If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
‘The Soldier’, Rupert Brooke
They arrived on a fine summer day, under a clear blue sky crowned by the majestic sun. And yet their footsteps were mortality’s herald.
War had come to Downton.
Lieutenant Boswell was the first soldier Edith knew by name. He had received a bullet wound to his right shoulder—at least it was a mentionable place, he told her laughingly, perhaps too loudly, but she was new to this, with only awkward, stumbling fingers to feel her way down the frighteningly alien corridor, and could not possibly notice. He asked for her name and called her ‘your ladyship’ and made her laugh.
It was not until she had climbed into bed that night, safe in the cocoon of blankets and warmth, that Edith realised; she had chosen to smile at him, to speak with him because with only his left arm in a sling, the brightness of his smile undimmed, he looked the most normal, the most undamaged of them all.
Guilt birthed nightmares and nightmares sired repentance. The next morning, Edith traced a path from bed to bed, greeting them all, every wounded man, every flawed perfection, every careworn face telling unspoken tales.
And she listened.
“A book?” She raised her eyebrows in surprise, but quickly recovered herself and painted a smile over it. “Of course. We have a library here in the house. What can I get you?”
Captain Haymes did not answer at once. Instead, his eyes flicked away to the sun-soaked window as he repeatedly laced and unlaced his fingers. Edith waited, strangely lulled by the steady, unbroken rhythm his hands were creating, until a chorus of laughter from the recreation room made him falter and broke the spell for her.
“We have quite a collection,” she heard herself speak again, slightly more cheerful this time. “If you tell me which book you want, then I will bring it to you this afternoon.”
“Perhaps Dickens?” he said at last, briefly meeting her eyes. She quickly nodded.
“Do you have any particular title in mind?”
“Pickwick would be nice.” He offered her a shy, wistful smile. “It’s different. And happy. It would be nice to feel happy again.”
He did not glance at his missing leg. She did not either.
Captain Haymes had lost the entirety of his left leg one month ago, on the operation table, Sybil told her when they had moved to the drawing room after dinner. The taste of coffee soured in her mouth as Edith listened to her sister’s quiet, careful explanation. The amputation had been necessary or the wound would have cost his life eventually. Such choices were not uncommon, but naturally, Captain Haymes had been devastated. The nightmares had been awful during the first week after the surgery.
Edith tried not to imagine all the pain and horror he must have faced—the absence of something which had always been yours since you had come to be; but there was little she could do to fight the torrents of images and half-strangled emotions when he clung to her one afternoon, brutally hounded out of his nap by thundering hooves of nightmare.
“Please don’t leave me,” he whispered, voice broken by screams and anguish, eyes blind to the presence of Dr Clarkson and the nurses—to everyone but her.
“I will not,” she vowed quietly, and hoped that the cradle of her fingers around his was firm enough, steady enough.
To swallow her pride and ask was one thing. To wait in the shadow of fear and prepare herself for the worst reaction possible was quite another.
“How to make a bed, milady?” Anna looked bewildered, even wary at the request, despite her best efforts to conceal it.
“Yes.” Edith staunchly ignored her swelling embarrassment and the sheer absurdity of the situation. “I want you to teach me. Now if it is possible.”
Anna did not respond immediately. In spite of her frustration, Edith was only too aware that there could be no question of refusal, from a servant to a lady, and yet the delay hurt her. Anna had always been Mary’s, Sybil’s, never hers—never once hers; but she had tried on her own, clumsy hands sailing across pristine sheets, fumbling awkwardly at unyielding corners, and failed. They were not trained for such menial task, loath to discard their upper-class ignorance for war-time practicality.
Then there it was, a hesitant smile, a touch of mutual embarrassment and genuine wonder. But Anna smiled and Edith felt the tight knots in her chest loosen.
“Of course. It is quite easy. Shall we practice here?”
She breathed in her relief deeply, and smiled in return.
Colonel Luscombe greeted her appearance every day with a quiet, kindly smile. He was near fifty, a proper gentleman and a good company to her father and lord of the house, but more often than not he preferred to sit alone in his room, with letters from his wife and daughter spread on his lap. When she knocked on his door, he always welcomed her, smiling, and the sadness crusting his eyes broke her heart—but she never asked and he never explained.
“Fly,” he told her instead. “You are young. Don’t be afraid to spread your wings and fly.”
After breakfast, he invariably returned to his bedroom and took his place by the window, the green sprawl of the estate laid bare before his eyes. Sometimes he would ask her to read to him—a few pages, not more, for he was ever so conscious of taking too much of her time. And so Edith sat with him, a volume in hand, her strong, clear voice weaving around words, resounding in the morning hush. He would listen silently, intently, with his eyes closed, the sombre passages from the Bible, other times lyrical verses of Milton and Tennyson.
When confessions came, they seemingly came out of nowhere; culmination points of numberless little factors, separate yet linked, like the sparkling beads of a rosary. There had been a boy, he told her in the trailing echo of Paradise Lost, a faint glimmer of tears in his eyes. There had been a boy and he had died, alone, away from his father’s arms. Far, far away. Another battlefield. Another country. Only twenty. A young lieutenant. And so the young perished while the old lingered.
Edith held his hand as these jagged fragments spilled from his quivering lips. His tears followed, colourless trails on sunken cheeks. They dried. He smiled—tried to. At the window, the curtain rustled.
Life did not pause.
“And there he goes again.”
Her father’s voice was soft, plaintive, a heart’s earnest, mournful cry at the departure of a loved one; and Matthew was—a loved one, as dear as a son—and so Edith said nothing of the sadness which bred lines to his aged face as he watched Matthew’s back disappear into the night. Tomorrow he would return to France, once more to serve king and country, to fight, to tempt fate, as if one miracle was not enough.
Sighing deeply, her father turned to look at her. “This is selfish and most likely unpatriotic,” he murmured, and perhaps there was the faintest hint of a smile on his lips, weary yet there, “but at this moment, I’m glad I don’t have a son.”
Edith touched his hand, her heart constricting in her chest; his gentle squeeze in return nearly overwhelmed her. At this moment, she was not a second daughter of the family—she was his daughter.
“Don’t worry, Papa,” she replied, her voice low but clear. “A son or not, I can still drive the car for you.”
It made him laugh, openly, sincerely, and the sound burst into a gentle flood of warmth in her chest. He took her arm and together they walked back into the house.
For one sweet, fleeting moment, the war was forgotten.
“But I can’t forget it.”
In the gathering dusk, Major Hornsby’s pallor cloaked him like a ghost, death’s lingering silhouette. His gaze reached that faraway land of ruthless bullets and shattered shells, wasted tears and soundless screams—that land she had no right to know.
“You have one of two choices,” he said again, perhaps to her, perhaps not. “To die a coward or to die a hero. To be shot like a traitor or to fight for king and country. The latter is better, right?”
Yes, she should have said. Or maybe. I don’t know.
But her voice would not touch any of these.
Among the patients, Surgeon Lieutenant Hubbard was the first to display enmity toward her family. There had been reticence before, detachment, even coldness, but he was the first to sneer at her presence, to scoff at her attentions, to scowl at her smiles. He simply could not forget the horrors of war, Sybil told her, ever so patient and forgiving. He was a medic; he had seen the worst, had lived through it, had come out alive, and for this he resented everything.
So much bitterness should have daunted her, but Edith had months of experience to arm her against this new challenge. Perhaps she pitied him, for the nightmares which followed his every waking minute. Perhaps she resented him, for his attitude and stubbornness and rebuffs. He shunned every offered luxury, then refused to seek any manner of diversion, choosing instead to brood in his own dark, seething discontent. Laughter sickened him, to the point that he would pick a fight at the mere sound of it.
She approached him with the kind of steely determination known only to self-sacrificing martyrs, at one afternoon after another angry outburst. Perhaps she pitied him—or resented him. Whatever the reason, she met his cool gaze calmly, righteousness burning white and bright in her breast.
“You could have tried to be happy,” she said quietly, without reproach. “Everyone does.”
He watched her with narrowed eyes, through the haze of ghostly smoke swirling from his cigarette, dangling between thin, almost skeletal fingers. “Why? So you can feel better? So you can feel like you’ve done something?”
She stiffened. “What is that supposed to mean?”
A slow, unpleasant smile curled his lips. “Being hypocrites suits you rich people,” he told her, his calmness a fake and a poison. “Do you know that ignorance is a sin? No, of course not. You know nothing. You think by opening your house like this and lending us books, then you have done enough. You think by being kind to these wounded soldiers, then no one can accuse you of being cowards. Every day you still eat well and live well and sleep well and you dare think that you have done enough. My God, how stupid you are.”
Edith could say nothing in return, paralysed by the amount of hate boiling under his low, vicious tone. He rose to his feet, hands coiled into fists which clearly longed to strike. “I hope you and your family will rot in hell,” he hissed, right to her face. “In a fair world you will.”
Then he left. Edith did not dare turn around long after the sound of his footsteps had yielded once more to the afternoon’s silence.
“Are you alright, milady?”
Edith started, the glass of water nearly slipping from her fingers’ loose grasp. The memory of this afternoon surged and receded, again and again, until a sharp intake of breath returned her to the guest room she was standing in, still holding a glass of warm water. The room smelled of medicine and sickness, and her patient was staring at her.
She had told no one, and everybody was much too busy, too immersed in their own personal battles against the war to notice her sudden quietness for the rest of the day; everybody but William. He lay there in his bed, fighting a battle he could not win, against an enemy he could not defeat, with nothing else to befriend but his own fear-choked misery—and he noticed.
“I’m sorry,” he spoke again when she could not, a small, guilty smile softening the lines of pain riddling his brow. “The window was open. I could not help but… overhear.”
A trickle of mortification made its way past cracks and crevices of her confusion. Edith clung to it, to escape the silent spread of numbness inside her, and tried to return his smile.
“I’m sorry that you had to hear it.”
“It’s alright, milady,” William murmured, his pallor ceding to the faintest shade of pink. He kept his head self-consciously lowered when she handed him his water and medicine, but then spoke again, a little louder, “Mr Matthew told me something when we were at the front. He said there was a reason why it’s always the wounded who wounds. The same reason why those who are miserable always want to see the rest of the world equally miserable.”
“Fairness,” she murmured, the word a poisoned thorn in her mouth.
“Yes,” William nodded, smiling weakly. “Fairness. It’s strange how a good word can be so terrible.”
“Do you think so?” Edith challenged, head raised, shoulders squared. “Isn’t it the best things which are always the cruellest? There is no sword or armour quite like righteousness. The people who believe they are right are capable of the most extreme cruelties.”
He blushed again. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, milady.”
“Don’t you believe in this war? Don’t you believe that it’s right? If you don’t, how can you pull the trigger and sever the life thread of another human being?”
“I did,” William answered after a pause, and the pain in his eyes was such that Edith instantly regretted her argument. “I mean, I used to believe in this war. But out there, all those things… just didn’t matter anymore. They simply disappeared. The only thing that mattered was how to stay alive and come back home safely.”
“Of course,” she said quickly, repentant, reaching for his hand on impulse. “Please forgive me for being insensitive.”
William only smiled and Edith suddenly longed to kiss him breathless—this wounded soldier who would die for his country, this dying man-child. The moment passed in a blink of an eye, and she looked away as he took his medicine in silence, equally self-conscious. She tried to remember him from his footman days, in an immaculately pressed livery, his golden hair slicked back, his posture erect, his bow correct—but could not. He was a soldier trapped in death’s unyielding grasp, with his heart beating slower and slower into cessation, with his lungs slowly collapsing into themselves.
And he lay there and said thank you milady, voice withering into a trail of whispers while head held high, as if the world had dealt him no unfairness.
Edith shot him the bravest smile she could offer and quickly turned around, to spare him the embarrassment of seeing her tears.
But then again, he could barely see.
“Good bye, Miss.”
“Good bye, Captain Smiley.”
And this was how she would always remember him, a soldier with one hand missing and yet a smile to blind the world still.
Captain Wallace suffered no outward wound. From Edith’s point of view, it was one thing to be grateful of.
He nearly always smiled. He smiled when he spoke of his sisters, three of them, like the Crawley’s, and how they used to bully him into giving what they wanted. He smiled when the sun came out of the dense siege of clouds and warmed their wind-whipped cheeks. He smiled when Isis chewed the end of his shoelace and one time escaped with the entire shoe. He smiled when he watched her fingers dance across black-white keys, smiled when the gentle notes wafted about the room, smiled when a chorus of singing responded to her music and soon escalated into an all-out choir.
It was a good thing to be alive. After the war, perhaps everything was a reason to smile—or so she had thought.
And yet he smiled when he talked of a fellow soldier, a brother-in-arm, a man he had shared a trench with for countless nights. He smiled when he described the sound of his voice in the vast white nothingness of the no man’s land, then the sound of a hurtling shell, of a human blown to pieces, of bits of face and fingers dripping to the ground. He smiled when he flicked open a knife and carved the name of his dead friend on his palm, each letter bleeding red, into small rivers of blood.
“Howard,” he declared, smiling, proud of his handiwork. When he brought the tip of the knife to his face—to engrave a second epitaph—he was still smiling.
Edith watched, the trickle of carmine on green blades of grass, until her throat worked out a scream.
And then there was Lieutenant Edgerton; Lieutenant Edgerton who sat on his wicker chair, silent, alone, trading unspoken thoughts with the February wind; Lieutenant Edgerton who ignored her daily approach, who turned a deaf ear to her relentless attempt at conversation, who refused to meet her eyes and tentative smiles; Lieutenant Edgerton, who on the fourth day finally surrendered a spectre of something behind the gilded borders of his book, when she hummed a soft childhood lullaby. (She nearly caught him there, but chose to let it go, for there would be other days, other attempts, other reactions.)
Lieutenant Edgerton, who had a relapse on his sixth morning, and was gone by noon. Edith stood two beds away, frozen, helpless, utterly powerless as death’s ice-laced breath caressed her cheeks for the first time in her life.
“It must be worse in the hospital.”
Sybil did not answer for a long time. Her expression was shuttered, filtered by sadness and fatigue. War had taken its toll on her like it did on all of them, in ways minor and subtle, almost unseen. When she finally did, it was admission and resignation, grief and helplessness, without the usual clear-edged exuberance which underlined everything hers.
Edith swallowed a shiver, all too aware that they were trapped in the same maze, under the same curse. “I don’t know how you could do it.”
Out of stubbornness or awkwardness, Sybil still refused to meet her eyes. In the corridor’s gloom, she looked part of the breeding shadows, the shine of her dress dulled into lifeless grey. “Neither do I,” she replied quietly. “But perhaps it isn’t a question of ‘could’. When you have someone bleeding, dying in front of you, as another human being–”
Her words trailed off, bursting into silence. Their ghostly remnants lingered in the air, a heavy shroud, a tangible presence. Edith steadied the faint tremor which had crawled up her hands and teased her naked fingers.
“I see,” she murmured, close to a whisper. When Sybil looked up, her eyes were bright and wet, and the sight so wrenched Edith’s heart that she pulled her sister into her arms.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, not knowing what or why—except she did and the words would not die unsaid like many others had between them. Sybil’s sobs were loud in her ears, in the cocoon of silence, for Sybil was Sybil and she did nothing in halves.
“I couldn’t do anything,” she whispered into the crook of Edith’s neck, and perhaps behind those words were another officer, another dead soldier with only his scribbled name on a paper attached to his wrist. Edith felt the wetness of her tears and felt like drowning herself.
“You did everything you could.”
“It wasn’t enough.”
“But it had to be.”
Sybil said nothing else, weeping her tears in silence. Edith stared unmoving at the girls in the mirror across the room, desperately clinging to the thought that for the first time in thirteen years, she held her little sister again in her arms.
It was the only sane thought she could think of.
Captain Armes had been shot across the face, the bullet tearing up the contour of nose, cheek, eyelid. Combined with his missing foot and burned hand, he was the most grotesque man Edith had ever seen—and for this reason, she approached him.
He did not speak. The mechanism of speech was too much for a man so maligned, and so she sat by his bed and they conversed on paper: one question for an answer, one opinion for another. It was cumbersome, but he was alone and she relentless.
How are you today?
How do you think?
Edith never forgot to smile, no matter what answer he gave. The sound of his pencil kissing paper was consolation enough.
What is your hobby?
Dancing. At least, before my left foot got blown off.
Captain Armes had never received any letter. On the fourth day, Edith discovered that he was alone, brotherless, parentless. There was no one left in this world who could love him unconditionally.
What would you do after the war?
For people like me, war is not a time span. It is a lifetime. There is no after.
Sometimes, his remaining good eye would crinkle in a painful smile. Edith always tried to return it in kind, shaping her grimace into the likeness of a smile and hoping that he would not notice.
He always did.
I have no reason to fight.
Then why did you?
He wrote his answer with tears streaming down his mangled face.
Because it is sweet and noble to die for one’s country.
She read about his death two months later, amidst the wild, unbridled joy of the Armistice. There was a small corner of The Times still unconquered by war (except it was, in a different way) and there it sat, a few lines of insignificance.
Captain Thomas Armes died in London, in uniform, after throwing himself in front of a train.
For war was not a time span. It was a lifetime.
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
‘Dulce et Decorum est’, Wilfred Owen