Authors: Charles Todd
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #British Detectives, #Historical, #Women Sleuths, #Traditional Detectives, #Itzy, #kickass.to
Again . . .
With so much love
Now and always . . .
London, Autumn 1918
D JUST BROUGHT
a convoy of wounded back to England, and as I walked into Mrs. Hennessey’s house in the cool of early morning, I thought what a haven of tranquillity it was. Here I could put the war behind me for a few brief hours and perhaps sleep peacefully. We’d been too close to the heavy guns for weeks, turning even the pleasantest dreams into nightmares. My ears still ached from the incessant pounding.
I moved quietly toward the stairs so as not to disturb Mrs. Hennessey, but she popped her head out the door of her downstairs rooms to say, “Bess? My dear, welcome home! Will you be staying?”
Smiling, I said, “Only for three days. Too brief to think of going to Somerset. But long enough to catch my breath. It was a rough crossing, and my patients were seasick. As were three of the orderlies. Are any of my flatmates here?”
“Mary came in last week. I haven’t seen Diana in a bit. She spends as much time as she can in Dover.”
Her fiancé had been posted to Dover Castle, much to his chagrin, but Diana was very happy that he was needed there and not in France. I wasn’t quite sure what it was he was doing, something in Intelligence, although I had a feeling that her amusing, offhand comments about his standing guard on the castle ramparts were designed to conceal just how hush-hush his real duties were.
Several of us had taken the first-floor flat in Mrs. Hennessey’s house in the autumn of 1914 when we began our training as Sisters, for it was not thought to be proper for unattended women to stay in an hotel. It had become a second home for all of us, and Mrs. Hennessey spoiled us when she could.
“There’s hot water for a bath,” she was saying now, “and I’ll bring up a fresh pot of tea after you’ve had a rest.”
“That would be lovely,” I said gratefully, and went on up the stairs.
Half an hour later, I’d no more than touched my head to my pillow when Mrs. Hennessey was at my door. I struggled up and went to help her, wishing she’d waited an hour or so before bringing up my tea.
But it wasn’t a tea tray in her hands. It was a letter.
“This just came by special messenger, Bess, dear. I didn’t like to disturb you, but it appears to be official.”
It was from the War Office. But why would the War Office be writing to me?
I thanked her, and she waited anxiously while I opened the envelope and took out the single sheet inside.
I scanned the letter and then, dismayed, I read it again.
Looking up, I said, “Good gracious! I’ve been asked to attend a wounded man who is to receive a medal from the King. Buckingham Palace . . .”
“My dear, what an honor,” she said, pleased for me.
“But there must be some mistake. I don’t believe I’ve nursed this man. The name isn’t familiar. Sergeant Jason Wilkins.”
“Perhaps the Sister he wanted to ask is presently in France, while you’re available.”
It was possible. “Well, this is a surprise. I expect it means they’ll extend my leave. The King’s Audience isn’t until early next week. I could have a weekend in Somerset, with my family.”
“How nice,” she said, but I sensed her disappointment. While she was pleased for me, it meant I wouldn’t be here for several days after all. And she was lonely, a widow, with only a handful of old friends. The comings and goings of her young tenants was something she looked forward to, and she’d grown comfortable with us in the weeks and months that had become years.
I smiled. “Never mind. We’ll have today and tomorrow. And then I must come back to London on Monday.”
Her face brightened. “That would be lovely, Bess. I must admit, it’s been dull with all of you in France.”
The war had kept us busy for four bloody years. And now, when rumors of an end were spreading both in France and in England, the killing was still going on. Wounded and dying men were being carried into the forward aid stations without respite. And even when the fighting was finished, the guns silent, even then there would still be wounded to care for.
“Do you need to respond?” Mrs. Hennessey asked. “I could post a letter for you.”
“It’s official. They expect me to appear,” I said. I tried to suppress a yawn. “It means having a fresh uniform,” I added. “Those I brought home are not good enough.”
“I’ll be happy to launder them for you,” she offered. “You must rest, if you’re to look your best.” Something else occurred to her. “What sort of wound does this young man have?”
“He’s probably going to be in an invalid chair. I’ll be asked to push it forward when he’s summoned to the King to have the decoration pinned on his uniform, and then back to resume our place in the row.”
“I’ve never seen the King,” she said wistfully. “But I did see his late father, King Edward. And I saw Queen Victoria as well, on her Diamond Jubilee.”
“Did you indeed?”
“Oh, yes, it was the most exciting thing. Mr. Hennessey took me to see the procession, and I remarked how small she was. Empress of India, and hardly up to my shoulder. I saw King Edward on his way to his coronation. Such a fine figure of a man for his age.”
“Well, I shall tell you all about it,” I promised. “Thank you, Mrs. Hennessey.”
Before I could close the door, she added quickly, “Shall I send a telegram to your parents?”
“Yes, that would be nice.” It wasn’t necessary, but she was so eager to help that I couldn’t say no.
Pleased, she nodded and then hurried toward the stairs. I shut the door and went back to bed.
an honor. The sergeant must have asked for me particularly. Usually an orderly attended the patient. But what mattered even more were a few days at home. As I sank back against my pillows, I smiled sleepily. Whatever the reason for my being chosen for this ceremony, it had extended my leave. And that was an unexpected joy.
who came into London to fetch me. He had a bruise along his jawline, still a dark shade of purple and blue. I glanced at it but said nothing. It wouldn’t be the first time an overeager recruit had put more enthusiasm than ability into showing his mettle. Or some assignment in France had resulted in unexpected action.
He’d been a part of my life as long as I could remember. First as a young recruit who made his own life and my father’s miserable for reasons I’d never been told. My father had, in his usual fashion of keeping his enemies close, promoted the rebellious youngster to the position of batman—an officer’s personal servant. Out of that simple solution had grown a friendship that had endured much over the years, and resulted in Simon becoming one of the youngest Sergeant-Majors in the British Army. An honorary position usually won after years of service, I might add.
He now lived in the cottage just through the wood at the bottom of our garden. That is, when he was not off somewhere at the behest of the War Office.
As he set my kit in the rear seat, then opened the door for me, Simon commented, “Your mother has already seen to a fresh uniform. I was to tell you that before you asked to be taken round the shops today.”
“Of course she has. I should have guessed. Will they be coming to London as well? My mother and the Colonel Sahib?”
“The Colonel is away. Your mother was making noises that sounded to me very much like decisions on what hat would look best.”
I laughed. Rested, eager to see my parents, I was glad to be in Simon’s motorcar, the bonnet pointed toward Somerset.
Simon glanced at me. “You look much better than the last time I saw you.”
“Amazing what a little sleep will do.”
He laughed in his turn, that deep chuckle that meant he was truly amused.
It was a long but easy journey to Somerset, and my mother was there on the steps to greet me as the motorcar pulled up. It was only for two nights—but I was at home.
I left Somerset very early on Monday morning, my new uniform packed in tissue paper in the rear seat of Simon’s motorcar, to prevent it from being crushed. My mother, much to her disappointment, couldn’t come. There was a new widow to call on, the wife of a young Lieutenant in the regiment that had once been my father’s. The present Colonel’s lady was at the bedside of her very ill sister, and Mother had volunteered to take her place.
According to the letter I’d received, I would have an opportunity to meet my patient, Sergeant Wilkins, in the early evening when he arrived in London, and then tomorrow I would escort him to his engagement at the Palace. His bandages would be seen to before he came down from the hospital in Shrewsbury, and my role was a ceremonial one, unless of course he had an unexpected setback.
King George was popular—a family man himself, he had guided us through the trying years of war, a quiet strength that had given all of us courage.
Simon escorted me to the hotel to call on Sergeant Wilkins. He knocked on the door, and we heard the patient call, “Come!”
We walked in to find him lying propped up in bed, his well-padded left leg a long hump under the coverlet, his right arm in a sling. A third bandage encircled his head. I couldn’t see the color of his hair, but I thought it might be fair, judging from his eyebrows. His blue eyes were—for lack of a better word—troubled. I thought perhaps he was in more pain than he cared to admit, or perhaps the journey down from Shrewsbury had been harder than he’d expected.
“Hullo,” he said, surveying us. “It’s good to see you again, Sister Crawford.”
“Sergeant Wilkins,” I said in acknowledgment, trying to place what I could see of his face. “How are you this evening?”
“I’m well enough, thank you. The orderly who brought me down from Shrewsbury has gone to fetch our dinners. He left me as comfortable as possible.”
We sat down in the only two chairs in the room, and I presented Simon.
“Sergeant-Major,” my patient said, nodding. “A lot of fuss over nothing,” he went on. “But it’s good for morale, they tell me.”
“Machine-gun nest, was it?” Simon asked.
“Yes. I tossed in a grenade, but they were still firing, and that was unexpected. I discovered later that the grenade was a dud. There was nothing left but to finish the task myself.”
Small wonder he was being decorated for valor. Then I realized that Simon must have looked up the sergeant’s record.
They talked about the war, and then an orderly, an older man by the name of Thompson, came in with a covered tray, and we took our leave.
Walking down the hotel passage to the stairs, I said, “I’ve dealt with so many wounded. It isn’t surprising I should forget some of their names. But not their wounds.”
“It’s more than likely he was misinformed about the Sister who sent him back to the Field Hospital.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
Many men were grateful to us for saving life and—sometimes more important to them—limbs. The only angry tirades I’d endured were when someone came out of surgery without a limb and blamed me for letting it happen. The men knew, of course, that I’d had nothing to do with the decision to amputate, but I was
and their fear and shock were very real.
I’d taken a room of my own at The Monarch to be available if Sergeant Wilkins needed care, even though Thompson was staying in his room. But when I looked in on them before going to bed, he was quietly sleeping. And the orderly was sitting by the lamp, reading. He nodded to me, and I left without speaking.
The next afternoon, at the time appointed, I went down the passage to collect my patient.
He was ready, the parts of his uniform that had had to be cut away to accommodate his bandages skillfully pinned out of sight by the orderly.