May 1915. I had been orphaned at the age of eighteen after my parents drowned when the Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast. I had been at boarding school and due to their untimely deaths I was unable to stay there until such time as their finances were put in order.
The headmistress had called me into her office and broken the news to me as gently as she could. She explained the situation and told me of a friend of my parents who lived in a big house in Suffolk who had never married and had inherited the house from her parents when they themselves had passed on. She had agreed to take me in until such time as all the legal side of things had sorted out and I was able to settle and support myself. This may not be until I was twenty-one, when I legally became an adult.
It was a difficult journey. I was not used to travelling alone and had to take the train from Scotland to London, an omnibus across London from Euston to Liverpool Street, and another train from Liverpool Street to Ipswich where my ‘aunt’ had promised to arrange someone to meet me.
I travelled on the night train from Scotland, sleeping fitfully in the dimly lit compartment. It was a slow train, stopping many times. I didn’t have the money to travel on the express. The school had been very sympathetic to my predicament and had paid for my tickets but only the cheapest. Nevertheless, I was grateful to them.
I had left with the final words from the headmistress going round and round in my head:
“Take care, Victoria, and good luck. You are a strong woman and I hope that what you have learned here will stand you in good stead for your future.”
I thanked her and promised I would write when I could.
That was yesterday afternoon and now my train was crawling slowly through the London suburbs as it approached it’s final halt in Euston.
It was a fine morning, the sun shining on the grimy streets casting long shadows as it rose above the chimney stacks on the terraced houses and smoking factories.
Gradually, the scene disappeared as the train descended into a brick sided cutting and through tunnels and bridges before coming to a halt, brakes squealing, at the platform where I was to alight.
Even at that early hour, Euston was a busy station. Smoky from the exhaust of the steam engines and noisy! The clattering of horses hooves and iron wheeled carts echoed around the canopies, whistles blowing and train doors slamming, along with the voices of passengers and shouts of the staff, all far to busy to notice a lone, bewildered girl.
I tried to find a porter to help carry my portmanteau but I was invisible so I began to drag the heavy trunk along the platform until I heard a kindly voice above the hubub.
“Need any help Miss?”
I turned to see a young man, not much older than I was, in a porter’s uniform. His blue eyes sparkled under the peak of his cap and his teeth shone behind the broad grin.
“Oh, yes please.” I smiled back at him. “I have never travelled alone before and don’t know where to go.”
The young man’s brow rose as he exclaimed:
“You’re travellin’ alone? A fine young lady such as yerself! Well! That ain’t right!”
I dropped my eyes from his gaze.
“My parents have both passed away recently and I have no-one to help me.”
“Now, now, Miss. Don’t you worry. Tommy Perkins will sort yer aht!”
I looked at him, puzzled.
“Tommy Perkins?” I queried, “Where will I find him?”
“Right ‘ere, Miss, I’m Tommy Perkins!” He laughed as he took off his cap and bowed low to me in a rather exaggerated fashion, before straightening up and flipping his cap back onto the mop of dark curls on his head.
“Nah then.” he continued. “You wait right ‘ere an’ I will go and get a barrer fer yer trunk.”
He turned and strolled away, whistling as he went.
I waited, as he had instructed and, true to his word, he was back in no time with an iron wheeled barrow like a little flat farm trailer, with four wheels, which he pulled behind him, the long handle steering the front wheels as he went.
He stopped the little trolley next to my trunk and dropped the handle with a loud clank then bent to lift the trunk using the handle at one end.
“Cor Blimey!” He exclaimed. “What you got in ‘ere, a dead bod… Oh, I’m sorry.” he looked sheepishly away when he remembered what I told him about my parents.
I smiled sadly.
“Don’t worry,” I told him, “I have to get used it.” But in truth, my heart was heavy.
With much heaving and pushing he managed to get the large box onto the trolley and, after a brief rest to get his breath back, said:
“Right then, Miss, where am I taking it?”
“I don’t know.” I answered him honestly, “I believe I have to take an omnibus from here to Liverpool Street.”
“A’ omnibus!” he cried, “You can’t take this on a’ omnibus!”
“But I have no money for a Hackney carriage and I cannot walk there.”
I was worried sick now. I had absolutely no idea where Liverpool Street was or how I would get there.
I began to cry, ashamed of myself for being so weak.
Tommy Perkins took out a grubby rag and handed it to me.
“There there, Miss, Don’t take on so. I told yer, Tommy Perkins will sort yer aht.”
Taking another rag from his pocket he made a gesture of flicking the dirt from the edge of the trolley.
“You sit there a minute.” he said, “I’ll get yer there, don’t you fear.”
I sat on the edge and waited. He was longer this time but he returned and with a big smile. He wiped his grubby hands on the rag then held one out to me to assist me to my feet.
I took it gingerly but with gratitude and he gently pulled me up.
“Thank you.” I said, “but where are we going to go?”
“The parcel shed, Miss.” his smile wider still. “I’m afraid I couldn’t get yer a carriage but there is a van leavin’ in about ‘alf an ‘our which is going to Liverpool Street station. I ‘ad a word with the driver and ‘e said ‘e would take you and your trunk.”
“Oh, Mister Perkins, thank you so much. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
I took out my purse which contained but a few pennies. I took two out and proffered them to him.
“I don’t have much to give I’m afraid and this is only about what the omnibus would have cost, I am told.”
“Now then, Miss, there’s no need for that. You keep your money for more important things.” He closed my hand and pushed it away gently.
But, Mister Perkins, you have been so kind…” I protested.
“Not another word, Miss. Come along, you don’t want to miss that van, he won’t wait yer know.”
I thanked him again and returned the coins to my purse. Gathering up my skirt I followed him as he pulled the trolley with my trunk aboard, through a gate and out into a big open hall where lorries and vans were being loaded with goods and parcels of all shapes and sizes.
Tommy Perkins took me towards a large enclosed van where he spoke to the driver and, between them, loaded my trunk onto the vehicle.
The driver then climbed the two steps into the cab and reached out his hand to assist me into the other side.
“If I may be so bold, Miss.” Tommy Perkins said as he lifted my voluminous skirts a little so I could step up.
Once in and seated on the wooden bench seat and the driver had started the engine with the little handle at the front, I looked down and smiled at my gallant saviour.
“Thank you for everything, Mister Perkins. One day I shall repay your kindness.”
He blushed deep red and he looked up at me.
“May I ask one liberty Miss?”
“You may ask.” I said.
“May I be permitted to know your name?” his face was glowing now.
“You may,” I smiled, “My name is Victoria.”
“A beautiful name for a beautiful Lady, if I may say so.”
Now it was my turn to blush and the van, with a crunch of the gears and whine of transmission, lurched away out of the hall and onto the crowded city street.
I had never been to the city before, never seen so many people in one place. It was an overwhelming sight. I soon realised that Tommy Perkins was right about the omnibus. There were many in the streets. They had steps up to the rear platform and another into the saloon. A winding staircase up the rear lead to the open top level. I could certainly not see any way I could have taken my trunk onto one, even if I could have lifted it up the first two steps.
The parcel van clattered along the streets, the gearbox whining as it went, the gears crunching each time the driver changed them. The stench was overwhelming of horses urine and faeces and the noise of motor vehicles horns and clattering hooves was quite deafening to my ears.
The driver must have noticed for he turned to me, grinning, his black teeth looking like a row of old gravestones in his mouth.
“Never been to the city before then, Miss?” he asked.
“No, never!” I shouted back to make myself heard over the din.
“Bit of an eye opener, then, innit.” he shouted back.
“Indeed.” I replied. Nothing more was said after that and the driver began whistling a tune I had never heard before. Some kind of music hall ditty, I supposed.
The journey took almost an hour at not much more than walking pace generally and when we arrived I was pleased to be able to get down from the hard, uncomfortable bench seat.
The driver took my hand and assisted me down the small steps to the ground and, as I had with Tommy Perkins, took out my purse.
Even before I had a chance to open it, the driver stopped me.
“No need, Miss. Tommy told me you would probably do that and it really isn’t necessary.”
Again I blushed and thanked him. He turned but then stopped and turned back.
“If I may give yer a little advice, Miss. Today you were lucky that Tommy found yer, and asked me to help. London is not a safe place fer a pretty young lady such as yerself to be travelling alone. Many thieves and vagabonds roam the streets, especially around the stations. Don’t trust anyone yer don’t know, Miss. Always find someone official to guide yer or, better still, find someone to travel with.”
“Thank you, Mister…?” he didn’t answer, “Well, thank you anyway, I shall heed your advice.”
Once again he turned and went off to find a porter, returning with a tall, thin, middle aged man with whom he lifted the trunk onto another trolley.
Finally, touching his cap with his finger tip, he said:
“And don’t try to tip ‘im, either, Miss!” and with a wink and a smile, walked away to unload the parcels from his van.
This porter didn’t speak at all to me as he pulled the cart behind him towards the wrought iron gates which separated the platforms from the main concourse.
He stopped at the gate and waited as the ticket inspector at the barrier checked my ticket and, after wishing me a safe journey, stepped back to allow me to pass.
Stopping briefly to open the varnished wooden carriage door for me, he assisted me up the step, then, touching his forehead as I thanked him, he said:
“You’re welcome, Miss,” and disappeared into the smoke towards the luggage van at the front of the train.
The carriage was almost empty and I settled gratefully into the first seat I could find where there were no other passengers and sat back, heaving a big sigh of relief that soon I would be out of this awful place and heading to the house that was to be my home for possibly the next few years.
Gradually, the carriage filled. I saw passengers walk past my little section, probably looking for empty ones first. I heard a whistle blow outside and someone slammed the carriage doors closed. There was a jolt and the train began to move. I watched the platform as we began to slowly increase speed, the signs and seats were left behind along with a soldier who was running along the platform but he was too late and the station disappeared behind me as we began our journey through the busy suburban landscape which, before long, began to thin out until we were passing fields.
I closed my eyes and relaxed. I knew I didn’t have long on this train, an hour perhaps, so I was afraid to fall asleep.
“Ticket please Miss.”
I opened my eyes. The guard was holding out his hand so I passed my ticket to him.
“Thank you, Miss.” he said as he looked at it and punched a hole into it. He tipped his cap and moved on to the next block of seats.
I closed my eyes again.
“Travelling alone are you?”
I opened my eyes with a start. Seated across from me was a middle aged gentleman in a smart suit and bowler hat. I had not heard him arrive and I didn’t answer him but stared nervously back at him.
“I won’t bite you.” he said, “Name’s Arthur.” He touched the brim of his hat.
“May I be so bold as to ask your name?”
“Why do you want to know my name?” I asked. The words of the van driver loud in my head:
“Don’t trust anyone yer don’t know, Miss.”
“I’m sorry.” he answered, “Just trying to be polite. I didn’t mean to cause offence.”
I didn’t tell him my name but watched him warily.
“None taken I assure you, Sir.” I replied, trying to be polite but not open a conversation.
“So,” he persisted, “You are travelling alone?”
I looked around the carriage. I could see other passengers, reading papers, chatting but none taking any notice of me.
“That, Sir, is my own business.” I told him. I was afraid but didn’t want him to see that.
Outside the window the countryside flashed by but to me, it passed unnoticed.
He frowned before continuing.
“Look.” he said, “I don’t know what you are thinking but you are in no danger, I assure you. I am just trying to pass the time of day. if you are not happy then I will keep quiet.”
“No, I am sorry.” I said apologetically. “I am not used to travelling and am a little nervous.”
He smiled at that.
“And quite rightly so, my dear. The world is a dangerous place but you may rest assured that I am no threat to your safety. I have a wife and children in Ipswich whom I have not seen for almost a week as I have been working in London.”
“Then, may I ask, Sir, what your employment might be?” I began to feel at ease again but still, I could not relax my guard on his say so.
He smiled and took a card out of his waistcoat pocket and handed it to me.
I reached out and took it, turning it over to look at it.
It had a crest on it.
“You are a Policeman!” I exclaimed.
“That’s right, Miss, a detective.”
I looked at him for a moment then back at the card, reading out loud:
“Detective Sergeant Arthur Morgan. Suffolk Constabulary.”
I handed the card back to him.
He smiled and held up his hand,
“Keep it,” he said. “You never know when you might need a friendly policeman. My telephone number is on it.”
I placed the the card in my purse then held out my hand to him.
“Victoria Harcourt.” I said as he took it in a handshake gesture.
“Honoured to make your acquaintance, Miss Harcourt.” he replied., releasing me.
“In answer to your question,” I all but whispered, not wanting others to hear, “I am travelling alone. I am going to stay with my Aunt near Ipswich.”
I told him about my parents and how she was not my real aunt and so on. he listened intently. When I stopped he asked how I was to get to my ‘aunt’s’ house.
“I am told she will send someone to meet the train when I arrive in Ipswich.” I told him.
“That is good,” he said, “Does she live far from the town?”
I took out the card with her address on it. My Headmistress had written it for me in case anything was amiss with the travel arrangements.
“Woolverstone Hall!” he exclaimed, “Your ‘aunt’,” he emphasised the word ‘aunt’, “is Lady Helen Fortesque-Brown?”
“I believe so, I have never met her.” I replied in honesty, “You know her?”
“I know of her. Woolverstone Hall is a big house indeed. So big that it has been turned over to the Army as a hospital for soldiers wounded in the trenches. Lady Helen lives in the East wing, which, in itself is still big enough to house her and her staff.”
This was a revelation to me. I thought I was just going to a modest town house such as the one my parents had kept in Colchester.
The remainder of the journey passed in a flash. Sergeant Morgan told me about the hospital arrangements and how Lady Helen was known to be a bit of a recluse but was often to be seen helping to nurse the soldiers but more than that, he knew very little about her.
The train began to slow and, with the brakes squealing and carriages bumping and clanking, came to a halt at the platform
Arthur Morgan stepped down to the platform then turned back to assist me through the door.
“Well, Good luck, Miss Harcourt. I hope you enjoy your stay at the Hall.” he said, raising his hat, “You have my card, If you need anything please call.”
“Thank you, Sergeant, and for making my journey such a pleasant one.”
“You are welcome. Take care now.” he turned and walked away towards the exit.
Some minutes later, with a blast of whistles and slamming of doors, the train pulled away from the platform and I watched the last carriage disappear into the distance.
My trunk was on a barrow adjacent to where the baggage car had been but there were no staff in sight.
I looked about me and suddenly I saw a soldier near the platform exit. He was a young lad, about my age wearing the dull brown uniform of a private soldier.
He seemed to see me about the same time as I saw him.
He smiled and walked towards me.
“Miss ‘arcourt?” he asked, saluting awkwardly.
“Yes?” I replied, Puzzled that he knew my name.
“I ‘ave been sent to collect you and take you to the ‘all.” he said.
Looking about he asked if I had any baggage. I pointed to the trunk.
“Just that.” I said.
“Oh.” he replied, pushing his hat to the back of his head, “Looks ‘eavy!”
“It is!” I smiled, “Are you alone?”
“I wasn’t told about a trunk. I would ‘ave brought someone if I ‘ad been.” He winced as he spoke.
“I am sure we can manage it between us.” I laughed, “I am not so weak.”
He looked at me, unsure.
In truth, I was slightly built, just five feet and three inches tall. I had a small bust and boyish hips but what I lacked in stature, I made up for in willingness and determination.
“Well, all right Miss. If you say so.” He still looked doubtful as he took up the handle of the trolley and began to pull it towards the station exit.
I followed behind and, as I stepped through the main portal a realised why he was so doubtful. he had not brought a car to collect me but an army lorry and my trunk had to be lifted onto the back which was almost at head height to me.
“I think, Miss,” he said slowly, looking first at me, then to the lorry, then back to me, ‘that I should try and find someone to help lift that.”
“Yes, I think maybe you should.” I agreed.
He went off and did find a porter to help and before long, the trunk was aboard and he had cranked the handle to start the engine.
I climbed the steps into the cabin while he was busy and soon we were moving off from the station and along the rough roads towards Woolverstone Hall.
I had no idea, now, what to expect when we finally arrived.
Sergeant Morgan had completely destroyed any of the preconceived ideas I had developed in my mind.
The Hall was several miles from the station and the lorry bumped slowly along, The klaxon horn sounding at regular intervals to warn the local populace of our approach.
It was approaching an hour later when the lorry turned in through the big iron gates and proceeded down the long drive to the main house.
My eyes opened wide when I saw it. A huge Georgian house surrounded as far as the eye could see by green fields and gardens.
I saw soldiers in uniform and men in pyjamas resting or walking. All wore bandages of some kind or another. Many around their heads and covering one or both eyes, the latter being guided by a nurse or other comrade. Some had missing limbs, others in wheel chairs or on crutches. It was a most incredible sight. Nothing the sergeant had told me had prepared me for this.
The lorry didn’t stop at the front of the house but continued round to the rear and pulled up outside an ornate entrance porch in front of what I guessed to be the East wing.
The driver stopped the engine and jumped nimbly to the ground, walking around the front of the vehicle to assist me down the steps.
I thanked him and walked to the rear of the lorry.
“Don’t worry about the trunk, Miss, I’ll sort that out. I believe Lady Helen is waiting inside for you.”
I thanked him again and went through the doorway which opened into a large entrance hall. I looked in awe at the ornate panelled walls and decorations. It was like nothing I had seen in my life. It wasn’t as grand as my school hall but that was different, that was a Scottish castle. This was someone’s home, and a small part of it at that!
“Victoria, welcome.” I turned and saw her, Lady Helen Fortesque-Brown, a stunningly beautiful forty something woman. Her red hair was tied back in a bun and she was tall and slim with a supremely handsome face. Her dark, almost black, eyes sparkled as she spoke.
“Lady Helen? I enquired.
“Call me Aunt Helen if you wish, Victoria, a little less formal, don’t you think?”
“Yes, Aunt. I do, thank you.”
“Now, you must be exhausted. Have you eaten?” Her voice was soft but full of authority, “I will instruct the kitchen to prepare something for you whilst you bathe and wash away the grime of your journey.” She paused, “You are far prettier than I remember but, of course, you were only a child when I last saw you.”
I blushed but said nothing.
“Come,” she said after another pause, “Melissa will take you to the bathroom and show you where everything is. Today, you relax and tomorrow, I will show you around the house and grounds.”
As I followed the maid who had appeared from a side room, Aunt Helen placed her hand on my bottom and gently propelled me away towards the stairs. At the time I thought nothing of it, I was too tired to even care.
To be continued…
This is Chapter 1 of what has become a full length novel which is now available worldwide on Amazon Kindle. A.x
Now available in Paperback. Axx