My dearest Maturin,
Sophie has given me a bedroom on the first level of the Ashgrove Cottage, and...
Diana crumples the parchment and starts again.
My dear Maturin,
I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear that my belly continues to grow, this incipient lump of a thing, and the physician Sophie consulted during her own pregnancies is confident in its progress. My little Arabian is settling into the stables on my cousin’s property, and does not seem to mind the confinement. My own confinement, however, is...
She crumples the page again, jams her pen onto the block until the nib splinters and she has to cut it anew.
I cannot bear it.
The letter sits staring at her until she spills ink across it, and the black mess bears no resemblance to what was there before, and she has one of the servants take it away.
Diana sets down her pen, glares at the paper before her, and rises. Her body is a thing beyond her now, and she looks down with some fascination; she can no longer see her feet over the swell of her pregnancy, and no amount of blue chiffon will disguise it as anything other than what it is. But the day is moving forward hour by hour, and if she does not leave her room Sophie will parade in and out of it with sad looks and behave perfectly horrid.
And so she puts away her writing materials, burns the letters in the wastebin, and goes to the door.
“Cousin,” she says as she walks carefully from the back part of the house where her current room is located to the front, where Sophie sits in a padded chair working on embroidered sleeves for the dresses the girls are swiftly outgrowing, “I believe I shall go on a walk around the grounds.”
“Oh, Diana, are you certain? I can have one of the servants fetch anything you’re looking for. Surely it would be... ill advised for a woman in your condition to go walking alone? I can come with you.”
Diana hikes her skirts, huge, swooping things that make her look like a whale from Stephen’s letters, and marches to the door.
“I will be back before supper. Please have the cook prepare something edible for a change.”
I have never in my life before this wanted to set fire to a home. After what happened to the Grapes, I would not wish such a thing on anyone. But I have the urge to light the drapes in this room and watch the flames leap around and burn the whole place place to the ground, Jack’s silver and all. If it takes his precious telescope, all the better. If it takes your books I should be sorry, but only just.
I cannot stand this place any longer. I cannot stand any of it. If I did not know it would kill you, I would take certain drastic measures.
She tears it up.
The grounds of Ashgrove Cottage are expansive, only grander for the recent wealth that has come into Jack’s hands. She goes first to visit her little mare, happily ensconced in the stables and gorging itself on hay. Even so, Diana feels twice as large as the horse, and wishes desperately to order a servant to throw a saddle on the creature and to ride and jump and hunt foxes.
But she’s been warned, quite strongly, against such actions. It is too late now, anyhow. How strange that the idea had seemed so wonderful when Stephen was here, to have his child. Besides, she has no doubt the servant would run directly to Sophie, the tyrant, and she would be in a sorrier state than she already is should her dear cousin believe she was acting with purpose.
She runs a hand through the mare’s forelock, pats her nose, and when she walks through the garden, she tramples with purpose across Jack’s miserable cabbages. Damn the man for stealing Stephen away from her yet again, and damn Stephen for all of it.
She misses India.
The thought nearly stuns her, the damp and rain of the early spring are still so unlike India’s oppressive heat that the thought seems to have sprung from nowhere at all. Yet it remains. She misses India with a terrible longing. She misses her first husband, Villiers, and Cantwell, too, although neither were particularly special men.
It is her lot to be penned in by a man like a horse, be it in India or America or Ashgrove Cottage.
She shudders at the thought of comparing Stephen to Johnson. Her Maturin who stole her away from that wretched man, stole her diamonds for her, too.
But she is here, in Ashgrove Cottage with a great big skirts and a great big belly. She closes the gate to the garden behind her, kicking up mud until it soaks her horrible skirt, one of Sophie’s from her first pregnancy with the twins.
Sophie has the highest confidence in the Packets and England’s postal system, but I remain less confident.
My current situation begot by you is less than desirable, and I cannot help but blame you for it. How any woman manages to have not only one child, but a half dozen or more, is beyond me. The toll on a woman’s being alone is enough to drive any sane person to delirium. I will not bother you with the details; you are a medical man, and I have no doubt you are more informed about these matters than I. The entire process is barbaric, and it is by a miracle alone that humanity continues.
But do not concern yourself. I am healthy, as is this creature growing inside me.
I hope, truly, that all is well in your journey and that you return to me soon. I find myself growing weary of not just Ashgrove and my cousin’s perpetual pleasure at my situation, but my situation entirely.
She crumples it between her fat fingers, bloated by pregnancy. Perfectly healthy, she's been told. She hates it. She hates all of it.
Ashgrove Cottage is a bright place, with fresh paint recently applied inside and out, and silver that had, not six months ago, been brutally polished by every sailor who walked past it, until every piece gleamed. Although the devils are now lord knows where at sea, the shine still remains. It is certainly a sight brighter than Barham Down would be without a soul in it, and much more tolerable than Half Moon Street, with Stephen not at the Grapes.
Small footsteps race across the floor above her, not a romantic pitter patter, but great elephant stomps as one child, no doubt Charlotte, chases another, likely George, from one end of the house to the other. She can hear her aunt roar from here, Mrs. William’s voice having never been gentle by any stretch of the word, and having risen sharply as she happily embraced her role as grandmother, despite her failing health.
Bright it may be, and certainly more vibrant, but the normalcy of life without Stephen, life as a woman with child, life as aunt to her cousin’s children, a kept part of a household, is utterly untenable.
“Diana, cousin, won’t you come sit with us for supper?” Sophie’s voice echoes through the oddly designed house, and something so simple as a door does nothing to stop its course.
Supper is a long affair, consisting of a meal cooked in large part by Sophie herself, and thus mostly inedible, followed by a pudding, also mostly inedible although prepared by the cook who learned far too much from Killick during his recent stay.
Diana is sandwiched between George on one side and Mrs. Williams on the other, the two girls, Charlotte and Franny, staring forlornly at their plates across the table from her. Sophie herself, lovely in a pink dress that suits her beautifully, sits at the head and smiles at them. Ashgrove cottage is her domain, and she runs it well, a ship under her command in perfect tandem to Jack’s at sea. As Diana methodically brings spoon to mouth and eats as much of the thick mud Sophie announced to be pease soup as she is able to bear, she wonders that she has become a part of this. That she is here of her own choice, part of a brood.
“Cousin,” she says as they are half into their pudding (‘George, you mustn't eat it with your hands’ from Sophie, and, ‘Franny, stop sticking your sister with your fork,’ from Mrs. Williams). “Is Mr. Everett coming to dinner tomorrow?”
Sophie gives her a strange look, blank, and blankness is not a state her face often resides in. “Yes he is. He is assessing the land. Jack left all these things for me to take care of, you know, and it has been some time since it’s been looked at, and dear Jack has put a great deal of money into the property.”
“Ah, good. It will be nice to have some company.” Beyond the company she already has, Diana means, but does not say. Charlotte has half a cup of soup poured down her frock, and George has a red, puffy look about his face that Diana dreads to know the cause of, lest it be something that requires extensive cleaning.
Mrs. Williams makes noise about the extra effort required to entertain company, the cost of candles to be kept lit in the parlor when men like him come calling, and the stress it puts on poor George. George himself squeaks, and subsequently sicks the entire green mass of pease soup onto his plate.
“I believe I shall retire for the evening,” Diana announces, separating herself and her clothing from little George as much as possible, and ignoring the frantic shouts of Sophie for the boy not to touch anything with his soiled hands, and for Franny to please not threaten to put any of the sick down the back of her sister’s dress.
I despise you.
You are a gentle soul, you know nothing of the blackness of men’s hearts, despite your attachment to Jack and the wars and battles you have seen. But Johnson, to whom I was also attached to those years ago, and who I perhaps foolheartedly followed to America, a fact I know still pains you to recall, was not a good-hearted man. He hit me, more frequently than any woman deserves, least of all myself. And he used me, too. In ways I would prefer not to mention. My diamonds were nothing more than payment.
I will never forgive you for refusing me an abortion all those years ago.
She stares at it for a long time, and begins to weep so utterly that a few tears find their way onto the page and bubble up, salty and wet and run the ink through. It is just as well, and she folds the thing in half. She doesn’t burn it, or tear it up. She keeps it in her writing drawer, ill advised as it might be to do so. She is not with Johnson anymore, nor with Cantwell, or even her first husband. No one will read her letters here.
She repeats it to herself, and then opens up her writing box and burns the letter anyhow.
Mr. Everett surveys the property without a smile, eats supper without a smile, and says, “Goodbye ma’ams,” without a smile, too.
Sophie calls for her to come sit by her in front of the fireplace in the parlor. She is working on her embroidery again, and Diana sits in a padded armchair, uncomfortable, bloated, and aching.
“It’s not all bad, Diana,” Sophie says to her very quietly. The children are in bed for the night, a struggle left to the servants and Mrs. Williams predominantly, a wise move by any measurement.
“Explain yourself, cousin.”
Diana hates needlepoint; a frivolous waste of time, and she’s never had the patience for such pursuits, preferring to spend her time horseback riding and conversing. But she wishes she had something to busy herself with like Sophie has, somewhere other to look than into her cousin’s kind and generous face. Her pitying face. She ought to light every candle in the house just to watch that pity melt away, for Sophie is not as unlike her mother as she might wish.
“I know that things are perhaps not quite as you wish them to be. But Stephen loves you, quite dearly, and has for years. And when he returns you and your child and he can move into Barham Down, or even back to Half Moon Street.”
“Where I will trade one prison for another,” she snaps back, and then purses her lips, regretting her words almost as soon as they leave her lips. She means them, of course. But they do no good.
Sophie is quiet for a long time, her hands still and her embroidery nothing more than a prop between them. “Do you really feel that way?”
“No. I am sorry, cousin. I simply do not know how you stood it, being with child. And then to do it again! I have never been so miserable in my life. Not in the heat of India or the horrible cold of Boston, or the seasickness aboard the ship back to England.”
Sophie laughs. “Because the result is worth the pain, of course.”
Sophie tells me that there is some notion of euphoria after the birth of a child. I do not doubt this to be the case for her; she has never seemed happier than surrounded by dear Jack’s progeny, dirty and foul mouthed though they may be. I am not convinced the same will be true for myself. You expressed to me before you left that you fully felt women became mothers instinctively. Perhaps this is the case, but you will honor me in contemplating that perhaps it is not.
Motherhood is the price a woman must pay in England, to retain her respectability and the happiness of her husband. But her freedom is taken away most cruelly by the act.
My freedom has never felt more pinched, not even when I was with Johnson. Even then I could run away with you, you see. I had my diamonds, which I still have, thanks to you, and I had my freedom.
I do not mean to be ungrateful. You married me out of pity, I know that, despite what Sophie believes. You love me, or loved me, and I adore you. But I also hate you. And I hate this thing inside of me, and if I could trade my diamond to take it all back, I would.
Do not think less of me, my dear. I have done nothing rash. I know how much my pregnancy pleased you.
She burns that letter, of course. It wouldn’t do.
The creature within her kicks, feisty and as ready to be done with Diana as Diana is to be done with it.
“Soon,” she says to it, and closes her eyes. She hears the children, running about upstairs and Sophie running about after them. She tries to imagine herself up there with them all, not very long from now at all. What the child will look like, how it will act. All she sees is the dark pink of the inside of her eyelids.
"Soon," she says again. Very soon, indeed.
Ashgrove Cottage remains cheerful and pleasant under cousin Sophie’s command. Mr. Everett came to check on the estate today, and Sophie entertained him very well. There was soused pig’s head for supper, something I believe you enjoy somewhat, or perhaps that was Jack. He was quite pleased with the stable, so please inform Jack that his investment is paying off and that Sophie sends her love and a sizable letter of her own.
My horse is settling in quite finely, although suffering from a lack of proper riding.
This letter she folds kindly, sprays with her favorite perfume, and writes, “To Doctor Stephen Maturin,” on the outside in a swirling, calm hand.