Everyone at the hospital was very kind, but the guard at my door was a constant reminder that I was still considered a criminal. In my condition, the military police weren’t expecting me to actually run away, but it was a matter of regulation to keep a close eye on someone charged of striking a superior officer. The wardroom that I had all to myself was brightly lit, and through the ornate leaded glass, I could see the well-kept lawn. This was a nobleman’s house that had been requisitioned by the army. Since I was two stories up, I had no thoughts of escaping that way.
Mind you, I’ve heard some terrible stories about the conditions of these hospitals, but as an officer I found the place clean enough, and it appeared to be professionally run. Again it was the case of the British and their damned class system. My soldiers would have been kept in abhorrent conditions, to the point where many refused medical care unless they no longer had a choice in the matter. My boys had their own home remedies for most of the common afflictions of the trenches.
Before I had even a chance to settle in, the military police marched into my room and began asking all the obvious questions. There were two nondescript Red Hats doing the questioning while a third hung back to watch. He was a tall major who had the look of an old copper – the blasé face that had seen it all. I’m not sure how such work marks a man, but it was there nonetheless – glassy eyes, a worn face and a sloppy uniform that would make any drill sergeant faint. But still the eyes would glitter with curiosity, and the head would minutely jerk up when I would say something he found interesting. When the questioners were done with their interview, they packed up and left without even giving me a proper goodbye.
The Major then approached the bed and I gave him a salute out of common courtesy. A closer look of the gentleman revealed nicotine-stained fingers, a badly done shaving job and hair graying at the temples. He was a right mess. I wondered how he had received the rank of major.
“Lieutenant Grant,” he started off saying, “I’m glad to see you have made yourself comfortable here.”
“It’s not too bad,” I admitted. “But I haven’t tasted the food yet.”
He didn’t even crack a smile. Instead, he went on sternly and said, “My name is Major Edwin Radford and I have been given the very special job of looking after you.”
I couldn’t do anything but shoot him a grin.
He ignored my leer and continued on, “You see, we have quite the quandary with what to do with you. By all rights you shouldn’t even be here. It should have been a quick trial and then off to be executed by a firing squad. That's what we do for so-called gentlemen like you. But even the British Army has its humanitarian impulses and they want to see you stand unsupported before that firing squad. Whether you know it or not, you bought yourself some time with that wounded leg of yours. Now why don’t you tell me what really happened.”
“What I told your men was the truth,” I protested, but not too strongly. I had no reason to think he would believe me. Anyways, I had my dignity.
He then cocked an eyebrow in disbelief and said, “On the face of it, the story you told us seems rather implausible. If you had some real evidence, then I would be willing to pursue it further. Come now, tell me the truth. It may be the only chance you have of saving yourself.”
I let out a chuckle and said, “Let me ask you a question, Major.”
“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”
“How long have you been a copper?”
The Major winced. He then took off his cap and rubbed his hand against his thinning hair. “Is it that obvious? I was on the police force for sixteen years until I was asked to join up.”
“Major Radford, I’ve been around and you have that look of someone who has worked a thankless job. And a major no less? That means you must have been ranked rather high as a policeman.”
“I can assure you, Lieutenant, that I am well qualified for my job. I was a Chief Inspector for the city of Brighton. I have seen many of an investigation in my time. I've also seen plenty of criminals and you don't seem to fit the mold, but they do come in all types.”
“Well then, Major Chief Inspector,” I said sharply, “I hope you will take the time to dig a little deeper into this case since I can assure you that I am telling the truth. I hope it is not below your rank to give an American cousin a little help.”
His face turned a bright shade of red and his eyebrows rose in surprise. I could see his hands shaking with anger. He spat out, “Any claims of being an American citizen were lost when you signed up with the British Army. Your citizenship with said country will certainly not buy you any sympathy with me.”
I leaned lazily back on my pillows and said, “I wish to speak to the American consul. I want to be sure that my rights are being fully protected. One cannot give up their citizenship as easily as you say.”
He replied sharply, “I can assure you, laddie, that you rights are being observed to the full extent of the military law. I’ll admit that the only reason I have been assigned to look into this was because you are an American. The Home Office,” he used the words with reverence, “wants to be assured that no questions will arise of your guilt. It is important that we keep the United States on our side in this war. There would be senseless cries of injustice from your press unless the case against you is iron tight from the get-go. That’s why I’m here, my laddie.” With those words he snapped his cap back on and strode angrily out of the room.
“Thank you, Major,” I shouted at his retreating back. He pretended not to hear and went on his way without a further word. With a smile at my own rudeness, I thought I just had made yet another enemy, so I felt it was high time that I had a fag. Someone had thoughtfully left my cigarette case and trench lighter on the bedside table. I lit up a smoke and took a puff. It was a damned shame that I couldn't get any Lucky Strikes on this side of the pond, but still, the chaps at Dunhill didn't make a bad cigarette.
I was about done smoking and thinking about this-and-that when a nurse burst into my room without even knocking. She was a petite, little thing, with auburn hair kept tight under her hat. Her face had that pale skin that only British girls seem to have, but any potential beauty was certainly marred by those tight, pursed lips. She was wearing the standard-issue nurse’s uniform, which looked like a nun's habit more than anything else.
“I'm Nurse Pennington,” she said stiffly, “and I'm here to look after you.” Her accent was clipped and I could detect a hint of posh there. Mind you, I'm no expert on the labyrinth of dialects that make up the English caste system. But I've heard enough officers to recognize aristocracy. They spoke in certain tones of command that were unmistakable.
“I don't need looking after,” I said gruffly. “And I certainly don't need a live-in jail-keeper.”
She ignored me and said, “I'm usually working the wards on this floor, but you're considered a special case. Major Radford specifically asked for someone to stay with you.” She sat down at the chair next to my bed and made herself comfortable. “I do have some other duties, but you are to be my main subject of interest.”
I said, “Miss Pennington, right now I just wish to get some rest.” I then turned my face away from her and tried to fall asleep. It was tougher than I thought with someone watching you, but it had been a long day and sleep soon carried me away. I hadn't had a good rest in weeks. Even considering the circumstances, I still managed to sleep for quite some time. I had the odd dream here and there – the usual remembrances of battles past, and the soldiers that had passed on. The grim types of dreams that I imagine all soldiers are haunted by.
I awoke in a sweat. I opened my eyes, only to find that the blasted Pennington woman still there. She was hovering over me and feeling my forehead with a cool hand. She hadn't noticed yet that I was awake, and I saw at that moment that her face had lost that sour look. I realized she was quite beautiful with large dark eyes looking ever-so concerned for my well-being.
“Why, hello there,” I said in a friendly manner.
She jumped back and the old look returned to her face once again. She said hastily, “You surprised me, Lieutenant. I'm afraid you are running a bad fever. I'll have to have the doctor in to make sure your leg hasn't taken a bad turn with an infection.”
My leg did hurt badly, but I only shook my head. “Never mind that - tell me miss, what is your story?”
She frowned. “My story?” she replied innocently. Those eyes really were beautiful or else I had been in the trenches for far too long.
“That accent of yours. How did a girl like you end up working at a hospital out here in the middle of a war?”
“I'm not sure what you mean,” she replied and quickly looked away to fiddle with the clipboard at the side table.
“Are you the daughter of a duke or something?”
“If you must know,” she breathed at last, “My father happens to be Lord Pennington.”
I reached over to my cigarette case and fished one out. I offered one to her but she merely shook her head. I lit it and said, “Lord Pennington? I've never heard of him.”
She waved my smoke irritably away and said, “That's hardly surprising. We just have a small bit of land near Hallam Fields. Any money or prestige we once had was lost to the ages.”
“I see,” I said, even though I didn't. What did I know of the aristocracy? “Well still, a daughter of a Lord. How did you come to be here in France?”
“These are rather personal questions,” she said.
“I know,” I admitted, “but I'm afraid I have little to do at the moment and only a dozen bullets to look forward to. Let’s make a bargain - you answer my questions and I'll answer any that you have. We have to spend a day or two here until they decide my fate. We might as well make the best of it.”
Doubt crossed her eyes, but in the end she relented and said, “Very well Lieutenant, I will help you pass the time. I left my home to help out in this war as best as I could.”
“Before you continue, there is no reason for us to be so formal. My name is William Grant, but my friends call me Will.”
She smiled and said, “My name is Ellen. I prefer to call you William, if you don't mind. Will seems too personal.”
I shrugged. “Please continue with your story, Ellen,” I said graciously.
“Very well, William,” she said. “As I was saying, when the war broke out and every able-bodied man was mobilizing, I felt left out. I wanted to join in on the great adventure against the Germans. On a whim, I decided to take up nursing. I'm afraid my father is rather conservative and didn't think it was a proper profession for a young lady.”
“Part of the older generation?” I offered.
“Quite,” she agreed. A warm smile passed her lips and once again I was taken by her beauty. “Of course I wasn't about to listen to him, so I took what little money I had and went straight to London. I signed up for nursing school, and they took me on. I hate to admit that my father's name may have helped, but it was the only chance I had of getting in. There were plenty of other girls in line and having a titled father certainly opened a few doors.”
“That is quite understandable,” I said.
“I rented a small room, but I’m afraid I've spent my entire life without a clear understanding of money. I never had to work or make a budget. I never realized how expensive everyday life was, and before I knew it, I was flat broke. I didn’t have enough to pay the landlord and knew I would have to return home in shame. Instead, I ended up writing to my mother, and she sent me enough funds to see me through. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough to get by.”
“I'm surprised she helped you out,” I commented.
She made a face and replied, “Mother always had a bit of a rebellious streak in her. She worked in a flower shop before she met father, so she understands real life better than I ever could. I'm sure he gave her his blessing for sending the money, since he never tried to have me traced and returned home.”
“Your life reads like a heroine in one of those dime-store adventure books. What happened after nursing school?”
“I’m afraid it hasn't been all that exciting. Once my class of girls was graduated, we were divided up and most of us were sent overseas. Ever since, I've been stuck in this hospital looking after hundreds of officers. Cleaning out bedpans and nursing the sick is not quite the glamorous life I was expecting. It is miserable place to be at times, and I've seen more than enough men die.”
“I can't imagine,” was all that I could say.
She then said, “Anyways, the heroine of a book would have been involved with a dashing young lieutenant and broken up a spy ring. Those types of things don't happen in real life.”
“Probably not,” I agreed. My hurt leg suddenly gave a painful twinge and I shifted my weight to be more comfortable. The movement caused my leg to flare up yet again with a burst of white-hot pain. I involuntarily grunted.
“Does your leg hurt that badly?” she asked with sudden concern.
“It's okay,” I lied. I didn't want to give her the satisfaction of giving me any help, but in the end I didn't have much choice.
“Instead of spending all this time talking to you, I should have gotten the doctor to see to that leg of yours.” She stood up and rushed out of the room.
As she left, I couldn't help but watch those retreating slim ankles. As I said before, she was quite the pretty girl. I normally don’t go for women in uniform, but in this case I was willing to make an exception.
Before I knew it, she was back with an old doddering doctor trailing behind. I wondered where they dug up this specimen from - he looked ancient and I half-expected him to pull out some leeches from a jar to bleed me. But he seemed competent enough as he took my pulse and finally pulled back the blanket to examine my leg. He then removed the encrusted bandages to get to the wound. It was a mess with caked blood and enough gore to turn any man's stomach. But I noticed Ellen didn't shirk, but carefully followed the doctor's mumbling instructions.
“I'm afraid this wound is rather serious,” the doctor finally said to me. “You're lucky that no major arteries were punctured. You would have bled to death in just a few minutes.”
“Maybe that would have been for the better,” I commented dryly.
“That is of no concern of mine, I just treat the wounded. Some infection is starting to take place. I'll have the nurse here clean the wound and change the bandage. The orderlies out on the field do such a messy job. With any luck, you may survive your wound. Perhaps you would like some opium pills to take the pain away, Lieutenant?”
“Perhaps not,” I replied coldly.
“If you say so,” the doctor replied absently.
I didn't really want the effects of the opium since I was rather enjoying my time with Ellen. And I may not have much time left on this earth so why would I want to spend it in a drug-induced haze? Anyways, I've had to give opium pellets to the dying and I didn't want to think down those lines myself.
The doctor left and Ellen began to cut away the rest of the bandages. She worked efficiently with the hands of long practice. Soon the old wrappings were cleared away, and she then placed a clean white towel underneath my wounded leg. A liberal amount of alcohol was then poured over the bloody mess. I gritted my teeth as the pain shot down the length of my body. It seemed like an eternity before it receded enough where I could unclench my jaw.
“Are you alright?” she asked as she began gently probing the wound with some fiendish device.
“Never better,” I lied as I watched her work. Soon she had my leg wrapped up again, and I would honestly say she did a competent job.
After the debris had been cleared away, she sat back down on the chair next to my bed. She shook her head as I reached for my cigarette case again. “Do you always smoke so much, William? It's a filthy habit.”
“I don't think I'll have the time to break the habit,” I said as I lit up. The smoke felt good as it traveled through my lungs. I leaned wearily against the pillows.
“Now that I've told you everything about me, what is your story? There have been so many rumors about you that I don't know what to believe.”
“The rumors are probably true enough. But it's a long story,” I said as I flicked a smattering of ashes onto the floor.
“You said yourself that we have plenty of time. Anyways, I've never met an American before. Tell me everything from the beginning.”
So I did.
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