Authors: Charles Todd
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
A Bitter Truth
who won’t be there this time.
And for Moses,
With hugs and much love, as always.
And for Jean, reader, cook, proofreader, friend,
who always does things differently.
London, December 1917
cold rain had followed me from France to England, and an even colder wind greeted me as we pulled into the railway station in London. As I handed in my ticket, I looked for my father, who was usually here to meet me. Or if he couldn’t come, he generally sent Simon Brandon in his place.
But there were no familiar faces among the crowd, and after waiting nearly fifteen minutes, I decided that my telegram from Dover must have been delayed. Of course military traffic was always given priority, but the telegraph office had assured me that they would do their best. There was nothing for it but to find a cab for myself.
Outside Victoria Station, a family with small children was just bespeaking the last one. Well, then, it would have to be an omnibus. As I walked on to the nearest stop, the wind whipped along the street after me, plucking at my skirts, prodding my back. One going in my direction was already approaching, for which I was grateful, and as we rumbled through the darkness toward my destination, I took stock of the city I hadn’t seen for several months.
Even at this hour it was quiet, the streets empty except for a few brave souls going about their business with heads down and coats wrapped tightly against the probing fingers of the wind. Shops were already closing, and everywhere curtains were drawn to keep out the night. In front of a pub we were passing, a few men stood talking for a moment, hands deep in pockets, and even as I watched, they said their farewells and hurried their separate ways toward home. A boy raced up the steps of a church and disappeared through the heavy door, a shaft of light briefly illuminating his worried face. The sound of voices just reached me, a boys’ choir, and at a guess, he had nearly missed rehearsal.
We were only three stops from where I usually got down when the omnibus came to a lurching halt.
Just ahead of us, I could see torches flashing this way and that in the street, and someone was shouting at us.
My first thought was that we had struck someone.
I got to my feet, ready to offer whatever aid was needed, just as a middle-aged constable hurried up to the omnibus and spoke to the driver. We couldn’t hear what was said, but soon enough the constable had opened the omnibus door and stepped inside. He frowned when he saw me standing there.
“Is anyone hurt?” I asked quickly.
“No, Sister,” he said harshly. “Resume your seat.”
I did as I was told, and he scanned each of us with a thoroughness that indicated he was intent on finding someone. Finally, apparently satisfied, he was gone, mercifully closing the door behind him and shutting out the wind. But I heard his boots climbing the rear stairs to the upper deck, where no one had had the courage to sit, then pelt down again after several seconds. He and the driver exchanged a few more words, and I saw the driver reluctantly nod. And then the constable was hurrying away, caught for a brief moment in the glare of our headlamps.
A man just behind where I was sitting demanded fretfully, “What’s happened? Why did we stop?”
Outside, the driver got down from behind the wheel and opened the door once more, poking his head inside, his face barely visible above a thick blue muffler. “Deserter,” he informed us. “We won’t be allowed to move on until this street has been cleared. The police have reason to believe he’s hiding hereabouts. Or being hidden.”
Everyone began asking questions at the same time, but the driver simply shook his head and closed the door. I was looking out the window, clearing the glass with one gloved hand, watching the play of torches against the windows and doors of the houses on my side as the police went on with their search. And then out of the corner of my eye, I saw a figure in black slip down a service passage, disappearing into the deeper shadows cast by the houses on either side. There would be a stout wooden gate at the end leading into a back garden, and with luck, another at the bottom of that, giving onto another garden and another passage to the street beyond. Either a trap—or an escape.
It had happened so fast, I couldn’t judge whether it was a man or a woman. Or if I had imagined it altogether. The deserter? Or someone else nearly caught up in the tightening net?
A constable must have seen the figure as well, because he blew his whistle and ran forward. But when he turned his torch into the blackness, it showed only the closed gate. After a moment, he walked halfway to the end of the passage before coming back.
I sat there, trying to come to terms with my duty. As an officer’s daughter I understood the need for discipline and order in the Army. To walk away and leave one’s fellow soldiers to their fate was, in my view, dishonorable. And yet I’d seen the horror of war, the suffering and the awful cost of doing one’s duty. For some men that was insupportable.
There were other reasons too. For all I knew, the hunted man had risked everything to come home to a wife who was desperately ill or to see a newborn child. Even to sit by his mother’s deathbed. The Army was not always generous with compassionate leaves, refusing to allow a man torn between love and duty the few days he so badly wanted to comfort those who needed him at home. I’d seen men in despair driven to shooting themselves in the hand or foot in a bid for leave.
Who was I to decide the fate of this man? The constable had already looked closely at the passage, hadn’t he? And decided that it was empty?
But this deserter would eventually be found. And shot. The Army was relentless in its determination. It was just a matter of time.
And so I sat there, unable to bring myself to step off the omnibus and speak up. Instead I listened as the hue and cry swirled up one side of the street and then down the other. The shouts of constables, their whistles shrill in the night, were loud at first, then fading as the hunt turned back the way we’d just come.
It was late when the same constable, out of breath now, came to inform the driver that we could go on our way. The driver must have asked the question on all our minds, for I saw the policeman shake his head. And then we were moving, lumbering through the darkness as we continued on our route.
The man behind me said, “I don’t envy those constables. It’s not a fit night for man nor beast to be out there.”
And a woman behind him asked anxiously, “Will he be given a fair trial, when he’s caught? The deserter?”
“He’ll be found guilty, right enough,” an elderly laborer answered her. “It’s not the Army’s way to be lenient. Mark my words.”
And from the last seat, a soldier in the uniform of the discharged wounded said quietly, “God help him.”
I could see my corner coming up now, and I dreaded getting down. Even in my boots, my feet were icy cold from the long wait, and my gloved fingers as well, although I’d tried to keep them tucked under my arms.
Stepping down in the lee of the omnibus, I had a moment to catch my breath before it moved on and the full brunt of the wind struck me with such force that I nearly stumbled.
Narrowing my eyes against the bite of it, I walked on briskly, listening to the far-off sounds of police whistles. Ahead was Mrs. Hennessey’s house, where friends—also nursing sisters—and I had taken a flat. As I drew nearer, I saw that there were no lights shining from the windows of the ground floor, and I remembered that this must be Mrs. Hennessey’s night for dinner and a cozy gossip with an old friend. Above, on the second storey, the windows of our sitting room were also dark. Tired as I was from two days of traveling, I was just as glad that no one else was in London. I could leave the gifts I’d found for each flatmate with Mrs. Hennessey. She would enjoy playing Father Christmas when next she saw them.
Busy with my own thoughts, I didn’t at first notice the dark figure huddled in the shallow outer doorway, pressed so tightly into that pitiful bit of shelter that only a vague outline was distinguishable in the shadows cast by the streetlamp. When I did, my first thought was that the deserter was hiding here. Would he force his way into the empty house when I reached Mrs. Hennessey’s door?
And in the same instant, I realized that it wasn’t a man, it was a woman.
But what was she doing there? Did she have anything to do with the deserter?
As I slowed, she stirred, murmured, “Sorry!” and moved into the street away from me.
Two things registered as she spoke. Her voice was thick with tears, and she was shivering, as if she’d been out in this wind for a very long time.
I remembered what the man on the omnibus had said, that this was a night not fit for man nor beast.
“No, wait—” I said, putting out a hand to stop her. But she shrugged it off, keeping her face turned away as she made to slip off into the night. It was close on ten o’clock now, and the empty streets were no place for a woman to be walking aimlessly at this hour.
My gloved fingers reached for her sleeve, missed, and then caught in the belt of her coat. “Come inside and warm yourself for a quarter of an hour.” I added quickly, “It will do no harm.”
I could see that she was tempted—but she was also desperate to get away, on the point of pulling free when a gust of wind, stronger than before, buffeted both of us. I realized that her coat—unlike mine, which was meant to keep me warm—was well cut and fashionably thin, not designed for walking on a night like this one. It was intended for stepping out of a cab to enter a restaurant or theater. I wondered, fleetingly, if it was hers or if she had been given it by a mistress or found it in a charity shop. It was even possible that she’d been sacked, with nowhere to stay.
“Thank you, I’ll be all right,” she said, still keeping her face in the shadows. “Let me go.
I hadn’t been wrong about the tears. And to my surprise her voice matched the coat, well bred and well educated. I had no choice but to release her belt.
“No, you won’t be all right,” I told her bluntly, before she could hurry away. “You’ll make yourself ill. Pneumonia. Pleurisy. I’m a nursing sister, I’ve just returned from France. I know what I’m talking about.” I hesitated. “I won’t ask questions. Or try to stop you when you wish to leave. Warm yourself, have a cup of tea. There’s no one else about. I promise you.”
I had the outer door open now, and there was a lamp burning on the small table under the stairs. It must have seemed a haven in this weather. She hesitated an instant too long, and I touched her sleeve again, urging her inside. I myself was shivering with the cold now, and I knew she must be chilled to the bone. Even for a London December, it was unbearably wretched.
With an anxious glance over her shoulder, she preceded me through the door, then stood there in the small entry as if she couldn’t think what else to do.
“I live up the stairs. This way,” I went on, not looking at her as I started to climb. “There’s no one here but me. My flatmates are all in France.” I prayed it was true as I heard her follow reluctantly in my wake. After all, I realized, no lamplight could mean that someone was there but already asleep.
“Only for a few minutes,” she said as we reached the landing. “I’d be grateful for that tea.” Her voice was still husky with tears, but cultured, polite.
We reached the door of the flat, and I took out my key, unlocking it and fumbling for the lamp just inside. As a rule I could light it in the dark or even with my eyes closed, I’d done it so often, but now my fingers were stiff with cold. Finally brightness bloomed, illuminating the flat, picking out the small area we called our kitchen, our sitting room, and the closed doors to our five bedrooms.
I breathed a sigh of relief. There was no luggage piled in a corner or coats thrown over the tall walnut clothes tree. We were alone.
“Here,” I said, pulling out a chair for her. “Let me take off my coat and in a moment I’ll have that tea for us. I can tell you, I long for a cup myself.”
I’d made a point not to look her in the face, knowing she’d be embarrassed for anyone to see she’d been crying. But now as I came back from my own bedroom and caught her staring around the flat, I could see the mark across her cheek, the swollen eye rimmed with black, and the deep bruising.
Someone had struck her, hard and fairly recently because the redness was only just giving way to a darker blue. I immediately looked away. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been attacked on the street—or in her own home. Was this why the deserter had come to England? To catch his wife in an infidelity? He wouldn’t be the first—nor the last—to suspect that all was not right in his marriage. She
married. I’d seen the handsome rings on her left hand when she pulled off her gloves.
I didn’t hold with men who struck women. I’d never seen my father raise his hand to my mother, and I regarded men who did as despicable.
She hastily put up her hand to hide that side of her face, turning as if she intended to rush out the door and down the stairs before I could ask questions. I had glimpsed the stark alarm in her eyes when she saw me looking.
“I told you I wouldn’t pry,” I said quickly. “But I’m not blind. Let me put the kettle on, and I’ll give you a cool cloth to help bring down the swelling.”
She was a very attractive woman, and I put her age down as midtwenties, perhaps twenty-five or twenty-six. Certainly no more than that. And I’d been right, her clothes were stylishly cut, and of good cloth, although from before the war. But then very little was available in the shops these days. I made the tea, ignoring her while I worked, and then while it steeped, I went to find a cloth for her face and wring it out in cold water. She took it gratefully and held it as a shield. When the tea was ready, I set a cup down before her with the bowl of honey. “I’m sorry, there’s no milk. One of my flatmates must have used the last tin.”