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The Summer Before the War
Author:Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson



It was in the first place, after the strangest fashion, a sense of the extraordinary way in which the most benign conditions of light and air, of sky and sea, the most beautiful English summer conceivable, mixed themselves with all the violence of action and passion….Never were desperate doings so blandly lighted up as by the two unforgettable months that I was to spend so much of in looking over from the old rampart of a little high-perched Sussex town at the bright blue streak of the Channel.

HENRY JAMES, “Within the Rim”





The town of Rye rose from the flat marshes like an island, its tumbled pyramid of red-tiled roofs glowing in the slanting evening light. The high Sussex bluffs were a massive, unbroken line of shadow from east to west, the fields breathed out the heat of the day, and the sea was a sheet of hammered pewter. Standing at the tall French windows, Hugh Grange held his breath in a vain attempt to suspend the moment in time as he used to do when he was a little boy, in this same, slightly shabby drawing room, and the lighting of the lamps had been the signal for his aunt to send him to bed. He smiled now to think of how long and late those summer evenings had run and how he had always complained bitterly until he was allowed to stay up well beyond bedtime. Small boys, he now knew, were inveterate fraudsters and begged, pleaded, and cajoled for added rights and treats with innocent eyes and black hearts.

The three boys his aunt had asked him to tutor this summer had relieved him of half a sovereign and most of his books before he realized that they neither were as hungry as their sighs proposed nor had any interest in Ivanhoe except for what it might bring when flogged to the man with the secondhand bookstall in the town market. He held no grudge. Instead he admired their ferret wits and held some small dream that his brief teaching and example might turn sharpness into some intellectual curiosity by the time the grammar school began again.

The door to the drawing room was opened with a robust hand, and Hugh’s cousin, Daniel, stood back with a mock bow to allow their Aunt Agatha to pass into the room. “Aunt Agatha says there isn’t going to be a war,” said Daniel, coming in behind her, laughing. “And so of course there won’t be. They would never dream of defying her.” Aunt Agatha tried to look severe but only managed to cross her eyes and almost stumbled into a side table due to the sudden blurring of her vision.

“That isn’t what I said at all,” she said, trying to secure her long embroidered scarf, an effort as futile as resting a flat kite on a round boulder, thought Hugh, as the scarf immediately began to slide sideways again. Aunt Agatha was still a handsome woman at forty-five, but she was inclined to stoutness and had very few sharp planes on which to drape her clothing. Tonight’s dinner dress, in slippery chiffon, possessed a deep, sloppy neckline and long Oriental sleeves. Hugh hoped it would maintain its dignity through dinner, for his aunt liked to embellish her conversation with expansive gestures.

“What does Uncle John say?” asked Hugh, stepping to a tray of decanters to pour his aunt her usual glass of Madeira. “No chance he’s coming down tomorrow?” He had hoped to ask his uncle’s opinion on a smaller but no less important subject. After years devoted to his medical studies, Hugh found himself not only on the point of becoming primary assistant surgeon to Sir Alex Ramsey, one of England’s leading general surgeons, but also quite possibly in love with his surgeon’s very pretty daughter, Lucy. He had held rather aloof from Lucy the past year, perhaps to prove to himself, and others, that his affection for her was not connected to any hopes of advancement. This had only made him a favorite of hers among the various students and younger doctors who flocked around her father, but it was not until this summer, when she and her father left for an extended lecture tour in the Italian Lakes, that he had felt a pleasurable misery in her absence. He found he missed her dancing eyes, the toss of her pale hair as she laughed at some dry comment he made; he even missed the little spectacles she wore to copy her father’s case files or reply to his voluminous correspondence. She was fresh from the schoolroom and sometimes distracted by all the pleasures London offered bright young people, but she was devoted to her father and would make, thought Hugh, an exceptional wife for a rising young surgeon. He wished to discuss, with some urgency, whether he might be in a position to contemplate matrimony.

Uncle John was a sensible man and through the years had always seemed swiftly to understand whatever difficulty Hugh stammered out and would help talk the matter over until Hugh was convinced he had resolved some intractable problem all on his own. Hugh was no longer a small boy and now understood some of his uncle’s wisdom to be the result of diplomatic training, but he knew his uncle’s affection to be genuine. His own parents’ parting words, as they left for a long-awaited year of travel, had been to apply to Uncle John in any case of need.

“Your uncle says they are all working feverishly to smooth things over, before everyone’s summer holiday,” said his aunt. “He tells me nothing, of course, but the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary spent much of the day closeted with the King.” Uncle John was a senior official in the Foreign Office, and the usually sleepy summer precincts of Whitehall had been crammed with busy civil servants, politicians, and generals since the Archduke’s assassination in Sarajevo. “Anyway he telephoned to say he met the schoolteacher and transferred her to Charing Cross to catch the last train, so she’ll be getting in after dinner. We’ll give her a late supper.”