Portis House emerged from the fog as we approached, showing itself slowly as a long, low shadow. I leaned my temple against the window of the motorcar and tried to make it out in the fading light.
The driver watched me crane my neck. “That’s it, for certain,” he said. “No chance of confusion. There’s nothing else around here.”
I continued to stare. I could barely see cornices now, the slender flutes of Grecian columns just visible in the gloom. A wide, cool portico, and behind it ivy climbing walls of pale Georgian stone. The edges faded in the mist, as if an artist’s thumb had blurred them.
“A good spot, it is,” the driver went on. My silence seemed to make him uncomfortable, had done so for miles. “That is, for what they use it for. I wouldn’t live here myself.” He adjusted the cap on his salt-and-pepper head, then stroked a thorny finger through his beard. “Table’s low here, so it gets wet. These fogs come off the water. It all ices over terrible in winter.”
I pulled away from the window and tilted my head back against the seat, watching through the front windscreen as the house came closer. We jolted over the long, muddy drive. “Then why,” I asked, “is it a good spot?”
He paused in surprise. I tried to remember when I’d spoken last since I’d hired him at the train station, and couldn’t. “Well, for those fellows, of course,” he said after a moment. “The mad ones. Keeps ’em away from everyone, doesn’t it? And the bridge from the mainland means they’ve nowhere to go.”
It was true. The bridge was long and narrow, exposed to the wind that had buffeted us mercilessly as we navigated its length. Any man who attempted to reach the mainland on foot would be risking his neck. I wondered whether anyone had tried and fallen to his death in the churning ocean below. I opened my mouth to ask, then shut it again.
The driver seemed not to notice. “It wasn’t built as a hospital, you see. That’s what I mean. It was built as a home, and not too long ago, either. Twenty years, give or take. Family named Gersbach, with children, too. God knows how they did it out here. Four hours on the train from Newcastle on Tyne to town, and then over that bridge. No place for a child, I say. No one saw them much, and no wonder—it was all they could do to get supplies from the mainland, and they never could keep servants for long. I guess there’s no explaining the rich. They left during the war. I hear they were standoffish folk. Typical for Germans.”
We were drawing up to the house now, and he steered the motorcar around the drive, headed for the front portico. We circled a stone fountain in the center of the lawn, unused, sitting dry and stained in an empty garden bed. Patches of mist moved across it, sliding soundlessly over the sad-eyed carved Mary as she opened her blessing arms over the empty basin, blank-faced cherubs flanking her on either side.
“You mustn’t worry.” The driver stopped the motor before the front steps. “It’s remote—that’s certain—but I’ve never heard of anyone being mistreated at the hospital. Your fellow is probably just fine. It’ll be too late for me to come back tonight, but they’ve nice guest rooms here, for family. I’ll just come by tomorrow morning, then, shall I?”
I looked at him for a moment before I realized he thought I was a visitor. “I’m staying,” I said.
For a second his eyebrows flew upward, as if I’d said I was checking myself in. Then they lowered in consternation. “A nurse? I thought—” His gaze flicked to the rear compartment, where my valise lay. It was small enough to be an overnight bag. When he looked back at me, I met his eyes and watched him understand that the valise contained everything I owned.
“Well,” he said. The silence sat between us for a moment. “I’ll just get your bag for you, then.”
He got out of the car, and I opened my door before he could come round, pulling myself from the painfully hard seat. He flapped his hands in frustration and retrieved my small bag. “Be careful,” he said as he handed it to me, his friendly tone gone. “These are madmen, you know. Brutes, some of them. You’re just a tiny thing. Young, too. I had no idea you were coming to nurse, or I would have said. Most of them don’t last. It’s too lonely.”
I handed him payment, the last money I owned. “Lonely is what I want.”
“I get called out here to pick the girls up sometimes when they leave. They’re quiet as ghosts, and we never see the nurses in town. Maybe they’re not allowed. I’m not even certain they get leave.”
“I don’t need leave.”
“What kind of nurse doesn’t need leave?”
Now he sounded almost annoyed. I turned away and started up the steps.
“It’s just you don’t seem the type,” he called after me.
I turned back. “You needn’t worry about me.” I thought for a moment. “It isn’t a German name, Gersbach,” I said to his upturned face. “It’s Swiss.” I glanced past his shoulder to the fountain again, at Mary’s slender, draped shoulders, her elegant arms. Then I climbed the steps toward the front doors of Portis House.
“Katharine Weekes.” The woman glanced through the papers in her hand, shuffling them deftly through her long fingers, the corners of her mouth turned down in concentration.
“Kitty,” I said.
She glanced sharply up at me. We were in a makeshift office where perhaps the butler or the housekeeper had once sat, tucked in the back of the building, the room furnished with only a scabbed old desk and a mismatched wooden filing cabinet. Out the window, the fog drifted by.
She was a tall woman, with square shoulders, her hair cut in a blunt fringe that was almost mannish. She wore a thick cardigan over her uniform and a pair of half-glasses that she didn’t bother to use dangled on a chain around her neck. The white cap she wore seemed out of place and almost ridiculous on her head. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. “You will not be called Kitty,” she said. “You will be Nurse Weekes. I am the Matron here, Mrs. Hilder. You will call me Matron.”
I filed this piece of information away. It was stupid, but I would need it. “Yes, Matron.”
Her eyes narrowed again. Even when I tried, I had never had an easy time sounding obedient, and something must have slipped through my tone. Matron would be one of those women who never missed a hint of insolence. “It says here,” she continued a moment later, “that you come from Belling Wood Hospital in London, where you worked for a year.”
“It’s a difficult hospital, Belling Wood. A lot of casualties came through there. A great many challenging cases.”
I nodded mutely. How did she know? How could she know?
“We usually prefer more experienced nurses, but as you were at Belling Wood, it’s to be assumed your skills are higher than would strictly be required here at Portis.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I murmured. I had carefully placed my hands on the lap of my thick skirt, and I kept my eyes trained on them. I wore my only pair of gloves. I hated gloves, but I hated the sight of my hands even more. At least the gloves hid the scar that traveled from the soft web between my thumb and fingers down to the base of my wrist.
“Are you?” Mrs. Hilder—Matron—asked. Something about the careful neutrality of her tone set a pulse of panic pumping in the back of my throat.
I risked a glimpse up at her. She was regarding me steadily from behind a gaze that gave nothing away. I would have to say something. I quickly searched my memory.
“Belling Wood was exhausting,” I said. “I was hardly ever home. I began to think I couldn’t really make a difference.” Yes, this I remembered hearing. “I was tired of casualty cases, and I had heard of Portis House by reputation.”
A bit thick, perhaps, but I felt it had been called for. Matron’s expression didn’t change. “Portis has no reputation,” she said without inflection. “We opened only last year.”
“I hear that the patients are very well treated,” I said. Also true, even if I had heard it only from the taxi driver twenty minutes earlier.
“They’re treated as well as they can be,” she replied. “You also have a letter of reference here from Gertrude Morris, Belling Wood’s head nurse.”
I watched her extract the page and read it carefully. Her eyes traveled down the handwritten paper, then up again. Sweat beaded on my forehead.
It was a lie, all of it. I’d never set foot in Belling Wood. My London flatmate, Alison, had worked there, and in her few hours home between shifts, she’d told exhausted stories of what it was like. It sounded like hard work, but hard work didn’t bother me, and I wanted a job. Washing bandages and emptying a few bedpans didn’t seem like much compared to the factory work I’d been doing, and when I was let go, I found myself with no way to pay my half of the rent.
Ally’d had two nursing friends over one night, and as I sat in my tiny bedroom, I listened through the thin walls to their talk. One had a pamphlet from Portis House advertising for nurses and was thinking of applying. She was sick of London and the work sounded easy—just a few shell-shocked men, if you please, far from the blood and the vomit and the influenza in the city. But the others said the place was so far away she’d likely go mad. Besides, rumor had it Portis House couldn’t keep staff past a few weeks, though no one could say why, and it was desperate for girls. Who wanted to give up a good London job and go all that way to a place that couldn’t keep nurses? Best, all the girls agreed, to stay in London and hope for a promotion—or, even better, a husband.
I’d sat on my thin bed listening, hugging my knees, my heart pounding in excitement as they’d tossed the idea away, and after they left I’d fished the pamphlet from the trash bin. It was the perfect solution. A far-distant place, desperate for girls, and all I’d have to do was wait on a handful of soldiers. I’d sent off an application claiming Ally’s experience as mine, complete with a letter of reference from the head nurse. Ally had talked about her often enough; it was simple to change my handwriting and use the woman’s name. Who would check too closely in these days of chaos, with the war just over?
I’d received a reply within a few days—an acceptance sight unseen, accompanied by travel instructions. I’d told Ally a made-up story about getting another factory job and packed my bag, leaving her none the wiser. If it doesn’t harm anyone, I’d always thought, it’s fair game.
Matron folded the paper again and put it on the desk. The pulse of fear in my throat slowed.
“This all seems in order,” she said.
I swallowed and nodded.
“Conditions here can be challenging,” she went on, “and our location is isolated. It isn’t easy work. We have a hard time getting girls to stay.”
“Yes,” she said. “You likely will.” She tilted her head and regarded me. “Because Gertrude Morris happens to be my second cousin, and that isn’t her handwriting at all.”
My heart dropped to my stomach. No. No. “I—”
“Be quiet.” Her voice was kept even, and her eyelids drooped over her eyes for a brief moment in what almost seemed an expression of triumph. “I should not only turn you away, I should report you to Mr. Deighton, the owner. A word from him to your next employer and you’d be out on the streets.”
“But you brought me all the way here.” I tried to speak calmly, not to sound shrill, but it came out a croak. “You can’t just turn me away. Why did you bring me here?”
“I didn’t. Mr. Deighton did. I was away for several days, and your application fell to him. Believe me, if he’d waited to seek my counsel, none of this would be happening.” She sounded a little disgusted, as if the slight was a frequent one. “But now it’s done.”
What did that mean? I waited.
Matron leaned back in her chair and examined me. “How old are you?” she asked.
“Have you had measles?”
“Do you have varicose veins?”
“Susceptible to infection?”
“I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”
“Are you capable of holding down a man who is thrashing and calling you names?”
Steady. She was trying to throw me, but I wouldn’t let her. “I don’t know about the thrashing, but I’ve been called every name in the book and then some.”
She sighed. “You seem awfully confident. You shouldn’t be. You’re a pert one, too, and don’t think I can’t tell. I don’t care for your attitude.” She glanced down at the papers before her again, then back at me, and now her jaw was set. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Miss Weekes, and I don’t care to know. As it happens, I’m in dire need of a nurse. I haven’t been able to keep a girl past three weeks, and it’s put the work far behind. Frankly, I’m about to lose my position over it.”
I blinked. I hadn’t expected candor. “I’ll stay,” I said again.
“I’ll thank you to remember that, and not come crying to me.”
“I don’t come crying to anyone.”
“You say that now. Another thing—I keep rules here at Portis House. Show respect to myself, to the doctors, and to Mr. Deighton when he comes for inspection. Cleanliness and neatness at all times. Always wear your uniform. Shifts are of sixteen hours’ duration, with two hours of leisure time in the early afternoon, and one week’s night shift per month. You get a half day off every four weeks only, and no other leave will be given. Curfew is strictly enforced, and no fraternizing with the men. Breaking the rules is grounds for immediate dismissal. Do I make myself clear? And for the last time, you’re to call me Matron.”
I couldn’t believe that this was happening, that I would be staying. That my wild plan had worked. This place is perfect—so perfect. I’ll never be found. “Yes, Matron.”
“I will not discuss your background, or lack of it, with anyone for now. But you are expected to perform all the duties of a nurse, to the level of your fellow nurses. How you do that is your problem. Is this fully understood?”
“Fine, then. I’ll have Nurse Fellows show you around the place.” She stood.
I stood as well, but I didn’t follow her to the door.
“Well?” she said irritably when she opened the door and turned back to see me standing there. “What is it?”
“Why?” I said. “Why did you accept me, really? You don’t like me at all. Why didn’t you turn me away?”
I could see her deciding whether to answer, but her distaste for me won out and she went ahead. “Very well. Because I think the only girls who will stay here will be the ones who have nowhere else to go,” she said bluntly. “Normal girls haven’t worked, but someone desperate might do.” She shrugged. “And now I’ve found you.” She turned to the open doorway. “Nurse Fellows, please show Nurse Weekes to her quarters.”