Mary Russell’s War (thirty-one): the moated house


2 March 1915

Today is the second day of March, and there has been no sign of the month’s Strand. February’s issue did not come until the third of the month, and the post seems only to be getting slower. Perhaps the magazine should forswear the serialisation of its pieces for the duration of War, in consideration for the frustration of its readers.

Similarly, I received two letters from Lieutenant Saunders on the same day, although they had been written a week apart. I found it difficult to decide whether I should read both at once, or whether I should wait a week for the second, so as to duplicate his chronology across the Channel. In the end, I compromised and waited but a day to read the second one—by which time a third had arrived.

I shall probably now receive nothing more from him for a month.

(I wonder if the post office could be to blame for my lack of correspondence from Dr Ginsberg? I know that she wrote to me every week, after I left California, although again they arrived in fits and starts. However, I have had nothing since one brief letter that was dated on my birthday, 2 January. That one I did answer—although I fear that she may have taken offence at my previous lack of a reply, since nothing has come since then. Three weeks ago, it occurred to me that that one of the ships sunk by the Germans could have held my piece of Royal mail, so I wrote again. Perhaps I will send a third one, just to be certain that one of them reaches San Francisco? After that, if there is no reply, I shall have to accept that ours was not the friendship I had thought, and that her affection for Mother, followed by her professional care of me after the accident, does not make a sufficient call on her time. She is, after all, a busy woman.)

That would not be the only ship to have gone down. Submarines prowl the waters off Beachy Head, and in the last week have sunk four or five steamers. It must be terrifying to look over the rails and see a periscope sticking up from the waters, followed by the track of a torpedo coming at the hull. One of the ships—the Thordis—claims to have made a run directly at the U-boat and damaged it, but either it sank or it limped off because it did not wash up on our shores.

Not that I would know. I have avoided the coast since my one time there, not wishing to see doomed ships or hear the sound of the guns. Instead, when the weather permits, I go northerly out of the Downs and into the Weald, where the trees shelter one from the distant rumbles. Last week the weather took a turn for the better, Thursday dawning surprisingly mild beneath a cloudless sky. I slid my book in one pocket and some bread and cheese in another, and before midday I reached the Michelham Priory.

I had come across mention of this ancient moated house, formerly monastic and now private, in one of Mother’s histories of Sussex. It reminded me of the moat that surrounds the house in Valley of Fear, and I took a fancy to see it.   As I drew near, I saw that the resemblance was thin, since the moat is some distance from the walls of the house, not directly below its windows as in the story. Nonetheless, the place looks intriguing, and perhaps another time I shall knock at the door.

Is it a sign of maturity that I noticed restoration on portions of the structure? Or the preoccupation that comes in being responsible for the fabric of a house?  I doubt that last summer I should have noticed such a thing.   My parents attended a Christmas party at Michelham one year, and I remember Father’s concern over the heavy hands of the restorers. Today, this seems a frivolous sort of worry, when a million men are at each other’s throats just over the horizon, but a person grasps what small piece of normality she can, in these days.

So, I agree with my father: I hope the Priory’s restoring hands are gentle.

*  *

Read about the Michelham Priory, here.  Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.

The List

Thanks to you good people who rushed out in Week One and plunked down your hard-earned dollars for Dreaming Spies, the book will appear in the number eight slot on the New York Times bestseller list, and #10 on the Indie Bookstore bestseller list.  This makes me very happy, not in the least because it convinces my publisher that people might be interested in my stories.

Thank you.

Dreaming Spies low Res JPEG

Mary Russell’s War (thirty): to the service of the King


23 February 1915

Each day, the young son of the village postmistress comes cycling up the lane to bring us, among the various requests from cook and aunt, my day’s copy of The Times. My aunt seems to think this inappropriate reading material, given my sex and age, but it is the newspaper my parents used to read, and the font is familiar to me (although the quality of the paper itself seems to have slipped somewhat, under the pressures of Wartime shortages.)

It is, I admit, a more difficult means of following the world’s events than the San Francisco Chronicle used to be. That paper’s preference for the more sensational headlines made for a more entertaining experience, one being certain to find out about daring criminal exploits, smuggling, and the abduction of young girls than about the War dead and the dry decisions of Crown Courts.

Still, even the Times acknowledges the need for the softer interests among the hard edges of international affairs. The Queen, it seems, has been visiting her “Work for Women Fund” workrooms, a training college where unemployed girls are taught the skills of dressmaking, ironing, and kitchen. Only some of them, it seems, are deemed capable of learning the demanding skills of the clerk.

A schoolboy of 13 years has taken ten shillings of his choir money and set off for the Front, sleeping rough and carrying luggage for tips. When retrieved, he was disappointed to hear that he cannot enlist as a drummer boy for another year.

In the meantime, the King has been inspecting a collection of motor ambulances at the Palace. They, too, are on their way to the Front, under the auspices of the Red Cross. Posters urge enlistment, shops arrange goods on sparse shelves, there is talk of gathering scrap metal and iron fences to be melted down into armament. And half the population of Britain sits at home and feeds the children.

Why are women permitted the needle, even the type-writing machine, but not the rifle? Surely chivalry is a dangerous luxury when the enemy is a short distance of water away? Perhaps, in the end, some leeway may open up, that the “gentler sex” may be granted the right, if not to fire a rifle across no-man’s land, then at least to drive to the aid of wounded riflemen, perhaps in those very Red Cross ambulances?

My farm’s motorcar—my motorcar, strictly speaking—currently sits upon blocks of wood at the back of the stables. However, even if I were to take it down, fill the tyres, and get it running, I would only then come up against the shortages of gasoline. Why did I not insist that Father teach me to drive, once my feet would reach the controls? Still, there are motors occasionally to be seen in the village. One of them belongs to the local doctor, who is to be seen, pressed up against the windscreen with a worried look on his face. This has given me a plan: I shall invent an ailment, to get me in to see him, and tell him he needs a chauffeur. (Chauffeuse?)

The actual skills of driving will no doubt be quickly learned—Patrick will have to teach me, once confronted with the fait accomplis of my new position.  And when I am expert enough, I can put my name forward for the Front.

All sorts of men drive. How hard could it be?

*  *

Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.

Lost grey matter

Since the airlines (one of three) seem to have misplaced Laurie’s brain somewhere between Houston and Los Angeles (or perhaps in Phoenix), Mary Russell’s War will return as soon as the lost brain has been located and delivered to her door.  In the meantime, here’s a picture of yesterday’s fab event put together by the Mission Viejo library, with decorations, two kinds of tea on the tables (English and Japanese) in the appropriate tea pots, and platters of Girl Scout cookies, with tables laid with white cloths by some young volunteers and books schlepped in and sold by San Diego’s great Mysterious Galaxy bookstore.  Thank you, everyone!Image 1

Tour, and toilets!

I hope you’ve managed to get your hands (and your eyes) on a copy of Dreaming Spies?  If not, I’ll be all over in the next couple of weeks, and I’m happy to sign one for you.  All my events are listed here.  Oh, and I should mention that there are still places left at the Chicago University Club luncheon on the 27th, you need to give them a ring (yes, they’re old school) at (847) 446-8880.

Also, there’s a new book(let), something I co-wrote with the Poisoned Pen’s Barbara Peters: m.php

Not in Kansas any more, TOTO

by Laurie R King & Barbara Peters


A cultural exploration of the Japanese bath-room, (toilet and bath)

with side-excursions into shoes, maps, irrigation pipes,

the effects of earthquakes on architecture,

the problems of finding a bed during cherry-blossom time,

and the uncooperative nature of diesel fuel.

A travelogue with a limited point of view, a heavily illustrated anthropological monograph, and really just a fun project that came about when Barbara and I fell in love with Japanese toilets.  We’ll be signing it when I’m in Scottsdale on Saturday, you can order a copy here.