'We are done with Hope and Honour
We are lost to Love and Truth
We are slipping down the ladder rung by rung.
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young.'
The house was massive.
Positioned as it was, in the middle of murky, foggy open land, it looked still larger and more forbidding than any of the halls and ministries in London.
It took nerve and determination not to turn and run. Instead Alick walked through the maze of passages and courtyards, skirting the house for some time before he found a doorway where several dogs were milling around an elderly man, demanding the food he was carrying. The man straightened up and looked at Alick without curiosity for a large and untidily dressed man invading the grounds at dawn. Alick gave him a wary nod.
"I'm looking for Captain Deverel."
Silence. Alick dropped his kit bag and fumbled through his pocket until he found Lindley's note.
"I was told to give this to the Captain's family if there was any trouble."
Silence. The man stood back and jerked his head at the doorway.
"You'd best come in then."
It seemed to take hours of standing in whitewashed corridors while messages were passed and people whispered in doorways, watching him curiously. Alick caught glimpses of servants eating in the huge kitchen, walls lined with copper pans and tins, a rack of bells that jingled at intervals, summoning the uniformed servants from their places at the table. Eventually a tall, elderly man came to him, looking politely interested.
"Good morning, may I see your letter please?"
Alick held it out. "Are you his Lordship? I just want to see Deverel."
"I am Mr Winton, I'm his Lordship's butler." The old man didn't look up from the letter. Then he folded it neatly and returned it, looking calmly at Alick's face for some time.
"Can I see Deverel?" Alick said eventually, losing his nerve under the scrutiny. The old man smiled faintly and stood back.
"Yes, I think so. Would you come this way please?"
After three years of barked orders and regimentation, being invited to go anywhere was a novelty, particularly in the butler's soft, well bred accents. Alick was led up staircase after staircase, then out of the whitewashed stone silence of the servants' corridors into the carpeted halls of the main house. Alick followed Winton, his heart nearly in his mouth. Portraits stared down disapprovingly from the walls, looking at his dirty boots and wet greatcoat. Winton reached a large, carved oak door and paused with his hand on the latch.
"I'm afraid can't promise that the Captain will see you. He's often not at his best at this hour."
If anything Cameron Lindley had said was true, Deverel was far from at his best at all.
The man tapped once at the door before he opened it. The room was dark although the curtains were open, and the air was heavy with cigarette smoke and stale sweat. The man cleared his throat.
"Excuse me sir-"
"Who the hell is it? I told you not to bother me."
The voice made Alick jump: partly with the shock of it's familiarity in this terrifying place. And partly at the change in it. What used to be vibrant, noisy and energetic was uncertain. Hoarse.
"It's Winton sir." The older man spoke quietly and soothingly. "There's a -" the pause was only fractional. "- gentleman here to see you."
"I told you to leave me alone. Just get out and let me be, or I swear I'll lock the damned doors."
Winton looked at Alick. Alick slid the kit bag down to the floor.
"It's me sir. Alick Cowan. Cowan, from D Company?"
Silence. Alick moved slowly across the room and drew the curtains back. The light was still dim outside, but it was enough to reveal a thin young man, blinking from his awkward sprawl on the sofa amongst a scatter of newspapers, books and cigarette ends. A decanter lay on its side on the floor, spilt fluid soaking the newspapers in a puddle. It smelt like whiskey. Alick stooped to right it, approaching the sofa with deliberately unhurried steps.
"Cowan. Come to take up the post as arranged, sir."
Deverel didn't move, but his eyes were wide and bewildered. Alick paused where Dev could see him and gave him time to look properly. Then he picked up the books Dev was sprawled on and pulled the rug off the back of the sofa to shake over him. Used to reading faces, particularly this one, and to dealing with men in crisis, his judgements were made quickly and easily. Three parts hung over, shocked and exhausted.
He glanced up to Winton without thought to spare for etiquette.
"Do you keep a mug of tea in this place I can give him? And hot water?"
Winton regarded him for a long moment, his old face expressionless, then came into the room and closed the door behind him, lowering his voice for Alick's ears only.
"There is a bathroom at the end of the next hallway- first left, then second left after that. There is some hot water once the boiler's working in the mornings, but you'll have to heat water over the fire next door the rest of the time. The bell by the mantel will bring James up here- the footman." He added at Alick's blank look. "He will fetch whatever the Captain needs from the kitchens or anywhere else, and he is there to help with any other tasks you request. He will inform me too if you need me." The look he gave Deverel was quietly compassionate. "Probably better me than James if…. Well. I have known the Captain since he was a child, he usually recognises me."
He opened the doors into the next room and Alick saw an oak tiled bedroom, the bed with its covers dragged half onto the floor and a hearth full of ashes. Winton waved him over, and Alick followed him through another hidden doorway in the wall that led down a tiny, undecorated hallway and into a small room with a bedstead, desk and chair and the tools of a valet's trade. Winton pointed Alick at the fire and the ewer placed on the hearth.
"You'll find what you need here. Bring your belongings through, I'll have the bed made up for you. And your meals sent up here too. You'll have to eat when you can, I doubt you'll be able to leave him to come down to the servants' hall."
Alick gave him a blunt look. Winton's tone was civil and politely skirting the fact that they both knew: Alick would be far from welcome in the servants' hall and had no wish at all to face it. Winton paused with a hand on the other door out of the narrow hallway.
"This leads to a staircase, follow it down far enough and you'll find the kitchens. You served in France with the Captain, according to your letter?"
"Aye. Two years."
Winton said nothing, merely nodded and closed the door silently behind him. Alick stood still and ran his hands through his hair, trembling slightly. Then he went back to the dusty, untidy sitting room. Deverel hadn't moved from the sofa. His eyes were still open but they were blank. He was clearly miles away, and from the expression on his face, the place he was in was nowhere reassuring. Alick hesitated for some time, frightened and distraught by that look. And that face. Such a young face, thinner now and paler than it had been three months ago. Then he drew a deep breath, knelt at the hearth, raked out the ashes with more efficiency than care and lit a fresh fire. Both rooms were freezing and cluttered, as well as thick with dust.
The newspapers and books covered an entire side table when they were stacked and off the floor. Alick opened the windows wide and threw the cigarette ends into the fire. The bedroom clearly hadn't been used for days. Untouched and mouldering food sat on a tray on the dresser. Another decanter sat empty on a bedside table. Alick lit the fire, made the bed and looked up, vaguely surprised at the young man who emerged without knocking from the valet's room, a tray in hand. He looked in his late teens and there was not the mark in his face that instantly identified a man as having been in France. This youngster had turned eighteen too late to join the war. Alick took the new tray and nodded him at the old one, now piled with rubbish for disposal.
"Thanks. Get rid of that one, would you son?"
"I'm no son of yours." The young man said sharply. There was enough of the plum in his accent to make his point clear. Alick paused to look at him, saw the disdain in his face and had no interest in pursuing it.
"He'll be needing clean clothes." He said, nodding at the sitting room. The boy smirked.
"Who's he? The cat's mother? That's the Captain you're talking about, you'd better learn how to talk sharpish if you're going to work here. And there are no clean clothes for the Captain."
"What do you mean?" Alick demanded. The boy shook his head.
"Want it in your language? There ain't none, my son. The Captain's got nothing but uniforms, and he won't let us touch them. Unless you want his school uniforms out of the attic."
"Then I'll need to talk to Winton." Alick said, losing interest. The boy followed him to the doorway, watching him pour tea without regard for the social graces. Deverel needed it hot and strong and in large amounts: the quality of the china had little to do with it.
"So where did they dig you up from?" James inquired behind him. "Bet you never thought you'd see the inside of a house like this. Make a change from the pits does it?"
"Fishing." Alick said without looking round. The boy grinned.
"Fishing was it? So we'll know where to look when the trout start getting poached out of the lake."
Alick dumped several spoonfuls of sugar into the cup and headed for the door. The boy's voice followed him.
"He's mad you know? Out of his tree. I got called up here one night by Winton. It took four of us to pin him down. He ought to be locked up. He would be if his lordship hadn't sent the doctor away."
Alick considered for a minute setting the cup down, turning and planting a fist into James' adolescent face. Then he thought of another teenaged boy eighteen months ago in a dugout in France, grey eyes bright with intensity.
("Swear to me you won't hit anyone else. For any reason. And understand that if you do, I'm going to put you through hell in ways that will make the Somme look like a kiddies tea party.")
Alick went through to the sitting room and shut the door on James behind him. Deverel had dozed off, his head tipped back at an awkward angle over the sofa arm, one knee stiffly extended in front of him, the other leg trailing on the floor. In shirtsleeves and uniform trousers, unshaven and white faced he looked worse than Alick had ever seen him. Even sprawled on the floor of the dug outs at Ypres, sleeping the death-like sleep of the truly exhausted, he'd never looked so ill.
Alick put the tea down and bent over him, taking a firm enough grip to stop his first jolt of waking.
"Dev. Come on lad."
"Cowan?" Deverel dragged himself upright, still mostly asleep. Alick hooked an arm around his shoulders to steady him and reached for the cup.
"Aye. Get this down you."
Deverel swallowed without thinking, winced at the strength of the tea and pushed Alick weakly away.
"Oh my God. Whoever told you you could brew tea? Where the hell's Lindley? What time is it?"
Alick watched him stagger to his feet, stomach chilling slightly at the incomprehension in his voice.
"Dev? You're at home. Lindley's in London, it's all over."
Deverel looked blankly at the lawns beyond the windows. Then back at Alick.
"What the hell are you doing here?"
"Lindley sent me. Thought you might need me."
"I told Lindley to get knotted. Weeks ago." Deverel looked back out at the lawns again, frowning slightly. "Who's watch is it?"
"No one's on watch. It's over." Alick rose to his feet, deliberately taking on the tone that had always worked with Dev, the calm, matter of factness he always listened to. "You sit down and get that tea inside you, you're talking rubbish."
"Miles of open land out there and not a bloody guard in sight." Deverel moved closer to the window with a halting limp that made Alick's throat tighten. He moved like an old man. An old man's gait, an old man's face, and the body of a boy barely twenty three.
"It's ridiculous. No one's properly trained anymore."
Alick saw him start to fall and caught him before he hit the floor. Dev's head hung limply back over his arm. Out cold. It was all too easy to lift him, the boy was skin and bone. Alick carried him through to the bedroom, laid him on the bed and began to strip him, alarmed by the chill of his skin. Most of his clothes were damp. His right knee, when Alick laid it bare, was wrapped in a bandage that looked several weeks old and which had slipped and twisted around the joint. Seeing the wound again made Alick's stomach churn almost past bearing. He kept his eyes determinedly off it and concentrated instead of the steady chorus of curses he made under his breath as he got the younger man out of clothes he'd clearly been wearing for days. A search of the cupboards and drawers revealed nothing: most of them stood empty. Alick pulled the covers over Deverel, found the servants' bell Winton had pointed out and leaned on it, thinking of a hundred courses of action he now wished he'd taken two months ago. Deverel stirred on the bed, wincing as he moved his damaged leg.
"You keep still." Cowan said roughly. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Too quiet." Deverel shifted again uncomfortably. "Who's watch is it?"
Cowan hesitated for barely a minute, then gave into the simplest option.
"Lindley's sir. For hours yet, you don't need to worry.".
He seemed to accept that. A tap at the outer door signalled Winton instead of James, his arms full of linen. Alick went to him in open relief.
"Thank God. I've been trying to find something to change him into."
"I'm afraid there's only his uniforms. He joined up straight from school, the only other clothes he has in the house date from when he was seventeen, and I doubt they would fit him anymore." Winton laid his bundle down. "These are what I could get from his Lordship's valet. How is the Captain?"
"Bloody awful." Alick hunted through the linen until he found a nightshirt. "When did anyone last look at his knee?"
"The Captain preferred not to have a doctor summoned." Winton said calmly. "His Lordship made one attempt to dissuade him, but has felt it is the Captain's right to decide."
Alick snorted roughly and sat down to lift Deverel and pull the nightshirt over his head.
"He's only a bloody kid."
"He is also the heir to the estate, and a Captain of the British army." Winton pointed out mildly. "Both of which entitle him to a great deal of respect."
"And a damn good kick up the arse as soon as he's sober." Alick said under his breath. If Winton heard, he didn't comment.
Deverel barely noticed being moved and changed. Alick laid him back and covered him over. The fire was beginning to warm the room and as soon as he was left alone, Dev drifted into sleep. Alick wandered the room for some time, not comfortable enough in the large, and dusty grandeur to sit down.
The note had been waiting for him in the demob office in Battersea. Short and to the point, it had been handed over along with his papers, civilian clothes which didn't fit, and outstanding pay.
You can find me at this address, I've got news for you regarding Deverel. If you're at all interested, I think he needs you.
Lindley.It had taken several hours of wandering to find the answer. Fresh out of the army, out of sight of Deverel, things were very different and Cowan was bitterly aware of it.
Friendships formed in the bizarre world of France had little to do with British civilisation.
Cowan still had no idea how he had ended up at Lindley's flat, or how he had come to be walking through the grounds of Fyling Abbey at dawn this morning, his heart pounding in his throat. The house had reared up out of the dawn like some sort of ancient monolith. It was a landscapers trick, the grounds laid out to reveal the house in a dramatic turn on the two miles of driveway, but at this hour of the morning the house itself held little beauty. It held instead a stark reminder of the past: that this was a place where armies had been raised, councils of war held, a place fortified for battle. It was hardly the boyhood home Deverel had described once or twice to him.
Throughout the walk through the paddocks where silent horses lipped at the frosty grass and huffed their steaming breath his way, while climbing fences and scrambling hahas, Alick had had only one thought.
This is madness. Don't do it.
"I can't do it." Cameron Lindley had said frankly. "I've tried- God knows I've tried, but he doesn't listen to me Alick. You know he doesn't."
"What about Hayes?" Alick said shortly. Lindley sighed.
"Edward's back in France. He left over a month ago, he's leading clean-up operations over there. He isn't going to be in England for weeks- maybe months. Dev needs someone now."
"You think I could walk into some big house with the way I talk?"
Even to his own ears, his Yorkshire dialect was painfully thick. Wi' t' way I talk?
Common. Cheap and common.
He'd forgotten Dev's cut glass accent, in France it had been irrelevant. Here, it might as well have been a stone wall between them.
Alick paced the little flat, too big for it's narrow rooms. Lindley, slight and fragile with his dark hair still longer than usual, perched on the windowsill and watched him.
"Alick you're the only one who can do anything with him. You're the only one who ever could."
"And Major Edward Bloody Hayes'll shoot me when he finds out."
"Alick if you don’t go, I'd put even money on Dev shooting himself." Lindley said bluntly. "I know the family- I know Dev's father. If I sent Jack the Ripper to the house with a promise he'd control Dev, he'd be welcomed with open arms."
Alick looked at him sharply. Lindley shrugged.
"You know Dev's elder brother was killed on the Somme two years ago? Dev had only just inherited the title when he got his Captaincy and joined us at Lys. His parents were devastated over Rob. He was very much the blue-eyed boy, and now Dev's come home in a hell of a state- he was seventeen when he joined up. Only a kid for God's sake. His parents don't even recognise him physically any more. As far as they're concerned, both their sons died in France, Dev might as well be a stranger to them. They're in the middle of grieving, they can’t begin to handle him."
Alick went on pacing.
There had been a football match at a rest camp- months and months ago. The shouts of men playing, jacketless, collars open, as if they hadn't been standing under shellfire all night, just five miles away.
As usual the four of them had managed to slip away and they had gathered under the trees, one by one. Edward Hayes, with the choir boy fair hair, the hard eyes and the nervous moustache. Cameron Lindley with his hair in his eyes and the slow, flirtatious smile he used to irritate Edward.
Deverel. The youngest. Elbows on his knees, watching the football with the intensity that meant he was only resisting the urge to join in because Edward was watching him. And Alick Cowan. Big. Square. With the give away, flat vowels and the uniform of a private.
Major. Captain. Lieutenant. Private. An unethically mixed friendship and a rocky one, formed under duress, kept very discreet, adhered to because-
Alick looked down at Dev's sleeping face.
Because none of them seriously thought they would live long enough for it to be a problem.
Deverel slept through most of the morning. Several times Alick heard him mutter and went to stand by the bed, watching the younger man twitch and stir, but a few quiet words always settled him back into sleep. Left to his own devices, Alick heated water and attacked the room with energy born of nerves and boredom. His mother's four rooms would fit twice over into Deverel's two, but her house was always spotless. She'd have been disgusted with the dust and clutter of this richness. Alick washed down the glass and every surface in sight, bundled books and papers out of the way into the bookcases and scrubbed down the hearths. The results made him feel better. The fires looked a little brighter, the room a little more like the military sparseness Dev was used to and would be comfortable with.
He knew to the minute when Dev woke. There was a quiet sound of agony as he opened his eyes and faced a hangover probably days old. Alick stood in the doorway to watch him, thinking again of standing in Cameron Lindley's flat.
"What do I do with him?"
"Be yourself. He's always listened to you."
"I don’t know what to do."
"Neither does anyone else Alick." Cam's thin face was strained. "From what his father told me, he's in the middle of a serious nervous breakdown. I don't think it matters what you do- you're probably the only person who CAN do anything at all."
Deverel struggled upright, pushing his hair out of his eyes. Alick folded his arms across his chest, meeting his stunned gaze.
"Alick?" Dev said at last, bewildered. "ALICK? What the hell are you doing here?"
"We had all this out first thing this morning, 'cept you were too pissed to understand it." Alick said grimly. "I've got a better question for you. What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Dev had the grace to flush a little. Alick pushed the curtains back and took a towel off the dresser.
"Put that around you. Before we do anything else you're going to shave that beard off and make yourself decent. The whole time we were at Lys I never saw you with so much as a shadow and now look at you."
Dev took the towel from him automatically but stared as Alick walked past him for hot water.
"Alick- what are you doing here? When did you-"
"Cam sent me." Alick filled the jug from the can over the fire. He turned to find the bed empty. Dev was standing unsteadily, shaking badly at the hands, but with a fury in his face that Alick knew well.
"I told Cam what to do weeks ago. He had no right sending you here!"
"You've scared him out of his wits." Alick said grimly, mixing up a jug of soap. "And Edward's in France. Or you'd really have something to worry about."
"The war's over, Alick. You can't just- appear in my house as if you have the right-"
"According to your father I'm on the pay roll." Alick said bluntly. "Sit down and put that towel round you."
"If I want a bloody shave I'll do it myself!"
"Shaking that badly you'll cut your throat. Sit down."
"Clear out Alick! Get out of here and tell Cam he can keep his nose out of my affairs! You've none of you got the right to-"
"Now listen!" Alick said sharply. "When I walked in here this morning you were as tight as a bloody newt, you had no idea what was going on. Winton's told me what I could see for myself- you haven't been to bed in weeks. You don't eat. You hadn't changed out of those clothes you were wearing for weeks. He says all you've done since Christmas is pace around these rooms, smoke and drink. Except when you've let him in here to clear up the things you've smashed. You've locked yourself in this room for nearly a month."
"This is my home and I'll do what ever I damn well want!" Dev spat back.
Head high, eyes blazing, it was a flash of the Captain Deverel Alick knew. And it sat so badly with this fragile, shaking boy in a nightshirt that it only served to make Alick still more determined.
"Cam Lindley said you were having a breakdown." He said brutally. "He said your Mam and Dad couldn't do a thing with you. You wouldn't let him come near you. And there's no one else who knows you like he and I do. Which leaves me. And I'm going nowhere, that's flat."
"We're not in France any more Alick. You can't act like this over here."
"You think it was allright screwing my CO in the gunbays in the middle of the night?" Alick said bluntly. "Not exactly in line with the King's regulations."
Dev flushed hotly. Alick pointed at the bed. "Sit down."
"Go to hell Alick."
Dev was too unsteady and too slow to evade Alick's grab. He collapsed on the bed where Alick put him and swore as Alick lifted his chin and efficiently began to plaster the soap on his jaw. He was surprised at the deftness of the older man's rough hands. He'd seen Alick strip down a gun and mend wire with the same speed and dexterity but Alick handled him with the expertise of a professional valet.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Dev said shortly, unable to contain his curiosity when Alick let him go. Alick picked up the towel.
"My brother. Lost his hand in an accident years ago."
"Rope. There was a gale, he and my father were trying to lash their boat to another and the rope caught around his hand. Crushed it."
"I thought you were going home Alick. You always said you would."
Alick shrugged. "My family have done without me for three years. They'll manage a few months more."
"You can't stay here." Dev said softly.
"You get back under the covers, you're shivering." Alick said, picking the water jug up.
"You're not staying here Alick."
"I'm staying right here." Alick said bluntly. "You're going to see a doctor and get that leg properly looked at, you're going to eat and then you're going to tell me what you've been trying to drink away the last month."
"Go to hell." Deverel's grey eyes locked with his, hard, angry, determined as rock. Alick looked right back into them, knowing that look and finding joy somewhere within his fear that the fire was still there. It was doused, but still there.
"Not without you. Get back in that bed."