The Murmur of Masks
A warm and engaging story of a young woman's struggle to survive and find love in an era of violence and uncertainty
He could not woo her then but can he win her now?
Eighteen-year-old Olivia Frobisher loses her home when her mother dies suddenly. Adrift and vulnerable, she accepts Jack Rembleton’s offer of a marriage of convenience, hoping that love will grow between them. But Jack’s love is already given elsewhere. When Luke Fitzmaurice sees Olivia dance at her first ball, he is captivated by her. He arranges an introduction and, addressing her as Miss Rembleton, asks her to dance. He is mortified when he learns of his mistake. She too is shaken and wonders what might have been had she not rushed into marriage.
Ten years later, fate offers Olivia and Luke a second chance. Before they can begin to explore all that might be between them, Napoleon escapes from Elba and Luke feels obliged to join Wellington’s army in Brussels. Which is more challenging—the Battle of Waterloo or the fight for Olivia’s heart and hand?
Portsmouth, England, 1803
“When I write to you now, Papa, I shall picture you here in your cabin reading my letter or imagine you on the quarter-deck with your telescope.”
Captain Frobisher laughed. “And I shall no longer think of you as a schoolgirl with her hair down her back but as a beautiful and accomplished young lady. Please God we’ll soon defeat the French and the next time I come home it will be to stay. Your mother should start thinking about where she would like to live. We’ll buy a neat estate not too far from the sea. I must have the whiff of salt! Come, it’s time to go.”
Up on deck, he hugged her to him and kissed her fondly. “Goodbye, my darling Olivia. May God protect you until we meet again.”
She blinked the tears from her eyes. “And you, Papa. May you always have fair winds in your sails and the enemy at a disadvantage.” She settled herself somewhat nervously in the boatswain’s chair.
“Stop fidgeting,” her father muttered as he looped a ribbon around her skirts close to her ankles to prevent any immodest fluttering while she was lowered to the boat that would take them back to shore.
“You’re a real sailor’s daughter now,” he teased. “Hold tight, my darling.”
The boatswain’s pipe trilled and Olivia held her breath as she was swung over the side of the ship and gently lowered to the captain’s gig waiting below. It rocked as she stepped in to it and she had to clutch the hand of the young officer to steady herself before she could take her place beside her mother.
As the gig pulled away from the Hector, the women twisted in their seats to wave a final farewell. Above them Captain Frobisher stood motionless, his telescope fixed on his wife and daughter and they knew he would remain there until, safely ashore, they disappeared from view.
Early the next morning, it was the women who watched from the ramparts until the ship vanished over the horizon.
“First Robert, then Papa,” Olivia said sadly. “We’ll miss them.”
“Yes,” her mother answered, adding briskly, “now we must get used to being without them again. If we find Weymouth agreeable, perhaps we should take a house there for six months from Michaelmas. Your father may have his estate, but I should like to be near a town with good shops. Thanks to his Majesty’s interest, Weymouth should be better in that regard than other coastal towns and the society will be more refined.”
Olivia completed a neat pirouette out of sheer excitement before continuing more sedately along the landing to her mother’s room. A sunny day and a new costume! There could be nothing more elevating to the spirits. She smoothed the skirts of her gown, enjoying the feel of the cool cotton against her palms. The pattern of autumn leaves on cream was most becoming and later the deep gold redingote would bring out matching tints in her eyes and hair. Weymouth had indeed proved agreeable and Mrs Frobisher had found a charming house there at a reasonable rent. There was so much to do in these last days in Portsmouth. She and Mamma must first visit the shops in the High Street but then they could stroll on the ramparts. No doubt there would be many others taking advantage of the first fine day in a week. If Mamma is agreeable, I’ll send at once to the Blue Anchor to order a carriage, Olivia thought. Smiling to herself, she tapped lightly on the bedroom door and slipped into the room. The curtains were still drawn and soft autumnal sun filtered through to deepen the sheen on the satin counterpane.
“Mamma?” Olivia said quietly and then, more cheerfully, “Good morning, sleepyhead!” There was a smile in her voice as she repeated the morning greeting from her childhood. That was how Mamma had woken her each morning. As she moved closer to the bed, she was struck by an unusual silence. Mamma did not precisely snore, but it could not be denied that she was inclined to breathe more heavily while sleeping.
“Mamma!” she said more insistently. “Mamma!”
There was no reply. She darted to the window and tore open the curtains, then hurried back to the bed. All was quiet; she could hear only her own quick footsteps and the sound of her agitated voice as she called again. There was still no reply. Frightened, she drew back the bed curtain, deliberately letting the rings rattle, but her mother did not stir. Olivia’s hand covered her mouth, as if to repress a silent scream.
She leaned forward to touch first a still hand and then a waxen cheek. There was no reaction from the sleeper, no breath stirred her breast and she felt cold, too cold. Olivia seized her shoulders and shook her. “Mamma!” She gasped to see her mother’s head sway eerily back and forth, the eyes slightly open and the features fixed and unmoving.
“Mamma,” she whispered as she gently laid her back on her pillows. The hand that had rested on the counterpane slipped to one side in an unnatural movement like that of a rag doll. Olivia’s knees buckled, collapsing her to the floor where she remained for long minutes clutching her mother’s cold hand. There was no sign of life but she could not, would not accept the evidence of her senses.
“Miss Olivia! Whatever is the matter?”
The shocked exclamation of the maid who entered with the breakfast tray brought Olivia back to herself. Slowly she lifted her head from the soft eiderdown. “Oh, Betty, ’tis Mamma—she’s—she’s gone. She has left us." Excerpt from The Murmur of Masks copyright Catherine Kullmann 2016
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