Ooof! This one-way DID narrative is just a killer. This arc took so much time I almost wrote a "What has gone before" chapter. So many threads which become canon once posted so I had to weave carefully and that's set me back some weeks.
A huge note of thanks to Raine, who not only lent me his Alexandra Anderson character but also provided most of her dialogue. Great fun. All sorted now, so here we go!
________________________________________________________________À la Recherche du Temps Perdu - Part 43 of many 22 October 1917
It was past one o’clock and we were both ravenous. After setting water to boil Clarissa rummaged through the kitchen, exploring the many cupboards and drawers before finally collecting what she sought. It was clear that this wasn’t her permanent home. The larder was freshly provisioned however, and she set to work. I was given a toasting fork and my marching orders.
In little time at all we were sitting down to one of the finest omelets I’d ever tasted, Clarissa’s version was buttery and soft, but not with the disgustingly runny dog drool consistency so popular amongst the French. Cooked through to perfection. I managed not to burn the toast.
“For a girl requiring staff, you manage rather well. Not exactly roughing it, are we?
“Oliver, requiring staff doesn’t mean I’ve never visited a kitchen.”
“I don’t like the idea of leaving you here alone, Clarissa. Not after last night. Those men might have associates looking for you.”
“You don’t? Oh, I see, because I might be in danger. I was thinking it might be for another reason.” she said with a sultry look.
“Mon Cher Protecteur
, you needn’t worry. I’m not without resources and I was already planning to visit Mother in the country. I’ll be fine.”
“If I were to write you, where would I send the letter?” I inquired.
“You wish to write? Splendid! Send the letters here, I’ll get them eventually. I should warn you, I’m not a reliable correspondent.”
“And where are we exactly?”
“Chelsea,” she said. “Number 9, Bywater Street.”
Our kiss of farewell lingered tantalizingly and threatened to lead somewhere else entirely. I broke contact with difficulty.
“Be on your guard, my magnificent, guileless Oliver,” were her parting words to me.
It was a dark world she inhabited. Shadows and mystery like a Sherlock Holmes story. The walk back to the RAC gave me time to get my mind in order. I’d been here in London a mere five days and yet my stay felt the space of many weeks. This last night and morning with Clarissa alone carried the weight of a fortnight’s time. Walking away from Clarissa, I felt as a man escaping the thralldom of an enchantment. Each pace toward the RAC removed me incrementally from Clarissa’s spell. Equilibrium returned if but slowly.
And yet...and yet, the spell and she who cast it held a compulsion still. Our attraction was raw, visceral, and of a kind I’d never known. We’d fought together and I’d killed two men with my hands to keep her safe. It would never work, but oh catch at the heart, what magic when we were together. Beautiful delusion. On that path lay madness.“I saw pale kings, and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
Who cry'd— ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’ ”
It was so hard to know with certainty yet if I were honest, I knew we had no future. Clarissa had designs on someone of higher station; an aristocrat of antique land perhaps, or wealthy industrialist of a kind I imagined that slick-haired, jilted suitor at Murray’s to be. Whatever feelings she might hold for me, neither my character, nor my accomplishments in war, nor my string of postnominal letters held any significance. One blood or no, I was her plaything, maybe after our latest adventure her playmate, but nothing more.
Wandering absentmindedly I stopped in front of a curio shop across from Victoria Station. One of the items in the window caught my eye, a small cornicello pendant in gold. A charm against evil, it was perfect.
Continuing up Victoria Street to Big Ben then on past Whitehall, thoughts of Eliza returned. I passed the War Ministry and very spot where we’d met Smokey in July.
Eliza. I was gutted already after she broke things off. Seeing her here so unexpectedly and with Phoebus Apollo was a cruel blow. Were they together in truth? The possibility of it gnawed at me.
I’d made a mess of things at Grafton Galleries. Juvenile! She didn’t deserve that and the look of abject pain on her face haunted me.
Don’t give up.
I held onto Aunt Rhea’s imperative as a lifeline.
Back at the RAC. Just time for a shave and change of uniform. I wrote a brief note to Clarissa and enclosed the charm. She would need all the protection it could provide.
Arriving at the Embassy I was informed that Ambassador Page was detained on some affair of state. Captain Chapman, his able Military Attaché met me instead.
“Captain Winningstad, thank you for coming. The Ambassador sends his apologies and asks if you might meet instead with Major Simpkins of the US Army Signal Corps. If you will be so kind as to accompany Lt. Wilson, he will show you the way.”
In the good Lieutenant’s company I arrived at the outer offices of the USAS. Another Lt. escorted me to a door reading Major D. Simpkins, U.S. Army Signal Corps and held it for me as I entered.
Major Simpkins sat back in his chair arms behind his head and feet propped up on his desk, soles toward me. He did not rise as entered the room. The curve of his ample belly and the crumpling of his uniform tunic obscured any insignia of rank. Without introduction or pleasantries he commenced speaking.
“So, Captain Winny-stad, I heard about you. Ran off to join the circus in England. Word is you even bagged a few Krauts. Let me guess, you shot down Von Richthofen? Well, it’s time to come home to Uncle Sam now, buddy boy, not that you have a home anymore since you’re no longer an American citizen. You’re nobody. Stateless.”
He reached out a hand and rapped the desk twice with a large ring to emphasize his point. Stay calm, Oliver.
I waited for the space of ten seconds, my eyes boring into the Major.
"How do I address you?" I asked at last.
"Major, of course." he responded, sitting back upright, and placing his hands on the arms of his chair. The feet he kept on the desk.
“How would I know that?” I replied. “I can see no insignia of rank behind your feet and belly. And Major it is customary to stand when greeting a brother officer from an Allied army. Perhaps the US Naval Air Service can do better.”
I’d mentioned the Naval air service just to tweak his nose and it had the desired effect. The Major dropped his feet to the floor and inflated like a dirigible with a palpable reddening of his features.
“You’ve got some nerve, Winnie-stad coming into my office and snapping like this. I thought Lime Juicers were supposed to be polite. You should be grateful Uncle Sam is willing to take you back. Got a job for you with the new Air Service. Of course you’ll need to swear the Oath of Allegiance, put on a proper American uniform, and get rid of those Limey wings and ribbons. We might even throw in a promotion.” He knocked his ring on the desk again.
The Lieutenant outside will get you a movement order to go qualify at Flying School for some real American Wings. Here’s what you’ll need to do...” Blah blah blah.
I tuned out the remainder of his blather.It’s true then. I am no longer an American citizen.
Knock-knock went the ring which I now realized was the class token of a West Pointer.
“Your collar badge, Major, crossed cannon. You are an artilleryman by training?”
“Born and bred.” he replied.
“Yet you presume to command aviators, never having flown an aeroplane. “How many flying hours have you logged, Major? I see no wings.” I asked by way of reply.
“Don’t need wings to command, when I’ve got this,” he snorted contemptuously. Again he knocked his ring on the desk.
I had but a tenuous hold on my temper when I’d arrived, and the Major wasn’t helping that at all. I was slowly counting to ten in my head, locked in a bitter struggle against the urge to send him to the Death God with my bare hands. I took a deep breath and set the idea aside.
“In answer to your question, yes, I did shoot down Von Richthofen. August 20th over Ghistelles. Apparently, he survived the crash and is now on convalescent leave."
“There’s a whopper if I’ve ever heard one,” he said, laughing and slapping his knee theatrically. “Tell me another. Now what say you, Winniestad...you think you can hack it?
“I love my country, Major, and would willingly die for it, but I would sooner forsake my native land and become an Englishman, than serve in an American Air Service with you in a position of command!
You sir, are nothing more than a Penguin, a flightless bird. You’re certainly shaped like one, although now that I think about it, I think the Dodo might be a better comparison.”
“Good day, Major!” Without saluting, I turned and walked out the door.
“Captain Winningstad, please accept my apologies once again for Major Simpkins' discourtesy." said Ambassador Page. "As a diplomat, it is occasionally necessary to take on a lodger, if you understand my meaning. I do wish you had the opportunity to meet with Colonel Mitchell. He is a true aviator and one of the driving forces behind the development of an Air Service."
Ambassador Page explained that his hand was forced by higher powers to arrange the meeting with me and Major Simpkins. He further explained that the US has no Air Force yet, only a Signal Corps which is mired in politics as the regular army types don’t see the need for an Air Corps. He recommended instead that I join the US Navy Flying Corps and offered to write a letter to Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt if I would agree to join that service.
“Not to try your patience but I wonder if you’d be willing to meet briefly with an American reporter. Any publicity she could generate for the Flying Corps back home would greatly benefit the war effort.”
Ambassador Page had said only that the journalist was from Chicago. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this person. Alexandra Anderson stood and extended a hand, then motioned for me to take a seat.
“Call me Alex,” she said. She took out an amber cigarette holder and a box of Sobranies. I reached for my trench lighter, but she had fastened her cigarette into the holder and lit it before I had finished rummaging through my tunic pocket. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.” I nodded as if I had been given a choice. “Miss Anderson.”
She was a striking woman. I’m not sure if I would call her pretty but she was certainly attractive. Her face was strong and angular, her nose long and regal, her mouth suggested a sense of humor, and piercing blue eyes shone full of wit. She’d be the proverbial red cape for Smokey. Just his type.
“Where is home for you, Captain?” she inquired.
“California, just south of Berkeley,” I said. What followed was a five minute back and forth about the events of the past 3 years – Astoria
, joining the war, my first months at the front. I’d just gotten comfortable with our conversation when, without missing a trick she slid right into her true line of inquiry.
“You’re the highest scoring ace in the Royal Flying Corps. Do you think there’s any resentment of that fact, given you’re an American?” Be on your guard, always...
It was to be Poker and I’d blundered into a real blood game. I was out of practice and my opponent gave every sign of being an expert.
“I’ve never encountered anything of the kind, Miss Anderson.”Is that true?
“Such things have happened before, Captain Winningstad. Did you know Randolph Swanson?” she asked.
“Captain Swanson of 66 Squadron? I never had the privilege, unfortunately.”
Miss Anderson was just about to continue when there was a knock at the door. An aide opened it and held the door for a Nursing sister. It was Eliza! She hesitated briefly in the doorway as she saw me, then as I stood, she continued into the room.
“Miss Ludlow,” I said, keeping my voice level.
“Captain Winningstad,” Eliza replied primly. “If you’d prefer, I can wait outside and come in later.”
Alex Anderson waved her in. “Come in,” she said. “We’ll make it a party. Alexandra Anderson,” she said extending a hand to Eliza in greeting. “You can call me Alex.” Eliza chose an armchair across from me. What in the Seven Hells is going on here? Another ambush?
I hoped Eliza read my look of alarm correctly.
“This is special,” said Alex. “Two American kids make good in England. Forgive me, but I’m going to play this up. “Oliver…I’m so sorry – Captain Winningstad – tell me something about the Victoria Cross and what it feels like to be among the small number of living recipients.”
“I don’t know how to answer that question. I’m honored by the award, but I’ve not thought about it that particular way, Miss Anderson. There are braver men who now lie dead, most without decoration of any kind. I found it profoundly humbling to be in the company of my fellow VCs, more so as I heard their citations read.”
“Eliza, tell me about yourself.”
Eliza visibly stiffened. I recognized the incipient signs of annoyance.
“If we’re going to use first names, Miss
Anderson,” Eliza spoke in a glassy tone, “be aware that my first name is ‘Sister.’ I believe you already know Captain Winningstad’s.”
“Yes, of course,” replied Alex. If Eliza’s barb got through, the reporter made no sign.
Eliza gave a brief precis of her background. How she finished nursing school in 1916 and shipped for England.
“We’re both from Chicago, I see,” said Alex. “But you’re leaving something out. You two know each other, right?”
“We met very briefly on Laconia
during the crossing,” I replied flatly, “then again at a Casualty Clearing station in France. I cannot say where, obviously.”
“Was this for the treatment of one of your battle wounds, Captain? How romantic.” Alex said animatedly. She had her tail up now was clearly intrigued.
“No. I was visiting a wounded comrade, in fact,” I said, affecting a nonchalance I didn’t feel in the least.
“Speaking of wounds, Sister, I trust yours are on the mend. You recently received the Military Medal, the highest award for valor available to a Nursing Sister.” Shuffling through her notes she drew out a sheet and continued, “I have the citation here.”47 Casualty Clearing Station. At Dozinghem, at 9.15 pm, August 20th, 1917, during a Bomb Raid in which there were 68 casualties, including 14 deaths, this Lady showed remarkable coolness and gallantry under the most trying circumstances. Although she had been on duty in the Operating Theatre for 13 hours, she was foremost in attending to the injured. When wounded by a piece of shrapnel she made light of her injury and when work could be resumed, took her place at the table at which she remained throughout the night and all the following day. It was absolutely necessary for surgical operations to be performed, and Miss Ludlow’s consistent courage and devotion to duty were not only of great advantage to the wounded but an example to and the admiration of all who worked with her. This is only one of the many occasions when shells and bombs have fallen near this hospital and whenever acts of courage have been called for, she has behaved in a manner beyond the highest words of praise.***My God!
My breath caught in my chest. Clenching my teeth together, I fought desperately to keep an impassive face but felt my hold slipping.
“Amazing. I’ll ask you the same question I did of Captain Winningstad, how do you feel being the recipient of the Military Medal, one of the few Nursing Sisters so decorated?”
“My actions were hardly unique, Miss Anderson. We are all of us doing our duty and occasionally that requires facing enemy fire, even at a hospital.”
“What can America teach the British about how to win this war? People at home think it’s just a matter of getting some fresh thinking and knocking the French and British out of their dusty old ways.”
“I’d say you have your question backwards, Miss Anderson. The British and the French have fought the German for three years now. Theirs is by far the greater experience of war. Make no mistake, the war and its tactics have changed greatly during that time even if the front lines have remained mostly static. The American Expeditionary Force are the newcomers here, eager to fight, but like greenhorns on a ship they have much to learn.”Oh Hell, I shouldn’t have said that.
I saw Eliza’s eyes widen as she made a barely perceptible shake of her head.
“Having said that, American spirit and will to win can only, err... speed the end of the war,” I added hastily.
“I’ll address this to both of you. What do you say to the people at home who think that America has no business getting involved in a European struggle?”
Eliza jumped in to answer without even looking in my direction. It was only fitting since her family’s avocation was politics.
“Democracy is fragile and must be defended with vigor, Miss Anderson. At home first and there’s work to do there, but also abroad. Standing idly by while Prussian autocracy dominates Europe flies in the face of everything we as Americans hold dear. Isolation goes against our national interest. If America is to have a place on the world stage, we must act decisively not just for France and Belgium but for all those people who would free themselves from the oppression of decadent Empires. Freedoms abroad can only benefit those Americans striving for a better life, and God forbid, equality before the law...”
Eliza the Internationalist! Eliza the Suffragette! Of course Britain is an Empire too... Miss Anderson refused the bait, but I think she agreed with much of Eliza’s answer.
“Captain, what say you?”
In my mind I heard General Aubrey’s dry reply, “Quite.”
“Hear. Hear.” I said, trying not to laugh at the memory.
“Eliza, excuse me... Sister, when I was working in Paris over the last year, the American hospital there did some ground-breaking work. What do you see in the British hospital system that can be improved? Is there anything we can learn from the British?”
“That’s a question for the Matron-in-Chief, Miss McCarthy. She’s the one who sees the whole. I hold a narrower perspective as a surgical theatre nurse. What Dr. Crile and others have done at the American hospital in Paris is nothing less than extraordinary. Bringing together the greatest medical minds in Europe and the United States and sharing expertise. For the past two years surgical teams from all over the Unites States have been on 3-month rotations at the American Hospital in Paris. Medicine by its very nature lends itself to collaboration. French, British, American – we’ve been learning from each other since the war began.”
“You seem extremely well-informed on the subject, Sister.”
“I try and stay current, Miss Anderson. I’m sure you can understand that.”
“Indeed. Moving on, what is the reaction at the front to America’s participation in the war?”
“Relief,” I said. Our Allies have lost over a million men killed, who knows how many more wounded. British Dominions have no more men to give. Hope too. Hope that American entry into the war represents a turn of the tide.”
“You both put your citizenship at risk serving with the British. With the United States now fully in the war will you join the American Expeditionary Forces?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “The United States Air Corps is just forming up, so I have some time to make that choice."
“Captain, are you saying that you’d prefer to stay with the British as opposed to serving your own country?”Be careful here, Oliver.
“No, Miss Anderson, I’m not
saying that. I wish to serve where I can do the most good. At present, that means as a scout pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.”
“You two know each other rather well, I’m told. Sister, tell me how that started and where things stand with you.”Nosey cow! None of your bloody business where things ‘stand.’
Eliza’s eyes narrowed. I knew that look and the last time I’d seen it was riding through Aldermaston village. Two hags on the road...
“Captain Winningstad and I met on Laconia
, as he stated earlier, and two or three times subsequently in the course of our duties. As to knowing each other well, you’ve been misinformed.”
Alexandra Anderson looked to me with raised eyebrow. "Have I been misinformed, Captain?”
“Indeed you have, Miss Anderson.”
“Do either of you have any message for the people at home?”
Platitudes. Banality. That was the answer, I realized.
“We are doing are utmost for a cause in which we wholeheartedly believe,” I said. “I hope we’ve done our families and our country proud.”
“Anything to add? Well then, I think I have what I need.” The interview concluded we all stood to leave. Miss Anderson thanked us and departed. I lingered in the hallway with Eliza...
(to be continued)
*** Eliza’s citation inspired by (and shamelessly lifted from) the actions of Maud Alice Abraham
and Ellen Byrne
for which they were each awarded the Military Medal. Their names are linked to their actual citations.