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Authors: Louis de Bernieres

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A Letter to His Majesty

The Grampians

15 September 1914

Sir, May It Please Your Majesty

I am writing to beg you most humbly to intercede in the matter of my daughter’s fiancé, who has recently had the honour and privilege of joining the Honourable Artillery Company in Your Majesty’s service

He is a very fine young man, most handsome and athletic, and he and my daughter Rosie have been promised to each other for a very long time. It would be true to say that they were childhood sweethearts

In view of the reports of terrible casualties that have already been received I have the honour to ask you to if you would be so awfully kind as to ensure that he is posted somewhere quite safe once his training is completed, which I believe will be at Christmastime. The reason I ask is that I believe that my daughter’s heart would be quite broken should he be killed, and she might never recover

May I have the honour to repeat that my daughters and I would be most delighted to entertain His Majesty and Her Majesty the Queen at any time that they might be in our part of Kent

I have the additional honour to submit myself, with profound respect, Your Majesty’s most devoted subject and servant

Mrs Hamilton McCosh, gentlewoman

A Letter from the Palace

Buckingham Palace

20 September 1914

Dear Mrs McCosh

His Majesty asks me to express his gratitude to you for your kind letter of 15 inst. He asks me to inform you that he had the distinct pleasure of witnessing the First Battalion of the Honourable Artillery Company march past and out to war in his presence on the 12th of this month. He found them to be a fine body of men, most impressive in stature and demeanour, and he is conscious of the burdens and trials which they will imminently have to endure

His Majesty asks me to express his pleasure in hearing from you again, thanks you for your kind invitation to tea, and asks me to remind you once more that whereas he reigns, he does not rule. That is, he has no powers other than to advise, to warn and to encourage, and is therefore unable to intervene in any executive decisions, such as the posting of individuals in time of war. This he leaves to his government and his generals. It is for the same reason that he was unable to intervene in the matter of the unreliable gas lamps in Court Road, Eltham, and in the matter of the lack of canine fastidiousness on the Esplanade at Ryde, as complained of in your two most recent letters

His Majesty hopes most earnestly that the conflict will not be a long one, and that your daughter’s fiancé (whose name you omitted to mention in your kind letter) comes through these difficult times unscathed. His Majesty has complete confidence that he will acquit himself with honour. You may be aware that even His Royal Highness Prince Albert has not been spared in the present conflict and is in service with His Majesty’s Royal Navy. His Royal Highness Prince David has not been allowed to serve abroad with his battalion of the Grenadier Guards, but has gone to France nonetheless to serve as ADC
to Sir John French, and frequently puts himself in danger whilst visiting the front line

I remain, madam, your humble and obedient servant

Lt Col. Sir Frederick Edward Grey Ponsonby, Secretary to His Majesty

Rosie Remembers the Gypsy

n the day that the first bomb was dropped on London we were walking by the Tarn. We knew nothing about the bomb, though, until we read about it in the paper the following morning. The bombing of civilians made us hate the Boche even more. It seemed like absolutely ages since we had all been worrying about a civil war in Ireland, even though that had been only a few weeks before.

Ash was in khaki, and looked very dashing. All the training had thinned him a little, and there was a jaunty spring in his step. He and I were strolling in front, and my sisters were walking behind at quite a distance, in order to avoid being gooseberries, and give us some privacy. Ash’s brothers Sidney and Albert were with them, charming them all at once. If they came out, it spared my mother the trouble of being a chaperone, and in any case it was better for Ash and me because my mother was very taken with him herself. She would monopolise the conversation, and even be flirtatious. If she was with us, she rather spoiled things. It was windy and cold, but I always did like clear autumn days. The golden leaves were drifting and lifting, and ripples passed across the surface of the water. ‘The trees were weeping yellow leaves’, as I wrote in one of my poems from back then. We had taken stale bread for the swans.

Ash and I sat on a bench, and Ottie, Sophie, Albert, Sidney and Christabel went to the other side of the Tarn. They had Bouncer with them, and he was a slow old dog by then, especially as he liked to stop and sniff at practically everything. We saw a gypsy girl approaching us. ‘Oh darn,’ said Ash wearily. It was obvious that she was going to importune us.

She was young, perhaps no more than fifteen, but she had a tiny baby wrapped up in a shawl and perched on one hip. The gypsies were a law unto themselves. They lived parallel lives that
we knew very little about. When they turned up with their ponies and pretty wagons and their scrawny optimistic little dogs and their frightful hordes of wild children, you could expect a flurry of crime. Your milk bottles would go missing from the doorstep, and you’d lose your rake and even your brass doorbell. Ash was inclined to see the best in people, and said it was because the petty criminals in the locality took advantage of the fact that everyone would automatically blame the gypsies.

A lot of them were very useful people. The tinkers could mend almost anything made of metal, and they’d sharpen knives marvellously well. They had grinding stones that rotated through a trough of water, and they’d set them up in the street so that the scullery maids could rush out and get the cooks’ knives perfect again. The gardeners would go out with their axes and sickles and billhooks. The didicois took away all the metal things that were beyond repair. There were people called pikeys as well, and they got most of the blame for the thieving. They didn’t seem to have any other profession. The gypsies ran the funfairs and they travelled around picking whatever harvests needed to be picked. They always passed our house when it was time to pick the hops in the Weald, the men walking beside their ponies, leading them by the halter, and the children scampering in and out of the wagons.

This gypsy girl was a Romany. They had their own language and sometimes they’d stop speaking it the moment they thought you might be listening, or, contrarily, they’d tip into it so that you couldn’t understand. She was dark-skinned, with shiny black hair, and big gold rings through each earlobe. Her eyes were so dark that you couldn’t see how big the pupils were. She was wearing a loose scarlet dress embroidered in gold and black, and a waistcoat that matched. When Daniel showed me his photographs of India after the war, I was struck by how similar the Hindus looked to our Romanies. The girl looked wonderful and exotic, but she was obviously cold, and she was dirty too.

She stood before us, and held out a sprig to Ash. ‘Good day to thee. Lucky white heather,’ she said.

Ash looked at her a little ironically, and replied, ‘Isn’t it supposed to be in bloom? How do I know if it’s really white heather?’

She screwed up her mouth vexedly, and said, ‘Times is hard. I got a baby.’

‘What’s its name?’ asked Ash.

‘She’s Sinnaminti,’ said the girl, ‘and I got another chavi called Nilly-Lisbee, and a chal by name of Awkie.’

We were shocked. ‘But you’re only a child yourself!’ exclaimed Ash.

The girl blew a wisp of hair away from her mouth and shrugged. ‘Even so, I loves them. There’ll be more if God allow.’

You could almost hear Ash’s heart melting. He was such a kind and gentle soul. He reached into his pocket and took out a florin. The girl’s eyes lit up and she gave an involuntary start of joy. She took the coin hurriedly and secreted it somewhere about her waist. She pressed the heather into Ash’s hand.

‘Cross my palm with silver,’ she said, ‘and I’ll read thy vast.’ She saw his look of puzzlement, and she added ‘hand’, further adding, ‘I got the gift. It came down the fam’ly. My old mother passed it down.’

‘I just did cross your palm with silver,’ said Ash.

‘Indeed, sir, but that was for the heather.’

Ash reached into his pocket and brought out six pennies that had been bothering him with their weight and which he was glad to get rid of. She shook her head. ‘It needs be silver.’


‘Pennies is copper. It needs be silver.’

‘So if I gave you twenty guineas in copper farthings, you wouldn’t take it?’

‘I’d take it indeed, sir, but I couldn’t read thy vast. I’d have to be pretending, sir.’

I rummaged in my purse and proferred the girl a silver threepence, which she immediately tucked away. She took my hand and traced some lines on it with her forefinger. I caught her scent. She smelled of something aromatic, but I couldn’t place it. She looked at the bottom edge, and frowned. ‘Thou’lt get to be middling old,’ she said. ‘Thou’s going to beget two and half children, thou’s going to be sick, but not fatal, and thou’lt have to take care of thy heart. Thy heart be weak, ma’am.’

‘Two and a half children?’ I cried. ‘What on earth do you mean by that?’

The girl shrugged. ‘I read what I read, ma’am.’

Ash looked at me tenderly, and said, ‘How wonderful it will be to have children. We’d better start thinking of names.’

He held out his hand to the girl. She studied it intently for a few moments, and then, quite suddenly, thrust it aside as if it had burned her. ‘I can’t read it,’ she said.

‘Please,’ said Ash.

‘No, sir, I can’t read it. Thou’ld best not ask.’ She reached into her clothing and found the threepence, which she gave back to me. She hitched the child further up her hip, made a small noise in her throat that sounded like a stifled sob, looked up at Ash with teary eyes, and said something like ‘Such a rinkeno cooramengro. God save you both.’ Then she hurried away, round the Tarn, straight past my sisters, who thereby escaped being sold white heather or having their fortunes told.

I looked at Ash, and he caught my eye and snorted. ‘Two and a half children! Whatever next?’

‘What do you think she saw in your palm?’ I said.

‘It’s all stuff and nonsense,’ said Ash. ‘She didn’t see anything at all.’

‘Why would she be so upset then?’

‘Because she thought she did. The superstitious are even handier at deceiving themselves than they are at deceiving others.’

We sat side by side in silence for a while. Leaves spiralled down into the black surface of the Tarn, and the ducks on the grassy bank shook the water out of their feathers. I shivered, overcome by sudden gloom, my heart heavy, and Ash said, ‘Yes, it’s getting cold. Let’s go back.’

I’d recently bought a statuette of the Virgin Mary, and I kept it wrapped up in a cloth under my bed. I didn’t want the rest of the family to know, because we were Anglicans, and they would have disapproved and thought I was becoming a papist. I loved the Virgin, though. Mine had a light blue robe with a gold hem. She had blue eyes, blonde hair and rosy lips. Her feet were bare. She was holding up the Christ child, who was also blue-eyed, blond and rosy-cheeked. He was holding a golden orb in
his right hand, and looking very serious. His left hand rested terribly affectionately on the Virgin’s wrist. Years and years later Daniel pointed out to me that the Virgin had actually been a Jewess from Palestine, and was probably quite dusky. I didn’t say anything, but I think that the Virgin gives herself to you in any way that makes it easier for you to understand her. That’s why I wasn’t shocked when I saw a photograph of a black Virgin somewhere in Africa, and a Chinese one in Singapore.

That night I took my Virgin out from under the bed and stood her on my bedside table. I asked her to intercede for Ash and to save him from whatever the gypsy girl saw. I thought that I could protect him if I prayed for him every night, so I resolved to do so, even if I was too tired and even if it was too cold.

Ash Makes his Farewells

t was snowing when Ash came round to say goodbye on Christmas Day. The Christmas tree was lit up with candles, and the glass balls were glittering. The angel on the top was, after long service, terribly old and tatty, and had the forlorn air of better days gone by. The family had not opened its presents yet, because the rule was that it was always done after afternoon tea, and not in the morning after church as most people did. They called it ‘the evening post’, and the servants were told not to disturb them. They received their presents in the morning.

Mrs McCosh and Rosie’s sisters very kindly waived propriety and left her and Ash alone in the withdrawing room, in front of the fire. Ash was in service dress, looking very dashing and smart. Rosie found the Honourable Artillery Company’s cap badge rather curious. On that day Ash seemed to her to be particularly beautiful, and his grey eyes were sparkling with enthusiasm. He was longing to get going to the war. His movements were full of vigour and purpose, he smelled of cologne, and, as Homer would have put it of one of his heroes during their
, seemed ‘like unto a god’. He placed a parcel in Rosie’s hands, and said, ‘Happy Christmas.’

‘What is it?’ Rosie asked, although she could tell it was a picture from the feel of the frame through the paper.

‘Open it after I’ve gone.’

She looked down at it and said, ‘I can tell it was you who wrapped it.’

They sat opposite each other, leaning forward, holding hands, with their foreheads touching. Her tears were falling onto their hands, and he was whispering, ‘Darling, my darling, darling, my darling.’

Rosie choked and suddenly burst out, ‘I think you’ll never come back.’

‘I will, I will, I will. I will come back. I will never leave you. Even if I die I will never leave you. Even if I am dead I will come back, I’ll find a way to be with you. I promise, I promise, I promise. I’ll love you forever. Beyond death, beyond everything. Do you know that Arab proverb, about the ideal spouse being the keeper of your soul? I’ll be the keeper of your soul, Rosie.’

‘And I of yours,’ she said. ‘I will never love anyone but you,’ and she looked into his eyes as the tears rolled down her cheeks.

He reached up, collected some tears in the cup of his palm, put his hand to his mouth, and drank them. ‘You shouldn’t say that,’ he said. ‘If the worst comes to the worst…I wouldn’t want you to…you mustn’t deny yourself. You’d be a wonderful mother.’

She looked directly into his eyes, which on that day seemed exceptionally beautiful, and said, ‘I promise you, as if you had made me promise it, that there will never be anyone else but you. No one.’

‘I promise you the same,’ he said. ‘But you mustn’t promise it to me. I won’t accept it. If I die you must have the chance to be a mother, to have a family, and be happy.’ He stood up and beckoned her to follow.

They went to the conservatory at the back of the house, through the French windows in the withdrawing room. It had steps down into the garden. Ash stood Rosie where she could see the garden, and descended the steps. By then it had stopped snowing and the lawn was covered by a perfect, flawless, glistening crust.

Ash walked out into the snow, and lay down on his back. He stretched out his arms, and swept them up and down two or three times. Then he got to his feet carefully, dusted himself off, and came back up the steps into the conservatory. They stood side by side, looking down at what he had done.

She said, ‘It looks like an angel.’

an angel. It’s a snow angel. We used to make them back home when I was a kid, in Baltimore. It’s an American invention.’

‘You think everything’s an American invention.’

‘Well, have you seen it before?’


Ash indicated the angel with a toss of his chin. ‘Always think
of me as your angel. I’ll be watching over you. The keeper of your soul.’

Rosie felt very uneasy, a little spooked. He said, ‘I’d better go, my love. The train won’t wait, and it’s quite a walk with a backpack full of razors and socks and field dressings. I’m meeting Sidney and Albert at the station.’

‘We could send someone for a hansom,’ she suggested, and he replied, ‘No, it would take too long, and I reckon I should get myself in training. I’m mighty sure there’ll be some long marches ahead. Before I go I want to recite something for you.’

‘Recite something?’

‘Yes indeed. I found it in that Georgian Poets book you love so much, and I memorised it, so I could say it at this moment.’

‘Is it Rupert Brooke?’

‘Uh-uh. See if you recognise it.’

He pursed his lips whilst he recalled the verse, and then recited:

‘Breathe thus upon mine eyelids – that we twain

May build the day together out of dreams.

Life, with thy breath upon my eyelids, seems

Exquisite to the utmost bounds of pain.

I cannot live, except as I may be

Compelled for love of thee.’

Rosie recognised it and took it up:

‘O let us drift,

Frail as the floating silver of a star,

Or like the summer humming of a bee…’

‘It’s Harold Monro! What is it? “Child of Dawn”?’

‘Yes, that’s right. Now do you think you could breathe on my eyelids? Just so I can see what’s so darn good about it?’

He closed his eyes and leaned down, and Rosie breathed on his eyelids. Suddenly he opened his eyes and said, ‘It’s not quite what Monro cracked it up to be. Might you allow a kiss instead?’

Eventually Ash went to say goodbye to her mother and sisters, and then they gathered to see him off at the door. Theatrically,
Ash affected French manners, and kissed each of the sisters’ hands, and then their mother’s. She did not know quite where to put herself. She said, ‘I will write to the King personally to ask him to make sure that you are somewhere safe,’ and the sisters smiled little secret smiles to each other. Mrs McCosh was always writing to the King, and was the fiercely proud owner of a little pile of polite and non-committal acknowledgements from his secretary.

Finally Ash took both of Rosie’s hands and said, ‘We’ll get spliced on my first leave, then.’

She nodded, and said, ‘I’ll pray for you every day, especially before I go to bed.’

‘Thanks, sweetheart,’ he said. ‘And long live the Pals.’

Rosie said, ‘Pals forever,’ and then he was gone, striding out into the snow with his baggage on his back and his cap on his head. He waved from the gate, and Rosie felt a little hurt that he so obviously could not wait to get away, and out into battle. That was how all the young men were, suddenly caught up by a very specific, important and tangible reason for living. Rosie could not blame him, and would later wish that she had had told him how proud of him she had been. The last she knew of Ash was the sound of him whistling ‘Gilbert the Filbert’, trilling the notes like a blackbird as he strode away.

After he had gone Rosie went to the conservatory to look down at the snow angel, and Sophie, Christabel and Ottilie followed.

‘Ash said he was my angel. It was a funny thing to say.’

‘Do you mean funny ha ha or funny peculiar?’ asked Sophie.

‘Funny peculiar, of course,’ said Christabel on Rosie’s behalf.

‘Oh good,’ said Sophie. ‘I hate it when I don’t understand jokes.’

After tea Rosie opened Ash’s present, and it was an etching called
by L. Rust. It depicted an old-fashioned infantryman wearing a shako, with a musket over his shoulder, on the point of stepping forward. A maid in a pinafore stood at his left side, on tiptoe, her arms draped about his neck and her eyes closed. Her attitude suggested depair and resignation and absolute devotion. Either he was kissing her nose, or was whispering something. Rosie thought it would have been something like ‘I have to go now, I really do’. The contour of the girl’s body exactly folded
into that of the soldier. The effect of the picture was poignant, and it made her begin to cry. She took it upstairs and propped it against the wall on top of her bookcase, and then she retrieved her figure of the Virgin Mary from under the bed and put her in front of the mirror. She talked to her about keeping Ash safe, and then wrapped it up again, and replaced it.

She put on her coat and hat and muffler, and walked to the church. It was a freezing day, with the kind of raw cold that burns into the bones, but even so the church was full of women on their knees. She slipped into the pew beside Mrs Ottway, who had two sons at the front, and tried to pray, but could not help sniffling. Mrs Ottway put out a hand and took hers, and they prayed together. They said the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards ‘Thy will be done’ echoed and re-echoed inside Rosie’s head, and she remembered the words that Jesus spoke in the Garden of Gethsemane, words that she would repeat to herself all through her life when she needed tiding through.

When she returned home, Bouncer was waiting on the other side of the door. During that night he howled inconsolably, and the whole house was reduced to helplessness. Everyone was down there by candlelight in their night attire, including the servants, trying to work out what to do, and in the end they shut poor old Bouncer in the conservatory and hoped that he would not perturb the neighbours too much. Mr McCosh thought that the dog might have had a stomach ache, but Rosie said that dogs howl only when they suffer mental distress. After that time Bouncer often howled at night.

As for Rosie, she longed with ever decreasing faith for the day when ‘we twain may build the day together out of dreams’.

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