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THE CAPTAIN’S WARD


by


Russell James


THE CAPTAIN’S WARD

First published in Britain in 2019


© Russell James 2019


The right of Russell James to be identified as the author of the work has been asserted by him Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved.

For more about the author check his website at

http://russelljamesbooks.wordpress.com/



Full-length novels by Russell James include:

Underground

Daylight

Payback

Slaughter Music

Count me Out

Oh No, Not My Baby

Painting in the Dark

Pick Any Title

No One Gets Hurt

The Annex

The Maud Allan Affair

Requiem for a Daughter

Rafael’s Gold

The Exhibitionists

Exit 39

The Newly Discovered Diaries of Doctor Kristal

Stories I Can’t Tell

Mother Naked

After She Drowned




THE CAPTAIN’S WARD


1877

-1-



“Why should I not?”

She was twelve years old and wearing the hideous black dress they insisted she wear every day, and she had her hair – blacker and cleaner than the dress– tucked inside the black bonnet out of sight, but why should she stay out of sight? She’d been out of sight, indoors, for a fortnight – well, ten days, but ten days was almost a fortnight – and she’d looked out through dusty windows each sunny day because it wouldn’t be right for her to disport herself outside. As if walking on the beach was to disport herself. As if she wasn’t allowed fresh air.

It was cooler today, so the dress wasn’t as uncomfortable as it might have been in sunshine, and she’d hoped the breeze off the sea would make the material smell fresher. The dress smelt second-hand, though it wasn’t because Aunt Olivia had made it. So perhaps the cloth was second-hand. Perhaps this material was from a previous mourning dress, cut down. Aunt Olivia liked to re-use material, she hoarded it, and that meant someone else might have worn this very same material, perhaps through the whole period of mourning, a year or more, and although it must have been washed or hung out to air afterwards it might still retain a trace of that person’s smell. So it was a jolly good job Lucy was airing it on the beach, where the air smelt of wind and seaweed and brine – and seagulls? Could the air smell of seagulls? She flapped her arms and made a strolling gull take flight.

“Miss Richards?”

She turned round.

The man was also dressed in black, but he wore a jaunty cravat, so he could not have been in mourning. His was just the black so many people wore; a spidery black suit which looked as if it smelt worse than her black dress. He wore city shoes, ridiculous for a beach, especially one as pebbly as here in Brighton. His shirt did not look clean.

“Allow me to express my sympathy. This sorrowful time.”

Did she know him? She thought not.

“A double blow, for one so young.”

He smiled but she didn’t smile back. She hadn’t smiled much in this last fortnight.

“And sudden. When was the last time that you saw them?”

Lucy sighed. But one had to answer. One had to be polite. “A year or so, I suppose.”

“A year or two?”

Well, yes it was, she thought. Two years. And now – she looked away – now she would see them never again.

“I’m truly sorry,” he said. She stared at the sea. Gulls sat on the waves like ocean ducks. Gulls above soared round in circles and shrieked at each other. Gulls were horrible, she thought.

“I dare say you have happy memories from that last visit. Did they take you out? Where did you go?”

The breeze was making her eyes water. The man waited, as if he was interested in her answer. What did it matter to him, whoever he was?

“A wonderful woman, of course. You must be proud of her?”

So many questions. She hated questions.

“What would you say was your last memory of her?”

“I remember both of them,” she muttered.

“Ah, yes, he was a fine man too, of course. A brave soldier. Would you say that?”

She frowned. “Would I say what?”

“Would you say you remember him as a brave soldier?”

“I remember him as my father.”

“First and foremost, yes – would you say that? A soldier first and foremost, yes, very good. And how about Mrs Richards – your mother? What do you remember about her?”

Really, she thought, this was too much. He waited again, but she didn’t reply. “She was a great woman – wonderful,” he prompted. “You know, of course, about her work?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I must go in now.”

“I’ll come with you, if I may.”

He followed. She heard his shoes crunching the pebbles. “Your last memory. What’s your last memory of your dear mother?”

“I’m going in. Goodbye.” The man sounded like a journalist. How dare the man accost her? He was trudging along behind. But he wore city shoes, so she could outrun him on the pebbles. She began to run, but her dress, her hideous dress, tangled around her legs and made her slither on the stones. She must not fall. The thought of that man reaching down to help her, of him looming over her fallen body, made Lucy shudder as she ran. She couldn’t run fast. It was infuriating. Without this awful dress and in proper shoes she could run twice as fast as this; on the Promenade she could sprint, but on the beach she couldn’t shake him.

“Just a word,” he panted. “I know your aunts.”

No, you don’t, she thought. She had reached the slope leading to the Prom. But still the man was right behind. She could almost feel his city breath. “No, wait, I’ve something for you.” Half way up he grabbed her shoulder. She spun round to slap his face but he blocked her arm. “My dear young girl,” he snapped, and he tried to drag her back down to the beach.

“What are you doing, sir? I say!” Another man, above them on the slope.

“Nothing, nothing. A little tiff. Come along, dear.”

Again he pulled, and this time she was free to smack his face.

“Now, now.” He glared. They were a foot apart. “Come down. I’ve something for you.”

“I say! Are you all right, young lady?”

She looked beseechingly up the slope. The other man started down. He was big and smartly dressed. “Let that girl alone.”

“A family tiff,” the journalist tried.

“I know about men like you. How dare you, sir?”

The man raised his stick and the journalist backed away. “Now, now, hold off.” He raised his arm to avoid the blow.

Lucy found herself above the pair of them. She ran to the top. The men were arguing. She didn’t wait to thank her rescuer but ran off along the Prom. There were lots of people here, and they moved aside to let this child – that’s how they’d see her – run indecorously along the Prom, a child in black, wearing ungainly shoes. She had tears in her eyes. How dare he? Her parents so lately dead, and he had quizzed her for a story. She ought to thank the other man but for now she wanted only to run away. She knew neither of them. For all she knew, the other was a journalist too.

She should never talk to strange men.

*

Her breath had slowed but her thoughts were racing. What she wanted was the very thing she couldn’t find: to be alone with her grief. “Stay in the house,” her aunts had said. “You won’t be alone with your grief, because we’ll be here.” Outside the house was the one place she could be alone. So she’d come out. She’d pictured herself wandering along the wave-whipped beach with wind in her hair and where even the appalling seagulls, she’d thought, would sing plaintive melodies. But no. A journalist had intruded. Would he be the only one, or was this how it was to be now, an ever-lurking threat of prying journalists wanting a quote about the parents she’d hardly known? And now would never know.

Brighton was tawdry but she’d grown fond of the place; it had become her home. She was amused to see that every year there seemed to be more visitors, and that there more shops and boarding houses and cheap chop-houses given over to wandering crowds of ill-dressed holiday-makers. It was fun to walk confidently through the streets among strangers who gawped at buildings she knew well. Even before her parents had died her aunts had tried to dissuade her, even to forbid her, from going out in the streets alone. Their underlying fear, never expressed plainly, was that she might be approached by a strange man.

But they had never mentioned journalists.

Aunt Olivia and Aunt Janet shared a small grey-faced terraced house in a street less than five minutes from the Promenade, a scruffy but safe street, Lucy thought, scruffy and safe like most of Brighton. Their house was entered by a flight of stone steps above a basement, and had a shiny maroon-coloured front door. It was almost imposing, that front door, and walking up the steps to it gave Lucy a feeling of respectability and strength, though the door did in truth form something of a façade, as the house inside was as scruffy, though not as tawdry, as the town outside. Like Brighton itself, Janet and Olivia had less money than they liked to pretend. Everyone, it seemed, kept up appearances.

Lucy paused at the top of the stone steps. She was steady now. She could go inside.

From the parlour she heard voices, and one of those voices belonged to a man. Who could that be? The only man who occasionally visited was the Reverend Dollis and Lucy knew his voice, and this was not his voice; it was someone different. A stranger. Another one.

-2-


He stood up when she came in. If he too was a journalist he was better dressed than the previous fellow. He wore a Norfolk jacket in two shades of brown tweed and a four-in-hand tie whose colour, she immediately noted, was very similar to the maroon of her aunts’ wooden front door. His boots were immaculately clean, his beard trimmed short and his age, she estimated, must be about thirty-five. A good-looking man but she didn’t know him.

He stared at her and, since she was twelve years old and could get away with it, Lucy stared back. “Extraordinary,” he said, glancing away for a moment to Aunt Olivia. “Looks almost exactly as I’d imagined.” He turned back to Lucy to study her again and she thought, another journalist, though perhaps he’s a proper one from The Times.

Aunt Janet was standing now. “Hello, Lucy, this is Captain Hart. You should give him your hand.” Her aunt looked a little strained.

“Are you a journalist?” she asked first. She knew immediately from their faces he was not, and since he had offered his hand she took it. His hand was cool. It seemed to her that he squeezed quite softly but that at other times his grip must be strong.

He held her hand and said, “I knew your parents.”

Aunt Janet inhaled sharply.

“In India,” the captain added, letting her go.

Lucy kept her head high. “But not in Africa?”

“Afraid not. Do I look like a journalist?”

“Why did you ask that?” asked Olivia.

Lucy explained.

“A man with a mole on his cheek?” asked Aunt Janet.

“Yes, perhaps.”

“He called here,” Janet explained. “Twice. But we sent him away.”

“As you should,” the captain said. “He must have waited till Lucy came out, then followed her down onto the beach.” He gave Lucy a bleak smile. “Your famous mother means the papers may be interested.”

“Don’t talk to them,” Olivia said.

“I won’t,” Lucy said – then: “Why should I not? Will they write bad things about her?”

“She was a saint,” Aunt Janet said.

“Newspapers want stories,” explained Captain Hart. “Don’t want the truth.”

Janet came closer to Lucy and put an arm round her. “It must have been terrible for you on the beach but we did tell you, Lucy dear. And what could you tell the papers? You –” She hesitated. “You hardly knew your parents. You came back from India and you … haven’t seen them for – is it seven years?”

“Only once,” said Lucy. “Two years ago.”

There had been a short visit, very short. She hardly remembered it now.

“And you know nothing of Africa.” Janet held her close. “This is … this is so awful.”

There was a silence. The captain sat down. “Come here,” he said gently. “Please.” He reached out his hand but Lucy didn’t move. “We’ve met before,” the captain said. “I knew you in India when you were just a little tot.” He smiled, but still Lucy did not move. “You won’t remember,” the captain said. “Come and sit here on my knee.”

Lucy was horrified. She was twelve! But the aunts said nothing. Olivia smiled encouragingly and Janet nodded. And that was when Lucy realised.

*

Aunt Janet was rattling on about what they already knew, that after years in India Lucy’s father had been posted to Natal in Africa where, after two years, both he and Lucy’s mother had succumbed last month to cholera. “Hundreds died,” she said, her eyes widening. “Thousands.”

“Mainly Blacks,” Olivia said to reassure her.

“Always a threat,” said Captain Hart. “Especially on the coast or by the lakes.”

“Africans have no idea about clean water,” Janet went on. “Can you imagine?”

“And they don’t wash,” Olivia said.

Lucy squirmed on the captain’s knee, but it only made him stroke her hair. “Your mother will have been very brave,” he said. “She’d run a convalescent depot in India. Cholera, typhoid, scrofula… So she knew about clean water.” He glanced at Janet. “She was practically a doctor.”

“A saint,” Janet agreed.

“Efficient,” Hart continued. “In India we had to deal with cholera every year. Your mother had the water filtered, and she set up a field hospital and turned a gang of coolies into a proper Army Hospital Corps. Call that being a saint if you want to, but I call it being a damned good doctor.” He ignored the aunts’ reaction to the offensive word. “She’d have done the same in Natal, I dare say. But you can’t vaccinate against cholera, so there’s always a risk. It won’t have stopped her. Nothing did.”

“A saint,” Janet repeated.

The captain stroked the side of Lucy’s head. When he fingered her ear she pulled away. “I’m sure you’re a brave girl too,” he said. “Your mother’s daughter.”

“And my father’s. What about him?”

“A good soldier. We were friends. That’s why –”

Janet interrupted: “At least you were able to see them, Lucy, before...” She smiled at the captain. “Between postings, I believe you say?”

“Home leave.”

“Two years ago,” Olivia said.

All three grown-ups looked strained.

The captain turned Lucy’s head to make her face him. “Now, you’re not to worry, Lucy. Your mummy and daddy never forgot you. There’s a little money – not much – but you mustn’t worry that there won’t be enough to pay for your upkeep, because there will. You know – does she?” He asked Aunt Olivia, and Lucy turned to look at her. Both aunts looked grave. “You’re a big girl now, Lucy, and you know it costs money to bring up a little girl, especially as she grows older.” The captain sighed. “And your aunts, I think, won’t mind my telling you that they relied on money from your mummy and daddy coming every month to help pay for your keep.”

He’s coming to the point, she thought.

“It’s an awful time for you, Lucy,” the captain said. “But you’re your mother’s daughter so I know that you’ll be brave. You are brave, aren’t you?” She made no reply. “Tell me, how would you like to live in a fine house in the country, with fields to play in, and animals nearby and even a horse to ride? Ever ridden a horse?”

“It’ll be better for you,” Olivia said, and it was Olivia, Lucy thought, who was trying to be brave. She herself felt nothing. She felt stunned. It didn’t matter what she said to anyone or how she felt because her opinion wouldn’t count. She was like the horse the captain mentioned: a living thing but a creature that could be passed from one owner to the next.

“Your future will be assured,” Olivia whispered, and Janet wiped away a tear.

When Lucy stood up the captain let her. She was trembling inside but determined not to let it show. She wouldn’t even steady herself by holding on to a chair. She stood in the space between the three of them and asked only: “When?”

They would leave next morning.

-3-


The train journey seemed interminable. She had been to London before because her aunts had taken her to see sights of the capital, though they hadn’t, as Janet had almost promised, managed to see the Queen. Olivia claimed that no one ever did see her. On that occasion they had taken no luggage but this time, when Lucy had brought with her all her things, she was surprised to find they fitted into a single case.

She didn’t say much to the captain, answering politely but contributing little more and, perhaps in respect for her feelings, he left her mainly to her thoughts. He had helped her choose a book at the bookstall on Brighton station but the print, she found, was rather small for a rattling train. She didn’t feel well, but she didn’t tell him because she feared she might be suffering from that thing you couldn’t mention to a man. In London they took a hansom cab from Victoria to their next station, and the captain showed her points of interest en route. Of interest to him, she thought. One of the buildings was a club for army officers, he told her, but it wasn’t a shop, its windows were just windows, so to her it looked much like anywhere else. Waiting for the train they shared a pot of tea but she could hardly drink hers, it was much too strong. She had an ache in her stomach but when she went to the lavatory to check there was nothing there. It was almost a month, she thought, since the last time and because the experience was still quite new to her she hadn’t come prepared.

The captain bought two cakes but she couldn’t eat hers.

Approaching the ticket barrier she queried whether this was the right platform for their train as their destination, Milham, wasn’t shown on the board. “Sharp eyes,” he said. “It doesn’t have its own station. And we’ll have to change.”

She gritted her teeth: so it would be an even longer journey. He strode along the platform carrying her case and his own small valise and, where normally she could easily have kept pace with him, today she couldn’t walk at speed. It was her heavy black dress, she decided, that slowed her down.

On the train she didn’t want to make conversation but she thought he’d think her truculent, so she tried. He seemed decent enough, after all. After a while he read his paper and she read her book. Her stomach still ached. She calculated mentally whether three or four weeks had passed since last time and wondered whether, if it was a month, there was anything she could do to delay the reoccurrence of a woman’s shame. But I’m not a woman, she thought: I’m only twelve; it isn’t fair. From time to time they shared their carriage with other passengers, but at times they were quite alone. Would her secret emerge, she wondered, on a train closeted with this strange man?

An hour dragged by. A man and woman got on to share their carriage and after a few minutes the woman asked if Lucy felt unwell. “The jolting perhaps?” Lucy shook her head; she couldn’t tell her, not with the captain and the woman’s husband close by. Perhaps the woman suspected, perhaps not. As she chattered on the woman nodded towards Hart and stumbled over the words ‘your father’ as if he might look too young. Lucy muttered that he was not her father and when the woman looked at him sharply Hart told her he was Lucy’s guardian and Lucy was his ward.

“So that’s why you’re not both in mourning clothes?” the woman asked delicately.

They talk as I’m not here, thought Lucy, and the woman added, “Poor little thing.”

The woman’s husband said nothing, and a few minutes later they got out. So Lucy and Captain Hart found themselves alone again in a rattling carriage. “You’ll not be bothered in the country,” he said, for no obvious reason.

She wasn’t sure that was something to look forward to.

“That journalist in Brighton,” he continued. “Was he the only one?” She nodded. “Your aunts have agreed,” he said, “not to give anyone your new address. Hope it doesn’t set alarm bells ringing.”

“Alarm?”

“Don’t want the papers talking about your ‘mysterious disappearance’, do we? If anyone asks your aunts they’ll say you want some privacy to mourn your parents.”

“That’s true, isn’t it? I am in mourning, My friends at school will think I’ve disappeared.”

“They’ll think you’ve moved. People move about all the time.”

“Or disappear,” she whispered.

He gazed at her. “You haven’t disappeared to me. You’ve re-appeared.” He paused. “I remember when you were born, and when you learnt to walk. Your parents and I were close friends. That’s why they asked me, if anything happened, to look after you. And I will. I know my duty.”

*

Their change of trains meant a forty-minute wait on a windy station, and their second train was slower and more uncomfortable than their first. Her stomach-ache had become permanent and she’d developed a headache. She’d finished her book. When they finally did reach the station she found they had to change to a pony and trap for the last few miles to Milham, where the captain lived. She didn’t know how she’d hold out. If something happened, what could she say? Hart, of course, didn’t know why she was silent. Perhaps he thought this was how she normally was. As they jogged along he explained why her mother’s death had been in the newspapers: “Your aunts may have concealed that from you. She was almost famous.”

How, she wondered, can one be ‘almost’ famous? And why is it only my mother who is ‘almost famous’? The captain and my aunts talk as if my father was not important.

“To some people,” the captain said, “your mother was practically a martyr.”

That made it even worse. She didn’t want to be a martyr’s daughter, she wanted to live in Brighton with her aunts. She didn’t know how she’d survive the rest of this long journey without embarrassment. She didn’t know where she was going, or what would happen.

And she knew nothing about Captain Hart.

-4-


Milham was a village outside the small country town of Croome, and the captain’s house was a mile or so beyond Milham, up a track off a wider track, and as the evening light faded Lucy couldn’t tell whether it was a farm house or a small manor. It was set in a garden ringed by trees and surrounded by fields. At the sound of the trap arriving a dog barked from somewhere outside, and the front door opened. Two women came out, and behind them a younger one Lucy took to be the maid, as she was the one to run forward and help her down from the trap.

The maid said something that Lucy didn’t quite catch. “More luggage later?” the girl repeated.

“That’s all I have.”

Hart went to one of the women, leaving the other to come to Lucy. “I’m Mrs Crouch, miss, the housekeeper. Her’s Tizzie.”

Hart had kissed the other woman, so she must be his wife. It was only when she turned to greet Lucy that her condition became apparent: she was with child. Lucy ran up the steps to save Mrs Hart from having to come down. “Welcome, my dear. I’m Mrs Hart, but you must call me Julia. You look exhausted.”

“As do you,” the captain told her. “Should be resting.”

“I’ve been resting all day,” his wife laughed. “It’s only eight o’clock.”

Hart consulted his pocket-watch. “Quarter past.”

“How could I not be up to greet our guest? Can I call you Lucy? You don’t have another name you prefer?”

“No, ma’am.”

“I’m Julia,” she emphasised as she took Lucy’s arms. “No one knows you here, so you can call yourself anything you like. Some people hate the name they were given; it was not their choice. So if you want to be Cleopatra, or Rapunzel –”

“With my black hair?” They both laughed. It was the first time Lucy had laughed all day, but it brought a stab of painful headache and made her wince.

“You’ll catch a chill,” the captain said, leading his wife indoors.

“Follow me, miss,” said Mrs Crouch. She took Lucy in and up black-painted stairs to a bedroom at the back of the house, a room lit by an oil lamp on a small table and in which the curtains had not been closed. There was a small bed, a cane armchair, an oak dresser and single closet, a wash-stand, the writing table and a turkey carpet on the floor. It was not a child’s room in any way but it seemed comfortable enough. “Your case is on the bed, miss. I don’t think you’ll want someone to help with it? We live plainly here.” Lucy shook her head. “We’ve eaten supper, miss, but I’ll send Tizzie up with a plate of cold. Do you drink tea?”

Suddenly Lucy was alone. She hadn’t been alone all day, nor had she yesterday, she felt, not at any second from the moment she’d come from the beach to find Captain Hart waiting in the house. Her aunts had continued to fuss around her from when he had left until her bedtime. Today in the trains, the hansom and then the trap, she had been forced into the company of a man who in one day had snatched her from the life she’d known for seven years to a life yet to be discovered. At least, thought Lucy, he seemed to live in a normal if remote house, with a wife, a maid and housekeeper. At least she had a proper bedroom, with a proper bed. She pressed down on the blankets; the mattress seemed firm. The pillows were, if anything, too ample. She sat on the bed and swung her legs. She listened. Silence. Or could she hear voices from downstairs? Her head ached; her stomach felt ominously tight. She stood up and peeped beneath the bed to find the pot. Was anyone coming?

She took the pot to the far side of the bed and squatted, watching the door. Nobody came. She checked: no sign of blood. Not yet. She pushed the pot beneath the bed.

She looked out of the window, but the garden was gloomy in the late twilight. Little could be seen. She sat in the cane armchair, which creaked but was moderately comfortable, but she only sat in it for a few seconds. She opened the closet: empty. She pulled open the dresser drawers: empty again. She eyed the oil-lamp and hoped it would not be temperamental.

This, then, was to be her room.

She climbed back onto the bed and sat for a moment, staring at the walls. Then she lay down. She felt so weary, but she mustn’t sleep, she thought. She stared at the ceiling. The pillow was so soft it almost swallowed her aching head. If she closed her eyes –

Someone was coming.

Tizzie came in; she was carrying a tray and had barely knocked. She said something in a thick country accent and rested the tray on the writing table, by which time Lucy was sitting up, though the bed felt too comfortable to leave. She concentrated as Tizzie spoke: “Want me to help you then, with your little trunk?”

“No, no. Thank you. I’m just feeling tired.”

“Can do. I don’t mind. See what you got.” She smiled. “Long journey, were it?”

“Yes. Tizzie?” She had to ask someone. Perhaps she ought to have asked Mrs Crouch. “Tizzie, you must excuse me, but when it’s… You see, it’s been a month and … I’m a woman now, though I’m only twelve, and I’m about to… And I haven’t …”

“I see, miss.” Tizzie nodded. “Don’t you worry now. I’ll fetch some rags.”

*

It was dark here, darker than Brighton. Even with the curtains open, it was dark. But Lucy pulled them closed. She lay in the unfamiliar bed, peering through the darkness and listening to the country sounds outside. It seemed noisier now than earlier. The soft breeze came and went and came again and it began to rain. She got up and looked from the window but there was nothing to be seen, not even stars, so she went back to bed. Rain pattered against the window-pane and the house creaked as if made of wood. From time to time she heard an animal call which to her might have been a fox, an owl or even a nightjar. Some cries sounded almost human but she knew they weren’t. She must not be fanciful.

Tizzie had told her she would normally have had a larger room, closer to Captain and Mrs Hart, but she couldn’t: the one she would have been given had been set aside to become the nursery. “A lot of changes this year,” Tizzie had said. “First you and then a baby.”

Will there be a nursemaid, Lucy wondered – or will that be me? I might have to earn my keep. I might have to do anything. As Tizzie said, there’ll be a lot of changes.

She couldn’t sleep. She heard every creak. Rain continued against the window, and in the morning Lucy woke to find that her woman’s blood had finally seeped through. But she was ready now and prepared. She would be resilient, strong and grown-up. Whatever life would throw at her, Lucy knew that she could cope.

-5-


There was a phrase in her book that summed it up exactly: she spent the next few weeks ‘in a daze’. She explored the house but found no secret rooms and nothing of interest in the attic. At the first proper meal she had with them, breakfast, she’d found they ate more heartily than did her aunts. The captain paid more attention to his wife than to Lucy (which Lucy thought quite right) but Julia was friendly, and particularly sympathetic about her becoming an orphan. It seemed to have more meaning to other people than it did to Lucy.

After breakfast that first morning, Julia had shown her around the gardens, which were mainly vegetables and grass. The fields beyond were for grazing cows and sheep, Julia had said, and there were cows in the fields right now. There were no cows in Brighton, though Lucy had seen plenty of pictures of them and had seen cows from the windows of the train, and she thought she could remember mangy cows from India when she’d been young. Cows in India, she thought, had wandered in the street – or had she read that in a book? One day, she thought, she’d actually touch one. In fact, she must set herself a goal: within a week – or perhaps two weeks – she must make herself touch a cow. “Is it safe to walk out in the fields?”

“Not for me, dear, not just now. But you can.”

Lucy decided that Julia was very nice, even if it was odd to call a grown woman Julia, as if Julia were her older sister. No, not a sister, Lucy thought – perhaps she’s practising being a mother with me; she probably knows little more about children than I know about cows.

Julia was asking about her dress. “You don’t have to wear black if you don’t like it, you know; girls who’ve lost their parents often wear white.” Julia took her hand. “And here at home, where no one can see… We must go into Croome together and buy you some winter clothes.”

“I can’t wear white in winter.”

“A white ribbon, then, for remembrance. What’s your favourite colour?”

Friendly as Julia was, Lucy couldn’t bring herself to tell her that she too was now a woman. That was a secret for she and Tizzie to share.

*

She decided that Fairacre was a farmhouse rather than a manor because the Harts called their evening meal supper, as her aunts did, and it was only people in grand houses who called their evening meal dinner or who changed into formal clothes to dine. But if it was a farmhouse the Harts didn’t seem to be proper farmers; there wasn’t a milking parlour and the cows were only something to look at, part of the view. She ought to ask them, she thought, but she didn’t want to be one of those annoying children who ask questions all the time. Though if you don’t ask questions, how can you learn anything? That, she decided, was why children ask so many questions.

An explanation of sorts came as they ate. “Looks more likely my regiment will be sent to Turkey,” the captain said.

Julia paled. “I thought that was all over.” She glanced at Lucy. “I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, Lucy, but the Russians have attacked the Turks for no reason at all. It’s unforgivable. But that was in April, Caspar.”

Caspar. Was that his name?

“Still a lot of work to be done out there.”

“Not now, surely? Won’t they let you stay?”

“Other soldiers’ wives have babies, Julia. But it may come to nothing. The Times is making too much of it.”

No one said anything for half a minute, till the captain made an awkward attempt to break the gloom: “Journalists turn anything into a story, as you’ve discovered, Lucy. The curse of a famous mother. But they won’t find you here.” He paused. “She was famous enough in India but the story never got about back here.”

“What story?”

“Oh, nothing scandalous.”

“Other than that she was a woman,” Julia said. She reached across the table to Lucy. “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t talk about her like this. It’s too soon.”

“No, I’d rather.” Lucy surprised herself with that response. “You see, I hardly knew her. I’ve only seen her once since I was five.”

The captain blew out his cheeks. “Well, then. Charlotte – sorry, that’s your mother –got permission from Inspector-General Beatson to sort out a Camp of Exercise near Allahabad and turn the place into a convalescent depot. At that time there was no general field hospital for the sick, and we were using mules to carry the equipment. Ambulance carts couldn’t get through on stony tracks but mules could. So could two-wheeled carts, your mother thought, so she got some of them as well. Always the first thing: sort out the lines of supply.”

“She should have been an officer,” said Julia with a smile.

Hart nodded. “Indeed. Her nickname was ‘Lady General’ Richards. Don’t know what Beatson made of that. Anyway, within a couple of months we had mules and two-wheeled carts, along with doolies and dandies – portable hammocks – to get over the hills, and she used them for medicines and some little local luxuries as well. May not have cured anybody but luxuries can be just as effective as medicines. Your mother sent sepoys into local bazaars to fetch simple things like sugar and sago and arrowroot. Improvements to bedding and diet do more good than dosing men with feeble medicine.”

“So she wasn’t a doctor,” Lucy said carefully.

“Did more good than doctors. Anyway, after that she’d have gone to Natal with quite a reputation.” The captain smiled. “A damned nuisance of a woman who knows what she’s about.” He stopped. “Sorry, Lucy, I shouldn’t have said that.”

Julia explained: “Any woman who knows what she’s about is called a nuisance.” She took Lucy’s hand across the table. “This must be painful for you. But that’s why the papers called her a saint. Another Florence Nightingale.”

“Are you all right, Lucy?” the captain asked.

She nodded. “It makes me feel better to hear good of her, to know who she was. It helps me to know who I am.” They both stared at her. “It’s all I have of her. It’s my legacy.”

*

As soon as they’d eaten, Lucy excused herself and took herself off to bed. She didn’t want to intrude on their privacy too much. She knew that unwanted girls could be called gooseberries and she was not going to be any kind of prickly nuisance. Walking up the stairs she could hear the captain and his wife talking from the drawing room, though she couldn’t quite make out what they said. Were they talking about her? Should she strain to hear? She wouldn’t. Eavesdroppers did not hear well of themselves.

She went to her room – her room now – and sat like an adult in her cane armchair. This was her room and would remain so, presumably, for years and years. It was her domain. She could sit in her armchair, sit at her writing desk, lie on her bed; she could do anything. She could read till midnight – till two in the morning, if she wanted; no one would come. And no one but Tizzie would know about her temporary condition.

It wasn’t raining tonight, and when she looked from the window she saw a watery moon and a sky sprinkled with little stars. There were far more here than she’d seen in Brighton. Someone had told her there more stars in the heavens than there were people down here on earth. Could that be true? There were lots of stars, certainly, but she couldn’t see that many.

But how many people had she seen? There had been thousands in Brighton but she hadn’t seen all of them. On occasional trips to London she must have seen hundreds, and long ago in India which, according to what she’d learnt in school, was bigger than England and contained far more people, she had seen – well, how many? She remembered hardly anybody. Even if she could remember every single person she’d ever seen that would only be a tiny fraction of all the people that existed. How many people had Captain Hart seen? He’d been to India, he’d worked there – no, served there – and might have been to all sorts of places in the Army; he might even go to Turkey, to fight Russians. She hoped not, because he seemed rather nice.

*

He didn’t go. Turkey was mentioned now and then at the supper table and, whenever it was, Julia seemed to lose her appetite. She was very big now, and Lucy found it fascinating to think that inside that great rounded tummy a baby sat coiled in waiting, and that a mother’s shape could change so enormously and that, although Julia often got tired, she seemed able to handle all these dramatic changes and become a differently-shaped person without an undue amount of pain. It must be because it all happens so gradually, she thought, just a little more every day. Lucy couldn’t imagine her own body swelling and stretching to such a shape, yet it must be possible. She herself would be a woman; she’d begun the journey. Every month her bleeding was going to come and, although she hadn’t breasts yet like a woman, her breasts had started to form, they were in bud. Her nipples had grown and they now looked embarrassingly blotchy and red, and she was swelling there, she really was, and she’d grown strands of hair in her private creases, and there was no one she could ask about it. Julia was too busy preparing for her baby; she couldn’t ask Tizzie or Mrs Crouch; there was no one else.

Except Miss Thwaite.

But Miss Thwaite would never do. She was the teacher at the village school. Milham school was tiny compared to the one in Brighton, and to Lucy the standard of education there seemed pitifully basic. She’d learn more if she stayed at Fairacre, she thought, and read books in the captain’s little library – where he must have nearly a hundred books, she thought, though half of them were about soldiers. On her first day at the village school she realised that she knew more than the local children, and Miss Thwaite had embarrassed her by saying so in front of the whole class! To be the new girl and brighter than the rest of them was a curse. Lucy had denied being bright, she had said it was all due to her special school in Brighton, though in reality her schooling there had seemed quite ordinary and, as she quickly found out, she shouldn’t have said the Brighton school was ‘special’ because that gave the others something else to rag her about. They teased her about Brighton and being posh, and they teased her about India, because she’d been foolish enough to mention in a geography lesson that she’d once lived there. “You’re Anglo-Indian. Yes, you are. You’ve got black hair.” They teased her because she didn’t know their playground games or the local names for local weeds.

She couldn’t ask those girls about things that mattered – although once or twice, when she overheard them whispering, she knew they were talking about the changes every girl went through, and they whispered because these things were secret; you couldn’t tell the boys, you couldn’t tell grown-ups, and you didn’t tell Lucy Richards.

*

Autumn was drifting towards winter. Lucy grew used to keeping to herself at school and opening out at Fairacre as if Fairacre was home. Which it wasn’t, Lucy thought. Julia wasn’t her mother, she was soon to be someone else’s mother, and Captain Hart was certainly not her father, pleasant as he usually was to her. Tizzie couldn’t in any way be her sister, and Mrs Crouch was, if not unfriendly, not friendly enough to stand in for an aunt. Tom Crouch, her husband, might in a different life have stood in for an uncle, had his position not been that of gardener and groom. He was seldom seen indoors. His skin was as tanned and leathery as many an Indian in Lucy’s memory, and she wondered whether, as October drew to a close, he might lose some of that tan to the winter weather. She wondered what Fairacre would be like in winter, surrounded by wet fields, cut off at times by snow.

Tom Crouch and his wife (Lucy didn’t know her first name and probably never would) lived beside the captain’s stables, which were large enough for six horses but accommodated only two, whose names were Korma and Vindaloo. The captain said Tom could teach Lucy to ride the milder, pale grey Korma. The first time Hart took her to the stables she imagined herself riding out beside him, their flying steeds racing across wild country, but it was not to be. She watched him swing his lean body onto the chestnut Vindaloo and, as he gave Tom instructions, she came close to stand beside them in the yard. Vindaloo looked by far the more magnificent horse; it seemed to exhale steam. When she put her hand on its side she was sure she felt its heartbeat. An inch or two from her hand lay the captain’s brown leather boot, so shiny she was tempted to stroke it, but instead she moved to the horse’s head and placed her hand there instead.

“Careful he doesn’t snap,” warned Captain Hart.

Vindaloo was watching her. Lucy’s face was inches from its huge eye. Hart had warned her that Vindaloo was fiery but, to Lucy, there was nothing to fear; the horse was safe and trustworthy. She placed her cheek against Vindaloo’s, and when the horse whinnied softly she felt it might be speaking to her.

“Try her on Korma,” said Captain Hart.

Lucy stepped back, and let the horse take Hart away.

Tom Crouch led Korma into the field behind the stables. “Ever been on one, miss?”

“Only donkeys on the beach.”

“More trouble than horses, them things. Now, with Mrs Hart being the way she is, she ain’t been riding for a while, so Korma’s only been pulling the trap and she’s likely forgot all about side-saddles, ’cos Korma forgets everything, so you’ll both have to make allowances.”

“What about Vindaloo?”

“Him’s the captain’s horse. Not fit for ladies. Now then, left foot in the stirrup there. Press down and – that’s it, miss, you’ve got yourself up first time. Well done.”

Lucy had swung her right leg around the higher pommel but when she tried to face forwards she felt a stain in her thigh muscles. “Hang on, miss, it’ll take a while to fit you right.”

Lucy had thought that once she was on the horse she would able to ride straight off across the field, but no: the next ten minutes (an hour, it felt to Lucy) were spent adjusting the complex saddle to fit. The two pommels were at different heights, the one for the right leg higher than the one for her left, and only one pommel was adjustable. Her left foot sat in a stirrup, while her right leg wrapped around the high pommel. “Keep your leg squeezed against it while you rest t’other leg down her shoulder. Press yourself against the second pommel. Got it? That ain’t too bad.” It may not have looked bad to Tom but it felt uncomfortable to her. He adjusted the kit again. Then a third time. Then a fourth. “See, this saddle’s a touch big for you, miss, but it’s better than being too small. Now straighten up and face the front like you’re out riding.”

She did, and it felt awkward. Lucy was not the first lady rider to wish she was a man.

*

Winter was coming. The skies were grey. The air at times was grey with mizzle but there was little wind today so the two mile walk home from the village school was not uncomfortable. For her first week there she had been accompanied to and fro by Mrs Crouch but she was used to this walk now, as used as she’d been to her old route home in Brighton. There, she’d had people and shops to look at, while here there were trees and hedgerows. Many of the trees had lost their leaves and in the high branches of ash and elms the tangled remains of rooks’ nests looked as if at any moment they’d come tumbling down. She paused at a stream on her homeward way and thought that day by day the water seemed to get deeper and a little faster.

Because her shoes were covered in mud Lucy went around the house as she usually did to the kitchen entrance, and she noticed as she went round that they had a visitor. Tom was giving a rub-down to a white pony attached to a little gig. “Best you stay in the kitchen, miss. The doctor’s here.”

The kitchen was hot with steam. There were two kettles on the range, and Tizzie was using a third to fill a pail. “Oh, miss, you sit down here at table. Have a cup of tea.” Tizzie grabbed her bucket and rushed into the hall. As Lucy tried to follow she met Mrs Crouch coming in. “What’s happening?”

Mrs Hart was having her baby. “Can I see?”

“No place for you interfering.” Mrs Crouch led her firmly to the table.

“Let me help with the hot water.”

“There’s enough up there to give us all a bath. That’s all yon Doctor Wicklow does, him, ask for water.”

“I can help.”

“Her room’s like a railway station already. Now, what’s that Tizzie thinking on? Should have put another kettle on when she emptied it.”

Captain Hart came in. “I thought I heard your voice. How was school?”

“How’s Mrs Hart?”

He looked harassed. “I don’t know, I think she’s well. Not a thing I know much about.” He sat for a moment then stood back up. “I assume the doctor knows something about it.”

“He’s a doctor.”

“Should have called a midwife.”

“Mrs Cass,” said Mrs Crouch. “She’s good.”

The captain reached across the table and took Lucy’s hand. “A man feels pretty useless at a time like this. Helpless.” He continued to hold her hand. “I’ve seen army doctors do terrible things. Always for the good, they say. I’ve seen farmers deliver calves and lambs – and they know what they’re doing. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t talk to you like this.” Hart stood up.

Mrs Crouch brushed past him with another bucket. “Doctor’s bound to want more water, so I’ll take it up before he asks. When Tizzie comes down tell her to keep a sharp eye on that range.”

She left. Hart circled the kitchen as if inspecting it for dirt. “I can’t stay trapped in here. I should be upstairs with them but – apparently…”

“Wouldn’t Julia prefer you to be with her?”

“Women’s business, that’s the thing. What d’you think? No, you’re too young.”

“In my opinion –”

“I can’t stay here, drumming my fingers.” He gazed through the window and then turned round. “I’ll go for a ride. Anywhere. Want to come?”

“You can’t do that!”

“Why not? What use are we here?” He stared at her.

“That’s a mad idea.”

“Mad ideas are sometimes best. I’m going.”

She watched him go to the door. “I’ll come too.”

She ran after him to the stable yard. It was almost evening. “You’ll need your side-saddle,” he said. “Where’s Crouch?”

“He was grooming the doctor’s pony. I expect he’s taken it round the front.”

They went inside the stables where both horses neighed expectantly. Hart grabbed his saddle and slung it across Vindaloo. “D’you know how to fix your side-saddle?”

“I’ve done it with Tom.”

Hart was bringing Vindaloo from his stall. “We’re too damned reliant on other people. Crouch, Wicklow – God!” They went out into the open air. There was something manic about him, she thought. He could do anything. “Take me with you,” she said.

“How?” He mounted the horse.

“Up there. With you.”

“Can’t be done,” he snapped. “Two people riding one horse lames it. Don’t you know that?”

“Not Vindaloo. He’s strong. I can sit behind you.”

“You’re not a child.”

“You’ve noticed!”

He glared down at her. “You’re practically a woman.” He jerked his knees but instead of going forward the big horse reared up and shrieked defiance. The captain almost lost his seating but wouldn’t be thrown. Vindaloo returned his front legs to the ground, and for a moment stamped his feet. By then the captain had his feet back in the stirrups and had regained control.

“What are you waiting for? Fix your saddle,” he said.

She was glad she’d made Tom Crouch show her, because not to know how to fix your own saddle was contemptible. But it took longer to fix a side-saddle than a conventional one, so she had to hurry. Korma waited patiently while she strapped it on. She just hoped the captain was waiting as patiently in the yard.

She found him mounted and staring moodily through the grey daylight at the house while his big horse continued to paw the ground. Seeing her mounted the captain grunted and started off to the gate. They left it open behind them, for no strangers came out here, and some way down the track the captain led them into a field. “Are you safe on Korma?” She nodded. “Then let’s go.”

For a minute or so they trotted side by side. The captain hardly spoke. He looked dark and brooding and he squinted at the damp grey horizon as if into an evening sun. His mind, Lucy decided, was elsewhere, with his wife and what she was suffering. But then he dug in his heels and let Vindaloo canter away. At this speed she could almost keep up with him but in the next field he set his horse at a gallop and she had to watch him disappear. He would circle the field, she thought, but he didn’t. He’d race ahead for a while, she thought, and come back.

But he didn’t.

Lucy rode on. This was the way he’d gone, so she had only to follow through the fields, passing from one to another through the gate, and she’d catch up with him. But it soon became apparent that the captain had forgotten all about her. He must be riding savagely, she decided, to free his mind of turbulence. (She’d read that phrase.) It would be ridiculous for her to meander on, field after field, with no idea where he’d gone, so she turned for home. She had only to do as she had done on the ride out and pass from one field into the next and she’d retrace her steps. Besides, Korma would know the way.

Nevertheless, the field she was in now looked unfamiliar. She had learnt in Brighton that if you set out on an unfamiliar route you ought to turn round occasionally to see how your route will look from the other direction when you return. Coming through the fields she hadn’t done that. She had just gone on.

Where was she?

She stopped to listen for the captain’s horse but she heard nothing; even the birds had stilled. The light was fading fast. She found a gate, went through, and found that the next field was unfamiliar too. She went back into the previous field. Don’t be silly, she thought, just be practical. Keep your head. Retrace your steps. But which steps – those in the direction she had originally been travelling, or the steps she had thought just now were the ones to lead her home? She took Korma through another gate. Over there was the gate into the next field – but over there was another gate. Where did that one go?

That must be where she’d gone wrong. Korma was such a placid beast she showed no resistance when Lucy turned her and took her through the gate, and she waited patiently when Lucy pulled her up in the middle to take a good look around. By now the light was most unhelpful. Everything looked dark grey. Every hedgerow looked the same. Lucy wheeled Korma slowly round and went back through the first gate. The only thing was to plough doggedly on. The fields must lead somewhere.

She stopped again. She took a breath and called, “Hello?”

A bird croaked. Nothing more. Lucy called again. She peered through the evening gloom. In one direction – she didn’t know whether it was north, south, east or west – she made out a rise in the ground, a small hill, so she headed for that. She’d climb the hill. The fields now were most infuriating; every gate seemed to lead her away from the hillock and she had to ride three times as far as she needed to get near it. She began to wonder whether reaching it was a good idea. She had thought that from the top she would have a clear view around and might be able to see Captain Hart, or Fairacre, or at least some kind of pathway. But the evening gloom was turning into night.

Eventually she and Korma reached the hill. Here at least the fields gave out and she was on open ground. At almost a canter she took the horse up the slope to the top where, as if recognising their mutual triumph, the horse gave a loud neigh of satisfaction.

Fields were faint in the mist of mizzle.

Lucy called again: “Hello?”

Nothing. She dismounted. The horse pawed the ground, then dipped her head and began to chew damp grass. Lucy tried “Hello” again.

From somewhere – it must be Milham – she heard a church bell. Five o’clock, or was it six? If the weather had been better she might have seen the moon, and she could have ridden home in moonlight. That would have been fun. Up here wasn’t fun; up here was miserable.

Korma was wandering off for better grass. Lucy ran to grab the reins. How stupid, she thought, she could have been stranded without a horse. To be lost was one thing but to be lost without a horse – through her own stupidity – would be unforgivable. She hated stupidity. I peer down into misty vales, she thought – that must be from a book, but which one? Where am I? She waited. As she stroked Korma’s cheek the horse twitched and neighed – defiantly, she thought. The horse neighed again, more loudly. It moved forward, pulling at Lucy’s rein. Lucy held tight. Had Korma seen something? She couldn’t have seen anything through this evening gloom.

Lucy peered down from the hill, but perhaps she would see better from Korma’s back. Remounting a nervous horse without the aid of a block or a helping hand was harder than she’d thought – it’s easier for a man, she thought, he has merely to swing his leg across the horse’s back rather than twist it around this unyielding pommel. But she was on. She stared downhill.

In the barely remaining light the fields were indistinguishable from each other. Korma neighed. Lucy strained to hear an answer. Wasn’t that –?

Something.

Korma neighed – to be answered by an echo, another neigh but quieter. Korma replied.

Lucy strained to hear the sound of galloping hooves. It would be wonderful, she thought, to hear the galloping hooves of her rescuer, to hear the captain call her name. But no one did. She could hear hooves, she thought, faintly. Then, out of the mist below her, emerged Captain Hart on Vindaloo.


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