Love in the Time of Warbyjerseyblue©
Prologue: The Western Front 1915
He needed time to think. The noise, the sights were overwhelming. The smells of cordite and blood nauseated him. Major William Stewart, King's Royal Rifles, was scared. He never expected it to be like this. Hunkered down in a fetid shell hole, his batman laying next to him, gurgling his life away, the Major was miles away from home.
He lay on his back and looked at the sky. He tried to clear his head and make sense of what was happening.
"Major, Major!" the lieutenant yelled into ear. "What do you want us to do? Major!"
He wanted it to stop. He wanted it to go away. He looked into the lieutenant's face and realized the man wanted an answer. He wanted an answer now.
Common sense meant to stay where they were, only twenty five yards from the German trenches. Wait till darkness and then pull back was the only logical answer. But common sense and logic wasn't useful at this time. Orders were to take that trench line and orders were orders.
As a second son to Lord Berwick, William had lived an easy life. No difficult decisions and life on a silver platter was his lot. He married well but all that meant nothing now. He made his decision.
Major Stewart placed his whistle in his mouth and blew. Expecting his men to follow, he stood up and yelled, "Follow me, lads."
The first bullet struck him in the chest, staggering but not stopping him. The next bullet passed through his open mouth and exploded out the back of his head. Major William Stewart, King's Royal Rifles, second son to Lord Berwick, was dead before he hit the ground.
Of course it rained the day of the funeral. Mother said even the heavens were in mourning. The mood at the house was one of deep depression. If one talked at all it was in whispered tones. Mother kept to her room while William's widow, Catherine, seemed to wander the large house aimlessly. Alice, William's youngest sister, tried to be with her as much as possible but she had her own grief to deal with.
The funeral was one of the largest folks could remember. The small village church was crowded with so many mourners that many were left out in the rain. William was well liked by all who meet him. Many of the town's people had a story or two about him. He was that type of man.
The entire family gathered at the grave, Lord Berwick, brothers, James and Charles, and his two sisters and the new widow, Catherine. A bride of less than two years, she now wore widow's black. Lady Berwick could not attend, her grief overcoming her. The pastor said a few meaningless words and the crowd broke up.
As the mourners left the graveside, only Charles and Catherine remained. Looking into the grave, Lt. Charles Stewart took the widow's hand. "Such a waste."
"Yes. Yes it is," Catherine mumbled. She looked up at Charles. Taking her gloved hand, she stroked his cheek. "Charles, dear Charles. You must come back to me."
The Western Front 1917
Captain Charles Stewart took a long sip on his tea. It was hot and strong and he could feel it going down. The fact it was laced with rum simply added to it. It took the chill off the early spring night. Seated in the damp, musky dugout, he looked around. Across from him, asleep with his head down on the wooden table was 1st Lt. Cecil Woodburn. Woodburn was an outstanding officer. Actually Stewart felt Woodburn was a better officer than him. Only a few years older, Stewart counted the lieutenant as his best friend.
Over in the corner sat the company's other lieutenant, William Smythe, a rather arrogant, self important fellow. Smythe felt he deserved better than being stuck here in this smelly, rat infested hole. He claimed his father had connections and it wouldn't be long before he was out of here. The Captain wished it was sooner because in case of trouble, he was sure he couldn't count on Smythe.
Private Cookson, their batman, slept in the corner, wrapped in an old blanket. Cookson was barely 19 but he knew his way around. Supplies showed up from out of nowhere and there always seemed to be plenty to go around. Stewart never asked where he got the stuff and Cookson never volunteered any information. Last Christmas he found half of baked turkey breast and fresh greens. They had a meal fit for kings. Topped off with cookies sent from Woodburn's wife, it was a very merry Christmas.
Stewart shook his head. It certainly was a long way from Stanhope Manor, a long way. Early spring there meant green grass, flowers, and returning birds. Stewart smiled as he thought of the spring parties and the pretty girls showing off their new dresses. Here it was mud, Indescribable odors, and death. He took out a locket from inside his tunic and let his mind drift.
Charles Stewart, the 3rd son of the Lord Berwick, came from a large family, three boys and two girls. Being the youngest son meant that in the main scheme of things he was an afterthought. His oldest brother, James, would inherit Stanhope and the title. He and his wife, Patricia, already had two daughters and were hoping someday to have a boy in order to keep the line going. James was doing his war part by working for the Foreign Secretary.
William Stewart, the middle brother, had it all. Without the pressure of being the eldest, he enjoyed life to the fullest. He had his pick of women and played the field expertly. When he did decide, he picked a real beauty, Catherine Pelham-Wilkes, daughter of the Earl of Graydon. Blonde, blue eyes, and statuesque, Catherine could have picked anyone but she chose William. It seemed to be a match made in heaven and the marriage just before he went to France with his battalion was destined to produce wonderful children. That is until William was killed leading his men at Loos in September of 1915.
The last time Charles got home was for William's funeral. Despite the gloom William's death cast over the family, everyone tried to act as it was before the war. The first thing he noticed upon arrival was the reduced size of the staff. Buxton, head of the house, greeted him as he walked in the front door.
"Mister Charles!" Buxton said in surprise. "You should have let us know you were coming."
"No, Buxton. No fuss. I didn't find out myself until a few days ago. I would have got here before the telegram."
"Charles!" a female voice called from around the corner. Alice, his youngest sister, came running into the hall." Throwing her arms around him she said,"Oh, Charles, you are home. What a surprise! I'll tell the others." Alice and Charles were very close, being only a few years apart. With that she ran off to tell the others.
The word spread quickly. Soon the hall was filled with excited voices. His other sister, Mary, was there, just excited as Alice was to see him. Her husband was off doing his duty in the Navy.
"Charles, you look well," Mary said.
"Thank you, Mary. You look well yourself."
All grew quiet as Charles' mother and father entered the room.
"Mother, Father," Charles said as he walked towards them.
"You should have let us know you were coming. Gave your mother an awful start."
"Sorry, Father. I hope you will forgive me, Mother."
"How long will you be staying?" his mother asked.
"Three days. I must be getting back."
"So soon? You just got here and you talk of leaving," his mother said taking his hands.
"Well, Mother, there is a war on."
"Charles!" his father exclaimed. "We are quite aware."
"Yes, Father. Please forgive me."
"We will expect you at dinner. We still dress for it."
Dinner was difficult as Mother tried to make small talk. She asked questions of Charles that seemed bothersome. She wanted to know about his life but not really. The girls tried to change the subject by talking about old times; the parties, the girls and the young men who were part of the life of Stanhope. Unfortunately most of men were either dead or shells of what they were. The war was changing everything and no one was immune.
Finally Charles had had enough. Throwing down his napkin, he stormed from the room. He wasn't sure where he was going and he found himself walking around the large house. Finally he headed down towards the kitchen and the servants' eating area. Head down and not paying attention, he crashed into one of maids, almost knocking her down.
"Excuse me. Please forgive me," Charles said helping her regain her balance. It was then he looked into her face. "Kathleen?"
"Yes, sir," she replied.
"Kathleen, it is me, Charles. Don't you recognize me?" He placed his hands on her shoulders and looked into her face.
"Yes, sir, I do," She answered and attempted to move away.
Kathleen had dreaded this moment since she had returned to service at Stanhope. She first worked there at 16 as a lowly scullery maid and stayed on, rising in the ranks. It was here where she met Charles. He was 18 and he treated her like she was a person. Even though they both knew about the social dividing line between them, their friendship grew. Charles was always the gentleman and never used his rank or power to make her feel uncomfortable.
Despite everything, their relationship did upset her co-workers who believed that something had to be going on. They would see the two of them together and the rumors would spread. No matter what she said would stop them. How could it because she had fallen in love with Charles. She never told him so he never knew.
After 5 years of service, she married a local man, 4 years her senior. She didn't love him but he treated her well. She quit Stanhope and had a child, a son, and blocked her feelings for Charles. Then the war came and her husband joined the local PAL battalion. And like thousands of others, he died on the Somme. So she swallowed her pride, had her mother watch her son and she took a job at Stanhope, knowing what it entailed. Now the situation she feared was at hand.