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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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“How wonderful. Could I help? Can we go there? ”
“We can, yes. If you like.”
“I want, so much, to be useful.” She lightly tapped her toe as I went on sewing. “I can hardly believe that I am here. All these weeks, months, years this is what I’ve wanted more than anything else, to be in the same room as you again.”
“What do you mean? You can’t mean it.”
“Nobody else gives me this feeling. What is it? Completion. The sense of being in absolutely the right place with absolutely the right person.”
“But you had so many friends in the north. Your letters were full of parties and outings.”
“Nonsense. All shallow, save for a very few exceptional people. There was no-one to replace you. When I see you bent over your work like that I remember your little brown head when we were children, your hair dropping onto your hands, the way I could never find out what was going on inside you however hard I tried.”
“There was nothing to discover.”
“Oh, there was. Oh, Mariella.”
I stared into her blue eyes and recognized that her features were exquisitely spaced. It was as if some artist, Alfred Stevens perhaps, had made deft marks with his charcoal on the perfect oval of her face.
“Mariella. Am I sharing a room with you, like we did before?”
“We thought you’d prefer your own room.”
“But don’t you remember the fun we had? I was fully expecting that we’d be sleeping together again.”
“We have plenty of rooms and my bedroom is small. We thought, as you may be with us some time, you might like somewhere of your own.”
“I’ve had years on my own. You saw how vast and empty Stukeley was. I was always lonely there. Or is it that you don’t want to be with me?” Dismay and uncertainty lurked at the back of her eyes.
“I thought you would find me dull and our house too small.”
“Small. No. Not small at all. It’s a home, full of loved things, I can tell. And dull. You? You were never dull. Mariella, this last year has been like living in a dark tunnel with no glimmer of light at the end. And then when Stepfather was dying, Max and I thought of asking you to rescue us, and all of a sudden I was full of hope. I’ve held on to all your letters, and the memory of those weeks we had together, the only time in my life when I’ve had a proper friend of my own age dearer than a sister.” She embraced me so that we stood breast to breast, her cheek against mine. Even though I didn’t quite believe that she could feel so much for me, it felt wonderful to be held so tightly, so I put my hand on her shoulder and kissed her, just below the ear.
Seven
DER BY SHIRE, 1844
 
 
 
W
hen Mother and I first arrived at Stukeley,
neither of the stepbrothers was home. The older, Horatio, was just completing his first year at Oxford and the younger, Maximilian, was at boarding school in Malvern. “He’ll be back any minute though,” said Rosa. “You’ll see. He never stays anywhere for long.”
In the meantime she and I spent hours on our own. We had duties to our respective mothers, Aunt Isabella needed occasional nursing even then, and I was required to continue with my cursory education, but otherwise we were free. Rosa used to hook her arm through mine and lead me to one of her secret haunts: a box hedge, hollow inside like a green cave, a turret with a view over half of Derbyshire, and a dressing room attached to her bedroom, where we sat under the dangling hems of her frocks. She had an obsession with being hidden away in a confined space, which meant I soon knew her intimately: the way her hair sprang in an irrepressible curl on the right side of her forehead, the fact that one front tooth was fractionally longer than the other, the angle at which the stem of her throat rose from the loose neck of her gown. When she was excited it was her habit to weave the fabric of her skirt over and under her fingers, then pull them out and dig them back into the little tunnels they’d made, and I became familiar with the grassy scent of her clean breath.
“Why do you like hiding places so much?” I asked.
“They’re not
hiding
places, they’re the opposite in fact. I like being where nothing can distract me from myself or you. In a secret place I can be sure of being what I want to be. As opposed to what others want. Especially
him,
that man, Stukeley. I never want him to find me.”
The box hedge ran in a neat square round the outside of the water garden, broken in places to allow paths to run through the gaps. We entered it at one end and by crouching down tunneled our way to a little open space right in its very heart. The first time I sat there with Rosa, cross-legged, knee to knee, she leant forward and clasped both my hands. “Tell me all about your life at home.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to tell.”
“There must be. What do you like? Who do you like? How do you spend your days? ”
I told her about my sewing and showed her the smocking on my blouse and the embroidery on my pocket. “Would I be able to do something like that?” she cried, peering intently. “I can’t believe you made those tiny stitches.”
“It would take a while for you to learn. Perhaps we should start with something quite simple, like a needle book. You see, I was taught by an expert, my Aunt Eppie, who was a professional needlewoman. She practically supported her family with her needle, right up to her death.”
“Ah, so she’s dead.”
“She is.” I took a deep breath. I couldn’t help myself, I had to speak his name. “And since then my second cousin Henry has become like a son to my father and mother. He lived with us for a while and he still comes to our house whenever he can. Father takes a great interest in his education.”
“How old is this Henry?”
“Now he’s nearly twenty.”
“And if he’s like a son to your parents, does that mean he’s like a brother to you? ”
“A brother? Well. Perhaps. I don’t know what brothers are like...”
“Stepbrothers are not much use to anyone.”
“Henry’s not like that. Henry, I’d say, is more than a brother. When he stayed with us I was only eight but I spent hours with him and we talked all the time.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Everything. Medicine quite a lot, even then. He’s studying to be a doctor.”
“I wish Max would do something worthwhile, but he won’t, I’m sure. If he became a doctor, for instance, at least I could help him by being his housekeeper or some such. Mariella, you’re so lucky.”
“I know.”
“Do you love him? ”
“Of course I love him.”
“Like a husband?”
“Oh no, not at all. Not like that. In any case, he’s much older than me.”
“But you love him, I can tell. Oh, Mariella, please don’t love this Henry more than me. You won’t, will you?” She cupped my chin in her hands and rubbed my nose with hers until I giggled. “I love you better than anyone else in the world,” she whispered.
Eight
LONDON, 1854
 
 
 
T
he day after Rosa and Aunt Isabella’s arrival
I was woken early by a commotion downstairs: a brisk knock on the front door followed by Mother’s voice in the hall. Rosa was still asleep in the bed we’d had carried in from another room. With her hair spread over the pillow and one arm bent behind her head, she might have been modeling for a painting of the kind displayed at the Royal Academy, called
Innocent Slumbers
, or some such.
I tiptoed onto the landing, peered down, and saw that the doctor was being shown into my aunt’s room, though it was barely seven o’clock. Mother would never dream of putting him to such inconvenience unless Aunt Isabella was dangerously ill.
I dressed in the room intended for Rosa, where the air was perfumed with the flowers I’d picked for her, and mats with edges of hairpin lace, crocheted by me, were scattered about to receive her bottles and brushes. Ruth and I had buffed the bedposts, twisted and shiny like barley-sugar sticks, and dusted every last bit of molding on the mantel. The windows overlooked the garden with its winding path, under the rose arch, to the wilderness, although this last now seemed a somewhat vainglorious name for a quarter acre of shrubbery. Our entire Clapham plot would have fit into the Italian Garden alone at Stukeley.
After half an hour I heard the front door close, so I crept downstairs to join Mother at breakfast. She told me that during the night Aunt had suffered severe palpitations and was still fighting for breath. The doctor had ordered that she was to be kept in complete seclusion, preferably bed rest, for the next week at least. The long railway journey, coupled with the strain of recent widowhood, had put an intolerable stress on her heart and nerves.
“It’s unkind of me to say this, I know, but it’s inconvenient,” said Mother. “I have so much on.”
“I can help.”
“Of course you can. And there’s Rosa, and their maid.”
“What did Father say?”
“He said we must do everything necessary, of course. But he was in a hurry. There’s been a problem with the Wandsworth site to do with the proximity of the railway. The drains are affected.”
Rosa appeared in a flowing white dressing gown that swirled round her feet when she stooped to kiss us. She threw into sharp relief anything in the room that was old or shabby, yet when she touched a chair-back or a napkin they suddenly became part of the graceful picture that was Rosa. She was blooming after her long sleep. “You cannot imagine how wonderful it is to be here. I woke up and thought, I can’t believe I have actually got away. That house in Derbyshire had become a mausoleum.” She reached across the table for the coffeepot and spread a lavish helping of butter on her toast. “So tell me,” she said, “what shall we do today?”
“Your mother is ill, Rosa, dear,” said my mother. “We called in the doctor.”
“There was no need. She’ll soon pick up.”
“He thinks not. He said she’ll need constant nursing. It’s always a worry when the heart is affected.”
“Nora can do it. That’s why we brought her down with us.”
“Nora was up all last night, she needs to sleep.” Rosa had stopped eating and was watching Mother attentively. “For the time being, at least, while your mother is so sick, I think we must be sure she gets proper care. And I feel it would be unkind to bring a nurse in from outside, the moment you arrive.”
Rosa got up and pushed back her chair. “I’ll nurse her, of course I will, it’s no trouble, I’m used to it, I wouldn’t want us to be a burden on you. Perhaps if Mariella and I could just step outside for an hour or so to get some air first, if you wouldn’t mind, dear Aunt Maria, just taking care while we . . .” She dashed away tears. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m a little weary of nursing, that’s why I’m being selfish. My stepfather had a dreadful illness, some kind of growth in the gut. Mama couldn’t bear to be near him and he was so bad-tempered the nurses wouldn’t stay, except Nora but he disliked her. And he was good with me, he seemed much calmer when I was there. I never mind being with sick people really. In fact it’s how I’d choose to spend my life, if I could be of proper use. I’ll go up to Mama immediately . . .”
She flew out of the room. We heard her pause in the hall and draw a long, shuddering breath, then her light step on the stairs.
An hour later she and I were in the omnibus heading for the river while Mother stayed at home to nurse her sister. “I have only to cancel a short meeting this morning. It’s nothing. Poor Rosa deserves a little holiday.”
Nevertheless, Mother’s sacrifice weighed heavily on my conscience as Rosa and I sat knee to knee with an elderly gentleman in a dusty hat, and a nursemaid holding a young child, all three transfixed by Rosa, who was peering hungrily out of the window and whose glinting hair provided a fetching contrast to her black gown, shawl, and bonnet. “First we’ll go to Maryle-bone,” she said, “where I have an appointment.”
“An appointment. But how could you? We didn’t know what would be happening today.”
BOOK: The Rose of Sebastopol
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