The other day I saw a robin, a pretty little bird, surrounded by sparrows. I wondered why I felt such compassion for him and then realized he was alone of his kind. While the robin had a lovely plumage and was a more attractive bird, the sparrows were a community.
How silly I am to envy the sparrows.
Even being so busy with the renovations of Colstin Hall cannot stop my thoughts of you. Sometimes, I walk into the room I’ve prepared as your library, and close my eyes, wondering if I can conjure you there with my loneliness. Without much difficulty, I can see you at your desk, your eyes impatient at the interruption and then welcoming to see me standing there. You put down your quill and stand, greeting me with a smile. I stretch out my hand and can almost feel your touch on my fingers.
Oh, if it could only be true, my dearest.
I worry for you so, in the wilds of North America. I cannot think the winters there easily spent. I ache in our chamber when the wind grows wild and the storms come, thinking of you suffering in that desolate place. I have procured a map, and marked the continent in my mind, wondering where you are in that vast and strange country.
Enough of that. I will be brave as the vicar has counseled me to be. I confess, however, that at dusk I thank the Almighty for the end of another day. Each one gone is one less to endure until you return home again.
The vicar has been by again today. He visits overmuch, I think. He reminds me you are safe if I pray, and so, my dearest, I spend my waking hours in a daze of petitions to the Almighty even as I go about my work. I think I must pray even in my sleep since I awake and for a moment think you are here.
I hear stories in the market of the war and I am torn between wishing to hear more and not wanting to know anything in all. I can pretend, otherwise, that you are in Edinburgh or conferring with relatives. But then, all too soon I remember how you looked in your uniform, handsome and impatient to serve with your regiment.
Keep yourself safe for me. Forbid yourself, I implore you, the opportunity of being a hero. Tell yourself, instead, that you must return home, whole and safe, to me.
Your devoted wife,
Moncrief carefully folded the letter and placed it on the stack with the others before placing a rolled up blanket in Captain Harry Dunnan’s trunk. There were pitifully few things he could return to the man’s widow.
He wrapped the pipe in a jerkin and placed it on the bottom of the trunk. Harry rarely smoked it and when he did it was more to warm his hands then for the flavor of the tobacco. A few souvenirs from the Indians were next, and then a book of poetry Dunnan had taken from a dead Frenchman. Moncrief wrapped the other man’s brush and shaving gear in a shirt and wedged them into a corner.
He glanced at the collection of letters and debated returning them to the captain’s wife. In actuality, Moncrief was the one responsible for hoarding these, even though they rightfully belonged to Dunnan. After a minute of thought, he left them where they were on the end of the bed.
Harry’s wife had sent him a pillowcase, deftly embroidered with thistles and roses. Moncrief ran his fingers over the intricate needlework before placing it atop Dunnan’s other belongings. The Scots broadsword was next, along with Harry’s dirk. The last item to be packed was a scarlet vest and tunic, and black trousers, a match to the uniform in which Captain Dunnan had been buried.
All in all, few mementos to assuage a widow’s grief.
Moncrief closed the trunk lid and locked it, placing the key on his desk alongside a piece of blank paper and a newly trimmed quill.
He would have to write one last letter. A last letter. How many times had he told himself that? Circumstance, however, had succeeded in doing what his will could not – ended his correspondence with Catherine Dunnan.
One day, more than a year ago, he’d received a letter from Captain Dunnan’s wife inquiring as to her husband’s health. She’d not heard from him since he’d left Scotland and was concerned.
As Colonel of the regiment, it was occasionally his duty to prod his men into communicating with those they’d left behind, a chore he did not relish. Nor was this errand a particularly easy one.
“You should be glad of someone to write, Dunnan,” he’d said. Moncrief’s father deplored the task and his brother claimed no time for it. Once, there had been a woman who’d liked writing him well enough, until waiting for him had paled next to the flattery of another man.
Harry had been stretched out on his bed, still attired in his muddy uniform from that afternoon’s maneuvers. He’d only grinned and reached inside his trunk and tossed his latest, unread, letter at Moncrief.
“Here, Colonel, you write her. She’s forever prattling on of things about which I have no interest. I only married the cow because she was an heiress, but a month of marriage was enough for me.” He laughed. “Now she’s all in a twitter about that house she’s inherited. Damn shame she couldn’t have gotten the money before I joined the regiment.”
“The least you could do is ease her mind, Dunnan. Send her a letter.”
“If I write her back, Colonel, she’ll just expect another. Best not to write her at all.”
Moncrief left the room, already framing the words he’d write to Catherine Dunnan.
Your husband is an unmitigated ass who indulges his baser appetites with any available woman. He gambles and, I suspect, cheats at it. He abuses his horses and is too intent on killing for my piece of mind. Have I mentioned that I consider him the most amoral man it has been my misfortune to meet?
When he reached his room, Moncrief realized that he still had Mrs. Dunnan’s letter clutched in his hand. He tossed it aside only to find it on his table two days later, tucked beneath a map of the area.
He’d finally opened it, read the words she’d intended only for her husband to see.
That first letter he’d written to Catherine Dunnan had been one generated from pity and regret that Harry should have treated her so callously. Moncrief had written the news of the day and his thoughts on being stationed so far from home, both topics that Harry might have chosen had he the inclination or the character to write his wife.
Moncrief assuaged his guilt about signing Harry’s name with the thought that he had only done so to reassure Mrs. Dunnan. She would be content now in the silence, knowing that Harry was safe and well.
However, she’d written back. Harry had opened the letter and read it briefly before giving it to him. “Do answer her about the blasted roof, won’t you, Colonel? I haven’t an iota of interest in it.”
Thus, Moncrief’s friendship with Catherine Dunnan had begun, turning to interest and possibly something deeper as the year had progressed. He was careful not to reveal to Harry how impatient he was to read her letters, even when his captain would sometimes receive two or three at a time only to ignore their arrival. Finally, Moncrief began to intercept them, ignoring the fact his behavior was morally wrong.
Each time a letter arrived, he vowed to turn it over to Harry. Each time he overheard Harry bragging of one of his conquests at the Officer’s Mess, Moncrief decided that his behavior was not so reprehensible. He told himself that writing Catherine was not unlike putting his thoughts down in a journal. But no journal writer had ever waited so impatiently for a reply, or wondered what another person thought of his words.
Now Moncrief opened another of Catherine’s letters, one dated at the beginning of their correspondence.
I sense a difference in you, a warming to me and our vows that had not been there before. I can only hope that the vicar was right, and my prayers have been answered. You have given me hope that our marriage is to be what I’ve so long wished of it, a joining of two hearts and minds as well as a union of the flesh.
Please do not think ill of me for my forthrightness in this matter. But I have been so lonely for you all these long days since your departure. I most heartily ask your forgiveness for anything I might have done or said that kept you from our bed. I long for you so.
I hold each one of your letters against my chest as if I can feel your heartbeat within the pages, your touch hidden in your words. They ease my loneliness a little, enough that I can bear the days and weeks until your next letter.
I anticipate your homecoming with every breath and with every beat of my heart. I pray that it will be soon, but these prayers are silent, selfish ones, not shared with the vicar.
He should never have written her again. He told himself that one misstep could cause her pain. If he complimented her, she would expect kindness of Harry when he returned home. If he praised her efforts at renovating Colstin Hall, she would anticipate a similar response from Harry in the flesh. If he shared too many of his thoughts she would come to know him better than she did her own husband.
Their correspondence was a threat even as he found solace in it. He could, without too much effort, pretend that he was far away from this raw and empty place, and back in Scotland. She was a neighbor, a relative, a friend, someone to share the loneliness.
When had it become more?
Possibly when he’d begun to anticipate her letters, when he’d returned to the old house that had become the headquarters for the regiment and one of his first thoughts was to write her.
More than once, he’d wanted to ask Captain Dunnan about her appearance, if Catherine was a pretty woman, but doing so had always struck him as inappropriate. Not to mention that his curiosity would have amused Harry and called attention to Moncrief’s continuing correspondence with his wife.
Therefore, he’d consoled himself with his imagination, creating an image that began to solidify as the months passed. In his mind she was petite with blond hair and blue eyes. Her voice was soft, her smile luminous. A woman who intrigued even as she attracted.
Now his words would only bring her pain.
Moncrief stared at the blank paper for a few moments. Determined, he finally picked up the quill and took a deep breath. Having thought the words through, he wrote them once, deliberately altering his handwriting so that Catherine wouldn’t notice its similarity to the man she’d been writing for more than a year. When he finished, he sealed the letter and placed it to one side.
He glanced up as the door opened. Peter, his aide, looked barely out of his boyhood, but this past year had schooled him in war.
“Is it ready, sir?” he asked, glancing down at the trunk.
Moncrief nodded. She would take each item out one by one, he suspected, and shed tears over the pipe and the uniform. She’d wonder at the collection of feathers, and the missing letters. There would be no one to tell her that he’d kept all her correspondence. But neither would there be anyone to divulge the manner of Harry Dunnan’s true death.
“He was a bounder, wasn’t he, sir?” Peter’s expression left no doubt in his mind as to his opinion of the deceased captain.
“Perhaps you judge him too harshly, Peter.”
Peter looked dubious. But he said nothing else before grabbing one end of the trunk and hefting it on his shoulder.
Colonel Moncrief of the Lowland Scots Fusiliers pushed any lingering thoughts of Catherine Dunnan from his mind.