And from the ballroom floor we are in celebration
One good stretch before our hibernation…
"We're going to be late!" shouts Daddy from the bottom of the steps, sounding impatient and tired.
Mummy knocks on my door. "Come on, Kate. You heard your father. Hurry up." With a last knock, I hear her walk down the hall to the staircase, where Father is singing a Mahler piece loudly to annoy me; he knows I hate Mahler.
I look in the mirror. I was seventeen when the war began, and now I am twenty-one years old. My hair has darkened considerably over the years, and my eyes aren't so wide and innocent anymore. During the last year of the war, I volunteered at a war hospital in London, where I saw some wounds no woman – no person should ever have to see during their lifetime. I know what I want in life: to marry and be a wife of Thomas Emerson. If he will still have me. If he does not want me, I will go back to being a nurse, this round with a broken heart: the time during the war at the hospital has helped secure a position at a nursing school for me.
I go downstairs, where Daddy exclaims, "At long last!" He laughs and kisses my forehead. "You look beautiful tonight, Kate." He chucks me gently under the chin. "Smile a little for your old papa. The war is over. Everything is right again. Let's go."
We get into the automobile, where our driver Leo is waiting.
"To Blackfield, Leo," says Daddy.
I look out the window as we pull away from our house. Four years ago, we left the house for the Blackfields for the farewell party. Tonight, we are leaving for the Welcome-Home party, which Mrs. Emerson felt obliged to organise, since they organise one for the departing solders. Four years ago, I was nervous about seeing Thomas again after so long. Tonight, I am feeling nervous about seeing Thomas again after so long – but for a different reason.
When we arrive in Blackfield, I note that it looks almost exactly like the farewell party four years ago except that no one is in their uniform. And there are fewer men. The war claimed thousands of lives.
I pass my coat to the butler and walk into the hall, greeting one or two of the people I know there. Some people look vaguely familiar. I'm not sure if I know them, and they have an expression on their faces which tells me that they are not so sure if they know me either. Just as well; we have all changed over the years.
Mrs. Gregory, the old housekeeper, is no longer there. She died of pneumonia in 's not the only one who also died. I'd also heard from the Emersons that Corporal Coke, the charming man I met in 1914, died at the Somme. George Foxe is not dead, but lost a leg; he did finally go to war in the last days of 1917. I saw him in London just after the war ended, and though I tried to greet him, he did not appear to recognise me. The war was too much for him; he came back a man broken in spirit and in health.
I look around now for Thomas. Where is he? Has he changed much, too? Will I recognise him when I see him?
The Emersons have hired a stringed quintet, and they are striking up a song which I do not recognise. No one has invited me to dance, although there are couples moving onto the floor. There are too few men for all the women to have a partner each.
I see Mrs. Emerson in a corner, smiling at the dancing couples. I go to her and greet her. Her face has become lined with worry and care over the last few years. However, she still carries herself like a queen. Immediately, I feel sorry for her. And I feel sorry that I caused her son so much pain, which she must have known about.
"Good evening, Mrs. Emerson," I say, smiling. "You look beautiful this evening."
"And so do you, Kate," she says, kissing the air beside my cheeks. She holds me back and looks at me. "You are looking more and more like your mother each time I see you."
"Thank you." I pause and let it out. "Have you seen Thomas?"
I think I see her hide a smile as she says, "No. I'm sorry. He's like a ghost these days: lingering, but gone." I can sense that she is speaking with some pain in her voice.
I leave her and walk around the dance floor. Suddenly, I think I see Thomas, slipping out of the room into the garden. Widening my eyes, I start to run as fast as I can to catch up with him. It is freezing cold outside, and the material on my gown in thin, but I don't care.
"Thomas!" I shout. "Thomas!"
I keep running, crashing through the frostbitten plants in the garden until I suddenly find myself at the lake. Everything appears to have a thin, gossamer layer of frost that makes everything sparkle. Even the diving board appears to sparkle in the moonlight.
"Thomas?" I call again, rubbing my arms against the gooseflesh. At least my gown has longer sleeves.
I wander over onto the diving board. I start to walk out into it. It creaks uncomfortably under my weight, but I do not pay attention to it. Thomas is not here. Is tonight going to be a disaster? Will I end up going to nursing school after all?
I start to turn back, but suddenly, the diving board snaps under me. Without knowing what happened, I plunge through the thin ice of the pond, and into the freezing water. I must have knocked my head on the way down, because I cannot summon any thoughts or energy to propel myself up. It is so unbearably cold in the water that I do not feel any pain or shock.
Someone scoops me into his arms, and we burst through the surface of the water.
"Oh, you stupid girl," someone is saying. He sounds like is crying. "You stupid, stupid girl."
"I love you, Thomas," I say just before I plunge headfirst into a mind-aching darkness.
When I come to, I am lying on a soft bed with warm covers. I can hear the crackle of a fire. I open my eyes and see Thomas sitting next to my bed, watching me. His hair is uncombed. As I look around the room, I see that my gown is hanging by the fire to dry. I look from the gown to Thomas uncertainly.
"You didn't—" I say.
"Of course," Thomas answers simply with a straight face. "How is any man to resist?" Then he bursts out laughing at the expression on my face. "Of course not, stupid girl. I was half-frozen myself. Your mother and mine got you into bed. I came here as soon as I could."
I slowly sit up. "How long have I been here?"
"About an hour or so," says Thomas. "You worried us all very much, Kate. And quite a bump you've got there on your forehead." He reaches over and tries to touch my head, but I jerk my head away.
"It's your fault," I say sullenly. "I saw you leave the room. I wanted to follow you."
"So it's my fault again." Thomas is grinning.
"You might as well have thrown me into the pond."
"It would've been my pleasure."
We laugh together.
I look into Thomas's face. "So you've returned from the war." I was right about his chin; it was become more pointed over time. And his eyes have dark circles around them, like someone took a piece of coal and smudged them. His face is leaner now. I am not surprised; I saw human skeletons at the war hospital in London. I look into his eyes. I can see traces of the old Thomas, but I see new things, too: a hardness, a weariness, a sadness, and a nothingness.
"Just about," he replies softly. I realise then that we are not going to talk of the war for a very long time. It has only been over for two months, and Thomas's wounds are still red and raw.
Thomas is smart enough to turn the subject around. "And here you are, Miss Kate Coleman. A second brush with death and still unmarried. What do you intend to do with your wonderful life?"
"Nursing school," I immediately say. "I volunteered in a hospital during the war, and I've decided that nursing is definitely something I can do. I have a place at a nursing school unless—" I stop. I did not mean to let out so much.
"Unless?" Thomas probes.
"Unless things change," I say quietly.
Thomas does not say anything but searches my face. He is waiting for me to say it. He wants me to say it so that he will know that it is true and not something just said at the spur of the moment.
"I love you," I whisper. "I realised during the war. I love you. I took you for granted when you were here, but when you were gone, everything became clear to me."
The expression on Thomas's face is unreadable. For a moment, I am afraid that he does not love me anymore. I do not know what to do except stare back at him. Without knowing, my hands are clutching the sheets tightly and painfully.
Then Thomas leans over and kisses me. This time, I kiss him back. I run my hand through his thick hair, and Thomas entwines his fingers in my hair.
When the kiss is over, Thomas says, "Would you like to dance?" He has an enormous, happy grin on his face.
"Downstairs?" I am in a nightdress. It is obviously one of Mrs. Emerson's because it is too big for me. My gown will not have dried yet, and even if it has, it'll be all wrinkled. "There's no music up here."
Thomas springs over to the door and opens it just a crack. I can hear the music floating up from downstairs, mingled with the laughter and chatter of people. I laugh and get out of bed. Trust Thomas to think up something like that.
In our bare feet, we start waltzing around the room. As he holds me close to him, the sensation of pain and loneliness which has been building up in my chest for the past four years rises in me and disappears. There is going to be no pain, no loneliness. Just a road paved with dreams. And hope. And love.
Our dreams assured and we all will sleep well, sleep well…
A/N: All right... And that concludes my second story on Fictionpress. I am considering doing a rewrite, expanded version of this story, if anyone is interested. So... Yeah... Thanks for all the reviews!