Disclaimer: Gosford Park belongs to Robert Altman, Bob Balaban, and USA Films. I own nothing but the words.
Isobel McCordle stopped at the sound of her name. Most of the patients did call her by her Christian name, because she'd asked them to, but she knew that the man in that bed had just been admitted to the hospital, after having had his left leg amputated in a field unit. Besides, she hadn't met him yet, so how could he know her name at all? Except...she thought she knew that voice, even though, if she was correct, she hadn't heard it for nine years. She turned slowly to face him.
"Rupert?" she said, though there was no question, really. She'd carried that face in her mind for almost a decade, and even through the grime and the pain, she knew it. It wasn't a classically handsome face - it never had been - but that hadn't mattered to her nine years ago, and it didn't matter now.
"I knew that had to be you," he said, his voice hoarse, not at all the smooth softness she remembered. "No one else ever walked the way you did."
Isobel gasped. He remembered the way she walked? She took the remaining few steps over to his bedside, but then she just stood there, not sure what to say. Almost of their own free will, her eyes traveled over his body, professionally marking his clinical status. He looked a little pale, but that was to be expected, after the ordeal he'd just gone through, and he wasn't breathing heavily or sweating. When her eyes reached the place where his left leg should have been, though, they stopped, Isobel the woman taking over from Isobel the nurse.
"I'm so sorry, Rupert," she couldn't help but say, even though the Rupert she had known would never have wanted her sympathy.
As she expected, he just gave her a comical grimace.
"Just gives me an excuse not to dance," he said. "You remember how horrible I always was."
His smile, cheeky and brave, almost broke her heart. It was hard enough seeing that smile on her other patients; on Rupert, it made her want to scream.
He must have noticed how she felt, because he stopped smiling. "Would you...would you sit down?" he asked. "It's been so long...I'd love to catch up."
Isobel opened her mouth to refuse; she'd just been about to go off duty, and she'd made an almost-date to meet Aunt Lavinia at the Red Cross to knit socks. But Rupert needed her - she could see that quite clearly - and she'd never been able to resist that. Well, she had once, but only that once. Besides, Aunt Lavinia would understand. She nodded, then looked around for a chair to pull over to the side of the bed. There was just barely enough room in between the beds for a chair, so the nurses had long ago decided to keep them elsewhere, until they needed to sit down. The patient in the bed on the other side of her was a nerve gas victim, and he was asleep, which made Isobel happy, because he hadn't been sleeping much. She didn't see any chairs nearby, and she was about to go in search of one, when she felt Rupert's hand on her arm.
"Sit here," he said, gesturing to the place where his leg should have been. "See, it's good for something."
Tears welled up in her eyes, and she sat quickly, so she could use the excuse of arranging her skirts once she had to hide the time she needed to blink them away.
"Thank you," she said.
"No, thank you," Rupert said. "You don't know how wonderful it is to see you. For a moment, I thought I'd died falling out of that airplane, instead of just losing a leg."
"Don't joke about it," Isobel said, closing her eyes against more threatening tears. This is ridiculous, she thought. Why are you getting so emotional about a man you haven't seen in years?
"I'm sorry," Rupert said. "I won't, if it makes you uncomfortable." He paused for a moment, then chuckled. "You always were so...so earnest. Do you still play cards the same way?"
"What do you mean?" she asked, but the tears were gone, chased away by the smile she'd always felt around him.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten," he said. "You don't remember me teasing you that you played cards as though your life depended on it?"
She did smile at that, though she wouldn't meet his eyes. She remembered. Oh, did she ever remember. He'd said that just two days before...before her life fell apart. She didn't want to remember that.
"I haven't played cards for awhile," she said, watching her fingers fold her skirt into pleats.
"I suppose not," Rupert said. "Erm...how have you been?"
"Oh, fine," she said, still watching her hands. Well, it wasn't exactly a lie.
"I saw the notice that your great-aunt passed away. I'm sorry, Isobel."
"Oh," she said, looking up finally. "Thank you, but...I'm glad Aunt Constance died before all of this." She waved a hand at the hospital, the Blitz, the war, the world. "She would have...well, I don't know what she would have done."
"I'm certain she would have managed," Rupert said, touching her arm with his hand, "but she wouldn't have been happy, so I can understand why you feel that way."
Isobel nodded, holding his gaze so she wouldn't look down at his hand on her arm. She could feel it - her every nerve tingled with it - but maybe if she didn't look at it, he'd leave it there. It felt right, in a way that nothing had for nine years.
"And...how is the rest of your family? Lady Stockbridge, Mrs. Meredith, your mother?"
"Mother is...well, Mother is well," she said feeling the slightly twisted smile on her lips that was always there when she thought of her mother. "She's a bit disappointed that the war is keeping her from the Riviera, but she's managing. I think she's visiting friends in Scotland right now. We don't speak often." She stopped, before she said too much. She knew that her mother was as disappointed in her as she was with her mother. "Aunt Lavinia is here in town, helping wherever she can. Uncle Anthony doesn't want her to be here, of course, but she insists, and he can't say no to her. He's in the War Office, of course, helping with evacuation procedures."
"They were such a lovely couple," Rupert said, his voice so quiet that she had to lean towards him to hear. "So in love."
"Yes," Isobel said. She'd never been anything but happy for her Aunt Lavinia, who had found a truly loving husband, but she'd also always been a bit envious, a feeling that hadn't diminished, even in nine years. She rushed on, so she wouldn't think about it. "Two of their sons are at the front, and the third is reading everything he can get his hands on about fighter planes. And yet, Aunt Lavinia manages to be cheerful, and work so hard..." She trailed off, and after a moment, felt his hand pat her arm.
"How is Lady Stockbridge?" he asked.
"She's fine, too. She and Uncle Raymond are at Sweetbriars, which they've basically turned into a convalescent home for soldiers. I never would have thought Aunt Louisa had it in her, but she's doing wonderful work. I...I had to apologize to her." She bit her lip after she'd said that, because she certainly hadn't meant to.
"Why?" Rupert asked. Isobel could hear the ready laughter in his voice, but far from resenting it, it actually made her comfortable. She knew that he would understand, no matter what she told him.
"Well, after...after my father died, I made rather a nuisance of myself. I became very, as you put it, earnest, and practically ran away from home to try to work for my living. You might have noticed that I didn't come back to Society functions after my mourning was over..." She trailed off, because once again she'd said too much. She'd hoped he'd noticed; sometimes she thought that had been the real reason she'd done it.
"I had," he said, his voice twisting in that wonderful way it always had, when he wanted to laugh, but wasn't sure how she'd take it. Instead of annoying her, the way it often had nine years ago, her heart lifted when she heard it.
"Well, before I did, I told everyone what I thought of them. In Aunt Louisa's case, it wasn't very nice, though it wasn't anything compared to what I said to Mummy. Anyway, Aunt Louisa proved me wrong. She's really a wonderful hostess for the soldiers; she somehow manages to make all of them feel welcome, which, heaven knows, isn't always easy to do at Sweetbriars."
"I'll have to take your word for it, since I've never been there," Rupert said. "Lord Stockbridge had invited me for the shooting, but...but it didn't work out."
Of course it didn't, Isobel thought. Murder tends to interrupt even stolid, upper-class British lives.
"I'd like to see it some day," Rupert added, startling her. Did he mean...?
"Well, you'll probably be sent there for your convalescence," she said, her voice slipping naturally into her cheerful-nurse tone. "Most of our patients are. And it won't be too long, I'm certain."
"That wasn't what I meant," Rupert said. The intensity in his soft voice sent shivers up her spine, just the way it had nine years ago, and, almost against her will, Isobel found herself raising her eyes to his.
What she saw there made her catch her breath. She'd seen it before, nine years ago, but she had been too young and inexperienced to recognize it. Instead, she'd believed what she'd overheard his friend say, believed that he was only after her money. When she'd finally got up the courage to talk to Aunt Lavinia about it, her aunt had told her that she'd believed it because she couldn't convince herself that someone would love her for herself. Aunt Lavinia had also said a lot of things about how it was all the fault of her home life, because her parents hadn't provided her with love and respect, but that had been when her aunt was going through her Freudian phase. Her father had certainly loved her, and she had learned early on to live with her mother's disapproval. After all, her mother disapproved of almost everybody. And she'd never told Aunt Lavinia about Freddie.
At any rate, she certainly recognized what was in Rupert's eyes now, but she couldn't seem to do anything about it. She just sat there, staring at him, holding his gaze with all the intensity of those long, empty, nine years. He gazed right back, and she almost thought that he felt the same way.
"Isobel..." he said, so quietly that only the fact that it was her name enabled her to hear it. He shifted his gaze for a moment, from one side to the other. She would have followed his action, but she found that she just didn't care if anyone else saw them like this. Rupert looked down at her hands, resting in her lap, then reached out one of his own and laced his fingers through hers.
"I loved you, you know," he said to their clasped hands, "and I still do. It was never about the money, though I can certainly understand why you thought so -"
Isobel reached out with the hand he wasn't holding and touched his lips, making him stop at once. She shook her head, feeling her eyes burn with unshed tears.
"I know," she said, and then anything else she might have said flew out of her mind when he started kissing her fingertips. She closed her eyes, savoring the feeling of something she'd long since given up as impossible. This must be a dream, she thought. I'll wake up, and it won't have happened... To reassure herself, she opened her eyes and looked around the ward. The nerve gas victim in the next bed over had awoken, and was watching them with unashamed interest. He actually gave her a thumbs-up sign, which made her look back quickly at Rupert.
Rupert's eyes were fixed on her, and the look in them made her tingle all over."Isobel," he said, then stopped for a moment. He licked his lips, then continued, "I know this isn't the perfect time, but I would like to see you again."
"That's," Isobel said, stopped, swallowed, and went on, "that's exactly what you said that...that night..."
"I know," Rupert said. "I thought maybe we could start over again, from where we left off."
"I'd like that," Isobel said, feeling his grip on her hand like a lifeline. "I'd like that very much."