It was nearly Christmas, and cold in Taverton, icy winds whistling down the street where Henry and Edith Bettany lived. The big house was silent – Annie, the maid, had already gone home and Cook was visiting her sister for a few days. Henry and Edith sat in the parlour, Edith primly in the middle of the sofa, and Henry in the armchair opposite. On a side table lay the telegram Edith had placed there, carefully. Henry and Edith waited.
The front door banged open, startling them both, even though had been expecting it. Excited voices talked over one another, and Edith couldn’t help the smile that lightened her face. The parlour door was pushed open, and two heads peered round, Dick’s tow-head appearing above Madge’s mop of dark curls. Seeing their aunt and uncle, they burst into the room, talking rapidly about their visit to the park. They spent so little time together, Edith thought; both of them away at school so much. And she sighed, and patted the spaces on either side of her.
“Sit down, my dears,” she said, her voice a little uneven. They did as they were bid, looking at their seniors expectantly.
“We have some bad news for you, children,” said Henry heavily. He glanced involuntarily at the telegram, blameless and bland, which was to disrupt all their lives. He didn’t look at the two twelve-year-olds left in his care as he explained, dryly and unemotionally, that Major Bettany, his pretty wife, and their brand new baby girl, were all dead in India, never to return, and Madge and Dick were alone.
Madge Bettany sat listlessly under the shade of the awning as Captain Trevelion expanded – at quite some length – on the game of polo he had taken part in the previous day. Captain Trevelion’s efforts had, apparently, been the only thing to save his regiment’s honour and he was now something of a local hero. Captain Trevelion, Madge had long since decided, was an absolute blithering idiot. Eventually, to her relief, the captain was lured away by Kitty Carstairs, whose father was something in the Viceroy’s office, and Madge could be left to her own thoughts. She had only been in India for six months, but she was already bored by the social rounds. If only she could find something to do! But English girls weren’t expected to do anything useful, and she hadn’t had the energy or the will to challenge that. Not after… well. Quite.
She shifted unhappily in her chair, her mind automatically returning to that day in early spring when everything seemed so hopeful, when the whole world was lain before them, even as they faced something that was almost like poverty. Dick would return to the Forestry, and she and… she and Joey would go to Austria and start a school. She laughed, a little bitterly. How idiotic, it seemed now. As if any idea that foolish could have worked! As if Joey would… well, there was no use thinking about that now. Joey had fallen ill, her coughing fit that day the herald of far, far worse to come, and even the doctor, who was so familiar with her health, had been unable to save her. Joey Maynard had slipped away in the pretty bedroom that had been hers since babyhood, aged only twelve.
Madge took a deep breath, and brushed away the tears that still fell every time she thought about her little sister. There was nothing she could do now except try to make the best of things.
The Robin fell silent as Jem Russell laid a warning hand on her arm and shook his head.
“That’s enough now, darling,” he said roughly, and gestured to the nurse to take the child from the room. Madge looked at her husband anxiously, then looked away, unwilling to accept what she saw written in his face.
“Madge… my dear…”
“No! No, I…” she couldn’t finish, but crossed the room, and lifted a trembling hand to the lank, dark hair that fell over Joey’s forehead. She brushed it to one side, ignoring the cool skin. The tears came then, as she kissed her sister’s cheek.
Silence grew across the shores of the Tiern See as people heard how the gnadiges Fraulein Joey had saved another girl from the ice, and died for it.
In the end, one bullet was all it took. One bullet, fired by a man who had no business to call himself such, fired at two girls, alone. Jack Maynard could never quite forgive himself. If only he hadn’t let Jo and Robin get so far behind as the fled for the border. If only he had gone to them as soon as they heard the soldier-filled car approaching. If only he could have saved her, when she lay on the cold, hard ground, eyes darkening with pain as the blood poured from her. If only, if only, if only…
Peter Chester leaned against the door, his face lined with fatigue and grief. He glanced up at the matron, and shook his head. “Girls are fine. Someone had better call Mrs Russell… and send a telegram to Maynard.”
“We’re all here, Mamma,” said Len Entwistle quietly, her warm hand covering her mother’s. “Downstairs. Everyone came.”
“Send them up,” croaked Joey Maynard. Her strength may have gone, but her dark eyes shone as bright as ever, even as she knew, in her bones, that her time was almost due. “One by one, Len. I can’t… I can’t talk for long. But I want to see my babies.”
“I’ll send them up,” Len promised, letting go and standing up.
“You’ve been a good girl, Len,” said Joey, before her eldest could leave. “I know I always relied on you, maybe too much, and I will again. Look after them for me, all of them.”
Len smiled, dimples appearing in soft, wrinkled cheeks. “I always have done, Mamma,” she said drily, “even when I was told not to!” She left the room, to find her triplet sisters hovering on the threshold. They were still handsome ladies, though the difficulties of Margot’s chosen life had painted themselves boldly on face. How we’ve changed, thought Len, and yet not really changed at all in some ways.
“She wants to see everyone,” she said out loud. “One at a time.”
“Is she…” asked Con, unable to finish the question.
Len nodded. “Dr Armstrong thinks today. He’s coming again after lunch.”
“I’ll tell the others,” said Margot. “You’ll go next, Con?”
“Yes.” Con paused, her hand on the door handle, and smiled back at her sisters. “She’ll be with Papa. She’ll be happy.”
Josephine Mary Maynard died later the afternoon, but no-one could truly feel sad. She had lived her life, and lived it well, and nobody could do more.