I fell asleep a little after dawn but still awoke early. My mind was certainly clearer, or was it my lack of sleep which made me think it was? Seeming to be motivated by something outside myself, I sat down to write to Cowper. Years later, and with hindsight, I marvelled at the speed with which I had, almost recklessly, arrived at this decision. A decision which included the knowledge of an horrific event, which took the Indian Army many years to resolve, if they ever did. An event which would also remain in my thoughts for many years.

Yet I wrote:  After much thought I am prepared to accept what you told me, that you had no connection with the actual executions. Consequently if you wish to call upon me I will be happy to receive you. However, I wish to stress that this does not mean anything more than an act of friendship.

I folded and sealed the note and left it on my writing table. It was still too early for breakfast so throwing a wrap around myself, I made for my favourite place – the stables. One of the grooms came over, remarked about my being about so early, then said: “I am very concerned about something and would like to talk to Mr. Charles.”

“Well, if you think that is the right thing to do, why don’t you?”

“I would have to get Madam’s permission to ride over.”

“I could ask her during breakfast”

“Oh would you please.”

“Yes, of course, and if you do go, there is something you can do for me. There is a guest staying with Mr. Charles.”

“Yes, Captain Rochford, I stabled his horse yesterday.”

“Oh yes, well I have a note I would like you to take to him.”

After breakfast the groom set off with my note. The deed was done.

Having sent the message I decided it would be better to try and put it out of my mind, for the time being at least.

Cowper rode over sooner than I expected. He said he was delighted to hear from me so soon and was prepared to accept my conditions, although his expression seemed to be saying providing I do not have to wait too long. From that moment on, either his presence or my enquiring thoughts about him seemed to take over my life. At times the humbled spirit was still evident, but was often concealed by the swashbuckling bravado which he delighted in portraying. His unpredictability was deeply rooted. Sometimes it was exciting and sometimes unnerving. There was no time of day which Cowper considered unsuitable for visiting. However on one particular morning some weeks later, with the rain streaming down the windows, it seemed reasonable to anticipate a breakfast alone with my aunt. I was still trying to accept that this relaxed, gregarious woman was the same person who had openly shunned my arrival at Fynes. It had been obvious that by inviting me to live in Essex, her son Henry had given her an unwanted responsibility. This responsibility she had now shifted to Charles and Cowper, even Henry. She even seemed to be enjoying the unfolding plot.

“This continuing rain will presumably prevent Cowper riding over.”

“Possibly, its hard to tell.”

“Have you arranged a date for the wedding yet?”

“No – he has reminded me several times of his wish to marry me, but I have not given him his answer. If I had, you would be one of the first to know.”

“I cannot understand why he has not been snapped up already – surely you find him fascinating?”

“Utterly. My mind is dominated by him, yet I fear his unreliability.”

“Unreliability?”

“Yes, if I expect him here, he doesn’t come. If I don’t expect him, he does come.”

“Oh that – it is hard to believe that you, of all people, so fearful of spending your life at boring Fynes Hall, seek boring predictability. Awaiting your response is a tall good-looking cavalier of a man who wants to sweep you off to the excitement of India. I simply do not see the problem.”

“He has no money – and he may think that I have.”

“You are full of suprises this morning – I never saw you as a prosaic soul. Marry your man – you’ll manage. Have you forgotten that you told me you would have married a poverty stricken Irish poet, if you had loved him. Why this change?”

“I am still not sure that I wish to marry him.”

Aunt had little sympathy with my indecision. It was clear she saw me as an ageing woman. An unmarried twenty-five year old was, ‘on the shelf’, in her eyes. Also I had no dowry and had had an unruly, uneducated upbringing; thus she was amazed that I should be offered such prospects – and could not comprehend my indecision. As the conversation wore on and aunt’s persuasive remarks were bearing little fruit, she finally lost all patience with me, and left the room. Pleasant as she had now become, it was nevertheless clear that she really wanted me ‘off her hands’.

Even though I was unsure, an overwhelming tide of destiny seemed to be bearing me along. Should I try to swim against it? In Cowper’s presence I was mesmerised – in his absence, yet missing his presence, I was consumed with doubts. Should I talk to my levelheaded maid Mary, in whom I had now confided everything? Would she be able to advise? If not, who else? Louisa was still inaccessible to me – being in the Cowper camp, as it were. The rain stopped and the sun came out, but there was still no sign of Cowper; so I resolved to ride over to see uncle Henry at his home in Seble Dursingham.

We spent a pleasant afternoon in his garden, eating a huge bowl of strawberries which we had picked together. As we sat in the bower, I sipped my third cup of tea, surrounded, and almost enveloped, by sweet smelling roses. I told him I would value his advice about the possibility of marrying Cowper.  At this he laughed out loud.

“Me, ask my advice? Surely you’ve heard about my history?”

“No”

“I am surprised, I thought that the gossip would have reached you by now.”

“Gossip?”

“Well it wasn’t really gossip at all. You see, many years ago when I was much younger and slimmer than I am today, I fell in love with the very pretty daughter of a local gentleman farmer, and she agreed to marry me. I rather naively believed that we were happily married for about three years, although I am afraid I was very often away at sea. On returning, from a rather longer than usual voyage, I found that she had gone off with a young man. Some young buck from London apparently, whom she had met when he’d come down here for some shooting. I was very much in love with her, and despite the scandal which undoubtedly would have resulted; given the chance I would have taken her back. I planned to take her away and settle abroad – but I never saw her again. In time, news reached me that she had died giving birth to his baby, and hours later the baby had died too.”

“Oh dear, what a terribly tragic tale. I am so very sorry.”

“Yes, well now you understand why I live alone, and why I don’t feel capable of advising anyone about marriage.”

“Are you saying that ‘don’t do it’ would be your obvious advice?”

“No no, of course not, it’s just that, well, my own history precludes it.”

“But you’ve met Cowper. Surely, your sad experience doesn’t prevent you from forming an opinion of people does it? I would have thought it might have heightened your ability.”

He laughed: “You may be right. Yes I’ve met Cowper two or three times now.”

“Well?”

“He’s a likeable bounder.”

“He’s a loveable bounder in my view, but should one marry a bounder?”

“You’ve answered your own question haven’t you? If he’s loveable in your view, so why not marry him? Only don’t come back and blame me for saying so, because marriage is a damned funny business.”

*******

The following morning the sun shone brilliantly, after the early morning rain. The small world around Fynes sparkled, and the fresh, sweet-smelling air was intoxicating. I wanted to share this with Cowper, who had promised to visit yesterday morning. As it had been raining I had tried to plan things we might do, in such inclement weather. We both loved music. He sometimes sang with me at the piano, and he sang well. He also played a woodwind instrument, which he produced from the depths of a pocket in his long waistcoat. It looked rather like an Oboe, and had been made, he told me, by a talented Indian batman. Or perhaps we would explore the house as we sometimes did, examining the oils and watercolours which covered the walls. Or even spend time in the library. Books by new authors were constantly appearing on the shelves. Uncle John sent them down, to add to his collection.

But that was yesterday and the rains had gone. I was reluctantly beginning to realise that planning anything to include Cowper was impossible.

Still he did not come.

I was determined that he should not find me hanging around waiting for him to turn up, which was partly why I’d ridden over to visit uncle Henry the day before. So, seething with irritation at his inability to keep a promise, I was in the drive on my way to the stables, when he came galloping up.

My temper is not very well controlled: ‘Irish Mist’ some call it. I accused him of ruining the previous day, and when he did not apologise I could easily have struck him with my riding crop. In fact I had started to raise it, and his first reaction was to turn his horse’s head, as if to ride off, so I turned to walk away.

Then, suddenly turning his horse back and coming up behind me, he bent down and grabbed me around the waist, then expertly pulled me up in front of him and rode away towards the hill.  At first, in a vain attempt to escape, I punched his arm, which was holding me around my waist in a firm grip. I kept shouting at him to stop and let me go. I tried to keep this up, but eventually I just had to laugh,if a little breathlessly.

Cowper pulled on the reins and brought the horse to a walk.

“I told you in my letter that I would storm your defences and overcome every obstacle which was put in my way. Well here I am. I want to marry you Mitty, there is no one else in the world I want for my wife … will you have me? Well what do you say? Do you love me? Do you want to marry me?”

“Oh Cowper, please, please, stop, and put me down.”

“No I will not. I want your answer first.”

I think I had always wanted to be swept off my feet, although perhaps not quite so literally; but the way he’d carried out the proposal did excite me. I had already decided that if he returned to India, without me, I would be devastated because … having met him, life would seem unbearably boring without him. I wanted to be with him. Finally I had admitted it; at least to myself. I turned and looked at him, then nodded my head.

“Do I read that as a yes, that you will marry me?”

I nodded again.Having finally received my answer, he stopped as promised. Having dismounted, he looked up at me, then putting his hands on my waist he helped me down, very gently, and then he kissed me. I had grown accustomed to the lovely sensation, as he passed me, and brushed aganst me, of the touch of his hand, especially of his lips on my hand. But nothing had prepared me for this, not even occasional indiscretions in the past at Dridala.

If I had had any doubts they were dispelled by that long lingering kiss. Why had I never realised this before? Perhaps, because he had never kissed me.

We returned together on horseback, quite slowly this time, in self-evident, yet unspoken contentment.

//

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