Warning: this chapter contains graphic descriptions of disturbing wartime imagery, racial slurs, strong language, references to prostitution, and character death.
1 August 1917
My Dear Mary,
We're having great success in Lancashire
The pen ran dry and Matthew lifted it from the paper and shook it in annoyance. He tried again, but only a thin scratch of ink came out. Sighing, he dropped the useless pen on the desk and pulled open the drawers, looking for an ink bottle to refill it. Finding none, he shoved his chair back and rose, going across the room to hunt through his drawer of personal items beside his bed. No, no ink there, either.
He dragged his kit out from beneath the bed, muttering imprecations under his breath. Where was a damn ink bottle when he needed one? He yanked clothes, his shaving supplies, his towel, a sheaf of papers, and his diary out of his kit, but the box with the spare pen and ink bottle was nowhere to be found.
He gave a growl and roughly upended the bag, emptying its contents on the bed and flinging items away as he hunted, his search becoming more frantic with each passing second.
"Where is the bloody thing?" he roared, recognising with a remote part of himself that he was overreacting to so small an inconvenience. It was just a pen.
But he'd never given the location of his spare pen much thought before. He'd never had to. When he needed it, he'd always just turned to—
Matthew growled again and hurled the remaining items to the floor, furious.
Matthew proudly took in the sight of his platoon as they stood at parade rest, their eyes fixed straight ahead. Forty-eight men in peak physical condition, their boots and brass shining, their jaws set with jaunty determination, and his four NCOs keeping them in line and awaiting his orders. They were bound for the Western Front, and would be entraining the next morning. Everyone had clean rifles, new equipment, and a full kit. The only remaining task was to defeat 'D' Company in the football match after supper.
Matthew grinned. "Dismissed!"
The men gave a happy roar and jogged off across the wide field towards the barracks, three of the NCOs shouting a regular cadence to keep them together. Sergeant Stevens, the most senior of them, came to stand by Matthew as the platoon left.
"Have you made your decision, sir?" he asked.
Matthew nodded. "I have. Private Davis."
Stevens quickly hid a grimace. "Very good, sir. I'll fetch him."
Matthew put out a hand. "No, I'll do that." He gave a chagrined smirk and started to walk in the direction of the barracks, Stevens falling into step beside him. "I'm afraid my quarters are rather a mess at the moment and I want you to make sure that the men we field this evening are the best we have."
Stevens chuckled. "My pleasure. I've already got several in mind."
The discussion turned to the men's readiness and the transport schedule. When Matthew entered the barracks several minutes later, Stevens shouted, "Officer on the floor!" and all the men quickly leapt to attention, sliding off their bunks or standing up.
"At ease," Matthew said, peering amongst the men as he moved. "Ready for the match, then, Private...Makewell, is it?" he asked a young man.
"Yes, sir! We won't let you down tonight, sir!" Makewell beamed.
Matthew smiled and continued moving along the bunks. Some of the men had left their kit behind on their beds and were likely outside smoking or kicking a ball around in anticipation of the evening's entertainment.
"Where is Private Davis?" Matthew asked.
Again, the reaction from the men was an odd smattering of disgusted looks and sidelong glances. Matthew frowned.
"His bunk's just there," Pvt. Jones said with a gesture. "But he ain't in it."
Matthew looked at Jones with annoyance. That much was obvious. Why did the men seem reluctant to volunteer Davis's location? Nothing in Davis's brief interview had suggested that anything was amiss. If anything, he'd seemed a model soldier in all the training that Matthew had observed.
Stevens cleared his throat. "He's most likely out by the latrines, sir."
Matthew turned and stared at him. "'Out by the latrines?'"
"Bloody snipcock," someone nearby muttered sotto voce, and there was a smattering of ugly laughter. Matthew glanced around with a frown and the men quickly fell silent.
It wasn't an epithet that Matthew was familiar with, but he turned on his heel with a sinking feeling and strode out of the barracks. Stevens began barking the names of the privates that the platoon would be fielding for the football match.
Matthew stepped outside and shielded his eyes against where the sun hung low in the sky. Dusk would be falling soon. He walked around the corner of the barracks and indeed, there was a figure standing beside the outhouses. Matthew frowned. What man would willingly stand for so long beside a spot that reeked of human excrement?
As Matthew neared, he heard a low murmuring. He saw that Davis—for it was Davis—had some sort of odd little black box strapped to his head and his left arm, which he'd bared, was similarly bound. He had wrapped the black strap on his arm all the way down to his middle finger, and he stood now with his eyes closed, his lips moving quietly.
Matthew opened his mouth to hail the man, but as he took another step closer, he felt a sudden sense of weight that made him pause and remain silent.
Davis was chanting something to himself, something in a foreign tongue that gave Matthew a strange sort of chill. He stood and watched respectfully, listening. There was no hurry. The bugle for mess would sound shortly; until then, there were no demands on them. He could wait for Davis to finish, for it was clearly some form of religious observance.
Davis covered his eyes and recited a long passage that sounded as though it began with 'something Israel', which was the only word that Matthew thought he recognised. It was then that he realised the nature of the man who was standing before him and the ugly epithet made a terrible sort of sense. Matthew's jaw worked as he narrowed his eyes.
When Davis finished his recitation, he removed the straps and boxes and wrapped them carefully, placing them in an embroidered bag. As he drew its string closed and turned, he gave a slight jump, then straightened and saluted.
"Lt. Crawley, sir! I'm sorry, I didn't know you were there."
"At ease, Private." Matthew studied him as he returned the salute.
Davis swallowed and lifted his chin. "Is something wrong, sir?"
"No." Matthew cleared his throat. "I've just come to tell you that I've assigned you to be my soldier-servant."
Davis regarded him in careful silence before asking, "Still, sir?"
Matthew smiled and relaxed. "Do you have any reason to think I should reconsider my decision?"
"Good. Walk with me, Davis." Matthew heard the bugle sound.
Davis quickly fell into step beside him as they strode towards the mess hall.
"Would you mind if I stowed this with my kit, sir?" he asked, gesturing with the embroidered bag. "I'd rather not bring it to a meal."
Matthew smoothly changed direction. "Of course." He glanced at the bag. "What is it?"
"Tefillin," Davis answered. He smiled down at the bag. "My wife made this for me." His fingers ran lightly over the unfamiliar lettering and then he looked up again. "Are you familiar with Deuteronomy, sir?"
Matthew smiled. "Somewhat."
"I wear this each day, if I can, in obedience to the instruction to bind His commands for a sign upon my hand and between my eyes."
Matthew blinked, recalling such a verse. It had not occurred to him that it would be interpreted so literally. He made a thoughtful noise and nodded as they entered the now-empty barracks, and he watched Davis put the tefillin in his kit.
"I take it you've been excluded and harassed."
Davis's face betrayed nothing. "It's nothing I can't handle, sir."
Matthew nodded, ashamed on behalf of his countrymen, then narrowed his eyes at Davis. "Why didn't you mention this in your interview? Your records indicate that you registered as 'Church of England'."
Davis stood straight and met Matthew's gaze without rancour. "I had to, sir. If I had given my true name and faith, they would have dismissed me from the recruiting station."
Matthew's eyebrows rose. "Surely not!"
Now Davis's expression turned hard. "It has happened to many of us. We have learned how to get past the...deterrents...to serve our King and Country."
"You said that you did not give your true name, either. What is it?"
Davis jutted out his chin. "Davidson, sir."
"'Samuel Davidson'," Matthew repeated. He gave Davis—Davidson—a brief nod and held out his hand. Davis eyed him a moment in surprise and then a warm smile broke across his face as he shook Matthew's hand. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Davidson," Matthew said. "I'm afraid that I shall have to go on calling you 'Davis'—"
"I would appreciate that, sir," Davis said quickly.
"But as I'm sure we'll be for it soon, I want you to know that you needn't hide anything from me. I won't ask you to report any harassment to me, as I'm sure that won't make your situation any easier—" Davis nodded, a glint of appreciation in his eyes at their shared understanding, and Matthew continued, "—but should you ever need space to pray, you need only ask."
"Thank you, sir."
Matthew nodded. "I also cannot excuse you from church parade."
"Of course not," Davis said. "I wouldn't expect you to." Then he grinned. "Actually, I rather enjoy it...the parts that I recognise, in any event."
Matthew chuckled as they made their way out of the barracks.
"I look forward to serving you, sir."
"And I look forward to serving with you, Private Davis."
Late May 1915
Although Matthew hated leaving Mary, his mother, and the relative peace of Downton behind, when he jumped down from the back of the lorry, it was with a sense of relief that he looked at the base camp. The sun shone brightly and there were men resting, others playing pontoon, and still others ribbing one another as they stood around a smoking field cooker. A company marched in the field beyond, their brass and rifles glinting in the sun. Aside from the continual rumble of heavy artillery fire that echoed from several miles away, it seemed a bustling and hopeful morning.
Matthew hefted his bag and smiled. There was a simplicity in the focus of military life, a well-understood structure, and a welcome ease in the company of other men. Women, as lovely as they were, tended to complicate things. He'd thought that he had been holding up rather well, all things considered, but the brief time at home had thrown his daily routines and habits of mind into sharp relief, not to mention reinvoking the painful sensation of being pulled away from Mary. He'd been in a sour mood initially, but after a day or two of travel on land and then a few hours spent contemplating the sea as the ship crossed the Channel, interspersed by conversations with God and his fellow soldiers, he'd been able to right himself.
Feeling certain of his place and purpose in the world once more, Matthew strode off towards Battalion HQ to report in.
Ypres, June 1915
The ground shuddered with the distant shelling as Davis stood outside Battalion HQ awaiting the orders he'd been sent for. He watched the flow of lorries and ambulances, noting with interest the presence of a woman driver in one of them. A Ford motor pulled up in the field across the makeshift road and a pair of padres emerged, their clerical collars flashing white in the morning sunlight. Davis admired these men, who more often than not could be found on the field of battle, always weaponless, as they ministered to the fallen soldiers, carrying those who might be saved to safety and returning to simply pray beside others who were too far gone, collecting their personal effects to return the items to their families.
As Davis's thoughts wandered thus, a sudden glint of light caught his eye and he squinted at the padres as they approached. Neither of them looked much like soldiers, despite their officers' uniforms. They both wore glasses and had neatly-trimmed beards; it was clear that neither was stationed with a unit. They were probably higher-ranking clergymen.
He idly scratched his jaw and then paused and blinked. Another flash of sunlight caught on the nearer padre's cap and Davis suddenly realised why: its surface was smooth, not engraved, and it was the Magen David. He froze in surprise and stared at it.
"Good morning, Private!" the padre said, and Davis snapped to attention, giving the mysterious man a salute, which the padre returned as he smiled. Davis looked at the Magen David again as the padre said, "Shalom."
"Shalom," Davis repeated automatically, hoping he wasn't in shock and just imagining this man.
The padre's face lit up, as did the face of the man beside him. "I'm Rev. Michael Adler, Jewish Chaplain to His Majesty's Armed Forces, and this is Chief Rabbi Rev. Dr. Joseph Hertz—"
"—Hertz," Davis eagerly joined in as Adler spoke. "I've never met you, sir, but of course I've read your missives in the Chronicle."
Hertz chuckled and shook his hand. "Shalom. It's good to meet you, Private...?"
"Davis—oh, er, Davidson, sir. Samuel Davidson. Of South Manchester Synagogue."
The three men exchange a brief look of understanding at the name change, but then Hertz narrowed his eyes.
"Samuel Davidson, is it? Were you ever a member of Fletchley Park in London?"
"I was," Davis replied, smiling. "I moved to Manchester three years ago."
"Were you the Davidson involved with Rabbi Levene's...?"
"Daughter," Davis answered quietly, his smile falling away as he met Hertz's gaze without flinching. "She is my wife."
"Ah," Hertz said.
"How fortuitous!" Adler inserted with cheerful obliviousness. "You know him?"
"After a fashion," Hertz replied, still looking at Davis, who merely lifted his chin.
The ground shook with more force than usual and the three men looked towards the front line. There was a distant grey haze of smoke that overhung the fields, marring the beauty of the otherwise clear spring morning. There were no birds overhead. It seemed such a shame.
Adler cleared his throat, sober again. "We're just here to see the line, to find more of our brethren and assess the state of things. We'll be holding services tomorrow evening. Is this Battalion HQ?"
"It is," Davis replied, his heart leaping at the thought of attending a service after spending so long in only private prayers. "I'm just awaiting orders. Our company is on the reserve line right now."
"Ah!" Adler said. "Would you be good enough to give us a tour?"
"If Lt. Crawley permits it," Davis replied, "I would be honoured."
"Excellent. I'll see to the arrangements." Adler nodded as he and Hertz stepped inside the mairie of Ypres.
Matthew stood overseeing the digging of a new latrine, making sure that the regularly-shuddering trench wall was being bolstered as the men progressed, when he saw Davis approaching with two officers—or, rather, padres—in tow. It was a bit odd to have two of them on the line, but Matthew welcomed the unexpected change of pace to relieve the thudding monotony of the morning. He slapped at a fly that tried to land on his neck.
"Reverends," he called with a grin, not straightening in respect, as he would otherwise have done. Davis and the padres were several inches shorter than him and he envied their ability to stand to their full heights in the trench. "A welcome sight, two—!"
The nearer padre held up a hand in greeting and Matthew blinked when he saw the Star of David on their caps, rather than the usual cross badges.
"Yes," the first man said with a grin. The padre held out his hand and ignored the flies buzzing around them, unlike his companion, whose flared nostrils and mouth were pulled up in an expression of disgust at the smell. Matthew shook the men's hands as they made their introductions.
Noting Hertz's discomfited glance past him, Matthew gestured apologetically back towards the tarp-covered body that Sergeant Stevens was guarding from passersby. "A dead Frenchman, I'm afraid," he said. "We discovered him in the trench wall this morning. We're just waiting for the sanitaryman to return and collect him."
Hertz was making a visible effort to keep from covering his face. "What is that stinging smell?"
"Chloride of lime," Matthew replied. "It's the only way to keep the trench sanitary in the presence of a dead body."
From the look on Hertz's face, it was clear that he thought the trench far from 'sanitary', but he merely nodded and glanced around at the soldiers, who had paused in their digging to look at the new arrivals.
"We're searching for our co-religionists," Adler explained. "I've come to announce that we're holding services tomorrow evening in the church at the village. I'm hoping your batman can attend."
Matthew glanced at Davis as he accepted the packet of orders that the soldier-servant was holding out to him, and he saw the look of hope on Davis's face. Matthew gave Adler and Hertz a polite smile. "If our orders don't have us on the front line by tomorrow, then any of the men in my platoon who wish to can attend. If you'll just excuse me?"
"Of course," Adler said, and he turned to make small talk with Davis and the men who were digging, inquiring if they knew of any other Jews in their company.
Matthew gestured for Sergeant Stevens to take over supervision, then went down the line and ducked into his dugout. He lit a lamp and unfolded the orders, scanning them quickly. Their company would be relieving the men on the front line at 2.00 am. He jotted the necessary items in his notebook and tucked it back in his tunic again. He would need to confer with Capt. Warren and the flanking officers as soon as possible. The relief action would be conducted as quietly as they could manage so as not to tip off Jerry to the momentary weakness in the line and bring down a fresh barrage, so there was a great deal of work to do in readying everyone, distributing extra rations, inspecting the respirators, field dressings, and rifles, and making sure everyone was in place to move forward by midnight.
When he emerged from the dugout, he found Davis waiting outside with Adler and Hertz. Matthew handed the orders to his soldier-servant.
"Bring this to Capt. Warren and Lt. Middleton. I'll send a message down to Lt. Savage."
"We're moving out, sir?" Davis asked.
Matthew glanced at the padres and Adler grinned, pulling out an identical notebook from his breast pocket.
"Don't mind us, Lieutenant," he said. "I probably know more about troop movements than you do."
Matthew's eyebrows rose as he looked at the book and then glanced towards the German line. If that notebook was captured...
Adler chuckled again, showing Matthew a page. It was filled with unfamiliar scribbles.
"What is that, some kind of code?" Matthew asked, as Adler tucked it away.
"Not strictly speaking, no. It's Hebrew. I find that I rather need this information if I'm to conduct services along the line. I'm the only Jewish Chaplain at the moment."
"An oversight that will soon be rectified," Hertz said.
"Right." Matthew glanced at Davis before looking at Adler. "We're going to the front tonight. If you want to conduct a service for our company, I suggest that you hold it soon, and nearby. The men need to be back in place by 10.00 pm."
Adler gave a curt nod and held out his hand. "Thank you, Lt. Crawley. We'll do just that."
"If you'll follow me, sirs," Davis said, and the three men nodded to Matthew and continued down the line.
Davis gave a great whoop of joy and Matthew looked up in surprise at his usually placid soldier-servant. Davis had leapt off his cot in their tent and was holding a letter, with a glowing smile on his face.
"Good news?" Matthew asked with a grin, from where he was stretched out on his cot, reading his own stack of post from home.
"It's a boy!" Davis whooped again, practically dancing.
"That's wonderful!" Matthew said, genuinely happy for Davis and hoping for such happy news someday soon, himself. Then Matthew frowned. "Wait...you haven't seen your wife since last October..."
Davis laughed and flopped back on to his cot, grabbing a pile of letters and waving them briefly. "They misdirected these. I was supposed to receive them three months ago."
Matthew chuckled. "I'm glad you finally did. Congratulations! What's his name?"
"Isaac Herman Davidson."
"Is this your first child?" Matthew asked.
Davis sat up. "No sir, my third. My daughter Rebekah was born in January 1914. My oldest son...in 1912."
Matthew tilted his head. Davis had once told him that he'd been wed in June 1912. Davis followed Matthew's thoughts and nodded, sober now as he looked down at the letter in his hands.
"Jonathan was born a month after we married," Davis said, meeting Matthew's gaze. "I am his father, but not by blood." Davis raised his chin. "Sarah has never told me who the father is; I suspect that she is protecting someone in her family. She is a selfless, extraordinary woman, Lt. Crawley. I know only that she did not have a choice in what happened to her."
Matthew set aside his letter from Robert and sat up. He regarded Davis for a long moment, considering whether he ought to speak.
When he finally did, his tone was quiet. "My wife did not, either."
Davis blinked and then his shoulders sagged a little. "Yours, too?"
Matthew nodded. "Although it was a guest of the family, not a member of it." His face twisted at the awfulness of what Davis was implying.
"I had not thought you had children, sir. You've never mentioned them."
"I don't," Matthew said.
Davis nodded, pressing his lips together.
"Congratulations on the birth of the little chap!" Matthew said with a smile, determined to dispel the dark mood that had settled over them. "I take it that everyone is round and rosy-cheeked?"
Davis laughed, relaxing. He grinned down at the letter. "They are now, with my steady pay." He grew serious again. "When we first came to Manchester, we had nothing and knew no one. I struggled to find work." He tucked the letter back into its envelope and picked up another, carefully slitting it open with his penknife. "I never much wanted to be a soldier, but the separation allowance is better than what we had before."
Matthew nodded. Many of the enlisted men regarded life in the Army as better than their previous civilian existence, which had been eked out amidst grinding poverty in the struggling economy before the War. The economy still wasn't the strongest, but at least soldiers were sheltered from much of that hardship, able to eat every day, usually having meat with each meal—granted, it was the monotony of bully beef and tins of American pork and beans, but it was food—and able to give their enlistment bonus and much of their pay to help feed their families. Even with the regular tours of duty in the trenches, most considered their lot to have improved.
Davis had returned to his letters and Matthew did the same, stretching out again and angling the paper to catch the light from the dim lamp. His thoughts drifted to Mary. He would be seeing her again soon! One more rotation through the lines and his next rest period would be his week-long leave. He was better prepared to make the transition to Downton this time and he was so eager to touch her again, to see her shining eyes and to feel her softness and warmth and passion. His body ached in anticipation and he closed his eyes. Would it be too much to hope that they might soon have happy news of their own? He grinned and looked forward to doing his utmost to ensure that they did.
The Somme, July 1916
"Sir?" Matthew asked, bone-weary and caked in mud, the cuts and burns on his neck smarting as his skin itched. Surely there might be a few hours' rest?
"Just get on with it, Lt. Crawley," Major Warren said sharply, his own expression exhausted. "You're leading a burial squad. Collect your men and as many picks, shovels, and stretchers as you can find. Rev. Crispin is assigned to your unit." Warren gestured and a padre with kind but tired eyes pushed up from where he'd been resting on a pile of crates.
There was no point in protesting, and Matthew did not have the energy for it even if he'd been able to think of something to say. He was numb and raw, and he stumbled out of the makeshift Battalion HQ and stared. He started to rub his eyes, but just ended up pushing flakes of dried mud into them. Cursing under his breath, he searched in vain for a clean scrap of cloth to get the vile stuff out of his eyes, which were now flooded with stinging tears.
It was a purely physiological reaction to the dirt. Tears themselves seemed inadequate to the task that lay before him and the extent of the desolation around him.
"Here," a voice said near him and he squinted in its direction. There was a scrap of white; Matthew took the handkerchief gratefully, wiping off his eyes. When he opened them again, he saw Crispin standing before him.
"You gather the lads," Crispin said quietly, holding up a petrol tin. "I'll find the picks and shovels. There's a stack of stretchers behind the field dressing station."
Matthew gulped down the petrol-smelling, tepid water and nodded gratefully, handing back the kerchief. He capped the tin and gave it to Crispin. "Have you done this before?"
"Many times," Crispin said grimly. He gestured with the many-pocketed sack that was slung across his body. "I'll go first, gather their personal effects, and then your men can put them in the ground. I'll say a brief prayer, and we'll move on to the next group."
There was a warbling whistle from an overhead shell, but the explosion was a hundred yards away and the men merely looked back at each other.
"Right," Matthew said, setting his jaw and straightening as best he could. There were a few of his men huddled together on the rise; he started off in their direction.
They'd lost more than three-quarters of their platoon and the company numbers were worse. As they picked their way among the craters and splintered trees and stepped gingerly around unexploded shells in the downpour, they stumbled over the bodies. English, Scots, South Africans, and Germans were all tangled together in the churned-up undergrowth, having fought for weeks for every last inch. The air was rank with the half-sweet, half-sickly smell of putrefying flesh mixing with the dank aroma of wet earth, the acrid sting of fresh wood, and the stale fumes of chlorine and tear gas and high explosives.
Crispin moved with quiet efficiency from one body to the next, going through the pockets and writing each man's name in his notebook, when he could. They gathered up the pieces and tried to identify what belonged to whom. They grunted as they fought to disentangle bodies stiff with rigor mortis. It became an awful routine, Matthew coordinating the digging of burial trenches here and there, pointing out a missing limb several yards away from a burned torso, wrapping the fallen soldiers in their army blankets or German groundsheets and helping his men to lay the wrapped bodies out beside one another in the trenches, making grave-marker crosses out of broken scraps of wood that were tied together with puttee wrappings or shoelaces or bits of wire. Pausing to catch his breath and listening to the padre, again and again.
"Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord; even so saith the Spirit, for they rest from their labours."
"Amen," came the weary chorus, and then the thud and spray of dirt.
And they moved on to the next patch of ground.
Somewhere in there, when he was beyond exhaustion and was sitting against a fallen tree beside his men, Matthew felt Davis press a warm tin cup and a lump of sodden biscuit into his hand. Matthew lifted his head, blinked, shook himself, and managed a grateful nod before swallowing the gloriously-hot tea and chewing on the tasteless, grainy, stale bread. How Davis had managed to warm up tea was beyond Matthew, but he was desperately grateful for it.
They sat in the grey twilight and looked at the shattered woodland and were unperturbed by the shaking of the ground from the continual thudding of the German five-nines.
In the end, they sent two men to the casualty clearing station with shell shock—or at least, more debilitating shell shock than the rest of them were staggering through. Everyone's hands were shaking and their faces were hollow. There was not much point in meeting each other's eyes, for all that one would find there was the same horror reflected back.
They had finally been relieved. Matthew was the last remaining officer in his company and after walking his men several miles to their billet and ensuring that everyone was accounted for and safe, he dragged his weary body into the back storeroom of the defunct factory where they were to sleep, allowed Davis to help him undress, and collapsed gratefully on to a pile of woven mats in the corner, unconscious before his head hit the rolled-up tunic he was using as a pillow. He was entirely unaware of Davis pulling a blanket over him a minute later.
He'd made the storeroom Company HQ until further orders arrived. They were to spend five days at rest and then they would be moving on to another location, joining up with the remnants of their battalion. He allowed a few minutes of grousing amongst his NCOs, with their frank disgust at how ill-conceived the tactics and strategy had been and how ill-prepared the distant generals seemed to be for waging a trench war. So little ground had been gained and for what? Their forces were vastly depleted and it had been to so little purpose. So many good men lost, they said.
Matthew listened but then sternly reined them in. It would not do to spend time questioning those in command. It was their job to serve and to do their fallen comrades the justice of rallying together and not allowing their sacrifice to be in vain.
It was with such empty words that he led his men, because someone must and he was the only one left who could, but privately he agreed with them and a deep anger burned in his soul.
Paris, December 1916
"No, you go ahead," Matthew said, smiling.
"Come with us, Crawley!" Lt. Hardy slurred slightly as he clapped Matthew on the back. "I've heard of a wonderful place just up the rue du Chat-noir. It's the home of Le Bébé Eléphant! She's legendary! I'm sure she'll set you up just right."
"No, thank you." Matthew waved them off. "I have an errand to run. I'll see you back at base in the morning."
"I bet you will," Hardy leered, and Lt. Gross laughed.
"C'mon, Hardy, let's go find us some girls," Gross said. He waved at Matthew and the two officers continued on towards the maison tolérée that they'd been assured lay in that direction.
Matthew turned away with a thoughtful frown. He had a few hours in which to locate a children's bookshop and no idea where one might be found in the vast, winding network of Paris streets. He started to look about for a policier, but his eyes caught instead on the familiar, receding figure of Davis, who was walking alone.
Socialisation between ranks, particularly between officers and enlisted men, wasn't common, and for good reason, but Matthew didn't want to see Davis come to any harm, so he hurried after him. More than one soldier had been mugged or seriously injured while on leave and darkness would be falling soon. They could at least walk together for a short while, until they came to the more populated, and better lit, areas of the city.
Unexpectedly, Davis stepped off the pavement and entered a small public park, where he paused beside a tree and began to rummage in his sack. Matthew slowed, intrigued, until he recognised the familiar tefillin pouch that Davis drew from it. It was somewhat the worse for wear now, the embroidery missing in places, but Davis handled it reverently. He drew out the arm-strap and began unfurling it, then glanced up in surprise when he noticed Matthew's approach. Davis paused and frowned.
"Did you need something, sir?" It was an unspoken assumption that, while on leave, he was not expected to attend Matthew, but of course Matthew could command his soldier-servant at any time.
"No," Matthew replied with an apologetic smile, holding up a hand. "I just wanted to ensure that you weren't molested while you were at prayers."
Davis smiled, then glanced past Matthew with a look of confusion.
"They went to find a blue lamp," Matthew said with a shrug. "I'm on my own for the night." He gave Davis a sheepish grin. "I suppose that I'm hoping to avoid being molested, myself."
Davis nodded and gestured with his strap. "Would you care to join me, sir?"
Matthew blinked. "I, ah, don't know any Hebrew."
"That's all right. I have it on good authority that He's also fluent in English." Davis was grinning widely now.
With a chuckle, Matthew came to stand beside him. He bowed his head and listened as Davis affixed the tefillin and spoke his customary words. Matthew enjoyed the now-familiar sounds of his soldier-servant's prayers, and he admired how visibly and consistently Davis attended to his rituals. There was a quiet comfort in knowing that he still stood beside Matthew after all this time and was still holding firmly to his faith and his identity. Most of the men who had bullied him at the start of the war were gone now, in one way or another, and those few who remained treated him with the same respect as they treated everyone else. There was no longer any question of his courage or his physical abilities to withstand the rigours of war. He had had his share of wounds and never complained. He'd carried his fellow soldiers to safety and had more than once charged straight into German artillery fire alongside the rest of them. Aside from the oddity of his prayers and occasional personal habits, he was just one of the lads, a proud member of the Duke of Manchester's Own. And who wasn't odd in one way or another? War made strange bedfellows; everyone carried on in their own way.
Davis was reaching the end of his recitation and Matthew, belatedly, realised that he ought to have been praying rather than meditating on his soldier-servant.
Thank You for Davis, Matthew thought. Thank You for allowing us to remain together. Please allow us both to return home to our families, alive and well. Bless Mary, and bless Mother, and Robert, and the whole family. And if it's not too much to ask, bring an end to the war soon. Please.
Davis had ceased speaking; Matthew murmured a quiet "Amen" and then stood waiting as Davis put his phylacteries away.
"Where are you headed?" Matthew asked.
"I'm not sure, sir," Davis answered with a shrug, as they walked across the frost-covered grass. "I have only a vague request from my wife to find her 'something nice from Paris' and a series of impossibly-specific demands from my children for all manner of things that cannot be sent in the post."
Matthew laughed. "Such as?"
"Ponies. Me. The prophet Elijah."
"What?" Matthew was still laughing.
Davis chuckled. "When Sarah taught them about Pesach—Passover—Rebekah became obsessed with the empty chair. She started talking to the prophet and she still occasionally requests that I bring him with me again when I next come home."
"You brought him with you the last time?"
"Apparently." Davis gave Matthew a sidelong glance. "Perhaps I did."
Matthew nodded, still smiling. "'Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength...'"
Davis grinned and nodded. "And where are you headed, sir?"
"I'm on a similar errand to find something for Mary, and I want to send Edward and Harry each an abécédaire."
Davis's eyes lit up. "A first-rate idea, and I know just the place!"
The bells over the door jingled as Davis pushed it open, briefly running his fingers over something set in the doorframe and then lifting them to his lips. Matthew glanced at the spot as he passed it and saw a small case affixed in a hollow there. He blinked, intrigued, and looked up as the elderly shopkeeper greeted them with a cheerful "Shalom!"
Ah, so this was how Davis knew of this place: its proprietor was Jewish. Matthew looked at his surroundings with interest, already seeing several titles that he wanted to browse, but he knew they would not be able to stay and explore for as long as he wished. It was clear that the shopkeeper was tidying up in anticipation of closing soon; he had a broom in his hands.
"Shalom," Davis replied slowly, also looking around. "Bonjour. Vendez-vous livres pour enfants?"
"Oui," the shopkeeper replied. "En français et en hébreu. But not in English."
"That's all right," Matthew said. "Je cherche un abécédaire."
The shopkeeper lit up, leaned his broom against a shelf, and moved across the room to a display near the window. "Oui, monsieur. These are new, they are arrived only this week!"
Matthew followed him and picked up a copy. His eyes fell on the title: "Abécédaire de la Grande Guerre 1914-1916: pour les enfants de nos soldats", and he opened it with a kind of dread. His heart clenched painfully as he flipped through the pages and saw that each letter of the alphabet told the story of some aspect of the war. The children of France could hardly avoid knowledge of the war—it had torn through their homeland, displaced tens of thousands of them, and left many without fathers or brothers—but to see it in this form, as though even the littlest ones would be made to learn the words tranchée or lance-bombe...
He snapped the book closed and shook his head. "Pas tout à fait. Avez-vous un autre?"
Davis gave a sigh as he flipped through his own copy. "No. This won't do at all."
"Non, j'en ai d'autres bien sûr," the shopkeeper said quickly, gesturing for them to follow him towards the back of the shop.
There they found a more traditional abécédaire, one filled with pictures of fruit and animals, and Matthew smiled at the thought of Edward sitting on Mary's lap as she read it to him.
"Oui, this one," he murmured.
The shopkeeper, delighted, began extolling its virtues. Matthew selected two copies and went in search of something to read during the rest of his leave. Whatever he purchased would have to remain at base camp, of course, but even the brief opportunity of reading it would be well worth the cost. There was little enough to relieve the boredom on the lines; having new passages to mull over would be a pleasure indeed.
"Fancy a bite to eat?" Matthew asked, when they stepped back out on to the street. "I ate at a wonderful little café the last time I was in Paris and I'd like to find it again. That is, unless you have some pressing engagement."
Davis smiled ruefully and gestured with his bag of purchases. "I had planned to merely visit a boulangerie and then find a room for the night."
"My treat, then," Matthew said. When Davis seemed reluctant to accept the charity, Matthew added with a joking, enticing air, "It has clean napery and unchipped cups...!"
Davis put on a look of mock offence. "Are you casting aspersions on my meal service, sir?"
Matthew grinned. "Not at all. I have only the highest respect for your cooking skills in the field! Your thé parfumé aux vapeurs de pétrole is a great delicacy."
And, laughing together, they went on their way, enjoying the City of Light as night fell around them and there was good food and pleasant conversation to be had.
Early April 1917
Davis appeared outside the dugout just as Matthew was returning to it.
"Report delivered," Davis said, and handed Matthew an envelope. "This was waiting for you at Battalion HQ."
Matthew ducked into the dugout, pulling off his tin hat and frowning down at the letter. It wasn't civilian post, but it also wasn't the usual form for sealed orders. He tore it open with his thumbnail as Davis moved around him, tidying things and taking out items in preparation for heating a meal.
Matthew read the letter and let out a short laugh of disbelief, then tucked it in his breast pocket and put his tin hat back on.
Davis straightened and put on his own tin hat. "Good news, sir?"
Matthew ducked back out and began to walk the line again, inspecting the trench walls and nodding to his men, as his soldier-servant followed behind. "Fancy a tour in England, Davis?"
"I assume you're having me on, sir."
"Not at all." Matthew couldn't wipe the grin off his face. "General Sir Herbert Strutt has asked for my transfer to be his ADC. He's touring England to boost recruitment, and he's remembered that I know Manchester and Yorkshire pretty well. It'll mean a couple of months at home and a promotion to Captain. I can't object to that."
Davis chuckled. "Certainly not!"
"How was your trip home, sir?" Davis asked when Matthew met him at the barracks on Bullingdon Green, in anticipation of the general's arrival.
"Fine. Everyone is well. My wife's family seat is to become a convalescent home, which ought to shake things up a bit. How are Sarah and the children?"
Davis coughed, then smiled. "Sarah is well, as are Isaac and Jonathan. Rebekah..." He frowned. "She was hot to the touch when I left."
Matthew paused. "I'm sorry to hear it. Is it serious?"
"I don't know," Davis replied, and coughed again.
Matthew frowned at him. "Are you ill?"
Davis smiled and bumped a fist against his chest. "Just a minor complaint, sir. I'm sure I'll be right as rain by tomorrow."
Matthew started walking again and Davis fell in beside him. "I've put together the schedule for the day and the general's first stop is at the recruiting office in Cowley. Then we'll move on to the one in Oxford, and dinner tonight will be at Stonor Park. My mess kit is in Major Tulley's office."
"Very good, sir. I'll see to it."
Matthew frowned as Davis turned away from him. The soldier-servant had been unusually quiet while Matthew was undressing and chatting about the day's events.
Davis coughed as he finished gathering up the discarded mess kit, and he laid it out carefully in its garment bag, keeping aside the items that would need to be laundered in the morning.
"Is something wrong?" Matthew asked.
Davis twisted and looked at Matthew. "Sir?"
"You're awfully quiet this evening."
Davis coughed again and returned to his task. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm not quite feeling up to conversation."
"Are you unwell? You really ought to have that cough seen to."
Davis turned around, holding Matthew's shirt. "It's nothing, sir. It won't prevent me doing my job." He frowned slightly. "Unless you've been displeased with my performance in some way."
"No, not at all. I'm just concerned for you."
Davis smiled. "Thank you, sir, but there's no need." His smile quickly fell away and he laid the shirt on the small pile of laundry.
Matthew watched him for several seconds longer before finally asking, "Has something happened? You received some post this morning. Is it Rebekah?"
Davis quickly turned to look at him. "Oh! No. She's well." He smiled. "She's back to hiding in Sarah's skirts and throwing clods of dirt at her brothers."
"Oh dear, I hope not the little one!"
Davis chuckled and returned to tucking the scarlet dinner jacket into its bag. "Him, too, I'm afraid. That's all right. Good clean dirt never hurt a soul."
"True enough." Matthew smiled as he buttoned up his pyjama shirt. The pyjamas were a luxury that Mary had sent with him after his last visit home; they would have to be left at Downton before he returned to France, but it was a wonderful thing to sleep in clean, loose clothing each night. "So what's bothering you?"
Davis sighed, gave a small cough, and finished the folding. He went across the room to hang Matthew's garment bag on the door-hook and then turned round, finally meeting Matthew's eyes.
"May I speak frankly, sir?"
"Today..." Davis began with a frown, "it struck me how false I sounded as I spoke to the recruits, as I tried to convince men to enlist. I tried to put the best face on it, as always, but I wondered what they'd think if they knew who I was."
Matthew frowned. "What do you mean?"
Davis passed a hand wearily over his eyes, then went back across the room to his own bed. "After the riots in Leeds, and all the things that were done to the Jews there, I found myself wondering..." He coughed, shook his head, and began undressing.
Matthew sighed and sat down on the bed. Leeds had been unfortunate, a terrible show on the part of his fellow Englishmen. The city was home to a large community of Russian Jews, recent immigrants who had fled the persecutions in that country. There were many able-bodied men of military age among them—as well as in Manchester and London—but their status was uncertain. They weren't British citizens, eligible to fight on behalf of King and Country, as they had gained entry under the auspices of political asylum and they were too recently arrived to be naturalized yet. Compounding the difficulties, they were in general reluctant to ally themselves with Russia in the war, given all that had happened there to drive them to seek asylum. The result was a great deal of resentment against them for "enjoying the fat of the land while British citizens fought and died for their safety." It was an ugly business.
Davis sat back on his bed with a small groan. His breath rattled slightly, and Matthew frowned.
"We try to make it sound as though life at the front is a grand adventure, but it's nothing like it," Davis said.
Matthew looked down, discomfited.
Davis spoke quietly. "I can't help thinking that I'm the worst of devils, enticing men to their deaths."
Matthew nodded as he looked at his hands. "I know." He looked up at Davis. "But we're defending our homes and families. There's honour in that."
"That's just it," Davis answered. "Am I? Or will I come back from the front only to find that someone has thrown bricks through the windows of our home, or hurt my wife and children?"
Davis sighed and looked away. "I'm sorry, sir. You don't need to hear of my troubles."
"On the contrary, Davis, I wouldn't have it any other way." Matthew gave a sigh of his own. "You're not the only one with doubts."
Davis regarded him with raised eyebrows and Matthew nodded before looking away.
"You've...never said anything before, sir," Davis said carefully.
"I can't," Matthew replied, meeting his eyes again. "Then where would we be?"
"In exactly the same place, I expect." He gave a wry smile and Matthew turned away with a bitter chuckle, which faded into a frown as he looked at the toy dog on his bedside table.
"They don't know, here at home," he said. "The papers..."
The two men shared a look of understanding. The propaganda being circulated on the home front to keep up support for the war was part-laughable, part-horrifying in its lies. There was nothing righteous about this war now; the Germans were no more inhuman than Matthew himself, and he had a great deal of respect for them. They fought with ingenuity and honour.
"I once found tefillin on the ground beside a German soldier," Davis said quietly, and Matthew looked up in surprise. "It had fallen out of his pack." Davis shrugged. "I made sure they were buried with him." Davis frowned, blinking, and looked down at his hands. "The war changed for me that day."
Matthew frowned. "How?"
Davis coughed and shook his head, looking up but not meeting Matthew's eyes. "You don't know what it's like not to truly have a homeland," he said. "My great-grandfather was born here, and his father before him, but no matter how English we are, we are always aware that we can be reminded in an instant that we are set apart. We just want a place where we can serve God as we know how and raise our families in peace. But it is not merely the sudden threat of our neighbors turning on us. It is also the knowledge that in our eagerness to be accepted, we go to war against our own brothers. What quarrel have I with the Germans? Why are we fighting each other?"
Davis subsided suddenly, coughing. His voice had risen to a pitch that Matthew had never heard him produce before.
Matthew found that his own heart was pounding. He frowned deeply.
Davis wiped at his mouth and his voice became subdued. "I'm sorry, sir. I shouldn't have spoken out of turn like that. I will do my sworn duty, you can be sure of that."
Matthew met his eyes. "I have never doubted it." He rubbed his hands together and exhaled slowly. "Let us pray that this war is nearing its end."
"It is my constant refrain," Davis answered.
Matthew walked across the drive to Downton Abbey unnoticed amidst the flurry of activity. There were hospital lorries parked outside the front door and wounded men in various stages of healing were making their way inside, escorted by nurses and Medical Corps orderlies and overseen, surprisingly, by Thomas.
"Cpl. Barrow," Matthew said, brightening as he saw the familiar face. "What's all this?"
"It's Sergeant Barrow now, sir," Thomas replied, saluting him, and Matthew returned it. "Downton Abbey's a convalescent home, as of 10 o'clock this morning. I'm managing the place now."
"Well done, then." Matthew glanced around, admiring the efficient movement of the men inside.
"Thank you, sir." Thomas gestured beyond him. "Over here," he called. "Bring Lt. Jacobs this way, Nurse Hansen. Excuse me, sir." He moved past Matthew, going to help a nurse escort a soldier on crutches who had only half of his left leg. Matthew swallowed and stepped aside, giving them all a tight smile as they passed.
He watched the proceedings for another few moments, waiting until the three had gone inside, and then he wandered in behind them, pulling off his cap and gloves. He was curious to see how the great house had been transformed. The hall was filled with rows of wooden tables and chairs. It was the most ornate canteen that he'd ever seen, and he smiled at the unexpected juxtaposition.
He found his mother just inside, carefully studying the contents of a folder, and he paused beside her and plucked at her sleeve.
She didn't look up from her papers. "I'm very sorry, but I—" She glanced at him and her expression transformed from polite distraction to sheer delight. "Matthew! What in the world are you doing here?"
Matthew smiled. "We start our tour of Yorkshire and Lancashire tomorrow. And General Strutt knew you lived up here, so he's given me a few hours off."
"What a lovely—!" She grabbed his shoulders and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, giving him a far more effusive greeting in public that she usually did. "—lovely surprise!" She stood back, holding her folder to her chest and grinning widely up at him while he felt a bit self-conscious under the curious gaze of the other officers.
Mrs Hughes appeared nearby, sounding harried. "Mrs Crawley, how can we separate the hospital's linen from our own?"
"You go." Matthew smiled. "We'll talk later."
As his mother hurried off, Matthew felt a familiar hand touch his arm and he turned, grinning. "Mary."
"Don't worry." She was grinning as well. "I won't embarrass you, too."
He smirked at her. "You would never embarrass me. I would you kiss you in full view of everyone, but I don't want to embarrass you."
She gave him a demure smile.
"Are you working here now?" he asked.
"No, I'm still managing the hospital in the village. But many hands make light work and I'm more needed here today. How are you?"
Matthew glanced around at all the activity. "Is there somewhere we can talk? Privately?"
Mary nodded and led him across the hall and into the small library. It was made even smaller by the addition of several standing screens that were dividing the room in half. Voices could be heard on the far side, discussing...table tennis? Matthew shot Mary a confused look.
"This has been converted into a recreational room," Mary explained. "I know that I ought to be put out—Mama and Papa certainly are, as the changes have affected nearly every crevice of the house—but it is an unexpected benefit of having quit the place: I find that I really don't care."
Matthew gave a wry, half-apologetic chuckle. "Dear Mother. She's turned the place upside-down, has she? She does love a bit of authority. I suppose she's driving Cousin Cora mad?"
Mary's eyes twinkled mischievously. "No names, no pack drill." She put a finger playfully to her lips in a silencing gesture, and when she began to lower it, Matthew stepped up to her, kissed her fingertip, and then moved without hesitation to her mouth. Mary gave a small moan as he pressed her against a bookcase and his own guttural answer overlapped with hers.
Someone cleared their throat.
Matthew and Mary broke apart, startled, and looked towards the sound. It was Robert; he'd stood up from where he'd been sitting in his high-backed chair, invisible from the doorway. Matthew dropped his forehead against the bookcase beside Mary's cheek and she giggled, then pressed gently on his chest as she met her father's eyes.
Slowly standing back from her and entirely unashamed of having been caught kissing his own wife, Matthew straightened and met Robert's discomfited look.
"What are you doing here?" Mary asked.
Robert held up his newspaper. "Hiding."
Matthew chuckled. "Robert."
Mary rolled her eyes and pushed off from the bookcase. "We were just looking for a place to have a private conversation, Papa."
"I know what you were doing," Robert said. He looked at them sternly a moment longer...but then he relaxed and gave a soft laugh. "I'm sorry: it's a father's prerogative to take amusement where he can." He reached out past the chair to shake Matthew's hand. "Matthew, it's so good to see you!" He gave Mary a slightly reprimanding look before returning to Matthew again. "Were you expected?"
"No," Matthew replied, gesturing with his cap and gloves. "We've finished in the Midlands and tomorrow we start on the camps in the northern counties. General Strutt gave me a few hours off." Matthew stepped forward. "Actually, sir, my visit isn't just a social one. As you know, I'm ADC to the general—" Robert nodded. "—and I think he ought to come here. It's exactly the sort of thing people like to read about."
"That's a capital idea," Robert said. "He'd be very welcome. You all would. It would be a relief to host a proper dinner party once again."
"Yes, well, I'm afraid there's a bit of a wrinkle." Matthew gave a slight grimace. "Our schedule is rather tight, you see, so we'd only be able to come on the last morning of our tour, if we can come at all. We could only stay for luncheon. Then we're all headed back to the front."
Mary stepped around to look up at him, disappointment clear in her features.
"You won't be spending the last few days of your leave at home?" she asked.
"No, darling, I'm sorry. I'd hoped to have the time, but recruitment hasn't been going as well as expected, so we've had to add more stops than originally planned."
"I'm very sorry to hear it," Robert said. "Keep us informed of the dates and we'll show General Strutt what we're made of, you can be sure of that." He frowned and glanced between them. "Best not tell Cora until it gets closer. I don't want her worrying herself sick. She has enough on her plate tending to this place and to Edward."
"Is he ill?" Matthew asked with a frown.
Robert sighed. "Just a slight cold, Clarkson says, but when he wakes at night, he refuses to be comforted by Nanny and cries incessantly for Cora."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"Yes, well, you'll learn soon enough about the joys of small children." Robert smiled. "Speaking of which, I'll leave you two in peace. Here, girl." With a quick gesture of his hand, he beckoned to Isis, who had been lying on the floor with her head on her forepaws during the conversation. She leapt to her feet and followed him as he moved past them, still holding his newspaper. "Take care of yourself, Matthew."
Robert paused and turned when he reached the door, and Isis sat down obediently beside his leg. "Oh—I meant to write you, but as you're here now: our footman, William, is on his way to active duty. Is there any chance you might take him for your servant? He's an only child and I'd hate for anything to happen to him. I can pull some strings, get him transferred to your lot."
Matthew gave an apologetic grimace. "I'd say yes, but I've already got an excellent soldier-servant and I've no intention of replacing him."
Robert held up a hand. "Understood. Well, let me know if your situation changes. It would give us all peace of mind to know that he has someone looking out for him."
"Even if I could take him, I couldn't promise to keep him safe."
Robert nodded. He gave them a final smile and then he and Isis went out and the door closed behind them.
Matthew turned to Mary. "You were saying...?"
She gave him a look. "I wasn't saying anything."
He answered her with a slow smile and approached her. "Ah, yes. Now I remember..." He started to reach for her—
"Ah! I've found it!" a stranger crowed from the far side of the screens. There was a small cheer that was soon followed by the sound of table tennis volleys.
Matthew looked back at Mary. "This isn't nearly private enough."
"I agree. Let's go to Crawley House."
"But won't they miss you? I thought you said you were needed here."
"I'll come back later." A teasing smile grew on Mary's lips. "My presence is much more urgently required at Crawley House."
Matthew laughed. "I can't argue with that."
"Good." Mary moved towards the door, then looked back at him with a frown. "Why aren't you coming?"
"I am," Matthew replied with a grin. "I was just enjoying watching your hips sway as you walked."
Mary's expression softened and then she smirked. "You can watch them do a great deal more than that if you stop standing there and follow me."
Matthew hopped smartly into action, making Mary laugh, which was perhaps the most wonderful sound in the world.
Late July 1917
"General, may I—?"
"See to your man, Matthew," General Strutt said at breakfast, frowning after Davis as the soldier-servant stumbled away with a tray and barely managed to set it down before he was wracked with yet another coughing fit. "You're both excused for the remainder of the day. March can handle things until you get back."
"Thank you, sir."
Matthew jogged after the still-hacking Davis, who had paused to lean against a post.
"I'm sorry, sir. I'll just be a—" The soldier-servant's voice was raspy with the effort and he was trembling even when he wasn't coughing. "—moment."
"Never mind that," Matthew said, taking his elbow. Even through his tunic, Davis felt noticeably warm, and there were beads of sweat dotting his brow. "I'm taking you to a doctor."
Davis made as if to protest again, but a coughing fit wracked his body and he only managed a weary nod as he reached the end of it.
Keeping a firm hand on his elbow, Matthew led him to a nearby car and got him settled inside, then jogged around to the other side and climbed in. He quickly started the motor and pulled out on to the road towards the village centre.
"I guess—" Davis tried to smile, then coughed and sagged back against the seat. "—all those driving—lessons—good thing."
Matthew chuckled and shifted gears, wincing as they ground before catching. "Seems I may still need a few more."
But making Davis laugh only made his coughing fits worse, and Matthew regretted it instantly. He sped up and shifted again. After all that Davis had done for him, including saving his life more than once, the least Matthew could do was look after him. He'd let this go on for far too long.
Davis coughed in a horribly thick-sounding way and Matthew saw flecks of blood on his hands. Then Davis clutched as his chest and actually whimpered.
Far too long.
A nurse came to Davis's bedside and rolled him on to his side as he was seized with another exhausting fit. Matthew quickly set down the pen and clipboard that he'd been using to transcribe Davis's letter to his wife and reached to help. He slipped an arm under Davis's shoulders and gently propped him up as the nurse encouraged him to drink, and then they tried to make him comfortable against the pillow. Davis made a weak sound that might have been a moan if he'd had the energy for it, his body shivering despite the hot, clammy feel of his skin.
He was struggling just to draw shallow breaths and Matthew's own chest was tight from listening to the strained sounds. The bedside vigil had produced a certain interminable suspension of the passage of time, with each moment drawing all of Matthew's attention. It was exhausting. He had no idea of the hour. The rest of the ward had grown quiet after night fell, and to keep Davis from infecting the other patients, the staff had erected privacy screens around his bed. They were in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strangers; Matthew's sense of isolation was intense.
Davis's face drew up in a grimace and he dragged a hand to his temple. His lips and fingernails had an awful bluish tinge, reminding Matthew of too many empty-eyed faces that he wished he could unsee.
"No..." Davis wheezed, turning away from the nurse's ministrations as she tried to pat his forehead with a damp cloth. "It's not her fault! Don't do this! Don't—" His body shook with coughing and the nurse quickly wiped at his blood-flecked mouth with the cloth.
"Shhh, Pvt. Davis...shhh...there," she murmured.
Matthew swallowed, his frame taut as he watched, helpless. He was powerless in the face of this enemy, forced to watch his soldier-servant...his fellow soldier...his friend slowly lose this final battle. The physician had already pronounced Davis's pneumonia too far advanced and instructed the nurses to merely keep him as comfortable as possible. As Davis struggled to draw another bubbling, crackling breath, unconscious of his surroundings, Matthew exhaled shakily and stood. With a final look back, he stepped out from the enclosure around the bed.
He ran a hand through his hair, fear chasing worry chasing something deeper that he didn't want to think about, a tide that he felt coming in against his will. Davis had been slipping in and out of delirium for several hours now. Most of his conscious words had been spent on desperate, whispered messages to his wife and children, which Matthew tried to capture as best he could. When Davis lost himself, he usually cried something in defence of his wife, or tried weakly to drag men across a field of battle that only existed in his mind.
Matthew went across the dimmed ward, moving farther away from the tortured sounds, and found the physician, Major Shaw, writing reports in his office. Matthew didn't think much of the man after how quickly he had dismissed Davis's chances, having given him only a cursory examination and making, to Matthew's eyes, no attempt to heal him.
"Any news on fetching the rabbi from Leeds?" Matthew asked, attempting to keep a polite tone in his voice. Shaw looked up with a frown.
"Oh, didn't they tell you? We sent a boy, but he was unable to find anyone. If you'd told us where to look..."
"I don't know," Matthew replied, his jaw working. "Are you certain he asked the proper authorities?"
Shaw shrugged. "He came back an hour ago alone. That's all I know."
Matthew gritted his teeth. "Where is the vicarage?"
"Take a left when you go out and follow the road. It's behind the church, opposite the graveyard."
Matthew pounded on the old wooden door. It was almost midnight; the vicar was sure to be inside. Matthew pounded again.
He heard the sound of scraping followed by slow footsteps, and then the door was pulled open. A thin man with grey wisps of hair under a nightcap stood clutching his robes about himself and frowning.
"Yes? Who are you?"
"Capt. Matthew Crawley, Aide de Camp to General Sir Herbert Strutt. We're on a recruitment drive. I need your help. A man is dying."
A brief look of annoyance passed over the vicar's face, but he nodded and pulled the door open further, beckoning Matthew inside.
"Of course, come in. Who is he?"
"My soldier-servant, Pvt. Samuel Davis."
"Why isn't an Army chaplain suitable?"
"We don't have a chaplain in the general's entourage. I've brought Davis to hospital." Matthew made a quick gesture back towards the place. "I tried to send to Leeds for a rabbi, but they weren't able to fetch anyone."
The vicar's mouth curled down. "He's a Jew?"
"Yes," Matthew said. "Major Shaw says that he hasn't long left. I thought you might know what to pray—"
"I'm not a Jew," the vicar said. He had drawn his robes more tightly around himself and was moving back towards the door.
"Neither am I," Matthew said, a sudden white-hot flame flaring up in him. He put out a hand but stopping short of actually touching the other man. "What has that to do with anything? A man is dying!"
"Surely you see that he is one of God's own children!"
"I don't minister to ungrateful alien rats," the vicar hissed. "Leave. Now."
Matthew stood with his mouth open, fighting to keep his fists by his sides. The urge to wrap his hands around the man's neck and squeeze was nearly overpowering.
"How dare you!" he snapped. "You call yourself a man of God!"
The vicar was trembling with rage. "I'll have naught to do with those Christ-killers, and if you know what's good for you, neither will you."
"We all killed Him, you fool! Or have you forgotten 'there is none that doeth good, no, not one'?"
"How dare you quote Scripture at me! Who are you to speak to me in such a fashion?" The vicar's voice was shrill with rage. "Get out!"
Matthew's nostrils flared and with a growl, he stomped out into the night. The door slammed shut behind him. Should he try to find another priest? No; he had no time left. Fighting to hold back the tide as it brushed up against him now, whispering, demanding, burning, he hurried back to the hospital and braced himself for the final ordeal.
Matthew started out walking but he finished at a run. His shoulder slammed into the door just as he grabbed the doorknob, and the latch gave way unexpectedly. He stumbled out into the darkness of the garden, feeling as though he were drowning, suffocating, and nearly ended up on his knees. Catching himself, he struggled to his feet and looked up at the night sky.
"No!" he shouted. "How dare You!"
There was no answer, just the silent twinkling of a thousand implacable stars.
Who was he? Who were any of them? This whole terrible conflict, which seemed on a scale so vast that the world had never seen its like before, was what? It was nothing. It was a bunch of ants scurrying around on a smashed anthill, destroying it still further, the whole thing swallowed up in pointlessness and darkness.
And somewhere, above it all, was a Being who was allowing it to happen. Who, they said, was sovereign, in control of everything. What conclusion could be drawn but that He had caused all of it? Was He sitting up in His holy seat, laughing at all the prayers that He let go unanswered?
The hospital behind Matthew was filled with crippled men, men who would never walk, or grasp, or see again. Brave men whose faces had been horribly disfigured, whose mere appearance made everyone around them recoil. What had they done to deserve such an awful fate?
What had Davis ever done to offend You? He loved You, he served You faithfully, he loved his wife and his children. He cared for me.
He cared for me. I failed him.
Matthew's vision blurred. He stumbled a few steps to the nearby stone wall and gripped its top stones so tightly that he scraped his fingertips. He held on to keep himself from falling to his knees.
"How dare You?!" he demanded, and his voice broke. "He was a good man! He didn't deserve this!"
What had Matthew been fighting for? What had he been believing in? Was it all a lie? Just wishful thinking, a delusion?
He was a pawn, bitterly angry at having been used, a fool for having believed at all.
His old rage at his father's death resurfaced and joined with his fresh anger at the loss of Davis. All of the study at university had become a cloud of a smoke, a mere play of the mind, the abstractions of theology an impotent answer to the burning in his heart.
Matthew suddenly growled and dug his fingers into the cracks between the stones. The wall was old and its mortar crumbled at his touch. With a vicious yank, he pulled the stone under his right hand free and flung it behind him with as much force as he could muster, crying out in impotent fury.
There was a slight yelp behind him and he started in surprise. He'd thought he was alone.
Quickly drawing in a shaking breath, his rage far from spent, he straightened and turned, wiping at his eyes to clear them. Whoever the person was, he just wanted them to go away and leave him alone. His chest burned.
A young woman stood before him in a nurse's uniform. Her face was plain, unremarkable but kind, and pale in the faint moonlight. He couldn't recall seeing her before, but then he hadn't been paying much attention to anyone except Davis. He frowned at her, willing her to go away.
"What do you want?" he barked.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Capt. Crawley," she said. "But he wanted me to give you this."
She was holding out a folded slip of paper.
"Who did? What's this?" Frowning, Matthew took it and opened it.
It held only two words, in Davis's confident hand:
Matthew stared down at it, an irrational doubt rising in him. When had Davis managed to write this? He hadn't been able to hold a pen steady since they'd arrived at the hospital. But it was in his handwriting, so no one else could have written for him. It hadn't been in any of Davis's uniform pockets: after they'd removed his uniform, Matthew had gone through them all, looking for the half-finished letter that Davis had begun, addressed to his wife. Davis couldn't have written this.
And yet here it was in Matthew's hands, this impossible note.
Matthew was chagrinned to see that he'd smeared a bit of blood on the corner from his torn thumb, which by now had begun to smart. He quickly transferred the note to his other hand and asked, "When did he give this to you?"
When there was no answer, Matthew looked up, annoyed. "Well?"
He was alone in the garden.
He frowned. He'd been so engrossed in the note that he hadn't noticed her leave. He looked down at the slip of paper again.
"No..." he moaned, and the words became blurry.
His earlier rage hadn't gone, but it had hollowed him out and left only a gaping, bloody hole in its wake. Every smile, every look of fear, every prayer, every joking exchange, every time Davis had pressed a warm tin cup into Matthew's hands, came flooding into him. Matthew staggered back against the wall with a pained cry and slumped to the ground, covering his mouth with the back of his hand as he stared at the dark, blurry shapes on the paper.
He was alone in the garden now, the one left behind to carry on, but he didn't think he had it in him. So many had been lost, and yet the war's hunger was insatiable. How could he return to all of that? He just wanted to sob uncontrollably, to curl up and be left alone with his grief.
But he could not.
With an effort, he sat up straighter. The stones dug into his back and reminded him of where he was. He sniffed and composed himself, wiping at his eyes until he could see clearly again. He still held the note in his hand, and he lifted it to read it once more.
He must make arrangements for Davis's body to be returned to his family, and he must write to Sarah and the children. Matthew set his jaw. Those children would grow up knowing what an excellent man their father had been. He would see to that.
Pushing himself wearily to his feet, his chest and eyes still burning, Matthew carefully folded the note and tucked it in the left breast pocket of his tunic.
You are welcome, my friend.
1 August 1917
Where was the damn ink bottle?
Matthew stood breathing hard in the centre of the room that he'd shared with Davis. He thought a moment and tilted his head, then took two steps across the room and yanked open the drawer in the table beside what had been Davis's bed.
There it was: the travel writing kit, with its small bottle of black ink and the spare fountain pen. Of course Davis would keep it by him; it was his job to keep the pens filled.
Matthew reached down into the drawer and lifted out the box, holding it for a long moment without moving.
Then, with a heavy sigh, he carried it back to the desk and carefully sat down, ignoring the mess that was strewn about behind him. He would see to that after he finished his letters. He wanted to post both of them first thing, and dawn was nearly upon him.
Steeling himself, he took up the spare pen and began again.
We're having great success in Lancashire and I'm happy to report that General Strutt is eager to visit Downton on the last morning of our tour. Please let your parents know that a party of four will be arriving at 10.00 am on 14 August.
Thank you for passing on the wonderful news! Anthony and Edith must be so proud. I am greatly relieved to hear that she and baby Sylvia are doing well!
If there is some reason why the tour on the 14th should not proceed, please send a letter c/o Major Andrew Wallis, Training Corps., Ripon. We will be coming through there early next week.
Your loving husband,
(p.s. — I am so grateful for our afternoon at Crawley House; it has carried me through these past few days. I am aching to see you again, darling, although I know we might only have a few minutes together. I hope you are well.)
14 August 1917
Matthew stood beside Robert in the library at Downton Abbey as they all waited for luncheon to be announced. Their tour completed, they watched Strutt make friendly jokes about having poor skills at 'Devil among the tailors' as some of the officers set up the skittles in preparation for him to give the game a try. The general was surrounded by his entourage and several of the convalescing senior officers. Cora, Isobel, and Clarkson also stood among them, but Mary sat with Violet and Rosamund on the opposite side of the room, chatting, too far away for Matthew to hear.
He wished he could be sitting beside his wife right now, just beside her, perhaps the side of his finger brushing against hers as their hands rested on the seat between them. He felt no urge to speak to her—truly, he had no desire to keep up polite conversation today with anyone, but he was obliged to do so and to keep smiling—but oh, how he wished he could simply be alone with her for an hour or two! Just to sit quietly, to hold her, to be held, to rest.
But of course, there wasn't time for that. After lunch, they would be leaving for Ripon, to pack their kits and get on the train to London, and then they would cross the Channel during the night and return to the grim business of war on the Western Front. These days spent dining in state and luxury, so far from all their comrades, making friendly—and unfortunately, often rather inane—conversation about the war effort, were thankfully almost over. Although he had no love for the daily discomforts at the front, he much preferred the unadorned honesty and clear directives of military life. One was not permitted the luxury of spending too much time wrestling with unsettling questions when faced with the stark realities of a daily life-or-death struggle.
The officers had finished setting up the skittles and they all stood back.
Strutt grinned and pulled up the ball on its string. "Let's see what my aim is like." He released the ball and it swung through the skittles and back without hitting a single one.
"And again." Clarkson smiled as Strutt took up the ball once more.
This time, some skittles were knocked down and Matthew cheered politely, along with everyone else.
"You must be enjoying your respite from the front," Robert said, grinning.
Matthew felt a stab of bitterness, but he kept the polite smile on his face. "Actually, I'm struggling a bit. I've just lost my soldier-servant and I haven't managed to replace him yet." I can't bring myself to do it.
"Ah, yes," Robert agreed. "When I lost Bates during the Boer War, it was such a terrible inconvenience."
"I'm sure," Matthew murmured, fighting the anger rising in him. He looked across the room again. When Mary turned, she met his gaze and smiled, and he did his best to return it.
I drew on the following sources while writing this chapter:
Read, I.L. 'Dick' (1994). Of Those We Loved: A Great War Narrative: Remembered and Illustrated, Barnsley: The Pentland Press, Ltd.
Levene, Mark (1999). Going against the Grain: Two Jewish Memoirs of War and Anti-War, 1914-18. Jewish Culture and History, 2(2), pp. 66-95.
Levy, Elkan D. (1970). Antisemitism in England at war, 1914-1916. Patterns of Prejudice, 4(5), pp. 27-30.
Hyman, Jonathan, "Jews in Britain During the Great War", Manchester: University of Manchester Working Papers in Economic and Social History No. 51, October (2001).
Adler, Rev. Michael, & Freeman, Max R.G. (Eds.). (1922). British Jewry Book of Honour 1914-1918, London: Caxton Publishing Co., Ltd.; particularly Adler's memoir article, "Experiences of a Jewish Chaplain on the Western Front", pp. 33-58.
Hellé, André (1916). Abécédaire de la grande guerre 1914-1916: pour les enfants de nos soldats, Paris: Berger-Levrault.
The padre's brief prayer over the graves was taken from the BBC's iWonder article, "Why did chaplains end up on the front lines in WW1?" See:
www . bbc . co . uk / guides / zts3b9q
Biblical excerpts were taken from Deuteronomy 11:18, The Holy Scriptures, translated by Isaac Leeser, Hebrew Publishing Company (1905); and Psalm 8:2, Psalm 14:3 from the King James Version.