The steady pumping sound of the train slows as it pulls into the station, the smoke from the steam engine billowing across the platform to shroud the awaiting greeters in its thick mist. The cold November breeze bristles through the station, knocking the sign that hangs from the rafters. The words ‘Starling Village’ sway in the gust, the old green paint peeling a little around the edges.
There’s a buzz of excitement in the air, a promise of tomorrow and a feeling of hope that has been lacking for the past four years. Finally, the war is over and the village’s sons are returning home.
As the train pulls to a stop and the conductor shouts their arrival down the long stretch of the platform, the doors begin to open and passengers begin to spill out, bringing with them squeals of excitement as they reunite with their families. It’s a sea of army green and hats fly off heads as mothers and sisters rush into their arms.
From the first-class end of the platform, a sole figure watches with a melancholy smile on his face. Lord Oliver Queen, heir to the Dukedom of Starling and Commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, knows these men, commanded them in battle, and he’s heard numerous stories of their wives and mothers and sisters and daughters. From his position off from the crowd, he can see the way his men finally relax, knowing that the journey they’ve just completed will be their last for a while. They are home and the war is won.
Oliver wishes he could join their revelry and rejoice for the end of the fighting as so many others are but he cannot concentrate on what they have won without also remembering what this war has cost him. If he’d been a better soldier, one of which his men could be proud, he would have been able to shoot that blasted German before his bayonet had plunged into the torso of his best friend and his musket had fired. This gaiety seems entirely bittersweet when Oliver knows it is Tommy who deserves to be on home soil once more, instead of buried under a gleaming white stone in France.
He waits for the crowd to clear slightly before accepting his small suitcase from the attendant and heading down the length of the platform. His men who are left smile and wave, docking their hats as a sign of respect and Oliver grants them the same allowance as he feet click against the cobbled stone of the familiar station.
He may have only returned home once in the four years he served at the front but there are no family members waiting to greet him. Instead, the family chauffeur, Hopkins, stands in his deep green uniform where the platform meets the small path out to the village road. Although it is not the smiling face of his sister or the warm eyes of his mother, the familiar face does wonders to calm Oliver and he finds his lips curving into a smile as he approaches the middle-aged man.
"Good evening, Sir. It’s so good to see you home.” Hopkins greets, pulling off his hat and bobbing his head in a small bow. Oliver smiles, noting how similar Hopkins’ uniform is to his own. It’s odd to think that so many men will merely be swapping one uniform for another upon their return to England. Oliver entered the war thinking that it would change the world forever but for so many, it has merely frozen their lives in time.
Those who are lucky enough to return that is.
“Thank you, Hopkins. It’s good to be back on English ground.” Oliver finally manages to reply, tipping his own hat. Hopkins looks taken aback for a moment before he gives Oliver a tentative smile. The marquess walks towards the familiar automobile, remembering how novel and modern the new model had seemed to him just five years previous. Hopkins takes his case and Oliver slides into the backseat, sinking into the soft leather seat with a satisfied sigh.
“If you’ll just pardon me a moment, Her Grace asked if we might also collect the new housemaid. She was on the same train from London.” Hopkins informs him through the open window, nodding back towards the platform and Oliver nods, not having an issue with the idea at all. Whilst he is anxious to return home, he cannot argue that a few minutes will make much of a difference after three years.
“Of course.” He shakes his head but just as Hopkins turns to head back to the platform, a blonde woman in an army green coat and a soldier’s hat literally stumbles across the walkway, her small (army issue, Oliver notices with a frown) suitcase swinging wildly in her hand. Her eyes widen as she takes in Hopkins who Oliver has no doubt is looking at her with a severely unimpressed expression. She scrambles quickly to right herself, brushing off her coat, and extending her hand.
“I am so terribly sorry, Sir! The baggage handler almost handed my suitcase to the wrong woman.” She explains quickly and Oliver smiles at the way that despite almost falling over in front of Hopkins, there’s no nerves or tentativeness to her voice. She’s assured and confident and her face is painted with a bright smile.
Hopkins seems less impressed by this, however, and Oliver watches as his head tilts as he takes her full form in. “Miss Smoak, I presume?” He questions in a drawl with none of the warmth with which he addressed Oliver.
Miss Smoak does not let it faze her, merely dropping her unshaken hand back down to her side and adjusting her coat with the same bright smile. “Yes, Sir.”
“Mrs Schwartz won’t be liking tardiness in her housemaids,” Hopkins states bitterly and this finally makes Miss Smoak’s smile falter. Her face flushes, her pale cheeks turning a deep pink colour, and she fidgets where she’s stood, clearly taken aback.
“Which is why I suppose we’ll keep this between the three of us.” Oliver finds himself speaking clearly out of the window. The two figures turn to face him, Hopkins’ expression one of confusion and Miss Smoak’s one of surprise.
“Of course, milord.” Hopkins mumbles, quiet enough that Oliver only just catches it. It’s clear that Miss Smoak does not when she speaks her next words, that dazzling smile back on her face.
“Thank you, Sir.” She nods gracefully, her bright blue eyes sparkling with gratitude. Oliver does not know whether he misses her mistake in address because he simply no longer cares or that he’s a little distracted as their eyes lock for a brief moment. She’s certainly pretty, smooth skin and rose coloured lips that curve prettily upwards as she smiles. Whichever the reason, he does not notice it until Hopkins lets out a loud gasp, his mouth dropping in shock as he turns to face Miss Smoak.
“Miss Smoak! You are addressing The Marquess of Starling and I would urge you to do so properly.” Hopkins gasps, his eyes incredulous as he stares down at the small girl. Miss Smoak freezes, her own eyes growing incredibly wide and her face flushing. She immediately turns towards Oliver, bobbing in a curtsey and straightening a good few inches when she rises.
“My lord! I am so sorry, I…” She begins to apologise but Oliver merely smiles, holding up a hand to stall her. If war has taught him anything, it’s that the pomp and circumstance that surrounded his youth is utterly unnecessary. Men all die the same, whether duke or farmer, and he’s grown far less attached to the title he holds or the one he will one day inherit.
“It is fine, you weren’t to know. To you, I was any random man in the back of an automobile.” Oliver waves her off with what he hopes is a kind smile and he’s rewarded by another blush dancing across her cheeks.
“Thank you, Your Lordship.” She acknowledges, ducking into another small curtsey. As she straightens, their eyes lock once more and Oliver suddenly finds himself mesmerised by the way her long black eyelashes flutter in front of the bright colour of her blue eyes.
“Come on then, girl, do not dilly dally or I shall be telling His Grace it was his new housemaid that delayed his reunion with his son on his return from war,” Hopkins calls as he climbs into the driver’s seat. Miss Smoak jumps at that, giving Oliver another small smile before she turns and climbs into the front seat. The door shuts loudly and the engine starts, breaking the haze that had been building up around Oliver.
Oliver turns his attention to the scenes outside the window as the automobile begins to wind through the familiar streets of Starling Village. The sight of the bakery and the post office make him surprisingly sentimental as he remembers the long days he spent running around the village as a child. He doubts he will ever be able to feel so carefree again.
Soon enough, the buildings of the village give way to the rolling fields of the Berkshire countryside. The trunks of the trees fly past out the window, giving blurry brown respites to the flashes of bright green grass. Oliver revels in the flashes of such life, the blossoming winter berries of the hedges sparking a smile that only grows as they round a familiar corner.
There’s a sharp intake of breath from the front seat as the sight of Queen Manor appears through the front glass of the automobile and Oliver leans forward to see Miss Smoak’s bright smile as she takes in the sight of his home. Oliver follows her gaze and feels his heart settle for the first time in three years.
The sight of the sprawling estate, still green and sparkling even in the cold, November climate does wonders to brighten Oliver’s melancholy. In the middle of the green bed sits the sparkling gem that is the manor itself, glistening in the winter sun. The fair-coloured stone of the neo-classical façade shines in the light, like a beacon that calls directly to Oliver’s heart. He understands now why he has been wandering around like a soulless man since his feet touched English ground. It is because this is England, this is home, and the promise of finally returning to it for good fills him with a joy like that he saw on the faces of his men at the station.
“It’s beautiful.” A soft whisper draws Oliver back into the automobile and he smiles at the sight of Miss Smoak’s amazement. A sense of pride rises in him at her wonder and he cannot help but inch closer in his seat.
“It was redesigned in 1768 by my grandfather’s grandfather for a visit from King George III,” Oliver explains, the history of his home flooding back to him as he takes in the large manor house. He may feel like a completely different person who may not need the lavish attendances that come with Queen Manor but he cannot deny the feeling of home that is settling over him as they approach.
Before Miss Smoak can respond, the car pulls to a stop and an unfamiliar footman pulls open the door. He’s shorter than Oliver remembers any of their footmen being, and far younger, though he supposes the war means that the majority of of-age men were at the front. No place for strict, English ways in the turmoil of war.
Such thoughts fly out his head, however, as he exits the automobile to see the large figure of the family butler, Walter Steele, stood in front of the house’s large doors. The man has been in the family’s employ as long as Oliver can remember, having been promoted to butler just after Oliver himself was born. Too old to serve at the front, he remained at Queen Manor for the duration of the war and Oliver will admit that it comforted him to know that his mother and sister had the man’s calming presence during such a difficult time.
“My lord, I cannot tell you how much joy it gives me to see you returned to Queen Manor’s doors.” Steele greets, nodding respectfully as Oliver approaches and the younger man feels his heart soar at the sound of his steady voice. It may be a childish fallacy, but he’s always had the idea that nothing could go wrong when Steele was around and it calms his racing mind even now.
“It must match the joy I have to see your face once more, Steele,” Oliver replies with a wide smile, nodding at the man as he steps aside to allow Oliver to enter the house.
The grandeur washes over Oliver the minute he steps inside the hall. The elaborately crafted design of the rug is soft beneath the rotten soles of his combat boots and the bright green tapestries that hang from the wall seem to dull the khaki colour of his uniform. There’s a strange duality that spreads through him as he takes in the grand and ostentatious decoration that lines even the hallway of his home. This is where he grew up and he feels comfortable here but there’s also a niggling voice at the back of his mind that reminds him he doesn’t deserve to be the one returning home and points out how starkly different he is now than this place. He wants to be here but does he fit here any longer?
The loud squeal from the stairs forces Oliver to spin and he rounds just quickly enough for him to catch the figure that flies into his arms. He freezes, the fast movement and heavy impact sending his mind back to the front for just a moment but then his sister giggles and he finds the strength to wrap her tightly in his arms.
Thea. His sweet baby sister. He’s thought about this moment so many times, how much she might have grown and how excited she would be but even that doesn’t prepare him for when he pulls back to cup her face in his hands.
His baby sister is a woman. The childish chubbiness that had rounded out her face the last time he saw her has thinned to create the handsome countenance it had always promised and she must have grown four inches. She reaches his chin and, whilst Oliver knew logically that his sister is now seventeen, being faced with it so clearly makes his heart pang.
“Speedy! My goodness, look at you.” He stumbles out, watching the way her smile spreads brightly across her face. It reminds him of a conversation he once had with Tommy, just months after arriving at the front. The harsh reality of war shook Oliver to his core and his faith had been fiercely rattled. One night, in the damp atmosphere in the trenches, Tommy had asked Oliver to recall the image of his sister’s smiling face. He’d asked him to remember the exact way she used to look when he’d spin her around above his head. When he had Oliver smiling once more, Tommy had told him to remember the image and hold it close to him for that was why they were there. They had to fight so that Thea could always smile.
I did it, my friend, he cannot help but think as Thea preens a little under his attentions.
“I am so happy you are home!” Thea squeals, bouncing excitedly on her toes, and Oliver is glad to see she has retained some of the childlike innocence he so fondly remembers.
“You were with me the whole time.” He promises, pressing a kiss to her cheek and Thea’s smile only grows as Oliver draws her in for a long embrace.
“There’s so much to catch you up on here!” She assures him when they pull back and Oliver smiles fondly, cupping her cheek tenderly.
“And I cannot wait to hear it.” He swears and Thea nods, stepping back to allow Oliver to turn to the other figure in the room.
“My darling boy.”
Oliver sighs at the sight of his mother as a further sense of contentment washes over him. She, unlike Thea, looks no different from the last time he laid eyes on her and the familiarity is settling to Oliver’s weary eyes.
“My goodness, look at you. You need a good scrub and a shave.” His mother comments as she grasps Oliver’s face in her hands, tugging on the hair that lines his jaw. Oliver chuckles, nodding his head, leaning into the feeling as she presses a long kiss to his cheek.
“Certainly so. You look wonderful, Mama. These three years have not changed you one bit.” He greets brightly, pressing a kiss of his own to her cheek.
“And you are still every bit a flatterer, my darling.” She chuckles, patting him tenderly on the cheek. Oliver holds her gaze for a long moment, revelling in her affection look, before Moira herself steps back and glances at the door next to her. “Your father is in the study.”
“Quite so.” Oliver nods, swallowing heavily as he turns towards the wooden barrier. He knows he shouldn’t be so apprehensive, it is just his father after all, but his father’s straight and narrow attitude scares him nonetheless. He’s never felt ready to take on the responsibilities his father wishes him to, but the war has only doubled his doubts.
He knows his father will not see it the same way.
The sprawling bookcases of the library seemed like such a distant memory when he was at the front but now, as he is faced with the sight of his father nestled within their walls, it seems like only yesterday he was stood here upon his only visit home.
“Oliver, good to see you home. I trust your journey was comfortable.” Robert Queen’s familiar cold voice greets Oliver as he steps properly into the room. Unlike his mother, Oliver can see the war has had its effect on his father. The lines around his eyes are harsher and the ones along his forehead more pronounced.
His question reminds Oliver of the rattling cart ride he endured from the front to Calais and the crowded boat journey back to Dover. It was practically the antonym of comfortable but Oliver is aware his father does not really care. “Once I reached England, yes.”
“I trust you’re ready to get back into the swing of things. We’ll get you taking on some more responsibilities now that you can dedicate more of your time to your work as the heir.” Robert tells him and Oliver freezes for a moment. He is unsurprised by the lack of concern for Oliver’s welfare and the urgency to move into the next thing but it does shock him.
“Of course, Papa.” He mutters, not knowing what else to say.
“Alright, I have a lot to do. I shall see you at dinner.” His father dismisses him and Oliver sighs as the familiar emptiness appears in the pit of his stomach.
Welcome home to me, he thinks bitterly as he leaves the library, the heavy door shutting behind him with enough force to make him jump.
Felicity tries not to allow herself to be too shaken by the voice of the handsome marquess in her ear as they approach the grand house. Over the past few years, she’s grown used to the casual flirtations of men but this is different. There’s a joy to His Lordship’s voice as if he simply wishes to share his joy with her, and it makes it her smile.
He’s very kind, the Marquess, and she prays that it bodes well for the rest of her employers. The way in which he defended her fills her with confidence that perhaps this will not be as bad as she has been dreading. Her return to service is not a move she ever expected but the Marquess’ kindness encourages her to try and find the brighter side of the situation.
She will still be employed, she reminds herself as the automobile pulls to a stop, and she will have the funds to send back to her mother.
“This way.” The chauffeur directs her once the Marquess has entered through the grand entrance. Felicity finds herself blinking up at the beautifully crafted stone architecture for a little too long and she has to rush to catch up with the man as he leads her around to the large service courtyard and the servants’ entrance.
She notices the care that’s been taken to slowly drop the ground level so that the courtyard and door are level with the basement but the traveller does not have to traverse any steps. It’s a small detail but one that Felicity is appreciative of as she remembers the steep stairs by the servants’ entrance at her last job in service. She’s sure there will be plenty of stairs for her to climb inside so the respite is most welcomed.
The inside of the basement looks like many of the servants quarters Felicity has seen. The decoration is practically non-existent but the place is impeccably clean and men and women bustle quickly around the place with intent on their faces.
As she follows the chauffeur down the hall, they pass a large hatch which reveals the kitchen. It’s a comforting sight, the steam-filled room and maids stood around a large central table performing their daily duties. She recalls something her mother told her, just before she entered service.
‘All houses are the same, my sweet girl,’ she’d explained as she’d stood in their tiny kitchen peeling potatoes for supper. ‘Some may be big enough for a king and some may only fit one small girl and her mama, but at the heart of them all is a woman with a boiling pot and a sack of potatoes.’
The thought did just as good of a job of calming her then as it does now, but the recollection of her mother’s voice and her loving tone is just the balm she needs as the chauffeur leads her into the servants’ hall where three tall figures stand in a row. A group of younger servants mill behind them, craning to get a look at the new addition to their force, and Felicity smiles when a small, dark-haired girl smiles brightly at her and offers a small wave.
“Allow me to introduce Mr Steele, the butler,” The chauffeur begins, gesturing to the tall, discerning man in the middle of the trio.
He nods at Felicity as he clearly takes his time assessing her. She is pleased to see he does not appear overtly repulsed.
“Mrs Schwartz, the housekeeper.”
This is the shorter of the two women flanking Mr Steele. She is dark-haired with a severe face and despite her small stature, Felicity can clearly see that she has the intimidating aspect of housekeeper duties down to a tee. She nods politely at Felicity, an offering the younger girl returns which earns her a small smile.
“And Miss Raisa, the cook.”
The last member of the Triad is the taller of the two women. She’s less scant than Mrs Schwartz and she immediately offers Felicity a warm smile as she wipes her flour-covered hands on her apron.
“You must be Miss Smoak.” Mr Steele speaks suddenly and Felicity snaps her attention back to him, smiling as she nods her head.
“Yes, Mr Steele.” She replies, standing slightly taller when he nods approvingly.
“What is your Christian name?” He questions and Felicity falters for a second, having been sure she included her first name in her application. She supposes it tracks that only Mrs Schwartz would have read it but it still throws her for a loop.
“Felicity, Mr Steele.” She finally stumbles out, flushing when Mr Steele’s discerning expression only grows more intense.
“There is a Catholic saint named Felicity, no?” Miss Raisa questions and Felicity is surprised to hear her heavy accent. It is one that she recalls well, having worked on many Russian correspondences at the War Office.
“I believe so, Miss Raisa,” Felicity answers with a nod, unable to recall exactly.
“Yes, well, we shall see whether you keep it when you meet Her Grace.” Mrs Schwartz reminds her and Felicity nods once more.
“Yes, Mrs Schwartz.” She agrees, knowing that her employers have the right to change her name if they see fit. It does not bother her as it once did, everyone had codenames at the War Office, it would merely take some getting used to.
“You have not come from work in another house?” Mr Steele questions, gesturing to her coat and hat which she now carries in her hand.
“Um, no, Mr Steele. I was working as an analyst in the War Office.” She explains, blushing as her words cause the younger servants to titter behind her interrogation squad.
“An analyst? What made you leave there?” Miss Raisa asks, her eyebrows raised in obvious surprise.
“The man whose job I was doing returned from the front.” Felicity clarifies, trying to keep the bite out of her words. She loved her job and it paid a damn sight better than service does. She would never wish for a veteran to be without employment but she is sure the Office could have found something else for her to do.
“Quite so. You have experience in service?” Mr Steele calmly moves the conversation along and the group behind him stops their whispering, clearly to keen to hear of Felicity’s experience.
“Yes Sir, I served three years in the employ of the Earl of Chichester before the war.” Felicity recounts, thinking fondly of the house in the south where the lawn had been open to the staff during hot summer’s days. It had been her employers there who had recognised her intelligence and helped her apply for the job at the War Office. She had inquired to see if she might return there when she heard of her impending termination but the housekeeper had written back to inform her that regretfully, they were not hiring.
“Well, I assure you, His Grace’s house is far larger than any earl’s but at least you are not walking in completely blind.” Mrs Schwartz comments with a brief nod of her head and Felicity attempts her best reassuring smile as she replies.
“I assure you I’m a quick study, Mrs Schwartz.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The housekeeper nods with a small, impressed smile before she steps forward. Her movement breaks the tense atmosphere in the room and Felicity internally relaxes. It seems her interrogation is over for now. “Come on dear, let’s get you sorted out. Evelyn, Felicity will be sharing with you. Take her and her things upstairs.”
The small, dark-haired girl who waved at Felicity earlier, rushes forward with a shy smile. “Yes, Mrs Schwartz.” She nods and leads her towards the stairs. She goes to take felicity’s bag from her but the blonde shakes her head.
“I can manage it.” She assures her and Evelyn frowns, looking at her dubiously.
“Are you sure? It’s a lot of stairs.” She comments, looking upwards with a regrettable sigh that makes Felicity smile. The girl can’t be much older than seventeen and she’s dressed in a typical maid’s patterned dress with a white apron, sleeves, and bonnet. Her countenance is pleasant and warming, still showing evidence of her youth in her rounded cheeks, and this impression is only deepened by her smile.
“I’ve got it, promise,” Felicity assures her as they begin their ascent.
The stairs are thin, narrow, and seemingly never-ending but no more so than Felicity was expecting. They level often with platforms, doors, and passages to allow the staff to move around the house unseen. They make it around halfway through their climb before Evelyn begins to talk again.
“I haven’t had a roommate since Jenny left and that was five months ago. She went to be a secretary. Is that like an analyst?” The younger girl asks and Felicity smiles, knowing she’ll be fielding a lot of similar questions in the servants’ hall later.
“Sort of but secretaries work more with words. Analysts work with numbers.” Felicity explains and Evelyn frowns for a moment before nodding.
“Oh. I were never good with numbers. How old are you? You must be quite a bit older than me if you worked in the War Office.” She moves on quickly, looking back over her shoulder as if attempting to discern Felicity’s age herself.
“I’m 21. I started at the War Office in 1915 when I was 18.” She recounts and Evelyn sparks when she hears the date, perking up considerably.
“That’s when I started working here! 1915. I were thirteen then, I’m sixteen now. Of course, I were only a kitchen maid to begin with but when Lucy left to go drive the tractor back on her parents’ farm whilst her brother were at the front, I got to move up.” Evelyn states proudly and her enthusiasm is infectious, making Felicity smile too.
“And you like it better?” She asks, causing Evelyn to nod enthusiastically as they reach the top of the staircase and make their way along a long corridor.
“Much. Plus, I get to see the upstairs now and it’s ever so pretty. You’ll get to see in a bit when they take you to meet Her Grace.” Evelyn explains and Felicity smiles as they pass through the central door that separates the male side from the female.
“If it’s anywhere near as beautiful as the exterior, I’m sure it’s stunning,” Felicity tells her and Evelyn nods as she comes to a stop before one of the doors.
“Right. This is us.” The younger girl states, turning the key and swinging it open to reveal a plain-looking dormitory with two single beds, two bedside tables, a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. Both beds are made neatly but one is stacked with freshly pressed uniforms like Evelyn’s, indicating to Felicity it must be her own.
“Oh, this will do wonderfully.” She nods as she approaches and lays her suitcase on the bed. Removing her heavy army jacket lifts a weight from her shoulders and, as she takes in the room she will come to call home, she can’t help but feel as if she is trembling on a precipice.
Where she may fall, she knows not, but her stomach is uneasy and she knows, whatever happens, nothing will be as it was before.