Song of songs, p.18
Song of Songs, p.18Beverley Hughesdon
‘We soon will be.’ Eddie threw his hat high up into the air, Robbie caught it and waved it triumphantly.
I still tried to protest. ‘Papa says it will all be over by Christmas.’
‘Oh, don’t be such a spoilsport, Hellie.’ Eddie jostled his brother towards the stairs as they went up to get changed.
Papa ordered an extra Times; we pored over them every morning. Liege was holding out, there were reports of German losses of twenty-five thousand – surely it would not last long now? Rumours flew about London; everybody had a new story to tell. People rubbed their hands and talked of the Russian steamroller – but Russia was far away and the Germans were in Belgium. I remembered the handsome Kurt; it seemed so strange that he and my brother were riding to war – to fight against each other. Then the head groom wrote from Hatton to say that the horses had been requisitioned, and I wept bitter tears for my graceful, loyal Melody – I had not even been able to see her to say goodbye.
Mother took me to roll bandages at Lady Eames’. Juno was there, her bandages twisted into an untidy bundle; she lit a surreptitious cigarette and the gauze began to smoulder. There were little shrieks and the footman had to come in to put it out.
A letter arrived from Gerald, written hurriedly at Southampton as he was about to embark for France with the Composite Regiment. He sounded very cheerful, and said I was not to worry if I did not hear from him again for some time, as he would be very busy.
That evening Alice and Hugh came round to dinner. Hugh had applied to join his brother’s Irish regiment. Alice’s eyes were sparkling; she leant across to touch the flowers in the epergne and her breast brushed Hugh’s hand, her fingertips moved on to the ferns and her full bosom dipped again. Hugh’s eyes narrowed; Alice flashed a burning smile at him.
Conan burst in when we were drinking coffee in the drawing room. He had been with a yachting party in northern Norway – he had only just heard and he was wild with excitement. He badgered Hugh and Papa with questions and when Hugh told him of what he had done he said imperiously, ‘Get me in too, Hugh, there’s a good chap – I want to fight with an Irish regiment.’
Hugh promised to do his best, then he jumped up and seized Alice’s hand. ‘We must be going – it’s late.’ I glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, it had only just gone ten; but Alice swayed towards him and they left, their heads very close together. I felt an aching longing for Gerald.
Two days later came the official announcement that the British Army had all been landed in France, with no casualties. The French had welcomed our soldiers warmly. I thought of Gerald and of Guy, riding through the streets of a small French town – riding to war.
Next Monday we read that the Russians had won a brilliant victory and the Serbs had defeated the Austrians. But the evening edition carried the news that the great fortress of Namur had fallen – and that British troops had been engaged in battle throughout the previous day. Liliane was red-eyed that evening, fearful for the safety of her family, but I reassured her that the British Army would never allow France to be overrun.
On Tuesday the paper said that the First and Second Corps had fought at Mons, and driven off the enemy – but because of Namur the Allies were withdrawing. We scanned the papers anxiously all week, but they told us little, until on the following Monday the news was better – the Allies had retreated, but only to hold a stronger position. It was the last day of August, and wounded were already being landed at Folkestone and Harwich. I was in the morning room playing the piano when Juno burst in, her face flushed, her hat crooked.
‘Hellie – have you heard?’ I swung round – had the Germans surrendered? Had we won a great victory? She strode across the room to face me and said, ‘Lance Benson’s been killed.’
I stared at her, then said stupidly, ‘No – he can’t have been.’
She shouted at me. ‘For goodness’ sake, Helena – there’s a war on!’ Then she mumbled, ‘I’m sorry I – well, it was a bit of a shock. I’ve always been fond of old Lance – can’t take it in. They say Pansy’s in a terrible state.’
I remembered all the times we had analysed operas together, all the times he had played for my singing, and I remembered his earnest young face as he had said: ‘If there’s ever anything I can do for you, send for me, wherever I am. I’ll always come, always.’ But he would not come now. Lance, Lance who had never wanted to be a soldier had died a hero’s death – had given all that he had while I sat in a comfortable room and played the piano. I dropped the lid with a bang and stood up.
Juno looked at me. ‘Truth to tell, Hellie, I don’t like sitting around doing nothing when all this is going on – what use are a few mouldy bandages? I’ve been making inquiries; nurses are being called up as well, the hospitals are short-staffed – anyway, the East London in Spitalfields is willing to take paying probationers, for three months at first – I’m seeing the matron this morning.’
I walked to the bell and rang for Liliane. ‘You’re right Juno, we must do something. I’ll come with you.’
I let Juno do most of the talking at the interview, while I tried not to stare at the matron. She wore an elaborately frilled muslin cap: it looked so odd above her lined, leathery face that for a moment I wanted to laugh, then I remembered Lance and felt sick. A doctor was summoned; he questioned us on our childhood ailments, then we were instructed to bare a discreet portion of our chests so he could listen carefully. ‘Say “Ah”.’ As I breathed ‘Ah’ he commented, ‘That’s a magnificent pair of lungs, young lady, for such a slender physique.’ He prodded again. ‘And you’ve got the diaphragm of an ox.’ Matron nodded approvingly. I felt like a cow for sale in the stock market.
Juno muttered, ‘That’s all your singing, Helena.’ The doctor overheard and grunted. ‘You won’t have much time for singing if you intend to be a nurse.’ I felt apprehensive as he folded his stethoscope into his bag and reported, ‘Both A1, Matron, strong as a pair of dray horses – just what you need.’ He left without a word to us. Matron began to talk about vaccination and uniforms.
My parents dined at home that evening. They were obviously shocked at the news of Lance’s death; they spoke to each other in low voices, and I heard them mention Guy several times. I felt a fluttering of panic. Mother glanced at my untouched plate, then said, quite kindly, ‘Don’t worry, Helena, Gerald is an experienced soldier, he’s come through one war unscathed already.’
I thought, but his brother didn’t.
Next morning the newspaper reported that eight hundred wounded soldiers had been taken to the London Hospital in Whitechapel; and the doctor arrived at Cadogan Place to vaccinate us.
The matron had told us we could not begin nursing until I was twenty-one, so we decided to enter the East London on Thursday the 10th of September, the day of my twenty-first birthday. I felt that if I did not go at once I would never pluck up the courage to go at all.
I wrote to Gerald and told him of my decision, but even as I sealed the envelope I wondered if my letter would ever reach him.
The Times printed fresh maps every day now. ‘The Dash for Paris’ on Wednesday became ‘The Danger to Paris’ on Thursday. The German troops were a thick black line slashed across northern France. Liliane became very quiet, though her parents lived down in the south, in Provence; Provence had not appeared on the maps yet – but Amiens had fallen to the enemy. There was a Press Bureau report headlined: ‘British Cavalry Engaged with Distinction’ – they had captured ten big guns; as I read it I thought of Gerald, fighting for all of us. On Friday the King and Queen visited the wounded at the London Hospital and on Saturday the Roll of Honour gave the names of ten more officers killed; now the map was entitled: ‘The Defence of Paris’ – our forces were still retreating.
Papa lunched with a friend at the War Office and came back to tea with a very grave face. He told us the Grenadiers had been in battle at a place called Landrecies in August, and fought again in an ‘engagement’ they called it, at Villers-Cotterets on 1st Sep
Mother spoke sharply. ‘For goodness’ sake, Victor! You’ll be fifty-five this year – leave the war to the youngsters.’ Papa flushed and left the drawing room.
A special night edition of The Times was called on the streets on Sunday evening; the map said simply: ‘New German Movement’. On Monday morning it read ‘The Germans Across the Marne’; but on Tuesday the headlines began to change: ‘German Check in France’ and on Wednesday ‘German Line Driven Back’ and, at last the words, ‘A British Victory’. I showed it to Liliane and she burst out sobbing, ‘Grâce à Dieu, grâces au ciel.’ She began to tell her rosary; I backed away, embarrassed.
Thursday was the 10th of September: my twenty-first birthday. A neat pile of parcels and letters was stacked beside my plate on the breakfast table. Papa kissed my cheek. ‘Happy birthday, Helena – we’ve driven them back twenty-five miles, right across the Marne, Paris has been saved, thank God.’
I sat down and began to open my presents. I recognized Moira Staveley’s writing on a flat packet and opened it first; inside were two framed photographs of Gerald. In one he wore his full-dress uniform and his face was serious, the other was a smiling portrait in a morning suit. I held one in each shaking hand, gazing at them alternately. I loved him so much – oh please God, keep him safe. In her letter she said that before he left he had commissioned her to buy my present; it had been ordered and sent from Cartier’s. She wished me well and said she was praying every day for Gerald’s safety. I found the right package and opened it with shaking hands; inside, sparkling against the red velvet, was a diamond tiara. It was made in a graceful design of leaves and flowers on fine gold stems, with a slim diamond chain so that it could also be worn as a necklet. Now I slipped it on and it lay cool against the back of my neck, the diamond leaves heavy on my breast. I gently touched one brilliant flower with my fingertip – I had hoped, but I had not expected anything. Dearest Gerald, to remember my birthday even as he left for the war.
Guy had remembered too; he had asked Alice to buy me a sapphire necklace to go with my ring, and matching earrings. I slipped out my small pearl studs and put Guy’s gifts in their place. Alice and Hugh had sent a corsage watch, set with pearls and diamonds; I pinned it to my blouse by its bejewelled bow. Mother laughed. ‘Goodness, Helena, you look like a Christmas tree! Still, you’d better enjoy them this morning, you won’t be able to once you’re a hospital nurse.’
I felt a tremor of nervousness, but there was a big parcel for me still to open, from the twins, so I began to break the seal. Soon glossy crocodile leather appeared, and when I pulled the paper away I saw it was a dressing case. I pulled up the fastenings and the lid sprang up to display an Aladdin’s cave of gleaming bottles with silver tops and shining mirrors nestling against the dark-blue watered silk lining. My fingers twitched to explore it, but Papa was addressing me. ‘I’ll ring for Fisher to bring in your present from your mother and myself.’
When my mother’s maid appeared her arms were full of dark fur. As I saw it, for a moment Mother’s fur cupboard closed darkly around me, then I forced myself forward. ‘How beautiful, thank you so much.’ Miss Fisher hung the cape round my shoulders. I tensed before I touched it, but the fur was deep and soft, and there was no sharp evil face leering out at me. ‘Thank you Papa, thank you Mother.’
Papa’s moustaches brushed my face, Mother’s cheek touched mine. ‘Happy birthday, my dear.’ ‘Happy birthday, Helena.’
Then Miss Fisher took the cape away again and we sat down to read Sir John French’s Dispatch from France.
The next post brought two more packets: I recognized Conan’s scrawl on one; the other was from Letty. I opened Conan’s present first – he had never remembered my birthday before. There was a note with it:
‘Happy birthday, sweet Coz, Hugh told me of your plans so I thought you might like this to take into your convent with you – to remind you of the frivolous days of yore.’
I unwrapped the soft tissue: it was a fan. I flicked the slender ivory sticks and opened the dainty semi-circle of Marceline lace. There was a figure painted on the lace – a dark-haired girl in gauzy draperies, reclining under a small green tree. I moved it back and forth, and the air it stirred caressed my cheek. Then I folded it carefully, wrapped it and slipped it into the outer pocket of the bag Liliane had packed for me; I would take a memento with me into my convent.
I was still smiling as I opened Letty’s parcel; it was a pen, a fountain pen. I handled it gingerly: I had never used one. Letty had written a careful explanation.
‘This is more sensible than fiddling with bottles of ink all the time. I got a Pelican because it has a shut-off valve, so you can carry it upside down if you like – it won’t leak.’
It all sounded very technical and next to it in the box was a glass fountain-pen filler – it was sure to be a messy job; I would have to get one of the footmen to fill it for me. I picked up Letty’s note again:
‘I thought a pen was a good idea for your present, because you will have to write a lot of letters now.’
I felt chilly in the warm bedroom; yes, I would. Those I loved were already scattered, and now I was leaving too. Reluctantly I pushed Letty’s gift into my travelling bag as well.
Finally I picked up again the two photos of Gerald; I would take one with me and leave the other here at Cadogan Place, beside my own bed. I hesitated for a long time before I made my choice – the smiling Gerald in civilian clothes would go with me. I knew he was a soldier now but I wanted to think of him as I would see him in the future, when the war was over and we were married and he would come into our breakfast room and greet me each morning with just such a warm, affectionate smile.
Papa took us all to Claridge’s for lunch. As I sat at the table with Mother and Alice I could not help noticing how many of the younger men were already in khaki. England was at war, and so Juno and I were going to play our part in the grimy barracks of the East London. Under the damask tablecloth my vaccination scar throbbed and my belly was one tight knot of fear.
I had just finished my last thank you letter when Juno and her mother arrived. We were all to take tea together at Cadogan Place and afterwards Lady Maud would escort us to Spitalfields. Now she chewed buttered crumpets at top speed while talking excitedly of her plans to get out to France and help the troops. Mother’s voice was mocking. ‘Dear me, Maud, how brave you are – and Helena here is shaking in her shoes at the thought of merely going to the East End of London!’
Lady Maud said stoutly, ‘I’d plump for France any day – much healthier.’
France, where men were fighting and dying: I would never dare to go there. Spitalfields seemed almost welcome for a moment.
Mother and Juno began to argue about Zeppelins: how far they could fly, how big they were. Lady Maud broke in, ‘They’re so huge they would practically fill St James’s Street – Victor swore that was true.’
‘Then, Maud, it can’t possibly be so!’
Lady Maud blinked, then laughed with Mother. ‘But seriously, Ria, they say they could reach Britain, if they tried.’
I remembered the round fat cigar which had hovered over Agar’s Plough at Eton before floating slowly down. It was no longer an innocuous ship of the air, it was a Zeppelin – and under its threatening dark shadow our safe island would be safe no longer. I shivered.
Lady Maud brushed the crumbs from her lap and stood up. ‘Come along you girls, it’s time to enlist.’ I rang for my hat.
As we climbed out of the cab the hospital loomed over us and the blank windows stared at us like so many unsleeping eyes. We passed inside the ugly yellow brick gateway and crossed dingy courtyards to the Nurses’ Home; the porter trundl
My room was further down; it was like a cell. The porter hefted my trunk inside as I fumbled for a tip. He glanced at it in surprise and touched his forelock. ‘Good evening, Nurse.’ I started and looked round before I realized he was addressing me, and my legs were shaking as I crouched down and began to tug at the heavy leather straps. I had never unpacked for myself in my whole life and I was surrounded by untidy heaps of clothes and tissue paper when there was a loud rap at the door which was flung open before I had time to call ‘come in’. A middle-aged woman in a blue cotton dress and nurse’s cap marched in, then stopped suddenly. She stared disapprovingly at the chaos around me before snapping, ‘Tidy up at once, Nurse. Then dress in your uniform and come straight down to my room with the other new probationers. Bring your cap with you and I will instruct you on how to make it up. Put your box outside as soon as it’s empty and don’t waste any more time.’ Starched skirts crackled out.
I began frantically to burrow for my uniform. I had not even tried it on before – I had not wanted to look ahead. The frock was a hideous mauve check in coarse cotton, the skirt clumsily gathered at the back only, with sleeves that puffed out over the upper arm and then became suddenly tight at the elbow. It looked ugly and old-fashioned and the housemaids at Hatton would never have worn it, not even for lighting the fires first thing. I struggled to attach the high starched collar to the dress with slippery collar studs; I was sweating with the heat and with fear. The billowing linen apron enveloped me from shoulder to ankle, and when I secured it with the wide white belt it bunched uncomfortably over my hips. My pointed bronze leather toes peeped out below it; they looked surprised. I scrabbled frantically for the thick black stockings and flat black shoes that would complete the whole graceless outfit. I was fastening the last suspender when there were rapid footsteps in the corridor and Juno burst in. ‘I never thought I’d have to dress up like a general servant - and what is this supposed to be?’ She held out a short white cotton tube.
Song of Songs by Beverley Hughesdon / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes