The Shifting Fog | Chapter 21 of 50 - Part: 1 of 12

Author: Kate Morton | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 106306 Views | Add a Review

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IN THE WEST

Nineteen-fourteen slipped toward nineteen-fifteen, and with each passing day went any chance that the war would end by Christmas. A gunshot in a faraway land had sent tremors across the plains of Europe and the sleeping giant of centuries-old rancour had awoken. Major Hartford was recalled to service, dusted off along with other heroes of long-forgotten campaigns, while Lord Ashbury moved into his London flat and joined the Bloomsbury Home Guard. Mr Frederick, unfit for armed service on account of a bout of pneumonia in the winter of 1910, swapped motor cars for war planes and was issued a special government badge announcing his valuable contribution to a vital war industry. It was cold comfort, said Myra, who knew about such things, it having always been a dream of Mr Frederick’s to serve with the military.

History tells that as 1915 unravelled, the war’s true character began to emerge. But history is a faithless teller whose cruel recourse to hindsight makes fools of its actors. For while in France young men battled fear undreamt of, at Riverton 1915 passed much as 1914 had before it. We were aware, of course, that the Western Front had reached a stalemate—Mr Hamilton kept us well fed with his zealous recitations of the newspaper’s grisly fare—and certainly there were enough minor inconveniences to keep folks shaking their heads and tut-tutting the war, but these were tempered by the tremendous flurry of purpose the conflict gave those for whom daily life had become staid. Who welcomed the new arena in which to prove their value.

Lady Violet joined and formed countless committees: from the locating of suitable billets for suitable Belgian refugees, to the organising of motor-car excursions for convalescing officers. All across Britain young women (and some of the younger boys too) did their bit for national defence, taking up knitting needles against a sea of troubles, producing a deluge of scarves and socks for the boys at the front. Fanny, unable to knit but anxious to impress Mr Frederick with her patriotism, threw herself into the coordination of such enterprises, organising for knitted goods to be boxed and mailed to France. Even Lady Clementine showed a rare community spirit, billeting one of Lady Violet’s sanctioned Belgians—an elderly lady with poor English but fine enough manners to mask the fact—whom Lady Clementine proceeded to probe for all the most ghastly details of invasion.

As December approached, Lady Jemima, Fanny and the Hartford children were summoned to Riverton, where Lady Violet was determined to celebrate a traditional Christmas season. Fanny would have preferred to stay in London—far more exciting—but was unable to refuse the summons of a woman whose son she hoped to marry. (Never mind that the son himself was firmly stationed elsewhere and firmly set against her.) She had little choice but to steel herself to long winter weeks in country Essex. She managed to look bored as only the very young can and spent the time dragging herself from room to room, striking pretty poses on the off-chance Mr Frederick should make an unscheduled return home.

Jemima suffered by comparison, seemingly plumper and plainer than the year before. There was, however, one arena in which she outshone her counterpart: she was not only married, but married to a hero. When the Major’s letters arrived, carried solemnly by Mr Hamilton on a polished silver salver, Jemima was thrust centre stage. Receiving the letter with a gracious nod, she would pause a jot beneath respectfully lowered eyelids, sigh like endurance herself, then slit the envelope and seize its precious cargo. The letter would then be read in suitably solemn tones to a captivated (and captive) audience.

Meanwhile, upstairs, for Hannah and Emmeline time was dragging. They had already been at Riverton a fortnight, and with ghastly weather forcing them indoors, and no lessons to distract them (Miss Prince being engaged in war work), they were running out of things to do. They’d played every game they knew—cat’s cradle, jacks, goldminer (which as far as I could figure, required one to scratch a spot on the other’s arm until blood or boredom won out)—they’d helped Mrs Townsend with the Christmas baking until they were ill from pilfered pastry dough, and they’d coerced Nanny into unlocking the attic storeroom so they could climb amongst dusty, forgotten treasures. But it was The Game they longed to play. (I’d seen Hannah fossicking inside the Chinese box, re-reading old adventures when she thought no one was looking.) And for that they needed David, not due from Eton for another week.

On an afternoon in late November, while I was up in the drying room preparing the best tablecloths for Christmas, Emmeline burst in. She stood for a moment, scanning, then marched to the warm closet. She pulled the door open and a ring of soft candlelight spilled onto the floor. ‘Ah-ha!’ she said triumphantly. ‘I knew you’d be here.’

She held out her hands, uncurled her fingers to reveal two white sugar mice, sticky around the edges. ‘From Mrs Townsend.’

A long arm appeared from the dim inside; retreated with a mouse.

Emmeline licked her own gooey load. ‘I’m bored. What are you doing?’

‘Reading,’ came the response.

‘What are you reading?’

Silence.

Emmeline peered into the closet, wrinkled her nose. ‘War of the Worlds? Again?’

There was no answer.

Emmeline took another long, thoughtful lick of her sugar mouse, observed him from all angles, rubbed at a stray cotton thread that had adhered to his ear. ‘Hey!’ she said suddenly. ‘We could go to Mars! When David gets here.’

Silence.

‘There’ll be Martians, good ones and evil ones, and untold dangers.’

Like all younger siblings, Emmeline had made it her life’s work to master the predilections of her sister and brother; she didn’t need to look to know she’d hit her mark.

‘We’ll put it to the council,’ came the voice.

Emmeline squealed excitedly, clapped her sticky hands together and lifted a boot-clad foot to clamber into the closet. ‘And we can tell David it was my idea?’ she said.

‘Watch the candle.’

‘I can colour the map red instead of green, for a change. Is it true that trees are red on Mars?’

‘Of course they are; so is the water, and the soil, and the canals, and the craters.’

‘Craters?’

‘Big, deep, dark holes, where the Martians keep their children.’

An arm appeared and began to pull the door closed.

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fatemeh
it's very good good luck
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