Three months later, on the deck of a hospital ship returning empty to Calais, Mary watched with anticipation as the White Cliffs of Dover moved farther away and out of sight. She turned her head to the faint coastline of France in the distant. Everything seemed so peaceful, even the sea was surprisingly calm in total contradiction to what would lay before her. A mishmash and cross hatch of trenches that scarred the French countryside. She thought about Matthew. Matthew. She had hardly the time to think about him these last few months as she had been readied for her new role. Isobel had put her in touch with the head of the Red Cross in London, a woman called Mrs Patterson, who was as ancient as she was fearsome and who, it was said, had worked side by side with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War. The same women who had practically laughed her down when she had put forward the suggestion she assist the Red Cross in France in an administrative role.
"Administrative?" Mrs Patterson choked back her tea as if she was sipping lemon, "And tell me, what type of administrative work do you think needs doing on the front line?" Mary was almost too afraid to continue, having lost all her previous confidence. "We don't need administrators my dear. And quite frankly I'm not sure you'll do at all, but we're short on volunteers and Mrs Crawley has vouched for you. Can you drive?" And so after several months practicing with Branson and Edith, Lady Mary Crawley became a volunteer ambulance driver, much to the dismay of her father. As for her mother, Mary sighed, she had disapproved the most but luckily she had had Granny to remind them all about Aunt Roberta who had loaded the guns at Lucknow.
"Penny for your thoughts?" Mary was stunned out of her reverie by Valerie Wilson, the daughter of a baker who had signed on with the Red Cross the same day as her. She longed to escape the drudgery of life in London, and found energy in everything she did. Her shock of red hair appearing first on the ships stairs behind Mary, before she even saw her face, which was now poking up above the parapet.
"I was just thinking that this time last year I was a judge at the local flower festival at Downton giving out blue ribbons for the best peonies and now, here I am on the deck of a ship bound for war-torn France, an ambulance driver of all things. How did I get from there to here?" Mary's eyebrow arched up in stoical amusement.
"Quite simple Crawley," Valerie remarked with a grin, "You got tired of going to parties, taking tea and riding your horse?" they both laughed sadly at how ridiculous it all seemed now when not far from here men lay dying. Mary smiled to herself at how she could have come to have such a friend. That seemed ridiculous to her too, that in other circumstances she would not take the time to even know her. But she had come to rely on Valerie Wilson, as much as she had with Anna, her housemaid. Except that, unlike Anna, they really could be friends. Equals, and friends, she thought.
Several hours later Valerie and Mary stood on a crammed train packed with nurses and soldiers returning to the front lines. The faces on board were generally weary, which is how Mary felt at that moment, having spent most of the day travelling by road, by ship and now by train. The old carriages swayed and rocked in their gentle way, which soothed her somewhat, that she imagined she could almost be catching a train to Downton if it were not for the feeling of nervousness and excitement that cartwheeled in her stomach. They were destined for St Quentin, a small town just behind British lines, in the Valley of the Somme.