auline Peel's heart pounded as the train pulled into Victoria Station. She peered through her compartment window at the throngs of people hurrying to and fro. There were uniformed porters, women up for a day of shopping, men from the City in their silk bowlers, but most of all soldiersâsoldiers of every rank and from every branch of service, having tea at the Lyons corner house, saying goodbye to their sweethearts and mothers, some even sleeping, their heads pillowed on their kit bags, as they waited for the trains that would take them to the boats that awaited them in the harbor, and from there to the front.
“And soon I'll be there too!” Pauline thought to herself. Her eyes glowed with excitement in her thin face as she thought about the field hospital where she would soon be stationed, the ambulances, the wounded soldiersâthe work that would give her a new purpose in life. For a moment, she caught sight of her reflection in the train window. Her face wasn't what one would call pretty, that Pauline knew. But it was a face that promised forthrightness and loyalty, and perhaps, if stirred by the right person, even passion. Yes, Pauline decided, it was a good face.
“Excuse me, if you please,” a haughty voice interrupted her reverie. The train had come to a stop and the others in her compartment were waiting to get off. A girl with her golden curls modishly dressed under a small hat pushed past her and twitched the compartment door open. Pauline had noticed the girl when she boarded the train at Rotherhithe. She was about Pauline's age, but otherwise the two were complete opposites. This girl was dressed in the height of fashion, her skirt several daring inches above her ankles, while Pauline's tweeds looked dowdy and countrified. Then there was the girl's bored, discontented expression, while Pauline gazed at everyone about her with eager friendliness.
“I'm glad I'm not her,” thought Pauline as the golden-haired girl disappeared from view. The girl was probably a society debutante, attending parties and dances while the fate of Europe was being decided.
“Take your bags, miss?” A porter paused beside her.
“Noâbut can you tell me where I might find the Englishwomen's Volunteer Unit attached to the French Army?”
“Round the corner, beside the sweetshop, miss,” said the porter, pointing. “Are you an ambulance driver then?” he called after her as she hurried away, and Pauline replied over her shoulder, “I hope to be!”
She felt bewildered and a little lost as she pushed her way through the crowd, her eyes searching for the Englishwomen Volunteers. She had been to London only twice before, both times with her father, Paul Peel. But Mr. Peel was headmaster of St. Bart's, and could not leave the school during the end-of-term match. “Sometimes I think the fate of Europe will be decided on the playing fields of England,” he had told her solemnly before she departed. “And I must do my little all to prepare these boys.”
Pauline knew that her father secretly wished she were a boy, someone who could lead men into battle, and she felt his disappointment keenly. Her mother had perished while bringing Pauline into the world, and there had been no feminine presence to counter her father's virile influence. Pauline had been raised at St. Bart's, playing rugger and football with her father's students as if she were one of the lads, and it had come as a great shock to realize that this war was a game from which she was excluded.
She had been in a black despair until her old governess had written to her about the Englishwomen's Volunteer Unit. “They need girls like you,” she had written, “strong girls, courageous girls, girls who can tend to soldiers without any romantic nonsense.” And Pauline had felt a stirring inside her. “Yes, I can be useful, woman though I am! Even because of the kind of woman I amâa woman not like other women. But how not like other womenâwhat kind of woman am I? Will I meet other women like me, who can tell me what kind of woman I am? Or will it be a woman unlike myself, who will show me what kind of woman I can be?”
As if in answer to her thoughts, the crowd suddenly parted to reveal a tall, handsome woman, the kind of woman, Pauline suddenly realized, that she had always wanted to meet, without even knowing that such a woman existed. Her severely handsome face, under a cap of close-cropped graying hair, was made even more attractive by her air of decision and authority. Pauline caught her breath as she saw that the woman wore the uniform and insignia of the Englishwomen's Volunteer Ambulance Corps, with braid on her arm that marked her as a captain.
“Soon I'll have a uniform like that!” thought Pauline rapturously. She had always wanted a uniform. Timidly, she addressed the dazzling figure. “IâI'm Pauline Peel,” she said.
The older woman smiled, and her craggy face gleamed with warmth. “Yes, Miss Peel, I've been expecting you.” Her eyes traveled over the gangly young girl before her. “What is your age, Miss Peel?” she asked.
“I'm nineteen,” said Pauline, all at once terribly conscious of her youth and inexperience. A pained expression flitted across the woman's face. “So young . . . so young,” she murmured. Then her mood changed abruptly, and she said crisply, “I'm Miss Barnard. I'll be your field commander. Follow me, please.”
Pauline hurried after Miss Barnard, who threaded her way swiftly through the crowd. She followed her down a dim passageway, across a street, and then they were among the baggage cars. “Have you got Emma, Joe?” cried Miss Barnard. “Yes, miss, right and tight,” called back a wizened little man. Then to Pauline's great shock, she saw not another recruit like herself, but a beautiful chestnut hunter, tail clubbed and mane braided, clip-clopping down the baggage ramp. The weary look seemed to vanish from Miss Barnard's face as she stroked the splendid animal's forelock, and crooned to her, “Don't worry, Emma, we won't be separated anymore.”
The rest of the day was a whirl of activity, as Pauline was outfitted for her uniform and instructed in the use of her gas mask. She was introduced to her fellow recruits, a very merry bunch. Pauline, who wasn't much used to the company of other girls, was surprised to find this group so congenial until one of them explained, “Did your governess recommend you too? We all came specially recommended by our governesses. My governess and Miss Barnard were at school together.” “Why so was mine!” “Mine too!” chimed in the other girls. “High command gave Miss Barnard her pick of the volunteers after she got the Croix de Guerre,” one girl remarked knowingly.
Pauline especially liked her new roommate, Valerie Burne-Jones, a lively girl with black hair and snapping black eyes, whose accent and way of exclaiming “
Nom de dieu!
” were explained by the fact that she was half-French. She told Pauline many interesting things about their commander. Miss Barnard had been at the front for more than a year and had won several medals for bravery, when the shelling of a field hospital had resulted in the death of a particular protegee of hers. After that, Miss Barnard had returned to England. “Pneumonia, they say, but I hear other things,” confided Valerie, pointing to her head. “I hear it was, how you say, the shell shock.” There was some talk of giving her an administrative post in London, but Miss Barnard had insisted on returning to the front.
“She is more useful at the front,” Valerie declared. “For her girls would follow her anywhere!
Nom de dieu
, I feel the same way, and I have only known her two hours!”
“I feel the same way too!” said Pauline eagerly.
“I think maybe this
, this Emma, is so Miss Barnard should not feel too friendless,” Valerie continued thoughtfully. “Some people say it is mad, to take a pet horse to the front. Me, I like horses.”
“Yes,” Pauline agreed without much conviction, “I suppose I do too.” Pauline wanted to like horses, indeed felt somehow that she
like horses, but her few attempts at riding had been unsuccessful. And yet, when she thought of Miss Barnard's ecstatic face as she embraced Emma, she felt a renewed desire to understand this special relationship between woman and horse.
Their conversation was interrupted by a knock on the door, followed by Miss Barnard's entrance. “Girls, I want you to meet another recruit, Miss Flora Thurlow,” she said without preamble. “Quarters are tight, so Miss Thurlow will bed down with you. We must make the best of things in wartime.”
“Yes, Miss Barnard,” said Valerie, but Pauline was not thinking about the cramped quarters. She was staring in amazement at the newcomer, who was none other than the fashionable girl from the train!
She had not lost her haughty air, and Valerie was the first to speak after the door had closed behind Miss Barnard. “Pauline and I can share a bed,” she said kindly, for there were only two beds in the room. “We are friends already, yes?” She turned to Pauline with a smile. “Yes, yes, of course,” Pauline replied absently. Flora Thurlow did not acknowledge the gesture. She merely put her overnight case on the bed closest to the window and said, “I shall sleep here.”
Long after Valerie had fallen asleep, Pauline lay awake thinking of Miss Barnard, her father, the end-of-term match, and Flora Thurlow. What impulse had moved this high-bred girl to join the volunteers? From the gossip they'd heard at supper, it was clear that Miss Thurlow was more accustomed to luncheons with Mrs. Hythe-Jenkyns, or balls at Lady Bellamy's, than the rigors of war.
When Pauline had nearly exhausted her ponderings and was close to sleep, the subject of her thoughts suddenly sat up in bed and looked cautiously about. Taking some writing implements from her overnight case, Flora crept to a seat by the window and, illuminated only by the full moon, she began to write with an intensity almost frightening. After she had covered several sheets of monogrammed notepaper, she stopped and looked up. The bright moonlight revealed a face marked with tears and anguish. After a moment or two, Flora covered her face with her hands and Pauline could only just make out the words that Flora uttered in a low voice, “Why, why do I do this? I
stop and I will, yes, I
stop.” Just then, Valerie stirred in her sleep, and muttered, “
.” Glancing fearfully toward the two girls, Flora hastily climbed back into her own bed.
Pauline's curiosity was piqued by the strange behavior of this intriguing girl, and the next morning she couldn't restrain herself from glancing into Flora's open overnight case, while the other girl was washing up. Beneath a dainty chambray shirtwaist, the corner of a letter peeked out, and just before Flora reentered the room, Pauline was able to see that it was addressed to Berlin.
“The WC is free now,” she told Pauline curtly as she put away her toiletries and snapped her overnight case shut. “Th-thank you,” stammered Pauline as she fled to the WC, her thoughts in a whirl of curiosity and bewilderment. Was that the letter so strangely and secretly written the night before? Who could Flora possibly be writing to in Berlin? What was the meaning of her strange self-recriminations? Suspicion darkened her thoughts, but Pauline bade herself not to judge too hastily, for in these times of war, nothing was what it seemed. It was as if the old safe world had been somehow inverted to create a strange, yet exciting new world. Even Pauline herself was part of this inversionâwhy, a week ago she would never have dreamed of prying into another girl's belongings. And the oddest thing was, despite her own half-formed suspicions, and the other girl's cold reserve, she found herself strangely drawn to Flora!
The next morning, as the unit made their way aboard ship, Pauline forgot about her mysterious roommate as she was again caught up in the excitement of going to the front. Nor was she alone. Each member of the unit seemed positively feverish with anticipation. “Soon we'll be part of the big show!” burst out a girl called Georgina Smythe. She turned to Flora, who happened to be standing beside her along the ship's rail. “Won't it be awfully jolly?”
“It isn't the word I should use,” remarked Flora acidly. “War means a bit more than a day spent following the hounds and then tea by the fire.” The only time Flora showed any emotion was when Miss Barnard led Emma aboard. Then her eyes sparkled with a sudden animation. “Another horse lover,” thought Pauline to herself. How strange that two people so different as Miss Barnard and Flora Thurlow shared the same attraction to horses.
Later, when most of the girls, even the stalwart Miss Barnard, were confined to their cabins with seasickness, Pauline found Flora at Emma's stall, quietly soothing the horse as the boat plunged up and down.
“How good you are with her!” exclaimed Pauline admiringly. “I shouldn't know what to do. I haven't been around horses very much, and now I'm starting to wonder if I haven't missed something rather special.”
Flora's hauteur relaxed a trifle. “I should say you have. Here.” She put her hand in her coat pocket. “Would you like to give her a lump of sugar? I saved it from my tea.”
Gingerly, Pauline offered Emma the sugar cube, her hand held out flat, palm up, as Flora had shown her. She felt Emma's gentle, hairy lips moving over her hand, and she closed her eyes, to better savor the indescribable sensation. When she opened them, her hand was empty and Emma was crunching the sugar between her strong jaws. Pauline looked up to find Flora's violet eyes regarding her knowingly.