The Huns were at it again; dropping their wretched bombs on them when they, the British, were huddled up like sardines in a tin. He hated the feeling, his ears straining as the blood within them seemed to be compressed as the bombs fell to earth. The projectiles would have fascinated him had he been in his old mind. But he wasn’t of that mind anymore. Now it was more of a matter of survival, to vaguely estimate where the next bomb might fall. Small, cold comfort if it dropped right on you and that was the last thing you ever heard. Many a poor decent Tommy had died that way.
Then the door of the hut opened. It had opened quite soundlessly, as if the whole world had known that a dying – if not dead – man was making his way inside and that his last moments on earth were to be treated with respectful silence. The man raised his hand and he mirrored the movement before the man, blood and gore where his head had been, fell forward to the floor.
His limbs felt terribly heavy but he rose to his feet and sought to help Thomas, the other runner whose legs were trapped beneath the body, with O Nine Morgan who was quite stone dead. There were shadows everywhere so he could not see the dead man’s face in detail. Something warm was seeping into his cold boots; he had no doubt what it was and tried to ignore it.
The surviving Welshman was wailing but he couldn’t quite catch what he was saying. It was already difficult holding the corpse whose weight seemed to drag him down toward the floorboards.
‘Help me with him, would you?’
Damn his lungs. His chest was truly rotten and he was breathing hard as if he had run a mile.
Thomas scrambled to his feet and as the stark white light from the lamp above illuminated the man’s face, he cried out in terror.
He was momentarily disorientated. Who was calling him? That voice did not belong to the Base in Rouen or the trenches. It was a woman’s voice. His woman. Then he realised that he was no longer in a hut, in Rouen, or in the war. He opened his eyes to see a face framed in golden locks and kind blue eyes.
‘Val – Valentine,’ he said. She pressed her hand to his cheek and he instinctively leaned into her touch.
They had fallen asleep in each other’s arms and hadn’t turned off the lamp, the light of which was shining directly into his face. The eyes of which were still full of the war which had looked at her almost in disbelief when she had appeared on his doorstep only hours before.
‘I’m sorry,’ he stammered. ‘I must have frightened you. Don’t mind me. Please. Please, go back to sleep.’
‘Oh, Chrissie, you’re shaking.’
So he was, he thought. He remembered how his hands had shaken when holding that teacup at her house. The war did things like that to people. He was embarrassed to have woken her like this. On their first night together too.
He meant to apologise again but his throat was suddenly parched and instead he said ‘Water.’
She had risen to her feet before the word left his lips. Her expression told him that he was not to move from the bed. He obeyed. She left the drawing room, her slim figure wrapped in his shirt in lieu of a nightdress. She had not thought of bringing one as she had not known how she would be received much less being asked to live with him.
She was his mistress. But that word was barely adequate, it was even vaguely insulting. The word had hateful connotations and she was none of those. No, she was his wife, he thought, and he her husband. There had even been a ceremony – of sorts. They had dressed in their best. Well, at least as far as the continued war rationing had allowed them to. He in his uniform, she in her simple but enchanting white blouse and dark skirt. Then dancing, drinking, and the smashing of glasses. Gypsies do that at their weddings. Then when their guests had gone, they had fallen into each other’s arms…
He paused in his thoughts. And now she had just called him ‘Chrissie.’ He was most certain she did in the same loving, tender tones as she did whenever she said ‘my dear’. She had never called him that before. A burst of happiness went through him.
She was returning, a glass of water in her hand. No doubt he appeared very much like a child being looked after by…no, he could not think of Michael. He had already made up his mind. He was going to live with Valentine – no, he had already begun doing so. No more parades! Someone to talk to…intimate conversation…that was what peace meant for him and by Jove, he had it in the shape of Valentine Wannop.
The water soothed and calmed him but not as much as her presence did. Making one collect one’s nerves as well as one’s thoughts. He pulled the bedclothes over them and he held her close, simply enjoying the warmth and feel of her.
They were silent for a while with the quiet intimacy that comes with possession. Then she said:
‘You do know you can tell me anything. Anything at all.’
‘I know,’ he said. He thought of a last excuse to spare her the details. ‘But it’s to do with the War. Pacifist that you are, you’ll find it hateful.’
‘Oh, I don’t think my being a pacifist has anything to do with it,’ she said, seeing through his intention. ‘I’m not a schoolgirl anymore, you know, especially after –’
She flushed despite herself, instinctively glancing down at the both of them wrapped in each other’s embrace.
‘No,’ he smiled. ‘You are certainly not.’
‘Anyhow, that doesn’t mean I can’t talk of it. They were dropping bombs on us here too, you know. Even if they didn’t, we could barely escape it with the rationing and all. Every time I saw a newspaper, I wanted to scream. I didn’t of course, that would have been pointless. They’d only think you mad. In a mad world too if they ever cared to notice.’
So her thoughts too had run on the same lines as he had. It comforted him; it gratified him that she was thinking the same thoughts even when they were on opposite sides of the Channel…her mind so marched with his…
As for her, she was thinking too of what he must have suffered. And was still suffering. It struck her now that the War had not only been one of physical suffering – she had seen and felt his wound in his shoulder – but also one of mental torture. The War might be over but the immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds? That remained. Men might stand up on a hill, but the mental torture could not be expelled. She must comfort and listen and talk to him.
She listened as he spoke haltingly at first of the runner, O Nine Morgan. She learned of his lasting regret for not allowing the man to go home and understood his reasons for doing so. The poor man was sadly going to get killed either way; by a ‘candlestick’ in an air raid or being struck a mortal blow to the head once he arrived home. Poor O Nine Morgan. And yet also, poor Christopher! It tore at her gentle heart to learn of what he had suffered even when he had been miles away from the front.
Every now and then, he cast side glances at her, wondering whether she would start screaming at him to stop. It was perfectly understandable if she did. After all, this was a matter you don't generally talk to young ladies about, as Levin had put it.
But she never did. That was one of the things he loved about her. He could always be certain of being able to talk to her without feeling that his words were unwelcome and always knowing that she would have something to say in return. It thrilled him to know that he could now spend whole days just sitting with her and talking. It didn’t matter what they talked of, they always had found themselves able to converse about anything. The point is that they could talk without hindrance.
At length, he finished and the question he had pondered when he had held O Nine Morgan’s lifeless body in that wretched little hut returned to him. What would her expression be once she learned of the whole affair? He had decided then it would be one of disgust. It was most certainly going to be that.
And yet disgust was not on her face now. There was compassion, even understanding in her eyes which he was quite certain were steadily filling with tears.
‘But you saved a man’s life too, didn’t you? He told me, that lieutenant with the eye patch –’
‘Aranjuez, yes. That however was sheer coincidence. We were both blown up at the same time…’
He could still vividly recall the German machine guns coming to life and the bullets as they smacked into the earth behind him. He hadn’t even known he’d been hit until one of the men had pointed it out to him. The whole thing had been extremely muddy…and untidy. No beastly glory about it at all!
‘You shouldn’t be ashamed of that. You saved a life and if a pacifist soul like myself doesn’t recognise the good in that, I’d be heartless.’
‘Not you. You could never be heartless,’ he said and after reflecting a while, he added, ‘I suppose you would like to say what you said in the mist six years ago.’ How queer that in spite of much of his memory had irrevocably vanished; he could still remember everything that had passed between them during their ride that night!
‘What is it that I would like to say?’
‘The only thing that matters is to do good work.’
‘Oh, but it still is, isn’t it?’ she cried passionately. ‘More so now than ever before.’
‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘Good, honest work.’ He had long decided on doing that in making a living for the both of them in their new life together. But not in the army. Mark had seen to that after arranging an early demobilisation for him. He had not appreciated that as that way he had done him out of a couple of hundred pounds but what was done was done. Regardless, he was finished with the War. He had seen and experienced too much already. And as for the Department, they would never have him back, that was certain and he doubted he would be much good anyway with his diminished mental faculties. He wasn’t even certain now that he could find a way of making a living.
Guilt jolted him. What a precarious life he was offering her. That simply wasn’t done. Perhaps there was still a way out for her. It would break him, of course, if she really decided to….
But surely when a man and a woman have begun their intimate conversation, he argued against the myriad of thoughts pressing upon his mind like an unwanted weight. But he could not be certain that she felt that way too. A woman does not consent to go to bed with a man without feeling affection for him but the atmosphere last night had been a heady one and now in the greyness of a November morning with the fire burning low in the grate, it was now a time to think and reflect. Had they simply been carried away by the tide?
The answer came to him at once, firm and sure. No, they had not. The Armistice had merely had come on the same day that they chose to come together at last and in turn the day had taken an even greater and more glorious aspect. Their happiness had transferred itself to the others in that drawing room like a flame in brushwood…
But once again he felt compelled her to give her a choice. That was jannock. That was what a gentleman, if indeed he still was one, did.
He wanted to say, ‘My dear…’ Now he was calling her that too! And why ever not, he damn well wanted to. ‘I am not the man that I was before. My colours are in the mud and I – and you so beautiful and still so…’ Good God, it was difficult to put his thoughts into words.
The chirping of birds outside interrupted his train of thought. Thankfully. Or was he supposed to be thankful? Good birds. They heralded the start of a new day. The first full day of peace. Perhaps they did have wonderful instinct…although the RSM had spoken of skylarks and not sparrows then. A sign for him to keep his peace.
‘We got through the night,’ he said suddenly and then almost immediately wondered why he had said that.
She raised her dear golden head and looked him full in the face.
‘And we’ll get through the rest,’ she said with infinite gentleness, taking his hand in hers. There! She had sealed her fate and his with that single sentence. No turning back now. Not ever. They would do what they wanted and take what they got for it!
‘Do you need to get back to Ealing?’ he asked.
She had nearly forgotten about her mother. She had been too, too happy. Her mother had known where she had gone, of course. She had gone off like a shot to Gray’s Inn soon after speaking with Edith and had not seen her mother’s expression upon leaving the house.
‘I suppose I shall have to collect some of my things,’ she said. She was wondering what her welcome would be.
He squeezed her hand gently. ‘I’ll come with you.’
Mrs Wannop had thought a great deal over her daughter’s decision to live with Christopher Tietjens. In fact it kept her wide awake when in all probability she should have been sound asleep on the first night of Peace.
Valentine had telephoned her earlier that morning to say that she was coming over to collect some of her things and that Christopher was coming with her. She had not known how to react to that. As much as she frowned upon her daughter’s choices, Mrs Wannop was like her daughter, a woman of more than usual loyalty. That wasn’t to mean that she hadn’t tried pleading with her to reconsider but she would defend Valentine to the death if it came to that and like any loving mother wanted nothing more than for her child to be happy.
But she too was human. She truly believed that anger or cold disapproval would be the chief emotion she would experience upon hearing the front gate open.
The front gate did open and cold disapproval had obediently risen up within her bosom. Then the sound of two pairs of footsteps…and the door too had been pushed open.
However her disapproval died away when she saw them framed in the doorway. Valentine looked positively radiant, her cheeks slightly pink from the cold. Had she never noticed till now how beautiful her daughter was?
And then there was Christopher. It was almost a shock to see him again in civilian clothes. The velvet collar of his coat was worn in places and it along with his three-piece suit only made his thinner frame more noticeable. There was a weary, worn look about him; it would be a while before he could adapt to civvie life. Nevertheless, he too was happier than she had ever seen him. In that moment, she knew that she would never have the heart to separate them. Others may try, but she would not!
They looked at her and she at them. There was an awkward silence before Valentine took the first step.
‘Mother,’ she said, stepping forward. Her ears were turning pink too and Mrs Wannop knew that her daughter was ill at ease. She could never have Valentine uncomfortable in front of her and so she had embraced her and kissed her.
‘Valentine, dear,’ she said as she always did whenever she had come from school. It had felt quite usual, quite routine though the situation was certainly not.
Soon after, she was left alone with Christopher, Valentine having gone upstairs. Again, it felt quite usual, quite routine. She even prepared tea and for one moment, it seemed as if he had popped over to help her with one of her articles. He too seemed surprised at her hospitality, his piercing blue eyes fixed upon her in wonder as she set down the china. They sat at the table, ruminating over their teacups.
She said at last:
‘I’m so glad that you’re safe and sound, my dear boy.’
‘Thank you. I too am glad that the War left you all unscathed,’ he said but then stopped. He did not want to talk of the War; that conversation had gone on for four long years while the reverberations of that conversation would go on for much longer. It was time for Peace. For talk of standing on a hill with the one you loved. That was the reason why he had come with her to Ealing.
‘Mrs Wannop,’ he said. ‘I have asked Valentine to live with me and she has consented.’ His voice was ridiculously solemn when his insides were turning over with happiness just thinking of it, he thought. But he had always been such a serious person.
At his puzzled look, she said, ‘I can see it in your face. I can see it in hers and that’s not me as a novelist talking. You wouldn’t have come if you didn’t love her. I won’t pretend that it didn’t come as a shock to learn that she was in love with you and heaven knows I tried to persuade her to reconsider. Oh, please don’t take it as an insult by my doing so. You do know that I think of you almost as a son…’
He nodded. He could sympathise with her completely…he too thought of her almost as a mother and one of the reasons why he had never attempted to seduce her daughter till now was out of the respect he had for her.
She paused, looking into her cup. ‘But I knew it was in vain. She told me yesterday that she’d ruin herself gladly to make you happy for an hour. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.’
His eyes widened and glanced up the stairs. ‘Valentine –’
‘My daughter loves you, Christopher. For better or worse, I can’t say. To tell you quite frankly, I would have liked her to have fallen in love with a bachelor. But I doubt that any bachelor would be as good as you – for I believe you are good.’
She was quiet for a while and he was grateful for that. If she had spoken another word, he was certain he would have cried.
Then she said:
‘What will happen with Groby?’
He said in an almost absent, mechanical tone: ‘I’ve left it in my wife’s hands as well as my son’s. When Michael comes of age, he can decide what to do with it.’ He thought of the tree, of Sylvia’s last cruelty and murmured more to himself than to her, ‘I was one of the old guard and when the tree was felled so ended my post.’
Mrs Wannop’s face expressed horror. ‘The tree’s been felled? By your brother?’ He shook his head. ‘Mark has nothing to do with Groby.’
‘Then surely not by –’
‘Yes.’ He had said that quickly so that he did not have to hear her name. She was like anathema to him.
‘I never thought I’d see the day the Great Tree go down. The symbol of the Yorkshire Tietjens!’
Mrs Wannop was now speaking of his late father and how the poor man would have taken to the news but he was not listening. His attention was fixed on the good creature now above them, packing her things into perhaps her satchel or valise. He suddenly had the overwhelming urge to go upstairs and he had stood up from the table before he realised he had done so.
‘Forgive me, Mrs Wannop. I think I may go up. Valentine may need my assistance.’
She looked at him in bemusement but showed no objection to the idea.
‘Yes, I think she’ll appreciate that,’ was all he heard as he made his way up the stairs. Within moments, he was knocking on her door which had been left open.
‘Oh,’ she said, turning round and realising it was him. ‘I thought you were Mother.’
‘I asked to come up.’
He hovered around the doorway for a minute before finally making his way inside. He had never been upstairs before and of course, had never seen her room. It was modest and neatly kept, just like its owner. It was exactly the sort of room that he had sometimes envisaged her owning and that pleased him. A brown, rather battered-looking leather valise was open on her bed into which she was putting her clothes and belongings.
‘I shan’t be long,’ she said, returning to her packing. ‘Besides, I haven’t much to pack.’
He stepped closer to her and laid a hand on her arm. She stilled at his touch and turned to look at him.
‘When you said to your mother that you would ruin yourself gladly to make me happy for an hour, did you mean it?’ His voice was rough with emotion and she could see tears welling up in his eyes.
‘Every word of it.’
‘My darling Valentine,’ he murmured and she too could not hold back her own tears as they found themselves in each other’s arms in that tiny room. Just like her to be always a little bubbling spring that can be trusted to keep on…
She said softly:
‘Oh, my dear, we’ll make it through.’
And she knew she meant that too. The both of them did.