Fates and Furies
The Honour of Graymere

Chapter 1

BRIAN STORR STARED AT THE TYPED MESSAGE of the telegram in his hands, the paper smudged with the dirt that seemed to ooze from his pores in this filthy place.  Private Pettigrew waited patiently for the written response he expected the officer to scribble.  The lad jerked with the cough he tried to suppress, and the new Earl of Dalton looked up to the mud-covered soldier.  His black eyes welled with sadness for the loss of his elder brother, concern for the young man before him, and dread of the responsibility that had been suddenly and unexpectedly thrust upon him:  He was now sole heir to the titles and estates of his father, the Duke of Norfell.

Quelling the incipient tears and schooling his countenance, he crumpled the message and stuffed it into the pocket of his coat as he stood.  With a curt nod, he ordered gruffly, “Back to your station, Private.  There will be no reply.”

“Yessir,” the runner answered, snapping a salute before he turned and hastened back to Battalion Headquarters.  The officer watched as the lad wove along the narrow, plank-walled Support Trench, through the press of infantrymen cleaning socks or writing letters or drinking what passed for tea these days.  The private disappeared beyond a perpendicular jog in the wall (the trenches at the Front being dug in a Greek-key shape to minimize enfilade fire should the enemy breach the defences), and Storr sank onto the little three-legged stool in the tiny four-foot by six-foot office-cum-sleeping quarters afforded him in the field.

Lord Dalton reached under his khaki-green jacket and light-brown shirt to touch the golden band hanging from a chain about his neck.  At the train station, as Brian was  about to depart for the coast and a ship to Flanders, Harry had taken the ring that had long signified the office and title of the ancient earldom from his finger and held it out to his younger brother.  “For luck,” he had said.  “I know you’ll bring it back to me safely.”

At the memory, Brian whirled and smashed his fists upon the nearest boards that shored the sides of the small bunker that had been carved into the trench, the bunker that promised a measure of safety from the shells and the gas, the rain and the cold, but delivered none.  Harry had been safe in England!  He should have lived a long and happy life with his new bride while Brian risked his neck fighting the Huns!  He should have inherited the dukedom!  Instead, he and his lovely new wife had died in a stupid automobile accident!

Brian wished he knew the details the brief message had not conveyed.  He wished he could go home to give whatever comfort he might to his grieving father and mother and sisters.  Damn it, he wished his brother were still alive!

“Sir?”

At the hesitant concern in his non-com’s voice, he glanced up to the balding, middle-aged sergeant and muttered, “Bad news from home.”

“Sorry to hear that, sir,” Sergeant Duff responded quietly.  “Shall I fetch us some tea?”

Brian snorted a chuckle and waved his assent.  Duff seemed to think that a cup of hot Darjeeling could cure everything from the common cold to a heavy barrage.

The older man pivoted as though he were on a parade square and stalked off to slip down the nearby intersecting traverse and continue on to the shallow dugout where a campfire often burned to heat water for the company’s needs.  The day before, a new supply of hard tack had made it through from the coast, and the biscuits’ clean, smokeless fire would now brew a fresh pot for the commander as well as the wash water his men so desperately needed after a week in the Fire Trench.

Duff was immediately replaced at the opening of the poky, plank-ceilinged shelter by Hayes, the grizzled valet who had served Brian Storr most of the younger man’s life.  (After being ordered to stay home, the old codger had defied both Brian and the duke to enlist.  Then, one of Hayes’s relatives in the War Office had discreetly arranged to falsify the elder’s papers, smudging his birth date beyond legibility, and to see him assigned to Brian’s company as the officer’s batman.  Thus, the man continued his mothering and his duties as valet and, despite Brian’s protests and direct orders, shining his charge’s boots and cleaning his uniforms as best one could in this hell of muck and mud.)

Handing over a pile of handkerchiefs stained to grey where they were not streaked with blood, Hayes apologized, “I couldn’t get them any cleaner, Captain.”

Taking the damp cloths folded to fit a pouch, Brian smiled sadly and replied, “It doesn’t matter, Hayes.  I’m lucky to have them.”

Quick to recognize something amiss, the valet inquired, “Is something wrong, Captain?”

Brian Storr glanced to his old servant and down to his mud-caked black riding boots and back again.  At last, on a long sigh, he disclosed, “Harry is dead.”

“Oh, dear God!” Hayes gasped, his eyes wide with shock.  He gaped an extended moment, then swallowed, then bowed his head and whispered, “I’m so sorry, My Lord.”

Tears washing his eyes, the young earl demanded in a voice rough with emotion, “It’s Captain, here, Hayes.  There are no lords in the trenches.”

Holding his master’s gaze, the aging servant whispered, “No, I don’t suppose there are any here but the dead and the soon-to-be-dead.”

Just then, the distinctive grumble and whine of a Fokker monoplane signalled an enemy air attack.

MARTA MACKINTOSH ducked under the rope from which boiled sheets hung to dry in the ancient shed on the lee side of the abandoned stone farmhouse that served as a Casualty Clearing Station where injured men were patched up and either sent back to their units or, when fit to travel, to a General Hospital located on a rail line by which the most seriously wounded could be transported to a harbour and on to Britain by hospital ship.  As the pale sun sank toward the western horizon in a sickly sky, she raced back and forth along the closely spaced lines of laundry, testing the cotton and linen and snatching any bedding dry enough to be stretched over cots.  There had been another enemy push along the Front, and the casualties were streaming into the Regimental Aid Posts and Dressing Stations.  They would soon come here.

“The war to end all wars,” she muttered to herself with a grim and sardonic snort.  “Ending them by ensuring there’s no one left to fight, seems to me.”

Too many had died, and more came daily to bleed their last and breathe their last, if they had not already done so at the Front or in one of the Aid Stations before they could be brought to the Clearing Station.  And for what? she wondered.

Like everyone else, she had been caught up in the patriotic fervour of the early days:  waving little Union Jack flags and cheering the men and boys who marched off to fight The Hun.  And she had marched off, too, after her widowed mother expired in the asylum for indigents suffering from tuberculosis.  At the memory of her poor mother wasting away in that cramped and dingy place, and of her own inability to care for her at home or to raise enough funds to move her to more salubrious surroundings, she shuddered with a mix of sadness, anger, and shame.

She grabbed up the last of the sheets that had dried sufficiently and clasped the bundle to her chest as she ran through rain to get back inside the makeshift medical centre.

Spreading a square of linen over an empty pallet, she recalled that the army had not been glad to accept the women who had offered their services in Britain’s hospitals, much less those brave enough to cross the Channel.  Indeed, many of the members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment—at least those not funded by an organization like the Scottish Women’s Hospitals and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry—had had to pay their own way, and V.A.D. nurses and doctors began to receive a meagre salary of £20 per year only recently.  Nonetheless, she had followed the example of her friend, Heloise, and volunteered for duty on the Continent, patching up “our boys” that they might live to fight another day.

They had all thought to save the world.  She snorted again.  Save the world from what?  From a pack of foreigners who were little different from themselves?

No.  She had seen the wretched wrecks with their twisted bodies and their twisted minds, some wearing one uniform and a few wearing another.  All had looked the same:  hollow eyes in gaunt faces; mangled limbs, where limbs remained at all; bodies burnt by fire; or lungs and skin burnt by fiendish chemical agents that drifted on the wind—and sometimes drifted back toward those who had released them.

How many terrified young men who had not suffered a Blighty (a wound serious enough to end their usefulness to the military) had been forced again and again to return to the Front to face the shells and the gas and the bombs and the hail of bullets from rifles and machineguns?  The generals seemed to know no tactic but to throw bodies at the enemy in hope the Germans would run out of weapons and men.  Idiots!  Even she, a mere woman, knew that was insane folly!

But she did not dare to speak such thoughts aloud, for there were many who still clung to the notion that their leaders knew best and that to accept any outcome to the war but utter defeat of the Kaiser was “unthinkable.”  Indeed, she reflected grimly, too many people simply did not think at all, but only listened to the rhetoric of politicians and news editors who ranted from the safety and comfort of their ivory towers and of generals “directing” the war from luxurious hotels and chateaux far from the bullets and shells.

As the war dragged on, she had come to believe that someone must be profiting from all this carnage.  Certainly, weapons manufacturers on both sides must be making a fortune, for there seemed no end to the “modern innovations” being added to the arsenals loosed against the hapless soldiers.  Papa had always said that politicians’ policies could be bought by anyone with a large enough purse.  And weapons dealers and bankers had very big purses.

Straightening to fetch another sheet from the pile, she sighed as she remembered her father that last time he left.  He, too, had been a soldier off to war.  Another war in another time and place, and one that so many, including Papa, had failed to survive.

The snap of the sheet as she whipped it out startled a lad in a cot across the corridor, and she forced an apologetic smile as she dropped the cloth into place and hastened to his side.

“I’m sorry, Private,” she said softly.  “I was lost in thought and forgot that you might be sleeping.”

He hadn’t been, and she knew it, but she would not embarrass the boy for his reaction, for she had seen many a man and woman jump at the least noise, so sharp was the veterans’ sensitivity to sounds even vaguely similar to those at the Front.  Fear filled their eyes and they quailed at what they interpreted as the report of a rifle firing or the cough of a shell launching from a distant cannon.  And all the patients became restless when the sounds of war reached the station to remind them how close they were to the battle lines.

Many civilians and even some officers—staff officers, of course, not line officers—scoffed at the tense and fearful responses of those who had seen this war up close.  But Marta did not.  Indeed, the war invaded her own dreams, for nightly raids by German planes endangered the station and the pound of thousands of explosions during week-long pre-assault bombardments reached toward her bunk.  Unlike newcomers fresh from home, she was not so foolish as to believe she was safe, here, for the fluidity of the battle zones and the power of the newest weapons threatened even those far behind the lines.  And her station was but a few miles from the Front, established only days ago after the previous location had been targeted by enemy artillery.

The squeal and bang of the outer door announced the arrival of the first of the new casualties.  Marta gave the young private a perfunctory pat on his hand and dashed back to finish her task of preparing beds for the incoming wounded.

THE AEROPLANE’S APPROACH, followed by a series of distant whomps in quick succession, set the men to frantic activity:  tossing aside mugs of tea, stuffing letters and pencils into pockets, abandoning their mending or laundering of socks to shove their feet into battered and muddy boots the laces of which had been gnawed by rats, or rousing from a fitful doze to gather up rifles and ammunition, don helmets and masks, and press their bodies against the side of the snaking trench.  Brian Storr grabbed his Lee-Enfield rifle, ducked under the lintel as he stepped out of the little bunker, and darted to a spot along the wall to stand with his men as they waited for the incoming bombs and shells.  With a hasty check of his ammunition, he aimed skyward.

Thomas Hayes quietly took up a position next to His Lordship and handed him the dark, rounded, matte-khaki Brodie helmet that had finally arrived in time for the Somme campaign, last summer, to replace the shallow, reflective, sharp-rimmed steel version issued when the old pith helmets proved useless in modern warfare.  His captain scooped the cover onto his head in time to take aim at the monoplane, swivelling to lead it before he fired.  The blast of the bomb that ripped the northern section of the Fire Trench overwhelmed the cough of the plane’s engine, but a trail of smoke along its path evinced the officer’s successful shot.

The valet had long since stopped pestering his young man to stay inside the bunker, for Brian had always been too brave for his own good and had always taken the responsibilities of his class and, now, of his rank in both the military and in the peerage as seriously as had his illustrious ancestors.  Moreover, Hayes had come to recognize what the aristocrat had seen from the start:  that the two-inch planks and few feet of earth that covered the small indentation in the earthworks and the sandbags above the walls would not protect him from a direct hit by a shell or from near-miss fragments flying in all directions.

As they stood with racing hearts, both Hayes and Storr silently prayed, like the rest of the men in the British line, that the artillery rounds coming their way were ordinary explosives rather than chemical-laden projectiles.  Better to be instantly ripped apart by an explosion than to suffer the lingering torture of caustic gas.  The newer cloth masks with their goggles and their filter canister protected the eyes and lungs for a time, but some of the enemy’s damned creeping clouds burnt exposed skin and even penetrated uniforms.

Out of the blue, as shells rained around him, Brian Storr’s mind flew back to the morning’s missive.  A horrifying thought struck him:  If he died today without a son, who would inherit his title and become heir to the dukedom of Norfell and to its seat, Graymere?

MARTA HEAVED A SIGH as she subsided onto the bench by the door and leaned back against the stone wall, too tired to care that she sat in a pool of blood left from one of the patients whose injuries had been deemed not life-threatening and who had been asked to sit among other “walking wounded” to wait for attention.  The lad, not twenty she was sure, had sat here for nigh on two hours.  Meanwhile, none of the frantically flying nurses or doctors or orderlies or stretcher-bearers had spotted his growing pallor or the red spill seeping from the dark patch on his drab-coloured serge uniform onto the bench, there to drip from the dusky wood and splash onto the grey stone floor of the entry that bore only one window.  Passing by on her way to fetch more bandages from the stores, she had caught him as he slumped and collapsed.  But it had been too late by far to save the young recruit wearing the brown leather belts that had not yet been replaced by khaki canvas webbing to secure his canvas packs and haversacks full of personal equipment.  She guessed he had arrived only weeks or perhaps days before he met his end.  Through the fog of fatigue, she wondered whether he had a mother and father living, and perhaps siblings and a sweetheart.  They would surely be devastated to learn of his death.

There would be no investigation, for the fact was that sometimes a wound was overlooked when casualties poured into the forward aid posts and the C.C.S.’s.  And she assumed that the lad had been loth to bring his condition to the attention of a harried nurse or surgeon.  So many were.

“Miss MacKintosh.”

She turned her head toward the sound and regarded the Matron whose silver-streaked brown hair hid beneath the starched white kerchief that matched the starched white cinch-waisted pinafore apron worn over her grey-blue ankle-length uniform with its crisp white collar and cuffs.  Marta wondered vaguely how it was that the woman always looked pristine while everyone else toiled in increasingly dingy and stained garments.

When the dark-eyed woman only glared at her with mouth pursed in disapproval, she heaved herself up and trudged to stand before the head nurse.  “Yes, Mrs. Drury?”

“There are linens to be bleached and boiled, Miss MacKintosh.  And surgical instruments to be sterilized.”

“Yes, Mrs. Drury.”

As Marta plodded toward the rear door and the wooden hut that served as laundry and cleaning facility, Mrs. Drury shrilled, “Miss MacKintosh!”

Turning, Marta frowned perplexedly at the outrage in the woman’s voice.

The Matron marched to her and hissed in a low tone, “Why have you not padded yourself, girl?”

Marta’s frown deepened and she blinked.

With a huff of annoyance, Mrs. Drury said, “Your courses, girl!  You’ve bled, you fool!”

Marta’s brows rose and she responded on a sigh, “No, Mrs. Drury.  I sat in blood on the bench.”

Her ire only augmented, the older nurse spat, “You great lump, have you no shame?  You look indecent!  Go at once and change.”  She added, “And bleach that hideous mess out, for Heaven’s sake!  You look like a trollop!”

With that, the Matron whirled and stalked away.  Marta wearily shrugged her brows at the woman’s back and turned again toward the laundry.  She would not point out that a trollop likely never had occasion to sit in blood, her own or anyone else’s.  Nor would she mention the fact that blood stains already blotted various patches of her uniform and that bleach seemed only to thin the fabric rather than erase the discolouration.  And she certainly would not bother to state that the entire war was indecent.

As for being called a “great lump,” Marta had become inured to such insults.  She was unlovely:  Any mirror proclaimed it.  And her inordinate size, much taller than most men, coupled with large bones and a substantial musculature, had prompted many to describe her as “horsy” or worse.

A glance into the age-dotted little looking-glass above the basin where she washed her hands revealed the white scar that severed the black line of her right eyebrow, indented the edge of her right eyelid to leave a lashless path, and marred her right cheek.  After tracing its length with her eyes in the mirror, she locked the pale-blue orbs that stared back at her.  From time to time, she had wondered whether her features might have been called handsome, were she not disfigured.  Perhaps not, she thought:  Her long, broad brow and long, narrow face and long nose and long chin did not fit the image of petite and plump-faced loveliness projected in magazines.  Although, the sleek black hair beneath her kerchief was comely, she judged.

But it did not matter, for the truth was plain enough:  She had been defaced when a drunken neighbour had slashed her as she ran to defend her mother from the brute who thought to take advantage of Papa’s absence the year he went off to fight the Boers.  Forever after, she was regarded by all who saw her as, at best, an oddity.  And the growth spurt that had shot her to over six feet had only made her that much more the freak in the eyes of her schoolmates and her neighbours.

She grabbed up pails and yoke to fetch water to boil.  Along the wear-sunken path to the well, through tufts of grass and among tents erected to house patients, she remembered the expressions of young men, back home, who had gazed up at her briefly before flinging some cutting remark and laughing at her mortified blush as they sauntered away.  For years, in her youth, she had held out hope of love and marriage such as others enjoyed, but she had finally accepted that she would be a spinster all her life, that no man would ever want her.  Eventually, she had learned to take comfort in her ability, albeit untrained, to help the sick and injured, her size and strength a blessing that allowed her to lift patients and to carry loads that few others could manage.  Now, in particular, her unfeminine brawn served a purpose.  Here, she could be useful.

It was something.

At the open well, she hitched a pail to the rope secured to the circular stone wall and lowered one of the buckets toward the water below.

“DON’T FRET, CAPTAIN,” Hayes urged as he hurried beside the six privates who lugged, over churned ground, the litter on which Brian Storr lay.  “We’ll get you to hospital straightaway.”

“What…what…?”  The captain could not form the thought much less express it.

“You’ve been hit, sir,” said the young Canadian doctor on the other side.  “A few shell fragments.”

Memory and mental functions returning, Brian said in alarm, “The men.  The counterattack.  We must defend—”

Sergeant Duff’s voice stated confidently from somewhere near, “It’s in hand, sir.  The men are ready and Lieutenant Cleary will direct them as needed.”  His tone dropped as he added, “Bloody lucky the Jerries were aimin’ to the left, there.  Lewis’s battalion and the French regiments caught most of it and I expect they’ll see most of the day’s battle, too.”  Finally, he reported, “We lost only three so far, sir.  All new recruits.”

“New recruits,” Brian repeated.  He knew the sergeant did not mean to imply the life of a recruit was worth less than that of a seasoned infantryman, but the statement irked him, nonetheless.  Or perhaps what vexed him was the recognition that he would be out of action and unable to be with his men while he convalesced.  What exactly was wrong with him? he wondered.  He felt no pain, only great fatigue.  He assessed Hayes’s mien and guessed that the wound was serious, but not necessarily deadly.

Good, he thought as he closed his eyes.  I still have time.

MARTA HAD BARELY closed her eyes when the call came.  More wounded, these diverted from the Clearing Station to the south that had been forced to evacuate.  No more gas casualties, thank God, but many missing limbs, according to the field-telephone report.

“Bloody hell,” Myrtle Biddlesworth swore as she rolled out of her bunk in the pre-dawn murk.

“Would be nice to get a full three hours’ sleep,” Gemma Poole agreed.

With a long exhalation, squinting into the darkness barely illumined by a single lamp outside the nurses’ quarters, Marta joined her colleagues donning the same uniforms they had worn all day and dragging themselves back to the infirmary.

She worked mechanically, stanching wounds, binding limbs, handing over implements, and holding down men as doctors stitched or sawed or clamped or drained without benefit of anaesthesia.  The faces no longer burned into her memory; they had become one long blur of men and boys in pain.  Some cried out.  Some wept.  Some moaned.  Some screamed.

Some survived.  Many did not.  And Marta did her job as she always did, numbed by the horror.  An automaton.  A cog in a grisly machine.

Another influx, and another, had necessitated use of previously unopened spaces with no more than a quick brush with a broom to pull down cobwebs and put insects and vermin to flight.  The last of the tents had been erected to house patients and a new supply would be delayed by damaged roads and rail lines. Men now lay on staff bunks, on benches, and on hastily piled straw overlaid with unwashed sheets and blankets.  Even Mrs. Drury looked soiled and rumpled when the sun set once more to leave in twilight the old stone building and the tents and sheds that clustered round it.

“We’re out of morphia,” Dr. Jonas Morgan reported quietly to the Army surgeon, Colonel Grainger.

The chief of staff sighed and nodded.  “We received only half what I requested.  I’ll send someone to the village immediately for more wine.”  With that, he stalked outside, stripping off his blood-splattered surgical gown, and he went in search of a horse and rider.

Mrs. Drury scanned her nurses briefly before gesturing to Marta and eight more.  “You take shift watching over the patients.”  To the others she said, “The rest of you, get some rest.”

A new girl, fresh from London, protested, “We have no beds.  They’re all taken by the soldiers.”

The Matron snarled, “Then find a haystack or a bit of open ground.  There’s no room here for pampered princesses.”

The young woman blushed crimson, and all those not tasked for the night slunk, chastened and weary, out to the dilapidated old barn that held heaps of rotting straw in the loft under a partially caved roof, and stores of petrol for the motorized ambulances below.

Mrs. Drury quickly assigned each of the duty nurses to a sector.  While five stepped out into the growing dusk to check patients tent by tent, Betty headed for the critical wards on the first floor and Gemma for the second.  Marta simply grabbed the last lamp and slogged to the stairwell to ascend to the attic.  Hunched beneath the low rafters, she walked softly among the patients lying on pallets of straw to inspect wounds and bandages, skin temperature and colour, pulse and respiration.

Once she had made a round of the large inner chamber, she entered in turn each of the end spaces beyond the stone chimneys, the four gable pockets just big enough to house one man.  In the last, she lingered at the doorless opening, staring at the beautiful black-haired and moustached fellow she guessed to be taller than she, the extraordinarily handsome creature being washed and shaved by a grey-haired soldier who was surely too old to serve.  She watched, mesmerized, as the elder ministered to the younger lovingly.  Was the man a relation?  Perhaps even his grandfather?

The patient was an officer, as proclaimed by the garments neatly folded and stacked under the single small window set into the gable peak:  stiff-visored cap, jodhpurs and riding boots, shirt and necktie, leather belts, and notched-collar jacket with brass badges.  He lay unconscious, occasional jerks of his head and audible, ragged respirations evincing disturbed dreams as the private who tended him shushed and whispered soothingly.  The old man carefully avoided the wrappings on head and torso and arm and leg that indicated the sites of the wounds sustained during the recent German attack that, fortunately, had been blunted.

Enthralled, Marta continued to gaze at the patient whose private parts alone were discreetly covered by a khaki scarf.  Light from the lamp at the side of the elder and from her own lantern glistened off tiny beads of moisture along the smooth skin taut over muscle and sinew and from the curly jet hairs plunging in a V toward his nether region.  Every line of his form appeared sculpted in homage to a Greek god.

Unaccustomed tingles roused Marta from her trance.  Disconcerted by the strength of her attraction, she shook her head to dispel the feelings.  At the motion, the old man looked up.

“Shall I fetch you fresh water?” she offered at once, hoping her blush and her unseemly desires did not show.

“No need,” the elder replied quietly.  “I’m finished here.”  He tossed the handkerchief he had substituted for a washcloth into the small basin at his knee (actually one of the old shallow, thin-steel helmets lying upside down) and snatched a nearby blanket to unfold it and spread it over the young man’s body.

Marta stepped in to take the opposite corners and lay the woollen cloth gently atop the sleeping patient.  When the self-appointed orderly pushed himself to a stand and picked up the basin and shaving kit, soiled clothing and lamp, she pulled her mouth into a smile, bobbed her head, rose, and turned to leave.

“Excuse me,” the elder called.

She turned back.  “Yes?”

“Would you look after His….”

He drew a deep breath and began again.  “Miss, would you be so kind as to watch after the captain while I fetch this away and tend to some personal business?”

“All—all right,” Marta stammered and blinked.

As the man passed her, she asked, “Are you his uncle, sir?”

The elder’s smile held reserved amusement as he introduced himself.  “No, miss.  I’m Thomas Hayes, Captain Storr’s aide.”

“Oh,” she responded with a hesitant smile and a nod of acknowledgement.  She had never before noted such devotion in an aide.  And were aides not usually of a higher rank?  A corporal or sergeant, at least?

While Private Hayes descended the narrow stairs with toiletries stowed in a pack at his side, lamp and basin and boots in hand, and muddy clothing draped over his shoulder, Marta stole back to the captain and surveyed him with a wistful longing she had not experienced in years.  He had flinched twice and groaned before she recalled that she had not checked his vital signs.  Chastising herself for the foolish romantic notions that had crept into her mind to take the place of common sense and her duties, she set down her lamp and knelt.

She grasped his near wrist with one hand and, with the other, lifted the small pendant-watch pinned to the bodice of her apron.  His pulse was strong, but a little faster than it should be.  And his skin felt hot.  She touched her palm to his forehead and frowned at certainty he had developed a fever.  Concerned now, she peeled away the blanket and inspected each of the bandages, sniffing them for signs of putrefaction and scrutinizing them for evidence of renewed bleeding after his surgery.

At a groan, she glanced to find the captain gazing at her through eyes bleary with pain and febrility.  She smiled to him and murmured reassurances as she reached across his chest to stretch the blanket over him once more.  Suddenly, he clenched her about the waist with astonishing speed and pulled her to him to grip her head and force her mouth to his.  Sprawled awkwardly atop him, she could feel his phallus against her.  Its hardness wakened her from her stupefaction to struggle out of his arms.  But, despite his injuries, the man’s strength proved greater than hers and her squirming only spurred him to tighten his hold upon her.

Outside, the whine of a triplane and a series of explosive blasts set patients to screaming.  Hunter Hans was back for his nightly attack upon the medical station.  Too late, a Nieuport from the nearby French base rushed to engage the enemy plane, and gunfire added to the cacophony.

Beneath Marta, the captain shifted to manoeuvre over her and he forced her legs apart, muttering against her mouth between kisses as he snatched away the scarf that had clumped between them and the apron and skirt that hindered his access.  Marta’s head swam with shock.  Was this all a dream?  Pain at his abrupt invasion put paid to the thought.

His whispered words at her ear gelled to clarity as the burning sensations from the repeated violation below forced her mind into focus:  “Patricia, my darling, you must give me a son.  We must make a child, you and I.  Graymere needs an heir.  Please, my dearest, give me a son before I die.”

All at once, his steady, rhythmic strokes changed to erratic, pounding thrusts.  A throaty groan, and he collapsed upon her, panting by her cheek.  When the throbbing of his heart, felt in her chest, softened to a regular beat and his respirations slowed and his murmurs faded to silence, Marta tried to push him away onto his back.  But his limp weight held him fast.

When her exhausting efforts to extricate herself proved ineffectual, she lay still awhile as tears leaked along her temples to well in her ears.  He was married, she surmised.  And in his haze he had mistaken her for his wife.  His belovèd wife.  She did not know which saddened her more:  that she would never know the love of a husband, or that this poor soul might never have the opportunity to beget the heir he so desperately desired.

Graymere.  The name sounded familiar.  Who was he?

She had almost drifted off to sleep when a gasp at the doorway announced the arrival of the aide.

“Oh, dear God!” the elder exclaimed as he rushed to her side and attempted to heave his captain over.

“Get up, My Lord!” he hissed urgently.  “You must get up, Captain!”

A grunt preceded a perplexed query.  “Wha…?  Wha…?”

Gradually, with persistent prodding and exigent entreaties, the prone patient roused enough to roll off of his pinned prey and sprawl upon the straw.  At once, Marta pulled her skirts down and scrambled up.  For a brief instant, she stood frozen, but she quickly overcame her discomposure to adopt a businesslike manner and help the older man to cover his captain with the blanket.

Straightening, she said, “I’ll fetch the doctor, sir.  I believe the—the patient is fevered and must suffer some sort of infection.”  She turned away, but turned back a moment to add, “And I expect his…recent exertions have reopened his wounds.”

Before the man she guessed to be a longtime servant to the aristocratic officer could speak, she ran out to the stairwell and down to seek a physician.

THOMAS HAYES WATCHED after the deeply unsettled nurse with dismay at the fresh red mark that besmirched the back of her blue skirt.  She had been virgin, he was sure, and his master had clearly taken her by force.

He looked down at the young earl and wiped the lad’s sweat-dotted brow.  Would the boy (though Brian Storr was all of twenty-seven, the valet who had wiped his nose and washed his clothes and trained him to comport himself like a gentleman would always see him as a stripling), would the boy remember the incident when he woke?  If he did, he would certainly be ashamed and contrite.  If he did not, should his servant tell him?

Hayes decided to hold his tongue and let events unfold.  Meanwhile, he would keep abreast of the young woman’s activities and condition.

TO CONTINUE READING…

FATES AND FURIES
THE FORTUNES OF FALWORTH

Chapter 1

WHAT THE HELL WAS HE GOING TO DO NOW?  Andrew MacDonald wondered, both grief-stricken and vexed.  According to the telegram he had received yesterday, Edward Lewis the Third had gone down with the Lusitania, along with his wife Louise.  And he knew their son, Edward the Fourth, had made off months ago to fight the Kaiser and would likely get himself killed, bloody fool that the young man was.

MacDonald snorted his annoyance.  Just when the family needs him most, the twit runs off to play soldier.

Not that The Fourth had ever been much use, mind.  But he had the education to attend to the paper-work and accounts, as he had so often reminded the man who had grown up below stairs in Falworth Hall.  The attentions of the matrons of the Lewis family had always made Andrew feel that he had a family of his own, despite having lost his mother when he was but five years old and his father even earlier.  Unfortunately, The Fourth had deeply resented sharing his mother’s and grandmother’s affections.  And he had criticized the man he considered his rival at every opportunity when his father took Andrew MacDonald under his wing, taught him every function of the mills, and groomed him to run the operation.

Which is why it had flabbergasted MacDonald when The Fourth had sought a commission in the Army rather than stay home to clothe that Army.

Now, the tall, sinewy, black-haired Scot must run the Lewis enterprises by himself as well as train women to do the many jobs men had done before the country went to war.  Since the declaration in August, he had lost eighty percent of his employees, for a substantial number of able-bodied men had enlisted as “Pals” to fight together in the same unit, as promised by Lord Kitchener when he asked for volunteers to fill out the ranks.

It did help that, after several factories had been destroyed by suspicious fires including the one that had killed Andrew’s widowed mother, the beleaguered Edward Second, son of the founder of the Lewis company, had clustered his remaining businesses on one property, the better to maintain security and to lessen the distance for transportation of the fibre products from one place of processing to the next.  That meant MacDonald could dash from building to building to oversee production.

Edward Junior and his son had also diversified, in recent years, to include fashioning of particular items from the base fabrics and growing many of the plants used in their unique dyes.  The former capability had propelled Lewis Enterprises into wartime production when the War Office sought firms to outfit soldiers with wool serge uniforms and canvas webbing.

Now, the mills were busier than ever while suffering significant loss of employees, shortages of raw materials because of enemy interference in shipping from the Empire’s colonies and from America, and the untimely demise of the owners.

But worst of all, the Scot had to admit to himself, was the sudden reappearance in his life of Grace Lewis.

As he contemplated the unwelcome changes that had thrown his familiar routines into chaos, warm afternoon light slanted through the long windows of the large workshop to be deflected upward by the liquids in the rows of vats, there to wash the high white ceiling and the chalky beams beneath it with watery shades of green.  At a chime from the little glass-faced walnut clock perched on a tall, narrow, open cabinet of age-darkened oak laden with bottles of dye, the veteran manager of the factory stepped to the first of the basins and helped one of the newest of his employees lift the wire basket of woollen fibre from the dusky fluid and set it on the wooden runners above to hang low.  The dye danced as the sodden mass drained back into the huge iron cauldron.

The manufactory that had been in the Lewis family for generations still stained the wool rather than the yarn, to make a colourfast cloth of fine quality.  And although the worst of the old methods that had led to the infirmity or death of workers had never been used since the founding of the original mill by the first Edward Lewis, the best had been retained despite the growing pressures to entirely mechanize the making of fabrics.  The Lewises did things their own way.  Of course, machines had gradually been added, once the devices’ efficacy and safety had been verified in practical use.

Moving on to the next vat as a seasoned employee (who had been with the company all of eight months) trawled the bottom of the vat with a long-handled scoop for bits of wool that had escaped the sieve, Andrew and the younger woman from Brighton lifted the next basket, and the next, as another recruit, this one from Liverpool, watched before exchanging places with him.

Andrew had at first called the newcomers by their place-names:  Miss Brighton, Mrs. Ramsgate, Miss Dover.  But that had quickly become unsustainable when wagonloads of women descended from towns and villages across the nation.

He knew that Grace Lewis had spearheaded the campaign to recruit and house female labourers.  She had held suffragette sympathies from a young age, like her mother and grandmother and, as staff below stairs had always maintained, her great-grandmother.  With the advent of war, Grace had organized the transport of women and single-parent families to the region to work in the factories and on the farms, for the Lewis holdings included rented crofts that produced both dye plants and food crops.

But she had sent word that she intended to take her brother’s place in managing Lewis Enterprises.  Her telegram this morning had announced her decision and her arrival tomorrow.

His gut tensed as he exited the dye room to enter the mordant chamber.  He had not seen Grace since she left for school in Cambridgeshire four years ago.  How would he get through day after day seeing and working with the girl he loved but could never have?

GRACE LEWIS WORKED to suppress the nervous tremors that had afflicted her inwards from the moment she decided to return to Yorkshire.  It was ridiculous, this reaction to the man she had known all her life as a sort of half-brother.  Granted, there was no blood relationship between them.  But why had her childish fascination with the much older Scot who had played with her and teased her and protected her never waned?  She was twenty-three years old; surely she should be mature enough and sophisticated enough by now to view him as simply a friend and valued employee?

But she was not.  Indeed, a frisson of excitement had shot through her when Falworth Hall’s butler, Ewert, casually mentioned that Andrew MacDonald had not married and lived, still, in the same rooming-house in Falworth Village.

She glanced to the small photograph she had kept on her dressing-table for years.  There he was, her secret sweetheart, alongside her and her brother all those years ago before Andrew had gone off to fight in the Boer War.  Then, at eight years old, she had blamed herself for his rushing off to another continent, thinking she had done something horribly bad to drive him away.  She had cried for days, until her father explained that Andrew was a man, now, and had gone to do a man’s duty for his king and country.  After that, she had developed a decided dislike for the king who had stolen away her hero.

Regarding the sepia image set in a fluted walnut frame, the latter in masculine contrast to the dainty filigree and lace of her personal furnishings, she recalled the day Andrew returned from Africa with a moustache, a pronounced limp, and a surly attitude.  For years he cursed himself for the limitations wounds had placed on his abilities.  He could no longer ride his favourite stallion and had been forced to travel only by buggy.  Walking had become a painful chore, as well; so, he had taken a room in the village to be nearer the factories in which he worked for Papa.

That separation had again left her heartsick and, thereafter, she had cherished every moment they spent together when he came, from time to time, to visit Falworth Hall, or when her father took her to the mills.  Andrew’s irascibility had not daunted her, for she, being now a few years more mature, had come to realize that his anger was not directed at her but at himself and at the world that had left him crippled.

Then had come her turn to leave, after much cajoling by Mama and Papa.  They had wanted her to be educated, as befitted a lady of the new century.  And once she had settled into the routines of Girton College and made friends, she had begun to enjoy her studies and the vistas opened to her through learning.  Gradually, she had come to believe that she had grown up enough to put her childhood puppy-love behind her.

But the knot in her belly told her otherwise.  She heaved a wistful sigh as she placed frame and picture into her trunk.

Straightening, she stared at herself in the cheval-glass in the corner as she tucked a wayward strand of her otherwise perfectly bound dark locks behind her ear.  She assessed the sleek hair, brown eyes, full mouth, long nose, long face, and uncommon height she had inherited from her father.  Fortunately, her mother had bestowed smooth, fair skin and fine, arched brows that softened the severity of the Lewis features she shared with her bushy-browed and moustached brother.  Her eyes drifted to the broad, unladylike shoulders and the small breasts under her frilled snow-white cotton chemise and sleeveless underdress before travelling lower to her wide hips and long, heavy-boned legs.

She grimaced in resignation.  She would never be a great beauty like her mother or Lady Patricia Lawrence.

At once, her eyes misted with sorrow at thought of her mother and father drowning within sight of land.  The Germans claimed there were munitions aboard the Lusitania, thus making it a legitimate target in wartime.  While some said they lied to excuse atrocity, she suspected they were correct.  That did not justify killing over a thousand people, but how could the stowing of weapons aboard a passenger liner be sanctioned?

No, she thought, war was an evil by which all manner of wickedness was enabled, and even normally sensible and good people blinded themselves to that truth.

The sinking of the Lusitania’s sister ship, Titanic, recalled to mind.  Her grandparents had drowned in the frigid waters of the Atlantic as well, just three years before.  Now, she and her brother were all that was left of the Lewis family.

She shivered, trying not to imagine her brave, foolish brother dying alone in the mud of Flanders.  Every day, she read the newspaper accounts of the war, praying she would not find his name listed among the dead.

As she stared again at her chemise-clad image in the mirror, she wondered when she would cry for her parents and her grandparents, and she hoped she would have no cause to cry for Edward.

ANDREW MacDONALD EYED the wagonload of women ferried from Barton Brae as they piled out and milled before the three-storey narrow-windowed grey-stone building that housed the offices and the sewing rooms of Lewis Enterprises.  He waited patiently while the last of the ladies hopped to the cobbled lane and the driver slapped the reins to urge his pair of chesnut Suffolk Punches on toward the carriage house and stable after the last trip of the morning.  Pale sunlight glinted off the rows of tall rectangular casements behind as the women settled and regarded him expectantly and as a lad from the village hurried along with a shovel and handcart to gather up the horse droppings that lent their distinctive odour to the atmosphere.

MacDonald called out, “Welcome, ladies.  Please follow me inside.  I’ll take your names and details for our records.  Then, you’ll be shown to the stations where you’ll train under more experienced workers.”

He had barely got the words out when a young woman in the front queried loudly with accusation in her face and voice, “What are you doing here?  Why aren’t you in uniform?  Are you a coward?  You should be at the Front.”

He fixed her eyes a moment, his own cool.  Then he simply walked directly ahead, forcing the clustered women in their ankle-length dresses and aprons, their shawls and bonnets to part to allow him through.  He ambled on to the wide dark door under a pale rounded arch, the only embellishment on the unpretentious building.  As he moved, his unbending right leg threw his gait into a noticeably irregular rhythm.

When he stopped and turned, hand on the iron latch, he said drily, “If any of you wish to work, do come in.”

With that, he opened the door and strode into the corridor that led to the stairs.  There, he ascended by climbing with his good left leg to lift the lame right limb into place beside it before propelling himself again with the left.  He had been working for years to strengthen the thigh that had been shot through in South Africa back in oh-two, before that war ended.  Nonetheless, while he could now walk as much as a half-mile without a rest, and he could stand for over an hour, he still had difficulty with stairs.

But at least he was alive and he had both legs and both arms.  That was more than many of his former comrades could say.

On the uppermost floor, he waved the women into a large room that had once been used primarily to inspect and repair bolts of cloth.  Now, his chief tailor supervised assistants cutting fabric into shaped pieces to be assembled and sewn into uniforms by seamstresses on the lower floors.  Andrew sat at a broad table by the door, with his injured leg stretched below.  He opened a ledger, dipped pen into ink, and recorded the names and addresses and list of skills of his newest employees, one at a time.

TRAFFIC ALONG THE ROADS had slowed to a standstill.  From a linen-clad table by the front window of the small stone-and-thatch inn where she had stopped to take lunch and tea, Grace watched a wagoner on the High Street trying to calm his team of horses.  All around the frightened equines, trucks of grey or green idled, cramming the narrow lane, their drivers hopping out of the noisy vehicles to see what held up the flow and, some, to offer advice to the increasingly vexed farmer.  Another man reined his cart among the motorized monsters and pulled up behind the first horse-drawn lorry.

A shouting match soon ensued as the drivers of old-fashioned and newfangled vehicles argued to the escalating distress of the animals and of the handful of ladies and elderly men who had emerged from their homes to observe the events that had disrupted the usually sleepy existence of their village.

At the terror in the eyes of the big brown Shire horses, Grace jumped to her feet and dashed outside to scream with all her might.  Even the horses stilled in startlement.

Immediately, in the sudden silence, she strode with determination to the mares and uttered soothing words in the old Gaelic that she had heard so many times in her youth:  the pacifying endearments spoken by Falworth’s former horsemaster.  As she stroked the neck of the nearer brown and the farmer caressed its mate, she cast a narrow-eyed minatory glare toward the truck drivers, each in turn.

Gradually, the creatures settled.  When at last he deemed it safe, the carter bundled the reins in his hands and walked ahead to ease his loaded wagon to and along the edge of the road to pass the convoy of trucks.  The smaller dray followed.

With one brow high in a disapproving arch, Grace called out to the drivers of the trucks, “That, gentleman, is how to handle a draught wagon and its team.  Or any animals, for that matter.  Remember it the next time you find the roads clogged.”

Someone shouted back, “Better they clear the road of the bloody beasts and make way for proper vehicles.”

“Oh?” she retorted in the direction of the voice.  “And how will you move your wondrous contraptions when the U-boats cut off your supplies of petrol?”

Sobered, the drivers grimly boarded their trucks without another word and pulled away, one at a time, to continue on their way south.

Back inside, a round of clapping from the patrons of the pub set Grace to blushing.  Diffident, she hurried to her seat and took up her cup to hide her face as she sipped her now-tepid tea.  Her belly and heart fluttered at the sudden recognition of her own unaccustomed boldness.

But as she calmed, she realized that such intrepidity would be required of her from now on.  With her brother in Flanders and her parents dead, she had no choice but to take over the family’s business concerns.  As a student considering the plight of women in society, she had debated and advocated greater economic and legal and political freedom for the members of her gender.  Buying a motorcar had been a symbol of her own assertion of such freedom.  Now, however, Fate had unexpectedly thrust upon her the burden of the full responsibilities of the role she had only envisioned in theory.  No more the carefree scholar or the Society debutante; henceforth, she must maintain her father’s companies in a time when their products had become essential to the very survival of the nation.  She trembled, perceiving at last the enormity of the task before her.

Of course, she would have Andrew’s help, and he hers.  And there was always the possibility Edward would return to take up the reins of Lewis Enterprises.  But the family’s solicitors had already begun the process of legally entailing the Lewis holdings on her, lest her brother fail to survive the war.  She had been loth to tell Edward of the deaths of their parents, a blow he surely did not need added to his existing troubles, but Mr. Grant and Mr. Endicott had been adamant that he must be informed and must sign the documents they would courier to him at once.

Grace sighed.  She had felt invigorated, working in London to facilitate the placement of women in factories throughout the realm.  But, in truth, that had been a theoretical task, in her mind:  a mere exercise in logistics, albeit one with opportunity to promote emancipation.  In going home, however, she must make the leap from principle to practice.

Was she capable of vaulting that hurdle, or would she falter?

“NEXT, PLEASE.”

MacDonald did not look up from his ledger as he added a notation to the previous entry.  When he finished, he dipped his pen into the glass ink bottle and then regarded the young woman standing before him.

It was the opinionated one.  She was neither tall nor short, a little pudgy, with fleshy hands and with moon face framed by coffee-coloured hair.  Her pale-blue eyes narrowed at him under fine brows, and her small, thin-lipped mouth pressed pugnaciously.  She wore no apron over her brown wool gown with broad square collar and slim skirt.  A straw boater topped her upswept hair, and an amber woollen shawl hung loosely about her shoulders.

Their gazes locked:  hers truculent, his impassive.

“Name?” he queried.

“Betsy Evans,” she bit off.

He wrote in his book as he asked, “From where?”

“London.”

“Where are you housed in Barton Brae?”

“Miss Willoughby’s rooming-house.”

“What work have you done before?”

When silence met the question, he looked up to fix her eyes once more.

“Have you not worked at all before?” he pressed.  “Even at home, tending house and family?”

She pouted her lips a long moment.  Then, stretching her neck and straightening her shoulders to stand taller, she said with defiance in her eyes, “I was barmaid in a tavern in Southwark.”

He raised a thin black brow, but he said only, “Then, you’ve done your share of lifting, I daresay.”

Her jaw dropped and she blinked, taken aback by his unexpectedly benign response.

MacDonald’s lips curved into a slight smile and he waved toward a gaggle in the hall formed around a grizzled old man in a brown leather apron.  “Mr. Bates will show you your new duties, Miss Evans.”

As the now-meek young brunette walked away, he looked to the next woman in the queue.  “Name?”

FALWORTH LOOKED EXACTLY as she remembered it:  a random collection of stone cubes butted together to form a manor-house of considerable size, though it seemed smaller than it truly was, squatting among the soaring grey cliffs and heather-capped hills around it.  The gardens and sheep-cropped lawns bloomed abundantly in the late-spring warmth, and birds twittered in the verdant forests that blanketed the hillsides.  One could almost believe all was right in the world and forget that the forests and hillsides of Belgium and France were being obliterated by artillery shells.

At the sombre thought, Grace heaved a sigh, removed her driving goggles, and grabbed up her purse from the seat of her Standard auto as the aging butler, Ewert, and two maids, one stout and one stick-thin, hauled her luggage from the hired wagon that had brought the bags and her lady’s maid, Sophie, from the train.  She had timed it perfectly:  driving up from the London house and arriving at the station just as the locomotive pulled in to disgorge wounded soldiers and their caregivers, women and families seeking work, and a few miscellaneous passengers returning to their homes.  Thus, she had been able to bring north the automobile that she would use to travel to the coast when shipments arrived in Hull laden with raw materials for the mills.

Papa and Edward had balked at her decision to learn to drive a motorcar, stating it was too dangerous for a woman.  She, of course, had dismissed the argument as piffle; after all, why should it be more dangerous for a woman than for a man?  It was true that cranking the engine to start it required strength she did not have in abundance, but she had developed enough muscle-power to manage on her own, and she had even learned to tinker with the vehicle’s inner workings as needed to keep it running.  It gave her a sense of independence and competence to drive about on her own.  And she had chosen the Standard because she found it the best vehicle for the price:  Its interior was long enough for her legs and its features included smooth brakes, easy adjustment and change of gears, plenty of tools and spare parts, and an excellent engine-cooling system.  In the end, Papa had agreed that her choice had merit and he had relented and allowed her to purchase one.

She left the sky-blue car in the lane with its hood up, lest it rain, and strode to her family’s country home, intending to settle into her childhood room before supper.  At the door, a footman took her touring cloak and hat to send them below stairs for cleaning, and Grace gratefully divested herself of the dusty outerwear essential for motor trips.  As she reached the grand staircase that led to the main floor above and the bedchamber level beyond, she noticed khaki-uniformed men and blue-clad nurses with white pinafore aprons moving from room to room farther along the corridor.

Unbidden, Ewert informed her, “Your parents authorized the use of Falworth as a convalescent hospital, Miss Grace.”

She glanced from the strangers to him.  “Of course,” she responded.  Now she recalled that Mama had written to tell her so, just before she and Papa left for America.  She forced a smile to the major-domo and said, “We must all do our part.”

“Yes, Miss,” he replied softly.

It was then that she remembered another message from her mother.  Her smile fading, she said, “I was so sorry to hear about your grandson, Mr. Ewert.”

Stoic as always, the longtime retainer merely nodded acknowledgement of her sympathy.

Grace drew a deep breath and said, “Well, I’d better go up and have a wash.  Then, I’ll come down to your office and you can tell me whatever you feel I need to know.”

“Very good, Miss.”

She watched him walk to the door that would take him to the servants’ domain.  Falworth had suffered so many losses of late.  She pushed away the oft-returning thought that her brother might add to that list, and she ascended the maroon-carpeted stairs to the family suites.

LIEUTENANT EDWARD LEWIS crept along the sap, the forward extension that jutted from the Fire Trench toward the enemy line.  Above, clouds blotted the stars and moon, leaving him to grope in the black, but he thanked God for the darkness for it would enable him to peer ahead toward the German trenches in some safety.

He had survived last month’s battle near Ypres (the men now called it Wipers), including the unleashing by the enemy of lethal chlorine gas.  Many of his comrades and men had been poisoned by the stuff.  Strangely, soldiers who had stayed put instead of fleeing to the rear, notably the Canadians, had suffered the least from the effects of the grey-green cloud.  Those like himself on the firing steps had exhibited fewer symptoms as well.  One of the company’s doctors had conjectured that all who let it pass and all who stood above were exposed for less time and thus were saved from asphyxia.

Lewis would have liked to hope that the enemy would never again use such a weapon, but the routing of the majority of the British troops along the poison’s path would surely be seen by Germany as a victory worth repeating.  He wondered if his own government would sanction the deployment of toxins, and he knew, as he thought it, that it would.

A rat ran over his foot as he stood at the end of the sap; he noted it absently as he scratched his louse-infested crotch, wishing the laundry facilities availed when he and his men rotated to the rear could eliminate the vicious little vampires.  Alas, washing drawers and men in tepid water did nothing to stem the maddening plague.

A breeze blew from the southwest and the night smelled of raw earth and burning wood, live men unwashed and dead rodents soaked by the frequent rains, urine buckets and bombed latrines (a favourite target of the men across the small deadly space before him).  At this time of year, there should be scents of leaves and various blooms, but the landscape had been devastated by shells and by poison, leaving it lifeless but for strips of grass growing where war had yet to find them.

One could almost taste the desolation.

By no means willing but duty bound, the tall young officer girded himself and stepped up onto the shelf that would raise his head above the trench wall.  Crouching a moment, his gut taut, he willed himself to straighten and peer out past the sandbag parapet toward the enemy line.  Adrenalin coursing through him, sweating despite the chill of the spring night, he put field glasses to his eyes and scanned beyond the rows of defensive barbed wire arrayed on both sides of the dividing stretch of soil the soldiers called No Man’s Land.

Movement and a soft sound caught his attention and he focussed on that spot.  But it was only a foraging rat, he realized, and he relaxed ever so slightly to continue panning for German wire crews.  He saw one away to his right, but it was in Lieutenant Storr’s arc; so, he ignored it to concentrate on his own area of responsibility, looking for signs of enemy reinforcement that could bode a battle.

A flare soared aloft from the opposite trench to brighten the open ground.  Instantly, Lewis closed his eyes tightly and ducked down out of sight, his heart racing as German machinegun fire erupted to trigger a matching British response.  At once, artillery batteries from both sides joined to increase the cacophony and the violence.  He cringed as the earth shuddered under his feet and clods of dirt pelted him.  Waiting for the blast that would end his life, he wondered how death would feel.

When the illumination died to leave the world once more in darkness and the shooting ended soon after, he dared to stand again and look for anything untoward.  He listened, too, for his night vision had been compromised.  To his relief, no enemy movement could he detect.  It appeared both sides were content to lob a few projectiles and call it a night.  Good.

As he stepped down and handed the binoculars to his sergeant, he wondered which was worse:  wading into battle, or waiting for the next one.  And, out of the blue, he remembered the prediction of the Warsaw financier Ivan Bloch, many years before, mentioned with scorn by one of his professors, warning that modern weapons would lead to military stalemate, mass casualties, and ultimate exhaustion of men and matériel for one or both sides.  He shuddered at the realization that, so far, this war was proving the Pole prescient.

TO CONTINUE READING…

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