Love in the Time of War Ch. 11byjerseyblue©
Charles' head lolled to one side as he fought to stay awake. Kathleen had brought the tea and biscuits like she promised about two hours ago. It was the last time she came as he told her to get to some sleep. She refused but finally listened to him and left.
The last time he touch Catherine's forehead, she was as hot as his tea and her breathing was raspy. Still he was positive she would recover. He had witnessed hundreds of deaths and mortal woundings. Those who were going to die seemed to have a look around their eyes and Catherine didn't.
He remembered his first action on the Somme; a raw 2nd lieutenant scared half to death and in charge of his company as all the officers were down. He had witnessed men shot down in large numbers. Others were blown to pieces right before his eyes. He and two other soldiers were in a shell hole keeping their heads down, praying for darkness. In the hole was a third man who was seriously wounded. They took turns telling him he was going to make it and they would get him back. But as time went on, a shadow seemed to settle on the man's face. By the time night fell, he was dead. Since then Charles had seen it many times and each time he was helpless to stop it.
He also learned that it was sometimes pure luck who lived or died. He knew he was lucky that morning and he wasn't going to let his luck run out yet. Catherine was going to get better. He just knew it.
Off in the distance, he heard his name being called. It was soft and sweet, as if the wind was moving through the leaves. Realizing he was dozing, he opened his eyes. He focused his one good eye on the bed. Catherine was lying on her side, facing him. Softly she called his name and slowly extended her hand towards him. He leaped from his chair and rushed to her.
Her blonde hair was matted to forehead from her sweat and her bed clothes were soaked. As he took her hand, she felt cool to his touch. Her smile was weak but the feverish look in her eyes was gone.
"Catherine?" he whispered.
"Yes, Charles," came back a weak reply through parched lips.
"Oh Catherine! Don't try and talk. Here."He took one of the remaining ice chips and moved it to her lips. "Here, just moisten your lips." Slowly he allowed her to take some of cool liquid. "I'll be right back."
He was so happy that he barely knew what to do. She was alive. He moved quickly to the door. Opening it, he turned left to head down the hall and get someone to help. Because of his blind eye, he didn't the person seated there in a chair propped against the wall. He crashed into them and went down. "What the bloody hell?"
Kathleen helped him up. "Sorry."
"What are you doing here? I told you to get some sleep," he angrily snapped at her.
"I did, right here. I thought you might need me."
He looked at her and smiled. "Yes, quite right. Look, Catherine is awake. I need you to get some fresh linens, and a gown." He stopped. "She is going to be all right!" With that, he hugged her.
The doctor arrived about an hour later. He gave Catherine a complete checking over and his verdict was she would make a full recovery. Of course, it would take time and she was very weak but the worst was over. Charles thanked him adding that despite the number of patients the doctor had no one had died at Stanhope. An excellent record even if luck had something to do with it.
Charles headed down to the kitchen to get something to eat as Kathleen and one of the other maids helped tidy Catherine up. He didn't realize how hungry he was until he smelled the fine aroma coming from the room. He entered as most of the staff was finishing eating. They stood as one.
"Please, sit down and finish. I'll wait," he said.
Buxton, who despite just returning from being ill looked stern and in charge, spoke up. "No sir, it wouldn't be right. Not for all you did. We are standing because of you, not out of formality."
Charles was speechless. When he did speak, he tried to make light of it. "I don't know what to say. I'm lost for words, which doesn't happen very often. Please, sit down. Thank you."
They made room for him at the table and he sat down, comfortable and among good people. No one said anything about his appearance. He looked like someone who had stayed up all night. He ate quickly because he knew that there was plenty to do today. Also he was quite sure that at some time today he would need to sleep and need it badly. He had gone almost 36 hours in the trenches without sleep but he learned there how important it was to grab even a few minutes sleep, even standing up. It would be much more difficult to do that here. He needed to check in on Catherine, see how Alice as faring, inform Father and Mother, find out the latest on James, and make time to talk to Kathleen. He needed to thank her for all her help but more importantly, to discuss their future, as if there was one.
"I want to thank you all for your hard work in such trying times. Now that most everyone is recovering, things will get back to normal soon. So this will be my last meal with you. Again I thank you for this time together."
He headed up from the kitchen to the main hall, planning on going up stairs to shave and change. Reaching the base of the stairway, he stopped as he heard his father call to him. He turned. "Yes, Father."
"Charles, please come here." Father went into the Library. Charles followed. "What could be so bloody important this time?" Charles thought.
"Can't this wait, Father? I'm..."
"NO! Now!" He bellowed. Lord Berwick walked to the table and picked up the decanter. His hand shook as he poured two drinks. He drank one in a gulp and then refilled it. He handed one to Charles. "I'm sorry. I know you are tired but this can't wait."
Charles had never seen his father so upset. His father seemed to struggling to keep his emotions in check. "Father, what is it? Please tell me."
His Lordship looked through bloodshot eyes at Charles for a moment. When he spoke, his voice wavered. "It's James. He's dead."
Charles was sure he misunderstood his father."Did you say James is dead? When?"
Father drank his drink quickly. "Yes. Patricia called about an hour ago. Damn!" He turned and walked to the windows.
Charles stood still, shocked, unmoving. No, there must be some mistake. James couldn't be dead. He drained his drink.
His Lordship spoke to the windows. "You know what this means, don't you?"
"Yes. Poor Patricia and the girls. And Mother."
"Yes, of course. No, I was thinking of you. You are the remaining son. Now you are the heir of all this. The title, Stanhope, all of this." He made a sweeping gesture with his arm.
The silence in the room was deafening. It lasted almost a minute. Charles broke the silence. "Who else knows, Father?"
"No one else."
"I'll tell Alice and then Catherine. Will you tell Mother?" He put his hand on his father's shoulder.
"Yes, I will." Deep within his grief, his Lordship noticed one thing. Charles recovered from the initial shock and began to take charge. His son seemed to know what to do in the moment of crisis and moved quickly to handle it.
"Very well. I'll go now. Are you all right?"
Charles went right up stairs to Alice's room. The first thing he noticed was the color was back in her cheeks and she was smiling. She took one look at him and said, "What is the matter?"
"How does she know?" he thought. He stood there not sure what to say.
Alice leaned forward in the bed and patted a spot on it. "Sit here and tell me. You look exhausted."
Charles sat down. "Dammit, she was only a little older that him but she acted a lot older when the two were together," he mused.
"Now, just tell me," she said taking his hands.
"James is dead," he blurted out.
The color drained from her face. "Oh, God!" she gasped.
"Are you all right?" he said caringly.
She then hugged her brother as she never had. James was gone and now she held her only remaining brother. As tears streamed down her cheeks, she held him tighter, not wanting to let go.
"When?" she asked, still holding him.
"A few hours ago. Father told me. He is taking it very hard. I'm worried about him."
"She doesn't know. Father is going to tell her. I'm going to tell Catherine."
"You know what this means, Charles?"
"Yes, I'm the next in line. Four years ago I was nothing. Now I'm the next Earl of Berwick. It is all too much."
"Yes it is. Also it means your marriage to Catherine has new importance. There can be no more doubts." She got out of bed. "There, get me my robe and we'll go tell Catherine together." She took his hand.
Together they told Catherine. She took it well but didn't grasp the implications at first. She was still a little fuzzy from her ordeal. Charles explained it to her in detail. All she could do was nod but she understood. She was to be the next Lady Berwick and the burden of all it entailed began to sink in. Alice excused herself and headed off to see her mother and father, leaving the two alone.
Catherine spoke as Alice left. "I always dreamt of having a title, like Mama but not like this. This is not right. I am so sorry."
"I know you are. This is how it will be for you and me. You don't have to marry me now. Things have changed."
"Things have not changed. I still love you and agreed to marry you before all this. It is you that has the right to change your mind. Nothing has been announced. You can find someone better."
"Dear God, no, Catherine. Don't say that."
Catherine held out her arms. "Please hold me and don't let me go."
Charles climbed on to the bed and she snuggled into him. She felt protected and loved. Within moments she fell into a deep sleep followed shortly thereafter by Charles. For the first time, held in Catherine's arms, he slept without nightmares.