in which the Irishman comes to town
Prince Bastion van Sever took a carriage from London to Ramsgate, a boat across the Strait of Dover, a train through half of France, another carriage into Gallia, and, a few miles out of Iderburg, switched to horseback, only to find himself on the front steps of Westbridge Manor, rather than the front steps of the palace, where he was supposed to be.
It was a warm November in Gallia, and, praise God, not a cloud could be seen. In England it had hardly gone an hour without rain. He inhaled deeply the familiar smell of decaying leaves and distant fumes from the city textile factory. His horse – Bastion did not know its name – contented itself with sniffing the grass as Bastion decided whether or not he should be there. His escort trailed far behind, which was a rare and supposedly dangerous turn for Bastion, and one that he enjoyed immensely. Somewhere behind the doors before him was a girl who had spent the entirety of the last few months being preened into a lady, all for his own benefit.
He did not dismount.
This is idiotic, he thought. I should not continuously come and go unannounced. What would she think?
It was impossible to tell at any given moment what a woman thinks, especially when the woman was the Baroness de Frees. She could, no doubt, beguile a mind reader.
Mariana was never so complicated. She had always let it be known what she wanted.
He felt cold whenever he thought of Mariana, the girl he had left in London. Guilt filled the back of his skull and sank down into his throat as if he had swallowed mud. The day Rhema’s letter arrived, he had told Mariana that he was going home and would never see her again. She slapped him, which, coming from an Irish girl, might as well have been a kiss. He missed her.
The houseman came around the front of the manor with a handful of fresh flowers, saw the prince waiting there, and immediately dropped to the ground and squealed out the words, “My lord!”
“Is the lady of the house at home?” said Bastion.
“No, Your Highness. The mistress is away. She should not be gone long, if you would like to come in and wait for her.”
“No, quite all right. I will inquire later.” He kicked his horse into a trot and rode up towards the palace.
I am going home. I will play a game of cards, have a few laughs, and tomorrow, I think, I should go hunting. There will be no more talk of women today.
Smelling the moat algae, he turned his head toward the distant crooked tree in the field, from which he had sometimes swung when he was a boy.
Somebody was there.
Somebody sat neatly in the spot where lightning had divided his tree.
I was her.
He pulled his horse off the road and into the high grass. So much for a day without women.
Distantly, carriages and horses trolloped at an ever-increasing pace – his entourage. Fool! he scorned himself between the beats of his own stallion’s hooves, but he was already half way through the field. To turn back then would make him seem fickle. A prince is never fickle. A prince is decisive.
It had been over half a year since he had last seen Rhema. She seemed a little taller, but no less wide-eyed in her musing, no less spirited in her actions, and no less mysterious in her way of mind. Her hair appeared fair under the light of midday. Her white dress encompassed her person and flowed over and beyond her feet into the grass – much in the same way that Dahlia’s did on a summer long ago... sweet, musical Dahlia who composed ballads in the orchard....
He reined his horse to a stop, afraid that movement might frighten away the ghostly likeness. His horse whinnied, and the baroness looked up in surprise. Her heavy eyes and brushing of freckles broke the illusion. She was only Rhema.
Her mouth opened briefly, but no sound issued from it. His eyes drifted toward her book, but she snapped the book shut in recognition of his curiosity. Something about this girl always made him want to laugh.
“Are you alone, Miss de Frees? Where are your guards?”
Rhema blinked twice, gasped, and stood to her feet to curtsey.
“Your Highness! I.... The tower watchmen keep a good eye on me. I am quite safe, Your Highness.”
“What if you should hurt yourself or fall into the moat again? They are not close enough to save you.”
“Then I suppose I will swim.” She picked her shoulder bag off the ground and slid her book into it. “Forgive me, but who is there to save you if you should fall off your horse?”
There were only two other people in the world who ever spoke to Bastion in such an impertinent manner. One was Mariana.... no. He had resolved not to give his thoughts to her anymore. Unfortunately, the mind and the heart do not always operate at the same speed.
“My escort could not keep up with me. I have no patience for their pace. You can see them there on the path to the gate, if you look far enough,” he said.
Rhema noted them briefly. Her eyes wandered downward, toward the level of his horse, then away, then back, never settling on his face. It was as if she did not want his company. That would not do.
“I do not know what is so fascinating about my horse, Baroness, but I would appreciate it if you would address me when we are having a conversation.”
Rhema squinted at him.
“How long have you been back?” she said.
“I arrived just now.”
“Did you learn much in England?”
“Are you remaining mounted because you are planning on riding away mid-speech, or must I continue this conversation with your horse?”
The baroness squinted so badly that her eyes were nearly shut. She lifted her hand to block the sunlight. Bastion could feel its heat on the back of his neck.
“My apologies. I would like to stay, if I am not interrupting you.” He dismounted. As he patted the horse’s neck and took a new grip on its reigns, he noted how the baroness’s standing posture had improved and how much more womanly her motions had become.
“It is my understanding that a prince is never the interrupter, but often the interrupted,” Rhema said.
“Ah, Mrs. Delannoy has taught you well, I see. She told me the same thing once, and she rues the day she did, I am certain. I took terrible advantage of it.” He started a half smile, but Rhema did not seem to find him funny. He swallowed the many accompanying stories of his boyhood tortures of Mrs. Delannoy.
“May I ask what it is you wished to talk about?”
“Baroness, I—“ He tied his horse’s reins to a branch. “You may continue to sit, if you wish. I did not intend to disturb you.”
“I am just as well standing. I had been seated for far too long today.” She slung the bag over her shoulder.
“As have I.”
Bastion started to pace. Each step reminded him of the soreness of his behind. The baroness watched him like a cat watches a mouse, so he tried not to flinch. He said, “I received your most recent letter. Since I was already planning to return this week, I decided it would be better to answer your inquiry in person.”
Rhema leaned against the tree trunk. The side of her mouth twitched slightly. “What did the hawk look like?” she said.
Bastion shrugged. “My idea of a joke, I suppose.”
Rhema folded her arms. If she were a cat, and he a mouse, she would have pounced on him by now. That might not be such a bad thing.
“I have only one question,” said Rhema. “Why me? I have gone over it in my head, and it makes no sense. I am hardly more than a silly girl.”
“There you are wrong.” Bastion hopped on the tree, held his hands behind his back, and balanced back and forth across the broken trunk. It was then that he noticed the little bridge under the tree. Since when was there a bridge here? He scowled.
“Go on, Tennyson. Why am I wrong?”
She walked out onto the little bridge, matching his pace on the tree trunk.
If Bastion had had a point, he had forgotten it. If he had had a mouth, he had forgotten it as well. Women like Rhema were not supposed to exist. How are you real?
He began his balancing act anew and envisioned the speech he had been mentally rehearsing during his entire trip. Yes, my point.
Bastion felt most at ease whenever he was given a chance to prove a point. To his own ear, his voice became more robust and eloquent the longer that he spoke.
“When I was a boy, the family had a picnic, just over there, on that grassy hill beneath the wall. I chanced to look down the hill for a second at most, and I saw a small girl with a yellow ribbon in her hair lean over the edge of the moat and fall in. Her yell was so tiny that nobody except for me noticed what had happened. I ran to the edge of the bank and saw the girl in the water, not yelling or kicking or swinging her arms, as you would think a five year old might do in such a situation. Instead, and this part might interest you, she used her hands to feel the bank for something to hold on to. Instead of screaming, she took deep breaths of air before being dragged under water.”
“I can hardly remember that. All I remember is being frightened and wet and how the mud kept sliding away under my feet.”
“Any other girl might have drowned herself in seconds from screaming, but you did not. That is when I knew that I—“ Bastion choked on the words. No. Not yet. “—that you had a queenly constitution.”
“You thought of such things even then!”
“Not exactly. But after Dahlia died, I thought about such things a great deal. You cannot possibly understand what it is like. My entire life, all of it, I knew I would marry Dahlia. No questions. No second-guessing. No choices. It was something that was going to happen, and I was content. Then she was suddenly gone. In a week, I had to entirely reinvent what I thought life would be. And on the table in Dahlia’s place were laid before me a world of choices, though everybody knows there were only ever three. Annette, the Duchess of Devon, was the preferred political choice, so my father and my counselors assured me. But, I thought, if I can choose, then I want to choose what I want, for once in my life, not what my father wants for me. Annette goes into a panic if a flower falls out of her hat. You might remember that. That is not a desirable trait in a wife. Then there is Princess Drucilla—honestly, I never much liked Drucilla. She has a strange odor. So then there was you, the moat trout.”
“If word gets out that all you have to do to marry a prince is fall off of things, then girls will be jumping into rivers all over the country,” Rhema said.
“I concede that you do act the ‘silly girl’ at times, Rhema, but when it matters, you have a sound mind about you. Annette, on the other hand, is the perfect lady in her manner, but in times of distress, her silliness is revealed for what it is. You see, that is why I chose you. I must look to the future. What I need is not a good princess. What I need is a good queen.”
The wind shook some of the auburn leaves off the tree. Rhema’s shoulders turned beneath them, as if a heavy yoke had been set on top of her.
I should not have said that. See how she turns? She is too young. The girl is hardly acclimated to being a wife, much less a queen. Could I be wrong?
“Does that answer your question?” he said. Her hesitation had him by the throat.
“Did you love Dahlia?” Rhema asked.
“Dahlia?” Bastion nearly lost his balance. Perhaps she was a mind reader after all. He took a seat in the nook she had previously occupied as his mouth struggled to find the right answer. “I should begin by saying that Dahlia was a magnificent person. Truly. She was beautiful, intelligent, sweet-tempered, talented, and unselfish. Hardly a word left her mouth that did not in some way have in mind the good of her family or her country. She was also the only person in the world who could understand what it is like to be who I am. Who we were. There were few that appreciated her character or mourned her loss more than I did. She was my best friend. I loved her very much. But no, I was not in love with her, not how you mean. Yet, if I had had the great opportunity to marry her, I would have loved her as myself.” He looked into Rhema’s eyes. As I will love you as myself too.
He immediately wanted to take the thought back, fearful that Rhema could somehow hear it from the volume he had thought it.
“You mean that you would have behaved as though you loved her,” Rhema said.
“I mean precisely what I say.” I hope. “And you will learn one day that love comes in many forms. Often in forms you do not expect.”
“There is my Mr. Tennyson. I had wondered where he had gone. Correcting me again?”
Bastion laughed, relieved that the conversation returned back to word games.
“Mr. Longfellow, a great philosopher knows that it is better to be able to take correction than to give it.”
“Then sir, you are a hypocrite. You have given me another correction.”
“But I never said I was a great philosopher.”
“Now you imply it by denying it.”
She smiled with her voice. Bastion laughed again.
“Speaking of philosophers, how are Wordsworth and Browning?”
“That does seem to be the fashion these days.”
Rhema laughed out loud this time. She had a full, lively laugh that, even restrained, left no room for delicacy.
“I am happy for Miss Felix,” Bastion said.
“That will be Mrs. Cartweller soon, thank you very much,” said Rhema. “I fear there have been no more meetings of the Philosopher’s Club since I moved here.”
“Well, I am here now, if you ever need somebody to talk to about philosophy.”
“I will keep that in mind.”
Bastion stood up and untied his horse. “If you are not tired or busy, come up the castle with me. I have a friend who would be pleased to meet you.”
His brain heard his mouth saying the words, but could do nothing to stop them. Was the baroness ready for his friend?
“I suppose I can come, but I dread walking up that hill again. You do not have another horse handy, do you?”
It would have been easy to call for another horse, or to walk up the hill with her, or to give her his horse and walk beside. But instead of these things, he said, “You can share my horse.”
The baroness tensed and looked around as if she were about to be caught doing something wicked.
“It is not far, and this is the fastest way,” Bastion said.
“I suppose,” she answered as Bastion untied the horse.
Decisive, he reminded himself, throwing a leg in the stirrup. “You are my fiancé, are you not? There is no scandal in a short ride in plain view.”
She stared at the back of the shifting horse. “How do I get up there?”
“Here. I will help you.” He reached down and took her hand. She clumsily put her foot in the stirrup. Not much of a rider, he observed with some disappointment. He flexed his arm and lifted her in a single motion to a sitting position behind him. She wrapped her arms around his waist. Her soft body pressed against his back. But she doesn’t need to be.
The horse went into a trot. Rhema made a small, surprised noise at the first bump and tightened her grasp around his chest. Her cheek pushed against his shoulder. Bastion wished that they had a farther distance to travel. He wanted to talk to her, but he decided it was better not to speak. He had a dangerous tendency to say what he was thinking and what he was thinking at that moment would not have been appropriate for polite conversation.
The king was in the stable when they arrived. He had a less than pleased expression on his face.
“Bastion, my boy! Where have you been? I met your carriage, but instead of my son, I found a noisy Irishman!”
“Forgive me. I found this waif along the road. May I keep her, or should we throw her back to the moat sharks?”
His father’s great cheeks reddened and he smiled wryly at Bastion and the baroness. Rhema, finding it impossible to curtsey from the back of a horse, nodded toward the king, as stupefied by his presence as one who has been awakened from sleepwalking.
“Baroness de Frees!” said King Harold. “Always welcome, of course. Has she shown you yet what she had done for the old castle? How extraordinarily her young mind works!” Harold plucked her off the horse like a child off a pony. He planted her on her feet and mused briefly over her before he kissed her hand. Something twinged inside Bastion’s nerves when he saw his father kiss Rhema’s hand. “But I am sure there is time for that. First, you must do something with that Irishman. A friend of yours, I shudder to hope?”
“That would be Mr. O’Connell,” said Bastion. “I wrote to you about him. He has never seen Gallia, so I invited him to join me in Iderburg for Christmas. He will not be here long.”
“So he told me. Right before he offered himself a drink.”
“I will see to him.”
Harold grunted at Bastion and tipped his hat to Rhema as he left.
“Is this ‘Mr. O’Connell’ the person you wanted me to meet?” asked Rhema.
“He is not that bad,” Bastion said. This was not entirely truthful.
Marcus O’Connell waited in the common parlor with his feet propped on a satin footstool. He entertained himself by whistling and chatting to the two non-responsive armed guards that were in the room with him. He sported a short goatee, which matched in color and texture the short hair on the top of his head. His suit might have been considered appropriate for his environment had he not removed his jacket, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and undone his collar so that his thin torso could be hinted at through his equally thin shirt. Bastion shook his head and laughed quietly when he saw him. Marcus never lost a chance for a first impression.
“Where’ve you been, Bast? Lots to do. Not much time. I can’t say my welcome’s been anything to brag about, but from the window, Iderburg looks quite extraordinary. Ah-ha!”
That Marcus noticed Rhema’s entrance so instantly was a testament to his observation, for Rhema had entered so timidly that a mouse would not have even pricked up its ears. “This wouldn’t be your baroness, would it now?” He looked Rhema up and down with eyes the color of spiced rum.
“Baroness Rhema de Frees, may I introduce you to Mister Marcus O’Connell,” said Bastion, instantly regretting the introduction.
“Charmed, m’lady,” said Marcus in an accent so fast and thick that it was difficult to understand. Rhema’s forehead furrowed.
“Charmed,” she said.
Marcus kissed her hand in a way that made Bastion want to punch him.
“With your permission,” said Marcus, taking entirely too long to release the baroness’s hand, “I ask to be admitted as Mr. Blake.”
“Blake? I thought it was O’Connell,” said Rhema.
“And Bastion swore to me that you were intelligent!”
“Forgive me,” said Bastion quickly, “I have told him about the Philosopher’s Club.”
“Oh.” Rhema’s face curled.
“O’Connell is my best friend. You have my word, he is trustworthy. He would never breath a word about it.”
“Not even if I were hung, drawn, and quartered,” said Marcus, “unless you think that may be a possibility, in which case your secret simply isn’t worth my inside parts.”
“So how about it?” said Bastion.
“I suppose it is all right,” said Rhema. “But who is Blake?”
“William Blake!” Marcus answered in shock. “Oh, but I forget. This one’s had none to learn by than the Galls. Poor girl. I’ll have her smarted up for you in no time.”
“There will be no smarting up from you, O’Connell,” said Bastion. Marcus was the only person of whom Bastion could say he both implicitly trusted and implicitly distrusted.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” said Marcus, with a wink at Rhema that decided, for certain, that Bastion would have to punch him.