Authors: Lily Baxter
A compelling wartime novel of love, loss and rememberance from the bestselling author of
The Shopkeeper's Daughter
With the approach of war about to bring tragedy and heartache to families all over England, Elsie longs to do her duty for King and country.
She heads to London to act as an interpreter for thousands of Belgium refugees. But although she enjoys her work, she longs to do more. And when the opportunity arises she joins the foreign office, travelling to France as an undercover agent.
When circumstances force her to return home, she joins the FANYs. And on the battlefields of Europe, she must find the courage to help save lives, each day hoping that one day she'll be reunited with the man she loves.
Lily Baxter lives in Dorset. She is the author of
Poppy's War, We'll Meet Again
The Girls in Blue
The Shopkeeper's Daughter
. She also writes under the name of Dilly Court.
We'll Meet Again
The Girls in Blue
The Shopkeeper's Daughter
Writing as Dilly Court
The Dollmaker's Daughters
The Best of Sisters
The Cockney Sparrow
A Mother's Courage
The Constant Heart
A Mother's Promise
The Cockney Angel
A Mother's Wish
The Ragged Heiress
A Mother's Secret
A Mother's Trust
The Lady's Maid
The Best of Daughters
The Workhouse Girl
A Loving Family
The Beggar Maid
For Ann and Bill Spivey
THE SOUND OF
marching feet had brought the whole village out onto the main street to see the newly formed Pals battalion go off to war. Elsie Mead had been on her way home to Tan Cottage, having just left Colonel Mason's house on the edge of the village where she had been dressing Mrs Mason's hair. Cora Mason was many years younger than her husband and considered herself to be a leader of fashion, even though she had to make do with the minimum of servants to manage her household. Without the benefit of a personal maid she often called upon Elsie to put her hair up in the elaborate Pompadour style, made famous by the Gibson Girls at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, and Elsie had not the heart to tell Cora that this was no longer the height of fashion. Today of all days Cora said she wanted to stand at the colonel's side and make him proud, and Elsie had done her best to execute the complicated coiffure while listening politely to Cora's incessant chatter. She had answered in monosyllables and nods of her head where appropriate, but her thoughts were with the young men who were leaving home to fight for their country. She had known all of them since they attended the village school together, and now they were going off to face the horrors of war.
She stopped to wave to the Dodd brothers, Luke, Frank and Jim, whose father was a fisherman and would now have to find another crew. Mickey Fowler winked at her and tipped his cap and his brother Joe blew her a kiss. She could not help thinking that the game birds on the Winter family's estate would be safer in the absence of the Fowler boys. They were a wild pair, but they were not bad at heart. She had danced with both of them at the last harvest supper, but this year the celebrations would be shadowed by worry and even loss. It did not bear thinking about. It was a ragtag band that set off on the great adventure and their young faces glowed with excitement. She made an effort to send them away with a cheerful smile, but she had a feeling of foreboding as she made her way home, stopping first at the doctor's surgery to collect a bottle of laudanum for her sick mother.
It was a hot day and the sun beat down on her bare head as she walked along the lane between hedgerows heavy with dusty green foliage and busy with the wildlife that lived and foraged in the knotted roots and branches. Hedge sparrows popped up like tiny automatons and disappeared just as quickly. Field mice rustled the leaves and hedgehogs curled up amongst the dead leaves and slept until dusk when they came out to look for food. It was all so familiar, and yet the cloudless sky and summer sun were overshadowed by world events that had reached out to touch a sleepy English village.
Elsie stopped and looked round as someone called her name.
âElsie, wait.' Phyllis Piper, one of the housemaids who worked at Darcy Hall, came running towards her. âWait a minute,' she said breathlessly. âI've been sent to see if your ma is well enough to return to work. We're short-handed because two of the housemaids have left to find jobs in the town, and some of the other girls are threatening to do the same. There are plenty of jobs vacant with so many men enlisting, and they're taking on women.'
âMa is confined to bed, Phyllis. I don't know when she'll be well enough to work again.'
âMrs Tranter will skin me alive if I go back without someone to give us a hand. Miss Marianne is arriving today and there's a big dinner party planned for tomorrow. We're going to need all the help we can get.'
Elsie eyed her thoughtfully. âI suppose I could help out for a couple of days. I've applied for several jobs as a lady's maid but most of them want someone to live in, and I can't leave Ma while she's so ill.'
Phyllis took off her straw hat and fanned herself vigorously. âYou was unlucky that old Mrs Tonbridge popped off so sudden. I've heard that Rose Hill is up for sale.'
âI'd been with the old lady since I left school. I did everything for her and she was good to me. Positions like that don't come up very often.'
âIt won't be the sort of work you're used to, Elsie, but if you don't mind doing the cleaning it will be a big help.' Phyllis moved a little closer, glancing over her shoulder as if expecting to find eavesdroppers lurking behind the hedge. âThey say in the kitchen that Miss Marianne's aunt wants to see her married off as soon as possible and out of the way.'
Elsie was in a hurry to get home but she could not resist a bit of gossip that might cheer her mother up. âSurely it's up to Miss Marianne's parents to look to her future.'
âAh, yes, but they're still in India and will be for some time. Miss Marianne's twenty-first birthday is tomorrow.'
âAnd they're planning a party for her. That's as it should be, Phyllis.'
âIt's more than that, Elsie. Miss Marianne will come into her majority tomorrow, and she won't need her aunt and uncle to look after her. Not that she ever paid much attention to anything they said, but now she's coming home from that posh finishing school in Switzerland we're expecting fireworks.' Phyllis grabbed Elsie's arm, her eyes brimming with excitement. âWe think she might tell Mr and Mrs Winter to pack up and leave. They won't like that because they've got used to treating Darcy Hall as if it was theirs, and we all know that they're as poor as church mice.'
Elsie threw back her head and laughed. âYou're a terrible gossip, Phyllis.'
Offended, Phyllis shrugged her shoulders. âIt's God's honest truth. But what shall I tell Mrs Tranter?'
âI should be looking for war work, but I suppose another few days at home won't hurt, and I don't really want to go away while Ma's sick.'
âDoes that mean you'll help out? I'm desperate, Elsie, or I wouldn't ask.'
âI need the money, so I'll do it.'
Phyllis slapped her on the back. âThank God for that. I'll go back and give Mrs Tranter the good news. Can you come this afternoon?'
âThat's the spirit.' Phyllis rammed her hat on her head and hurried off in the direction of Darcy Hall, leaving Elsie to go on her way.
The small bedroom in Tan Cottage was shrouded in darkness and stuffy with the sickly sweet smell of chronic illness. Flies trapped behind closed curtains buzzed and battered the windowpanes in their attempts to escape into the sunlight, and the bedsprings creaked with the invalid's smallest movement.
Monique Mead lay propped up on pillows, her face as white as the cotton sheet that was drawn up to her neck. Dark smudges underlined her eyes and her thin hand plucked at the counterpane as she controlled her breathing with difficulty, but she managed a smile for her daughter. âDid it go well?'
âMrs Mason was satisfied with the result, Ma. More important, how are you?' Elsie perched on the edge of the bed. âAre you hungry?'
Monique shook her head. âNot really, but I am thirsty.' She began to cough and reached for a hanky. Elsie's heart sank when she saw the telltale flecks of blood. âI'll get you some fresh water and you must take your medicine. I asked Dr Hancock to call.'
Monique shook her head, lapsing into her native French as she did when overcome with emotion. âNon, chÃ©rie. Non.' She drew a faltering breath. âWe can't afford it.'
Elsie laid her hand on her mother's brow, and felt the heat of fever. âYes, we can. I've got some work at Darcy Hall, and Mrs Mason gave me a tip. She likes to be generous with her husband's money.' She stood up. âDon't worry, Ma. Everything will be all right, you'll see.' She spoke with more conviction than she was feeling. Her mother's condition had deteriorated and Dr Hancock was not optimistic. âYour mother ought to be admitted to a sanatorium,' he had said on his last visit. But of course that was out of the question. There was no money for private treatment and the public wards were overcrowded. Monique had a morbid fear of hospitals and with good reason, having watched her husband's slow and painful death. Elsie's father had served under Colonel James Winter in the Boer War, and had been invalided home but had succumbed to his wounds in a military hospital. Memories of sitting at his bedside were still fresh in Elsie's mind even though she had only been eight years old when he died, and her mother murmured his name during recurrent bouts of fever. Elsie was painfully aware that the disease of the lungs was slowly consuming her mother's frail body, but she tried to push such thoughts to the back of her mind as she hurried outside to the communal pump and drew a bucket of water.
Elsie was in the scullery at Darcy Hall washing the dishes after luncheon had been served above stairs when bells started jangling and a buzz of excitement was followed by the sound of pattering feet. Phyllis poked her head round the door. âCome on. We've got to go outside and welcome Miss Marianne home.'
Elsie dried her hands on a tea towel and followed the rest of the servants outside into the stable yard. They scurried across the cobbles, chattering excitedly as they made their way to the front of the Jacobean manor house where they stood in line waiting for the motor car to come to a halt.