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Authors: Katharine McMahon

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Literary, #Historical

The Rose of Sebastopol (6 page)

BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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The morning was dirty and cold, but my steps were sprung with joy because of my private love. Besides, I sensed that I was part of something glorious and I was very happy to be out alone with Father. Before he became grand enough for dinners and clubs he and I used to be frequent companions on jaunts into town. I loved to feel the thick fabric of his coat under my arm and the full force of his attention. He wasn’t tall, except when his top hat made him so, but his hair was thick and silver-white, his voice powerful, with a strong Derbyshire accent, his face ruddy, and his teeth excellent. Being with Father was to be with
At the palace gates we waited in the midst of a deep crowd, our breath misting the air and our hands plunged deep into our pockets. Some women had brought rice to fling at the troops; others smiled bravely though their lips quivered and their eyes were red with tears. Then there was a beat in the pavement, the crowd pressed forward, and there they were, the first lines of immaculately marching men throwing up their feet and turning eyes left to face the balcony where the queen had suddenly appeared, a speck beside her tall husband. I gave a half-sob, waved, shouted “God save the Queen,” and abandoned myself to the cacophony of sound and movement: the stamp of marching feet, the bellowing of the crowd, the band playing “The British Grenadiers,” the flurry of handkerchiefs, the proud, uplifted faces of the men.
I felt as if I were part of every soldier. My whole being cried out to their courage, the neatness of their packs, the ruffle of breeze in their bearskin hats, the precise angle at which they carried their rifles. Neatness, order, purpose were qualities I understood perfectly. Behind them came the cavalry, the horses reeking of polished flesh, the riders bolt upright with their boots gleaming and their elbows pressed to their sides. Though the crowd yelled even harder, neither horses nor men took any notice.
I didn’t see Max Stukeley, fortunately. In any case, given that I’d not set eyes on him for more than a decade it was unlikely that I would have recognized him; I didn’t even know if he wore a moustache, how tall he had grown, or in which regiment he served. But I avoided looking in anyone’s face too long, just in case.
“Well,” said Father, “we’ve done our duty. They’ll remember that we were all here. You see, what I admire about soldiers, Mariella, is that they’re not fighting only for themselves, whereas most of us work mainly for our own advancement. When you’re a soldier you rely on other men as your brothers. And you are fighting for something that will go on and on into the future, long after you’re dead. It’s a noble calling, I think. Those cavalry horses, for instance, what most people don’t understand is that they are trained not to stop. Once you get one of those horses galloping it can’t be turned. That’s what the cavalry’s about—an unstoppable force. Imagine riding one of them great horses into the thick of battle.”
We walked back to the carriage through the suddenly deflated crowd. “How must it feel,” I said, “to be the sister of one of these men, or the wife or mother? To know you may not see them again.”
“That’s not how they think, I’m sure. They trust that their men will come back. And in any case, preserving a life isn’t everything, Mariella. Not for a man. This is a just war against a barbaric enemy. In order to lead a valuable life one has to throw oneself forward, to make a mark. No, I envy them.”
hat afternoon Mother and I
were due at the church to plan an Easter Garden competition for the Sunday-school children. It was likely to be a difficult meeting, because Mrs. Hardcastle had suggested that the children should add Turkish, French, and British colors to their displays but Mother was shocked by the idea. Easter, she said, was a time of hope, not conflict.
“Surely Our Lord being crucified makes His Resurrection even more pertinent to us this year,” argued Mrs. Hardcastle. “The Easter story is all about the triumph of the righteous.”
The weather was blustery, and in preparation for our walk I draped a heavy merino shawl over my shoulders but couldn’t resist wearing my newly trimmed bonnet. As I was halfway down the stairs the doorbell rang. The new maid, Ruth, sprang across the hall to answer it and I was left stranded with my bonnet untied and my hand on the banister waiting for her to deal with our visitor, a tall young man in full military dress the glamour of which rendered Ruth speechless.
“Captain Max Stukeley. Ninety-seventh Derbyshires. I wonder if Mrs. Lingwood is at home.” Then, catching sight of me on the stairs, he took an exaggerated step backwards. “Well, I do believe this must be Miss Mariella Lingwood.”
I gave him my hand, which he took and held. “Do you know, you look even more like your cousin Rosa than before, Miss Lingwood. Not the hair, perhaps, but the features. Astonishing.”
I pulled my hand away, sent Ruth to fetch Mother, and showed our visitor into the drawing room. Actually my knees were shaking. Last time I saw Max Stukeley he was sixteen or so and I was twelve. Then he had been a harbinger of doom, now he was tall and broad in his tight red tunic and dark blue trousers, all flashing braid and gilt buttons, his dark eyes as disconcertingly keen as ever. In his large left hand he held a small basket of primroses. Father would not have approved the dandyish flourish of his moustache.
While we waited for Mother, Max and I held an awkward conversation. He was entirely out of place in our drawing room, because he wore strong colors, was very tall, and possessed, as I well remembered, pent-up energy that vented itself with constant movement, a restless prowling about the room and sudden lunges to pick up a book or ornament, to play a crashing chord on the piano, or to dart a forceful, black-eyed glare at me. The drawing room, on the other hand, was designed for slow, small gestures, being decorated in pastel shades and crowded with delicate furniture.
I sat down and folded my hands. “You are off to the war then, Captain Stukeley.”
He balanced the primroses on the arm of a chair but didn’t sit. “This very evening, if they can find a ship large enough to cram in our horses. None of us will be separated from our beasts.”
I was about to ask, Are you looking forward to the war? but decided that this was hardly an appropriate question. Instead I said: “Father and I went to Buckingham Palace this morning to see the march past.”
“Did you indeed? I’m sure the men will be very gratified that you took the trouble.”
Every second I was remembering more of Max. After all, his eyes had exactly the same expression as when he was a boy, dangerously unsteady, flashing about as he took in every detail of his surroundings but then focusing abruptly on my face. This last remark of his, spoken with considerable irony, suggested that his manners had not improved at all.
“Is your family well? ” I asked. “In her last letter Rosa told me that your father had a bad accident with his horse.”
“An accident? Oh, indeed. And he’s not recovered. As a matter of fact none of my family is doing well at all, except Horatio of course. Which is why I’m here.” He glanced at the clock. “Will Mrs. Lingwood be long, do you think?”
“She is dressing. We were about to go out.”
“So I see.” He raised an eyebrow, gave me a hot, sudden glance and nodded. “That bonnet is certainly very fetching, Miss Lingwood, especially with those ribbons undone.”
I ducked my head to hide the flush that immediately climbed my neck. “I understand you’ve been in Australia. How fascinating.”
He threw back his head and laughed, again a sharp memory. His rare laughter began as a chuckle and then, if he was really amused or if others joined in, became full-throated and prolonged. “Fascinating. Absolutely. No other word for it. Sand and sky are
, especially after a month or two of looking at nothing else.”
At that moment in came Mother, so burdened that she cracked the spike of her umbrella against the door-frame and threw herself off balance. Her bonnet dangled from her hand, as did a capacious bag in which she carried the minutes from last year’s Easter Garden meeting, and she also clutched her gloves, cloak, and a folded altar cloth, because it had been our week for laundering the sacred linens. Max darted forward to help her and there was a flurry of laughter and movement as she disentangled herself, accepted the primroses with extravagant gratitude, and glanced shyly into his face.
The ensuing conversation was conducted with breathless haste. Both Max and Mother were in a hurry, because if we arrived late Mrs. Hardcastle would certainly use the extra few minutes to hold a private talk with the vicar, and Max behaved with the urgency of one who was rushing off to fight the entire war single-handed. He refused a seat and kept glancing at the door. “The fact is, Mrs. Lingwood, my stepmother begged me to call. She made me promise not to leave London without seeing you.”
“Ah, how is Isabella? I’ve not heard from her for weeks.”
“Your sister is not well, ma’am, but then she never is, in my experience. And she now has an additional burden of anxiety in that since his fall my father has been very ill with some debilitating disease of the gut... To be frank, I don’t expect him to be alive when I return from this war.”
Mother made sympathetic noises but Max shrugged. “The trouble is that my brother, Horatio, will inherit Stukeley and as he plans to marry soon, there will be no place for your sister or Rosa. The timing is unfortunate. Were I home I would do my best to provide for them. As it is, to be blunt, my stepmother doesn’t trust Horatio to look after her and I’m afraid, from a brief conversation I had with him, her fears may be well justified.”
“But won’t she be provided for in her husband’s will?”
“He will make some small provision for her, I’m sure, but he’s always been adamant that the estates should be left intact. The difficulty is that her health has declined so much that she needs constant nursing and because Father has scarcely been conscious for months, he may not have left her a sufficient allowance. I’m not sure he has a proper grasp of just how desperate her situation might be. Hence Isabella’s urgent request that I call on you.”
“But what can I do? Should I go to her, do you think? Would I be welcome? Now that Sir Matthew is ill, perhaps there would be no difficulty...” I could tell that Mother had mentally begun the process of canceling her meeting and packing her bags. The news that Maria Lingwood had
gone north
to care for her sick sister, though inconvenient, would cause a gratifying flurry on the committees.
“I’m sure your sister and niece would be very happy to see you, but I think on the whole your presence would only add tension to an already difficult situation. At the moment Rosa, at least, is indispensable, because oddly enough she is the only person my father will allow near him. Isabella’s maid, Nora, is more than competent and willing to nurse him, but he has taken against her. There. You see, he’s simply not rational. But when he dies . . .” He had the grace to look embarrassed.
“So what must we do?” asked Mother.
“Wait for news. There is no need for urgent action, but I fear it won’t be long before your kindness will be called upon. I came to warn you, and I suppose to reassure myself that here at least Isabella and Rosa, and perhaps their maid, will be kindly received.”
He glanced into our faces, tucked his hat under his arm, and looked so correct and handsome as he shook Mother’s hand that for a moment I thought I had underestimated him. But then he stepped across to me, clicked his heels, and kissed my hand so enthusiastically that I distinctly felt the brush of his ostentatious moustache, the pressure of his open lips, and, as the kiss became prolonged, the hardness of his teeth. When he raised his head he winked at me. “Wonderful bonnet, Miss Lingwood. It does my poor soldier’s heart good to see how you have blossomed. I shall carry the image of you in that hat when I march into battle.”
Mother laughed but I was annoyed. Even when we were outside where the wind plucked at our skirts and blew our agitated conversation across the common, the audacity of that wink and the fervor of his kiss still rankled.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
8.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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