PART 4 OF OUR WARTIME MINI SERIAL
Matters come to a head as Alice and Matthew face the spy, but what does their future hold?
As the spy moved towards the well, Alice took up a rock and threw it into the undergrowth to attract attention, before running through the thicket of trees back towards the house.
Her heart hammered in her chest as she waited for a gunshot to ring out, bracing herself for the impact.
But the bullet did not come. Instead, she heard the heavy footfall of a man behind her.
Every fibre of her being wanted to look over her shoulder. It was the stuff of nightmares and yet she forced herself on. No more frightened child, cowering at shadows, but a strong woman determined to do her bit, for every second she took the spy away from the cottage was another second for Matthew to escape.
“Stop or I’ll shoot!”
Alice slowed her pace and, lifting her arms, turned to face her pursuer, shying away from the barrel of the gun.
“You! Again! What are you doing here?”
“I saw the lights,’”Alice said.
“Did you tell anyone else?”
She shook her head.
The man took hold of her shoulder and forced her to walk ahead of him, the gun at her back. As they reached the clearing, Alice was relieved to see that Matthew was no longer in sight.
The Governess came out of the cottage to meet them.
“How could you betray us?” Alice demanded. “You’re a disgrace!”
“My mother is German. I am doing my duty,” the Governess replied sharply.
“Find something to restrain her with and then get back to the house as quickly as you can. Pack a bag and start a fire. It will be enough of a distraction for us to get away,” the man said. “By the time they find her, we’ll be gone.”
The Governess set about tearing sheets to make bindings. Then the man tied Alice’s hands behind her back before securing them to the foot of the bed.
Alice watched as the Governess departed, the lantern swinging from her arm.
The thought of the woman starting a fire chilled Alice’s heart. All of her nursing colleagues, the children, Sir Thomas and Lady Mary, would be upstairs asleep.
Downstairs the ward was full of injured servicemen, many of whom would struggle to evacuate.
She prayed the Governess would lose her nerve or that the alarm would be quickly raised. Alice shot a look of anger at her captor who had now thrust the gun back into his belt and was pacing the floor.
“We had at last infiltrated the War Office,” he said, shaking his head at her.
Alice turned her face away and thought about Matthew. Would he go after the Governess? She was not at all sure his leg would carry him all the way back to the house.
In her heart of hearts, however, she knew Matthew would not abandon her. He was somewhere outside, watching, waiting. When he decided to strike, she had to be ready, because she knew he would need all the help he could get.
Alice began to work on the bonds around her wrists. The metal bedstead had a sharp joint and she rubbed the torn sheet against it, feeling the material catch and give.
To her left was an old lantern. It looked heavy but perhaps not heavy enough to deal an incapacitating blow.
Her gaze moved to the fireplace. The poker would make a good weapon.
Even as the thought went through her mind, Alice recoiled from it. Her every instinct was to heal and yet, here she was, trying to find something with which to wound.
The speed at which the direction of her life had changed left her dazed and gave her an insight into how it must have been for Matthew, Freddie and the others – sent off to war, ordinary souls forced by circumstance to do extraordinary deeds.
Alice felt her bindings loosen and began to calculate how quickly she could cross to the fireplace and secure the poker before the man brought the gun from his belt.
Suddenly, the sound of something crashing into the side of the cottage made them both jump. The man, gun out and ready, ran outside.
“Rosamunde? Is that you?”
Alice knew it was Matthew, creating a diversion, perhaps setting a trap. Seizing her chance, she scrambled to her feet and lunged for the poker. Standing beside the open door, she held the poker aloft, waiting for her attacker to return.
She tensed at the sound of footsteps followed by a strange, dragging sound.
The muzzle of the gun was visible now through the doorway. Alice readied herself to strike.
She faltered. “Matthew?”
As the arm holding the gun came into the cottage, she could see the edge of a pyjama sleeve protruding from a dressing gown. The poker wavered in the air.
With relief, she watched as Matthew entered the cottage, pulling the inert body of the spy awkwardly behind him.
“You’re safe, Alice,’”Matthew said as he let the spy’s body fall to the ground. “You can let go of the poker now.”
Reaching up, he took it from Alice’s hand before sweeping her into his arms. His embrace was so tight she felt the air being squeezed from her lungs. Then, he set her back from him, a look of concern on his face.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“How could you do that?” he demanded. “How could you put yourself in danger for me?”
“How could I not?” Alice replied. “None of this would have happened but for me.” She looked down at his injured leg. “And now you’re bleeding.”
“Have you killed him?”
“No. More’s the pity,” he said, gruffly.
Alice watched as Matthew bound and gagged the spy and dragged him, still unconscious, to the corner of the cottage.
“What happened outside?” she asked.
“I saw the woman leave and decided to ram the side of the cottage with the cart to get his attention. When Chummy came out I knocked the gun from his hand with my stick, then hit him on the head with the pail from the well. Maybe that stick isn’t so bad after all,” Matthew said wryly.
“Please, let me look at your leg.”
He waved her away. “There’s no time for that. The woman?”
“She’s to set a fire and then return so they can leave together.”
Matthew nodded grimly. “You must go back to the house and raise the alarm.”
“I can’t leave you!”
He gripped her hands. “You must! Think of Freddie and the others.”
“Then come with me,” she implored.
He shook his head. “It’s too far for me. I will wait here and deal with the woman upon her return. Is there another way back to the house?”
“Yes, but it will take longer to get there.”
“Better that, than you meet the traitor on her way back here. She may well be armed. Make haste, Alice! Quickly, warn the others!”
His kiss to her lips was so fleeting that, later, Alice would come to wonder if he had kissed her at all or whether she had imagined the whole thing.
The moon was sullen now in a stormy sky. Alice threw herself along the little-used path back to the house, uncaring for the branches that clutched at her clothes and scratched her face.
As the house came into view, Alice was relieved not to see the orange lick of flames lifting to the night sky. With renewed determination, she ran through the long grass of the flower meadow.
In the distance, she thought she saw torches aflame, lanterns too, bobbing around the edge of the garden. Confused, she moderated her pace. Could the woman have accomplices?
“Stop!” A man loomed out of the shadows, brandishing a pitchfork at her.
Alice recognised Billy, a son of one of the farm labourers.
“Billy? It’s Alice from the hospital wing.” She could see his confusion. “I need to speak to Sir Thomas at once!” she said.
Fortunately, the tone of her voice was enough to galvanise Billy into action and he nodded towards the group of lights Alice had spied from the meadow. Sir Thomas was organising a group of men.
He stopped mid-speech as Alice approached. The group parted to allow her to move closer.
She heard their whispers as she passed, could imagine how dishevelled she must look, but pushing her discomfort to one side, she gripped Sir Thomas’s arm, the better to convey the urgency of the situation.
“The Governess is the traitor,” she said.
“We know. I caught her trying to set fire to the curtains in my library.”
“She is captured?” Alice asked, relieved.
Sir Thomas nodded.
“Locked in the basement where she will do no more harm. She will not, however, speak of her accomplices, so I am organising a search in order that they may be apprehended.”
Uncaring of convention, Alice’s grip on his arm tightened.
“You must help Matthew… Captain Stamford. He is at the woodsman’s cottage where he holds a German spy captive, but he is injured and I fear for his safety.”
“You heard the lady. To the cottage, men!”
Sir Thomas patted Alice’s hand. “Wait for us inside.”
Alice shook her head.
“The captain will need a stretcher and bearers. I will organise them and meet you there.”
Alice opened up the doors at the end of the ward to greet the beautiful spring day. Two weeks had passed since the spies had been apprehended and life at Downgate had returned to normal.
Several of the men had taken up residence on the terrace in lawn chairs, Matthew among them, while others walked in the gardens.
Alice watched from a discreet distance as Freddie packed his belongings in the methodical manner she had seen displayed by all service personnel. She checked the clock. Freddie’s transport would be here presently.
“Matron.” He nodded in greeting.
He gave a shadow of a smile – the best he was capable of.
Alice produced her copy of Treasure Island and handed it to him.
“I know we have finished it, but I thought you might like to keep it to remind you of us all and to know that we are here, thinking of you and wishing you well.”
Tears glistened Freddie’s eyes as he read the inscription inside. “Thank you.”
As he said goodbye to his friends, Alice followed. On the terrace, a rousing chorus of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow rang out in the sunshine, bringing a tear to her eye.
She saw Matthew rise from his lawn chair. His injuries had continued to heal, the fear of infection thankfully receding with each passing day.
“Allow me,” he said, taking Freddie’s bag from his grip.
Together, the three of them walked to the front of the house where an ambulance waited on the drive.
“Good luck, Freddie.” The two men shook hands.
Alice gave Freddie a hug. “God be with you, Freddie.”
“And with you, Alice. Thank you for all that you have done for me. I won’t forget you. Any of you.”
With that he was gone, swept away down the drive. Alice waved until the ambulance was out of sight.
“Is this Gillies fellow truly as good as they say?” Matthew asked.
“One can hope. I hear the reconstructive surgery performed there is achieving results that, pre-war, would have been considered impossible.”
“Necessity is the mother of invention, it would seem.”
As they walked back to the garden, Alice could not help but wonder how long it would be before she was waving goodbye to Matthew.
The thought cleaved her heart in two. Did he know how she felt about him?
She sneaked a sideways glance. His face gave nothing away, but the tenderness with which he often looked at her, their embrace at the cottage and the all too brief touches to her arm or the back of her hand when they were together, suggested he felt the same way too.
“It will be my turn next,” he said, as if reading her mind.
“But you are not sufficiently healed.”
Matthew gave her a sad smile.
“Good enough to be transferred behind the front line to assist from there, until I am well enough to return to the main show. I received my orders this morning.”
Alice shivered despite the sun.
“Might we take a walk in the garden this evening? I believe you will be off duty then?”
“Splendid. I shall wait for you by our bench at seven.”
True to his word, he was waiting by the bench. Her heart pulled at the sight of him. How quickly one could move from being fond of someone to feeling so much more.
The serious expression on his face dissolved into a smile, warm and open, as he watched her approach.
“I feared you might not come,” he said.
They sank, as one, on to the bench. The silence hung heavy around them punctuated only by the bees humming across the lavender.
Matthew cleared his throat.
“I am ashamed to say that in the trenches one becomes inured to the violence that is all around, until you realise that by allowing yourself to be that way you really are only half-alive. I thought of it as strength once. Now, I know it to be anything but.
“When I left the battlefield, I feared I was without hope; that the injury to my soul was irreparable and I was doomed to live that half-life for evermore, my spirit another casualty of this war.”
He paused, taking Alice’s hands in his.
“And then I saw you. The day my fever broke and you stood by my bedside with the sun blazing behind your head.” He smiled at the memory. “You looked like an angel. As we spoke, I could feel my spirit reawakening. You gave me back my hope.”
“I am glad.” Alice could hardly bring herself to speak over the lump that had risen in her throat. “When must you leave?”
She bowed her head. It was too soon.
“I shan’t be returning home first. I have no interest in banns being read for a woman I do not love. Especially as I have now found one that I do.”
Alice lifted her head to meet his gaze, half in wonder, half in fear that she had somehow misunderstood him.
“Please, tell me… am I alone in feeling this way?” he asked.
Breathless, she said, “No, you are not.”
His lips against her cheek were gentle, whisper soft against her forehead.
“When this war is done, we will build that better world I spoke of. Together.”
Alice edged away.
“But how can we?” she asked, incredulous. “What about your promise to your family? Surely that is destined to always come between us?”
Matthew turned her to face him.
“Tell me why land should triumph over the heart? I shan’t allow it. No one has spoken to my soul the way you do. Is that not a precious thing?” he asked.
“Indeed. Yet I cannot bring myself to be responsible for tearing your family apart, condemning Olivia to a loveless marriage.”
“Would you condemn me to such a state? Because that is the alternative.”
“You know I would not, but…”
He stopped her words with a kiss. “There will be a way.”
Alice chose, in that moment, to believe him. For how else could she let him leave? A temporary absence before a lifetime together was the only truth her heart would allow, else she would be reduced to making a spectacle of herself in the morning by begging him to stay. And that would never do.
Instead, she willed his words to come true as they sat together long after the sun had set and the evening chill was upon them, Matthew holding her tightly in his arms, neither wanting to let the other go.
Alice woke early, a feeling of dread pressing upon her chest.
Today, she would have to say goodbye to Matthew.
But outside her door she found a package. Inside, was a leather-bound journal. She turned to the first page.
My Darling Alice,
Forgive me for my subterfuge. My transport arrived last night and by the time you read this I will be on my way to France.
Please don’t be angry. We have both seen enough upset and suffering to last a lifetime. I wanted to protect us from more of the same. For I love you, Alice.
A journal seemed the perfect gift; a new receptacle into which to pour thoughts and feelings, to remember our time together. I have no right to ask you to wait for me but like the cad you once feared me to be, I ask it, nonetheless.
I came to Downgate Hall with my spirit torn asunder. I leave as a man revitalised. You gave me hope where none existed and whatever our futures hold, I shall be eternally grateful to you for that. I shall write every week. If you choose to do the same, I shall be delighted. May God keep you safe until I hold you in my arms again.
Alice’s tears fell, making the blue ink run. She quickly blotted the page with her handkerchief before clasping the journal to her chest.
“And may God keep you safe too, my darling, and bring you back to me.”
TO BE CONTINUED: Will Matthew and Alice be reunited? Find out in the final part of Danger At Downgate Hall on Thursday!