An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery


Early Summer, 1917

AS MY TRAIN pulled into London, I looked out at the early summer rain and was glad to see the dreary day had followed me from Hampshire. It suited my mood.

I had only thirty-six hours here. And I intended to spend them in bed, catching up on lost sleep. The journey from France with the latest convoy of wounded had been trying. Six of us had brought home seventeen gas cases and one severe burn victim, a pilot. They required constant care, and two were at a critical stage where their lungs filled with fluid and sent them into paroxysms of coughing that left them too weak to struggle for the next breath. My hands ached from pounding them on the back, forcing them to spit up the fluid and draw in the air they so desperately needed. The burn victim, swathed in bandages that had to be changed almost every hour, was frightful to see, his skin still raw and weeping, his eyes his only recognizable feature. I knew and he knew that in spite of all his doctors could do, it would never be enough. The face he’d once had was gone, and in its place would be something that frightened children and made women flinch. I’d been warned to keep a suicide watch, but he had a framed photograph of his wife pinned to his tunic, and it was what kept him alive, not our care.

It had been a relief to turn our patients over to the efficient clinic staff, who swept them into fresh beds and took over their care in our place. The other nurses were already on their way back to Portsmouth while I, as sister in charge, signed the papers noting eighteen patients delivered still living, none delivered dead, and went to find a cup of tea in the kitchen before the next train left for London. The kitchen was busy and so I stood looking out the windows of the staff sitting room as I drank my tea. The green lawns of the country-house-turned-clinic led the eye to the rolling Hampshire landscape beyond, misty with the rain. So different from the black, battle-scarred French countryside I’d just left. Here it was peaceful, and disturbed by nothing louder than birdsong or the lowing of cattle. It had been hard to tear myself away when the driver arrived to convey me to the railway station.

Now as the train came to a smooth stop and the man sitting opposite me opened our compartment door, I smelled London, that acrid mixture of wet clothing, coal smoke, and damp that I had come to know so well. My fellow passenger smiled as he handed down my valise, and I thanked him before setting out across the crowded platform.

As I threaded my way through throngs of families seeing their loved ones off to God knew where, I caught snatches of hurried, last-minute conversations.

“You will be careful, won’t you?”

“Mother will expect you to write every day—”

“I love you, my boy. You’re in my heart always.”

“Did you remember to pack your books?”

“I’m so proud of you, son. So proud—”

A pair of Highland officers stepped aside to allow me to pass, and I found myself facing a couple who were oblivious to my approach and blocking my way to the exit.

She was standing with her head bent and slightly turned toward her companion, her hat brim shielding her face. But even at a distance of several yards, I could tell that she was crying, her shoulders shaking with the force of her sobs. The man, an officer in a