I love this time of year. I particularly adore when all the flowers pop out from hiding and the weather warms enough for us to walk out and enjoy them. Today’s “May Flowers” post is a brand new vignette written to accompany my current work in progress, entitled These Dreams. You will be the first to read hints of the plot! The story of the novel begins in the traditional timeline of canon, but Darcy and Elizabeth’s tale hinges on what Colonel Fitzwilliam did while he was stationed in Portugal during the early days of the Peninsular war. This vignette explains some of those origins.
A little historical background: In November of 1807, Napoleon’s troops invaded Portugal. The British, sensing the strategic importance of the country, were quick to offer their support, and Portugal became a British protectorate. English troops and British warships helped to fight back the French army and saw some success, but in March of 1809, the French took the city of Porto.
General Wellesley was appointed commander of the Anglo-Portuguese army, which, as one can tell by the name, combined both Portuguese and British forces into one fighting unit. On May 12 of 1809, the French were again expelled from the war-torn city. Today’s “prequel,” if you will, picks up here, just after the Second Battle of Porto, and it is where our real story begins. What, you may ask, could Richard Fitzwilliam have done in Portugal that was more important than fighting battles? Why, what any young man would do when he found himself surrounded by flowers in spring.
He fell in love.
Major Richard Fitzwilliam straightened his uniform jacket and adjusted the sling about his arm as he stepped down from the carriage. The house at which he had just arrived reminded him a great deal of his childhood home, the estate of Matlock in northern England. Though perhaps older and somewhat smaller due to its location in the city, it was similarly grand, with an old-world feel to it rather than the more modern elegance of his cousin’s estate of Pemberley.
His host and traveling companion, Lieutenant Rodrigo de Noronha, struggled to the ground with a pronounced limp. He shifted a crutch under his uninjured arm and made an inviting gesture toward the house. “Welcome to my home, senhor. My father awaits, he wishes most eagerly to meet you.”
Richard smiled graciously and followed his new companion up the steps of the house. Such a sight they must have made, battered but still resplendent in their mismatched military finery! In the few months Richard had been stationed on the Peninsula with Wellesley’s elite Light Division, he had found a number of his new Portuguese comrades in arms worthy of his admiration. Lieutenant Noronha, however, had been the first to extend the hand of genuine friendship. Saving a man’s life in battle tended to have that effect.
They had entered the house now, and a slightly husky older gentleman approached, his face shining with his desire to please his guest. This would be the Lieutenant’s father, António Moniz de Noronha. “Major Fitzwilliam,” he bowed, “please to make yourself welcome!”
“I thank you, sir. It was kind of you to offer your hospitality while I mend. I am most grateful to you.”
Noronha beamed and clapped a hand on his son’s shoulder. “You save my Ruy’s life! It is I who am in your debt, senhor. Your wound, it does not pain you too much?”
“Just a scratch, sir,” Richard smiled confidently. “Many were not so fortunate. I am chafing to be about my duties with my men, but my general insisted on a short leave until I regain full use of my arm.”
“It is only long enough for them to polish up a medal for you!” laughed the younger Noronha. “And a new post, from what I hear. Are you not to become a personal aide to General Payne? That is why he promoted you, of course- he could not have a mere Lieutenant to wait upon him.”
Richard felt his face warming modestly, but his host spared him a response. “The accolades of honour are well-deserved, senhor. Now please, let me boast of you as my guest, as is fitting. Do not fear that I will host any grand soirees in your honour, for in a time of war I fear it would be in poor taste, but I must introduce you to some of Porto’s leading families. They will all wish to meet the Englishman who stormed the canon to save one of our own.”
“I assure you, sir, I did no more than any of my comrades would have done. Had fortune so chosen, it might be my father extending his appreciation to your son.”
“Sim!” chuckled the older gentleman. “But it was you who did it, and therefore you have my gratitude and your father shall have a box of fine cigars. Pedro!” he gestured to an attendant waiting nearby. “Come see to my guest, and make him comfortable. Forgive me, senhor, but I was engaged upon some pressing business when you arrived. My associate is just come as well and I must attend him now while you refresh yourself. You and Ruy will take tea with me in an hour?”
Richard bowed formally to his host, and both the traveling heroes were shown upstairs.
Noronha was still beaming in pride when he entered his study again. “Forgive me, Sr Vasconcelos. The Englishman has arrived, and it was necessary that I greet him properly.”
One of the most powerful men in all of Porto, Manuel Vasconcelos, had taken a seat and seemed quite at home in Noronha’s study. His son Miguel, who had lately become something of a pupil to his father, gazed out of the window into the gardens, seemingly lost to the other occupants of the room.
“No matter,” Vasconcelos rose lazily from his seat and drew close to the desk. “I heard something of our Lieutenant’s misadventure. A close brush he had of it, so it is said.”
“Indeed! His horse was shot from under him, and the line was charging from behind. If not for the Englishman cutting back through the fray before the guns to retrieve him, he would have been trampled to death. As it is, the doctors say he shall recover well in a few months and will scarcely even walk with a limp.”
Vasconcelos released a low whistle. “It seems our Ruy has earned a valiant friend. What is his name?”
Noronha had poured his companion a drink, and now set his own freshly drained glass upon the desk. “Fitzwilliam. Major Richard Fitzwilliam. Ruy tells me his family are of noble lineage and considerable patronage.”
Vasconcelos’ face changed and he tightened his grip on his glass. At his brief silence, his son Miguel turned curiously to observe the gentlemen. “Fitzwilliam, you say?” he inquired in a low voice.
“You have heard of him?” Noronha asked as he tipped the decanter into his glass again.
Vasconcelos drew a slow, savouring taste of his port and then thinned his lips before replying. “I know of his family, and so do you, but perhaps not by name. One day I will tell you of it, but it is of no importance now.”
Noronha shrugged and took his seat. “Well, then, if we are not to speak of Fitzwilliam, I presume you have other matters of interest to discuss.”
Vasconcelos’ face brightened. “Do you remember the survey I ordered last year?”
“In Braga? I had nearly forgotten, but now that you mention it, I do recall something. You were looking for silver?”
“Silver!” scoffed the other. “No, something of far greater worth.”
Vasconcelos leaned forward, setting his glass with deliberate gentleness on the desk. “Iron, old friend. The ore of the future, on whose backbone our nation may survive after the war is over.”
Noronha groaned dismally. “You are assuming we will have a country left to us after the Corsican razes our countryside.”
“With the English as our allies now? We have reclaimed our city and half our territory already! I think we have reason to hope. We shall never recover if we make no plans for the future, and the future is in steel and factories.”
“Nothing of note has been found in our soil before. Are you saying that you have now discovered something?”
“Not discovered. Confirmed. My family has known of it for sixty years, but nothing could ever come of it due to royal politics.”
“And nothing shall come of it now, either. The war has seen to that- why, the ground must still be warm from Napoleon’s camp fires. Perhaps in seven or eight years, if we survive-”
“You think so small! I wager the war will be decided in half that time with Wellesley in command. If that be the case, we must begin to plan now.”
“Why do you come to me?”
Vasconcelos leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers. “This city has been mismanaged, old friend. Little thought to proper infrastructure, no forward thinking. What we need is a man of business who understands industry, but still a aristocrat who possesses ample credibility with the city’s older families to rally their support. With an innovative man directing matters here, and proper stewardship of our resources, Porto could become more than a lucrative port city. It could become an industrial metropolis such as only England herself has!”
Noronha lifted a brow. “Go on.”
Vasconcelos, confident now that his hook had set, tipped forward in his seat. “I can have you appointed to office. A few years from now, when the war is over, I will count on your support to raise this city from the ashes. Together, we can build something tremendous, old friend!”
“And what support would you require? Money? I am afraid we have little of that and are not likely to have more soon.”
“Let me attend to the money. I may have a source to supply our wants there, but it is a matter of some delicacy. First we must obtain rights to the land, which was tied up in a royal grant. I shall manage that bit, old friend. From you I will count on political support. Public opinion, management of the authorities, that sort of thing. A little grease smooths the gears, eh? You are well respected by all circles, and I think you the right man for the job. In return, you will soon preside over a thriving city, and your status as a man of vision will be secure. Think of Ruy, my friend. Will he not also profit in his career by your elevation?”
Noronha could not help an unconscious glance at Vasconcelos’ own son, who had escaped military enlistment due to some chest complaint. The idle young man persisted in leaning against the window with crossed arms, gazing into the gardens. He shifted uncomfortably. “You ask for favours, but what specifically can you mean? I could not be party to anything unethical.”
“Of course not! I only ask that you be reasonable and progressive. These officials,” he waved a hand in disgust, “so resistant to anything but the old ways! They have not even the proper paperwork to approve the process. I shall count on you to ease the way, bring Porto into the nineteenth century. Will you do it, my friend?”
Noronha pursed his lips. He needn’t contemplate long, for his decision was made. “Of course, you may count on my help for whatever you need. Meanwhile, stay and take some refreshment. I would have you meet one of the English to whom we are indebted.”
Vasconcelos rose from his seat, and Miguel finally tore his eyes from the window to join his father. “I regret that I cannot, old friend. I have business elsewhere, but perhaps I may meet this Major Fitzwilliam before he returns to his regiment.”
Richard emerged from his room, finally in civilian clothing while on leave, and impressed by the level of hospitality shown him. Each person he had encountered in this house seemed immensely grateful- not as much to him, he realised, but to the body of valiant men he represented. Two months ago this city had been occupied by the French, and even this house captured to quarter officers. All might have been destroyed, and indeed much had been, but the expeditious restoration of property to its rightful owners had done much to check the tide of chaos which always struck in times of war. Civilians and innocents could again sleep without fear, and that, he realised for the first time, was the true honour of his uniform. In whatever land he fought, if the shots he fired were to protect those who sheltered at his back, then he had done his duty nobly and well.
A liveried footman approached, bowed shortly, and spoke in perfect English. “My master regrets that he will be detained some minutes longer, sir. May I offer a tour of the house, or perhaps you would like to make yourself comfortable in the drawing room?”
Richard glanced toward the sunlight glinting in from an opposite window. “Forgive me, but I think I should rather stroll out of doors on such a fine day. Perhaps I might walk the grounds?”
“As you wish, Major. There is a formal garden, though I fear it is not at the moment properly tended.”
“I assure you, I shall think nothing of it. If you will show me the way, I would be most content on my own until your master or the Lieutenant are at liberty.”
“Very good, sir. I will inform the Lieutenant where you are to be found when he comes down.” The man bowed again. He led Richard through marbled corridors to a sunny portico and pointed out some of the sights of interest, then left him in peace.
Richard drank in the warm air as a healing balm. Such glorious days were typically short-lived in his home country, but the warmer weather commenced a little earlier in the year here. The garden was in the full bloom of its season, and untended or not, its beauty washed over him in peaceful waves. The serene perfection of the scene before him was most welcome to the young officer, still reeling from his first months on the line. The screams of death and the stink of destruction would never leave his senses, but for a few moments now he could put them in their proper place- as a horrid necessity, a defence against tyranny, so that others could carry on with the business of life. What better place to remind himself of all that he defended than this verdant bower?
Richard was no expert on flowers- that was his mother’s domain- but he could appreciate brilliant pinks, soft lavenders, deep crimsons and sparkling whites, all tastefully arrayed and bathing the admirer with their lush fragrance. He ambled happily through the hedgerows, noting here and there evidence of recent neglect in shoots breaking free of their perfectly manicured forms. He was not so certain that he did not like those flowers the best of all.
He was gazing upward now, wandering back toward the other side of the house, when he rounded a sharp corner and stopped short. There, curled up on a white blanket at the base of the rose hedge, rested a young woman with a book. She was slight of figure, in a pale yellow dress with a cascade of unruly dark ringlets spilling over her shoulders. A broad sunbonnet protected her features from view, but she wore no formal gloves and he was left to admire the slim fingers gently caressing her page.
A sudden blush overcame his face, and he realised himself to be staring at a young lady to whom he had not been introduced, and who was yet unaware of his presence. Her identity he could guess, for the Lieutenant had mentioned a younger sister, but he never imagined her to appear as a fair angel who graced the tranquility of the garden with her crowning beauty. Perhaps it was his sense of good manners, or perhaps he had been merely stricken mute, but a slight choking noise rumbled in his chest, alerting her to his presence.
The sunbonnet lifted abruptly, granting him a view of full parted lips and clear golden eyes, wide now in alarm. Why, she was little more than a girl! She scrambled to her feet, lithe as any young deer poised for flight.
“Forgive me!” he leapt back a pace, holding out a hand in entreaty. “I did not mean to frighten you. I had no idea there was another in the garden.”
She was regarding him warily, holding her book before her- less as a shield than a weapon, he noted- and her head tilted slightly as her bright eyes swept over him. After a few seconds, her brow quirked in satisfaction and the corner of those full lips turned up.
Somewhat braver now, Richard eased a step closer. “I beg your pardon, Miss… Noronha? Please forgive my presumption, we have not been properly introduced.”
The smile on her face had blossomed in truth now, and she dipped him a bashful curtsey. “Maria Amália Noronha, and you are Major Fitzwilliam. Ruy writes that one month you are to stay with us, Major,” she observed practically, but her exotic tones were as sweet honey to his ears.
“Known to my friends simply as ‘Richard,’” he smiled winningly. “I see you are well informed. The Lieutenant spoke much of you, Miss Noronha, and I am certain that none of his praise was exaggerated.” No, he corrected his first impression, she may be young, but she is far more than a mere girl. Perhaps a nymph or a sprite- whatever ageless mythical creature haunted flower gardens and entranced men with a mere glance.
She had taken his informality in good measure, smiling a little more herself at his easy English charm. “It is pleased I am to meet you, Major. Ruy has written also much of you. Are you come with him now? I did not know! He is here?”
“Indeed, I was awaiting his return from above stairs when I unwittingly interrupted your solitude. If it is not too much of an imposition, Miss, might I beg of you to keep me company? It seems I am not adept at finding my way around a garden alone.”
She giggled softly- not in a silly school-girl way like his sister would have done, but in carefree, engaging delight. “My father, he does not approve that I should talk to strange men, Major.”
He affected a resigned shrug. “Perhaps he is right, for strange, I most certainly am. Tell me, Miss- pardon me- Senhorita Noronha, have you ever heard of a man with the audacity to criticise another man’s garden?”
She glanced about herself quizzically, her sharp eyes falling first on the rose hedges, then the lilies and violets. “Something is amiss in our garden? It was not possible this spring, the gardener senhor, he is an old man and his son enlisted with Ruy-”
“I mean no disrespect to your gardener’s labours or to his choice of arrangements,” Richard quickly corrected. “No, it is to formal gardens in general that I tend to object. Do you not find them rather confined and unvarying? Could not you better admire the uncultivated irregularity of nature?”
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes. “You prefer that no order is kept, Major? You are a man of the military, no? What becomes of your ranks if there is no… gardener to place them?”
He laughed. “Most clever, senhorita, you have struck me where I cannot contradict you! But perhaps not all matters must be of life or death. I have a short leave from the front, so likely enough my view of the matter is tainted, but I should like to think that some things in this world have nothing to do with fighting and regimentation. Is there not a place for simple appreciation of beauty, without the need to embellish or improve upon it in any way?”
A smile simmered upon her youthful lips, and her eyes sparkled curiously, but she kept the rest of her countenance remarkably serene, as if in challenge to his query. “The sea, I have always admired it. It is wild, no? No man can harness it, yet it is more beautiful for it.”
“No, that choice will not do,” he grinned, warming to his argument. At the spark of offence in her eyes, he tipped his head toward the wall. “We cannot see it from here, so I am unable to prove my point.”
“I have agreed with you!” Amália protested.
Richard appeared to ignore her complaint, his eyes still scanning the interior walls of the garden until he found a breech- a narrow, once-hidden gate which had been wrested from its hinges during the recent occupation. Peeking just beyond the wall were scattered greeneries of various shapes. He turned back to the lady with a mischievous twinkle in his eye and held up a single finger to stay her objections. “One moment, senhorita.”
He jogged quickly over to the broken gate and then stepped through the opening. A quick survey of the untended vegetation beyond the garden’s borders yielded several wild varieties, but one in particular took his fancy for how closely it seemed to resemble the young lady with whom he had been speaking. Bending down, he gathered up a handful of the sweet blossoms and returned to her.
“This,” he extended the wild things, “this is what I meant, senhorita.”
She took the sticky handful with eyes full of hesitation. “Florzinha?”
He tried to repeat the unfamiliar word. “Flourz…?”
She chuckled at his attempt. “Little flowers. We call these ‘botão de ouro’.”
“And we simply call them ‘buttercups’. I think your name sounds more graceful. Now, tell me honestly, can you truly say they are any less beautiful than your cultivated roses and violets?”
She touched one of the soft yellow petals, then looked up to him. “They are- how do you say- weeds, senhor.”
He feigned hurt and tugged one of the flowers from her clutch. “On the contrary, senhorita. Who but the Almighty could have planted them? And are they not possessed of a strength which transcends beauty?”
Her dainty brow furrowed beneath her sunbonnet. Golden eyes danced- she was playing with him. “How so, senhor?”
“The buttercup starts out so fresh and full of hope, ready to bless the world by sharing its hardy sweetness, but then it finds the world has no place for it. It is attacked, reviled, and uprooted from the very place it once loved. It does not die, but becomes a mere shell of what it once was in its full splendour.”
Both corners of her mouth were now turned up. “But if that is so, what is it you admire about them? The gardener cuts them, and they are no longer beautiful.”
“Ah, but you have not heard the best part,” he whispered, leaning low. “The next spring, they come back just as lovely and vibrant as ever, perhaps made even stronger for what they have suffered. Can you say that of your violets?” He held those golden eyes with his, then with a boldness he had never before possessed, gently tucked the flower he held into the cluster of silken rosettes in the crown of her bonnet.
She drew back in astonishment at his audacity, then felt hesitantly of his handiwork. She seemed about to pull it out, then her fingers stilled and she left it as it was. Her hand dropped to cup around the soft, buttery petals, then she lifted a smile to him. “Sim, senhor,” she answered softly. “Perhaps nature needed no help. The florzinha are perfect as they are.”
“I could not agree more,” he sighed, more nostalgically than he realised. Perhaps it was a different flower altogether which had captured his admiration, but he could never confess as much. She was everything lovely, but she was… well, she was too young, for one thing. And a Roman Catholic, for another, and… the list of objections was nearly endless. He blinked, chastising himself. Could he not simply heed his own advice, and admire the inherent beauty before him without trying to claim it for his own?
She had dropped her gaze again, somewhat uncomfortable with his sudden quiet, when a familiar voice rang through the garden. “Amália? Onde você está, meu caro?”
Richard straightened and took a respectable step backward. “I believe your brother has come down. Shall we?” He moved to offer his arm, but the young lady cared nothing for his escort. She stepped quickly past him and raced with girlish delight toward the voice of her brother, who caught her a moment later into a playful, intimate embrace.
Richard shrugged to himself. It was just as well. He had no business dallying with anyone at this point in his career, least of all a… a perfectly bewitching… with eyes the colour of the sunset… he bit his lip and shook himself. This was going to be a long month.
I hope you have enjoyed this sneak preview of These Dreams! Keep watching for updates as the story nears completion. Until then, enjoy smelling the spring flowers.