James Bartle had died that day. The doctor was unsure if it was alcohol poisoning or a heart-attack or both. But he was buried in consecrated ground with the services of the church. Anastasia looked about at the few faces found about her: most were free from tears. In fact, the only real mourner was Mary Ann.
But her mourning was not long. Within three months she had married again, this time to Michael Bulfinch. He was an uninteresting merchant who made a good salary- which was his only redeeming quality. He kept himself unattached and distant. His aloofness was beneficial as it allowed Mary Ann to discipline Jemima and George somewhat. She also had complete control over expenditures as he did not care to interfere “with a woman’s work” as he called household needs.
Since his work required him to be nearer a larger town, the family was uprooted in order to move to London. Actually, not London proper, for they were resettled just up river from London where all the rich folk have their country houses and all the poor folk work to keep the rich folk from leaving. Yet it was a pleasant community, full of its gossips and scandals, ready to take more upon itself.
Now that the income of money made it affordable, the children were promptly enrolled in the local academy. Jemima and George were ahead of their peers, but poor Anastasia was behind two grades. She would not have minded much, except the other children teased her unmercifully- instigated by her own siblings. Often she would return home late, having fled school only to cry in the field outside of town.
One day, Anastasia stood quiet and shy leaning against the school’s bricks. The sun flickered bright inbetween the passing clouds. Its warmth embraced her as if it said, “Don’t be distressed. You have yourself.” Empty comfort it was. The other students chased each other round the yard, shrieking and boisterous. A few of the older girls sedately walked round the perimeter, arms linked as they chatted and coyly watched the older boys.
Jemima sauntered along with her friends. Giggling, they passed the lonely girl. Ignoring their snooty glances, Anastasia continued to watch the swiftly changing sky in her melancholy mood. Her thoughts slipped back to the Rev. Doubleday and his wife. They had always been so kind. Would she ever see them again?
The girls passed by on their loop again. Pretending to be ignorant, they purposefully raised their voices so she could hear. “I wish I was in your class, Jane and Karen,” Jemima said, “instead of my sister. I’ll finish and you’ll still have two more years.”
One of the girls thus addressed tossed her golden curls, replying, “It’s not your fault your sister is an old homely maid lacking intelligence.”
“You’re right, Karen,” the other dark haired girl chimed. “Jemima, you can’t blame yourself for being better than Anastasia. When we are all married, we’ll have to remember to invite her over sometimes.”
Anastasia glared at them as they purposefully continued in this fashion. Her eyes smarted with the tears she refused to display. Why was she an old maid, when she was only thirteen? Most girls were not considered of age for courting until sixteen. She was still young! Was she really so ugly as to have her peers doubt her marriageability? Jemima, Karen and Jane were all impeccably beautiful. Perhaps no one would ever love her. But that was alright, because love meant getting hurt and forgotten anyway.
The school bell rang. As the rest of the children lolligaged trying to keep outside in the cool air for a little longer, Anastasia quickly mounted the steps after the teacher. Someone called, “That’s right, Stacy, go find a book. That’s all your good for!” It was George’s voice. All the school yard erupted into mocking laughter.
The remark stung. Anastasia left trying to make friends and being popular to her brother and sister. To waste the solitary hours she began to read, slowly at first- the taunt jeering at her, then faster, devouring any book she could lay her hands upon. Forgetting people, she became fascinated with the black and white words scrawled across the pages. The dead pages were better company. They did not jeer at her or torture her; no, they left her alone to enjoy the story, to become one with it.
Years passed. Anastasia grew more and more reserved around her spoiled siblings and the bullies at school. She had no friends, except the books that she was perpetually reading. She smiled infrequently and never laughed. In short, she was grave. And this gravity made her appear older and harsh, although she was gentle and extremely sensitive by nature.
One day she was walking back from school. Her books were tucked under her arm and her mind far away on Shakespeare’s Henry V. Cutting the corner quickly, she suddenly found that there was something resisting her presence in that particular spot. Before she had fully grasped the happenstance, she was falling backwards. But she did not quite fall; someone caught her. Then she heard the flap of pages in the wind as her homework and books tumbled to the pavement. With a sharp cry, she scurried here and there collecting the flying leaves and gathering the beloved texts from the damp road.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she heard someone say.
“Oh, my books!” was all she could exclaim.
“If any are damaged I will pay for new ones, I promise. How clumsy of me. I do hope you’ll accept my apology?”
“Oh no!” she gasped. “My collection of poems is missing.” She furtively glanced around.
“Here it is,” said the someone. For the first time she actually looked at the young man. He was tall and handsome, like one of the characters from her novels. He was holding the little blue book in his gloved hand along with a good number of her other precious possessions. It was a nice glove, leather and practically new; her own hand was clothed in a faded knit mitten. She could not help feeling poor and shabby next to his elegance. She just wanted to get away as quickly as possible.
“Thank you,” she whispered, extending her hand to receive the lot.
“If there are any damaged, I’ll accommodate your loss.” He made a slight bow.
“No, no. I’m sure they’re fine. Good day.” She brushed past.
“Is there anyone to walk you home?” He stepped beside her.
“No, but I’ll be alright.”
“Please, may I escort you home? I would like to see that you are safe if you won’t let me make restitution.”
She paused. Well, could it hurt? Why not? She was walking latter today than normal. Not that there was much crime in her little country town, but it could not hurt to be careful. And it would be mean to deny him some sense of requital. “If you are sure it is no trouble?”
“None at all,” he smiled. “My name is Gerard Thomas.”
“I’m Anastasia Bartle.”
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance, although I do say, I wish I had made it in a less violent manner.” He laughed. It was a merry, hearty laugh. It took some of the fear from her. “You must forgive my recklessness. I walk about and forget to pay attention to where I am going. Rather clumsy of me, wouldn’t you say?”
“I was doing the same. So you’re no clumsier than I.” That sounded silly, she thought. Of course I am clumsy. But he’s a fine gentleman, nothing clumsy about him!
He laughed again. “My dear Ms. Bartle, as a lady, there’s nothing clumsy about you.”
Anastasia flushed. She had never been called miss before, and she had most certainly never been called a lady. It was her very first complement as a matter of fact. “How very silly of me to blush!”
He laughed once more. “No, miss. Blushing is a sign of genteelness. It is not silly.” And then as if he guessed her inability to respond, he continued, “May I carry your books? I would be most obliged if you would allow me.”
Not entirely certain why she did, Anastasia handed him her beloved collection. He gave a courteous bow and ‘thank you’. Then he studied the titles as if his life depended upon it. “Ah, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of Great Britain. So you love tales of great deeds and bold chevaliers and swooning damsels?”
Anastasia wrinkled her brow. Somehow it sounded like a drama as he said it. “No,” she puzzled. “I like it because… I don’t know exactly why. Perhaps it is the nobility of the characters more than the greatness of the tales; perhaps the strength to do right more than the wish to be great; perhaps it is the fear that there are fewer men and women like King Arthur’s court now.” What am I saying? He doesn’t need to know all that!
If she had looked up at him rather than blushing down at her feet, she would have seen a look of intense interest and understanding as the blue eyes gazed at her. But she did not look, nor could she have guessed how she had won his utmost respect. Within his heart, although even he was unaware of the happening, Gerard Thomas desired to be worthy of her.
Anastasia stopped at the gate of her home. “Thank you for your trouble.” She held out her hands for the various books he held.
But he held them still close. “Please let me replace the damaged ones. I feel despairingly bass to permit this offense to yourself and literature without rectification.”
“Oh no,” she interjected, blushing as awareness of Jemima’s face in the window entered her mind. “Please, sir, if you want to be of service, don’t mention the matter. What will my family think? It was an accident for which you are not responsible.”
Sighing, he relinquished the precious load to the owner. “Then I must submit to your will, Miss Bartle.” Removing the elegant hat, he bowed. “Good evening.”
“Good evening,” Anastasia whispered. As nonchalantly as her pacing heart would allow, she opened the gate and proceeded up the lane. Once the great green door closed behind her, she took a deep breath. What happened?
“Anastasia!” Jemima bounded down the stairs. Snatching her sister’s books, she exclaimed, “Who is he? What did he want? Why was he carrying your books? George! Stacy has a beau!”
“I do not!” the poor girl cried pulling off her grey mittens and scarf. “There was an accident and he helped me home. That’s all.”
“Really?” George entered the room. “So someone actually thinks you pretty? What a surprise!”
“Oh, I’m sure he’s not that serious,” Jemima said, her face plastered to the window pane. “He hasn’t looked back once.”
Anastasia stamped her foot. “I fell and he helped me home. That’s all.”
“Oh!” her siblings simultaneously sneered. “What’s his name, then?”
“She knows his name!” Jemima danced.
“It’s nothing, you bullies. Nothing!” And Anastasia bounded upstairs on the verge of tears. She would probably never see him again, so why did they make such a big deal of it? Oh, but she wanted to hear his courteous comments and his gentle voice again. Nothing had sounded so sweet to her before.
At dinner that evening, there was an endless questioning first by her siblings, then her mother, and several knowing smirks from the two servants. Mr. Bulfinch ate his meal in his customary silence as if he was ignorant of the whole matter. But Anastasia barely swallowed anything, for the more she persisted there was nothing to be excited about, the more everyone was certain there was, and the more she felt sick inside.