As often happens in a strange bed, I awoke early.  I must have fallen asleep as soon as I put my head on my pillow.  Rising early the previous day, along with the long ride, had made me very tired, not to mention the emotional stress I was feeling from trying to decipher and accept Cowper’s  letter.

Breakfast conversation was dominated by talk of Cowper Rochford. A message for Charles drew him away from the house briefly,  so I decided to go for a walk and asked Louise to join me:

“Would you mind if I didn’t Mitty?  I’m not a walker anyway, and just now, well you know … ”

Walking up the hill by the castle. and appreciating the area even more, I realised that I could have just called on Charles and Louisa at anytime since I arrived.  It was not my style to wait for formal invitations;  perhaps it was Harriet’s influence?  Could it be that I had hesitated to meet Louisa because, liking Charles so much, perhaps I had wondered if I would like her equally?  Well,, I had laid that ghost to rest.  She was pretty, charming and friendly, and it would be difficult not to like her. But what about this Cowper Rochford?  Suddenly I laughed out loud (fortunately, I was quite alone!).

The man is preposterous.  Here I am being shocked by the scribblings of a man who is obviously some sort of a joke. From now on I determine that I will be merely amused by him.

I turned into the High Street and back to the house.  Louisa – her arms full of bits of material she was taking to the sitting room fireside – looked up to greet me.

“Good walk?”

“Pleasant, if short.  That is a beautiful castle – it must be very old.”

“Yes indeed, and also inhabitated.  We know the owners – we must take you to visit them some time. They will tell you all about it’s history.”

Charles had returned, bringing with him some goose feathers that he was about to cut, to make quill pens. Louisa soon became engrossed in sorting out her pretty, soft materials,  and I took my place at the table.

“He’s got to be joking this friend of yours. I cannot believe anyone would want to get married on the strength of one holiday meeting and the sight  of a portrait, however well painted!”

Charles gave me a sidelong glance, and smiled: “Oh I don’t know, I’ve heard of it before, just from seeing a portrait, with no meeting even  – Henry VIII for instance, and Anne of Cleeves.”

“But think of the vested interests and political gain in that alliance, and look how badly it turned out?”

“Not a good example, I agree. But remember, Cowper met a spirited young lass living in the society of poets and artists – enough to turn any young man’s head I would have thought.”  He smiled at me again.

“Do you think he is influenced by my connection with your family – perhaps he thinks I have benefited financially as a result of my father’s death?”

“That is unworthy of you Mitty!”

“But wise, I should think” said Louisa suddenly. “How is he placed?”

“Not very well at the moment, but I understand he has good expectations. Dear me, this is hardly the romantic reaction I expected.”

“My dear Charles – you men are the romantics; so we have to be the practical ones… and talking of practicalities, this letter makes it obvious that he intends to come here, but when? You have not given Mitty any idea.”

“That’s right” I said “when is he likely to arrive?  If, as you say, it takes five or six months sailing time – are we thinking of mid–summer?”

“It depends when he left India, his letter was written in June.  He could have sailed the following month.”

“You mean he might arrive at any time!” I said, amazed.

“It is possible, yes.  But let us continue with the transcription,” Charles said hurriedly,  perhaps not knowing how to deal with this new approach.

“I will arrange for an early lunch.” Louisa said putting her work aside.

“Good idea.” muttered Charles; then added more earnestly: “If you are returning to Fynes today you should leave soon after lunch.  As you know the frost hasn’t lifted since you arrived, and I would be happier if you were back before it gets dark.”

So we set to the transcription with vigour and found that we had arrived at the paragraph about a John Dickenson:“….one day he fell in love with a girl, who was very pretty and accomplished.  His love being reciprocated he proposed and was accepted. Unfortunately, just at this time, a Major appeared on the scene who was favoured by the young lady’s Mama.  When the Major proposed the Mama was only too aware that he had the command of a regiment, and decided her daughter must accept the Major.  With tears in her eyes the girl appealed to her Mama that she wished to marry the Captain.   This was unacceptable and the young lady married against her will.  It turned out very unhappily and she is now dead. Capt. Dickenson, grief stricken, plunged into absurdity and married the first person he came across, which has also turned out unhappily.  They seem now to live separately.”

We then traced the conclusion scribbled at the top of a page:

Mathilda, accept from your Cowper all his wishes, and believe that you have long held possession of his heart.  He will claim you, about six months hence.  He hopes soon to sail from Madras.  God bless you dear girl, accept kiss…..C.Rochford.”

“So now we know. He will soon be arriving.” I said in some panic.

“Not necessarily, he may not have left when he hoped.” said Charles.

“That story about this Captain Dickenson.  Does he write to warn Mitty that if she refuses him – for whatever reason – she will ruin his life?  Charles my love, that is surely emotional blackmail?”

“No, not at all.  It is Cowper’s way, he likes to dramatise. I’ve heard him at it many a time.”

“Well,” said I, “I think he is a bounder – his whole approach confirms it.”

“I must warn you Mitty, he is very good looking.” Charles said, quite seriously.

“I am sure he thinks so too.  Did you hear, Louisa, his description of himself, ‘I am six foot three, and muscular’.”

“I would like you to keep an open mind, until you meet.” Charles said earnestly.

I replied, looking at Louisa: “There’s an easy solution to all this.  He will soon find that I am no heiress, and that I survive on desultory pocket money from my brother. We will soon see him scuttle away.”

Charles sighed audibly and added:  “You two may call your attitude practical, I call it materialistic and not a mite cynical. Let’s have lunch now, then I will ride back with you Mitty.”

When I had donned all my gear again and was ready to leave with Charles, Louisa joined us in the hall:  “You certainly know how to keep warm however unconventional it may appear.”

“I’m not very conventional as you’ll discover, but I have enjoyed myself.  When shall we meet again?”

“We shall meet again quite soon Mitty,  because Charles and I will be coming to Fynes for Christmas.”

“Yes.” Charles said, “We’ll all be together, as father makes a point of coming home. It’s one of those rare occasions when he acts upon mother’s wishes.”

Putting her arm in mine Louise said:  “It will be strange for you without your own father my dear.”

It was true, I rather dreaded the festive season without him, but replied cheerily “Having plenty of people around may help.”

“Do wrap up warm Charles, follow Mitty’s example.”   Then we all laughed.

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

 

As we rode along the lanes in the crisp, frosty air, I asked Charles if we ought to tell his father about Cowper’s letter.  He said he would need time to think about that.

It was delightful having Charles all to myself, we seemed to have endless things to talk about, but I knew I was being selfish and Charles would have a long, dark, cold ride home.  I had previously been only half–heartedly protesting at the necessity of Charles’s accompanying me, but when we reached the half–way stage I protested more vehemently, and he finally agreed to return.

“You obviously know how to handle a horse in most situations and you shouldn’t meet anyone along here – if you do they probably work for us.”

As the hooves of Charles’s horse clattered away I was left again to my own thoughts.  The sky was turning pale gold, promising a lovely sunset. It was still a clear, bright day.  The stark, leafless trees and the bare, unsown,  gently sloping fields had a beauty which was all their own.  The added frost and hanging icicles tinged with the gold of the almost setting sun, made it doubly beautiful.  Despite this and rejoicing in the  freedom of riding,  I was nevertheless racked by the confusion of my thoughts. What was happening to me?  Out of the blue, marriage had been proposed by a man I did not know, and even as a girl  could hardly remember.  As I persevered I began to recall some details. Perhaps he had been fun?  I could remember how he had teased me.  Was he teasing me now?  It certainly seemed possible!  He was older than me;  according to Charles he would have been fourteen or fifteen during that summer.  To a young girl that would have seemed a great age.   I could vaguely recall a rather thin person, gangly I suppose;  no doubt growing ahead of himself.  I did not remember his being good–looking.  But would I have noticed? Aged seven, maybe eight, grotesque features might have left an impression, but not good looks.  Before leaving Dursingham, I had again asked Charles if he could write and tell this man Rochford, (difficult to speak with dislike of the name when it is also my own), explaining that I did not reciprocate his feelings.  But Charles had replied as before,  that it was probably too late to reach him now. What a situation! Since I had to receive a proposal from an unknown man, why did he have to write from India where the remoteness of the place made it impossible for me to write and put a stop to this nonsense… was it all nonsense?  In all honesty did I want to put a stop to it?  He did sound like a fascinating bounder.  Bounder he was. I had no doubt about that. He was posing quite a problem.  What had father always said?:   ‘There are no problems, only opportunities.’  Was this problem an opportunity?  A way to find  the adventure I sought – perhaps even India!  Might he, might we, return there?  He had written that we would, even suggesting that we could take my piano, a typically wild scheme, since neither of us had any money!  Charles didn’t think Cowper  would be scared-off by my lack of it. But how could he be so sure?

I was very apprehensive … well I could call it apprehension. I could call it what I liked, but fear would be a more accurate description.  Cold stomach-cramping fear. He may hate me at sight – we may hate each other!  Then the problem would be solved,  we would each go our separate ways.  I back to Fynes – there was a thought to rear its ugly head!  Did I really want to vegetate there?  Charles had stated I must not. Easily said, but would he  have written to Louisa, if they hadn’t met for years?  Unlikely, as he wasn’t the gambling type.

One thought came into my head persistently and would not go away: Charles has a great regard for Cowper Rochford. Bounder or not, there must be some good in him.

However much I might question my thoughts, the fact remained that Cowper Rochford was on his way, and I had no idea when he would arrive. Charles had told me to look in The Times, which Harriet received, informing me that shipping lists are published daily. At the very least I could find out when ships were leaving Madras – judging the sailing time as five or six months – depending on the weather, so I could work out when he might come. But Charles had also reminded me not to forget that the actual information itself would also have taken five months to arrive at the news office – oh, this time lag! How did anyone ever adjust to it?  On the other hand, the shipping lines did produce listings of expected arrivals.  Thus Charles’s idea was a good one, and I felt obliged to learn to understand the listings.  Perhaps Harriet kept backdated copies of The Times?  It would be like her to do that.   Some excuse must be sought to find out.   There was no way she could be told of this yet – even Charles had procrastinated about telling his father.

How would my father have handled this?  If only I could ask him.  Still, I ought to have some idea of his possible opinion, as  I’d known him so well.  Charles had said Cowper had written to him declaring that my father had been pleased about the childish ‘betrothal’ – had actually liked Cowper – had murmered “someone to look after Mitty.”  It  did sound like my father, even though I only had Cowper’s word for it. Ironically, it was my father who had  encouraged me to read anything and everything, resulting in the questioning, analytical woman I would probably always be.  If it was not the thought of an inheritance why was Cowper pursuing this?  Was he an honourable man prone to carrying out dead men’s wishes?  Why had he remained unmarried?  I understood that there were military mens’  daughters a-plenty, out there in India.

Suddenly, I thought of someone in whom I could confide, someone who had similar ideas to father:  uncle Henry.  He would also be there at Christmas, I presumed.

At this point Brown Willow  brought me down to earth – quite literally.  She stumbled, and I went over her side, in a most inelegant fashion.  Getting up, I brushed the frost off my skirt and realised thankfully that no–one had observed my unwary horsemanship.  A patch of ice must have caused her to slide and her hoof may have been affected.  Whilst I checked, a barn–owl swooped low over us, no doubt heading for it’s own warm retreat. Brown Willow was unhurt but had started to shiver; my questioning mind had thoughtlessly brought her down to a walking pace.  It was time for us to make tracks to our own warm shelter and we set off at a fast trot. When we  reached the driveway to Fynes it was bathed in moonlight, but I made my way to the stables unseen. I took off my self–styled garments upstairs, also unwitnessed, and I arrived downstairs in time for supper, feeling quite pleased that Harriet would not be able to enquire too deeply about my unconventional riding habit, although she would probably ask if  I’d used her new side–saddle.

//

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