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Joseph Higgins, postman, pushed his battered red bicycle up the long ascent that leads to Heron's Park, three miles out of Heronsford, in Kent. It had been a children's sanatorium before the war, and now was being hurriedly scrambled into shape as a military hospital. Its buildings stood out big and grey and bleak among the naked winter trees and he cursed them heartily as he toiled up the hill, his bicycle tacking groggily from side to side on the country road. All this for a mere seven letters! Six miles out of his way for a handful of letters that would probably not even be looked at till the morning! He spread them out, fanwise, in one hand, his elbow resting heavily on the handle-bar, and examined them resentfully. The first was addressed to the Commanding Officer. One of the new medicos, guessed Higgins shrewdly, holding it up to the light. A nice linen envelope and a Harley Street postmark; and doctors' handwriting was always illegible....
Gervase Eden had also cursed as he sat in his consulting-room, confirming to the C.O. at Heron's Park that he would report for duty, 'forthwith'. The last of his lovely ladies had just tripped off down the steps in a flutter of cheques and eyelashes and invitations to dinner, and already feeling miraculously better for her heavenly little injection (of unadulterated H2O). He could not flatter himself that the pay of a surgeon in His Majesty's Forces was going to keep him in anything like the luxury to which he was rapidly becoming accustomed; but there it was—one had put one's name down during the Munich crisis, and already it was becoming a tiny bit uncomfortable to be out of uniform.... At least he would be free of the lovely ladies for a spell. For the thousandth time he looked at himself in the mirror, looked at his ugly face and greying hair, at his thin, angular body and restless hands—and wondered what on earth women saw in him, and wished they wouldn't. He rang the bell for his pretty little secretary and asked her to post the letter. She immediately burst into tears at the thought of his going, and after all it was only common charity to spend a few minutes in comforting the poor little soul.
Higgins shuffled over Eden's letter and turned to the next in the bunch. A huge, square envelope, covered with a huge, square handwriting; a woman's handwriting, vigorous, generous, splashed across all the available space; one of the nurses, he supposed....
Jane Woods had written two letters, one to an address to Austria, the other to Heron's Park. She finished off three sketches of delicious, though impractical, syren suits and posted them to Mr. Cecil, of Christophe's in Regent Street (who paid her three guineas apiece for them, and thereafter presented them as his own); and, consigning the rest of her work to the waste-paper-basket, she rang up the circle of delightful riff-raff who constituted her friends, and summoned them to a party. "Eat, drink and sleep together, my loves," cried Miss Woods, "for to-morrow we join the V.A.D.s!" She stood, glass in hand, before the low mantelpiece of her elegant little, modern, one-roomed flat, a big, dark woman of about forty, with a plain, rather raddled face, an enormous bust, and astonishingly lovely legs. "Jane, darling, we told you not to go in for those fantastic lectures!" cried the riff-raff, who were all going in for fantastic lectures themselves; and, "Woody, darling, I simply can't imagine you, sweetie, I mean bed pans and everything!" and, "Woody, darling, what on earth made you do it?" She treated them to a tender little sketch of herself in the character of Florence Nightingale, hanging over the truckle bed of some suffering V.C. ("Is that you again, Flo, with that bloody nightlight?"): and, when at last she was alone, sobbed off her eye-black on to her pillow, because her intolerable conscience had driven her to this tremendous sacrifice; the sacrifice of all the fun and gaiety and luxury of her successful career, in blind atonement for a sin not even of her own commission; a sin, just possibly, not even committed.
The next letter, also, was in a woman's handwriting, a girlish hand, sloping downwards a little at the end of each line. "Sign of depression," said Joseph Higgins to himself, for he had read about that only a day or two ago in the Sunday paper. "Another of the nurses, I expect, and doesn't want to come, poor girl!" But here he was wrong, for Esther Sanson did, very badly, want to go to Heron's Park.
She stood with the letter in her hand, looking down at her mother and laughing, for Mrs. Sanson was deep in the latest drama of the Heronsford Women's Voluntary Service. "... but Mummy she couldn't! I mean, not all that baby wool into sailors' stockings for going under seaboots! I don't believe a word of it, darling; you're making it up!"
"On my word of honour, Esther, every spot of it, one pair pale pink and the other pale blue. I couldn't believe my eyes when she showed them to me. 'But Mrs. Huge,' I said to her ..."
"Not Mrs. Huge, Mummy—her name couldn't be Mrs. Huge?"
"I promise you, darling, Mrs. Huge, or something exactly like it, anyway. 'Mrs. Huge,' I said to her ..." She broke off suddenly and all the light and laughter went out of her blue eyes. "Who have you been writing to, Esther? Is it the letter to the hospital?"
"I've said I'll go as 'immobile' V.A. D.," said Esther quickly. "I've said I can't leave Heronsford. I'll only be working at the hospital during the daytime."
"There could easily be an air-raid in the daytime, Esther. Supposing I were caught up here in a top floor flat, in an air-raid; absolutely helpless with my back so ersatz and rotten...."
"Your back's been much better lately, darling; I mean, look how you were able to go out to-day to the W.V.S. meeting."
"Yes, but it's aching dreadfully now, in consequence," said Mrs. Sanson, and immediately, with the strange inner magic of the true hypochondriac, blue shadows were painted about her eyes, and her face was all etched into delicate lines of pain. "Really, Esther, I do think, dearest, that you're sacrificing both of us, unnecessarily; after all, you're needed, here at home." She sat curled up like a kitten on the sofa, watching her daughter from under her long, soft, golden eyelashes; and tried on a little act that never had failed before. "Of course, my darling, if you really want to go ..."
Esther stood very still at the window, staring with unseeing eyes at the lovely Kentish countryside rolled out below her, and for the first time in her life she did not respond. She was twenty-seven, tall and too thin, with the narrow feet and slender hands that are supposed to go with good breeding; not beautiful but with the pure oval face and lifeless, leaf-brown hair of a madonna, descended from her niche in the wall of some quiet old church, to walk, gentle and reserved, through the tumult of an unfamiliar world. Unused as she was to opposing her mother's will, she knew that here was a matter in which she must make her own decision; and she said at last, slowly turning away from the window, standing with her back to the light: "It's not that I want to go; but I think I should."
"But, darling, why?"
"Because everybody's doing something, Mummy, and I must do my share. Besides, at least it will give me some sort of training, some sort of—well, I don't know—some sort of a life. If anything were to happen to you, darling, think how lost and helpless I should be. I wouldn't have any money, I wouldn't know anything, I wouldn't know anyone. But with this behind me—and I've always wanted to nurse ..."
"Oh, well, as to that," said Mrs. Sanson, "you've got a terribly exalted idea of nursing, you know. I mean, it's horrid really, darling, honestly it is; nothing but dirt and squalor and nasty smells."
Since Esther had tenderly nursed her mother through several years of perfect health, there was not very much that she could learn from her on that subject. She merely smiled sadly and said that she would have to risk not liking the work. "I'm not going for pleasure, after all, am I? I shall probably scrub floors all day long and never even get as far as making a bed." She came over suddenly and sat on the floor, leaning her head wearily against her mother's knees. "Darling—be kind to me! Do understand. It isn't that I like to go, but I think I ought to. It's your sacrifice, too, Mummy dearest; we've both got to make it. You're always the brave and gay and strong one; be brave for us both this time, and let me go."
But her mother shrank away from her, curling herself up into a small, frightened ball in the corner of the sofa, covering her big, blue eyes with her little hands. "It's the air-raids, Esther. The airraids! Supposing I were up here, all alone, helpless—and bombs began to fall! How should I manage? What could I do? Esther, don't go, darling, and leave me here alone; tell them you won't go, tell them you can't go—tear the letter up!"
But Esther got to her feet and dragged herself downstairs and posted it.
Higgins knew the handwritings on the next two letters. One was the crabbed old fist of Mr. Moon who had been surgeon in Heronsford as long as one could remember; the other was that of the local anæsthetist, Barnes. "I wonder if that means they're both coming 'ere?" thought Higgins, frowning down upon the two envelopes. "I'd've thought Barnes, at least, would've wanted to go somewhere else. Well, I suppose if they're in the Army they has to go where they're told."
Dr. Barnes said much the same thing to Mr. Moon as, having posted their letters, they walked up the hill together to their several homes. "I've applied to go to Heron's Park so that I can give my father a hand with the practice now and then; but we're in the Army now, sir, whether we like it or not."
"I think I do like it," said Moon, trotting along beside him, but, thanks to conscientious early-morning runs, not puffing at all. He was a stooping, plump little man like a miniature Churchill but with all the pugnacity gone out of him; with soft pink cheeks and fluffy white hair, exceedingly thin on top. His blue eyes twinkled with kindness and he talked into his boots with little exclamations and chuckles, like a character out of Dickens, though with none of the foolish softness of Dickensian benevolence. "I think I do like it; I like it very much."
"It'll make a change," said Barnes.
"I can do with a change you know, Barney," said Moon, with a little twist of his kind old face. "That house of mine—now that I've got a chance to leave it, I wonder how I've endured it all these years. Fifteen years I've lived in that house, all by myself; and I don't think there's been a day that I haven't lifted my head suddenly and listened, thinking that I heard my boy laughing ... thinking I heard him come clattering down the stairs. Well, well—I can find it in my heart now to be grateful, I suppose; now that the war's come, I mean. He'd have been of age, you know; I'd have had to send him off, to see him go off to France or the East or somewhere.... I'd have had to wait and hunger for news of him; he might have been posted missing, perhaps, or killed, and without any news of what had really happened. It's that telegram business.... I don't think I could have borne that. I don't think his mother could have borne it, if she'd been alive. The gods act in their own mysterious ways, don't they, Barney? Who would have thought in all these years that I could ever have found it in my heart to say that I was glad that my boy had been killed?"
Barnes was silent, not from any lack of sympathy, but because he was a man who could not easily put his feelings into words. He was in his late thirties, not very tall, not very good-looking, but radiant with the charm of absolute integrity; sensitive, modest, rather shy, honest to an almost painful degree. He, too, was glad to go into the Army. "That Evans girl," he said; "the one who died under the anæsthetic last week—I've had an anonymous letter about her to-day. I think it's a good thing I'm getting out of the practice for a bit; I shall be Brave Lieutenant Barnes, serving his King and Country, and by the time the war's ended the whole thing will have blown over."
"But, my dear boy, the death was no earthly fault of yours."
"Well, we know that now," said Barnes, shrugging his shoulders, "but I couldn't account for it at the time. I got it into my head that I'd seen the tubes crossed during the operation—the oxygen and the nitrous oxide, you know; it must have been my imagination, but I was worrying about what could have gone wrong, and I kept getting a sort of vision of the two tubes crossing instead of being separate. I went into the theatre and asked them to check up; everything had been put away by then, of course, but nobody had noticed anything wrong ... only the staff are mostly local people and my asking must have put ideas into their heads, and I suppose they talked. The mother came to me after the inquest and accused me of murdering the girl. It was—oh, it was horrible! Of course they decided that the findings at the inquest had been cooked, to protect me. She said they would get up a round robin or something or other, and hound me out of the town. They could too, you know; that kind of mud sticks in a one-horse place like Heronsford. It's fortunate for me, really, that the war's come when it has, if it had to come; my father can carry on the practice while I'm in the Army, and by the time it's all over the affair will have fizzled out."
"The panel patient is a strange animile," said Moon, pacing along beside him thoughtfully. "When you think of all that you've done for this town, you and your father, Barnes...."
"I wonder if T. Atkins is going to be so very much different," said Barney pessimistically.
Two more letters; both from women. One very neat and correct, a pretty round hand, a pretty grey-blue notepaper, the stamp stuck neatly in the corner; the other on a cheap, white envelope, addressed to the Matron, the Sisters' Mess—the handwriting sputtering across the paper, uncertain and ill at ease. V.A.D. Frederica Linley, and Sister Bates of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, reporting to Heron's Park Military Hospital....
Frederica's father who for thirty years had been a legend in some outpost of Empire, had subsequently settled down in Dinard, where he could by no means be got to appreciate that the inhabitants had not only never heard of the legend, but had never even heard of the Outpost. The war put an end to this embarrassing state of affairs and, on a nightmare voyage to England, he met and affianced himself to a wealthy widow with a proper respect for the pioneers of the East. Frederica received the news with her habitual calm. "I think she's too frightful, Daddy," she said, "but it's you that's got to sleep with her, not me," and she absented herself from the new home upon a series of lectures, and finally wrote off to Heron's Park that she would be arriving for duty on such-and-such a day, as instructed. Since a blowsy trollop of fifty cannot be expected to care for competition from an exquisite, self-possessed little creature of twenty-two, the ex-widow was not sorry to see her go.
The reaction of Sister Bates to her transition from civilian to military nursing, was simple and forthright. She thought: "Perhaps I shall meet some nice officers!" and lest anyone be tempted to despise such single-minded devotion to the opposite sex, it may be pointed out that this innocent aspiration was shared in a greater or less degree, by twenty future members of the Sisters' Mess, and at least fifty V.A.D.s.
Seven letters. Old Mr. Moon and young Dr. Barnes, and Gervase Eden, surgeon, of Harley Street; Sister Marion Bates; Jane Woods and Esther Sanson and Frederica Linley, V.A.D.s. Higgins shuffled the envelopes together impatiently, and wrapped them round with a piece of grubby tape and thrust them into his pocket, plodding on, wheeling his bicycle up the hill. He could not know that, just a year later, one of the writers would die, self-confessed a murderer.
Excerpted from Green for Danger by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1944 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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