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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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DER BY SHIRE, 1844
 
 
 
A
part from the nerve-wracking conversations
in the wardrobe or box hedge, I also had to endure Rosa’s dangerous sorties into forbidden territory. The most daring of these was to her mother’s bedroom, which drew her back time after time. I never ventured far in but Rosa roamed about, opening doors and drawers as if she owned them.
“I’m not doing anything wrong,” she said, unstopping a cut-glass bottle and sniffing its contents. “After all, she’s my mother. I spent most of my life in her bedroom when Father was alive.” Talking about the late Squire Barr always made her cry. “You would have loved him, Mariella. He was just quiet and gentle and what he liked more than anything in the world was taking me for walks on our land. He didn’t say much but when he held my hand I was . . . I used to climb on his knee and push my head inside his waistcoat and then I felt so...I can’t understand how Mother could possibly have exchanged him for that evil old . . .” She pressed her lips together, circled the bed, and ran the fabric of its curtains between her fingers. “Can you imagine them in here, my mother and Sir Matthew Stukeley with his bald head and brown teeth and slithering hands? Can you imagine what they
do
?”
I hung on to the doorknob, ready to bolt.
“When we first arrived here after their wedding I was lonely in the night so I came looking for her. I opened the door and she was on the bed like this with him underneath.” Rosa sprang up suddenly on all fours and peered round at me, her eyes bright with bravado between tumbling locks of her hair. “Can you imagine?”
I shrank away. “Don’t, Rosa. You mustn’t. Please.”
“Oh, all right, then. Never mind.” She bounced off the bed and I hurried over to straighten the pillows. “We’ll go and look at something else.”
She seemed to think that while her stepbrothers were away it was her right to familiarize herself with their possessions too. In Horatio’s room she had discovered a collection of rude pictures in the back of a drawer. My insides did peculiar things when she flicked through the prints of women in frilly under-garments with their legs and bosoms exposed.
“You see,” said Rosa, “these are just what I’d expect of Horatio. He’s disgusting. He likes to brush against me whenever he gets the chance, and touch me here and here as if by mistake.” She pressed her thigh and the side of her breast. “When he comes home you must take care never to be alone with him.”
Afterwards I washed my hands. The murky odor exuded by the rug and curtains in Horatio’s room clung to my hair. When I met him at last I understood its source; I shook his damp hand and thought that Rosa was right, he was
disgusting
, a gangling boy with overgrown arms and legs, who spent his time doing things like shooting pigeons, or shuffling papers with his father in the library. Once I met him unexpectedly at the bottom of the servants’ staircase peering up at someone. When he caught sight of me he adjusted his collar and the waist of his trousers and walked off without a word.
The only thing that interested Rosa in the other brother’s, Max’s, room, was a picture of the first Lady Stukeley and her two young sons, aged about three and six, who clung to her skirts and gazed up into her face. Aunt Isabella’s predecessor had been a winsome lady with a cluster of shining ringlets on either side of her high brow, an odd sort of veil headdress that swept across her shoulders, and a low-cut gown similar to that worn by poor Aunt Eppie in Henry’s miniature.
Rosa pointed out disdainfully that when the portrait was painted the sitter had been plain Mistress Stukeley, but that Matthew Stukeley even then had pretensions to grandeur, and had probably commissioned the picture because having one’s wife and children painted was a sign of
being
someone.
Apart from the picture, Max’s room, as Rosa said, had
nothing
in it other than functional furniture and a row of uninteresting books about wild animals and other countries. “The thing about Max is that he’s never indoors so he doesn’t care about possessions.”
As predicted, about a fortnight after our arrival Max came home suddenly, under a cloud due to an incident concerning a millpond, a dead rat, and some village lads. Rosa confided that she thought there had been naked swimming involved. This word
naked
was so forbidden that after Max and I had exchanged a brisk, bony handshake I gave him a wide berth.
Until an alternative school could be found he was kept at home with a clergyman tutor, who came three times a week and seemed to spend most of his time playing the piano with his pupil; tempestuous duets came thundering from the music room until Aunt Isabella said they must stop, they made her head ache. The rest of the time Max roamed wild except when brought up short by yet another shouting session with his father because a fresh misdemeanor had been discovered.
One night I was woken by a tapping on the bedroom window. I sat up in bed, transfixed with fear, while Rosa slept on. There was a male figure silhouetted in the moonlight behind the half-drawn curtains. When the tapping came again I finally plucked up the courage to creep across and look out. There was Max, on the sill. Rosa’s room was above the porch and he must have shinned up one of the pillars, crossed the canopy, and heaved himself up. He signaled for me to open the sash.
In a moment he was in the room and had laid his hand, which smelt of stone, over my mouth. “Ssssshh, don’t say a word. My father will kill me if he discovers I got myself locked out.”
For a moment I was pressed against his hot body, held more by the laughter in his eyes than by the pressure of his hand. “Will you keep this a secret?” he whispered, his breath warm and beery in my ear. “A million thanks.” Then he gave my hair a little tug and headed for the door.
Afterwards I lay awake, eyes wide open, reliving the incident: the sudden arousal from sleep, the terrified crossing of the room, the scrape of the sash, and Max’s hand covering my lips. I even glanced across at the window from time to time in the hope that he would come back again.
The next day his sin was discovered, because the precious new plaster-work on the porch had been damaged and a culprit sought. The only thing to be said for Max, said his father, was that he was never afraid to admit when he was at fault.
Now that Max was home he often came bounding across the terraces to join Rosa and me on our trips to the far reaches of the estate. Another of Rosa’s favorite places was a rope swing, constructed for her by Max, with a seat made of three narrow planks bound together, attached to an oak branch at the top of a high bank in the woods. The swing flew far out above a rushing stream and Max had a heart-stopping trick of hurling himself off at the highest point in its arc and landing among trees on the opposite side. Rosa loved to be pushed out and then to fly back and forth with her hair streaming and her skirts blown up to reveal the frilled edges of her drawers. “It’s
brilliant
,” she yelled. “You’ve got to
try
it. Come on, Mariella. I’ll give you a really gentle push. You needn’t swing high. Just try, you’ll regret it if you don’t.”
“Come, Mariella,” said Max, holding out his brown hand. “I’ll hold you. If you like we can sit together.” He took my arm and urged me across to the swing. Just for a moment I was tempted and allowed myself to be drawn onto his knobbly lap. He took both my hands, wrapped them round the coarse rope, and covered them with his own. “Trust me,” he said.
He pulled back and was about to launch out but then I came to my senses. “No,” I screamed. “No. I don’t want to. Don’t make me.”
He laughed, let go of my hands, straightened his legs so that I slid off, and invited Rosa to swing with him instead. I sat under a tree, arms wrapped tightly round my knees, and watched as they plunged across the ravine, dropping themselves backwards so their necks were exposed to the rush of wind. Lucky, lucky Rosa not to mind the danger. If only Henry were here, I thought. He and I would swing gently together,
he
would look after me properly.
Meanwhile Max and Rosa had grown wilder. He stood and she sat and they flung themselves out over the bank. “How do you know it’s strong enough? ” I squealed. They took no notice but spun round and round on the end of the rope until Rosa went green.
“Anyway,” she said to him, marching away and sitting down with me, “I don’t want to share a swing with you anymore. I can’t respect you for being expelled. If I had the chance to get an education, any education, I’d jump at it. And you just throw it away.”
“The education they offer isn’t worth having.”
“But how are you going to get on if you keep giving up?”
“I don’t give up. The schools give up. They won’t let me learn the things I want to, so I have to leave.”
“What
do
you want to learn, Max, exactly? Why do you have to be so different from other boys?”
“I can’t stand sitting still. I don’t want to learn Greek. There’s no point. I’m not going to be a cleric so it’s a waste of time.”
“It’s what it leads to. We all have to start somewhere. Greek and Latin are the beginning of everything, medicine, law, the lot.”
“You’ve never been confined to a classroom in your life. You don’t know what it’s like.”
“I wish I did. What chance have I to learn anything? Nobody will ever take me seriously whereas you have the chance to change things. You’re so selfish. Think what you could do at Stukeley if you got yourself educated.”
A sullen expression came to his eyes. “I don’t want anything to do with Father’s businesses.”
“That’s not a responsible attitude. It’s your duty to be involved.”
“It’s Horatio’s duty. Father won’t listen to me anyway.”
“That’s because he doesn’t respect you. Why should he? Come on, Mariella, we’re wasting our time here. Why should we bother with someone so ungrateful? ” I risked a backward look at Max, who lounged on the swing, head down, then I was led off first to the kitchens, where Rosa stuffed her pockets with thick jam sandwiches, then out of the front gates and down a track running along the valley between dry stone walls. The hillsides were covered with racing cloud shadows and my spirits lifted because I was alone again with Rosa.
“It’s beautiful here,” I said. “Don’t you at least love these hills? ”
“You wait.”
The further we walked from Stukeley, the less sweet the air became until after a while it reminded me of London on a foggy day. “Stay here,” said Rosa, handing me the squashed sandwiches. “I’ll be back in quarter of an hour or so.”
“Where are you going?”
“You’ll see.”
She left me by a gate, so I climbed up, sat on top, and looked out over a stream winding between trees in the valley floor, sheep grazing on the hillside opposite, a skylark pulling itself higher and higher until it was a black speck among the clouds. But the smell of the air, wafted in fits and starts by the breeze, clogged at the back of my throat and I wished she hadn’t left me so long.
When she came back at last she was burdened by the weight of an infant who clutched her by the hair while another child clung to her hand and a small boy trailed behind. All three were grubby and sallow-skinned, smelling of unwashed bodies and worse.
“I’ve brought some new friends to see you,” called Rosa. “We are going to play games and give their mama a rest.”
The children looked much too stupid to play. The youngest, Davey, though well over a year old, had to be propped against a wall, where he toppled sideways and wailed. At this the others started to cry messily, noses running, saliva dripping from their mouths. Only the bread and jam restored them and they crammed in gobbets as if they’d not eaten for a month. I drew Rosa aside and whispered that I’d noticed lice crawling through the lank hair of the little girl, but it didn’t stop her sitting cross-legged on the grass, where she invited the child onto her lap and kissed her.
By the end of half an hour the two oldest were joining in with the occasional words of a nursery rhyme and had even been induced to try a jumping race, though neither could manage to get both feet off the ground.
“Their mother, Mrs. Fairbrother, is a widow,” said Rosa, “and there is a six-year-old who is very ill.”
I offered to help take them home but she wouldn’t let me. “The mother might not like it. Wait here.”
Somewhat to my relief I was left alone again on the hillside. The sky had now clouded over completely and I was cold. To pass the time I composed a letter to Henry in my head—I would tell him about the village children, perhaps, but not the swing.
A week later our hair had to be treated with an evil-smelling lotion by the housekeeper at Stukeley, and when Aunt Isabella found out she raised herself from the sofa and informed us that Sir Matthew had
absolutely
forbidden us to go near those children again.
Ten
LONDON, 1854
 
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
8.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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