11 October 2012
Excerpt Thursday: Gather the Bones by Alison Stuart
This week, we’re welcoming historical fiction author Alison Stuart whose title GATHER THE BONES finds two lovers haunted by the mysteries of the past. Join us Sunday, when Alison will be here to talk about the novel and offer an ebook copy to a lucky winner. Here's the blurb:
The horrors of the Great War are not the only ghosts that haunt Helen Morrow and her late husband's reclusive cousin, Paul. Unquiet spirits from another time and another conflict touch them.
A coded diary gives them clues to the mysterious disappearance of Paul's great-grandmother in 1812, and the desperate voice of a young woman reaches out to them from the pages.
Together Helen and Paul must search for answers, not only for the old mystery, but also the circumstances surrounding the death of Helen's husband at Passchandaele in 1917.
As the mysteries entwine, their relationship is bound by the search for truth, in the present and the past.
**An Excerpt from Gather The Bones**
Helen Morrow took a deep breath, her hand tightening on her daughter’s. She felt a corresponding squeeze, looked down into Alice’s upturned face, and smiled. Why were children so much braver than adults?
She raised the knocker on the old oak door and let it fall. The sound reverberated around the quiet courtyard and she took a step back as the door opened to reveal a small, round woman wearing a spotless white apron over a flowered dress.
Before Helen could speak, the woman’s face lit up with a smile.
“Mrs. Charles,” she exclaimed. “Welcome to Holdston. I’m Sarah Pollard and you must be Miss Alice.” She turned a beaming smile on the child before standing aside to usher them both inside the cool, dark hallway and through to a grand room, smelling of beeswax and dominated by a long table and a large fireplace emblazoned with carving. “We expected you on the later train. Sam was all set to take the car to the station to meet you.”
“We caught the bus from the station and walked. Sorry if that caused any inconvenience,” Helen said
“Oh none at all. You’re here and that’s what matters. Come in, come in. Leave your suitcase. I’ll take it up to your room. Lady Morrow’s in the parlour. I’ll show you through.”
Helen removed the pins from her hat and set it down on top of the case. She took off Alice’s hat and fussed over the unmanageable fair hair that refused to stay confined in a neat plait.
“Are you ready to meet Grandmama?” she asked her daughter, with what she hoped was a confident smile. She didn’t need Alice to see the nerves that turned her stomach into a churning mass of butterflies.
They followed Sarah Pollard’s ample girth across the wide, stone-flagged floor. Helen looked up at the portraits of long dead Morrows who glared down at her from the wainscoted walls. If Charlie had lived, she would have been the next Lady Morrow and her portrait would have joined theirs, a colonial interloper in their ordered society.
Sarah opened a door and announced her. A slender woman, in her late middle age, her graying hair piled on her head in a manner fashionable before the war, rose from a delicate writing table by the window.
“Helen. You’re earlier than I had expected,” Lady Evelyn Morrow said. “I would have sent the car for you but you are most welcome to Holdston at long last. And you.” She turned to the child. “Let me look at you, Alice.”
Alice looked up at her mother, her eyes large and apprehensive. Helen gave her a reassuring smile and with a gentle hand in the girl’s back, urged her forward for her grandmother’s inspection.
“You’re not much like your father,” Lady Morrow concluded.
Helen could have listed all the ways in which Alice was, in fact, very much like her father, the father she had never known, from the hazel eyes to the way her upper lip curled when she smiled, and her utter lack of concern for her own safety. She must never stop forgetting.
Sarah Pollard bustled in with a tea tray and Lady Morrow indicated two chairs. Alice perched awkwardly on the high backed chair, her feet not quite touching the floor. Her eyes widened at the sight of the cake and biscuits piled high on the tea tray.
“I trust you had a good voyage?” Lady Morrow enquired as she poured the tea into delicate cups.
“Yes.” Helen smiled. “It was a wonderful adventure. Wasn’t it, Alice? We thought about Cousin Paul as we sailed through the Suez Canal. He must have some incredible stories to tell about the archaeological digs.”
The lines around Evelyn’s nose deepened. “If Paul has incredible stories, he does not share them with me, Helen.”
“But he writes to me and tells me all about them,” Alice said. “Every Christmas and every birthday. Last birthday he sent me a little glass bottle from...where was it, Mummy?”
“Palestine,” Helen replied. “He said it was Roman.”
“Does he indeed?” Evelyn’s eyebrows rose slightly. “I am glad to hear he recognizes his responsibility to you, Alice.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting him. They told me he was with Charlie...” Helen began.
Evelyn stiffened, the teacup halfway to her lips. She set the cup down and folded her hands in her lap. “If you are hoping that Paul will shed any light on what happened that day, Helen, then you will be disappointed. Paul was badly injured in the same action and has, apparently, no memory of--” her thin lips quivered, “--the incident.”
Helen caught the sharp edge of an old bitterness in the older woman’s voice. “I see,” she said.
“You and I, Helen, must mourn over an empty grave,” Lady Morrow said.
She rose to her feet, walked over to the piano and picked up one of the heavy silver-framed photographs that adorned its highly polished surface.
“Did you ever see this photograph?” She handed it to Helen. “I had it taken before Charlie went to France in March 1915. Paul was home on leave and Charlie had just taken his commission.”
The photograph showed two young men in the uniform of infantry officers, one seated and the other standing, a photograph like thousands of others that were now the last link with the dead. Helen had a single portrait of Charlie, taken at the same photographic session, sporting an elegant, unfamiliar moustache and grinning from ear to ear, like an over-anxious school boy, keen to join the ‘stoush’, kill the ‘bloody Bosch’. She felt a keen sense of pain that reverberated as strongly as it had on the day he told her he would have to return to England.
“I can’t leave them to fight the Huns, Helen,” he said. “Damn it, I have a duty to England.” The drunken words came back to her and she could see Charlie in the kitchen of Terrala with his arm across her brother Henry’s shoulders, as they celebrated their mutual decision to join the war.
Henry had already enlisted in the Australian Light Horse and Charlie told her a few days later that he intended to return to England to join his cousin’s regiment.
“Do you think I would leave Paul to uphold the family honor?” he said.
And he’d gone.
Even as she had stood on the dock at Port Melbourne, the cold winter wind whipping at her ankles, she had known he would not return. She wondered if his decision to go would have been any different if they had known she was carrying his child. Probably not.
She turned from her husband’s smiling face to his cousin, Paul Morrow, the professional soldier, never destined to take the Morrow title until one day in a muddy field outside Ypres had turned his fortune.
The long months of war had already begun to leave their mark and, while he affected a smile, she saw no warmth in his eyes. In normal circumstances, with the strong jaw and good bone structure, it would be a handsome face but he looked tired and drained, and years older than his cousin, although he was the older by little over a year.
Yes, Paul Morrow had survived, but at what cost, she wondered?
“Is Paul here?” she asked. “When he last wrote to Alice, he said he would be in Mesopotamia for the digging season.”
“The digging season is over for the year and I expect him home in the next few days.” Evelyn rose to her feet. “Now, let me show you your bedroom, Helen. I’ve given you the green room. As the nursery wing is shut up, I thought Alice could sleep in the dressing room. It’s so hard with just the two of us.” Her voice wavered and she looked past Helen to a point just beyond her shoulder before recovering her composure and continuing. “Much of the house is shut up, but Sarah can let you have the keys and you are free to go wherever you want, except my rooms and, of course Paul’s rooms. When he returns, he will also be working in the library.” Evelyn looked at Alice. “Then it will be strictly out of bounds. Sir Paul is not to be disturbed, Alice, do you understand?”
Alice nodded and looked up at her mother.
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