In This Grave Hour, p.1Jacqueline Winspear
Irene, Joyce, Sylvia, Joseph, Ruby, Charles, and Rose
Our family’s World War II evacuees
In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history . . . for the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.
—King George VI, September 3rd, 1939
About the Author
Also by Jacqueline Winspear
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London, Sunday, September 3rd, 1939
Maisie Dobbs left her garden flat in Holland Park, taking care to lock the door to her private entrance as she departed. She carried no handbag, no money, but had drawn a cardigan around her shoulders and carried a rolled umbrella, just in case. There had been a run of hot summer days punctuated by intermittent storms and pouring rain, leaving the air thick and clammy with the promise of more changeable weather, as clouds of luminous white and thunderous graphite lumbered across the sky above. They reminded Maisie of elephants on the march across a parched plain, and in that moment she wished she were far away in a place where such beasts roamed.
Her journey was short—just a five-minute walk along a leafy street towards a Georgian mansion of several stories: the home of her oldest friend, Priscilla Partridge, along with her husband, Douglas, and their three sons. The youngest, Tarquin, had been sent to Maisie’s flat earlier with a message for her to hurry, so they could listen to the wireless together—as family, united, at the worst of times. For without doubt, Maisie was considered family as far as Priscilla, her husband, and their boys were concerned.
Despite the warmth of the day, Maisie felt chilled in her light summer dress. She slipped her arms into the sleeves of her cardigan as she walked, transferring the umbrella from one hand to the other, conscious of every movement.
Where was she the last time? Had she been so young, so distracted by her new life at Girton College, that she could not remember where she was and what she had been doing when the news came? She stopped for a moment. It had been another long, hot summer then—the perfect English summer, they’d said—and she wondered if, indeed, weather had something to do with the outcome, pressing down on people, firing the tempers of powerful men until they reached a point of no return, spilling over to upend the world.
The mansion’s front door was open before she set foot on the bottom step.
“Tante Maisie, come, you’ll miss it.” Thomas, now eighteen years of age, stood tall, his hair just a shade lighter than his mother’s coppery brown. He was smiling as he beckoned Maisie to hurry, then held out his hand to take hers. “The wireless is on in the drawing room, and everyone’s waiting.”
Maisie nodded. It seemed to her that each day Priscilla’s boys gained inches in height and increased their already boundless energy. And though he was the eldest, Thomas could still engage in rambunctious play with his brothers. They’d always reminded Maisie of a basket of puppies on those occasions when she saw them in the garden, teasing one another, tugging on each other’s hair or the scruff of the neck. But Thomas was also a man. Today, of all days, his passing boyhood filled her with dread.
“Maisie—come on!” Priscilla hurried into the entrance hall, brandishing a cigarette in a long holder. She reached out and linked her arm through Maisie’s. “Let’s get settled.”
As they stepped into the drawing room, Douglas Partridge managed a brief smile and a nod as he approached. “Maisie. Good, you’re here.” He drew back after touching his cheek to hers, and held her gaze for a second. Each saw the pain in the other, and the effort to press back the past. She nodded her understanding. Memories seemed to collide with the present as they joined Priscilla and the boys, along with the household staff—a cook, housekeeper, and Elinor, the family’s long-serving nanny, no longer needed but much loved.
“I thought we should all be together,” said Priscilla as the housekeeper moved to pour more tea. The wireless crackled, and the company grew silent. Priscilla shook her head—no, no more tea—and motioned for the housekeeper to take a seat, but she remained standing, a hand on the table as if to keep herself steady.
Douglas reached towards the set to adjust the volume.
“Here we go,” he said.
Maisie noticed Douglas glance at his watch—he wore it on his right wrist, given the loss of his left arm during the Great War—and was aware that she and Priscilla had cast their eyes towards the clock on the mantelpiece at exactly the same moment, and Timothy had leaned across, lifted his older brother’s wrist and looked at the dial on his watch, touching it as if to embed the moment in his memory. It was eleven-fourteen on the morning of September 3rd, 1939.
The wireless crackled again: static signaling the coming storms. At a quarter past eleven, the voice they had gathered to hear—the clipped tones of Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister—shattered their now silent waiting.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
As the speech continued, all present stared at the wireless as though it held the image of a person. Maisie felt numb. It was as if the cold, slick air of France had remained with her since the war—when, she wondered, would they begin referring to it as “the last war”?—and now the terrible, biting chill was seeping out from its place of seclusion deep in her bones. She glanced at Priscilla, and saw her friend staring at her sons, each one in turn as if she feared she might forget their faces. And she knew the deep ache of loss was allowing Priscilla no quarter—the dragon of memory that war had left in its wake; a slumbering giant stretching into the present, starting anew to breathe fire again. Priscilla’s three brothers had perished between the years 1914 and 1918.
Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against—brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution—and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.
Douglas, who had remained standing throughout the speech, leaned forward to switch off the wireless.
Priscilla touched the housekeeper on the shoulder and asked for a pot of coffee to be brought to the drawing room. The cook had already returned to the kitchen, reaching for her handkerchief and dabbing her eyes as she closed the door behind her. Elinor had followed with a muttered explanation that she “had to see to” something; no one heard what it was that had to be seen to.
“Papa . . . what do you think of—”
“Father, Mother, I think I should—”
“Maman, shall we—”
The boys spoke at once, but fell silent when Douglas raised his hand. “It’s time we men went for an invigorating, excitement-reducing walk around the park just in
Silence seemed to bear down on the room as the door closed.
Priscilla’s eyes were wide, red-rimmed. “I’m not going to lose my sons, Maisie. If I have to chop off their fingers to render them physically unacceptable to the fighting force, I will do so.”
“No, you won’t, Pris.” Maisie came to her feet and put an arm around her friend, who was seated next to the wireless. She felt Priscilla lean in to her waist as she stood beside her. “You wouldn’t harm a single hair on their heads.”
“We came through it, didn’t we, Maisie?” said Priscilla. “We might not have been unblemished on the other side, but we came through.”
“And we shall again,” said Maisie. “We’re made of strong fabric, all of us.”
Priscilla nodded, pulling a handkerchief from her cuff and dabbing her eyes. “We Everndens—and never let it be forgotten that in my bones I am an Evernden—are better than the Herr-bloody-Hitlers of this world. I’d chase him down myself to protect my boys.”
“You’re one of the strongest, Priscilla—and remember, Douglas is worried sick too. You’re a devoted family. Hold tight.”
“We’re all going to have to hold tight, aren’t we?”
Maisie was about to speak again when there was a gentle knock at the door, as if someone had rubbed a knuckle against the wood rather than rapping upon it.
“Yes?” invited Priscilla.
The housekeeper entered and announced that there was a telephone call for Maisie, though she referred to her by her title, which was somewhat grander than plain Miss Dobbs.
Maisie gave a half smile. “Who on earth knows I’m here?” she asked, without expecting an answer.
“Well, your father would make a pretty good guess and come up with our house, if you weren’t at home. I daresay they’ve been listening to the wireless too, and Brenda would have wanted him to call. You’ll probably hear from Lady Rowan soon too.”
“Oh, dear,” said Maisie as she stepped towards the door. “I do hope Dad’s all right.”
In the hall, she picked up the telephone receiver, which was resting on a marble-topped table decorated with a vase of blue hydrangeas.
“Hello. This is Maisie Dobbs. Who’s speaking, please?”
“Maisie, Francesca Thomas here.”
Maisie put her hand across the mouthpiece and looked around. She was alone. “Dr. Thomas, what on earth is going on? How do you know this number? Or that I would be here?”
“Please return to your flat, if you don’t mind. I have some urgent business to discuss with you.”
Maisie felt a second’s imbalance, as if she had knelt down to retrieve something from the floor, and had come to her feet too quickly. What was the urgent business that this woman—someone in whose presence she had always felt unsettled—wanted to discuss on a Sunday, and in the wake of the prime minister’s broadcast to the nation?
Francesca Thomas had spent almost her entire adult life working in the shadows. In the Great War she had become a member of La Dame Blanche, the Belgian resistance movement comprised almost entirely of girls and women who had taken up the work of their menfolk when they went to war. Maisie knew that with her British and Belgian background, Thomas was now working for the Secret Service.
“Dr. Thomas, I am not interested. Working with the—” She looked around again and lowered her voice. “Working with your department is not my bailiwick. I am not cut from that sort of cloth. I told Mr. Huntley, quite clearly, no more of those assignments. I am a psychologist and an investigator—that is my domain.”
“Then you are just the person I need.”
“What do you mean?”
“Murder, Maisie. And I need you to prevent it happening again. And again.”
“Where are you?”
“In your flat. I took the liberty—I hope you don’t mind.”
As Maisie hurried from Priscilla’s house, fuming that Francesca Thomas had violated her privacy by breaking into her flat—a criminal act, no less—an angry, deep-throated mechanical baying seemed to fill the air around her. It began slowly, gaining momentum until it reached full cry. A woman in a neighboring house rushed into the front garden to pull her children back indoors. A man and woman walking a dog broke into a run, gaining cover in the lee of a wall. There were few people out on this Sunday morning—indeed, many had remained indoors to listen to the wireless—but those on the street began to move as quickly as they could. Maisie watched as each person reached what they thought would be a place of safety—running towards the sandbagged underground station, to their homes, or even into a stranger’s doorway. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she looked up into the sky. Nothing more threatening than intermittent clouds. No bombers, no Luftwaffe flying overhead. It was just a test. A test of the air-raid sirens situated across London. She looked at her watch. Twenty to twelve now. People began to emerge from their hiding places, having realized there were no metal-clad birds of prey ready to swoop down on life across the city. It was nothing more than practice—as if they needed practice for war.
Taking the path at the side of the property, Maisie approached her flat by the garden entrance. Dr. Francesca Thomas was seated on a wicker chair set on the lawn. She was smoking a cigarette, flicking ash onto the grass at her feet. The French doors were open to the warmth of the day, and Thomas leaned back as if to allow a beam of sunlight to bathe her face. Maisie studied her for a few seconds. Thomas was a tall woman, well dressed in a matching costume of skirt and jacket, the collar of a silk blouse just visible and the customary scarf tied around her neck, the ends poked into the V of the blouse, as a man might tie a cravat. The scarf was scarlet, and Maisie suspected that if it were opened up and laid flat, a pattern of roses would be revealed. Her thick hair, now threaded with gray, was cut above the shoulder and brushed away from her face. It was a strong face, thought Maisie, with defined black eyebrows, deep-set eyes, and pale skin. She wore a little rouge on her cheeks, and lipstick that matched the scarf.
Francesca Thomas did not look up as Maisie approached. Her eyes remained closed as she began to speak.
“Lovely garden you have here, Maisie. Quite the sun trap. Those hydrangeas are wonderful.”
Maisie sat down in the wicker chair next to her visitor. “Dr. Thomas—Francesca—you didn’t come here to talk to me about the hydrangeas. So, shall we go inside and you can tell me what was so important that you had to break into my house and hunt me down.”
Thomas shielded her eyes with her hand. “Yes, let’s go in.”
Maisie came to her feet and extended her hand, indicating that Thomas should enter the flat first. She paused briefly to look at the French doors. They appeared untouched, though no key had been used to open them.
“I won’t ask how you broke in, Francesca—but I will get all my locks changed now.”
“Never mind—most people wouldn’t have been able to get into the flat. I’m just a bit more experienced. Now then, let’s get down to business.”
The doors to the garden remained open. Francesca Thomas made herself comfortable on the plump chintz-covered sofa set perpendicular to the fireplace, while Maisie took a seat on the armchair facing her.
“Maisie,” Thomas began, “you will remember that during the last war many, many refugees from Belgium flooded into Britain.”
Maisie nodded. How could she forget? Over a quarter of a million people had entered the country, fleeing the approaching German army, the terror of bombing and occupation. Most had lost everything except the clothes they stood up in—homes, loved ones, neighbors, and their way of life—everything they owned left behind in the struggle.
“At one point, over sixteen thousand people were landing in the coastal ports every single day,” Thomas continued. “From Hull to
“And yet after the war, they left so little behind,” said Maisie. “When they left, they might never have been here in England—isn’t that true?”
“Yes. They were taken in, and in some areas there were even new towns built to house them—they had their shops, their currency. And after the Armistice, Britain wanted the refugees out, and their own boys home.”
“And I am sure the Belgian people had a desire to return to their country too.”
“Of course they did. They wanted to start again, to rebuild their communities and their lives.”
“But some stayed,” said Maisie.
“Yes, some stayed.” Thomas nodded, staring into the garden.
Maisie noticed that Francesca Thomas had not said “we” when referring to the Belgians, and she wondered how the woman felt now about the heritage she had claimed during the war. In truth she was as much British as she was Belgian. Maisie wondered if in serving the latter she had mined a strength she had not known before, just as Maisie had herself discovered more about her own character in wartime. She rubbed a hand across her forehead, a gesture that made Thomas look up, and resume speaking.
“There are estimates that up to seven or eight thousand remained after the war—they had integrated into life here, had married locally, taken on jobs, changed their names if it suited them. They didn’t stand out, so there was an . . . an integration, I suppose you could say.” Thomas gave a wry smile.
“But life is not easy for any refugee,” said Maisie.
“Indeed. They went from being welcomed as the representatives of ‘poor little Belgium’ to their hosts wondering when they would be leaving—and often quite vocal about it. And although there were those villages set up, they were not places of comfort or acceptance in the longer term. But as I said—most refugees went home following the war.”
“Tell me what all this has to do with me, and how you believe I can help you?”
In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes