Chapter 2

    I was tired when I got into bed, but of course I couldn’t sleep. My mind was concentrating more on the messenger than the impudent Indian officer who had sent the message; but the messenger was married.

This Cowper whom I could hardly remember: had he intended that Charles should tell me, or had he been confiding in an old school friend who had revived a memory by the mention of a surname?

Why had Charles sent Cowper my portrait?

Would Cowper think it was with my agreement?

If Cowper did write, would I reply?

Did I want him to write?

Was I intrigued?

Perhaps I was flattered.

Every possible permutation of these questions went round and around in my head. Eventually in a half–awake, half–asleep state I had to admit that I was curious and, whether I liked it or not, that I was also intrigued.

As so often happens after too little sleep, I awoke in a confused state. Was that the clatter of horse’s hooves I could hear on the gravel?  My bedroom window overlooked the front door – was it the letter carrier? Hurrying out of bed and pulling my wrapper around me, I saw that it was. He had dismounted and was partly hidden from my view by his horse, but I glimpsed his red coat.

I returned to bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. It was lovely to get out of bed in the mornings, because it was even more warm and cosy to get back in again. When Mary knocked, it was to bring in my hot water jug and rekindle my fire. She didn’t bring any mail, which was not surprising, as I didn’t receive many letters. One had arrived two weeks before from my brother Stephan, but even this had not been brought to my room. It was the custom for Jackson to pay the letter carrier and to leave the letters on the large oak chest in the hallway. Stephan, a poor correspondent, only wrote when he had some special news. The letter he had sent was still on the bedside table and I picked it up to re-read it.

“I loved Moira from the first,” he had written, “within six weeks of meeting we were married.”

It was quite a short letter concluding with: “Come and visit Dridala soon and meet my bride, you will be so very welcome, Your affect. brother Stephan.”

He had not asked me to return there to live, which, now that he had a wife, would be considered respectable. So Fynes, the rambling, elegant, empty Fynes, was to remain my home.

This morning, however, Charles would be joining us for breakfast, and that cheered me. As I walked through the hallway I casually looked at the letters on the chest. They were nearly all addressed to my uncle John and were generally passed to Charles as they were usually about the estate. Sometimes the postmarks told of mail from the West Indies.

When great- aunt appeared, she gave me a curious glance; she knew I rarely received letters. As a way of distracting her curiosity I asked: “Do you know why the letter carrier comes here on horseback? We always had to collect our mail, in Ireland.”

“The literate members of this community have availed themselves of a special arrangement – soon after the mail coach arrives at The Bull at Halstead, a rider leaves with the mail. I believe there is a fee of one halfpence per item for the privilege.” Her tone implied that she had answered my question dutifully, but did I detect a slightly more relaxed manner?

We moved into the breakfast room, which, facing east and having many windows, always seemed bright, even if the sky was overcast. I had been grateful for this cheerful aspect as I had so often eaten breakfast here, alone. Aunt usually preferred to take breakfast in her room. Charles was already there; standing waiting to greet us. He wore his own hair long, disdaining wigs for informal occasions. This was a modern idea but also reminded me of the portrait of a Cavalier on the stairs, which I had often gazed upon. There was a sudden burst of sunshine and as he stood with his back to the windows, his fair hair with the waves coiled and tied at the back, seemed to shimmer in the shaft of sunlight. He gave his grandmother a kiss and said he hoped she would enjoy her special day; then turning to me he asked, with a twinkle in his eye: “Good morning Mathilda, I hope you slept well?” and reading my quizzical expression correctly, he explained: “It is grandmother’ s birthday, you didn’t know?”

“Why should she know? I prefer to keep quiet about it.” Was Harriet’s curt response.

However, aunt was happy because Charles was there – she loved her grandson, and breakfast was quite a jolly affair. Charles had been talking about the running of the estate, as he had already spent some time with Morrison, the estate manager, but he was making light of it and joking about some of the eccentric characters who made up the outside workers. Then suddenly, as if she had stopped listening to Charles, aunt turned to me and said:

“You remind me of your grandmother, Mathilda. Not physically, because like most of the Rawlings, she had the fairness of the Anglo Saxons, not the dark and smouldering look of the Franco/Celtic which comes from your mixed blood. But you have her smile.”

I nooded: “She was of course, your sister–in–law.”

“Yes. the sister of my husband, Charles’s grandfather – she insisted on marrying William Rochford and went off to live in France. He was not considered a suitable husband, as he had no real family wealth. It was his undoubted charm which turned her head.. She became ill in her middle years and they returned here for a visit but she unfortunately died and he stayed on and never returned to France.”

Well, this was something new – even if my ever-so-faintly derogatory aunt was giving me some family information. The presence of her grandson was obviously making it easier for her to try and communicate with me. Again looking directly at me, she went on: “You are trying to restrain your natural instincts because you have not yet found your feet here, I think. I understand that and I am grateful to you for it, but I see you have inherited a strong will from your grandmother, perhaps from your mother also.”

“Did you know Mathilda’s mother?” Charles said, giving me a sidelong, understanding look.

I watched the way Charles handled the situation – he was expertly contriving to keep his grandmother happy but at the same time covertly expressing his concern for me. Although I had not yet met Louisa I felt almost jealous of her and I hoped she was aware of her good fortune.

But aunt was replying: “No I did not, but of course William spoke of his son and daughter–in–law in Ireland, and I saw a great deal of William – as you correctly remarked, he was after all my brother–in–law.”

Years later, I remembered that remark, because at the time I had wondered why it was necessary for her to stress the relationship.

“Did you know your grandfather, Mathilda?”

“I don’t believe I remember him at all – he hardly ever came to Ireland.”

“You stayed with your father until he died, that showed uncommon loyalty.” continued aunt, with a hint of derision.

“On the contrary” I replied, “He was a very special person and I loved being with him.”

“Obviously that affection was reciprocated – I mean he did not run the risk of losing you by introducing you to many eligible young men!”

“There were always male friends staying at Dridala.”

“Writers, artists, musicians? Usually unsuccessful – hardly the right suitors for his daughter!”

“Perhaps you forget, my father was a successful writer, and most of the young men he fostered were likely to become so as well.”

“I… suppose so.” aunt grudgingly agreed.

“Did you never meet anyone with whom you wished to share your life?”

“Well if I had, whether successful or not, I would have married him.”

“I see you are after all a true romantic Mathilda.” Charles said wistfully, perhaps thinking of Cowper, before aunt added rather smugly: “There you see, you are very like your grandmother, did I not say so?”

“That could only make me feel proud, but before she’d reached my age she had, I’m told, already given birth to three children.”

“I did not intend to convey that you are exactly like her, that is hardly to be expected. For example, I don’t believe she was a fine pianist.”

Full of surprises this morning, aunt picked up her cane as she began to leave the table, then turned to Charles and added: “William told me how well Mathilda could play when she was a mere child; six or so, he said.” Turning to me, she asked almost coquettishly: “Would you care to play for me this evening? Perhaps a Sonata by Mr. Beethoven? Now he has died I seem to appreciate him even more.”

“Of course, it is your birthday, you must have whatever you wish.”

Aunt was obviously pleased, for she moved away smiling. I was to discover at last an enjoyment which we shared – and although it was a long time before I really understood her, listening to music proved to be a form of communication. As we also prepared to leave the room, Charles said: “Until our talk last night I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that you grew up without a mother.”

“As I told you my father was wonderful – he tried to make up for the loss, whenever and wherever he could.”

“Hearing all this about you, first from Cowper and now from grandmother, makes me realise that you are rather unusual and I’m eager to hear more. You must come and visit Louisa and I and tell us about life in Ireland.” Then, as we neared the door, “Have you heard, uncle Henry is coming over, later this afternoon I think, to wish his mother a happy birthday no doubt? I must get back to Louisa, she was feeling somewhat sick when I left yesterday but she asked me to say that she is looking forward to meeting you.”

I went outside with Charles. His horse had been brought round and as he began to mount he asked: “Do you still want me to write that letter to Cowper? If you do, I will, of course, but remember it will take months to arrive and might even cause further confusion. Why not just wait and see if he writes to you, then if you still wish it, I will reply… are we agreed?”

I nodded hesitantly, not really knowing how to answer, because what he said did make sense. Smiling at me in that way which I found so appealing, he made a jocular half–salute and rode away.

When Charles had left, I went to the stables to find my favourite mare. Within a day of my arrival at Fynes I had discovered the beautiful horses – and the countryside around was perfect for cantering or galloping. Providing aunt thought I was keeping to the confines of the estate, all would be well. Also, the more I exercised the horses the more pleased Morrison became – it saved him from organising the task. The sun was breaking through the mist and although there was a cold breeze, I had a good hard gallop, which kept both me and the horse warm – and helped me to forget Cowper Rochford and his disturbing letter.

After lunch, uncle Henry arrived.

“I’m just going to greet my lady mother on her birthday,” he announced cheerily, “then I’ve ordered the trap. While mother has a rest, you and I are going to go for a drive.”