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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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LONDON, 1840
n all the four months that Henry stayed
in our house I saw him cry for his mother once. A parcel came after he’d gone to school one day, addressed in cramped writing which turned out to be that of the aunt who had taken his father in hand. The accompanying letter stated that she had come south to clear away the dead woman’s things so that father and son could eventually return to the family home and start afresh. She had found the enclosed items which the mother had left for Henry as a memorial.
My parents discussed the matter at breakfast. “We can’t interfere,” said Mother. “Henry’s old enough to bear it. He’s almost a grown man.”
“Just when the boy was doing so well, this has come,” said Father. “In my view we’d be best putting it away.”
“But he must have something of poor Eppie’s.”
“He has his memory of her. That ought to be enough.”
All day I gave the parcel a wide berth on my journeys across the hall and I didn’t say a word to Henry about it when I met him at the garden gate because I wanted to preserve his happy mood as long as possible.
By this time our trips back to the house usually took an hour or more. If the weather was hot we flung ourselves down under the cedar and lay with fallen needles pricking our backs, staring up into the complicated branches, or else he leant against the trunk and read an anatomy book borrowed from one of his teachers. I wasn’t allowed to peek inside because he said the contents weren’t suitable for a little girl, so instead I sat against his bony ribs and listened to the thudding of his heart. Sometimes, when I’d been told to pick raspberries for dinner, he and I filled our bowls until I was dizzy with the smell of hay and sugar and had to sit in the shade while he carried on, occasionally reaching down to pop fruit into my mouth with his stained fingers. When it was nearly dinner time we went inside at last, dazzled by the outdoors, dumped the bowls on the kitchen table, and clattered up the back stairs to the landing outside our rooms, where he tugged my braid: “Wash your face, Mariella. You’re a disgrace to the family name.”
On the afternoon of the package I took his hand and led him to the hall. As soon as he picked up the parcel it was just as I’d feared; he withdrew deep into himself, went upstairs, and closed the door of his room.
He didn’t come down to dinner. Afterwards Mother went up with a tray and half an hour later sent me to fetch it. His door had been left open and his room smelt of cooked meat because of the untouched food. He was sitting on the bed with the contents of the parcel scattered round him. I picked up the tray and put it outside in the passage. Then I closed the door and went to the bed, where I stood with my hands behind my back, waiting to be noticed.
He was not yet a very handsome boy; he was too thin, his skin, though more tanned than when he first arrived, was still inclined to spots, and his hair was lank. But I thought him beautiful, because of his serious, all-seeing eyes, and I mourned the light that usually came into his face when he saw me. Eventually I went right up to the bed, put my hand on his shoulder, twisted my neck so that my face was almost upside-down under his bent head, and stared into his eyes. Still no response.
“Can I see what was in the parcel?” I asked.
His pain was so palpable that I knew drastic measures had to be taken, so I sat on his uncomfortable lap and put my arms round his neck. “Show me,” I said.
He pointed to a miniature, perhaps four inches by three, in a plain wooden frame, of Eppie in what must have been her glory days, before penury. Her little face was adorned with glossy ringlets and her long neck rose from a bare bosom. She wore a high-waisted dress which somehow clung to her chest despite being cut in a wide V across the shoulders. Her head was quarter turned, so that she looked somewhere to the right of the artist, and she was smiling rather shyly, as if she’d prefer not to be in the picture at all.
The other relics of Aunt Eppie were a pair of white kid gloves with pearl buttons, just a little soiled about the fingertips. I gave them a sniff, because I knew that perfume clung to gloves, and immediately I recalled the hint of rosewater and perspiration that always hung about her. There was a tiny jewelry box with flowers embroidered on top, silk-lined and with a mirror inside the lid. Eppie’s engagement ring with its row of three small diamonds, familiar to me from my sewing days, was wrapped in a piece of crumpled tissue and there was a folded-up sheet of paper that fit exactly inside the box. On it was written in a frail hand:
For Harry. My darling, darling boy. Never forget your Mama, how she loved you.
“She was very kind, your mother,” I whispered. “She left me her sewing case. Did you know?”
He didn’t answer. I clung to his neck and tried to hug him but he was unyielding, spiky as when he first arrived.
Eventually I gave up and left him, but as I reached the door I heard a dreadful tearing noise that came from the back of his throat and before I knew it I was sitting on the bed, his head was buried in my lap, my fingers were in his hair, and the skirt of my cotton frock was hot and damp with his tears. His sobs came from deep within his body and he clawed at my arm and back.
At last he recovered enough to raise his wet face and look into mine. “You’ll have to be everything to me now, Mariella.”
he Derbyshire aunt failed to work
a miracle on Henry’s father (
Richard Thewell) who was buried two summers later. Meanwhile Henry disappeared down the long tunnel that was medical training the hard way through an endless series of lectures and examinations in unreachable subjects such as chemistry and physiology. His ambition was to be a surgeon and I suspect my father paid many of the bills. Occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, Henry called to drink a hasty cup of tea, spill out snatches of information about plasters, his role as dresser, and thirty-six-hour stretches without sleep, and depart an hour later laden with cold meats and cakes plied on him by our cook.
Father’s business thrived and soon he was managing several projects at a time and had been invited to serve on various boards and committees to do with planning and public works. Mother was busier than ever teaching at the Sunday school, raising money for the Female Aid Society, and serving on a hospital board of visitors. I went to a day school where I learnt pianoforte, French, arithmetic, and deportment. Thanks to Aunt Eppie I shone at fine sewing.
And then, in the autumn of 1843, when I was nearly twelve, a letter arrived from Aunt Isabella, Mother’s widowed elder sister, who wrote that she was about to marry someone called
Matthew Stukeley. As soon as she and her daughter Rosa were settled into their new home, Stukeley Hall, perhaps next summer, she expected Mother and me to travel to Derbyshire for a long visit.
Mother was somewhat in awe of her older sister and had christened me Mariella to combine her own name, Maria, with my aunt’s, Isabella. While Mother had married a mere builder, Isabella’s first marriage had been to a small landowner, name of Richard Barr, esquire, who had unfortunately died, leaving her penniless. But she’d barely been widowed six months before capturing the heart of Stukeley. “Not that he’s from old money,” Mother told Mrs. Hardcastle. “His fortune is based on lead and cotton.”
She was intrigued by the prospect of returning north but full of anxiety about the journey. There was no question of Father leaving his business, especially as he’d just bought a slice of land in Deptford. I didn’t want to go at all. I liked school, I would miss Father, and most of all I was afraid that Henry might want to call for Sunday tea while we were away. How would I bear two or three months without even the possibility of seeing him? And the prospect of meeting a cousin eighteen months older than me, not to mention a knight in a mansion, was very alarming. So Mother and I were preoccupied on the train journey during which I crocheted an uncomplicated mat for Aunt Isabella’s dressing table and Mother wrote a list of all the people she would need to correspond with while she was away.
We were met at the station by a coachman in uniform, who drove a carriage of awesome dimensions. For a while we lurched over cobbles between buildings of ugly gray brick but suddenly the world turned green and we were rushing along narrow lanes edged with stone walls, and steep hills that climbed up into the sky.
After half an hour or so we came to a pair of handsome gates with a lodge, no less, on the other side. Perched on top of the left-hand gatepost and showing a great deal of thin calf was a girl in a blue dress with a flood of straw-gold hair, a color I had always yearned for, my own being light brown. She waved frantically then somehow scrambled out of sight, though the post was very high, to reappear just as we rattled through the gates. All the way up the drive she kept pace beside us, beaming at me through the window.
“That must be your cousin Rosa,” said my mother. “What a girl.”
Stukeley Hall was a monstrous mansion complete with towers, turrets, pinnacles, and gables. Mother and I stood on the dizzily geometric tiles of the entrance hall and were properly awed. There was a fleet of servants to fetch our bags and show us the way, but already Rosa was on the first landing, her hair hanging over the banister like a rippling sail. “Come on,” she called. “Come.”
Aunt Isabella was seated in the drawing room beside an immense marble fireplace with an elaborate screen instead of a fire, it being a warm day. She did not get up but extended a white hand and said: “I am very low today.”
“Forgive me, Sister,” said Mother humbly, “they should have told us, we could have waited until later . . .”
Now that I’d met her, I couldn’t understand how Aunt Isabella had managed to attract even one husband, let alone two, including a title. She was a puffy woman, whose complexion was perhaps her best claim to beauty, being powder-soft. Mother and I sat side by side but Rosa stared at me and wagged her head meaningfully towards the door. “Come on,” she said. “Mama, I want to show Mariella everything.”
“Then do,” sighed Isabella.
I didn’t want to be led off into a world not governed by Mother. It seemed to me, as we ran along the passageways of Stukeley Hall, that I was about to tumble over a precipice called The Unknown.
Rosa flung open one door after another: “This is the saloon, this is the gallery, this is the blue room, that’s the library—I’ve been
from there, would you believe it, the one room I’d spend every minute in given the chance.”
“But why?”
“Oh, no reason. Just because my stepfather doesn’t like me, I suppose.” Off we dashed again. “This is the billiard room...” She even showed me her mother’s bedroom, “Come on, there’s nobody here,” and I peeked at a vast bed bedecked with floral curtains and a flounced quilt, all in shades of pale blue and pink, in which must lie my cushiony aunt and the as-yet-unseen Sir Matthew. Thank goodness there were no indentations of their heads in the lace pillows.
“Come over here. Let’s see,” said Rosa, dragging me across to a long mirror where we stood pressed together, staring at our reflections. “Yes. We are very alike. Sisters almost.”
Actually I thought we had little in common. My hair was darker and straighter, my nose shorter, my eyes gray rather than blue, and my jaw more rounded. I was terrified in case we were caught trespassing on such private territory and relieved when we went pounding down a narrow staircase and burst into a stone passage which led to the outside.
“So what do you think?” she demanded, walking backwards in front of me so that she could watch my face.
“Of what? ”
“Of it all. Isn’t it hideous? I wish I was dead. I wish I could go home,” and suddenly her voice broke and she cried: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s such a relief to be able to say it but I miss my father so much, I really do. You can’t know what it’s like, you’re so lucky, your family is complete, you don’t have to put up with stepbrothers called Horatio and Maximilian, can you imagine, a stepfather who never speaks to me except to tell me what I mustn’t do...” and I found myself abruptly placed in the role of comforter as she threw her arms about my neck so that my nose was buried in silky hair fragranced with lemons. Then she flung herself away, grabbed my hand and kissed it, smiled into my face, her blue eyes overflowing with tears, and said: “It is so wonderful that you are here. I’ll show you everything. I’ll show you all the secret places I have discovered. Come on. Come.” And she rushed off with her hair flying and her blue skirts kicked back from her ankles, and I followed at a pace which caused my unaccustomed heart to beat very fast and my spirits to lift higher and higher because already I had fallen head over heels in love with Rosa.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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