A family shattered by war and secrets... But hope is on the horizon
1917. The First World War casts its shadow over the Harvey family of Ford Farm. One brother has already been killed, and Tristan now serves at the Front.
Though newly engaged to pretty Emilia Rowse – a friend since childhood – younger brother Ben is desperate to serve his country. But a horrific injury causes him to be declared unfit, and Emilia's life becomes ever more difficult. Tensions mount on the family farm. Everyone, it seems, has closely guarded secrets… Can Emilia find happiness?
Filled with a rich cast of unforgettable characters and packed with period detail, Touch the Silence is the brilliant opening to the Harvey Family sagas. For readers of Anne Baker, Maggie Hope and Daisy Styles.
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The way the dogs were barking spoke of a stranger's approach to the back door being barred. Emilia Rowse grabbed her mackintosh and pulled on her boots to investigate.
Dashing the first few yards over the flagstones, she froze at the cause of the disturbance. A figure in a shabby dark greatcoat and billycock hat was in the yard, trapped inside a huddle of territorial Jack Russells, and with darkness only an hour away and more rain imminent, the shadows were making him appear outlandish and looming. He was the tallest man Emilia had ever seen, with unattended grey hair and a long beard, and in a single moment she thought of wizards and Fagin and the Russian mad monk Rasputin. She wished she had brought the shotgun with her.
Alone except for her employer's senile grandmother, she allowed the dogs to carry on agitating and growling around the stranger. 'What do you want?'
He swept off his hat. 'Pardon me, miss. My name is Archie Rothwell. Would it be possible to speak to the farmer, Mr Alec Harvey?'
'Why do you want to speak to him?'
'I asked in the village for work, in return for a little food and hopefully shelter. The landlady of the public house suggested I enquire here.'
Emilia moved closer and could see he was younger than she had first thought, perhaps in his mid-thirties. His hair, which reached his shoulders, was in fact a sandy colour, and not scruffy, merely tangled by the sharp wind. His eyes had a startling brightness and were of a deep greenish hue. His voice was the most surprising, mellow and refined and she had heard every word clearly above the din of the dogs.
He did not change his bare expression, and this kept Emilia resolved to caution. The farm was the largest in the parish and had once had a workforce of seventeen, but with the war relentlessly robbing it, and the nearby village of Hennaford, of young men, workers were sorely needed. Except during the busiest periods of spring and harvest, when the aged, the housewives and children helped out, there was now only Emilia herself, her father, the cowman, and the youngest Harvey brother, Ben, currently chopping logs for the winter store; but she was sure Alec Harvey, who was in Truro on business, wouldn't want this kind of labourer – a tramp, even though he wasn't the usual rough kind.
'I don't think you'll find what you're looking for here. You'll have to try elsewhere.'
The stranger replaced his hat, again without emotion. 'I'm sorry to have troubled you. Perhaps you would be good enough to call off the dogs so I can leave.'
He brought his other arm forward from the folds of his coat, and Emilia noticed he had a stout walking stick. She was afraid he was about to lash out at the dogs, but he made to turn, wobbled, fought to keep his balance, then with a cry of alarm fell sideways, like a felled log, on to the muddy cobbles.
The dogs leapt towards him, snarling, and Emilia shouted at them to get away. They obeyed, but maintained their fretful pacing at a distance. Her dilemma now was whether to help the stranger up or to hold her space. 'Are you hurt? I'm sorry about that.'
There was something defensive and self-sufficient about the man, so she watched, ready to spring forward to his aid, while he gripped the horse trough and levered himself upright. Using the stone side as a prop, he rubbed his knee and elbow and shook dirt off his coat.
Then he fastened his extraordinary, vibrant eyes on her. 'Good day to you, miss.'
Emilia noticed that except for where the mud had soiled his clothes they were clean, and she was close enough to detect no impure smells on him. When she saw his laborious forward-tilting steps, the way he had to lean on his stick, the flames of guilt flushed her cheeks and she dashed on ahead and faced him. He could be a war veteran, a wounded hero – an officer by the way he had spoken – and she had treated him with contempt. Had sent him away with the wind strengthening, a further threat to his frail stability, its raw fingers parting his hair and wrapping it forward under his chin as if making a scarf of empty comfort. The air was growing heavier and for a moment was strangely hollow, then a dense bone-chilling mist swept down over everything, the advance of a heavy shower. He wouldn't get far before receiving a thorough drenching. 'Look, perhaps you could come back another time. Or if you'd like to shelter a while in the barn, I'll fetch you some food.' He looked up from the ground for a moment. 'Don't bother yourself, miss. I have enough for my needs today. Goodbye.' She moved out of his way, keeping the dogs behind her until he disappeared. It was hard to say if he had been offended, resigned or hurt by her behaviour, but she kept his quiet dignity in mind while hurrying back to work, which she was later than usual in getting on with.
She was preparing a tea tray when the door of the kitchen was suddenly opened, making her splash boiling water over the scrubbed-white pine table. 'Ohh!'
'Sorry I startled you, Em.' Ben Harvey smiled in from the cold stone floor of the back kitchen, where he was discarding his grimy boots and rough work coat.
Emilia swept the heavy iron, copper-spouted kettle back on top of the range and wiped up the spillage. 'Are you sure Dad didn't see you come in?' She could hear the lowing of the twenty-strong herd – the mainstay of the farm – and her father whistling to the sheepdog helping to drive them into the milking shed. 'He'll be expecting you. I'm going to be late getting out there. Will you explain?'
'I saw Edwin taking out his pipe.' With his quick, energetic actions Ben was there, stretching out his arms to her. Unspared of height, he had an athletic control of his lean, wide-shouldered body, a confident lift to his head, all in perfect association with his strong dark features. 'And Alec's not back yet, we can make the most of it.'
Even though the war had swept away many former attitudes, and the shortage of servants meant good ones were now prized, Emilia's lifelong friendship with Ben meant she had always been looked on at Ford Farm as more than a skivvy. Their romance was a recent development. Alec Harvey did not seem to mind, but Emilia thought that perhaps he didn't expect it to be permanent. Her father, who had ordered that she and Ben no longer spend time alone, had welcomed it, but with reservation, for next month, when Ben reached the age of eighteen, he was to follow his two other older brothers, one now dead, into the Army. Emilia still marvelled that Ben, who stirred the hopes of the village girls and those in superior places, was now hers.
Their first kiss had been accidental. While sweeping out the barn together in preparation for the threshing, the simple act of her tripping over one of the cats and him catching her round the waist, and them laughing as always over such an occurrence, had broken their usual cosiness. They had shared many sibling-type hugs, but this one had ended in an off-balanced kiss, the brotherly touch of Ben's lips landing not on her cheek but firmly on her lips.
In that moment, all they had taken for granted about each other had been swept away in a startling new reality, an awakening of physical attraction. Dazed, staring eye to eye, rather than retreat, they had explored the riot of sensations and emotions stirred up in them with a tentative kiss, and this had provoked an immediate unquenchable enthusiasm to hold and cling, to taste and try, while unleashing the powerful hope to experience more. Amazed at not discovering this before, both had felt their being together was meant to be.
Emilia glanced at the clock. Time was speeding away and she had work in the dairy and then the Harveys' supper to prepare, but she went straight to Ben. The instant his arms were about her she forgot about the stranger. She kept her eyes closed when their eager, intense kiss ended and rested her face against his neck.
The glow of the oil lamps had set their images in the window, showing their innocence, their early maturity at having to work eighteen-hour days, of coping with shortages of almost every kind and the constant fear of news of family deaths, all mingling with their iron will to carry on without complaint or self-pity.
Ben gazed at her reflection. Admiring her. Wondering about her. Emilia had been born two days later than himself, yet often seemed a generation older. Full of good sense, was what people said about her. Sometimes she had a quiet way, other times her manner was direct and resolute, and when she got angry, people were in no doubt about it. She had a measure of stateliness, which could make her seem a little mystifying, yet she was practical and unfussy, wearing her thick rich-brown hair in a single plait and working in trousers, not bothering with corsets – how soft and warm and stimulating her natural shape felt in his arms.
She had first been brought to the farm as an infant, and had worked there since leaving school. She had shared every important moment of his life, as his comforter, his source of calm and wisdom. He knew he relied on her. A little too much. Perhaps it would have been better if they had stayed chums, she being the sister he had never had, and he had not fallen in love with her. A stupid dreadful thought! These new intimate memories of Em would help get him through whatever he was to face after his officer training.
The first angry spits of rain distorted their likenesses on the glass. Emilia traced the firm angle of his jaw, his skin cold and tense from being outside since dawn, the dark stubble needing a second attention from a razor. She felt his body give a mysterious tremble. She knew Ben better than anyone, yet there were so many new things to discover about him, and so little time left in which to do it.
She eased herself away from him. 'I mustn't delay a minute longer taking in your gran's tea, my love.' Emilia's voice had a soothing notable rhythm, pointing to the careful attention she was willing to give others. 'It's a wonder she's not woken from her nap by now and calling for it.'
Ben reclaimed his coat and boots, but lingered long enough to take in the overflowing basket of laundry on the settle, the afternoon's collection of muddy eggs waiting to be taken to the washhouse and dealt with, the breakfast dishes not yet put away on the cluttered dresser, the crumbs of bread and cheese his grandmother had made around her armchair while eating her midday meal. The cats were clustered asleep on the wool rug, whose floral pattern was confused by lost fur of more than a day's standing. 'Alec's hoping to employ some more hands today. It's time he got a new housekeeper. You shouldn't have to keep doing so much by yourself, darling. And you'll have another stormy walk home tonight.'
'I get through,' Emilia said, matter-of-fact about her workload, which had increased greatly a year ago when the kitchen maid had suddenly, and inexplicably, left. Tragedy had followed almost at once when Alec's wife, Lucy, died in miscarriage, and the housekeeper, whom Lucy had brought with her to the marriage, also deserted the farm. Emilia was touched by Ben's concern. His thoughtfulness was one of the reasons she loved him. She did not mind the burden of caring for his 83-year-old grandmother, even with her incessant humming and meaningless chatter, and the necessity of cleaning up after her occasional 'accident'. Every time she looked at Mrs Harvey, her gaze had been refreshed by trusting, smiling eyes. 'Someone was here not long ago looking for work. I suggested he come back.'
'An odd-looking fellow, limping on both feet? I saw the back of him when I was bringing in the wood cart. Can't see what use he'd be.'
'He didn't go back to the village then. The first thing he did was to offer his name, so he probably was genuine. I made him fall over – I feel awful about that. He could have managed in the garden and done a few jobs about the yard.'
Emilia picked up the tea tray but dropped it down again. 'What on earth was that?' The wind had been howling round the comers of the house all day, but she had heard a peculiar caterwauling.
'Probably one of the dogs investigating something it shouldn't, you know what Pip's like.'
The abnormal noise came again, longer, higher-pitched. 'Sounds like an animal in pain.' Emilia joined Ben at the stable door, peering out across the lower half.
They listened. The cows were quiet, all would be feeding. The rain was being blown in a slant, hitting the numerous buildings ranged around the yard in wicked spatters, hisses, drummings, clinkings. They could hear loud tricklings of water seeping along gulleys and whooshing down drains, and the wind thrashing through the trees at the perimeter hedges and its distant roar as it battered the woods across the field at the back of the sprawling property. The only movements were leaves and stalks of straw being hurled about before disappearing or gathering in comers. The larger inner yard was partitioned off by a medium-height stone wall and anything amiss in there could not be seen.
Once more the unnatural wail pitched through the murky October air. Emilia grabbed Ben's arm. 'What is it?' It sounded like the pain and terror in her nightmares of her brother, Billy, maimed or dying in a mud-filled Flanders trench, reaching out vainly for her. He was with Ben's surviving brother, Tristan, and according to the previously agreed coded words in his last letter, the fighting was soon to intensify again.
A horrifying thought sent her dashing back into the kitchen and towards the door that led to the front of the house.
'What's wrong?' Ben tore after her.
'I need to made sure your gran's safe! I haven't looked in on her all afternoon.'
The sitting-room door was ajar. Emilia burst in to where she had left Mrs Harvey in her winged armchair, beside a protected fire, feet up on a stool, covered with a plaid blanket.
The old lady was not there. Her lace shawl was on the carpet, apparently having slipped off her shoulders, the blanket lay heaped in front of the chair.
Mrs Harvey was unable to climb the stairs unaided, and Emilia skidded up and down the long tiled passage, searching the dining room, the small parlour, the old play room, Alec Harvey's den, even the cupboard under the stairs, where Mrs Harvey had on one occasion shut herself in. All were empty. Then she saw the key of the front door was in the lock, instead of hanging on its high hook, a precaution to protect Mrs Harvey, who was inclined to wander off. The grandfather clock chimed three forty-five, accusing Emilia of being over an hour late in checking on her charge.
'Oh, dear Lord, Ben, it must have been your gran we heard! If we don't find her and she gets as far as the woods or the ford ...' The ford was at the bottom of the hill, a short distance down the lane, and it was deep enough today for a person to drown in. The narrow stone bridge that ran along the side of the hedge for pedestrians was muddy and slippery.
Ben followed her out through the short vestibule and the porch. In the steady chilly downpour, they stared into the rapidly fading light for any sign of the old lady. Pray God, she was trying to find her way back in.
'Mrs Harvey! Mrs Harvey!'
Emilia shook Ben's arm, warning him to keep still and listen.
'You search round here,' Ben whispered, lest he drown out his grandmother's voice or fumblings. 'I'll look through the yards and outhouses. Don't forget the shed. Grandma liked her gardening in the old days.'
There was a loud drawn-out screech, an unearthly sound. Emilia's heart jerked in fright.
Then they both saw her. Mrs Harvey was staggering on all fours in one of the neglected flower beds, her clothes so lagged in mud as to be camouflage, her white hair hanging down about her stricken face in rats' tails. With a feeble lift of her head she cried out, like a frightened, bewildered child.
'Oh, dear God! It'll be all right, Lottie!' Emilia screamed the name the old lady was most apt to respond to. 'We're coming for you.'
'Grandma! Grandma!' Ben shouted, in the most terrifying moments of his life. Haring down the gravel path and across the large rectangular quagmire of lawn, he reached her first. Even with his strong arms he found it difficult to lift his grandmother up, for she was tall and plump and struggling against him.
'Quick, carry her inside!' Emilia reached them. 'We must get her warm and dry.'
Lottie Harvey's mental condition meant she understood nothing of normal everyday life. Childlike, easily alarmed, sometimes impatient, she occasionally hit out at those attending to her, pinching them, trying to bite. Although weak, exhausted and shivering, out of sheer panic she smashed a muddied hand into Ben's face and pushed against it. Sobbing and muttering, she was trying to get to Emilia.
Excerpted from "Touch the Silence"
Copyright © 2003 Gloria Cook.
Excerpted by permission of Canelo Digital Publishing.
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