Jonathan M Barrett
Copyright © 2011 by Jonathan M Barrett
Wellington, New Zealand, 1918
"I had to take the train home to Masterton, sir. I'd heard certain things about my girl–" The corporal's eyes dart from side to side, but his hefty body stays rigid at attention. "–So I had to have a word with her before I shipped off."
A quick glance as the charge sheet tells William the corporal is not yet twenty five, but the ruddy block of a face already indicates his coming jowls. It's the third disciplinary hearing this morning: another brute; another pack of lies. "The report shows that Corporal Ward assaulted the woman, sir," William tells Major Hacker, the presiding officer.
"Did you?" Hacker sounds astonished.
"Yes, sir, I admit I did raise my hand to her, but I'm sorry for that, sir, and now we're engaged to be married."
Hacker eyes the man. "Do I remember you from Chunuk Bair?"
"Yes, sir, I was under your command."
"That was quite a scrap, wasn't it, corporal?"
"My word, sir." Ward relaxes, and his belly swells beneath his tunic. "But we gave old Johnny Turk a proper bloody nose." It's as though Hacker has given Ward a cryptic salute. The corporal ventures an insolent smile at William.
Hacker rubs his hands, and turns to William. "Right, Lieutenant, what do you recommend?"
William thumbs through the pages in the volume marked with strips of paper. "Absent without leave, drunk in uniform, assault and battery. The minimum penalty would appear to be mulcting of a week's wages, sir, and the maximum, loss of rank and imprisonment for a year, with hard labour."
Hacker closes his eyes. "Turn to the addendum to the King's Regulations and Routine Orders. Read it out."
William recites the passage as though it weren't the third time this morning he'd been directed to it. "In all cases of court martial heard by a single commanding officer, such officer has full discretion–"
"Right. Corporal, I don't care what the Bible says, you should never hit a woman. Do you hear me?"
"Good. Remember that. And if you can't handle your drink, stay off the grog." Hacker waves the man away with a sweep of his hand. "Dismissed." He turns to William. "What else do we have?"
William opens the last Manilla file. "Private Byrne. He was arrested for gambling at Alexandra Barracks."
"On his own?"
"I surmise the other men were not apprehended."
Hacker stands. His actions are stiff, almost mechanical. It could be an automaton that moves to the window for fresh air. The men joke that Hacker has so much metal inside him that compass needles change direction when he passes.
"I always told the lads in Egypt to bugger off behind a sand dune if they wanted to play cards," Hacker says. "Your military police don't like snakes and scorpions." And he stops there. One … two … three seconds of silence, long enough for a young man's mind to drift … and then it's a shout. "Right, bring him in."
William jerks. "Sir!" He stuffs the file into his armpit, and his panicked march to the door is close to a skip.
"Have you seen action, private?" Hacker asks the man straight off.
"Yes, sir, I was at Amiens with the Wellington Mounted Rifles."
Hacker bows his head. As he runs his fingers through his hair, a livid scar is revealed. "We lost a lot of good men there."
"That we did, sir."
"Right. You were caught gambling. What were you playing?"
"Did you win?"
"No, sir, lost everything but the shirt on my back."
This time William makes sure he doesn't catch the accused's impudent grin. "I suggest you use your discretion, sir"
"Good. Dismissed, private, and remember, poker is a damn fool's game."
"Yes, sir." The man salutes and is gone.
"Is that it, Lieutenant?"
Hacker leans back in his chair and clasps his hands behind his head. "I gather you don't approve of my brand of justice."
"I … well, it does seem that you might show favour to men who've seen active service."
"You're damned right I do. If you think I'm going to have a man who's stared the devil in the eye thrown in the jug for playing a game of cards, you're very much mistaken." He leans forward and prods the desk. "But let me tell you, if anyone comes before me who's stolen as much as a three-penny bit from a mate, and I'll have him breaking rocks until kingdom come. There are two things I will not abide – theft from a comrade and cowardice. Mark my words, you can make a soldier out of the most insubordinate sloven, but a thief is a thief, and a coward is always a coward."
"If I may ask, sir, don't you think it might have been cowardly of Corporal Ward to strike his fiancée?"
"The man is a bully. All cowards are bullies, but not all bullies are cowards. Remember that."
"Thank you, sir." William gathers his papers and stows them in his brief case.
"So, lad, when are you off?"
"I must report back to Featherstone camp, and–" He manages a smile, as he stands, "–we're on the next ship."
"Who's your commanding officer?"
"Captain MacMillan, sir."
Hacker writes on his notepad, tears out the page and hands it to William. "Give this to Captain MacMillan. I'm seconding you. I have some work for you. Sit down, lad. Now, what's the punishment for a man who refuses to fight?"
"Ha! That's not at my discretion because if it were I'd have him shot for cowardice, plain and simple."
"I understand that certain conscientious objectors have been sent to the Front for Field Punishment No 1."
"That's right. Strap them to a cross bar and give them a good whipping. Fair enough, that will take them closer to their Lord." Hacker leans forward and says sotto voce, "But what if we had a woman who refused to fight?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow you, sir. Women aren't conscripted."
"That's right. We men must do that … When I die, I will go before my maker safe in the knowledge that I have done my duty as a man. I have served my king and country; I have protected and provided for my family."
William is nonplussed; he nods.
"Mark my words, I've heard things, about the stews of Cairo, terrible things men can do to women. I have three daughters, lieutenant, the youngest, Lucy, is the apple of my eye, but I would strangle her with my own bare hands, if I thought for one moment she might be exposed to such abomination–"
William presumes that, lost in his petit mal, Hacker is wreaking some horrible vengeance on poor Lucy's corruptor.
Then he's back. "Look. Some bloody idiot copper took it upon himself to arrest a streetwalker along with a bunch of conchies and draft dodgers. Fair enough you might think, a mistake has been made, it's none of the Army's business, let her go. But here's the problem, it seems this tart actually is a man. There's even a birth certificate to prove it. Francis Napier. And yet they tell me, no one would ever guess it's not a woman. The whole business has gone too far. She, I mean he, is in military custody at the Alexandra Barracks, so we've got to deal with it now. I want you to look into it, and recommend a course of action."
"Has the District Surgeon made an examination?"
"There, I knew were the right man for this." Hacker rounds the desk to slap William on the back. "The DS ought to be able to decide what's what. You know, in the heat of battle, there are no right or wrong decisions, there are just decisions you have to make. Give me a machine-gun nest that must be taken out and I'm away, ask me which of two ties to wear to a picnic, and I'm all at sea. Do you follow?"
"I think so, sir."
"Good. Sort this mess out for me, lad."
Until Major Hacker appointed William to investigate the strange claims of Francis Napier, he'd not set foot inside the castellated Alexandra Barracks, but, often observing it as he passes by on the tram from his digs in Newtown to his office in Stout Street, he's thought about the dark stone walls, how the looming shadow of the fortress on Mount Cook leaves the wooden houses below cowed and flimsy. It reminds him of a castle in a Sir Walter Scott novel: a drawbridge falls, and a black-hearted baron sends out his brutish warriors to maraud the peasants. When his sister Kitty had read him Ivanhoe, William didn't imagine himself a valiant knight; the more the hero's mettle was put to the test, the more the cuddlesome boy would snuggle close to the girl practising motherhood.
William presents his warrant to the sentries. They hand it back unread and send him to the highest floor. He steps lightly up the spiral staircase, but the clunk of his boots on the iron treads echo along the chilly passageways as though he were an ogre stomping about his lair. You can see the sky through the panes in the roof, but lamps still glow along the corridors. The smells of coal gas and damp seeping through the white washed walls fill William's nostrils.
On the third floor, it's bright and close as the high summer outside. William grips the handrail; the drop through murk to the grey flagstones below makes him giddy. Up here, where the heavy, embossed doors are thrown wide open, he sees how the cells have been converted into makeshift offices, and hears snatches of the lazy banter of conscripted men as they shirk their paperwork. He knocks on the door chalked 'guardroom', pauses, and ventures a peek inside. The men are supposed to stand and salute but they don't. One is busy making tea. When he asks to see the prisoner, the other, who's rapt in a game of Solitaire, waves his hand in the air, indicating William should go to the room at the end of the corridor. William ignores the sniggering as he leaves. A serious looking young man in spectacles, the tea maker, comes after him. "Oh, Lieutenant, here's the key for the room."
William nods and smiles. "Thank you."
"I'm Donald Cord. Private Cord, I suppose I should call myself now."
"I'm William Stephens." They shake hands. "I'm the lawyer Major Hacker appointed to investigate this strange business."
"Yes. I thought as much. The curiosum." Cord enunciates the word disjunctively, as if for boys to spell and decline. "The other chap is Sampson."
William tries not to stare at the two deep scratch marks that run in a diagonal down Cord's high forehead and end at the rim of his spectacles.
Cord traces the lines with a tentative fingertip. "Ah, well, I'm sure the prisoner meant no real harm," he says and laughs. "Ex Nova Zelandia semper aliquid novi, don't you think?"
William's Latin was never strong, but he gets the gist and laughs too.
They both redden and look to their boots when Sampson shouts from the guardroom. "And you'd better watch out for your privates, mate."
William pictures Edith's delight at his surprise visit. He ducks below the window of her father's surgery, and eases open the side gate where wisteria climbs a wrought iron archway.
When she glimpses him in the doorway of her room, she will look up from her work and smile, thinking her imagination is playing tricks on her.
William mounts the garden steps, two at a time, past bushes sizzling with feverish cicadas; he sees the French windows are wide open.
His fiancée will drop her paintbrush, so he anticipates, careless of the splatter of Prussian blue – no, vermilion – left on the Persian rug, and simply fly across her studio to embrace him.
It's the first week of February; there's no cooling breeze, and the serge collar of his shirt chafes against William's neck as sweat breaks out.
They will kiss – he's sure of that, at least.
William doesn't announce himself. He removes his cap, coaxes his hair into the centre parting it always resists, and straightens his army tunic. He watches Edith at her easel from the threshold. The crisp white blouse and pale lemon skirt echo the sheaf of flowers she's sketching. Her blonde hair is gathered up and pinned into a bulb. William coughs, but Edith is oblivious, enraptured by her work.
"Edith, it's me."
"Willie?" Edith stands and places the stylus of charcoal on the easel ledge. "Is it really you?" She wipes her fingers, one by one, on a cloth, and, at last, holds out her hands. "I thought I'd seen a ghost."
William strides across to interlock fingers. Edith kisses his cheek and retreats. She sits in the armchair, and he takes the settee.
"This is a surprise." Her smile is hesitant. "But, I don't understand, what are you doing here? I thought you'd gone to Featherstone camp."
"I've been given a reprieve."
"A reprieve?" Edith's laugh is awkward, as though he's used a malapropism in smart company. "What on earth do you mean by that?"
"Major Hacker called me in and told me some bizarre legal business has cropped up, and he wants me to look into it. So, I won't be leaving for France until it's all sorted out." William digs for his pipe in his tunic pocket. He stuffs the bowl with cherry rum tobacco.
"Oh, please, not that beastly thing inside. The smell lingers for days. Here." Edith fetches her silver case from the trestle table with its taxonomy of paints and brushes. She lights a Sobranie for herself. "Take one of these." Now she sits on the settee, close but not touching. "So, how long before you leave?"
"A few weeks at least I should think."
"Oh, good." Edith stands and stretches her arms wide as she moves to the French windows. "What a glorious day. Did I tell you, Daddy is going to plant some native flax for me? Then the tuis can entertain me while I work."
"Yes, you did." William twists to face her. "Well, I must say I thought you might be a little more pleased than 'oh good'. You really don't seem to be terribly pleased."
Edith turns to look at him. She looks saintly, framed in the sunlight. "Don't be silly. Of course I'm pleased, I'm delighted but–"
"When your name wasn't pulled from the ballot each time, I let myself believe you wouldn't have to fight. But then it was–" She quickly rubs away a tear. "–so now, I just want it over, so we can get on with our lives."
"I see. Yes, there's that, of course, but, quite frankly, the less time I'm in France, the more chance there is that I'll actually come back."
There's the crisp rustle of her skirt, as Edith strides across the room; she stubs out her cigarette. "Please don't talk like that, William."
"But it's true, isn't it? Chaps are dying like flies up there. They say it's worse than Gallipoli."
"I really don't want to hear talk like that." Her voice is stern as if she's addressing a child who must swallow down all his medicine. "Do you hear me?" She gives him a 'good boy' look when he averts his eyes. "So, tell me, what exactly is this bizarre legal business you've been roped into? Or is it," she adds in a stagy whisper, "top secret?"
"No, it's not top secret, in fact, it's probably all around town by now. You know what this place is like. It really is quite the strangest thing. Major Hacker – I've told you who he is, yes, of course, I have, sorry – anyway, Hacker says to me after we've done the so-called courts martial, 'I like the way you nod, lad, when I let any man off whose had a whiff of cordite. So, I want you get me out of little pickle I'm in.'"
"Is that really how he talks?"
"It's the best I can do."
Edith pats William's arm. "Just use your own voice then."
"Fine. Well, anyway, he says we've got a draftee who claims to be a woman."
"What?" Edith covers her mouth with her hands.
"I promise you."
"How utterly bizarre indeed!"
"Yes, it really is," William says. "And not without its risks too, I might add."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Well, for one thing, when they dragged him into the cells, dressed – well, to put it delicately, as a lady of the night – he scratched one of the guards so badly the poor chap needed to see the MO, and he kicked another of them in a very private place."
Edith covers her mouth in scandalised delight. "Oh, no!"
"So, yes, I was a little wary, I can tell you, when I went down to the cell to talk to the fellow."
"And?" She checks William's face with mock gravity. "You don't look permanently scarred."
Her fingers' tracing his cheeks and eyelids is delightful. William glances into Edith's Delft blue eyes, as she squints in her examination; he inclines his mouth towards her lips, but sits back as she pulls away and draws on his cigarette. "Nothing, thank goodness. The fellow just lay there, curled up on the bed facing the wall. So, I'll just try again tomorrow. I'll be patient, show that I can be trusted."
"Like taming a wild animal?" Edith feigns cracking a whip.
"Well, yes, I suppose you could put it like that."
"And does he even look like a woman?"
"He must, but I couldn't see and I didn't dare go too close. I mean, Hacker wouldn't bother with an investigation first if there weren't some genuine doubt. Major Hacker is a very black and white sort of chap. He won a Military Cross at Chunuk Bair… and they only give out MCs for exemplary gallantry… conspicuous killing or rescuing or something along those lines." William remembers himself. "Oh, there I go, babbling on again." He straightens his tie. "Anyway, what have you been up to?"
"I've been sketching, let me show you." Edith fetches her sketchpad from the easel and brings it to him. He's slouched in the settee, so he sits up and stubs out his cigarette, he's always respectful of Edith's art.
"Oh, dearest, this really is superb. These daffodils–"
"–They look so – real." He loves the slight hesitancy before she presents her work to him, the faint glow about her cheeks and the way she reins in her delight when he praises, as he always does. "I feel I could almost reach out and touch them, they're absolutely marvellous."
"No, they're not." She kisses the tip of her index finger and touches William's pursed lips. "Willie, you are so very sweet, but I'm afraid you're not much of a critic."
William tastes the faintest hint of carbon. Perhaps a dusting of chalk will be left on his moustache. "If you say so, dearest, but I do so envy your ability to capture things exactly as they are."
Just two days after his first visit to the Alexandra Barracks, the whole place already seems familiar. This morning William is saluted through the sentry post. He steps briskly up the stairs, oblivious to the carillon of clanking his boots make, greets Cord and Sampson in the guardroom like they're long time mates, and breezes into the prisoner's cell. He arranges his tunic on the back of the chair, and sets out his pad, pencils and documents. An hour passes, it seems much longer.
He looks around once more. Perhaps he'd been wrong to describe this space to Edith as a cell. There are no bars on the windows, but the glass has been whitewashed along with the walls, and the window latches have been removed. It's quite roomy, if stuffy in this weather – they probably use it as a storeroom normally.
His table is in the centre of the room. It's where he's supposed to be conducting his interrogation, but the prisoner hasn't left the bed, much less deigned to sit in the chair opposite and tell him what's what. The only movement William has noticed this morning was the prisoner wrapping a grey blanket more tightly around himself. No doubt it's some kind of protest, given how stifling it is in here.
William passes a good deal of the morning re-reading every document in the file and is now doodling flowers in the margins of the charge sheet. He considers his efforts at different angles. They don't resemble any kind of flower a botanist could identify: a child's daisy, at best. He knows he's got no artistic talent. Ever since her first tentative showing of her work to him, William has wished he could capture things the way Edith can. He erases his drawings, meticulously following the lines until only a spectral indentation remains.
William stands to stretch his lower back, then approaches the foot of the bed. Some fellows he knows would give the frame a good old kick to get a satisfying clang, that would jerk the prisoner awake very nicely. William musters the gruffest voice he can manage. "Well, are you ready to talk yet?"
There's no response, no reaction at all. William sighs. He approaches the bedstead, cautious lest he catches a kick in the groin. "Listen here, Napier. I don't know how many times I must explain the seriousness of the charge you face. Refusing to obey the draft is tantamount to desertion, and that carries severe penalties indeed." William checks for any response, but there's none. "I do understand you think a mistake has been made – perhaps we could discuss that?"
Still no answer. William returns to the table and, one by one, packs his things into his briefcase. It's too hot to put his tunic back on and so he drapes over his arm. At the door he turns to try just one more time. "Look, I really am a patient sort of chap, but this is the third day of my coming in here and talking to your back. If you won't make a statement to me, then I'll just have to report to my superiors that you're not prepared to cooperate, and so I can't be of any assistance." William touches the door knob and adds, "Quite frankly, I really I wouldn't give your chances much hope if I have to do that." He waits as long as is seemly. His fingers tips caress the cool brass ellipse. "Fine, have it your way and good luck to you." He starts to turn the knob but freezes when he hears the prisoner's voice for the first time.
What had he expected from a man claiming to a woman – the ghostly trill of a castrato or, perhaps, the comic growl of a pantomime dame? He hadn't really thought about it in the determined silence of the last three days. It was just one word, muffled and distant, but it was definitely a woman's voice.
William inhales deeply, he knows he mustn't reveal his triumphant smile. "Well, are you prepared to make a statement?"
The prisoner says, "If you're prepared to listen and not interrupt me, I will tell you about myself." It's a good voice, melodious, the voice of an actress, he fancies.
"All right." William is quickly at the table. He retrieves the documents and pencils from his brief case, and sits, alert and ready.
The prisoner turns, and William sees her for the first time. Her hair is thick and black, splayed out and over her face. She raises her hands, and draws her fingers through her hair, pulling it into two bunches that she releases behind her head. The forehead is wide and high, her cheekbones broad and strong, and there's a hint of olive in the skin. Her plump lower lip is split like an over ripe plum, and, no doubt, it was Sampson's fist that blackened the right eye too. Yet everything about the face suggests fullness and beauty. She is, he decides, the image of Carmen as Bizet conjured her, not as Mrs Caruthers, the portly diva, whom Edith and William had seen last year make a mockery of the role at the His Majesty's Theatre.
The shock of the prisoner's beauty jolts William no less than if a monstrous ghoul had lunged at him from the bed. He lets out the faintest gasp, and stares momentarily before he can compose himself. He reaches for his pencil.
The prisoner sits upright on the bed. She pulls a shawl of reds and gold from beneath the grey blanket, and wraps it around herself. Her expression tells William she's more than a little pleased with his discomfiture.
Her accent is from deepest Ruritania. "My name is Franka Arkadyevna Shcherbatskaya."
"Could you spell that for me, please?"
"No." She stands and starts to pace the cell. William tries not to watch her weaving, how her progress describes a figure of eight around the floor. "I was born in St Petersburg on the 25th day of June of the year 1892, by the Western way of reckoning. My mother was lady in waiting to Empress Alexandra, my father was artist, idealist. You know how such men are?" She turns to William.
He looks down. "Carry on." His pencil has traced curlicues on his pad, mapping her movement. He realises he's written nothing down, and quickly starts to take notes.
"My father was accused of plotting to overthrow the Emperor. It was terrible lie, but they said he was guilty and sentenced dear Papa to death. Still, the Empress intervened to save his life – I suspect Papa was her secret lover." Her accent is becoming thicker as she talks.
William thinks aloud. "I suppose it isn't really relevant, but isn't it 'Tsar' and 'Tsarina' in Russia?"
She rounds on him. "I translate for your benefit." Her hands are on her hips. "Do you speak Russian? You want me tell story in Russky for you?"
"No. No, that wouldn't really be very helpful. I'm sorry for interrupting you, please carry on."
"We were exiled to Siberia, but we escaped. We suffered hardships too terrible to describe and, then, Papa, always such a brave man, died in the snow, saving us from pack of bears." Despite the still heat of the room, she shivers and wraps the shawl more tightly around her.
William looks up. "A pack of bears?"
"Yes, bears." When she comes to stand at the other side of the table, she looks rather formidable. "Hundreds of them."
Did he detect the hint of a smile?
"But, in time, Mama and I made our way to Vladivostok, Tashkent, Shanghai. Mama became the concubine of a powerful warlord." She pauses, and adds, "She was favourite, of course."
William murmurs, "Of course." He hears her deep breathing, close to him, but keeps his eyes downcast, and says, "Please, carry on."
"I cannot begin to describe luxury of life we led." He steals a peek, she's examining the door. "But it was my fate to wander, and so I ran away to become ballerina. As these things happen, I was captured by pirates, and sold into white slavery. In time, I became a geisha girl in Kyoto. When I bored of that, I traded the family jewels for a boat, and set sail in a Chinese junk to travel the world."
William stops writing, and the prisoner seems to have lost interest in the yarn. "There was hurricane, typhoon, or something. Therefore, I am here." The prisoner sighs, then, with sudden fury, shouts, "And now you idiots say that I am a man and must fight in your army."
William's heartbeat quickens, but, despite a moment of blinking, he manages to keep his cool. "I see." He looks her in the eyes. "Thank you for that. Now, let me read you what the records they've given me say about you." He scans the papers in the Manila folder. "Well, yes, they do corroborate that you were born in 1892. But I think–" He makes a good show of checking the papers and, rather enjoying himself, adds, "–Yes, that's the only point on which they do agree. It says here you born in Auckland, 'foundling, parents unknown'."
"That is a monstrous lie." She's turned pale as though she might faint. "My mother was a beautiful opera singer from – Tahiti – my father a brilliant Eskimo surgeon. He died in Africa, helping poor benighted heathens."
William is pleased he can keep a straight face. "Please, let me continue. You were given the names Francis Albert Napier after the policeman who found you, and you were raised in the St Joseph's Orphanage, Mount Eden."
"Ha! An orphanage! We had twenty servants. My feet didn't touch the ground until I was six years old. I was carried everywhere – by our Nubian manservant. He'd been castrated, you know, so he couldn't interfere with the women in Papa's seraglio."
A fierce silence follows. William dares to look up. Her chin is in her hands, her elbows rest on the table opposite him, her lips are pursed. "Did your father keep a harem, lieutenant?" She stares at William without flinching.
My word, William thinks, she really is a rather fine performer, but he's not doing so badly himself. "Not that he ever mentioned."
The thought of his father as a man with such command over women was delicious. Thomas Stephens was a draper and haberdasher, pernickety in the way he dressed, you might say vain, and kept his hair black with coal-tar dye. He had a specialty in ladies' foundations; his life was spent meeting certain needs of women. Until William was born, the Stephens household was dominated by women, by his staunch mother and three garrulous sisters. So, how would his father have run his harem? Well, the women would have been dressed in the latest Christchurch fashions for sure. William pictures his father pulling the hair of his concubines into French plaits as he did his sisters', straightening their ribbons, before their immaculate promenade to the Cathedral on a Sunday morning.
"Anyway, let me continue. The record states you joined the merchant marine at fourteen and, well, the next we know is that you've been convicted for various acts of, ah, lewdness." William flits through the pages. "Quite a few it seems."
"What sort of acts of lewdness?" the prisoner says, and reaches for the folder.
William covers the charge sheet with his hand. "Well, that's not really here nor there."
"If you cannot bring yourself to name the crime, don't accuse me of it."
William feels his cheeks enflame. "That's not really pertinent to the case in hand. But this is: you were issued with call up papers, which you ignored. And that's why you were arrested and placed in military custody."
The prisoner flings her head back and laughs. Yes, precisely in the manner of Mrs Caruthers as Carmen, but with creditability. Perhaps Napier had seen the performance too.
"I'm sorry, I really don't understand what you find so amusing," William says.
"Can't you see, nothing could be more amusing? I am a woman."
William's eyes can't resist confirming her assertion.
"Does this country wish to have an army of amazons?"
"No," he says. "Order of Council issued pursuant to the Defence Act 1909 provides that all able-bodied men are liable to serve in the New Zealand Army to fight our country's enemies. The records made available to me indicate you are a man. Your name was selected by ballot, and you chose to ignore that selection."
"I am clearly a woman. Are you blind to the obvious too?"
William glances: she does indeed appear to be a rather well formed woman.
"Please let me continue. You had the option of appealing to the Military Service Board but chose not to avail yourself of that opportunity."
"I tell you I am a woman. Must I make excuses because some government clerk makes a stupid mistake? I have never been mistaken as a man in the boudoir, I can assure you of that."
William feels himself flush more deeply, and fears his stutter may come back, but he remains calm. "All documents indicate you were born Francis Albert Napier, and that you are eligible to perform military service for the Crown."
"Pah, lies and nonsense." She throws up her hands, and goes back to lying on the bed.
William's throat is parched, he feels a little light-headed. He'd like to leave this to find some water. He spots a pitcher next to the bed but presumes it would be unseemly to ask a prisoner for water.
"And you – are you such a fool like the rest of them?" Her voice is soft, barely audible.
William approaches the bed, but she turns her back to him. His gaze follows the curve of her hip. "Look, if I'm to have any chance of helping you, you must be honest with me."
"All I must do is tell you the truth?"
"Yes. As they say, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
She turns and props her head with her hand. Her expression is grave. "Now, exactly who are you with whom I must be so trusting and honest?"
"I've told you who I am. My name is Lieutenant Stephens."
"But why are you here?"
"I've also explained that to you. Before I answered the ballot, that is, in civilian life, I practised as a conveyancer."
"What!" She springs up.
William sees fire flare in her eyes. He remembers the livid tracks across Private Cord's forehead, and can't prevent his hands jerking up to protect his face. But she doesn't pounce. "A conveyancer drives a charabanc, no?" She says. "My life depends on it, and they've given me a tram driver as my advocate!"
William relaxes, he understands she's taking a rise, and says, "No, a conveyancer is a lawyer who oversees transfers of real property."
"I see." She takes a well-timed pause. "So you are perfectly qualified to defend a woman the army accuses of being a man?"
He straightens once more. "No, I wouldn't think anyone would be particularly qualified in that regard." He runs his finger along the inside of his collar, desperate to let in some cooler air. She stands, she's too close. "But, if you cooperate with me, I shall certainly do my best for you. And you're quite right on that score: a court martial or military tribunal of some sort will hear your case, I should think. As you're aware, had you objected earlier, you would have faced a civilian board, and I don't doubt they would have let you off–" He hesitates, he really doesn't know. "–Perhaps on medical grounds. But this military code is all a bit obscure. For instance–" He laughs. "–As far as I can make out, they didn't need to allocate me to you."
She glares. "So tell me why exactly did they allocate you to me? To entertain me? To be my loyal eunuch? How sweet of the New Zealand Army! I must write your General Chaytor a note of thanks." The blaze has rekindled in her eyes, but the Russian accent long forgotten.
William takes a step back. "Now, look here, Napier, that really is too much. I'm an opened minded sort of chap, but I won't put up with this kind of rudeness. Quite frankly, I didn't ask to do this and I'm certainly not going to put up with insults from you."
She squares off. He takes a further step back. "And I can assure you, Lieutenant, I did not ask for this to happen to me. And let me ask you this: exactly how insulted do you think I feel – to have my sex denied, dragged from the street, and thrown into this hole?"
Edith says William always sees the other chap's view too easily – that's why he could never become a barrister, he just caves in. Edith is probably right, she normally is about such things. "I dare say you feel very aggrieved, but that's precisely my point: the only way we can resolve this problem is if you cooperate with me, so that we can convince the tribunal what you say is true."
"I see." She seems to be thinking this over. "If I cooperate with you, what will happen then?"
William returns to the table and sits. "I'm not sure, to be honest. As I said, this military code is not altogether clear to me. Give me the Land Act, and I'm away." She doesn't return his smile, and he coughs. "Nevertheless, I can assure you I shall certainly find out." He adds, "Well, I promise to do my best to find out." Later William will remember how stupid it would have appeared, but he can't help looking around the empty room as he says, "Someone must have a textbook somewhere."
Napier follows William's gaze, as though they're both watching the flight of a butterfly around the room.
He coughs. "Now, this time, please, in your own words, tell me the truth."
"The whole truth and nothing but the truth?"
"Yes, that's the ticket," he says. He feels quite jolly, and picks up his pencil to write.
The prisoner comes to the table and sits in the chair opposite him. "I'd resolved never to reveal my secrets, but I think I can trust you." She pauses, as if she really is about to unburden herself. She leans across the table and whispers. "Maman, is, Lillie Langtry, the famous Jersey Lily. And Papa is–" She looks around, checking for eavesdroppers. "–The late King Edward. God bless him." She sits back and starts in a French accent. "I was educated privately in Switzerland before eloping at sixteen with an impossibly handsome – and rich, mind you – heir to an Argentine beef fortune–"
William meets his colleague Green for a Thursday evening drink in the saloon bar of the Royal Hotel, it's their custom. On his first day of work at Johnstone & Petherall, Green, as the only other man in the office under forty, had taken William under his wing and out for a walk at lunchtime. As they strolled along Lambton Quay, discussing the partners and the other staff, Green stopped William, a big paw on his bicep. William noticed the frayed and grimy shirt cuff, the bitten nails. Green wore a grave expression. "I should like you to know, Stephens, I'm a man of great appetites."
"I just thought you should know." He released William's arm and lightly dusted his sleeve. "A man who spends time with me will be exposed to vices that would tempt a saint down from his mountaintop."
William nodded. "Good, I'm glad you warned me."
Green does indeed boast a zest for the low and corporeal that repulses and yet intrigues William. At twenty-three, Green is just two years the senior, but has already failed his conveyancing exams twice. He's a man of the world, at least a world he claims to know. If they take their break together at lunchtime, Green will nudge William and tip his hat as a girl passes. "She's a tart," he'll say, and, as another prim shopgirl approaches, "I've had her." He tugs William's sleeve. "Up that stairway is a secret club for men run by a Greek." He whispers in an aside, "They bugger each other in there." Then he slaps at the confidant's jacket, as though he might have left a mark.
If Green is to be believed, he's had his way with every strumpet in the city, spent hours slumped in opium dreams, and won and lost fortunes gambling with dissolute millionaires. He's bettered gangs of stevedores in fistfights and left vengeful tong assassins slumped in alleys. "Stephens, I'll tell you, when I heard the little yellow devil's neck snap, why even I felt a twinge of compunction." He'd quickly brushed down William's lapels after this whispered confidence.
Though William's unspoken sympathy lay with the workers, he'd been unable to keep in check his laughter at Green cheering on Massey's Cossacks from the balcony of the Royal Hotel. As the bully boys clattered along Jervois Quay to charge down upon the striking dockers, Green made like a huntsman, "Talley ho!" He galloped among the tables, his hindquarters were as broad as a dray horse.
Green raises his glass at the sight of William in uniform weaving carefully across the saloon bar. "God, man, you look damn fine. Damn fine. What I'd do for the chance to get up there and kill my share of the Hun!" Green shifts on his flat feet. "You lucky dog!"
Green leans across the bar to pass William his drink, and his belly escapes his waistband. "So, when are you off, Stephens?" he says, and adds, "God I envy you," before William can answer. "Women can't resist a man in bloody uniform." He sighs. "You'd think the work would have slowed down a bit what with the war dragging on, but none of it. I've got stacks of files on my desk, this high." He motions an improbable height of papers. "You really are better off out of it."
"I dare say." William ends the lengthening pause by asking, "So, how are your parents?"
Green hunches over his glass. "They're fine."
Obviously Green hasn't got wind of anything about William and this Napier business; otherwise he'd be drooling for intimacies like a stray mongrel for scraps.
Green checks his wristwatch, looks mournfully at the beer taps, weighing up as usual the possibility of swilling down another pint before his tram leaves. "I've got an assignation." He wipes his lips on his sleeve. Green's mother serves tea at six every evening, on the dot. William leaves his glass half full to walk out with his colleague.
As soon as they're outside, Green trots off towards his approaching tram but turns. "Bring me back an iron cross as a memento, do you hear me, Stephens?"
William steals a glance at his reflection in the window of the cable car. The moustache adds a few years, but his jaw is too small for the cap. He looks away and muses: if he were the patron commissioning a painting, he'd tell the artist to square the chin, to add a mysterious, faint scar, there, on his left cheekbone.
His thoughts return to Napier once more. What a thing it must be to invent as she does, like a character in a novel creating and re-creating herself or an artist portraying a sitter who's never lived. You take the nose of a girl you passed without greeting in the street and shorten it, plump the thin lips of a housemaid, and neuter and curl your neighbour's fearsome tomcat in her lap; then you conjure the psyche in her imagined eyes. And three hundred years later, gallery goers might stop before the picture, and speculate on who the sitter was. Some might even faint into the arms of their sweetheart. Edith would never counterfeit life in that way, her reverence for truth wouldn't allow it, but someone with her skills could.
Braeburn, the Framptons' home is a few hundred yards from the cable car terminus. The house was built less than ten years ago, and yet it seems much older, as if it's been there centuries. Its ornate finials hint of battles fought with old world witches, and, with Dr Frampton's incontrovertible reason, won of course. As he approaches, William fancies Braeburn, with its towering gables, has an unnerving confidence in its own existence. Only Edith's room – she refuses to call it her studio until she's satisfied with her art – is of the twentieth century. She plundered the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh for its basic design, sketched the plans and, though the draftsman and builders had, no doubt, scratched their heads and pointed out its incongruity with the house, Frampton would have settled the matter. "My daughter–" William imagined him saying with his rolling Scots enunciation – and with a wink, for sure, "–is an artist. It is not for us mere mortals to question her judgement."
This evening William is a dinner guest, and so can't slope around the side to Edith's room. He knows how things will be. Mary the housekeeper will answer the door, her pursed lips will inform William that his two gills of pale ale have not gone unnoticed. Dr Frampton will be a perfect host, urging William to take another lamb chop, despite his half full plate. All the while William will be wishing that Mary might bustle into the dining room with news of an emergency that might take Frampton from his own house. Edith will ignore him most of the evening, too intent on matching her father's wit. William will watch her lips move as she talks. He'll miss most of what she's saying, and will be wishing the evening over, since, at is its end, there might at last be the chance to silence her with a kiss.
Once, in Frampton's library, William had found an old volume of phrenology. He flitted through, wondering at the diagrams of the different sized heads of all the world's races. Of course, the north European skulls were the largest, with brains of matching size, the most intelligent of races. Presumably it was Frampton, as a young man, who'd underlined these findings in pencil. This raised two questions for William, neither of which he could ever pose to his future father-in-law. The first related to the size and shape of Frampton's own head, which was unusually small and brick like, almost simian – a resemblance emphasised by his low brow and thick white hair and beard, cropped a uniform half-inch all over. The second question was why, if north Europeans were the most intelligent of race, they were slaughtering each other on the fields of Flanders. William is reminded of these questions he could never ask when, after dinner, Frampton ushers him into the library, and motions him to an armchair.
"Take a seat, William. I've asked Edith to fetch us a bottle of Portuguese Tawny. I've had to start keeping my best grog in the cellar, under lock and key these days."
William presumes it's a precaution against the housekeeper's pilfering. "Does Mary drink it?"
"Good god, no – quite the opposite. The woman has joined the temperance tabernacle, and I no longer trust her not to pour my twelve-year-old scotch down the sink. Mark my words, you can never know when one of those tutting wowsers is spying on you, ready to pounce. Did I tell you, one of my patients, who'd called me out in a howling gale at midnight, mind you, had the temerity to ask me whether I had liquor on my breath?"
"My word." William nods as he waits for Frampton's charade of apoplexy to subside. "Dr Frampton, I have a rather delicate request, I would like to make of you – while Edith is out of the room."
"By all means, William."
"As I say, it is a little delicate."
"Indeed. And Edith will no longer be out of the room if you continue to press upon me the delicacy of your request."
"Quite." William breathes deeply. "Do you have a textbook I may borrow on the human anatomy?"
Frampton sits back in his armchair and makes a steeple with his fingers. "Including the reproductive organs?"
"Well, ideally, yes."
Frampton slaps his knee with delight. "Ha! I thought you young men knew everything these days, and besides, the wedding is postponed until you get back from France."
William feels his cheeks burn. "It's not about Edith and me. I'm trying to find some background information for this strange business I've been roped into."
"I see. The infamous case of the streetwalking hermaphrodite, I take it?"
"Ah, so you've heard of her too?"
"Him," Frampton says. "Remember, according to Greek legend, Hermaphroditus, whence the word is derived, was the son of Aphrodite and Hermes. He was, as the capricious ways of the gods will have it, fated to take on the worst characteristics of both sexes."
"Yes, that's what I've read too.'
Frampton laughs. "Actually, I'll be honest with you, Harry Chapman – you know, the District Surgeon – was, with his usual bedside manner, discussing the matter at great volume at the club last week."
"Ah. Tell me, Dr Frampton, is it unusual?"
"Not at all, the man's always speaking out of turn, and after the twenty years he spent in the Royal Navy, he's a demon for the rum, when he can get hold of the proper stuff, which he can't at the moment."
"Because of the temperance business?" William says.
"No, no, no. He tells me that pusser's rum – that's his particular poison, you know – is reserved for the military for the duration of the conflict. And I'm afraid, Chapman is a bit of a rum fellow. Ha ha."
"Yes very good, Dr Frampton, but I wasn't referring to Chapman. I meant these hermaphrodites, do you come across them often?"
"Oh, yes. Virtually, every time I stick my spade into the flowerbeds," Frampton says.
William stifles a sigh. Frampton is a good man but can be very tiresome. "I'm not really following you, Dr Frampton."
"Hermaphroditism, you see, William, is a distinguishing characteristic of lumbricus terrestris – better known as the common garden worm."
William manages to smile. Frampton still has something of the child in him – his enthusiasms, his silly jokes. William rather envies him for that. Edith told him how, last Christmas, her father had been as excited as the children at the pantomime. Frampton had paid for a whole troop of orphans to go to the show, and had booed and hissed, and jumped out of his seat in outrage as much as any of the children as the plot unfolded.
"Yes. I meant, as a physician, do you come across hermaphroditism? Is it a common affliction among people?"
"No." Frampton's expression has become stern. He leans forward. William can never forget that Frampton's feet don't touch the floor when he sits in his grand, wingback armchairs. "I've heard anecdotes, of course, but, frankly, as far as I am concerned, it's no more than a myth. You either are or you're not one or the other. Take it from me, it's as simple as that." Frampton laughs heartily. "In fact the closest I've come to verifying the symptoms of an hermaphrodite was having front row seats at last year's pantomime. The dame had full mutton chop whiskers, would you believe it?"
William can keep his patience no longer. "Well, I must say, for Napier, it's no laughing matter. In fact, I would go as far as to say it's nothing less than a matter of life or death for her."
"Nonsense. He'll be sent to prison for the duration of the war." Frampton punches his palm. His coiled energy and certainty are enervating.
William notices Frampton's feet suspended above the floor, jiggling against the red leather. Is it a rhetorical point for William to cross and uncross his feet at the ankle, comfortably on the floor? "A male prison. But I'm not so sure about that either. I hear they've sent that conscientious objector Baxter and his crew to the Front for punishment."
"That'll teach those bludgers about duty to King and empire, won't it?"
"Perhaps, but I can't believe a person like Napier could survive that sort of treatment," William says.
"That may be so, but surely it's a simple matter of action and consequence?" William presumes Frampton can't bear the puppetry of his feet any longer. His powerful hands pull him to the edge of the chair. "William. I would have thought the study of law would have taught you that much. Mark my words–" His finger is pointed towards William's face. "–Harry Chapman concluded this Napier fellow was born into the male sex. If he wants to parade up and down Lambton Quay in a frock carrying a parasol, that's his look out, but, if he wants to pretend to the New Zealand Army Corps that he's a woman, then, he'd better be prepared to accept the consequences."
William doesn't react as he wishes he might: to tell his father-in-law to be that, for all his charitable deeds and five-shilling insurance schemes for the workingman, he's nothing but a damned bloody bigot, and coolly walk out. Rather, he momentarily closes his eyes before saying, "I know what Dr Chapman put in his report but when I spoke to him he seemed a little, um, evasive. You indicated Chapman is a drunk. Is it possible that he was mistaken?"
"In vino veritas, as the Romans wisely had it. Let me tell you, William, Doctor Chapman may be fond of the bottle, but he's perfectly capable of telling a man from a woman on the darkest of nights. I really think I'd better find you Grey's Anatomy as a matter of urgency."
William wonders how long Frampton will be able to maintain the smile that bisects his face but dea ex machina Edith arrives carrying a tray with the glasses of port. She hands them out.
"Thank you, my dear. Now, Edith, your fiancé here was just asking me for the loan of a textbook on the human anatomy, preferably with graphic representations."
"Was he, indeed? Well, if he's that interested in the human body, he can come along to my life drawing classes instead. On Wednesdays, we have a live model – and nude to boot!"
"How scandalous!" Frampton slaps his knee, and, adopting a serious expression, leans towards his daughter. "But, my dear, having had ample opportunity to view your sketches of the human form, I'm afraid I must say they don't often resemble any of the bodies I've had to poke around in over the years."
"Oh, Dr Frampton," William says, "I really can't agree with you there." William knows the only time he'll best Frampton is when he disagrees in order to praise his daughter. "I don't speak from an anatomist's perspective, but to me, Edith's sketches look so real. I so envy her talent for capturing people just as they are."
Edith pecks William lightly on the cheek. "Daddy, don't you dare say love is blind."
Frampton looks to the ceiling and pokes his tongue into his cheek. "That particular diagnosis hadn't crossed my mind."
"Your father has been making a joke at my expense again I'm afraid, dear."
Edith sighs. "Well, you do make it so easy for him."
"Now, now, sheath your lingual sabre, lassie," Frampton says. "William was just asking for my expert opinion regarding the appropriate punishment for his famous bludger in bawd's clothing."
William feels his cheeks burning once more. "I think you'll find the law says something about innocent until proven guilty, Dr Frampton."
Frampton claps his hands and is almost out of his chair with excitement. "Ha! 'Innocent of being a man?' Is that one of yours, Edith? Have you persuaded William that it's now a crime to be a man?"
"No, I have not, Daddy." Edith takes a sip of port. "But, on that subject, Rose Sterling told me the strangest story today."
The mention of Rose comes as a relief to William. Uniquely, she's a subject of conversation on which Frampton and he are always at one. Despite his gratitude for the diversion, he can't help saying, "Spare us please, Edith, not another of Rose's tall tales."
"Well, I must say her stories have a touch more excitement to them than your 'tales from a conveyancer's office'."
"That may be so," William says, "but at least mine have truth on their side."
"And Rose swears this time, it's a true story. Anyway, she was in Beauchamps' haberdashery department. She was looking for a button for her black, lace gloves."
William sits back. The mention of his father's trivial avocation is always enough to silence him. He takes a sip of port. The tension between himself and the older man seems to have gone. Frampton leans across, tugs William's sleeve and says, no doubt for Edith's rather than his ears, "Note, William, she was after a button for black lace gloves. The surplus embellishments with which Rose decorates her stories ensure the appropriate element of authenticity, you see."
"Well, actually, yes." But Edith gives William the reproving look. "She'd lost the button at the memorial service for her brother Jimmy, so there."
"Must be true then." Frampton can say what William wouldn't dare. "It has to be the unassailable truth if she brings the memory of her poor dead brother into it."
"Oh you really are heartless, Daddy," Edith says, but addresses William. "Shall I continue?"
"Please do," Frampton says, "it's bound to be very entertaining."
"Anyway, as she's leaving, there's this old lady looking all confused and lost. So, Rose being Rose, asks her what's wrong and sees if she needs any help. The poor old girl has got herself completely lost and doesn't know how to find her way out. So Rose takes her by the arm and leads her to the lift. Talking away, they are."
"They are talking?" Frampton says. A hard fist punches William's thigh.
"All right, Rose is talking, no doubt about the things women talk about. But they are waiting for the lift. Beauchamps' has one of those new ones with solid doors, so, when they shut, you're completely enclosed."
"As if," Frampton says with a ghoulish warble, "in a tomb." He grips and shakes William's knee.
"Precisely. Down they go. As they step out, a gentleman with a brown suit and large moustache comes up to them, and roughly takes this old woman by the arm. Of course, Rose is indignant and demands to know what his game is. But, at that moment – and she swears she doesn't know what made her do it – but, she looks down and sees the old girl is wearing a pair of men's hobnail boots."
"Good lord!" Frampton says. "Hobnail boots in Beauchamps' haberdashery department – what is the world coming to?"
"No, father, this isn't a joking matter." Edith glares at William for laughing. "The man in the brown suit said to her, 'Not to worry, miss, it's only old Albert up to his tricks. They'll be missing him – up at the asylum!' And he hauled the creature off. It wasn't an old woman, at all – it was a deranged old man!"
"Brown suit, you say?" Frampton says, and strokes his beard.
"So Rose said." Edith's eyes are still wide with excitement.
"Well, that's that then. It must be true. Nobody could make up a man in a brown suit."
"Don't you believe it?"
"I believe you, my dear," Frampton says, patting his daughter's knee "But, I don't believe a word of Rose's story."
"Oh, Daddy! Why don't you believe her?"
"Rose is not what my learned friend here might describe as a reliable witness – eh, William? Come on, Edith, really, who on earth could be such a damned fool as to mistake a man for a woman?"
"Well, I certainly don't know, Dr Frampton." The port burns the back of William's throat as he finishes it in one gulp. "Edith, would you care to see me out? Thank you for your hospitality, Dr Frampton." William stands and shakes hands with Frampton, but avoids his eye.
"Any time, dear boy, any time," Frampton says. William notices father and daughter exchange glances.
William and Edith don't speak as they walk down the stairs. Their hands caress the banister in parallel, and pass lightly over the newel like following waves; they step along the hallway to the threshold, with no more noise than the tap of William's soles on the parquet. Edith opens the door, and it seems she would leave it there, but William takes her hand and draws her gently toward the veranda. She resists but steps outside anyway.
"Aren't you going to kiss me goodnight?" He says and pulls her to him, but their bodies make a Y as she leans back. He bends forward and kisses her closed lips. She pushes out of his embrace.
"Oh, I really don't think I can get used to that moustache, Willie. It's like kissing a caterpillar."
"Which you've tried, I suppose?" He rests his back against the veranda rail.
Edith comes over to kiss him. The delicious moment is quick but passionate. She sits opposite him on a rattan chair. She eyes him. "But I suppose you do look rather dashing."
"Your father made me feel like a bit of a twit again tonight."
"Don't mind Daddy. He's very fond of you. He only pulls your leg because you're such a good sport. I promise you, he really looks forward to your visits. I get so bored with him asking when you'll be round next."
William doesn't really believe her, but it's sweet of her to flatter him. The bonds between father and daughter are so strong they seem to allow no room for others. Edith and Frampton never talk about her mother. There's a single photograph of her in a silver frame on the mantelpiece in the living room, but no other indications, besides Edith's height and beauty, that Frampton didn't create his daughter alone. "I sometimes feel that, because you and your father are so close, you like having me round as a sort of shuttlecock to bat to one another."
"What a funny thing to say. I really can't imagine Daddy playing badminton."
Edith smiles, but her expression clouds. "It is true, Daddy and I are close, but that's not something that should come between us. Come, Willie, you need to get back to your digs." Edith holds her arms wide.
Today, the way the prisoner's hair is tightly plaited and twisted into a bulging bun emphasises her strong, perhaps, masculine features. No, it is female strength, the powerful beauty Goldie captures in the noblewomen of the Maori, the vivacity and vim of Huria Matenga plunging into the surf to haul the crew of the Delaware ashore. Napier paces as William idles at the table, a sailor washed up on the beach, overcome by lassitude after rescue by the native princess, his manliness compromised. He listens to her footsteps across the floor. One board must be loose. Every twenty seconds or so, he hears a squeak, almost a groan, as she reaches it. How easily his mind wanders. He sits up straight, and, as she comes into his eyesight, he says, "I understand you were examined by the District Surgeon."
"You know very well I was. The old goat! He stank of rum, and couldn't stop shaking." Her hands go to her hips. "Not that it's unusual, of course, for a man to tremble in my presence."
"Dr Chapman concluded that you are a member of the male sex."
"A doctor was he?" Napier's fury hints of a fishwife snatching up a gutting knife at a fancied slight. "I thought he was some tramp who'd wandered in off the street. And, let me ask you this, who should know my sex – me, or a drunken old goat who claims to be a doctor?"
William feels himself bristle. Is he playing Frampton's proxy? "Now, look here, Napier, insulting the District Surgeon isn't going to do your cause any good. If you cooperate with me, then, who knows, I might be able to come up with something the tribunal will believe, and then you could go free."
"And that will be a nice feather in your cap, I suppose?"
"What do you mean by that precisely?" he says.
"No, perhaps I'm wrong. Tell me, is it better for you if I'm convicted or set free?"
"I don't know what exact business it is of yours, but I've got embarkation orders for France. I was held up when they appointed me to your case. So, whatever the outcome for you, I'll be leaving for the Front."
"Oh." Napier circles the room before speaking again. "You almost sound as if you want to go."
"No, I can't believe anyone would want to go to this war, but there is such a thing as duty, you know."
"So I've heard." She sits as the chair across the table from him. "You want me to tell you everything about myself." She fixes him with her gaze. "But, if I am to trust you, I need you to tell me something about yourself."
William looks away. "I've told you everything you need to know about me."
"But I want to know something else. I want to know something that is really about you." She's up and pacing the room once more.
William stares at the wall as he thinks. It's another habit for Edith to cure. She says it reminds him of a cat they used to have that stared at the skirting board all day after it was kicked by a dray horse. He listens to the sound of the prisoner's dress. From his father's shop, he knows the noises that different materials make – the swish and whisper of silk, the crinkle and rustle of taffeta, the snap and crack of calico.
"I need to know something about you," the prisoner says. "Are you listening?"
She has come to sit opposite him once more. Her hands cup her cheeks as she leans forward and looks him in the eyes. "Do you have a sweetheart?"
William coughs. "A sweetheart?"
"Yes – a girl, a wife – a mistress?"
"What's her name?"
"Is she pretty?"
"Yes, she is."
"How did you meet?"
William could never fathom why Jimmy Sterling might chose to cultivate his acquaintance when they met again in Wellington. At Canterbury, Jimmy had been part of a fast crowd, whereas William lived above his father's shop. They'd shared tutors but that was the extent of their contact. Through family connections, Jimmy had been taken on as the pupil of Sir Archibald Carmichael KC, and had already assumed the swagger and dash of his principal. Perhaps in William, the lowly conveyancer, he found a useful comparator.
On days he couldn't face Green's base company, William would take lunch early, and slip into the back row of the public gallery at the Supreme Court to watch the close of the morning session. One day he spotted Jimmy Sterling at the defence bar. Although, he was little more than an errand boy for his principal's junior, in his wig and gown, Jimmy performed his fetching and carrying with aplomb. William would have ducked out at the adjournment to avoid the embarrassment of Jimmy not recognising him, but the other gawpers were slow to move, and Jimmy spotted and hailed him. In the vestibule, Jimmy confided what a bloody fool the judge was, how they were bound to lose the case – but not a word to anyone. He pressed his card into William's hand. William didn't have a card to exchange. "Of course," Jimmy said, and yet he insisted William should join him for a game of tennis with his sister and her friend on the coming Sunday. "They're terribly arty, but good sports."
William bought a pair of plimsolls, and borrowed a racquet from another boarder at his digs, but otherwise had to play in a pair of old grey flannels and his army reserve singlet. Had he told his father of his predicament, no doubt a set of tennis whites in the latest Wimbledon style would have been despatched post haste. The girls in their modish outfits giggled at his kit, but he didn't mind. William suspected Rose may have taken a shine to him, but he only had eyes for Edith. She had the sculpted face of a Venus and the lithe vigour of an Adonis. When they played as a pair, she dominated the court, directing William hither and thither, and dashing with a speed and grace that left Rose lumbering and bovine.
Although he was no match for Jimmy's smashing service, Rose said his backhand spin was simply devilish. Edith said he'd tried hard. They bought bottles of Foxton Fizz, which Rose insisted was the latest thing, and sat around a zinc-topped table outside the pavilion.
"Jimmy's got some news," Rose said.
"What is it?" Edith asked.
"He's been called up."
"Bloody hell, Rosie. Can't you keep your mouth shut about anything? Hey, Stephens, what's the best way to spread news?"
Edith leaned towards Jimmy. "When will you depart?"
Jimmy held the back of his hand to her and continued to face William. "Telegram, telephone or, best of all, tell a woman."
William forced a smile. He noticed how Edith slumped back in her chair.
"Boring," Rose said.
"I asked you when you'll depart," Edith said firmly.
"Oh, I don't know exactly." Jimmy said without looking at Edith. "I've got to report to Featherstone camp, Saturday week. Hey, Stephens, do you think being Archie Carmichael's factotum counts as a reserved occupation?"
"Are you scared?" Rose asked her brother.
"Listen, Rosie, if I can survive falling on the ball on the wrong side of the ruck against the Otago first fifteen, I don't think Johnny Turk will hold much fear for me." Jimmy swigged deeply from his bottle, and silence followed his histrionic belch.
"William," Edith said, "what does your family do in Christchurch?"
"My father is, um, a merchant."
"Oh." She sat back and sipped from her glass.
William could see the look of anticipation on Jimmy's face as he waited for the right opportunity to tell the girls his father's line of merchandise. William thought he'd best get it over with and excused himself. He'd hardly left the table before he heard the loud whisper of 'ladies' unmentionables' and Rose's cawing. He didn't hear Edith laugh though, and, when he returned from the pavilion, now wearing the extravagant blue and gold striped shirt his father had recently sent him, she pulled her chair closer to his.
"I think it's a very noble calling for a man to serve the needs of women." Edith managed to keep a straight face despite Rose and Jimmy's smirking. William understood she was protesting against Jimmy's boorishness, not praising his father's occupation, and yet that must have been the moment the spark of love had been struck.
Edith insisted they meet again, alone. Despite Rose's pressure on her to walk out with Jimmy before he embarked, Edith was adamant she would not. And Rose would always consider William a usurper. When Jimmy was repatriated to die from typhoid fever, Edith visited him as a patient, not a disappointed suitor. The iron in her soul enthralled and awed William.
A few weeks after their first meeting alone, they were walking in the Botanic Gardens. Edith led William to a sheltered bench. "Tell me about your father's store," she said.
"There's not much to tell."
"Please, William. Don't be ashamed about it. I can't pretend I would like it if you'd followed father's occupation, but you know how interested I am about fabrics and design."
"Very well. Most of the cloths come from mills around Canterbury and Otago, but some as far as Manchester or even Calcutta." He smiled to himself. "It was always my privilege to steam off the stamps for my album." Edith had taken his hand; she squeezed softly.
He closed his eyes. "When I was a boy, I loved to watch my father measuring out the lengths of cloth for customers. He did it with such flourish. His fingertips would just pinch the edge of the material, so fast, from one hand to the tip of his nose as he unravelled the fold. And, as he snapped the cloth, tiny motes of fabric would dance in the sunlight. Then I would wait with my breath held for the solemn cut, and he would slice through with one smooth run of his heavy scissors. Then he would fold, and again, into a half, a quarter, an eighth, and solemnly pass to his assistant to wrap in candy striped paper, and for mother to take the money. But, if my father was busy, and an assistant cut the cloth, the customer would watch eagle-eyed. The fumbling boy would line up and measure against the two yard brass ruler embedded in the counter before carefully snipping the cloth apart."
"That is so delightful."
"Do you think so?" William turned to her. "What I liked best of all about my father's shop, was spinning cotton reels in their teak display case. There must have been a hundred colours or more, every shade of thread in the haberdasher's spectrum–"
Edith cut him short with their first kiss.
"Your fiancée," Napier says, "she's blonde, isn't she?" She wags her finger at William with mock discipline. "Don't bother denying it. I know she is. Yesterday, there was a strand of her hair caught in the button of your epaulette."
William feels his cheeks burn. He raps the base of his pencil hard on the table. "That's enough. So, come on now, Napier, I've told you something about me, so let's have something true about you for once."
Her shoulders drop. "Please don't call me by that dreadful name."
"What, 'Napier'?" William notices how her usual challenging gaze is downcast. "But that's what's in the file."
"I know." Her fingers lock as though in prayer. "Is it really so important for you to call me something because someone, somewhere wrote it down?"
William hesitates, he tugs at his moustache. "No, I suppose not. But I can hardly call you by that Russian name."
She looks up. "Why not?"
"Well, if for no other reason, I can't pronounce it."
She reflects his smile, all trace of her temper abated, it seems. "Then please call me 'Frances'. After all, if you are to defend me properly, surely you must believe what I say?"
"All right, if it will help things along. Fran-ces, Fran-cis, an 'e' or an 'i' doesn't really commit us much either way." William laughs, rather pleased with himself.
"Thank you, I appreciate that more than you could realise."
"You know, Frances." William stands and starts to pace the room. He hears the loose floorboard groan as he steps on it. When he realises he's aping her passage around the room, he stops, and sits again at the table. "I said the outcome of your case makes no difference to me, and that's true inasmuch as it can't have any impact on my embarkation orders, but I really do want you to know that I care about your situation. And I do believe passionately that justice should be done for you."
She looks away. For once, his gaze is more resolute than hers. "Do you also feel so passionate about the properties you transfer?" she says.
"No, that's just about land and buildings, not people." He understands her ragging is meant to be gentle, and they exchange smiles. "You may poke fun at my profession, and yet my experience still might prove useful here."
"I'm sure it will – but I'm afraid I don't understand how."
"Well, let me give you an example. Once, when I was arranging the transfer of a certain piece of land, I came across a rather sticky problem, and it looked as if the whole deal would have to be called off. Old Meriwether, now he's the firm's senior conveyancer, has been in practice for 40 years but he didn't know what to do. And I – look, I really don't want to blow my own trumpet here – but I came up with an idea that saved the day."
"What on earth did you do?"
"All right, I proposed creating an easement–" He traces the passage on the table with his finger between his papers. "– Subject to a rather complicated restrictive covenant. That was my idea and, Johnstone, he's senior partner, said it was a stroke of genius. He said he'd never seen anything quite so inspired. Obviously Meriwether's nose was put out of joint a bit–" William stops. Edith would have cut him short long ago.
"–But, of course, this is of no interest to you."
"Honestly, it's very interesting. I had no idea that line of business could be so – well, interesting."
"Anyway, the point is this, and that's what's relevant here, it shows I'm capable of finding solutions to problems that are a little out of the ordinary. What you might call imagining things otherwise." William sits at the table once more; he's feeling a little enervated. "So, there must be something in Chapman's report that I can get my teeth into and come up with an inventive argument." He begins to pore through the familiar file once more.
William hears the rustle of her dress as Frances moves around the table to him. Her lips must almost be touching his ear when she whispers, "They watch me, you know."
He feigns disinterest, but her breath tingles on his neck. He can smell rich perfume. "Who?"
"Yes, they're guards." He says, and permits himself a smile.
Frances obviously noticed this, and draws away smartly. "No, they don't watch over me, they watch me. I can feel their eyes gazing on me as though I were an exotic creature at the zoo, or a freak at a travelling fair."
"I think you must be imagining it," William says.
"No. Of course, they think I don't know they're doing it, but I do know. I can sense these things. That District Surgeon too."
"What do you mean?"
"When he examined me in his surgery, I knew he'd watched me before. It's in his report that he secretly spied on me before the examination, isn't it?" she says.
"I don't recall." William avoids her gaze.
"No, please don't you lie to me."
"All right, yes it is," William says. "Apparently it's standard practice with suspected shirkers or malingerers. You know the chap who forgets to limp when he thinks he's not being watched. So, yes he did note that he'd observed you unbeknownst to you."
"Unbeknownst to me? The old fool." She strides to the door and jabs at the freshly drilled hole. There's a brass escutcheon on the other side of the door, perhaps she can hear a faint scraping of metal as an observer uncovers the aperture. "I should have poked him in the eye." She turns to William, her hands on her hips, bosom thrust forward, she's back playing Carmen. "And you, have you peeked through the keyhole at me like a butler in a burlesque?"
"You must know I wouldn't do that." To spy on her would be worse than violating the privacy of the changing rooms at his father's store, and yet both possibilities had tempted him.
"Why should I believe you?"
"Well, I don't know why you should believe me. It's just the truth, that's all."
In the time she takes to reach him, her anger seems to dissipate like smoke in the wind. She just touches his arm, and looks him in the eye. "Of course, I believe you. I can see the truth in your eyes." She stares until William blinks and looks down again.
The next moment, William hears the crackle of taffeta, the sound of kindling catching alight. He looks up to see her spinning around, faster and faster, like a dervish. He can only grin as he stares at her twirling. Her dress spins out like a crinoline; she releases her hair and it fans around her; her outstretched arms start to blur. "I've imagined things otherwise myself," she shouts between breaths. "We'll let the government charge – sixpence to see – their captive freak – then, they'd be able to afford – a new dreadnought – in no time at all." She staggers to the bed, and lies there, panting and laughing, her breasts rising and falling.
William usually stops in at the guardroom for a cup of tea when he drops the key off after interrogating the prisoner. He knows the guards well enough now. Cord, the serious young man, is a junior Latin master at the Boys' College, and, Sampson, the older of them, is a carpenter by trade. What strange bedfellows a war throws together. Given the chance, Cord would talk about Tacitus and Martial all day, and Sampson, no doubt, about tenons and mortises. But, day after day, with no real work to do, they must find common ground, and that mostly seems to be silence, as Cord reads and Sampson deals playing cards to himself. When William announces himself in the doorway of the guardroom, it's as though a favourite nephew has dropped in unexpectedly on long weds, whose conversation is spent. The spare young man with thinning hair looks up from his book, marks his page and stands to light the gas ring.
"Have you made any progress with our Hermaphroditus, Lieutenant?" Cord says. The kettle is always close to boiling.
"We thought we heard a bit of a commotion earlier, we wondered if anything was amiss."
"No, nothing unusual."
Sampson looks up. "Of course, I'm no lawyer, but I could settle the matter very easily – if you get my drift."
"Really, Sampson," Cord says, "if Lieutenant Stephens can't be certain, I doubt very much whether you could be."
Sampson raises one of his rich eyebrows, and performs a music hall leer. Cord places a mug on the table before William.
"Oi, how about me?" Sampson says.
"You've just finished one." Cord says. "You'll develop gastritis at this rate." Still, he fetches Sampson's mug. As he pours from the pot, he says, "I hear the Waitemata is back in port again."
"That's right, it's all import-export these days," Sampson says. "The funny thing is, we used to slaughter the livestock before we sent it off, now it's us who's bringing in the meat." He manages a hollow laugh but no doubt wishes he'd kept mum, now he's killed the conversation.
William blows on his tea and gulps it down. He leaves the closemouthed guards to make his way to the docks.
Otherwise by Jonathan M Barrett / History & Fiction / Romance & Love have rating 2.3 out of 5 / Based on35 votes