in which the Philosopher's Club is born
Rhema's injury did not heal as quickly as it should. By Autumn, she could walk with a crutch. She could even run in short bursts if there was nobody around to yell at her for it. Much in thanks to her new-found publicity, she no longer had any desire to venture far from home where she would be gawked at. Instead she buried herself in the new and wonderful world that blossomed inside the Cottage.
The prince never visited, but Jonathan came almost every day. He, Rhema, and Becky met many evenings talking and reading with each other. Their talks led to Jonathan and Rhema teaching Becky things that she had never been privileged enough to learn through a formal education. Her resulting questions were of a manner that led all three to have to pursue the answers together.
By winter, they named themselves the Philosophers Club. None of them remembered precisely how this name had come about, although Rhema was convinced that it had been her idea. Their new discussions were not unlike the ‘silly talks’ about dreams and ducks that Rhema had once engaged in with Jonathan, but the addition of Becky to their group provided a much needed third perspective. She was like an empty basin into which Jonathan and Rhema could pour all their wild musings.
“Mr. Browning, we should have some tea,” Rhema announced one January evening, holding one of her father’s unlit pipes between her teeth. No longer requiring a crutch, she half-paced, half-limped back and forth on the rug with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders.
Nicknames came with the Club. These were mostly invented to confuse Roger at the times he came home from boarding school and attempted to interrupt them. But they couldn’t help continuing to use them even when they were alone. Becky took the name of ‘Mr. Browning.’ Jonathan was ‘Mr. Wordsworth.’ And Rhema became ‘Mr. Longfellow.’
Becky rose to answer Rhema’s request for tea. Jonathan urged her down again. “Mr. Browning is a distinguished member of this society, and I am appalled that you are always sending her to fetch the tea, Mr. Longfellow,” said Jonathan. “As a gentleman, I cannot stand for it. I will go myself.”
“As you wish, Mr. Wordsworth.”
If Jonathan intended to make her feel guilty, it would not work. Becky was her maid after all. Who else should she send for tea? She looked at Becky, sitting prim in the center of the sofa. She certainly did not act the maid when Jonathan was over. Rhema wouldn’t mind, except that it continuously spoiled her plan. Her favorite scheme for avoiding marrying the prince was to somehow woo Jonathan into marrying her first. There was not much time left, and she would never be able to win him if she could not have a moment alone with him. As much as she loved Becky, why did Becky have to always be there?
“How do you fare in your reading, Mr. Browning?” asked Rhema. Becky drew her eyes up from Jonathan’s empty chair.
“Oh, it is quite interesting, Miss Rhema – I mean, Mr. Longfellow,” said Becky. “Although, to be honest, my father sent me a copy of an American book this week, and I am afraid I have not read another thing since I began it. I am sorry, miss.”
“What sort of book?”
“Only a novel. Like I said, nothing important. It is by a man named 'Twain'. That is a funny name, is it not? There is a little girl in it named Becky. I think that is why Papa sent it to me. He seems to be under the constant impression that I am ten years younger than I am.”
"There are things to be got from novels. Even unimportant ones by ones called Twain." Rhema’s pun fell dead on her listener's ear. Oh, where was Jonathan! He would understand!
As if in tune with her demand, Jonathan returned with the tea and tea tray. He served Becky her portion first.
“Now that all of our fellows are in attendance, I have a matter of business to bring up with you,” Rhema said before Jonathan had a chance to sit. “It has come to the attention of my ‘beloved’ prince that communication between His Highness and myself may become compromised, which is why we have not enjoyed the pleasure of his letters as of late.”
“He has been in England this whole time? Has he not come home once? What has he been doing there?” said Jonathan.
“Studying,” said Rhema.
“Oh, I am sure,” said Jonathan. Rhema’s eyes fell to the floor. She suddenly forgot what she was going to say next.
“Do not joke,” said Becky. “It has not yet been a year since his fiancé’s death. His Highness is a good man. I am certain that he is studying.”
“That is not the relevant question in any case,” Rhema said. “I have told him about the code names we use here in the Philosopher’s Club, and he is taken with the idea. His High and Mighty Majesty has requested admittance as a silent member of our fellowship, to be admitted under the name of Mr. Tennyson.” Rhema held herself back from breaking into laughter as she waited for them to react.
“Prince Bastion knows about us?” said Becky. Her white face turned even whiter.
“And he wants to join?” said Jonathan, letting out a nervous chuckle.
“It is not real. It is only a cover, so that nosey people do not steal our letters.” That her friends did not find this as funny as she did greatly disappointed Rhema. “I would answer his letters as Mr. Longfellow to Mr. Tennyson. I did not tell him your real names, if you are worried about that. I am asking your permission first. What do you say?”
Becky exchanged a look with Jonathan, as if they shared an unspoken joke.
“Rhema de Frees,” said Jonathan, a smirk breaking the tautness of his cheeks, “Do you mean to use our prestigious society as a means to exchange secret love letters?”
“I— They are not love letters,” Rhema stammered. “It is business only. He must try to get to know me, you see, seeing as how he might have to marry me.”
“Might?” said Becky. “Last week you gave us a whole speech about how you would never marry him, and how any nation ignoring the changing cultural trends of its populace was doomed to fall, and that arranged marriages were a thing of the past, and if the leaders of this nation were more wise and less pig-headed, this country could stand on its constitution alone, with or without a blood heir to the monarchy.”
“Excellent memory, Mr. Browning!” Jonathan exclaimed. He patted Becky on the back.
“He does not know I said that," said Rhema. "And he does not have to know.... not until he happily falls in love with some other princess somewhere.”
“In England?” said Jonathan.
“It could happen.”
“Miss Rhema, if you don’t mind my asking....” Becky began. “So many girls dream of marrying a prince, but you—you are one of the few in the world who actually can! Why are you fighting this at all?” Jonathan’s brow lowered as she asked the question.
“A prince is nothing but a man with a castle. Would you marry a man you do not know?” Rhema asked. Jonathan turned quickly to hear Becky’s answer.
“No. I suppose I would not, miss. Though in my position, there seldom is much of a choice.”
“Don’t let’s be ridiculous, Mr. Browning,” Jonathan said. “You are beauty and brains all together, an Athena of women! Any gentleman who does not line up at your doorstep is a fool.”
Becky giggled and turned her face away. “I do not even have a doorstep.”
The next letter Rhema wrote, she addressed to one Mr. Tennyson, and the next she received was meant for one Mr. Longfellow. Though Prince Bastion set her ill at ease, this "Mr. Tennyson" fellow fast became Rhema's ink and paper friend. She wrote to him about the Cottage and the garden, about the complaints of her leg and about the stories of her Neha. She also diligently updated him on even the most inane discussions of the Philosopher’s Club. This part she wrote as a joke, but Mr. Tennyson began to answer the discussions with his own insights and recommendations, until the group was forced to acknowledge him as a true fourth member.
This is the strangest club there ever was, Rhema often thought after reading Mr. Tennyson’s letters to the others. A maid, a student, a baroness, and a prince. Then again, I wonder if it would be the same if the prince knew who Mr. Wordsworth and Mr. Browning really were? She imagined exposing this revelation to him, and him being revolted by the low company she kept. Then he would certainly release her from their engagement. She could only hope.
Meanwhile, the Philosopher’s Club remained her pride and joy. It helped her through a cold winter, a needed distraction from her impeding future. Sometimes they would stay up late into the night, and their conversation trailed off into circles of nothing. As a matter of fact, this was usually the case, but it was wonderful. In those times most of all, she sank into a peace that could only be likened to a warm fire on a snowy day. To Rhema, truth was more than books and words, the smell of old paper and the wetness of spilled ink. It was not the million voices of the million philosophers who poured their minds and souls into their words, screaming in unison the same question: Who am I? It was in this moment, this chair, this laugh, this warmth. It was the million things that aren’t in books, but are known in the deepest recesses of every lady's maid and every bucklemaker's son. It was love. The simplest, purest kind – a love that resounded at the quietest of moments and held her safe even in the loneliest of winters.