–29th July 1800
My dear Molly and sisters,
Since I last wrote, I’ll admit that I’ve worked my body to the grindstone. General Durham has had us all working constantly, and this morning… Well, I do not think I have ever run so far in ten minutes.
Regiment life is, I find, generally challenging. I don’t suppose you would think so when we are at peace, but we still train night and day. It is gruelling when we have to work, but fairly merry otherwise.
And, I confess, I do not have much to complain of. It is mainly sword fighting tactics and equestrian skills… Or running around a track.
We did this today, Molly dearest, and I could not stop thinking of you. Even while I ran, your blue eyes were bright in my memory and I could swear that I felt your curls under my fingers. They were long and soft and so… blonde. Are they still the same shade as when you gave me that locket? I still have the piece of hair inside.
But we were one and the same at that moment, Molly, even as I was out of breath and muddy. We will always be of one mind, you know, my love. And we shall see each other again soon when I finally return home from France.
I will beg General Durham until he lets me come home. They have no need for me here, I am sure, and I am quite determined to see you. I must see your pretty face again and – if I may be liberal – I wish I could kiss your rosy lips.
Even Mr Candice’s frequent letters, assuring me that all is fine, are not a help. They never seem to mention you, Molly, but then you and I both know how prudish Benjamin is.
I think of Candice a lot, too. Not quite as much as I think of you, but certainly twice a day. I miss him immensely and am sure that he misses me too. I hope I am not being too assuming here, dearest, but Benjamin Candice would miss everyone if they all went away.
He is an excellent gentleman and I declare that I am very fond of him.
He may not show his feelings often, but he is good-natured and sensible and… loyal, I suppose. His morale is perfect, his instincts are always accurate. He judges everything unbiasedly and, if I wish to save time, I shall say that no one in the world could rival him.
Except maybe you, Molly. Oh, how I long to be at home.
Are my sisters well? I know that Anna and Louisa are sometimes unkind to you. You don’t deserve such treatment, dearest, and if I ever find that they haven’t stopped, I shall talk to them myself. Or maybe I could persuade Benjamin to talk to them.
He is much more even-tempered than I am and would never lose patience with them. Sometimes I wonder if he feels things as acutely as we do. He never seems upset or lonely, never is angry or jealous. And he never seems to mind being single.
Is it his age, do you think? I know Benjamin isn’t elderly, but he is a good eight years older than me. Shall I mature like that in future?
Pass on my regards to Benjamin, Molly, and everyone else we know. Even Cecil Myers may be remembered today. I shouldn’t single him out like that, I am aware. We are ‘acquaintances’, after all. But we all know that he has never been as close to me as Mr Candice.
For now, I suppose, I must bid you adieu and hope that I can be home by tomorrow or the day after.
I love you, Molly, with all the parts that have feeling and even the ones which do not.
Your affectionate admirer,
Captain Frederick Harlin.
Molly Ringhart folded up the letter.
There are many women of independent character in the world, but she was not one of them. In fact, she was innocent to the point that it was a flaw and was utterly naive about it.
She was sat beneath the apple tree, and her skirts flowed out around her. They formed a nest of white silk, seeping over the ground like flower petals.
In the distance, Anna and Louisa Harlin stood taller than royalty. They were gossiping in hushed voices, but Molly did not need to hear what they said. She knew that their subject was her. It always was, if they could find no other topic.
Taking out a small book from her skirt pocket, Miss Ringhart sighed. A light breeze rippled her hair, gently loosening the styled curls. The faded cover showed a pair of lovers, sitting side-saddled on a white horse. Around them, hundreds of roses arched and a palace stood in the distance.
‘Cinderella’ trilled the gold lettering and Molly touched the cover fondly.
As she picked it up and turned it beneath her fingers, a crumpled piece of paper fell out. It fluttered away several paces in the breeze, but Molly leaned over and caught it again.
She smoothed it out.
It was a carefully-written note in familiar, elegant handwriting.
Madam, your tastes have not improved in the slightest. Try ‘Macbeth’ or ‘The Castle of Otranto’.
Mr B. Candice.
A smile flickered over Molly’s features as she curled the note around her little finger. Mr Candice was always attempting to ‘broaden her mind’ by telling her not to read only romance.
But romance novels were all Molly needed for education. She could read, she could sew and she could play the harp. Surely it did not matter that she knew no Latin or anything to do with the outside world?
The inside world was enough. And Molly was far too easily satisfied.
As she sat on the grass and looked down at the paper again, a shadow fell over her. She looked up in surprise.
“Good afternoon, Miss Ringhart. I see you’ve found my secret note,” said the owner of the shadow, archly smiling.
Molly laughed, her fingers still curling around the piece of paper. “The same to you, Mr Candice,” she smiled, “and I hope you have not come to confiscate my book.”
Candice immediately glanced down at his boots, suddenly very interested in the grass. “I wouldn’t do that for the world,” he said softly. His complexion had coloured slightly, but Miss Ringhart failed to notice anything.
She was too busy absent-mindedly folding and shredding the note. “Then why slip such a note into my reading book?” she asked.
He looked up again, smiling. The colour in his cheeks had finally begun to fade. “Because reading such books about Princes and love, it- Well, I don’t suppose you’ve ever read anything else. Your mind will never be improved at this rate and…” Benjamin stopped himself, knowing too well that he thought she was perfect.
He tried again. “Do you really expect to find a husband by looking in a romance book?”
It was Molly’s turn to blush, thinking of her beloved Captain Harlin. It was not long until he came back from France…
As though he could read her thoughts, Benjamin Candice sighed. “There are other gentlemen in the world,” he said softly, “besides Frederick. And for him, there are other ladies. Perhaps-” Here he stopped, went oddly silent, and the colour in his cheeks returned.
Molly, who now had a little mountain of paper shards in her lap, looked up, still smiling. “Perhaps? Perhaps what, sir?” she asked, her voice bright and perky.
Mr Candice looked at her. Then he looked down at the picture of the couple on the horse and at the paper pieces in the bowl of Molly’s skirt. He looked back at Molly again. “Perhaps…” he said slowly, “Perhaps you and he will find your interests lie… elsewhere.”
Almost as soon as he’s said it, he felt a sharp pang of regret. Oh, God. Why had he said that? What was he thinking?
Surprise at once crossed Miss Ringhart’s features. “Whatever do you mean, Mr Candice?” she whispered.
Benjamin swallowed. His mouth felt very dry and the taste of selfishness crept over his tongue. His morality forbade him to go on and so he sharply changed tracks. “I mean that you must not… fret over Harlin. The… erm… certain happy event will surely come sooner or later,” he said.
The words tasted bitter, dark and sour like black coffee.
Molly beamed at him, tears of joy welling in her eyes. “You think so?” she asked, as though he’d suggested that Christmas would be early. The lie had blown right over her head and she had no idea of her companion’s current thoughts. Once again, her innocence had got the better of her.
These said thoughts of her companion were miserable and Candice tried to ignore the jealousy in his heart. The marriage would come around eventually. He knew that it would, had known it long ago.
If only he could be happy.
If only he could quench that awful affection.
The sudden summer gust blew an early apple from the tree. It was sour and unripe. An insect crawled across the skin, which Benjamin pretended to examine.
Molly was reading the book about the couple on the horse again. Her golden curls tumbled down her back, and her blue eyes were dreamy and innocent. She had evidently bought a new dress recently, as Benjamin didn’t recognise this one. He knew her wardrobe back to front, knew her hairstyles, her jewellery, even the way she used her curl-papers.
Her lips were slightly parted and they were soft… Softer than roses…
Mr Candice mentally scolded himself for allowing his mind to dwell on her again. For the sixth time since lunch.
She is in love with Harlin, Benjamin firmly told his heart. She is in love with your best friend.
Molly Ringhart had been destined to marry Frederick from the moment she had set foot in his house. As soon as she had been orphaned as a baby, she and Harlin had been closer than two halves of an oyster.
Benjamin Candice had never stood a chance. He was her superior a thousand times over. Molly looked up to him like he was a favourite uncle. He was her friend and Harlin’s best friend. He advised them in everything they did…
But he was nothing more.
‘Lover’ was certainly not his title.
Unable to stand the agony of watching Molly longer, Mr Candice turned and silently walked away.
Molly did not even look up.
He walked across the neat lawn, shielding the sun from his eyes.
The weather was warm and the sky was cloudless. The badly-stifled laughter of Anna and Louisa punctured the peace, and Benjamin passed them in silence.
“…ever since he laid his eyes on her. It is a pity, really. She is such a silly creature,” he heard Anna Harlin say.
Benjamin assumed they were talking about Molly. The sisters were very grand and very ladylike. Of course Miss Ringhart was too innocent for their standards.
Anna Harlin was tall, dark-haired and nothing short of ruthless when it came to preserving her superior status.
Her younger sister, Louisa, was slightly less calculating and with lighter hair. Benjamin even thought she could have turned out amiable if she hadn’t had Anna for a role model.
Now, however, Louisa opened her mouth to agree. “Oh, yes. Quite pathetic, she is. So sweet and girlish and angelic. Our brother shall never hear a word against-” she stopped as she caught sight of a figure moving nearby. “Mr Candice! I did not know you had come for a visit!”
The two women turned, their gossip suddenly ceasing. But the glint of their eyes gave them away; gossiping was their favourite pastime and everyone knew it.
Unable to even hide behind a tree, Benjamin reluctantly moved towards them as Anna held out her hand. He kissed hers first, then Louisa’s, not wishing to stay a moment longer than he had to.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” he said, bowing slightly to each, “I beg that you won’t let me detain you.” He had then hoped to get away, but Anna’s tall, stately figure blocked the only escape route.
“Why did you not tell us you were coming today?” she said, feigning hurt surprise. If she hadn’t known him as she did, Benjamin suspected she would have fluttered her eyelids. Even if she was being courted by a Mr De Bourle.
“I had not intended it myself. I only stopped by for a few brief minutes to-” He was interrupted.
“Louisa and I had some music to amuse you with, Mr Candice. And as our brother is not yet home, we have no one but ourselves to entertain us!”
Candice sighed, not wanting to be dragged into one of their four-hour-long music sessions. “No one but yourselves? Surely you may include Miss Ringhart?” He didn’t wish to feed Molly to the wolves, either, but he at least would get to escape.
And Molly would learn something by talking to the sisters. Something along the lines of ‘stay away. They do not like you’.
“Oh, but she is busy reading a letter from our brother!” protested Anna Harlin, nudging Louisa and looking in the direction of the apple tree. “And, of course, she doesn’t want to be disturbed.”
A gut-wrench of pain flashed through Benjamin as he thought of all the loving things Harlin might have said to Molly. He really wished to leave… “I’m sure she wouldn’t mind,” he said, waving a hand and edging between his two barricades.
Their grumbles were ignored as he strode away, and the gossip was started up immediately where they’d left off.
“Why on Earth did she have to come here when her parents died?” Benjamin heard Anna Harlin say.
“Quite,” agreed Louisa as he slipped from their earshot, “whatever was our father thinking?”
Pursing his lips, Mr Candice walked on. Even if Miss Ringhart was innocent, he couldn’t side with her lover’s relations. Colonel Harlin had been a sensible gentleman and a friend of Molly’s family. He had taken her in out of pure kindness and had looked after her better than any father would.
Even on his deathbed, he had instructed his son to do the same. To look after Molly as well as ever.
And of course Frederick had followed his father’s instructions eagerly. Lord only knows how much he adored Molly.
He deserved her, Candice knew, in a way that no one else could ever beat. And when their marriage came…
Benjamin gave himself a firm berating. By then his affection would be vanquished.
By then he would think of her no more.