Held Close to My Heart
By Ellie Thomas
Twelvetrees Farm, Oxfordshire, June 1676
Wrapped in his embrace, those long months apart
dissolved in moments. Overwhelming tenderness filled my very
soul. I could have stayed there forever, luxuriating in him being
at the center of my world.
Moving away slightly, holding me at arm’s length, he
looked at me with gladness and said, “Luke, it is so good to see
you again.” And then, with a final squeeze, he let me go, and
greeted my mother with equal enthusiasm. Released from the
sheltering warmth of his body, I shivered, suddenly alone, bereft,
and laughable. Why do I fool myself every time?
Jeremy Carteret, known to us all as Jem, my closest
friend in the world, the love of my life, moved away from my
mother before embracing my father in the same exuberant
way. It’s enough, I told myself sternly. To retain some of his
affection is sufficient. It has to be.
Jem clasped my father by the elbow on his sound side,
the one that didn’t rely on his walking stick for support, and they
walked slowly together into the ancient farmhouse, as though
Jem belonged there, which informally speaking, he did. As a
small child, while his father, a widowed baronet, was in exile
during the rule of Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of England, Jem
had stayed with us at our farm near the country town of Banbury.
I’d known Jem for as long as I could remember, so having
him as a constant presence made no difference to me. As we
grew from infants, we rambled over the gardens and fields, with
bold, fearless Jem the leader on our expeditions, and then, when
we were of age for school, we took our lessons together.
In the classroom, it was my turn to shine, helping Jem
with the studies he struggled over, golden curls tamed, blue eyes
downcast, his brow wrinkled, pink tongue clamped between his
teeth as he painstakingly copied my work to spare him yet
another thrashing from the schoolmaster. We’d always been
regarded as a duo, of the same age, our contrasting natures
fitting together to make a whole, Jem’s liveliness tempered by
my more thoughtful ways.
At some point during our shared childhood, Jem’s father
and older brothers had eventually returned from the continent as
part of the new king’s retinue, settling back in the nearby estate
my father had carefully conserved as best he could. Jem and I
had been born during those troubled times of civil war that tore
not just districts, but even families apart, due to strongly-held
But my father and Sir Harry Carteret remained allies,
probably because they represented two sides of a moderate
view. When I was old enough to understand such matters, my
father would talk to me about the waste of war, the bloodshed in
battles fought nearby, the widespread starvation and cruelty, of
petty scores, viciously settled under the guise of wider politics.
The senseless destruction sickened him, and he was only
glad to see his neighbor safely tending to his lands and people. It
did not occur to him that, in turn, Sir Harry would speak up for
him under the new regime to ensure he did not incur any
penalties for being, at least cursorily, on the eventual losing side.
It was only when I was beyond boyhood that I started to
see Jem differently. Until then, he was almost a part of me, taken
for granted, where one of us ended, the other began. But when I
was fifteen, and we were both growing fast, each reaching full
and almost equal height, I suddenly regarded his beauty as
something separate, dazzling, and desirable. Jem, always the
pioneer, had no issue with exploring this new aspect of our
closeness when the time was ripe, but, even then, I guessed this
was an enjoyable first excursion into physical pleasure, rather
than the deep connection of the heart I felt so keenly.
Without the funds from my family to attend university, and
due to Jem’s lack of interest in academic studies, the plan was
for us both to spend some seasons in London on the periphery
of the court, staying with one of Jem’s married brothers. Talking
of these schemes took up all our days, the sights we’d see,
exploring the fine stone architecture in the rebuilding of the great
city, and the exploits we would share. Then my father took an
awkward tumble from his horse and shattered not only his leg,
but my dreams.
At seventeen, I took on the physical management of our
small estate under my father’s careful instruction. Meanwhile,
Jem took the court by storm with his good looks, appetite for all
kinds of worldly delights, and unfailing good humor. Those first
few years, as Jem came back and forth, I didn’t have the leisure
to feel envy, so occupied was I with reassuring my father that I
was capable of keeping the land in good order, and my mother
and sisters clothed and fed.
Every time Jem returned home, he seemed more polished
and untouchable with his sophisticated trappings, the Frenchified
frills and bows adorning his clothing, and his burnished curls
grown fashionably long, reaching below his shoulders. Whereas,
I seemed old before my time, the reliable son who worked from
dawn to dusk to keep his family’s fields and accounts in order.
With each passing year, the faint hope that I might free myself
from my family obligations dwindled, until I finally accepted my
fate with outward good grace.
I felt this contrast between us more keenly than Jem,
perhaps naturally, as I was at a disadvantage he did not seem to
notice. Now, at twenty-one, I resigned myself to being on the edge
of his élite social whirl, a mere satellite to his blazing comet.
“My dear,” my mother’s voice interrupted my musings, as I
gazed after my father and Jem disappearing into the house, my
sisters behind them. I summoned a smile and took her arm as
we all proceeded indoors.