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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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Then I tightened my hold, because although never in my wildest imaginings had I expected such a loving, needy reception as this, nor had I really thought to find him so weak that he was confined to bed. I had always relished his energy and the hardness of his arm under my hand but now he was frail as a bird. And he smelt entirely different from the Henry who never failed to delight me with his scent of good soap, balsam, or camphor. Instead the odor of confined flesh reminded me of the Governesses’ Home.
As he woke, his breath grew uneven on my neck. When he moved his head, my skin was damp and hot from where his cheek had rested on me. I closed my eyes as my breast tightened under his circling fingertip.
This is Italy, I thought, no-one will know. And anyway, what do I care?
“My dear love,” he whispered, “I thought you would never come.”
His finger was making a diminishing spiral on my nipple, so my words were disjointed: “I wasn’t sure you would want me here. And yet I wouldn’t be stopped, even by you, so I thought it best just to come without letting you know.”
“You are my love, my love.”
“Your letters sounded so lonely I thought I must come.”
He nuzzled his cheek into my bosom and pressed his face to my neck, drawing me closer and closer under him. I didn’t mind that he had the smell of fever on his breath, I was scarcely conscious of anything except the heat of him as he murmured: “I thought I might never see you again. I thought you were gone.”
“Of course you’d see me again.”
“But you never answered me. You never said a word. It was killing me.” He laid his head beside mine on the pillow and reached out to turn my face towards his. I had time to see how pale his skin was, and that because his moustache had been shaved off his mouth was as full-lipped and boyish as when I first knew him. Then he said: “Let me look at you at last. My Rosa. My dear love. Dearest Rosa.”
Two
1840
 
 
 
H
enry’s mother, Euphemia,
known as
poor
Aunt Eppie, was my father’s cousin. After her marriage to Richard Thewell, a Derbyshire innkeeper, the pair moved south and for a few years managed a prosperous hostelry near Radlett in Hertfordshire. Their subsequent tragic history was only spoken of behind closed doors, so I had to pick it up piecemeal.
Thewell, not astute enough to anticipate that the new railway would kill his business, took to the bottle. Meanwhile, soon after the birth of their only son, Aunt Eppie began to suffer from a wasting disease. The business duly failed and my father rescued the family by moving them into one of the little villas he’d just had built in Wandsworth, a mile or so from our house in Clapham. While the boy, Henry, was at school, poor Aunt Eppie spent her mornings with us at Fosse House, working on the household linen and teaching me to sew. I never met her husband, whose drinking put him beyond the pale, although I once heard Mother describe him to her friend Mrs. Hardcastle as
ineffectual
.
Eppie was a small, high-cheekboned creature, who had nothing in common with Mother except that both were from Derbyshire and fiendishly hardworking. Mother couldn’t stand sewing, Eppie was never happy without a needle in her hand; Mother was the daughter of a squire, Eppie of a tailor; Mother was too busy to spend more than an hour or two on my lessons each day whereas Eppie taught me to crochet imitation guipure lace, work an edge of Plaited Slav stitch on a linen tablecloth, and put pin tucks into the bodice of a muslin blouse. We worked side by side in the morning room, and I remember the smell of her perspiration, the way a girlish froth of hand-worked lace framed her fiercely parted hair and pallid forehead, the tension in her hands and back as she sewed. She reeked of sickness; her breath was rotten.
By the time I was eight, she was too frail to come to the house, though Mother took me to visit her once in the Wandsworth villa. She lay on a mountain of pillows, her face lost in the flaps of her nightcap, a bit of smocking with the needle threaded through dropped among the folds of her quilt. Her smile was apologetic and she couldn’t speak because of her cough. After that she faded from my life altogether, though I inherited her skill, her small collection of books on stitchcraft, and a leather sewing case containing needles, scissors, hooks, and pen-knife, with mother-of-pearl handles. Mother was suddenly busier than ever, managing the Thewell household as well as our own, arranging a funeral, and seeing the widower shipped north to an aunt who was to help him recover from the blow of his wife’s death. Meanwhile, we were
to take the boy in
.
When Henry took up residence in our quiet household, he was a thin-faced youth with an unhealthy complexion and eyes blank with suffering. “He’ll only be with us while he finishes school or until his father’s back on his feet,” said Mother. “He’ll sleep in the room next to yours and be out each day. We’ll hardly notice him.”
But I did notice him, I noticed everything about him: the cautious sounds of his rising in the morning, his meager breakfast of tea and toast, his easing himself out of the house as if afraid of making the air stir as he shut the door, his return at six o’clock and disappearance into his room as soon as the evening meal was over. I noticed that he had long fingers like his mother and that he was never without a book. Even at mealtimes there was one sticking out of his pocket, and when he set off for school in the morning I ran to an upstairs window and watched him open a volume and begin to read. It was a wonder he didn’t fall over but he was skilled at avoiding obstacles, even with his eyes on the page.
He and I had nothing to say to each other. After all, he was a boy and eight years older than me. And his dead mother, poor Aunt Eppie, shimmered between us. I assumed he was sadder even than I was about her death but I couldn’t tell how much.
However, one wet afternoon I noticed that, despite my mother’s reminder at breakfast time, he had forgotten to take an umbrella from the stand in the hall and I was very troubled because this was the kind of detail we used to get exactly right before he came. For an hour I sat over my tapestry, plotting how to remedy the situation. In the end I asked Mother’s permission to go down the garden with the umbrella and open the gate for him so that he could cut a corner of the lane and at least stay dry for the last few minutes.
“That would be kind, Mariella.”
So I ran along the brick path skirting the lawn and passed through what we hoped would one day be a wilderness, to the herbaceous beds. There were stepping stones across the border to the gate, which was half covered in clematis and had a well-oiled bolt.
I stood in the shelter of the wall, trembling. Perhaps he wouldn’t come this way home today, or not be pleased to see me. Perhaps I’d already missed him. A blade of grass at my foot bent from the weight of a raindrop.
At last I heard the squelch of footsteps and there was Henry with his collar up and mud on his boots, a wet satchel clasped to his chest.
“Henry.” He stopped dead, looked round, and saw me under the arch of the gateway. “I brought you an umbrella,” I said. “And it’s quicker through the garden.”
His bottom lip pressed against the upper, and to my horror I realized that he was trying not to cry. But he bowed, took the umbrella, and followed me up the garden, holding it over us both. When we reached the house he gave me his satchel while he shook the rain off the umbrella and folded it up. Awed by the responsibility of clutching the damp mass of his books in my arms, I took a discreet sniff of rain-soaked leather. When we swapped burdens he smiled into my eyes and afterwards I stood in the drying room amidst rows of damp sheets and didn’t know how I would live until dinner when he might smile at me like that again.
Three
ITALY, 1855
 
 
 
I
ran out of Narni down the winding road
to the valley floor, where the air was unmoving and thick with heat and a track led through scrubland and vegetable gardens to the river. When I passed a spring with a metal cup on a chain, I gulped some water before stumbling on. My clothes were tight, I was wearing five layers of petticoat, and as I’d left my bonnet in Henry’s room, my hair flooded over my shoulders. The very thought of that bonnet, chosen with such care for this journey but now discarded on the floor beside his bed, made me nauseous. If I’d been able to breathe I would have howled with pain. At one point the words “No, no” did burst from me but died away in the rocky sides of what had become a gorge.
Eventually I sank down under a tree but even then I couldn’t stay still. I hammered the ground with my fists and kicked the bank with my heels. Again I cried “No, no,” and beat my hands until they were bruised. My eyes burnt with unshed tears. If I could have fought my way out of my body I would have done it and left my skin on the river-bank like a rag.
The scene in Henry’s room replayed: his eager face, his touch, his kisses, his words of love. No. No. It couldn’t be...How could Henry have taken so much of me, then betrayed me? How could Henry have been so full of Rosa that he hadn’t even noticed that the woman in his arms was me?
Me
.
What had I failed to see, all this time?
I tore fistfuls of grass away from the earth, hurled them into the water, and there she was on the far side of the river, with her light hair and pale skin; tapering hands held out to me, low voice calling my name. Her body was supple and slender as a wand so that her narrow bodice hung smooth on her waist and her blue gown flowed in clean lines down to her ankles.
But I love you, I said to the shade of Rosa.
I reached for her, pleading with her to come and put it right.
Rosa, after all, could probably walk on water.
Eventually I became aware that I was covered with dirt and the hem of my skirt was trailing in the river, that I was very hungry, and that I should pull myself together and go back to Narni. But I had run much further than I realized and was faint by the time I came to the spring. A woman in dark clothes was seated beside it and even from a distance I could tell by the size of her bonnet that this was none other than Nora, who handed me first a cup of water, then my abandoned hat.
“I could have told you it wouldn’t be easy,” she said as we set off back to the hotel.
My room, at three in the afternoon, was dark and cool. Nora had the servants fill me a bath and afterwards watched me eat. Her hair had been flattened by heat and the weight of her bonnet but she looked more cheerful than at any time in the year since I’d known her. I managed a few mouthfuls and pushed my plate aside.
“Whatever shall I do?” I said. “He thought I was Rosa.”
She stared at me with sludge-colored eyes.
“Why would he think I was Rosa?”
“When I saw him after you’d gone he didn’t seem in a fit state to know what he was saying.”
“You went up then? ”
“We both did when you came rushing out like that. We found him fallen half out of the bed and raving so we gave him a dose and calmed him down. He’s dreadful sick, the poor man.”
“He thought I was Rosa.”
“That’ll be down to the delirium.”
“But why would he want me to be Rosa? ”
“It’s not a matter of wanting. It’s a matter of what he thought he was seeing.”
“He
wanted
me to be her but I don’t understand it. There was nothing between Henry and Rosa. They didn’t even like each other. I am engaged to Henry. He’s always been mine. Something must have happened at the war.”
“I know nothing about that.”
“Do you think they fell in love?”
“I can’t speak for him. I only know that girl would do nothing to hurt you.”
“What shall I do? What shall I tell him? What if he goes on thinking I’m her?”
“Tell him the truth. Tell him you’re not Rosa. Tell him we’re all worried to death about her because heck knows where the wretched girl is now.”
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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