Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James
For Adam, again and always
Angel of Mercy
Selfishness is pre-eminently a defect which disqualifies a woman from the nursing profession.
Matron of London Hospital,
Portis House emerged from the fog as we approached, showing itself slowly as a long, low shadow. I leaned my temple against the window of the motorcar and tried to make it out in the fading light.
The driver watched me crane my neck. “That’s it, for certain,” he said. “No chance of confusion. There’s nothing else around here.”
I continued to stare. I could barely see cornices now, the slender flutes of Grecian columns just visible in the gloom. A wide, cool portico, and behind it ivy climbing walls of pale Georgian stone. The edges faded in the mist, as if an artist’s thumb had blurred them.
“A good spot, it is,” the driver went on. My silence seemed to make him uncomfortable, had done so for miles. “That is, for what they use it for. I wouldn’t live here myself.” He adjusted the cap on his salt-and-pepper head, then stroked a thorny finger through his beard. “Table’s low here, so it gets wet. These fogs come off the water. It all ices over terrible in winter.”
I pulled away from the window and tilted my head back against the seat, watching through the front windscreen as the house came closer. We jolted over the long, muddy drive. “Then why,” I asked, “is it a good spot?”
He paused in surprise. I tried to remember when I’d spoken last since I’d hired him at the train station, and couldn’t. “Well, for those fellows, of course,” he said after a moment. “The mad ones. Keeps ’em away from everyone, doesn’t it? And the bridge from the mainland means they’ve nowhere to go.”
It was true. The bridge was long and narrow, exposed to the wind that had buffeted us mercilessly as we navigated its length. Any man who attempted to reach the mainland on foot would be risking his neck. I wondered whether anyone had tried and fallen to his death in the churning ocean below. I opened my mouth to ask, then shut it again.
The driver seemed not to notice. “It wasn’t built as a hospital, you see. That’s what I mean. It was built as a home, and not too long ago, either. Twenty years, give or take. Family named Gersbach, with children, too. God knows how they did it out here. Four hours on the train from Newcastle on Tyne to town, and then over that bridge. No place for a child, I say. No one saw them much, and no wonder—it was all they could do to get supplies from the mainland, and they never could keep servants for long. I guess there’s no explaining the rich. They left during the war. I hear they were standoffish folk. Typical for Germans.”
We were drawing up to the house now, and he steered the motorcar around the drive, headed for the front portico. We circled a stone fountain in the center of the lawn, unused, sitting dry and stained in an empty garden bed. Patches of mist moved across it, sliding soundlessly over the sad-eyed carved Mary as she opened her blessing arms over the empty basin, blank-faced cherubs flanking her on either side.
“You mustn’t worry.” The driver stopped the motor before the front steps. “It’s remote—that’s certain—but I’ve never heard of anyone being mistreated at the hospital. Your fellow is probably just fine. It’ll be too late for me to come back tonight, but they’ve nice guest rooms here, for family. I’ll just come by tomorrow morning, then, shall I?”
I looked at him for a moment before I realized he thought I was a visitor. “I’m staying,” I said.
For a second his eyebrows flew upward, as if I’d said I was checking myself in. Then they lowered in consternation. “A nurse? I thought—” His gaze flicked to the rear compartment, where my valise lay. It was small enough to be an overnight bag. When he looked back at me, I met his eyes and watched him understand that the valise contained everything I owned.
“Well,” he said. The silence sat between us for a moment. “I’ll just get your bag for you, then.”
He got out of the car, and I opened my door before he could come round, pulling myself from the painfully hard seat. He flapped his hands in frustration and retrieved my small bag. “Be careful,” he said as he handed it to me, his friendly tone gone. “These are madmen, you know. Brutes, some of them. You’re just a tiny thing. Young, too. I had no idea you were coming to nurse, or I would have said. Most of them don’t last. It’s too lonely.”
I handed him payment, the last money I owned. “Lonely is what I want.”
“I get called out here to pick the girls up sometimes when they leave. They’re quiet as ghosts, and we never see the nurses in town. Maybe they’re not allowed. I’m not even certain they get leave.”
“I don’t need leave.”
“What kind of nurse doesn’t need leave?”
Now he sounded almost annoyed. I turned away and started up the steps.
“It’s just you don’t seem the type,” he called after me.
I turned back. “You needn’t worry about me.” I thought for a moment. “It isn’t a German name, Gersbach,” I said to his upturned face. “It’s Swiss.” I glanced past his shoulder to the fountain again, at Mary’s slender, draped shoulders, her elegant arms. Then I climbed the steps toward the front doors of Portis House.
? ? ?
“Katharine Weekes.” The woman glanced through the papers in her hand, shuffling them deftly through her long fingers, the corners of her mouth turned down in concentration.
“Kitty,” I said.
She glanced sharply up at me. We were in a makeshift office where perhaps the butler or the housekeeper had once sat, tucked in the back of the building, the room furnished with only a scabbed old desk and a mismatched wooden filing cabinet. Out the window, the fog drifted by.
She was a tall woman, with square shoulders, her hair cut in a blunt fringe that was almost mannish. She wore a thick cardigan over her uniform, and a pair of half-glasses that she didn’t bother to use dangled on a chain around her neck. The white cap she wore seemed out of place and almost ridiculous on her head. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. “You will not be called Kitty,” she said. “You will be Nurse Weekes. I am the Matron here, Mrs. Hilder. You will call me Matron.”
I filed this piece of information away. It was stupid, but I would need it. “Yes, Matron.”
Her eyes narrowed again. Even when I tried, I had never had an easy time sounding obedient, and something must have slipped through my tone. Matron would be one of those women who never missed a hint of insolence. “It says here,” she continued a moment later, “that you come from Belling Wood Hospital in London, where you worked for a year.”
“It’s a difficult hospital, Belling Wood. A lot of casualties came through there. A great many challenging cases.”
I nodded mutely. How did she know? How could she know?
“We usually prefer more experienced nurses, but as you were at Belling Wood, it’s to be assumed your skills are higher than would strictly be required here at Portis.”