"It's just not quite respectable."
Charlotte took off her cape, hung it on the hall stand and faced her mother's disapproving look. "It is a Red Cross uniform, Mother, and we are at war. I'm not trying to look respectable. I'm trying to be useful."
Mrs. Armstrong-Barnes frowned. "It is not just the uniform, Charlotte dear. I daresay you think me old-fashioned, but in my opinion it is not quite seemly to bicycle through the village dressed like that. When I was fifteen, young ladies--"
"Mother," Charlotte interrupted, "it is a new century and our country is at war. Everyone should help in whatever way they can, and it is quite acceptable now for a young lady to train as a nurse." Charlotte moved in the direction of the drawing room. "Has Helen served tea?"
"You are changing the subject," Charlotte's mother protested as she followed her. "If you feel the need to help out, you could easily become involved in a different type of war work."
Charlotte knew what her mother had in mind for her, and as they sat down on the sofa together she tried to think of a way to forestall the argument. "Please accept that this is what I want to do," she said gently. "It would not suit me to organize charity functions. I want to contribute in a more direct way, and taking a nursing certificate is a very practical thing to do."
Her mother gave a little shake of her head. "It might become too practical," she said. "One hears things about hospitals. . . ."
"Oh, Mother," said Charlotte, pulling off her cap and causing her hair to loosen and fall about her face. "You have no need to worry about my being upset. I am not allowed to do any advanced nursing, and we have no war wounded. The Cottage Hospital takes civilian cases only."
"Even so . . ." Her mother sighed. "I wish your father were still alive so that he might talk to you. You are so very young"--she reached over and tucked a strand of Charlotte's blond hair behind her ear--"and so very determined. You were always such a gentle child, and yet when we discuss this subject I cannot persuade you to change your mind."
"Because I think it is the right thing to do." Charlotte spoke urgently. "The war wasn't over by Christmas last year, as people said it might be. We are now in the second summer of fighting, and trained nurses will be needed if it lasts another year."
"Who is talking of war?" said a voice in amusement. "Not my little sister, pretending to understand politics?"
Charlotte looked up as her brother, sketchbook under his arm, came into the room. "Stop teasing, Francis," she said. "Everyone talks about the war situation. And although I do not read of it as much as you do, I hear enough to know that the Allies are not advancing as quickly as expected."
"We won at Neuve Chapelle, didn't we?" Mrs. Armstrong-Barnes looked at Francis. "I read that in the newspaper."
"One has to do more than read the headlines and the official news to find out what is going on over there," said Francis, helping himself to a scone from the tiered cake stand on the table. He took a teacup from his mother. "We lost a lot of men at Neuve Chapelle. I agree with Charlotte. I think the war will last longer than another year."
"Well, I only read the interesting bits of the newspaper," said their mother. "The part that tells you what is happening here--that is what concerns me. Did you know that your cousin Eugenie has become engaged to Adrian Vermont? He is one of the Vermonts of York, a very well-thought-of family." She bit daintily into her cake.
Charlotte stirred her tea briskly. "Well, good luck to Cousin Eugenie," she said. "If it is the same Adrian Vermont I recall meeting at their midsummer ball, then she is very welcome to him. His family may be well thought of. I thought he was very spotty and incredibly dull."
"Charlotte!" cried her mother. "Don't be vulgar."
"Actually," said Francis seriously, "home news should be the most important part of any newspaper. There is far too much patriotic drumbeating. It is quite wrong."
"Do you really think it is wrong?" asked Charlotte. She looked across the room to where her brother stood, tall and handsome, with the same blond hair she had. For all the banter between them, she had a great respect for him. Older by almost seven years, he had always been her hero, her protector when the local children had called her names because the Armstrong-Barnes family lived in such a big house. She greatly valued his opinion.
"Who in their right mind would want to go to war?" said Francis. "Not the ordinary Prussian or Frenchman, I'll wager. What makes a human being want to kill another who has done him no personal harm? Patriotism. The one thing that can unite people. It takes priority over religious differences, or class, or money, or social position. And then people can be manipulated by others for reasons of power or to gain a few acres of land." There was a high color on Francis's cheeks, though his face was pale. "Men and women will die for their country, and unscrupulous leaders use this."
"Really, Francis," chided his mother. "You shouldn't talk like that. It's . . . it's disloyal."
Francis shrugged and smiled at Charlotte.
"And there you have it," he said. He stood up. "It's going to be another fine evening. Care for a walk down to the village before dinner?"
Charlotte jumped up at once.
"Oh yes!" she cried. "Give me some minutes to change."
She ran quickly out of the room and up the stairs. Her bedroom looked out over the back of the house to the washing green, the kitchen gardens, and the long glasshouses by the end wall. She could see the gardener's lad moving between the vegetable rows, hoeing the dry earth. Annie the housekeeper came out from the back kitchen with a large wicker washing basket on her hip. She set it down and began unpegging the clothes, the white linen sheets and shirts. Charlotte heard the murmur of their voices. She stood for a few moments by her open window and inhaled the soft fragrant smell of summer.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Remembrance by Theresa Breslin. Copyright © 2002 by Theresa Breslin. Excerpted by permission of Laurel Leaf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.