Reverse of letter

Chapter 1

Am I condemned to spend the rest of my life constrained by the curious allure of this house?  It is a beautifully appointed and lovely dwelling, but as I gaze out of the large, square, bay windows, the trees in the parkland surrounding Fynes Hall stand like ghostly sentinels, somehow guarding my solitude.

Living in England has had a strange suffocating effect on me – and the onset of winter is especially difficult, as now it seems to cause alarm when I leave here, even to go riding or walking. Normally I would ignore these stupid restraints, but I haven’t yet begun to understand the nature and personality of great–aunt Harriet, who is the chatelaine of this house.

How father would have laughed at my uncharacteristic temerity. A warm, sun–gold autumn followed last summer making it bearable here; but this wintry November afternoon has had an oddly depressing effect.

My thoughts were interrupted as Jackson came in. Knowing that he would wish to draw the heavy curtains across the bay, I moved away.  The apple-wood logs which he had just piled on the fire not only gave off a lovely aroma, but they soon crackled merrily, as if trying to cheer me up.  Susan, the parlour maid, arrived with the tea tray and placed it on the round table in front of the hearth, inviting me to sit down.  This was the one part of the day I enjoyed.  To sit beside a roaring fire taking tea was delightful, but considered too modern by some.  The door opened again and this time, my heart sank, as the crisp rustle of skirts announced my aunt’s arrival.  She approached in an unfriendly manner, or so it seemed to me; and with her head held high, she made for her favourite, straight-backed chair. Sitting down carefully and smoothing out her full skirts, she then placed her hands on top of her slim silver–topped walking stick, which she held in front of her, and gazed somewhat frostily at me.

“Good afternoon Mathilda”

“Good afternoon aunt.  I am about to make tea, would you care for a cup?”

“Thank you, no.”

I took out the little key from its cloth bag at my waist and opened the precious tea caddy. The aroma of the dried and crushed leaves wafted out invitingly.  I continued with the preparation as the silver kettle began to boil on its little stand.  Susan had lit the oil burner with a taper from the fire.

“My son John brought those tea making things from London, as I didn’t like the idea I suppose that he might have induced you to take it up.

“But you do like tea, don’t you?”

“It is an acquired taste – I prefer my familiar coffee.”

As the tea brewed in its silver kettle she added: ”I don’t approve of this afternoon habit.  After all it is not a meal is it?” Her hands seemed to take a firmer grasp of the silver dragon’s head, and after a significant pause she continued:  “I see it is an affected fancy of some time-wasting ladies in London.  I cannot imagine how you, living in the depths of Ireland, were beguiled by it.”

“An actress friend of father’s always brought her tea caddy with her, and we grew to enjoy drinking it.”

“Ah!” she snorted, with undisguised significance.

“Why don’t you just take a cup, you may acquire the taste.”

“I do not wish to spoil my supper”

“Oh come, just a cup of tea, and why do you need to take supper so early?”

Her eyes narrowed, expressing only too well that she thought me very impertinent. “I was brought up to have supper at five–thirty, and during the season in Bath it was very convenient because it was normal to go out in the evening.”

“But you don’t go out in the evenings now.”  As she did not reply I felt I had to add something:  “I suppose it was all very enjoyable – in Bath?”

“How could you possibly understand; I don’t suppose you’ve ever been to anything remotely like it – there was so much to do, so many people to see, and endless social events.  On one particular afternoon my partner and I were so fatigued with pleasures we were almost supporting each other around the dance floor.”

As aunt talked on in her detached manner, sitting bolt upright in her high-backed chair, it was almost impossible for me to imagine her doing what she described.  She had continued talking without looking at me, but suddenly she stopped and was now aware of my expression.  “No doubt you are unable to accept that I too was once young – in fact at the time I speak of…” she added sniffily,  “younger than you are now. We often danced throughout the night.  At the Bread & Butter Ball, breakfast was served at 5.30.am, and as many as 500 covers were laid.”

“To eat bread and butter?”

“Of course not, the bread and butter had been served at 1.30 am.  You seem to deliberately misunderstand. I thought you might have been somewhat interested, but obviously I was wrong   She rose to her feet, swishing her dress and titling her head backwards in a certain way she had, which indicated that she was annoyed with me, and without another word, she swept out.

It was very difficult to imagine my unapproachable elderly aunt being young and enjoying herself, especially sitting down to eat breakfast in the early hours of the morning with 500 other people. It was even more surprising that she should have decided to tell me about it.  Perhaps it had been a great effort for her to begin. Had I been rather insensitive?  Sadly all our efforts at conversation seemed to end like this.  Why was it so difficult for us to communicate?

On my own again, I could indulge in toasting some home made bread before the fire as I had always done at home.  Then dripping with the golden butter they made so well at the Fynes’ home farm, and covered in cook’s tangy damson jam, it was delicious.  Of course, I realised that I was fortunate to enjoy the privileges of Fynes, so unlike the rough and tumble of father’s house in Ireland, but oh how I missed the fun of my former, less formal life.

My aunt’s nostalgic descriptions had got me thinking.  It would seem she had enjoyed her visits to Bath. I did know about it of course, despite her presumptuous assumption that living in Ireland had isolated me from everything. Also, I had read the famous novels of the day, which probably provided reliable accounts.  All that was now in the past, but older people still pined for those days. In Ireland we had been well aware of the Prince of Wales, known as Prinny, who had taken his outrageous pleasures to Brighton, and all his hangers-on had followed him there. So the Bath season had withered a bit, but many people still preferred to go there.

Talking of the scandals and corruption which were supposed to abound, particularly amongst some of the sons of George.III, had been part of intriguing conversations in Ireland, and I’d always wondered if they bore any relation to the facts.  Uncle John knew – his position at the Court of Saint James gave him access to the facts – and I had found that he sometimes felt able to furnish me with intriguing insights.

Fynes was his home, and when he came home, and to visit his mother, my formidable aunt Harriet, he would happily relate the details.  He had said that William, known as our Sailor King, was aptly described and, uncle said, he does like the sea and had actually seen action in America and the West Indies.  But his modest lifestyle made members of the court pine for ‘the good old days’.    Musing by the fire and trying to understand the customs of this country, and how they came about, had become one of my occupations – perhaps a significantly lonely occupation for a youngish, unmarried woman.

I also spent a lot of time trying to understand these relations of mine. I had little else to do, and I’d hardly known them before coming here to live with them. Aunt Emily, uncle John’s wife, had told me that she didn’t like living in London (they call it Town here). Nor did she like mixing with high society; but duty demanded that she was obliged to live in her husband’s spheres.   Fortunately, it seems to me, she had developed an absorbing interest in ‘the playhouse” which did give her something exciting to do.  But they would not be coming to Fynes again until the Christmas holiday, which was a shame, as I had rather taken to Aunt Em.  Apparently they expected their son Charles to ‘keep an eye’ on this, their home and estate, which I suppose was not too onerous a task – as there was an estate manager.

My cousin Charles’s occasional visits brought a welcome and refreshingly different atmosphere, as did those of Uncle John’s brother Henry who sometimes looked in on his mother. He lived only two miles away and was a jolly, likeable fellow.   We had first met after my father died, when he came over to Ireland  to bring me back to England and this house. My unmarried brother Stephan inherited Dridala, my family home, but my virtually unknown English relatives had insisted that it was improper for me to remain in the same house with a bachelor brother.   Shocked though I was at their interference, I had agreed.   I seemed constantly to be wondering in those days: why had I concurred?

The candles flickered and Susan came in to remove my tray; as she left she passed Jackson on his way in, and he said to me rather crossly:  “It is not my job to see to the fires, but the houseboy Jim is away and the other boy is busy in the stables.”

“Please don’t trouble yourself.  I can attend to the fire.”

“These large fire baskets and heavy logs are not for a young lady’s hands. If we had one of those new, stainless steel grates which take small logs, well – then perhaps.”

I was tempted to argue that I was quite capable of dealing with a few logs, but thought better of it.

“You will be glad of the extra warmth,” he said, stirring the fire, which seemed to brighten his mood, “the wind has come up – it has blown away the mist but has brought with it driving rain.  Mr. Charles will have a difficult ride.”

“Charles – is he coming here tonight?”

“Mrs Rawlings mentioned it when I was mending her fire.”

Strange that she did not mention it to me.

“So, my cousin Charles is paying us a visit. That is good news.”

Turning to leave, Jackson suddenly remembered: “Ah Miss Rochford, Madam asked me to say that she has a bad headache and is taking supper in her room.  Will you wait until Mr. Charles gets here, and take supper with him?”

“Of course – I have only just finished my tea.” We smiled at each other, Jackson was only too aware of aunt’s entrenched habits.

This headache of Harriet’s was probably an excuse; possibly to avoid spending another evening with me. I sometimes thought of great-aunt as Harriet, although I would never dare to call her that.  It seemed to me from our first meeting that she actually disliked me. Perhaps she agreed to my coming here out of a feeling of duty rather than choice.  I could understand the situation being difficult, but why should that make her dislike me, and continue to do so?  Even so, it was better to spend an evening with her, than yet another one on my own.  It was so unlike my father’s easy-going, overflowing household, but at least Charles was coming to visit later.

Jackson had warned me that Charles might be arriving quite late.  Although numerous books lined the shelves, and these often provided a welcome escape, I wasn’t in a reading mood.  When I felt unsettled, as I frequently did these days, I turned to my favourite escape – the piano.  A very fine but mostly unused one stood in this room and the possibility of disturbing sounds were contained by the solid structure of the walls.  Thus insulated, I played to my heart’s content and could almost forget that I was not in Ireland.

Charles and I hadn’t spent much time together, but I had found him very charming.  There had been an evening in early summer which I particularly remembered.   It was soon after my arrival at Fynes.  Aunt had retired to her room – at a rather later hour than usual, as she obviously enjoyed the company of her grandson – and he and I had moved outside to sit on the terrace and enjoy the lovely evening.

He had talked about an old school friend in the Indian Army and the fact that they wrote to each other about twice a year. Soon after the death of my father, he had told me that he happened to be writing to him, and because our surnames were the same, he’d mentioned that I  might be coming to live here. Charles then told me that he had just received a reply from Cowper Rochford, for that was his name, and he was surprised to read that Cowper had stayed at  Dridala, my father’s house, one summer when I was a child. He wondered if I could remember any of this?  I told Charles that I did remember someone making a great point of teaching me to pronounce his name Cooper, and not Cowper, as it is spelt. This seemed to confirm the visit, because apparently, this Cowper was pernickity about that, although Charles had added that he thought it reasonable enough, as most people are fussy about the correct pronunciation of their names.

Then, changing the subject, Charles had asked me if I would object to his putting the finishing touches to a miniature which he was painting of me, and could I give him permission quickly as the light was fading?  I was rather surprised, but apparently he had painted this miniature from some pencil sketches he had drawn on a previous, rather hurried meeting.    At the time I had tried to persuade him to let me see it, but without success. Would he bring it with him tonight, I wondered?

It had been so pleasant sitting there talking to Charles as the sun went down behind the great oak trees.  I could almost have thought myself back in Ireland.  Unlike most of the English  people that I had met, he had a pleasant relaxed manner, and being with him reminded me of evenings at home.

However, completely unknown to me (and, as I later discovered, to Charles) this Cowper had been involved in a dramatic situation in India.  I did not find out about this until I met him, many months later.

************

Six months earlier.

Captain Rochford gazed around contentedly as he led his platoon back towards Madras.  The Maharaja of Mysore had been out hunting and, as Captain of the escort, Cowper had been enjoying the sport too.  It was February and although the monsoon rains had been heavy, this day was fine and sunny and it was becoming less unbearably hot, particularly on the higher ground where they had been hunting.  The Maharaja had shot a tiger and his resultant jubilation permeated the whole hunting party. One could feel his delight as he sat atop the gloriously bedecked elephant, with the carcass of the tiger and other hunting trophies tied to the howdah and draped across the elephant’s flank.  They would soon be coming across the servants setting out the picnic lunch, and the grooms would be able to rub down the few precious horses which could then be fed and rested.

It was undoubtably a good life he led in India.  As leader of the Rajah’s escort he enjoyed privileges that would not be his had he stayed in England.  However, there were things he craved and these were sadly missing.  One was an English woman to share his bed.   Being a second son was also a handicap.  His father had been reasonably generous with his allowance but although his elder brother William, who lived in Upper Canada, had inherited the family estate, he had not inherited much.  Living the life of an army officer without a decent allowance was almost impossible to achieve.

As he rode, he thought of the letter from his dear old friend Charles.  He did remember Mitty Rochford; although she was just a little girl there had been a promise of beauty about her.  She recalled that she had been fun too, because of her evidently free spirit.  It was so strange that she should now be living with her relations the Rawlings, whom he had known since he was a lad at school.  He hadn’t even known that they were related.  They were certainly well-heeled and Mitty’s father must also have had some wealth.  Of course her brother would be the beneficiary, but as Mitty had been the ‘apple of her father’s eye’; surely he would not have left her bereft? Then there were the Rawlings.   Would they not look after their own?

Moving around the foot of a hillock they came in sight of the Indian servants who had proceeded them and had quickly contrived luxurious looking shelters, but Cowper sensed that they seemed nervous; so trusting his experience of their sixth sense, he casually scanned the horizon.  His lieutenant suddenly steered his horse to his Captain’s side and pointed.  Figures were moving in a long line, coming in their direction, then looking closer through his eye glass Cowper could see that they were followed by more men.

“This looks menacing,” he said to his second in command,  ‘tell the men to prepare and instruct the mahoot to assist the Maharajah to dismount as quickly as possible.”

“With respect sir, when the Rajah is safely concealed under cover, the mahoot must remove the elephant to a safe distance.” Said the 2nd lieutenant, who had grown up in India.

“Because she may take fright and bolt?”

“Exactly, and could cause untold damage.”

“Right, please see to it.”

Practices for this sort of attack took place regularly and the men had rehearsed well. A select guard had rapidly taken up positions in front of the Maharaja’s quickly contrived protective shelter.

“Prepare muskets!” Shouted the lieutenant, who had returned to his officer’s side.

“They’ve lost the element of surprise, but there are rather too many of them.” Cowper said, still scanning the area through his eyeglass.

The Indian attackers, realising they had been spotted, were running towards their prey hoping to pounce before the men had spiked their muskets.

“It looks as if they’re carrying their usual spears, the metal arrow heads bound to the bamboo.    Let us hope they’ve not tipped them with poison.”

“Don’t they always?”

“Not always, for fear of retribution – generally they only use the poison for hunting animals. Look out, another mob have approached from our left!”

“Are the men ready?”

“Yes sir.”

“Fire a few warning shots to frighten them – then tell the men to hold their fire until they close in on us – but make sure they obey you.”

“Yes sir”

The warning shots did nothing to alter the resolve of the attackers and they pressed onwards.  The waiting was menacing and difficult to sustain.  There must have been more than two hundred very angry looking Indians.

“A man is wounded – give the order.”

“Fire” rang out seconds before the cracks from the muskets.  The powder boys were at the ready, as were the rammers priming other muskets to hand forward to each actively firing soldier.

A row of Indians fell and then the attackers were upon them, between them, under them, jumping over them, but the soldiers had their bayonets out now.  Indians and Madras Army men were fighting and falling all around Cowper and the shouting and screaming was horrible.  Horses reared and horses fell.  This was the mantra: under no circumstances must they get to the Maharaja.  The lieutenant was down, but the oncoming Indians were falling back.  Too many had been killed by the soldiers.

“Hold them back!” Cowper shouted to two forward rows, still manfully keeping together; then he ordered the inner row to turn to the centre and overpower the Indians who had broken through into the army lines.

“Try not to shoot, threaten!” he yelled, fearful that the cross-fire might kill the very man he was desperately trying to protect.  Seeing there was no escape, the Indians within the lines surrendered, and ordering them to be rounded up, Cowper turned to look at the outer ring of defenders.  He sighed with relief the Indians had fallen back and were running away.  Some forty of his platoon were lying wounded and this included the mere boys who carried the powder, and some of the rammers, but although some of the cries were pitiful and the clothes of the wounded were blooded, it fortunately turned out that few were dead.  And it appeared that the arrow heads had not been primed with poison.

Cowper made for the Maharajah’s shelter – two litters had been hurriedly put on their sides and covered with the carpets, which had initially been brought along to act as shelter from the sun, at the hunting picnic.  These had served well against spear attacks and the Rajah was furiously angry but unhurt.  The elephant too was led safely back, and although the noise and disturbance had nearly caused her to bolt she knew and trusted her mahoot and he had calmed her.  Some of the Indian servants who had accompanied the platoon were moving among the wounded, finding cloths to protect them from the sun.  Others, more proficient, were tearing clothes to provide bandages.

By late afternoon, Cowper’s messenger returned, leading the bullock-drawn litters back to the site of the attack to bear away the non-walking wounded.  A smaller than usual escort waited to accompany the Maharaja safely back to his palace, and the prisoners who could walk had been rounded up.

Cowper’s lieutenant had a leg wound, so was transported in an uncomfortably bumpy tonga.

“Where the hell did they come from and why?”  Cowper asked, as he rode alongside.

“It is rumoured amongst our Indian servants that the Rajah had some of his servants badly beaten, then dismissed them, which around here almost amounts to a death sentence since no-one else will employ them. He put the rest on half pay and all for some trivial misdemeanour.”

“That could have sparked this off?”

“Who can say?

When they arrived at the town square the prisoners were assembled under guard.  The Maharajah was escorted safely back and Cowper made sure that his men were receiving medical attention. The prisoners were then marched to the Civil Authority in Madras and handed over.

“What will happen to them?” asked the 2nd lieutenant who had accompanied Cowper.

“Oh they’ll receive due punishment, and rightly so.”

“Flogged, do you think?”

“Probably.  I’m returning to report to HQ then I’ll head for my bungalow.  You go and organise the dispatch of burial parties to the site.”

It had been a messy and unexpected business.  Cowper was annoyed that no one had told him of the unrest in the Rajah’s Palace   He if should he should have made it his duty to find out.  Perhaps it was no excuse, but he had not been in charge of the escort for long.  He mixed himself a stiff drink and his batman appeared with a bowl, water to wash, and a change of clothes.

“You a’right Sir?”

“I think so Jones, thank you, a bit shaken.  Takes the wind out of your sales when a couple of hundred angry natives come charging at you with spears.”

“Bet it does too – glad to say it ain’t never ‘appened to me.”

“Let’s hope it never will.”

“Could yer manage a bite to eat Sir?”

“Please; surprisingly I’m very hungry,”

When Jones had left to prepare the food, Cowper mixed himself another stiff drink and sat down to read the letter from Charles again.  A welcome breeze had blown up and was making the rattan blinds rustle and shake in a pleasant relaxing way.  He gazed again at the miniature of Mitty – the childhood promise had been right, she had become pretty, perhaps even beautiful, but she had a rather haughty look.   Cowper thought a plea of marriage from him might not find favour with this unapproachable-looking lady.  Well, he wasn’t such a bad catch – he was tall and some had thought his looks were well favoured; he’d better mention that when he wrote, because dear old Charles might forget or be too embarrassed.  He placed the little portrait on the bed and looked again at the recently opened mess bill, a payment that he feared would have to wait. At that point there was a loud rap on the door and the surgeon/doctor came in.  He was a burly man whose red nose and face indicated the amount of alcohol that he inbibed.

“Bad business eh?” “Yes, it took us totally by surprise.”

“You were pretty well surrounded I hear, but you managed to overthrow them and took a goodly number of prisoners – so it was well done.”

“Thank you.”

“Who is this pretty maid?” He asked cheekily, picking up the miniature.

“Someone I hardly know”.

“You surprise me; if you hadn’t said that I’d have sworn she was your sister.”

“Oh – do we look alike?”

“You do, you do, very alike – hadn’t you seen it yourself?”

“No.”

“If you hardly know her, how have you come by this charming likeness of her?”

“It was painted by her cousin Charles, an old school friend of mine.”

“But why did he send it?

“Because – oh I don’t know, because we have the same surname but..” he added, perhaps surprising even himself: “she is someone I intend to wed.”

“Are you going home to wed, or is she coming out here?”

“Oh I’m due for some leave, I’m going home.  But she doesn’t know about it yet, I still have to write to her.”

“Oh ho!” The doctor laughed, hugging his great fat belly as his cheeks got redder and redder. “So you’re going to carry the maiden off are you?” And he laughed again.  When he’d calmed down he added: “I’m going home soon too, perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of yer company.”

I hope not, thought Cowper, but after he had left, the seed of ‘carrying Mitty off’, which had been sown, took root.  That is the way I must go about it, he decided.

Some days later he heard that the 98 Indian prisoners taken during the attack had been executed – and unfortunately, rumour had it that he would take the blame.  Hell, he muttered to himself.  He’d had no idea they would be executed, thinking they might be flogged.  He wondered who had given the order? It certainly was not he. Should he have checked? Surely it wasn’t his responsibility?

I must write to Mitty Rochford and book his passage on the sailing packet, before the English papers get wind of this awful injustice.

 

*************

As predicted, it was late when Charles finally arrived, but I was still at the piano. Looking around the door he said: “What a beautiful sound – I haven’t heard that piano being played for a while, and rarely so well.  Please continue… I’ll be with you soon.

He was drenched to the bone, but Jackson was prepared, and a hip-bath was soon ready.

Before long he joined me, with shining face and still wet hair. “There are many strange ideas about ‘preventing a chill’ here in England,” he told me as we sat down together, “one is that if you get very wet, you must immediately get even more wet by being immersed in hot water, to which mustard has been liberally added.  You come out feeling like boiled beef.  Do they do such things in Ireland?”

“They do and I think it is very sensible,” I told him, laughing at the graphic picture he drew, “I’m sure you will feel better for it”

At this moment Jackson appeared with a jug of gently steaming mulled wine and as we both took a glass, Charles said heartily: “This is an even better way of warding off a cold, but Jackson tells me you’ve waited  to have supper; I’m sorry to have made you stay hungry for so long.”

“I think eating late is rather fun.”

The meal was very cosy, because I refused to sit where my place had been laid, so my chair was moved near to Charles, and we chatted pleasantly.   We talked about his wife, whom I’d not yet met, as she had not been well, and the fact that sincerely wished me to know that she hoped we would meet soon.   Then he talked about the Maplethorpe estate, because it was Charles to whom the manager turned during his master’s absence in London.

As we neared the end of the meal Charles’s next remark surprised me:  “I have a sort of confession to make to you.”  Holding the glass to the candlelight to warm his port and enjoy its lovely purple glow, he went on:  “Do you want to talk here, or shall we move into the drawing room? There’s still a good fire in there.  Or perhaps it is too late?  Tomorrow perhaps?”

He was teasing me, he must have been.  Of course it was late, but how could he imagine that I would wait another day to hear this mysterious confession?  His choice of the room appealed to me too.  After Jackson had checked the fire, Charles thanked him, then sent him off to bed.  We drew our chairs to its warmth – it had grown colder, as Jackson had predicted.

“You have told me a little about yourself Mathilda, but not a great deal, and because I have something to tell you, I’d like to try and fill in some of the missing pieces.”

“Most interesting. What do you wish to know?”

“Everything, I’m most inquisitive,” he smiled,“how about telling me about Ireland?”

“About Dridala?”

“It’s a good place to start.”

“Well as you know I think, it was my home, I grew up there.  It was a bit ramshackle and things were always falling apart or not working properly, but I loved it, as did many of father’s friends  – there always seemed to be a crowd of them staying there.”

“Was it in Dublin?”

“Well Dublin county, not Dublin town, in the shadow of the Wicklow mountains, but built in the foothills, so we had wonderful views.”

“Sounds very appealing. Was it that appeal which drew your father to Ireland – he wasn’t born there, was he?”

“No, he was born in France, but he once told me that he’d been interested in Dublin from the time his father had told him of the family’s links with the 17th century Huguenots, who took refuge there from persecution in France.  At first he went just for a visit, and maybe to seek descendants of Rochford weavers.”

“Did he find any?”

“I’m not sure.”

“But he liked the place so much he stayed, and spent the rest of his life painting and writing – for a living?”

I had to smile “You know quite a lot already it seems, but painting was only a hobby.”

“I’ve only heard intimations, because I have no idea how or when he met your mother.”

“Nor have I really.  She was a Dublin girl – that I know – but she died when I was a baby.  She had been my father’s model, so I have seen paintings of her, looking typically Celtic, with her dark hair and blue eyes.”

“Ah! So that is where you get it from, but it cannot have been easy for you – without a mother.”

“Perhaps not, but my father allowed me a great deal of freedom –  some have said too much.”

“A freedom–loving Irish nymph eh? Fascinating.  I hope you don’t mind all these questions?”

“No-one minds talking about themselves and I’ve done precious little of it lately.”

“Well how’s this – did you get a formal education in the wilds of Ireland where you were reared?”

I laughed out loud and asked “Has great-aunt sent you to quiz me?  Does she want to place me as a companion to a grand lady friend?”

“Believe me, it has nothing whatever to do with grandmother.  I am genuinely interested.”

“Well,  to answer your question, my brother Stephan was given a formal education; I was not.  How many girls are?  Father was very involved in his writing, but he loved to talk and would always make time for that.  Books were always available as well, and father had taught me to read at an early age. He believed that if a child has an inquiring mind and available information – plus a listening parent – that said child will become educated naturally.    I think he was right.  I’ve met many a governess–trained girl having no general knowledge whatsoever and as a result, a remarkably narrow outlook.”

“I’m sure that’s true,” he said smiling. “You speak well of your father. You obviously admired him?”

“Yes, – and I do miss him terribly.”

My thoughts were suddenly back in Ireland – with my dear father.  I had always been so very happy in his company and that of his many friends – enjoying his unusual and stimulting lifestyle.

“So your brother went away to school?”

“I’m sorry?”

“I think you were a long way away.”

“Only as far as Ireland,” I smiled, “you were saying?”

“I’m sorry if this is difficult, it brings back sad memories of course, but I was asking if your brother went away to school?”

“Yes, Stephan did go away to school, but from all that he told me, it didn’t do him a lot of good. He spent his early days doing chores for the seniors, and when he himself became a senior, he made the most of every privilege and apparently forgot his studies. His interests were always farming and horses. I suppose that father had always known that’s how it would be.”

“Yet your brother went off to school and your father brought you up himself.”

“Much against the wishes of your family, I might say.  They deplored his way of life and rarely came to Ireland.”

“A way of life which is strongly connected with what I have to tell you.”

“My father’s way of life, and your confession?  Can there be a curious link?”

Charles smiled.  “Perhaps you should listen and see whether you think so.  You will remember our conversation in the summer perhaps, when we sat outside on that lovely evening?”

“Of course.”

“When we talked about my friend Cowper?”

“Yes”

“My confession is, I fear, that I was a little economical with the truth. Do you remember that I’d told you how I’d written to him because you shared the same surname?”

I nodded, but didn’t mention that I had earlier been recollecting every detail of that evening.

“You realise that even if Cowper and I wrote to each other promptly there would still be a long delay between letters – under the most excellent conditions it takes five months for a Sailing Packet to carry mail from India?”

“I hadn’t realised it was that long Charles.” I replied, slightly puzzled.

“When we talked during that evening on the terrace, I spoke of a letter  from Cowper which had arrived that very day.  This letter,” he produced it from his pocket, “had intrigued me, but at the time, I could not bring myself to show it to you. I had been surprised at his prompt reply – his letter must have ‘caught’ the returning packet –  but  I was even more surprised when I read the letter…” he paused. “I find this very difficult because the content is so unusual.  Cowper and I were very close at school, almost as close – or perhaps even closer than brothers,and we still are – even though thousands of miles separate us. So you see,” he gently coughed, then continued, “I owe it to him to convey to you what he has written, then… everything and anything else is up to you.”

I was very curious but I could think of nothing to say.

After another slightly tense pause, Charles continued:  “Apparently you met when you were both children, Cowper is a few years older than you, but from what he says you became good friends… well I had better read it:  ‘Not only do I remember Mathilda Rochford, but in my youthful way I had been infatuated by her  – and in her innocent way I think she had felt the same about me’…. Please bear with me ” Charles said, seeing my expression.  He continued “Because of our age and her innocence this had delighted and amused her father who seemed to have taken a liking to me.”

My expression became pained.

“That’s understandable, Cowper is a likeable fellow!” Added Charles enthusiastically, perhaps trying to over-egg the proverbial pudding.

As he became progressively more aware of my  reaction Charles somewhat ineptly tried to explain away his friend’s extraordinary letter.  “He writes that before leaving Ireland, he had gone so far as to ask your father if he could, aha, erm… marry you when you grew up.  Apparently your father entered into the spirit of this and performed a sort of eastern betrothal ceremony. This needs to be literal so I will read it. Cowper’s hand–writing is always difficult, but thank goodness he has not cross–written the letter this time.

‘Mathilda’s father put our hands together and winding a cloth around them declared that he; Henri Rochford, gave his daughter Mathilda  to me Cowper Rochford, and he concluded by saying that when Mitty had arrived at a sensible age he hoped we would be married.’  Cowper continues that at the time, and even afterwards, he thought it to be a game which your father had enjoyed, yet on reflection he does recall your father saying before he left Ireland – and I quote: ‘I want to be sure Cowper, that someone, hopefully you, will take care of my Mitty’.

Charles looked up, searching my eyes.”Surely you must remember some of this?”

Why had I forgotten it?  I could only conclude that, because it was merely a game, it had simply not been important enough to remember.   But whatever the cause, it had somehow been obliterated from my memory.  Something did stir in the back of my mind, but until now I had forgotten about it.  I replied:  “I have the merest recollection.”

“Did your father never refer to it – before he died perhaps?”

“Never.  It was a game of course.  My father enjoyed acting out fantasies, Cowper must have realised that.”

“On the contrary. He writes that you made a great impression on him, that you were an unusually attractive child, partly because you were  so unconventional – riding horses without saddles and even (he’d been told) swimming naked in the woodland pools (presumably unobserved) – and he wonders if you are still as pretty as you were?”

Either not seeing, or choosing to ignore my unaccustomed blush of embarrassment, Charles added:   “This is where I have to make my confession.  Unlike your father, I can hardly call myself an artist, but I have the artist’s ability to admire beauty when I see it, and I pride myself that I had produced a reasonably good likeness of you, so I’m afraid I was tempted to send my small portrait to Cowper without asking your permission.  You see, I painted two and sent Cowper the one I liked the least, keeping the better one.  I intended telling you about the portrait, but I couldn’t find the opportunity. I do hope you understand?”

“Not really – no, not at all. You should either have told me about this letter when it arrived, or given it the treatment it deserved and ignored it.  Since you obviously took it seriously you most certainly should have asked my permission before sending the miniature.  He will surely think that I knew all about it.  I must say Charles; I truly wonder why you have even bothered to tell me now.”

Charles looked embarrassed and perhaps, even hurt.  “Please don’t be cross with me.  I had told my wife Louisa about the letter, but only recently did I tell her about sending your miniature to him.  She scolded me too.”

He looked up at me with the expression of a boy who had been chastised,  but I was still too cross to be amused, before he went on: “then Louisa said I must waste no time in telling you about it.  As she pointed out, Cowper might decide to write directly to you at Fynes since I have told him that this is where you now live.  I really am very sorry, I suppose I didn’t think it through.”

It was like one childish prank compounded by another.  Did these men never grow up?  I had thought my cousin very charming, yet he was apparently planning to marry me off to a complete stranger. I had looked upon Charles as my one ally in this unfriendly place, now I felt deceived, deserted and very much alone.

“I sincerely trust that he will never write to me – I most definitely will not reply. If, as you say, the painting you have sent to him is not very good, then that should put an end to this nonsense.”

He smiled sheepishly, “I did not say it was bad, perhaps it made you look rather haughty, which – normally – you are not.  The one I retained is, I believe, a more faithful likeness… will you really be pleased if he doesn’t write to you?”

“Yes, I will.  I cannot even remember what he was like, this Cowper, although presumably I liked him at the time, as a child might.”

Seeing his crestfallen expression, I added;  “Even though you have told me he is like a brother to you, surely you must see how difficult it would be for me to correspond with someone who considers himself engaged to me, and with the apparent blessing of my father? Yes, I would most definitely prefer not to hear from him.”

Thus feeling fully resolved, I continued:  “I would appreciate it Charles if you would write to Cowper at once, well tomorrow at least, and tell him of this conversation.” Then I reiterated the facts to be sure that he truly understood.  “Explain that I see that this so–called betrothal as just a childish game, that his letter embarrasses me, and that I would prefer to hear no more about it.”

“As you wish, but bear in mind – as I explained to you –  my letter relating to your reaction will take about five months to reach him. For my part I have now told you of it. So if in the meantime a letter does arrive from him it will not come as too much of a surprise, and if nothing arrives you can forget all about it.   Now I really must take the blame for keeping you up so late, grandmother  would be justifiably shocked if she knew we were still talking by the fire at this time.”

He was right.  We said good night.

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