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8th January 1839
Cavalry Barracks, Hounslow, London

Dear Aster,

I realize not more than forty-eight hours have passed since I left you in Kent, but I write to fulfill my promise to keep you apprised of my situation (insomuch as my post allows). My post. The words make me smile, and I can hardly believe I’ve been so “utterly beef-witted” (as you succinctly put it) to cast my lot with Her Majesty’s finest, although you have to admit, the scarlet coat does lend a certain dash. My incredulity is matched only by yours, I suspect. And possibly that of my parents.

At any rate, my company remains in England until the end of February, so you see, we’re not so distant from one another yet. Keep watch on our star and I shall do the same.

Yours,
A

— Letter from Andrew Grey to Miss Aster Corbyn, crumpled and dashed upon Miss Corbyn’s hearth then hastily retrieved and smoothed upon her desk

***


10th January 1839
Redstone Hall, Kent

Dear Andrew,
I stand by my earlier assessment: you are an utter beef-wit to leave me so unexpectedly (although I reluctantly thank you for your diligence in keeping me apprised of your situation). Your mother’s eyes grew suspiciously damp when I mentioned your name at tea, and I harbor only the tiniest bit of guilt in bringing it to your attention.

Not so fondly,
A

— Reply from Miss Aster Corbyn to Andrew Grey, tear-stained

***

29th January 1839
Cavalry Barracks, Hounslow, London

 

Dear Aster,

I write with exciting news: our departure has been accelerated. By the time you receive this, I will have sailed for India. I’ve had occasion to speak with a number of fellow soldiers who have returned from that exotic land, and my enthusiasm only grows for the adventure that awaits. Worry not; I shall write and share all the details.

 

Have you returned to London yet for the new term? I’m certain your teaching post will keep you so occupied you’ll hardly know I’ve gone. Indeed, the months will fly and before you know it, we shall see one another again.

 

Yours,
A

 

PS: Never say you’re still put out with me. I couldn’t bear the loss of my Faster Aster’s affection.

 

— Letter from Andrew Grey to Miss Aster Corbyn, also crumpled and flung upon Miss Corbyn’s hearth before being tucked into her writing desk

 

***


31st January 1839
Mrs. Ivy’s School for Girls, London

 

Dear Andrew,
You’ve truly gone then? I am still put out with you, but as you say, my teaching post does keep me quite busy. So much so that I hardly have time to think of you at all. Despite this (and in case you’re unable to decipher the true nature of my feelings), I miss you dreadfully. Your smile and your laughter make my heart sing. Ironically, England is greyer with one less Grey. Please return safely, and soon.

 

Your friend,
A

 

— Reply from Miss Aster Corbyn to Andrew Grey, also tear-stained

 

***

30th June 1840
Custom-House, Calcutta, India

 

Dear Aster,
We depart Calcutta soon and journey to Cawnpore, which is seven hundred and fifty miles distant. I’m told that’s more than the entire distance from the northern tip of Scotland to the southern coast of our fair country, although it spans but a mere fraction of this land. We’re to travel by way of the Hooghly and Ganges rivers over the course of fourteen days. I believe that equates to a rate of fifty-four miles per day. (You may confirm and correct my calculation if need be. I suspect you already will have by this point.)

 

Thank you for sending the chart, so I might locate our star in this unfamiliar sky. I continue to watch it and am comforted to imagine you doing the same.

 

Yours,
A

 

PS: Please excuse the coffee stains. My companion, Lieutenant Monty Doyle, is not the tidiest of bunk mates.

 

— Letter from Andrew Grey to Miss Aster Corbyn, stained a questionable shade of brown

 

***

5th December 1841
Redstone Hall, Kent

 

Dear Andrew,
I can hardly fathom you've been gone for nearly two years. As you can probably guess, I write to you from Redstone Hall, where I’ve returned to spend Christmastide with my family. My parents and sisters arrived two days ago, and my brother Edmund came down from school only this afternoon. I know you would be amazed at how much he’s grown!

 

Today is the eve of St. Nicholas, and as always, there is an air of excitement about the Hall that is unique to this time of year. (Never mind that all of us are too old to believe any longer in the “magic” that brings sweets and coins to our shoes while we sleep; however, my father persists in perpetuating the myth and we persist in indulging him.)

 

You have my congratulations on your well-deserved promotion to the rank of Captain. Although, if you’ve gained it in the same manner in which you achieved your supposed victories in our childhood games . . . Well, I shall say no more on that subject.

 

It relieves me to know you’re safely arrived in Bombay; your account of the perils along your journey lifted the hairs on the back of my neck. I continue to watch our star and pray for your safety, if no longer your swift return.

 

Your friend,
A

 

— Letter from Miss Aster Corbyn to Captain Andrew Grey

 

***

BOMBAY, MAY 1844

ANDREW STIFLED A GROAN AS the doctor left his bedside to tend the rest of his patients. The stench of blood was sickening and inescapable, and he feared he might embarrass himself once again. He swallowed back the bile in his throat.

 

A man moaned to his left. He imagined most of the fellows to either side of him had been attacked by tigers (in the plural) or run through with the tip of an enemy’s blade. Certainly, none had been so beef-witted to mangle themselves on a tree.

 

Sweat beaded his lip and fever burned his brow, but none of that was anything to the lance stabbing his leg. Dr. Heyworth couldn’t be any older than Andrew’s own two and twenty years. He seemed tolerably well versed in general anatomy, but he certainly couldn’t boast the expertise or experience of Andrew’s physician father or his surgeon mother. Certainly, he inspired neither trust nor confidence. Why, the man’s hand had trembled as he’d inspected the torn flesh of Andrew’s thigh. Andrew had only been marginally buoyed by the presence of an older gentleman at Heyworth’s elbow, a mentor of sorts.

 

“Be sure to leave enough skin to cover the stump,” the mentor had said, to which Heyworth nodded uncertainly before leaving Andrew to his rampaging thoughts.

 

He squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them again, the shadow of Montgomery Doyle darkened his narrow cot. Monty removed the cheroot from between his lips and frowned.

 

“Ye have to be the most fortunate man I’ve ever had the, er, misfortune to meet, Captain. We all thought ye were done for when the cliff fell away.”

 

“King?” Andrew’s voice was a rough croak that sounded nothing like him.

 

“Your horse is fine,” Monty said, his Irish brogue making horse sound like arse. “It took some doin’, but with ropes and patience, he was fished up.”

 

Andrew nodded. That was some small comfort. Their company had traveled a good distance from their planned route so they might cross the rain-swollen Godavari. King had confidently picked his way along the edge of a precipice until the sodden ground gave way beneath his hind legs. His mount had made several honorable attempts with his fore feet before falling backwards, and Andrew had awakened some thirty feet below, wedged in a thorny tree without any recollection of how he’d gotten there. His horse, to his surprise, had been stopped by another tree some fifteen paces below Andrew.

 

Monty snuffed his cheroot on the floor before adding, “Of the two of ye, I’d say your horse was the more agreeable to our noble efforts on your behalf.”

 

Andrew scowled at his friend through the haze of pain.

 

Monty reached into his coat and extracted a stack of letters. “I retrieved your post, by the by,” he said. “Ye’ve a few letters from England. These”—he squinted—“are difficult to decipher, but the frank is from London.”

 

His mother. Her penmanship had always been abysmal.

 

“But this one has promise. The script is neat and precise. It’s definitely in a lady’s hand.” Monty lifted the missive to his nose and sniffed. “’Tis a pity the crossin’ is so long. I imagine it must’ve smelled nice once.”

 

Aster. Andrew closed his eyes again. Even without the scent on the letter he could still recall her soft, lemony fragrance. She’d written him faithfully for five years. He’d considered cashing out and returning to her—many, many times—but he wasn’t ready. He wasn’t the man she deserved yet. And now, with his leg wrapped in blood-soaked linens, he was even further from his aim.

 

“Would ye like me to read it to ye?” Monty asked with an eager waggle of his woolly brows.

 

“No,” Andrew grumbled as a rivulet of sweat slicked down his cheek. His whole body was afire, heat radiating from his leg to his fingertips. Even his eyelashes felt hot. He reached within himself for the devil-may-care attitude he was known for, but it eluded him.

 

His insouciance had seen him safely through his twenty-two years—up to this point, at any rate. As a boy, it had poked and teased at Aster until she held her sides with laughter. And then, it had made the years of separation from her bearable. But now, that character was so distant from him as to be another person entirely. In his delirium, he saw himself shriveling into an embittered and humorless man with naught more than a stump for a leg. That was not the man for Aster.

And that was enough of a rallying cry to bring him back to himself.

 

“Monty,” he grunted. “Don’t let them take my leg.”

 

His friend’s thick brows lifted before collapsing across the bridge of his nose. Monty lowered his voice to say, “The sawbones says there’s nothin’ to be done. If they don’t take the leg, it’ll fester and ye’ll probably die.”

 

“Probably?” Probably was not certainly.

 

“Ye’ll die, Grey.”

 

“Don’t let them take the leg, Monty. If you allow it, I’ll retrieve it from the rubbish bin and beat you about the head with it.”

 

***

1st June 1844
Mrs. Ivy’s School for Girls, London

 

Dear Andrew,
It’s been some months since my last letter and I’ve yet to receive your reply. I hope you are well and haven’t been so jingle-brained as to get yourself shot. You know how much I would be put out with you if that were the case. Please write as soon as you are able and let me know how you fare. I know your family is eager for news of you as well.

 

Your friend,
A

 

— Letter from Miss Aster Corbyn to Captain Andrew Grey

 

***

3rd September 1844
Bombay, India

Dear Aster,
Never fear for me; I remain hale and hearty, albeit soggy beneath these infernal rains. It will be nice to dry out soon. How I envy your London summer, which is absolutely arid by comparison.

 

Did I tell you about the time our company was thwarted by the floodwaters north of Bombay? They necessitated we travel ten miles off our route until we could locate a point of safe crossing. I was dismayed to lose my pocket watch on that journey; you’ll recall, it was the one I acquired from the jeweler in Marshfield on the occasion of my sixteenth birthday. Until its loss, I never passed a day without it. Not only did it remind me of the last harvest festival we enjoyed together, but you said it (finally) made me appear a man of some consequence. Now, I fear I’m not only lighter of pocket and perpetually late, but inconsequential, to boot.

Yours (of less consequence),
A

 

— Letter from Andrew Grey to Miss Aster Corbyn

 

***

 

5th December 1845
Mrs. Ivy’s School for Girls, London

 

Dear Andrew,
I was relieved to learn of your continued existence but dismayed to hear of the loss of your watch. I’m certain when next we meet, you will have quite fallen in my esteem without its dignity to hold you up.
And now I have a serious question to put to you, and I beg you will set aside your merry grin for a moment. (Yes, even now, I can picture it.) It has been some years since you left for India, and even more that we have called one another friend.

 

My question to you is this: do you still feel as fondly for me as you once did? I don’t hold it against you if your sentiment has changed, but I should like to know if there will ever be more for us than letters across these vast oceans. Please don’t leave me in suspense.

 

Always your friend,
A

 

PS: Regardless of your response to my question, I have a gift for you. I shan’t send it on but shall carry it about with me as an encouragement for your safe return.

 

— Letter from Miss Aster Corbyn to Captain Andrew Grey, sent but lost in transit

 

***

Excerpt © 2022 by K. Lyn Smith.

Star of Wonder will be available in paperback and e-Book formats.