Tasha Alexander And Only to Deceive
"my soul's far better part..."
On first looking into Chapman's Homer
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific–and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Few people would look kindly on my reasons for marrying Philip; neither love nor money nor his title induced me to accept his proposal. Yet, as I look across the spans of Aegean Sea filling the view from my villa's balcony, I cannot doubt that it was a surprisingly good decision.
The Viscount Ashton seemed an unlikely candidate to bring anyone much happiness, at least according to my standards. His fortune, moderate good looks, and impeccable manners guaranteed that hapless females would constantly fling themselves at him in the hope of winning his affection. They missed his defining characteristic, ensuring that he would never pay them more than the slightest polite attention: Philip was a hunter.
I mean this, of course, literally. Hunting possessed him. He spent as much time as his fortune would permit pursuing wild beasts. The dignified (although I would not choose to describe it as so) English hunt amused him, but he preferred big game and passed much of his time stalking his quarry on the plains of Africa. He could be found in London only briefly, at the height of the Season, when he limited his prey to potential brides. The image he presented could be described as striking, I suppose. He played the part of daring adventurer well.
My encounter with the dashing viscount began as such things typically do, at a soirée. I found the conversation lacking and longed to return home to the novel that had engrossed me all morning. Philip differed little from other men I met, and I had no interest in continuing the acquaintance. No interest, that is, until I decided to accept the inevitable and agree to marry.
My mother and I do not particularly enjoy each other's company. From the day the queen kissed me during my presentation at court in Buckingham Palace, I heard from Mother constant reminders that my looks would soon fade, and she admonished me to do my best to catch a husband immediately. That I had refused several good offers continued to vex her, and I will not bore the reader with the details of these trivial events. Suffice it to say that I had little interest in marriage. I cannot claim that this was due to lofty ideals of love or outrage at the submission demanded by many husbands of their wives. Frankly, I considered the proposition of matrimony immensely boring. Married women I knew did scarcely more than bear children and order around their servants. Their time consumed by mundane details, the most excitement for which they could hope was some social event at which they could meet one another and complain about said children and servants. I preferred my life at home. At least as a single woman, I had time to pursue my own interests, read voraciously, and travel when opportunity presented.
Did I marry Philip, then, because of his keen sense of adventure? Did I long to travel to darkest Africa with him? Hardly. I married him because he happened to propose at a moment when accepting him seemed a simple way out of an increasingly unbearable situation.
As the months following my debut progressed, my mother became more and more desperate, her dearest wish having always been to see me make a brilliant match before the end of my first Season. She lamented continually; it was nearly impossible to converse with her on any other topic. Any topic, that is, other than the proposals being accepted by the daughters of her friends. She began to point out the slightest wrinkles and imperfections on my face, bemoaning what she considered to be the beginning of the end of my wasted beauty. She cut my allowance, telling me I must learn to live on a pittance if I were determined to be a spinster. The final affront came one morning when she entered my room with a dressmaker's tape. She wanted to measure my waist to see how quickly I was becoming old and fat. I could bear it no longer.
That same afternoon Philip called and asked me to do him the honor of becoming his wife. This came as a complete surprise; I had rarely conversed with him, though we saw each other frequently at social gatherings. Having no interest in hunting or in his superficial charm, I tended to avoid him. I did not realize that the hunter always prefers the quarry that is difficult to catch. He claimed to love me endlessly and said all the pretty words we expect to hear on such an occasion. They meant nothing to me. Living with him could not be worse than continued subjection to my mother's ranting. I accepted his proposal immediately.
The wedding took place as soon as my trousseau could be assembled. Six months later I found myself a widow. I had known my husband barely long enough for his name to stop sounding foreign on my lips. When I read the telegram, a feeling of relief and freedom swept through my body, causing me to tremble. The butler reached toward me, assuming I would faint. I never faint. Fainting is a result of affectation or too-tight stays; I will succumb to neither.
I felt no grief for the loss of Philip. I hardly knew him. As the astute reader will already have guessed, the hunter rarely has much interest in his quarry once it is caught, except as a trophy. After a brief wedding trip, my new husband returned to Africa, where he spent the months prior to his death hunting with his friends. We exchanged civil, impersonal letters. Then the prescribed period of mourning began. For twelve months I would have to wear nothing but black crepe and avoid nearly all social events. After that I would be allowed silk, but in dull grays and black stripes. Not until two years had passed would I be able to return to an ordinary existence.
Philip settled irrevocably upon me a large fortune, and, much to my surprise, I now had at my disposal not only the London town house but also my husband's country manor, a place I had yet to see. Although the property was, of course, entailed, Philip's family insisted that I did not need to find a new home. Because we had no children, Philip's heir was his sister's son. The boy, called Alexander, was three years old and quite comfortably ensconced in his parents' house. He did not yet need to relocate to the family seat.
For more than a year, I stayed in London, left for dead as all good widows are. Relief came unexpectedly in the form of my husband's friend, Colin Hargreaves.
I spent my afternoons in Philip's walnut-paneled library, loving the feeling of being surrounded by books. Like the rest of the house, it was elegantly decorated, with a spectacular curved ceiling and the finest English Axminster carpets. Some previous viscount had selected the furniture with as much of an eye for comfort as for appearance, making the room a place where one could relax with ease in the most luxurious surroundings. It was here that Mr. Hargreaves interrupted my reading on a warm summer day. He strode across the room and nodded at me as he reached for my hand, raising it gently to his lips.
"Odd to be in this room without him," he said, glancing about. "Your husband and I planned all of our trips from here." He sat on a large leather chair. "I'm dreadfully sorry, Lady Ashton. I shouldn't speak of such painful things." Devoid of sentimental attachment to my deceased mate, I felt distinctly uncomfortable in the company of his closest friend.
"Never mind. Would you like some tea?" I reached for the bell.
"No, don't trouble yourself. I am here on business."
"Then perhaps you should see my solicitor."
"I've just come from his office. You are aware, of course, of your husband's love of Greece and the Aegean?" he asked, looking directly into my eyes.
"Greece?" I asked, not wanting to reveal more ignorance of my husband's interests than absolutely necessary.
"As I'm sure you know, he spent months there every year. While he was ill in Africa..." Mr. Hargreaves paused, looking at me questioningly.
"Please go on."
"He so looked forward to taking you to Greece and showing you the villa."
"The villa?" I had vague memories of my solicitor's mentioning such a place, but he had not given me any details, assuming I was too overcome by grief to concern myself with such things.
"It was not part of the family property. He owned it himself and wanted you to have it. It's a magnificent place, sweeping views of the Aegean. You'll love it. I think he intended to surprise you by taking you there." He paused again. "When he was sick, it was a subject to which he continually returned: 'Kallista must go to the villa.' I promised to arrange the trip for you."