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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Luckiest Girl in the School By Angela Brazil Characters: 18537

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Red Cross Hospital

Winona received constant letters from Percy in the trenches "somewhere in France," all, of course, carefully censored. They had arranged a cryptogram before he left England, however, and by its aid he was able to tell her the name of the place near which he was fighting. It was a tremendous excitement for her when his letters arrived to fetch her key to the cryptogram and reckon out the magic little word that let her know his whereabouts. She would find the spot on the big war-map that hung in the dining-room and would mark it with a miniature flag, feeling in closer touch with him now she knew exactly where he was located. She kept a special album in which she placed photos of him in khaki, all his letters and postcards, and any newspaper cuttings that concerned his regiment. The book was already half full; she looked it over almost daily, and kept it as, at present, her greatest treasure.

She sent parcels regularly to Percy. Campaigning had not destroyed his boyish love for sweetstuff, and he welcomed cakes, toffee and chocolate. "I share it with the other chaps," he wrote, "and they give you a vote of thanks every time. You wouldn't believe what larks we have in our dug-out!"

Percy's letters were in his old gay style, but every now and then Winona noticed a more serious vein running through them. He had sad news to tell sometimes. Two of his special chums were killed in action, the young doctor was shot while attending to the wounded, and their chaplain had been injured. "We never know when our turn will come," he finished, and Winona shivered as she kissed the letter and put it away.

She looked up sometimes at the calm clear globe of the full moon and thought how it was shining down alike on the far-away trenches of France and the great Minster towers of Seaton. How many battles had it seen in the earth's history, and how many still forms lying stiff and straight under its pale beams? Men fought and died, and the moon and the stars passed on their way, uncaring-but God cared, and at the back of it all His Hand was guiding the world, and even from seeming chaos would bring good out of evil at His own time. "God bless Percy, and bring him safe home!" prayed Winona passionately, but she felt in her heart of hearts that if the Great Captain called him, she could bend her head in the knowledge that He knew best.

With the hot July weather Aunt Harriet's health flagged. She seemed suddenly to have grown much older. The erect figure stooped a little, her high color had faded and her voice lost some of its energy and determination. She was not able to fulfill all her former public duties, and she fretted greatly at the enforced inaction. She was one of those characters who would rather wear out than rust out, and it required the utmost firmness on the part of her doctor to persuade her from over-exerting herself. Instead of being in a continual whirl of crèche committee meetings, workhouse inspections, and crèche management, she now spent long quiet afternoons in the shaded drawing-room learning that (to her) hardest of all lessons, how to rest! Winona, busy with the last exciting weeks of the school term, was too occupied to give much thought to her aunt, but could not help remarking that the latter's spirits had failed lately. Miss Beach was far gentler than of yore. She did not snap her niece up so suddenly, or give vent to excited tirades about subjects which irritated her. Sometimes she even looked at Winona with a wistfulness that the girl noticed. It puzzled her, for it was the same half-appealing glance that her mother often cast at her. She was accustomed to shoulder her mother's burdens, and loved her all the more for her helplessness and dependence. But Aunt Harriet, so strong and determined and capable, the oracle of the family, and the very epitome of all the cardinal virtues, surely she could not want any one to lean upon? The idea was unthinkable. Yet again and again it returned to her, and the consciousness of it stirred new chords.

One evening Winona came rather softly into the drawing-room. Her aunt, sitting by the window in the gathering twilight, did not hear her enter. Miss Beach was reading, and the last little gleam of the sunset fell on her gray hair. How worn she looked, Winona thought. It had never struck her so forcibly before. Was that a tear shining on her cheek? Miss Beach rose slowly, put down her book, took her handkerchief from her bag and deliberately wiped her eyes; then, still unconscious of her niece's presence, she went out through the French window into the garden.

Winona walked across the room, hesitated for a moment but did not venture to follow her. Almost automatically she took up the book which Aunt Harriet had been reading. It was a little volume of extracts, and one had been marked with a penciled cross:-

"Put your arms around me-

There, like that:

I want a little petting

At life's setting,

For 'tis harder to be brave

When feeble age comes creeping,

And finds me weeping,

Dear ones gone.

Just a little petting

At life's setting:

For I'm old, alone and tired,

And my long life's work is done."

The tears rushed to Winona's eyes. Did Aunt Harriet really feel like that? Oh, why could she not go and comfort her? She turned impulsively into the garden. The slow steps were coming back up the paved walk. She would have given worlds to walk up to her aunt and fling her arms round her, but the old sense of shyness and reserve held her back. Miss Beach was passing along the border, her dress brushing the flowers as she went by. It would surely be easy to join her, and at least to take her arm! Easy? No! She had never done such a thing in her life with her aunt. A peck of a kiss was the only mark of affection that they had hitherto exchanged. Winona looked and longed to express her sympathy, but the invisible barrier seemed strong as ever. Aunt Harriet turned aside and went towards the kitchen. The opportunity was lost.

"How horribly we live right inside ourselves!" thought Winona. "How few people know just what we're feeling and thinking, and how hard it is to let them know! The 'I' at the back of me is so different from the outside of me! When I want to say things I turn stupid and my tongue stops. I suppose most other people feel really the same, and we all live in our own little world and only touch one another now and then. Human speech is such a poor medium. Will it be dropped in the next life, and shall we talk with our hearts?"

It was on the very morning after this that Winona received an agitated letter from home. Her mother had bad news. Percy had been wounded, and was in the Red Cross Hospital at Prestwick. Mrs. Woodward wrote hurriedly, for she was on the point of starting off to see him, but she promised to send a bulletin directly after her visit. Winona spent a horrible day. Percy was never for a moment out of her thoughts. The insufficiency of the information made it harder to bear. She did not know whether the wound was slight or dangerous, and her fears whispered the worst. The next report, however, was more reassuring. Percy had had an operation and the doctors hoped that with care he ought to do well. A daily bulletin would be sent to his mother, and she promised to forward it punctually to Abbey Close.

"But I shan't get it till the day afterwards!" exclaimed Winona tragically. "Oh, how I wish he were at the Red Cross Hospital here instead of at Prestwick! If I could only see him!"

"Cheer up! Things might be worse!" remarked her aunt briefly.

Miss Beach said no more at the moment, but at supper time she announced:

"We shall have to breakfast early to-morrow morning, Winona. You and I are going to Prestwick for the day. I've asked Miss Bishop to let you off."

"To Prestwick?" gasped Winona. "To the Red Cross Hospital? Oh, Aunt Harriet, do you suppose they'll let us see Percy?"

"It's visitors' day, for I telegraphed to inquire. I wasn't going on a wild-goose chase, I assure you. I know the red tape of hospitals only too well. We may see him between two-thirty and four o'clock. It's a long journey, of course, and the trains are awkward from Seaton, but we can be back by nine."

"Oh, thank you! Thank you!" said Winona, with shining eyes.

She lay awake for hours that night thinking of to-morrow's expedition. Her brain seemed turning round and round in a whirl. To see Percy and assure herself that he was alive, and likely to recover! Oh, it was worth traveling to the North Pole! When at last she slept her dreams were a confusion of agonized escapes from Zeppelins, or rushing from trenches pursued by Germans. She was glad to wake, even though it was much too early yet to get up. The sun was only just rising behind the Minster towers. Never mind! It was morning, and to-day, actually to-day, she would see Percy!

By nine o'clock Miss Beach and Winona were speeding along in the express for Dunningham. Here they changed, and began a slow and tiresome cross-country journey, with a couple of hours to wait at an uninteresting junction.

"We shall get back a little quicker than we came," Aunt Harriet explained, "because we can take advantage of the

boat express, which will save us an hour and a half. It's most wearisome to jog along in these local trains, stopping at every tiny little station."

"One longs to be in the car," said Winona.

"We might have gone in the car if it had been within reasonable distance. We couldn't possibly have motored to Prestwick and back in a day, though! Trains may be hot and stuffy, but they get one over the ground."

It was nearly two o'clock before they reached their destination. They had just time for a hasty lunch at a restaurant, and then Aunt Harriet hailed a taxi and they drove to the hospital. This was a large, fine house in the suburbs, given up by its patriotic owner to the use of the Red Cross. As they turned in at the gate they could see an attractive garden, where groups of Tommies in their blue invalid uniforms were lounging in deck chairs, or lying full length on rugs spread upon the grass. An orderly showed them to the office, where Miss Beach had a brief interview with the Commandant, and they were then escorted by a V.A.D. nurse to the Queen Mary Ward.

Winona had not been in a hospital before, so all was new to her-the large airy room with its polished floor and wide-open windows, the rows of beds, each with its little cupboard by the side, the table full of flowers in the center, the nurses in their neat Red Cross uniforms. She had no time, however, for more than a hurried glance round; her eyes were busy searching for the one particular bed that was the object of their journey.

"Private Woodward is in Number eleven," said the V.A.D., motioning them to the right-hand side of the room.

Percy lay on his back with a cradle over his injured leg. His face was very white and thin, and greatly changed. The old boyish expression had vanished, there were firm lines round the mouth and a resolute look in the eyes, which had not been there before. A few months in the trenches, and a baptism of fire, had transformed the careless, happy-go-lucky lad into a man. Tears glistened in Winona's eyes as she bent down to kiss him. It was hard to see her active brother lying helpless and suffering.

"Oh, I'm better now," he replied in answer to her inquiries. "I don't have pain all the time. I was pretty bad after the meds. had been doing their carving. I can tell you I welcomed the morphia! But I don't need it so often now, and my leg's going on splendidly. It'll be a first-rate job when it's finished. Old Jackson promises to have me out of bed on crutches before so long!"

"Crutches!" gasped Winona, in alarm.

"Why, just at first, of course!"

"We hope he won't need to use them for long," said Aunt Harriet. "The Commandant tells me they're very proud of your case at the hospital, Percy! They flatter themselves they've saved your leg where some surgeons would have amputated. You seem very comfortable here. It's a nice ward."

"Oh, yes, they're angelic to me. I'm a spoilt child, I can tell you. I was lucky to get into a 'Red Cross.' They're stuffing us here all day, and those chaps that can go about are having the time of their lives-motor drives, tea parties, concerts, and all the rest of it! The Prestwick people regularly fête them. One of our V.A.D.'s here has asked a dozen of us out to tea at her own home to-morrow. I wish I could go! It's the nurse who showed you in. She's ripping."

"I've always heard 'V.A.D.' stands for 'Very Attractive Damsel,'" laughed Winona.

"Don't lose your heart before you're twenty-one, Percy!" said Aunt Harriet, smiling quite indulgently. "You've two and a half years left yet!"

"When a chap's in the Army his age doesn't count!" declared Percy with dignity.

Most of the beds in the ward were empty at present, their owners being outside in the garden. Only four were occupied. Each of these Tommies had his own little group of visitors, and was too busy talking to them to take much notice of anybody else. Miss Beach spent a short time at Percy's bedside, then, thinking that the brother and sister would like to be left alone together she expressed her intention of looking over the hospital, and went to find a V.A.D. to show her round.

"It was ever so decent of Aunt Harriet to bring you, Tiddleywinks!" said Percy. "The mater said I mustn't expect you to come!"

"Aunt Harriet's a trump when you know her!"

"You used to call her a dragon."

"I don't now."

"Look here! I often wish I hadn't burnt that paper of hers. You know what I mean! I've kept thinking about it while I've been lying here. It was a blighter's trick to do, when she was paying my school fees. She ought to be told about it! I feel that now. You haven't breathed anything, have you?"

"Not a word! I promised, you remember."

"You can keep a secret, Win. I'll say that for you! Somehow I feel as if I want to make a clean breast of it. Aunt Harriet's done a lot for our family. I'd tell her now, only very likely when she comes back a nurse will be with her. It's just tea-time."

"Could you write to her?"

"A ripping idea! I never thought of that. I'll write to-morrow. I'll be glad to get it off my mind. Somehow, when one's been through all this, one feels quite differently about things."

The entrance of tea trays interrupted the conversation. Miss Beach returned in company with a nurse, and reminded her niece that if they wished to catch their train home they must be starting at once. It was hard to say good-by, but Winona went away infinitely comforted. Dearly as she had always loved the old Percy, she felt the new one whom she had met to-day had the makings of a stronger and finer character than she had ever dared to hope.

"The Commandant gives an excellent report of him," said Miss Beach as they drove away. "I asked her particularly if there were any likelihood of his remaining lame, but she says not. The surgeon declares he'll have him back in the trenches in the autumn."

"How glorious! Percy's just wild to go back. I believe he'll do something splendid, and get a commission, or perhaps win the Victoria Cross!"

Winona's face shone. She had been proud of Percy to-day.

The long journey home to Seaton was very tedious, though not quite so trying as the morning one, for they were able to catch the boat express to Lapton and have tea on the train. At Lapton Junction, however, they were obliged to change to a local line, and jog along at the rate of about thirty miles an hour in a particularly dusty compartment. It had been a hard day for Miss Beach. She looked very weary as she leaned back in her corner, so overdone indeed that Winona was afraid she was going to have one of her heart attacks. The threatened trouble passed, however, and as the evening grew cooler she seemed to revive. The trains were late, so it was nearly ten o'clock before they at last reached home.

"'Mighty pleased with our day's outing,' to quote Mr. Pepys," said Aunt Harriet. "It was worth going!"

"If it hasn't tired you too much!" Winona ventured to add.

On the following Sunday morning Miss Beach received a letter from Percy. She made no comment upon it at the time, but in the evening, after church, when she and Winona were walking in the garden in the twilight, she referred to it.

"I'm deeply touched by Percy's letter," she remarked. "I did not think the boy had such nice feeling in him. You understand, of course, what he has written to me about?"

"Oh, Aunt Harriet, has he told you?" burst out Winona. "Oh, I'm so very, very glad! I've been longing and yearning to tell you all these years, only I couldn't, because I'd promised-and-oh, I must tell you now-I asked you about your will-and you thought I was horrid and scheming-but it wasn't that at all-it was that I thought you ought to know the will wasn't there, and hoped that perhaps you'd look! Oh, please believe me that I didn't mean to hint that you should leave anything to me! I don't want anything! You've been so good to me! I owe you a thousand times more than I can ever pay back. I've always wanted to make you understand this, but somehow I couldn't. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you've done for me! I shall be better all my life for having lived with you and known you. I'm a different person since I came to Seaton, and I owe it entirely to you!"

"THE BARRIER WAS DOWN AT LAST"

The barrier was down at last. For once Winona spoke straight from her heart. Miss Beach took off her pince-nez, wiped them, and put them in their case. Her hand was trembling.

"I wish I had known this before, child!" she said, with a break in her voice. "Here for nearly two years I have been thinking hard things of you, and imagining that you were plotting and scheming to get my money. You hurt me beyond expression when you asked if I had made my will. As a matter of fact the document is safe at my lawyer's. The paper which Percy destroyed was only a rough draft. I had forgotten its existence."

"But you do believe me?" urged Winona. "You know I had none of those horrible plans? Oh, dear Aunt Harriet, money is nothing, nothing! It is you yourself I love, if you'll only let me!"

And in the dusk of the garden, Winona, for the first time in her life, flung her warm young arms round her aunt and hugged her heartily.

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