This is the ninth part of a fiction serial, in 2112 words.
August 1947. Captain De Vere receives an inheritance.
Henry De Vere came from a military family. He could trace back the long line of soldiers in his ancestors to an officer who had served in the army of Queen Elizabeth the first. As a teenager at boarding school, he had joined the Officer Training Corps, and it was accepted that he would enter a good regiment with a commission. Young Henry was not considered aristocratic enough for the elite troops, such as the various regiments of Foot Guards. He found himself posted to the Warwickshire Regiment, a nervous subaltern having to get used to the routine of life on the camp.
Applying himself well to administrative duties, and managing to get in with the senior officers at the Officer’s Mess, it wasn’t long before he found himself promoted to Captain, in command of a company. At the Regimental Ball of 1938, he was introduced to Penelope Henderson, the daughter of the town’s Lord Mayor. They got on well, and there was talk of an engagement. Penelope met his few elderly surviving relatives, and was deemed suitable. The wedding was planned for the following spring, and Henry wore his dress uniform for the occasion. Life for the young couple started off very well indeed.
Then Germany invaded Poland.
By the time his regiment left for France as part of The British Expeditionary Force, a tearful Penelope was already pregnant. He kissed her goodbye at the railway station, little knowing he would not see her again for many years.
The retreat to Dunkirk was a shambles. Henry’s company had seen little of the fighting, and he paled at the news that they were to be left behind, as part of the rearguard. The soldiers crowded around him as he gave them their orders. Grim-faced, they went up to their hastily-fortified positions, and awaited the arrival of the enemy. There was little they could do except delay the inevitable, buying time for the evacuation at the coast. The Germans facing them were well-organised, and well-equipped. After a desperate but all too short defence, the Colonel told Henry that they would surrender as planned, to reduce casualties.
Henry and the survivors of his company were marched off, to face the long journey to a prisoner of war camp deep inside Germany.
When the camp was liberated in 1945, a thinner, slightly nervous Captain Henry De Vere had his hand shaken by some noisy American soldiers. They pressed cigarettes and chocolate bars into his hands, and one produced a looted bottle of Moselle, which was joyfully passed around. It was weeks before they got back to England.
Henry arranged to meet his wife, and the son he had never seen, at the home of his in-laws. The boy was shy, but managed a formal handshake with his father. Penelope burst into tears, and wouldn’t let go of Henry’s arm. Over the next few weeks, they got used to each other again, and Henry returned to his duties as a regular soldier. He rented a smart apartment off the camp, and went home as often as he could. His son, named Henry after him, went back to boarding school, which had been arranged in his absence by Penelope’s father. A second pregnancy was confirmed, and they were delighted to be expecting a second child. And they managed quite well, given the post-war shortages. Not long after Lily was born, Henry received an official-looking letter.
He read it twice, before going through to the nursery to show it to Penelope. “My Great Aunt Agatha has died. I hardly knew her, barley remember her at all. But she has left me everything”. With Penelope busy with the baby, Henry travelled down to London alone for the meeting with the solicitor. It was more than he had dreamed. Enough to live a life of luxury indeed, as well as the twelve-bedroom manor house, extensive grounds and land, with tenant farmers providing even more income. It came with a housekeeper and daily staff, a gardener, even a limousine and chauffeur. As soon as he got home, Henry made the arrangements to put in his papers, and resigned his commission in the army.
They were collected at the station, with the rest of their things and more luggage following later. The car was rather ancient, but also very grand, and well-maintained. Henry didn’t remember the house at all, and he joined in with his wife’s gasp as they saw it at the end of a long driveway. A lovely old house in the Palladian style, it continued to impress once they got inside.
Mrs Fry met them in the hallway. She was the housekeeper, and lived in a small cottage in the old mews at the rear of the house. She wasn’t married, but housekeepers were traditionally known as Mrs. She explained that the other staff lived out, mostly in the nearby village. Including the Estate Manager, who looked after all the business and financial affairs. Rooms had been prepared for them and baby Lily, and lunch would be served in one hour.
After the first few days getting to know their house and surroundings, and Henry meeting with the Estate Manager to get an overview of his land and responsibilities, this new life began to become exceedingly dull. Penelope didn’t seem to notice, fussing over Lily, and eagerly anticipating their son returning from school for the holidays. But for Henry, it seemed pointless. Once he had walked the length of his estates, had stilted conversations with his tenant farmers, gardener, and gamekeeper, he soon lost interest. Everyone still called him ‘Captain De Vere’, a tradition that former rank stayed with you, once you had left the army. He spent more time alone in his study, deep in both thought, and the expensive Cognac he had been pleased to discover in the wine cellars.
Wandering around the house in a daze one afternoon, he spotted a large domed glass case on a console table in the drawing room. Inside it was a dressed doll. It had blonde hair, and very large, staring eyes. When Mrs Fry appeared, carrying some cushions that needed darning, he asked her about the doll. “Oh that was your great aunt’s favourite, Captain Sir. French it is, so she said. Valuable too, an antique likely as not. I wasn’t ever allowed to touch it, so just dusted the case. Still do. She called it Marguerite. Without telling tales, I can tell you she used to talk to it too. Had regular little chats, them two”. She smiled, and carried on about her business.
Life went on much the same for the next few years. Henry bought a new car, much to the dismay of the chauffeur, who dearly loved the old one. He shook his head as he complained to Mrs Fry. “It’s not as if they even go anywhere”. All the time spent in his study caused a rift with Penelope, and they ended up sleeping in separate rooms. And when young Henry was home from school, his father’s complete failure to interact with him made her quietly furious. She spent her time playing with Lily, and when it was time for her to start school, she engaged a private tutor, so her daughter didn’t have to leave the house.
Late one night, Henry’s nocturnal wandering took him back into the drawing room, and he stared at the doll under its dome. Swilling the large measure of Cognac around in the glass, he wondered what his old aunt used to say to the stupid-looking thing.
The voice was that of Sergeant Tanner, Even after all these years, he would have recognised it anywhere. His company sergeant major had been shot and killed, trying to escape from the prisoner of war camp, in 1943.
“We know it was you, Captain. All of us do. You filthy coward and collaborator. You told the krauts about the escape attempt. No idea why, but we know it was you. You never had any guts, we all knew that as soon as we got to France. You got good men killed to keep yourself safe. We all know that, and pretty soon everyone else will know that too”. Henry managed to hold on to the glass, but his hand was shaking. Tanner’s voice was coming from the doll, he knew there was no doubt about that. He must have had too much to drink, and allowed his conscience to create an illusion. He turned and headed up to his room, leaving the unfinished brandy on a side table.
Perhaps he could arrange for the doll to be removed, and stored in the loft? But how would he explain that? Lily always loved to look at it, and it was a feature of the drawing room. Besides, it had almost certainly been his imagination, even though it was undeniably his former sergeant who had spoken to him. He would just keep away from the drawing room, and it would never happen again. One sunny afternoon as he sat shuffling papers aimlessly in his study, Mrs Fry knocked on the door and walked in. “It’s Mr Lee, the Estate Manager, Captain Sir. He wants to see you about something. I have shown him into the drawing room”.
Henry sat with his back to the glass dome as Lee droned on about minor roof repairs that would be necessary, and how Tom the gardener needed a new motor mower to manage the lawns effectively. As he reached into his briefcase for some mower catalogues, Henry heard Tanner’s voice from behind him. “Shall I tell him, Captain? Shall I make him hear me, and tell him how you squealed to the krauts about out secret radio? How you got Corporal Tomlinson put in solitary for stealing potatoes, and how he died of pneumonia because of that? Or shall I let him know how you told them about the escape, and got good men shot, including me? Where shall I start, you filthy coward?”.
Mr Lee showed no sign of hearing anything. He just opened one of the glossy catalogues, and tapped his finger on it. “I recommend one of these, Captain. They are expensive to buy new, but should be more reliable in the long term”. Henry opened his mouth to reply, and the voice spoke up again. “Maybe I will tell the local newspaper instead. What do you think about that? Imagine the shame, the man from the famous military family turning out a coward and collaborator. So much for the war hero, the poor prisoner who came home to his wife, and a good inheritance. Yeah, maybe I’ll do that”. Henry stood up. “Whatever you think best, Mr Lee. I will leave all that in your capable hands”. Lee picked up his case and catalogues, shook the Captain’s hand, and walked out. As Henry followed him, Tanner’s voice became more threatening.
“Or you could do the right thing. You know, the decent thing. It’s either that, or face the shame, I’m warning you”.
Three days later, and Henry hadn’t slept at all. Tanner’s voice repeated over and over in his head, and he could see the faces of all those he had betrayed, appearing in his mind. After drinking almost a full bottle of Cognac, he opened the drawer of his desk, and took out the service revolver he had kept when he left the army. Nobody had ever got around to asking for its return. Checking it was loaded, he walked slowly upstairs.
Penelope woke up in hysterics as the first shot through the bedclothes hit her in the thigh. Henry walked closer for the second shot, which went straight through her exposed throat. Lily hadn’t even been awakened by the loud noises by the time he went into her room, and he shot her in the back of the head as she slept. Once was enough. It hardly seemed worth going anywhere else, so Henry put the warm barrel of the pistol into his open mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Young Master Henry had no intention of returning to the house. It would all be sold, including its contents, the farms and adjoining lands. He had decided to try his luck in Australia. A new life, far from the painful memories. The small things were packed up by a tearful Mrs Fry, to be sent to auction. A canny auctioneer decided to sell the glass dome separately to fetch more money, and the doll attracted some reasonable interest on its own.
The excitable woman who bought it gave her name as Mrs Maureen Hall.