It was a cold April morning in 1888. Even though Laura pulled the blanket up as far as it would go she could still see her breath making great mountains of steam as it hit the air. She glanced up at the huge window; the curtain, not quite closed, revealed condensation running down the inside of the glass. She wished her sister Julia was still living at home, with her right now, hugging and warming her, whispering words of comfort, but Julia had gone off to marry a local farmer. Laura sighed. She wanted to be old enough to marry, to wear her hair up and go into long skirts, but she still had another year or so before that would be allowed to happen. She wriggled her toes, the only part of her body that was warm, and that was because her dog Major lay across them. He looked up at her hopefully, eyes alert, ready for adventure. Laura was very fond of the little creature, named after one of her brothers who was in the army. She thought about letting him into the bed to warm her, but only last week she had got into trouble with her mother, who had discovered dogs hairs on the sheets.
Laura leapt out of bed, grimacing as her feet hit the cold floor. Major was with her in an instant. She flung the curtains back in a dramatic gesture. She stared imperiously at the morning.
“See the birds.” She pointed at the trees opposite. “You are not to chase them.” Major licked her fingers, as if he understood. “We will get dressed, Major, and I will take you for a walk.”
Major wagged his tail; he knew the routine. Soon they would be running as fast as each other down familiar paths in the park.
Laura dressed quickly, and, throwing on a warm cape, dragged some of her curly auburn hair onto the top of her head, letting other thick strands of curl cascade down onto her shoulders. She didn’t want to look too grown up, just in case she displeased her mother again.
No-one seemed to be around downstairs, although Laura knew that her father was probably in the drawing room, writing his sermon or saying his morning prayers. Her mother would be in the dairy instructing the cook and maid on their daily tasks – not now as arduous as they used to be. With all the older sisters married, and her brothers in the army, there were only the three of them to be looked after. Laura felt like an only child. Her father was the Methodist preacher at the nearby Hall, and he enjoyed privileges of being attached to nobility. Laura also enjoyed these privileges and would sometimes be allowed to ride in the carriage with the Lord and his Lady.
As soon as the outside air hit her, Laura came to life. Forgetting her primness, she raced with Major down one of the paths in the park. The Hall soon came into sight, big and imposing. Laura slowed to a walk, and smiled. She liked the big mansion, and the Lord who lived there. He appeared to like her too and would often pat her head and tell her how pretty she was. He had given her Major – a King Charles spaniel, a breed the aristocracy favoured.
She stopped to take a breath by the old oak tree. Suddenly she heard a strange sound. Someone was whistling a lilting tune. Laura listened in awe. She had tried to whistle once, but had been severely rebuked by her mother, who told her that Ladies do not whistle, and so she had not tried it again. As she espied the owner of the whistle sauntering down the path towards them, she tried to hide behind the tree. But it was to no avail; Major, excited by the sound, leapt out and barked noisily at the young man.
He laughed as Laura emerged.
Tilting her chin, she stared at him.
“Are you from the estate?” she asked, mustering her authority. “Village boys are not allowed in the park unless they are working for the family.”
“I might be. And what about you, Madam – what are you doing here?”
“My father is the Methodist Preacher,” Laura announced proudly.
His eyes gleamed with mischief. “So what might be your name then?”
Laura studied him. She was not sure about him. He couldn’t have been that much older than her – maybe sixteen or so. He had a certain air about him, and better clothes than the village boys, and yet his accent was not quite of the upper class. Still, she had Major to protect her if anything went wrong, although he was by now wagging his tail and rubbing himself against the stranger’s legs.
“I’m Laura Dann,” she said.
“James.” He held out his hand. Laura took it, amazed at his strong grip.
He obviously didn’t intend to tell her any more. Laura loosened her hand, quite annoyed.
“I think you are very arrogant, and it’s very impolite not to tell me your full name,” she reproved.
“They tell me you climb trees,” he said.
James motioned toward the hall. “You probably can’t do it now,” he said. “You’re getting too big.”
Laura lifted her chin. “No,” she said. “It’s too wet.”
James laughed. “I’ll tell you what,” he whispered, lifting a curly tress from her shoulder. “You meet me here tomorrow, show me how to climb this oak, and I’ll teach you how to whistle like the morning lark.” With that he swung round and marched off in the direction of the Hall.
The next morning, Laura had absolutely no intention of going to meet James or anyone. It was the sun, streaming in through the window, she reasoned, that persuaded her she needed to go for a walk, and Major seemed friskier than ever. It was a warmer day and the cape would not be needed. Laura chose to wear her second best dress of brown silk, handed down from Julia, which accentuated the colour of both her hair and her eyes. After all she couldn’t go for a walk in the park looking as if she didn’t care for her appearance, she told herself. She didn’t know who she might stumble across.
James was waiting for her. Laura feigned surprise at seeing him.
“You look pretty,” he said, dispensing with any formalities.
Laura felt her cheeks redden. “It’s not my best dress,” she said defensively. “My mother keeps my best dress locked away for occasions.”
“Really?” He gave her a teasing look. “Will you be able to climb trees in that?”
“Of course.” And to prove it Laura swung herself into the lower branch and sat looking at James. He joined her.
“Well, is that it, now?”
She stared at him curiously. “Were do you come from?”
James laughed. “Why?”
“You sound different.”
“Is that right?” James took her hand. “Shall I teach you how to whistle?”
Laura nodded. She could feel his breath on her hand as he put it to his lips and blew gently onto it. It was the first time she had ever been close to a man, besides her father or her brothers, and for some reason it made her feel good.
“Doesn’t seem to work,” he whispered. “I think we need to meet up every morning so we can practice. What do you think, Laura?”
They met every day for the next few weeks. No-one seemed to know of their early morning liaison. They delighted in each other’s company, sitting and talking, and running with Major across the grass.
Then, some weeks later, as they sat together in the oak tree, James became suddenly very serious. Gently his hand caressed her neck.
“I have to go… to go away,” he said sadly. “Only for a while. But I want you to wait for me, my Laura?”
Laura was mortified.
“You can’t!” she cried. “Take me with you.”
“I would love to but … you’re too young. But I’ll come back,” he promised. He drew her face gently towards his. “May I kiss you?”
Laura sat very still.
There was a warmth in his lips. She liked it. She savoured the intimacy; it was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Timidly she put her hand on his cheek and felt the roughness of his skin.
He at last let her go, and leapt down from the branch.
“You are now mine, Laura – remember that.”
“Don’t go! Don’t go…”
He kissed both her hands and hurried away. She was dazed, both at his sudden departure and of her feelings for him. Distressed, she watched him until his figure disappeared from view.
She vowed there and then to marry James and no-one else.
Laura stood, hesitating, in front of the ornate door which led to the Hall Library. She could almost feel her parent’s breath on her back. They were determined to marry her off. She had already turned down suitors, much to their annoyance. This time they were quite adamant. They knew she didn’t want this arranged match, but it was too good to miss. A certain Lord from Ireland had offered his hand – he was wealthy and was searching for someone of virtuous character. Laura though not of the aristocracy was perfect for him – young, attractive, of a good line. She had protested loudly. She told her parents about James, the lad she had met in the park that spring, three years before, but they refused to believe there was ever such a person. They reasoned with her, cajoled, threatened. Already seventeen, if she did not accept the offer, then she would have to be sent into service to become a maidservant, possibly at the Hall in which she now stood. Still she argued. She should be free to choose who she wanted. She did not wish to marry this unknown person.
And so now she stood with fate in her hands. Bravely she walked into the Library. The aristocrat stood with his back to her, staring out at the Park.
“Sir,” she began. “As flattered as I am by your proposal, I…” She got no further. His Lordship put up his hand in a commanding way, silencing her.
“Laura Dann,” he said quietly, still facing the window.
There was a lilt in his voice.
“How many men have kissed you?”
Laura reddened. The impudence! “One.”
“And who might that have been?”
He turned slowly round.
Laura’s eyes widened.
Sudden excitement and giddiness engulfed her. She could only whisper.