton."
After this initial greeting, for the first time in the long history of Stanhope, rank and decorum was lost. Everyone was talking and welcoming Charles home. Of course Alice was the first to put her arms around him. James' two daughters each hugged a leg. There wasn't a dry eye in the room, man or woman. Through all the commotion and noise, three women stood back. Charles moved slowly towards one of them.
In the last month, Elizabeth Stewart, Lady Berwick, had aged noticeably. Now she seemed almost frailer than when he was home last. Seated in a chair, with tears flowing, she waited. Charles stood before her. "Mother, I have returned to you." He bent down and kissed her cheek.
"Yes, my boy, you have returned. My prayers have been answered."
Standing next to the chair, waiting patiently was Catherine. She looked radiant, dressed in a white dress trimmed in blue satin, and her smile lit up her face, despite the tears. Charles took her hands. "Catherine, I promised I'd return to you. A little worse for wear but I have returned, if you want me."
"Oh, Charles, I want you!" and with that the two embraced and kissed, in front of everyone. They ended the kiss but held the embrace. It was then, looking over Catherine's shoulder, that he noticed her. Slipping off into the shadows was Kathleen.
"All right," Mrs. Williams said clapping her hands. "Back to work. We have a meal to serve." As the staff scurried off, she turned to Charles. "It is so good to have you home, sir." With that she gave him a hug and then she hustled off to the kitchen.
The atmosphere that started in the hall continued into the dining room. Everyone enjoyed themselves and the cook had outdone herself on the meal. Catherine sat to the right of Charles and ate very little of what was served.
Concerned, Charles whispered to her, "Are you all right?"
"Yes," she whispered back. "Never happier." With that she did something out of character for her. She placed her hand on Charles' thigh. She left it there for only a brief moment before removing it but the mere action spoke volumes.
"Charles," Mother said. "Are you all right? You haven't said a word. Is Catherine taking up all your time?"
"Yes, Mother, she is," he answered causing Catherine to blush.
"Then that is fine," Mother replied. The table grew quiet and then everyone laugh, again causing Catherine to blush.
As dinner ended, the ladies and men began to go the separate ways before rejoining in the Drawing Room. Charles announced to everyone before they left. "Mother, Father, I must excuse myself as this has been a very long day for me and I'm quite tired. I believe I shall go upstairs. Good night all."
As Charles settled into his bed, he looked around his room. It had been his room for most of his life. On his wall was one of his kites and his shelves were still cluttered with reminders of his boyhood. For the first time in his adult life, he cried, completely overwhelmed by his emotions.
"Let's go, little brother," Alice said slipping her arm in his. "The doctor said that brisk walks are the best medicine and the weather is fine. No excuses." With that they were off.
"Where are we going, dear Alice?" Charles asked.
"To the village. I have to mail a letter."
"No doubt to that fiancé of ours, in America."
"Yes, it is, not that it's any business of yours!" Both laughed.
Charles loved Alice. Her bright and cheery way, her positive outlook on life, she could find the good in any situation. Her level headedness was a perfect foil to his moodiness. He trusted her completely with his inner most thoughts. She was his rock more than anyone in the family. He knew any walk with her would be good medicine.
"So brother, have you made up your mind?" she asked as they neared the village.
"About what?" Charles was puzzled at the question.
"Which one will it be, Catherine or Kathleen?" True to form, Alice came right to the point.
Charles tried to avoid answering. "What on earth are you talking about?"
Alice stopped walking. "Charles, you can be so trying. You can't put this off. It isn't fair to either of them. You must choose. You must marry one of them."
"Why?" he said softly.
"Because you must. There are some things in life that you must do and one of them is to marry. And to produce children." Alice said directly into his face, making sure he understood.
"How can I marry Kathleen? It would cause such problems. Father would never allow it."
"Charles, the world, our world is changing. The rules are different."
"Not that different."
"So if you believe that then your decision is made easier, is it not?"
"I suppose so."
"You could take a mistress."
"Alice!" he exclaimed, "Sometimes you can go too far."
"Why? Other men do."
"I will not do that. That is not the answer."
They continued walking on and covered a small distance without talking. Alice broke the silence. "They both love you so it is up to you. I will speak no more of it."
They walked through the village stopping at various shops and the post office. Many of the people had heard of his wounding and came up to him with kind words. Others merely nodded a greeting, feeling it wasn't their place to do more. There were also a number of lads from the village that had returned home carrying reminders of their time at the front. Some missing arms or legs, they and Charles just made eye contact to know the bond.
Alice was true to word and during the entire walk home the conversation was about her wedding and the life she planned. She hoped she would travel the world as the wife of a foreign diplomat. She wanted to visit places she only had read about. And she wanted children, plenty of children, to love and to spoil. Children to bring to Stanhope to romp in the grass and climb the trees like Charles and she had done as children. Charles laughed at her excitement and when she thought he was laughing at her, he grabbed her with his one good arm. "My dear sister Alice, I would never laugh at you. I laughed because your joy is infectious!"
"Oh, Charles, I am so happy you are home!"
Alice entered the house through the front door while Charles walked around the side. He knew she was right but that didn't make it any easier. He had to choose. No matter his choice, it would be the wrong one, but he must make one. He entered the kitchen and found Kathleen seated, alone, sipping tea. When she saw him, she quickly set her tea down and rushed to him.
"Thank God, you are safe!" they embraced there, by the table.
"Kathleen, I came to return this," and he handed her the locket. "It did its duty. It brought me home."
Kathleen took back the locket. "Does this mean what I think it does?"
"We need to talk." He offered his hand. "Let's go outside."
The two walked the grounds. They sat on a bench under a great oak.
"Kathleen," Charles began.
She placed a finger to his lips. "Don't say anything. I know what you going to say." She stood up and walked away a few steps."You can't marry me."
"What?" he answered. His lack of hearing annoyed him.
She turned around and looked at him. Here was the man she loved, returned from war, not quite the man who left. The man who she never should have fallen in love with because their worlds were so different. She would do anything to change how she felt but that was impossible.
She rushed to him and fell to her knees in front of him. "Oh Charles, I do love you so," she exclaimed.
He caressed her hair. "I love you too, Kathleen, and I want to marry you."
She looked up at him. "But you can't. You would be giving away too much."
"I don't care," he answered.
"Yes, you do. All your life you have done the right thing no matter what the personal price. You can't change who you are. You know marrying me would hurt so many others."
Charles stood up. "What do I care of others? It is you I care for, our happiness."
"No, Charles, it will never be. We could never be totally happy. It will destroy your family. Your father will never agree and then what? No, I will not be that person." Tears filled her eyes. Charles lifted her up.
"Are you saying you don't want to marry me?"
"No, I'm saying I can't marry you, my love. Please understand."
"Well then, but I will not accept it as your final answer," Charles said softly. "Come, dry your tears. We must return before you are missed." They walked in silence back to the house. Before they parted, Charles hugged and kissed her passionately.
As he entered the house, he met James coming down the stairs. "There you are. Father and I have looked everywhere for you. We need to talk."
"Must we right now?" Charles said with resignation. "I'm a little tired."
"Yes," James insisted, taking Charles by the arm. "I understand you are tired but it won't take long and it is important." He led him to the library. There they found his Lordship thumbing through an old book.
"So good of you to join us, Charles."
"What is this about, Father," Charles asked.
"Please sit down. You look tired. I'll get right to it. It's about your future."
Charles sighed. "Must we?"
"Yes, I'm afraid we must."
James spoke up. "Yes, it is about your future...and Stanhope's too."
Charles made to get up. "Hear us out, Charles. It's important."
Charles slump down in his seat. James handed him a drink.
"I'll be quite blunt," James said."I don't want Stanhope. Patricia and I are quite happy in our home in Mayfair."
Father added, "So we want you to live here with us and take over when I pass on. To keep Stanhope in the direct family, a male, instead going to Mary and her husband."
"Does Mary know this?"
"It is not her concern."
"Very well. Was this that important?"
"Wait. There is more." James walked to the window and put his drink down. "It seems that Patricia is unable to have any more children. You know what that means? No male heirs."
"Which means, Charles," Father interjected, "you have to chose a wife for yourself. Do you have any ideas?"
Charles jumped to feet. "Just a bloody minute!" He felt dizzy and put his hand on the chair to steady himself. Father grabbed him. "Leave me alone. I'm alright!" he said pulling his arm away. He walked to the other side of the room. He turned and looked at James and then his father.
"You want me to marry, preferably a suitable woman. Then produce sons to keep the line going? The 'An heir and a spare' idea. That's all. James gets the title while I'm the good son. Oh, I'll have Stanhope and the correct wife for our station. Bloody Hell! You two have my life all worked out. Thank very much but I'll pick my own wife. Live where I want to live. Excuse me!" With that he stormed out and went up the stairs to his room.
He sat on the edge of his bed. He couldn't remember being this angry. Damn them! His bad eye throbbed with a dull ache and his head ached terribly. He felt like he was going to be sick. He fell back on the bed and passed out.