Mary Russell’s War (twenty-nine): a young lieutenant

 

16 February 1915

February is not a time of year where one may easily wander the Downlands with a Latin text in hand. If the pages are not blown asunder, they are rendered into sodden masses of the original pulp, and in either event, are difficult to manipulate by half-frozen fingers.

So—needs must—I have made my scholar’s residence in the warmth and dry of the stables, where my aunt never ventures. Patrick is a pleasantly unobtrusive companion, who does little more than murmur a greeting on his way to and fro. The main drawback is the dimness of the further reaches, making for an oscillation between the bright front of the stables and the warm depths of it.

Three days ago I was surprised to hear the approach of voices. I hastily gathered my things, preparing to flee into the dark recesses, but neither voice seemed to belong to my aunt. Unless she was a silent partner to the conversation—which I thought unlikely—it was Patrick and someone else.

The someone else was a boy. He halted just inside the door, startled by my sudden appearance from the straw-lined manger where I nestled. Patrick stopped too, having clearly forgotten that I would be there.

“Ah,” he said. “Miss Mary. Pardon the interruption, we’ll be gone, I’d just—”

“Oh heavens no, you’re not disturbing me. In fact, you’re saving me from the imperfect subjunctive.” I looked at the boy, and Patrick made introductions.

“Miss Mary, this is one of your neighbours, Second Lieutenant Thomas Saunders,” he said. “Thomas, Miss Mary Russell, what lives in the house.”

I was surprised, since the young man did not seem very much older than I. He was also shorter, so I slumped a bit, having found that young men find height in a female somewhat intimidating, then thrust out my hand.

“How d’you do?” I said, a greeting he echoed.

“Thomas is off to France in a few days,” Patrick said. “A short leave before he goes to join his regiment.”

“I wanted to come and see how the horses were doing,” the young man explained. “I used to spend most of the summers here as a boy, helping Mr Mason with the horses. He sometimes let me drive them, when I’d helped him hitch them on the cart.”

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “I remember you—Tommy, with a sister named…Mattie, was it?”

“That’s right, though she wants to be called Matilda now. And I remember you—you had the funny brother who knew everything, didn’t you? And the uncle who made those wizzer what-you-call-ems. Sky lanterns.”

“But…” I stopped. Mattie had been a little younger than I, but I’d have sworn that Tommy was only two years older. A seventeen year-old officer, on his way to the Front? I thought of the distant rumble of guns, and shuddered.

I must have been staring at him, because Patrick cleared his throat. “I’ll just let—”

“Would you like a cup of tea, Tom—er, Lieutenant Saunders?”

“Please, call me Tommy.”

I fled to the kitchen, which was blessedly empty of my aunt’s presence. I managed to assemble three mugs of tea and a plate of rather hacked-up seed cake (it was the end of the loaf), plus a large wedge of cheese and some uneven bread-and-butter sandwiches, and carried the laden tray out to the stables.

Males, I find, tend to overlook the looks of one’s kitchen efforts in favour of quantity, and it was no less so with Patrick and Tommy. They drank and ate, and we talked. About what, I cannot remember, really, although it is now scarcely forty-eight hours later.

We talked about normality, I suppose. Horses and shortages, childhood and California, his sister and my brother. Other than an awkward expression of condolence on his part, death was ignored, both those in the past and the deaths taking part across the Channel. Under the effects of food, drink, and conversation, Tommy’s stilted manner faded, and his face resumed something of the animation I remembered.

He went home soon thereafter, but he came back yesterday, and again today. We sat in the stables while Patrick worked, talking about his school and my problems with Latin and where the world was going, and what we wanted to do when it was over. Over those three conversations, his face seemed to undergo an oddly divided change: he began to look both younger, more like to the boy I had known, yet at the same time older, more assured.

My mother had been fond of him, I remembered. I could picture her laughing at one of his antics. I was hit by the sudden image of this young officer, half a dozen years ago, handing her a rough bouquet of flowers from his mother’s garden.

“Do you need anything?” I interrupted, causing him to look a question at me. “I mean, a book to take with you, or a packet of tea? Some warm socks perhaps?”

In the end, he took a small book of poetry and the rest of the cheese. And when he left, he gave me a kiss on the cheek, and pressed my hand in his.

We both promised to write.

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Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.

Comments

  1. Merrily Taylor says:

    Oh dear…this is just getting sadder and sadder. As with Gabriel, the horrors of the War are made more real when we see all these young men as individuals, with precious and valued lives to lose. Such a waste. I hope all goes well for Lt. Saunders but I fear it won’t…

  2. Mary Achor says:

    Sitting here with a boulder in my throat.

  3. Pamela Calbeck says:

    So poignant. Such a lot of waste of young men to a pointless war.

  4. Judith Lasker says:

    This episode reminds me so much of your Justice Hall book, writing about WWI. I still can’t read WWI books since reading Justice Hall! Too heartbreaking.

    And the Vietnam War soldier book, name I can’t remember.

    Laurie your writing strikes so close to the heart….

    Judith Lasker

  5. So emblematic of Russell. Thanks, Laurie.

  6. Knowing what happened to so many of those brave young men…I’m close to crying. It rings so true. Was Russell lonely, or giving a young man a memory to take with me, or all of the above?

  7. I am so glad you’re writing these. I’m rereading all 13 Russell books and I just can’t get enough of her! The most recent book as been such a treat! Thank you for sharing such a strong and intelligent lady. Russell is truly influential.

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