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Soldier's Heart

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5 October, 1914

Dear Thomas,

Writing this from a hut in France!  Our Sgts. were not pulling legs about taking the tents, or about packing them the day before, but we loaded ourselves onto the train along with them, and then slept our last night in England in the baggage sheds by the dock.  Not especially comfortable, but at least there was a roof! 

Very long day today, as we got up at dawn to load everything onto the ship.  (We are responsible for bringing a great deal of medical supplies and equipment, as well as our own kit.)  Then we had a bit of a rest as we sailed across (The boat had a motor, not sails, but “motored across” does not sound right), and unloaded it all again at the other end.  The baggage got to ride in wagons from the dock, but we had to march, and halfway there it started to rain. 

We were all fairly sure we were going to have to set up our tent in the rain, on the wet ground, before we’d be allowed to sleep, but they let us have the hut instead, just this once—a sort of barn about the size of our tent.  It is destined to be a ward, but is not quite ready for patients yet, lacking amenities such as a heating stove, electric lighting, glass in the windows, and furniture of any kind.  We are all agreed that it’s surprisingly sensible of the Army to let us have the use of this luxurious accommodation, instead of leaving it sit empty while we faff about in the rain putting up a tent right next to it.  (I grumble, but we are fairly cozy in here, with our candles and bedrolls.  I suppose we’ll get tired of things soon enough, but, as when we were “on maneuvers” in England, there is a sort of holiday spirit about it just now.) 

 Many of us were a little nervous to be coming here, to the country where the war is taking place, but everything in our town is very normal and peace-like—apart from the absence of men of military age.  Marching here, we saw autumn flowers in window-boxes, nannies and mothers pushing prams (before the rain started), shop owners pulling in goods off the sidewalk (after the rain started) and all the sorts of homely things you’d expect to see in a seaside town. 

Our hospital is set up in and around a casino—I won’t tell you which one, as it would only make more work for the officer who’s got to censor our letters, but I’ve been here before, when I first started working for Sir H.  I might have told you about being annoyed that he put more than I make in a year on one spin of the roulette wheel—and then had the nerve to whinge to me about losing it?  If I did, it’s that same place. 

All of the roulette wheels and similar have been cleared out of the casino now, carpets taken up, chandeliers replaced with more prosaic lighting fixtures.  There are some patients in there already, although not nearly as many as they expect to be able to accommodate once we’re fully set up.  Once the huts are finished, the less-serious cases will be in those, and the more-serious in the main building.  (They say also that we are to have a hut of our own eventually, but the ones for the patients come first.  With luck, we will be out of the tent before winter sets in completely.)

Settling down to sleep now, so I will close and put out my candle before anyone heaves a boot at me.  Light a cigarette for me.

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

“Is that a new letter from Peter, then?” Anna asked. 

Folding it, Thomas put the letter back in its envelope.  “No, just the old one.”   They were waiting for their tea, and he felt like reading it again, was all. 

“I’m sure he’s all right,” she said.

“So’m I,” he said, quickly.  It had barely been a week, since he’d gotten this letter—and it had taken four days to reach him.  “I expect they’re keeping him quite busy, and everything takes longer, coming from the Continent.  Censoring and everything.”

“Do they do that, when they’re just at a hospital?” Maud asked.

Thomas nodded.  “I expect they’re in a position to know more sensitive information than anyone, being in contact with wounded from all different units.”

Two days later, he got two letters at once from Peter, the one dated the 8th—meaning it had taken over a week to reach him—and the other a more reasonable three days old.  The first was a long, chatty one where he spoke cheerfully of the work they were doing—mostly getting the “huts” into shape, painting the walls and setting up beds and so on—more description of the town, and things like that. 

The second was much shorter, and said,

                Dear Thomas,

Just a quick note to say I am thinking of you!  I have had (3) from you, the most recent of the 14th, but it sounds like you have only had my first.  (I sent another!)  They say that our letters have been delayed for a while, as we have a shortage of junior officers to censor them: normally it’s the Lieutenants who do it, you see, and a doctor is always at least a Captain, so we haven’t got many Lt’s in the RAMC. 

Fortunately, some of the recovering officers in the wards have asked for something useful to do, and someone had the idea of getting them to censor letters—which is very useful, in my opinion, while not being at all taxing.  So for now, our post should go out fairly quickly. But please don’t worry if letters are irregular—post might slow down again if we happen not to have any officers conveniently on hand to check them, and besides that, we don’t have Sundays off here.  (For some reason, the wounded insist on eating, needing their dressings changed, etc. even on a Sunday!)

They are keeping us fairly busy, with the same sort of stuff I talked about in my last letter.  There is a general sense of urgency about getting wards ready for a rush of new patients, so of course we are speculating about a major battle being in the works—but it may simply be a case of being prepared well in advance of need. 

Light a cigarette for me,

Yours affectionately,

P.F.

By the time Thomas got this letter, the papers had confirmed Peter’s guess about a battle in the works—several of them, in fact, as the British and French tried to stop the Germans from getting to the North Sea, and vice versa.  He was unsurprised when Peter’s next few letters were brief and hastily written, speaking of many casualties and much work, and missing Thomas.  He did say that he appreciated long, newsy letters, though—it taking much less time to read one than to write one—so Thomas did his best, filling his letters with Downton gossip and tosh he read in the papers and whatever else he could think of. 

It wasn’t until well into November that he got a long letter in return.  It said:      

Dear Thomas,

Whew!  The fighting seems to have died down to a dull roar now, and with it the flood of casualties.  The experienced corpsmen tell us that it will probably be like this for the winter.  (I hope that isn’t considered sensitive information—I don’t think anyone heard it from anywhere in particular; it just stands to reason that the Army won’t be moving around quite as much, with the ground freezing and thawing all the time, and soon snow, and so forth.) 

Of course, that doesn’t mean our brave lads on the front lines will be able to pop back into the house for a cup of cocoa in the warm—they have to stay where they are, so as to keep the Germans where they are.  And that, in turn, means that we brave lads of the hospital must stay where we are.  We typically get a few wounded every day, from one place or another, as well as a steady trickle of “sick.”  (That isn’t as revolting as it sounds—“sick” may mean anything other than a wound, from a cough to a sprained ankle, and does not necessarily mean actual vomiting.)  Last evening we had a lecture on frostbite, which I suppose they anticipate we’ll be seeing a lot of.

That brings me to something important that I didn’t have time to write when we were so busy—I’m getting a lot more medical training now.  A couple of weeks after we arrived, they sorted us into new sections—the old ones having been simply based on the alphabet.  The new ones are to do with the type of work they think we’re suited for, and I’m in the group that is mostly working on the wards.  (Others do things like cooking, laundry, managing supplies, looking after the Medical Officers, and so on.)

The others in our battalion have described our section as “the clever sods.”  We include quite a few grammar-school lads, brainworkers of various types, two who were actually in university studying medicine when the war broke out, and four more who were about to start.  One of the medical students was actually two years into his studies, and was offered an officer’s commission in a non-medical unit, but turned it down when he found out he’d have had to buy his own uniforms as an officer.  He is the son of a coal miner, you see, and attended grammar school and university on scholarship.  I’m rather in awe of him, as several of us are.  (He might he be a candidate for the Peculiars, but it’s a little hard to say, as we have our minds on other things.) 

I suspect I made my way into the clever sods because they had a few places left over after choosing the really clever ones, and I have a decent accent when I make an effort, but I think I’m doing well enough.  Quite a bit of it is making the beds, dealing with bedpans, and similarly unglamorous chores, but we also change dressings, give medicines, etc., and assist the doctors with various treatments.  We new fellows mostly do the less glamorous side, and learn the more complicated things by watching the more experienced orderlies.   Every once in a while, we take a turn doing something while they watch and shout at us if we get it wrong.  And we get a lecture now and then, when the MO’s don’t have anything better to do with their evening. 

Now that we aren’t so screamingly busy, the doctors also try to teach us a bit as they go along, whenever they see something the rest of us ought to know.  For instance, when I was on the chest ward, one of the MO’s pulled us all over to have a look at a poor blighter who had a bit of shrapnel go through his lung in just the right way that air would leak out of his lung and be trapped inside the chest wall.  Once enough of it builds up, the lung can’t expand anymore, and the aforesaid poor blighter can’t breathe—unless a doctor takes a big syringe and jabs it in just the right spot to suck the excess air out.  (He really needs an operation, of course, but the trick with the syringe takes only a moment and will keep him alive long enough to operate.) 

The poor blighter’s struggles for breath, in this situation, make quite a distinctive sound, and it was precisely this that the MO wanted us all to hear—so that if we hear it again, we know to run and get a doctor right away, rather than think that it is a death rattle and nothing can be done.  (We are not to attempt this maneuver ourselves, he emphasized, as it is very tricky to get the needle in just the right place not to do more harm than good, but after he’d gone one of the sgt’s said it might be different if we were on the front lines and not in a hospital.)

I tell you this both because it is an interesting thing to have learned, and because it impressed upon me that I could be in a position to make the difference between somebody making it through, and otherwise.  I mean, everything that we do makes a difference in that sense—even changing a bed reduces the chance of infection, which kills more men than the wounds themselves do—but that I might do something that any reasonably intelligent and conscientious chap dragged in off the street wouldn’t know to do.  If you follow me.  (I am not trying to aggrandize myself, only saying that I’ve realized it’s important to do my best to learn what they’re trying to teach me.)

But it is not all bed-making and learning about new and gruesome types of wounds here!   We get an afternoon or evening out now and then, and the local people are entirely happy to help us part with our wages.  They have set up for our convenience any number of little cafes where you can get a glass of wine and something like an omelet or a bowl of soup for not much money at all.  There are, of course, cafes and restaurants that existed before the war, but any number of new ones have sprung up, many in the homes of women who have found that they have a lot of time on their hands, with their menfolk off at war, and perhaps a need for a bit of extra money, if their men’s soldier’s pay is not quite what they got in their civilian occupations.  (It is said that some of these establishments offer hospitality warmer than wine and soup, but I, of course, have not ventured into that kind.) 

My chums and I particularly frequent the home of a Madame F., who is a widow with three grown sons at the fighting.  (I stress again that this is an establishment of the most respectable type; I run with a very respectable set here in France.) My chums include Jer, whom you met with his wife and son; Billy D., who is Methodist; Frank R., who is the miner’s son and medical student I spoke of earlier; and Issac S., whose father is a priest of the Hebrew faith—they call it a “canter,” which I thought was something to do with horses, but there you go.  There are a few others, but we five are the core group, and Madame F. has decided to consider us her foster sons for the duration—in hopes that her own sons are being similarly looked after, wherever they are.  (I can hear you scoffing all the way across the Channel, but I think it’s rather sweet.)  She is a splendid woman and a good cook, and lights candles for us every Sunday at Mass—even Issac, who had to think for a minute before deciding to accept the gesture in the spirit in which it was intended. 

It’s very important for us to have a comfortable place where we can relax off-duty, because we are still living in the bloody tent!  It’s very chilly; we sleep in our greatcoats and have nicked extra blankets from the hospital. 

You asked about Christmas, and if you meant it literally—I think that you did—what I should like best of all things is a set of the warmest winter underwear you can find—top and bottom.  What they issue us is not very warm, but we are allowed to wear anything under our uniforms as long as it doesn’t show.  (Now that I have said that, I can’t help but wonder what Syl is wearing under his!  If he has been issued one yet, I mean; last I heard, he and Theo were still in Kitchener Blues.)

I would also like a wind-proof lighter, if you can find one and the underwear is not too dear.  (Not the one I gave you!  I would rather struggle with matches, and be able to think of you having it.)  While we’re on the subject, what can I send you from France?

For ordinary parcels, and for “filling in the corners,” the most important thing (besides cigarettes) is tea.  We get some as part of our ration, but it’s usually made for us in these big metal urns called “dixies,” and by the time we get it, it’s lukewarm at best and tastes of metal.  (I also do not think the dixies are ever washed.)  The tea itself is not dreadful, if you can get it issued to you “dry,” but once it’s been made, forget it!  We have clubbed together to buy a spirit stove to make our own, but decent tea is not abundant in the shops, as the French like coffee better. 

Biscuits as before are also handy—if we don’t get a chance to sit down for our tea, it’s nice to have something we can scoff down one handed!  Go for quantity, not quality, in purchasing, as the done thing here is to put your tin the orderly room when it comes, and then you are free to eat everyone else’s until your next one comes.  (We are quite Communist in this regard: one is allowed to partake if one is a friendless orphan and never gets biscuits from anybody, but if it becomes known that someone has kept a tin to himself, he is barred from the common supply until he makes amends.  One chap tried asking his people to send two tins at once, one to share and one to eat all by his greedy self; we met in solemn conclave and decided that this was not cricket—from each according to his ability, as the man says.  The only exception is biscuits handmade by one’s sweetheart, and in that case you still have to give up half.)

So that is our life here!  All is well, except for missing you.  As always, light a cigarette for me. 

Affectionately yours,

P.F.

Receiving this letter, Thomas briefly contemplated the likely reaction if he went into the kitchen and asked Daisy or Mrs. Patmore to show him how to make biscuits.  Perhaps if the war stretched on a very long time, he decided, and went down to the village to see what he could find in the way of biscuits and underwear. 

He wrote back,

                Dear Peter,

I did mean Christmas literally!  I suppose it’s a bit early to be thinking about it, but the adverts are full of admonitions to think of “Our lads in France” early, and the Post Office has even made an official announcement to that effect.  I am putting together a parcel with tea, biscuits, cigarettes, etc., and will send it as soon as I have the corners filled in.  Your Christmas one will be the one after that, I think.

I’m sure they were right to put you in the clever sods section.  (For more reasons than one!)  I understand completely what you said about it being important to learn what you’re learning. 

In fact, he felt a pang of loss, that Peter’s experiences were growing so far from his, but he couldn’t say that.  He considered a quip about Peter being too grand for him when he got back, but since Peter had taken such care to say he wasn’t aggrandizing himself, best not to say that, either.  He settled on:

It is very important work that you’re doing, and for the record, I’m proud that you’re doing it—although I wish you didn’t have to! 

I’m glad to hear about your work, your chums, Madame F., etc.—anything that helps me to imagine your days.  I am not jealous about F.R., even if he is a candidate for the Peculiars, as long as you don’t decide you like him more than me.  I suppose he must be awfully clever, whereas I have only a certain low cunning. 

Here, everything continues mostly as before.  Quite a few of the gardeners, grooms, etc. have gone—as have some of the horses—but as for indoor staff, none of us have signed up, although William still wants to.  By now, most of us do know someone or another who is, at least, in training or waiting for orders to report.  Mrs. P. has a nephew, Miss O’B. a brother, and so on.  (There are only two with sweethearts in the Army so far—one is Madge, the one walking out with the under-gardener, and you know who the other is.) 

In fact, Thomas had found himself feeling very sympathetic to Madge, lately.  She didn’t talk much about Davy—he didn’t seem to be much of a letter-writer—but Thomas supposed she had to be feeling much as he had, when Peter had first gone off to training.  It was queer to think of, sharing something like that with a “normal” person, and a girl to boot. 

Upstairs, Mr. Matthew is at Officer School—although he manages to turn up here what seems like every other week-end; I suppose they have an easier time getting leave than regular people. 

It was also unclear why he kept turning up here, specifically, when he and Lady Mary still weren’t speaking, but there it was. Thomas considered saying something about that, but decided not to.  Everyone downstairs was consumed with the drama of it all—would they make up, before he went off to war?  Would he propose again?—and he was getting sick of it. 

Lord G. is still trying to get joined up.  His old regiment won’t take him back—apparently he’s just a hair overage—but he is constantly talking about this or that person at the War Office who has an idea or two about where he might be useful. 

He talks about it at dinner, I mean, not to me, obviously.   Lady G. gets very quiet at those times, and I wish I could tell her that I understand just how she feels—although there are two very good reasons why I can’t, one of them being that she is a Countess and I am a footman, and it would be the height of impertinence.  Even though we seem to be the only two people in the house who really see what a colossal ass he’s being—the young ladies don’t want him to go away, but they don’t think he can really die, and Carson thinks it’s beneath Lord G’s dignity, but ditto.

It was, honestly, maddening, the way they all seemed not to notice that the men signing up in droves were marching cheerfully to their own destruction.  Bates had told him that men traditionally put a brave face on things, in their letters home to women, but even so, they could all see the casualty reports in the papers—and her ladyship, who did seem to understand, was a woman.  He shook off that thought, and wrote:

Not that I would be particularly devastated if Lord G. were killed, you understand, although I certainly wouldn’t wish it on him.  I just know that he could be, if he gets his way, and that the ladies would be devastated.  I hope that one day Lady G. will finally let loose and tell him he ought to realize when he’s well off—and not only because it will be quite a show.

I don’t know why I am writing so much about Lord and Lady G., except that I have nothing much of my own to write about.  Today I polished the second-best silver! 

In other gossip, Mrs. B. is making trouble for Mr. B. and A.  Apparently she wants Mr. B. back—why, I couldn’t tell you—and is threatening to tell someone something if she doesn’t get her way.  He will not say what, and A. is wondering if he has yet another dark secret.  (I just realized what it could be, though—she could tell someone here that Mr. B. and A. are having an affair!  They are not—at least, I’m fairly sure they aren’t—but they spend enough time together that it would be a plausible accusation, and a big enough scandal to get at least one of them—probably her—sacked.  I’ll have to find an opportunity to suggest this to A. I’m not sure what we can do about it, if I’m right, but maybe she’ll be able to think of something.)

I’m not really sure what you can send me from France, apart from letters, which are the most important thing.  A tie?  Or just something from the town where you are—I suppose before the war holiday-makers bought trinkets to send to their people back home; if those shops are still open, choose something there, and when I feel like it, I’ll imagine that you are swanning your way through the casino in white tie, dropping a year’s wages on a spin of the roulette wheel. 

The letter was still a good deal shorter than the one Peter had sent—even with all the drivel about his lordship—but he couldn’t think of another thing to say.  Finally, he wrote,

It’s late, and I suppose I have to sleep sometime.  Goodnight, my dear, and I’ll light a cigarette for you. 

Yours Affectionately,

T.B.

#

Anna was working at some mending at the servants’ hall table when Thomas dropped into the seat next to her and said, “I had an idea, while I was writing to Peter last night.”

“What’s that?” she asked, cautiously.  She hoped it wasn’t about enlisting and getting sent over there to be with him—the chances they’d actually be in the same place were slim. 

“I bet that Bates’s wife is planning to tell them upstairs you’re having an affair,” he informed her. 

She put down the mending.  “Why are you writing to Peter about Mrs. Bates?” she asked, because that was a simpler question than asking how he’d gotten an idea like that.  She knew Thomas well enough now to understand that he probably didn’t mean that he thought she was having an affair with Mr. Bates, only that it might for some reason be in Mrs. Bates’s interest to say that she was.

“Because nothing ever happens here,” Thomas said, in a tone of irritation, “and he likes long letters.  But that’s got to be it—think about it.  He said he’d rather live under a bridge than with her, so it can’t be a secret that only hurts him.  And it explains why he won’t tell you what the threat is—he probably thinks it’s indecent to say anything about an affair to you.”

Anna decided not to point out that most men would consider anything about an affair to be, at the very least, a subject to approach delicately, rather than just coming out with it all of the sudden.   “It does make sense,” she agreed.  “But why would any of them believe her?  It isn’t as if she can have any proof—because we aren’t.”

“But you do find a lot of excuses to be alone together,” Thomas pointed out.

She’d think they must have been indiscreet, if even Thomas had noticed—there was a lot that went over his head, particularly when it came to women—but the possibility of an affair  was precisely the sort of thing his twisty little mind would pick up on.  “How would she know that?”

Thomas didn’t answer aloud, but looked down the table toward the spot where Miss O’Brien usually sat—although, fortunately, she wasn’t there now.  Though if she had been, Thomas would probably have dragged her outside “for a smoke” or something, because listening ears was another kind of thing he paid attention to. 

“I see,” she said.  She didn’t bother asking about motive; Miss O’Brien didn’t need one. 

“If I had to guess,” Thomas went on, “she probably reached out to her after that business with the letter, trying to see if there was anything else she could use.”

She very well might have—both Thomas and Mr. Bates had been surprised she let the matter drop, after the letter proved a damp squib.  “If it is true, do you have any ideas what to do about it?”  She was fairly sure that if he did, they wouldn’t be good ideas, but hearing what he thought might help her think of something better.

He shook his head.  “I was hoping you would.”

“Well, the first thing to do is find out from Mr. Bates, if you’re right about what she’s threatening,” Anna decided.  She didn’t think it was likely that Thomas had come up with this idea in order to maneuver her and Mr. Bates into doing something against Miss O’Brien—but she wouldn’t put it past him, if he’d thought of it. 

“I suppose,” he agreed.  “D’you want me to ask him?”

“No,” she said quickly.  If Thomas broached the subject as bluntly to Mr. Bates as he had to her, Mr. Bates would think he was accusing them of an affair.  “I’ll speak to him. Even if you’re wrong, he might open up to me about what the real secret is.  Especially if it’s not as bad as what we’ve guessed.”

“All right,” he agreed. 

She changed the subject—he’d speculate all day about what Mrs. Bates and Miss O’Brien might be up to, if she let him.  “How is Mr. Fitzroy?”

Thomas grinned.  “He’s well.  Did you know, they’ve selected him for extra medical training….”

#

Thomas was enjoying his after-dinner smoke, and wishing he’d put on his overcoat before doing it, when a sliver of light came out the back door, followed by Mr. Bates.  This wasn’t as startling an occurrence as it would have been a few months ago, but Thomas was still a bit wary—they mostly kept Anna between them, as a sort of buffer. 

“You were right,” Bates said, taking up a patch of wall next to the one Thomas was leaning against. 

“Figured,” he said. 

“And I know exactly how you thought of it, too.”

“How’s that?”

“Because it’s what you’d do, if you were still trying to get rid of me.”

Thomas shrugged.  It probably was. 

“Only an accusation like that is going to hurt Anna a lot more than it does me.  Vera knows that.  That’s why it’s so effective.  If it was just me, I’d tell her to go ahead and peddle whatever story she likes.”

He’d figured that, too.  “Did you really go around telling people you’d rather live under a bridge than with her?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Bates.  “And it’s true.”  He sighed.  “Is there anything in particular that makes you think O’Brien’s been telling her things?”

Thomas shook his head.  “Just that someone has to have been, and it’s the sort of thing she does.  They might have hit it off and hatched the scheme together—one wants you back, the other wants you gone—or maybe they took a dislike to each other, and O’Brien told her she’d been replaced, hoping it  would sting.” 

Bates snorted.  “You know what we used to say in the Army, about men like you?”

“What?”  Thomas asked, suspiciously. 

“It’s better to have you inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

Oh.  Thomas had thought he’d meant something else, by “like you.” 

Considering it from all angles, Thomas said, “Coming from you, that almost sounds like a compliment.”

“It almost is.”  Bates shook his head.  “There are times you need a real bastard.”

Thomas huffed, thinking of what he’d written to Peter about the clever sods section.  “In more ways than one.”

Luckily, Bates didn’t ask.  “What I don’t understand,” he went on, “is what Miss O’Brien gets out of it.  I know it started with you wanting my job, but she can’t care about that anymore.”

Thomas shrugged.  “Something to do,” he suggested.  He wouldn’t say it to Bates, but he was sort of glad of the distraction, too—something to think about, that wasn’t the war or them upstairs.  “And she doesn’t like that you have his lordship’s ear.  That was always her and her ladyship, you know.  She decides what they hear, about what goes on down here.”

Bates nodded slowly.  “I see.  And is there any way to make peace with her?”

“If there was, I’d have already done it.” 

#

“What if you just explain to his lordship?” Anna asked.  She and Mr. Bates were working in the boot room—one of the places they could usually talk privately, as long as they kept their voices low. 

This time, they had to keep them lower than usual, as they had left the door wide open.  They never completely closed it, as a closed door invited questions about what might be happening behind it, but often closed it halfway. 

“I can’t,” Mr. Bates said, shaking his head.  “I can’t just tell him that my wife thinks I’m having an affair with you, but I’m not.”

“You managed telling him you weren’t having one with Thomas,” she pointed out 

“That’s different.  The entire idea of something like that, with me and him, is absurd.  His lordship knows perfectly well I wouldn’t want to.”

He didn’t have to say that he might want to, with her, although he’d never do it. 

“Nor would Thomas,” she said instead.  “Apparently he’s mystified by the fact that you have, I quote, ‘two entirely separate women competing for you, and at least one of them’s got nothing wrong with her.’  I’m assuming that last bit was meant to be a compliment.”

“I can’t imagine how he’s gotten even one person to fall in love with him,” Mr. Bates answered.  “Do you suppose he says things like that to him?  ‘Well, all right, if you insist, I suppose you aren’t completely hideous and I can tolerate your company’?”

“From what I saw at Kew, that’s about the size of it,” Anna said.  “But Mr. Fitzroy seems to understand. I suppose it’s safer for them, if anyone overhears.  If it sounds like they’re just teasing each other.”

“I expect you’re right,” said Mr. Bates.  He returned to the subject at hand.  “In any case, it won’t be his lordship that she writes to—she knows I’d have a chance of explaining to him that there’s nothing in it.  She’ll tell Mr. Carson, or Mrs. Hughes, or maybe even her ladyship.  She’s worked in houses like this—not quite so grand—and she knows that, with any of them, there will be a lot of talking about it behind closed doors, before it comes out in the open and I have a chance to clear myself.  If there’s enough talk, even if they believe me when I tell them the truth, there’s a good chance they’ll decide at least one of us has to go, to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

And if it was only one of them, it would be her, she knew.  Partly because Mr. Bates and his lordship shared a bond forged in their own war, partly because it would—truly—be easier for her to find another place as a housemaid than for Mr. Bates to find one as a valet, and partly because she was a woman, an object of temptation, and it was always the woman who took the blame.  “What can we do?”

He shook his head.  “I’ll go down to London, try to reason with her.  Bribe her.  I’ll tell her, even if she does get me sacked, I’ll not be going back to her, and then offer her some money to back off.  If I can get it across to her that she won’t get what she wants, whatever she does, she might have the sense to take what she can get.”

It seemed a good plan.  “Do you have enough money to give her, that she’ll find it convincing?”  Anna knew that Mr. Bates sent most of his wages back to her, so he couldn’t have much put by. 

She had a bit put by herself, but she didn’t imagine he’d take it.

“I’ll have to get it from my mother,” he answered.  “It’s humiliating, but Vera will enjoy that, so it might help persuade her.”

#

Across the table from Thomas, Madge squinted at the knitting pattern that was spread out in front of her, sighed dramatically, and began undoing stitches.  She’d proudly announced, a day or two before, that she was knitting a jumper for Davy.  It wasn’t hard to see where she’d got the idea—Maud, a few seats down, was knitting one for her brother, as well.  Maud’s looked a lot less like a moth-eaten fishnet, though. 

Maud looked up from her knitting.  “That pattern might be a bit ambitious for a beginner,” she suggested.  “You could try a scarf.”

“I know how to knit,” Madge said, irritatedly. 

“Only you usually do dish-cloths, don’t you?  I’m just saying.”

Thomas sighed, and lit a cigarette. 

“I’m sorry, are we bothering you?” Maud asked, waspishly.  “We’re only knitting for our men at the front, so I certainly hope it isn’t any inconvenience.”  She seemed to have entirely forgotten that a moment ago, she’d been suggesting that what Madge was doing could scarcely be dignified with the name of knitting.

“D’you think you’ll be finished with it, before the war’s over?” Thomas wondered. 

“We’ll be finished sooner than you’re finished doing nothing,” Madge answered. 

“There are these things called ‘shops,’” he said loftily, “where you can buy things to put in parcels.”  He’d just sent one, with the tea and things, and on his next half-day was going to Ripon to look for Peter’s Christmas presents.  Peter didn’t need him faffing about knitting things.

“No one said there weren’t,” Maud retorted.

Thomas sloped off into the courtyard, where a man could smoke in peace.  Bitterly cold peace, but still.  You didn’t have people knitting at you.

#

“Anna,” Thomas said to her one day, as she was doing some sewing in the servants’ hall.  “Come outside with me.”

Honestly, he was lucky so many people did know about him, or they’d get entirely the wrong idea. Still, she was glad enough to put her work down for a moment, and follow him out.  The ladies had decided not to order new dresses, because of the war, which meant their old ones had to be shortened to match the new style, and have new trims and things added, to make it less dreary not to have anything new.   She was half-tempted to take up smoking herself, for the excuse to take a break now and then. 

Once they were outside, he seemed in no particular hurry to say whatever was so important and private it couldn’t be said inside, occupying himself instead with knocking a light dusting of snow off of a crate and then, to her astonishment, gesturing for her to sit down on it.  “Is everything all right?” she asked, sitting down. 

“Hm?  Oh, yeah.  He’s fine.”  Thomas lit a cigarette.  “Sends his regards.” 

She hadn’t exactly been asking about Peter, but answered, “Send him my love, back.”

“Very busy, you know, hospital things.  They’re still sleeping in the tent.  So what I was wondering was, is it really fairly easy to knit a scarf?”

It took her a moment to adjust to the change in subject.  “A plain one is about the easiest knitting you can do.  Why, did you want me to make one for Peter?”  She supposed she could—with all the others knitting things for soldiers, she might as well get in on it—although she might not have the time for it before Christmas, with all the sewing she had to do.

Thomas flicked ash in a surprised manner.  “Yeah, I suppose that’d work.”

“Why, what did you have in mind?”

“Well.”  He shifted he weight from foot to foot.  “I suppose I was sort of wondering if you could…teachmehowtoknit.” 

Oh.  Well, that was rather sweet, really.  “Of course.  Have you bought the wool yet?”

“While I was in Ripon.  I didn’t get any needles, though.”

“We’ve plenty lying around,” she told him.  “I’ll find some.  Do you want to start this evening, after dinner?”

“Could we?”

“It’s a date.  You bring the wool, I’ll bring the needles.”

He nodded.  “Right, so I was thinking you’d say you aren’t feeling well, and then ten minutes or so later I’ll go out like I’m having a smoke, and we meet up in me room.”

That’s what he was thinking, was it?  “No,” she said.  “I am not sneaking into a man’s bedroom for secret knitting lessons.  Have you lost your mind?”

“Your bedroom?” he suggested.

“That’s even worse!”

“Well I don’t imagine we can do it out here,” he said.  “It’s too bloody cold.”

“Yes, it’s too bad there isn’t some sort of room where men and women can engage in perfectly innocent activities in plain view of everyone,” she said. 

“I can’t knit in the servants’ hall,” he protested.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“Everyone else does.”

“Everyone else are girls.”  He paused.  “And Miss O’Brien.”

“Scottish shepherds knit,” she told him.  “Even the ones that aren’t girls.”

“I’m not a Scottish shepherd.”  Tossing his cigarette down into the snow, he said, “Forget it; it was a stupid idea anyway,” and stalked off.

#

After dinner the next evening, Thomas was studiously ignoring Anna, and the knitters, who she seemed to have joined, doing something mysterious with needles and khaki-colored wool.   Was she gloating?  That she could knit in public, and he couldn’t?

She was mean enough to do it; if she weren’t, he’d not have liked her.

Not that he did, at the moment. 

Bates went to put the newspaper back in the rack by the fire, passing behind Anna on his way back.  “That looks complicated,” he said, peering over her shoulder at what she was doing.

“Not really,” she said.  “Once you’ve got the knack of it, your fingers just go along and do it.  What Madge is doing, that’s tricky, because you have to count the stitches, but this is just plain knitting, one row after the other.”

“I see,” Bates said.  “So you wrap it around like that, and then—how does it not slip off the end?”

“It just doesn’t,” Anna answered.  “Here, have a go.”  She handed him the needles.

Was it supposed to be some sort of joke?  He’d asked to learn to knit, and now she was showing Bates instead, of all people.

Soon, Bates was knitting away, with frequent reminders from Anna about keeping tension and not dropping any stitches.

“Well, there’s a sight,” said O’Brien, busy at her own knitting.  “Not really something for a man to do, is it?”

“Some of the others did it in hospital, when I had my wound,” Bates said.  “I can see why—it’s sort of soothing, isn’t it?  I might take it up.”

For a long moment, there was no sound but needles clacking.  “Would anyone else like to have a go?” Anna asked, with barely a fraction of a glance at Thomas.  “Or is Mr. Bates the only one man enough?”

Oh, clever girl, Thomas thought, finally catching on—though how she’d roped Bates into it, he had no idea.  “If he can do it, I’m sure I can.”

#

A few days later, when Mrs. Hughes was sharing an evening sherry with Mr. Carson, he said peevishly, “Why, I should like to know, is the servants’ hall suddenly full of knitting men?”

“They’re making things for the war effort,” Mrs. Hughes explained.  Even the hall-boys had taken it up, once William had.  “I think it’s nice.”

#

 

25 December, 1914

Dear Thomas,

Happy Christmas!  The scarf was a lovely surprise, and I hope you thanked Anna for teaching you.  I’m sure it must be heaps better than anything William has managed to knit.  The underwear is just what I wanted, and I shall think of you every time I light a cigarette (although I did before, too!).  Do thank Mrs. P. for the fruitcake for me, and tell her it did stay moist the whole way here.

Our Christmas here was rather good.  Everyone feels sorry for the wounded soldiers and Christmas-time, and there was enough good cheer left over for us orderlies to get our share.  Lots of women’s groups back home sent loads of things—food and drink, decorations, presents—and parties of local women and children came to cheer us all up.  We orderlies were up half the night fixing up stockings for all the patients, using the things the women sent from home, and once we got done with the morning chores, we found out that the Officers’ Convalescent ward had done the same for us. 

We had our parcels from Princess Mary, as well—I suppose you’ve seen in the papers about them.  I imagine you rolling your eyes over the appeals, which are a bit mawkish, but many of the men were genuinely touched.  Even the hardened anti-sentimentalists (that is, the ones who remind me most of you!) said the tin would come in handy, for keeping things dry and safe once they go back to the Front. 

We had a bang-up dinner as well, and so it was all just about as jolly as could be managed under the circumstances.  I am writing this long letter now because I am on night duty in Men’s Sick.  (I remind you again that this is not what it sounds like!)  Most of the cases are foot conditions caused by the cold and damp, which are fairly disgusting to look at and require a lot of work during the day, but not likely to cause an emergency at night, so it is a fairly lucky ward to have night duty on. 

I’m sharing the night watch with a Nurse N.  We are not talking much, because the nurses are under orders not to fraternize with the orderlies.  We and they do very much the same work, but they are classed as honorary officers, because most of them are rather posh in terms of background.

It’s funny, though—she’s sat here in the middle of the night, in a room full of men, most of them in states of undress, and that’s all perfectly all right, but if I ask her what she did before the war, or if she’s got a brother in the fighting, that would be improper!   

Oof, just as I was writing that, she asked me for a cigarette.  How forward!  Gave her one, of course, and having one myself now.  All of the nurses are learning to smoke and swear, over here, and they’re right hard workers.  Whenever there’s a particularly hard or mucky job to be done, the Sgt’s yell at us to get on with it before the ladies do it.  (Whenever this happens, I can hear you saying, “Let them, if they’re so keen!”)

The standard for a mucky job is pretty high here, though—the ladies handle bedpans and urinals and basins of sick (as opposed to Sick) as often as anyone else.  It’s mostly the absolute worst of the dressing changes that they try to spare them from—that, and carrying in stretcher cases.  And anything to do with VD.  They’ll do it all, though, if we don’t get to it first.

Another thing that’s funny is that Christmas is making me miss you more than ever—not that missing you is funny, but we haven’t spent Christmas together since Lady W’s anyway. I suppose it’s just that everyone else is missing their people at home, and it’s contagious.  I’m glad I have someone to miss; I can’t imagine how lonely I’d feel if I didn’t.

I sometimes think of what it would be like to have you here with me.  (Don’t think I am telling you to run and sign up—there’s no reason to believe they’d send you to the same place I am, and no way we could ask for it.  They might send you someplace not nearly as nice as here, and I’d much rather have you safe and bored at home.)  It’s just something I imagine, is all.  I picture it being like the Lady W’s days, showing you the ropes. 

Sometimes I get carried away and imagine us all here, the London Peculiars.  Syl giving fashion tips to all the nurses, and Theo keeping track of who hasn’t had a parcel in a while, Reg telling those awful jokes of his, and you getting all the Daves mixed up.  It’s not bad here, really; you just miss people. 

You, most of all.  Light a cigarette for me (even though I’ve just had one).

Yours affectionately,

P.F.