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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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By now both of us were gazing studiously out of opposite windows. She said: “I never imagined when I took Henry in what he would become. He seemed such a shy boy then.”
“He was in mourning. We couldn’t tell at first what he was really like.”
“And yet who would have thought he had it in him? Of course your father suspected it, after all he has an eye for quality and talent. But you must not think that Henry is the only possible one for you. That’s my worry, Mariella. There are other men, equally suitable, I’m sure. You have been very fixed in your ideas.”
“There’s no question of being fixed, as you put it. Henry is like a brother to me.”
Her brown-gloved hand pressed my fingers. “Something more than a brother, I think.”
Henry’s new house, called The Elms, was built on the site of an ancient farmhouse. We drove at last between two high gate-posts set in an old wall, relics of the past. When I pulled down the window to take a better look, rain dashed into my face. “What a lovely brick,” I said, using an expression learnt from Father. “And look, there’s even a turret. We might almost be at Stukeley.”
The house had two wings extending at a slight angle on either side of a gabled porch. Henry was waiting at the open door, with a maid behind him ready to take our cloaks. “My dear aunt. Mariella. You are brave to venture out in such foul weather. I was sure you wouldn’t come.”
He took Mother’s arm and led her into a near-empty room where a fire had been lit and four chairs were drawn up round a little table. The miniature of Henry’s mother stood in solitary splendor on the mantelpiece. “How proud poor Eppie would be to see you here,” said Mother.
“I hope so.” We were all silent a moment. “We will have tea and then I will show you the rest of the house. You mustn’t mind our very primitive arrangements.”
I unfastened the five pearl buttons of my right glove and peeled it from my fingers. Despite the fire the room was gloomy because beyond the French doors rain was drumming on the roof of a conservatory. But that was all I noticed; the shock of being in Henry’s presence made me blind and deaf to anything else. He was dressed very formally in a frock coat and cravat. When I was absent from him, what I remembered most vividly was the way his abundant hair sprang from his forehead, the horizontal crease above his confident chin, and the surprising gentleness of his voice. In the flesh he was always a little taller, broader, altogether more a man of the world than I expected.
Father, who was late for every engagement, did not appear, so the three of us had a cozy tea. Mother poured and Henry passed me a cup with a formality that made us laugh. “It’s the first time of thousands that we shall all drink tea in this house,” he said, “and you are my first guests, so I must start as I mean to go on.”
“This is a beautiful tea service,” said Mother. “I’ve not seen it before.”
“It was Mother’s. I’ve had it packed away all these years. This seemed the right moment to unearth it.”
My hand shook as I held the shell of pink porcelain. “So, Constantinople,” I said. “You’ve told us nothing.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Everything. What you saw. Whom you spoke to. Your mission was even mentioned in the paper. Father read it out to us. We were very proud.”
“Yes, I gather
The Times
got hold of the story. There are no secrets from the press anymore. As you can imagine, Mariella, I felt a considerable burden of responsibility. At one point I even wondered whether I was the right man for the job but they wanted a surgeon of my experience, I had met Herbert at a dinner, so there it was. We have established that there is provision for a large hospital in Constantinople and we have ordered massive stocks of lint and plaster and so on to be sent out there. It’s the best we can do. But I wish your father could have been with us. The main hospital, should it be required, will be a vast old barracks and I have reservations about the state of its floors and drains. Uncle Philip would have been the ideal person to advise us.”
“Were the army doctors satisfied? ”
“We all were, in a way. The accommodation is certainly adequate in terms of space. But of course so little can be done until we know more about where or even if the fighting will begin. And the army doctors are entirely optimistic because they say the military is used to building something out of nothing. Certainly I was impressed by the speed and efficiency of the steamships. A wounded man could reach hospital in a matter of hours.”
“And what about Constantinople? Was it as you’d expected?”
“Colder than I’d expected; a different type of cold from here, more dense and penetrating altogether. I stressed in my report that we were planning for a summer campaign, and that if the war were to be delayed until winter things could be quite different. With rough seas wounded soldiers would have a very uncomfortable time. But in summer all will be well.”
“It must have been so difficult,” said Mother, “when you don’t know the language. Did any of you speak Turkish? What a business it must be, preparing an army. My goodness, I am having difficulties planning a home for fifteen women, let alone tens of thousands.”
“How is the home, Aunt? ”
“Oh, we are still as far from opening as ever. I never know what the next difficulty will be. The committee is currently researching the most hygienic type of mattress—we have been offered any number of secondhand beds but I can’t help thinking we must be sure of their provenance.”
Henry leant forward and took her hands in his. “I tell you what, dear Aunt, we can’t have you worrying about this type of thing. Why don’t you leave me a list of queries and I’ll answer them as best I can. Would that help your committee?”
We began our tour of the house in the conservatory, where a fluted marble fountain had been installed, although there was as yet no running water. The windows were elaborately arched to allow a view of the garden, which at the moment was little more than a water-logged meadow graced by three enormous elms.
“Perhaps it was a mistake bringing you here,” Henry said. “In this weather it’s hard to imagine sunny afternoons on the lawn. But I am being asked to think of everything, wallpapers, plantings, pavements, paths, arbors. How can I do it alone? I need help.”
Mother eyed an array of pattern books and swatches of fabric set out on a broad sill. “Do you know,” she said, “I think I’ll sit by the fire and work my way through these while you and Mariella look at the house. When Philip arrives we’ll come and find you.”
I was amazed at her for sending us away on our own. Surely she was too guileless to orchestrate a proposal? We watched as she pulled her chair nearer the fire and opened a pattern book. “So, where shall we start?” Henry said, rather too briskly.
“I’d like to see the turret.”
“Aha. The turret, my dear Ella, is a flight of fancy on the part of the architect. I hadn’t the heart to curb his enthusiasm. It promises more than it delivers, I think you’ll find, but follow me.”
I caressed the intricate globes and twists in the newel posts on the stairs and savored the creaking of the unused boards underfoot. When Henry opened the last door, a gust of wind blew it shut behind us. The room had windows on two sides and a peculiar circular bay in one corner which was in fact the turret. “What a shame. I’d hoped for a spiral staircase and a dark little tower room at least,” I said.
“It’s a very modern turret, I’m afraid, but there’ll be a wonderful view if it ever stops raining. I’m thinking of making this my library. What do you think? And at night I hope to have time for star-gazing.” He moved self-consciously round the room, poked his head up the chimney, and pulled on the picture rail as if testing its firmness.
“I presume it won’t always smell of plaster,” I said.
“Paint will be the next thing. I only hope it will be finished by summer. This place takes up so much of my thoughts and time, the sooner I can move in the less of a distraction it will be. And perhaps when it is filled with furniture it will feel less vast and ostentatious.”
“Hardly ostentatious. You’ve earned every brick of this house. Nobody on earth works harder than you.”
“But then you would say that. You are too loyal and uncritical.” He came a little closer and smiled at me in the boyish way that quickened my blood.
Another blast of wind drove raindrops against the glass. He offered his arm, squeezed my fingers, and led me back along the passage. “There are two bathrooms, one for guests, one attached to the main bedroom. I have cold piped water, of course, but the hot is more of a problem. They tried to persuade me to have a geyser but I resisted. Your father says they’re very unreliable.” We peeked into a cavernous bathroom with a great, claw-footed bath in the center and suddenly found ourselves on such impossibly intimate territory that I was a little faint. The house was so beautiful and untouched. If only I could fill it with my handiwork. If only it could be me who drew the curtains at the windows, lit the lamps, and waited for him by the hearth at night.
“This is the main bedroom,” he said, moving on. “In summer the sun will flood in here because it’s south-facing. And there is even a view, you see, to the heath. The architect thought of everything. There is a dressing room on one side leading into the bathroom, and this other little room could be a kind of parlor, perhaps. What do you think, Mariella? ”
“The light is so good that it would make a wonderful sewing room.”
There was a pause. Perhaps I had been too forthright. Again we stood within inches of each other. The tension of being alone in a room with Henry after nearly two months apart was unendurable. In the end I sank down in the window seat with a puff of my skirts and put my forehead to the glass.
After another long silence he said: “Yes, that’s how I always think of you, with your calm brow and steady eyes. In those chilly nights on the ship when I looked at the stars I wondered if you were gazing up at the same sky. You have no idea, I think, how much it means to me, knowing that you are here.”
It was coming, surely. He reached out his hand, I gave him mine, and he brought it to his lips in a soft, slow kiss which afterwards went on burning my flesh. Then he helped me up, tucked my hand through his arm, and looked into my face. His eyes were a dark gray, like mercury, with yellowish flecks, and this close I could see that his complexion was a little weathered from his recent journey. “Mariella, there is so much uncertainty. I find the prospect of war very unsettling and then next month I am off on my travels again to a hospital in Hungary where I want to meet a doctor whose practices might have significant impact on the way we run our own hospitals. Thanks to the government’s interest in me, if I can make my mark, perhaps with these new techniques in the operating theater, I could at last...” He kissed my hand again. “You are, and have been, very patient with me. I think we both know—I at least have always known... Can I ask you to be patient with me a little longer?”
My lips were trembling so that I could hardly put words together. “There’s no need . . . I ask nothing except . . .”
At that moment there was a great clatter of the door knocker followed by the maid’s footsteps in the hall, then my father’s stamping feet and the flapping of his umbrella. “Is my wife here? Where is she? Ah, there you are, Maria, my love, I’m late of course but I was needed at Kings Cross. Where are the others? What’s this problem Henry wrote to me about?”
Henry squeezed my hand and kissed the side of it at the base of my little finger; we looked into each other’s eyes, smiled, and grew sober because of what was behind the laughter, but the moment was gone.
hree days later, at five in the morning,
the new carriage was again brought to the door of Fosse House, and Father and I, muffled up in coats and shawls, bundled inside and rode off to watch the Grenadier Guards march to war. “It’s a small sacrifice, Mariella, rising so early, but it’s the right thing to do, a chance in a lifetime to turn out and see troops setting off for a foreign campaign. You’ll remember this forever. I was very small when I saw a regiment march through our village on their way to fight the French but I’ve never forgotten it.”
“Did you ever want to be a soldier, Father? ”
“Couldn’t afford it. The army’s no career for an ambitious lad with no connections.”
“You know that Maximilian Stukeley is going to this war. Or so Aunt Isabella said in her last letter.”
“Maximilian. The difficult stepson, as I recall. I thought he was in Australia. Well, at any rate a war will bring him into line. Perhaps we’ll see him this morning. He’ll most likely be with a northern regiment, but you never know.”
Half a mile from Buckingham Palace the street was so congested that we had to get out and walk. Though all the crowds were rushing in the same direction, it seemed to me that my own particular reason for being there was more momentous than other people’s. This war, after all, was connected with Henry, and Father said that war brought rapid promotion to those who performed well.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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