Table of Contents
ALSO by KATHARINE McMAHON
The Alchemist’s Daughter
g. p. PUTNAM’S SONSPublishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin
Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
(a division of Pearson Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL,
England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin
Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,
Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd,
11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ),
67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson
New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue,
Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Originally published in the United Kingdom by Phoenix 2007
First published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2009
Copyright © 2007 by Katharine McMahon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage
piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
Purchase only authorized editions.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The rose of Sebastopol / Katharine McMahon.—1st American ed.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01635-0
e arrived in Narni late on a Sunday evening. Although the door to
the Hotel Fina was locked, the driver roused a servant who stumbled out with creasy shirt-tails, brought in our luggage, and showed us to a bedroom smelling of unwashed feet. Nora took away my cloak and bonnet, then I snuffed the candles and lay down. A man was shouting in the distance, perhaps the worse for drink. Instead of sleeping I rode through the night as if still in a carriage jolting over badly made roads across the plains of Italy. Eventually I heard a clock strike five, and the rumble of a cart in the square outside, and I fell asleep to the sound of women’s raised voices and the clash of a pail against stone.
When I woke, a blade of sunlight sliced between the shutters and it was nearly mid-morning. Nora was standing over me with a breakfast tray and a letter from Mother, which I didn’t read. None of the clothes in my port-manteau was fit to wear, being too crushed, so I put on my traveling dress again and said we would go out at once. In the lobby I struggled to make myself understood by the proprietress, who was dressed in black and whose mouth was pulled down at the ends, as if from despair, but when I showed her Henry’s address she drew us a rough map.
Narni was an ancient town built near the top of a hill and the Hotel Fina was at its center, on a little square. What with the cluster of women round a fountain and the confusion of streets and shop-fronts, there was no telling which direction was the right one, so we set off at random up a flight of steps and under an arch. The sun was very hot, the street oppressively narrow, and our traveling clothes too heavy, so we stopped under a shady porch while I consulted the map.
A cluster of children formed round us; I gave one the names, “Via del Monte, Signora Critelli,” and he set off back the way we’d come. We re-crossed the little square, and this time plunged into a steep street with the houses built so close on either side I could almost touch them. Washing of the most intimate nature hung from balconies or was suspended like dingy carnival flags from wall to wall. I was surprised to find Henry lodging in such a poor quarter.
Eventually the child paused in front of an open doorway where there was a smell of wet stone and flowers, because someone had just watered a pot of narcissi. I hovered at the entrance, my resolve gone, wishing that I had never left England or that at the very least had sent Henry a note to let him know I was on my way. Now that I was here, I wondered whether he would think it appropriate. I was also afraid of seeing him ill. What if he didn’t recognize me, or I him? Unlike Rosa, I never knew what to do in the face of sickness. I glanced at Nora but she raised an eyebrow as if to say: You got us into this, don’t expect any encouragement from me.
In the end I crept along the passage to a kitchen, where a woman stood with her arms plunged into a washbowl. She squinted at me through the droplets of water that trickled into her eyes.
“Dr. Henry Thewell? ” I asked.
She gaped, dried her face, first on a towel then her skirt, leant her hand on the door-frame, and let fly a torrent of Italian which ended at last in a question.
I shook my head. “
Non capisco. Inglese. Mi chiamo Mariella Lingwood.
Mari-ella. I am engaged to be married to Dr. Thewell.
Dov’è Henry Thewell?
I had learnt from watching my father that it is better, in moments of crisis, to speak quietly rather than to shout. Certainly Signora Critelli calmed down; she went on talking but less rapidly, wiped her hands again, gestured that I should get out of the way, and led me up a narrow flight of stairs to a landing where she knocked sharply on a door, flung it wide, and announced me with the words:
“La signorina inglese.”
I took a step further, and another.
The room was in semi-darkness, because though one shutter was half open, a drab blue curtain covered the window. Through the gloom I saw that the room was small and contained a narrow bed, a wash-stand, a table heaped with books, and a low chair with a rush seat, upon which an untouched tray with a roll, a jug, and a cup had been left. There was a smell of cold coffee and damp linen.
Henry was in bed but he’d raised himself on one elbow, and even in the darkness I saw the eager brilliance of his eyes and that his hair had grown so long it flopped over his brow. We stared at each other. Then I stumbled across the room, knelt by the bed, and held him.
My bonnet was knocked sideways as he covered my face with hot kisses. I wept and seemed to flow out of myself when I felt his lips on my hair, ear, and neck. Though I was distantly aware that the door behind us had closed abruptly and that we had been watched, I didn’t mind. I clasped his too-thin arms as his hands caressed my back and I helped him with my bonnet ribbons, wondering how I could ever have doubted that I did the right thing in coming here. I realized that I had waited most of my life to have Henry kiss my throat, even to let him fumble with the buttons of my gown and pull loose the neck of my shift. My skin contracted as his lips closed on my breast. His breathing came in rasping pants between kisses.
I fell back on the pillow, smoothed his hair, and felt him grow heavy in my arms. Astonishingly, he slept. For perhaps half an hour I didn’t move though I lay half off the bed, my bonnet dropping from my neck, a draught swaying the curtain, and the clop of a mule’s hooves on the street below. Because my hair was caught by the weight of his head, all I could see was a fragment of cracked ceiling, a broken frieze, and the shifting blue-gray curtain. I kissed him again and again, tiny, weightless kisses on his hair, which was far softer than I had ever imagined, like a cat’s fur, and I thought: All these weeks he has been alone, watching that curtain and waiting for me. I was afloat in the miracle of his touch, the strangeness of a male body half covering mine, the fact that this was Henry, whom I had missed so much in the past months that even the blood in my veins ached for him.