It was the eleventh of the eleventh of the eleventh or as most sensible people might say, it was eleven A.M., November eleven, the year nineteen eighteen. In celebration the bells began to toll signaling the official end of the conflict in Europe; the war to end all wars was now over. After four years of the world gone mad Johnny would finally come marching home or be carried home in a pine box. Broken bodies and minds would be brought back from France and sent to overcrowded hospitals all over England and mourning fathers would purchase tickets to France in the dim hope that they could locate the graves of their missing sons. In Meryton the old church bell would peal a simple melody welcoming their brave darling boys back to their homeland. But here in London there were more than forty churches each with their group of bell ringers eager to show their mastery of mathematical permutations created for just this day. The result of such exaltation was mixed. Every church no matter how small, had to get into the act and display their esoteric equations with a generous sprinkling of Bach who was no doubt rolling in his grave. To the musical ear it appeared that the bell ringers of London had discovered several new keys unknown in the western world.
Elizabeth Bennet slowly roused from a deep unnatural sleep brought about by too many gin and lemons the night before. She'd thrown caution and common sense out the window allowing her sister Lydia to lead her astray and for her sins would suffer for it. Her head had doubled in size, her brain had shrunk to half its size and someone had stuffed her mouth full of cotton. She wondered dimly how many brain cells had been destroyed during their merrymaking. Revelry had begun the previous evening and Lydia had insisted that she join her for the festivities promising that they'd return to their flat by midnight. Unfortunately the police hadn't co-operated but had turned a blind eye allowing the pubs to stay open well past closing. The last thing Elizabeth could remember was her sister saying "just one more, Lizzie". The rest of the evening was a complete blank though apparently they had managed to get home safely though she had no memory of it. Fortunately for both of them they had had the forethought not to drive but to party at one of the locals and thus she was not now awakening in a drunk tank but safely in her own bed. It was small comfort but at least she wouldn't have to call her parents to come and bail their well-brought-up daughters out of trouble. She groaned loudly and covered her face with the spare pillow but nothing could drown out the cacophonous sounds of London's deranged bell ringers and she finally gave up and gingerly climbed out of bed. Once she gained her feet she stood for a moment testing her stability before reaching for her robe.
After a brief search for the sleeve which had mysteriously disappeared, she managed to get the garment on and shuffled over to the dresser and dared a look at her reflection in the mirror. Lydia had been scolding her for the past month to stop sleeping her life away and get some fresh air with good reason. She hadn't been taking care of herself and it showed. Thin and worn, belying her twenty two years, it wasn't a pleasant sight. She was going to have to paint herself a rosy hue with some of Lydia's make-up if she didn't want her mother to swoon when she saw her eldest daughter for the first time in a year. As for her eyes which at one time had been described as fine by a flirtatious Captain Richard Fitzwilliam, they were no longer bright but shadowed with the memories of the last two years. She'd hoped that this short sojourn in London before heading home to Hertfordshire would begin the healing process so she could get on with her life and forget the ruined lives she'd left behind at the hospital in Sussex. She had to face the truth and admit that she had been doing herself no favors by seeking recovery in sleep. She seldom sought sunlight and as for exercise she managed to leave her bed and walk to the kitchen and back again. Instead of feeling refreshed she felt lethargic and drowsy and longed for more sleep. It seemed to be a vicious circle. She offered up a silent prayer that returning home would be the turning point; that walks along the paths of childhood would recover her spirits and she would be able to put behind her all the horrors of war.
She shuffled down the hall to the tiny dining area adjacent to the kitchen and found her sister sitting at the table looking like a dewy rose. Lydia stood up quickly and led her gently to a chair not even trying to stifle a grin. She was most attentive as she poured Elizabeth a cup of coffee and handed her a sweet roll. "Poor lamb," she murmured, offering her a bottle of aspirin.
"Go to hell," was the moaned response.
"Now, now, pet. You've got color in your cheeks for the first time in weeks. A little debauchery never hurt anyone. And admit it, Lizzie, last night was fun."
"I don't remember. And the color in my cheeks is a gin flush." Since leaving Sussex she had become reclusive seldom leaving the flat except to get the newspaper or pick up some take-out food. Another reason she was looking forward to going home. She hadn't had a decent meal since her last visit home. Drinking with abandon, flirting outrageously with strangers and laughing loud and gaily had been a radical change from her usual passing of time with a book. "I trust that I didn't take it into my head to dance on the bar?"
Lydia giggled, "of course not. But I must say that everyone commented on how beautiful you looked wearing that lampshade."
Despite her low spirits Elizabeth had to laugh as she regarded her younger sister with genuine affection. Three years divided them and when she left Hertfordshire for nursing school in London Lydia had been hardly more than a child. The age difference seemed as wide as an ocean but the three intervening years had narrowed the gulf between them to the point where they both considered each other as friends as well as sisters. Lydia could be very silly but she had an endearing way about her which Elizabeth found infectious. Perhaps Lydia had been right to insist they go out and have some fun. At least it had gotten her back out into the world. It was unfortunate that the aftereffects of having fun with her sister involved a hangover.
"Lizzie, I've packed a basket for you. Some chicken sandwiches and fruit just in case you want to picnic on the way."
Elizabeth glanced out the window eying the gray sky, "little chance of that."
Lydia shrugged, "you might change your mind. Driving today might be arduous and the inns will be packed. Every village and town in the country will be celebrating. It's a glorious day. All our men will be coming home."
"Most of them on stretchers, no doubt."
"Oh, Lizzie, don't say that. You're breaking my heart. You're so angry. The war is over. Can't you be happy?"
Elizabeth wasn't sure that it was possible she'd ever be happy again but attempted a smile, "I've become a dullard of the first order, I'm afraid, and I do apologize. I fell into the habit of looking through the glass darkly during the last two years and I've become a bore."
"You could never be a bore, Lizzie, but I do think it's time to snap out of it. The war is over and you did your part."
"I changed bedpans, Lydia. That's all a female nurse is good for. Saving lives was the function of doctors and male nurses. The powers to be only expected that nurses of my sex might promote a quicker and more complete recovery. I might have done some good in the field but I was stuck in a hospital. What a waste of my time."
"I'm sure that the men under your care didn't think so."
Elizabeth shook her head, "time to change the subject. I see you're dressed to the nines. Off for some more debauchery?"
"Alas, no. Just lunch with some gal pals. Jane and Charlotte teach at a fancy girl's school here in town. I met them last summer and we really hit it off. Unfortunately when they got word that a cousin had gone missing in France they took leave from their jobs and went back to Derbyshire for a few months. They're back now and we thought we'd get together and have a few laughs."
"And their cousin?"
"According to Charlotte, there was no trace of him. I really don't understand how a soldier can get lost. He's an officer, for heaven's sake. Don't they keep track of their men?"
"Lydia, now is not the time to describe a battlefield. From what I heard from some of my patients, it's utter chaos. It's easy to lose track of a man. Then again, if his ship was blown up and if he didn't die immediately there's no telling where his body might have ended up."
Lydia made a face, "how could you have stood it for two years? I wouldn't have lasted a day."
"Once I started I couldn't see my way out of it. There were times I wanted to run away, I felt so trapped, but the hospital was so understaffed. They needed all the hands they could get. I had to stay."
"Lizzie, why don't you join me today? I think you'd like Jane and Charlotte. It would do you good to get out and meet new people."
"I can't disappoint the folks. I promised that I'd be home tonight. You go off and have fun."
"Now you will drive carefully, won't you Lizzie?"
"I promise. And you'll come home for the holidays?"
"Wouldn't miss it." She leaned over and kissed Elizabeth's cheek, "please take care of yourself, Lizzie. You're the only sister I have and I love you very much."
When Lydia left the flat Elizabeth felt as if all the fresh air had gone with her. She had forgotten what it felt like to be so young. Lydia was so happy and full of life. She had a way of making you smile just to get a glimpse of the world as she saw it; a world of cotton candy, bright colors, parties and laughter. There never seemed to be enough time in the day for all the world had to offer her. In truth she envied her sister. She would have liked to share a few laughs with some gal pals. Her two closest friends had both married and left Hertfordshire for the far north where they had settled nicely and began to add to their family. Elizabeth couldn't even remember her own youth. Young men weren't the only ones to lose their green years during a war.
By the time she was dressed and heading for the car the bells were still tolling. Apparently work had stopped all over Town and except for the restaurants and pubs most of the shops seemed to be closed. Men, woman and children alike were waving flags and treating the roads as their personal playgrounds making traffic a nightmare. Despite her hangover and low spirits she managed to keep a tight rein on her temper. An unruly crowd could get nasty very quickly so she kept a frozen smile on her face and waved her thanks as the mobs made a path for her. Nevertheless it took more than an hour to reach the outskirts of London. By then her nerves were stretched taut and she no longer thought what a world of merriment their melody foretells, but only of the tintinnabulation of the bells, bells, bells. Those damned bells. And damn Poe! And damn the war that took men and sent them back sightless, missing limbs, with faces so mangled their own mothers wouldn't recognize them.
Three miles out of town her nerves got the best of her and she pulled the car over onto a large patch of ground off the side of the road and eased to a stop. Her hands were shaking and her heart beating so fast she feared it would rip her chest apart. That insidious headache never far from the surface pressed hard against her temples, nearly blinding her. Time stood still as she concentrated on breathing evenly while waiting for the pain to ease. Now only half aware of her surroundings she could still hear the tolling of the bells though they seemed more muted now. It took some moments before she realized that those were not the London bells tolling but were coming from the village a half mile further down the road. Bells would be pealing throughout the country for the rest of the day in celebration that the madness had ceased and their boys would be coming home. Then perhaps the real healing of the country could begin. Whether she would ever heal herself was a mute question that only time could answer.
Once her breathing had returned to normal and she could see something beyond a blur she grabbed a blanket and the picnic basket, silently blessing her sister for her forethought, and made her way over to a giant oak. After spreading the blanket she sat down and leaned her head against the tree and closed her eyes willing her body to quieten. These anxiety attacks instead of decreasing seemed to have increased in recent weeks and she couldn't account for it. She hated how her body and mind had betrayed her. She'd always thought of herself as unflappable, able to face whatever was thrown at her but dealing with the broken bodies and minds of young men had defeated her. Though she had lasted for two years she took no pride in the accomplishment attributing her endurance to obstinacy and the fear of being labeled a coward rather than strength of character.
Her father had warned her that nursing wasn't for everyone, that her heart was too soft and he of all people knew what he was talking about. He had been practicing medicine for a quarter of a century and he knew how difficult it was to keep emotions at bay. But there had been so much patriotic fervor sweeping the country three years earlier how could she not take up such a noble profession especially after seeing so many brave boys marching to the ships that would take them to France. They were so happy and joyous to be going into battle. She wanted to do her part in the war effort. And she had done her part, or at least she had tried her best. She had learned how to steel herself against the screams of agony and despair but in the end it was the wives and parents searching the wards for their loved ones that had been her undoing. Hearing the sobs when their searching proved to be in vain, and the screams when their search proved fruitful had in the end defeated her. When it was announced that in one months time the war would be done with and there would be peace throughout the land she turned in her resignation and left Sussex one week later.
The Director of the small West Sussex hospital had accepted her resignation with dismay offering a month's leave to reconsider but she was adamant. The only thing she would miss was her friendship with Captain Richard Fitzwilliam. Dear Richard always with a happy to be alive grin on his face, dismissing the pain of a shattered shoulder, making light of his broken ankle, gamely walking up and down the wards giving hope to his fellow patients where little existed. Her affection and respect for this young man had grown. As the weeks passed she wondered if she could possibly be in love or had simply let her empathy for so much anguish cloud her judgment. She suspected the latter. Another reason to leave. She had no time for love. Besides, Richard was an absolute darling and a first rate flirt. He hadn't been there more than a month before proposing marriage to a handful of nurses...one old enough to be his mother. Thoughts of Richard could always make her smile but even he couldn't hide the pain of his own loss. A beloved cousin had been lost in the trenches of France. It had been six months since the family had been notified that his cousin William was missing in action. Now that the war was over, Richard was anxious to heal his own wounds and return to France and find him. Every way she turned she found only broken dreams...enough to last a lifetime.
Her headache had eased and the steady rhythm of the bells had settled into a hypnotic drone and Elizabeth felt her eyelids begin to droop. She'd been up for two hours and already felt the need to sleep. She'd had little sleep at Sussex. There were always too many patients and not enough staff. The very young nurses hadn't lasted long seeing what bayonets could do to the bodies of boys not much older than they were. Even when she could find time to sleep terrible images invaded her dreams leaving her exhausted. Back in Town in the warmth of her flat surrounded by belongings collected in childhood she'd found comfort in sleep knowing full well that her problem lay deeper; She'd seen enough of depression in the past two years to recognize the signs. Her eyes closed as she listened to the 'bells tolling, tolling, tolling in that muffled monotone, feel a glory in so rolling on the human heart a stone...'
She awoke with a start in anger and disbelief that she had allowed herself to sleep out in the open. Her watch indicated that forty minutes had elapsed while she had slept unmindful of the danger she had placed herself in. She glanced around quickly assuring herself that no one had seen her lapse in good judgment. It wasn't until she reached into her basket that she realized her fleeting glance had been insufficient. She hadn't spotted the young man who was sitting on a tree stump a few yards away. He was eying her with quiet interest but had made no move towards her nor did he speak.
She stifled a gasp of dismay and unwrapped a sandwich with a calmness she wasn't feeling. When she dared another look in his direction he was still staring at her. Her temper already frayed snapped and she glared at him, "what are you looking at?"
"And if I was? It's no concern of yours."
He frowned and glanced around, "y..you..were alone."
For a moment she eyed him in consternation not sure whether he was making a threat, giving a warning or simply making a statement. So far he hadn't made a move towards her but continued to sit quietly. Elizabeth hadn't moved either though in time she would wonder why. Instead of standing up to better defend herself, or at least be on equal footing if she had to make a dash for the car, she continued to sit leaning against the tree munching on a chicken sandwich . She focused on his faded uniform, "you were in the war?" When he didn't answer immediately she decided to ignore him, finish her sandwich and get the hell out of there.
His delayed response drew her eyes back to him. He looked innocuous enough but anger at her carelessness made her lash out at him in annoyance, "trust me, if you'd been in the war, you'd remember it."
At her retort he bowed his head and remained silent. She wanted to bite her tongue. Two years working in a hospital for veterans and she apparently had forgotten everything since leaving Sussex. She was in the company of one of the walking wounded; poor souls living with forgotten memories locked away somewhere in the deepest recesses of their clouded minds. "That was unforgivable. I'm so sorry." When he responded with a slight shrug she attempted a smile, "what do they call you?"
"S...smith. B..but not my name."
Elizabeth nodded in understanding, "the army has no imagination. And what Smith are you? One, two, three...?" Speech had exhausted him. He held up two fingers. "Well, Smith two," she said, "have some chicken." He stood up and approached her accepting the offered sandwich with a smile.
For the first time she saw his dimples and took a closer look at him. He was young, maybe three or four years older than she was. Standing well over the average height he topped six feet by at least two inches. He was way too thin but that she surmised came not from deliberate starvation but from hospital fare which was nourishing but little more. A shock of dark unruly curls and somber eyes of the deepest brown completed the picture. The answer to a maiden's prayer she thought sadly. Somewhere a mother was crying herself to sleep or possibly a wife or sweetheart. "Are you married, Smith two?" Once more he attempted to speak but it seemed to be beyond him and he shrugged and shook his head. "Of course you don't remember," She continued talking to herself more than to him. "but somewhere out there is a beautiful woman waiting for you. Her name is Emily or Margaret or Patience. It could even be Elizabeth. That's my name, but it might be easier if you call me Lizzie."
"L..Lizzie," he repeated as if to taste the sound of her name on his tongue. "Lizzie."
During the next half hour Elizabeth chatted quietly as she had been taught to do at the hospital. One lesson she had learned was that an amiable smile could contort into a raging snarl without warning, but he was showing no sign of having a volatile temper. He listened to her rambling discourse about the weather and the celebrations that were taking place in town and never took his eyes off her face. When she got to the part of her sister getting her drunk the night before his eyes sparkled in amusement showing his dimples once more. By the time they'd finished their sandwiches and fruit it had begun to cloud up and Elizabeth knew she had to get going but hesitated. She had desperately tried to inure herself from the sufferings of the young men who had been under her care and had failed miserably. And here she was again, feeling dreadfully sorry for this stranger unable to imagine what it must be like to lose your identity. Memories of an entire life gone. It had to be so lonely not to be able to recall the face of a loved one, of friends and families, of all the shared experiences of a lifetime. She was on the way home to the place of her childhood where she would be welcomed as a beloved child. Even in her darkest hour she knew she could always go home and seek the comfort of her parents. To be denied the solace of family had to be so painful. Then again, was it possible to miss what you can't remember? She looked into his dark eyes and knew in her heart that it was.
When she stood up he immediately stood up with her then reached down and took up the blanket folding it neatly before handing it to her. She turned away ashamed to see the sad resignation in his eyes. She knew she had to leave him. He was a complete stranger and she knew nothing about him. What could she do for him? How could she possibly explain him to her parents? He could be a mass murderer for all she knew. He could be a master thief masquerading as a soldier. Or he could be just an ordinary soldier whose mind rebelled at the horror of war and sought comfort in oblivion much as she did in sleep. "Can I give you a ride?" she asked. He didn't answer but turned his eyes down to the earth and remained mute. "Get in the car," she said.
It had begun to rain lightly by the time they reached the village. Mercifully the weather was helping to keep most of the revelers off the street, and she made good time passing through. Her passenger sat quietly staring straight ahead until they had traveled a further half-mile when she felt him stiffen and she glanced at him in alarm. She followed his eyes to the sign on the edge of the road and pulled to a stop allowing the motor to idle before she turned to him, "will you be missed?" When he didn't answer she nodded, "no, I don't suppose you will."
Time didn't stop as the second hand on her watch ticked off one full minute. He didn't move but had once more turned his attention to the road ahead of them. With a sigh and a slight shake of her head she put the car into first and gently stepped on the gas leaving the Tynebridge Asylum turn-off far behind them.