1. Any food is fair game until it is actually swallowed by someone else.
2. Take a nap whenever you can.
3. Don’t bark unless it’s important.
4. Chasing one’s tail is sometimes unavoidable.
I hope your Christmas was splendid. Thank you for the card—it reached me on the twenty-fourth of December, and it was passed all around my company, most of them never having seen a Christmas card before. Before it was finally handed back to me, the cardboard gentlemen attached to the tassel had done a great deal of quaffing.
I also like the word “quaff.” As a matter of fact, I’ve always liked unusual words. Here’s one for you: “soleate,” which refers to the shodding of a horse. Or “nidifice,” a nest. Has Mr. Caird’s mare given birth yet? Perhaps I’ll ask my brother to make an offer. One never knows when one might need a good mule.
It feels far too prosaic to send a letter by post. I wish I could find a more interesting way . . . I would tie a little scroll to a bird’s leg, or send you a message in a bottle. However, in the interest of efficiency, I’ll have to make do with the Royal Mails.
I have just read in the Times that you have been involved in yet more heroics. Why must you take such risks? The ordinary duty of a soldier is dangerous enough. Have a care for your safety, Christopher—for my sake if not your own. My request is entirely selfish . . . I could not bear for your letters to stop coming.
I’m so far away, Pru. I’m standing outside my own life and looking in. Amid all this brutality, I have discovered the simple pleasures of petting a dog, reading a letter, and staring at the night sky. Tonight I almost thought I saw the ancient constellation named Argo . . . after the ship that Jason and his crew sailed in their quest to find the golden fleece. You’re not supposed to be able to see Argo unless you’re in Australia, but still, I was almost certain I had a glimpse of it.
I beg you to forget what I wrote before: I do want you to wait for me. Don’t marry anyone before I come home.
Wait for me.
This is the perfume of March: rain, loam, feathers, mint. Every morning and afternoon I drink fresh mint tea sweetened with honey. I’ve done a great deal of walking lately. I seem to think better outdoors.
Last night was remarkably clear. I looked up at the sky to find the Argo. I’m terrible at constellations. I can never make out any of them except for Orion and his belt. But the longer I stared, the more the sky seemed like an ocean, and then I saw an entire fleet of ships made of stars. A flotilla was anchored at the moon, while others were casting off. I imagined we were on one of those ships, sailing on moonlight.
In truth, I find the ocean unnerving. Too vast. I much prefer the forests around Stony Cross. They’re always fascinating, and full of commonplace miracles . . . spiderwebs glittering with rain, new trees growing from the trunks of fallen oaks. I wish you could see them with me. And together we would listen to the wind rushing through the leaves overhead, a lovely swooshy melody . . . tree music!
As I sit here writing to you, I have propped my stocking feet much too close to the hearth. I’ve actually singed my stockings on occasion, and once I had to stomp out my feet when they started smoking. Even after that, I still can’t seem to rid myself of the habit. There, now you could pick me out of a crowd blindfolded. Simply follow the scent of scorched stockings.
Enclosed is a robin’s feather that I found during my walk this morning. It’s for luck. Keep it in your pocket.
Just now I had the oddest feeling while writing this letter, as if you were standing in the room with me. As if my pen had become a magic wand, and I had conjured you right here. If I wish hard enough . . .
I have the robin’s feather in my pocket. How did you know I needed a token to carry into battle? For the past two weeks I’ve been in a rifle pit, sniping back and forth with the Russians. It’s no longer a cavalry war, it’s all engineers and artillery. Albert stayed in the trench with me, only going out to carry messages up and down the line.
During the lulls, I try to imagine being in some other place. I imagine you with your feet propped near the hearth, and your breath sweet with mint tea. I imagine walking through the Stony Cross forests with you. I would love to see some commonplace miracles, but I don’t think I could find them without you. I need your help, Pru. I think you might be my only chance of becoming part of the world again.
I feel as if I have more memories of you than I actually do. I was with you on only a handful of occasions. A dance. A conversation. A kiss. I wish I could relive those moments. I would appreciate them more. I would appreciate everything more. Last night I dreamed of you again. I couldn’t see your face, but I felt you near me. You were whispering to me.
The last time I held you, I didn’t know who you truly were. Or who I was, for that matter. We never looked beneath the surface. Perhaps it’s better we didn’t—I don’t think I could have left you, had I felt for you then what I do now.
I’ll tell you what I’m fighting for. Not for England, nor her allies, nor any patriotic cause. It’s all come down to the hope of being with you.
You’ve made me realize that words are the most important things in the world. And never so much as now. The moment Audrey gave me your last letter, my heart started beating faster, and I had to run to my secret house to read it in private.
I haven’t yet told you . . . last spring on one of my rambles, I found the oddest structure in the forest, a lone tower of brick and stonework, all covered with ivy and moss. It was on a distant portion of the Stony Cross estate that belongs to Lord Westcliff. Later when I asked Lady Westcliff about it, she said that keeping a secret house was a local custom in medieval times. The lord of the manor might have used it as a place to keep his mistress. Once a Westcliff ancestor actually hid there from his own bloodthirsty retainers. Lady Westcliff said I could visit the secret house whenever I wanted, since it has long been abandoned. I go there often. It’s my hiding place, my sanctuary . . . and now that you know about it, it’s yours as well.
I’ve just lit a candle and set it in a window. A very tiny lodestar, for you to follow home.
Amid all the noise and men and madness, I try to think of you in your secret house . . . my princess in a tower. And my lodestar in the window.
The things one has to do in war . . . I thought it would all become easier as time went on. And I’m sorry to say I was right. I fear for my soul. The things I have done, Pru. The things I have yet to do. If I don’t expect God to forgive me, how can I ask you to?
Love forgives all things. You don’t even need to ask.
Ever since you wrote to me about the Argos, I’ve been reading about stars. We’ve loads of books about them, as the subject was of particular interest to my father. Aristotle taught that stars are made of a different matter than the four earthly elements—a quintessence—that also happens to be what the human psyche is made of. Which is why man’s spirit corresponds to the stars. Perhaps that’s not a very scientific view, but I do like the idea that there’s a little starlight in each of us.
I carry thoughts of you like my own personal constellation. How far away you are, dearest friend, but no farther than those fixed stars in my soul.
We’re settling in for a long siege. It’s uncertain as to when I’ll have the chance to write again. This is not my last letter, only the last for a while. Do not doubt that I am coming back to you someday.
Until I can hold you in my arms, these worn and ramshackle words are the only way to reach you. What a poor translation of love they are. Words could never do justice to you, or capture what you mean to me.
Still . . . I love you. I swear by the starlight . . . I will not leave this earth until you hear those words from me.
Sitting on a massive fallen oak deep in the forest, Beatrix looked up from the letter. She didn’t realize she was crying until she felt the stroke of a breeze against her wet cheeks. The muscles of her face ached as she tried to compose herself.
He had written to her on the thirtieth of June, without knowing she had written to him on the same day. One couldn’t help but take that as a sign.
She hadn’t experienced such a depth of bitter loss, of agonized longing, since her parents had died. It was a different kind of grief, of course, but it carried the same flavor of hopeless need.
What have I done?
She, who had always gone through life with unsparing honesty, had carried out an unforgivable deception. And the truth would only make matters worse. If Christopher Phelan ever discovered that she had written to him under false pretenses, he would despise her. And if he never found out, Beatrix would always be “the girl who belonged in the stables.” Nothing more.
“Do not doubt that I am coming back to you . . .”
Those words had been meant for Beatrix, no matter that it had been addressed to Prudence.
“I love you,” she whispered, and her tears spilled faster.
How had these feelings crept up on her? Good God, she could hardly remember what Christopher Phelan looked like, and yet her heart was breaking over him. Worst of all, it was entirely likely that Christopher’s declarations had been inspired by the hardships of wartime. This Christopher she knew from the letters . . . the man she loved . . . might vanish once he returned home.
Nothing good would come of this situation. She had to put a stop to it. She could not pretend to be Prudence any longer. It wasn’t fair to any of them, especially Christopher.
Beatrix walked home slowly. As she entered Ramsay House, she encountered Amelia, who was taking her young son Rye outside.
“There you are,” Amelia exclaimed. “Would you like to go out to the stable with us? Rye is going to ride his pony.”
“No, thank you.” Beatrix’s smile felt as if it had been tacked on with pins. Every member of her family was quick to include her in their lives. They were all extraordinarily generous in that regard. And yet she sensed herself being cast, incrementally and inexorably, as the spinster aunt.
She felt eccentric and alone. A misfit, like the animals she kept.
Her mind made a disjointed leap, summoning recollections of the men she had met during dances and dinners and soirees. She had never lacked for male attention. Perhaps she should encourage one of them, just pick a likely candidate for attachment and be done with it. Perhaps having her own life was worth being married to a man she didn’t love.
But that would be another form of misery.
Her fingers slipped into the pocket of her dress to touch the letter from Christopher Phelan. The feel of the parchment, which he had folded, caused her stomach to tighten with a hot, pleasurable pang.
“You’ve been very quiet of late,” Amelia said, her blue eyes searching. “You look as though you’ve been crying. Is something troubling you, dear?”
Beatrix shrugged uneasily. “I suppose I’m melancholy because of Mr. Phelan’s illness. According to Audrey, he has taken a turn for the worse.”
“Oh . . .” Amelia’s expression was soft with concern. “I wish there were something we could do. If I fill a basket with plum brandy and blancmange, will you take it to them?”
“Of course. I’ll go later this afternoon.”
Retreating to the privacy of her room, Beatrix sat at her desk and took out the letter. She would write to Christopher one last time, something impersonal, a gentle withdrawal. Better that than to continue deceiving him.
Carefully she uncapped the inkwell and dipped her pen, and began to write.
As much as I esteem you, dear friend, it would be unwise for either of us to be precipitate while you are still away. You have my earnest wishes for your well-being and safety. However, I think it best that any mention of more personal feelings between us should be delayed until you return. In fact, it is probably best that we end our correspondence . . .
With each sentence, it became more difficult to make her fingers work properly. The pen trembled in her fierce grip, and she felt her tears well again. “Rubbish,” she said.
It literally hurt to write such lies. Her throat had gone nearly too tight to breathe.
She decided that before she could finish it, she would write the truth, the letter she longed to send to him, and then destroy it.
Breathing with effort, Beatrix snatched another piece of paper and hastily wrote a few lines, only for her eyes, hoping it would ease the intense pain that had clamped around her heart.
I can’t write to you again.
I’m not who you think I am.
I didn’t mean to send love letters, but that is what they became. On their way to you, my words turned into heartbeats on the page.
Come back, please come home and find me.
Beatrix’s eyes blurred. Setting the page aside, she returned to her original letter and finished it, expressing her wishes and prayers for his safe return.
As for the love letter, she crumpled it and shoved it into the drawer. Later she would burn it in her own private ceremony, and watch every heartfelt word burn to ashes.
Later in the afternoon, Beatrix walked to the Phelan home. She carried a substantial basket weighted with the brandy and blancmange, a round of mild white cheese, and a small “homely cake,” dry and bare of icing, only slightly sweet. Whether or not the Phelans needed such items didn’t matter nearly so much as the gesture itself.
Amelia had urged Beatrix to ride to the Phelan home in a carriage or cart, as the basket was a bit unwieldy. However, Beatrix wanted the exertion of walking, hoping it would help to calm her troubled spirits. She set her feet to a steady rhythm, and drew the early-summer air into her lungs. This is the smell of June, she wanted to write to Christopher . . . honeysuckle, green hay, wet linen hung out to dry . . .
By the time she reached her destination, both her arms ached from having held the basket for so long.
The house, dressed in thick ivy, resembled a man huddling in his overcoat. Beatrix felt prickles of apprehension as she went to the front door and knocked. She was ushered inside by a solemn-faced butler who relieved her of the basket and showed her to the front receiving room.
The house seemed overheated, especially after her walk. Beatrix felt a bloom of perspiration emerge beneath the layers of her walking dress and inside her sturdy ankle boots.
Audrey entered the room, thin and untidy, her hair half up, half down. She was wearing an apron with dark ruddy blotches on it.
As Audrey met Beatrix’s concerned gaze, she attempted a wan smile. “As you see, I’m not prepared to receive anyone. But you’re one of the few people I don’t have to maintain appearances for.” Realizing that she was still wearing the apron, she untied it and rolled it into a little bundle. “Thank you for the basket. I told the butler to pour a glass of the plum brandy and give it to Mrs. Phelan. She’s taken to her bed.”
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