A short story inspired by the Help for Heroes campaign and also to commemorate the first awards of the Victoria Cross.
Victoria Cross - Wikipedia commons
June 26, 1857
‘Good heavens, she should be at home and out of sight! Isn’t she just deplorable?’ whispered Mrs Armstrong-Holmes, fluttering a lace handkerchief in front of her nose, as if there was an unpleasant smell nearby.
‘There should be a law against it,’ opined Mrs Radcliffe, looking down her hooked nose. ‘It is thoroughly common to display her condition like that!’
‘Come along, Jimmy,’ Winifred Cambridge said, gently tugging her five-year-old boy along beside her green brocade skirts. Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes as they walked past the two women.
Within a few moments she had forgotten their sour remarks as she was too concerned about getting through the crowds for a better view of the ceremony. Her heart was hammering in her chest and little Jimmy was near to tears himself, hemmed in by the people.
Hyde Park was crammed with representatives from all the regiments who had fought in the Crimea as well as many families and friends. Fortunately they were blessed with a fine sunny day. The slight breeze snapped at the countless colourful flags and made the bright satin and silk dresses ripple and shimmer.
Huge marquees had been set up, the tables groaning under the weight of food and drink. Coloured pennants fluttered; standing all around were the proud bearers of the regimental standards. Sunlight glinted off the metal of weapons and helmets. Across the park carried the sound of horses snorting and soldiers barking orders.
At last, a gentleman made way for her and Jimmy, doffing his smart top hat. ‘Don’t mind me, ma’am, I can see well enough over your shoulder.’
‘Thank you, sir, you are most kind.’ Winifred moved little Jimmy in front of her, his head just resting against her bump. ‘I’m hoping to see my husband, Sergeant Philip Cambridge.’
The man twirled the moustache above his Vandyke beard. ‘Bless my soul, I recall the name well.’ He bowed. ‘Charles Gledhill, ma’am, at your service. I’m the brother of Captain Daniel Gledhill.’
‘Oh,’ Winifred said, the smile swiftly falling from her face.
Charles Gledhill turned to the woman next to him and said, ‘Enid, dear, let me introduce you to Mrs Philip Cambridge. Mrs Cambridge, Mrs Daniel Gledhill.’
Dressed in fashionable black, Captain Gledhill’s widow wore a slouch hat decorated with purple and white orchids. Her dark bright eyes were in shadow and, thought Winifred, understandably puffy. ‘My dear, I’m pleased to meet you.’ She observed Winifred’s prominent bulge and added, ‘Are you quite well enough to stand here?’
Winifred smiled. ‘I must admit my back aches, but I could not miss today.’
‘No, I agree,’ Mrs Gledhill said. ‘Nor could I.’ The sun caught a glint of moisture on her eyelids.
‘At least the weather has turned out fine,’ said Winifred to lighten the mood.
‘You cannot trust the weather in June, my dear,’ said Mrs Gledhill, ‘but if the Queen is to be present you can be sure the sun will shine.’
‘They say it never sets on our Empire,’ Winifred added.
Suddenly, an eerie hush fell on the entire park. Winifred felt her heart flutter as she caught sight of the monarch. She had never been so excited in her life!
The Queen looked simply gorgeous in her ivory silk dress, the bright blue sash draped elegantly over her left shoulder. She had reigned for twenty years and looked almost as fresh as she had when she inherited the throne at eighteen. Her consort and husband Albert sat beside her in all his military finery.
Ensconced in a gold-inlaid throne, Queen Victoria sat on a dais in front of the sixty-two officers and men who were about to be honoured.
Winifred spotted her Philip standing to attention about halfway along the line. She leaned down and pointed for Jimmy. ‘See, there’s your daddy!’ she whispered. Jimmy waved and Philip saw them both and winked fleetingly: he might be a hero, Winifred thought, but he still feared the wrath of the sergeant-major who was responsible for the assembly’s protocol.
The Queen was flanked by several aides who carried cushions that held the new awards. Now she stood up and addressed the crowds: ‘It gives me great pleasure to present my personal award, the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, to so many brave warriors of our Empire.’
The first to step forward was Commander Raby of the Royal Navy. Two years earlier almost to the day this naval man – with the help of two others – had rescued a private of the 57th Foot, who was wounded in both legs and lying between the trenches, and carried the soldier to safety.
Many people were stirred by the bald announcements of bravery in the London Gazette. Winifred couldn’t begin to imagine how horrendous it must have been for Philip and all these men.
The siege at Sevastopol must have been truly appalling, she thought. Every day hundreds of cannon battered down the fortifications and yet the Russians repaired them each time before the next bombardment. Ear-splitting shells shattered limbs and sanity. Soldiers manned the trenches night after night through two harsh winters.
She gleaned what little she could from the eloquent and brave newspaper reporters like Mr Russell. When he returned home eighteen months ago, Philip never spoke about it at all. Her heart went out to him as he often stared off into space, perhaps mindful of the wounds that still grew inflamed when he relived that particular day.
On 19 April, 1855, at Sevastopol, Crimea, Corporal Philip Cambridge
of the 77th Regiment volunteered for a spiking party at the assault on
the Redan and remained with the party even after being severely
wounded. Later that same day, he went out under heavy fire to bring
to safety a wounded man.
It was notices such as this that annoyed Winifred. Those responsible made no allowance for people like her who had no idea what a ‘spiking party’ was, for goodness’ sake! Indeed, it could have been a jolly jape, like a birthday party, for all she knew. Of course Philip explained – to her great embarrassment – that he and the others were sent out to spike the Russians’ guns – that is, to make them inoperable by blocking or destroying their barrels or hammering a metal spike into the touch-hole. It sounded awfully technical – and dangerous.
It must have been bad enough to face the enemy cannon onslaught, but to actually go right up to their gun barrels seemed quite suicidal. Even now, two years after the event, she grew weak-kneed at the thought of it.
Last night on the settee in their front parlour, where they had retired after eating, Philip finally spoke in detail about the incident. While she sat with her tea and he his brandy, he said that he had felt quite scared yet strangely alive.
‘It was as if everything around me was moving slowly. My perceptions were so acute, dearest Winifred,’ he said, sipping some brandy. ‘My senses were attuned; my very skin could feel the roughness of my uniform. I could hear the blood in my veins. It was almost like a religious experience.’
‘Oh, Philip,’ she exclaimed, ‘that sounds quite sacrilegious!’
‘I do not mean it to appear that way, dearest. Perhaps when we fear death or terrible maiming, we’re closer than ever to God.’
She nodded and kissed him, tasting the strong liquor on his lips. Wiping her mouth on a napkin, she said, ‘Yes, that most probably is what you felt.’
‘Heightened senses, I imagine.’ He grinned, a twinkle in his eye as he patted her gravid bump. ‘Just like it is when I’m with you.’
Even though they had been married eight years, Winifred blushed.
She felt her cheeks glow now at the memory.
The sovereign began presenting the bronze Victoria Crosses.
At last it was Philip’s turn. He limped slightly as he approached the Queen and Winifred’s heart felt fit to burst with pride. Philip saluted and bowed his head as the VC was pinned to his chest. Her majesty leaned towards him and spoke briefly. She would be anxious to discover what the Queen had said for the rest of the day, until Philip was allowed to fall out or whatever military men do when they are dismissed.
It seemed most appropriate that all of the medals were cast from the bronze of Chinese cannons captured from the Russians at Sevastopol, making them unique. Like the men here today. Like her husband, Philip.
The days and weeks and months of anxious waiting seemed so long ago now, a distant memory, as if happening to someone else. Winifred could barely remember those sleepless nights and the terrible constricted feeling in her throat when she checked the casualty lists.
How her heart had lurched when she read Philip’s name through blurred lashes. She thanked God that he was only wounded, that he was alive. She flushed and felt selfish and awful when she realised that many of the women beside her had no consolation at all: their husbands, sweethearts and sons were not coming back, ever.
Enid Gledhill had been one of them. Her husband was a captain in Philip’s regiment and led the attack on the rifle pits in front of the Redan. They managed to drive out the Russians at the point of their bayonets, without firing a shot, but the 77th suffered many casualties, among them Captain Daniel Gledhill. Now Mrs Gledhill stood tall and steely-eyed as the monarch honoured the living heroes. There was no such thing as a posthumous award, which seemed a little unfair, Winifred thought.
Later, when Philip limped towards her, his eyes shining bright and full of love for her, Winifred felt quite faint. He lifted up Jimmy into his arms and in front of all manner of people he gently embraced Winifred and kissed her cheek.
‘Philip!’ Winifred whispered. ‘Everybody is looking!’
He lowered his son and held his wife at arms’-length. ‘Let them!’ His chest was thrust out and the bronze cross caught the sun, scintillating. ‘Her majesty was right. Our loved ones are just as brave, to wait for us.’
Winifred gasped. ‘Is that what she said? Really?’
‘Yes. And it’s true. Throughout history, while the men go off to fight, the women have to be brave and carry on with their lives. Looking after the home and the children.’
‘I never thought of myself as being brave,’ she said.
‘Well, you are, my dear.’ Philip Cambridge, VC, unpinned the medal and put it into his wife’s hand and closed her fingers over it. ‘That’s our medal, not just mine.’
Previously published in The New Coastal Press in 2009.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
If you liked this story, please consider trying my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat. It features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in a new case ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat 20-story Collection, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
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