Joseph lay on his face in the ice-filmed mud. Earlier in the night a score of men had gone over the top in a raid on the German trenches. They had taken a couple of prisoners, but been hit by a hail of fire on the way back. They had scrambled over the parapet wounded, bleeding, and without Doughy Ward and Tucky Nunn.
“Oi think Doughy’s bought it,” Barshey Gee had said miserably, his face hollow-eyed in the brief glare of a star shell. “But Tucky was still aloive.”
There was no choice. Under a barrage from their own guns, three of them went to look for him. The noise of the heavy mortars was deafening, but when they eased, Joseph could hear the quick, sharper rattle of machine guns. As the flare died, he lifted his head to look again across the craters, the torn wire, and the few shattered tree stumps still left.
Something moved in the mud. Joseph crawled forward again as quickly as he could. The thin ice cracked under his weight but he could hear nothing over the guns. He must get to Tucky without sliding into any of the huge, water-filled holes. Men had drowned in them before now. He shuddered at the thought. At least they had not been gassed this week, so there were no deadly, choking fumes in the hollows.
Another flare went up and he lay still, then as it faded he moved forward as rapidly as he could, feeling his way to avoid the remnants of spent shells, the tangles of old wire and rusted weapons, the rotting bodies. As always, he had emergency first aid supplies with him, but he might need more than that. If he could carry Tucky back to the trench, there would be real medics there by now.
It was dark again. He stood up and, crouching low, ran forward. It was only a few yards to where he had seen the movement. He slithered and almost fell over him.
“Hello, Chaplain,” Tucky’s voice came out of the darkness, hoarse, ending in a cough.
“It’s all right, I’ve got you.” Joseph reached forward, grasped the rough khaki, and felt the weight of Tucky’s body. “Where are you hurt?”
“What are you doing out here?” There was a kind of desperate humor in Tucky’s voice as he tried to mask his pain. Another flare went up, briefly illuminating his snub-nosed face and the bloody wound in his shoulder.
“Just passing,” Joseph replied, his own voice shaking a little. “Where else are you hit?” He dreaded the answer. If it were only the shoulder, Tucky would have made his way back.
“Moi leg, Oi think,” came the reply. “Tell you the truth, Oi can’t feel much. So damn cold. Don’t seem they have summers here. ’Member summers at home, Chaplain? Girls all . . .” The rest of what he said was drowned in another roar of gunfire.
Joseph’s heart sank. He had seen too many die, young men he had known most of their lives, including Tucky’s elder brother Bibby.
“I’ll get you back,” he said to Tucky. “Once you’re warmer you’ll probably feel it like hell. Come on.” He bent and half lifted Tucky onto his back. Hearing a cry of pain as he inadvertently touched the wound, he apologized.
“It’s all roight, Chaplain,” Tucky gasped, gagging as the pain dizzied him. “It hurts, but not too much. Oi’ll be better soon.”
Bent double, staggering under Tucky’s weight, and trying to keep low so as not to make a target, Joseph floundered back toward the line of the trenches. Twice he slipped and fell, apologizing automatically, aware that he was banging and jolting the injured man.
He saw the parapet ahead of him, not more than a dozen yards away. He was sodden with mud and water up to the waist. His breath froze in the air and he was so cold he could hardly feel his legs.
“Nearly there,” he told Tucky, although his words were lost in another barrage of shells. One exploded close to him, hurling him forward flat onto the ground. He felt a sickening pain in his left side, and then nothing.
He opened his eyes with a headache so blinding it all but obliterated his awareness that the whole of his left side hurt. There seemed to be other people around him. He could hear voices. It took him sev- eral moments to recognize that he was staring up at the ceiling of the field hospital. He must have been hit. What had happened to Tucky?
He tried to speak, but he was not sure if he actually made any sound or if the words were only in his head. No one came to him. He seemed to have no strength to move. The pain was appalling. It consumed his whole body, almost taking his breath away. What had happened to him? He had seen men injured, lots of them, their arms and legs blown off, bodies ripped open. He had held them, talked to them as they died, trying simply to be there so they were not alone. Sometimes that was all he could do.
He could not take up arms—he was a chaplain—but the night before the war had been declared, he had promised himself he would be there with the men, endure with them whatever happened.
Matthew and Judith, his brother and younger sister, had sat at home with him in St. Giles, watching the darkness gather over the fields, and spoken quietly of the future. Matthew would stay in the Secret Intelligence Service, Judith would go to the front to do what she could, probably to drive ambulances, Joseph would be a chaplain. But he had sworn that never again would he allow himself to care about anything so much that he could be crippled by loss, as he had been by Eleanor’s death, and the baby’s. Naturally his married sister, Hannah, would stay at home. Her husband, Archie, was at sea, and she had three children to care for.
There was someone leaning over him, a man with fair hair and a tired, serious face. He had blood on his hands and clothes. “Captain Reavley?”
Joseph tried to answer but all he could manage was a croak.
“My name’s Cavan,” the man went on. “I’m the surgeon here. You’ve got a badly broken left arm. You caught a pretty big piece of shrapnel by the look of it, and you’ve lost rather a lot of blood from the wound in your leg, but you should be all right. You’ll keep the arm, but I’m afraid it is definitely a Blighty one.”
Joseph knew what that meant: an injury bad enough to be sent home.
“Tucky?” The words came at last, in a whisper. “Tucky Nunn?”
“Bad, but I expect he’ll make it,” Cavan answered. “Probably going home with you. Now we’ve got to do something about this arm. It’s going to hurt, but I’ll do my best, and we’ll repack that wound in your leg.”
Joseph knew dimly that the doctor had no time to say more. There were too many other men waiting, perhaps injured more seriously than he.
Cavan was right; the surgery was painful. Afterward, all Joseph did was swim in and out of consciousness. Everything seemed either the scarlet of pain or the infinitely better black of oblivion.
He was half aware of being lifted and carried, of voices around him, and then a few very clear moments when he saw Judith. She was bending over him, her face pale and grave, and he realized with surprise how frightened she was. He must look pretty bad. He tried to smile. He had no idea from the tears in her eyes if he succeeded or not. Then he drifted away again.
He woke up every so often. Sometimes he lay staring at the ceiling, wanting to scream from the pain that coursed through him till he thought he could not bear it, but one did not do that. Other men, with worse injuries, did not. There were nurses around him, footsteps, voices, hands holding him up, making him drink something that made him gag. People spoke to him gently; there was a woman’s voice, encouraging, but too busy for pity.
He felt helpless, but it was a relief not to be responsible for anyone’s pain except his own.
He was hot and shivering, the sweat trickling down his body, when they finally put him on the train. The rattle and jolt of it was dreadful, and he wanted to shout at the people who said how lucky he was to have “a Blighty one” that he would rather they left him alone where he was. It must still be March and the weather was erratic. Would the winds make the Channel crossing rough? He was too ill to cope with seasickness as well! He could not even turn over.
In the event he remembered very little of it, or of the train journey afterward. When he finally woke up to some kind of clarity, he was lying in a clean bed in a hospital ward. The sun shone through the windows, making bright, warm splashes on the wooden floor, and there were bedclothes around him. Clean sheets? He could feel the smoothness against his chin and smell the cotton. He heard a broad Cambridgeshire voice in the distance and found himself smiling. He was in England, and it was spring.
He kept his eyes open, afraid that if he closed them it would all disappear and he would be back in the mud again. A slight woman, perhaps in her fifties, bent over him and helped him up to drink a cup of tea. It was hot, and made with clean water, not the stale dregs he was used to. The woman was dressed in a starched white uniform. She told him her name was Gwen Neave. He looked at her hands around the cup as she held it to his lips. They were strong and sunburned.
During the next two or three days and nights she seemed to be there every time he needed her, always understanding what would ease him a little: the bed remade, pillows turned and plumped up, fresh water to drink, a cold cloth on his brow. She changed the dressings on the huge, raw wounds in his arm and leg without any expression on her face except a tightening of her lips when she knew it must be hurting him. She talked about the weather, the lengthening days, the first daffodils flowering bright yellow. She told him once, very briefly, that she had two sons in the navy, but nothing more, no mention of where they were or how she feared for them amid all the losses at sea. He admired her for that.
It was she who was there at the worst times in the small hours of the morning when he was racked with pain, biting his lips so he did not cry out. He thought of other men’s pain, younger than he, who had barely tasted life and were already robbed of it. He had no strength left to fight; he only wanted to escape to a place where the pain stopped.
“It will get better,” she promised him, her voice little more than a whisper so as not to disturb the men in the other beds.
He did not answer. The words meant nothing. Pain, helplessness, and the knowledge of death were the only realities.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Angels in the Gloom by Anne Perry. Copyright © 2005 by Anne Perry. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.