As today is Remembrance Sunday, I thought it might be appropriate to add my own, tiny tribute to those who fell in World War I. The Great War. The War to End All Wars ..... if only!
Rather than the first chapter of Pearl´s Story in the Sisters at War Trilogy, I am publishing part of the story of Pearl´s lover, who saw active service in both World War I and II. I´m not going to say "enjoy", perhaps reflect is a better word?
The Story of the Hollow Man
I am sorry you are reading this. No doubt, when you have managed to read my dreadful handwriting and even worse grammar, you will also be sorry! But, you know, I never was much of a one for writing, was I? Nor talking, for that matter.
Still, to business. As you are reading this, then you have received the dreaded telegram from the War Office. It will either say that I have been killed in action, or that I am missing, presumed dead. If the former, then I suppose there is little hope - they rarely get it wrong. But who knows? Perhaps they will make an exception for us! If the latter, then take heart, there´s many a man walking the streets today who was pronounced missing in action, and presumed dead. There may well be life in the old horse yet!
It occurs to me, on reading that last paragraph that I sound like a third-rate detective story. But I am rambling again. Anything, I suppose, to put off what I need to say. Well, no more. Here's to it.
I assume that you have already seen Mr. Andrews. He will have given you my news, and you are no doubt very, very angry with me. I was about to say I was sorry, but in truth I am not sorry in the least, so I shall not apologise.
I shall say simply that everything I own - with the exception of the Estate, which is entailed (it will go to my father's brother's son; some sort of cousin who I have not seen for years. He was decent enough as a boy; I hope he is still a decent man. In the entirely possible event that he has also been killed in this dreadful war, then his son will inherit) - is now yours. If I could have left the Estate to you as well, I would have done so. Of all people, you are the one who could have made best use of it. But there, I cannot, so no point speaking of it. But everything else - Maurice's, the London property, my share in the stables, my house, the investments, money in the bank, Uncle Tom Cobley and all - is yours. To do with as you think fit. You may, of course, decide to give it all to charity. That is entirely up to you.
But I do not think that you will. Once you cool down a little, you will understand. I know you well enough to be sure that you are thinking you don´t want any of it. You didn´t earn it. You are not entitled to it. But none of that is true. You did earn it. You are entitled to it. What is mine - what was mine - is yours. Take it, as a gift if nothing else. And - if the telegram did say "missing in action", then take it as a loan, and make good use of it until I come back. I am entrusting it to you.
There. Does that make you feel better?
My dearest Pearl, I am, I realise, starting at completely the wrong point. Bear with me, my dearest, as I recount some ancient history to you. It all has a bearing on me and on us, I promise you. Now I have started, I will tell you everything. I owe that - and so very much more - to you. I should have told you all long ago; I am sorry!
My great-great … oh, many generations back, grandparents were French Huguenots, staunch Protestants who were driven to leave France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked and they were denied freedom of worship by King Louis. The first Didier arrived in England in 1635. There, I told you it was truly ancient history, didn´t I? It would be romantic to be able to say that my forefathers arrived in rags, and made their fortune by means of hard work and luck. Unfortunately, that would be far from the truth. The first English Didier was a banker and merchant, who specialized in the import and export of silk, and - in France - had had his own silk-making factory. He was - even after leaving much of his wealth behind in the scramble to get out (sensible man that he was, he saw which way the wind was blowing, and was one of the few who managed to get a berth on a ship for his family, days before Louis closed the borders to all Huguenots) a rich man. Even better, he bought the secret of silk making with him, and within a couple of years had set up a new factory in Spitalfields and was manufacturing again.
Some of the distant family emigrated to America in the earlier years, and of them I know nothing. My own line stretches unbroken back to that first Didier. He was a shrewd man, and made a great deal of money. So did his children. And their children in their turn. Are you saying to yourself, I knew it? Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, never wanted for anything? I can´t deny it. But somewhere along the line, the family touch of being good with money got a little lost. My grandfather kept the family finances bobbing along, after a fashion, but my own father simply couldn´t be bothered. And I am afraid that I took after him. Business is a closed door to me, as you know only too well! It always appeared to me that the family investments were making money. The land is productive as well. And - ah, yes, now we are getting to the nub of it! - I have no heirs, no children to pass this wealth on to, so why should it really have mattered to me?
I am meandering again. Forgive me, I will cut to the chase and try and make sense of it for you.
I was born in 1896. The only son. My mother gave birth to a daughter before me, who died in infancy. Cholera, I believe. After me, she had two miscarriages. The second was so serious that the doctor told Papa that any more children would kill her. Papa, gentleman that he was, said he would ensure that there would be no more children. Unfortunately, Papa's idea of ensuring that Mama had no more children involved him taking a mistress, whom he installed in the family home in London. As you can imagine, this caused no end of arguments with Mama, and I can remember that Papa was both hurt and amazed by her reaction. Damn it all, wasn't he doing it for the sake of her health? He used to discuss this with me when I was far too young to understand any of it. Anyway, I liked Aunty Bella, and I really couldn´t understand why Mama forbade me to even mention her name.
Are you laughing at this nonsense? Or is it so far away from your own life that you can only shake your head in amazement? I know, seen from the viewpoint of modern life and morality, it seems fantastic to me, as well. But, back in the day it was far from unusual. In fact, the only slightly strange thing about it was that Papa chose to keep his mistress in the same house as his wife, and even that was far from unknown.
In any event, there were no more children for Mama. I was the only child, and as such was doted upon by not just my parents, but my whole family, including "Aunty" Bella. There was, actually, not that much family to undertake the doting. Papa had a younger brother, who had two sons. Papa himself was in his fifties when I arrived, and by the time Aunty Bella took up residence with us, Papa had outlived the rest of the family apart from Uncle Christian (who I was named for) and his sons. Our family is not, I think, the most fecund on earth (unlike your own brood!). For generations, there seem to have been only one or two children, and my family has been fortunate that each time a male heir has always survived whichever conflict was raging at the time. Even poor Aunty Bella never had any children, which is probably why she always had such a lot of time for me.
So, there I was. Born into excessive wealth. No title to worry about - family legend has it that we have always avoided the King's sword. Pure snobbery, I am afraid. If a King of France had offered us a title, then we would have been there before you could say "Abracadabra", bending the knee eagerly. But no King of France ever forgave us for escaping all those years ago, so no title was ever offered. And as the family still thinks of itself as French, then it was a case of "Thank you, but no thank you, Sir." An English title was not good enough for us Didier's. Snobbery with knobs on, indeed!
But you must understand, Pearl, that all this seemed normal to me. Think about it; when you were a child, it seemed normal to you that you were born in a shop. That you were surrounded by brothers and sisters. Even - and trust me, I have no desire to hurt you - normal that your mother should beat you. We see what is around us, whether it is kings or beggars or something in between, and it is what it is. You don´t think about it, you just accept it.
Or at least you do when you are a child.
My Papa packed me off to boarding school when I was six. It would have been a year earlier, but on that one occasion both Mama and Aunty Bella joined forces and persuaded him that I was a sickly child, and he should wait a year. I was, I must admit, an unhealthy child. I seemed to catch everything that was going about. Even though my own small circle of friends rarely caught anything much, one of the estate children only had to come down with a cold, and I got it as well. Scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox - between the ages of two and six I had them all. The only thing I managed to avoid - to Papa's everlasting relief - was mumps.
But there was no putting Papa off forever. The day after my sixth birthday, my trunk was packed and I was packed off to St. Ranulf´s School in rural Devon. You may have heard of Ranulf´s, you may have not. They are one of the older public schools. Not top drawer, but neither are they bottom of the list. They have turned out their fair share of industrialists and leaders and public figures that are famous for reasons no one is quite sure of. None of that mattered to Papa, of course. I was sent to St. Ranulf´s simply because all Didier boys went there, and always had from the time the first Didier landed on English soil. Why? Because Ranulf´s was founded by an earlier refugee from French religious persecution. Even though the name sounds Catholic, it is not a Catholic institution. Rather it is staunchly Protestant, even though by the time I went there it was rather a high-church sort of Anglicism.
The day before I was due to leave, Papa called me into his study and assured me that I would be happy at Ranulf´s. He read me a long lecture on being polite to my elders, both masters and older boys, and told me to keep my head down and get on with it. Apparently if I did this, I would achieve everything that could be expected of me. Neither a borrower or a lender be, he said. That was the secret of it. And by the way, at all costs I was to ensure that I avoided unnatural practices. I had no idea what Papa meant by that, although I rather think I nearly found out a few years later.
Mama was in floods of tears. She and Aunty Bella had reconciled their differences sufficiently to come to the station together to see me off. Mama, I remember quite distinctly, was very concerned that I had enough clean underwear and socks. Bella, God bless her, told me quietly to stuff the clean underwear and slipped two half sovereigns into my hand. Guard them with your life, she said. Whatever you do, don´t let those little bastards at the school know you have money. No matter what sob story they come up with, just smile and say that you're in the same boat. And make sure you hide them somewhere safe. If you need any more, drop me a line.
So there I was, at St. Ranulf´s. I had never been to Devon before, but it seemed to me to be a very agreeable county. Very green, and hilly rather than mountainous. I had expected it to be bleaker, like Westmorland, and was pleasantly surprised. And truth to tell, Ranulf´s was not so bad. I have heard horror stories of English public schools from friends over the years, tales of beatings and starving boys forced to dig up bulbs from the school gardens, and roast them over candles in the dormitories. There was nothing like that at Ranulf´s. Discipline was strict, to be sure. Up at 6:30, winter and summer. Wash in cold water. Make one's own bed - and woe betide the boy who left it untidy! Breakfast (nothing to write home about, but at least they fed us); exercise in the gym before morning assembly and prayers. Lessons until lunch, private study afterwards. Lessons again before tea, and then an hour - a whole hour! - free before church and what were called "private devotions" before supper and then bed. Day in, day out, the same. Week-ends were for sport, with a half-day on Saturday for whatever hobbies we cared to pursue, although, of course, we were steered towards suitable occupations. Butterfly catching was frowned upon, although beetle collections were grudgingly allowed. More manly, I suppose. I took up stamp collecting, not because I wanted to, but simply to have something to do. Sunday was a combination of sport and more Church.
I cannot say I excelled, in all the years I was nurtured by Ranulf´s. I played rugby and cricket sufficiently well to be in the House Teams, but not so well that I was ever Captain or even Vice Captain. My marks were enough above average to be respectable, but never in the first three or four. I joined the Philosophical Society and the Debating Society, simply because not to belong to some Society would have appeared odd. The only organised pastime I really enjoyed was the Drama Society, and - odd as it might appear to you now - I reveled in appearing in the school productions. I was Iago in "The Merchant of Venice", Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Even - glory of glories - Mark Antony in "Julius Caesar". In later life, I sometimes wondered why I enjoyed it so much, I who will go to almost any lengths now to avoid the spotlight. I came to the conclusion it was because I could become another person, at least for a while. Although it was me up there on stage, for a while, I was somebody else entirely. I think you will understand that perfectly, Pearl, won't you? You´ve been so many different people in your own short life, but you - unlike me - have always had the luxury of being true to yourself.
I envy you for that. My own ties, alas, have always bound me far too tightly to allow me any leeway in the matter.
Anyway, to return to St. Ranulf´s. It was, as I said, very High Church. The rhythm of the church services, the glorious colours of the priest's robes, the solemn intonation of the Latin phrases, all of it appealed to me greatly. I was tutored for some years by my House Chaplain, who took a great interest in me. In fact, between the ages of about eight and eleven, I even contemplated becoming a priest myself, in the Church of England, of course. Anything else would have been heresy. I could quite see myself in the pulpit, delivering moving sermons to my attentative flock. Intoning the sonorous words of the church services. I was saved from this fate by the fact that, at the age of eleven, I suddenly turned from a chubby, pretty child to a tall, gangling, spotty youth. And alas! All at once, my beloved Chaplain suddenly lost all interest in me, and turned his attentions to a much younger boy who did, I believe, actually go on to become a priest.
I have often speculated if my sudden jump into adolescence saved me from what Papa had described as "unnatural practices"? Did Papa, perhaps, have the self-same House Chaplain? I could hardly ask him, of course, but I would have loved to know.
St. Ranulf´s was deemed sufficiently erudite to get me through my Common Entrance examinations, and I assumed that I would simply go straight from boarding school to university, at Cambridge. Again, of course, the university of choice for Didier's. I was to take Classics - God knows why, it would never be a scrap of use - and there was never any doubt that I would achieve a reasonable, if undistinguished degree. My dear Mama passed away while I was in my last year at St. Ranulf´s, although "passed away" is a wrongly peaceful phrase to describe her death. Always fond of hunting, Mama took a tumble from her mare during the pursuit, and landed smack on her head, poor old girl. Was dead on the field, and no doubt mad as hell that the fox got away in the confusion. Oddly enough - perhaps she was simply bored to death, once Mama was no longer there to scrap with her? - Aunty Bella followed her to the grave shortly afterwards. I have long cherished, in idle moments, glorious thoughts of them sniping at each other happily, throughout eternity.
So in 1914 I was looking no further forward than three blissful years spent at Cambridge.
And then war broke out. A strange phrase that, don´t you think? One breaks out in measles, perhaps. But war? I can tell you now; war does not simply break out. Oh, no. War - any war - takes a great deal of planning. A great deal of consideration. World leaders, worthy souls all, must meet, and discuss. Plans are made, and "what if" plans are considered. News bulletins must be released, reassuring the people that there will be no war. It is all very formal, like some carefully planned country dance where partners are taken and discarded; found again, only to be lost in the whirl of the music. Finally, of course, equilibrium is restored and each drops a curtsy and a bow to the other and the dance goes on. But in the dance of war, only the leaders know the form of the pattern. The rest of us; well, we just do as we are told, and hope for the best. From Tommy to General. All of us the same.
I had understood, in a vague sort of way, that something was brewing in Europe. But our routine at St. Ranulf´s was largely undisturbed. We were all more concerned with cramming for Common Entrance than worrying about what the Kaiser was up to. And then, the world went mad. It seemed to us, overnight. The newspapers were full of it. War. War, it had to be war. These krauts had to be put in their place, once and for all. And we British were the nation to do it! We older boys craned our heads over borrowed copies of every newspaper we could get our hands on. When the Chaplain preached a Sunday sermon on the responsibility of all God-fearing Englishmen to defend the realm and all we held sacred, we knew he was talking to each one of us.
I wrote to Papa, and told him I wanted to enlist. His reply was short, and to the point. I was to think of no such thing. The war would be over in a year, if that. My responsibility was to the Didier family, and I would do well to bear that in mind. .I was absurdly deflated.
As was my best friend, Toby Mounthill. He had received a similar letter from his father. We sat in the dormitory and commiserated with each other. And, I suppose, egged each other on. The dormitory rapidly became filled with discussions, all composed of "if only". If only our fathers were not such stick-in-the-muds. If only we were just a little older. If only ….
For years, I blamed myself. I had no idea Toby was so fired up. But he obviously was. A couple of weeks later, his bed was empty in the morning. He was missed, of course, at Assembly, but by then it was too late. We found out a few days later that poor Toby had sneaked out after late prayers the day before he was found to be missing, and had made his way to the nearest army recruiting station where he enlisted in a Yeomanry Division. The poor soul was killed at the First Battle of the Marne.
But Toby was a lesson to us all. After he had gone, none of us could believe that we were still there. We were at school, when he was actually fighting? No, this could not be right. Not right at all. I was one of the first to bite the bullet (what an appropriate phrase!). I wrote to Papa again and told him that I was enlisting, with or without his permission or approval and that was all there was to it. His response was weary but, I rather thought, approving. If I was determined, he would not stand in my way. But at the very least, I must enroll in a proper regiment. So I applied for the Guards.
I rehearsed questions and answers for days. Desperately, I tried to think of anything they might ask, and found a suitable answer for it. When the day arrived, I was asked two questions. Who were my family? Could I ride a horse? An hour later, I was a member of the Third Dragoon Guards.
Foolish, I know. But you must remember, I was eighteen years old, and I had led the most sheltered of lives. And things were different in those days. One's country came a close - a very close - second to one's family. For Queen and Country, we said. We were all burning to get into battle, to put these upstart Germans in their place. We had no idea. No idea at all. Most of us had never even seen blood shed, unless it was after an injury on the rugby field. We were young and stupid and innocent, and may God grant that the world never needs to take advantage of those virtues, ever again.
I had ridden ever since I could climb on a horse's back. I thought I had no need of any further training. What did I know! Day after day after day I spent with the horse they had allocated to me. We became the best of friends. He was a large, chestnut stallion who rejoiced in the name of Bacon. I often thought he was determined to do his best to outlive his terrible name. We went through mud and over jumps. Had bugles blown next to us, and rifles shot in the air above us. Men leaped in front of us, brandishing bayonets. Bacon, bless him, took it all in his stride. By the end of basic training, I was a nervous wreck, jumping at my own shadow. And starting to wonder, quite seriously, whether this had been such a good idea, after all? Not that it mattered. It was far too late.
Bacon and I joined the Dragoon's in Belgium in 1915. I will skip over the details of the first few months. Suffice it to say that my gallant Bacon took part in the Second Battle of Ypres, and saved my life when a chlorine gas canister fell short of the trench it was aimed at, and exploded just to the left of us. I was in no fit state to give orders to myself, never mind about Bacon, so he made up his own mind and took off hell for leather. I hung on to the reins, coughing and spitting and choking, not able to see a thing. Good job he did, as his prompt action saved the day for both of us.
They say war is terrible. And I think it must have been so, down all the ages. But at least the ancients were spared the sheer variety of ways to kill that we had in the Great War. Chlorine and mustard gas were hell for the men, particularly those in the trenches. Those poor souls had nowhere to run, nowhere to escape to. I wondered, sometimes, if that was how Toby met his end? Sitting in some wet, reeking trench, prepared for a bullet or a bayonet, only to meet his Maker trying to escape from a stinking explosion of gas, from which there was no escape. Nowhere to run to. Nowhere it would not find you. I had my taste of it that day with Bacon, and it was enough for me. And if the gas didn´t get you, why! There was always a well-aimed bullet. Or even a not-so-well-aimed machine gun burst. Or perhaps gangrene, and the slow death of amputation? Or how about tetanus, from a tangle with barbed wire? I think, of all the horrors that kept me awake at night (or did, until you came into my life!) the one that comes back most frequently is a beyond-terrible memory of visiting a field hospital, early in 1916. I had taken a blast from some shrapnel, (yes, that scar on my left shoulder. The one you used to trace with your finger nail, and laugh when I jumped. It was worth the experience, to have you do that.) and was told off to go and get it dressed. We were all terrified of the prospect of gas gangrene, so I didn´t need telling twice. Although as walking wounded, I felt a terrible fraud. In any event, I waited my turn in the misery of the field hospital, and my wound was duly dressed. I was leaving the hospital when I heard the most terrible screaming. Believe me, after a year in the battlefield I thought I had heard every horror that could be uttered by the human tongue, but this noise carried such a world of pain and despair and terror, I stopped in my tracks. It was no good. I didn´t want to go and see what was causing this hellish noise, but my feet were not listening to me, and carried me around a corner to a sort of open-sided hut. There were four "A" frames set up under the shelter, all around eight feet tall, and each one bearing the inverted body of a soldier. They were hanging there, upside down, all of them. Strung up, for all the world as if they were being crucified, like St. Peter, upside down. Two wore uniform trousers and braces, but no shirt, and the other two were naked apart from their longjohns. I was so appalled, so beyond belief, that I simply stood and gawped for a second. Then I rushed forward and reached the first man, and tried to undo his ropes with my fingers. I can distinctly remember breaking all the nails of one hand far down on the nail bed as I struggled with the ropes, and I found out afterward that I had torn open the lovely neat stitches the Surgeon had just put in my own shoulder wound. It hurt like stink later, and the Surgeon played merry hell with me when I had to go back to get the wound re-stitched, but at the time I didn´t even notice.
I was prizing away at the knots, mumbling some rubbish or other about how I would have him down in a trice, not to worry, when the man opened his eyes. He screamed in my face, the horrible sound I had heard earlier. Come to think of it, I have heard a similar sound. Later in the war, the man next to me had his horse shot from beneath him, and the sound the poor beast made as it went down was unutterably similar to the sound this man was making. He screamed and screamed and screamed, and at the same time his back arched so fiercely he actually threw me onto the ground away from him. Before I could get up, a couple of medics rushed up and grabbed me, hustling me away between them. They spoke to me as soothingly as if it was I who was in unbearable pain, not the poor soul who was being crucified.
Eventually, I stopped shouting simply because I was out of breath. And then they took the opportunity to explain to me what was happening. I listened in horror and disbelief. The men were not being punished, as I had thought. Far from it. Each of them had tetanus - lockjaw, the men called it - and it was every bit as feared as gas gangrene, as just as was the case with gangrene, there was no cure. Only a terrifyingly painful and slow but certain death. These men were all in the final throes of dying of tetanus. The doctors could not save them, but they were convinced that suspending them upside down eased their pain a little. These men were the lucky ones, I was told. Once they died, they would be cut down and their places taken by other tetanus victims, who were still waiting to die.
I stumbled away and wept on Bacon's neck.
But still, for those of us who were alive, life simply went on. I had Bacon, bless him, and had taken no injury worse than the gash to the shoulder. I was one of the lucky ones. Just get on with it, they told us. If you don´t kill them, then they will kill you, and serve you right. So we did. I had one close escape, when Bacon stumbled and I dismounted, thinking myself safe, to see if he had taken a serious injury. I hadn't seen that the dead German soldier lying on the ground was in fact only injured, and if Bacon hadn't snorted and reared at the last second, his bayonet would have found my guts. As it was, when I remounted Bacon (who had simply got a stone in his hoof) he was, most definitely, a very dead German soldier.
I´m not saying one thought nothing of it, because one (or at least, this one) certainly did. When I slept, I dreamed. I tried not to sleep, but it´s not possible for more than a couple of days. Nature takes over, and you sleep. Whether you like it or not. And we were the lucky ones. Us chaps perched up high on our horses. It was the ordinary chaps, the backbone of any army, who died in misery and fear in their thousands, their millions, in those hellish trenches.
I have heard people say that after a while, you become immune to horror. They, I think, were not at Ypres and Vimy and Verdun. I was. And Passchendaele was worse still. The the Battle of the Somme was an endless living hell; to this day, when I have nightmares it is the Somme I remember. Mud and trenches and blood and the screams of the injured and dying and over it all the insane row of bullets and artillery exploding everywhere. We did as we were told. Charged to order with our minds blank of everything except the need to carry on. To live, if at all possible. I never became immune to it. And I know now that all war is futile, and should never, ever be allowed to happen. For no matter what the cause, it is not worth it.
Dearest Pearl, you are now - I can hear you saying it! - demanding to know why, in that case, did the stupid man go off and fight all over again? When he had no need to? I will get there, dear one, trust me. But first, there is a lot more history to explain to you.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. The Somme. What can I say about it that has not already been said? Suffice it to say it was a bloody, bloody carnage. On both sides. But for me - and for my lovely Bacon - it was our release.
I was not of a sufficient rank to need to know what the tactics at the Somme were. We - Bacon and I - simply did what we were told. That is, we pointed in the direction we were told. We charged when we were told. When we saw a German, we shot at them, or stabbed at them with sword or bayonet, before they could do the same to us. Simple. But suddenly, it became rather less straightforward.
As ordered, we charged - a whole line of us - and around twelve of us simply and quite suddenly found ourselves in relatively clean air. We sat for a moment, staring at each other in bewilderment. And then some idiot - and it may well have been me - yelled that we had to turn, to get back into the battle. Obediently, we wheeled our mounts and charged back. Or at least, the other eleven did. Bacon was having none of it. No matter how I shouted and kicked him and lashed out with my crop, he was off. Off at a gallop into the clear air. Away from the stink and noise and horror that was behind us. I think he had simply had enough. And he had the rare common sense to do something about it.
I screamed myself hoarse at him. Called him all the names under the sun. But he was just not listening. He put his ears back and ran. And ran. And ran. Eventually, it was all I could do to simply hold on, the ground was so uneven. Never mind, I thought. He´ll stop eventually. And when he does, I´ll have a quiet word with him and just turn him around and back into battle. No harm done. Nobody was going to miss us for an hour or two, that was for sure!
At least, that was the plan. Looking back, I am convinced that Bacon had both great intelligence and a magnificent sense of humour. As if he sensed my thoughts, he slowed from a frantic gallop to a canter. I was just thinking it was about time to try and turn him when he slewed suddenly to the left, and made pell-mell for a stand of trees. I was taken unawares, and did not even have the sense to duck. A second later, a low branch swept me from Bacon's back, and I saw a large lump of raw rock coming towards me. They say that when you are in great danger, your whole life flashes before you. I have never experienced that, myself, but I did have sufficient time to think how ironic it was that I had survived everything the war could throw at me, only to meet my end falling off my horse in a quiet field.
The blackness that followed was very like a quiet sleep. There were odd flashes; movement, voices. But nothing that made much sense. I remember almost waking and asking after Bacon. A voice answered me in French, and instinctively I responded in that language. My horse was well, I was told. He had been given a drink of water, and was not injured in any way. I said this was good, and sank back into sleep.
I would have been very happy for the sleep to last forever; was it Socrates who said something about death being no more than a long, dreamless sleep? If it is, then I would have embraced death, gladly. But I was not dead. And sleep could not last forever.
They told me later that I had been semi-conscious for weeks. The bang on the head had been a bad one, and my shoulder wound had infected, and a fever set in as a result. When I finally opened my eyes and was in a state to realise I was not actually dead, they told me that the battle at the Somme was finished. The bodies were still being taken from the battlefield, but the fighting was over, thank the good Lord. I was horrified. I must have been labeled as a deserter! They (and "they" turned out to be an old lady and her grand-daughter) thought not. The carnage had been beyond belief. Their farm was just beyond reach of the battlefield, but day after day after day, they had heard the sound of guns and people dying. Smelled the stink of gas, drifting towards them. Every single day, they had expected that the war would reach out and simply consume then, but by some miracle it had not happened. The tide of battle had swung in the opposite direction. They had been spared.
I dreaded asking about poor Bacon. Looking at the two women, I could see they were hungry. Far more than hungry, starving. It wasn't just that they were thin, although they were. It was more the expression of desperation on both their faces. No doubt they had slaughtered my lovely Bacon for food, and I could hardly blame them. They were indignant when I finally gathered the courage to ask. Slaughter a wonderful young horse like that, just to eat? They had been hungry for months, but they were still here. Bacon could learn to draw a cart, possibly even pull a plough. Did I think they were stupid? Bacon was far too useful to eat! I was both humbled by their words, and grateful for them. Thank God, I thought, for the pragmatism of the French peasant! But, I explained, I was afraid Bacon would not be useful to them. Nor would I. It was essential that I got back to my regiment, as soon as possible. I was deeply indebted to them for their care, but I had to go.
The two women looked at each other, and shrugged. A peculiarly Gallic shrug that combined resignation with something that appeared to me to be amusement. I made my farewells to them as soon as I could stand, and turned Bacon back towards the battlefield, intent on finding my comrades.
The only comrades I found were dead ones. Bacon took me back with unerring instinct. Then stopped, and shook his mane. This where I wanted to go was it? The gesture said.
There was nothing. No, I lie. There was mud. And barbed wire. And trenches. And bodies. And - ghastlier yet - parts of bodies. In death, there was no telling what nationality they had owned to in life. All the uniforms were the same colour. Mud. And there were crows and magpies, everywhere, enjoying a carrion feast they would dream about forever. A few peasants trundled about the place, stooping now and again over a fallen soldier. Worse than the carrion crows, that lot; looters, robbing what they could find from the dead. I shouted at a couple of them, and they turned and ran without answering me.
Bewildered and horrified and not a little ashamed that somehow I had survived this hell, I turned Bacon and we went back the way I had come. After all, where else did I have to go?
My two saviors welcomed me as if they had been expecting me, and wondered what had taken me so long? The Grandmamma put an ancient rifle in my hands; did I know how to use it? I said I did. In that case, I should make myself useful and go and shoot some game. If I did not, there was nothing to eat. And she glanced significantly at Bacon, who was cropping grass contentedly.
In a daze, I marched off into the fields and found a dense coppice of woodland. I sat quietly, and my patience was soon rewarded. I bagged a rabbit, a pheasant and a fat hen that had gone wild. I apologized to the hen, but not the truly wild birds. They should expect to take their chances. On my return this time, I was greeted like a hero.
The next day, I awoke to find Bacon gone. The grand-daughter - who told me her name was Veronique de Thuin - told me not to worry. Grandmere had taken him to visit a neighboring farmer, who would use him for the day in exchange for some food. We sat and chatted. Veronique was a pretty little thing, in spite of her emaciation. Her face still had the chubbiness of childhood - even more endearing when seen against the extreme slimness of her body and arms. She was, not slow exactly, but not so quick witted either. When I asked her what date it was, she shrugged. She had no idea. Did they have a newspaper anywhere? She laughed. What use was a newspaper to them (apart, of course, from the obvious function)? Neither she nor Grandmere could read or write. Where were her parents, then? Papa had died before the war. Mama had gone to a village some miles away a month or two before, to see if there was any food, and she had not come back. Perhaps she had died in the war; she was a pretty woman, perhaps the Nazis had taken her for their amusement. One heard tales of such things. She shrugged. I was appalled; did she not care what had become of her own Mama?
Veronique appeared puzzled. These things happened. If she had been taken by the Nazis, which was what Grandmere thought had happened, then at least she would be fed and warm. Which of them had the better of it, eh? And why should I care? I, who did not even know Mama!
I was humbled. She was right, of course. Who on earth was I to nit-pick at these people's feelings; I, who was technically a deserter? I, who was alive and should have been dead? As dead as poor Toby. Seeing my despondency, Veronique came and sat next to me, and put her arms around me. I could feel her ribs pressing against my arm. Grandmere, she said, would be gone all day. Whilst Bacon earned his keep, Grandmere would be helping in the farmhouse. Would I like to have a little lie down, perhaps?
To my shame, I decided I would. They say that there is nothing like death to sharpen the appetite of the living, and I know this to be true. I went to bed with Veronique without a second thought. I had had no experience at all, and it was soon apparent that poor Veronique had had little more. She was not a virgin, I thought, but she was almost as inept as I was. Still, we fumbled our way through and she seemed pleased enough with the results. Callow youth that I was, I was ecstatic. Suddenly, I was in a position to forgive Papa for Bella, and I did, a thousand times over.
I hoped that Grandmere would be gone a long, long time.
Grandmere came back at dusk. Bacon clopped along happily, a Hessian sack his only burden. He was a treasure, Grandmere declared. He had allowed the farmer to hitch him to a dog-cart, and had gone to and fro all day, obeying every command with alacrity. Monsieur should have said that the horse spoke French! And his - or rather our - reward was cheese, salt pork and a half-sack of potatoes and turnips and carrots. Grandmere smacked her lips; tonight we would have a real meal!
I thought I had imagined it, but I was half-sure that I saw a strange glance pass between Veronique and Marie Claude, as I was now instructed to call the old woman. A complicit sort of look, enquiring on one side and confirmatory on the other. Nonsense, I thought. Absolute nonsense.
I was sent out to hunt again next day, while Bacon was harnessed up to an old farm cart and taken out to find kindling. I was back just after they were, and I swear to this day that Bacon's triumphant return with the old woman and a full cart of wood was treated with greater joy than my own modest contribution of a hare and yet another pheasant.
Between Marie Claude's excellent cooking and Veronique's kind attentions, I began to feel better. Slowly, but there was no avoiding it. I was whole again. Or as near as dammit, anyway. I had to go, I said. I must find my regiment. It was not purely a matter of honour, I explained, there was the practical aspect that if I was found I would be shot as a deserter. Veronique and Marie Claude exchanged mulish looks, and then Marie Claude said that she had the answer. We would ask the village Maire, a man of high intelligence, and great importance. So I allowed myself to be taken off to see the Mayor.
He had heard of me, he said. The Englishman with the wonderful horse. It was a good job I was very fond of Bacon, or the knowledge that I was tolerated whilst he was viewed with almost awe would have rankled. That was me, I said.
The Mayor was interested, and in the uncomplicated way of peasants, fired questions at me. I had a French name, spoke perfect French. Was I really English? I explained my family history, and the Mayor stood and advanced toward me, arms wide to embrace me. Mon ami! He was, he said, the only Protestant in the whole village. It was truly his pleasure to find a fellow follower of the true religion. So what was my problem?
I explained, and he pulled at his lower lip, thinking deeply. Both Marie Claude and Veronique watched him anxiously. It was a problem, certainly. But perhaps not as bad as I thought. I had not lost my comrades on purpose; he had heard how the two women found me. The answer was, and his eyes gleamed, the answer was, that I should stay in the village (with Bacon, of course) and marry Veronique. He had heard (said with the slyest of winks) that Veronique and I were getting on very well. The war would be over eventually, and if anybody came enquiring about me, he - and his word counted for much hereabouts, he could assure me - he, the Mayor, would swear that I had been born and bought up in the village. Papers would be produced. So what did I think of that?
Not a lot, I thought, although I could hardly say it. I had been enjoying Veronique's favours for a couple of weeks. She had begun to put on a little weight and was turning into a very pretty girl. But the thought of being married to someone who could neither read nor write, someone whose highest intellectual challenge was remembering what day of the week it was, filled me with unbelievable horror. And to spend the remainder of my days, stuck in an obscure French village! Gentleman that I was, I pretended that my shudder was a shiver, resulting from a chill wind, poking through the door frame.
I managed to make my face as sorrowful as I could. Whilst I could see the sense of the Maire´s suggestion, it was no good. I had many powerful friends and relatives in England, who would see no stone unturned to find me. Especially if the powers that be had me listed as a deserter, as was sure to be the case. Besides, my honour demanded that I return to my regiment. I appealed to the Maire; surely he - as a fellow man of honour! - could understand that? His eyes misted with tears and he grabbed my hand and shook it fiercely. Of course he understood. I must go back. I would not consider, he supposed, leaving Bacon with the women, as, er, payment for all their services?
I could not, I said. However, I did have something that might go towards paying my debt to the ladies. I opened my jacket and split the lining with my thumb-nail, groping for dear Bella's two half-sovereigns. I had not spent them at Ranulf´s, and had taken them with me to war as a sort of lucky token. And was I grateful for them now! I handed them over to the Maire, who regarded them greedily before handing them reluctantly to Marie Claude. They were English coins, he explained to her, but pure gold and very valuable. Her eyes shone, and I realised that I would not be greatly missed. At least by her.
Veronique clung to my arm as I threw my little bag of supplies on to Bacon's saddle. She wept copiously. Did I really have to leave her? Would I ever come back? I assured her that I would, and rode off with a light heart. They might, of course, shoot me as a deserter, but with the boundless optimism of youth (don´t forget, I was still only eighteen!) I didn´t really see this happening.
As my body had healed, so had my mind. I picked my way back to the battlefield quite quickly, and wondered at my own stupidity last time I had reached this far. In spite of the time I had spent with the women, the remainder of the army could not, I realised, have got that far. There were weapons to move, men to march, wounded to carry. It had taken the British army many weeks to get this far before the battle, and then they had been fit, healthy men, not sick at heart and frightened and wounded. Not beaten men. I skirted the battle field, and eventually found the hundred yard wide track where the remnants of the army had dragged itself away. I simply followed it, as quickly as it was safe to make Bacon trot on the furrowed ground.
The next day, I came across a way station, which I mentally dubbed a Stragglers´ Camp. It was dominated by badly wounded men, who could only be moved slowly, medical orderlies, a few soldiers and fewer officers. I reported to the first officer I saw, and he simply took my details and gave me instructions as to where to go. He either believed my story of a bang on the head and a slow recovery in some unknown village, or was too tired and dispirited to bother questioning it. My precious chitty firm in my pocket, we moved on, passing more and more way stations as we went.
Eventually, we caught up with the main body of those who were left, and I was united with my regiment.
And that was it. The remainder of my war was a repeat of what had already happened. I survived the unspeakable hell of the Somme, and that is all I shall say about that. Now, or at any time that may be granted to me in the future. And if you ever come across anybody who is prepared to talk about it, then I take leave to doubt that they were ever there.
I came through with barely a scratch. Oh, I had another tussle with mustard gas, and took the odd slash, but that was it. We in the cavalry had no more than a casual amble, compared to those poor, poor souls in the trenches. They knew what war was, alright. As did Toby.
In any event, early in 1919 I found myself back in London, the proverbial foot-loose and fancy free. I was young, reasonably fit and wealthy. I had done my duty for King and country. I was lauded in my circle (totally unjustly) as the returned hero. What more could any young man ask out of life? And, dear Pearl, before you ask - and I know it is the one thing that will be concerning you more than anything at this precise moment! - Bacon came with me. He, too, survived the war unscathed, and immediately upon his return to England was retired to the farm in Westmorland, to enjoy a prolonged and luxurious retirement. In fact, the nice-natured little mare you rode that time was actually one of Bacon's many daughters.
Papa had retired to the country, but I could not bring myself to move into the family home in London. It carried too many memories, and was now, to my newly sophisticated eyes, a dark, old-fashioned house. So I bought the house where you are now sitting, reading this, and engaged one of the newly fashionable interior decorators to do it out for me. All I had to do was give him a vague idea of my tastes, and voila! There it was, decorated and furnished down to the last teaspoon. All I had to do was move in ...........