PART 3 OF OUR MINI SERIAL
Alice and the captain grow closer, but when danger comes, will their true feelings surface?
Alice smoothed down her uniform. It had been two weeks since the attack and although she had been ready to return to work after a few days,Sir Thomas had insisted that she rest, first with her family and then at the Hall. Now, it felt good to be back where she belonged.
“Have you heard the news?” Freddie asked. “I’m to be transferred. Doctor Jackson says there’s a chap called Harold Gillies, a New Zealander, who is doing extraordinary things for people like me.
“I shall be sorry to leave, of course, but if he can help me, wouldn’t that be marvellous?”
Alice patted Freddie’s hand. “Indeed, it would.” She looked up to find the captain watching her. “And how are you, Captain?”
“All the better for seeing you, Matron.” He smiled broadly.
“Doctor Jackson tells me you have started to mobilise.”
“Makes me sound like I am on manoeuvres,” he said. Then, more quietly, he added, “I don’t like the stick.”
“Think of it as a temporary precaution rather than a permanent addition.”
“Wise words, as always,” he said. “I’ve missed you. How’s your head?”
“Fine, thank you.”
“A slip in the scullery, I hear?”
“Yes.” It made her sound foolish and clumsy, but the subterfuge was necessary.
“Perhaps you would do me the honour of taking a turn with me around the gardens later?” the captain asked.
“I should like that,” Alice replied.
The afternoon sun was warm as Alice and the captain walked among the flowerbeds.
“I had forgotten the majesty of springtime in England,” he said as he looked up at the blue sky.
“Have you been in the Army long?”
“I joined the day after the Arch-Duke was assassinated.”
“That was brave of you.”
“Depends on your reasons for leaving,” he said. “Some might call it a handy excuse. I think they were Liv’s words.”
To their left there was a wooden bench screened by bushes. The captain turned towards it.
As he sat down, Alice noted how he cast the stick aside and kicked it under the bench.
“What were you doing in the scullery?”
“I had gone for a glass of water. I heard a noise and went to investigate. The floor was wet and I slipped.”
The captain regarded her with a serious look.
“You don’t strike me as the type to slip so easily. Did someone hit you?”
His words winded her. Recovering herself quickly, she said, “Goodness me, no! Whatever made you ask such a thing?”
“There was some talk among the nurses, the word assault was mentioned.”
“What else did they say?” Alice asked.
“That you had been moved from the nurses’ quarters to the family wing.”
Alice watched the bees on the nearby lavender bushes.
She should have realised she would be the subject of gossip.
It was only natural in a community such as Downgate, but still it left her feeling exposed and vulnerable.
“Did someone hit you?” he asked again, gently persistent.
She had tried so hard not to indulge her fear following the attack, nor give in to self-pity, but oftentimes, when alone at night, as the old house creaked and sighed around her, her shoulder blades would prickle, her hands would become clammy and she would feel weak and stupid for having been a victim.
Now, those feelings threatened to engulf her once more, as she found herself almost undone by the tenderness of the captain’s gaze.
“We should be…”
“Please, tell me what happened.”
He took her hand before she had a chance to resist.
Tears conspired against her, gathering treacherously in her eyes. She turned her head so that she might compose herself as the first teardrop fell. A swipe of her free hand brushed it aside but there was no
disguising the action for what it was.
“Alice.” He said her name with such kindness it undid her a little more. “Violence is shocking in any form. Violence that is unprovoked is the most shocking of all. That such a thing should happen to you is unconscionable.
“Please, let one upon whom you have bestowed many kindnesses return the gesture. Do not make the mistake I did, Alice. Do not equate strength with the suppression of emotion. Know that, with me, you are at liberty to give free rein to your feelings and I shall neither judge you for it nor speak of it again unless you wish me to do so.”
She let his words wash over her; a balm to her soul. Here was someone telling her that it was alright to give in to her feelings, if but for a moment.
Unable to hold back her tears any longer, Alice broke down.
Matthew’s arm around her shoulders was as welcome as it was unexpected.
Even after the storm of her emotions had abated, Alice remained cocooned within his arms, enjoying the feel of his comforting embrace, uncaring at that moment for convention.
Here was someone who understood, someone with whom she could be herself without artifice.
Could her heart, grown cold since the loss of her beloved, be ready to love again, she wondered? Might he have feelings for her?
She studied his face as he tilted it towards the sun. Open and honest, she knew instinctively his was a soul she could trust with a secret so grave she had been assaulted to protect it.
And so, the words tumbled forth, from the lights in the woods, to the disturbed pages of her journal, to the shadowy figure running away. When she was done, it was as though a weight had been lifted from her.
“One forgets there is a war to be fought even at home,” Matthew said quietly.
“Was there anything in your journal that might cause concern?”
Alice shook her head.
“And Sir Thomas is gone to London in the hope the spy has fallen for his ruse?”
“Yes. You must speak of this to no one, Matthew. Not even Sir Thomas when he returns.”
“You have my word.”
“We should be getting back,” Alice said, regret in her voice.
“My eyes must be in a frightful state. Goodness knows how I am to explain them.”
She felt the reassuring touch of Matthew’s hand in the small of her back as they stood.
“I’m told hay fever can do that sometimes,” he said.
A conspiratorial smile passed between them and, for the first time since the attack, Alice felt the fear that had wound its way into her soul begin, ever so slowly, to recede. In its place, hope flourished.
Both Doctor Jackson and Alice were keen to promote the benefits of fresh air to their charges. Those that could not leave their beds were wheeled to open windows or doors so that they might look upon the gardens.
Those more able were encouraged to walk in the grounds accompanied by a member of staff, lest anyone should get into difficulty.
It was one such afternoon a week later when Alice and Matthew stepped out together once more.
“I’m feeling strong today,” Matthew declared. “Let’s stroll through the woods.”
Alice gave him a sharp look.
“There is nothing to find there. Sir Thomas had the grounds searched when I first raised the alarm. Besides, is it not a little far?”
“If it’s too much for me, I will say,” he assured her.
Following the rough tracks cut through the trees, the Hall was soon lost behind them.
Alice heard the pitter patter of raindrops before she felt the first drop, so thick was the foliage above their heads, and then the clouds burst and the rain began to hammer down in earnest, releasing a strong, earthy scent.
“Look there! A building.”
“It’s the woodsman’s cottage,” Alice told him.
“Will he mind giving us shelter?”
A shadow passed over Alice’s face.
“He is no longer there. He died at the Somme.”
Matthew cast open the door and ushered Alice inside. The woodsman’s cottage consisted of one room divided into a sitting area and a sleeping area. A large fireplace dominated the space.
Alice had never been inside the cottage before. The previous occupant’s things had been removed so just the bare bones were left – cooking utensils, bedding, a table and chairs – all waiting for a new person to breathe life into them.
A half-burned candle stood forlornly in the window.
“It’s a little basic.”
A smile twitched on Alice’s lips. “You are used to more salubrious surroundings?” she teased.
Matthew laughed. “Salubrious? I’m a farmer’s son.”
“Tenant or owner?” She could not resist.
He bowed his head to concede the point. “Owner.”
“My family are from farming stock, too, not far from Downgate. The tenanted kind, however.”
“You mock me Alice, but I could live here within this idyllic wood.”
Alice laughed. “You do not strike me as a man used to the rigours of drawing water from a well. Perhaps your fever is returning?”
“My body is healing,” he said. Then, all trace of humour suddenly gone, he added, “As for the rest of me…” He limped over to the window. “I cannot say.”
“You are tired from our walk and the rain has given you a melancholy air.”
“Tell me, Alice, do you hope to ever marry some day?”
Taken aback, Alice said, “I had hoped to marry a local man once. He, too, was killed at the Somme.”
Matthew’s gaze had been unflinching as he had listened to her speak and yet he offered her no condolence as he turned back to the window.
There was, however, a sadness etched upon his face. It was a side to him she had glimpsed only briefly since she had known him; a wound to his soul not yet fully revealed.
Alice hesitated then placed her hand upon his shoulder.
“Sometimes a trouble shared…”
He nodded. “I find myself bound in servitude to my family by a debt of honour as thoroughly as I am bound in servitude to my King when I took his shilling and joined his army.
“My grandfather was a gambling man who was forced to sell a portion of our land to a neighbour. My father wants to bring that land back into our ownership and to do that he wishes me to marry the present landowner’s daughter, Violet.
“Her father, who is without a male heir, struck an agreement with mine many years ago.
“As mere children, Violet and I were betrothed as though we were still living in mediaeval times.
“Now, my father is sickening and determined to see the deed done before his time on this earth is over.
“His would be a flawless plan were it not for the fact that Violet’s heart is given to another and I have no wish to marry a woman who does not wish to marry me.
“Violet dare not go against her father’s wishes, however.
“Meanwhile, my reticence has caused a rift within my family, hence the tension between Olivia and I.
“My sister is motivated in great part by the fact she herself has lost her heart to our farm manager. Once Violet and I are married, my father has indicated his consent to Olivia’s union.
“If Violet and I are not joined in holy matrimony, Olivia fears our father will seek instead to marry her off to Violet’s widowed father. A prospect Olivia rightly dreads.
“I am therefore caught on the horns of a dilemma. Either make my family happy and myself miserable or vice versa.”
“What an intolerable position to be in!” Alice said.
Matthew nodded. “My family wish me to return home as soon as possible so that the marriage can take place, lest I return to the front and have the temerity to die.”
He gazed into the distance. “I was prepared to go through with it. Grant my father some peace in his last days. Violet and I agreed to accommodate our separate needs. A marriage of convenience, if you will. You look shocked.”
“Not shocked,” Alice said. “Saddened that marriage be reduced to a business transaction rather than an act of love.”
“You believe in the sanctity of marriage?”
Alice nodded. “I suppose you think me terribly provincial.”
“I think you noble and pure.”
“Pure?” Alice raised her eyebrows.
“You said you were prepared to go through with it… and now?”
“Now, I crave only to be free.”
There was such a yearning to his tone, Alice’s heart went out to him. When he had first spoken of marriage, she had thought, emboldened by their previous time together, he was seeking her intentions, possibly with a view to making his own feelings known.
Now, she knew that even if such feelings were kindling in his heart as they were in hers, it would be to no avail. How cruel life could be!
“The rain is easing,” he said, matter-of-factly. “We should make our way back.”
Unable to sleep, Alice went down to the ward. Nurse O’Brien was seated at the Nurses’ Station. The two women exchanged smiles.
Alice’s gaze swept the ward, lingering on Freddie, asleep for once. The prospect of Doctor Gillies’s hospital had brought him a peace of mind nothing else had so far achieved. How Alice hoped the new-fangled treatments would live up to Freddie’s expectations.
Her gaze moved on to Matthew’s bed. “Where is the captain?”
“He was suffering with cramp, said he would walk the corridors until it eased.”
There was no point berating O’Brien for not accompanying him. Alice knew only too well how persuasive Matthew could be when he wanted something.
“No matter. I will find him,” Alice said.
Alice listened for the tap-tap of his stick. Silence echoed back at her. Could he have ventured outside?
Standing on the terrace, Alice surveyed the garden.
Where it gave way to the woods, Alice spotted the figure of a man limping heavily. Matthew. What in the world was he doing?
Then Alice saw the lights, one bobbing up and down and another that winked in and out through the cover of the trees. Suddenly she understood.
Hoisting her skirts, she ran along the gravel path in pursuit. This was all her fault! What did he hope to achieve? One man against goodness knows how many? An injured man at that.
Alice’s heart was in her mouth as she raced across the garden. If any harm were to befall Matthew, how could she ever forgive herself?
As she reached the woods, Alice slowed, knowing that were she to crash through the foliage she would give herself away in an instant.
She had lost sight of Matthew, but still caught an occasional glimpse of the bobbing light.
No doubt it was a lantern being carried and guessed the other must be a guiding light.
She thought of the candle placed in the window of the woodsman’s cottage. How poignant she had found the idea of the now-departed woodsman burning it on his last night before going off to war.
But what if she had been wrong?
What if someone else had been using the cottage as a rendezvous; the candle a signal to their accomplice?
It did not matter now that she had lost sight of both lights, for Alice was certain where her quarry was heading.
A few minutes later, she arrived at the edge of the clearing.
Sure enough a candle was burning in the window of the cottage and beside it a lantern rested.
Illuminated in the glow, Alice saw the children’s Governess, Rosamunde. Was this a lovers’ tryst or something more sinister?
Behind Rosamunde was a man.
Unbidden, Alice had a flashback to the night she had been attacked.
Her subconscious had suppressed his image until, confronted by him again, it was brought back to the fore. Alice clutched at a nearby tree for support.
As the moonlight fell briefly upon the scene, she spied Matthew leaning against the corner of the cottage, blood staining one leg of his pyjamas.
Alice yearned to let him know of her presence but all too quickly the figures inside the cottage moved as the lantern was held aloft once more. The two figures now stood in the doorway.
Realising the danger he was in, Matthew shrank away towards the well, taking shelter behind it.
“If there was nothing in her journal then we are safe to continue,” the Governess said to the other.
Her companion pulled her towards him and kissed her.
“It is too dangerous. We must leave. Tonight!”
Alice’s gaze moved to Matthew. As he adjusted his position, a twig cracked beneath him. The sound seemed to fill the clearing. The embracing couple fell apart.
“Did you hear that?” the man asked.
“Yes. A fox?”
“Perhaps,” he said. “Go inside.”
The Governess did as she was told, watching from the window as her companion cocked his head to listen before lifting the lamp and sweeping the clearing with his gaze.
To Alice’s horror, the spy then produced a gun and with the prescient instinct of a born hunter he moved, with menacing stealth, in the direction of Matthew and the well…
To be continued: Alice and Matthew come face to face with the enemy, and a much loved resident departs from Downgate Hall.
Look out for Part 4 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.