Danger At Downgate Hall – Part 1

Andre Leonard © Illustration of WW2 matron and army captain standing in front of stately home


As efficient Matron in the hospital wing of the hall, Alice took charming Captain Stamford in her stride…

The first bus arrived at ten-thirty. Ten soldiers were on board. Edward Jackson called them the “walking wounded”. They won’t be with us long. We are to patch them up and get them ready to go back.

This afternoon, the ambulances started to arrive. First, they came in ones and twos. Then we had a line queuing along the drive, all waiting to offload their charges, until one came up the drive the wrong way, causing chaos.

Those poor boys. For that is what they are mostly: just boys. Their bodies are wrecked, needing long-term rehabilitation.

For some, like poor Freddie, I fear there will be no escape from this nightmare…


Alice looked up from her journal.

“Another ambulance, I’m afraid.”

Edward Jackson took off his glasses to polish them on his white coat.

“Another one? I thought we were only supposed to receive thirty men.”

He nodded wearily.

“We were, but it seems the Kaiser and the War Office have other ideas. We have two spare beds and two side rooms. I know you’re off duty…”

“What do you need me to do?”

Edward smiled in gratitude.

“See to the soldier in the ambulance. If he’s an officer he gets a side room, if he’s not he gets the ward. I’ll be along to assess his injuries.”

Alice headed towards the glass door that led to the atrium of Downgate Hall. Once a grand family house, its west wing was now a place of convalescence, while the family had moved into the east wing.

The ambulance was parked in front of the fountain, the driver leaning against his door smoking a cigarette.

“Miss.” He tipped his cap to her.

“Good evening.” She went to the back of the ambulance. An orderly sat on a bench inside. “Who have we here?”

The orderly checked his notes.

“Captain Matthew Stamford. Shrapnel wound to the thigh. Reckon he’s got some kind of fever an’ all,” the man said. “He’s been raving all the way from London.”

“When you say he’s got a fever, does it say that in his records or is that just your considered medical opinion?” Alice asked.

“It don’t say nothing in his records but he’s been shouting and throwing hisself about. He only went quiet about twenty minutes ago. Wore his self out, I reckon.”

Alice climbed into the back of the ambulance. Captain Stamford’s dark hair was slick, his cheeks flushed, and she could see beads of sweat on his forehead which felt clammy to her touch.

“Help me with the stretcher,” Alice commanded.

“Don’t you have any men to help you?”

“We had two orderlies helping us earlier, but they went home. We weren’t expecting any more patients tonight. Now, if you wouldn’t mind?”

The man nodded.

“Driver!” Alice called. “Open the front door for us, please.”

The driver of the ambulance hastily stubbed out his cigarette.

“Shall I take the stretcher for you instead, Miss?”

“That won’t be necessary. I can manage quite well.”

“Knows her own mind, this one, Bill,” the orderly said. He made it sound like it was a bad thing not something to be encouraged.

Alice hid her smile. She knew independence in a woman sparked disapproval in some men. She was used to such a reaction. In the days before the war, when she had proudly donned her Suffragette sash, she had often
been the subject of vitriol and abuse, simply for standing up for what she believed in. The disapproval of an orderly was nothing by comparison.

With the help of two of her nurses, Alice soon got Captain Stamford settled in a side room and the ambulance was sent on its way. Now she watched as Doctor Jackson examined him.

“The leg wound is messy but not infected. They obviously did the best they could at the field hospital. Check him hourly. If his fever worsens, wake me.”

After her customary tour of the ward, Alice went into the captain’s room. Once more in the grip of his fever, he was thrashing about. Alice fetched a bowl of water and a cloth and gently touched the damp cloth to the captain’s face.

“Need to tell them,” he said, his voice clear and strong.

“It’s all right, Captain.”

“Need to tell them!”

“I’ll tell them, Captain. Now quieten down, your men are trying to sleep.”

Suddenly his eyes flew open. Startled, Alice found herself looking into the darkest brown eyes she’d ever seen. He grabbed her wrist and, alarmed, Alice cried out.

“Need to tell them to stop!” he said in an anguished tone.

Recovering herself, Alice put down the cloth and covered the captain’s hand with her own.

“I’ll tell them, Captain. I promise, but only if you do something for me.”

He stared at her intently.

“I need you to rest now. If you keep shouting, you’ll wake your men and they need their sleep, too.”

“Promise you’ll tell them?”

“You have my word, Captain.”

She gently lifted his fingers from her wrist, but she met with no resistance as his eyes closed and he fell back on to the pillow.

Alice put the bowl on the side table and went back to the ward. Surveying the beds of broken bodies, Alice knew she would like nothing better than to tell them to stop and bring this carnage to an end.

Sadly, she didn’t think anyone would listen. Even if it did all end tomorrow, it would be too late for her own beloved.

Tears pooled in her eyes and she dashed them away with an impatient hand.

Settling at her desk, Alice lit her oil lamp and began to update patient notes.

Forty minutes later, she put down her pen and looked to the large, unshuttered window. The black night reflected the sight of her sitting at her desk, her oil lamp shielded from the men by a pile of medical journals.

Just as she was about to look away, she saw a flash of light coming from the woods.

Easing back her chair, Alice walked to the window. Who would have any business in the woods at this time of night? The Hall’s gamekeeper had long since left for the Front.

As Alice watched, there was another flash of light. Perhaps it was one of the older men from the village seeking a rabbit for his table?

She checked the clock on the wall behind her desk. It was time for her to do her rounds. She would leave the interloper to his poaching, but made a note to mention it to Sir Thomas next time she saw him. If there was a poacher laying traps in the woods, she would not want one of her men stumbling across them.

The afternoon was bright and sunny, the promise of summer just around the corner. Alice cast a careful eye around the ward when she came back on duty.

“All ship shape and Bristol fashion, then, Matron?”

She turned to find Sir Thomas Grenville in the doorway.

“As always, Sir Thomas.”

He nodded, satisfied. “Splendid. Keep up the good work.” He turned to leave.

“Sir… might I have a brief word?”

“Of course. My study?”

The study was a room Alice had only had the pleasure of entering on a handful of occasions. As Sir Thomas’s inner sanctum, it was off limits. Book-lined walls and rich, ox-blood-red Chesterfield sofas and chairs gave the space a timeless feel.

Her gaze swept the titles closest to her; heavy tomes of military history standing alongside Dickens and Shakespeare.

“You are a book lover, Matron?”

Alice nodded and smiled. “This room reminds me of a time before the War.”

“Sadly, the War invades even this room,” he said. “Perhaps this room more than most.”

Sir Thomas stroked his moustache as he looked down at the papers on his desk. Clearly distracted, he looked as though he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Alice thought twice about adding to his burden but decided the risk to her men was simply too great for her fears not to be addressed.

“I’m sorry to trouble you with this, Sir Thomas, but last night at just before two in the morning, I saw a light in the woods.”

He looked up sharply. “A light, you say?”

“Yes, a couple of flashes… a lantern, maybe? I thought perhaps a poacher. I have no wish to get anyone into trouble, Sir Thomas. Were it not for my patients’ wellbeing, I would not have thought to mention it to you. But I’m concerned that if they were to lay traps, one of my men may, when out taking the air, stumble upon it and cause themselves further injury.”

Sir Thomas stared out of the window towards the woods.

“You’ve done the right thing in bringing this to my attention, Matron. I will organise a search.”

“Thank you, Sir Thomas.”

It was late afternoon when Alice looked up from her desk. Sir Thomas and Lady Mary’s children, Thomas Junior, Daphne and Rose were gathered on the lawn, preparing for an afternoon walk with their Governess, Rosamunde. The group’s attention seemed to be centred on a point to the right of the house.

Alice craned her neck and saw what attracted such interest from the children.

Gathered on the back lawn were a team of men, mostly older villagers. Sir Thomas seemed to be issuing instructions, and as she watched, the group fanned out towards the woods.

Reassured that Sir Thomas had acted with such alacrity, Alice returned her attention to her charges, spending time at each bedside in turn.

Her final patient was the captain. After a troubled night he had settled, finally, at around five am, just as she was going off duty.

As she adjusted the curtains to shield the captain from the sun, she was startled by his voice.

“Leave it, please. It’s nice to have the sun on my face.”

Alice approached the bed. Placing her hand over his forehead, she studied his gaze. His eyes were bright and lucid.

He smiled and Alice was taken aback to feel her heart turn over. Captain Stamford was a very handsome man.

“Do I pass muster?” he asked.

“You’ll do,” she said briskly and tucked in his sheet.

“Where am I?”

“Downgate Hall. A convalescent home in Oxfordshire.”

“When did I get here?”

“Yesterday. You were in the grip of a fever. Do you remember?”

“I’m afraid I don’t, no. Did I make a terrible nuisance of myself?”

“You did rather,’”she said, mirroring his slight smile. “You were quite vocal.”

“Did I tell you my secrets?” he asked.

Alice laughed. This was fun, but she had work to do.

“Your secrets are safe,
Captain. You merely asked me to tell them to stop. Although you were quite insistent about it, as I recall.”

She watched a shadow fall across his face.

“No harm done,” she said swiftly, thinking he was worried about the trouble he’d caused.

“If only that were true,” he said wistfully.

She saw it then, the turmoil beneath the calm facade, a whirlwind of emotions held in check by a stiff upper lip and an educated accent. As quickly as she’d glimpsed it, it was gone, hidden once more beneath the urbane exterior.

“You should get some rest, Captain.”

She turned to leave.


“Matron,” she corrected.

“I beg your pardon, Matron. You’re very young to have progressed so far.”

“I’m not so young,” she countered.

“But very pretty, you won’t deny that?”

She smiled. “I fear you may be feverish once more, Captain.”

He eased himself up in the bed. Alice pursed her lips. He clearly had no intention of following her orders to rest.

“I can assure you I am quite recovered. Thanks in large part, I suspect, to your expert care.”

“It is Doctor Jackson you should thank, Captain, not I.”

“Please stop calling me captain. It really is quite tiresome. My name is Matthew.”

“It would be inappropriate for me to address you in such a way, Captain,” Alice said, stiffly.

“What’s your name?” he persisted.

“You can call me Matron and I shall call you Captain, as befits your station.”

“I will find out, you know,” he said, with an easy smile. “I’ll make it my mission.”

“I would prefer it if you made it your mission to get better.”

“As you wish, a man can have two missions,” he replied.

Deciding that the captain was utterly incorrigible, she turned again to leave.

“A moment longer, please. I want to be moved to the ward with the other men.”

“Officers have private rooms.”

“As befitting my station, no doubt. Nevertheless, I want to be moved.”

“You won’t feel the sun on your face in the ward.” Alice pointed out.

“That will be of some regret to me but alas, it is a price that must be paid. I served alongside the men, Matron. I fought alongside them. It is the least I can do to heal alongside them, too, don’t you think?”

Alice considered his words.

“Very well. I will make arrangements for the orderlies to move you later today. In the meantime, I suggest you rest and enjoy the sun on your face a while longer.”

“I am obliged, Matron.”

Alice was seated at Freddie’s bedside, reading to him, when she saw the search party return. Shortly afterwards, Sir Thomas entered the ward.

“Might I trouble you, Matron?”

Alice closed the book and touched young Freddie’s arm. “To be continued anon,” she said.

Freddie nodded; his badly injured face almost completely lost beneath a swathe of bandages.

“That poor soldier has suffered more than most,” Sir Thomas commented when they were once again in his study.

Alice nodded.

“Shrapnel. It wreaks such terrible havoc upon men’s bodies.”

“Indeed.” Stroking his moustache, Sir Thomas told Alice, “We were unable to locate any traps.”

“Perhaps what I saw was nothing more than a lovers’ tryst,” Alice said, relieved.

Sir Thomas fixed his hands behind his back and rocked on the balls of his feet.

“I would like to think that were so, but I fear it could be something more… worrisome.”


“My job at the War Office means I have access to certain delicate material. Material we would not want falling into the wrong hands. I have been concerned for some time that my section has been infiltrated by a spy but now, I fear, that spy may be closer to home than I imagined.”

“A German spy?” Alice sank, unbidden, into one of the armchairs.

“Your discretion in this matter is of course crucial.”

Recovering herself, Alice nodded.

“What are we going to do?”

“We are going to flush them out, Matron,” Sir Thomas replied.

“But how?”

“I believe someone who has had access to my keys has taken a copy for themselves.

“I shall use that against them by placing a decoy set of papers entitled Operation Rabbit where they might stumble upon them. If news of the operation makes it into the wider world, we shall know from whence it came.”

Alice edged forwards in her seat. “And then what?”

“And then I shall do all I can to catch the scoundrel.”

“What can I do to assist?”

“If you could continue to surveil the woods whenever you are able, that would be most helpful.”

“Of course,” Alice said, standing.

Sir Thomas walked her to the door.

“We must brace ourselves, Matron, for I fear the culprit is probably someone well known to both of us. We are, after all, such a tight knit community here.”

A spy in their midst? Could it really be true? Alice returned to the ward, her mind spinning from the shock of her conversation with Sir Thomas.

She looked at Edward Jackson hunched over his desk, writing reports, Nurse O’Brien changing Freddie’s dressing. Unsettled, Alice cast her gaze once more towards the woods which had now taken on a sinister air.

“A penny for your thoughts, Matron?”

Distracted, she glanced over to the bed at the far end of the room.

“I would not sell my thoughts so cheaply, Captain.”

He laughed. “Quite right, too!”

Pushing Sir Thomas’s unsettling news to the back of her mind, Alice walked over to the captain’s bedside.

“Do you approve of your new home?”

He looked about him. “I would wager a man would go a long way to find a spot as conducive to healing as this. And as a consequence, I find myself once again in your debt, Matron.”

He made an elaborate gesture with his hand and bowed his head in deference.

Alice placed the back of her hand against the captain’s forehead. It felt cool. She nodded satisfied.

“Get some rest, then, Captain.”

“You too, Alice.” He winked conspiratorially.

So, he had been true to his word and found out her name, and in double quick time, too.

As she walked away, a hint of a smile crossed Alice’s face. She would have to keep an eye on Captain Stamford.

To be continued: Captain Stamford confides in Alice but later she finds herself in a dangerous situation…

Look out for Part 2 of this thrilling mini serial from our archives on Monday. And don’t forget, there are 4 or more lovely brand new short stories in My Weekly magazine every week! Subscribe here for a great discount.