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Authors: Charles Todd

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An Impartial Witness

BOOK: An Impartial Witness
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An Impartial Witness
Charles Todd

In remembrance…

Samantha
June 1995 to September 2007

and

Crystal
November 1995 to March 2008

who gave so much to those who loved them

Contents

Chapter One

AS MY TRAIN pulled into London, I looked out at…

Chapter Two

I EXPECTED THAT the police would thank me for my…

Chapter Three

I WAS HARDLY back in France—a matter of a fortnight—before…

Chapter Four

I’D TAKEN REFUGE in the Meltons’ dining room from a…

Chapter Five

LYING AWAKE in my bed that night long after Mary…

Chapter Six

FINALLY I WROTE to Simon Brandon.

Chapter Seven

SIMON GREETED ME, took my satchel away from me, and…

Chapter Eight

I DID AS HE ASKED. The debonair officer had vanished,…

Chapter Nine

MICHAEL WAS of course invited to dine with us, and…

Chapter Ten

WHEN I REACHED the flat, Diana and Mary were there,…

Chapter Eleven

AS I WAS about to pull over at the Marlborough…

Chapter Twelve

I WAS JUST coming up the avenue of lime trees…

Chapter Thirteen

I SPENT THE AFTERNOON in Mrs. Hennessey’s apartments ironing the uniforms…

Chapter Fourteen

I STOOD THERE rooted to the spot, not sure what…

Chapter Fifteen

I HAD WANTED to see Alicia Dalton before I left…

Chapter Sixteen

I MUST HAVE walked another hundred yards or more. And…

Chapter Seventeen

WHEN SIMON’S LETTER arrived, the envelope was worn and splattered…

Chapter Eighteen

THE NEXT TWO and a half weeks were busy. I…

Chapter Nineteen

“JACK MELTON.” I whispered the name aloud, as if by…

Chapter Twenty

TO MY SURPRISE, when I reached Mrs. Hennessey’s house and the…

Chapter Twenty-One

I WALKED NEARLY a mile before I looked for a…

Chapter Twenty-Two

I DIDN’T SCREAM, bottling it up in my throat. Instead…

Chapter Twenty-Three

I DON’T REMEMBER turning out the light, but I must…

Chapter Twenty-Four

AT DAWN the next morning, I could hear the guns…

 

Early Summer, 1917

A
S MY TRAIN
pulled into London, I looked out at the early summer rain and was glad to see the dreary day had followed me from Hampshire. It suited my mood.

I had only thirty-six hours here. And I intended to spend them in bed, catching up on lost sleep. The journey from France with the latest convoy of wounded had been trying. Six of us had brought home seventeen gas cases and one severe burn victim, a pilot. They required constant care, and two were at a critical stage where their lungs filled with fluid and sent them into paroxysms of coughing that left them too weak to struggle for the next breath. My hands ached from pounding them on the back, forcing them to spit up the fluid and draw in the air they so desperately needed. The burn victim, swathed in bandages that had to be changed almost every hour, was frightful to see, his skin still raw and weeping, his eyes his only recognizable feature. I knew and he knew that in spite of all his doctors could do, it would never be enough. The face he’d once had was gone, and in its place would be something that frightened children and made women flinch. I’d been warned to
keep a suicide watch, but he had a framed photograph of his wife pinned to his tunic, and it was what kept him alive, not our care.

It had been a relief to turn our patients over to the efficient clinic staff, who swept them into fresh beds and took over their care in our place. The other nurses were already on their way back to Portsmouth while I, as sister in charge, signed the papers noting eighteen patients delivered still living, none delivered dead, and went to find a cup of tea in the kitchen before the next train left for London. The kitchen was busy and so I stood looking out the windows of the staff sitting room as I drank my tea. The green lawns of the country-house-turned-clinic led the eye to the rolling Hampshire landscape beyond, misty with the rain. So different from the black, battle-scarred French countryside I’d just left. Here it was peaceful, and disturbed by nothing louder than birdsong or the lowing of cattle. It had been hard to tear myself away when the driver arrived to convey me to the railway station.

Now as the train came to a smooth stop and the man sitting opposite me opened our compartment door, I smelled London, that acrid mixture of wet clothing, coal smoke, and damp that I had come to know so well. My fellow passenger smiled as he handed down my valise, and I thanked him before setting out across the crowded platform.

As I threaded my way through throngs of families seeing their loved ones off to God knew where, I caught snatches of hurried, last-minute conversations.

“You will be careful, won’t you?”

“Mother will expect you to write every day—”

“I love you, my boy. You’re in my heart always.”

“Did you remember to pack your books?”

“I’m so proud of you, son. So proud—”

A pair of Highland officers stepped aside to allow me to pass, and I found myself facing a couple who were oblivious to my approach and blocking my way to the exit.

She was standing with her head bent and slightly turned toward her companion, her hat brim shielding her face. But even at a distance of several yards, I could tell that she was crying, her shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs. The man, an officer in a Wiltshire regiment, seemed not to know how to console her. He stood with his hands at his sides, clenching and unclenching them, an expression of long-suffering on his face. I thought he must be returning to the Front and had lived through this scene before. She clutched an umbrella under her right arm while her left was holding to his as if it were a lifeline.

Her distress stopped me in my tracks for a moment. Watching them, I wondered at his reluctance to touch her and at the same time I was struck by the air of desperation about her. I’d seen this same desperation in men who had lost limbs or were blinded, a refusal to accept a bitter truth that was destroying them emotionally.

But there was nothing I could do. Rescuing kittens and dogs was one thing, marching up to complete strangers and asking what was wrong was something else.

Still, I felt a surge of pity, and my training was to comfort, not ignore, as her companion was doing.

I was about to walk around them when a whistle blew and she lifted her head to cast an anguished glance at the train, as if afraid it was on the point of departing.

I had the shock of my life.

I’d seen her before. There was no doubt about it.

Hers was the face in the photograph that the pilot, Lieutenant Evanson, had kept by his side like a talisman during his treatment in France and in all the long journey home. His wife, he’d said. There was no doubt about that either.

I couldn’t be mistaken. I’d seen that photograph too many times as I worked with him, I’d seen it that very morning, in fact, when I’d changed his bandages one last time. She was looking up at the officer now, her eyes pleading with him. I couldn’t be sure who was
leaving whom. But just then the engine’s wheels began to move and the officer—I couldn’t see his rank, he was wearing a trench coat against the rain—bent swiftly to say something to her, kissed her briefly, and then hurried toward the train.

She lifted a hand as if to stop him then let it drop. He swung himself into the nearest compartment, shut the door, and didn’t look back. She stood there, forlornly watching him until he was out of sight.

It had all happened rather quickly, and I had no idea who this man might be, but I had the distinct impression that she never expected to see him again. Women sometimes had dreams or premonitions about loved ones, more a reflection of their own fears than true foreboding. They usually hid these well as they sent their men off to fight. But perhaps hers had been particularly vivid and she couldn’t help herself. It would explain his restraint and her desolation.

Before I could move on, she turned and literally dashed toward the exit. I tried to follow, but I lost her in the crush. By the time I reached the street, she was in a sea of black umbrellas as people made their way toward the line of cabs waiting there.

I gave up my search after several minutes, and found a cab of my own to take me to the flat. I wasn’t sure what I’d have done if I’d caught up with Mrs. Evanson, but I’d have felt better knowing she’d taken a cab rather than tried to walk off her low spirits in this chill rain.

Mrs. Hennessey opened her door as I came into the hall, smiling up at me in welcome. From her own ground-floor flat she watched us come and go, took in our mail when we weren’t there, brought us soup when we were ill, and generally kept an eye on us without in any way intruding.

“Bess, my dear! And just look how wet you are.”

She embraced me with warmth, then added, “You’ve just missed Elayne. She left this morning. Mary is in London, but staying with
her brother’s family, and there’s been no word from Diana since she went back last week. Is there anything you need? I must say, you do look tired. How long will you be here?”

I laughed. “Thirty-six hours. Thirty-five now. And yes, I’m tired. And I’m glad to have the flat to myself. I want only to sleep.”

“And you must do just that. I’ll see that you have a nice tea. You look thin to me, Bess Crawford, and what would your mother say to that?”

“We sometimes miss meals,” I admitted. “You won’t tell Mama, will you?”

For some time I’d had a sneaking suspicion that my mother and Mrs. Hennessey had entered into a conspiracy to keep me safe. Choosing nursing as my contribution to the war effort hadn’t been met with the greatest enthusiasm at home. The Colonel Sahib, my father, had no sons to follow in his footsteps, and while I believed he was secretly quite proud of me, he was also well aware that war had an ugly face, and nursing sisters saw the worst of what war cost.

Mrs. Hennessey said, “Which reminds me, Sergeant-Major Brandon stopped here last week. He took Diana to dinner before she left.”

I felt a flicker of jealousy. Simon usually came to dine with me when he was in London. He’d served with my father in all our postings around the Empire, and now lived near us in Somerset when he wasn’t doing whatever hush-hush work he and my father never talked about. No longer in active service, their experience was still invaluable, and the War Office sent for them often, sometimes for weeks at a time. My mother and I had tried to guess what they were doing, but I had a feeling we were well off the mark.

Simon had always been a part of my life. He’d picked me up at six when I fell off my first pony, he’d taught me tactics when I was tired of being a girl and bored with petticoats, he’d interceded with the Colonel Sahib when I was in disgrace. He’d listened to my secrets and comforted me when I was in the throes of first love and
couldn’t tell Mama, and he’d stood on the dock when my packet had sailed for England that last time and promised me I’d return to India some day, when the time was right. Half confessor, half godfather, half friend, half elder brother—Simon had no business taking my flatmates to dinner. Besides, Diana was in love with someone else.

Mrs. Hennessey finally let me go, and I went up the stairs. I was just plumping my pillow when she came in with a cup of tea. I think I was asleep before I’d finished half of it.

 

Twenty-four hours later, I was back in France. The next two weeks were a blur, broken bodies and long hours. Then one afternoon Sister James came in with a box that had just arrived from her family. Martha was two years my senior, plump, levelheaded, and a very experienced nursing sister. I’d learned a great deal from her, and we had become close friends as well as colleagues.

We had just finished an extra shift, and were tired and on edge from the German shelling that had gone on for hours. Although we were out of range, here behind the lines, the ground shook with the pounding until our heads were aching and our nerves frayed. It was usually a sign of an attack to come, and an ambulance had been sent back to the depot for fresh supplies to see us through. Harry, the driver, had also found time to walk across the camp to ask if there was any mail for our sector. Arriving at the hospital, he’d looked up Sister James and presented her with her package before unloading his cargo.

“I think Harry is half in love with you,” I said as she let me feel the weight of the box. Hefty enough for sharing. I smiled, looking forward to seeing what was inside. It was a much needed distraction. “You seem to receive your post before anyone else.”

Sister James laughed, then winced as another miniature earthquake shook the beds we were sitting on. Our only lamp had fallen
over earlier in the day when the shelling began, but blessedly was still intact. A jar of tea hadn’t fared as well. There was a crack down one side. And my mirror had come off the wall, fortunately landing on my spare pair of boots before tumbling to the floor.

The beds danced again, and Sister James said, “If this doesn’t stop, we’ll get no rest this night.”

“Never mind the guns,” I said, handing her my scissors to cut the string. “Open the box. There may be something perishable in it that we ought to eat at once.”

“Chocolate,” she said, “if it hasn’t melted in this heat.”

She managed to get the box open, and the first thing we saw was a small jug of honey from the hives on the James’s home farm, swathed in a scarf her little sister had knitted, never mind that it was summer. Under that was a tin of fruit and another of milk for our tea. I wondered how her family could bear to part with such treasures, knowing as I did how scarce these were at home.

Around the whole was a folded newspaper, and Sister James gently pulled it out with a cry of delight. Just then the beds shook once more, and we both reached for the jug of honey, bumping heads as we caught it right on the brink of going over.

“Blast them!” she said, and then began to unfold the pages. It was a London newspaper, and in it was the engagement announcement of her middle sister. She read it hungrily, having missed the excitement of the proposal. Sitting back, she said, “Oh, how I wish I could be there for the wedding!”

We munched on stale biscuits that we’d found tucked in the scarf, and speculated on the chances of the marriage taking place in early autumn as planned.

I coughed as the next shell landed, catching me with a mouthful of biscuit crumbs. “If I were her,” I said, clearing my throat, “I’d want to be married as soon as may be. Still, a Christmas wedding would be nice.”

“If Henry can manage leave…”

We fell silent. Henry had proposed on his last leave. There might not be another.

Sister James said, “Well. We can hope.” She took the engagement notice out of the newspaper and folded it carefully, stowing it in her trunk. I picked up the rest of the pages to search for the obituaries.

Instead I found myself staring at a pen-and-ink drawing of a woman’s face. Beneath it was the caption: Police Ask for Witnesses—Evanson Murder Still Unsolved.

Startled—for I recognized the face—I read on.

The murder of Mrs. Marjorie Evanson, wife of Lieutenant Meriwether Evanson, presently in hospital in Hampshire, remains a mystery. Police are asking any witnesses who may have seen her to step forward. Mrs. Evanson left her residence shortly after noon on 15 May and was never seen alive again. Tracing her movements that fateful day has proved difficult, and Scotland Yard has now turned to the public for assistance in learning where she might have gone and whom she may have seen…

I put the newspaper down. Sister James, shoving her trunk back under her bed, said, “What is it? You look as if someone has walked over your grave.”

It was just an expression, one I’d heard many times, but I said without thinking, “Not mine—but someone I may have seen. Look, read this.”

Sister James took the newspaper from me and scanned the column. “I don’t know her. Do you?”

“Her husband was among that group of wounded I escorted to Hampshire. The badly burned pilot. Remember? He kept his wife’s photograph by him—and that’s his wife. I can’t bear to think how he must have felt when he was told.”

“But, Bess, murdered? That’s awful.”

“Yes, but what’s more important is that I saw her late that very afternoon. She was at the railway station, seeing off an officer in a Wiltshire regiment. She was crying. Terribly upset. I’m afraid I stood there staring. I was so surprised to recognize her.” I winced as the next shell landed. They seemed to be coming closer together now.

BOOK: An Impartial Witness
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