This is a story about love, night skies and soup-stained ballgowns that I wrote as a little side fiction for my novel, Boy Crazy (that I'll be posting soon). Enjoy :)
And Then I Met You
Hereford, England. 1852.
I rub my chin thoughtfully, eyeing my sister as she twirls in her new dress. “You look like a lily pad out on the marshes,” I observe.
My twin sister, Angelique, halts at my answer and swivels back around, her pretty face screwed up in anger. Her cheeks are flushed, a startling contrast against her smooth creamy skin and her aquamarine eyes view me with disgust. “Ashlyn, could you try to be at least a little bit less infuriating today?” She complains, wandering off to her closet to try on a different dress. “It’s my birthday, you know.”
I raise an eyebrow at her turned back. “It’s my birthday, too. And I was only being truthful.” Her dress honestly does make her look like a swamp plant –what with its earthy green colour and rounded layers. The rest of her is perfection –her honey locks staying perfectly in the swirls on top of her head and her face as lovely as always. If only she had a beautiful personality to match that beautiful face.
But look at me in comparison. I turn to face the vanity mirror we both share, scrutinizing myself from my black hair now coming out of its pins, tired blue eyes and washed out expression. But this ill-looking complexion was to be expected. I had been lying awake for hours last night, too excited for Will’s return to sleep. He had only been in Wales for a few weeks, but during that time interacting with my family had been exhausting. I got by on the fond memories Will and told myself we’d be reliving them soon – like the walks we go for outdoors, under the peaceful night sky. With no one to bother me with wedding preparations or pester him about his new artwork. Just him and I. Just stars and us.
Not long after, I find myself smiling. Will has always has the power to draw a smile from me, with his crooked ones and constant teasing, even in the darkest of days.
Angelique emerges from the wardrobe with a new plum-coloured dress and quickly disappears behind the folding screen to change into it. I let out a resigned sigh. Angel has always been so vain, so in love with her own reflection that I wonder if she cares about anything else. She is always out of the house attending this or that ball, racking up more admirers whenever she so much as turns her head. She could have a new suitor for every day of the week, I swear. Every day there is some new gentleman at the door come to confess his love to her, armed with bouquets of roses and all kinds of jewellery. All the girls in town are envious. I hear them talking behind their hands whenever I go out to buy something or other. Awful things they say. I try to ignore them.
I, too, used to resent her –she always had the finest dress, or was the best dancer, or played any instrument the sweetest. I felt as though I was constantly living in her shadow. She was the one the sons of Papa’s guests wanted to speak with. She was the one who everyone would ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ at during a party. They all seemed to forget I was there. That is, everyone until Will. Will, who doesn’t care for status or wealth. Will, who looks deeper than the surface. Will, the love of my life.
As Angelique busies herself with powdering her face and fixing her dress, the fifteen-year-old me is standing at the balcony looking over the grand ballroom. A wide staircase cuts the balcony in two, cascading to the ground floor and widening outwards at both sides. The ballroom is already packed with people –men clutching flutes of champagne, smart in their dark suits while posh ladies chatter in colourful ball gowns and headdresses. At a glance I know they were Papa’s business partners and Mama’s friends. And I know none of them.
I hear someone call my name and turn to see Angelique swathed in a pale pink frock with a halter bodice and folds down the sides. My own dress is a deep sapphire colour with a full, pleated skirt. Scrunched-up fabric hanging around the skirt in the shape of roses. “Yes?”
“Mama said to ready ourselves. Father is just about to make the announcement.” She strolls gracefully to the far end of the staircase. I take my place next to her as close to the banister as I can get, lest I trip. Below, Papa emerges from the crowd and walks to the stand at the mouth of the stairs. He attracts everyone’s attention by clicking his fork against his glass. Their gazes sweep up from their respective conversations, gathering on Papa’s face. He clears his throat and announces our arrival, calling our names, ‘Angelique Marie’ and ‘Ashlyn Theresa’ Elswood in a loud, clear voice. That’s our cue. We descend the staircase slowly as the audience applauds, Angel looking straight ahead, back straight with her dainty hands holding up her skirts while I’m grasping the material of my dress in my fist, my other hand firm on the bannister and my eyes glued to the ground. Don’t trip, don’t trip, I urge myself. It wouldn’t have been the first time, and I was hoping to get through this night without a bloody nose.
Miraculously, I make it down in one piece. Upon seeing my boots hit the floor, I can’t help but break into a smile. A fortnight ago I could barely waddle in anything that had even a ghost of a raised heel. All those sessions with the governess really did pay off! I spin around to beam at Papa, but of course, he is spellbound by Angel’s stunning entrance, as are all the other viewers. I turn away ruefully. I anticipated this but can’t help but feel a little put out.
I feel a tap on my shoulder and start to find Papa suddenly behind me. “What are you doing, Ashlyn?” He hisses in my ear. “Greet them!”
I hold my ground. “But, Papa, I don’t know any of them,” I frown.
“The peak of society is gathered here today. You will make a good impression of yourself,” he says in a lecturing tone, avoiding my query. I want to argue that it hardly seems reasonable for the ‘peak of society’ to be attending a children’s birthday party, but decide against it. Papa was always scolding me about my sharp tongue. I won’t make him scold me at least for tonight.
“Yes, Papa,” I mumble. Satisfied with my response, he gives me one last stern look and walks off to a group of his friends. His scowl dissolves as soon as he turns away. I sag heavily. Something tells me I’m going to hate this party.
The party is in full-swing. The air is alive with excitement. Couples are gathered in the centre, twirling and dipping and gliding across the floor as the musicians play a sweet, playful tune. Mama and Papa weave between the clusters of people, socializing with everyone while Angelique gets passed around the floor from partner to partner, everyone praising her for her impeccable dancing skills. A family of socialites, I think, leaning my elbows on my lap with my chin in my hands as I swing my legs under the chair. So where does that leave me?
I’ve been sitting here all night, lurking in the dark space where the light of the overhead chandelier doesn’t touch. I’ve been thinking, watching as everyone else enjoys the party. They’re having fun from the looks of it. I clench my hands into fists and take a deep, calming breath. Nothing will change if I don’t, I tell myself and reluctantly rise from my seat. The song has ended. There is a short round of applause, during which I make my way through the crowd to the centre where Angel is standing. She turns when I come up behind her.
“What are you doing here?” She mutters under her breath, so only I can hear her.
I ignore her outburst. Plastering a smile on my face, I approach her partner –a tall, youthful-looking man with sharp features and a mop of dark hair. He regards me with curiosity. Nerves fill my stomach as he stares but I shove them aside. I curtsy at him politely and introduce myself, extending my thanks to him for attending the party. Before long, I have engaged him in a light conversation. I learn that his name is Sir Coleman Billings and he’s our neighbour, living in the estate just down the lane. He owns a stable with ten horses, he says, and they’re all winners at the racetrack. He drones on and on about them –about Aramis, his most prized stallion and how he named him after a character in The Three Musketeers. He then goes on to ask me if I’ve had the pleasure of reading it and is aghast when I tell him I haven’t. My artificial smile remains on my face as he babbles, twitching at the sides. I inwardly kick myself for ever taking up conversation with him. I should have just left Angelique (who has been whisked off by another gentleman) to it.
Growing bored, I excuse myself as mannerly as I can manage and make my escape. After that first blunder, the nervousness has faded away to nothing. Rich and important as they are, they’re just people. Just like me. So why should I be anxious around them?
Not five minutes later, I’m dancing with someone else: a businessman this time. Interaction with him is a blur of numerical figures and stock prices: nothing I understand nor care for. And so I moved onto the next and the cycle continued. My presence in the room grows and grows. People start approaching me instead of vice versa. All I have to do is stand alone long enough and there will be a new acquaintance, a new personality to entertain. They are all the same sort of people, probably due to the fact that they are Mama and Papa’s choice guests. Most of the men are snobbish and speak to me of the property they own, the places they’ve been and the salary they make, all with the same snooty-nose and downcast eyes. The ladies chit-chat to me about petty matters (jewels, dresses, etc) and gossip about who is having an affair with whom in this room and whose husband is secretly corresponding with whose daughter. I reluctantly accept all this information, smiling all the while. Why do women like to talk about these things? I think, moving on to the next group of people. They smile and laugh in their jewelled frocks and fancy headdresses, but they are not so pretty inside. Angelique would like these ladies.
Fed up of chattering on the sides, I decide that dancing might be more enjoyable. At least then the talking with be minimal. Just as I am about to step into the circle of dancers, I hear a loud yelp from behind me. Before I can even turn to the source, a hard force connects with my back, forcing me to the ground. Startled, I let out a scream as I crash to the ground, just saving myself with my hands. Even worse, I feel a thick, warm liquid splatter all over me. It smells oddly like soup. I scramble around to find an empty serving bowl, its contents splashed out on my skirt and back. A silver platter lies just beyond it. And beyond that is a boy.
He’s kneeling by the mess, head bowed. He doesn’t look that much older than me. The first thing I notice about him is his coppery red hair –mid-length and pushed back, soft-looking. He’s dressed like a servant –dark shorts and a brown blazer too big for him- and golden skin speaking of days of hard labour out in the sun. His face lifts, revealing emerald green eyes, filled with vexation.
“Will!” A man dressed similarly bursts out from the kitchen door behind the boy. He must be the boy’s father, I think, taking in his identical features. He takes in the scene and instantly his face goes red. He crouches down and pulls the boy –Will- sharply to his feet. He gives little resistance. They both look at me now. Realizing that I’m still on the ground, I stagger embarrassedly to my feet. “My apologies, miss,” says the man, his voice filled with remorse. “It was an accident.”
“Not to worry,” I reply in a breathy tone.
Seemingly annoyed by the whole ordeal, the boy jerks away from the man. The man scowls at the boy and growls in his ear, “Apologize”.
“Why should I?” The boy grunts, eyes burning into mine. “It was her fault. She was in my way.”
I stare right back at him, aghast at his ridiculous claim and frankly, feeling rather angry myself. “’In your way’? You charged right into me –I didn’t even see you!”
He starts to retaliate but is stopped by the manservant, who claps his hand over Will’s mouth. “Shut your trap,” he snarls menacingly to the boy. He seizes verbal attack but the aggravation on his face remains. Before he can say anything else, the man practically drags him by his ear back into the kitchen. They disappear through the doors without another word.
The whispering starts the moment the doors close. Unbeknownst to me, our little spectacle had drawn a lot of curious eyes. The people gathered around speak softly to each other behind their hands, disclosing their opinion of the situation to each other. I only pick up a few words: ‘vulgar boy-servant’ being one out of countless insults to Will flying around the room.
Out of nowhere, a hand grasps my arm and tugs me to the side. Mama. Her face is twisted with irritation as she takes in my appearance. “What were you doing, just standing there? Get changed!”
Nodding limply, I scuttle off to my chambers. The third time I have been scolded and it’s only eight o’clock, I think bitterly as I shut the door. I stumble about blindly in the darkness until I find a matchbox and light the oil lamp suspended from the ceiling.
I riffle through my clothes and come up empty-handed. This was my very best dress. Nothing else I own can compare. Grudgingly, I call for the maid to help me into a deep green dress I sometimes wear to Church. As she buttons up the back, I stare at the cloth in the mirror. The colour triggers thoughts of the boy, Will. How angered he’d looked. How accusatory his words had been. I huff at the memory. And Papa thinks I’ve got a sharp tongue.
Once dressed, I head back to the ballroom. This time when I come down the stairs, I am not ignored. Some gaze at me and even smile my way. But it’s not delight I see on their faces. It’s pity. There are even those who did not witness what happened were among the sympathizers. I survey the room, suddenly feeling intensely detached from everyone. That’s enough socializing for one day, I think. Going back to shadow-lurking for the rest of the night is an appealing idea.
Something flashes in the corner of my eye –a rusty red-brown blur. I whirl around, only to see a woman holding a pouch of that colour. A pang of disappointment hits me. I frown in spite of myself. Surely, I can’t want to see that boy, can I? He slandered me to my face! I feel my cheeks flush with irritation at being scandalized so. And at my party, no less!
And that’s why I burst through the kitchen doors, determined. The staff look up from what they are doing, gazing at me peculiarly. “The boy who spilled soup on me,” I start heatedly. “Where is he?”
“Are you really not going to apologize?” I demand, wrapping my arms around myself. Gooseflesh has risen on them from the cold. After tracking him down, he insisted on only speaking to me outside (‘where prying ears couldn’t reach,’ he’d said). I thought it to be a bizarre request but was too agitated to protest. He led me just outside of the back door. My back is to the forest, the boundary that separates our land from the hills beyond it.
Will is leaning against the rear wall of the house, hands shoved in the pockets of his blazer. “That’s what I said.”
I narrow my eyes at him. “But you ruined my new dress. That cost Papa a fortune.”
“A fortune he can afford to spend again.”
I gape at him, flabbergasted. “You don’t feel even the slightest bit guilty? Don’t you have a conscience?”
“My conscience is unruffled by such petty a matter.”
Ooh, that does it. I march right up to him until we’re face to face. Well, face to chest more like. His height hadn’t shown previously, but now he towers over me. However, I don’t allow that to faze me. “You fiend!” I curse. “Not only have you wrecked my dress and disrupted my birthday party, but upon being confronted, you stubbornly deny your wrongdoings.” A harsh gust of wind prise locks of hair from their pins. I push them back impatiently. “Is there no end to your insolence?”
To my surprise, he makes no move to evade me, but instead takes a step closer. He gazes at me impassively, eyes boring into my own as if he can see right through me. He’s quite handsome, I realize, with his sharp cheekbones and square jaw, straight nose and full lips. The kind of beauty that would earn a second glance from anyone no matter how high their standards are. The realization only makes it harder not to blush at our proximity. He’s so close his lanky frame bends over me. So close that I can feel his breath on my face.
He removes a hand from his pocket and reaches out. Before I can even register what he is doing, he has a lock of my hair in his grasp. He toys with it, twirling a lock of my midnight hair around his index finger. “Is declaring the blatantly obvious a hobby of yours, little girl?” He tucks the hair behind my ear, eyes back on mine. “Or am I just a special case?”
I inhale sharply, eyes widening. Just when I thought he couldn’t get any more infuriating. “I loathe you,” I state blandly.
“You don’t even know me,” he smirks. Smirks! At me! My rage escalates further. And in this moment I swear that if this weren’t my father’s house and there were no rules of etiquette and acceptable behaviour, this boy’s blood would be on my hands.
“I know you enough, Will,” I spit his name out like it’s poison. “You work for my family –a servant of some sort. And servants are to obey and respect their masters.”
How I long to slap the sneer off his face. “So, if you’re my master, it is my duty to always speak the truth to you, is it not?”
That throws me through a loop. My angry expression falters. Where is this going? “Yes…?”
His lips stretch into a grim smile. “In that case, an insincere apology would be completely unacceptable –and mind you, that’s the only kind of apology I could give about this. Now, if you want honesty, then I’d have to tell you that I sincerely hold no concern for your soiled dress. Or your party, for that matter.” He slips his hand back in his pocket, looking bored. “It was rubbish anyway.”
The last part hits the hardest. Nonetheless, I press my lips together, attempting to look impassive. “Oh?”
He gives a sigh, looking skywards with a resigned expression -like he would rather be elsewhere. “Oh, yes. The whole thing looked like a terribly abhorrent experience. I don’t know why you even bothered standing up.”
I cock my head to one side, confused. “’Standing up’?”
“The part when you stood up, a new resolve on your face, and promptly stole your sister’s partner.” His eyes fall back on me, lips quirking up at one side. I feel my cheeks burning. He saw that? But I was going around the room and I never caught sight of him. He taps the side of one eye. “Vision of a hawk,” he boasts.
I highly doubt that.
“You did not look as if you were enjoying yourself either. But I must say, you concealed it well,” he continues. “Smiling and dancing with those dull folk.”
“Oh, what would you know?” I grumble, pouting slightly. “And about what you said before…As if you’re some expert on parties and fun.” I glower at him.
He ponders this for a moment, humming to himself. “I don’t know about parties, but I can tell you what’s more fun than rubbing elbows with those upper-class snobs.”
“A little impatient, are we?” He simpers. “Well then, I suppose it’s quicker if I just show you.”
“Show me?” I echo suspiciously. And that’s when I hear the muffled voice of Papa from inside the house. “That’s my father. I have to go.”
Secretly relieved to be free of Will’s company, I pivot and start for the door. Just as I reach for the doorknob, he grabs me by the crook in my arm, yanking me back. “Going so soon, love?” He grins. “We had a deal, and I don’t think I’m about to let you out of it so easily.”
My eyes widen at him. “But my father-“
His hand slips down to mine, clasping it in a tight grip. “He’ll never catch us if we run!”
He breaks into a sprint, towing me behind him. We barge through the treeline, leaving the house behind us altogether. As we run, twigs snag at my skirt and the hem gets soiled in the muddy patches. But Will doesn’t stop despite my complaints. He sets a mean speed, like a starving man dashing to a banquet table. The moonlight seeps in through the leaves of the boughs above, glossing his coppery hair. He’s insane, I fret inwardly. I’m following a madman. This has been by far the most eventful night of my life. One moment I am dancing and mingling with dukes and ladies of the court, the next I am muddied and dishevelled, running through the forest with a boy I met an hour ago.
What have I gotten myself into?
He stops abruptly, sending me crashing into his back from the momentum. “We’re here.”
I snatch my hand out of his and put both of mine on my knees, completely exhausted and out of breath. Will doesn’t look fatigued in the least. He leaves me behind, stepping out from the treeline. The land is clear from here. Slopes of green grass stretch out as far as the eye can see. The night air is cool and crisp, drawing blood to my cheeks and the tip of my nose. The only sounds to be heard are the bristling of grass under his feet as he ventures onward and the distant trickling of water. There must be a stream somewhere close.
He’s about twenty yards ahead of me now, leaving me behind. “You must get out of the house more. Get some exercise,” he calls to me. “You and those other prim and proper weaklings.” Unabashed by his retort, I lurch after him.
“Well?” I pant. “Aren’t you going to tell me the reason you dragged me out here?”
“Look up,” he says simply.
I do as I’m told and the air is snatched from my lungs.
Hanging above us is the most magnificent night sky I have ever laid eyes upon. A canvas of midnight blue decorated with splashes of indigo and lilac laced with brown, dusted with the white of thin clouds. And dotted around the sky are a million twinkling stars, hung all around as if they had rained from heaven and become frozen in time. They light up the sky and cast their dim light upon the earth below. I am in awe, captivated by the sheer beauty of it all –the picture to which I’ve slept under, oblivious to its charms.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Will says at my side. I had been too busy admiring that I had not heard him approach.
“Extremely,” I breathe, still entranced.
The spell lifts when he takes my hand in his once more, pointing ahead with his other hand to a hill just beyond us. “That’s the best spot,” he says. “Come on.”
We set off further, walking this time, to my relief. Worries of my father long forgotten, I indulge in the moment. It’s incredibly peaceful out here, with just Will beside me. If only I could be this at ease at home.
I steal a glance at him. He looks very familiar with this view, not so dazzled as I was, but seemingly content. Like one would be upon returning home after a long time away. He must come here often, I presume. I feel a sliver of envy towards him. It must be wonderful to have a place like this to come to every now and again. I must ask him to bring me here again. I flush at that thought. I have only just gotten here and I am already anticipating another tryst with this boy? My mind is running away with me.
“You look torn,” he observes. “Something tedious on your mind?”
I blush at the fact that he has been staring at me without me knowing. I know what he is probably referring to, but I don’t want to think of that too soon. If my father finds out about this, the consequences of my actions will be severe whether I worry or not. I simply shake my head, hoping to steer the conversation elsewhere. “So, Will…” I begin. “Is that short for William, Wilson or Willis?”
He laughs as if I had just said the funniest thing. I can feel myself burning up again in anger and embarrassment. “Are you quite finished?” I say through gritted teeth.
“Aren’t you a fickle little thing,” he teases, sobering. “First you want my apology and now you want to get acquainted with me?”
I make a face at him. “This is the second time you’re referred to me as a child,” I point out, “when I am not. I am fifteen years old today. Far from a little girl.”
One of his eyebrow quirks up, smile foregone. “What would you rather I call you then?”
“’Milady’ or ‘young mistress’.”
Now it’s his turn to pull a face. “Your name is Ashlyn, is it not? Then that’s what I will call you,” he says stubbornly.
Oh, for heaven’s sake! I think, exasperated. He’s impossible! No benefit will come from speaking to him. I wriggle my hand out of his and trudge ahead, determined to pretend I’m alone.
“It’s ‘William’,” he calls, his voice losing the condescending edge to it for the first time since I met him. He probably senses my growing distaste for him and decided to proceed with caution. “William Clark.”
I’m tempted to keep ignoring him, but my good reason takes effect. Clearly I’m not going to be rid of him any time soon. Where am I stalking off to, as if I’m eager to get to the place he was taking me? And even if I were to turn back…The trees in the dense forest all looked the same; I wouldn’t have a prayer of finding my way back on my own. Sulking until he finally returns me home wouldn’t do any good. And so, reluctantly I pause, allowing time for him to reach me before turning around. I curtsy respectfully, just as the governess taught me. “I am happy to make your acquaintance,” I say dutifully though insincerely.
He cocks his head at me, smirking like he knows. He takes one of my hands and presses a gentle kiss to it. His lips brush against my skin as he speaks, eyes fixed on mine. “And I you, Miss Ash.”
“But that sounds positively boring.”
I shuffle onto my side and prop myself up on my elbow. The grass tickles my arm as I shift. “Then you have an issue with the aspirations of women everywhere. What lady wouldn’t want to marry a respectable man, live in a fine house and have pretty children?” I challenge.
He’s lying on his back with his hands knitted together behind his head, eyes on me. “But isn’t there anything else you’d like to do with your life? Make art? Travel the world?”
“I have always wondered what the world looked like outside of England,” I admit, playing with a few strands of grass. “Beyond these green fields and muddy roads…” For a moment, my mind drifts far away. A land beyond my home? Filled with different people and different cultures and etiquette. New landscapes and foreign tongues. The only additional language I know is French, which I learnt to become an ‘accomplished lady’. I wonder what it would be like to have an actual use for it –to walk down the Avendue des Champ-Elysees and converse with the people like I belong.“I will travel,” I decide. “One day.”
I let out a wry laugh. “I can’t draw a straight line for the life of me.”
He chuckles, “I bet I could teach you a thing or two.”
“You can draw?” I say, astonished and admittedly, a little impressed.
He shakes his head. “Paint.” He raises his hand up to the sky, fingers splayed out and dark against the starlight.
“What do you paint?”
“Landscapes mostly. Sometimes I come out here with my drawing pad and watercolours and an oil lantern. Paint the night sky in all its glory.” His voice sounds incredibly far away, like only his body is present and his mind is trapped in a dream. And all at once, it comes crashing back. He adds in a grave voice, “If I can sneak away from the kitchen, that is”.
“Have you been working for us long?” I inquire. “I’ve never seen you until today.”
He shakes his head no. “My father and I moved here from London a fortnight ago.”
My interest peaks. “You lived in London? What was it like?”
“Crowded and dirty,” he says ruefully. “And the people there –absolute mingers. Every last one of them.”
I had always thought London would be a city of classy, sophisticated folk. “Oh.” My eyes break contact with his, not letting him see the disappointment swimming in them. Then they catch sight of something else. Alarmed, I grab hold of his hand, holding it closer for inspection. I gasp at the sight. “What happened to you? You weren’t injured before…” I trail off, horrified. Dark bruises decorate his knuckles, a stark contrast against his skin. The skin closest to the indents of the joints is split, encrusted with dried blood.
“My punishment,” he explains, showing me a small smile. “Fifteen whacks of the ruler for causing a scene, ten for ruining your gown and five for wasting the soup.”
He says the words flippantly as if it’s of no significance to him, but I am a different story. I’ve had my fair share of slaps and pinches for naughtiness but nothing of this measure. Surely this was unreasonably cruel? The soup –my dress- it wasn’t that serious a matter, not to me. Sadness wells up in me for him. How heartless must have been the deliverer of this abuse. A lump rises in my throat unbidden as moisture gathers in my eyes until Will’s are just a dark blur in my vision. I roll onto my back and blink up at the moon, willing the tears to stay at bay.
In turn he rolls onto his side. His hand is still in mine. Now he weaves his fingers through the gaps in mine, interlocking our hands. With his other hand, he rubs at a tear that escaped and rolled down my cheek. His eyes soften. “Girls are prettiest when they smile, Ash,” he soothes, voice gentle and even. “So smile.”
“But you must have been in so much pain.” My voice is little more than a hoarse whisper.
He shakes his head slowly. “Physical pain will seize to exist as time runs its course. And it was my own silly mistake that caused this to happen.” His fingers linger on my face, thumb tracing my cheekbone. “Next time I will be more careful.”
“Your…mistake?” I sniffle.
He nods once, firmly.
I let this sink in. So this is the kind of situation Will’s in. It tears at my heart, but I know it could be worse. Here he is, smiling at me. And earlier, probably right after he was hurt like this, he was teasing and laughing and dragging me off into the forest. Surely someone who was devastated or deeply emotionally-scarred couldn’t have acted this upbeat all this while. So as much as I hate what was done to him, I decide I’ll lay this issue to rest. Besides, he doesn’t seem to want to dwell on it either. I take a shaky breath in, feeling a little better. “Well then…” I crack a smile, “does that mean I’ll get my apology?”
He grins deviously, high spirits returned. “Pigs will fly first.”
“You’re a scoundrel, William Clark.”
“Adds to my charm, doesn’t it?”
I let out a good-natured laugh. “I’m afraid I might be immune to you then.”
“I think not,” he says playfully. “The night is still young, Ash. I’ll charm your socks off before you know what’s hit you.”
We laid there for what felt like hours –chatting and laughing, teasing and berating. Sharing stories of our childhood with one another and laughing at our ridiculous memories. I told him about the time I slipped on an ice-covered slope and skidded all the way down on my rear. He told me of the chaos that befell his previous master when a turkey had escaped from its pen and sieged his manor. We divulged our secrets –how I’ve always harboured a secret resentment for my perfect, likeable sister and how he despises his father for his brutal methods of disciplining. Every story, every feeling, every expression is a thread of ourselves, slowly weaving together the tale of our lives. And by the time we decided to head back, I feel as though Will is a companion I’ve known for the longest time whom which I’ve shared my entire life with. Secretly I wonder if he feels the same.
We stroll back through the forest leisurely, not in any hurry to part. His hand is still interlaced with mine, showing no sign of the desire to withdraw. We’ve been holding hands virtually throughout the whole of this adventure. I’m still not sure what to make of it. I’m sure the governess would have a fit if she saw me holding hands with a boy I just met. But is it really as tactile as all that? Friends can hold hands, can’t they? Although it doesn’t feel very chummy, I admit. Especially the slight chills that slam down my spine when he runs his thumb over my knuckles...
“Will, earlier I shared with you what I plan to do in the future, upon your request. But you never told me your own,” I prompt.
He hums beside me. “What I want to do with my future…” He strokes his face thoughtfully. “I’ve always thought of painting seriously,” he confesses. “One day I’ll pack my bags and go in search of new things to paint. All I’ve ever painted are townhouses and streets and grassy hills and streams. So I’ll set my canvas frame on new ground. Make art in a different atmosphere, with different sceneries. I’ll paint waterfalls and caverns and mountains –anything I please. There will be no more limits. No more restrictions. I won’t spend my years a clumsy servant anymore. I’ll live life of my own accord.”
Passion fills his voice as he speaks. Passion born from a life of hardship. It’s inspiring to witness. If only I had that drive –that ambition. But all I know is how to entertain people and uphold my family name, and I am a failure at even that. I wonder what’s out there for me. If it is more than to marry a rich man and become a respected member of society, what else will I do? Where else will I go? What do I hope to achieve? Will seems to have it all planned out. How lucky he is. “What do you plan to do with your paintings?”
“Sell them. And when they gain popularity, I’ll auction them off to the highest bidder,” he says confidently. “And over time, I think I’ll widen my boundaries beyond natural landscapes,” he continues. “If people pay me enough, I’ll paint their portraits, too. Or anything they request.”
“You’re very ambitious,” I observe.
“Of course,” he smiles crookedly. “There is no achievement without ambition, Ash.”
Ash. That’s the third time he’s called me that. But just like the hand-holding, I’m not too bothered about this either. As horribly informal as it sounds coming from a servant, it has a touch of personalization to it that I like. Like decorating a plain dress with ribbons and beads to make it more unique.
The house is in sight now, orange light glowing from the windows. We are just emerging from the treeline. We sneak into the house through the front door. The hallway is empty and unlit. All the maids and butlers must be in the kitchen or helping to serve the drinks in the ballroom. Nonetheless, we creep quietly up the stairs and down the corridor. The wall to our left cuts off where the railing starts, looking over the ballroom. We hurry past until the light no longer touches us. Soon we are standing right outside my bedroom door, awkwardly facing each other.
“Won’t your father be furious that you left?” I say.
“I doubt so. He is probably too furious with me over my past actions to even want to look at me yet, let alone wonder where I went.”
I frown a little but nod.
He chuckles at my expression. “There you go scrunching up your face again.” Before I can answer, he lifts his hands to cup my face, smoothing out my furrowed brows with his thumbs. I laugh at the motion, purposely twisting my face up in bizarre expressions. He laughs along with me.
“You seem to find fault in everything I say,” he smiles, hands still holding my face.
The governess would definitely disapprove of this. I flush at the feeling of his warm hands on my cheeks. “Not everything you say,” I disagree, casually stepping out of his reach. “Your dream of painting the world –I think it’s wonderful.”
Now it is his turn to flush. He averts his gaze from me. “You think so?”
I nod, smiling. “And I’d like to see it come true.”
He gives me a dazzling smile back. It tugs at my heartstrings. On first glance you couldn’t tell he was a mistreated servant boy. With his pure heart and rugged good looks, he might’ve been the prince out of a storybook.
“I should go,” he says finally, sighing at the end. “Someone might come looking for you. And upon seeing us together, outside your chambers…” He throws me a suggestive grin. “The consequences won’t be pleasant.” I respond by turning into a strawberry.
“I suppose you’re right,” I say, sounding as flustered as I feel. The way he’s looking at me has my stomach fluttering in the strangest way. And he’s even nearer than he had been outside the back door. I can feel the heat rolling off his body, and if I just took one step forward, we would be pressed together at every point possible. I banish the indecent thought immediately, now extremely concerned for the cleanliness of my conscience.
“G-goodnight then, William Clark,” I stutter, hastily bowing my head as I curtsey. He bows and catches my hand for a formal hand-kiss. But just as my hand reaches his lips, he tugs it backward, jerking me towards him and presses a kiss to my cheek instead.
My body goes rigid at the contact. My skin tingles deliciously as his lips slide up to my ear. I can feel him smiling as he murmurs, “We’ll meet again in your dreams, dear Ash.”
He draws away slowly and releases my hand, which falls limply back to my side. My eyes are wide, cheeks burning, mouth slack. I want to say something but my rational mind is in tatters, unable to form a coherent thought, let alone string together a sentence. I’d bet my last penny that he can tell. Because as he turns and walks away, a mischievous smile is evident on his face.
Three knocks come from the door. My heart flutters as I rise to answer it. Angelique grimaces in the mirror. She grumbles at the huge smile on my face. “Coming to see a lady at her chambers. I’d expect no more of that uneducated swine,” she snorts disapprovingly. “You will try to drill some manners into him before the wedding, won’t you? I won’t tolerate a bumptious fool marrying into the family.”
“Oh, Angel,” I sigh wistfully, passing a hand over her shoulder. “If only you would look deeper into people than just background and heritage, maybe you would be engaged, too.” She grunts like she thinks I’m absurd but I ignore her, walking up to the door and throwing it open.
Will looks breath-taking in black velvet jacket with golden embroidery on its cuffs and lapels. A silk cream shirt with frills at the neckline pokes out under it. He grew a great deal since I met him. Now the top of my head barely reaches his shoulder. “Dear Ash,” he greets, smiling warmly.
I scoot forward and shut the door behind me, launch myself into his arms. He staggers a little and straightens, wrapping one hand around my waist, the other smoothing down my hair. He smells of wildlife –like rich soil and herbs and wildflowers. I hug him closer, feeling absolutely content in his arms. “How was Wales?” I murmur into his chest.
“Serene. It had the most beautiful rocky landscapes. It was tough to paint the small details in their structure, but I do love a challenge.” I hum in reply, too absorbed in the wonderfulness of feeling him here, in my arms, to form a complex response. He chuckles into my hair, pressing me closer to him. “Did you miss me?” He whispers at my ear.
I close my eyes and sigh into his chest. “A little.”
“Only a little? You’re hurting my ego,” he teases.
Grinning, I lift my head from him and grasp his face between my hands. “Darling Will, have you forgotten? Battering your ego is my favourite hobby."
“Oh, really?” He leans in closer and says, “I thought this was your favourite hobby." Then he presses his lips into mine. I smile into the kiss, stretching up on the balls of my feet to get even closer. His mouth tastes sweet like wild berries and sunshine. I lose myself in the feeling of our lips moving against each other’s, slow and passionate and filled with the essence of our sweet reunion. His hand weaves into my hair, beginning to unravel it from its pins. I reluctantly draw away. “Will, it took a lot of pain and effort to style my hair like this,” I warn, trying to sound stern but failing miserably. “The maid’s efforts will not be in vain.”
He pulls back with a grin and grabs my hand. “There’s something I want to show you.”
He leads me through the corridor into the guestroom Mama and Papa let him stay in for tonight. He lights the oil lamp and it bathes the room in an orange glow. Next, he trudges to the bed on which a canvas rests facedown. He plops down on the bed beside it, making the springs creak under his weight. He flips the canvas over, smiling shyly. “I’ve been working on this for a while. My engagement gift to you,” he says tenderly.
I stare at the picture, mesmerized, feeling a wide grin spread across my face.
“Do you like it?”
I hold my hands out and he places it in them. I admire the detail in each component of the painting –every blade of grass beneath us, even the beads on my emerald dress. We are looking far out at the stars. Will is pointing at the sky, showing me a constellation up above, his lip parted as if in speech. Our hands are clasped together tightly, held between our bodies. Lying against the green with stars reflecting in our eyes, we look like we escaped from a fairy tale.
“Do you?” He repeats, sounding more nervous by the second. “I-I might have gotten the beading on your dress a tad wrong. I didn’t really remember-“
“It’s perfect,” I assure him, placing the canvas back on the bed. I caress the back of his neck, pulling him close. Warmth fills my chest.
He beams up at me, reflecting the love I feel for him –every smile and kiss and embrace we share when we’re together, and every long, heartfelt letter when we’re apart, all trapped in his eyes. “Truly?”
I giggle at him lightly. The accomplished, sought-after artist doubting of his work? But of course that isn’t it. He isn’t just any painter, after all. He must be the most frustrating, bothersome, romantic, tease of an artist England’s ever seen. And I’m absolutely smitten that he’s mine. Which is why I press my forehead against his, and glow right back at him, whispering, “Truly,” before leaning in for another kiss.