Read Echoes Online

Authors: Danielle Steel

Echoes (6 page)

By some miracle, Beata had managed to keep everything that had happened from Brigitte, and she insisted that she and Antoine were just friends. Brigitte was disappointed to hear it, and at first wasn't inclined to believe her, but in the end, she did. She had no other choice. Beata showed no sign of the love or passion she felt for Antoine, and admitted nothing to her. There was too much at stake. She could trust no one with their future except Antoine himself, just as he trusted her. Her mother thought it nice that she had made a friend, and said she hoped to see him again when they came back someday. With the war on, she knew that Jacob would want to come to Switzerland again, for some peace.

It was stressful going back to Cologne in September, when they did. The war raged on, and it was depressing hearing about people's sons and husbands and brothers being killed. Too many had died already, and Monika was constantly worried about her sons, as was Jacob, but he was worried about his daughters, too. He did what he had promised his wife he would do. In October, he spoke to the father of Horst's friend in Berlin, the young man whom Brigitte found so enchanting, and when he spoke to her, she was over the moon. The young man had agreed, and his family thought that a marriage between the two families was an excellent idea. Jacob gave his younger daughter an enormous dowry, and promised to buy them a handsome house in Berlin. Just as Beata had predicted, Brigitte was engaged at the end of the year, when she turned eighteen.

In peacetime, her parents would have given her an enormous ball to celebrate her engagement, but because of the war, it was out of the question. Her engagement was announced, and they gave a large dinner party for both sets of parents and a number of their friends. Several generals attended, the young men who were available and on leave came in uniform, and Ulm managed to come, although Horst couldn't get leave. But it was a proud event. The merging of two fine families, and two beautiful young people.

All Brigitte could think of was her wedding and her dress. She was to be married in June, which seemed an interminable wait to her. Beata was happy for her. It was everything Brigitte had dreamed of since she was a little girl. She wanted a husband and babies, and parties, and pretty dresses and jewels, and she was going to have all of it. And with great good fortune, her fiancé was stationed in Berlin. He was in no imminent danger, and his father had managed to have him attached to a general as an aide. His father had been assured he wouldn't be sent to the front, so Brigitte had nothing to fear. Her wedding and future were secure.

Beata seemed enormously peaceful about it, and was happy to see her sister so happy. She had promised to make all the underwear for her trousseau and sat constantly sewing pieces of pale satin, as she trailed bits of lace everywhere. It didn't seem to bother her at all that her younger sister was getting married and she wasn't. She was far more interested in the war. And once a week, she received a letter from Antoine via his Swiss cousin, which reassured her that he was alive and well. He was near Verdun, and she thought of him constantly as she sewed, and reread his letters a thousand times. Her mother had noticed one or two letters when they arrived in the mail, but most of the time Beata got the mail now before anyone else did, and no one realized how many letters she had gotten, or how steadily they continued to come. They were as much in love as ever, and prepared to wait for a life together until after the war. She had already vowed to herself, and to him, that if anything ever happened to him, she would never marry anyone else. It seemed reasonable to her. She couldn't imagine loving anyone as she did him.

Her father had noticed how quiet Beata was in the past few months, and interpreted it as great sadness on her part in the face of Brigitte's joy. Believing her unhappy nearly broke his heart. It drove him to speak to several men he knew well, and in March, he knew he had found the right one. He would not have been his first choice, but on closer inspection, he knew that the man he had chosen was the best one for her. He was a widower who had no children, from an excellent family, with a large fortune of his own. Jacob had wanted someone older and more stable for Beata than the handsome young man he had secured for Brigitte, who could turn out to be flighty, was still immature and playful, and was definitely spoiled, although Jacob thought him a nice boy. And Brigitte was crazy about him. The husband Jacob had selected for his older daughter was a thoughtful, extremely intelligent man. He wasn't handsome, but he was not unattractive, although he was going bald. He was tall and somewhat portly, and forty-two years old, but Jacob knew he would be respectful of her. The man in question said he would be honored to be betrothed to such a beautiful girl. He had lost his wife five years before, after a long illness, and had had no thought of marrying again. He was a quiet person, who disliked social life as much as she did, and all he wanted was a quiet home.

Jacob and Monika had him to a dinner party at their home and insisted that Beata attend. She didn't want to since Brigitte was staying with her future parents-in-law for a round of parties in Berlin, and Beata didn't want to attend a dinner party without her. But she knew she would have to learn to go to parties without her, after Brigitte moved to Berlin with her husband in June. Her parents absolutely insisted she join them, without telling her why they wanted her there. She appeared in their drawing room looking very regal in a midnight blue velvet dress, with a handsome string of pearls around her neck, and small diamonds at her ears. She paid no attention to the man they hoped she would marry, as she'd never met him before, and seemed unaware of his presence. When they introduced him to her, she shook his hand politely and drifted away a few moments later, thinking he was someone from her father's bank. She sat quietly next to him at dinner, answered his questions courteously, but her mind was full of Antoine's most recent letter, which she had received that afternoon. She could think of nothing else, and ignored her dinner partner for most of the night. She didn't hear a thing he said, which he interpreted as shyness, and found charming. He was utterly enchanted by her, she hardly noticed him, and didn't have the remotest idea that he had been invited for her. She thought she was seated next to him at random, and not by design.

She was worried about Antoine that night, and hadn't heard from him in days until the letter she had just received, which spoke of German forces attacking the French at Verdun. She could hardly think of anything else as she sat through the dinner party, and finally claimed she had a headache, and left just after dessert, without saying goodnight. She thought it more discreet to simply quietly disappear. Afterward her future fiancé asked Jacob when they intended to tell her, and Jacob promised it would be within days. He wanted her to be as happy as Brigitte, and was certain this was the man for her. Her future husband even shared her passion for Greek philosophers, and had tried to discuss them with her at dinner, but she had been distracted and vague, and only nodded at what he said. She hadn't listened to a word he'd said from soup to dessert. It was as though she was hanging somewhere in space, unable to come to earth. Her future fiancé thought her a modest, charmingly discreet young girl.

She was in far better spirits when her father saw her in the hall the next day. She had just gotten another letter from Antoine, and he had reassured her once again that he was well and as madly in love with her as ever. They had had hellish days near Verdun, but he was alive and well, though exhausted and hungry. The conditions he described were nightmarish, but just knowing he was alive was enough to improve her spirits dramatically, and her father was delighted to see her so happy, when he asked her to come into his library to speak to him. He asked how she had enjoyed the dinner party the night before, and she politely said she had had a lovely time. He inquired about her dinner partner, and she barely seemed to remember him, and then said he was very nice and pleasant to talk to, but it was obvious she had no idea what they had in mind for her.

As her father explained it to her, Beata's face went pale. He said that the man she'd sat next to, whom she had barely noticed, and certainly wasn't attracted to, was willing to marry her. In fact, he saw no reason to delay. He would prefer to marry her sooner rather than later, and her father thought a small wedding just after Brigitte's, in July perhaps, would be sensible. Or even before that, if she preferred it, since she was the eldest, perhaps in May. There was no need to wait. With the war on, people were marrying quickly these days. Beata sat and stared at her father with a look of shocked horror on her face, and Jacob didn't fully understand her revulsion at first. She jumped to her feet and strode around the room, looking anxious and panicked, and spoke with such vehemence and outrage that Jacob stared at her in disbelief. This was not the reaction he had expected from her, nor the one he wanted. He had all but assured her widowed suitor that their marriage was a certainty, and had already discussed the terms of her dowry with him. It would be extremely embarrassing if Beata refused to marry him. She had always been a good girl, and obedient to him, and Jacob was sure that she would be once again.

“I don't even know him, Papa,” she said, with tears running down her face. “He's old enough to be my father, and I don't want to marry him,” she said with a look of desperation. “I don't want to be given to a stranger, like some kind of slave. If you expect me to share a bed with him, I would rather die an old maid.” Her father looked embarrassed at her all-too-graphic description of his expectations, and resolved to have her mother talk to her. He made one last attempt to reason with her. He had expected her to be pleased, not enraged.

“You have to trust my judgment on this, Beata. He is the right man for you. At your age, you have romantic illusions about what love is that don't make sense in the real world. What you need is a lifetime companion who shares your interests, will be responsible, and respect you. The rest will come in time, Beata. I promise you. You're far more sensible than your sister, and you need a man who will be just as reasonable and practical as you are. You don't need a silly young boy with a handsome face. You need a man who will protect you and provide for you and your children, a man you can count on and talk to. That's what marriage is about, Beata, not about romance and parties. You don't want that, or need it. I much prefer a man like this for you,” he said almost sternly, as she stood across the room from her father and glared at him.

“Then you sleep with him. I won't let him touch me. I don't love this man, and I won't marry him because you say so. I won't be sold into slavery to a stranger like a herd of cattle, Papa. You can't do that to me.”

“I will not tolerate you speaking to me that way,” he boomed at her, shaking with rage. “What would you have me do? Allow you to live here as an old maid for the rest of your life? What will happen to you when your mother and I die and you are without protection? This man will take care of you, Beata. That's what you need. You cannot sit here and wait for a handsome prince to find you, and carry you away, a prince who is as intellectual as you are, as serious, as fascinated by books and studies as you are. Perhaps you'd prefer a university professor, but he couldn't afford to support you in the way you're accustomed to and deserve. This man has means comparable to what you grew up with. You owe it to your children to marry someone like him, Beata, not some starving artist or writer who will leave you to die of consumption in a garret somewhere. Beata, this is reality, marrying the man I choose for you. Your mother and I know what we're doing, you're young and foolish and idealistic. Real life is not in the books you read. Real life is right here, and you will do as I say.”

“I will die first,” she said, her eyes never leaving her father's, and she looked as though she meant it. He had never seen her look as fierce or as determined, and as he saw her, he thought of something that had never crossed his mind, particularly not with her. He asked her a single question, and his voice was shaking as he did so, and for the first time in his life with her, he feared what he might hear.

“Are you in love with someone else?” He couldn't imagine it. She never left the house, but the look in her eyes told him that he needed to ask her, and she hesitated before she spoke. She knew she had to tell him the truth, there was no other way.

“Yes.” She stood still and stiff before him as she said the single word.

“Why have you not told me?” He looked both heartbroken and livid all at once, and more than that, he looked betrayed. She had allowed him to go forward with this charade, merely by never telling him that there was someone she cared deeply about. Enough to jeopardize the match he had made, the one he knew was right for her. “Who is it? Do I know him?” He felt a shudder run through him as he asked her, as though someone had walked on his grave.

She shook her head in answer and spoke softly. “No, you don't. I met him in Switzerland last summer.” She was determined to be honest with him. She felt she had no other choice. This moment had come sooner than she wanted or expected, and all she could do now was pray that he would be reasonable and fair to her.

“Why didn't you tell me? Does your mother know about this?”

“No. No one knows. Mama and Brigitte met him, but he was just a friend then. I want to marry him when the war is over, Papa. He wants to come and meet you.”

“Then let him come.” Her father was furious with her, but nonetheless willing to be honorable about the matter, and reasonable with his child, although he was deeply upset with her for this profession of love at the eleventh hour.

“He can't come to see you, Papa. He's at the front.”

“Do your brothers know him?” She shook her head again, and said nothing. “What are you not telling me about him, Beata? I sense that there is more here than you're saying.” He was right, as he so often was. She felt her whole body shake in terror as she answered him.

“He's from a good family, with a large estate. He's well educated and intelligent. He loves me, Papa, and I love him.” There were tears running down her cheeks.

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