Feb 11 2011 5:00am
Love In The Afternoon – Excerpt
Eight months earlier
It all began with a letter.
To be precise, it was the mention of the dog.
“What about the dog?” Beatrix Hathaway asked. “Whose dog?”
Her friend Prudence, the reigning beauty of Hampshire County, looked up from the letter that had been sent by her suitor, Captain Christopher Phelan.
Although it wasn’t proper for a gentleman to correspond with an unmarried girl, they had arranged to send letters back and forth with Phelan’s sister-in-law as a go-between.
Prudence sent her a mock frown. “Really, Bea, you’re displaying far more concern over a dog than you ever have for Captain Phelan.”
“Captain Phelan has no need of my concern,” Beatrix said pragmatically. “He has the concern of every marriageable miss in Hampshire. Besides, he chose to go to war, and I’m sure he’s having a lovely time strutting about in his smart uniform.”
“It’s not at all smart,” came Prudence’s glum reply.
“In fact, his new regiment has dreadful uniforms—very plain, dark green with black facings, and no gold braiding or lace at all. And when I asked why, Captain Phelan said it was to help the Rifles stay concealed, which makes no sense, as everyone knows that a British soldier is far too brave and proud to conceal himself during battle. But Christopher— that is, Captain Phelan—said it had something to do with . . . oh, he used some French word . . .”
“Camouflage?” Beatrix asked, intrigued.
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Many animals have ways of camouflaging themselves to keep from being seen. Chameleons, for example. Or the way an owl’s feathering is mottled to help it blend with the bark of its tree. That way—”
“Heavens, Beatrix, do not start another lecture on animals.”
“I’ll stop if you tell me about the dog.”
Prudence handed her the letter. “Read it for yourself.”
“But Pru,” Beatrix protested as the small, neat pages were pushed into her hands. “Captain Phelan may have written something personal.”
“I should be so fortunate! It’s utterly gloomy. Nothing but battles and bad news.”
Although Christopher Phelan was the last man Beatrix would ever want to defend, she couldn’t help pointing out, “He is away fighting in the Crimea, Pru. I’m not sure there are many pleasant things to write about in war time.”
“Well, I have no interest in foreign countries, and I’ve never pretended to.”
A reluctant grin spread across Beatrix’s face. “Pru, are you certain that you want to be an officer’s wife?”
“Well, of course . . . most commissioned soldiers never go to war. They’re very fashionable men- about town, and if they agree to go on half pay, they have hardly any duties and they don’t have to spend any time at all with the regiment. And that was the case with Captain Phelan, until he was alerted for foreign service.”
Prudence shrugged. “I suppose wars are always inconveniently timed. Thank heavens Captain Phelan will return to Hampshire soon.”
“Will he? How do you know?”
“My parents say the war will be over by Christmas.”
“I’ve heard that as well. However, one wonders if we aren’t severely underestimating the Russians’ abilities, and overestimating our own.”
“How unpatriotic,” Prudence exclaimed, a teasing light in her eyes.
“Patriotism has nothing to do with the fact that the War Office, in its enthusiasm, didn’t do nearly enough planning before it launched thirty thousand men to the Crimea. We have neither adequate knowledge of the place, nor any sound strategy for its capture.”
“How do you know so much about it?”
“From the Times. It’s reported on every day. Don’t you read the papers?”
“Not the political section. My parents say it’s ill-bred for a young lady to take an interest in such things.”
“My family discusses politics every night at dinner, and my sisters and I all take part.” Beatrix paused deliberately before adding with an impish grin, “We even have opinions.”
Prudence’s eyes widened. “My goodness. Well, I shouldn’t be surprised. Everyone knows your family is . . . different.”
“Different” was a far kinder adjective than was often used to describe the Hathaway family. The Hathaways were comprised of five siblings, the oldest of which was Leo, followed by Amelia, Winnifred, Poppy, and Beatrix.
After the death of their parents, the Hathaways had gone through an astonishing change of fortune. Although they were common born, they were distantly related to an aristocratic branch of the family. Through a series of unexpected events, Leo had inherited a viscountcy for which he and his sisters hadn’t been remotely prepared. They had moved from their small village of Primrose Place to the Ramsay estate in the southern county of Hampshire.
After six years the Hathaways had managed to learn just enough to accommodate themselves in good society. However, none of them had learned to think like the nobility, nor had they acquired aristocratic values or mannerisms. They had wealth, but that was not nearly as important as breeding and connections. And whereas a family in similar circumstances would have endeavored to improve their situations by marrying their social betters, the Hathaways had so far chosen to marry for love.
As for Beatrix, there was doubt as to whether she would marry at all. She was only half civilized, spending most of her time out-of-doors, riding or rambling through the woodlands, marsh, and meadows of Hampshire. Beatrix preferred the company of animals to people, collecting injured and orphaned creatures and rehabilitating them. The creatures that couldn’t survive on their own in the wild were kept as pets, and Beatrix occupied herself with caring for them. Out-of-doors, she was happy and fulfilled. Indoors, life was not nearly so perfect.
More and more frequently, Beatrix had become aware of a chafing sense of dissatisfaction. Of yearning. The problem was that Beatrix had never met a man who was right for her. Certainly none of the pale, overbred specimens of the London drawing rooms she had frequented. And although the more robust men in the country were appealing, none of them had the unnameable something Beatrix longed for. She dreamed of a man whose force of will matched her own. She wanted to be passionately loved . . . challenged . . . overtaken.
Beatrix glanced at the folded letter in her hands.
It wasn’t that she disliked Christopher Phelan as much as she recognized that he was inimical to everything she was. Sophisticated and born to privilege, he was able to move with ease in the civilized environment that was so alien to her. He was the second son of a well-to-do local family, his maternal grandfather an earl, his father’s family distinguished by a significant shipping fortune.
Although the Phelans were not in line for a title, the oldest son, John, would inherit the Riverton estate in Warwickshire upon the earl’s death. John was a sober and thoughtful man, devoted to his wife, Audrey.
But the younger brother, Christopher, was another sort of man entirely. As often happened with second sons, Christopher had purchased an army commission at the age of twenty-two. He had gone in as a cornet, a perfect occupation for such a splendid-looking fellow, since his chief responsibility was to carry the cavalry colors during parades and drills. He was also a great favorite among the ladies of London, where he constantly went without proper leave, spending his time dancing, drinking, gaming, purchasing fine clothes, and indulging in scandalous love affairs.
Beatrix had met Christopher Phelan on two occasions, the first at a local dance, where she had judged him to be the most arrogant man in Hampshire.
The next time she had met him was at a picnic, where she had revised her opinion: he was the most arrogant man in the entire world.
“That Hathaway girl is a peculiar creature,” Beatrix had overhead him say to a companion.
“I find her charming and original,” his companion had protested. “And she can talk horses better than any woman I’ve ever met.”
“Naturally,” came Phelan’s dry rejoinder. “She’s more suited to the stables than the drawing room.”
From then on, Beatrix had avoided him whenever possible. Not that she minded the implied comparison to a horse, since horses were lovely animals with generous and noble spirits. And she knew that although she wasn’t a great beauty, she had her own charms. More than one man had commented favorably on her dark brown hair and blue eyes.
These moderate attractions, however, were nothing compared to Christopher Phelan’s golden splendor. He was as fair as Lancelot. Gabriel. Perhaps Lucifer, if one believed that he had once been the most beautiful angel in heaven. Phelan was tall and silver eyed, his hair the color of dark winter wheat touched by the sun. His form was strong and soldierly, the shoulders straight and strong, the hips slim. Even as he moved with indolent grace, there was something undeniably potent about him, something selfishly predatory.
Recently Phelan had been one of the select few to be culled from various regiments to become part of the Rifle Brigade. The “Rifles,” as they were called, were an unusual brand of soldier, trained to use their own initiative. They were encouraged to take up positions forward of their own front lines and pick off officers and horses that were usually beyond target range. Because of his singular marksmanship skills, Phelan had been promoted to a captaincy in the Rifle Brigade.
It had amused Beatrix to reflect that the honor probably hadn’t pleased Phelan at all. Especially since he’d been obliged to trade his beautiful Hussars uniform, with its black coat and abundant gold braiding, for a plain dark green one.
“You’re welcome to read it,” Prudence said as she sat at her dressing table. “I must repair my coiffure before we go on our walk.”
“Your hair looks lovely,” Beatrix protested, unable to see any flaw in the elaborately pinned twist of blond braids. “And we’re only walking to the village. None of the townspeople will know or care if your coiffure isn’t perfect.”
“I’ll know. Besides, one never knows whom one might encounter.”
Accustomed as she was to her friend’s ceaseless preening, Beatrix grinned and shook her head. “All right. If you’re certain you don’t mind my looking at Captain Phelan’s letter, I’ll just read the part about the dog.”
“You’ll fall asleep long before you get to the dog,” Prudence said, expertly inserting a hairpin into a twisted braid. Beatrix looked down at the scrawled lines. The words looked cramped, tight coils of letters ready to spring from the page.
I’m sitting in this dusty tent, trying to think of something eloquent to write. I’m at wit’s end. You deserve beautiful words, but all I have left are these: I think of you constantly. I think of this letter in your hand and the scent of perfume on your wrist. I want silence and clear air, and a bed with a soft white pillow . . .
Beatrix felt her eyebrows lifting, and a quick rise of heat beneath the high collar of her dress. She paused and glanced at Prudence. “You find this boring?” she asked mildly, while her blush spread like spilled wine on linen.
“The beginning is the only good part,” Prudence said.
. . . Two days ago in our march down the coast to Sebastopol, we fought the Russians at the Alma River. I’m told it was a victory forour side. It doesn’t feel like one. We’ve lost at least two thirds of our regiment’s officers, and a quarter of the noncommissioned men. Yesterday we dug graves. They call the final tally of dead and wounded the “butcher’s bill.” Three hundred and sixty British dead so far, and more as soldiers succumb to their wounds.
One of the fallen, Captain Brighton, brought a rough terrier named Albert, who is undoubtedly the most badly behaved canine in existence. After Brighton was lowered into the ground, the dog sat by his grave and whined for hours, and tried to bite anyone who came near. I made the mistake of offering him a portion of a biscuit, and now the benighted creature follows me everywhere. At this moment he is sitting in my tent, staring at me with half-crazed eyes. The whining rarely stops. Whenever I get near, he tries to sink his teeth into my arm. I want to shoot him, but I’m too tired of killing.
Families are grieving for the lives I’ve taken. Sons, brothers, fathers. I’ve earned a place in hell for the things I’ve done, and the war’s barely started. I’m changing, and not for the better. The man you knew is gone for good, and I fear you may not like his replacement nearly so well.
The smell of death, Pru . . . it’s everywhere.
The battlefield is strewn with pieces of bodies, clothes, soles of boots. Imagine an explosion that could tear the soles from your shoes. They say that after a battle, wildflowers are more abundant the next season—the ground is so churned and torn, it gives the new seeds room to take root. I want to grieve, but there is no place for it. No time. I have to put the feelings away somewhere.
Is there still some peaceful place in the world? Please write to me. Tell me about some bit of needlework you’re working on, or your favorite song. Is it raining in Stony Cross? Have the leaves begun to change color?
By the time Beatrix had finished the letter, she was aware of a peculiar feeling, a sense of surprised compassion pressing against the walls of her heart.
It didn’t seem possible that such a letter could have come from the arrogant Christopher Phelan. It wasn’t at all what she had expected. There was a vulnerability, a quiet need, that had touched her.
“You must write to him, Pru,” she said, closing the letter with far more care than she had previously handled it.
“I’ll do no such thing. That would only encourage more complaining. I’ll be silent, and perhaps that will spur him to write something more cheerful next time.”
Beatrix frowned. “As you know, I have no great liking for Captain Phelan, but this letter . . . he deserves your sympathy, Pru. Just write him a few lines. A few words of comfort. It would take no time at all. And about the dog, I have some advice—”
“I am not writing anything about the dratted dog.” Prudence gave an impatient sigh. “You write to him.”
“Me? He doesn’t want to hear from me. He thinks I’m peculiar.” “I can’t imagine why. Just because you brought Medusa to the picnic . . .”
“She’s a very well behaved hedgehog,” Beatrix said defensively. “The gentleman whose hand was pierced didn’t seem to think so.”
“That was only because he tried to handle her incorrectly. When you pick up a hedgehog—”
“No, there’s no use telling me, since I’m never going to handle one. As for Captain Phelan . . . if you feel that strongly about it, write a response and sign my name.”
“Won’t he recognize that the handwriting is different?”
“No, because I haven’t written to him yet.” “But he’s not my suitor,” Beatrix protested. “I don’t know anything about him.”
“You know as much as I do, actually. You’re acquainted with his family, and you’re very close to his sister-in-law. And I wouldn’t say that Captain Phelan is my suitor, either. At least not my only one. I certainly won’t promise to marry him until he comes back from the war with all his limbs intact. I don’t want a husband I would have to push around in an invalid’s chair for the rest of my life.”
“Pru, you have the depth of a puddle.”
Prudence grinned. “At least I’m honest.”
Beatrix gave her a dubious glance. “You’re actually delegating the writing of a love letter to one of your friends?”
Prudence waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Not a love letter. There was nothing of love in his letter to me. Just write something cheerful and encouraging.”
Beatrix fumbled for the pocket of her walking dress, and tucked the letter inside. Inwardly she argued with herself, reflecting that it never ended well when one did something morally questionable for the right reasons. On the other hand . . . she couldn’t rid herself of the image her mind had conjured, of an exhausted soldier scribbling a hasty letter in the privacy of his tent, his hands blistered from digging the graves of his comrades. And a ragged dog whining in the corner.
She felt entirely inadequate to the task of writing to him. And she suspected that Prudence did as well.
She tried to imagine what it was like for Christopher, leaving his elegant life behind, finding himself in a world where his survival was threatened day by day. Minute by minute. It was impossible to picture a spoiled, beautiful man like Christopher Phelan contending with danger and hardship. Hunger. Loneliness. Beatrix stared at her friend pensively, their gazes meeting in the looking glass. “What is your favorite song, Pru?”
“I don’t have one, actually. Tell him yours.”
“Should we discuss this with Audrey?” Beatrix asked, referring to Phelan’s sister- in- law.
“Certainly not. Audrey has a problem with honesty. She wouldn’t send the letter if she knew I hadn’t written it.”
Beatrix made a sound that could have either been a laugh or a groan. “I wouldn’t call that a problem with honesty. Oh, Pru, please change your mind and write to him. It would be so much easier.”
But Prudence, when pressed to do something, usually turned intransigent, and this situation was no exception. “Easier for everyone but me,” she said tartly. “I’m sure I don’t know how to reply to such a letter. He’s probably even forgotten that he’s written it.” Returning her attention to the looking glass, she applied a touch of rose- petal salve to her lips.
How lovely Prudence was, with her heart-shaped face, her brows thin and delicately arched over round green eyes. But how very little of a person the looking glass reflected. It was impossible to guess what Prudence truly felt for Christopher Phelan. Only one thing was certain: it was better to answer, no matter how ineptly, than to withhold a reply. Because sometimes silence could wound someone nearly as badly as a bullet.
In the privacy of her room at Ramsay House, Beatrix sat at her desk and dipped a pen nib into a well of dark blue ink. A three- legged gray cat named Lucky lounged at the corner of the desk, watching her alertly. Beatrix’s pet hedgehog, Medusa, occupied the other side of the desk. Lucky, being an innately sensible creature, never bothered the bristly little hedgehog.
After consulting the letter from Phelan, Beatrix wrote:
Captain Christopher Phelan 1st Battalion Rifle Brigade 2nd Division Camp, Crimea
17 October 1854
Pausing, Beatrix reached out to stroke Lucky’s remaining front paw with a gentle fingertip. “How would Pru start a letter?” she wondered aloud. “Would she call him darling? Dearest?” She wrinkled her nose at the idea.
The writing of letters was hardly Beatrix’s forte. Although she came from a highly articulate family, she had always valued instinct and action more than words. In fact, she could learn far more about a person during a short walk outdoors than she could by sitting and conversing for hours.
After pondering various things one might write to a complete stranger while masquerading as someone else, Beatrix finally gave up. “Hang it, I’ll just write as I please. He’ll probably be too battle weary to notice that the letter doesn’t sound like Pru.”
Lucky settled her chin beside her paw and half closed her eyes. A purring sigh escaped her. Beatrix began to write.
I have been reading the reports about the battle of the Alma. According to the account by Mr. Russell of the Times, you and two others of the Rifle Brigade went ahead of the Coldstream Guards, and shot several enemy officers, thereby disordering their columns. Mr. Russell also remarked in admiration that the Rifles never retreated or even bobbed their heads when the bullets came flying.
While I share his esteem, dear sir, I wish to advise that in my opinion it would not detract from your bravery to bob your head when being shot at. Duck, dodge, sidestep, or preferably hide behind a rock. I promise I won’t think the less of you!
Is Albert still with you? Still biting? According to my friend Beatrix (she who brings hedgehogs to picnics), the dog is overstimulated and afraid. As dogs are wolves at heart and require a leader, you must establish dominance over him. Whenever he tries to bite you, take his entire muzzle in your hand, apply light pressure, and tell him “no” in a firm voice.
My favorite song is “Over the Hills and Far Away.” It rained in Hampshire yesterday, a soft autumn storm that brought down hardly any leaves. The dahlias are no longer in stem, and frost has withered the chrysanthemums, but the air smells divine, like old leaves and wet bark, and ripe apples. Have you ever noticed that each month has its own smell? May and October are the nicest-smelling months, in my opinion.
You ask if there is a peaceful place in the world, and I regret to say that it is not Stony Cross. Recently Mr. Mawdsley’s donkey escaped from his stall, raced down the road, and somehow found his way into an enclosed pasture. Mr. Caird’s prized mare was innocently grazing when the ill- bred seducer had his way with her. Now it appears the mare has conceived, and a feud is raging between Caird, who demands financial compensation, and Mawdsley, who insists that had the pasture fencing been in better repair, the clandestine meeting would never have occurred. Worse still, it has been suggested that the mare is a shameless lightskirt and did not try nearly hard enough to preserve her virtue.
Do you really think you’ve earned a place in hell? . . . I don’t believe in hell, at least not in the afterlife. I think hell is brought about by man right here on earth.
You say the gentleman I knew has been replaced. How I wish I could offer better comfort than to say that no matter how you have changed, you will be welcomed when you return. Do what you must. If it helps you to endure, put the feelings away for now, and lock the door. Perhaps someday we’ll air them out together.
Beatrix had never intentionally deceived anyone. She would have felt infinitely more comfortable writing to Phelan as herself. But she still remembered the disparaging remarks that he had once made about her. He would not want a letter from that “peculiar Beatrix Hathaway.” He had asked for a letter from the beautiful golden- haired Prudence Mercer. And wasn’t a letter written under false pretenses better than nothing at all? A man in Christopher’s situation needed all the words of encouragement one could offer.
He needed to know that someone cared.
And for some reason, after having read his letter, Beatrix found that she did indeed care.
This excerpt is reprinted courtesy of the She Loves Hot Reads website.