The clomp of Victoria’s heels on the stone floor filled the church. Her back burned with the glares of the gossipy hens in the pews, but for once, she paid the tittle-tattlers no mind. True, ladies weren’t supposed to walk like men. But young wives weren’t supposed to lose their husbands, either.
She stepped into the church garden and hesitated, her fingers groping for the reticule at her waist. Assured of its presence, she straightened and smoothed her skirts. She took a calming breath and approached the labyrinth with forced deliberation. This had been their special place. She and Roger courted here, its twists and turns giving them opportunities for private conversations and stolen kisses. Three years ago that was, but it felt a decade. Maybe more. If only the war had ended by Christmas like they’d promised . . .
Victoria took another deep breath and stepped into the hedge-lined maze. She heard nothing but the click of her boots on the paving stones. Only hers, though, and for that she was grateful.
The path turned right. If the war had been over by that first Christmas, Roger would never have enlisted. He wouldn’t be hurt or missing or dead or whatever he was now, wherever he was. He would be here with her, setting up housekeeping, starting a family. Now she was alone. At 21, a widow. How could that be?
“Stop, young lady.” The left turn introduced Victoria’s mother’s voice, loudly enough that Victoria turned to make sure she was still alone. “You don’t know you’re a widow. One mustn’t jump to conclusions.”
Right turn. “You’re strong, Tori,” Roger told her the night before his deployment. “It’s one of the things I love about you. It’s how I know you’ll be fine while I’m gone.”
While I’m gone. Roger had every intention of coming back. So where was he? His Pals Battalion were trickling home, most missing a limb or an eye or their wits. But they were alive, and they were here. Not one could tell her what happened to Roger.
They’d gone over the top together, Jasper finally admitted, and then lost each other in the chaos that followed. He wouldn’t give her details, said they weren’t fit for man nor beast and especially not a woman. He thought he saw Roger carried away on a litter.
Jasper had been on a litter too. It’s how he got to the field hospital. Same for the boys Victoria read to here in the relief hospital. But none of the hospitals Victoria contacted could find any record of Roger. Which left only one logical conclusion.
Victoria stopped and turned circles. How far had she gone? Why did all the hedges and turns have to look the same? Why did it feel like she was stuck in the same place?
She scanned the rooflines beyond the church walls. They were all so flat. Then she pinpointed the lettered crenellations of the Wharton’s Tobacconist building. Almost there. Two more turns.
She laid her hand on her reticule and moved forward, fingering the edges of Roger’s letters through the silk. So many letters, one for every week he’d been away, until . . .
Until last July, when the fighting at the Somme began. For months, that battle raged. Every day, names of the dead and wounded and missing filled the newspapers. Every day, Victoria studied those lists with her magnifying glass, even after Roger’s name appeared on the roll of the missing. She kept up the practice for more than a year, both hoping for and dreading Roger’s reassignment to one of the other lists.
She stopped at the hedge that marked the middle of the labyrinth and pulled open her bag. Sorting through the envelopes, she found Roger’s last missive.
Victoria unfolded the page, scanning it until she found the words that brought her here. I left something for you, Tori, in our usual place.
Now she was here—where Roger kissed her the first time, where he proposed, where he told her of his enlistment. What had he left her, other than alone?
The topiary held nothing but leaves and branches. She brushed the dirt with the toe of her boot. Nothing but soil. But wait. The corner of the paver looked less weathered than the rest of the square. Her fingers made out shallow grooves in the stone. On her knees, she peered closer but couldn’t decipher the shape.
She slid out her magnifying glass. The intertwined letters V and R were scratched into the slab. To any other citizen of the realm, it would look like a memorial to the beloved Victoria Regina. Clever Roger.
Victoria fell back, landing hard on her skirts. She felt the pain in her heart, not her behind, and for the first time since she’d heard the word Somme, she gave in to it. The sobs came slowly at first, her quiet sniffs gathering speed and intensity until her whole body shook.
Minutes later she was spent, little more than a bag of bones collapsed on the ground. She crawled to the path’s edge and leaned against a hedge for support.
Her mother’s voice returned to her. “You were named for Britain’s greatest queen. She lost her husband, too, and she carried on. You will do the same.”
What other choice did she have?
Taking a few unsteady breaths, Victoria blinked away the last of her tears. She found the letter and the magnifying glass and slid them back into her bag. She pushed herself to her feet. Brushing her skirts, she recited, “I will carry on, just like the queen.” She repeated the refrain as she continued through the second half of the labyrinth.
She stopped short of the final turn in the maze. A new life awaited her outside the labyrinth. A life without Roger. A life of carrying on.
She stepped back.
No, there was no going backward in a labyrinth. Or life.
She made the final turn.
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