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Authors: Katharine McMahon

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Historical

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BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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“I wrote to my friend, Miss Barbara Leigh Smith, that I’d call this morning if I possibly could. She’ll be expecting me, I’m sure. Come on, let’s walk, we’re missing too much,” and she dived across the knees of the other passengers and strode out in her serviceable boots while I tottered along in my smart shoes and was jostled by the crowd. She asked the way in her ringing voice and then away she dashed again, dodging hand-carts and perambulators as if she had been a Londoner all her life.
“Who is this Miss Leigh Smith? I didn’t know you had friends in London,” I panted, catching up with her at last.
“Apart from you? Well, this is someone I’ve been writing to for a couple of years, a cousin of our Derbyshire acquaintances, the Nightingales. I found out through their aunt Julia that they never acknowledge this Barbara because she’s illegitimate, even though she is just about the most accomplished and brilliant woman in the country. She’s a close friend of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell.
you’ve heard of Elizabeth Blackwell, Mariella, a real, qualified woman doctor in the United States.”
She marched up the steps of 5 Blandford Square and rang the bell. “We mustn’t stay long,” I whispered as the door opened. “Don’t you think we may be needed back home?” I was still reeling from her casual use of the word
The house reeked of oil paint and Miss Leigh Smith received us in a first-floor sitting room arranged as a studio; sheets were draped across the furniture, the curtains had been pinned back, an oilcloth covered the floor, and an easel was set up by the window. She wore a voluminous wraparound apron, and her auburn hair, definitely her most beautiful feature, was pulled firmly from a jutting forehead. At first she looked puzzled when Rosa introduced herself. “Miss Barr? I’m sorry . . . I don’t . . .” then seized both her hands: “Rosa Barr. Of course. My correspondent from the north.” Her handshake was disturbingly firm and she held a brush in her other hand. Although she whipped the covers off chairs so we could sit down, we had obviously disturbed her work. “I belong to a society of painters and we set ourselves challenges by picking themes. For next month we have chosen the subject of desolation and I am right at the beginning.”
“Goodness,” said Rosa, peering into the canvas.
“Yes, well, it’s a theme that suits our mood. There is plenty of desolation in our world at the moment. One doesn’t have to look far. What do you think?” Rosa and I stared at a landscape so full of the rushing movement of wind, clouds, and sea that I felt a tremor of excitement, as if Henry had touched me.
“It’s wonderful,” said Rosa. “The sky is brilliant, those racing clouds...I paint, but only pastels. I would have no idea how to use oils like this, layer on layer.”
“I took classes at Bedford College. Have you heard of it? I think having proper lessons and the influence of other people make all the difference. My friends help me—I have wonderful friends. Have you heard of the artist Gabriel Rossetti, for instance? He is my inspiration.”
“But how do you find these people? Can anyone attend that college? Is it very expensive?”
The doorbell rang, and in came two gloomily dressed women, who hugged Barbara and called each other by their Christian names, Marian and Bessie. I pushed my chair back a little. My gown was far too elaborate compared to theirs and their talk frightened me, especially when they asked Barbara about a paper she was writing on married women who divorce. Until that moment I had never even heard the word
uttered in public.
Rosa said: “What is the argument of your paper? ”
“We have a friend called Caroline Norton,” said Bessie, “whose husband took her children away from her because he and she had quarreled. Ever since then she has been fighting for the rights of women to see their own children even after separation from their husbands.”
A hot blackness was coming upon me. We shouldn’t be here. Mother really would not like me to be among these people; if Mrs. Hardcastle found out, we would never hear the last of it. The long-faced woman called Marian turned to me suddenly and said: “And what do you do, Miss Lingwood?”
“Do. Well, I...”
“Mariella and her mother are setting up a home for retired governesses,” said Rosa. “I’m hoping to make some small contribution myself. Mariella’s sewing is exquisite. I have never seen anyone so fast and neat with the needle.”
“But I am looking for a needlewoman, Miss Lingwood,” exclaimed Barbara. “Do you also do plain sewing? I need ladies to come and help out in the school I am setting up. We want the children to learn useful as well as creative and intellectual skills. Perhaps you would consider teaching for me; it need only be an hour or two a week.”
“Oh no. I couldn’t teach.”
“Well, my school won’t be starting up for a few months yet. There is plenty of time for you to think about it.”
“But in the meantime your home is very timely, Miss Lingwood,” said Bessie. “These single women, too old to work and after a life of service, deserve better than to die hungry and alone. What wonderful work.”
“Do you know, I believe that’s what my cousin Flo is up to at present,” said Barbara, “managing a home of a similar kind. And I do mean managing.”
“And you, Rosa, what is your field of work?” asked the insatiable Marian.
“I have no field. I suppose my dream would be to become a proper nurse, or even a doctor, if only that were possible. Mariella has a cousin who is a very highly respected surgeon. I’m hoping that now I’m in London, I might gain some introductions through him, at least get the chance to observe an operation and maybe attend one or two lectures.”
“That’s a courageous and wonderful ambition,” said Bessie. “Perhaps we can help you in some way. If my cousin Elizabeth Blackwell comes back to London, you must meet her. What is the name of your relative, Miss Lingwood? We are interested in finding doctors who will promote the cause of women in the medical profession.”
I could barely keep my voice steady. “My cousin?”
“You know. The one you always used to talk about when you came to Stukeley,” said Rosa. “The one you often write to me about.”
“You mean my
cousin, Henry Thewell? The surgeon. But he’s away.”
“How disappointing. He was one of the reasons I came to London,” said Rosa. “Well, when he’s back, I’m hoping that he’ll show me the work of his hospital.”
I stood up and made a sort of lunge towards the door. “We must go. We promised to be back for lunch.”
“Come again,” said Barbara, “anytime. Please.”
Still Rosa wouldn’t leave. She loitered in the room, studying one painting after another until she came to a pencil drawing of a woman with full lips and flowers in her hair. “Wonderful. If only I could sketch like this.”
“Lizzie Siddal,” Barbara said. “Have you heard of her? The mistress of the artist Gabriel Rossetti I was telling you about. We were with them in Sussex recently but she seemed very ill to me. We all wonder if he’ll marry her or not, or if she’ll live long enough . . .”
Never in my life before, or not perhaps since my last evening at Stukeley, had I so wished to escape my present situation. Blood had rushed to my face, my clothes pinched me, and my heart pumped violently. “The time,” I murmured and then at last we were in the hall, out on the sunlit street, and walking away.
Rosa gave a series of little skips and thrust her arm through mine. “Wasn’t Barbara amazing? Isn’t she the most fortunate woman in the world? To have her own household, to have such friends. Perhaps one day you and I will have a home together like hers, just the two of us, where we can paint and sew and talk about important things with other women. Everything seems possible to Barbara.”
I said nothing.
“Look at me compared to her,” she said. “I’m twenty-three. What have I done with my life? You’re different. You have a purpose, Mariella—the governesses’ home.”
“It’s not my purpose. You shouldn’t have said it was.”
She stopped dead. “You’re upset. What have I said? ”
“The governesses’ home is not what I do. I sew for it, that’s all. But it’s not my life. You should have told them the truth. It’s as if you were ashamed to say I simply live with my parents.”
“But I did tell them the truth. You are always busy. Your letters to me are full of the latest garment you’ve made or lecture or concert you’ve been to. I, on the other hand, when I’m in Derbyshire, never drive five miles beyond Stukeley. And in those five miles there might be half a dozen families with whom we are on speaking terms, and most of those bore me to tears. Whereas here, within five miles or so of your house, you are in reach of the most thrilling people alive today.”
“Rosa. Where are you going? We haven’t time to visit a park. We ought to find an omnibus and go home.”
“Oh, not yet. Please. Your mother said we should take as long as we liked. Look at that little boy rolling down the slope. Do you remember there was a bank in the woods at Stukeley we used to run down?” She had her arm tightly linked through mine again and before I knew it we were walking in step and suddenly my irritation left me and I had that old sensation of speed and danger that came with being alone with Rosa. On we walked, faster and faster, hip to hip, with the breeze in our face and our legs swinging forward like the soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace.
But at last I persuaded her that it was nearly two o’clock, well past lunch, and we really should go home. So we re-crossed the river on the old Westminster Bridge, where she paused, peered dreamily down towards the dome of St. Paul’s, and quoted in a quiet, precise voice: “ ‘Dull would he be of soul who could pass by / A sight so touching in its majesty.’ Yes. I see now. Of course the fields have gone, and Wordsworth’s air was smokeless, I suppose, because it was early morning, but yes, I see, it’s the contrast between the river and sky and the city that he noticed. The way we all fit into an ideal whole.”
“He didn’t mention the smell of the river, though,” I said, pulling her away. “And some days it’s even worse than this.”
When we reached home, Ruth opened the door almost before I’d put my hand to the knocker. Still untrained in London ways, she yelled over her shoulder: “They’re back, ma’am.”
Mother’s head appeared over the banisters. “My dear girls, where have you been? Oh, thank God.”
We flung aside our bonnets and sprang across to the stairs thinking that Isabella must be dead. Then we saw that Aunt was in fact trailing down towards us in a voluminous nightgown, her head encased in a cap with floating ribbons and both hands clinging to the rail. “Rosa. What happened to you?”
“We were out for a walk,” said Rosa. “The time passed quickly. Whatever is the matter? ”
Isabella sank down on the stairs, buried her face in her hands, and sobbed. “You will be the death of me. You have no idea what happens to young girls in London. I could not endure another loss. Rosa, promise me it’s not going to begin again, all the running around and not saying where you are. Promise never to go out alone again. I have been worried sick.”
“I wasn’t alone, I was with Mariella. Mama, you’re not well, otherwise you’d see there was no need to worry. It is a beautiful day. Why don’t you come outside and sit in the garden for a while? You’ll soon feel better.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“How could I be dead? What could possibly kill me? Here I am, safe and sound. Come now, perhaps you’d prefer to go back to bed. I’m sure dear Ruth will bring us up some tea.” Rosa’s voice was soothing but she handled her mother firmly as she and Ruth took an arm each and escorted her back upstairs.
Mother hurried me into the breakfast parlor, the damp patches under her arms a sure sign that she was flustered. “You missed luncheon. I waited as long as I could. The Thorntons are expecting us at three, didn’t you remember? I’ll have to go alone. Fetch my bonnet and gloves quickly. And tell the cook that you and Rosa will eat now.”
I kissed her cheek and watched her walk across the common. She had become a little stooped, her skirts were bunchy, because she refused to wear many petticoats, and the fabric of her bodice was strained at the back; with all my heart I wished I hadn’t got home too late to go with her.
She didn’t turn and wave, so I closed the door and stood in the hall, listening to the tick of the grandmother clock on the first landing. Then I crept down to the kitchen where the cook had her feet up on a stool and was sipping tea. She said our lunch had been kept back in the pantry and she supposed that Ruth could bring it up in ten minutes, if I would go and wait.
Ruth’s manner, as she served me an unpleasant meal of cold meat and potatoes, was self-righteous. Rosa, she said, was not hungry and anyway couldn’t leave her mother.
Afterwards I sat on the terrace and worked chain-stitch borders onto a set of tray cloths. My feet were blistered and my body and mind exhausted by the foray into London with Rosa. I had spent innumerable afternoons sewing on this shady terrace but never in such turmoil, never so lonely.
It had happened again, exactly as before: after a morning in Rosa’s company I was left shaken and uneasy but desperate for more.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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