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Authors: Kate Williams

The Storms of War

BOOK: The Storms of War
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The de Witt Family and their Circle

Rudolf de Witt – meat dealer, father of the de Witt family and owner of Stoneythorpe

Verena de Witt – Rudolf’s wife, the daughter of Lady Deerhurst

Arthur de Witt – their oldest child, living in Paris

Michael de Witt – student at Cambridge University

Emmeline de Witt – due to be married to Sir Hugh Bradshaw

Celia de Witt – their youngest daughter

Tom Cotton – assistant groom to the de Witts

Mrs Cotton – his mother, a former servant of the family

Mary and Missy Cotton – Tom’s sisters

Jonathan Corrigan – Michael’s university friend, from New York

Stanley Smithson – footman

John Thompson – footman

Jennie Christmas – parlourmaid

Miss Wilton – lady’s maid

Christopher Marks – groom

Samuel Janus – Celia’s summer tutor, a former schoolmaster

Sir Hugh Bradshaw – local aristocrat, fiancé of Emmeline and owner of Callerton Hall

Rufus Sparks – university friend of Mr Janus

Jemima Webb – university friend of Mr Janus and political campaigner

Lance Corporal Bilks – former Derby factory foreman, successful soldier

Lance Corporal Orchard – lance corporal fighting in the Western Front

Lady Deerhurst – Verena’s mother

Matthew – Verena’s nephew and Celia’s cousin

Louisa – Verena’s niece and Celia’s cousin

Heinrich de Witt – Rudolf’s cousin

Lotte de Witt – Heinrich’s wife

Johann and Hilde de Witt – children of Heinrich and Lotte de Witt

Elizabeth Shepherd – novice ambulance driver

Professor Punter – Michael’s tutor at Magdalene


December 1916

Michael was shaking. If he held his hand, then it was his leg; if he stilled that, then his back wobbled, like a string waved about from one end only. He sat at the back of the trench and felt his body quiver in the freezing air. The whole place was quiet save for the movements of the men, the scrabbling of the rats over the discarded bits of food. Only he was making sounds: his knees knocking together, his teeth chattering. What a joke that normally was – knees knocking. He had laughed at actors playing fake fear on stage, hands popped over mouths, legs quavering. And now here he was, a caricature, and none of it was funny because he just couldn’t stop. A tin can fell to the floor and he jumped in horror. The scream was out of his mouth before he knew it. The men turned around. He looked down and a large rat had knocked over Orchard’s billy mug. The men turned back to their positions. That was the most shaming thing of all. Now they hardly noticed him, took it for granted.

It was even worse when there were no bombs. When there was shelling, all the men were shaking, even Orchard. In the silence, it was just him.

Orchard manoeuvred himself beside him. ‘It’s coming up to time, sir,’ he said, tapping his watch. ‘No orders to the contrary so far?’ He was a squat, cheerful man, worked for the fire brigade in Wapping. Michael knew he was beyond fortunate with his second in command. ‘Don’t you worry, sir,’ Orchard said when Michael was holding his gun upside down or had sent the men the wrong way. ‘You’ll pick it up in half a tick.’ Michael made himself do things he hated, so as not to let down Orchard and his beaming face.

‘No, Orchard. No orders to the contrary.’

‘Right, chaps! Attention. Corporal Witt wishes to issue a command.’ The trench was silent. From a distance, you could just hear the French shouting on parade and the boom of the miners making another trench. Michael thought – just for a moment – that he heard a woman singing. Perhaps one of the cooks, although it sounded too delicate for a domestic. He strained for the notes, but there was a gust of wind and they were lost.

Orchard looked at his watch. Michael tried to still his shaking hands. ‘Over!’ a voice shouted. ‘Over the top, men!’ It was his. It wasn’t loud enough.

‘Don’t worry, sir,’ said Sergeant Orchard. ‘The wind ate up your voice that time. I will give it a proper shout so the chaps know what’s what.’

‘Thank you,’ Michael tried to say. But his voice was shaking too and it could not get out.

Orchard stood up. ‘All right, men,’ he shouted. ‘We’re going over. As the captain said, we’ll have fire cover from the top and the barbed wire will be cut. You’ll be as safe as houses.’ He put up his arms. ‘One, two, three, GO!’

Michael held his gun, willed himself to go forward.


Stoneythorpe, Hampshire, Saturday 1st August 1914

‘There you are!’ Emmeline was pulling apart the willow branches, poking in her perfect, entirely regular nose. ‘Mama wants you. Michael’s American friend has arrived early. And she’s fussing about the party.’

Celia looked to the side so the white and silver of the pond was sharp on her eyes. ‘I’ll come in a moment.’

‘Now, Mama says.’ Emmeline kicked at the soil with her boot. ‘Come along. I think I was good to even try to find you back here. It’s so
’ Celia pulled herself out of the willows, ignoring Emmeline’s hand. ‘I don’t know what Mama is thinking, allowing Michael to invite this Jonathan person. We’ve quite enough to do, with the party and my wedding.’

None of us cares about your stupid wedding, Celia wanted to say. Not that it would be true. ‘Let them try to mock us now,’ Rudolf had said, pulling on his beard. ‘My wife was the daughter of Lord Deerhurst and my daughter is to be Lady Bradshaw.’ She scraped her boots in the grass and followed her sister up to the house.

Emmeline walked ahead, her pale pink skirt snaking after her – she was wearing out her old dresses in preparation for her trousseau. The house beckoned to them, the squat frontage of the servants’ hall, the breakfast and dining rooms and the back of the sitting room, its long, pale windows glinting in the sun, the Hampshire stone flashing coolly behind. In summer, Celia would usually be in the Black Forest, visiting her second cousins, Hilde and Johann. ‘We will make a longer visit next year,’ Rudolf had said. ‘When the international situation has calmed.’ She blushed to
herself that she had been secretly relieved. From the age of eight, she had spent two weeks there with her siblings, but now they said they were too old for it, and last year Celia had gone alone. They had done the things that would look like fun to anyone seeing them from outside: fishing for sticks in the river by their house, taking rides with their groom and listening to the gramophone in the parlour. But Johann had been awkward with her and Hilde had wanted to be alone and not talk. ‘She is just growing, dear,’ Aunt Lotte had said. ‘She wishes to be quiet to think.’

Uncle Heinrich sat her down at the table and talked about the family tree, how Wolfgang de Witt had come from Holland in the seventeenth century, married Anna and never returned to his home country – ever. ‘Like your father, Celia,’ he said. ‘Rudolf will never leave England.’ Then he asked her questions about home – even about Tom, though he had never met him.

Now, the sight of Hilde’s letters, neatly written on pink-edged paper, illustrated with flowers around the edges, arriving every three weeks or so, made her feel embarrassed for the friendship that they no longer seemed to have, since they were grown. She stuffed them into one of her drawers, guilty also that a cancelled visit meant she could spend the summer months with Tom. That was, if Emmeline would let her escape the discussions about her wedding.

‘Come along,’ said Emmeline. ‘Why are you always so slow? Mama is waiting. She will be pulling her hair out. Well, not literally. But she says she wants to.’ Their mother’s great pride was her chestnut hair, still as thick as when she was nineteen, Rudolf said.

‘Mama is always worrying about the party.’

‘You know her, every year she says she will never be able to get everything done. And every year it’s a success. Anyway, what were you
down there?’

‘I was thinking about Princess May, actually.’

‘Hmm. If you ask me, she must have felt lucky to marry the King. She was very plain and her mother had a figure like Mrs Rolls. I shall see them when Sir Hugh takes me to court and introduces me. I simply don’t believe she was the ideal bride.’

‘I think it was romantic that he chose her when his brother died. But I still don’t see why anyone would want to get married, even to the King.’ Celia was lying. She’d been thinking of Countess Sophie, the lady-in-waiting, courted by Franz Ferdinand, everybody thinking he wanted to marry one of the princesses of the house.

‘Well, he wouldn’t marry you. You always have dirty knees.’ She was right: Celia did usually have some dust or grime over her dress.

Emmeline was too beautiful, that was the problem. Her fair hair was pinned up by Miss Wilton into a great cloud around her head, and her eyes were so large that they drew your attention away from the rest of her face. She looked like Mixie, Verena’s doll from when she was a child, without flaws. Celia knew that, if you looked closer at her sister’s cheeks, there were slight bumps, dry patches, and that made them pink. But no one ever did look, apart from her.

Emmeline had always taken the lead roles in plays at school – finishing with Miranda in
The Tempest.
In Eversley, the nearest big village, she was like a kingfisher, striking people silent when they saw her height, slender figure and mass of pale hair. Celia sometimes looked in the mirror and wondered how different her days would have been if her reflection had been like Emmeline’s, the snub nose, pale eyelashes and thin frizzy hair replaced by her sister’s easy loveliness. ‘You have a happy face,’ a teacher had once said to her. Not beautiful. If she looked like her sister, people might follow her in the street, as they did Emmeline, offer her biscuits and cakes or ribbons as gifts in shops. Like Emmeline, she could say what she wished and no one would reprimand her, be cross or remember her angry words.

Celia had been a plump child and now she was too tall, too thin, like a lanky bird plopped out of its nest, Michael teased her. Her nose was too wide and her grey eyes too small, and when she smiled, her eyes crinkled smaller and her nose got wider. She tried hard not to envy her sister’s mass of hair, for her own lay flat on her head, fell out of buns and clips, dropped over her face. None
of her clothes fitted because the waist was always wrong, and there seemed to be a permanent thin line of dirt under her nails. If they wore the same gown, it would look pristine on Emmeline, creased and out of shape on Celia, within a week thinned at the elbows and grey. ‘Why can’t you just be elegant?’ her mother said.

Still, she thought, if all beauty got for you was marrying Sir Hugh, perhaps it wasn’t worth so very much. Sir Hugh was grass-thin and looked about a hundred, even though Verena said he was forty (old enough, Celia thought). He dressed so neatly that Rudolf said even King Edward would have approved of his buttons. He wore wide ties over his shirts, expansive, shimmering silk, their generous show a dark shock against the rest of him. Last year, after days of fiddling with their gowns, Emmeline and Verena had gone to Lady Redroad’s ball at her house ten miles away. They came back talking of Sir Hugh. A week afterwards, he came to visit, sat upright in their parlour, said nothing. Verena was jubilant. All the mothers had been looking at Sir Hugh, she said, and he was visiting

Celia took one skip – why did they always have to
– towards Stoneythorpe. The dark red stone of the house shone above them in the afternoon sun, the three peaks on the roof and their turrets and towers reaching almost to the clouds, the whole of the back spread with ivy. As a child, she’d count out each of the twenty great windows and try to guess what might be happening behind the leaded panes of glass, whether the furniture was dancing when they weren’t looking. Now she only wondered that about her own room. She knew the house was grandest at the front, with its four main rounded windows and the ornate façade with the handsome carvings over the porch and on the roof. But the back was her favourite, she liked its humbler windows, the chips in the stone.

‘Here she is, Mama,’ said Emmeline wearily, as they arrived on the lawn in front of the back windows, just at the base of the slope. Closer up, the windows looked slightly fogged around the edges. They’d have to clean them again before the party. The footmen had dragged out a ring of chairs, but only Verena and Rudolf were
seated, Rudolf asleep under his hat, legs stretched out in front of him. Michael was lying on a blanket on the grass, staring up at the sky, and a tall man in a boater was sitting next to him.

Arthur was the only one missing, their handsome, know-it-all older brother, in Paris since last year and saying he had no plans to come back. Without him, there was always a quiet spot, a hole where he would have sat in the middle, talked the most. Celia felt ashamed that she didn’t miss him, felt relieved not to be on edge from his sharp jokes. Her first memory of Arthur was when she was four, running away as she tried to catch up, laughing and shouting, ‘Go away!’

Emmeline swept herself into the empty chair by her mother. ‘I found her sitting in the dirt, as usual. No one would believe her fifteen.’ Verena tipped her glasses back on her nose and gave Celia a vague smile. She was sitting bolt upright as ever, her long neck extending out of her ruffled white blouse and blue jacket, glasses glittering on her pale nose under her puff of brown hair.
Your mother pays a lot of attention to her clothes,
a woman at a Winterbourne parents’ tea party had said to Celia. Verena did. She wore things that didn’t match on purpose, combined dark blouses with pale skirts. Rudolf teased her that sometimes she still thought herself dancing as a doll in
Sleeping Beauty,
wanted always to stand out.

Verena had small eyes, like Celia – it was Rudolf who had the great doe eyes Michael and Emmeline had inherited. Wrinkles snaked out from the sides, down her cheeks, up to her ears. When Celia was younger, she’d traced them on her mother’s face, drawing a map, touching the soft skin where it dipped and fell. ‘You really should not run off so often, Celia.’

The man in the boater stood and made a mock bow. His skin was sunburnt brown, the colour of Michael’s shoes.

‘Well, hello,’ he said. ‘You must be Celia. Short for Cordelia, I understand?’ His drawling voice sounded so ridiculous that Celia could almost think he’d invented it for effect. ‘I’m Jonathan Corrigan.’

‘You’re Michael’s friend from Cambridge, I know,’ Celia finished
for him. He was so white and blond, the sun behind him so bright that her eyes were watering just from looking at him. ‘And no one calls me that name. It’s too long.’ Verena cleared her throat, her usual signal, and Celia dropped her eyes to her boots. Michael had talked endlessly about Jonathan for the past two weeks: his father’s two large homes in Boston, summers by the sea, his house in New York where the buildings were as high as the sky. Before Michael went to Cambridge, Celia had imagined him coming back with friends who looked like him, who would want to talk to her as much as he did: tall, thin young men with glasses and Michael’s dark hair, smiles that made their whole faces bright, like his. Michael was clever, shy, sometimes nervous; he bit his nails down so they were ragged and the skin underneath showed, fiddled with his clothes in company. She did not think he would have a friend like Jonathan, with his big round face and smile. Jonathan was like Gwendolyn King at school, the type of person who thought everyone was his friend.

Michael waved his hand. ‘Now, sis, be nice. Jonathan has driven all the way from Cambridge in time for the Bank Holiday.’ He pulled at his tie, his fingers flickering.

Celia shrugged.
I didn’t ask him,
she wanted to say.
I didn’t ask him and his buttery smile to come here.
Jonathan was staying for three weeks – almost half her holidays. He would be taking her brother off to walk in the gardens, talk and read, leaving her alone. She hated the fact that men like Jonathan saw a side of Michael she did not. She had hopes – so far secret from her parents – that she would go to Cambridge herself, sit in rooms full of books, discussing ideas with other girls just like her. They would toast muffins by the fire and discuss the philosophy of religion. Then she would go on to Paris, read books about philosophy and be cleverer than any boy.

Jonathan turned to Michael. ‘You didn’t tell me you had such a pretty younger sister.’ He had a thick gold ring on his little finger. Celia had never seen a man wear jewellery.

Emmeline laughed. ‘You jest, Mr Corrigan.’

‘I’d like to paint you, Miss de Witt, if I might be permitted.’
Celia gave him a polite smile. What was worst of all was that Michael had said to her last week that he might go to America one day. If Michael went to New York on a boat, so far away, he would be surrounded by shops with glass windows, and theatrical shows, and he might never come back.

‘I don’t know why you fancy yourself a painter,’ said Michael, nudging his friend’s leg with his hand. ‘Shouldn’t you stick to poetry? Darned hard enough to do that, if you ask me.’

‘If I see something or someone that requires depiction, I do so,’ replied Jonathan, his voice sounding more ridiculous to Celia by the minute. ‘I’d compose you against the house, Miss de Witt, the large oak tree to your side.’

He gave Celia a wink. She sat down by Michael and looked away, towards the house, hoping that Jonathan would see her eyes watering and so his idea of the portrait would be ruined. Michael nudged her shoulder in the way he always did, their sign of secret friendship amidst it all. Michael’s hands had patches of red that flared up from time to time. Verena had said they all had it as babies but Michael worst of all. She had tied his hands together to stop him from scratching.

‘How about it?’ said Jonathan.

‘Celia does not have time to sit for paintings.’ Verena’s mouth was narrowed, her words taut. ‘She has much to do in assisting preparations for the party. She has been given dispensation from her lessons from her tutor in order to help us.’

Jonathan nodded, switched immediately to Verena. ‘Of course, Mrs de Witt. The party. Michael promised I’d see a real English village in full swing. That’s if he can drag himself away from Professor Punter’s reading list. It might just be you and me, Mrs de Witt, if Seneca proves as captivating as usual.’

Celia watched her mother’s mouth soften under the light of Jonathan’s smile. In the pictures of ships going over the sea she’d seen, there was always a tall man walking with a group of ladies. That was exactly what she could see him doing, striding over the deck every morning, looking forward to arriving in England, where he probably thought people still dressed like they did in the
Queen’s time. All the while, Michael was reading, Celia thought, preparing for his meetings with Professor Punter, to sit in his room and discuss great thoughts.

BOOK: The Storms of War
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