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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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ITALY, 1855
he following day Nora and I
set out again for the Via del Monte. This time I was dressed in my cream cotton gown with the broad horizontal stripes and single flounce, and I carried my parasol. Rather than rush ahead, I walked sedately alongside Nora, my eyes heavy with lack of sleep and my breathing rapid and shallow. When we reached the house I waited while Nora fetched Signora Critelli, who led us upstairs as before and knocked on Henry’s door.
The room was altogether different: the shutters were open, the curtains tied back, the table tidied, and the floor swept. A chair had been placed in readiness for a visitor. Henry was dressed and seated in a position I knew well, with one leg crossed over the other, his arm thrown along the back of the chair and his head supported in his hand. Though he held a notebook, his eyes were fixed on the door.
I said very clearly and slowly. “Henry, it is I,
, come to visit you.”
His back was to the light but something changed in his face and tension went out of his body. After a moment he gripped the table with both hands and stood up so that the sun shone through his shirt and I saw the skeletal outline of his body. “Mariella.” He kissed my cheek and pulled back the chair for me while Nora sat on the bed. I looked into his eyes, which were full of sympathy and warmth, and for a moment I could not detect, even by the merest glimmer of consciousness, whether he remembered what had happened yesterday and the awful mistake he had made.
“Mariella, whatever are you doing so far from Clapham? ” he said.
“I was disturbed by your letters. It seemed to me that someone should come out here and make sure you are being well looked after.”
“How did you get here? Who is with you?”
“Nora. That’s all. You remember her, don’t you, my aunt’s companion and nurse? She seemed the best choice because Aunt is so much better and Nora has experience of journeys.”
“Of course I remember. But still I’m amazed that your parents would let you come so far without a male escort.”
“Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle were traveling to Rome. We were not alone.”
“I thought you found Mrs. Hardcastle a little overbearing.”
“It was a sacrifice I was prepared to make for you, Henry.”
As a reward for my feeble attempt at light-heartedness he leant forward and kissed my hand. “You are cold, Mariella. How can anyone be cold on such a hot day?”
Throughout this conversation my spirits had been sinking, if possible, even further. Henry was completely changed. Aside from the extreme loss of weight there was an air of abstraction about him that made me recoil. It was as if he were behind a thick sheet of glass and every speech and gesture was a huge effort for him because his attention needed to be on something else. Altogether he was totally unlike the passionate being who had seized me in his arms yesterday, mistaking me for Rosa.
Equally disturbing were the contents of the room. Half hidden behind a curtain was a huge, soiled sheepskin coat and piled on every available surface were dog-eared papers and ledgers. The only ornaments were the miniature of his mother, propped up beside his bed, and next to it, pressed flat by Henry’s two old volumes of poems by John Keats, Rosa’s unframed portrait of me.
“You’ve been working,” I said, pointing to his notebook. “Surely you should rest.”
“Impossible to rest, Mariella, when there is so much to do.”
“What is there to do? ”
“Army business. You know. I have become an expert on the proper preparation of the army medical services for war.”
I picked up Rosa’s painting of me, in which she had given my mouth an elusive smile and put a gloss to my hair. When I saw an earlier version, I had complained that I looked much too shy, so she had adjusted the expression in my eyes until I was gazing more directly out of the canvas. It was signed with her usual vigorous initials:
RB, September ’54.
I said quietly: “In one of your letters you mentioned that you’d seen Rosa. We are worried because we haven’t heard from her for weeks, so I wonder, do you have any recent news of her? ”
His eyes had followed intently the passage of the portrait from its place on the bedside table to my lap. Otherwise he was utterly still. “Rosa? ”
“Yes, you know. You said in a letter that you’d met her one day, unexpectedly.”
“Unexpectedly. Yes, indeed. Very strange that was. You see I had no idea she was in Russia at all.”
“Not all my letters reached you then?” I tried to keep my voice steady. “Did you spend much time with her? ”
“There was never any time to spare, Mariella.”
Nora said suddenly: “The truth is, sir, it’s been more than two months, and nothing.”
“A letter from Mother was waiting for me when I got here but the news is that they still haven’t heard from her,” I said. “Mother writes that Aunt Isabella is beside herself with anxiety.”
When he put his thumb and index finger to his forehead, I noticed a tremor in his hand. “Not heard from her? You should have done. Things are much improved, there’s a railroad, telegraph even.”
“The mother will be worrying herself and everybody else to death,” put in Nora.
“Not heard from her,” he said again. “Not heard. Someone should try to find out where she is. Your father could pull strings, surely.”
“We tell ourselves that there must be so many people in unexpected places, in a war,” I said. “We tell ourselves that she is probably safe, but unable to write.”
“And Rosa would be in an unexpected place, I suppose.”
“She would, Henry.” I spoke without expression, because I could never have believed it possible to suffer so much and still go on breathing. There was no ignoring the precision with which he spoke, the pretense at disinterest when every inch of him was tuned to the name of Rosa.
He loves her, I thought.
“Mariella?” He leant forward, hands loosely clasped between his knees, apparently waiting for an answer to a question I had not heard.
I tried to look away but he caught me in his affectionate gaze and spoke distinctly, as if to a sick child. “I said shall we go on an excursion tomorrow to see the ruins at Ocriculum? While you’re here you should see something of Italy.”
“Are you really fit enough to be planning an outing?”
“My doctor, my good friend Lyall, said I should take plenty of fresh air, so I’m sure he would approve. In fact he’d come with us if he was here, he’s a great one for antiquities. As we speak, he’s probably chipping off bits of the Forum in Rome.”
“Rather than taking care of you.”
“The poor man needed a holiday. I must weary him to death. And I don’t require much looking after.”
He was looking at me in a travesty of the old Henry-like way: confident, smiling, arms folded, head thrown back. I stared at him for a moment, then pretended instead to be absorbed by the view of a shuttered window across the street.
I will surely die of this pain, I thought.
LONDON, 1854
y father’s reward for his unflagging support
of Henry was to see his protégé rise rapidly to the heady rank of registrar, a role which involved supervising students and writing reports for the hospital board, and then to become an assistant surgeon on three hundred and fifty pounds a year. By the time he was thirty, Henry had a national reputation as a teacher and surgeon, exceptionally skilled with the knife. His lectures were so popular that his friends boasted of how students crowded in the doorway and even stood on chairs outside an open window to listen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, said Father proudly, Henry was never satisfied with relying on tradition, so he spent his hard-earned salary on trips to Europe to find out what was going on there. Henry wanted to be at the forefront of medicine; he wanted to be the best. Henry, in short, was a man after my father’s own heart.
By the summer of 1853 Henry had bought a plot of land in Highgate and Father was advising him on architectural plans for a new house. Then, just after Christmas, in yet another sign of his growing status, Henry was asked to join a group of military doctors and advisers who were to travel to Turkey and ensure that all was in place for the treatment of wounded soldiers should there be a skirmish with Russia. It seemed that “The Eastern Question,” a recurring theme in extracts from
The Times
read to us by Father after dinner, was after all likely to be settled through war rather than diplomacy.
Henry was away nearly a month and on his return wrote that he’d inspected the progress of the new house in Highgate only to find that there was a problem with the drains and the garden was a swamp. Could Father give him a spot of advice? And as the windows had at last been glazed and a hearth installed in the drawing room, perhaps the ladies would like to come too.
Mother and I drove from Clapham to Highgate through a ferociously wet February afternoon. She was dressed in brown silk bought against my advice; in my judgment the glossy fabric made her skin sallow and diminished her features. Having to sit still for so long and do nothing was torture for her and she kept a notebook and pencil at the ready in case of ideas. She was currently secretary of a committee of ladies whose mission was to open a home for retired or distressed governesses, an enterprise thought up by Mrs. Hardcastle, whose strong-minded daughters had worn out a succession of teachers, one of whom, a quarter of a century later, inconveniently came begging in frail old age to the Hardcastles.
After half an hour or so of stop-start travel we had still barely crossed the river and Mother drew out her watch. “Surely the omnibus would have been quicker.”
“We’ll be glad of the carriage on the way home.”
“I told your father that a carriage in London was a dreadful extravagance. I’ve never minded walking. Or a cab.”
“Father will enjoy riding about.”
“He knows nothing of horses. He should have taken more advice. I hope this one doesn’t go lame. It has stumbled three times already, I’ve been counting.”
Beyond the murky glass, Hyde Park was a green blur and the pavement bobbed with black umbrellas. My breathing was restricted, because the bodice of my afternoon gown measured seventeen inches at the waist, one and a half inches less than usual, and the triple bow of my blue bonnet meant I had to keep my chin abnormally high.
“Are you nervous? ” Mother said suddenly.
This was so unexpectedly prescient that I was irritated: “Of course not. Whyever would I be nervous?”
“This is your first glimpse of the house. You’ve not seen Henry for a while. I just thought . . .”
Heat rushed up my neck and face. “As if I’d be nervous of Henry. And after all we’re just going to look at his new house. It doesn’t mean anything.”

am sometimes nervous of Henry, as I am even of your father sometimes. I always think there is so much more to men than we realize.”
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
6.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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