‘Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble?’ Lucy asks, exasperated, hands thrown wide. ‘I am loathe to make a decision – one is handsome, one is clever, one is exciting – how am I to choose?’
I hide my smile behind my raised tea cup. ‘You poor thing,’ I say.
‘I am a woman, and therefore constantly reminded that I am intellectually and emotionally inferior to a man; yet, all the responsibility of courtship seems to lie with the woman. She can cajole but cannot chase, she cannot ask but she can accept… really, it is most vexing!’
‘Lucy, just be glad you have a choice, and that it is not being made for you,’ I remind her gently. ‘And they are all fine men. But even if you declined any of their suits, you are young and pretty enough to wait for another.’
‘But I want to be married!’ she said, lips pouting, that made her look a little like a duck (she did that on purpose, knowing it gave me the giggles, and this time was no exception). ‘I want to be married, and therefore mistress of my house.’ She sat on the window-seat, staring into the garden. ‘I could have my own garden, and decide what I want planted there,’ she said softly. ‘You like buddleia, don’t you Mina?’ she asked suddenly turning to face me.
I smiled. ‘I rather more like the butterflies it brings.’
Her smile was radiant, bright as a candle in the dark. ‘I could have a garden filled with buddleia. And a bench, just for you, where you could sit and watch for butterflies.’
‘That’s a very generous offer Lucy, but your husband might want the garden to himself.’
‘Oh fie, he might,’ Lucy conceded, wrinkling her forehead (something she only did when her mother was not around to scold her). ‘Perhaps that may help me make my choice out of my three suitors – what they think about gardens.’ She sprang to her feet, moving to the table with a lightness of step of a ballerina, and reached for a small biscuit. ‘Of course, it would be much easier if I could marry you,’ she said calmly.
I almost choked on my tea. ‘What?’
She went on, turning her back to me, walking round the room. ‘If I could marry you. I mean, in many ways it makes sense. I know you, and I like you.’ She turned, looking at me intensely. ‘You’re just as clever as any man, but there is none of the cruelty that a man could have. And I already know that you are content with a garden of buddleia and a bench, which leaves me the house to do as I will!’
I could feel a blush to my cheeks. ‘Do not jest so,’ I argue, trying to keep my tone light, but my voice sounds breathy to my ears. I see Lucy, my dear Lucy, and I can’t help notice her beauty. Unbidden came the thought of being able to touch her, as a man has the right to touch his wife – to run my fingers through her hair (the red of autumn leaves) not to style as I sometimes helped her with, but just to feel the silk of it – to embrace her, to hold her in my arms tightly – to kiss her lips (we had picked and eaten wild raspberries only an hour before…would I still be able to taste them?).
‘Mina, are you well?’ Lucy came over to me, her voice shaking me out of my reverie. ‘Your cheeks are red. And your breathing has quickened.’ She placed the back of her hand on my forehead (in my weakness I let her). ‘Are you feverish?’
‘Maybe some air,’ I lie. ‘Could you open the window please?’ I ask, which will help cool me and also mean Lucy would not be so close to me.
She moves off, and I close my eyes. This… feeling I sometimes get when I am around Lucy for too long, it is ignorable, if I will it. It’s just sometimes the will is not as strong as it should be, that is all.
She goes to open the window as there is a knock at the door. It is one of the maids, letting Lucy know that her mother has need of her. Lucy begins to apologise to me, but I just hold the book I have, the works of Tennyson. ‘Do not fret Lucy, I have all of ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ to keep me occupied.’
She smiles at me. ‘You’ll read me your favourite parts when I get back, won’t you?’ she asks, eyes bright. ‘I love it when you read to me.’