The advertisement in the Sunday 1993 issue of
the London Times read:
Patricia Abercrombie was the more assertive of the two teachers. She was patrician, as her name suggested. She even knew how to order the servants around, due to her early up-bringing. She maintained the aloofness of a tweedy English school teacher by second nature. Very little could disturb her cool manner.
She had a stiff upper lip, thinning hair, steely blue eyes behind rimless spectacles, and stood about five foot five, but looked taller in her tailored slacks and hacking jacket. She preferred simple clothes in dark colors, which suited her.
Her companion was Adele Highsmith. Adele was not Patricia's social equal, but they had been amiable colleagues and fellow wanderers for years. While Patricia's social standing was of the "when our family was prominent years ago" variety, Adele's family had never been prominent. Rather, they had been poor, resourceful and intelligent. Adele looked like a long lost cousin of the Abercrombie family. The two could easily pass for sisters. She was just slightly shorter than Patricia, and was a little heavier because she had way less will power in the afternoon tea department.
Where Patricia was knowledgeable, Adele, like her family before her, knew when to be quiet, and could obey orders when necessary. Between the two of them, they could usually figure things out. They traveled the world teaching here and there, making ends meet, observing everything, but always yearning for England at the end of an assignment.
Over the years they had forged a relationship more out of necessity than love. They were resigned spinsters destined to make their way in the world alone. They ignored the snickers behind their backs. They were not lesbians, although most people, including their colleagues and family, assumed they were. Teaching was their livelihood, what they did behind closed doors was nobody else's business.
The all-paid travel arrangements took them to a small village deep within the Balkans, a village newly freed from the old regime, struggling to gain a foothold in the changing political scheme of things. The teachers arrived via the small steam train which had served the village for more years than most residents could remember. The teachers approved this form of transportation, because it reminded them of earlier adventures abroad.
Their village accommodations proved to be more than adequate. They were ushered into the residence of a wealthy and happily absent local landowner and were introduced to household staff, who even spoke a little English, ready to assist them in every way. Teachers generally were well respected in this particular village and so the two were given every courtesy deemed appropriate of worthy scholars.
Soon they were running a recreation program for school-age children and adults, which offered classes in card-playing, games and language lessons. Each day the teachers boarded the small but reliable steam train that crossed a trestle bridge to reach their recreation facility. The bridge spanned a wide, steep chasm that separated two distinctly different villages, thus physically dividing two rival cultural groups.
The teachers tried to ignore the ethnic tension between the two villages, concentrating their efforts on preparing the class schedules, lesson preparations and instituting plans to increase enrollment in all programs. While they went about their business, tensions increased between the groups, escalating into rather violent hostilities, or so it seemed to the two teachers. Single shots, and explosions rattled the windows, shook the doors and sent clouds of dust spilling onto the play areas. The teachers were frightened, but the students paid little attention to the noise and clatter of it. They seemed to know that the firing was not near enough to harm them. At least for the moment.
Their first school break occurred after only a few month's time. The two retreated to the mansion for a well-deserved holiday, hoping that tensions would soon ease, and also, more importantly to them, that sufficient students enroll next term to insure their job security.
The residence was a mansion. It was elegant, more gracious than any quarters they'd ever had before: an
old sandstone, two-story building with arches and nooks around the lower
floor that helped keep it cool. French doors opened to verandas and
bracing mountain air, when it chose to blow their way. The only disconcerting thing they noted was how
easy it would be to break into their lovely retreat. They began to
wonder where the owner was, and, more importantly, why he left. But they
were not overly concerned. The gardens were lush but unconventional by English
standards, a veritable jungle growth of trees and shrubs pretending to enclose and protect
The teachers talked about their good luck often, and
occasionally voiced their anxieties about the continuing trouble in the village.
People assume things all the time, things that are simply not true. What
if the warriors overran the other village, which didn't even have a
police station, and captured the bridge. What if they took control of
their little village? What if the teachers couldn't explain to them that
they are contracted teachers, not the wealthy mansion owner? After all,
they had only been hired to teach the children games and recreation,
language classes, simple mathematics, some history. They were definitely
Patricia, although high minded, always remembered the financial component.
--Yes, of course, Adele agreed. There's our agreement. We've committed ourselves to run the program as
long as villagers are using the school. And another thing. What about
the staff? Could we just abandon them? Simply walk away without giving some sort of notice?
They hired a taxi. When they got to the station house, it was shuttered and locked. A small sign was tacked to the window that read:
Bridge Out. No train service until further notice.
The teachers lingered wondering what to do next. No train? How peculiar. Like the station, the near village seemed deserted too. The grocery, the post office, even the tavern were all closed up tight. The sun continued to bake the cobblestones beneath their feet. The sky was a hazy white and the air smelled smoky. Beads of sweat trickled down their faces as they gazed about them.
They turned to the taxi driver. Did you know about this?
-No ma'am, I didn't. Very surprising to me. I'm happy to drive you back to the mansion.
They nodded, gratefully. Without many words his kind offer was considered and accepted. He threw their luggage back into the boot and motioned them into the backseat. His eagerness to get them back home again was readily apparent.
-What has happened? Patricia asked as they settled in for the short trip back to the mansion.
-When things the out of hand between the two villages, the train stops running. The stations are closed, sometimes for just a few days, sometimes much longer, the taxi driver explained. Too bad for us. Now we are separated once again.
-Separated? What do you mean? Is there no other transportation? We must leave here. The sooner the better. Adele tried to keep her voice calm.
The narrow road they were traveling back to the mansion was also deserted. Through the trees, they could catch not even a glimpse of activity in the small huts and lean-to homes of the villagers. No lights shown, no fires glowed, no chickens scratched the dirt-packed front yards, only the occasional barking dog signaled their journey back to the mansion.
--Can you tell us what is happening here? We'd be ever so grateful. You are correct, we simply do not understand what is going on. Patricia pestered the poor taxi driver for answers he did not want to give out, especially to strangers.
--It's hard to explain, a long war. It comes and goes. Nobody really remembers how it began. There are so many claims and grudges between politicians and village leaders. He sighed and turned to them. The cab hit a pothole and they lurched sideways. The driver slowed to a crawl and murmured his apologies.
-You're being evasive with us. We've decided we must leave here. Can you help us get out?
The driver pondered for a moment before he spoke. He pulled the car to a stop in the middle of the road, took off his dirty cap and scratched his graying hair. Then his hands wandered over his scraggly beard.
-It's complicated, you see. There are two ways to leave the village. One is the train, the other is over the sacred mountain. The roads are not safe for long trips.
The second way down into the chasm is reserved for those who make the pilgrimage, the believers.
-The believers? What do you mean, believers? Why, we're believers, we go to church on Christmas and Easter and say our prayers. Is that what you're getting at?
-Hardly, Adele answered, while rolling her eyes at Patricia. You know he means something quite different. Now, just pay attention. We'll get it out of him.
-It's a problem, you see, he continued. I cannot explain how to leave here without telling you the other thing. The roads are often blocked by soldiers and others. We must have papers, stamped, to pass from one roadblock to another. We must pay big prices for the stamped passport from one point to the next. They have guns. I don't know who they are.
-You mean the war, or something else?
-Well, it's complicated. There is no official war, it's just the way things are. You need money for bribes, and papers, always papers.
-Pleasel keep driving. We're so anxious to get back.
He looked at them again in the rear view mirror and then let up on the clutch and the taxi lurched forward once more. The rutted road banged them around and made for an awful ride. They braced themselves accordingly and listened as best they could.
-Now that the train is not running, we go back to the old ways again. When there was no bridge, it was very difficult to get to the other side. That's the way they want it. As you know, we live on this side but we work on that side. Without the train, we are separated. The workers are separated from their families. They want us to capitulate and leave our village. They think we take their jobs and their women. They think we contaminate their customs with our practices. This argument has been going on for centuries.
-But how did you exist before you had a bridge?
-Oh, very different then. There was a small foot-bridge, one person at a time could cross it, while others watched. It was a dangerous business, people died crossing it if they weren't careful, and it cost many dollars to use it. There was a fee, and one must have the exact amount or there would be trouble. Or, one could take the Path of Many Days to the other side.
-The Path of Many Days. What's that?
-Many years ago, I don't know how long ago it was, someone cut a path out of the chasm wall. It's narrow, with many switchbacks, across the big river, down one side and up the other. Many people died on that path.
-Is the path still there? Could we use it?
-It might be. I'm not sure. I only went down the path one time, when I was much younger. It was very difficult then, even with a guide. They say it is washed out in some places now, because nobody has used it since the bridge was built.
Neither teacher spoke again. They had arrived at the mansion.
-Welcome home, bowed Henry, the major domo. We missed you. He pretended not to notice their luggage. Just another day.
-See Adele, they missed us. Patricia smiled at the thought and looked at her watch. They'd been gone just a few hours.
The place was a mess, total chaos reigned.
-What's going on, Henry? Patricia stood to her full height.
-Well, we thought you had left so we were packing up the master's things. We were going to hide them.
Patricia raised her eyebrows.
-Have them put it all back, immediately!
The teachers tiptoed around the packing boxes and the others made way for them. The cook, who was overseeing the packing up of the kitchen equipment smiled and waved. The upstairs-maid curtsied. Even the driver smiled. Life would return to normal.
The dog and the cat were set loose from their carrying cages and their bags were sent up to their rooms. The staff seemed a little less enthusiastic than yesterday, but that couldn't be helped. Everyone was a little edgy.
Adele sighed too. Back where they started. In the background she could hear what she thought were gun shots. Was it getting closer?
-Well, Adele, said Patricia. Here we are again. It looks like we'll have to fall back on Plan B, as they say. They were in the library now, the only room that still remained untouched.
-Yes, but we won't stay, will we? The thought of going back to England again suddenly made me feel -- well, giddy -- if you know what I mean. We must leave, and soon I think. I do not want to be caught up in some civil unrest, even if it has been going on for years.
-Humph. You heard our choices. Which one would you choose, the chasm, or the check points and bribes.
-Perhaps we should look at a map. Maybe there's another choice. I just don't relish the notion of hiking over a mountain or down a cliff. There much be some other way.
They both perused the shelves for atlases and maps. They had scoured the library before in search of lecture materials, but now they realized that neither of them had ever looked at a map of the local area. Where was the nearest large city, they wondered? Where was the English consulate? That's what they needed now. If they could get to a phone, they could get some help. But all the phones were on the other side of the chasm. How unfortunate.
-I simply can't believe this!
Adele looked down at Patricia from the top step of the bookcase ladder. Books, maps and an old atlas were all opened and scattered across the library table. Patricia was leaning over the mass of stuff with a magnifying glass.
-No luck yet?
-None of these blasted maps is worth a damn. Our part of the world gets lost in the seam between the pages, off the edge, or just plain left out in every single map I've looked at.
-Must be an American atlas, right? Adele was usually correct.
Patricia checked the inside cover and then nodded.
-Anything else up there?
Adele shook her head.
A loud rude rap on the door startled both women. Adele quickly descended the ladder and opened it.
-Yes? What is it?
The downstairs maid entered the room and closed the door behind her. She spoke quickly in an urgent whisper.
-They've been here -- the men in the jeep. They asked to see the owner. We told them he was gone. Then they asked about the teachers. We told them you were sleeping. They said they'd be back. What should we do?
-Did they say when they'd be back? The maid shook her head. She was trembling.
-Soon I think. We'd like permission to leave. Everybody -- all the staff -- is scared. They sent me to ask you. We've heard rumours. They will kill everybody. Just shoot us, like that. She motioned with her hand, like a gun. Bang, bang, bang. Like that.
-Where will you go?
-Into the woods. Just vanish. Who knows?
-I have a better idea. Patricia intervened. The maid and Adele stared at her.
-We'll invite them in. Prepare a meal. Make them our guests.
-Oh, they'll like that. They'll eat everything in sight. And then they'll kill us.
-Maybe not. Adele, do you have any sleeping pills left?
-Oh, yes, I have bottles full.
-Good. Here's what we'll do.
She turned to the maid and issued instructions. They were to set the dining room table for a dinner party. Get out the good china, linens, glassware, everything. And fry up some garlic and bake bread, make a feast, and hurry. Be sure the house smells wonderful, simmer a stew, anything to make their mouths water.
-And I want to see Henry, at once. Come on, Adele. We have work to do. Oh and Adele, get your medicines -- all of it. Anything you have, I don't care what it is. Adele nodded.
-Yes, ma'am. I'll get him.
-No. Tell him I'll see him in the wine cellar. Send him directly there. The maid turned and left without her usual curtsy.
Neither of the teachers drank spirits of any kind, other than a sip or two of sherry, so the wine cellar was a place they rarely visited. Patricia hoped the staff hadn't drank everything. Surely there would be a few good bottles of wine left for the party.
The cellar was dusty and the air smelled dry, moldy and stale. One electric overhead light collared in a metal shade provided the only illumination. Shadows danced around the room as it swayed back and forth. Henry descended the stairs and the teachers followed him. He led them to a workbench that was fitted with various tools and appliances, including an old-fashioned corking machine.
-Henry, is there anything left down here worth drinking? Patricia asked rather apprehensively as she studied the wooden shelves that lined the walls of the small dark room.
-Oh, yes, madam. This cellar remains locked at all times. I have the only key. There are some very nice French Bordeaux and also some Italian table wines. He rubbed his hands together as he talked.
-Let me show you, madam. He started toward the shelves.
-That won't be necessary. Just pick out plenty of good, hearty red wines. The kind of thing that men like. And some port if you have any. Open the bottles, grind up these pills and put them in the wine, and then re-cork them. We're going to serve a little tranquilizer with dinner tonight.
-But madam, these men are very dangerous. They will suspect something.
-Of course they will. So, here's the plan. Mark the tainted bottles carefully but discretely. Don't serve them first. Pour some wine into our glasses too. We'll all drink from the first bottles. Then when you refill the glasses, use the doctored wine. Adele and I will not drink after you refill the glasses. Perhaps they won't notice. Don't let the staff drink any wine. I know what goes on in the kitchen.
-It will be your job to make sure they get plenty to eat and drink. They should fall asleep during dinner. We will provide the conversation and make it long-winded enough that they will just slip away out of boredom.
-Oh, Patricia, you mean we're really going to bore our guests to death? How frightfully cunning of you.
-Yes, that's what I have in mind. I think I saw it on the telly once. Do you think we can pull it off?
-Well, I'll be frightened, of course. But then, who wouldn't be? Whatever will we talk about?
-Oh, I'll think of something. Just follow my lead. Give me detailed answers to any subject I start on and I'll answer you back in detail. You know, the usual stuff.
Patricia turned to Henry. What do you think? Can we do it?
He smiled at her and then covered it with his hand. He cleared his throat before speaking.
-We can try, madam. But I have two questions. First, what do we do with them once they fall asleep?
-Yes, that's a problem. We'll tie them up, or maybe just cosh them over the head. Hmm, perhaps not. Then we'd have to dispose of them somehow.
Adele spoke: Could they have an accident?
Patricia thought for a moment and then she smiled.
-Yes, that's a possibility. We'll tie them up, bundle them back into their cars and just shove them off the chasm. Maybe it will look like they just accidentally drove right over it. Ha!
-I'm afraid will be awfully dangerous. And then there's the other problem. Won't they leave a guard with their vehicle when they come inside?
-Hmm. I hadn't thought of that. We'll invite everybody inside. If they don't all come in, then the staff will have to handle that end of it, perhaps bring the guard something to eat. Save a little of our special seasoning to sprinkle into the stew, in case the guard won't take a glass of wine.
Patricia started up the stairs. Then she turned to Adele and Henry still rooted in the musty cellar.
-Come along. We have plenty to do. It's party time!
The staff knew their jobs. There had been many parties in the mansion over the years. It had been a long time now since the last one, but they hadn't forgotten. Out came the best tablecloth, a little shabby but sharply creased and shinning white. The huge linen napkins lay neatly folded beside the sparkling crystal goblets. The silver flatware and centerpieces reflected brightly the candlelit room, just like the old days. The carpets were threadbare and the upholstered chairs were lumpy but everything looked very inviting in the dim and fading light of the late afternoon.
Their guests would arrive soon.
The school teachers were up in their rooms getting ready. Neither Adele nor Patricia had given much thought to formal dress occasions when they packed for their Balkan adventure. Now they wished they had given a little more forethought to such an unlikely event. Adele wore her gray dress with the white collar and long sleeves. Nearly floor length with a soft-falling bias cut skirt, it was a dress more appropriate for an afternoon tea.
-Goodness, Adele, I believe that dress alone will bore our guests to death. Patricia smiled at the sight of her friend.
-And I daresay, you've lost a little weight. You're thin as a biscuit. That's what the French say, n'est pas?
-Please Patricia. Don't be a tease. Can't you see how nervous I am? And look at yourself. That black jersey is positively hanging off you. As a couple of wanton seductresses, we'll be abject failures.
-Oh, you worry too much! Patricia took a critical look at her reflection in the mirror. It was true. They were both thin, bony, in fact. Everybody was hungry these days.
-Food is what we all need. They'll be seduced all right, but it won't be by us. The smell of that bread is already having an effect on me. I feel light-headed.
-It's hunger, Patricia. We're all simply famished. Where did the cook get all that food? It smells glorious.
-Oh, they have their ways. Best not to ask. Well, are you ready, Adele?
-Yes, I guess so. But Patricia, have you given any thought at all to what we're about to do? Have you no conscience? Why, we've just plotted mayhem. I just don't know if I can go through with such a thing.
Patricia gave her a look and folded her arms in that alarming way she had.
-It's not murder at all, Adele. It's self-defense. You heard what the maid said. They'd just as soon kill us as spit on us. Now, remember that. We'll be fighting for our lives, and those of the staff. Think about it that way and we'll get through this. Just remember not to sip your wine when they refill the glasses. And don't eat the stew.
They heard the loud rap at the door as they were halfway down the staircase. They nodded to the servant and waited while the door was opened. Several men burst through the door with rifles raised. They pushed the maid aside and trained their weapons on every corner of the room. Right after them, came a tall thin man, with dark hair thinning to a widow's peak. His rifle was slung over his shoulder. They were all dressed in dark pants and green parkas. Their boots were muddy and their faces were covered in stubby beards. The soldiers wore caps, the leader had none.
He noticed the teachers first. He stared at them, saying nothing. Finally he nodded.
- Come in, Captain. Patricia was the first to speak. The riflemen turned their weapons on the women. The two stood their ground on the staircase looking down on the scene.
- You can put your guns away. We're English, you see. We're not here to hurt you.
The man in charge grunted something to the men and they lowered their weapons. He sighed and spoke to them in a low tired voice.
- We know of you already. That's why we are here. It's time for you to leave our country.
- Well, I couldn't agree more, said Patricia, beginning a slow descent down the grand staircase. Adele began to move too, while trying to hide herself behind Patricia as best she could.
- If you could help us, we would appreciate it. Patricia tried to smile and felt her lips begin to quiver and her knees begin to shake.
A cruel, thin smile played at his face as he considered her request. He finally spoke.
- Nothing is easy these days. We are looking for the owner of this building. He must come forward. And also the others who live here.
- Oh, the servants, you mean? Why, you'll see them at dinner. They work and live here. Simple people. We know nothing about the owner. I have never met him. We corresponded. That's how we were hired on, you know.
Henry chose that moment to appear at the dining room entrance. He cleared his throat and said in a firm voice that dinner was ready. Then he bowed and stood by the door as if this were a typical dinner party. The soldiers trained their weapons on him. And then the thin man once again called them down.
- Ah, captain. You will join us for a meal, of course. We were hoping you and your men could stay. Perhaps we can figure out a plan for us to leave this place.
The men looked beyond Henry into the dining room where the maids were piling food onto the table. The smell of steaming stewed chicken and vegetables and fresh baked breads seeped into the room and surrounded them. They were haggard and dirty, and now that they remembered how hungry they were, nothing short of a bullet would prevent them from eating.
The captain spoke a few indistinguishable words to the men. They stood back for a moment to let Patricia and Adele lead the way, and then they all trouped into the candlelit room. It was a rather incongruous sight -- Patricia and Adele seated at one end of the table, surrounded by the band of rowdy, roughneck would be soldiers. They jostled each other taking their seats, while propping their rifles beside their chairs. There were enough bowls of food lined up along the table, and hunks of bread and pots of jam, crocks of pickles together with potted cheese to fill up the entire table. It was a remarkable spread considering everything. They laughed and made crude-sounding jokes to each other. Neither Patricia nor Adele could understand a word, but the insinuations were clear enough.
Patricia tapped her empty wine glass with a spoon and the men fell silent. She motioned to Henry and said,
-Henry, pour the wine.
And then to everyone at the table,
- I would like to propose a toast. Will you join me?
The men's eyes popped at the sight of the tray of wine bottles that Henry set on the sideboard. They looked at the captain, who nodded yes. Henry poured a round of drinks and when he had filled the last one, Patricia raised her glass and said,
- To Your Health!
The men raised their glasses and muttered something in unison and drank off the blood red wine in great gulps.
Patricia and Adele each sipped theirs.
- Now eat hearty, gentlemen, she said, as they reached for the food in front of them. The sounds of serving spoons striking crockery were soon drowned out by the noise of hungry eating. Henry stole a glance a Patricia, who nodded discretely back to him. He took up several wine bottles and began refilling glasses. Many men simply ignored him as he passed between them. Several men drained their glasses in preparation for the next round. Voices rose in laughter and good cheer as dishes were replaced with others and the men devoured the food that had been placed in front of them.
Patricia and Adele looked at each other. This was no polite society dinner where the guests waited for the host between courses. Nobody even seemed to notice them as they sat a picked at their food and sipped their wine. The captain ate with the same gusto as the others, but nevertheless Patricia tried to engage him in conversation.
- Have you heard about our school? Patricia asked. He nodded.
- Do your family members attend our classes? Perhaps we know them? Adele asked. He looked at her and then at Patricia and frowned.
- I have no family.
- Oh, I'm so sorry. Perhaps you know of someone who attends, a friend or neighbor perhaps. There are so many fine students there and oh, the fun we have. Isn't that right, Adele?
- Oh, yes, indeed. We do have a good time. Ah, there are games, of course, and lessons every day. Why, I can't tell you how much I miss those fine students. Just yesterday
As he watched Adele, Patricia thought she noticed his eyes begin to glaze over.
Adele, out of shear terror, took a big gulp of wine, and then forked up a hunk of stew meat. Patricia tried to kick her under the table but couldn't reach her in time.
By the time the men had cleaned their plates, they'd all drank several glasses of wine, most of it tainted, or so Patricia hoped. She nodded again to Henry. It was time for dessert, which was a heavy concoction of mostly sweetened bread with preserves baked into it and mounded with whipped cream. Henry came round to each guest and as he removed the dinner plate he placed a generous portion before everyone in turn. Then he once again refilled the wine glasses, this time with a thick dark port.
Patricia glared at Adele, willing her not to even taste the deadly concoction. Adele blinked at her, smiled crookedly and winked. Patricia relaxed a little.
The meal had been loaded with spicy foods and pickles that they had hoped would mask any off taste in the wine, but as Patricia and Adele looked around at the empty bowls, bottles, wine glasses and plates, they realized they needn't have worried. Everything had been emptied or scraped clean.. Now the guests faced this rich dessert and the port, which she hoped had enough dope in it to finish them off. The men were beginning to look a little sleepy but all were digging their spoons into their treats and gulping the port. Nobody even stopped long enough to toast.
- Ah, madam. I don't think I heard your name, the captain said, burping suddenly as he began speaking.
- 'cuse me, ma'am, he said, looking around. None of the others seemed to notice.
Patricia watched him raise his spoon and then rest his arm as if it were too heavy. He smiled and tried again. The others were slowing down now too. At the far end of the table, one of the skinnier soldiers was already asleep, snoring softly in his chair. His mates laughed at him and then nodded to each other.
The captain looked at Patricia through definitely bleary eyes.
- Your men seem tired, Captain. Perhaps they need a rest.
- You are welcome to stay, you know. That is, if your men don't mind sleeping on the floor in the main hall. It's dry and warm there, safe enough.
He barked a few short words to the men and pointed to the room on the far side of the hallway they had first entered. Those who could, stood up and helped the others out of the dining room. They dragged their weapons and comrades off to the other room in relative silence compared to the noise of the dinner.
- Now captain, may we ask you about our problem. We are so very concerned about leaving here and we've heard such awful rumors. I'm sure you'll understand why we're nervous Patricia continued in a steady tone of voice and watched as her guest grew more heavy-lidded with each word.
- What are you talking about? He growled the words..
Patricia reiterated her long and convoluted question.
He looked at her in a most confused way.
-I'm very tired now. We'll talk later. If you'll excuse me.
He tried to stand up, and then sank heavily back into his chair. He looked at the women with just the flicker of understanding in his eyes before they glazed completely over. And at that moment, his head fell forward, landing in his nearly empty dessert dish. He was unconscious.
Henry stood beside the women smiling and slowly raising and lowering himself on tip toe, rocking back and forth with extreme pleasure.
-Mission accomplished, ma'am. Everybody seems to have thoroughly enjoyed the meal.
-I believe he's sleeping quite peacefully, don't you think? Adele squeaked out the words. She tried to smile but it wouldn't come out. Her teeth were chattering too much.
Patricia turned to Adele, who was now gently prodding the captain's nearly lifeless body. His breathing seemed to be hampered by the dessert plate, which was wedged between his face and the table. Henry, the servant, moved closer. The captain slept on, breathing heavily. Henry pulled the plate away and raised the man into a more comfortable position in his chair.
-He's dead to the world, if I do say so myself, madam.
-Well, it looks that way. Got any notion as to how long he'll stay that way? Patricia looked at her watch. It was nearly one o'clock. She was exhausted. The dinner had lasted longer than she expected. The men had been hungry and thirsty. Good thing. They had eaten nearly everything in sight. The soldiers laughed at the ones who passed out first. Then eventually they all ended up hanging out of their chairs snoring soundly.
Henry and Adele both shook their heads.
-Madam, the others have all been tied up, so to speak. They are resting uncomfortably in the living room. The servants found some duct tape in the cupboard and they've used it to tape their arms and legs. I have no idea how secure they are. But it's a frightful mess in there. Bodies strewn everywhere, all still alive though, all snoring and twitching. I'd actually feel sorry for them if they weren't such beasts.
-Good work, Henry. Now, what about the other servants?
-They wanted to leave. I told them to go. They've taken away with them what they could carry from the kitchen. And they took some firearms too. We won't see them again, I fear.
-That's quite all right. I hope they'll be safe. I think we'd better get out of here too.
-I don't think I can move the men myself, ma'am. Perhaps we should just let them sleep it off and get out of here ourselves.
-I'm going to be sick. Whatever will we do now? Adele was visibly shaking and pale.
-Get a grip on yourself, Adele. For God's sake, shake it off. We don't have a moment to lose. Well, then, let's tape up the captain too.
Patricia peered outside the window. The rebel jeep was standing outside the door, deserted, just as they'd left it.
-Henry, what do you think, should we take the major with us? He might be useful for roadblocks along the way. Otherwise, I think if we try to get away in the jeep we'll be stopped right off. What could we possibly say that would convince anyone to let us drive on?
-Well, madam, that might be an idea. But I don't know how we'd get him to cooperate. I'm not terribly good a bullying people around.
-Well, you've got a point there. And he would take up too much room in the jeep.
Patricia thought for a moment, looking around the room. Adele began to whimper. Henry took a deep breath.
-You were going to say something, Henry? Patricia prodded the faithful servant.
-Well, yes, ma'am. Perhaps it would be easier if I just put on his clothes and tried to impersonate him myself. We're about the same size, you see. In the dark I might be able to get away with it even though I'm a bit older then him. And, ah, please excuse my impertinence, but perhaps you two could pretend to be rebels too. I think it would be much easier for all of us that way.
-Damned good idea, Henry. We'll dress like rebels. And Adele, we'll try to act like them too. Now there's no time to lose. Let's get on with it, pack up the jeep and get out of here. It'll be dawn before we know it.
The jeep was a four-seater, a one-time sport utility vehicle. The outside was grimy, pock-marked and its frame was bent and bashed in. The inside was no better. The floor and seats were filled with dirty rags and litter. The seats themselves were stained, broken down and squeaky. Inside smelled like a mixture of gasoline, sweat and urine.
They'd thrown their bags into the back, along with some food and water and a few blankets over their meager possessions. They'd stolen a couple of side arms that they placed on the floor under the seats. They didn't find much ammunition, but that didn't matter because they had no intention of firing the weapons. A semi-automatic rifle lay on the floor by Patricia's leg.
-This gun scares me. What if it goes off?
-Don't worry, madam, Henry said, as he peered through the dirty windshield. The safety's on and besides, I don't think it's loaded.
-Humph. Patricia sat in the front with Henry and braced herself against the door as they bumped along the rutted and torn-up roadway. It was going to be a very slow ride.
In this country everything ran toward the sea. That was where they were headed. There was only one road out of the village that skirted the narrow belt of relatively flat land between the chasm and the equally treacherous mountain slopes. They could just make out half-dead trees and brush alongside the road, and in the near distance, the vague shapes of bombed-out farm houses and out-buildings. Henry had laughed at Patricia when she asked about a map. They wouldn't need a map. There was only one road through the area, and they were on it.
-How far is it to where we're going? Patricia thought that was a fair question.
-I don't know, madam. I've never been to the end of this road. And who knows what lies up ahead. This vehicle is in bad shape, I have no idea how much petrol we have left, and furthermore, there is a village a few kilometers from here. I imagine we'll run into our first roadblock there.
Adele gasped. Patricia, for once, was silent. She stared at Henry, perhaps wondering just what they had gotten themselves into. After all, they didn't even know this man, other than to order him around. Who was he really? Why had he consented to go with them? Consented! Hell! He'd just come along with them. It was sort of taken for granted that he would. After all, he could have left them at the mansion and scurried off with the rest of the help. She'd have to ask him that question soon, but somehow this simply didn't seem like the right moment.
Henry turned his gaze from the wheel and stared back at her.
-Madam, he finally spoke. When we get to the village, we'll pretend to be what we are not. You and Adele must leave it to me. Here. He reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out some papers and handed them over to Patricia.
-These are identification papers I took from the men. They won't work if they're given close scrutiny but if we wave them at the guards as we drive along, perhaps we can just keep going. Look at the papers. Then put them here on the seat. When we get close to the village you and Adele pretend to be asleep. Lean against the window, but don't let them see you too closely. I'm going to wave and point and just keep driving.
After that exchange they drove in silence. Henry picked his way around the holes in the road and large rocks and pieces of concrete that half blocked their path in many places. The sky began to streak with the first light of false dawn. They could make out crater holes from shelling, torn fences, and the bleak landscape of neglect. Smelly litter of all forms. More and more bombed out structures began appearing. They were nearing the village.
-Shut up, Adele. Patricia warned as they drew closer to town. Just shut your whimpering or you'll give us away for sure. And tuck in your hair. It's falling out of your cap. With that she adjusted herself too and then leaned against the door.
-Look there, he said, pointing down the road. Did you see something?
-There it is again, a light blinking at us. I'll answer back.
With that, he clicked on the headlights for an instant, and then again. They had been driving without lights, and then when they went on, even for just an instant, the whole world seemed to light up and go blacker than ever.
The village beacon answered him. He did not respond again. He slowed the jeep to a crawl and they crept forward. He clicked the safety off the automatic beside them on the seat. Patricia glared at him, and then pulled her cap over her eyes. He rolled down the window and hung his arm out. As he neared the first buildings, he could see a man standing beside the road with a rifle over his shoulder. He appeared to be waiting for them.
Henry pulled his cap lower over his face. It was still dark enough, he thought. And it was a little chilly. Good weather for sleeping. Maybe the guard was tired.
The guard mumbled something, perhaps a question. Henry nodded his head and mumbled back to him. He then gave him the thumbs-up sign and pulled his arm back in the cab. The guard continued to watch the jeep as they drove past. The wheels crunched over the broken glass and rubble, past the shops and into the square. The church's dome proclaimed its presence over them as they crawled along through the bombed out center of the small village. All was quiet. As Henry knew very well, nobody ventured out at night, only fools and those with some evil mission. Others stayed home and tried to keep out of harm's way.
He watched the guard's vague shape out of his rear view mirror, still standing and peering back at them. Were they supposed to turn off into some alleyway now? Is that what he wanted to see them do? Henry looked around. He slowed the jeep even further and stepped on the brake. The back light barely blinked. No give-away brake light on this vehicle. He smiled to himself. The guard moved off. He barely hit the gas pedal and they slowly moved on, the tires crunching and bumping over the cobblestoned- rubbish-filled streets. Would they ever get to the other side of town?
-Are we clear yet? Patricia raised her cap that she'd planted over her face and whispered to Henry.
-I'm not sure. I think so. As soon as we round that bend I'm going to pick up speed. I'm not sure about that guard. You two watch behind us, see if anybody's coming.
The women both turned and looked out the windows. They rolled down the windows so they could see and hear a little better.
-Okay now, I'm going to pick up the speed a little. Do you see anything?
-No, but I thought I heard something, like maybe a car starting.
-Then we better get out of here. Hang on, ladies. Here we go.
Henry muttered as the jeep thumped into another pothole.
-Damn this vehicle. Are we being followed?
-I'm not sure. I thought I heard
something but it's impossible to see out there.
Patricia was silent a moment as she continued checking the
you see that, Adele? Was that
another car way back there?
blinked and rubbed her eyes.
Patricia turned back. Henry scowled.
-It'll be light soon anyhow. We've got to hide somewhere. I think we'd better leave the
road, maybe find a farmhouse and hide out until it gets dark again.
-But won't they be looking for us?
-Maybe they are already. If
something seems funny, they'll come after us, then the game is up.
They'll come looking.
-Now you're scaring me, Henry, Adele whined.
Whatever are we going to do?
-Well, yes, that's our other choice, but they know
these roads and I don't. I
think we'd be better off hiding somewhere for now -- if we can find a good
spot that's not terribly obvious.
Daybreak was starting but a misty
fog lay in pockets on either side of the road obscuring their
visibility. To their left
they knew was the chasm. Sometimes
the road ran right alongside it. Other
times it drifted away, veering towards the woods and mountains.
-Look just there, Patricia said, pointing ahead.
Is that a branch in the road? See it? I can make out
tire tracks leading off just there.
Henry slowed the jeep.
-Yes, I believe you're right.
He quickly swung the vehicle onto
the somewhat obscure turn off. They
drove along the slowing rising track. The roadbed itself was clear of
potholes, but it was narrow and rutted in places. Nevertheless they began to make better time. Soon they neared an outcropping of trees. Henry turned in and stopped.
-Is this a good place, do you think? Patricia looked
around. The trees barely hid
-No, we should keep going but I
think we should leave the road. Here's what we'll do. You two get out and
I'll drive forward just over that rise. You
two pick up some branches and use them to brush away our tire
prints. Be quick about it.
It appears obvious to me that they think we'll make this turn. So
what we have to do is let them think so. But we'll make a detour here and
maybe find somewhere to hide off the road a ways.
Patricia and Adele both nodded.
-Just like the cowboys in the old westerns, you mean?
Adele gave a pained smile and they jumped out of the jeep.
-Try not to leave so many foot tracks either, Adele,
Patricia admonished. They
quickly found some dead branches and began to sweep away the tire marks as
Henry drove away.
-God, I hope he just doesn't leave
us here, Adele said, as they watched him disappear.
-Come on then. Let's
get to work.
They started obliterating the tire
tracks and their
footprints while trying not to make it look like a trail. Soon
they were both sweating and stumbling along backwards, every once in a
while looking back to see if Henry was anywhere near. At the top of a rise
some distance from the road, they stopped and looked ahead. Henry
was coming toward them at a run.
-Hurry, he called out as he motioned them forward. They dropped their twigs and sprinted towards him. Then
they heard the engine noise.
-Get down, he whispered. They
flattened themselves out against the hillside as they heard the car
crunching up the road they'd just left. It didn't even slow down as it
passed the place where they'd turned off.
-Come on now. We haven't much time. The
three of them sprinted for the jeep and they took off.
The trees gave way to cleared land. Nobody said
a word. Patricia carefully
watched her side and pointed to outcroppings that might slow them up. Adele hung on and tried to do the same.
The fields hadn't been plowed recently so there were no furrows to
bog them down. Here and there they drove through dips in the land that seemed
to stretch along the land for a long way.
-Whatever are these dips? Patricia
asked, as the jeep hit a particularly low spot.
-They are for diverting water. What you call irrigation ditches, I think. Lucky for us they
are all dried up now. With
that Henry swung the jeep into one of them and they pulled to a stop.
-Maybe we can hide here for awhile. I'm exhausted.
They got out of the jeep slowly
and stretched. The sun was
coming up now and they could feel it radiating the parched ground already. Patricia climbed up the side of the ditch and surveyed the area. Nothing in any direction except the untended fields, and their
distinctive set of tire tracks leading to their current parking spot. The two women surveyed it together and the color drained from their
faces. Henry came over and stood beside them.
-Now what? Looks
just like an arrow pointing to us, Adele complained looking back over her
-That'll never do. Come on, Adele. Back
The three of them headed back on foot over their path
until they came to a place where the track seemed less evident. They began trying to cover the jeep's path in a half-hearted
manner. They were all
exhausted. Finally they reached the jeep again. The path was still evident
but less clear now.
-Well, that's better, Patricia announced to her
companions. She turned and
caught a sun glint off the windshield.
-Pull out those blankets and cover the blinkin' jeep,
would you, Adele?
Adele opened the back, got them out and together they spread them over the jeep as a sort of makeshift tent. And then without another word, the three of them crawled underneath it. Adele took a long drink of water and handed round the plastic bottle.
-We gotta get some sleep, ladies. Henry wiped his brow and looked around. You two crawl into the jeep.
I'll sleep out here on the ground.
-Do you think we're safe here?
-We'll see, won't we. He thought about it for a moment longer.
-Maybe. Depends on where that road goes. Once they realize we're not on it, they'll turn back. We just have to hope that they go all the way back to the main road. You know, think they made a mistake about us. Let's just hope they give up trying to find us. That's our best bet.
-Well, this is as good a place as any to stop for
awhile. That's what I think. There's no farmhouse close and no road. Just our tracks. If they don't see them, then I think we're okay.
Adele looked at her companions.
Well, that's my opinion, anyhow. And I'm too tired to think about it any longer, okay?
Patricia and Henry watched her climb into the jeep
and settle herself into the backseat.
She was covered in sweat and the dust they'd kicked up as they had
worked. She spoke in a dull
tone that Patricia barely recognized. Adele was not as timid as she seemed and she was rarely ever
disheartened by any situation. But this was different.
-Get some sleep. I'm right behind you, Adele. She turned to Henry. He was settling himself down in the dirt beside the front wheel. There wasn't much room. He
-Henry, I'm a light sleeper and I probably won't be
able to relax enough to get a wink. I'll
wake you if I hear anything.
-All, right, but don't make any noise, even if you do
hear anything. Chances are that nobody's going to accidentally come this
way. I don't think anybody's
been in this field for months now. But if somebody does come by, let's not
give ourselves away. Later we'll check things out. But for now, we gotta get some rest. You too, okay?
She opened her eyes and lifted her head. The buzzing
stopped. Adele was awake too.
-It's bees, I think, Adele whispered. Or big flies.
Patricia let out a breath, relieved.
-Did you sleep some, Adele?
-Yes, a little I think. And I dreamed we were home
again. And the sun was shining. We
were walking through St. James Park. You remember how they water the flowers with those tanker trucks
when there hasn't been any rain for awhile?
Patricia nodded, still trying to clear her head.
England! That was the last thing she wanted to think about right now.
-Well, that's what I was dreaming about. We were watching that truck watering the gardens. And the sun was beating down on us. Adele shook her head at the thought and stared out at the blanket draped over their open windows. The jeep was stifling hot and the air was stale.
-You've forgotten what Dante said, Adele.
-Dante? Whatever do you mean, Patricia?
-Wasn't it Dante who said something like -- the worst thing to do is think of a time of happiness when you are in trouble. Patricia scratched her head and then replaced her cap and pulled the bill down over her eyes.
-I'm sorry, Patricia. I didn't mean to. It just happened when I fell asleep. She looked at her friend, who seemed to be close to tears.
-Whatever are we doing here, anyhow? Of all the places we've traveled, we've never had such a thing as this happen to us. Not even Burma was this bad. Remember Burma, Patricia?
-Yes, I remember Burma. And you're right. That
wasn't nearly like this. We're
in real trouble this time. I don't know what we're going to go. Thank god for Henry.
At the mention of his name, they heard him rustling
around just outside the jeep. Patricia opened the car door and he crawled
inside with then, and motioned to Adele to hand him the water bottle.
-Did we wake you, Henry?
-No, ma'am. I
heard you two. He chuckled
softly. Nobody that I know
ever quotes literary scholars when they're on the run, only English school
teachers, as far as I know. He
looked at them both and give them a small lop-sided smile. I've had worse company, you know.
Patricia and Adele smiled back at him. Then without saying anything more, they started unpacking their meager supplies. At least they'd brought along a little food and water. They'd have something to eat and try to get some more rest. There was a long afternoon ahead of them. Lots of time to kill before they could even think of moving on.
-So, what's next? Do we have
options? Patricia asked. The three of them were huddled just outside
their Jeep, having shared some of the apples, bread and cheese. They passed another plastic water bottle between them, sipping
Adele nodded. Oh, I didn't know we had options, Patricia. Other than simply giving ourselves up. Perhaps if we remind these people that we're English school
teachers, they'll pardon us completely and help us find the nearest train
to Victoria Station. Ha!
-Well, I'm happy to hear you've regained your sense
of humor, Adele. I much
prefer sarcasm to tears. Of
course, one option is to give up, but I don't think it should be our first
priority. Do you Henry?
-No, ma'am. That's
the last one, all right. He
gazed over at Patricia, waiting to hear what she had in mind.
-Henry, I do have a couple of questions for you. Patricia paused for a moment and then took a deep breath.
-Before we make
any further plans, I must know the answers. The first concerns the chasm and the second concerns you. Which question do you want to hear first? Patricia met Henry's gaze.
-What would you like to know about me, ma'am?
-Okay, here goes. Why, Henry, are you helping us? You could have slipped out of the mansion with the other servants. You didn't need to stay with us. Now, don't get me wrong, Henry. We appreciate everything you've done for us. We would be in real
trouble without you. But I
must know, before we go any further, why, Henry, are you here in the first
Henry thought for a moment before answering. Then he smiled as if remembering a dream. Ah, that's a good question you've asked me, and it's not easy to
answer. I was thinking about
what I'd do, all through that awful dinner party. You see, I've always wanted to leave this place.
It's been a dream of mine for years. The man who owns the mansion always promised me that some day he'd
help me emigrate to England or to America.
That was his promise, but somehow the time was never right. That's what he always said. Next
year, Henry, we'll see to it.
-So I thought to myself, maybe now's the time.
These ladies need your help, is what I thought to myself. They're going to try and get back to England and something tells me
that they'll make it. So
maybe if I help them get out of this country, then maybe they'll help me
get to England.
Patricia looked at Adele, who simply shrugged her
-What do you think, Adele? Political asylum? I know for sure he could go to Germany, even
America, if he could get there. Might
be easy enough.
Adele nodded. I
think it's a possibility you could get papers all right. Not easy, as you know, but possible.
nodded again. Of course, we've got to get safely out of here
-It's a deal then. You help us, we help you. That's settled. Now the second question is about the chasm.
Why aren't there more bloody bridges across this damned chasm.
All we need to do is cross it, head back to the railway and get on
our train home. Just skirt
round this war business and be on our way.
Where the hell's the next nearest bridge, Henry?
Henry shook his head.
You don't understand the chasm then, do you?
-Guess not. Why
don't you explain it, Henry.
-You see, it's this way.
That whole area, down in the chasm is full of, let's see, what
would you call it? Oh, yes,
something like religious symbolism. Yes,
that's it. For years now,
hundreds of years at least, only very few people are allowed to enter that
area. Absolutely no tourists
or visitors of any kind. It's
what you'd call, Off Limits. So
when the bridge was built over the top, many people thought it was very
bad luck. Now people are
walking and riding over the sacred area.
That's why there were signs posted on the bridge.
No stopping, no looking down into the chasm. Bad punishment for
looking over the side. Some factions want to control the bridge, others
want to control the sacred area. There is bad blood for many years between
each faction. Now, the bridge
is gone and nobody knows what will happen next.
But to answer your question more simply, there was only one bridge
over the chasm.
-Bloody hell, Patricia.
Did you hear anything about this when we signed on?
I sure didn't. I never would have come to this god forsaken place if I'd of
known there was going to be a war over a bridge, of all things. Adele
picked up a handful of dirt and threw it down in disgust.
That's not going to do any good.
And don't swear. You
know I hate that kind of talk. If you've got any good ideas, now's the
time to say so.
-Okay, okay. If
we can't make it back to the train, let's find a telephone and make a call
for help. Surely somebody's
figured out we're missing by now.
know where we can find a telephone?
He shook his head.
I don't know.
-Well, then. Is
it possible to find a trail down into the chasm and up the other side?
Is that an option, Henry?
-I don't know that either.
I've never been down there. Some
people have, but not me. Very
dangerous, very long trip. You
need a guide, and you need permission, of course.
-Let me think now, Patricia spoke, while counting on
her fingers. We can't reach
the train, we can't make a call, we can't hike out, that leaves getting
back in this Jeep and high-tailing it down the road, and just giving up
ourselves up to the next bunch of strangers we see.
Unless we can think of some other alternative.
-Great options, Patricia.
You forgot something. We're
dressed like rebels now. We
could pretend we're part of the group.
-Wait a minute, Adele.
Maybe you've hit on something.
What do you think about this, Henry.
We get out of these clothes and maybe try to blend in with the
locals. There is another
village around here somewhere, isn't there?
-Well, yes, I think so.
Down the road a ways. I'm
not sure how far. I haven't
been there. My people are on
the other side of the chasm. I
never came down this way before. We
could try it. I guess we
could get back in the Jeep and try to find the village, maybe see what we
could do. Problem is that you two ladies don't look much like village
people. And as soon as you
speak, you'll give yourselves away.
-Yeah, he's right, Patricia. And besides, what would that gain for us anyhow? Trapped in a
village among strangers. What we need is a telephone or a way out of this
country. Does this road lead
to the sea? What if we make
it to the border, cross over into the next country.
Wouldn't we be safe there?
-It's impossible to leave the country without our
identification papers. Henry
looked at both of them. You have your passports with you I suppose?
Both Patricia and Adele nodded.
-I don't have a passport.
That's why I could never leave.
-What about those papers you stole off the rebels,
Henry? Would they work?
-Those are internal papers, not border crossing
papers. I don't think they'd
do me much good at the border.
-Well, could you sneak across the border?
Maybe go around some other way?
-I don't know, ma'am.
I've never tried it before.
Patricia put up her hands to silence the two of them. This is getting us nowhere. We're not even close to the border yet, I don't think. Besides, even if we present ourselves to the border guards, what's to keep them from just taking us into custody and bringing us back to these people? We have no idea who is in control these days. Right, Henry?
-Well, then, maybe we all need to sneak over the
border. Henry smiled at that.
-Right then, Patricia sighed. Now we've got a plan. We'll
cross the border. So now, just where is the border?
-Down the road, through the village. Keep going.
I don't know how far. A
long ways I think.
-Hey, I've got it, Adele spoke up. Let's not go that way. Why
don't we get back on that little road we cut off onto.
You know, down there by the trees and just keep going on it.
Maybe it will take us away from all this.
like it. What do you think,
-Suits me, ladies.
What do you say we get started?
-Righto, then. Let's hop to it.
The three of them got up and pulled the blankets of
the jeep, threw their meager belongings into the back and all took their
places. Henry got behind the
wheel and turned the key to start the engine.
It coughed once, started to turn over and then stopped. He tried it again. Nothing.
-What's that, then? Adele questioned. You don't suppose we're out of petrol, do you?
Patricia, Adele and Henry picked their way slowly along the rutted track.
Evening twilight had soon given way to an overcast night sky that didn’t
make for an easy journey. They had left the jeep after several futile
attempts to start it. Henry
eventually gave up, it simply wouldn't start. They’d have to
The women decided to change out of their rebel disguises and into as much
clothing as they could possibly wear, layer upon layer. They each carried a small daypack of stuff they figured they
couldn’t live without. What
food they had leftover they packed into a cloth bag that they took turns
carrying. The rest of their belongings they left with the jeep. The last thing they did was to throw the extra blankets back over
it in hopes that nobody would discover its carcass for a while.
Henry traveled light as he had seldom ever ventured far from the
mansion. His only additional load was the weaponry they had confiscated
from the rebels and a rucksack. The rifle was slung over his shoulder, and the .9 mm he
strapped to his belt. He crammed some of the extra ammunition into his
bag. He felt its added
weight with each step but kept that information to himself. The women didn’t need to know his problems right now.
The night air was cold and it smelled like it might rain. The
wind gusted and blew dust and leaves into their path. They were
traveling generally westward into the high pastures and grazing land
Henry knew about but had never seen before. It was a land of shepherds
and small remote villages. He chuckled to himself. He
realized he didn’t know very much about his homeland. Now that he was
trying to leave it, he'd finally be allowed to see some of it for the
very first time.
Adele muttered softly as they stumbled along. Her sensible walking shoes
were not meant for this kind of work. This was no English country road
and it seemed to get worse with every step they took.
-So, whose idea was this anyhow? Adele asked.
-Yours, Adele. Patricia answered. You've forgotten already?
-Oh. Well then. She cleared her throat.
So how far do you think we've come, Henry?
-Don't know that, ma'am. But we're making good time, I think.
We should be counting our blessings that we haven't run into a
living soul. Maybe we can
just keep on walking clear to the sea.
-Right, Henry. Patricia chimed in. And
then we'll just flag a passing cruise ship, hop aboard and order up a
round of hot buttered rums.
-Cruise ship, ma'am? What's
a cruise ship? I'm afraid
I've never heard that expression before. Is that was you call the
-Ha! That's it. More sarcasm. That's just what we need. Course, a hot toddy sure does sound good. Adele turned to Henry.
-No, Henry, that's not how we refer to the navy. A cruise ship is,
well, never mind, Henry. Patricia was just trying to make a little joke.
The road began to climb into the hills and became steeper and even more
rutted and bumpy. There
were no fences to block off property lines and there were no telephone
poles or electricity wires, making it feel even more remote.
-I can see why that other jeep turned around so quickly. I wouldn't have followed us here either.
Adele stopped to catch her breath. The other two halted as well and plunked down their heavy packs.
-So what do you think, Henry? Are
we making a mistake heading this way? Patricia hated to admit it when she'd made a strategic error
and she hated even more to have to backtrack.
-Well, ma'am. Here's what
I'm thinking. This is a
road, even though it doesn't look like it gets much use. So there's got to be some use for it.
But honestly, I have no idea where we're going or what's up
ahead. I say we keep on a
-Hmm. Patricia nodded. That's what she had been thinking too but it wasn't very
reassuring. As far as she was concerned, they were walking away from
where they should be going. That
was never a good plan in her estimation. She looked at the darkening
sky. The clouds above them
-I think we should look for shelter before this rain hits. That's what I think. Patricia
and Henry looked at Adele, who continued. Well, if you ask me, that is.
-Right then, let's continue on.
Patricia hoisted her pack and started off with the other two close
behind. The road followed the undulating landforms. Sometimes they crossed dry creek beds and other times the road
seemed to be carved precariously into the hillside. Eventually they reached the crest, which might have afforded
some sort of view, if only the weather were better.
A slight drizzle began to fall and a thin fog swirled around
-What's this? Patricia was
just ahead of the other two on the trail, which threatened to disappear
completely at times. See
just here. Doesn't this
look like the path forks off just here?
Which way should we go now?
Henry just scratched his head and looked around.
-Do you suppose this is road is just some sort of picnic area that
finishes right here? Adele was skeptical.
-Adele, you stay here with the stuff. I'll go on for a little ways down this path, and Henry, you go in
that direction. See what's
there, will you? But don't
Adele watched the two disappear in different directions as she stood
surrounded by their meager possessions. The drizzle stopped but the air
was damp. She could feel it
in her bones like a winter morning back home. She tried to think of
something else to take her mind off her gloomy thoughts and the
lingering homesickness she'd felt for some time now.
She didn't know what day it was, or even the month to be exact. The end of the year was coming up. Christmas in England. Why
ever weren't they home where they belonged!
Stop that, she told herself. Think
of something else. She took
a deep breath and tried to remember the mansion. They loved it at first. Everything seemed so grand, even the master's pet dog and cat had
been friendly. Now it was
gone. The dog! What would become of the poor little creature? Worse yet, what would become of them.
She looked up as she heard footsteps returning.
-Is that you, Patricia? She said in a small voice.
-Yes, it's me. I think we
should continue on down that way. I
thought I spotted something not too far. Maybe a suitable shelter. HENRY! She called out. ARE YOU THERE?
No answer. The teachers
looked at each other and then down the little trail where Henry had
-Oh, drat it. Patricia
fumed. Has he gone off too
-HENRY? CAN YOU HEAR ME?
-Patricia, just be still for a minute. He'll be back soon, Adele said. He can't have gotten far.
The two stood there waiting for what seemed the longest time, hands in
jacket pockets for warmth, feet stamping to keep the circulation going.
-It's so cold, Patricia mumbled. And what is that I see in the distance.
Is that the sun coming up now?
-Could be, Adele said. You
know, it takes longer to rise if you're waiting for it.
Patricia squatted and peered into the small bag of rations. There was so little left and she was thirsty again.
-Where's Henry's stuff? Patricia
looked up at Adele. Didn't
he leave it when he took off down that trail?
I thought I saw him drop off his rucksack.
-Yes, I thought so too. Isn't
it there, just under yours?
-No, it isn't. Here's my bag
and yours too and the rations. Well, what do you make of this?
And where is he anyhow?
-HENRY? Where the devil are you, HENRY?
-Well, then, Patricia decided, I guess that makes our decision a little easier. We'll have to take this path, now won't we? So then, let's pack up and continue on. If we go quickly, maybe we can catch up with Henry. He can't have gotten very far.
Patricia hoisted her daypack and looked over at Adele, who was fumbling into hers as well.
-Would you mind carrying the food bag to start, Adele? I'm still a little winded and you've had a better rest than me.
-Oh, I don't mind, Patricia. No, not at all.
Adele sniffed once and picked up the bag. It was becoming rather light in weight. Their water was nearly gone, the little rolls were quite stale, and the apples appeared to be quite bruised and unappetizing. Those meager rations plus a few foil-wrapped biscuits that were probably nothing but crumbs, and some assorted teabags, were all that was left.
The sky was starting to lighten somewhat and an eerie ground fog appeared as they began walking down the trail that Henry had taken just a short time before. The rain stopped falling but the path was slippery with mud and ruts. It made for very slow-going. Adele stayed close to Patricia and watched her steps as they carefully picked their way down what appeared to be a gently sloping, but seldom-used roadbed of two tracks. They walked on that way for quite some time.
-Can you see very far ahead, Patricia? I can't see much of anything from here.
-Yes, I can understand that. You've probably gotten an excellent view of the back of my jacket but not much else. I certainly hope you don't tread on my feet. That would be most unfortunate, now, don't you think.
-Oh, sorry. Don't mean to get too close. I just can't see too well and don't want to lose my grip.
-Actually, Adele, to answer your other question, I do believe the trail seems to be widening just a little. And it might be flattening out some too. Could be just my imagination, though. Do you want to stop for a moment?
-I think I see a good place for a rest, just up ahead. There's a boulder we could sit on just beside the road over there. Do you see it? Patricia moved off at a quicker pace.
The two women moved toward the rocky outcropping at the edge of the road and as they did, they heard a slight rustling in the bushes beside it. Both women stopped in their tracks and Adele gasped.
-Did you hear that, Patricia?
-Yes, I did. Shush now. Don't want to startle anything.
Patricia edged forward with Adele directly behind her. The underbrush beside the rock was taller than the surrounding ground cover. At one time a tree had grown up beside the boulder. Now all that remained was the broken stump and a snag. And Henry.
- Oh, my God, Henry! There you are.
-Ah, good, said Henry. I was just about to come get you. Very good of you to figure it out on your own and head this way. I met someone.
He pointed down the trail a ways to where they could just make out another form standing there. It was a young man wearing long a long robe like garment and a jacket over it. He had a walking stick in one hand.
-Hello, there. Don't be afraid, he said, as he approached. I've been watching you to make sure it was safe. I was out making the rounds when I first spied you down the road a bit. I thought you were part of a patrol. Now I see who you are -- you're the school teachers, yes?
-Yes, that's right. How did you know?
-Oh, we've heard the talk. The patrols are out looking for you.
-Humph, I'm not surprised. And who are you, might I ask?
-You can call me John, ma'am. I live up here with…
-- they call us the hill people. We are resisters too, but we do not participate in the present difficulties. We do not approve of the war and believe that there are better ways to solve problems, but nobody listens to us, so we just go about our business and try to stay out of harm's way.
-Nice to meet you, John. I'm Patricia and this is Adele and Henry. Of course, you've met him already. He's helping us now so he is probably in danger too, I might add, on account of us. We'll be passing through, if you don't mind. Perhaps you can give us some directions. Then we'll be on our way.
-Yes, I can give you directions, but it's not safe for you on this path, especially during the daylight. Would you accompany me to my home? Please. I have a proposition for you.
John looked at the three for some moments.
Henry spoke first.
-Well, ladies, it appears as though we've been invited to join this man. Where are your manners? Shall we carry on now, as you say.
The teachers stood and the three of them followed John away from the track and up into the hillside along a barely discernible path. As the hillside grew steeper, more rocks and boulders appeared. Old snaggy trees grew from between crevices, and the underbrush became dense in places. The ground grew firmer, making the walking a little easier, but the climb became harder as they grew closer to the steep and rocky hills high above the pastureland.
-It's just a little farther, John said, as they stopped for a moment to catch their breath.
-We've made a temporary home in the caves. He pointed vaguely toward the rocky hills above them. In the old days, people came here when there was trouble.
They worked their way around a huge boulder and then came to what appeared to be a small doorway carved out of the stone. The earth around it was flattened and smooth, so as to resemble a small courtyard.
-Come, he said.
The three followed him into the cave. It was a large room, quite dark at first, but then towards the back, they could see a flickering light. It was another small room, farther back into the cave, and it was lighted by candles. They could make out a small crude table with benches on either side. Boxes were stacked against the walls, and in the back, were what looked like pallets, with coverlets on them.
-I'm back, John said, softly. Don't be afraid. I've brought someone to help us.
The three stopped in the doorway as they heard someone moaning from deep inside the cave. They watched as John retreated into the darkest corner of the cave and knelt beside the pallet. He struck a match and lit a small candle and then another. That's when they saw her, lying on the coverlet.
John turned to the three. This is my wife, Joanna, he said.
Henry, ever the gentleman, removed his hat and bowed ever so lightly.
-And I'm Henry, he said. This is Patricia and Adele. As he spoke, they could see the woman turn towards them. Her eyes widened at the sight of the two women, and she smiled.
-Is Joanna ill? Patricia asked in a small voice.
-Well, yes, in a way. You see, she's going to have a baby any time now, and nobody can help us. We had to leave town before she had the baby. She's too weak to travel and the doctor won't come up here.
-Oh Cricky, whispered Adele to Patricia. Now we're in for it. Patricia gave Adele a nudge to silence her.
-And so what is your proposition then? Patricia asked.
-If you help my wife, I'll guide you to safety. I know the way through the chasm. A few of us do. That's how we survive, going back and forth between the two sides. It's dangerous, but I can help you get away, but first you must help my wife.
The teachers knelt beside the pallet and smiled at Joanna, who was obviously pregnant and in some distress.
-Hello, Joanna, I'm Adele. We'll do what we can to help you. How are you doing? Are you having pains now?
Joanna looked at the teachers. Her long dark hair hung limply tangled around her tear-stained face. She nodded but didn't speak, her jaw clinched. Her hands lay over her distended belly.
-Is this your first child? Patricia asked. Again she nodded.
-This woman needs to be in hospital, Adele announced. She looked around the small dark cave.
-Well, yes, but you see, we haven't got that choice available to us. I don't think she could make the trip back down the mountain, even if it was safe for us. John's voice rose in frustration as he explained their awful situation.
-I'm scared, Joanna whispered. I think I'm in labour. The baby isn't due until next week but I think it's coming now. I wish someone was here to help me. John promised he'd find somebody. She looked at her husband and scowled.
Patricia nodded and stood up and then beckoned Adele over to her. The two retreated to the far side of the little room.
-Cricky, this reminds me of the Hindu Cush, Adele whispered.
-Oh god, I hope not, answered Patricia. We still don't know a damned thing about delivering babies.
Adele whispered, Whatever are we going to do now?
-God if I know, Patricia responded. We'll just have to let nature take its course is my guess. Maybe Henry's got some ideas. Perhaps he's had some experience in this area.
-Ha! You're just wishing now. Adele rolled her eyes, but then she gestured for Henry to join them.
-What do you make of this, Henry? Should we just wish them a good day and be on our way?
-Well, that was my first thought. This is definitely not my area of expertise. It's rather not like uncorking a fine bottle of wine now, is it? Henry looked over at the poor woman lying on the makeshift pallet bed.
Adele smiled at his feeble attempt at humor, but Patricia gave them both a stern look.
He cleared his throat and said, Well, in my opinion, I guess we should stay with it and see what happens. John's made us an attractive offer. We could use some help getting out of harm's way, especially knowing that patrols are looking for us. Let's tell him that we'll stay and look after her and then maybe he can get away and look for a midwife. Surely there's somebody around here who does these things.
-Oh, that's a good idea, Henry. In the meantime we'll have a look around here and see how they keep house, maybe make a spot of tea for the young woman. We'll send him straight off to get some decent help. That's the ticket. Bully idea, Patricia said.
John showed them the little cooking area he'd set up in the corner, which consisted of a camp stove, a few grimy-looking utensils, some bottled water and a meager food supply, mostly tinned meat and package goods. Henry looked things over and nodded as John explained how things worked. Henry started the tea.
Then John went over to Joanna and they had a short conversation. The teachers watched the two of them but they couldn't make out Joanna's tortured murmurings. Then he touched her cheek and said in a loud voice that he'd be back as soon as possible.
-Well, then, said Henry, I think we could all stand a little refreshment and a few minutes rest. What?
The teachers agreed.
Adele took a cup of steaming tea with sugar and milk over to Joanna.
-Here, drink this. It will do you good.
Joanna murmured thanks and tried to sit up. Adele helped her swing her legs over the edge of the bed. They sipped their steaming mugs and smiled at each other.
-Oh, this is good.
After a few minutes, Patricia gathered up her courage and decided to attack the problem of baby delivering head on. She asked Joanna some rather pointed questions concerning how much she actually knew about having a baby, to which she merely shook her head.
-You know as much as I do.
Then she asked Joanna about her pains, remembering somewhere that one should time them because the closer they came together, the sooner the birth would happen. It was becoming obvious that Joanna was indeed having contractions.
-What we need is a note pad or something so we can time the contractions. Make a note of them and watch to see if they're coming quicker. You could do that now, couldn't you, Joanna?
-Yes, I think so. But I don't have a clock.
-Oh, here then. Use my watch. Just write down the time when one comes along and we'll all try to keep track. Patricia handed Joanna her wristwatch. Adele found a pencil and some scratch paper in her daypack and handed them over.
Now, what next? Oh, do you have anything for the baby, like blankets or anything of that sort?
-Oh, yes, over there somewhere I think. Joanna's eyes filled with tears. We had many nice things at home. You know, a little crib, handmade clothes and blankets. It's all still there, but we had to leave. The soldiers were coming. It was unsafe for us. We had to pack and leave in such a rush. I'm so afraid for the baby and for us. What will happen to John? If they catch him, he'll never come back. Ohhh, ohh, ohh…
-Don't you fret about John just now. You've got more important things to worry about. Oh, is that a contraction you're having?
She nodded again. Patricia realized that Joanna was in no condition to time her own contractions properly so she took the pad and her watch back and made the note of it herself. After a few moments, Joanna calmed down a little. Beads of sweat appeared on her brow. She sighed and took another sip of tea.
-Thank goodness you're here, she said. Patricia looked at Adele, who rolled her eyes and looked away before Joanna could see her.
Henry, Patricia and Adele busied themselves poking around and making what arrangements they could for the impending event. They found some baby blankets and clothing, a few nappies. Henry put some more water on the little stove to simmer. They'd need something to clean up with. They took turns sitting with Joanna and timing her contractions which were now steady and keenly demanding at just several minutes apart. They tried resting as best they could in between taking turns trying to comfort the poor woman.
Evening twilight fell and the shadowy interior darkened. Henry found the supply of candles and lit a few more. He paced and then sat and then got up and paced some more. He wandered outside the cave and watched the surrounding area, wondering who might be out there and if anyone could spot them from their candle glow. There was a chill in the air at this altitude that wasn't as apparent in the lower pastureland. The rain let up but the air hung heavy with mist and he could smell its rotting dampness. He listened to Joanna's moaning agony, which gave way to higher pitched cries that were becoming more frequent with each passing hour.
-I am so terribly sorry, said Adele, but it might be better if you could try and put this off just until your husband returns with some help.
The woman screamed out her pain in response to Adele's plea.
-Oh, dear. This is getting very serious I'm afraid. Whatever will we do? Adele rung her hands.
-Well, I guess we've no choice but to become midwives, don't you think? Come on then, let's get this over with. Patricia always faced up to her responsibilities, however painful they might be. Adele could be counted on to take orders well, but she was usually hesitant to lead off. Together they usually muddled through just about anything.
-Henry, Patricia said, you'll have to help too, but I'm not exactly sure how. I seem to remember from the telly that husbands usually play some part in things these days. Perhaps just encouragement, but perhaps if you took her hand and tried to keep her calm, that would be helpful.
Henry nodded. They propped her up as best they could with bedding and prepared for the worst. Joanna's screams were now coming steadily and there was little time for strategy. Henry stood on one side and Adele on the other, each holding onto the poor woman, as Patricia prepared to help with the birth. Joanna was soaked in sweat, her face contorted in agony as she went into the final stages of labour.
-Oh, I think I see the baby coming, cried Patricia, after an extremely intense moment. Take a deep breath and push hard again, Joanna. We're almost there! That's it, that's it.
Joanna was drenched in sweat, and crying out, as Henry and Adele held on to her and shouted encouragement over her screams of pain, while Patricia monitored the baby's progress.
-Oh! Here it comes! Patricia cried out all at once. Suddenly Joanna was quiet, but Henry, Adele and Patricia huddled in wide-eyed wonderment around the newborn.
-Quick, some towels or something, this is an awful mess, Patricia shouted.
-Here, use these. Adele pulled off the bed sheet, which they both used to clean things up as best they could.
-Oh, look at this. It's the umbilical cord. I think we must cut it or something, Adele announced.
-Yes, you're right, Patricia said. Henry, do you see a knife or scissors over there? Henry came rushing over to them, knife in hand.
-But wait, aren't we supposed to tie it off first, you know, sort of like a tourniquet or something? Patricia asked.
-Oh, of course, you're right. What can we use? Do you have a bit of string, anyone?
-Here, use this. Adele pulled a piece of thread off a frayed blanket beside them.
-This will do just fine. Patricia tied off the cord and cut it cleanly with the little pocket knife that Henry had handed to her. Just then, Joanna moaned. As she did, the baby cried out keenly and they all laughed.
-Here's your little one. He wants his mommy, I think. Adele laid the baby at the mother's side and the three of them stood and watched the exhausted pair.
The trio sat on the ground at the entrance to the cave dwelling sipping tea and nibbling on tinned meat and biscuits. The exhausted new mother and child lay sleeping fitfully within the darkened back area but still within earshot. Hours had passed since the blessed event and no visitors had shown up to take over. John, Joanna's husband, had been gone now over twenty-four hours and they were all worried about him, but the teachers were more concerned with their own personal fate. Would they ever get home?
- Egads, I'm sick of this place, Adele whispered. It's cold here and it stinks. That makeshift loo outback is too horrible for words. I'm dirty and tired and hungry and my feet hurt. And believe it or not, I'm dreadfully bored.
- Anything else? Patricia asked, looking at her over the top of her glasses. She too felt awful, probably every bit as much as Adele, but pissing and moaning about things just wasn't her style. Her clothes were grimy and so was her body, even her spirits were low but she'd be damned if she'd give in to those feelings.
Adele ignored her question and posed an equally unanswerable one.
-Will we ever get out of here? I'm afraid we'll catch our death of something straightaway and end our lives in this absolutely godforsaken place.
- Adele, get a grip! Patricia demanded.
-Well, it's true. This place reminds me of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The horror of it! Here we are waiting for who knows what. I don't think we'll ever see England again. Two tears silently made their way down Adele's dirty cheeks. She brushed them away with the back of her hand. Patricia continued to glare at her without commenting further.
-I'm sorry, Patricia. Pour me another spot of tea, would you?
Patricia nodded and picked up the kettle from the camp stove and poured off a small amount of hot water over the teabag they were sharing. As the ladies finished up and tried to tidy up a bit, Henry came running up to them.
-I think I heard something. Everybody be quiet until we know for sure who it is.
They all froze in place as Henry slipped deeper
into the cave and blew out the candle. Then he returned to the entrance
and motioned the teachers to be ready to flee if they had to. They
nodded that they understood.
-We can't just leave her, can we? Adele whispered.
-We could if we had no other choice. Now be quiet, Adele, Patricia shushed her.
Then they all heard the murmur of voices off in the distance. Henry grabbed a walking stick and crept to the darkened entrance with his weapon poised over his head. The women braced themselves against the wall.
-Hello in there! I'm back! It was John. The trio all breathed a sigh of relief.
John had finally returned. And he brought help with him -- a midwife for Joanna and a guide for the trio. John was overjoyed to learn that he'd become a father. He embraced Henry warmly and hugged both of the teachers in a rather awkward fashion, amidst laughter and good cheer all around. Even the baby woke up and started crying. It all had a rather homey feel to it despite the miserable surroundings. John broke out a bottle of the local wine and passed it around. Suddenly things didn't seem so bad.
Henry and the guide began talking. They discussed where to cross the chasm in order to reach safety. It would be a long a difficult walk to get to the place where they could do it. Once they started down, the worst problem would be the descent itself. The path was worn and washed out in places. Few people used it because of the stories that drifted back to the villagers about people who'd gone down into it and never returned. The stream at the bottom was running fast now and they'd have to swim. And then there were the rebels, who were roaming from village to village reeking havoc and raising hell, shooting off their rifles into the sky as if they were at war with the clouds themselves. There were checkpoints everywhere with guards dressed in disguises so nobody could tell which side they were on. Most checkpoints were set up just to rob unsuspecting travelers. They'd need money or goods for bribes.
The guide looked at the women and shook his
-I'm afraid it will be very difficult for you, he said.
-Why? Patricia asked. We're strong. We can handle ourselves well enough. We've come this far. We've got to get home. You must help us. You promised. She looked over at John who was listening in on their conversation.
-Don't worry. This is my friend. He will help you.
-It would be better if we had a car, that's all. As it is, you'll be very tired from the long walk and it will take many days. There is danger everywhere. I only mean to warn you.
- I know where there's a car, Adele said softly. Patricia and Henry nodded.
-Yes, we had a jeep but we had to leave it. I think it's out of petrol. Henry explained what had happened and where they had left the jeep. The guide's eyes lit up. He knew the place that Henry was describing.
- I'll go get us some petrol. You wait here while I do it.
-No, said Henry. We're going with you. Come on, ladies. We're all leaving.
Henry wasn't about to let the guide go anywhere without them. Too late he realized he shouldn't have told the guide exactly where the jeep was. A car was like gold in these parts, especially if a person had access to petrol.
Patricia and Adele gathered their belongings quickly and bid farewell to John and Joanna. Henry kept an eye on the guide who stood perplexed.
-Do you not trust me? He asked, as they quickly prepared to leave.
-Well, let's just say we're ready to go and there's no use waiting around any longer, Patricia said. I don't think we could stand it here a minute more. Besides, we want to show you exactly where we've hidden the jeep. It will be difficult to find, you know.
The guide nodded and they all started down the hillside. Adele gave Patricia the high sign. They weren't going to let this guy out of their sight until they were safely on the other side of the chasm. They quickly retraced their steps in the shadowy evening. The guide moved fast, as he was accustomed to the area. Patricia and Adele struggled to keep up and Henry herded them along as best he could. When they reached the fork in the path, the guide motioned them off the trail.
-But this isn't the way we came, fretted Adele. I believe we went that way, just over there.
-That's all right, Adele. Maybe he knows a shortcut to the jeep. Not to worry. Henry shook his head and motioned her to carry on.
They stumbled over rocky outcrops and slipped along the muddy trail that eventually took them to the gently rolling pastureland that they had left earlier. Adele wasn't sure they'd ever find the jeep now that they were so far off track, but she needn't have worried. The land began to look more familiar as they trotted on in silence, with Henry and the guide nodding and pointing their way. And then, over a slope and, they came upon it again, sitting forlorn and barely hidden, just where they'd left it.
-Oh, good! The major's jeep. The guide's eyes lit up and he clapped his hands in amazement.
-Are you sure it's out of petrol? He asked as he quickly pulled the blanket covering off of it.
-I don't know for sure, but it wouldn't start when we tried it last time. We gave up after a few tries. Henry kicked a tire and tried the door.
-Did you check to see if there was any reserve petrol supply, the guide asked as he surveyed the jeep. He started round the backside, looking it over carefully. He opened the tailgate and looked into the debris-strewn back end.
-See, here. What's this? He pointed to a large petrol can strapped to the side of the back panel. It was nearly invisible standing there, at least that's what the teachers decided when all four of them looked at it.
-But is there any petrol in it? Patricia asked skeptically.
-We'll soon find out. Henry and the guide quickly went to work unstrapping it.
-I think we're in luck. It's heavy!
-Yes, indeed. The major's jeep always has extra petrol!
They finished emptying the can into the tank and then Henry tried starting the jeep. After a few coughs and some grinding noise, the engine turned over and sprang to life. They all piled in.
-Only one big problem driving this jeep, the guide cautioned, as they climbed out of the ditch and headed back again towards the highway. Because this is the major's jeep, everyone knows it on sight. Not many jeeps on the road, only rebels now patrolling the area. We must be very careful.
-Sounds like we're right back where we started, Adele whispered to Patricia. But at least we're not walking. I don't think I could have gone much farther.
-Yes, but this time we have a guide with us, and it sounds like he knows what he's doing. Patricia clutched the grab bar as the jeep lurched over the rutted ground.
-We'll have to hurry and hope nobody recognizes us. Villagers usually run and hide at the sound of a jeep. So hang on. Here we go.
The trio hung on for their lives as the jeep bounced over the rolling terrain, steering clear of the main roads. What their guide lacked in driving skill he made up for in enthusiasm. The landscape whizzed by in a blur but the driver seemed to know where he was headed. The long twilight hours slowly turned darker as they continued along the strange course their driver had set for them over narrow rocky trails.
Adele mumbled and cursed as they jounced around in the backseat. Patricia gritted her teeth and closed her eyes, while Henry, up front with the driver, watched their flank and reported obstacles to the busy driver.
Then mysteriously, they began slowing and the engine noise quieted. The jeep began creeping along what appeared to be a somewhat different kind of terrain. The vegetation was lush, no longer the pastureland and rocky areas they'd been driving through. Trees and tall grasses, over-grown shrubbery became dense as the teachers peered out the dirty windows.
-Are we there yet? Adele wondered.
At that moment, the jeep pulled into the bushes and the driver whispered to them: quickly now, get your things together and go quietly. Don't slam the doors. I'm going to leave you off here.
-What! You're leaving us? You can't. Adele's alarming cry was quickly shushed.
-Yes, madam, I am. You must go quickly. You'll find a path just there. He pointed to a huge boulder near the jeep.
-Follow the path down into the chasm. Be careful as it is very narrow in places. When you reach the bottom you can rest, but watch for others. This is a sacred place but some who go down there have evil intentions.
-I thought you were going to guide us through the chasm, Henry inquired in a quiet but stern voice. I thought it was part of our bargain with John.
-Not so. John knows I never go down there. I promised to take you to the path but I never go down there. It's your choice to take the path of many days, not mine. Good-bye and good luck to you.
The trio hoisted their daypacks and strode off without a word of thanks to their guide. They heard the jeep moving off as they made their way to the path. Henry took the lead as usual. The teachers filed behind him. Neither said a word as the shadowy darkness enveloped them. The path was narrow and rocky just as he had said. Luckily, in the darkness they couldn't see much except a black void off the edge.
-I hate hiking, Adele spewed through clenched teeth as the path narrowed and grew steep. Then she slipped and lurched forward into Patricia, threatening to topple them both off the edge.
Patricia and Adele slid into Henry and the three of them fell heavily onto the rocky path.
-Now ladies, you must be more careful, Henry said, as he rose cautiously and brushed himself off. Here, let me give you a hand up.
He pulled the teachers to their feet and again told them to watch their steps. It was tricky in the dark but, mercifully, they couldn't see over the side and into the void of the chasm itself. They clung to the rocky ledges and at some places they even had to crawl on their hand and knees along the ever-descending path.
-It's so blasted dark here. I can't see where I'm going, Adele said. Maybe we should just stay here until it we can see a little better.
-I think we should keep going, if possible. We'll be better off at the bottom if somebody comes along that might want to harm us. Don't you think so, Henry? Patricia asked.
-I'm not sure, Henry answered. If this path gives way up ahead, we might not be able to see it. I have no idea how far it is to the bottom from where we are now. On the other hand, if we stop here on this ledge, there'd be no place to hide. Let's just continue on for a bit longer and see what comes along.
The ledge, as Henry called it, was just that, a very narrow path with no shoulder to speak of, just wide enough for one person to travel. Nobody even wanted to think about what might happen if a person tried to pass by going the other way. They shuddered at the mere thought of it.
Finally, with bruises and banged up elbows and knees, they reached what they thought was the bottom. A small stream of cold, fast-running water coursed through the bolder-strewn wedge of land. They could hear its sound and fury long before they eventually reached it.
-I'm exhausted. Do you mind if we stop for a little while? This was Patricia, rather out of character for her to complain but nevertheless it was she, begging that they rest as they came up on the stream.
-Yes, please, let's do stop. I've got to have some water. If we don't rest, I'll never make it up the other side, Adele chimed in. Henry nodded. They could just barely make out each other's faces in the poor light of the bottomland. Only at high noon did the sun's rays penetrate the lower reaches of the chasm.
-Ladies, have we any food left? Henry asked as they eased themselves into resting places among the rocks. I think we should eat a bite and then consider our next move.
-Yes, I think there's some crackers here, but that's about it. Adele rummaged around and found what odds and ends they had managed to take away with them from the cave. They shared the food and rested quietly for a few minutes.
-Henry, do you have any idea where we are exactly? Patricia asked.
-Well, madam, as I recall, this is the old footpath that was used by traders before the trestle bridge was built. The traders carried heavy loads between the two villages. I think that's why it was called The Path of Many Days. It took them so long to make the trip. And then there were the thieves along the way, and the toll-takers. There are many stories of evil dealings over the years. Villagers only came this way at their own risk, just as we are today.
-Well, what do you know. So we're very close to where we started. The train track would be just above us then, at the top of this sheer cliff. Not exactly Victoria Station, but I'll be very happy to see those train tracks, what?
-Yes, indeed. I do agree with you, but it's a very long and rocky road ahead. We would be wise to lighten our loads, take a little with us as possible.
-Ha! Exclaimed Adele. I've nothing much left. I left all my things at the mansion. What I've lugged so far is what I'll take with me, to the ends of the earth if necessary.
-I feel exactly the same way, added Patricia. My journal, my change of dirty clothes, my passport, what little money I have, will only be ripped from my cold dead hands.
-All right then. I guess that's settled. I think we should start as soon as you're able. If we rest too long, we'll be too stiff to move.
-One other thing, do either of you have a weapon of any kind with you?
-What do you mean -- a weapon. We're English you know. Never touch them if possible. Do you still have the major's pistol, or whatever it is they call them these days? Patricia asked of Henry.
-Yes, ma'am, I do. But I don't intend to use it unless we have no other choice. It would draw unnecessary attention to us if I were to fire it. We don't want that now, do we?
-Not on your life. What we want to do is get to the other side, find the nearest railway station and make our way back to England as soon as possible. With you at our side, of course, if that's what you want, Henry?
-Oh, to be in England, Henry answered, that's a dream I've had for years, even since the master first came to the mansion.
-Well, you can make bet on one thing, he'll be one of the very first people I'd like to talk to once we're home again, Adele was quick to add.
-Well, then, let's be off.
As they rose and started making their way along the rock-strewn crevasse, Henry appeared to be looking for something and eventually he spotted it.
-Look here, ladies. Up ahead. It's a footbridge. I was told there was one. That will be our way across the water and onto the path up the other side. Quickly now, before somebody comes along, let's go.
Henry took off at a trot with the teachers struggling along behind him. It was indeed a narrow bridge over the Chasm's river that trembled and creaked as they started across it one at a time. Patricia could feel it sway as Henry trod its rickety boards. The frayed ropes provided as handrails bucked with each step as she tottered along after him. Adele watched the two of them weaving their way over the raging water. She took a deep breath and started off just as Henry reached the other side. He motioned them to hurry.
-We've been very lucky so far, he exclaimed once they all had made it safely over to the other side. Now the hard part. We'd better be very quick. Maybe our luck will hold until we reach the top. Come along now.
As they started up the little path, Patricia could feel her calf and thigh muscles complain with every step. She was finding it difficult to catch her breath and she began to sweat as they steadily climbed the narrow ledge of rocky switchbacks that would lead them to freedom. She knew she mustn't say a word though. It was only that one thought -- of home and safety -- that kept her going. No use thinking of the folly they'd been through, what an unwise choice it had been to have taken the teaching assignment in the first place. If she ever got home she promised herself that she would never again leave England.
They climbed and crawled and rested briefly, wordlessly, the entire day, inching their way over the rough terrain. Some weak sunlight peaked over the edge and illuminated their path for a few hours and then an early twilight once again descended into the chasm. With the sun, it felt too hot but when it went down, they felt at first refreshed and then grew chilled as they crept along. They had no way of knowing how much farther it was to the top. They couldn't look up or down for fear of falling. They just kept feeling their way, following Henry as he led them higher and higher up the fearsome chasm.
And then Henry stopped and looked back at them.
-Ladies, he said, I think we're nearly at the top. The path has widened and I think I see something like civilization. He pointed to a large boulder that seemed to teeter over the side. They could even make out some sparse grass and roots of overhanging shrubbery.
-Here's what we'll do. You two stay well behind me and I'll have a look-see. If it's clear, I'll signal and you two come along then.
-But Henry, where could we run if it isn't safe. Back the way we came. I don't think so. We'll be right behind you. Whatever is there, we'll meet it together. Adele nodded as Patricia finished her little speech.
-All right. Come on then.
The two teachers crowded up against Henry and the three of them struggled up and around the boulder, crawling the last few feet until they finally reached level ground.
-Where are we, do you think? Adele asked Henry as they brushed themselves off and looked around. It was dusk and the twilight shadows made it difficult to see anything clearly. They were dirty, clothes torn and battered from their long ordeal. They would definitely frighten off strangers.
-Don't know for sure, but I think I see a roofline ahead. It might just be the bloody railway station. Let's go that way.
Henry and the teachers plodded along slowly, trying not to make a sound.
-Look, Patricia, Adele whispered. A person could walk right off the edge of this precipice without even knowing it. There's no guardrail or anything. A person wandering around in the dark could slip and fall and nobody'd ever even find them. Into the chasm and gone for good and all.
-Hmm, you're right. Gives me the creeps.
-Look! Just ahead! That's the station. I remember it now. Just after the train crossed the bridge, another station on the other side. Remember, Adele? That always seemed funny to me. How much further to the village where we held classes do you think?
-You mean walking? Don't know. It didn't take long by train though. Could be a few kilometers, maybe more.
They made their way to the station and went round to the ticket window like any would-be passenger. It was closed. Henry banged on it anyhow.
-Hello, there, anybody home? The trio stood pounding on the window pleading with the grillwork.
Then from behind them came a shout.
-Halt! Who goes there?
They spun around. A soldier stood at the corner of the building, armed with a rifle pointed directly at them. They raised their arms and stood trembling.
-Don't shoot us. We're English. Patricia tried her best to sound unafraid but her voice squeaked out the words in spite of herself.
-Come with me, he said as he pointed the way to the rear of the train station. The trio slowly moved in the direction he pointed.
-Hurry. Move on. To the door, then stop. The soldier gave them terse directions and once they all arrived at the door he pounded on it with his rifle butt.
-Enter! The door opened and another soldier stood before them. He appeared older. The guard saluted him and grunted, pushing the trio into a line in front of him.
-Come in here where it's light, he barked at the teachers.
-That will be all. Back to your post, he said dismissing the guard, as the threesome entered the station's backroom. The furnishings were minimal, a desk, a few battered chairs, a stool at a counter for the ticket master. A telephone!
-See here, sir, Patricia started. I was trying to explain to that man that we're English and we must get back home at once. If we could just use your telephone, I'm sure we can straighten everything out and be on our way.
-Yes, yes, yes. May I see your papers, please?
-Oh, of course. Patricia and Adele both groped into their bags as the guard watched them. Henry remained still, not wanting to attract any attention. The guard eyed him carefully as the ladies pulled their passports out and handed them over.
He opened Patricia's and carefully looked at her picture and compared it to her.
-Hmm. Not a good likeness, but close enough.
-Well, you see, Patricia started, we've been through a lot and we're…how shall I say it…not looking our sharpest at this time. Please excuse the way we look. We've had a very rough few days.
He ignored her pleas and continued looking at their documents. Then his eyebrows lifted and a smile appeared on his face.
-Ah-hah! Now I know who you are. You're the teachers. Well, I didn't recognize you at first. We've been waiting for you, wondering when you might show up. He smiled. I have something for you. With that he handed Patricia an envelope.
Patricia looked at Adele, who shrugged.
-Mail? Really Patricia. I didn't know you had a penpal here. Get on with it. Open it, would you, Adele demanded.
Patricia opened the letter with shaking hands. Inside was a handwritten letter, which stated:
Dear Honorable School Teachers Miss Patricia and
I hope this letter reaches you in good health.
We have good news for you. We are all fine at the mansion, awaiting your
return. Even the canary has flown back to its cage and is singing
gratefully for his birdseed as before. The little dog sits in the drive
also awaiting your footsteps.
You see, when the villagers found the major and
his men without any clothes, or weapons, everyone laughed and cheered.
Even the jeep, his most prized possession, was gone. No one believed in
him or his cause any longer. The unpleasantness is over, for good this
time, we believe.
Please return to us. We need you.
Your faithful servant, Anna
Patricia looked at the guard who smiled and saluted her.
-You must forgive us, madam, he said. When you came
through the door I didn't recognize you. You are so, well, how shall I
say this without offending you, different-looking. I remember seeing you
both every day on the train, but now…
-You are most certainly forgiven, sir. This information comes as a great surprise to us. Give us a moment, then, would you.
She turned to Adele, who stood, mouth open, in total shock. Henry smiled, obviously pleased at the good news.
-Well, then, whatever shall we do next? Adele?
-Oh, this is a surprise, then, isn't it? I never thought… They turned to Henry. He looked at them for a moment longer before speaking.
-It has been a pleasure to serve you and help you through this ordeal, but now I believe it is time for me to return home. I hope you will understand. If you please, I'll be happy to take you back there with me, if you so desire.
Adele looked at Patricia, who smiled and shook her head slowly from side to side.
-Henry, I believe you're absolutely correct. It's time to go home now, to our own home, if you don't mind.
-If that's your wish, I'll see to it at once. He bowed slightly and clicked his heels, heading to the desk and the telephone.
-Oh, Patricia. I can't believe it. Before long we'll be safe aboard the train, and I can lie back and think of England. We'll be home soon. I just know it. A tear slid down her grimy cheek as she turned and hugged Henry. Thank you so much. We couldn't have done it without you.
Later, settled into their seats on the train, the two teachers contemplated their adventure. They both agreed it was time to give up their travels and settle down to the familiar trappings of home and hearth. England summertime, teatime and all of it -- high time indeed. Yes, indeed, it was...yes...yes...yes...