Serial concluding part: After The War Is Over by Elizabeth Dale
After the war is over It seemed awful to be so happy when not everyone had such good newsÉ
The sTory so far: Lady rose fortsecue has persuaded her mother-in-law olivia that alfie, the baby abandoned on their doorstep, is a good influence on David, Olivia’s shell-shocked and injured son. Reluctantly, Olivia has agreed the baby can stay, but she’s written to Rose’s husband
Lord Bernard fortescue in France, who has demanded Rose sends the baby away. Knowing that her personal maid Elsie, who has grown close to Alfie, would be devastated, Rose has hidden Bernard’s instruction from Olivia. Meanwhile, a tramp has called at the servants’ door asking to see Elsie, but has been sent away by Cook. Elsie, worrying that he could be an old family friend, rushes after him, in vain. But later, Elsie is accosted by a stranger waiting in the shadows. It’s Will, her missing fiancé – unkempt but very much alive! The story concludes…
Elsie stared at Will incredulously.
‘Is it you?’ she whispered. ‘Is it really you..? Or is it a ghost?’
‘Touch me!’ Will laughed, holding out his hand. ‘You’ll see it’s me! I’m real!’
Elsie reached out tentatively
and touched his fingers, and
then, with a squeal of delight,
she flung herself into his arms.
‘Will! Oh, Will!’ she sobbed. And then she couldn’t speak any more.
She simply held him tight, as though she was never, ever going to let him go.
Finally, he pulled away. ‘Let me look at you,’ he said, ‘Oh, darling, you look just the same! As beautiful as ever.’
‘Well, you don’t!’ cried Elsie, and he laughed.
‘I can’t believe it!’ she continued, ‘You’re supposed to be dead! I got the telegram months ago.’
‘No!’ he said. ‘I’m so sorry. I was with a group of men when a shell hit us. So many men were killed, blown to smithereens. I suppose the
bodies couldn’t be identified properly… I was captured and taken to a prison camp, but I escaped. I arrived back in England two days ago and came straight here.’
‘And Cook turned you away!’ Elsie cried. ‘Why didn’t you tell her who you were?’
‘I was just so devastated when she said you’d gone and she didn’t know where.
Before I could reply, she’d shut the door in my face!’
‘She thought you had fleas!’ Elsie giggled.
‘I might have! We had lots of little friends in the trenches.’
‘Then we must get you home and into the bath!’ laughed Elsie. ‘I can give you lots more hugs after!’
Elsie’s heart sang as she
walked back hand-in-hand with Will. There was so much she wanted to tell him, but he looked so tired and they had all their lives together to catch up. She hoped so, anyway.
As they reached the servants’ door, she stopped.
‘This war,’ she said. ‘I know it’s truly awful out there, it changes people… So I’d quite understand if…’
‘Well, if you’d changed your mind about marrying me.’
Will stared at her. ‘Of course I haven’t!’ he cried. ‘Out there, all day every day, the thought of you was the only thing that kept me going!’
Elsie smiled at Will through tears of joy. ‘That’s good,’ she said. ‘Because…’
Suddenly the servants’ door was yanked opened and Cook and Lady Rose came rushing out.
‘I don’t believe it!’ cried Rose. ‘Will? It is you!’
‘Yes, it’s me. Hello, there,’ he said, sheepishly.
‘Well, I never!’ cried Cook. ‘I’m so sorry, lad.’
‘It’s OK,’ grinned Will, ‘as long as you let me in now !’
‘Certainly!’ laughed Cook. ‘As long as you have a bath immediately! While you do,
I’ll heat you up some stew – with extra dumplings.’ As they all stepped into the kitchen, Lady Olivia walked
in, carrying Alfie. ‘Did none of you hear..?’ she began, and then stopped. ‘Who is this?’ she cried.
‘Will!’ everyone chorused, and Lady Olivia looked even more stunned than they had.
‘Never mind me,’ said Will, looking down at an equally stunned Alfie. ‘Who’s this?’
‘This is Alfie,’ said Rose proudly. ‘He was abandoned on our doorstep a few months ago. We’ve taken him in and we’re raising him between us.’
‘Really?’ cried Will. ‘Oh, isn’t he adorable!’
‘Yes,’ said Cook, ‘He’s saved us all, especially your Elsie. She was devastated when she thought you’d died. Well, we all were. How did the Army get it so wrong?’
And so Will quickly explained it all again while Elsie ran his bath. Then, when he reappeared, neatly shaven and wearing clean clothes, Cook dished up his favourite stew and a suet pudding she’d
been saving for a special occasion. Elsie sat with him, but she couldn’t eat. All she could do was stare at the man she thought she’d lost forever.
Afterwards, they were called upstairs and Will met David, who was as pleased as anyone that he was back. Olivia and Rose joined them,
eager to hear first-hand stories from the Front. But Will soon grew tired.
‘Look at you. After sleeping rough for so long, you must be desperate for a night in a soft bed!’ Lady Rose said. ‘We can talk more tomorrow.’
Will smiled his thanks and, as he left with Elsie, Rose asked Cook to stay behind.
‘I’ve got a brilliant idea!’ she said. ‘To welcome Will home we must have a big celebration dinner! All together in the dining room. Can you manage that, Cook?
‘For us servants, too? Up here?’ asked Cook, surprised. ‘What a lovely idea, my Lady! I’ll go and start planning the menus now!’
As soon as she’d left, Olivia turned to Rose, disapprovingly.
‘Darling,’ she said, ‘I didn’t like to argue with you in front of the servants, but you’ve got completely carried away. Throwing a meal for us all to welcome Will home just isn’t appropriate. He’s a servant.’
‘A servant who put his life on the line, who went to serve his country just as David and Bernard did,’ said Rose. ‘They did no more and no less than him. All three were prepared
to make the greatest sacrifice asked of a man. We welcomed David back, and we will welcome Bernard – just as we will now welcome Will.’
Olivia shook her head. ‘In the old days we would not…’
‘Times have changed, Mother,’ said David. ‘The old days will never be back. And I agree with Rose. We should all welcome Will back as the hero he is.’
Olivia shook her head. ‘If you insist,’ she sighed, ‘as long as these things don’t become a regular occurrence.’
‘Well they say this is the war to end all wars!’ said
Rose. ‘So hopefully there will be no more heroes’ returns
in the future.’
✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ The celebration meal took place two days later. In all that time, Elsie hardly saw Will. He just slept and slept, absolutely shattered from his wartime experiences and long journey home.
Cook really went to town preparing the special feast. It
was the first time for years that she’d had the chance to cook something grand, and she really enjoyed herself.
On the big day, Will and Elsie got dressed up in their
best clothes, and even Alfie had a special new romper suit, though he was tucked up in his cot before the meal
began. There were five courses – all of them Will’s favourites – and beer and champagne, too. They all drank toasts to returning and absent heroes, and the relief was palpable.
The fact that Will could come home when they’d thought he was dead gave Cook, Olivia and Rose hope that their loved ones, still very much alive, would come home safely, too.
When the meal was over, the celebrations continued down in the servants’ hall. Elsie and Will were just having a dance around the kitchen table when the doorbell rang. They frowned. Who could it be at that time of night?
Will rushed to answer it, but when he came back, his face was pale. In his hand, he was holding a telegram.
Cook immediately shrieked and sank onto a chair, convinced it was for her – about her George. But he quickly reassured her.
‘It’s for Lady Rose,’ he said. ‘So, I thought you’d like to take it up to her, Elsie?’
Elsie faltered. They all knew that a telegram could mean only one thing – that Lord Fortescue had been killed in action. She would have done anything not to have to take it to Her Ladyship. Far better, surely, to give her the telegram tomorrow and give her another night’s peace, hope and happiness… But she knew she mustn’t delay. So she took a deep sigh, climbed slowly up the stairs and knocked at Lady Rose’s door.
Rose turned from her dressing table and smiled to see Elsie. And then she saw what she was holding…
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Elsie. ‘It’s only just come.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Rose, quietly, holding out her hand.
Elsie didn’t like to leave her. As she watched her mistress open the envelope, she
admired her calm self-control. But then, as she took out the slim piece of paper and read the terrible words, Rose suddenly broke down in tears. Elsie rushed forward, trying
desperately to find the words to console her, but in vain.
‘I’m so very sorry, Lady
Rose,’ Elsie said, tears filling her own eyes.
Rose shook her head. ‘It’s
all right, I’m fine,’ she sobbed.
‘No, you’re not. I feel terrible,’ said Elsie. ‘There we were celebrating my Will coming back and you’ve had the worst news of all. This has ruined the evening.’
‘No! It mustn’t. Don’t let it,’ said Rose.
‘Of course it has,’ Elsie said. ‘How can I possibly be happy now? My heart is breaking all over again, only for you.’
‘No, please, really,’ said Rose, quickly wiping her eyes.
‘But I know just how devastated you must feel…’
They all knew that a telegram
could mean only one thing
‘No you don’t,’ said Rose. ‘Well, no. Of course, I hadn’t been with Will as long…’
‘No,’ said Rose, looking up. ‘You have no idea what I’m going through or how I feel.’ She blew her nose. ‘I can’t have you being so upset on my behalf. I’m not devastated with grief as you imagine.’ ‘Sorry?’
‘My tears are more of relief.’ Elsie frowned, completely taken back.
‘I had an awful life with my husband,’ said Rose.
‘Well, I know he used to get very angry sometimes,’ Elsie said slowly.
‘But…to be relieved that he’s dead?’
Rose bit her lip and frowned. ‘I wouldn’t wish him dead, Elsie, I’m just relieved he’s not coming back.’
‘Just because he used to get cross?’ Elsie frowned.
‘More than that,’ Rose whispered.
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He used to hit me.’
Elsie gasped, horrified. ‘No! I’d no idea!’ she cried.
‘Oh, he was always very careful,’ said Rose. ‘He used to do it behind closed doors and tried to ensure he didn’t leave a mark, but sometimes he got carried away.’ She shuddered. ‘Do you remember my bruises from falling off Starlight?’
Elsie nodded. Rose was always falling off her pony.
But not since Lord Bernard had gone away.
‘Well, I never fell off her. Not once. Those bruises were all Bernard’s doing. He was a brute of a man. And then there was the mental bullying. He used to belittle me in front of his friends. He worried
I was much cleverer than him, so he constantly put me down. I joined the suffragists as soon as he went off to war,
not just to fight for women’s rights but because I knew that, if he was here, he’d hate it and stop me. It was my one bid for freedom. These years with him away have been the happiest of my life. I’d been dreading him coming home.’
Elsie couldn’t believe her ears. To think what had been
going on under this roof! She’d heard Lord Fortescue shouting sometimes, and she knew he could bully servants – she recalled only too well how he’d forced her Will to join up when he was medically unfit. But she’d never dreamt he was violent!
‘I’m so sorry,’ Elsie said. ‘It must have been awful. I wish I could have helped.’
‘You did help,’ said Rose, smiling through her tears. ‘You were always so kind to me, you were like a ray of light in my darkness.’
‘Did Lady Olivia know what was going on? Or David?’
Rose shook her head.
‘They knew Bernard could be domineering, of course they did. But they had no idea how he treated me.’
Elsie sighed. ‘How terrible!’
‘So please forgive me for crying tears of relief,’ said Rose. ‘I never like to hear of anyone dying, of course, and Lady Olivia and David will be devastated, but I am just so thankful that I have a chance of a better life, as will Alfie.’
‘Yes. I didn’t tell you, but Lord Fortescue had ordered him out of this house.’
Elsie was horrified. ‘No!’
‘Don’t worry. I ignored him,’ Rose said. ‘His Lordship had no idea, of course, but he
would have sent Alfie away as
soon as he came home.’ ‘Poor Alfie!’
‘But now he can stay!’ smiled Rose.
‘Thank you so much,’ said Elsie. ‘I’m so sorry you’ve had such a terrible time but so relieved for you that your
horrible ordeal is finally over.’
‘Thank you,’ said Rose. ‘But, Elsie, please, please don’t tell anyone apart from Will.’
‘Of course. And I’ll swear him to secrecy. So, as for Lady Olivia and Mr. David?’
‘I will be the devastated, grieving widow. To tell them the truth would be cruel. Better to leave them with their own happy memories of Lord Fortescue.’
‘Of course. When will you tell them?’
‘Tomorrow,’ said Rose. ‘I’ll
give them a night’s peace first.’
Once she’d made sure Rose was all right, Elsie hurried back to Will. She’d been
hoping that they could finally have a good chat, but when she reached the kitchen, Cook told her he’d gone to bed.
‘He could hardly keep his eyes open, poor lad,’ she said. ‘How was Lady Rose? Shall I take up some warm milk to help her sleep?’
‘No, she just wants to be alone,’ said Elsie. ‘Thank you.’
✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ ✿ When Rose told her the bad news, Lady Olivia was so upset, she refused to come out of her room for days. However, David, who’d known so many soldiers who’d died, sadly told Rose that he’d almost expected the telegram.
A stunned silence fell on Fortescue House, and Elsie and Cook went about their duties as quietly as they could. Three days later, Rose
and David were just finishing a late breakfast, and Elsie was pouring their tea, when there
was a sudden flash and loud bang outside.
Rose jumped up in alarm and David started. But then
there came more flashes and bangs – lots of them, all together – and Rose and Elsie rushed to the window. People were spilling out onto the street, looking around. Then a car horn sounded and another. Finally, church bells started ringing, then more, until a joyful cacophony of sound filled the air.
‘The War is over!’ cried
Rose. ‘It has to be.’
‘Thank God!’ exclaimed David, as Cook and Will came rushing in.
‘The War’s over!’ Elsie told them, her eyes shining.
Cook crossed herself and Elsie rushed over to hug a stunned Will.
Soon there was shouting outside, people were rushing out of their houses, waving
flags and crying and singing
as they marched along.
‘I can’t believe it!’ cried Cook, joining everyone at the window. ‘I thought this day would never come.’
‘Me, too!’ laughed Will.
Elsie smiled. Until a week ago, she’d been dreading it, but now it was the most wonderful news in the world.
‘Everyone will be going to number 10, Downing Street, I’ll be bound,’ said David. ‘They’ll want to thank the Prime Minister.’
‘Let’s go, too!’ cried Rose. ‘All of us!’
‘Us, too?’ asked Cook.
‘Yes!’ Rose cried. ‘We’ll put Alfie in his pram and push
you in your wheelchair,
David. We’ll all celebrate!’
‘I don’t think I should go,’ said David. ‘It seems wrong to be cheering and celebrating so soon after, you know… I’ll stay here with Mother.’
‘Of course,’ said Rose, suddenly subdued. ‘We’ll
both stay and look after Alfie.
All the noise might frighten
him, anyway. You three go!’
‘I am just so thankful that I have
a chance of a better life…’
And so they did, and it felt to Elsie like the most exciting thing she’d ever seen.
The noise grew louder as they reached Downing Street, and then there was the most resounding cheer as the Prime Minister appeared.
‘Else! Else!’ Elsie heard then. She turned to see Juliet. ‘Juliet!’ she cried, as her sister fought her way through – and was stunned to see Will.
‘Sorry! I haven’t had time to tell you,’ Elsie laughed.
‘So, we can truly rejoice and look to the future!’ said Juliet. ‘We’ve got peace, votes for women, jobs for women, independence for women!’
Elsie laughed. She hoped her sister was right.
Then Juliet went off to join her friends from the munitions factory, and Elsie, Cook and Will walked back to Fortescue House. But Will was subdued.
‘I can’t help but worry what will happen to us all,’ he said. ‘Mr David is Lord Fortescue now. Will he want to keep us on? Even stay in that house? Maybe he’ll want to move out of London without us? ’
Elsie frowned. She’d been worried about that, too. And
what about little Alfie?
‘Lord help us!’ cried Cook. ‘Where would we go?’
Elsie didn’t know. A day that had started so wonderfully suddenly seemed so bleak…
When they got back, they were called into the drawing room. All three exchanged worried looks. And when they saw Mr David there with Lady Rose, who was holding
Alfie, their hearts sank further.
‘Don’t look so worried,’ said the new Lord Fortescue. ‘We wanted to set your minds at rest about the future. I will be staying on here with my mother and sister, who’s kindly agreed to help me run this house. And we would very much like you three and every other servant who went
off to fight to continue working for us here, if you wish?’
‘Oh, thank you!’ cried Will. ‘Yes please,’ smiled Cook. But Elsie was still anxious.
‘What about little Alfie?’ she asked Rose.
Rose smiled. ‘Don’t worry. My brother-in-law has kindly agreed that he can stay. After all, he’s part of the family now – so much so that we think
Alfie should be adopted.’ ‘Oh!’ Elsie cried. ‘Who by?’ ‘Well,’ said Rose. ‘The adoption board would only approve a married couple. So it should be you and Will, as soon as you’re married.’
Elsie gasped. ‘Oh, yes – yes, please!’ she said. ‘You do agree, don’t you, Will?’
‘Of course,’ he smiled. ‘I’d like nothing more.’
Lady Rose gave Elsie a knowing look, adding, ‘After all, there could be no-one better…because, you see,
I think Alfie is actually your baby. Am I right?’
It was Will’s turn to gasp, and Elsie blushed.
‘Yes,’ she said shyly, turning to Will. ‘I’ve been trying to tell you, Will, but there’s never been the right time.’
She turned back to Rose. ‘It happened on the last night of Will’s home leave. And then I got that awful telegram just before I discovered I was pregnant. I thought Lord Fortescue would throw me out. I was desperate.
‘Fortunately I didn’t show much, and when my time was near, I went to my auntie’s, pretending she was ill. After
Alfie was born, I brought him
back here and left him on the
step for Cook to find. ‘You’re so kind, Lady Rose. I hoped and prayed you’d take my baby in. Thank you!’
‘No, I should thank you,
Elsie,’ smiled Rose. ‘Alfie has been wonderful for us all. Are you all right, Will?’
But Will couldn’t speak. He was too busy gazing in wonder at his beautiful baby boy. What a great day for celebration indeed!
Elizabeth Dale, 2018