Wiping a stray hair from her eyes, Anastasia took up the hot iron again. She leaned pouring all her weight through her arm into the triangular metal tool. The hissing soothed her distressed soul as the stubborn wrinkles stood unmoved in the white table cloth. A trickle of sweat rolled down her neck into her collar. She hated sweat, she hated being dirty and smelly, and more so she hated working when there was a book unfinished.
She placed the iron back on the stove to heat. Sighing, she rubbed her exhausted shoulder, rolling the twisted muscles between her aching fingers, her eyes naturally resting outside through the window. It was a cloudy Saturday, the kind of day she wanted to do nothing but read. Her thoughts strolled without her in the park, under the trees, behind the great houses. But she never saw much except the inevitable book page clutched in her hands as she walked the familiar paths. Absently, she moved closer to the window.
“I can’t embroider that,” she hear Jemima exclaim. “It happens to be Saturday, you know.”
Sneaking towards the ajar door, she spied Jemima reclining at the bay window- empty handed. She felt her cheeks flush in anger as her younger sister lazed. Here she was, working like a servant while high and mighty Jemima played princess. Well, not anymore! Forget the iron glowing red, forget the cloth unfinished, forget the pile untended. She was going to read!
Anastasia pushed open the door, her face flushed from irritation as much as from the heat. Without glancing, she knew Jemima and her mother were staring open mouthed as grasping her coat in one hand and her book in the other she sauntered out the front door.
The cool breeze refreshed her wearied soul. Winding her way through the streets, she became depressingly aware that the grey clouds and sudden wind bursts foretold an impending shower. Her time was limited. A cold draft nearly swept her away. The chill from it convinced her to slip on her coat.
For some reason the motion made her think of Gerard’s kindness earlier that week. She tried to brush the thought away by studying the tumbling cloud mass. But it flickered in the back of her mind like a candle placed behind a screen: you know it is there, but you don’t want to go extinguish it lest you have to look at it. And so it burned gently hidden by other ideas swirling around. As she entered the park, the thought resurged more strongly. But with a determined will she smothered it with feigned indifference: It was no more than he would have done for any woman. I’m no one special. I shouldn’t even be thinking of him! What is he to me? A rich man who amuses himself with acts of charity. Her heart cringed at the injustice her remark assumed, yet she tried to justify it anyway. As the path stretched familiarly before her feet, she opened the book and lost herself in another world. By ignoring it, she denied all that had happened to her.
“Ms. Bartle! What a pleasant surprise!”
Anastasia looked up bewildered as her mind was rent from the critical battle on the page. Walking toward her was Gerard Thomas. Her heart leapt a little, like a sparrow hops before flight. “Good day, Mr. Thomas!”
“May I take a stroll with you?” He offered her his arm. “I had a letter from my sister. She will be coming home soon. I should very much like you to meet her.”
Anastasia smiled. The thought of another being in the world who was as charming as he seemed impossible. The mere mention of Greta Thomas seemed to be elegant in itself. “I would like that.”
“Good! Then I shall send you word if I don’t see you myself. This makes me very happy. You two will like each other. Although I feel it is only fair to say Greta is somewhat of an artist: she can be very… well, exuberant. She’s like the sunshine dancing in the trees, whereas you are more like- I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say such things.”
Underneath her blush, Anastasia wondered what he thought she was like; stubborn, clumsy, ridiculous? It seemed so terribly important what he thought. But she had no chance to ponder farther.
“What were you reading?”
“Shakespeare’s Henry V; have you ever read it?” She offered the book to his scrutiny.
Smiling, he replied, “Yes, when I was in school. But it’s been many years. I didn’t particularly enjoy it at the time anyway.”
“Oh, what a shame! The king has such a character! He’s dashing and courageous, yet gentle and considerate.”
“Is dashing a quality that you think important?”
There was a brief silence. “No.” She paused pondering why she had said it. “I suppose it’s not so much the dashing but the ignorance of it that is charming. For example, at one point Harry urges his troops to the breech by himself leading the charge. This chevalier act endears him, while definitely portraying his lake of self-interest. Moreover there is his famous speech of St. Crispan’s Day. He does not desire gold or anything temporal, but glory and honor.”
For a long time they talked as the path wended through the park, discussing the king’s tale under the trees. Every now and then Anastasia would quote a passage to support her point, and he would counter with a question. Eventually they were sitting under an oak reading the play scene by scene. And as the knights tramped across France behind their king, passersby remarked on the charming couple, many happy that the rich young man had finally found his special someone. But there were two brown eyes that were jealous of Anastasia.
At the end of act two, Gerard walked her home. There was not a moment were one did not have a comment, whether about the story or some tangential topic taken from who knows where. When they reached the small fenced yard where he normally said goodbye, the girl turned to him, “It looks like it might rain. Would you like to come in and wait?”
He smiled down at her. Somehow it wrenched his heart, guessing she was only being courteous rather than devising a way for him to stay for a little while. “Thank you, but I should be returning home. Mrs. Tundlemire will be worrying. But I suppose you know that!” He laughed. “Good evening, Ms. Bartle.”
“Good evening.” She walked up the worn trail between the rose bushes to the door.
Gerard waited until she was gone from sight, then turned homeward. What was it about her that confused him so? She was like the breeze, sometimes too strong, other times too soft. Why had he almost told her that? It was so forward. What must she think of him? Stupid man! Then again, she did not think of him as more than a friend. He was only torturing his own heart, attaching it where there was no returning affection. He felt a rain drop land on his neck and roll into his collar. When Greta came back, things would be different. She would take Anastasia under her wing and turn her into the social lady, as she always did. And then he would loss a friend. Did he dare think more?
Anastasia had watched him walk away through the lace curtains. What was this strange feeling? She had so wanted to keep him from going away, to spend just a little more time. But why? Such an impossible heart she had! A rain drop landed on the window pane. Instantly she ran to the door. Her hand landed on the knob, turned it. But she let it go. No, he did not want to associate with her more than cultured societal norms dictated. She collapsed on the first step, a sob stifled in her throat. What was this reaction for? Was she… Was this… No, foolery, that was what it was. Brushing a tear from her eye, she returned to the kitchen and the hot iron and the rumpled cloth.
Gerard arrived home, water streaming from him. All was silent and dark, the closing door echoing eerily in the empty house. He concluded that Mrs. Tundlemire must have taken a nap. With a sigh he collapsed against the door. The quiet dark seemed to crush him, or rather to pull all the emotion and tension out. He felt like his soul was evaporating. Why? Did he love her? Perhaps so, but he did not know really; and he only cared because of how it might hurt her. He must control his feelings, he must… for her. Slowly he sank to the floor, feeling all the weight of despair. Never would he be able to admit his love, and he knew it. For one, he reasoned, she is too pure and noble. She needs someone who will be strong, kind, completely worthy of her, like one of King Arthur’s knights that she loves so much. Someone who is not me. He dropped his head onto his knees, tears mingling with the rain water. I am just not chivalrous enough.
“Is that you, my dear boy?” Mrs. Tundlemire called.
Swallowing a sob, he stood up. “Yes, it is.” As the kindly lady fretted over his wet condition, Gerard thought again how hard it was to be the perfect gentleman. Yet that was what everyone expected, and so that was what he had to be. And that was not what she needed.
Each respectively went to sleep that night tired and heart-sore. Each wondered what the other thought of himself or herself. But there was no way of knowing, for he was not perfect for her or she was not right for him. Ah, but were they? You, as a reader, are obviously aware that they are a good match: kind and considerate, extremely caring for the other, ready to sacrifice anything if it could bring a smile to the other. But when you are in a relationship, especially one where you deny your own or the other’s obvious feelings, you inevitably decry yourself as worthless. But I apologize for ranting. I promise to remain a narrator and not a homilist.