Danger At Downgate Hall – Part 2


Alice is drawn to the captain, but she finds herself in danger – and what do they want with her journal?

It came to me today as I held young Freddie while he cried. The look I recognised in his eyes – in so many of their eyes – but had struggled to place.

I recalled, back on my parents’ farm, helping Ma in the kitchen, chopping vegetables when a blackbird flew straight at the window. It hit the glass with such a bang that I cried out in alarm, dropping the knife and almost toppling from the stool upon which I stood to reach the counter.

Ma fetched a wooden box, filled it with straw and placed the stricken bird inside, settling the box in her kitchen garden.

“He’ll need to rest, Alice. He’s winded and paralysed by shock.”

“Will he be all right?” I asked.

“Nothing appears to be broken. Sit with him awhile. I’m sure your presence will help him to heal.”

The boys – my boys – have the same look in their eyes as that frightened blackbird. They are paralysed by shock. My blackbird flew away as if nothing had happened an hour or so later. Would that my boys could all recover as speedily and as well but I fear it is not to be.

Alice looked up from her journal to find a tall, willowy woman in a pale lemon dress standing in front of her.

“I would like a word, Matron. In private,” the younger woman said.

“Of course.” Alice showed her into an empty side room. “How may I help, Miss…”

“Stamford. I understand you ordered that Captain Stamford be moved on to the ward with the other soldiers.”

“That is correct.”

“I want my brother moved back to a private room immediately. It is not seemly for an officer of his rank to be on a ward alongside the lower ranks and –”

“Miss Stamford, it was the captain himself who asked to be moved.”

“He was delirious from the fever he suffered on admittance. You should have known better than to pay any heed.”

Alice stiffened. “On the contrary, Miss Stamford, your brother was entirely lucid when he spoke to me of his desire to be moved. The fever had quite subsided by then and he made his wishes very clear.”

The woman rolled her eyes.

“Egalitarian nonsense. Sometimes my brother needs to be protected from himself. I am afraid he might catch something.”

She took a lace handkerchief from her bag and held it beneath her nose. Alice glimpsed two initials: OS.

“I can assure you, Miss Stamford, our hygiene standards are of the very highest level. I would settle for nothing less.”

“Is that your way of telling me you will not move him?”

“I will not move him unless he asks to be moved and then I can only comply if I have room to do so.”

The woman made a show of looking around her. “Which clearly you do.”

“At the moment,” Alice replied. “But at the moment, he has not asked to be moved.”

The woman pursed her lips. “How long will he be here?”

“Perhaps you might like to speak to Doctor Jackson?” Alice offered.

“I have spoken to him,” the woman said crisply. “And now I am speaking to you.”

“The captain has a badly wounded leg which will take some time to heal. He has also suffered a number of lacerations and pieces of shrapnel remain embedded in his thigh.” She saw the woman wince. “I am sorry to be so blunt. Forgive me.”

The woman waved her handkerchief.

“Sometimes one needs to be blunt. Will he be able to father children?”

Alice had long ago learned to hide her surprise beneath a veneer of professionalism, but the question struck her as odd, coming as it did from a sister and not a wife or sweetheart.

“Yes. He suffered no injury to that region.” Softening, Alice added, “The captain’s long-term prognosis is good. It is hoped he will make a full recovery.”

“Except for a limp. The doctor said he would be left with a limp.”

“Except for that,” Alice agreed. “I know that must be difficult to hear, Miss Stamford, but many men are not so lucky.” She nodded curtly. “If that is all…” Alice walked towards the door.

“Wait! As you will not move my brother to a private room, you should know I will hold you personally responsible for his wellbeing while he remains on the ward.”

Alice bit back the sharp retort she would have liked to deliver and instead said, “I will do my very best to look after the captain, as I do with all my patients.”

The woman smiled but there was no warmth in her expression.

“Persuade him to move back into a private room, Matron, and then I will believe you have done your very best to look after him.”

Fuming about Miss Stamford’s irrationality and general condescension, Alice returned to the ward, grimfaced.

“Is everything all right, Matron?” Sir Thomas was standing beside the nurses’ station.

Alice settled a smile on her face. “A worried relative, nothing more. What can I do for you, Sir?”

“The matter we talked about, Matron. It is in place. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Sir Thomas looked about him. “I wonder if I might spend some time with our young patients?”

“By all means, Sir. I’m sure they would welcome it.”

As Sir Thomas began to talk to the men, Alice noticed Miss Stamford sweep out of the room. She made no attempt to acknowledge Alice as she left.

The captain beckoned her over.

“I see you’ve spoken to Luscious Liv.”

“I’m sorry?”

“My sister. I saw the two of you step into my old room.”

“Yes. She wanted to speak to me. She was anxious about you,” Alice said, automatically smoothing out the captain’s counterpane as she spoke.

It was probably true, Alice reasoned. Worry and fear often made people appear ruder than they might otherwise have been.

“Heaven forbid I would do something as inconvenient as die on her,” the captain remarked dryly. “You’re shocked, Matron.”

“I am a nurse. I am unshockable.”

His lips twitched at that. She suspected he would see her words as a challenge.

“Have you ever been married, Matron?”

“I do not see how my marital status is of relevance. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

“I’m afraid I won’t,” the captain said. “Excuse you, I mean. Sit with me a while.”

“I’m a nurse, Captain, not a companion.”

“Aren’t you here to minister to my spirit as well as to my body?”

“Is your spirit in need of healing?’”she asked, arching an eyebrow.

“I fear it is almost beyond repair.”

Alice could not help but laugh. “Then you need a man of the cloth, not a nurse.”

“Ah, the clergy, a noble profession,” he said in a tone that conveyed quite the opposite impression.

“Are you not a believer, Captain?” Alice asked in surprise, then added, “Forgive me. That’s none of my business.”

“Please, call me Matthew,” he said.

“We have had this conversation –”

“It would not be fitting, I know, you said. But perhaps when it is just the two of us, we might be permitted to be a little less formal?

“Particularly as I will continue to call you Alice. In the circumstances, it would be almost impolite not to call me Matthew in return, don’t you think?”

There was a logic to his words which could not be denied. She lifted his wrist to take his pulse.

“Perhaps. I will consider it.”

“I would be obliged.” He smiled wryly. “I imagine it’s racing.”

“I’m sorry?”

He nodded to his wrist.

“My pulse, I imagine it’s racing. What with the frosty encounter with Luscious Liv and my ever delightful discourse with you. It’s a lot for a man to deal with in my weakened state.”

“On the contrary, you seem to be dealing with it remarkably well, Captain. Your pulse is entirely normal.” Alice updated his notes.

“You underestimate your healing abilities, Alice.

“My spirit was laid quite low by my sister’s visit and you have lifted it miraculously. I am in your debt.”

Alice turned to walk away.

“She wanted you to move me back into a private room, didn’t she?”

Alice hesitated. She didn’t think she was breaking any confidence in confirming his suspicion. After all, her duty of care was to him, not his sister. She nodded.

“You told her no?’”

“I told her it was your decision to make.”

The captain chuckled. “And how did she react? It’s all right, I can guess. Did she ask you if I could still father children? I’m sure she did. It was practically the first thing out of her mouth after she said good morning to me.”

“It’s only natural she would be fearful if she didn’t know the extent of your injuries,” Alice said reasonably.

“Natural is not a word I have come to associate with Olivia. Once, maybe, but no longer. My words shock you even though you purport to be unshockable. Forgive me.”

“It is not I you should be seeking forgiveness from.”

“You think I speak too harshly of Olivia?”

“I think should any brother of mine ever speak so unkindly of me I would be terribly hurt by it.”

“So, you think me a cad? I can assure you I’m not. At least, not without provocation.”

Alice twitched the blanket and kept her own counsel.

“Did she make any mention of coming back?” Alice shook her head. “One must be grateful for small mercies.”

Before Alice could respond, one of the soldiers at the far end of the ward began to weep softly. She suspected it was Freddie again.

“As you can hear, I am needed elsewhere, Captain.”

He nodded. “Then, of course, you must make haste. Thank you for not giving in to her. I find myself once again in your debt, Alice. It is becoming something of a habit, if an agreeable one.”

Alice’s billeted room was in the west wing of Downgate Hall. Furnished simply, it held a bed, a wardrobe and an armchair. There was a washstand in the corner and a desk and chair in front of the small window.

Lighting a candle, Alice sat at her desk and opened her journal.

They are ruined by the inhumanity of man to man. We can minister to their wounds but quite how we are to heal the damage to their souls is, at the moment, quite beyond me…

The knock at the door pulled Alice from her thoughts.

Nurse Mitchell, their youngest recruit, stood in the hallway.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Matron. It’s Freddie. He won’t settle and he’s keeping the other men awake. I’ve tried reading to him, but he says no one reads to him like you do. Would you mind? I think a chapter should do it.”

Alice had taken to reading to the men a few months before. They seemed to find it soothing as long as the subject matter was good enough to transport them away from their present difficulties. Dickens had been quickly spurned but the men were currently enjoying Treasure Island.

Alice licked her fingers and snuffed out her candle before leaving the room.

As predicted, Freddie was asleep three pages in. Alice quietly closed the book and left it on his bedside table.

As she stood, the captain caught her gaze. In the low light of the night-time ward he mouthed the words, “Thank you.”

She nodded her head in acknowledgement. She watched as he levered himself up and gestured her over.

“About earlier,” he began in an undertone. “I made my family a promise before the War. A promise Liv wants me to keep.

“But war changes a man. If I break my promise, it will impact Liv more than anyone else, hence our somewhat strained relationship.

“For some reason, I am yet to fathom, I wanted you to know that, and to ask you not to judge me too harshly.”

“War changes us all,” Alice said softly.

He nodded. “The world will never be as it once was, but I believe a new world is coming. A better one.”

“Better for whom?” Alice asked.

“All of us, I hope,” he said. “Tell me, what does your better world look like, Alice?”

She gazed across the ward. “I would like to see an end to illness and suffering. But perhaps more realistically, in the short-term, emancipation for all women.”

“You were a Suffragette before the War?”

“I still am.”

“It’s a noble cause. I think it will be hard to deny all folk the vote when the War ends. Assuming we win, of course,” he said, with a smile. “May I say you have a wonderful way with young Freddie.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“It’s the truth. I’ve seen enough bad things in this world to know that when I see good it should be celebrated,” he said

“You have quite a way with words, Captain.” She smiled. “Were you a writer?”

He laughed and shook his head. Alice put her finger to her lips to quiet him.

“I helped manage the family farm, but I like your description far more. It makes me sound interesting, perhaps even bordering on rakish, don’t you think?” He smiled.

“Do you aspire to be rakish?”

“Doesn’t everyone?” he rejoined.

She smiled. “Get some sleep, Matthew.”

“You too, Alice. Goodnight.”

Back in her room, Alice relit her candle. Preparing to return to her journal, she reached for her fountain pen but her hand froze in mid air. The pen, which she was certain she had left nestled between the open pages of her journal, now rested on the desk beside it.

Stunned, Alice looked closer. The half-finished sentence she had been writing when interrupted by Nurse Mitchell was no longer facing her. The journal had been flipped several pages further back.

Could a breeze have caused the disturbance, or…?

Alice looked around her in alarm. Had someone been in her room? Peering down at the desk she noticed a spot of wax on the opposite side to her own candle.

The culprit had obviously tilted their candle to read her journal and the wax had dripped from its holder.

Alice rubbed her thumb over the wax. Why would anyone be interested in her journal?

But of course! It had to be the spy. Perhaps they had seen her in conversation with Sir Thomas and were curious to find out more.

As her fingers moved tentatively across the page, Alice shivered as she wondered whose fingers had touched the pages but a few moments before. Then, striding to the door, she pulled it open and looked out.

The corridor was empty. The house was quiet apart from the usual night-time creaking that all old houses experienced.

Nevertheless, Alice took up a vase and, guided only by the moonlight slicing through the windows, moved silently along the hallway.

If there really was a spy at large in the house that night, she knew that she had a duty to try to find him.

At the intersection where the west wing joined the central part of the house, Alice could see what looked like a deepening of the shadows at the far end.

Hardly daring to breathe, she willed her eyes to focus. Was it a trick of the moonlight playing on the folds of one of the ancient tapestries that hung from the walls or was it a figure seeking concealment?

Although her heart was fit to jump out of her chest, Alice moved forward, determined to find out, holding the vase aloft and ready to strike.

As she neared the tapestry, she could see the darkening shadow was not sinister after all. It had instead been caused by a poorly fastened wooden shutter casting an angled shadow upon the wall and the floor.

With her heart rate easing, Alice lowered the vase and re-fixed the shutter.

She was about to return to her room when she felt a chill around her ankles.

It was coming from the direction of the back stairs.

Alice edged down the stairs as quietly as she could. As she reached the bottom, she could see that the scullery door was ajar.

Hoisting the vase once more, she moved through the scullery and stepped on to the gravel path.

The moonlight lit the night as if it were day. Alice checked left and right but there was no sign of any intruder. With a final glance over her shoulder, Alice returned to the house.

Before she had a chance to react, someone lunged at her from the darkness, a shape with no definition.

A sharp blow to the side of her head sent an explosion of colour across her vision and she pitched to the tiled floor, the vase shattering beside her.

Colours swirled in front of her eyes as Alice fought to hold on to her consciousness. She willed her mouth to work, to cry out and raise the alarm, but no sound came.

Among the bright, dancing colours, she could see the fuzzy outline of a figure wearing a black coat and a dark hat, running from the house. But the object that drew her gaze, the last thing she remembered before she was forced to close her eyes, was the sight of her journal in the assailant’s hand.

To be continued: As Alice recovers from her attack by a mystery assailant, she decides to confide in Matthew…

Look out for Part 3 of this thrilling mini serial from our archives on Thursday. 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.