When Alec first arrived at the front, he thought that worse than the rats, and the vile smell of rotting sandbags and decomposing corpses, was the roar of shellfire and mortar blasts. However, it hadn’t been long before he’d realized it was the silence that was most unnerving – that oppressive lull between attacks, the interminable waiting. Alec was most anxious when he was on sentry duty, though, at least tonight, he could take comfort in the knowledge that Maurice was finally getting some sleep.
Maurice had been diligently draining the trenches, mending duckboards and filling sandbags. These were responsibilities everyone was expected to share, but Maurice seemed especially keen. Some men in their unit thought Maurice was trying to avoid danger by seeking out soft jobs, but Alec knew it was Maurice’s way of coping. While other soldiers hurled themselves over the top, desperate to escape the horrors of the trenches, whatever the cost, Maurice simply threw himself into another task. Alec, much to his surprise, found solace in reading and, sometimes, even writing. After Maurice had shaved his head, Alec had written almost half a page about the shorn golden hair before he’d crumpled up his composition and burnt it on the end of a cigarette.
Alec hadn’t been on sentry duty for long when he tensed, his hand automatically reaching for his rifle. He thought he’d caught a glimpse of grey, the sleeve of a uniform, from the corner of his eye, but now he wondered if he’d imagined it. Although the moon was full, Alec knew how easily a soldier’s eyes could be deceived while on sentry duty. Alec was lowering his hand when he saw it again: a flash of grey. He seized his rife and, wedging himself between two sandbags, cocked his weapon. He could now see two soldiers crawling across No Man’s Land on their bellies. Alec aimed, his finger on the trigger. Then he recognized the outline of a Brodie helmet in the moonlight and realized that the grey wasn’t grey but khaki.
Alec took a deep breath, hoping his voice didn’t quaver. “Password?”
“I haven’t the foggiest. Open sesame?”
That wasn’t the password, but Alec knew the enemy couldn’t possibly be that stupid. They’d have lost the war by now if they were. He dropped his weapon and slumped down on the ground, shaking. He was still shaking when two men leapt into the sap beside him.
“I could have shot you,” Alec said. “I could have bloody shot you. Who the fuck are you and what the fuck are you doing?”
The older of the two men pulled out a cigarette and clamped it between his teeth. “Keep your hair on,” he muttered. “You’re so beastly dramatic.” He patted his pockets with a muddy hand. That was when Alec spotted the crown and three pips on the man’s sleeve. He couldn’t remember what the insignia represented, but he knew it was a high rank. He quickly pulled out a box of matches and offered it to the man.
“Oh, you are a brick,” the man said.
In the glow of the cigarette, Alec was able to make out the man’s features. Although he appeared to be in his late forties or early fifties, the spark of boyish excitement in his eyes made him seem younger.
“Here, MacGregor.” The man threw the matches and the pack of cigarettes to the other soldier.
“Thanks. I’ve been dying for one.” MacGregor shook out a cigarette and was soon inhaling gratefully.
Alec studied MacGregor curiously. He had already cast a quick glance at him to ensure that he wasn’t a high-ranking officer, but he obviously hadn’t looked closely enough. It wasn’t until he heard the accent, and took a second look at the uniform, that he realized MacGregor was Canadian.
As if sensing Alec’s confusion, MacGregor thrust out his hand. “Sergeant MacGregor, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry.”
Ignoring the mud, Alec shook MacGregor’s hand. “Private Scudder.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” MacGregor nodded at his companion. “This is Brigadier Corkran.”
“Sir.” Alec scrambled to his feet then stood awkwardly, torn by indecision. Should he return to his post and wait for the NCO or should he escort the brigadier to his CO?
“It’s all right, ducky,” Corkran said. “Your Uncle Stalky will muddle through.” He rose gracefully, heading for the front-line trench. Alec stared at Corkran then, shaking his head, returned to his post. He had assumed MacGregor would follow Corkran, so he was surprised when he stubbed out his cigarette and remained in the sap.
“Did you really think we were Germans?” MacGregor asked as Alec peered between two sandbags.
“Yes, I bloody well did!” Alec said. Then, remembering that MacGregor outranked him, he added, “Sir.”
MacGregor grinned, appearing not to care. “I’ve been teaching Brigadier Corkran about trench raiding.”
“By attacking his own side?”
“Well, we couldn’t carry out a practice raid against the Germans,” MacGregor said. “I wanted to attack my own unit, but he insisted on the element of surprise.”
“It worked,” Alec grumbled.
“But you weren’t surprised. You wouldn’t have been aiming your rifle at us if you had been.”
Alec tore his eyes away from No Man’s Land. “Why would a brigadier want to go on a trench raid? For that matter, why would a brigadier want to be in a trench in the first place?”
“Brigadier Corkran isn’t your typical brigadier. There’s really nothing typical about him at all.” MacGregor smiled to himself. “He spent three days in the trenches with us. He could have sent someone else, but he wanted to hear our stories for himself.”
Before he could stop himself, Alec blurted out the first thought that popped into his head. “Are you sure he ain’t balmy?”
MacGregor laughed. “I have absolutely no idea. Maybe I should let you judge that for yourself.”
Gauging Brigadier Corkran’s sanity wasn’t an easy task. Two days later, Alec was no closer to the truth. Corkran was obviously a seasoned soldier, but there were times when he seemed more like a boy than a man. Alec had just seen him in the communication trench showing Private Edwards the most effective way to kill a rat using a catapult. Then there were the school stories he’d shared the previous night.
Alec’s unit had found the stories hilarious, but, then, most of the soldiers had been instantly enchanted by Corkran. The only man who hadn’t fallen under his spell was Maurice. Alec had been surprised. He’d thought Maurice would have at least warmed to Corkran’s stories considering that he’d gone to a public school himself. However, Maurice had remained stony and silent throughout. When Alec had asked him about it afterwards, Maurice had shrugged and said that Corkran simply rubbed him the wrong way. Alec knew there was more to it than that, so he pressed him again. Maurice had muttered a curse, searched for a cigarette, and told Alec that Corkran reminded him of a politician, that he was all wit and charm on the surface, but deceitful and cunning underneath. Under any other circumstances, Alec would have been delighted as Maurice had basically provided a description of Clive Durham as well – and although Alec knew that Maurice had stopped loving Durham a long time ago, he still appreciated a bit of proof now and then. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times because as much as he disliked Durham, he couldn’t help admiring Corkran, despite his lunacy.
Alec was just approaching a firebay when a hand reached around and pulled him inside. Alec grinned, assuming Maurice was trying to sneak a quick kiss. He was slammed against the firebay wall instead.
“Maurice! What are you…?” Alec trailed off when he saw Maurice’s face. It was pale and his whole body trembled. Alec reached out for Maurice in alarm, thinking he must be wounded and in shock, only to have his hand shoved away. That was when he realized fury had seized Maurice. He was angrier than Alec had ever seen him.
“You selfish little shit,” Maurice said. “You heartless little shit.”
Oh God, he knows. Alec had hoped he could keep it from Maurice a little longer, hoped, in fact, that he might have been able to keep it from him altogether, that he might be there and back again before Maurice even noticed. Well, assuming he wasn’t killed.
Maurice started shaking him. “How could you do this to me? To us?”
Maurice, it’s-it’s not what you think. I – ” You’re what? Sorry about the trench raid? Sorry you hurt him?
Maurice was gripping Alec tightly by the collar, desperation warring against rage. “Don’t do it, Alec.”
Alec swallowed. “He’s a brigadier. Can’t exactly say no, can I?”
Maurice’s face flushed, but his eyes were positively icy. “You weren’t ordered to go. MacGregor says Corkran only asked you to consider it, and you willingly volunteered!” Maurice released Alec and looked away, as if the very sight of his lover disgusted him. “I thought we agreed not to take any unnecessary risks. We were supposed to play it safe, remember?”
Alec laughed. “Safe? On the front? There’s nothing safe here. I could die tomorrow wiring or sitting on the latrine.”
“Then die tomorrow, you bastard,” Maurice growled. “At least that’s one more day. You won’t get that from Corkran. This is all just a game to him and he’ll treat it as such.”
Alec threw up his hands in exasperation. “What am I supposed to do? Tell Corkran I’ve changed my mind?”
“Yes,” Maurice said, “that’s exactly what you should do, Alec.”
Alec laughed again, unable to stem the rising panic. “I could be branded a coward, maybe even court-martialled. They could haul me up before a firing squad. Oh, but you’d see that as a good thing ’cause I’d live longer.” Alec snorted and shook his head. “We might be able to gather useful intelligence, Maurice. If the trench raid is successful, we’ll be that much closer to winning the war and – ”
“Returning to Blighty? Yes, I’ve heard the speech before.” Maurice crossed his arms, his gaze unflinching. “None of that will matter if you’re dead. I have no home without you. How can anywhere be home if you’re not there?”
Alec sighed, closing his eyes. “Maurice – ”
“Don’t do it, Alec. Please.”
Alec wished he knew what to say. Maurice refused to believe he was doing this for them, and Alec didn’t blame him. He knew it was a lie. He hadn’t volunteered for their sake, but his own. His actions had been driven by selfishness and pride.
Alec had rarely been singled out for anything in his life. Until he’d met Maurice, he’d never been asked what he wanted. He had gone from being bossed around by his parents and older siblings to being ordered about by the Durhams. Of course, the war hadn’t been any different – not until a brigadier had requested – not ordered – his assistance.
Alec couldn’t help being flattered when Corkran had approached him about the trench raid, but, when he looked at himself through Maurice’s eyes, he saw a reckless fool who had been incredibly naïve and foolish. Consumed by shame and guilt, Alec lashed out. “What happened to the man who was willing to give up everything, so we could be together, the man who believed we could do anything? He wasn’t afraid.”
Alec expected Maurice to strike a blow himself, but Maurice only smiled sadly and cupped Alec’s face in his hands. “It was easy then. I had nothing to lose. Now, I could lose everything.” He kissed Alec tenderly on the lips. “Be careful, my love.”
Alec thought he’d be petrified, but he felt surprisingly calm. In fact, none of the men around him seemed nervous or scared, just focused on preparing for the raid. Those who weren’t applying burnt cork to their faces were checking their arsenal of weapons. Everyone carried hand grenades in case of emergency, but there were also knives, brass knuckles, clubs, bayonets and hatchets. While Alec was used to the sight of blood, having been a butcher’s son and an under-gamekeeper, he wasn’t particularly fond of spilling it. If he was forced to kill someone, he’d choose his club over a knife or bayonet. It might still be bloody, of course, but it seemed less vicious somehow. He had discussed the matter with MacGregor, but MacGregor didn’t seem concerned about what method he used as long as it was quiet and efficient.
Corkran had started performing a headcount. It should have been a simple task as there was only a small group of soldiers involved in the trench raid, but Corkran stopped mid-count and ended up starting again from the beginning. Then he paused, a finger in the air, before he shrugged and began addressing his men.
“Well, chaps, it’s an awful biznai bung through, but if you keep your eye on your Uncle Stalky, he’ll pull you through. Now, I don’t want any beastly heroics. I’d rather you funk it than make howlin' asses of yourselves. If I tell you to bunk, then you’d jolly well better leg it back here. Twiggez-vous? Once we secure the trench, we’ll have to be hellish quick. Take what you can and run. Don’t worry about bagging any prisoners. Leave that to your Uncle.”
“Uncles, sir,” MacGregor said.
Corkran smiled softly. “All right, de-ah. No need to get wrathy.”
MacGregor frowned. “I’m not wrathy, sir. I don’t even know what that means.”
Corkran patted MacGregor’s shoulder. “Oh, but they’ll know, ducky. They’ll know soon enough.” He moved over to the periscope and took a long look through it. The sun had almost set and darkness was enveloping the trench. “We’ll wait another hour before we stalk.”
The minutes of that hour crawled at a relentlessly sluggish pace, but Alec was still surprised when the trench raid commenced as no time seemed to have passed at all.
Alec knew that he should be going through everything he’d learned about trench raiding, but, as he crossed No Man’s Land, all he could think of was Maurice. He knew he might never see Maurice again, so he tried to burn an image of him in his mind. If he was going to die, he wanted to at least be able to see Maurice’s face if he couldn’t be with him.
As they approached the enemy’s front-line trench, Alec kept his eyes peeled for the glow of cigarettes. But it was the murmur of German voices that Alec detected first. They drifted up from the trench, transported on the wind. Alec glanced at his team members to see whether they’d heard it too. Then he was scrabbling in the mud, trying to catch up with Shaw and Collier, who were homing in on the section of the trench where they’d heard the voices.
Alec was sure he was going to be shot. His heart pounded as he crawled towards the trench, terrified lest he make a noise and alert the enemy. He was amazed when he actually made it without a bullet in his chest.
Alec landed in the trench in time to see Collier stab a German soldier with his bayonet, Shaw stepping in quickly to muffle the man’s cry. Alec turned away, revolted by the sight, and found himself face to face with another German soldier, except he wasn’t a soldier. He was only a boy who looked like he was about sixteen at most. The boy was staring at Collier in horror, his big blue eyes growing even wider when he took in the bayonet. Spotting the boy, Collier started closing in, bayonet in hand. Alec fumbled hastily for his club then struck the boy across the forehead. Collier nodded his approval and knelt down beside Shaw to search the dead soldier’s body for anything useful. Alec gazed down at the boy, hoping he wasn’t dead but merely unconscious. Then, sighing, he lowered himself down on his haunches and began looking through the boy’s possessions. About a minute later, Alec had unearthed half a pack of cigarettes, a set of playing cards, a letter from “Mama und Papa,” and a shabby notebook that appeared to be full of sketches. There were no maps or any other important documents – not that Alec had expected to find any. He returned what little he had found, stuffing the objects back in the boy’s pockets. He was about to ask Shaw and Collier if they’d had any success when he heard shouting further along the trench.
“Fall back,” Shaw said, already rushing to the trench parapet. A few seconds later, an explosion rocked the ground, almost knocking Alec off his feet. Grenade in one of the dugouts? Alec decided not to waste time thinking about it. He climbed out of the trench and broke into a run. A shell exploded about ten feet away from him, and this time he did fall. But he was back on his feet an instant later, knowing he had to get back across No Man’s Land. He only made it a few feet before a sharp, burning pain seized his right shoulder. He crashed to his knees and then couldn’t stop himself from toppling in the mud.
Alec’s worse fear had been dying on the end of a bayonet, but, as the searing pain of a bullet ripped through him instead, he didn’t exactly feel lucky. His vision was greying, and he didn’t know if it was due to the relentless fire in his shoulder or because half his face was submerged in the mud. He was beginning to pass out when there were hands on his shoulders and someone was calling his name. Alec half-screamed, half-sobbed, as he was flipped on his back.
“Shh, shh. I know. I’m sorry.”
“Maurice?” Alec stared up blearily, trying to make out the blackened face hovering above him, thinking he must be hallucinating. Maurice had refused to take part in the trench raid. He wasn’t supposed to be here. Then Alec remembered Corkran’s confusion during the headcount and knew what Maurice had done. “Oh, no,” he whispered. “Maurice...”
“It’s all right, Alec. I’m here.”
“Thought I’d never see you again.” Alec raised his left hand, trying to reach out to Maurice, to ensure that he was real. His hand started sinking before he was even halfway there, but Maurice caught it, kissing the back of it fervently.
“I love you, Alec”
“Love you too.”
Alec’s eyes began to close. This is it, he thought. I'm going to die. Then he was jolted back to his senses as a fresh wave of agony tore through him. He was being lifted from the ground and thrown across someone’s shoulders. He assumed it was Maurice before he caught a quick glimpse of him still sitting on the ground. It wasn’t until he heard the yelling that he realized it was Corkran.
“Bunk, damn you! Run, you stupid ass!”
“I was almost shot once – by the Malôts in Simla. Or maybe it was the beastly Khye-Kheens. Of course, the first time I was almost shot was in the Bunkers at the Coll, but that was just a sally.”
Alec pried open his eyes and tried to focus on his visitor. It looked like Corkran, which would explain why he was having trouble understanding him. He might have blamed the morphine, but he’d only been able to understand about half of what Corkran said before he was wounded. Alec tried to concentrate – not just to make sense of Corkran’s words but to try to remember. His memories following the trench raid were sketchy at best, but he knew there was something that had been nagging at him, something he needed to ask Corkran. Then it hit him.
“Sir, is Maurice-I-I mean Hall…Has Hall been court-martialled, sir?”
Corkran seemed momentarily confused. “Court-martialled? Oh, because he abandoned his post and disobeyed orders?”
Alec winced. “He didn’t exactly disobey orders, sir. You didn’t order him not to go on the trench raid.”
“The deuce I didn’t! I certainly never gave him my giddy blessings!” Corkran’s eyes narrowed as he studied Alec. “How much morphine have they put you on, Private?”
“I don’t rightly know, sir,” Alec said.
Corkran didn’t look surprised. “Hall hasn’t been court-martialled, though he jolly well ought to be.” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “We bagged a prisoner – a lieutenant or, rather, an oberleutnant. It took time, but we managed to extract information from him. It was probably the corkscrews that broke him, though I suppose it could have been the Ag Ag.”
Ag Ag? If he shut his eyes would Corkran believe he’d fallen asleep? Alec was wondering if there was a tactful way to ask whether Corkran had actually meant to visit another wounded soldier instead, when Corkran sighed and ran a hand across his face.
Alec stared at Corkran in disbelief. “Dead?”
“Like Hall, he disobeyed an order,” Corkran said. “I told him to bunk, but he didn’t listen to his Uncle. We’d already bagged our prisoner, but the crazy idiot wanted to venture once more unto the breach and was shot between the eyes.”
Despite the haze of drugs, Alec felt his temper rising. He remembered a conversation he’d overheard in the ward. Two Australians had been discussing the carnage at Fromelles and the way GHQ had used their troops as cannon fodder. Corkran seemed to share the same attitude as GHQ given his lack of sensitivity over MacGregor’s death. Alec glared at him coldly, speaking before he could think better of it. “You don’t care about MacGregor because he was Canadian. He was expendable, like all the other soldiers from the colonies.”
Corkran frowned, forehead creasing. “Why the deuce would you think that? I jolly well liked MacGregor. I liked him a lot.” He sat in pensive silence until Alec decided to enlighten him. Then Corkran nodded in understanding and leaned forward, lowering his voice. “Well, I suppose I can’t blame them for being bitter. The way GHQ has treated these chaps from the colonies is ’trocious bad, but MacGregor didn’t die because he was Canadian. MacGregor died because he was an ass.”
“He wasn’t an ass,” Alec said. “He was braver than any of us. Certainly braver than you.”
“Braver? Possibly. Stalkier? Not bloody likely. Oh, don’t be wrathy. I don’t even know why I’m botherin’ to talk to you when you’re pumped to the gills with morphine.”
Alec scowled but said nothing. He couldn’t really argue with that.
Corkran’s lips twitched. “You should meet my friend, M’Turk. He doesn’t think much of the English either.” Corkran reached inside his pocket and pulled out an envelope. “Hall tells me you used to be a gamekeeper.”
Alec shook his head, glad to be able to contradict him. “No, I was an under-gamekeeper.”
Corkran rolled his eyes. “Close enough. Turkey’s so desperate, I doubt he’ll care.”
“Desperate?” Alec asked.
“For a beastly gamekeeper. It says so in this letter.” Corkran raised the envelope, waving it in front of Alec. “You’ll need an occupation once you’re discharged.”
Alec snorted. “If I survive the war.”
Corkran slowly lowered the envelope. “Oh. I thought you knew. You’ll be going home soon, Private.”
“Home?” Alec knew the word, of course, but it took him several seconds to comprehend its full meaning. “No. No, I can’t.” He shoved against his pillow, trying to sit up, gritting his teeth at the pain that blazed in his shoulder. Corkran was there in an instant, pushing him back down with surprising gentleness.
“Keep your hair on, Scudder. I thought you’d be happy. It’s absolutely rummy news. Hefty fids and gloats.”
Alec struggled against the hand pressing him down on the mattress. “I don’t want to go home. Please, sir. Send me back to the front.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Corkran said. “You’re damned lucky to be going home. Most men would be begging to be in your shoes.”
“Then send one of them home instead. I-I want to fight for my country, sir.” Alec was still trying to shift Corkran’s hand off his chest. Corkran pushed down harder, and Alec saw anger flash in his eyes.
“What rot!” Corkran hissed. “You’re only here because you were both conscripted – and you managed to avoid that for several months. You beastly sodomites don’t give a damn about your country. You only care about yourselves.”
Alec couldn’t speak, couldn’t even breathe. He was helpless, trapped. He was a rabbit in a snare, only Corkran wasn’t a gamekeeper: he was a snake waiting to strike. Alec swallowed, trying to find his voice, trying to claw past his fear. “We’re-we’re just friends, sir. We ain’t – ”
“Friends who make declarations of love bung in the middle of No Man’s Land? No, Scudder, de-ah. I don’t jolly think so.”
Alec tried to think of some way to appease Corkran. It was too late to save himself, but maybe he could still save Maurice. “It’s-it’s me, sir. I’m the-the sodomite, sir. Mau-Hall only said those things because he thought I was dying. He-he was trying to comfort me because he knew I’d always wanted him. He was being…nice.”
Corkran raised an eyebrow. “Nice? Hall disobeyed orders and risked his life trying to save you, and you think he was being ‘nice’? You ungrateful little swine.”
Alec gaped at Corkran, not sure what to say.
“Listen, ducky,” Corkran said. “It makes no difference to me how much you two have buggered each other. It’s no concern of mine. My only concern is your future caree-ahs.”
To his shame, Alec’s eyes flooded with tears. “Please let me go back, sir. He needs me. I-I can’t leave him there all by himself.”
Corkran lifted his hand from Alec’s chest and grasped his uninjured shoulder. “He won’t be alone, Scudder. He won’t even be on the Western Front.”
“I’m leading an allied force across Persia to obtain information, train men, command the locals, and so on,” Corkran said. “I recruited Hall, who seemed quite happy at the prospect. The mission could be damned dangerous, but at least he’ll be out of the trenches.”
Alec could hardly believe it. “He won’t have to fight in the trenches anymore?”
Corkran smirked, looking entirely too smug. “No, he’s in Uncle Stalky’s company now.”
Deeply relieved, Alec smiled for the first time since he’d been shot. “Thank you, sir.”
“You may not thank me when you reach Ireland, de-ah.”
Alec’s smile faded. “Ireland?”
“To be Turkey’s gamekeeper, of course. His estate’s in Ireland.” The letter made a reappearance, and Alec eyed it warily. “My Aunt! I almost forgot. I have a very important question to ask you.”
“Do you shoot foxes?”
Corkran had asked him the same question weeks ago, but it still took Alec by surprise: not because he hadn’t been expecting it, but because he hadn’t been expecting it so soon. He certainly hadn’t thought it would be the first question M’Turk would ask.
“Well, do you?” M’Turk was lounging in an armchair, regarding Alec with a haughty, almost imperious, expression. He reminded Alec of that old bitch, Clive Durham’s mother. It took some effort, but Alec resisted the urge to tell M’Turk what he’d really like to shoot.
“No, sir, of course not,” Alec said.
M’Turk was now studying Alec shrewdly. “You’ve been cribbing.”
“Don’t be an ass, Turkey. So what if he has been cribbing? We used to crib all the time.”
Alec’s head turned sharply to the entrance of the drawing room. A man with a moustache and thick spectacles was leaning against the door jamb. He was smiling, but his face was wan and his eyes haunted. It was a look Alec knew all too well.
M’Turk sank even further into his chair, folding his arms. “It isn’t the cribbing I object to, but the teacher. What the deuce does Stalky know about gamekeeping?”
“He knows not to shoot foxes.”
M’Turk rolled his eyes dramatically. “I taught him that when we were sixteen, Beetle, de-ah.”
“Then why are you jawin’ about his giddy ignorance?”
“Because there’s more to being a beastly gamekeeper than just that.”
“A gamekeeper has to make sure there’s enough game for shooting and stop poachers,” Alec said. “Then there’s rearing and releasing game birds and killing vermin.”
M’Turk jumped up from the armchair, pointing at Alec frantically. “Killing vermin like foxes, you mean! By Gum! You were thinking of foxes, weren’t you?”
Alec was momentarily startled by his potential employer’s wild accusations, but he quickly recovered. “No, sir, I was thinking of rodents. I like foxes because they keep the vermin down.”
M’Turk still wasn’t satisfied. “Then you don’t see them as a threat? You don’t worry about them making away with your chickens and so forth?”
“I-I don’t have any chickens, sir. Why? Do you?”
There was a loud snigger from the door that was quickly muffled. M’Turk flushed but gave no other indication that he’d heard it.
“No, I don’t keep chickens, but some of my tenants do. They’d jolly well shoot a fox on sight if they didn’t know I’d come down on them like Jove, destricto ense.” * M’Turk cleared his throat and finally sat down again. “So, Scudder, do you believe in preservin’?”
Alec, who was beginning to lose patience, said, “Yes, I believe in preservin’. I ain’t a gentleman, so I don’t shoot animals for sport.”
Another man might have been angered by Alec’s remark, but M’Turk smiled and leaned back in his armchair, looking immensely satisfied. “You’ll do. The lodge isn’t ready yet. I’m having some work done. The last gamekeeper went off his head and left the place in a frightful state.” He shared an amused glance with Beetle, whose mouth was twitching under his moustache. “There’s plenty of space in the servants’ quarters. Nora will find you a room. Then we’ll take you on a tour of the grounds. Beetle could use the exercise.”
Beetle laughed. “Me? When was the last time you walked the grounds, Turkey? Too busy playing the giddy lord of the manor, I should think. You look like a stuffed cat in that hideous armchair of yours.”
“Hideous! It’s a bloody Chippendale, you beastly pleb!”
“Doesn’t make it any less hideous.”
“What rot! It’s completely rummy! You have the aesthetic sense of a blind mole, you-you abject burbler!”
Alec decided it was probably best not to point out that all moles were more or less blind, not that it really mattered. M’Turk and Beetle were so caught up in their argument that Alec doubted they would even notice. Beetle had moved from the door and was standing directly in front of M’Turk. Alec was exceedingly grateful as it meant he could make a hasty exit and go off in search of Nora. However, Nora had apparently anticipated her master’s wishes because Alec spotted her fiery head as she entered the corridor and headed for the drawing room. She stopped when she saw Alec, staring at him in amazement.
“You’re not crying.”
“Why?” Alec asked. “Should I be?”
“The last man interviewed for the position left in a flood of tears, though he wasn’t up to much.” Nora grinned and her bright blue eyes sparkled in amusement.
Alec grinned himself. “It might still end in tears. I’ve just been hired as the new gamekeeper.”
Nora raised an eyebrow. “Have you, now? Well, I hope you fare better than the last gamekeeper. We’re still tidying the mess.”
“Yes, about that. What happened to him?”
Nora considered the question for a moment before answering. “I think Mr. Beetle put it best when he said Mr. Conroy had gone ‘berserk’. Of course, it isn’t any wonder in a household like this. Mr. M’Turk is just about as mad as they come – him and his friends.”
“I should fit in, then,” Alec said. “All I’ve seen lately is madness. I don’t know if I can even recognize anything else anymore.”
Nora laid a hand on Alec’s arm. “I’m sorry. I’ve got two brothers fighting on the front, so you have my sympathy. You truly do.”
Alec looked down at his boots, wishing he hadn’t brought up such a painful subject. “No, it’s me that should be sorry. I shouldn’t have said nought about it.”
Nora shook her head firmly. “You’ve nothing to be sorry about. You English keep too much bottled up, like. It would do you good to talk more about such things, rather than sweeping them under the carpet.” Nora tightened her grip on Alec’s arm. “You can talk to me about the war as much as you’d like, only be sure it’s out of earshot of Mr. Beetle.”
“Did he fight in the war?” Alec asked. “He seemed…Well, he seemed…”
“Sad? Haunted? Aye, he’d be that, to be sure. His son is missing in action, presumed dead.” Nora looped an arm through Alec’s and led him away from the drawing room. “Mr. M’Turk went to England as soon as he heard the news and brought Mr. Beetle back here. Mr. Beetle is a widower, you see. His wife died shortly after his son was born. I don’t know if Mr. Beetle has any other relations. What I do know is that he won’t discuss the war, and Mr. M’Turk respects that.”
“Jesus,” Alec said. “I’m surprised I was allowed to step foot in this house, though Mr. M’Turk must have known. Brigadier Corkran would have told him about me in his letter.”
“Oh, I’m sure Mr. M’Turk knew exactly what he was doing. He usually does.” Nora patted Alec’s hand. “Let’s get you settled then I’ll show you round the house.”
* with drawn sword.
Alec readapted fairly easily to a servant’s life. He’d once been chafed by the structure and routine, but he now found them reassuring as he’d become accustomed to the strict military regime of the trenches. Of course, he wasn’t working on a typical estate, and William M’Turk was very different from Clive Durham. For one thing, Clive Durham had never roller-skated up and down corridors or waltzed with a kitchen maid in the dining room. He also would have never taken a personal interest in his servants.
M’Turk had caught Alec reading a battered copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. Alec had found it in the garden and hadn’t realized that it belonged to Beetle. He was sure M’Turk would accuse him of stealing, but, instead, M’Turk had told Alec that he should finish reading the book and was welcome to use the library. Fearing that M’Turk might change his mind, Alec wasted no time in taking him up on the offer.
The first time Alec entered the library, he stared at the books in wonder. Then, almost reverently, he approached one of the shelves. He was aching to touch one of the leather bound spines, but he didn’t dare reach out for a book. At Pendersleigh, he probably would have been sacked on the spot if he’d been caught sniffing around their precious library. He could picture the look of shock on that old cow’s face. Then, as if imagining that Clive Durham’s mother was standing in the library, Alec grinned and pulled down a book.
Alec was careful about when he timed his visits. He often went late at night, when he was certain no one would be about. More often than not, he found himself in the library because of a nightmare or a bout of insomnia. The library was soothing, even by the limited light provided by his lamp. It had a beautiful tranquility about it, especially when the moonlight streamed through the windows and the musty smell of old books chased away the terrible stench of the war.
Occasionally, instead of reading, Alec took out his notebook and pencil. Sometimes, he wrote letters to Maurice that he knew would never be posted because the contents were too dangerous to them both. At other times, he wrote about the trenches because, as much as he wanted to blot out those memories, they wouldn’t let him rest. He wrote brief, detailed accounts, but there were bits of poetry as well.
One night, Alec fell asleep in one of the wing back chairs and, come morning, had to scramble back to his room before the rest of the household woke. He was in such a rush he didn’t realize that he’d left his notebook behind. By the time he noticed its absence, it was the middle of the day and he wasn’t able to fetch it. He hoped no one found it before he had a chance to retrieve it.
Alec waited until he was sure everyone was in bed before he returned to the library. He was expecting it to be empty, so he was disappointed to see Beetle sitting in the same chair he’d been sitting in the previous night when he’d fallen asleep. Alec was going to back out of the library when he saw his notebook in Beetle’s hands. Temper flaring, Alec stormed into the room to confront Beetle. Then he froze when he saw the unshed tears brimming in Beetle’s eyes.
“Is this yours?” Beetle asked. “Did you write all this?”
Alec swallowed and nodded, bracing himself.
“The spelling and grammar is absolutely appalling, but-but there’s such truth and unyielding honestly in everything you’ve written. It’s simply rippin’ stuff.”
Alec gave a nervous laugh, releasing the breath he’d been holding. “You-you really think so? I can’t help the spelling and grammar none as I never learnt much about all that in school – what schoolin’ I had, anyway.”
“The spelling and grammar can be fixed easily enough. The important thing is to get it all down, which is what you’ve done.”
Alec blushed. “I just wrote what I saw and remembered, sir.”
Beetle shook his head. “No, there’s more to it than that. You wrote about what you thought was most important. You chose your subjects with care.”
Alec bit his lip. “Actually, I only did that so I wouldn’t run out of room. I only have the one notebook, see.”
“I’ll get you another. You need to keep writing everything down, especially the poetry. I like that one about the robin perched on the bar-barbed wire…” Beetle trailed off, seemingly lost for words. Then, he raised a hand to his face and started sobbing. Horrified, Alec didn’t know what to do. He didn’t think it was his place to comfort Beetle, who was sure to resent such an act from a servant. He would probably be angry and humiliated enough knowing Alec had witnessed his tears. All the same, Alec had to do something. He couldn’t just leave Beetle like this.
Alec crept out of the library and went in search of M’Turk. At a time like this, a man needed a friend. It wasn’t something he should deal with alone.
Outside M’Turk’s bedroom, Alec took a deep breath and rapped on the door. When there was no response, Alec knocked louder. “I’m very sorry to disturb you, sir, but it’s Mr. Beetle. He’s – ”
The door swung open, and a rather rumpled and sleepy M’Turk stood staring at Alec across the threshold. “What’s happened? Is Beetle all right?”
“No, sir, he’s not. He’s in a right state and-and I wasn’t sure what else to do.”
“You did the right thing. I just…Hold on a sec.” M’Turk grabbed a dressing gown, attempting to throw it on as he walked out of his room. One sleeve dangled out of reach, so Alec guided M’Turk’s arm into it. “Thanks, Scudder. Where’s Beetle?”
“In the library, sir. I’ll-I’ll take you there.”
“He was drinking rather heavily after dinner. He hasn’t gone and smashed himself up, has he?”
“No, sir. It’s nothing like that.”
They made the journey to the library in silence, though M’Turk kept shooting curious glances in Alec’s direction. However, when he saw Beetle crying, he understood the situation well enough.
“Oh, Beetle.” M’Turk sat on the arm of the wing back chair and embraced Beetle around the shoulders. “It’s all right, ducky. Better out than in.”
“My boy, Turkey. My poor, poor boy.”
“I know, Beetle. Christ, I know.”
Alec watched helplessly as the two men remained in that tableau for several more minutes. Then, finally, mercifully, Beetle’s well ran dry. Beetle tried to stand, but stumbled, even with M’Turk’s support. Alec stepped forward and wedged his shoulder under Beetle’s arm. Beetle gazed at him in confusion.
“My Hat! You’re still here?”
“For as long as you need me, sir.”
“You probably want your notebook back.” Beetle looked around the library as if he were hoping to spot it, not realizing that it was clutched tightly in his hand.
“It’s all right, sir. You-you keep it for now.”
Beetle rolled his head towards M’Turk and giggled. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” *
M’Turk laughed quietly, but his smile was strained. “Come on, Beetle. It’s time for bed.”
* Who will guard the guards themselves? This line was spoken by Colonel Dabney in “In Ambush” when Prout claimed that he had the right to trespass on his lands in search of Stalky & Co. because he stood in loco parentis.
Alec was inside the pheasant enclosure when Beetle arrived. Alec distributed the remainder of the feed from his bucket before stepping outside.
Beetle reached into his coat pocket and pulled out Alec’s notebook. “I believe this belongs to you.”
“Thank you, sir.” Alec took the notebook from Beetle and was about to place it in his own coat pocket when he noticed that it was heavier than it should be. He glanced down and saw there were two notebooks instead of one. “I’m sorry, but I believe you’ve given me two notebooks by mistake.”
“No mistake, Scudder, de-ah. I promised you another notebook and here it is.”
Alec’s brow creased. It was still early – too early for the shops in the village to be open, surely. For that matter, it seemed too early for Beetle to even be awake, let alone up and about.
“It’s one of mine,” Beetle said. “Don’t worry. I haven’t written anything in it. The pages are still blank.”
“Oh, sir. I can’t take this from you.”
Beetle snorted. “It’s a giddy notebook, not a completed sonnet. Besides, there’s a condition.”
Beetle nodded. “I’d like to publish some of the things you’ve written. I own a newspaper and I was thinking that we could do a whole series on the war, but from an actual soldier’s perspective.”
Alec’s jaw dropped. “You want to publish what I’ve written?”
Beetle grinned. “Yes, Scudder, I jolly well do.”
Alec began to panic. “But-but my writing isn’t good enough. You-you said so yourself.”
“Noo-oo. I said the spelling and grammar needed work. That’s something we can go over together.”
“You’d-you’d help me?”
“Yes, of course.” Beetle produced a pack of cigarettes and offered one to Alec. Alec fumbled for a match to light both their cigarettes. “You look as if you might cat. Is it those love letters you’re worrying about? You needn’t fret about that. I wasn’t planning to publish them. I don’t wish to be arrested anymore than you do, ducky.”
Alec blanched. He hadn’t even thought of the letters.
“Breathe, Scudder. I have no intention of exposing you. Besides, those letters are private and obviously something only your Maurice is meant to read.” Beetle patted Alec’s shoulder in what was probably meant to be a reassuring manner, but Alec wasn’t reassured.
“Would a lot of people be reading what I’ve written?”
“Oh, yes. Heaps, I should think. My paper has a circulation of almost 7,000.”
Alec took a sharp breath and almost choked on his cigarette. “That’s more people than I’ve even seen before. What if they don’t like what I’ve written? I-I don’t want your paper to suffer because of me.”
Beetle laughed and clapped Alec on the back. “Oh, Scudder, you really haven’t a giddy clue, have you? If anything, you’ll likely increase the circulation.”
The day had hardly seemed fortuitous when it began. Mist had descended from the purple mountains, and the grey skies promised sheets of rain, but M’Turk had insisted they go out shooting. Beetle grumbled and cursed as they walked across the cold, damp grounds, voicing much of what Alec wished he could say himself. He thought M’Turk had more sense. The pheasants certainly did, which is why there were so few of them around. Unfortunately, far from being discouraged, M’Turk had a suppressed air of excitement about him, as if he were anticipating a whole bouquet of pheasants.
When it started raining, even M’Turk had to concede defeat. He suggested they take shelter in the lodge.
“But, sir,” Alec said, “I thought the lodge – ”
“Oh, I’m sure it will suffice, but perhaps you’d better go in first in case the roof caves in.”
Alec grimaced but did as he was asked. With the way it was pouring down, he was willing to take a chance if it meant he could be the first one out of the rain. All the same, he entered the building cautiously, almost as if expecting a shower of plaster to come down on his head. Then he walked into the parlour, and his rifle fell to the floor with a clatter.
It was Maurice. He was thinner, paler and supported by a cane, but it was still Maurice. Alec flew at him and held him tightly, weeping on his shoulder.
M’Turk and Beetle stood in the doorway, watching the reunion with suspiciously bright eyes.
“Well, it looks like the repairs were finished just in time,” M’Turk said.
“What rot. The beastly repairs were done weeks ago. You were just waiting for the right moment to spring it, such as the arrival of a certain telegram." Beetle looked at Maurice and Alec again and smiled. “Our Uncle Stalky is a Great Man.”