To Therese, With Love, From Mikel
By Jessica L. Jackson
August 21, 1820, Widcombe Hill, Bath
Her aunt’s footman left Therese sitting in the shade on the special wicker Bath chair her aunt insisted be used to get her to the bottom of the garden where she could look out at the view across the valley. The fresh air did her good, no doubt, but today, Therese ignored the view. Instead, she pulled a red lacquered box from beneath the rug on her lap. She opened the lid and lifted out a packet of letters tied about with a red velvet ribbon. She riffled through the contents until she found the first letter from her favourite correspondent. The mild afternoon breeze caught at the edges of the paper when she opened it.
January 15th, 1809; Retreat from Corunna
Your brother injured his hand during the battle at Benevente, but it is healing well. Please, accept my sorry scrawl on his behalf. Soon he will be able to write to you again. He says that he hopes you and your parents had a wonderful Christmas. The stockings that you knitted for us are wonderfully warm and are much needed. Charles wants to know if Sophie had her puppies yet and how you are planning to keep one without Mother knowing. He said not to hide it in the barn loft because Mother already knows of that hiding place. He suggests that you ask William Coachman to hide it for you. Charles expects you to eat all your vegetables and lots of meat so that you will grow up big and strong. He wants to see that you have grown at least two inches by the time he comes home on leave. Do you like the doll Charles sent? Did it arrive unbroken? Charles says you are to kiss Mother and Father for him. Please, write soon, even though the mail takes some time to find us.
Your favourite brother, Charles, & Lieutenant Mikel Langham
Therese lowered the letter with a sigh of remembrance. Why has he not written, she wondered for the umpteenth dozen time, absently folding the letter while she looked out at the vista before her. All of her other letters had been forwarded from Kent by their butler. Nothing had come from Mikel for at least three months. What could be wrong? Had he died like her brother had four years previously? Perhaps no one had thought to tell her. She shook that dreadful consideration away.
August 21, 1820, on the Lower Bristol road to Bath
The chaise bounced through a deep rut, scattering the pile of letters across the black tufted leather squabs so that some fell onto the muddy floor. Major Lord Langham cursed softly and grabbed for the precious packets.
“I’ll get them for you, Major,” Sergeant Guthrie offered heartily. He gathered the letters from the floor, brushed them off, and returned them to their owner.
Mikel thanked him and began to put them back in order. He paused and opened one. It was the first one he’d received from Therese Blake.
February 5th, 1809; Kent
Dear Beloved Charles, and his friend, Lieutenant Mikel,
Sophie had five puppies. She had them in the stables while Mother and Father were in London. When they came back, the puppies had been weaned and I told them a big fib and said that there were only four puppies. I kept one and asked the gardener to hide him for me. William Coachman was away with Mother and Father. I called the puppy “Chance” because I was taking a chance that he wouldn’t be found. Am I not a clever girl? His ears are so soft and floppy. I am glad you liked the socks. I hope you like the mufflers I sent with this letter. Nurse said that I am becoming quite the little knitter. Oh, thank you very much for the Spanish doll you sent me for Christmas. She arrived unbroken. I love her very, very much. She’s called Isabella. I take her everywhere and she’s teaching me Spanish, too!
Therese: your most beloved sister.
P.S. I know it is my governess who is teaching me Spanish, but I like to pretend.
P.S.S. Charles and Lieutenant Langham do not forget that my ninth birthday is in April!
The Major folded away that innocent letter. Having no sisters of his own, he had cherished the sweetness of young Therese’s letters amongst the horrors of war. Now, after so many years on the continent, the 7th Hussars were finally stationed at home. With his elder brother dead, however, Mikel needed to sell out and take up private life again. He was uncertain how he would manage estates he never thought would be his. But, there was one important task that he had to undertake before he could turn his mind to what seemed like an insurmountable ordeal.
He had to see Therese. No correspondence had arrived for three months. He had written only three letters as he had been injured in a damned shooting exercise and had barely pulled through—but he did not know why Therese had not answered them. She usually answered promptly.
A smudge of mud on the corner of a different letter caused him to purse his lips in dismay. He tried to rub it away but it only got worse. Not that all the letters remained in the greatest shape, though, for they had all been reread so many times that some displayed worn creases and tattered edges. This one was his least favourite, but precious nevertheless. He had just made Captain—a field commission following the Battle of Orthes in February of 1814.
March 12th, 1814, Kent,
Dear Friend, Captain Mikel,
My beloved brother’s body arrived home yesterday. We buried him this morning in the family crypt below St. Jude’s. We are very proud that he proved himself so brave throughout the conflicts on the continent. I looked at the other names on the plaques and realized that we have lost many men over the centuries to King and Country.
The whole village came to the funeral services. He was well-liked, my dear Charles. I am so glad, now, that we had seen him just this last Christmas when he came home on leave. I know that not many were able to have leave and that you gave up yours so that he could come home. Mother was very ill, then, and now we fear that she will have a relapse. She is a strong woman and I believe she will cope. Your wonderful letter, Captain, comforted all of us. Thank you for being such a good friend to dear, beloved Charles.
P.S. Please, write soon.
Mikel looked up from the letter, a grim expression marring his pale countenance. So many friends-in-arms had died through-out the years. Private life could not be more difficult despite the challenges of running estates. He tucked the letter away amongst the rest and then shoved the pile next to his heart beneath his slack uniform jacket. There had been no time to alter his uniform after his recovery and subsequent revelation that he was now a viscount. Nothing fit right anymore. He needed to regain several stone before his frame would be back to normal. Never mind, he thought, soon I will not need the uniform any more. The only reason he was wearing it today was so Therese would know him when she met him.
“I see that we have almost arrived. After we take rooms at the Georges Hotel, I will ride out for my appointment,” Mikel explained to his batman. “Arrange supper for me for seven, please.”
Mikel noticed Sergeant Gillespie’s keen regard. With the familiarity that came with campaigning together for seven years and nursing his commanding officer back from the brink of death, and surely knowing full well that his words of advice would go unheeded, the sergeant seemed unable to keep himself from commenting on Mikel’s state of health.
“You’ll be knocked up, you will, sir, if you ride out again today. P’rhaps you could go out tomorrow, instead?”
“No, sergeant. Tomorrow will not do.”
The sergeant sighed. “Yes, sir.”
Therese wiped an escaping tear away with the back of her hand. She hated how weepy she had been ever since her illness. She set aside the letter from Mikel that told of her brother’s death. From amongst the others she chose a well-worn one. This one had been through some battles before she’d ever received it. There was a dark brown fingerprint on one corner that she refused to believe might be blood, just as she refused to believe that the fingerprint had come from Mikel’s own hand for that would mean he had been wounded, or had touched someone else who was wounded.
June 24th, 1815, France
I am so pleased to be able to tell you, my clever girl, that that bastard Napoleon has announced his abdication and this horrid war is over at last. There is still some cleaning up to do, as there always is, but the monster has been defeated finally and completely. He is to be exiled again, thank God. There is some talk that the 7th will remain as an occupying force.
I long to be home in England again. One day we shall meet, Therese. I will wear my regimentals and I will curl my magnificent moustache and brush my sideburns so that they are bushy and will tickle your cheeks when we embrace. If I do not get home soon, you will be married to a stout young man who will take exception to my familiarity. However, we will explain that we’ve been friends for many years and he must accept that you are the little sister I never had. I cannot say more, my dear girl, because the courier is coming to collect the letters at any moment.
With Love, Major Mikel Langham, of the 7th (The Queen's Own) Regiment of (Light) Dragoons (Hussars)
P.S. Note the advancement in rank! So many officers died at Waterloo that they had no choice but to advance me to Major. More fool they! If there are any more battles, I may make Colonel before I am thirty!
Therese smiled and tucked the letter back in the pile. She remembered how much rejoicing there had been when Napoleon had finally been defeated and she’d waited anxiously for her Major friend to come home to England so she could meet him at last. But, he had not come for the 7th had been assigned to the occupying force and there they had stayed for a further three years.
Her introduction to the ton had occurred in his absence. There had been several very flattering offers for her hand and one that had proved to come from a very dubious character, indeed. He had seemed extremely charming and delightful in every way. On the eve of the day he came to propose to her, she received a letter from Major Langham. Therese shuffled through the pile until she found the right one. Ah, yes, she thought, shaking her head and smiling more broadly than ever. Major Langham’s nature had always seemed temperate and agreeable. He had been so hopping mad that even his salutation had been curt and he had forgotten to sign formally as was his habit.
May 25th, 1818, Paris
I read with dismay of your continuing association with Mr. Swithin. I am horrified that he is furthering his pursuit of you. As your most ardent friend, I urge you toward caution. On no account are you to countenance the advances of Mr. Swithin, if he is the same Lieutenant Archibald Swithin formerly of the Life Guards who sold out after Waterloo. Please, treat my disclosures of his character with the utmost discretion! He acquitted himself abominably during that battle, showing cowardice and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He sold out only after it had been made clear to him that he would be drummed out if he did not. Mr. Swithin has left a common-law wife in Belgium who has born him two children. They now live in penury. I beg you, my clever girl, not to become entangled with such a man as this. I impatiently await your urgent reply assuring me that you have cast off this fellow! I live in dread of hearing that he has wormed his way into your family and has succeeded in obtaining your hand in marriage.
With Love, from Mikel.
Mr. Swithin, much to his dismay, had been as unlikely as any of her suitors to receive her hand in marriage. From her ninth birthday when Mikel sent her several lace handkerchiefs she had known that he was the man she would marry. Of course, she had no notion whether he felt anything more for her than filial affection. Therese, at twenty, with two seasons of experience, understood this limitation to her future hopes. Even so, her conviction had not wavered. The last time Charles had come home on leave she had confided her girlhood dreams. He had chuckled softly, gave her a brotherly hug, and then said, “Mikel is as fine a fellow as one could hope to have as a friend and he might make a good husband for you, Therese. But, you have not finished growing up and you have never met him. You may hate the look of him on sight.”
“Is he an ill-favoured man, then?” she had asked curiously.
“Nay, he’s considered a handsome man. But, just as a man does not fall in love with every pretty face, so a grown woman does not form a lasting attachment to every handsome man.”
Therese had pondered her elder brother’s words most carefully and from every angle. But, the sight of Mikel’s next letter had still made her heart beat furiously and her breath come quickly.
Mikel dismounted before Therese’s aunt’s front door. He glanced around but saw no grooms to take his horse. He let the reins drop to the ground and his well-trained mount obediently stood still and waited while his master knocked. The glossy black door opened promptly. A grizzle-headed butler guarded the door and reminded Mikel forcibly of a sergeant-major.
“Sir?” the elderly man said, almost coming to attention.
“Major Lord Langham to see Miss Therese Blake,” Mikel said smartly.
“I’ll take your card up to my mistress, sir,” the butler replied, holding out his white-gloved hand.
Mikel’s features hardened but he handed over his card.
“Please to wait here, sir,” the butler ordered and then shut the door in Mikel’s face.
“What the devil?” Mikel cursed beneath his breath, unaccustomed to this sort of Turkish treatment. He moved back a few steps from the doorway and looked up at the comfortably proportioned house. Three large windows flanked either side of the front door. Seven similar windows marched across the upper floor. Seven dormer windows stuck proudly out of the slate roof. Black shutters graced either side of each of the windows. Golden Bath stone faced the attractive home. The curtains twitched in one of the upstairs windows and he thought he caught a glimpse of a disagreeable-looking matronly woman with a long roman nose.
Mikel had just about decided to knock on the door again when a woman came round the side of the house, a shopping basket on her arm. She appeared to be about his own age and was clearly a servant, though dressed with some degree of style. She came up short at the sight of him. Her eyes widened and she bustled forward, darting her pretty grey eyes at the house and then back to the Major.
“Sir?” the comely woman whispered, holding her basket before her like a shield. “Pardon me, but are you, perhaps, Major Langham?”
“I am,” he replied in his deep, calm voice. He raised his eyebrow when she shifted her position so that she stood closer to the house and so was hidden from any prying eyes that might be observing them from the windows. “Who are you?
“Excuse me, sir, but I’m Nancy. Nancy Dunn.”
“Miss Blake’s abigail?”
“Yes, sir,” she whispered. A grin split her pale face and she blushed. “Fancy you remembering that, sir. Miss Therese must’ve mentioned me in those letters of hers.”
“She did. I have come to see her, but the butler has left me dawdling here. Is something amiss?” Mikel demanded. He clenched his fists together and moved closer to the maid. “Why has Miss Blake not written?”
“But, sir,” Nancy replied indignantly, and then gave a hasty curtsy of apology for her tone. “Miss has written. Three times. You’ve not written her back, you haven’t.”
“I have.” Mikel bit off the remainder of his words when he heard the front door handle rattle.
He hurried back directly in front of the door and looked annoyed for being kept waiting. It was not a difficult task because he was annoyed. Nancy eased around the corner of the pilaster supporting the swan-neck pediment above the door and hugged the wall.
When the butler appeared, he merely held onto the door and bowed, saying: “My apologies, sir, but Miss Blake is not receiving visitors today.”
“She’s been ill, then?” Mikel demanded with as near a bark as made no difference.
“That is not for me to say, sir,” came the stiff reply. The butler retreated and closed the door.
“Bloody hell!” Mikel cursed.
Nancy moved a little out of her hiding place and curtsied. “Major, sir. If you was to give me your card, I could pass it on to m’mistress.”
Mikel cast a cursory glance her way and then glared up at the windows. That blasted curtain twitched closed. He turned and reached for his horse’s reigns and maneuvered the animal around so that it blocked his movements. From his breast pocket he removed his calling card case and passed a card to Nancy, who scurried forward and snatched it away before quickly moving back out of view.
“Nancy, what nonsense is this?” Mikel demanded, his anger and frustration sustaining him though his fatigue cried out to be noticed. He fit his boot into the stirrup and heaved himself up. Under the pretense of talking to his horse, he continued, “Why may I not see Miss Blake?”
“`Tis true, sir, she’s been ill,” Nancy whispered, tucking the card out of sight into the side of her brown lace-up boots. “But we did not know that Miss’s aunt was keeping the letters. I’ll speak with my mistress. How can I get a message to you, Major?”
“I am staying at the Georges.” He noted her little curtsy of acknowledgement. “Where is your mistress, now? Is she truly too ill to see me?”
“I left her at the bottom of the garden just a half hour since, sir,” Nancy revealed, motioning around to the right of the house. She gasped when the major pulled his horse’s head about and started in that direction.
Mikel trotted around to the side of the house along a carriage drive. He reached an iron gate in the side of a tall stone wall. He hurriedly dismounted, tied the reigns to the iron bars of the gate, and slipped through into the back garden. The large expanse of lawn was empty except for a wicker chair facing away from the house so that its occupant could enjoy the view. Before he could be spotted from the house, Mikel strode across the grass, suppressing his fatigue under an iron will. He slowed as he approached the back of the bath chair.
“Is that you, Nancy?” a tired voice asked. “I am through sitting out here like an invalid.”
“It is not Nancy,” Mikel responded, smiling warmly as his dear friend sat forward and looked around at him.
Her blue eyes widened and she let out a gasp. “As you see, I have come to meet you at last.”
“Mikel!” she squealed, reaching out to him.
In spite of his exhaustion, he instinctively responded to her gesture and swept her fragile form out of the chair and into his arms. She felt wonderful. Therese’ things littered the grass around their feet and several letters crinkled beneath her slippers when he set her down at last.
“You promised Charles that you would eat your meat and vegetables so that you would grow big and strong,” Mikel admonished gently, grinning down at her while his intelligent gaze took in her appearance.
Softly curling mahogany-coloured hair framed her delicate features. Illness had hollowed her cheeks, sharpening her elegant bone structure and creating the perfect foil for her large, speaking eyes. Therese had her brother’s wide mouth but hers were full and lush. When she smiled tremulously up at him she revealed the slightly overlapping bottom teeth that had been her despair all through her seventeenth year. When she had discovered that men found that feature singularly adorable, her concern abated.
“Do you like what you see?” she demanded boldly, while nervously tugging at a curl behind her ear. “They cut it when I became ill,” she explained breathlessly. “It will grow back.”
“You need to put on some weight,” he replied, frowning. He reached out and encircled her wrist with his thumb and forefinger, shaking his head in amazement.
Therese tentatively stroked his cheek. Shocked at her own forward behaviour, Therese snatched her hand away and put it behind her back. His golden-brown eyes crinkled at her and she felt a blush rise. “You promised to have a fine set of military whiskers when we met. What has become of them?”
“Like you, I have been ill—wounded by accident. And when I was in my weakened state, my batman shaved my whiskers off after we heard of my brother’s death. I am Major Lord Langham now.”
“Oh, Mikel,” she cried softly, gripping his hands and raising them to her heart. “I am so sorry. I had not heard the news.”
He cleared his throat and gave a little nod to the right. “Yes, well I have many things to attend to.” He fixed her with an intent stare. “You, my dearest Therese, are the most important one.”
“Am I?” Her breathless reply brought on a smiling response.
“Yes, indeed.” He lifted her hands to his lips and placed a lingering kiss on her knuckles. “I need a wife, Therese. Will you marry me?”
She gave a little gasp and gazed at him through swimming tears. “Are you sure? Mikel? Do you love me the way I love you?”
“I cannot say, but I have loved you since I read your letters about your London seasons where other men danced with you and took you for rides in the park—all the things I longed to do.” He pressed his cheek to hers and in a soft whisper he said, “You have grown up beautifully, as beautiful as your soul, as your mind. Tell me you will marry me even though your family may disagree.”
“I will marry you, my darling friend,” she promised, frowning. “Why will my family object?”
“They withheld my letters to you,” he revealed. “Perhaps they have not heard that I am now a viscount and not merely a Major in the 7th.”
Steely resolve stiffened her spine. “No one will stop me from being with you. I have loved you forever.”
“Then all will be well.”
Therese sighed and softened against him. “Yes.”
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