Thursday, 30 August 2012

Day 30 - 2968 words. Final total 50041 words

‘What have we got in this latest batch?’ The ward orderly looked over the last row of camp beds, each one containing a seriously wounded casualty, stretchered off the field of battle only a few hours ago. He wondered how he had got so familiar with the sight of so many beds, the endless neat rows under canvas, the equally endless labour of looking after so many wounded, of trying to support so many on their journey into death.
‘Cavalry regiment, so I’m told. But I’ve not found an officer among them so far. All the casualties were in a fight with an incendiary bomb, which landed a direct hit on their position. They came off worse. Not a pretty sight.’  The nurse rubbed the back of his wrist over his forehead, and the orderly moved in to pinch out the tension in his shoulders.
‘Don’t, Julian.’ It’s nice, but it doesn’t help. If I crack now, I’ll never get going again. I just have to keep working.’
‘Oh, Sandy. Get some rest. I’ll find someone else. You’ll be no good to anyone if you’re dead on your feet.’
‘Better dead on my feet than this lot dead in bed.’ Sandy moved over to the newest casualties and looked closely at one man, and then at the one in the next bed. He gasped. ‘Julian! Come here! Look – that’s Gabriel, surely?’
Julian looked at the second man instead. ‘No, I think this is Gabriel, but…’
‘Then the other one must be Ernest. There’s no-one else who could be taken for Gabriel’s twin.’
Julian discreetly found Sandy’s hand and held it tightly. ‘With the burns, and the bruising, I can’t tell which is which. Neither’s come in with any identification. Their uniforms were cut off them on the field, because they’d caught fire.’
‘Ernest? Gabriel?’ Sandy tried talking to the two men, but got no response from either. He straightened up. ‘I know the difference between them. This one is nearly dead and that one’s barely alive.’
‘Don’t say that’ said Julian. ‘They might just be able to hear you, even now.’
Sandy shook his head. ‘We’ve seen enough poor souls like this to know the ending of this story, I’m afraid. All I can do is get them some morphine and let them leave us quietly.’
Julian turned away, but then he heard Sandy call him back. ‘He made a noise.’
‘Which one?’
‘This one. Gabriel? Is that you? Listen, Julian.’
Julian heard the faintest noise, but could not make out any words in it. Then he heard a noise the other side of him. ‘This one’s back with us as well. Don’t give up on them, Sandy, please. Give them all you’ve got.’
‘Which is not much. But we’ll try our best.’ Sandy walked off to fetch what kit he had. ‘Be a love, Julian – get us some hot Bovril, or I’m not going to make it through the night either.

In the small hours of the night, Julian was chatting with one of his patients who could not manage to get to sleep. The young Corporal had a large collection of cigarette cards and postcards of various actresses and glamorous girls in bathing costumes, and his conversation consisted almost entirely of inviting Julian to rate each ones attributes.  Julian was being as non-committal as possible, using a variation of ‘I’m sure she’s a lovely girl, but she’s not my type. What do you think of her?’ Finally, the young man fell asleep with his photographic harem still scattered over the blanket. Julian carefully gathered them up and put them back in the tobacco tin that was keeping them safe.
‘Not got a clue, has he?’ said the man in the next bed.
‘What, his taste in women?’ smiled Julian.
‘No, toots – your taste in men.’  The soldier propped himself up on his pillows. ‘Sorry if I’m interfering, poking my nose in. It’s nice to meet – well, one of us, from time to time.’
‘So it is.’ Said Julian. ‘As for our young Cassanova there, well – a lot of folk don’t see what’s in front of them, if they don’t want to. If it doesn’t fit in with their comfortable view of their own little world, they just can’t be doing with it. So, us lot, we don’t exist. He never saw a thing.’ Julian poured the soldier a glass of water. ‘You doing alright?’
‘I’m getting by. I lost – I lost my fella last year just before Christmas. He got pneumonia the daft sod. I always had to look after him, make sure he had his scarf on. Without me there – it was bound to happen.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Take it day by day, don’t we.’
‘All we can do.’ Agreed Julian. Just at the edge of his sight, something moved. He turned to look, but could see no one else walking around the ward. Everything was quiet, except for the door swinging loose at the far end. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked.
‘Never saw a thing. Seems all ticketyboo to me.’
‘I’ll just go and check’ said Julian. As he moved through the ward he felt the temperature dropping, or something else was making his skin goosepimple.  Between the rows of beds with the most recent casualties, including Ernest and Julian, there was a figure, standing still. A man in a top hat and cape.
Julian thought to himself that these doctors put on more airs with every day. ‘Can I help?’ he called.
The figure moved, and to Julian’s tired eyes it seemed to grow thin, for Julian could see the night light shining where the heart of the man should be. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ he said, more forcefully now, quickening his pace down the aisle between the sleeping soldiers. The figure turned to directly face him, and Julian stopped on the spot, for the man had no face, but a swirling mass of dots, like dust particles dancing in the light. As Julian watched, the man stood between the beds of Gabriel and Ernest, and stretched out a hand over each bed.
‘Here! You leave them alone!’ Julian was shouting, not caring how many patients he woke up, or that the nurses in other wards might hear him. In the disturbance of soldiers waking up and calling out, the figure somehow vanished away, like dead leaves in a summer storm. Julian hurried to the place where the man had been standing, and looked at the beds. On the smooth grey blanket of one man was a stain, some kind of liquid seeping through the wool. The stain was unmistakeably in the shape of the letter E.
Julian was soon joined by Sandy, who had been getting an hour’s rest on a vacant bed, and was not best pleased at being woken up. But when he saw the blanket, he swallowed hard. ‘That is very strange. Very odd indeed. Especially because I’ve just signed for this parcel of personal effects…’ Sandy held out a bundle of a coat and other parts of a uniform, blackened with soot and smelling strongly of fuel. ‘Look what he wrote on the label’ said Sandy. Julian looked down to see a luggage label with nothing on it but a beautifully written capital letter E.
‘Who wrote it?’
‘I don’t know who he was, my dear. Some old queen in a cape. And a top hat, did you ever. How’d he get a titfer like that out here?’
‘Sandy – concentrate. What did he look like?’
‘Oh I don’t know. I tell you I must be more done in than I thought. Every time I looked at him all I could see was a sort of a swirl where his face should be…’Sandy tailed off, suddenly uncertain. ‘I wish mystic Mavis was here. She’d have dealt with him.’
Julian bent down to look in the eyes of the man who was now awake, under his initialled blanket. ‘So can we take it that we have a sign that this one is Ernest?’ said Julian, partly to Sandy, and partly in case the mysterious figure was still somehow present.
‘Father’ said the injured man. ‘’Wait for me. Let me join you now.’ But then his eyes closed once more, and although Julian and Sandy spoke his name over and over again, they got no further response.
During a quiet interval in the following night, Sandy took a seat between his two wounded friends  and began to pick apart the bundle of Ernest’s clothes. He felt through what remained of the pockets, and as he patted the seams his fingertip slipped in to the circle of a ring. Using his knife, he cut the coat apart, and extracted the letter that Ernest had written for Effie, and the ill-fated engagement ring, now pitted from the heat and friction. The letter was undamaged, although as Sandy unfolded it, the space between the beds became acrid with the smell of smoke.
When Julian stopped to see how he was getting on, he found Sandy blowing his nose hard and patting Ernest’s blankets. ‘The poor dear boy.’ He said to Julian. ‘I’ve just found a letter in his coat. It’s to a girl called Effie and he’s wanting to get to her and get married as soon as possible.  Look, he’s even bought the ring.’
‘Effie?’ But he had a girlfriend called Effie years ago – when he was eighteen or so.’
‘Oh bless. That makes it worse. They’d finally decided to tie the knot, and then…’
‘Now now. Don’t get emotional in front of the men old chap.’ Said Julian, imitating the crisp tones of one of the doctors.
‘But he tells her how much he loves her. Says he loves her purity and innocence.’
‘Oh deary me.’
Sandy hit Julian with the letter. ‘Where’s your heart gone?’
‘I must have slopped it out with all the other mangled organs and body parts I clear up from this place.’
Sandy stood up to hug him. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘I know. I’m being melodramatic.’
‘But  - we should send it to her.’
‘If we knew where she lived. There’s no envelope, no address’ pointed out Julian, reading the letter for himself.
‘Aha – but’ said Sandy, suddenly jogging away down the ward. Julian watched him scrabbling about on the desk full of paperwork. ‘The post’s come in, at last! Every letter they can’t find the intended recipient, it comes here, just in case. So…’
‘She might have written back to him. Finished Julian, taking half of the thick pile of letters and scanning the addresses. ‘Yes! Mission objectives achieved. Outstanding deducing skills, young man.’
‘What does she say?’
‘Half a mo, I’m reading it.’
‘You should be reading it to Ernest’ said Sandy.
‘No’ Julian said, slowly. ‘No I don’t think I should…’ Sandy moved round the bed so that he could read over Julian’s shoulder. ‘Oh my dear.’ He breathed. ‘My poor sweet boy.’

‘My dear Ernest’ wrote Effie,
‘I am writing this letter against my own better judgement, because I know that it will destroy all bonds between us, and that is, at the time of writing, more than I can stand to think about.  But I feel I owe you complete honesty, as you have always shown to me, even when we had our differences. When we parted unkindly in your apartment I had no intention that it would be a permanent rift. But the time and the war have come between with us. I do not know if you ever received the letter I wrote in haste, begging you to marry me. Perhaps it was better that you did not receive it, or I would have had to think that your silence for an answer was deliberate. But, my dear Ernest, I could not wait. I found myself in trouble, you see. I thought that you would come to my rescue, that you would forgive me. The sin was not mine. I was attacked, taken by force. But still there is an innocent baby to consider, and I could not face going through life as an unmarried mother, with a fatherless child. And yet, there was something in the encounter with the man who dishonoured me, that I felt, I could not help thinking that I knew him. Perhaps just because I cannot believe a stranger could be so evil, but then again it is worse to think that someone I trusted could so turn against me.
Gabriel – I do not know if he has told you the next chapter of the story, but here, if you will permit me, is my narrative.
I met Gabriel again in London while he was on leave and I was desperately watching the letter box or the telegram boy for word from you. I must own I poured out my troubles to him, because I thought he may know where you were and how you were fairing. Gabriel offered to marry me, and his Father consented so rapidly that I began to think – forgive me but what else could I think – that it was Gabriel who had forced himself upon me under the bridge. I know that you thought I was sweet on him, but it was only because I was enjoying the parties and the dances with all the giddiness of a silly girl. Gabriel does remind me of you, in appearance, but he will never have your nobleness of character, your sincerity and your gentleness.
But although I do not think that we love each other, Gabriel and I are now married, and by the time he returns to me the children will be born. The doctors are sure that I am expecting twins. If one of them is a boy, I will call him Ernest.
Please believe me when I say you are the love of my life, although I must be strong enough to understand that we may never meet again.
Yours, Effie.’
Julian and Sandy, hand in hand, looked from Gabriel to Ernest and back again. There was hardly any sign of life from either young man, except the thinnest of pulses at Gabriel’s throat.
‘Could he have done that?’ mused Sandy, looking down at Gabriel. ‘He always was one for the ladies, even when he should have been at school. But to do that, and to Ernest’s girl?’
‘Doesn’t seem likely.’ Said Julian. ‘Perhaps it was just some half-crazed poor bastard back from the Front. Perhaps it was a stranger, and Gabriel was doing the decent thing. He must have thought Ernest was dead.’
‘Why didn’t Ernest send that letter to Effie? From the look of it, he’s been carrying it round in his coat for weeks. It’s all greasy and thumbed, like he’s been reading it over and over, but never sent it.’
‘It’s a tangled web alright.’ Said Julian. ‘There’s nothing in Gabriel’s possessions that gives a clue? No loving tokens of Effie or… oh, I don’t know.’
‘All they managed to save was his Cavalry Officer’s Field Guide.’  Said Sandy, retrieving it from the tin box under Gabriel’s bed and handing it to Julian. As Julian took the battle scarred little book, Gabriel made a noise. Sandy dropped to his knees and picked up Gabriel’s wrist. ‘He’s going.’ There were just a few more seconds before the pulse fluttering in Gabriel’s throat faded away, and his face grew taut, and then slackened as his head rolled sideways into the pillow.
Sandy stood up again and gently closed Gabriel’s eyes. Julian unfolded the starched sheet from the top of the blanket and laid it over Gabriel’s face, before making a final note on the chart at the end of the bed.
‘Poor Effie’ said Sandy, after a long silence. As he said her name, Ernest took a loud gasping breath, and his fingers contracted, digging into the blanket. Sandy and Julian looked at him, and then at each other. Sandy nodded, and Julian began to unfold the sheet on Ernest’s bed. When Julian had made the final entry on Ernest’s chart, Sandy excused himself for a moment, on the pretext of calling a porter to take the two bodies away.
Julian sat down on the chair between the beds, and flicked through the Cavalry Officer’s Field Guide, to give him something else to think about. Horses seemed so much more straightforward than the messy lives of friends and strangers. On the page dealing with how to shoot an injured horse, Julian read the following note.
‘Gabriel – I have to write what I could not face speaking. We have the same Father. He is Colonel Kerford’s brother, Jay Kerford. He has also been known as Jack the Ripper. I do not, however, want that information to change the love you feel for Colonel and Lady Kerford. Although I know it will. I am the twin that takes after our Father. I am his apprentice. The dark is in me, and it knows me.  I raped Effie, knowing that then she would have to marry me, and that this would cause you and she regret, unhappiness and pain. You are meant to be with her. She is, like you, an angel in this hell on earth. That is why I am taking your place today, if I can. That is why I go forward into death, while I can still choose the place and time to die. Your brother, now and always. Ernest.’
Julian tucked the book under Gabriel’s arm, and walked out of the ward, out of the hospital tent, and over to the edge of the camp where the horses stood quietly in the sunrise. He leaned against the neck of a pony, and let his tears fall unchecked.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Day 29 - 1767 words

‘Fine, said Gabriel. ‘Come to my quarters, such as they are.’ As he led the way along a narrow path that dug into the heart of the woodland, he said ‘Anyone who thinks that HQ could not have known it would be like this is not thinking hard enough. Look at my handbook.’ He waved his worn copy of ‘The Cavalry Officer’s Field Guide’ in Ernest’s direction. ‘Page one – how to get on a horse; page two, how to get off it again; page three, how to shoot the poor animal.’
‘At least the horses get shot.’ Muttered Ernest, a couple of paces behind him. He was thinking of men he’d seen strung on the wire in No Man’s Land, taking days to die, calling for release from pain, more than for anyone to save them, but beyond any help from either side. The horses, felt Ernest, were getting a better deal at the end of it.
They reached a clearing where there were a couple of canvas tents slung up under a large oak tree. ‘Here we are, Robin Hood and the Merry Men in the heart of Sherwood Forest.’ said Gabriel, ducking under a tent flap. ‘We can talk in here.’
Ernest found that he did not know how to start. He looked back out through the opening in the tent and across to where the sunlight picked out a patch of buttercups, growing unafraid in the clearing. Gabriel cleared his throat. ‘Look, since we’ve met like this – I should say – about Effie…’
Ernest looked at him, wondering what he meant, but deciding that Effie’s part in all this could wait. ‘There’s no need to talk about Effie.’ He said. ‘I don’t need you to say anything.’
Gabriel looked relieved. ‘Really? I must say that’s extremely decent of you. Spoken like a gentleman. I always knew you and I were one and the same at heart. Well, thank you, and we’ll say no more about her. Such matters don’t belong in a battlefield, do they?’
Ernest could only agree. He felt the letter, tucked deep into the inside pocket of his greatcoat, that he had written to Effie and still not sent; the letter agreeing to marry her. As his fingers traced the outline of the engagement ring safe within the letters folds he wondered why he was delaying. If he had made Effie pregnant then they must be married with all speed. Every moment he delayed increased the chances of Effie doing something desperate, thinking she had been abandoned. But Gabriel was asking him about the message from Colonel Kerford.
‘Yes, said Ernest. I have your orders. They are to proceed with the plan, to cut across – have you a map?’
‘I have, but you can bet it’s out of date by now. I’ve sent out recce groups over the ridge and not heard a thing back. I’ve had no telephone contact for days.’
Ernest thought of the remains of the signaller, slumped over the blasted remains of his exchange box, and wondered if Gabriel was aware of his fate. He smoothed the map out, and outlined the General’s plan to use the cavalry as a diversion on the flank, pinning down the infantry men and rushing the position before the heaviest guns could be wheeled round to bear down on them.
Gabriel’s cheek twitched. ‘Are you sure this is what the old man said?’
‘Yes. I argued against it, gave him all the intel I could about the situation on the ground…’
‘And I suppose he said in God we trust.’
‘He said he was sure that you would follow orders and act courageously.’
‘Or die in the attempt. Sorry, or should that be ‘and’ die in the attempt?’ said Gabriel, smoothing out the map. ‘God, Ernest. I love my Father, and I respect his achievements as a military man, but this. This is madness. This is suicide. We have no fresh horses, barely enough working weapons. Meanwhile, they have machine guns. They have tanks… How can I ask my men to ride down into that hell…’ Gabriel turned away to hide his emotions.
‘And what about the others?’ asked Ernest. ‘The infantry, the men in the trenches waiting for your regiments to charge down and seize the moment, so that they can push through the line. Without you, they’re not going to be able to do that. They’re waiting for your horses, for your skills, to get them the space to break through the line.’
Gabriel shook his head. ‘There is no line. There’s nothing like a line out here. There might be on this pristine white map, but out there – Ernest you and I know that out there is just a muddy field full of dead men. Some of them are still firing rifles, but they’re all bloody dead.’  Gabriel could restrain his feelings no longer and broke down, sobbing. Ernest put his arms around him, patting him awkwardly at first, then holding him tight against his shoulder as if Gabriel were a boy once again. Ernest was shaken to see Gabriel so broken, having for so long measured his behaviour against Gabriel’s poise and experience. Gabriel shook his shoulders to free himself from Ernest’s comforting embrace, and Ernest stepped away, out of the tent, to allow Gabriel a moment to compose himself.  He walked over to the patch of buttercups, and kicked them with his boot. He looked up at the sunlight pushing its way between the surviving leaves on the trees. Here in the glade there were few signs of battle, and even the noise of the bombardment was muffled. Ernest moved a few paces outside the glade, into the green darkness, and suddenly he was face on to the sickening smell of rotting horseflesh, and the acrid tang of burning trees.  He looked back once more at the buttercups, holding the sun inside them, and knew that what he had to do was very different from his planned actions. The will to bring Gabriel down with the knowledge of his parentage seemed a small action, more irrelevant than the buttercups.  The only bond between them that had any weight was the one that they had forged in friendship, ignoring the differences between them and seeing only the qualities that drew them to each other.  Ernest took one last look up at the sunlight, and walked decisively back to Gabriel.
‘Gabriel, let me go in your place.’ Said Ernest.
Gabriel blinked at him. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’ll lead the charge. We look alike, even now. We sound alike. When I’m in your coat and hat, in the heat of the moment, who will know? Or who will care?’
Gabriel turned round on the spot. ‘I can’t allow it. I cannot permit you to do that. Or for me to run away from my duty. Besides, it would never work. But Ernest, why? Why on earth would you make such an offer?’
‘I met my Father for the first time before I went to war. He is in prison. He is insane, of course, but he’s also lucid, coherent and very intelligent. He told me a new and different story of my life. I have nothing to go back for, nothing to live for. But you…’
‘So you know who he is – you know his name?’
‘I do, but it doesn’t concern us now. We have to get this worked out quickly. We have so little time. I need you to fetch your equipment, and introduce me to your horse. If I can’t control him, I’ll have no chance. I know I can’t ride like you, but I’ve had enough practice to stay upright at least. If anyone questions it I can plead a wound. All you have to do is make your way back to the Colonel, back to your Father.’
‘Ernest. You’ll do this?  For me? For Effie and me?’
‘I’d do it for you. And for myself. There’s a lot that I need to put right, before we go home. Come on, Gabriel, let me redeem myself.’
‘You have nothing that requires redemption.’
‘Have you forgotten Kew Gardens?’
‘You would not have been there, facing that duel, if it weren’t for me, and my stupidity. I was just a hot headed youth but you – you were preternaturally calm. My whole life would have been ruined, if I had not listened to you.’
Ernest shook his head. ‘Gabriel, listen to me. Get out of here, go home, and live your life. That is all I need to know, that you will do this.’
‘I don’t know. It feels like desertion.’
‘We are one, Gabriel. In more ways than you can know. So I will feel that you are riding alongside me, I promise.’
The two men shook hands then, concentrating on the moment between them, and for a second they were unaware of the change in the light above them, and the dark, deep noise that was suddenly filling their ears, as a shell careened down towards them, setting the trees on fire behind it. Ernest looked up first, and threw himself down on top of Gabriel, shielding him from the worst of the blast as the earth became rain and everything turned black. Burning branches and leaves fell on top of them as they lay there, not knowing if they were alive or dead.
It must be evening. The light is fading from the hillside. The fox is jogging back to the lair. This time, she has evaded the hunters, but I cannot do so. The hounds of Heaven have caught my trail and will be at my throat in minutes. Even if I hide in the heart of the city I cannot hold them off from me. I do not care enough. I have seen them rip my brother to pieces, his own pack standing at bay around him.  The night is close and warm with the scent of blood, running over the cobbles and congealing in the gutters.  My brother, my sons, all are lost to me, their pulses are no longer running through my veins and I cannot reach them.  Through my closed open eyes I can see the stars where the ceiling of my cell once was. Can she see me from her place in Heaven? Will she care that I finally see her for the angel she so truly is. Tell her so. Ernest, tell her that I was wrong, that I looked for angels in the worst of men, and did not see them in the best of women.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Day 28 - 781 words

Ernest crouched low and crawled up the long hill towards the cavalry position. He made slow progress, falling into foxholes with almost every step, and tripping over old defences and all the detritus left after the battle. Bodies buzzed with flies, bloated and warm in the morning sun, and cartridge shells were so numerous they crunched under Ernest’s boots. At one point he found an old signalling wire, and followed it hopefully, but it led only to a dead signaller, still clutching his cable box. Ernest tacked across the width of the hill, and finally got close enough to hear what was happening over the other side of the ridge. With the noise of the guns he could not hear the words, but he could tell from the tone of voice that he was hearing Officers rallying their men.  Ernest crawled forward on his elbows, cautiously, since he ran the risk of being shot if he caught anyone by surprise. He slid down the lee of the hill, and only then risked lifting his head up.  Below him were a couple of soldiers, busy checking a wound to a horse. He spoke just loudly enough for them to hear him, and had his hands up over his head before they turned round, weapons ready.  Once he had assured them that he was a British Infantry Sergeant they looked at him with astonishment.
‘You’re a long way off your mark, Sarge.’
‘I’ve got a message to deliver from Colonel Kerford. I volunteered to take it.’
‘Would that be a message for his son?’
‘It would, if he’s the Officer In Charge at the moment.’
‘At the moment, Sarge, he’s the only officer we’ve got. We had a bad couple of days.’
‘Yes, I heard. I’m sorry.’
The soldier shrugged. ‘We did everything we were trained for. And more. It’s the horses I can’t stomach. Seeing them in pain just cuts me up.’
Ernest patted the horse standing patiently between them. ‘I need to get on.’
‘Captain’s down that way. In the trees with the wounded. Horses, and men.’
Ernest thanked them. As he turned towards the trees, the soldier called after him. ‘Sarge – I don’t suppose – the old Colonel didn’t say anything about us, did he? Like what we’re doing next, or…’
‘He said he was very proud of the cavalry, that you had all fought valiantly.’ Said Ernest.
‘Well, better than nothing then. Nice to know the top brass know we exist. Cheers, Sarge.’

In the shadow of the trees, Ernest could hear Gabriel speaking quietly and softly, reassuring someone. Ernest slowed down as he approached, not just to avoid spooking any horses or men, but because he could not get past the smell. The stink of the rot and damp in the trenches was always with him, so much part of his life that he barely noticed it, but this was different. This took him right back to his childhood in the market. It was fresh blood and old meat, decaying and clotting in the heat and light. Ernest found his eyes were watering. He turned sideways into the breeze and edged into the trees, calling out for Gabriel, but trying to keep his movements slow and calm. He was aware of the horses stamping and whinnying, pulling at their halters. Their pain and panic was another physical sensation in the woodland. He found Gabriel standing in the centre of a glade, his pistol on the forehead of a prone horse. There was the sharp crack of the pistol shot, and the horse shuddered briefly, before its muscles slackened in death. As Ernest walked up to greet Gabriel, he could see the tears making clean tracks down the young officer’s face.
‘Ernest! My God, where did you come from? Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine. I came to deliver a message from the Colonel. Gabriel – I am so sorry – about all this. This is terrible.’
‘You’ve been in the trenches. You must have seen worse.’
‘Not horses.’
‘Sentimental fools, aren’t we? They’re just bloody animals, but they’ve more fight in them than half of my fellow officers. They never give up, never retreat, never refuse a jump.’
‘Last week six of my men spent a whole day digging a couple of ponies out of the mud, where a gun limber had crashed over on them. It took them every ounce of energy they had, but they did it.’ Said Ernest.
‘I’ve shot ten horses since last night.’
The two men looked at each other, unable to say anything further. Finally Ernest shook himself, and said ‘You’d better have this message. But you need to hear it in private. It’s somewhat personal.’

Monday, 27 August 2012

Day 27 - 3232 words

‘My dear Ernest, I have some information that I must share with you. I cannot understand why I should feel compelled to set right the misconceptions of my idiot brother Basil, except that you and I have formed a bond that I never thought to feel with another human being, either waking or dreaming. It would be so much quicker for me to come to you and talk as we used to, in your visions or waking dreams, but my health is failing me, and I understand that you are in France. I have tried to reach out to you, but all I can see is clouds of thick white fog in which men are choking.  Where are you my dear son?
Basil has been informed that somehow Effie has been attacked. He has got it into his single-minded skull that Gabriel was the perpetrator of this violation on her innocence.  Did you know that he was home on leave at the very time of the attack? Basil tells me Gabriel did not go home once during that time, not even to see his poor Mama, but he was seen at several unsavoury parties.
Therefore perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that Basil has decided that he got the worse of the bargain he made with your Mother – that Gabriel is the twin who has inherited my particular abilities and interests.  I should be pleased at this. I should be delighted at the idea that he will turn away from Gabriel, disinherit him, perhaps even disgrace him, while all the time you and I, Ernest, can follow the paths that we choose, down into the heart of darkness in the soul (if he has one) of man. And of woman. But, I am not pleased.
 I do not know what I am asking you to do to set this right. Or rather, I do know, but it is too much to ask. For if you tell Basil, who is of course now your Colonel, your CO,  that Gabriel is not evil, and has, as far as we know, committed no major crimes at all, then the cloak of darkness and madness falls around you.  Still, I have given you command of the facts, and it is said that a man in command of the facts will always choose the right course of action. Enough, or this letter will never catch the mail boat to France. I am as ever, your Father.’
‘Ernest, sweetheart. I hope that this letter finds you safe and well. I do hope you are a long way from the fighting. I do hope that you are being brave. I am writing to say that you and I parted on terms that were a bit, somewhat hasty. I am willing to reconsider and to accept your apology and to marry you. As soon as we can. Do please get a weekend pass and come home straight away. Pa has made all the arrangements. Hasty weddings are quite the fashion at the moment, due to the needs of the fighting men.  Best regards, Effie.’
Deep in the fighting country of the lowlands, Ernest screwed up both letters, and used them to attempt to light the tiny stove in his dug out quarters, fanning the embers with the paper first. The squall outside blew  back down the chimney, made from old tin cans, and bitter black smoke swirled around him. He hunched his back against the rain and breathed patiently on the feeble flames again.  He was wondering how long he could delay sending a reply to Effie. In anticipation of her letter, he had already written a note of acceptance and reconciliation. It was sewn into the lining of his coat, along with her engagement ring, which he would also return to her. The events of the next few weeks would determine when, and whether, he would get it dispatched.
As Ernest put a billy can of hot water on the stove, a signals despatcher bobbed his head in through the doorframe.
‘Sergeant Lowe?’
Ernest acknowledged his name and the salute.
‘Message for you from Captain Kerford, First Cavalry column.’
‘Thank you.’ Ernest read the message. ‘The response is –‘ I will be there with all speed’.’
But ‘all speed’ in these conditions was still a matter of weeks, rather than days. Ernest hitched a lift with every passing convoy, but soon discovered that most of his Army was, if not retreating, then wheeling round across the low countries, leaving Gabriel’s cavalry regiments exposed, cut off and seemingly abandoned to their fate. Accounts of the losses were staggering, but, Ernest reasoned, only to be expected when horses were charging machine guns.
At length he came to a chateau, requisitioned by the British General Staff. Ernest brushed himself up, as far as he could, and presented his name to Colonel Kerford, who was dining within. Ernest waited in the marble hallway, his knees beginning to buckle in response to the hunger that was gripping him as he smelled the Officer’s dinner being prepared. A batman saw Ernest’s reaction and recognised it, and brought Ernest a roast beef sandwich. Ernest looked at it in awe for a moment, before devouring it in a couple of bites.
Ernest calculated that he would have quite a wait, and that he would be brought in with the brandy and cigars. He was right. The room into which he was admitted was a small library or study, away from the dining room. Only the Colonel was there, with two brandy glasses. Ernest saluted, and then the two men shook hands. Ernest accepted the brandy, and had to remember not to down it in one. The Colonel was agitated, marching up and down the carpet as he spoke.
‘Ernest – I know that you have been a good friend, a loyal friend, of my son for many years. Others seem to have been leading him down all sorts of wrong paths, but you – you have always been on the level.’
Ernest looked at his boots, their shabbiness shaming the antique carpet.
‘And it seems that Gabriel – God, Ernest, I don’t know how to say this.’
‘You don’t need to say any more, Sir. Effie wrote to me.’
‘She did?’ said the Colonel, astonished.
‘She wrote to say that she wants to marry me as soon as possible, and that she no longer regards Gabriel as a friend. I have not had the time to ask her any more, nor will I pry into her reasons.’
Ernest gave the Colonel time to share what more he knew, or believed he knew, about Effie’s predicament, but he said nothing. Instead he swirled the brandy around in the glass. Ernest had to admit that in his place he would do the same.
‘Where is Gabriel, Sir? He sent me a signal requesting that I come to meet him as soon as I could. I was on my way to him when I was dropped off here. There’s not much intelligence on the ground, even as to the whereabouts of a whole regiment of horse.’
‘You don’t have to go, Ernest. You are under no obligation.’
‘He is a senior…’ began Ernest.
‘And I am his C.O.’ Colonel Kerford sat down. ‘The horse are cut off. I have given them orders that they are to make their own way in as good order as they can.’
‘But, without artillery support they will be cut down in minutes.’
‘That is Gabriel’s fault. His hotheaded actions have led to this.’
‘That’s not what I’ve heard on the ground, Sir.’ Ernest said, as smoothly as he could.
The Colonel raised an eyebrow, not deaf to the insolence in Ernest’s reply. ‘I admire your loyalty to him, but there is something wrong with my son that I cannot account for. He always has been in trouble, even when he was at school. I do not understand his impulses.’
‘ But you believe that you do, Sir.’
‘What can you mean?’
‘Some time ago, I had the honour of sorting, restoring and repairing your book collection. It was your wife’s idea, so that they would be ready for you in your country house, away from the effects of the Zellpin raids in London. I must have handled every book on your shelves a dozen times.’
Ernest watched the colour drain from Colonel Kerford’s face. Even his second glass of brandy could not restore him as he said, hesitantly. ‘How interesting for you. And what insights did you find in those neglected pages?’
‘Forgive me. I am a poorly self-educated bookseller, but I could not help noticing many works on natural history, on the study of Darwin and his theories, and even the works of Doctors Freud and Jung. I would hazard a guess that you are interested in the theories concerning man’s basic nature  - if there are certain traits we are born with, or if any – any unwanted behaviour is a result of our upbringing.’
‘Well well. How much of a man is revealed through his library.’
‘Indeed, Sir. And Gabriel is not what you think he is. I know, and I have been told, that he is a good man, there is nothing evil about him.’ Ernest got up and saluted, taking his leave. As Ernest turned the doorknob the Colonel said ‘Who told you – about Gabriel’s nature?’
Ernest smiled. ‘My Father’ he said, and left the room.
Nobody saw the man in the top hat and cape enter the chateau. None of the staff, the soldiers wide awake on guard duty, or those sleeping bunked up in neat rows across the ballroom. He was not prevented from gliding into the Colonel’s sleeping quarters and making himself comfortable in the armchair beside the bed. When the Colonel woke, and saw the outline of the man against the window, somehow he knew that there was no point in calling for a guard.
‘Good morning, Basil’ said the man.
‘Who are you? How did you get in here?’
‘I am not here. You are dreaming.’
Colonel Kerford pinched himself, hard, and felt that the pain proved he was awake. Still, the room was hazy, somehow, and there seemed to be an unnaturally warm sunlight streaming through the window, making the dust dance in the shaft of light through the heavy curtains.
‘Come, Basil. You know who I am. You know I can’t really be in this room. You’ve made sure of that.’
‘Jay’ breathed Basil.
‘Brother. My dear twin, how good it is to see you again.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Apart from the pleasure of your company? I am dying, Basil. The long years of incarceration have taken the strength from me. I shall soon be gone. You will not be long after me, however. You know those dreams that you have had? The ones about rococo ceilings falling in upon you. Yes, look around you, brother. I can see your room only faintly, but I am sure that you are in a chateau of exquisite plaster work.’
‘Is that a threat?’
‘No, no. It is a prediction. And a warning that we must make the most of the hours remaining to us all.’
‘By stopping this war, I suppose?’
‘My dear Basil, this war may have been started between a lunatic and a second-rate commander, but it will take more than our combined efforts to end it. No, I was thinking of something much closer to home. I was thinking of our sons – Oh, do forgive me, of my sons.’
‘Ernest was here.’
‘Yes. I can sense him. That’s how I managed to track you down.’ Jay Kerford got up and walked across the room, his outline shifting and dispersing as he did so.
‘He knows.’
‘Indeed he does. He found the sketches which you were foolish enough to keep. He made his way to me.’
‘He has seen you?’
‘He has. He felt the family bond between us, quite strongly. I was astonished at how much we had in common.’
‘You can have nothing in common with that fine young man. He has triumphed above his background. I regret that I had to leave him to make his way in poverty, but I cannot regret how he has turned out.’
‘Hmmm. I could say the same.  There is a side to your nephew Ernest that his hidden from you, because you are looking for all the faults in Gabriel.’
‘Gabriel, I fear, takes after you.’
‘And that is why you have deliberately sent him to his death?’
‘I have not! That is outrageous!’
‘I have seen the orders, Basil. I may only be able to follow this stupid conflict through reports in The Times, but I was an Officer Cadet too. I know how this strategy of yours works. I know the cavalry are a noble sacrifice. You are hoping to clear your family of any taint.’
The Colonel began to protest again, but his brother held up a hand, and continued. ‘And now Ernest is galloping over there to save him. What a conundrum. Which boy should we warn? I do like a good mystery. I always thought you had a flair for writing them. All the work you did to put the Police off my scent. The ‘Dear Boss’ letters were a work of great imagination.’
‘I am still appalled at myself for scheming to keep you from the gallows.’
‘And yet you did so. Because you saw through my eyes, then. Sometimes I knew what you were thinking as if the thoughts were my own. And that is the bond I have with Ernest. I can take a certain pride in his creation, for that alone.’
‘Pride? In Ernest? Surely he is everything you are not?’
‘Basil. I am going to tell you something. There is, I believe, little time for you to alter the way that events will unfold, and yet you need to know.  Where shall I start? Ah, yes - the duel that you believed Gabriel may have been involved with – you remember?’
‘A bad business. I know Gabriel was supposed to have been there.’
‘He was, but he was playing fair. Ernest, however, shot both Captain Harrington and his second, before their weapons were ready. There are a number of other  - I cannot find a delicate term – incidents – involving working girls, that Ernest can take the credit for. And finally, as you must by now have realised, it was Ernest, not Gabriel, who forced Effie into…well, into marrying him. Purely because he knows she does not love him.’ Kerford shrugged. ‘Really, I do not know if I pity the boy or admire him.’
‘My God…’ said the Colonel.
‘I doubt He will be of much comfort to you, but there we are. I believe that Rosalina’s anguish over which babe to part with came from the notion that if she could keep the ‘bad’ child with her, down among the drains and dregs, he would have less possibility to do any noticeable evil. A pretty conceit. I am not sure how well it worked out, are you?’
‘I always thought it was Gabriel. I have watched that boy so carefully, worried over every misdemeanour.’
‘Gabriel is well named. He is, like his mother, something of an angel.’
‘Jay – what can I do? How can I show him that I should have trusted him?’
‘Trust in him now. Trust that both young men will behave as they should from loyalty to each other, and that neither breeding nor upbringing play a part in their actions. We are far, too far, from this front line. Goodbye, brother. It would upset all my notions of the mechanism of this creation to suppose that we will meet again, on the other side of the veil, so take this as a final farewell.’
Colonel Kerford started to reply, but his brother’s shape faded into a shadow, which dissolved into a mist. He strode across his bedroom and flung open the door. ‘Orders! Get me a dispatch rider immediately!’
He returned to the desk and started to write a note. He began ‘my dearest Gabriel, you have always been as dear to me as any son could be to a Father’ but he got no further, for at that moment the first German cannonball  thundered into the room just a foot to his left. Colonel Basil Kerford had just time to pick up the note and stow it in his pocket, before he was knocked senseless to the floor by the second cannonball, which hit the fireplace and caused the ceiling to fall into the room, on top of his breathless body.
Ernest rolled into a ditch as the first bombardment of the morning shattered the sky above him. He crawled along the length of it and reached the comparative shelter of the rear trenches. These had been deserted some days ago, and only the rats looked at him, unafraid, as he stamped his way between them. There was nothing to tell if he was in the German or the British lines; even the usual differences in trench construction did not show here, for these had been scraped out in haste and barely held together. Still, it was a place of safety for the moment. After taking a further turn he found a signpost- someone had written an arrow with ‘Berlin’ in one direction and another with ‘Piccadilly Circus’ pointing away from what must have been the front line, at some point. Then he saw a periscope that was still working. He pulled it free of the metal staples that held it against the trench wall and used it instead to look back towards the ridge to the East of the chateau. He could see little but smoke, but then for an instant he saw horses and riders, silhouetted against the sunrise.  Ernest slid back to the bottom of the trench and started raiding the corpses for working weapons and ammunition. As he did so he calculated distances, but when it came down to it he knew he had little option but to keep low and run. He needed to set off quickly, since anyone trying to shoot him would then still be looking into the rising sun, and hopefully that would give him the advantage that he needed.  Having selected the rampart that would send him over the top in the right direction, he checked his weapon, fixed his bayonet, and began to climb the ladder. But doing so on his own was an eerie experience, like climbing with a ghost army. Ernest had survived three previous forays towards the German lines, and his mind relived those moments of noise, whistles blowing around him, the endless guns, and all the small, personal noises made by men in fear, panic or exhilaration. This time there was nothing except the impersonal artillery bombardment overhead. Nobody knew where he was, or cared. He was not part of some major offensive, he was just one soldier, without his platoon, setting off on a foolish mission to save a brother who was not aware of that bond. As Ernest assessed his plan, he felt his legs growing weak, and he clung to the ladder in a moment of deep fatigue. Then he took one deep breath, and hauled himself up into the sunlight.