We first met Mary and the Duchess in December 2016 when the subject was ‘Christmas Eve.’ The story ‘Some Apprehension,’ was set in 1917 with the main event taking place three years prior to that.
‘It is through that broken window that we see the world……….’
Friday April 22nd 1927
‘Good evening Mary,’ a slight pause, ‘Might I sit with you?’
Mary looked up, for she had been far away, unaware of the Duchesses approach, had been absently mindedly twirling a button on her coat, knowing that if she continued to do so, she would end up having to sew it back on.
‘Good evening Georgina, please do, I came to see how matters were progressing, for Edward is leading the congregation tomorrow, at very short notice, due to sickness amongst the Bishops retinue.’
‘He is recovered then?’
‘Yes, just a nasty cold and he will not listen, to stay put in the warmth, his duties first, so instead of just a couple of days before the worst was past, it was a week or more. ’ Mary paused, brushed a wayward strand of hair from her eyes. ‘ You came alone, no maid?’ Not waiting for a reply, Mary continued, ‘I walked up with Ruth as she is turning the music pages for the organist, but she was late home from school, the whole class kept in for some girlish misdemeanour or other.’
‘Ruth, she is what age now? I should know, remember even, but my mind seems careless with such details these days. No, no maid I am becoming too dependent on her and I came through the Long Room anyway rather than brave that cold unfriendly wind, as my last impression of it was that it is becoming very shabby through not being used, now there are so few family living here. We need to re-furbish it Mary and I shall value your advice, seeing how you’ve turned that once drab Manse into a warm and friendly place.’
The Duchess hesitated, looked around, seemed suddenly distant, then, as if gathering herself, brought herself back to the present, a trait which seemed to be increasingly apparent to those who knew her.
‘She is a young woman now, has been for some months, so thirteen or fourteen we suppose, for she had no papers or identity at the orphanage, god bless her. She has decided she is thirteen and so will last a year longer than if an old lady of fourteen!’
‘She is one of the lucky ones, she has you and your husband. Oh Mary, so many families ripped apart, never to be mended, many not knowing where their loved ones lie even now, eight years since the war ended and still so many unknown graves and unknown soldiers in known graves. What a travesty Mary, what a travesty of supposed civilisation.’
Mary sat quietly for she knew the Duchess, for all the apparent outward display of calmness, the aristocratic bearing, was a troubled woman, her once unchallengeable support and loyalty to her country and belief in the establishment, now severely tested . A woman who had lost three of four sons fighting the Kaiser’s army and a husband who had stubbornly insisted that he be allowed to the front line, cruelly blown up and nursed for five long painful years, before an unknown hoarded quantity of sleeping pills and a bottle of whiskey had finally ended his torment.
The women sat quietly, watching the preparations, who would stand where, who would do what. To the casual observer, viewing these two ladies from behind as they sat close together in the front pew of the chapel, there would appear to be little to distinguish highborn and commoner, sensible overcoats against the changeable April weather, one trimmed with fox fur, the other a plain dark collar, partly obscured by a paisley scarf.
To that observer, they presented as calm, mature women, in their early fifties, neither tending towards the dumpiness of middle age. At peace and dignified they might appear, but outward appearances can mislead. Had that observer been facing them, he would have noticed that neither could cast other than furtive glances at the purple drapes covering the newly installed stained glass window. It was, as if, whatever was hidden, they would have preferred it to remain so. A window which come the morrow, would be revealed
Saturday April 23rd 1927
Mary had risen at six o’clock, the habit formed of years of serving in the big house. But it was a habit she did not wish to break, those quiet early morning moments, useful for reflection, gathering her thoughts for the coming day as the vicars wife, organising her mind. Once she was at peace that all was in as good order as she could hope it to be, she would make a pot of tea, butter fresh toast cut from the loaf that the baker had already delivered to the front doorstep and climb the stairs to sit beside her husband, still usually deeply asleep.
She looked at Edward, grey haired, the visible legacy of his time in the trenches, the invisible locked away behind deep blue eyes. Occasionally, usually triggered by some sad or unjust incident involving those he ministered too, the invisible legacy would surface, tormenting, taking advantage of the temporary weakness of a good man caught up in a great evil.
Oh how she loved this man! She had resisted his courtship for many months, but he had persevered, aware of her inner turmoil, trying to tread that very fine line between loving the bonny, healthy and attractive woman he saw before him and not seem to be pitying her for her inner torment, the reasons for which he knew full well, she had no blame.
It was the Duchess who had been the match-maker, pushing Mary to face the future and to try to bury the past. But, it had not been that simple, as there were those who had no wish to let Mary forget and as in many small rural communities, memories were long and gossip cherished, embellished, until the truth was lost in a miasma of complexity and viciousness, for what better sort of gossip was there?
Mary sipped her tea, watched as Edward stirred, wakened, smiled at her. She put the cup down, leaned to kiss him ‘good morning,’ felt his hand slip inside her nightdress, gently holding her breast until both felt the nipple harden, inviting him to explore further, feeling him slip inside her, gently loving her, no lustful passion to which both sometimes gave vent, just gentle love on a day that promised much anguish for those that knew of the reality of war, rather than the pompous glory of those who sent others to die.
They walked arm in arm towards the estate chapel, their recent lovemaking insulating them from the east wind that still blew cold, huddling the sheep into the hollows of the field. They kissed a brief farewell, unashamed to be seen so doing . Mary watched as he walked in to the chapel and then turned to carry on up to the big house, a household she had joined some thirty odd years before, newly married, maid to the Duchess as new to the marriage bed then as was she.
Their friendship had developed, always with the reserve of maid and mistress between them in the early years, but as misfortune overtook them both, but from the opposing directions of cowardice and bravado, the reserve fell away until, ‘Georgina’ took the place of ‘My lady,’ when the women were alone and increasingly these days, not so.
‘Good morning cook, still with us then?’
‘Ay Mrs, little beggar seems far too comfortable tucked away in ‘ere to be bothered coming out into this cold and blustery world.’
‘You have all you need then?’
‘Ay, me lady done seen to that, what with that ‘usband of mine being far away on the ‘igh seas.’
‘No news of him then?’
‘Nay. I’m begin’ to wonder if he’ll not bother to come back, I mean ‘e’s ‘ad ‘is pleasure, without bein’ crude, so as to speak, Mrs, an ‘e knows I’ll be looked after by me lady, so why bother?’
Mary looked at the cook, not sure how to answer, even as a vicars wife, for she had already caused trouble in the past, saying what she felt about certain matters, looking at them from a woman’s point of view, rather than the church’s authoritarian and frequently less charitable one. Sometimes silence was perhaps better, even if quite difficult to achieve.
‘Then perhaps you could persuade that little one to stay tucked up warm and comfortable until this day is over?’
‘Oh, I’ll not let my lady down for I know how troubled she is Mrs, yes troubled indeed.’
Mary smiled as she climbed the back stairs to the Duchesses chambers, wondering yet again at the perception of these so called ‘lower’ women.
‘Oh Mary, why did I ever agree to this damned window?’
‘Because it is it the right thing to do, remembering all those brave men and women and their families. Why should it be only the Generals and Admirals that are remembered? Men who will have likenesses carved in marble to grace some plinth engraved with gold letters.’
‘Are you a closet suffragette then Mary, fighting for our rights to vote, to have a say in how our men are sent to be slaughtered? But, do we really want that responsibility I wonder?’
‘Out of respect for my husband, I take no part in these discussions, although Edward is all in favour of it, we steer away from the subject, it makes us both angry at the world dominated by men, and very often not very intelligent ones at that!’
‘Ah yes, the interbreeding, out goes common sense and intelligence, in comes pomposity and arrogance.’ My late husband wasn’t like that fortunately, just too damned patriotic I fear. Which brings me back to this window – and I struggle for my words dearest Mary. It seems somehow too perfect, if the end result is as the artists illustrations, for what it actually represents in my mind, is a commemoration to evil, the mindless ego driven vanity of nationalism.’
She turned away from Mary, close to tears of anger and grief, turned back, sat, looked at Mary, her expression almost blank. ‘Perhaps a small sherry, early as it is, for I need all the fortification I can get to deal with the next hours.’
‘Whiskey in your tea might be better?’
The service had gone as planned, the small chapel attached to the big house full and overflowing. The military band had welcomed the worshippers, not with rousing military marches but quiet dignified music, remembrance not celebration for the day was about commemorating not celebrating those war years. Mary had wondered how the bandsmen managed such control and beauty as the east wind chilled fingers and turned noses a bright red. She would make sure that a good hot toddy was ready for them once they had finished their duties.
Edward had been calm, his voice unwavering, no indication of the nerves Mary knew would be rattling round his stomach. It had been suggested that the Duchess would unveil the window, but she had point blank refused, ‘one of the village women should do it, for it is mainly to remember their men, those that survived and those who didn’t.’
And so the purple drapes had fallen away to reveal the stained glass, just four figures, Soldier, Sailor, an Airman of the Royal Flying Corps and Nursing Sister, red cross vivid against her white uniform, the border of the window also bright blood red, the grass upon which the figures stood, green and fresh, the artist emphasising new life, ignoring the reality behind that need.
A window commemorating the fallen, a window which bore no latin or religious verse, just the inscription:
Both women stood heads bowed not wanting to look at the perfect figures, unblemished by blood stains or mud, almost mocking in it perfection. An unbroken window commemorating a broken and fractured world.
The big house, or Rainsford Hall, to give it its ancient title, fell silent, the guests gone their various ways. The Duchess had bade them all farewell, shaking hands with each, receiving kisses from some, smiles and curtseys from others. Mary and Edward had stood with her, until the last farewell had been bidden.
‘I’ll bid you both goodnight and thank you for today. I see my maid hovering, she does the most delightful hot baths complete with a tumbler of whiskey, no water though as she is Scottish and will not let me ruin her national drink!’
Some hours later as the Duchess, unable to sleep, her mind provoked by that window, the deaths of her sons and husband, the anger still welling up at his stupid bravery, she heard the faint cry of a new-born and wept.
Edward and Mary, Ruth between them linking arms, had walked slowly home, the east wind no longer blowing, the stars bright in a clear sky. Both were tired, for the day had been long and both had been watchful, ready to comfort those who found the window bringing back still raw memories. There had been no more than quiet dignified tears, the wind often blamed for red eyes.
Mary had bathed, taking longer than usual, brushed out her long dark hair now showing strands of grey, climbed into their bed only to be joined by Ruth. This was not that unusual, although much less frequent than in the early days when she had just come to live with them, then it was to seek human warmth and comfort, now it normally meant questions requiring either an explanation or some reassurance .
‘Mama, you look tired, it’s been a long day I know, but I have a question.’
And Mary knew, with the insight of the mature woman, what the subject would be, a subject she always knew was likely to come up and thought she was prepared for, but now, she was not so sure.
‘Mama, that window, with its figures, I understand what it’s for, to commemorate all those brave men and women who fought to keep us safe, but one of the village women said afterwards, when we were in the big house, something about, ‘there be widows and widows and some widows were caused by other widows no doubt,’ and she glared in your direction. What did she mean?’
Mary was silent, the previously well practised words of explanation suddenly stuck, unutterable in her dry mouth. She took Ruth’s hand, gathered herself, looked at her daughter and said finally, without emotion, ‘My first husband was shot as a coward on Christmas Eve 1914.’
Ruth searched her mother’s face, holding tightly onto her hand, taking in those few words, ‘Oh mama! And was he?’
‘Yes Ruth, he was I’m afraid, he ran away from the battlefield.’
‘But I’ve read mama, that that was not uncommon. Many men ran away from the fighting.’
‘True my darling daughter, they did, but there were those who ran away because they had seen enough horror, seen their friends killed in front of them, seen the wounds, the suffering and there were those who just ran away when the first shots were fired, they deserted their post and in the army that is an unforgivable sin. The mark of a coward.’
‘So what did that woman mean mama, there be widows and widows and some widows were caused by other widows no doubt?’
‘There are the widows whose husbands were killed fighting the enemy and thus are the widows of brave men and proud but sad to be so, and then there are widows like me, whose husbands ran away and in so doing let down their comrades. There are women and their families in this village who blame me for their loved ones deaths, because my man let down their man, didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder when most needed.’
‘But that is so unfair!’
‘No Ruth, it might seem unfair to blame me, but I now understand why they do, but I did not at first, perhaps I did not want to acknowledge his weakness, no woman cares to admit that of her man. Children were left without fathers, fathers who would work to feed them, clothe them, suddenly, there is little money coming into the cottages, but I seemed unaffected in that way. I had my work in the big house, a Mistress and Master who understood me, a cottage of my own left to me by my father, and then I married the vicar and still appeared to live in comfort and all that is true, it can’t be denied.’
High about the alter, the newly consecrated window with its four figures seemingly looking down upon the empty church, was bathed in moonlight. The stained glass lit as if from heaven. If the same observer who had watched those two women, those two friends, during the previous evening, had looked closely upon the panes of glass, he would have seen or might imagine he saw, the tiny cracks which more accurately reflected life, than the artist whose only intent upon its creation, was perfection.
The opening quote in full is:
‘A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world…’
Alice Wilson, American novelist who wrote, ‘The Color Purple.’