XIV

"IN WHICH EVERYTHING LEADS TO ENGAGEMENT"

-as narrated by William-

The return to the place I erst called "home" (for at present I was no more at home in Derbyshire than in London) was, on one hand, pleasant in the way that it reminded me of the long, ceaseless hours I used to spend in nature, but bothersome on the other. My father was, as always, cold as a stone, unmoved by my arrival. His sickness was no more serious than a simple cold — some coughing and fever, but not pneumonia, the doctor assured him. At any rate, he was, exactly as I presumed, in better health than my step brother led me to believe with his letter. His true sickness lied in his heart, not in his lungs, and if there was anything lacking in him, that was not his health, but his soul. It turned out that I was not sent for only because of father's illness.

Immediately after his recovery, he informed me of an inheritance coming from a distant relative of mine. The sum was quite decent. Together with the money I have been saving and earning, Rose and I could've bought a house of our own, of course not an expensive manor as the one she was used to, but one fairly close to it… maybe even a villa with two storeys, and still there would be some money left for a vacation. I could've taken her anywhere she wished.

There is an old saying — "Absence makes the heart grow fonder." — but never before has it done justice to my beliefs. Most of the times, absence erased all traces of a past affair, all of the memories of the woman, no matter how unforgettable was her presence, her perfume, her countenance. However, this was not the present case. Rose was not part of any of my "past" affairs, ours was as eternal as time, as constant as the stars shine on the never-ending sky. It is strange how we sometimes value something once we lose it (even though temporarily), more than when we have plentiful of it. One month ago, I could not make up my mind about our future, while now I could see it clear as day. I could not bear her absence any longer. What trivialities have kept me back from proposing to her, I could not possibly know.

No matter what other reasons for claiming my presence my father had, I was thankful to him for doing so. But alas, short after, the second reason came into light, and it was nothing that could bring me joy, but could not harm me either. One week before my departure was planned, I was announced that Miss Whittaker was visiting the countryside; and this fact being presented, there was no reason for which we should not invite her to dine with us, father said.

The following day, I was sent for by my father. He wanted to speak with me in private about matters that "should concern me especially, but also the family". His days were limited, it was now the time that I look upon my future and choose the woman who would bear my name, and his as well, wisely. I needed not read between the lines to come to an accurate estimation of my father's scheme and plans for me. Miss Whittaker being a family friend for a long time, and my companion in London since when I first moved in the town, she was my father's favourite, his only choice, if he were me. Only that he was not, and we happened to have different minds and feelings on the matter. I remained impartial to the subject, not giving away any information related to my true intentions, assuring him that there was nothing between myself and Miss Whittaker that could secure any connection of the sort, and that whomever I would choose to marry, it is my decision entirely, one that would not disappoint him nevertheless. These being said, my father was reconciled with my decision, and I expected no more of his schemes.

Miss Whittaker, however, seemed to have been truly misled by some rumour. Somebody must've encouraged her in pursuing me, for she insisted to accompany me in my strolls at any hour of the morning.

"Come to think, William, till not so long ago you used to write everywhere you went. You always carried that small notebook with you, remember? Even when we were going to some party, I always found you in the same corner writing... whatever you wrote. And now all you've been doing is walk along the same lonely paths every morning. I haven't seen you writing a word."

"That is because right then I was not a living human being, in the true sense of the word. In my life, I've either lived or written. Now I am starting to live again. I don't need to seek my existence among words. Those times are gone, Sophie. See, my aspirations and ideas needed materialisation in some way, if not in reality, then at least on paper. What good to write now, when everything I wrote about has become true?"

"And what is it that you've written about which became true?" I let the question unanswered, and we walked to a farther place, where no one could see us, or hear us. "No, don't tell me. But you ceased to play the piano too. It must be something that made you give up music as well as writing."

"I was never a good player, but you always thought I was. I only play music to please those who ask me. I played it for you then, because you insisted so much."

"And would you play it now too, if I asked you?"

"If it would please you... perhaps I would. Miss Whittaker, I must say this to you now. Soon I will return to London, and I know not if we will ever meet again. I cannot lead you to believe a falsehood. You have been a great friend to me, and I have nothing but respect for your person. I am grateful to you, and always will be, but you must not be misinformed. My friendship you will always have, and the highest esteem for you, but nothing less, nothing more than this. Accept my apologies if I ever deceived you or caused you to think otherwise."

There followed another moment of silence, time in which I could study her countenance. I now could rest assured. I managed to speak my mind, and not hurt her at the same time. "I see..." she added, after a while, "It must've been my imagination... Well, I hope we will remain friends, and if some day we should meet again, I hope you will stop and greet me, and not pass by my side as if we were strangers. I am leaving these parts of England, and moving to Durham."

"Are you? But why?"

"I have found that the furthermost I am from London, the more peaceful everything becomes."

"I cannot but agree with you. In this matter we've always had the same mind."

"But in others... Well, Mr. Hale," she emphasised in a light tone, "I trust that whoever the other woman is, she will make you happy."

"What do you mean? How should you know if there is another —"

"Dear William, let us part as we are now. I do not mean to interfere, and you need not lie. There is an intuition we, women, have, that never fails. I am sure she is expecting you. I will not give your father any other reason to keep you away from your sweetheart. I know he would not let you go so easily if I were still around. I am leaving tomorrow, so you can return the same day. I have already visited too much of the countryside. We both need a change, don't we?"

So thankful was I for her understanding, so glad that she did see through me, and thus it was not necessary anymore to present her with some facts which I had no wish of disclosing. "You are a wonderful woman, Sophie, both on the inside and on the outside. I thank you very much, and wish you the best of luck."

True to her word, Miss Whittaker announced her departure the same evening. All matters settled, I myself could not waste any more time either. Now that my presence was no longer needed, nor desired (I am certain), I had to leave. My father had to insist that I should stay, for the sake of formalities, but I, in turn, demanded that I should go.

There was somebody else… somebody of whose existence my family had no idea, who was eagerly waiting for me. Where was Rose right now? What thoughts could cross her mind? All of this waiting must've been a great trial for her, a painful test of our love, more painful to her than to me. I, unlike her, had the advantage of knowing that Rose would be there for me, when I returned. But she, not knowing where I was gone, didn't have any certitude that I would come back. I have missed her dearly for the last month, but she... not only she missed me, but she must've been afraid that I would never return to her.

It was about time that I put her doubts to rest, and my heart at ease.

A second knock at the door followed the first one. I was becoming impatient with every wasted second. Was she home? Was she well? What if something happened — but no, I removed that awful thought from my mind. Before I would hit the wooden door for the third time, it was opened, and a woman whom I identified as Martha — her maid — appeared into my sight. "Mr. Hale! You have returned! My lady will be so glad to see you."

"And I — even more to see her." The woman stood there unmoved like a statue for a while, as if she still did not believe her eyes. If I made such an impression on her, I imagined what happiness I'd discover in Rose when she would find out about my return. She would be delighted! I could not wait to have her in my sight. "Well why are you standing here like this? Hurry up and call your lady, I am raring to see her."

"Yes, Mister!"

"Oh, and please… don't tell her it's me. I want this to be a surprise."

"Of course, Mister." The woman's face brightened with a sly smile; then she got back inside. In less than one minute, I could hear the sweet voice of my dear Rose speaking as she descended the stairs, the small gap of door allowing me to peek inside. "But I do not understand, Martha. Who could possibly wish to see me?"

"I would not know, my lady, for he did not provide me with a name, in spite of my insistence." The voices grew louder as her familiar figure became visible through the hole. I smiled to myself cleverly. Her maid played her part brilliantly! I hid behind the door as they approached. Then the door opened completely and before my eyes presented Rose, hands clasping together under her chin, eyes widened in astonishment as she realised that I was right there before her eyes — in flesh and blood.

"William! Why did you not tell me?" she asked, turning to her maid. The chubby woman smiled mischievously, and disappeared from the sight, leaving us alone. "When did you return?"

"Precisely this morning." Rose fastened the cloak around her, and shut the door behind her. No sooner we were alone, that she jumped right in my arms, clasping her arms around my neck with such force that she could've suffocated any other man with her love, anyone but me. I opened my arms in turn, allowing her body to crawl into my embrace.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover the same fragile and dependent spirit in her that I loved so much. Time has not changed her, nor did my absence. Much to my contentment, she held on to me, refusing to let me go. If anything, my absence did indeed make her heart go fonder. It was as if she was shedding upon me all of the love she has been saving for me all of this time. "My God, how wrong was I to think you weak! You could crush a man with those delicate arms of yours."

"No... I wouldn't do that. Not until I hear those words from your own —" Pausing, she brought her hands to her lips. "Ah, never mind. How is your father? Is he well now?"

"He is as healthy as a horse. It was nothing serious, it seems. See? I was right! The letter was only a pretext for me to visit them. Who would've thought that he still needs the presence of his other son from time to time?"

"Oh you awful man! Don't say that! I don't want us to go back to the same old discussion… at least not today."

"Yes, you're right. Not today…" I dug my hand discreetly in the pocket of my coat. The small jewellery box was still there. I only needed to find the perfect place and time. "I wonder what were the words that you wished to hear from me so much? Let me guess… I miss you — these have to be! Am I correct?"

"Did you… really?"

"Greatly."

"You're only saying it because I said I wanted to hear them. You could not possibly mean it."

"Oh, but I do. If there is one thing I am grateful for to my family, it is that they sent me the letter. Otherwise, we would've never parted, and I would've never found out how much I could miss you. And what an illusion I would've lived!"

I searched the pocket again, playing with the tiny box. Perhaps this was the right time… Before I could think it over, though, Rose jumped at my neck again with such energy that I almost fell on my back. I did not; however, my arm hit the doorjamb. In such playful mood that we were, I affected an injured look and rubbed my shoulder, pretending to be hurt.

"You have such a way with words! But... oh... Oh, my! Good Lord, did I hurt you?"

"Possibly," I spoke in a serious tone, "I think my collarbone is fractured; my arm could be dislocated as well."

Right away, Rose put on a worried face and proceeded to inspect my shoulder. "Oh, no! I am so sorry! Does it still hurt?"

"Not anymore."

"Thank God!" she said, letting out a sigh of relief, and then established distance between us.

"But I'm afraid… it's starting to hurt again… now that you've taken your hands off of me..." No matter how much I tried to refrain from laughing, I could not resist. In the end, I burst out into laughter. "Well you know what they say, love heals everything — if there is anything at all to be healed."

"You liar! You almost scared me! I should've known it was nothing serious, you were only fooling around!" she spoke, darting a furious glance at me. In the end, she burst out laughing as well, and before we could realise it, we were all smiles, behaving like silly children. It has been so long since we last acted like that, that I feared that we had lost this gift.

"It is true though, I was a sick man without you..."

"Were you? Are you sure... you're not exaggerating again?" A cool whiff of air blew against us, and as she sneezed, I thought that I've never heard a sound so lovely as the one she made when she, hands brought to her mouth, tried to refrain from sneezing, never seen a face so pretty as the one I was blessed with to behold right then. It was the sweetest, most childish expression I've ever seen, and it brought smiles on our lips once more — on mine at least.

"Of course, laugh at the poor, sick girl who's been missing you so much that her heart began to ache!" Rose pouted, trying to refrain from smiling. Nevertheless, it didn't take us long until we both burst out laughing again.

"But you are laughing as well! I am laughing with you, not at you! And I cannot help it. You were so sweet, just like a child! If you could only see yourself in a mirror! Such a lovely thing you are, when you are being yourself! I think I am beginning to love you more! Now... if we survive — and don't die of laughter, or of too much love —"

"Can one die of too much love or happiness? Because I am alive, more than ever!"

"I as well... Anyhow... I want to meet up with you tomorrow morning. I'll take you to a special place."

"What kind of special place?" She looked up at me with uncertainty. I read her mind right away. Recalling the last misunderstanding that we'd had, I could see where her doubt came from. I'd been mistaken then, I would not be again now. I could not offer her luxury, but I would make sure that she has plentiful of love, as much as I could give. "A special place in nature, that is," followed my explanation. "Will you accept?"

"Of course... but... tomorrow? You've just come back! Why must we part between today and tomorrow? Let me come with you."

"There's nothing I want more, but I have so much work to do... Will it not bother you? I have to meet Henry immediately. I can't be too careless with this man and his schemes... Let me do the work this evening, and tomorrow will be all ours."

"And the rest of our days?"

"As much as I can, I will make them ours too."

"Very well, you have my permission to leave. I will spend my day quietly thinking about the future and in waiting of the morrow."

"I could come inside, though... for a while."

"No, no. I shall not keep you away from your work. Go now! I've waited for you a while month, I can wait one more day." A warm smile brightened her face, reminding me of how much I have missed her. It crossed my mind that this petite, lovely girl would've done anything for me, or given her last breath for our love, and it touched my heart to see how much she loved me.

Now was my turn to show her my love. I fondled her with kisses, held her tight, and kept on uttering words of 'I missed you' in her ears, the way I whispered I love you's that time when I promised her that someday I would show her the sea. Little did she know that this day would come, even sooner than she would expect.


A/N: Wow, I think this is the shortest chapter! But the next part must be written from Rose's POV, so... Anyway, hope you enjoyed it! :)