“There were an ‘ard frost last night.” Mary  told me as she busied about her early morning duties.

“You’ll see when you gets up Miss, its all white outside.  My Will, ‘e thinks it’ll be snowing afore nightfall.”

Taking Mary by surprise,  I jumped out of bed and told her of my plans.

“I shall have to leave before breakfast, otherwise when Great Aunt becomes aware of the heavy frost she will try to prevent me going.   I will leave a note for you to give to her, also could you help me put on this large flannelette petticoat.” Mary looked even more surprised.

“It will keep me warm as I ride – I shall take Brown Willow – could you send a message down to Ben to saddle–up. NOT the side–saddle please.” I said laughing.

“You ain’t never goin’ to ride Miss, why don’t you take the carriage?”

“I could hardly do that without Mrs Rawling’s permission, could I?”

I then looked out my old riding cape.  It must once have belonged to a coachman because not only was it very heavy and came down to my feet,  but it also had many shoulder capes.  Tying a muffler around the neck of this to keep one of the capes in place over my head as a rode, I only needed Mary to find some thick woollen gloves to go over my dainty and useless ones.  Writing the note for Harriet, whilst Mary searched for gloves,  I was ready, and despite Mary’s misgivings, soon away.

Even though the surface of the country lane was roughened with small pebbles the settled frost and icy puddles made it slippery, especially for Brown Willow’s metal shod hoofs, so I mainly kept  to the grass verge.  I was very warm under all my wrappings and the wind on my face was fresh and exhilerating.  I felt like a free spirit at last!

The countryside looked quite beautiful.  All the deciduous trees, bereft of their leaves, were glistening with the white frost. The two mile ride was wonderful, I fwelt more alive than I had for months. Following Mary’s instructions I came to the point where if I turned left I would come to Seble Dursingham, where uncle Henry lived.  For a moment I had misgivings.  Should I seek Uncle’s help?  He had, after all, told me to call whenever I wished, whereas I would be arriving at Charles and Louisa’s without warning and somewhat uninvited. Almost immediately I dismissed these thoughts; how could I explain all this about Cowper Rochford to uncle? No, it had to be Charles.

I rode on into Castle Dursingham for the first time and reigned in to take a good look at the High Street.  The houses seemed to have arrived by accident. Some of them leaned perilously – seeking support from adjacent buildings,  even though scores of years divided their construction. Old half–timbered houses of the time of Queen Elizabeth or even earlier rubbed shoulders with houses built in the elegant style of the last 100 years. It was immediately evident that time, coupled with individual preference and reverence for the village, had created this charming higgledy–piggledy result.  I liked the place immediately.

It was to one of the elegant, taller houses I was directed by the only human being in sight.  A man, who was lifting heavy sacks from a rather ramshackle trap which was drawn by a sad and cold looking donkey.  As I moved away thanking him he lifted up another sack onto his back which was slightly protected by old empty sacks, then went through a side gate.

I need have had no fear about my unexpected arrival. The younger Rawlings’  house was charming and welcoming.  Louisa smiled wryly when she saw my self–contrived riding clothes.

“Why did you not come in the family phaeton?

“I love to ride – it means freedom to me.”

“Well you could have driven yourself because there’s no room for a driver.”

“That’s true, but I still prefer to ride, and in any case I couldn’t just take the phaeton without great–aunt knowing – and I left before breakfast. Your stable lad looks rather young”. I said to Charles who appeared behind Louisa.  “Will he know how to attend to Brown Willow properly?  He is steaming from the ride and on such a cold morning everything must be warmed for him.”

“It isn’t only the Irish who know how to care for their horses.” said Charles, laughing as he went out to check.

Louisa meanwhile, helped me to unwrap and led me to the fireside to warm myself.  As Charles came back in I asked abruptly:  “Please can you help me to read this letter, from Cowper?”

I had not meant to shock them but the result was the same.  Charles looked at Louisa, then after the briefest pause said,

“Of course,”  as he unfolded the letter which  I had pressed into his hand.

“When did it arrive?”

“Yesterday.”

“I can see why you need help, Cowper has an incredible scrawl. Also, it is so expensive to send even one piece of paper that he has to go in for this impossible cross writing.  But I am used to it and, I am sure I can help.”

“But let us have some lunch first. We don’t have to start work straight away, do we?” Louisa asked as she walked to my side, her fair curls bobbing, and framing her pretty face as she put her arm through mine. “It is after all your first visit to us, and we are very pleased to see you.”

Despite the fact that the interior of the house was just as  elegant as the exterior, their way of taking luncheon on the round table near the fire, made it very cosy and informal, and I felt immediately at home and relaxed.    The house had been built about 30 years before and had the long sash windows with balconettes, typical of the period.  The high ceilings had the usual carved mouldings, but in contrast,  a very modern gas–light fitting hung low over the table.

When luncheon was cleared Louisa seated herself comfortably by the fire and set about sewing some rather small things. Could they be baby clothes I wondered?

Charles and I seated ourselves at the round table.

“This is almost indecipherable, even for Cowper, have you managed to read anything?” Charles asked.

I brought out my sketchy and incomplete notes

“Well you’ve made a start. Let’s see what we can add.”   Two hours later we had only completed two paragraphs.

“You’re very patient Louisa,  sitting there listening to our mumblings. Would you like to hear what we’ve managed so far?” Charles asked.

Louisa nodded.

“This letter was commenced yesterday and I think it a good plan not to write too much at a time, because one gets prissy and begins to moralize and half a dozen other things, which would never enter common conversation. How I sigh for the time for me to start for the rocky shores of old England, and to get hold of you.  When I do once catch you, I wont let you go again, you may depend upon it.  So prepare yourself to be regularly kidnapped.  How I do delight in the idea of a drive through England, Wales and Ireland in a neat little turn–out, with you to tell me all your stories and histories, which I know you have in store for me. 

But probably I am counting my chickens before the eggs are hatched, and travelling may not be a source of delight to you.  But, I think I can guess that it is and indeed I feel persuaded that you are so like myself in this that it pleases me to think of it.  I have also thought of the time when we should be obliged to return to this country, unless occurrences take place which are still in the womb of futurity, to prevent us.  I have often thought of the nice snug after–cabin with your piano set in the wainscoting of the vessel, prettily furnished..when Mitty and me shall be bound….:” 

At this point, hearing it read out I had to interrupt:

“You know him well Charles, is Cowper always so presumptious – he even calls me Mitty.  These plans he makes, they’re preposterous.”

“He does seem to accept the possibility of refusal when he says: ‘occurrences may take place to prevent it.”

“What do you think Louisa?” I asked “because personally, I think that sentence refers to something else.”

Louisa replied in a way I would come to know as her own:

“Do you mind being called Mitty, and would you like to stop now and take some tea?”

“Yes please that would be lovely and I do so like afternoon tea, not early supper, as practiced at Fynes. Of course I do not mind  being called Mitty, Mathilda sounds so formal, but surely it is usual to enquire first?”

“Talking of supper, you’ll stay tonight?” said Louisa, nodding in agreement with my question and rising to ring the bell.

“Of course she’ll stay – it will be dark soon, and we must complete this transcription.  I am curious – I’m sure we all are.”

Harriet had to be notified,  and Louisa pointed out that the doctor was calling to see her and he should arrive quite soon.

“He lives near Fynes. I’m sure he will take a message.”

So it was pleasantly and easily settled. In helping me to read this strange letter, these two were being so kind and supportive. Almost immediately the bell rang and Louisa disappeared with the doctor for a while, then as they came into the hallway Charles joined them for a chat. Returning, they reassured me that Aunt Harriet would receive my note of explanation and we enjoyed a very pleaant tea. Then, without further pause Charles set to deciphering again.  The next few lines were written as a letter in order to use every scrap of paper, but it soon became obvious that they rhymed and so Charles set them out correctly:

When Mitty and me shall be bound

Over the glad waters of the dark blue sea,

Our thoughts as priceless and our minds as free.

As the wild life and tumults still to range,

From trial to rest and joy in every change.

For as the breeze can hear the billows foam;

Survey ocean’s empire and behold our home.

“Could Cowper have written that, Charles?”

“It is possible, he liked to dabble in poetry and prose even as a boy.‘Ours the wild life’, echoes of Ireland?  I don’t like ‘and tumults still to range'”. Charles read from his notes, then began to try and fill in more spaces and I found myself looking at him sideways.

His long fair/brown hair was drawn back and tied, but little short curls escaped attractively  over the back of his rather beautifully formed ears, and I noticed his strong and firm but slender hands as they drew my attention to points in the letter.  Suddenly I blushed and felt confused.  I looked at Louisa but she was intent on her needlework, and I realised Charles was reading more from his notes:

“You weren’t listening, were you?  Are you feeling tired?” Charles was smiling at me.

“No, no of course not.”

“I will read that part again, since you wish to continue…‘but there are some realities we cannot avoid.  Poor little Mitty will feel the influence of the rolling billows.'”

“How dare he assume I will be going, although as it happens I am a good sailor.”

Charles read on: “If the soothing attendances and affection of one who loves you can avail to smooth the ragged way then shall my wife be happy.”

I was rendered speechless by the increasing boldness of this man, so Charles continued:  He read of the army doctor, visiting Cowper and taking a look at the miniature of me: When the conversation slackened, the old fellow – a rough Scotsman – fixed his eyes on the brown box containing your image ”  May I take a look?” Unable to refuse, I let him  look at it, whilst he hummed a significant tune. This I know, she is a relation of yours, that is evident. If I did not already know you have no sisters, I should have said she was one.”

“You do look rather similar to Cowper,” Charles acknowledged, then read that Cowper wrote that this old boy could possibly be a travelling companion on the voyage home, but definitely not as his doctor!

“I can understand that,” he said, “I’ve heard about these army doctors!”

Comments on  some quizical questions I was supposed to have asked were then read to me!

“So, he thinks I knew about all this, and of your sending the portrait?”

“Perhaps”

“Oh Charles!”

“I know Cowper well and I know something of you. I believe you have a great deal in common.”

“Harrumph!”

“Mitty?” His look questioned whether it was acceptable to use my preferred name. I smiled back.

He then surprised me by saying: “Mitty, you cannot and must not, vegitate at Fynes Hall – there is more to life than that – you are a very interesting person,” he took my hand, “and you have so much to offer a husband.”

Charles, in his generous and loving way, was trying to help, but I had to look away from that gentle face.  A husband like Charles, yes, but I was aching with apprehension about this Cowper

“It could be disastrous, don’t you see?  You are seeing the two of us through your eyes.  The reality could find us hating each other.”

“We must wait and see.  I only ask;  please keep an open mind.” Louisa said that she agreed with that.

After supper we decided to continue deciphering the letter again.  We were continuing to read the transcripts to Louisa, and she and Charles were becoming as curious as – yes I had to admit, as I was –  to know and understand the rest of it.

You poor little thing, you do not know that I am six feet three in height and muscular in proportion.

“He is very tall. You didn’t mention that Charles?”

“Well he was always tall,  but it seems he has grown even taller since I saw him last.  He also favoured informality, and his letter seems to infer that in that, he has not changed.”

You will see me some day, portrait in hand, come to recognise what is my own, for what has been given to me, is surely my own!  The dignity which your portrait conveys would be more difficult to surmount than the strongest stockade.  Have pity on me Mathilda and you will then see how particularly meek I will be.

Charles smiled at me: “I told you the miniature I sent to him made you look rather haughty, but if that induces meekness in Cowper Rochford, then you have nothing to worry about.”

He then read on, as Cowper described a fellow officer: Captain John Dickenson of the Artillery and Commisary of Ordnance at Bangalore, who is nearly related to the Rawlings and is a very nice fellow.  I met him sometime ago at a Ball in Bangalore, and we compared notes and found it to be the case.     The only thing notable attached to his history…

It was getting very late and I think we were all becoming tired, but I did ask: “Is this John Dickenson a relation?”

“Grandmother’s maiden name was Dickenson, so I suppose he might be a cousin of mine.”

Soon afterwards, Louisa took a candle holder and showed me to my bedroom.

“I do hope you will sleep well Mitty.  This must have come as a shock and I can’t say I completely understand Charles’s involvement.  He cares so much for Cowper and I know that he has become very fond of you, so I presume those to  be his reasons.  He believes you to have the strength of personality to handle this.  But my dear…” she placed her hand on my arm “look upon me as a friend, and because you are placing so much  confidence in us, I well… it is too early for announcements yet, but I would like you to know Charles and I have just become aware that I am to have a baby in the summer.  We are a little anxious as I lost a baby last year.”

With that, after giving me a brief, loving hug, Louisa left the room.

 

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