Colonel Edward Straker, until last November Captain in the 94th Aero Squadron US Air Service and now employed on more secretive missions, knew the symptoms well enough, knew that sick feeling and the accompanying dread. His tiredness and lack of concentration, the headaches and dizziness plaguing his waking moments since that last dreadful sortie near St Maire. Thick plumes of smoke from dying aircraft as his own Spad withered under a hail of bullets, the engine shuddering and breaking part as he fought to bring her down in one piece. The crash landing, well behind enemy lines, had been a miracle of sorts and he had dragged himself from the burning wreckage, mouth full of blood, pain in his ribs, but alive and still free. He could not forget the cloying weight of mud, dragging him down as he crawled through abandoned trenches, the bones and corpses and shattered remains of men who had once been his enemy.
And the things he had witnessed, horrors more terrible than even the war itself. The unstoppable shaking and exhaustion afterwards when the fighting was over and he stood there, numb, barely able to remember his name at first, let alone his rank.
The doctors called it shell shock: the numbness and irrational fear of being enclosed, the inability to sleep, the terror that flooded his mind at times, but they were wrong. He’d seen men reduced to hollow shells, mindless and screaming and oblivious to the fact that the war had ended. His was nothing more than the reaction of a man faced with the things he had seen in his capacity as intelligence officer and the often inexplicable events that shadowed his last few months in the trenches. And even when the war ended he was not done with fighting. Those long hours spent in debriefing, the visits from General Henderson, his permanent posting here in England together with the rapid and unexpected promotion to full Colonel.
But even now, nearly a year after the armistice, certain things still had the ability to disrupt his composure and bring those horrors back into focus: the smell of blood or burning flesh, mud pulling at his feet, the sound of screaming. Gunshots. Strange sounds in the sky.
He swallowed down the sick feeling, clenched his fists and breathed, taking long slow inhalations as advised by a sympathetic doctor, rolling his neck to relieve the tension, forcing himself not to run. The fear subsided, crept back to its hiding place, lying in wait for the next time.
A plane flew overhead, a de Havilland 16 heading for Paris no doubt and low enough for him to see the four passengers, its engine intrusive in the calm after the storm. He shook his head, cursing the disturbance, then turned to the car again. The remains of the landslide blocked the road in both directions, trapping the car as effectively as any trench barricade.
He pulled out his cigarette case, tapping a Camel into his palm and lighting it with a deep drag, the smoke hot and fragrant and reassuring, a reminder of long days and nights in France, the filth and the heat and the cold. The stench of latrines and unwashed bodies. His uniform crawling with lice, his feet sodden and numb in the thick mire of mud. The inadequate tents, the enemy planes strafing the airfields. Gas drifting across the ground, the rush to don masks, the tentative first breath of acrid tasting air, the silent prayer that he had been quick enough.
He smoked the cigarette to the end, crushing the butt beneath the heel of his shoe before lighting another. A chance to compose himself. It was no hardship standing in warm rain. Better that than being trapped in the automobile. The culvert was close to overflowing, the water filthy and thick with disturbed sediment and debris from further up the wash: small branches, a twisted tangle of fence posts and wire, two drowned sheep bobbing under the churning surface.
It took him a while to make his way to the car, all the while aware of the danger of a further mudslide or the car itself shifting again, but he steeled himself to open the driver’s door and reached across to grab his hat and, as an afterthought, the road map he had picked up in London before setting off. His valise was in the boot and he lifted it out, wondering whether to take the Enfield as well before dismissing the idea as impractical. It would be safe enough where it was until he could find someone to tow the car over the landslide and onto the clear track ahead. His service revolver was tucked deep in the pocket of his coat should he need it and, loaded down as he was, he would be hard pressed to get to any sort of shelter before darkness fell.
He had not seen a road or dwelling of any kind since turning off the main carriageway some miles back and his best hope was to carry on. He unfolded the road map and spread it across the bonnet tracing the route with one finger: the railway line, the dike, the road little more than a faint broken line compared to the main routes marked in colour, then he folded the sheet of paper, tossed it on the back seat and brushed the last of the rain from his coat. Hat settled in place, he hefted the valise in one gloved hand and set off, a brisk enough pace that might see him reach the Hall before the rain returned with a vengeance.
The thought of sleeping out was not pleasant, though he would if necessary. He’d done enough in the last couple of years: sleeping beside his Spad before a sortie, and after as well, rough lodgings in French farmhouses, huddling among the foot soldiers in trenches or ditches during raids, anywhere he could find shelter. It was even harder later on, when he was sent out on yet another intelligence mission behind enemy lines. Months of shadowy work, sometimes in the trenches or in the field hospitals, asking questions and going into dark places abandoned by more sensible men. Taking cover from bombs and gas and explosions. The terror of being trapped and unable to free himself. Shooting at the enemy and seeing them fall.
But he had survived, unlike many of his fellow airmen. So many young lives cut short.
The rain started again, a fine drizzle that added to his discomfort and the sun was close to setting when he heard a clatter behind and he stepped to one side of the track as a dog cart – pulled by an elderly and somewhat shaggy horse – came alongside and halted.
The dog-cart driver regarded him with a look of misgiving; a stranger, muddied and dirty and on a road that, if his recall of the map was accurate, led nowhere except the estate. ‘I think perhaps you require some assistance?’
The accent was foreign, east European if his guess was correct. Not German, but something akin. The last few years would not have been easy then. He put down the valise for a moment and held his empty hands out. ‘I wonder if I might ask for a lift. My motor car was caught in the storm a while back and I had to leave it there.’ He waited.
‘The Sunbeam Tourer is yours? I saw it. You were fortunate. You’ve come some way then.’
The same accent recognisable now, similar to that of the few Polish soldiers he’d worked with, though somewhat tempered. ‘A distance. I was heading for Eshley Hall, but it’s further than I anticipated.’
‘In that case I regret you have made a wasted journey. The Hall was taken over during the war and although the building was returned to its rightful owners several months ago, the building is in poor condition. Dry rot amongst other more serious problems. The family took the decision to leave a few weeks ago and sailed to Canada, leaving a few members of staff in charge until the sale of the estate is completed.’ He stared into the distance for a moment, then shook his head as if waking from a dream. ‘The Dower House is still in use however, although I regret that there is a shooting party in residence at the moment.’
Straker tugged of his hat and swept his hands though his hair to neaten his quiff. ‘I was misinformed then. I was given to understand that the house was occupied. I need to make a phone call.’ The rumours had reached Henderson a couple of days ago and the General’s brief telegram to Straker had – of necessity – been devoid of anything other than the barest of details. It was going to make his task even more difficult. He grimaced, turning up the collar of his coat in a futile attempt to stop the worst of the rain from trickling down his neck and pushed his right hand deep into his pocket within touch of the revolver.
‘Am I correct in my understanding that you are not from this area?’ A questioning note to the voice, the man unsure as any sensible person would be.
‘I’m from Boston.’ And he shook his head in wry amusement at the mistake. ‘Sorry. Not this Boston. The one in America.’
‘A long way from home then, Mr…?’
He paused for a moment. There was no need to use his formal title, not yet, not unless the situation changed. ‘Straker. Edward Straker.’ He wondered whether he should have hidden in the trees after all, and let his only chance of a lift pass by, but it was too late now. He could see the other man thinking, fingers stroking his chin, the dark eyes watching him.
‘I will give you a lift to the Dower House, Mr Straker. There is a phone there and the staff should be able to give you further assistance. However, I am sure the current residents would not turn anyone in need of shelter for the night.’ The driver shifted across, making space on the small bench seat. ‘It was fortunate I came along otherwise you would have been faced with a long walk.’
He put his valise in the space behind the seat, climbed up and settled himself next to the driver. It was a relief to sit down and ease his aching and damp feet. ‘I appreciate your help…?’
The driver leaned forward, taking the reins in hand. ‘Jackson. I was Lord Eshley’s former valet. I chose not to join the family when they emigrated and so I am reduced to acting as head groom or coachman or even a footman when necessary. Not that there are many horses left in the stables. Just this one, and two others who are too old for heavy work. You didn’t bring a man with you?’ A relaxed conversation for all the man’s clipped and precise way of speaking. There was none of the deference expected from a servant, but that was no surprise; Straker was an unknown quantity, and an American to boot.
‘No. I came on short notice I’m afraid. But I’m used to looking after myself. My aide despaired of me much of the time. Said I was a hopeless cause.’ He folded his arms, avoiding Jackson’s sideways glance of understanding.
‘France? I thought so. There is a rare and definite quality to men who fought there, something in their stance or the look in their eyes. I would have enlisted but they refused to accept me for medical reasons.’ He turned away for a moment, hiding the look in his eyes. ‘I have asthma you see. And so I remained here, watching the children go to fight. Too many of them didn’t return. Our way of life came to an end, the loss of a whole generation too much for the estate to bear. Perhaps it is for the best that the estate is for sale. A chance to start again, to create something better. To learn from our mistakes.’
There was no answer to that. Straker pulled his coat closer, waiting.
Jackson flicked the reins to set the pony trotting, a brisk pace even in the deepening gloom as if the animal was eager to get back to the warmth of its stable. He shook his head, then turned to Straker, a wry twist to his lips. ‘My apologies. I have a tendency to talk too much as Cooper will no doubt take pleasure in informing you.’
‘The House Steward as he calls himself now. Or should I say former butler? Promotion has swollen both his head as well as his pockets.’ Another wry grin, a shrug of the narrow shoulders. ‘Forgive me. That was both rude and untrue. He does the best he can under what have been very difficult circumstances. But he is a cautious man and will be concerned over your appearance at such a late hour. There have been too many disturbances recently for anyone to feel comfortable on the grounds of estate, particularly with strangers. You would do well to prepare yourself for a chilly welcome at best.’
The journey passed in companionable silence until the track merged with a long drive and they drove through a wide gateway with a large country house in the distance. Jackson pulled the trap to a halt outside a large residence. ‘Here you are, Mr Straker. The Dower House. I trust you will find a welcome, however curt, and I will take it upon myself to have your car returned to you in the morning, all being well.’ He waited for Straker to climb down then flicked the whip, leaving him standing alone on the wide gravelled drive, shivering in the cool night air and acutely aware of his dishevelled appearance.
The Dower House, set back from the drive, was not what Straker had expected. A commanding building, three stories high, its windows bright with lights. But he could see the early signs of disrepair: shards of broken stonework, weeds taking a foothold between the paving slabs, a cracked drainpipe leaking water. He wondered what sort of reception he would get here, a stranger and an American at that, not to mention arriving after dark. He climbed the steps, paused, his hand reaching for the bell, then the door opened, just a few inches.
Someone peered at him. ‘Yes?’ The defensive stance of an English butler faced with a complete stranger on the doorstep late at night. And yet something more: the man’s rigid stance and curtness, the door still chained, as if he had prepared himself to meet something far more dangerous than a solitary traveller seeking help.
‘My apologies for disturbing the house at this late an hour, but I had an accident on the road several miles back and your…’ He paused, unsure of the proper status of his rescuer: ex-valet, coachman? He made a guess. ‘Your head groom met me on the road and gave me a lift here, told me someone might be able to help? I need to make a telephone call, if possible. My name is Straker. Edward Straker.’ He didn’t like to think about Henderson’s reaction, nor what he would do if the butler turned him away. He could, at a pinch go to the Hall and break in, find somewhere there for the night, better than sleeping rough in the woods but it would be a last resort.
The butler tilted his head, a quick yet competent examination of the late night visitor. ‘One moment.’ The door closed, a scrape of the chain being removed and then it opened wide, revealing a wide hallway, brightly lit and warm. ‘If you would leave your bag here sir? And come this way?’
He followed, hat in one hand and his wet shoes squeaking on the marble floor, trousers clinging to his calves to leave a trail of droplets in his wake. The log fire at the far end was dying down, the wood little more than glowing embers, but even that was enough to tempt him to stop and stretch out his hands, relishing the heat.
The butler gave a discreet cough and he left the warmth and hurried on, the sounds of masculine laughter from behind a closed door making him aware that he was intruding in a private house.
The telephone was dead and he stepped back with a sense of dismay. ‘Is there anywhere nearby I can stay for the night? A hotel perhaps?’
‘This is the only house in the immediate area. The village is some miles further on. However, if you will excuse me for a minute I will speak with the gentleman in charge. I am sure he will be able happy to oblige.’ Cooper walked out into the hallway, leaving the door open.
Straker unfastened his coat, listening to the sounds around him: the tap of footsteps retreating again, loud voices from somewhere nearby, the creak of a door opening and Cooper’s voice murmuring. Another burst of laughter and then the footsteps coming back. He prepared himself for dismissal.
But it was not Cooper this time. A middle aged man in lounge suit and carrying a glass of brandy. ‘Straker? Thomas Halliwell. Major. 11th Hussars. Taken over the House for the month.’ He drained his glass and put it down on one of the small tables without making any attempt to shake hands. ‘Cooper tells me you had an accident on the east road. I’m surprised no one else has come to grief there, the whole estate’s falling apart from what I can see. Disaster waiting to happen. Look. Why don’t you stay for the night? Cooper tells me there’s a spare room you can have for the night. Get yourself some rest and I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow. You can tell me what you’re doing out here and then you can join us for the day. You do know how to shoot, don’t you?’
‘I can use a rifle.’ And a service revolver and a flamethrower and a knife when needed. He stared at the Major, wondering if the soldier had ever fought in a battle or in single combat. Had ever drawn blood, let alone killed a man.
‘Good lord. You’re American. That will be fun. Tomorrow you can show us if you’re any good with a shotgun. Breakfast is at eight.’
A brusque dismissal, an order rather than invitation and he walked out, leaving Straker standing there and wondering what he had let himself in for. He had given enough orders in the past to know the difference between a polite request and a directive, but it was a small price to pay for a night’s accommodation, especially if it furthered his mission. He turned to the butler. ‘Please thank the major for his generosity and inform him that I look forward to joining him in the morning.’ There. The proprieties fulfilled. He would go along with this Major Halliwell, at least until he had gained his bearings and could set about a proper search of the area.
His valise was waiting for him outside the parlour and he picked it up, aware that he was an unwanted intruder in a private house and as welcome as a plague of mice. He flicked raindrops from the collar of his topcoat then followed the butler in silence, up the wide marble stairs and along a secondary corridor with dark oak doors and creaking floorboards, niches filled with pale busts of long forgotten men and women, the shadows harsh and unforgiving under the modern electric lighting. Not an attractive part of the building. He wondered if the other guests were accommodated in this part of the house or, as he suspected, they were in a more favourable part of the building, closer to the warmth and brightness of the main rooms.
By the time the man stopped and opened yet another anonymous door, Straker was aching with the deep chill of tiredness and wanted nothing more than to sit down and get warm.
‘I trust this will be suitable, Mr Straker? I will send one of the maids along shortly to light the fire.’ A frown. A pause. ‘Do you require anything else? A manservant perhaps?’
‘No need. I’ll be fine. Thank you.’ He closed the door and turned round to inspect the room aware of his growing hunger and cold feet. He should have asked for something to eat, or even a brandy to warm him up, but it was too late now. Hunger was not an unknown sensation and at least he was out of the rain.
The room had an air of disuse, the heavy curtains closed to stop sunlight fading the wallpaper and a veneer of dust dulled the furniture. He pulled back the covers on the wide bed and felt the sheets. Chilled and damp enough to be uncomfortable, but the eiderdown was thick and warm to the touch. He would make do.
He hid the service revolver down the side of the armchair, hung up his rain-sodden coat in an optimistic hope it would dry and then explored the rest of the room. The drapes were dusty and he pulled them back, peering out of the window at the dark shape of Eshley Hall in the distance. Emptied and abandoned and from the sounds of it, falling to ruin. He’d seen it before: crippling death duties, failing estates, the lack of young men to work the land. Houses gutted and left to ruin while the farms and land were sold off piecemeal. He would have to find some way to look round the grounds tomorrow. And then he remembered his promise to Halliwell and he shivered. He let the curtain fall back into place and sat on the edge of the bed to pull off sodden footwear and put his shoes outside the door for the bootboy, if there was one.
By the time one of the servants arrived, bringing a couple of towels and then lighting the fire, he was too tired to contemplate having a bath. He pulled the armchair nearer the fire and huddled there until the worst of the cold dissipated and his trousers were beginning to steam. Then he forced himself to his feet and undressed, shivering in the chill air that the fire had not reached. In any other situation he would have slept in his clothes but he might need the suit tomorrow and he had no desire to stand out any more than he had already done with his late arrival. He pulled on his pyjamas, draped his socks over the fender with the thought that they at least would be dry in the morning, then dragged the eiderdown from the bed and wrapped it round himself. The overstuffed armchair was comfortable enough and he sat there, watching the flames and thinking about his reason for being here. The cold metal of his revolver, within reach of his fingers, troubled him, but this was a strange house and there was something unsettling about the place, a sense of quiet unease more chilling than any unaired bed or unwelcoming and nervous butler.
In the end it was sheer exhaustion that made him close his eyes despite all his efforts to stay awake, and it was after midnight when the door opened and someone slipped inside, to stand there watching for a moment before moving in total silence across the room.