Everyone is in the middle of divorcing or, in Brideshead’s case, getting married, and changing estates when Lord Marchmain announces that he’s returning to England to spend his final years at Brideshead.
Plender, Lord Marchmain’s valet in Venice, arrives a few days before his master. They make arrangements so that both he and Wilcox, the Brideshead butler, have positions.
When Lord Marchmain arrives, he has to be lifted out of the car and helped to his feet. Cara, his mistress, has traveled with him from Italy. It’s clear that he is very sick.
Once inside, Lord Marchmain sits and insists on taking another pill, though Cara is reluctant to give him one.
He asks that the servants make up a bedroom for him on the ground floor, since he’s too ill to be traveling up the stairs to his former rooms. He tells the servants to use the Chinese drawing-room and the "Queen’s bed." Charles wonders if he planned this culmination of "adult grandeur" on the way to Brideshead.
Lord Marchmain sits with Cara, Julia, Cordelia, and Charles while the servants move around the furniture needed to make up his new bedroom. He tells them that he met Brideshead’s new wife and found her "deplorable." He’s horrified that his son married such a woman.
He speaks of the upcoming war (this is 1939) and speculates on what will happen to all of them. Charles comments that he’s negotiating for a position on the Special Reserve, and Lord Marchmain callously remarks about having an artist (like Charles) with his squadron during the war…until he died.
Charles is surprised by this new attitude.
Lord Marchmain looks at his new bedroom and remarks that Charles should paint it and title it "The Death Bed."
Cara later confirms that, yes, Lord Marchmain is dying, of some disease of the heart.
They all have dinner together in the recently made-up bedroom with Lord Marchmain.
At bedtime, he asks Cordelia to sit with him until he falls asleep. She later remarks that she thinks he is afraid of the dark.
Another night, Lord Marchmain again discusses his dislike for Beryl, Brideshead’s new wife. He doesn’t want her to become chatelaine at Brideshead. As such, he’s decided to leave the entire estate to Julia and Charles, rather than to his eldest son as expected.
Julia tries to protest, but he insists that she is so beautiful that she belongs in the beautiful estate.
Julia and Charles discuss the matter later, privately. Julia says she plans to accept the offer of the estate, since her brother and Beryl would be happier someplace smaller anyway.
In retrospect and through the narration, Charles admits that he was tempted by the offer, that he was captured again by the vision he had when he first discovered the estate alongside Sebastian. Brideshead seems to him a world of art and beauty, separate from the rest of reality.
Weeks pass. Lord Marchmain can never bear to be alone and insists that his children keep him company always.
Brideshead and Beryl come to visit, but Lord Marchmain doesn’t want to be around them. Charles feels a bit guilty around Julia’s brother, knowing as he does that he will get Brideshead’s inheritance.
Realizing that they are not wanted, Brideshead and Beryl leave.
More time passes, and Lord Marchmain remains essentially bed-ridden.
At Easter, 3-4 months since he first arrived, Lord Marchmain gets sicker. Brideshead is summoned back to the estate, this time alone, and concludes that his father must see a priest.
Charles is angry. It’s clear that, for all of Lord Marchmain’s life, he has hated religion. Charles finds it deplorable that his family would try to sic a priest on Lord Marchmain when his mind is too weak to resist.
Julia lashes out at Charles when he voices these concerns to her. He has the sense that "the fate of more souls than one" depend on this visit from the priest.
Finally, Father Mackay is brought to Brideshead – but Lord Marchmain refuses to speak with him. Charles feels triumphant. The "thread" which has hung over him and Julia has been averted, he feels. He also revels in the knowledge that Brideshead has likely ticked off his father even more and is farther from his inheritance than ever.
That night, Charles and Cara ask about the details of the Last Sacrament which Brideshead and Cordelia are so intent on their father having. They all debate the nitty-gritty details of going to hell.
Later, Julia chastises Charles for starting the argument in the first place.
More time passes. Charles’s divorce is finished and Celia marries someone else. Now he and Julia are waiting for September, when Julia’s divorce will be final and they can get married at last.
Charles is put on the "in case of emergency" list with the War Office.
Speaking with one of Lord Marchmain’s doctors one day, Charles remarks that the old man has an incredible will to live. The doctor counters that it’s actually the fear of death keeping Lord Marchmain alive.
Either way, Lord Marchmain refuses to be left alone. He wants to talk all the time. Charles provides a few pages of the sort of rambling Lord Marchmain gives in his final days. He seems to be deteriorating mentally. It also seems as though he feels guilty about the way he treated his wife (leaving her alone and moving to Italy with a mistress).
In July, while Cordelia is out of town, Lord Marchmain’s condition worsens. Julia goes to get the priest.
After she leaves, Charles wants the doctor to help him "stop this nonsense" with religion. The doctor replies that it is not his concern, though he admits that the shock of seeing the priest will likely kill Lord Marchmain.
When Julia returns with the priest, Charles tries to get Cara on his side against them. Tensions rise.
After a brief argument, they all go into the room with the priest. He begins to pray, and Charles kneels and prays with them. While Father Mackay asks for a sign from Lord Marchmain that he understands, Charles hopes (silently) that the dying man will comply, if only for the sake of Julia.
Lord Marchmain does indeed make the sign of the cross, and the little ceremony is over.
Outside, as they wait for the car to drive Father Mackay home, Charles gives him a three-pound donation.
Julia remains inside by her father’s side, and Lord Marchmain passes away that evening.
Charles now recalls the last words between him and Julia.
Later that night, they are finally alone. Both of them know without saying it directly that their relationship is over. Charles says he’s known for some time now, but Julia says she only just realized it.
Julia tries to apologize and explain. Charles says he gets it, and wants to know what she’s going to do with her life.
Julia says that the more she pushes away God, the more she needs Him. She worries that starting a life with Charles would mean a life without God. There is one thing unforgivable, she says, and today she realized she might do it: "set up a rival good to God’s." She feels she needs to give up this one good thing – a life with Charles happily ever after at Brideshead – in order for God to forgive her for all the wrong she has done.
Charles says he hopes Julia’s heart will break, but that he understands.
In narration, Charles returns to his prior vision of the ice fisher, now buried under the avalanche.