Tessa Arlen Excerpt: Death of an Unsung Hero

Brimming with intrigue, Tessa Arlen's Death of an Unsung Hero brings more secrets and more charming descriptions of the English countryside to the wonderful Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson series (available March 13, 2018).

In 1916, the world is at war and the energetic Lady Montfort has persuaded her husband to offer his family’s dower house to the War Office as an auxiliary hospital for officers recovering from shell-shock with their redoubtable housekeeper Mrs. Jackson contributing to the war effort as the hospital’s quartermaster.

Despite the hospital’s success, the farming community of Haversham, led by the Montfort’s neighbor Sir Winchell Meacham, does not approve of a country-house hospital for men they consider to be cowards. When Captain Sir Evelyn Bray, one of the patients, is found lying face down in the vegetable garden with his head bashed in, both Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson have every reason to fear that the War Office will close their hospital. Once again the two women unite their diverse talents to discover who would have reason to murder a war hero suffering from amnesia.

Chapter One

“How very nice, Mrs. Jackson.” Iyntwood’s elderly butler settled into his chair by the window. “Why, it’s almost like old times again.” George Hollyoak’s glance took in the claustrophobic and over-furnished room: shabby velvet chairs jostled with a heavy mahogany desk, taking up far too much space in front of the windows, both of which were swathed in heavy curtains in a dusty but strident red plaid.

The dowager Countess of Montfort had died two years ago and her character, or that of the late Queen Victoria, whom she had revered, was still heavily imprinted on the dower house furnished as a faithful replica of the old queen’s beloved Balmoral Castle. Bright and, to Mrs. Jackson’s flinching eye, brash tartans dominated most of the reception rooms on the ground floor of Haversham Hall.

Mrs. Jackson was encouraged to see George Hollyoak sitting in her new office. It had taken weeks to coax him to visit her and now after all sorts of silly excuses here he was. Though even with her old friend and mentor sitting at his leisure with a cup of afternoon tea in his hand it wasn’t really like old times, no matter how much they all wished it were. The war had changed everything.

Her face must have reflected her thoughts as she followed his gaze around the oppressively furnished room. “Perhaps not quite like old times.” Her guest smiled as he observed a shaft of dust motes dancing thickly in the late summer sunlight. “I must say you are looking well, Mrs. Jackson, and so very smart in your uniform: Voluntary Aid Detachment or Red Cross?” This was the first time he had acknowledged that Iyntwood’s dower house had been transformed into an auxiliary hospital.

“The hospital comes under the jurisdiction of the Red Cross, but I trained with the VAD. I am not an assisting nurse, so I am spared the traditional starched apron and the rather claustrophobic cap,” she answered. Long aprons and linen caps, in her experience, were worn by cooks, and although Mrs. Jackson was not a snob, she was conscious of little things like rank and station.

In acknowledging Haversham Hall’s new status the old man evidently felt he might ask his next question. He leaned forward, curiosity bright in his eyes. “And how are you finding life in your new abode?”

Mrs. Jackson hesitated before she answered. She had never liked Haversham Hall; it was as overbearing as the Victorian age it had been built in and an ugly building in comparison to the Elizabethan elegance of Iyntwood. But she had made the adjustment from being a senior servant to Ralph Cuthbert Talbot, the Earl of Montfort, at his principal country-seat, to the rank of quartermaster at Lady Montfort’s new hospital far more easily than she had anticipated. The real challenge had come when their first patients had arrived, but this was something she was not prepared to share with Mr. Hollyoak—not just yet.

“It is not as different as I thought it would be. Haversham Hall is not Iyntwood, but it is a building I am familiar with, and my duties here are similar to those of my position as housekeeper at Iyntwood.” That’s not strictly true, she thought, but it will do for now.

Her new job was not at all like her old one, any more than this hospital was like many of the others that had sprung up all over the country in the many private houses of the rich and titled, speedily converted to cope with an unceasing flow of wounded men from France. At Haversham Hall Hospital there were no wards lined with rows of beds, no operating theaters with trays of steel surgical instruments, or hastily installed sluices and sterilizers. Certainly there was an occasionally used sick bay and a first aid room in what was known as the medical wing, but they were merely a token adjunct. And it was these differences that were the cause for Mr. Hollyoak’s initial reluctance to visit her and for his searching question, “How are you finding life in your new abode?” because Haversham Hall Hospital was not a conventional Red Cross hospital, not by a long stretch of the imagination.

She raised her teacup to her lips and took a sip. If she was to help a man whose conventions were deeply mired in the nineteenth century to understand the value of the hospital’s purpose, she must proceed with cautious tact. She decided to start with a prosaic description of the practicalities.

“I am responsible for the running of the hospital’s housekeeping and for ordering all supplies, which means I spend most of my time sitting at my desk filling in requisition forms; the bureaucracy of wartime, her ladyship calls it. But we have plenty of nice young women from the Voluntary Aid Detachment to help with the housekeeping as well as some of our nursing duties. And I certainly need to be well placed here on the ground floor of the house to supervise them.” She did not add “every step of the way” because that way of thinking made her resent how difficult it was to work with inexpert help. To go with her cheerful tone she exhibited her most optimistic smile. VAD girls from nice middle-class families were a nightmare to train in comparison to sensible, sturdy village women who were ready to roll up their sleeves and had no romantic illusions about their part in the war effort.

Having given her visitor the briefest outline of her duties, she decided that she would wait for him to display genuine interest—enthusiasm would be too much to hope for—in what they were accomplishing here before she continued. She offered Mr. Hollyoak a plate of sandwiches: delicate triangles of egg with cress. She had prepared them herself, mashing the hard-boiled egg finely with a narrow-tined fork and adding just the right amount of salt, pepper, and cress to spread on lightly buttered crustless bread. He took a sandwich and closed his eyes as he chewed and swallowed the first bite.

“Perfect,” he said and smiled his appreciation, “quite perfect. I need not say how much you are missed at Iyntwood.” He took another bite of sandwich and then slowly shook his head. “The house simply isn’t the same without you.”

She detected real regret in his voice that she was no longer his second-in-command in a servants’ hall now staffed entirely with women. She knew how hard it had been for him to adapt to her temporary employment by the Red Cross, if it was indeed the Red Cross that paid her generous salary and not, as she suspected, the Earl of Montfort. Perhaps this is why I am reluctant to talk about the hospital, because I find my new life so stimulating, and however inefficient they are, I enjoy working with young and lively women whose backgrounds are as varied as our duties. However terrible this war was, it had certainly opened up a new perspective to those from other walks of life and in particular the staid and confined life of an upper servant to the aristocracy. All of this would be difficult to explain to a man whose retinue of perfectly trained footmen was serving in the trenches of northern France.

“I know it’s wrong of me to say so, Mrs. Jackson, but Iyntwood seems so quiet, so empty now that we are not formally entertaining the way we used to. We all work, just as hard, perhaps even more so, to maintain standards but only because we have to make do with far less staff. I am sometimes hard put to remember our gracious lives before that terrible day in 1914.” Mr. Hollyoak looked down into his empty teacup before he put it on the table between them and she poured him a second cup.

“I am quite sure that none of us will ever forget that day, Mr. Hollyoak.” She nodded her head in commiseration of the old man’s many losses. Others might remember the fourth of August, when Britain rallied to the flag, as one of the loveliest days of a perfect summer, the sort of day that Englishmen wrote poems about when they were far from home. But what fixed it in her memory was that it was a morning on which her ladyship had triumphed in a particularly tricky inquiry at neighboring Bishop’s Hever and a murder of such audacious cunning that just remembering it still raised the hairs on the back of her neck. Tea poured, she offered her guest the sugar bowl and silently counted the three sugar lumps he extravagantly stirred into his tea. Mr. Hollyoak had always had a sweet tooth and sugar was in short supply these days.

“No word from Dick Wilson, I’m afraid, Mrs. Jackson. It’s been nearly a month now, and Dick was always like clockwork with his letters before—we would have heard by now if there was bad news, wouldn’t we?”

So it wasn’t just curiosity that brought you here, then. More than likely the old man had come to see her out of loneliness, perhaps for solace. Iyntwood’s hall boy at age eighteen had been one of the first to join the British Expeditionary Force to France in 1914.

She took a sip of tea. “Sometimes the post is a bit erratic, Mr. Hollyoak. Do you remember when we didn’t hear from John for nearly two months? And then dozens of letters came, all in one go, each and every one of them asking us to send socks?”

He nodded, willing to hope that all was well with the youngest member of his servants’ hall. “I certainly do.” A faint smile as he remembered their fastidious second footman’s complaints after a winter of rain-filled trenches. “That boy has enough socks for a battalion now.”

She cut him a piece of Victoria sponge cake. “Ah, Mrs. Jackson, you spoil me.” He sighed with contentment. “No time for a good sponge cake belowstairs at Iyntwood now that Mrs. Thwaite’s kitchen maids have all left to become munitionettes at the Banbury factory.” Her face betrayed no irritation but she inwardly bristled at the term “munition-ette,” as the suffix made the dangerous job sound diminutive—dainty, even. Is that what they are calling them now—what’s wrong with “munition workers”? They are probably required to wear ridiculous little caps with frills, like waitresses at a Lyons Corner House, when they pack those shells with their bare hands. She shrugged off her annoyance and presented a passive face as she listened to Mr. Hollyoak’s gentle grumbling about lowered standards. “Lord and Lady Montfort are most careful not to overburden the staff these days, but Cook is so run off her feet without her kitchen maids that she is threatening to go and join them in Banbury. She says at least she would know what was expected of her.” He shook his head that someone of Mrs. Thwaite’s age and status would even consider factory work.

The image of the cook’s angry red face flashed into Mrs. Jackson’s mind. “She’s the last person in the world to be in charge of explosives I would have thought,” she said before she could stop herself.

Mr. Hollyoak chuckled. “Always a bit heavy-handed with the pots and pans is our Mrs. Thwaite, but the lightest touch when it comes to pastry and puddings. But, never mind all of that … how is life finding you these days … I mean, how do you…” he groped for the right phrase. “I mean what do you make of all this?” He waved the last bite of Victoria sponge around her office, clearly indicating that he was now ready to hear more about the hospital.

Mr. Hollyoak was well aware, as everyone was in the village and the county, that Haversham Hall Hospital had been one of Lady Montfort’s bright ideas right from the start, which was probably why he was picking his words so carefully. Mrs. Jackson set down her cup and saucer. She had no difficulty in recalling how grim her ladyship’s mood had been when she had returned from visiting an old family friend in Scotland. It had been a bitterly cold evening in early December last year. She was certainly a woman on a mission, if there ever was one, when she came back from visiting that terrible place.

“I have never seen such tragic young men,” Lady Montfort had announced to her housekeeper as she stood in middle of her sitting room, still wearing her hat and gloves and with her fur huddled closely around her neck. “It was heartbreaking to see them, sitting so meekly in their corners, seemingly quite unaware of where they were.”

“How is Mr. Barclay faring, m’lady?” Everyone belowstairs at Iyntwood was fond of Oscar Barclay, a particular friend of the Talbots’ only son, Lord Haversham, who had alerted his mother to Mr. Barclay’s plight: a casualty of the Battle of Loos, in France, and now a patient at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland.

“He is suffering from what the army refers to in their ignorance as shell-shock and what the doctors call neurasthenia, Jackson. I hardly know how to describe what has happened to that wholly decent and kind young man; you simply wouldn’t recognize him. So pitifully thin … he shakes at any loud or sudden sound. When he tries to speak—he hardly uttered a word the whole time I was there—he stammers so, his mouth trembles, and he…” Lady Montfort’s eyes filled with tears and she stared fiercely off into a corner of the room until she had regained her composure. “The hospital was generous enough to put me up in the staff wing while I was there. It is a dreadful old building: run-down, drafty, and cold. All night I could hear those poor young men crying out like souls in torment…” She had tailed off and Mrs. Jackson had almost reached out to take her hand, that was how distressed her ladyship had been. “They say nothing about their suffering, nothing at all.” She had managed to continue in the flat monotone people of her class used when they were embarrassed about displaying emotion. “They politely lock down into stammering or silence. There is no release for them it seems—even when they manage to sleep they wake screaming from their nightmares as they relive over and over the horrors of battle.” Lady Montfort had gazed down at the carpet for a moment to bring herself back under complete control. “One of the doctors at Craiglockhart, his name is Brock, believes that the act of functioning—of doing simple and useful tasks that engage the mind and body in healthy activities—is often successful in helping these men to mend, or at least recover something of their lives. All the way home on the train I kept thinking about them and what the doctor told me they were doing for them. It made me think that we might be of use.”

However distressed she was, the Countess of Montfort was a resilient woman. High-strung? Certainly, and Mrs. Jackson was the first to acknowledge her ladyship’s little ways, but her mistress was not without an inner strength and vitality that never left her, even during these terrible days of war. She had rallied from the horrors of her trip to Scotland, and after several long walks in the frosty woodlands on the estate with her husband had persuaded Lord Montfort not only to offer up Haversham Hall to the War Office as a hospital for those young men who were on the road to recovery from neurasthenia, but to make a substantial donation to its running and upkeep.

Mrs. Jackson had no intention of trying to explain the innovative new treatments used at the hospital to her doubting friend sitting across from her. It had taken her a while to overcome her natural skepticism in the first weeks of her employment, especially to this new “talking cure” that the doctors had come up with. It had barely made any sense to her at first and it was the last thing in the world she would repeat to the old butler.

She got up and opened the window to let a little air into the slight stuffiness building in the room. “I have made the adjustment quite nicely, Mr. Hollyoak, I am glad to say. It was difficult at first. I was completely unprepared for how deeply distressed our first patients were when they came here.”

The old man cleared his throat. “If I may just say this, Mrs. Jackson, I am veteran of the Boer Wars and I am unfortunately familiar with the distress war wreaks on its soldiers. Conditions were indescribable at the Siege of Ladysmith when I was deployed there during the African wars. Our suffering was considerable, but none of us shrank from what we had to do. Why, most of us survived by eating rats and existing on a canteen cap of water a day. Typhoid carried off at least one-third of our number, maybe even more. But you see, Mrs. Jackson, real men do not hesitate to fight to the bitter end, no matter how hideous the conditions are. I am not saying there were no cowards in my day, of course there were and we gave them very short shrift.” Mrs. Jackson concealed a smile and respectfully nodded along as he remembered his war. How often had Mr. Hollyoak regaled the servants’ hall with graphic and bloody tales of the African wars? He had described getting over typhoid as if he had shaken off a chill caught on some sort of Boy Scouts camping trip. But what it boiled down to was that in Mr. Hollyoak’s opinion, real men didn’t complain, even under the worst of conditions, they merely got on with it; only a coward would hide out in a place like Haversham Hall Hospital and talk about the horrors of war with his doctor.

She summoned patience and tried again. “I understand, Mr. Hollyoak. Until I came to work here I thought of our patients as cowards too. Now I have to say I have had a complete change of mind. Every one of our officers say they want to return to the war as soon as they are able. Our job here, you see, is to help them function so they can lead their men in battle.” She saw Mr. Hollyoak’s look of disbelief and she stepped it up a notch. “They know they are thought of as cowards, they are painfully aware of it. What is the expression they use in the navy—swinging the lead?” Mr. Hollyoak acknowledged malingerers with a fervent nod. “We are low in numbers this week as thirteen of our twenty patients passed their Medical Board review and are now on their way back to the Western Front, to Mesopotamia, and Egypt. They went willingly and with brave hearts.” She caught his eye and tried to hold his gaze but he turned, reaching for his cup. When he had it in his hand she sought his eyes again. “Strangely enough, most of them here were decorated for bravery—before they became seriously ill.”

He raised his eyebrows and took a sip of tea. Yes, I thought that might surprise you. “There were six Distinguished Service Orders alone among our first fifteen officers, twelve of them mentioned in dispatches, and four Military Crosses in our second group. One of our officers was even recommended for the Victoria Cross. And it is quite remarkable that straightforward, useful work in the open air does so much to help restore our patients to normal life—we call it ‘cure through function.’” He smiled politely and gestured with his teacup to the comfortable country house they were seated in, as if to say, Who wouldn’t want to hide out the war here?

His eyes wandered to the little clock ticking away on the chimneypiece. She was losing him. She sought to change the subject. “Well, enough of my work. It must be wonderful to have Lord Haversham at home—is his arm healing well?” The old man brightened up at the mention of Lord and Lady Montfort’s son, who was home on medical leave from the Royal Naval Air Service with a fractured arm.

“Just plain ‘Captain Talbot’ is the title Lord Haversham prefers these days,” he said with paternalistic pride. “The highest scoring ace of his squadron and decorated three times, but of course he plays all that sort of thing down.”

“He was always a modest young man.” Mrs. Jackson did not want to precipitate another saga of heroic acts of derring-do from Mr. Hollyoak. Any man who fought in this war had her admiration, and Mr. Hollyoak did rather go on. “I am glad to hear that all is well at Iyntwood, Mr. Hollyoak. It certainly looks like Lady Althea is doing a lot for the county with her Women’s Land Army.” The war had curtailed the Talbots’ youngest daughter’s love of travel, and now that she was safely marooned on the family estate she had involved herself in representing the government’s volunteer force that provided local farmers with labor. “I can’t believe the jobs those young women are taking on, can you, Mr. Hollyoak?” She took a bite of cake. “Up at dawn and out in all weather. You have to take your hat off to them, don’t you? I simply don’t know what our farmers would have done without them, especially with this bumper harvest.”

The old butler sighed and pursed his lips. His handsome old head was imposingly leonine and when he slowly shook it from side to side, as he did now, it gave him all the appearance of an offended biblical elder—Moses when he returned from Mount Sinai to find the children of Israel had relapsed into drink and idolatry sprang to Mrs. Jackson’s mind and she bit the inside of her cheeks to stop herself from laughing outright. “They wear riding breeches.” Mr. Hollyoak put down his empty cup with some finality. “Most immodest and unattractive in the female form.”


Copyright © 2018 Tessa Arlen.

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Tessa Arlen lives in Santa Fe. Her pleasures in life are simple: cooking and enjoying good food with family and friends, long walks with short legged dogs and planning her next garden project. She is the author of the Lady Montfort and Mrs. Jackson mysteries, including Death of an Unsung Hero.