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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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osa’s heroine was a young lady
called Miss Florence Nightingale, who was ten years older than herself and had persuaded her father, a mill-owner in the next valley, to open a school for the children of the poor. While in Derbyshire—her family had two other homes, in Hampshire and London—Miss Nightingale spent her days nursing the sick and her evenings teaching mill girls how to read.
“Everyone talks about her,” said Rosa, “and I hope to meet her this summer. I want to be like her. Imagine what I could do one day, if Stepfather would let me. I could become someone who really made a difference.”
As a step towards this goal she lost no time in signing me up for a newly formed committee of the Society for the Improvement of the Conditions of the Sick, Needy, and Uneducated at Stukeley, of which she was the chairman and I was appointed secretary. Together we constituted the entire membership and we held our meetings in what was known as the Italian Garden, where paths radiated from a central sundial, fountains played in each corner, a peach tree grew against one wall, and there was a white pavilion.
At the end of June, some six weeks into our visit, a meeting had been arranged to draw up a curriculum for the prospective school. Aunt Isabella was unwell that day and after breakfast Rosa was summoned to her mother’s room, so I went to the pavilion and waited for her. I felt very tired and low-spirited, the air was warm and breezy, and after half an hour or so I lay down on one of the cool stone benches and nearly fell asleep.
When I became aware that someone was watching me I didn’t immediately open my eyes. But in the end I squinted up and saw Rosa’s black-haired stepbrother, Max, who was leaning against the pillar at my feet, hands behind his back, staring down at me. For a moment I lay still, dazzled by the combination of his intense dark eyes, the white pillar, and the blue sky. He had placed his feet on either side of my calves and the expression in his eyes, tender, pitying even, pinned me to the bench. Then he was gone.
I turned my head and watched his progress across the garden. At one point he sprang onto the rim of a fountain, balanced for a moment, and jumped down. When he reached the door in the wall he didn’t look back but raised his left arm and let it fall to his side.
Meanwhile Rosa had appeared at the top of the wide flight of steps on the opposite side of the garden and was walking down, very slowly. When she reached me I saw that she was crying. She swept the back of her hand across her nose and eyes but tears kept spilling down her cheeks.
“You’ve got to pack your bags and go,” she said.
I sat upright so suddenly that a headache began in my temple. “Why? ”
“The stepfather says so. Evil man. Called you spongers. Mama’s too ill to speak.”
“We’re not spongers.”
“Of course not. We love you being here. We need you here. I can’t bear it, Mariella.”
“I thought he liked us.”
“Well, now he’s changed his mind. Typical of him. He’s ordered the carriage. We’ve got to pack your things straightaway. Your mother’s waiting for you.”
“No, no, this isn’t right.” I ran towards the house, the word
pounding in my head. I had to see Mother and find out the truth. But Rosa caught up with me, seized my arm, and held me in a violent embrace. “I can’t bear it. I can’t live without you. Please say you’ll write every day, Mariella.” Her body shook as she cried into my hair while I stood very still and waited numbly for her to let me go.
LONDON, 1854
y next contribution to the Russian War
was to make an album. Though this was originally Father’s idea, I took it up with enthusiasm, because I was an expert on collecting, arranging, and pasting. My last album, “The Great Exhibition,” had included a program, tickets, detailed plans of the glass structure, and sketches of exhibits. I had also made an album called “Our Railways,” and one coyly entitled “Miss Lingwood’s Guide to Stitchcraft.”
But the front page, created on March 15, turned out to be the new album’s greatest triumph. First I cut red, white, and blue ribbons to make a collage of a Union Jack, on top of which I pasted the print from the
Illustrated London News
of the Scots Fusiliers waving their busbies to the queen. Round this masterpiece I worked a pen-and-ink border with symbols of the war: the Russian bear, the crucifix, a minié rifle (drawn by Father), the Union Jack, and the fleur-de-lis, all entwined with daffodils, crocuses, and roses (the latter unseasonable but one of my few areas of expertise as an artist). Next, on March 29, I cut out the thrilling headline: “Declaration of War.” After that I ran out of ideas because the war had stuttered to a halt.
At the end of March Henry called to say good-bye before setting off on his trip to Pest. As he gave us no warning of his visit, Mother was out with Mrs. Hardcastle. A house for the governesses had been identified, a lease signed, and now the ladies were measuring windows so that a final decision could be made about lace (secondhand, because it so happened that Mrs. Hardcastle was replacing all hers) or muslin (new) for the curtains. I was at work in the morning room, restless because outside the sky was a riotous blue and white, trees tossed their budding branches, and women held on to their bonnets. When the maid brought Henry up I was taken unawares and stood foolishly with my sewing clutched against my skirts. We were both shocked, I think, by the suddenness with which we found ourselves alone together.
He had brought an armful of daffodils. “I have just been at The Elms. The garden is full of these, going to waste because there’s no-one to see them. But the painting has begun and there’s a range in the kitchen, so things are moving forward.”
He spilt the flowers into Ruth’s arms, took a seat on a distant chair, and accepted my offer of tea though he could stay barely a quarter of an hour. “Yet another commission,” he said. “This one about public health and hygiene. I’ll see if I can get your father a place on the board. He knows more about sewers and suchlike than anyone else. They have heard I’m going to Hungary and they want me to report back on the state of that nation’s public health. I’ve told them it is scarcely my field but it’s surprising how when one has become a known authority in one thing, one is expected to be an authority on everything.”
“You must be very proud,” I said.
“Proud? I don’t know. A little daunted. The awful thing is one runs out of time for the really important things. Best of all I like to be in the theater with my patients and students, and I ought to do more reading and research. The use of chloroform, for instance, to put patients asleep during an operation, is an area that I believe will transform surgery, but I’ve had no time to analyze the latest findings on its dangers and effectiveness. Instead I rush from one meeting to the next. Being in Hungary will at least give me time to study and reflect.”
When Ruth brought first the daffodils in a vase, then tea, Henry lay back and watched me pour, his legs stretched to the fire and his foot inches from my own. After she had gone he said: “I always rest when I’m here. With you I can be utterly myself.” Then his tone changed. “But tell me, Mariella, what have you been up to since last we met? Not resting much either, I’m sure.”
“I have been making a war album but I refuse to show you because it’s such a feeble thing so far. And these are a set of pillow-cases for our governesses. Each is to have a matching pair with different flower motifs in the corners. Crocus, daisies, lily-of-the-valley. Mother is working me very hard.”
“And after the home is open, what then? I can’t believe that you and your mother would ever be idle.”
“Oh, I can hardly think that far ahead. The fund-raising will go on, I suppose. If it’s a success there’s talk of opening another house in a different part of London, this time for seamstresses. And we still don’t know when or if Aunt Isabella and Rosa will come to stay.”
“Ah. The famous Rosa. I shall be intrigued to meet her after all these years.”
“Perhaps she will have changed and will turn out to be very ordinary after all.”
“I hope not. I would be very disappointed.”
The room held us quietly with its ticking clock and lick of flames in the hearth but still he said nothing significant about our future. When it was time for him to go I reached for the bell-pull in the dreary knowledge that soon I would be alone at the start of yet another lengthy period of doubt and longing. But as my fingers touched the tassel, he made a sign to stop me and drew me up so that we stood between the tea table and the fire while I looked at the high polish on his shoes and he studied my face. “You are my ideal,” he said. “So utterly content in your own world. So selfless in your service of others.”
“But I do nothing. What is a pillow-case here or there compared to what you achieve? ”
“The essential, I think, is to be an expert, to give oneself wholly to the task in hand. You are an expert at being Mariella. Your small things, as you call them, add up to one dedicated whole. You create around you an oasis of calm. Never change, my dearest girl.”
He took my face in his cupped hands and leant forward to kiss my forehead where my parting began. My eyes closed and I felt his lips on my nose, then, very softly, my mouth. “Mariella.” Almost before I realized that he had at last kissed me on the lips he was gone; his feet clattered on the stairs, the front door slammed, and when I ran to the window I saw him walk rapidly away across the common.
I stood in a stupor of joy, staring at my own reflection in the mirror above the hearth. My body was aching, my face flushed, my eyes bright. I buried my face in the daffodils and my head was filled with spring. When I took up my sewing I didn’t care that my fingers left a smear of pollen along a seam.
e read in THE TIMES that the navy
Russian ships and ports in the Baltic Sea which, as Father showed me on the globe, was miles from what he called the
of war, but I stuck in a sketch-map, still somewhat unclear about what was meant by the Baltic states: Finland, apparently, Latvia, and fortresses at Sveaborg and Kronshtadt, which protected the Russian capital, Saint Petersburg. It gave me a thrill to consult a globe because I could track Henry’s journey to Pest. But nothing much else happened in the Baltic, either. Our navy’s job, said Father, was to
the Russian fleet. I imagined a flotilla of little wooden boats all in splinters. Our troops, meanwhile, were landed in Constantinople (a sheet of parchment, soaked in tea, upon which I wrote a recklessly abbreviated history of that ancient city). At the end of April Father suggested I draw another map, this time of the Mediterranean, with arrows to mark the trade routes, showing why the Russians must not be allowed to take Constantinople from the Turks. If they did, he said, our
empire was at stake, including India, because bullying Russia would be able eventually to march away with the lot. On the next page I drew a steamship. A journey to the Black Sea took eight days by steam, a month by sail. A long explanation by Father followed, including a diagram, labeled by me, of how the giant screws were turned by steam to work the paddles.
After that I lost interest and instead returned to the much more rewarding project of embroidering flower motifs on the governesses’ hand-towels, to match the pillow-cases. The opening of the home had been put back to early July, because no reliable relief matron could be found, which gave me more time to prepare a little entertainment for the assembled residents and dignitaries. I had chosen to sing “Where E’er You Walk,” though the accompaniment was very tricky. These particular lyrics were appropriate, we thought, to the governesses, particularly the trees crowding into a shade, though not perhaps the implied romance. When I thought of green glades I imagined the garden at The Elms on leafy summer afternoons.
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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