Wednesday, 13 February 2013

My Dearest Valentine


In February 1814, the Thames froze and a Frost Fair was set up on the ice.


Rosabelle stopped to look out over the Thames. The sound of barrel-organs, fiddles, pipes and drums floated across the ice in the sparkling air, punctuated by the shouts of barkers. Flag-bedecked tents, stalls and booths were laid out in two main streets, crossing in the middle.
"Oooh," sighed Betsy in ecstasy, "a merry-go-round, and swings! And look, Miss Ros, donkey rides! Could I? Not all of them, I mean, just one?"
Continuing down the stair, Rosabelle smiled at her companion's childish delight. "If I have enough money on me. They may charge exorbitant prices because of the setting. Which will you choose?"
"I'll have to look closer afore I make up my mind. What about you? What d'you fancy?"
"Oh, the donkeys, I think. I still remember being sick on the swings at Bartholomew Fair when I was a little girl, and why ride a wooden horse when you can ride a real, live donkey?"
"I will, too, then," Betsy decided.
A fingerpost stuck in a barrel of stones, pointing towards Southwark on the south bank, announced Freezeland Street. The first tent, a hastily erected shelter of sailcloth over a rough wooden frame, was a tavern. On the benches within, men sat quaffing ale and bantering with serving wenches bundled up in warm wraps. Opposite was a skittle alley, and next to it a barker invited passers-by to step up and try their luck at the Wheel of Fortune.
"Oysters! Fresh oysters, sixpence a dozen," cried a woman carrying two buckets on a yoke.
"Hot chestnuts, roasted on ice!" called a man sitting by a brazier full of glowing coals. Though it was raised on iron feet, it stood in a puddle.
"I hope the ice is good and thick," said Betsy.
"Let's have some chestnuts," Rosabelle proposed. "They'll warm your fingers."
She bought two-penn'orth. They strolled on, peeling off the charred, crackling skins and munching the sweet insides.
There were toy shops and a Punch and Judy show. Rival printing presses tried to top each other's ballads celebrating the Frost Fair. Dogs barked at small boys sliding on a smooth patch of ice, and fiddlers sawed away while young men hopped and swung with their sweethearts on an improvised dancing stage.
"Fry your own sausages! Take 'em 'ome pipin' 'ot."
"Lapland mutton, roasted right 'ere on the river, shilling a slice!"
"Prick the garter! Try your skill and win a vallible prize!"
"Buy my brandy-balls!"
"Cut and a shave," shouted a barber, his chair set up in the open with the striped pole stuck in the ice. "Cut and a shave. Razors sharper'n icicles!"
Rosabelle stopped to glance over the wares of a bookstall, while Betsy admired the gaily painted swings next door. The attendants, their breath puffing out in clouds, pushed the gondolas higher and higher, while the girls seated inside with their swains squealed and giggled.
"Changed your mind?" Rosabelle asked.
"It does look like fun, but it'd be better if you've got a young man. No, let's find the donkeys."
"Over that way, I think."
As they turned right on the Grand Mall, which ran down the middle of the Thames from Blackfriars Bridge to London Bridge, Rosabelle glanced back down Freezeland Street. Beyond tents and booths, behind the wharves and warehouses of the City, the spires of churches rose, and over to the left, Paul's great dome towered high above the rest.
"There they are." Betsy pointed to where a string of patient donkeys plodded across the ice towards a space marked with hoofprints and other unmistakable evidence of a less mentionable nature. "Aren't they sweet? I hope I can ride that one with the red and yellow ribbons, the one with a side-saddle. I wish I had a lump of sugar to feed it."
"Perhaps the stall next door will let us have some, that one with the 'Dibden, Pastrycook' sign. Look, they are selling hot chocolate, so they must have sugar. I'll tell them we shall buy chocolate after our ride, to warm us."
"Can we really? I'm ever so glad it was my turn to go with you today, Miss Ros!"
Rosabelle went up to the counter beneath the slapdash, hastily painted sign. On it were laid out trays of tarts and biscuits and gilt gingerbread shapes. From the back of the stall came the mouthwatering aroma of hot meat pies, mingling with the sweetness of the fragrant steam from the chocolate pot on its spirit lamp.
A young man with curly brown hair peeking from beneath his hat was serving a customer with a crisp, golden, hot apple turnover, redolent of cinnamon and cloves. He took the money and turned to Rosabelle.
"What can I do for you, madam?" he enquired, an appreciative light in his sparkling blue eyes.
Though she was not unaccustomed to admiration from the opposite sex, Rosabelle felt a blush rise in her cheeks. No doubt they matched her nose and her cloak, she thought ruefully. But there was nothing to take offence at in his merry gaze, so she smiled back.
"Do you think the ice will melt soon?" Rosabelle asked.
"I fear it is already melting from below. The chief danger, though, is not sinking through as it melts but that it will break up. I've talked to people coming off who speak of creaks and groans underfoot. It isn't only that the air is too warm. Today is a spring tide, with high tide a little while ago. In winter the sea is always warmer than rivers, and salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh."
"So the ice is being undermined? I wondered about the effect of warmer rainwater flowing in from the west."
His glance was admiring. "I hadn't thought of that." He turned to gaze westward. Dark banks of clouds were building beneath the haze which had spread across the sky during the morning. "A good point. But the main factor, I believe, is that as the tide continues to ebb, the ice is left unsupported. When it fails, it may collapse very suddenly."
"Any moment now?" asked Fanny, who had been listening with a bemused expression. "Eh, Miss Ros, I'm that glad we didn't go to the fair. Can we leave now? I don't want to see all those people drownded!"
As one, Rosabelle and Mr Rufus turned to stare with dread out across the river.
"What can we do?" cried Rosabelle.
"Nothing, now. I've tried to explain my reasoning to everyone I've spoken to. Some listened. Some didn't."
Rosabelle listened, trying to hear the creaks and groans of the overburdened ice. All that came to her ears was the merry notes of barrel-organs, fiddles, pipes and drums, the shouts of barkers, the hum of the crowd's myriad voices.
"I can't—"
With a crack like a thousand coachmen's whips snapping in unison, the ice split. The music ended in a horrid jangle and screams rent the air. The watchers on the wharf saw jagged channels open, dark, toothed mouths gaping for their prey.
The prey fled, those who could, swarming across the remaining ice towards the banks, leaping the widening gaps. Some made it.
Some did not.
Rosabelle closed her eyes in horror. When she opened them, Mr Rufus was gone, as were the boatmen. In less time than seemed possible, from stair after stair, the Thames wherries pulled out into the stream. Boathooks reached, caught, dragged the hunted from the hungry current into the frail cockleshells dodging between the floes.
Mr Rufus appeared at the top of the stairs, soaked to the waist, a dripping child in his arms and a weeping woman clinging to the skirts of his coat. Rosabelle ran to him.
He thrust the child at her. "Take care of them. There's not much more I can do from here. I'm going out in a boat, to wield the boathook so that the rowers can concentrate on their oars."
He leaned forward, over the wailing child's head. His kiss was warm on Rosabelle's mouth. Then he was gone again.
Rosabelle cast a last glance at the dreadful scene, then set about helping the woman and child. They were soaked to the skin, and beginning to shiver convulsively. She sent Fanny to the carriage to fetch a lap-rug, while she stripped the little girl naked and her mother to her shift.
As Rosabelle wrapped the child in her own pelisse, Fanny came back with the rug. Before the woman had been enveloped in its folds, another dozen drenched fugitives reached the wharf, with more behind.


Philomena and her sister Aquila, having left Vienna after their diplomat father's death, are staying  in the countryside in England with a widow and her small son, distant relatives.


"I know the way," Toby told her importantly. "I'll show you."
Philomena's modish grey, fur-collared cloak was more suited to strolling in the Prater in Vienna than to climbing stiles and tramping down a Lincolnshire lane. Fortunately, the overnight freeze had hardened the muddy ruts and even glazed the puddles with a thin layer of ice. Though Marsh Cottage was isolated from the village of Valentine Parva, they were soon close enough to see a trickle of smoke rising from the chimney.
Between leafless hawthorn hedges, the lane ran down a slope to ford a small stream, with a narrow wooden bridge for foot passengers. On the other side, in a dank, overgrown hollow, stood the wattle and lath cottage.
"It's situation does look aguish, as Mrs Barleyman said, but it's not really tumbledown," Philo commented as they stopped, by silent mutual consent, to observe their goal. "Just dilapidated."
"What's lapidated mean?" Toby held her hand tightly, his round cheeks pink with cold and anticipation.
"Badly cared for. It needs a coat of whitewash, and the tiles are covered with moss, though there don't seem to be any holes in the roof, nor broken windows. But the fence has fallen down, and it looks as if the garden has grown wild for years."
"That's good, 'cause there's lots of bushes for us to hide behind when we look through the windows."
Philo was struck with the impropriety of their expedition. She had not really intended to do more than view the place from a distance. I don't care, she thought rebelliously. It was all very well for Aquila to be a model of decorum; her mother had been their father's lawful wife. As Aquila's aunt and cousins had made plain, the offspring of an unmarried Italian opera diva was beyond the pale no matter how well behaved.
"Come on," she said. "We'll climb through that gap where the fence has fallen down."
Philomena's cloak caught in a tangle of bare rose stems, and Toby reached the diamond-paned window first. He peeped over the sill, then ducked and made hurry-up gestures, mouthing silent words, his eyes sparkling with excitement. She joined him, crouching.
"It's a real wizard," he whispered. "Look!"
Cautiously she straightened until she could see into the room. Amid a clutter of glass tubes and vessels burned a lilac flame. By its ghostly light a dim figure was visible, moving in the background. A hand reached out, holding a beaker, and poured something over the flame.
A flash of brilliant white light and an earsplitting crack made Philo jump and blink. In the afterglow of the explosion, she saw a black face, oddly distorted, that slowly sank from view.
"Stay here!" Philomena cried to the open-mouthed Toby. "I must see if he's hurt."
The cottage's front door opened directly into the room. After a momentary hesitation on the threshold, Philo hurried round the equipment-laden table. The wizard was sitting on the floor, his soot-masked expression somewhat dazed.
"Are you all right?" she demanded sharply.
"I think so." His speech sounded educated. Struggling to his feet, he added, "Only, I don't seem to be able to see very well."
She pulled off a glove, reached up, and removed the blackened spectacles from his nose. He grinned, his teeth startlingly white.
"Thank you, Miss...?"
"I am Philomena Ware."
Despite his filthy blue smock, his bow was gentlemanly. "Thank you, Miss Ware. Allow me to present myself: my name is Robert Mayhew." Centred in pale circles that had been protected by the glasses, his hazel eyes smiled at her...

[original title: A Kiss and a Kitten]

A governess, inheriting enough money to live on, retires to a cottage in a small village and crosses swords with the Lord of the Manor.


What on earth would his army companions think if they knew his errand? he wondered ruefully. Lieutenant Colonel Perrincourt riding out at daybreak in search of a kitten to comfort a little girl!
The second cottage he came to on the way to the village was Miss Duckworth's. Glancing over the hedge, he saw her standing on the doorstep.
He tipped his hat.
"A glorious day!" she called, smiling.
Her head was bare, her pinned-up braids glossy in the slanting sunbeams. The nip of the frosty air had brought a becoming colour to her cheeks. She must have just stepped out to admire the scene, for she wore neither pelisse nor gloves. Her blue gown, in spite of its demure neckline and long sleeves, displayed her maturely elegant figure to advantage.
Damian was seized by a burning desire to make up for his previous gruffness, to mend relations between them. Miss Duckworth, now moving down the path towards him—she had on boots, he was glad to note—seemed quite prepared to let bygones be bygones. He could do no less.
He wanted to present himself in a favourable light. An ex-governess would approve of his efforts on Lucy's behalf, he thought, and perhaps she knew of a litter of kittens in the village. He might even ask her advice as to whether he was doing the right thing for the child.
He drew rein.
Around the corner of the cottage pranced a yellow dog. Damian instantly recognized the colour, the size and shape, the long, blunt muzzle, floppy ears, and feathered tail.
"Your misbegotten hound killed my niece's kitten!" he burst out furiously.
Miss Duckworth gave him an icy look and turned back towards the cottage.
"Come, Lyuba!" she said. The dog followed her.
Damian was not going to let her get away with ignoring his complaint. He swung down from the saddle, scarcely conscious of wrenching his back in his haste. Flinging his mount's reins over the gate post, he stormed after her up the snowy path.
"Did you hear me, madam? Your wretched whelp caught and killed Lucinda's kitten in the woods! The child is heartbroken. If you cannot discipline the vicious brute and teach it to behave itself, I shall—"
The door closed in his face.
Raising his hand to bang the knocker, Damian hesitated. It would be more dignified, and very likely more productive, to write to her, warning that he would have the beast shot if she failed to train it not to kill. A vivid but calm description of Lucy's sorrow was more likely to rack Miss Duckworth with guilt than shouting at her.
He had frightened her...or had he? She had not fled, but retreated in good order before his boorish attack. Why did he find it so impossible to treat her with ordinary, gentlemanly courtesy, as he did every other female of his admittedly limited acquaintance?
The door opened.
Miss Duckworth stepped out, closing the door behind her. In her arms she bore a fluffy white kitten with a black patch over one eye, a purring kitten which she deposited in his hastily extended hands.
"Might I suggest," she said coldly, "that in future you attempt to ascertain the facts before going off at half-cock? Good day, Mr Perrincourt."
She went back into the house and shut the door.

Chapter 10

Just before her front door thudded shut, Mariana heard a yelp of pain. Seething, she attempted to ignore it. The latch clicked into its slot and she turned away.
Lyuba gazed up, her bright brown eyes innocent, loving—and just a trifle reproachful?
With a sigh, Mariana addressed her: "So you wish me to heap coals of fire upon his head, do you? I dare say he merely raised his hand to push on the door, and bashed his knuckles against it."
The tip of the puppy's tail swished gently, but she continued to regard her mistress with unwavering reproach.
"Or is it that you want your new little friend back?" Mariana sighed again. "No, you are right, I must at least see if the chucklehead has damaged himself."
Once more she opened the door. Mr Perrincourt stood there, half bent over in an awkward posture, one hand pressed to the small of his back, the other arm cradling the kitten. His face was shockingly pale, and below the brim of his top-hat, Mariana saw beads of sweat bespangling his brow.
"My dear sir, what is it?" she cried, alarmed. "You are in pain. Come in and sit down!"
"I cannot move without support," Mr Perrincourt choked out. "Have you a walking stick? Or an umbrella..."
She flew to his side. "Here, give me the kitten." She could not resist a sly dig: "If you trust me with him. Now, can you put your arm across my shoulders? I am strong, sir, you need not fear to put your weight on me. That is it. Be careful of the step."
"The step is where I came to grief," he said ruefully, leaning on her heavily as they crossed the threshold. "I moved backward without care and twisted to keep my balance. My back..."
"Mrs Perrincourt has mentioned your injury. What will suit you best?" Mariana asked, supporting him into her sitting room. "A straight chair, or to lie upon the sofa?"
"I am best off lying flat upon the floor," Mr Perrincourt confessed with embarrassment, "but quite apart from the discourtesy, I fear I cannot get down there without aid, far less rise again when your patience is exhausted."
"I shall call my maid, and if need be, send for your servants to help you up when my patience is exhausted," she said dryly. "Hetta!"
Grumbling under her breath, the maid lent her assistance. Soon the Squire was flat on his back on Mariana's rug, with a cushion beneath his head and another under his knees. Though the procedure obviously hurt him a good deal, not a murmur escaped his lips until he was settled there, when he produced a groan of relief.
The dog, an interested spectator, trotted over to lick his face.
"Lyuba, come away!"
"No, let her be," said Mr Perrincourt. "I deserve that she should bite off my nose. I do not deserve that you should be so kind."


No comments: