The Rose of Sebastopol

The Rose of Sebastopol

3.4 15
by Katharine McMahon
     
 

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The #1 international bestseller about love, war and betrayal from the author of The Alchemist's Daughter

In 1854, adventurous Rosa Barr travels to the Crimean battlefield with Florence Nightingale's nursing corps. For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa's cousin, the war is contained within the letters she receives from her fiancé, Henry, a celebrated

Overview

The #1 international bestseller about love, war and betrayal from the author of The Alchemist's Daughter

In 1854, adventurous Rosa Barr travels to the Crimean battlefield with Florence Nightingale's nursing corps. For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa's cousin, the war is contained within the letters she receives from her fiancé, Henry, a celebrated surgeon who also has volunteered to work in the shadow of the guns. When Henry falls ill, Mariella impulsively takes an epic journey to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea and the tragic city of Sebastopol. What she finds there, as her world beings to crumble, is that she has much to learn about secrecy, faithfulness, and love...

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Is love complicated or a complication? McMahon (The Alchemist's Daughter) explores this issue in this historical novel set during the Crimean War. Mariella Lingwood is a proper Victorian young lady. She is in love with a distant cousin and well-respected surgeon, Henry Thewell. But the relationship changes when Mariella's dear first cousin Rosa enters the picture. Henry and Rosa are in the Crimea as a surgeon and a nurse, respectively, and Henry falls ill and is sent to Italy to recover. When Mariella rushes to his side, it is Rosa's name he raves in his delirium. And when Rosa is reported missing, Mariella does something unexpected. She travels to the front lines of battle to search for her cousin and learn the truth. But in the midst of war, she finds chaos, which rattles the foundations of her existence, and Mariella must discover her strength and fight for what is truly important. McMahon's complex plot makes for an atypical but satisfying read, even if the ending feels a tad abrupt. Recommended for all fiction collections.
—Anna M. Nelson

Kirkus Reviews
An unusual and vivid historical novel tracks a feverish love triangle/mystery across the battlefields of the Crimean War. Freshness and energy drive McMahon's latest (The Alchemist's Daughter, 2006, etc.), which offers a socially alert tableau of mid-19th-century England as the background to an emotional drama, launched when Mariella Lingwood learns that her fiance, Dr. Henry Thewell, recently serving in the war against Russia, has fallen gravely ill. Mariella rushes to his side in Italy only to find him raving about her cousin Rosa, who had daringly joined the ranks of female nursing volunteers led by Florence Nightingale, tending the English soldiers fighting in Turkey as they suffered terribly from disease and fearful conditions. Rosa's war-front letters to Mariella have been almost as passionate in their avowals of commitment as Henry's, but has her cousin betrayed her after all? Mariella sets off for Constantinople to find Rosa and uncover the truth. McMahon depicts the battlefields as another shifting social panorama, this one shot with horror and corpses as well as issues of class and acceptable behavior. Here the story's momentum moves less dynamically, but over time Mariella, an unheroic heroine, learns to be of service, first to her sick servant, later to wounded soldiers. Still searching for her cousin, she falls in love with dashing Captain Max Stukeley and comes intuitively to understand Rosa's disappearance, while in the process awakening to a different sense of self. Marked by its passion and social commentary, this is a pleasingly unformulaic read, although its twin time frames and ending may not satisfy all readers. Agent: Mark Lucas/Lucas Alexander Whitley
From the Publisher
"A pleasingly unformulaic read." —Kirkus

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780425232224
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
02/02/2010
Pages:
416
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Copyright Page

 

PART ONE

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

 

PART TWO

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

 

PART THREE

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

 

PART FOUR

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Twenty-one

Twenty-two

 

PART FIVE

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

ALSO by KATHARINE McMAHON

 

After Mary

 

The Alchemist’s Daughter

g. p. PUTNAM’S SONS
Publishers Since 1838
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA Penguin
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Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

Originally published in the United Kingdom by Phoenix 2007
First published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2009

Copyright © 2007 by Katharine McMahon

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.
Purchase only authorized editions.

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McMahon, Katharine.
The rose of Sebastopol / Katharine McMahon.—1st American ed.
p. cm.

eISBN : 978-1-101-01635-0

PART ONE

One

ITALY, 1855

 

 

 

We arrived in Narni late on a Sunday evening. Although the door to the Hotel Fina was locked, the driver roused a servant who stumbled out with creasy shirt-tails, brought in our luggage, and showed us to a bedroom smelling of unwashed feet. Nora took away my cloak and bonnet, then I snuffed the candles and lay down. A man was shouting in the distance, perhaps the worse for drink. Instead of sleeping I rode through the night as if still in a carriage jolting over badly made roads across the plains of Italy. Eventually I heard a clock strike five, and the rumble of a cart in the square outside, and I fell asleep to the sound of women’s raised voices and the clash of a pail against stone.

When I woke, a blade of sunlight sliced between the shutters and it was nearly mid-morning. Nora was standing over me with a breakfast tray and a letter from Mother, which I didn’t read. None of the clothes in my port-manteau was fit to wear, being too crushed, so I put on my traveling dress again and said we would go out at once. In the lobby I struggled to make myself understood by the proprietress, who was dressed in black and whose mouth was pulled down at the ends, as if from despair, but when I showed her Henry’s address she drew us a rough map.

Narni was an ancient town built near the top of a hill and the Hotel Fina was at its center, on a little square. What with the cluster of women round a fountain and the confusion of streets and shop-fronts, there was no telling which direction was the right one, so we set off at random up a flight of steps and under an arch. The sun was very hot, the street oppressively narrow, and our traveling clothes too heavy, so we stopped under a shady porch while I consulted the map.

A cluster of children formed round us; I gave one the names, “Via del Monte, Signora Critelli,” and he set off back the way we’d come. We re-crossed the little square, and this time plunged into a steep street with the houses built so close on either side I could almost touch them. Washing of the most intimate nature hung from balconies or was suspended like dingy carnival flags from wall to wall. I was surprised to find Henry lodging in such a poor quarter.

Eventually the child paused in front of an open doorway where there was a smell of wet stone and flowers, because someone had just watered a pot of narcissi. I hovered at the entrance, my resolve gone, wishing that I had never left England or that at the very least had sent Henry a note to let him know I was on my way. Now that I was here, I wondered whether he would think it appropriate. I was also afraid of seeing him ill. What if he didn’t recognize me, or I him? Unlike Rosa, I never knew what to do in the face of sickness. I glanced at Nora but she raised an eyebrow as if to say: You got us into this, don’t expect any encouragement from me.

In the end I crept along the passage to a kitchen, where a woman stood with her arms plunged into a washbowl. She squinted at me through the droplets of water that trickled into her eyes.

“Dr. Henry Thewell? ” I asked.

She gaped, dried her face, first on a towel then her skirt, leant her hand on the door-frame, and let fly a torrent of Italian which ended at last in a question.

I shook my head. “Non capisco. Inglese. Mi chiamo Mariella Lingwood. Mari-ella. I am engaged to be married to Dr. Thewell. Dov’è Henry Thewell?

I had learnt from watching my father that it is better, in moments of crisis, to speak quietly rather than to shout. Certainly Signora Critelli calmed down; she went on talking but less rapidly, wiped her hands again, gestured that I should get out of the way, and led me up a narrow flight of stairs to a landing where she knocked sharply on a door, flung it wide, and announced me with the words: “La signorina inglese.”

I took a step further, and another.

The room was in semi-darkness, because though one shutter was half open, a drab blue curtain covered the window. Through the gloom I saw that the room was small and contained a narrow bed, a wash-stand, a table heaped with books, and a low chair with a rush seat, upon which an untouched tray with a roll, a jug, and a cup had been left. There was a smell of cold coffee and damp linen.

Henry was in bed but he’d raised himself on one elbow, and even in the darkness I saw the eager brilliance of his eyes and that his hair had grown so long it flopped over his brow. We stared at each other. Then I stumbled across the room, knelt by the bed, and held him.

My bonnet was knocked sideways as he covered my face with hot kisses. I wept and seemed to flow out of myself when I felt his lips on my hair, ear, and neck. Though I was distantly aware that the door behind us had closed abruptly and that we had been watched, I didn’t mind. I clasped his too-thin arms as his hands caressed my back and I helped him with my bonnet ribbons, wondering how I could ever have doubted that I did the right thing in coming here. I realized that I had waited most of my life to have Henry kiss my throat, even to let him fumble with the buttons of my gown and pull loose the neck of my shift. My skin contracted as his lips closed on my breast. His breathing came in rasping pants between kisses.

I fell back on the pillow, smoothed his hair, and felt him grow heavy in my arms. Astonishingly, he slept. For perhaps half an hour I didn’t move though I lay half off the bed, my bonnet dropping from my neck, a draught swaying the curtain, and the clop of a mule’s hooves on the street below. Because my hair was caught by the weight of his head, all I could see was a fragment of cracked ceiling, a broken frieze, and the shifting blue-gray curtain. I kissed him again and again, tiny, weightless kisses on his hair, which was far softer than I had ever imagined, like a cat’s fur, and I thought: All these weeks he has been alone, watching that curtain and waiting for me. I was afloat in the miracle of his touch, the strangeness of a male body half covering mine, the fact that this was Henry, whom I had missed so much in the past months that even the blood in my veins ached for him.

Then I tightened my hold, because although never in my wildest imaginings had I expected such a loving, needy reception as this, nor had I really thought to find him so weak that he was confined to bed. I had always relished his energy and the hardness of his arm under my hand but now he was frail as a bird. And he smelt entirely different from the Henry who never failed to delight me with his scent of good soap, balsam, or camphor. Instead the odor of confined flesh reminded me of the Governesses’ Home.

As he woke, his breath grew uneven on my neck. When he moved his head, my skin was damp and hot from where his cheek had rested on me. I closed my eyes as my breast tightened under his circling fingertip.

This is Italy, I thought, no-one will know. And anyway, what do I care?

“My dear love,” he whispered, “I thought you would never come.”

His finger was making a diminishing spiral on my nipple, so my words were disjointed: “I wasn’t sure you would want me here. And yet I wouldn’t be stopped, even by you, so I thought it best just to come without letting you know.”

“You are my love, my love.”

“Your letters sounded so lonely I thought I must come.”

He nuzzled his cheek into my bosom and pressed his face to my neck, drawing me closer and closer under him. I didn’t mind that he had the smell of fever on his breath, I was scarcely conscious of anything except the heat of him as he murmured: “I thought I might never see you again. I thought you were gone.”

“Of course you’d see me again.”

“But you never answered me. You never said a word. It was killing me.” He laid his head beside mine on the pillow and reached out to turn my face towards his. I had time to see how pale his skin was, and that because his moustache had been shaved off his mouth was as full-lipped and boyish as when I first knew him. Then he said: “Let me look at you at last. My Rosa. My dear love. Dearest Rosa.”

Two

1840

 

 

 

Henry’s mother, Euphemia, known as poor Aunt Eppie, was my father’s cousin. After her marriage to Richard Thewell, a Derbyshire innkeeper, the pair moved south and for a few years managed a prosperous hostelry near Radlett in Hertfordshire. Their subsequent tragic history was only spoken of behind closed doors, so I had to pick it up piecemeal.

Thewell, not astute enough to anticipate that the new railway would kill his business, took to the bottle. Meanwhile, soon after the birth of their only son, Aunt Eppie began to suffer from a wasting disease. The business duly failed and my father rescued the family by moving them into one of the little villas he’d just had built in Wandsworth, a mile or so from our house in Clapham. While the boy, Henry, was at school, poor Aunt Eppie spent her mornings with us at Fosse House, working on the household linen and teaching me to sew. I never met her husband, whose drinking put him beyond the pale, although I once heard Mother describe him to her friend Mrs. Hardcastle as ineffectual.

Eppie was a small, high-cheekboned creature, who had nothing in common with Mother except that both were from Derbyshire and fiendishly hardworking. Mother couldn’t stand sewing, Eppie was never happy without a needle in her hand; Mother was the daughter of a squire, Eppie of a tailor; Mother was too busy to spend more than an hour or two on my lessons each day whereas Eppie taught me to crochet imitation guipure lace, work an edge of Plaited Slav stitch on a linen tablecloth, and put pin tucks into the bodice of a muslin blouse. We worked side by side in the morning room, and I remember the smell of her perspiration, the way a girlish froth of hand-worked lace framed her fiercely parted hair and pallid forehead, the tension in her hands and back as she sewed. She reeked of sickness; her breath was rotten.

By the time I was eight, she was too frail to come to the house, though Mother took me to visit her once in the Wandsworth villa. She lay on a mountain of pillows, her face lost in the flaps of her nightcap, a bit of smocking with the needle threaded through dropped among the folds of her quilt. Her smile was apologetic and she couldn’t speak because of her cough. After that she faded from my life altogether, though I inherited her skill, her small collection of books on stitchcraft, and a leather sewing case containing needles, scissors, hooks, and pen-knife, with mother-of-pearl handles. Mother was suddenly busier than ever, managing the Thewell household as well as our own, arranging a funeral, and seeing the widower shipped north to an aunt who was to help him recover from the blow of his wife’s death. Meanwhile, we were to take the boy in.

When Henry took up residence in our quiet household, he was a thin-faced youth with an unhealthy complexion and eyes blank with suffering. “He’ll only be with us while he finishes school or until his father’s back on his feet,” said Mother. “He’ll sleep in the room next to yours and be out each day. We’ll hardly notice him.”

But I did notice him, I noticed everything about him: the cautious sounds of his rising in the morning, his meager breakfast of tea and toast, his easing himself out of the house as if afraid of making the air stir as he shut the door, his return at six o’clock and disappearance into his room as soon as the evening meal was over. I noticed that he had long fingers like his mother and that he was never without a book. Even at mealtimes there was one sticking out of his pocket, and when he set off for school in the morning I ran to an upstairs window and watched him open a volume and begin to read. It was a wonder he didn’t fall over but he was skilled at avoiding obstacles, even with his eyes on the page.

He and I had nothing to say to each other. After all, he was a boy and eight years older than me. And his dead mother, poor Aunt Eppie, shimmered between us. I assumed he was sadder even than I was about her death but I couldn’t tell how much.

However, one wet afternoon I noticed that, despite my mother’s reminder at breakfast time, he had forgotten to take an umbrella from the stand in the hall and I was very troubled because this was the kind of detail we used to get exactly right before he came. For an hour I sat over my tapestry, plotting how to remedy the situation. In the end I asked Mother’s permission to go down the garden with the umbrella and open the gate for him so that he could cut a corner of the lane and at least stay dry for the last few minutes.

“That would be kind, Mariella.”

So I ran along the brick path skirting the lawn and passed through what we hoped would one day be a wilderness, to the herbaceous beds. There were stepping stones across the border to the gate, which was half covered in clematis and had a well-oiled bolt.

I stood in the shelter of the wall, trembling. Perhaps he wouldn’t come this way home today, or not be pleased to see me. Perhaps I’d already missed him. A blade of grass at my foot bent from the weight of a raindrop.

At last I heard the squelch of footsteps and there was Henry with his collar up and mud on his boots, a wet satchel clasped to his chest.

“Henry.” He stopped dead, looked round, and saw me under the arch of the gateway. “I brought you an umbrella,” I said. “And it’s quicker through the garden.”

His bottom lip pressed against the upper, and to my horror I realized that he was trying not to cry. But he bowed, took the umbrella, and followed me up the garden, holding it over us both. When we reached the house he gave me his satchel while he shook the rain off the umbrella and folded it up. Awed by the responsibility of clutching the damp mass of his books in my arms, I took a discreet sniff of rain-soaked leather. When we swapped burdens he smiled into my eyes and afterwards I stood in the drying room amidst rows of damp sheets and didn’t know how I would live until dinner when he might smile at me like that again.

Three

ITALY, 1855

 

 

 

Iran out of Narni down the winding road to the valley floor, where the air was unmoving and thick with heat and a track led through scrubland and vegetable gardens to the river. When I passed a spring with a metal cup on a chain, I gulped some water before stumbling on. My clothes were tight, I was wearing five layers of petticoat, and as I’d left my bonnet in Henry’s room, my hair flooded over my shoulders. The very thought of that bonnet, chosen with such care for this journey but now discarded on the floor beside his bed, made me nauseous. If I’d been able to breathe I would have howled with pain. At one point the words “No, no” did burst from me but died away in the rocky sides of what had become a gorge.

Eventually I sank down under a tree but even then I couldn’t stay still. I hammered the ground with my fists and kicked the bank with my heels. Again I cried “No, no,” and beat my hands until they were bruised. My eyes burnt with unshed tears. If I could have fought my way out of my body I would have done it and left my skin on the river-bank like a rag.

The scene in Henry’s room replayed: his eager face, his touch, his kisses, his words of love. No. No. It couldn’t be...How could Henry have taken so much of me, then betrayed me? How could Henry have been so full of Rosa that he hadn’t even noticed that the woman in his arms was me? Me.

What had I failed to see, all this time?

I tore fistfuls of grass away from the earth, hurled them into the water, and there she was on the far side of the river, with her light hair and pale skin; tapering hands held out to me, low voice calling my name. Her body was supple and slender as a wand so that her narrow bodice hung smooth on her waist and her blue gown flowed in clean lines down to her ankles.

But I love you, I said to the shade of Rosa.

I reached for her, pleading with her to come and put it right.

Rosa, after all, could probably walk on water.

Eventually I became aware that I was covered with dirt and the hem of my skirt was trailing in the river, that I was very hungry, and that I should pull myself together and go back to Narni. But I had run much further than I realized and was faint by the time I came to the spring. A woman in dark clothes was seated beside it and even from a distance I could tell by the size of her bonnet that this was none other than Nora, who handed me first a cup of water, then my abandoned hat.

“I could have told you it wouldn’t be easy,” she said as we set off back to the hotel.

My room, at three in the afternoon, was dark and cool. Nora had the servants fill me a bath and afterwards watched me eat. Her hair had been flattened by heat and the weight of her bonnet but she looked more cheerful than at any time in the year since I’d known her. I managed a few mouthfuls and pushed my plate aside.

“Whatever shall I do?” I said. “He thought I was Rosa.”

She stared at me with sludge-colored eyes.

“Why would he think I was Rosa?”

“When I saw him after you’d gone he didn’t seem in a fit state to know what he was saying.”

“You went up then? ”

“We both did when you came rushing out like that. We found him fallen half out of the bed and raving so we gave him a dose and calmed him down. He’s dreadful sick, the poor man.”

“He thought I was Rosa.”

“That’ll be down to the delirium.”

“But why would he want me to be Rosa? ”

“It’s not a matter of wanting. It’s a matter of what he thought he was seeing.”

“He wanted me to be her but I don’t understand it. There was nothing between Henry and Rosa. They didn’t even like each other. I am engaged to Henry. He’s always been mine. Something must have happened at the war.”

“I know nothing about that.”

“Do you think they fell in love?”

“I can’t speak for him. I only know that girl would do nothing to hurt you.”

“What shall I do? What shall I tell him? What if he goes on thinking I’m her?”

“Tell him the truth. Tell him you’re not Rosa. Tell him we’re all worried to death about her because heck knows where the wretched girl is now.”

Four

LONDON, 1840

 

 

 

In all the four months that Henry stayed in our house I saw him cry for his mother once. A parcel came after he’d gone to school one day, addressed in cramped writing which turned out to be that of the aunt who had taken his father in hand. The accompanying letter stated that she had come south to clear away the dead woman’s things so that father and son could eventually return to the family home and start afresh. She had found the enclosed items which the mother had left for Henry as a memorial.

My parents discussed the matter at breakfast. “We can’t interfere,” said Mother. “Henry’s old enough to bear it. He’s almost a grown man.”

“Just when the boy was doing so well, this has come,” said Father. “In my view we’d be best putting it away.”

“But he must have something of poor Eppie’s.”

“He has his memory of her. That ought to be enough.”

All day I gave the parcel a wide berth on my journeys across the hall and I didn’t say a word to Henry about it when I met him at the garden gate because I wanted to preserve his happy mood as long as possible.

By this time our trips back to the house usually took an hour or more. If the weather was hot we flung ourselves down under the cedar and lay with fallen needles pricking our backs, staring up into the complicated branches, or else he leant against the trunk and read an anatomy book borrowed from one of his teachers. I wasn’t allowed to peek inside because he said the contents weren’t suitable for a little girl, so instead I sat against his bony ribs and listened to the thudding of his heart. Sometimes, when I’d been told to pick raspberries for dinner, he and I filled our bowls until I was dizzy with the smell of hay and sugar and had to sit in the shade while he carried on, occasionally reaching down to pop fruit into my mouth with his stained fingers. When it was nearly dinner time we went inside at last, dazzled by the outdoors, dumped the bowls on the kitchen table, and clattered up the back stairs to the landing outside our rooms, where he tugged my braid: “Wash your face, Mariella. You’re a disgrace to the family name.”

On the afternoon of the package I took his hand and led him to the hall. As soon as he picked up the parcel it was just as I’d feared; he withdrew deep into himself, went upstairs, and closed the door of his room.

He didn’t come down to dinner. Afterwards Mother went up with a tray and half an hour later sent me to fetch it. His door had been left open and his room smelt of cooked meat because of the untouched food. He was sitting on the bed with the contents of the parcel scattered round him. I picked up the tray and put it outside in the passage. Then I closed the door and went to the bed, where I stood with my hands behind my back, waiting to be noticed.

He was not yet a very handsome boy; he was too thin, his skin, though more tanned than when he first arrived, was still inclined to spots, and his hair was lank. But I thought him beautiful, because of his serious, all-seeing eyes, and I mourned the light that usually came into his face when he saw me. Eventually I went right up to the bed, put my hand on his shoulder, twisted my neck so that my face was almost upside-down under his bent head, and stared into his eyes. Still no response.

“Can I see what was in the parcel?” I asked.

Nothing.

His pain was so palpable that I knew drastic measures had to be taken, so I sat on his uncomfortable lap and put my arms round his neck. “Show me,” I said.

He pointed to a miniature, perhaps four inches by three, in a plain wooden frame, of Eppie in what must have been her glory days, before penury. Her little face was adorned with glossy ringlets and her long neck rose from a bare bosom. She wore a high-waisted dress which somehow clung to her chest despite being cut in a wide V across the shoulders. Her head was quarter turned, so that she looked somewhere to the right of the artist, and she was smiling rather shyly, as if she’d prefer not to be in the picture at all.

The other relics of Aunt Eppie were a pair of white kid gloves with pearl buttons, just a little soiled about the fingertips. I gave them a sniff, because I knew that perfume clung to gloves, and immediately I recalled the hint of rosewater and perspiration that always hung about her. There was a tiny jewelry box with flowers embroidered on top, silk-lined and with a mirror inside the lid. Eppie’s engagement ring with its row of three small diamonds, familiar to me from my sewing days, was wrapped in a piece of crumpled tissue and there was a folded-up sheet of paper that fit exactly inside the box. On it was written in a frail hand: For Harry. My darling, darling boy. Never forget your Mama, how she loved you.

“She was very kind, your mother,” I whispered. “She left me her sewing case. Did you know?”

He didn’t answer. I clung to his neck and tried to hug him but he was unyielding, spiky as when he first arrived.

Eventually I gave up and left him, but as I reached the door I heard a dreadful tearing noise that came from the back of his throat and before I knew it I was sitting on the bed, his head was buried in my lap, my fingers were in his hair, and the skirt of my cotton frock was hot and damp with his tears. His sobs came from deep within his body and he clawed at my arm and back.

At last he recovered enough to raise his wet face and look into mine. “You’ll have to be everything to me now, Mariella.”

Five

The Derbyshire aunt failed to work a miracle on Henry’s father (unfortunate and ineffectual Richard Thewell) who was buried two summers later. Meanwhile Henry disappeared down the long tunnel that was medical training the hard way through an endless series of lectures and examinations in unreachable subjects such as chemistry and physiology. His ambition was to be a surgeon and I suspect my father paid many of the bills. Occasionally, on Sunday afternoons, Henry called to drink a hasty cup of tea, spill out snatches of information about plasters, his role as dresser, and thirty-six-hour stretches without sleep, and depart an hour later laden with cold meats and cakes plied on him by our cook.

Father’s business thrived and soon he was managing several projects at a time and had been invited to serve on various boards and committees to do with planning and public works. Mother was busier than ever teaching at the Sunday school, raising money for the Female Aid Society, and serving on a hospital board of visitors. I went to a day school where I learnt pianoforte, French, arithmetic, and deportment. Thanks to Aunt Eppie I shone at fine sewing.

And then, in the autumn of 1843, when I was nearly twelve, a letter arrived from Aunt Isabella, Mother’s widowed elder sister, who wrote that she was about to marry someone called Sir Matthew Stukeley. As soon as she and her daughter Rosa were settled into their new home, Stukeley Hall, perhaps next summer, she expected Mother and me to travel to Derbyshire for a long visit.

Mother was somewhat in awe of her older sister and had christened me Mariella to combine her own name, Maria, with my aunt’s, Isabella. While Mother had married a mere builder, Isabella’s first marriage had been to a small landowner, name of Richard Barr, esquire, who had unfortunately died, leaving her penniless. But she’d barely been widowed six months before capturing the heart of Stukeley. “Not that he’s from old money,” Mother told Mrs. Hardcastle. “His fortune is based on lead and cotton.”

She was intrigued by the prospect of returning north but full of anxiety about the journey. There was no question of Father leaving his business, especially as he’d just bought a slice of land in Deptford. I didn’t want to go at all. I liked school, I would miss Father, and most of all I was afraid that Henry might want to call for Sunday tea while we were away. How would I bear two or three months without even the possibility of seeing him? And the prospect of meeting a cousin eighteen months older than me, not to mention a knight in a mansion, was very alarming. So Mother and I were preoccupied on the train journey during which I crocheted an uncomplicated mat for Aunt Isabella’s dressing table and Mother wrote a list of all the people she would need to correspond with while she was away.

We were met at the station by a coachman in uniform, who drove a carriage of awesome dimensions. For a while we lurched over cobbles between buildings of ugly gray brick but suddenly the world turned green and we were rushing along narrow lanes edged with stone walls, and steep hills that climbed up into the sky.

After half an hour or so we came to a pair of handsome gates with a lodge, no less, on the other side. Perched on top of the left-hand gatepost and showing a great deal of thin calf was a girl in a blue dress with a flood of straw-gold hair, a color I had always yearned for, my own being light brown. She waved frantically then somehow scrambled out of sight, though the post was very high, to reappear just as we rattled through the gates. All the way up the drive she kept pace beside us, beaming at me through the window.

“That must be your cousin Rosa,” said my mother. “What a girl.”

Stukeley Hall was a monstrous mansion complete with towers, turrets, pinnacles, and gables. Mother and I stood on the dizzily geometric tiles of the entrance hall and were properly awed. There was a fleet of servants to fetch our bags and show us the way, but already Rosa was on the first landing, her hair hanging over the banister like a rippling sail. “Come on,” she called. “Come.”

Aunt Isabella was seated in the drawing room beside an immense marble fireplace with an elaborate screen instead of a fire, it being a warm day. She did not get up but extended a white hand and said: “I am very low today.”

“Forgive me, Sister,” said Mother humbly, “they should have told us, we could have waited until later . . .”

Now that I’d met her, I couldn’t understand how Aunt Isabella had managed to attract even one husband, let alone two, including a title. She was a puffy woman, whose complexion was perhaps her best claim to beauty, being powder-soft. Mother and I sat side by side but Rosa stared at me and wagged her head meaningfully towards the door. “Come on,” she said. “Mama, I want to show Mariella everything.”

“Then do,” sighed Isabella.

I didn’t want to be led off into a world not governed by Mother. It seemed to me, as we ran along the passageways of Stukeley Hall, that I was about to tumble over a precipice called The Unknown.

Rosa flung open one door after another: “This is the saloon, this is the gallery, this is the blue room, that’s the library—I’ve been banished from there, would you believe it, the one room I’d spend every minute in given the chance.”

“But why?”

“Oh, no reason. Just because my stepfather doesn’t like me, I suppose.” Off we dashed again. “This is the billiard room...” She even showed me her mother’s bedroom, “Come on, there’s nobody here,” and I peeked at a vast bed bedecked with floral curtains and a flounced quilt, all in shades of pale blue and pink, in which must lie my cushiony aunt and the as-yet-unseen Sir Matthew. Thank goodness there were no indentations of their heads in the lace pillows.

“Come over here. Let’s see,” said Rosa, dragging me across to a long mirror where we stood pressed together, staring at our reflections. “Yes. We are very alike. Sisters almost.”

Actually I thought we had little in common. My hair was darker and straighter, my nose shorter, my eyes gray rather than blue, and my jaw more rounded. I was terrified in case we were caught trespassing on such private territory and relieved when we went pounding down a narrow staircase and burst into a stone passage which led to the outside.

“So what do you think?” she demanded, walking backwards in front of me so that she could watch my face.

“Of what? ”

“Of it all. Isn’t it hideous? I wish I was dead. I wish I could go home,” and suddenly her voice broke and she cried: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s such a relief to be able to say it but I miss my father so much, I really do. You can’t know what it’s like, you’re so lucky, your family is complete, you don’t have to put up with stepbrothers called Horatio and Maximilian, can you imagine, a stepfather who never speaks to me except to tell me what I mustn’t do...” and I found myself abruptly placed in the role of comforter as she threw her arms about my neck so that my nose was buried in silky hair fragranced with lemons. Then she flung herself away, grabbed my hand and kissed it, smiled into my face, her blue eyes overflowing with tears, and said: “It is so wonderful that you are here. I’ll show you everything. I’ll show you all the secret places I have discovered. Come on. Come.” And she rushed off with her hair flying and her blue skirts kicked back from her ankles, and I followed at a pace which caused my unaccustomed heart to beat very fast and my spirits to lift higher and higher because already I had fallen head over heels in love with Rosa.

Six

ITALY, 1855

 

 

 

The following day Nora and I set out again for the Via del Monte. This time I was dressed in my cream cotton gown with the broad horizontal stripes and single flounce, and I carried my parasol. Rather than rush ahead, I walked sedately alongside Nora, my eyes heavy with lack of sleep and my breathing rapid and shallow. When we reached the house I waited while Nora fetched Signora Critelli, who led us upstairs as before and knocked on Henry’s door.

The room was altogether different: the shutters were open, the curtains tied back, the table tidied, and the floor swept. A chair had been placed in readiness for a visitor. Henry was dressed and seated in a position I knew well, with one leg crossed over the other, his arm thrown along the back of the chair and his head supported in his hand. Though he held a notebook, his eyes were fixed on the door.

I said very clearly and slowly. “Henry, it is I, Mariella, come to visit you.”

His back was to the light but something changed in his face and tension went out of his body. After a moment he gripped the table with both hands and stood up so that the sun shone through his shirt and I saw the skeletal outline of his body. “Mariella.” He kissed my cheek and pulled back the chair for me while Nora sat on the bed. I looked into his eyes, which were full of sympathy and warmth, and for a moment I could not detect, even by the merest glimmer of consciousness, whether he remembered what had happened yesterday and the awful mistake he had made.

“Mariella, whatever are you doing so far from Clapham? ” he said.

“I was disturbed by your letters. It seemed to me that someone should come out here and make sure you are being well looked after.”

“How did you get here? Who is with you?”

“Nora. That’s all. You remember her, don’t you, my aunt’s companion and nurse? She seemed the best choice because Aunt is so much better and Nora has experience of journeys.”

“Of course I remember. But still I’m amazed that your parents would let you come so far without a male escort.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Hardcastle were traveling to Rome. We were not alone.”

“I thought you found Mrs. Hardcastle a little overbearing.”

“It was a sacrifice I was prepared to make for you, Henry.”

As a reward for my feeble attempt at light-heartedness he leant forward and kissed my hand. “You are cold, Mariella. How can anyone be cold on such a hot day?”

Throughout this conversation my spirits had been sinking, if possible, even further. Henry was completely changed. Aside from the extreme loss of weight there was an air of abstraction about him that made me recoil. It was as if he were behind a thick sheet of glass and every speech and gesture was a huge effort for him because his attention needed to be on something else. Altogether he was totally unlike the passionate being who had seized me in his arms yesterday, mistaking me for Rosa.

Equally disturbing were the contents of the room. Half hidden behind a curtain was a huge, soiled sheepskin coat and piled on every available surface were dog-eared papers and ledgers. The only ornaments were the miniature of his mother, propped up beside his bed, and next to it, pressed flat by Henry’s two old volumes of poems by John Keats, Rosa’s unframed portrait of me.

“You’ve been working,” I said, pointing to his notebook. “Surely you should rest.”

“Impossible to rest, Mariella, when there is so much to do.”

“What is there to do? ”

“Army business. You know. I have become an expert on the proper preparation of the army medical services for war.”

I picked up Rosa’s painting of me, in which she had given my mouth an elusive smile and put a gloss to my hair. When I saw an earlier version, I had complained that I looked much too shy, so she had adjusted the expression in my eyes until I was gazing more directly out of the canvas. It was signed with her usual vigorous initials: RB, September ’54.

I said quietly: “In one of your letters you mentioned that you’d seen Rosa. We are worried because we haven’t heard from her for weeks, so I wonder, do you have any recent news of her? ”

His eyes had followed intently the passage of the portrait from its place on the bedside table to my lap. Otherwise he was utterly still. “Rosa? ”

“Yes, you know. You said in a letter that you’d met her one day, unexpectedly.”

“Unexpectedly. Yes, indeed. Very strange that was. You see I had no idea she was in Russia at all.”

“Not all my letters reached you then?” I tried to keep my voice steady. “Did you spend much time with her? ”

“There was never any time to spare, Mariella.”

Nora said suddenly: “The truth is, sir, it’s been more than two months, and nothing.”

“A letter from Mother was waiting for me when I got here but the news is that they still haven’t heard from her,” I said. “Mother writes that Aunt Isabella is beside herself with anxiety.”

When he put his thumb and index finger to his forehead, I noticed a tremor in his hand. “Not heard from her? You should have done. Things are much improved, there’s a railroad, telegraph even.”

“The mother will be worrying herself and everybody else to death,” put in Nora.

“Not heard from her,” he said again. “Not heard. Someone should try to find out where she is. Your father could pull strings, surely.”

“We tell ourselves that there must be so many people in unexpected places, in a war,” I said. “We tell ourselves that she is probably safe, but unable to write.”

“And Rosa would be in an unexpected place, I suppose.”

“She would, Henry.” I spoke without expression, because I could never have believed it possible to suffer so much and still go on breathing. There was no ignoring the precision with which he spoke, the pretense at disinterest when every inch of him was tuned to the name of Rosa.

He loves her, I thought.

“Mariella?” He leant forward, hands loosely clasped between his knees, apparently waiting for an answer to a question I had not heard.

I tried to look away but he caught me in his affectionate gaze and spoke distinctly, as if to a sick child. “I said shall we go on an excursion tomorrow to see the ruins at Ocriculum? While you’re here you should see something of Italy.”

“Are you really fit enough to be planning an outing?”

“My doctor, my good friend Lyall, said I should take plenty of fresh air, so I’m sure he would approve. In fact he’d come with us if he was here, he’s a great one for antiquities. As we speak, he’s probably chipping off bits of the Forum in Rome.”

“Rather than taking care of you.”

“The poor man needed a holiday. I must weary him to death. And I don’t require much looking after.”

He was looking at me in a travesty of the old Henry-like way: confident, smiling, arms folded, head thrown back. I stared at him for a moment, then pretended instead to be absorbed by the view of a shuttered window across the street.

I will surely die of this pain, I thought.

PART TWO

One

LONDON, 1854

 

 

 

My father’s reward for his unflagging support of Henry was to see his protégé rise rapidly to the heady rank of registrar, a role which involved supervising students and writing reports for the hospital board, and then to become an assistant surgeon on three hundred and fifty pounds a year. By the time he was thirty, Henry had a national reputation as a teacher and surgeon, exceptionally skilled with the knife. His lectures were so popular that his friends boasted of how students crowded in the doorway and even stood on chairs outside an open window to listen. Unlike many of his contemporaries, said Father proudly, Henry was never satisfied with relying on tradition, so he spent his hard-earned salary on trips to Europe to find out what was going on there. Henry wanted to be at the forefront of medicine; he wanted to be the best. Henry, in short, was a man after my father’s own heart.

By the summer of 1853 Henry had bought a plot of land in Highgate and Father was advising him on architectural plans for a new house. Then, just after Christmas, in yet another sign of his growing status, Henry was asked to join a group of military doctors and advisers who were to travel to Turkey and ensure that all was in place for the treatment of wounded soldiers should there be a skirmish with Russia. It seemed that “The Eastern Question,” a recurring theme in extracts from The Times read to us by Father after dinner, was after all likely to be settled through war rather than diplomacy.

Henry was away nearly a month and on his return wrote that he’d inspected the progress of the new house in Highgate only to find that there was a problem with the drains and the garden was a swamp. Could Father give him a spot of advice? And as the windows had at last been glazed and a hearth installed in the drawing room, perhaps the ladies would like to come too.

Mother and I drove from Clapham to Highgate through a ferociously wet February afternoon. She was dressed in brown silk bought against my advice; in my judgment the glossy fabric made her skin sallow and diminished her features. Having to sit still for so long and do nothing was torture for her and she kept a notebook and pencil at the ready in case of ideas. She was currently secretary of a committee of ladies whose mission was to open a home for retired or distressed governesses, an enterprise thought up by Mrs. Hardcastle, whose strong-minded daughters had worn out a succession of teachers, one of whom, a quarter of a century later, inconveniently came begging in frail old age to the Hardcastles.

After half an hour or so of stop-start travel we had still barely crossed the river and Mother drew out her watch. “Surely the omnibus would have been quicker.”

“We’ll be glad of the carriage on the way home.”

“I told your father that a carriage in London was a dreadful extravagance. I’ve never minded walking. Or a cab.”

“Father will enjoy riding about.”

“He knows nothing of horses. He should have taken more advice. I hope this one doesn’t go lame. It has stumbled three times already, I’ve been counting.”

Beyond the murky glass, Hyde Park was a green blur and the pavement bobbed with black umbrellas. My breathing was restricted, because the bodice of my afternoon gown measured seventeen inches at the waist, one and a half inches less than usual, and the triple bow of my blue bonnet meant I had to keep my chin abnormally high.

“Are you nervous? ” Mother said suddenly.

This was so unexpectedly prescient that I was irritated: “Of course not. Whyever would I be nervous?”

“This is your first glimpse of the house. You’ve not seen Henry for a while. I just thought . . .”

Heat rushed up my neck and face. “As if I’d be nervous of Henry. And after all we’re just going to look at his new house. It doesn’t mean anything.”

I am sometimes nervous of Henry, as I am even of your father sometimes. I always think there is so much more to men than we realize.”

By now both of us were gazing studiously out of opposite windows. She said: “I never imagined when I took Henry in what he would become. He seemed such a shy boy then.”

“He was in mourning. We couldn’t tell at first what he was really like.”

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"A pleasingly unformulaic read." —-Kirkus

Meet the Author

Katharine McMahon is the author of The Alchemist's Daughter. A former English teacher, writing instructor, and actress, she lives in Hertfordshire, England.

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Rose of Sebastopol 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Mavis1129 More than 1 year ago
Apparently this is a bestselling novel in the UK but it hasn't made it's mark here. For those of you who like 19th century romances, this is one for you. I was pleasantly surprised because there was a bit of mystery to it as well. I was a little disappointed in the ending because I wanted to see what happened to the characters afterward and felt like it ended pretty abruptly.
Love2Read-N-Texas More than 1 year ago
I liked the characters-especially dealing with the era of the 1850's. Very moving and touching and you really feel for the main characters! If you like novels by Jane Austen- then you will like to read this novel but fair warning this is a more somber read.
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
Mariella Lingwood and Rosa Barr seem like total opposites in personality, yet there's an alter ego quality readers will slowly begin to appreciate in these complex characters. Mariella thinks of Rosa as possessing "fatal magnetism," and Rosa finds peace in the stability and hidden courage waiting to emerge in her best friend, Mariella. The story begins innocently enough in Mariella's staid, peaceful home where Rosa and her companion, Nora, come to live after being banished by her late stepfather. Mariella is an expert seamstress who gradually is forced to accompany Rosa on her wild, adventurous journeys, to see the uglier side of English factories and their polluted environment where poor laborers are forced to reside. Rosa's goal is to become a nurse, a brave quest in light of the social constraints on such a profession for females in the mid-1800s. She initially attempts to engage Mariella's fiance, Henry Thewell, to teach her all she needs to learn, but her first impulsive, uninvited visit to watch an amputation surgery repulses him and that avenue seems doomed to failure. Romance evolves with several characters, sometimes with the most engaging, innocent progress and others with suggestions of most inappropriate character. The story builds to a crescendo when Henry and Rosa's brother, Max Stukeley leave for service in the Crimean War. While the press is reporting fabulous victories, Rosa realizes it is her mission to follow them into battle. Rejected by Florence Nightingale's group for lack of training and significant experience, Rosa decides to journey to Europe on her own and find a place for her "destiny." After a very short time, Mariella learns that Henry is very ill and travels to Italy to nurse and comfort him. Her initial visit is shocking in the extreme as she hears something she never would have imagined in a million years. Now Mariella has a new quest, to find Rosa. As she proceeds on this enigmatic search, she serves the British Army with her seamstress skills, keeping accounts of linens and supplies and finally is called to nurse wounded soldiers. The graphic descriptions within this novel of the casualties, deaths, disease and horrors of the British, French, Slovakian and Russian troops is realistically described, giving the reader a brutally honest picture of the Crimean War which gets very little coverage in present media accounts of notable historic battles. The author demonstrates considerable talent in the way she paces the conflicts and reactions to a crescendo. The ending of the novel leaves room for a follow-up as the reader learns what happens to only one of the many characters in dire straits by the last page turned. An international bestseller since its publication, The Rose of Sebastopol deserves broader publicity and appreciation for this moving account of a significant historical period and its celebration of love and purpose in characters who struggle against and surmount the barriers of social constraints in mid-19th century England and Europe. Very nicely done, Ms. McMahon! Reviewed by Viviane Crystal on June 13, 2009
Stephanie_Grace More than 1 year ago
I found myself quite disappointed with this book. I didn't mind the main character, Mariella, as much as some other reviewers, but I had a very strong dislike of her cousin, Rosa. Not just for her personality, but that she never really came to life for me. I found it hard to accept that she truly wanted to help people; She felt, to me, like a manipulative character that cared more about how others thought of her than actual selfless servitude. That feeling, however, while hinted at through her actions was never fully recognized or brought to light in the book itself. (The same is with the development of other characters; They felt a bit incomplete or changed without real reason.) I actually felt like a lot of this book was a bit underdeveloped. I enjoy books where one has to look between the lines and draw their own conclusions and opinions, however, there really wasn't enough to solidly justify or confirm much so parts felt like I was creating the story for myself instead of reading it as written by someone else. I love when novels span time and simultaneously give the reader two connected stories, but the back story did not always seem relevant. Some of the scenes felt completely disconnect and unimportant to the main story which, honestly, sparked a desire in me to just put the book down. I am used to getting through a novel, especially those of the historical fiction genre, in no more than three days. This novel took over a week for me to get through and, much of that week, I found that I was picking it up begrudgingly --not for enjoyment, but because I felt I'd already invested so much time, that I should just finish it. I kept telling myself that something was about to happen, that I would love this novel in the end. It didn't happen. I found much of the novel dreadfully boring because I always felt like I was right on the edge of something exciting, but that was it; It never went beyond the edge and it seemed to drag on, skirting all of the excitement without ever getting too close. The ended did nothing to improve my opinion. I closed the book feeling as though I'd wasted my time, which could be due to my loss of interest. The book felt censored and the end was the same --it lacked depth and gave no definitive answers. There were loose ends that were not left in a teasing fashion to leave room for a sequel, but just seemed forgotten. The actual story idea(s), I loved. The writing was good with minimal typos. I just felt like it could have been handled differently; that more excitement could have been added if the author had just fallen into the story instead of showing so much restraint. I really wish that my review was better and I hate feeling like I am being unkind about anyone's work, but this book just wasn't enjoyable for me in its current state.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Did you enjoy the book ?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
extremely slow book, with an anticlimactic ending. i hated it.
LadyLucyLehn More than 1 year ago
This book jumps around alot. It took me a while to get interested in the story line, because it kept changing. I don't think the love story was one between the main character and the two different men, so much as a (non-romantic) love story between her and her cousin Rosa. And the "love" story that was attempted was weak and lacking. I was not a fan of any of the characters, I felt they were underdeveloped. I couldn't get attached to any of them.
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harstan More than 1 year ago
During the Crimean War, surgeon Henry Thewell and nurse Rosa Longwood are serving in the combat zone. His fiancé and her cousin Mariella Lingwood remains in England worried about both of them especially with the letters from them in Turkey. When Henry becomes severely ill, he is rushed back to Italy for proper medical treatment. Upon learning of her fiancé's illness, Mariella rushes to be with him. However, she is greeted with the name of Rosa on his lips while he is delirious. Hearing that Rosa is missing; out of character for a prim and proper Victorian lady; Mariella heads to the front to find Rosa to learn the truth re the relationship between her cousin and her fiancé. Putting aside the abrupt forced climax, The Rose of Sebastopol is a terrific unusual Victorian romance with a strong look at conditions on the front during the mid nineteenth century Crimean War with Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade coming to mind. The jump back and forth in time needs some adjustment but worth the effort as the cast brings to life the era from the perspective of the war. Rosa appears to be a Florence Nightingale clone of sorts while Mariella is changed by what she observes first in Constantinople and later at the front as she realizes that Love is a Battlefield (Benatar). Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago