The Shadowfields, Part Sixteen
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The next morning, Grandfather seemed to have improved. He ate a good breakfast—or at least, better than he had in several days—and talked to me for a long while. The doctor fussed at him frequently to stay quiet and still, but Grandfather brushed him off, calling him ‘an old cracked pot’ and insisting that he was perfectly all right. I tried gently to persuade Grandfather to listen to what the doctor said, but he refused, so I stopped arguing and decided to simply enjoy the morning with him.
Just before noon, Grandfather asked to see ‘Young Hennly’. I was rather puzzled by such a request, but nevertheless sent someone to find Robert and bring him in.
“You’ll excuse us, won’t you, Elizabeth?” Grandfather asked when Robert arrived. I complied and sat out in the hallway for a few minutes until Robert left—abruptly, without speaking or even looking at me. I went back into Grandfather’s room and asked casually what he had wanted with Robert. He said that it was only “the usual mundane things a man must discuss with his stableman.” That answer made me worry that perhaps Grandfather was slightly out of his head—either that, or he was hiding something from me.
A short while later, the doctor came into the room and whispered to me that Uncle Roger wanted to come in and see Grandfather. The doctor was still insistent that only one person could see Grandfather at a time, so I quietly stepped out into the hall. I had seen from the window that the sun was shining brilliantly outside, so I decided to take just a few moments to get out in the air.
But where would I go? I thought about the roof—but last night had brought back too many memories. Good memories, true enough, but…
No, not the roof. I retrieved a light shawl from my room and threw it around my shoulders, deciding to take a short walk through gardens. It had been a long time since I had walked there.
Even with summer’s bloom gone, the gardens were still beautiful. A few leaves still clung to the tips of grey branches like bright embers among ashes. A few adventurous roses still bloomed, their petals tarnished with bruises from the frosts. I left the footpath and stepped near enough to breathe in the scent of one of them—sweet and musky, but faint and fading, like an ancient saga fading slowly into legend over the years.
Smiling at the enchanting metaphor I had just come up with, I left the roses and stepped back onto the footpath. The lily pond wasn’t frozen, but its waters were dark and still and the lilies had long since vanished into its depths to wait for warm weather to return. Past the pond was the tree with the hollow in it, where squirrels had stashed nuts. Robert had showed me where it was during my first summer at Shadowfield.
I paused next to the tree, running my hand over its bumpy bark and smiling as I remembered. This was the first tree I had ever climbed—and it was under this tree that Robert had taught me how to whistle through a blade of grass.
Impulsively I bent down and fingered through the grass at the tree’s base, searching for a blade wide enough to use as a whistle reed and still green enough not to break. When I had found one I thought would be suitable, I positioned it carefully between my thumbs, trying to remember if I had it exactly right. Yes, that must be right, stretched tight between the knuckles of my thumbs to form an opening with the edge of the blade in the middle. I situated my lips over the opening and blew.
Only the sound of my breath came out.
I tried repositioning my mouth and blew again. This time the grass blade buzzed and vibrated, tickling my top lip.
Laughing at myself, I continued down the footpath, trying without success to reproduce that deliciously loud shriek that Robert and I had blasted through the gardens so many times in the past. Now that I was older I realized what a nuisance we must have been to everyone within earshot, but in those days we hadn’t given it a thought.
As I made my way into the older part of the garden—the trees were much taller and broader there—I suddenly came around a tree and saw someone step onto the path right in front of me. At that same instant I had apparently found the correct position for my lips and my breath came out as a piercing shriek that no jay’s call could equal.
Both I and the person in front of me jumped backwards—just as I realized that it was Robert. We were both laughing, but nevertheless I could feel my face turning red as I caught my balance and dropped the blade of grass.
“Are you alright?” Robert asked, still laughing.
“I am fine,” I said, “You just startled me, or—or I startled myself, I’m not sure which.”
“That was a little like our first meeting, wasn’t it?”
I laughed again as I remembered. “A little.”
“At least you didn’t attack me this time.”
“I don’t have a book with me.”
Robert threw his head back. “Ha! What were those ridiculous novels you were always reading? You were so skittish and scared of everything after reading one of them!”
I felt my face turning red again as I remembered the time I was afraid to venture into the south wing, convinced that a murderous highwayman had taken up residence there; or the time an owl roosted in the tree outside my window and I was convinced its calls were the sounds of a woman weeping. What excuse could I possibly make for that?
“They were… they were very exciting,” I said, shaking my head and continuing down the garden path. “Sometimes…” I paused as Robert turned to walk beside me. “sometimes I wish that the real world worked that way.”
“You wish that there were villains and madmen waiting around every corner to abduct you?” Robert turned to walk backwards down the path, facing me, and I saw that his face was a mask of mischief. “You wish that your father was living a double life as a smuggler and a pirate, or that your stepmother was an evil witch plotting the demise of the man you loved?”
“No!” I managed to shout through my laughter, “That’s not at all what I mean, and you know it!”
“Well then, what are you talking about, Elizabeth? Did you not just say that you wished the real world worked like a novel?”
I tried to get control of myself, and took a deep breath before continuing. “What I meant by that,” I said, “is: I wish I could always be sure that everything was going to work out perfectly—that no matter how badly things seemed to be going, it would all be alright in the end.”
I raised my eyes and stared out through the branches of the garden trees to the open moor beyond as we walked. “I wish right now that I knew everything was going to be alright.”
Robert was quiet for a moment before he spoke. When he did, his voice was soft. “Is there any news about your grandfather?” he asked. “Any new developments?”
I sighed. “He seems better today, and he ate a good breakfast this morning, but… I’m just afraid to hope. I want him to recover more than anything else, but I—I have to think realistically too. If—oh, Heaven forbid, but if he doesn’t recover, I have to think about what I’m going to do, where I’m going to go… Shadowfield will belong to Uncle Roger after Grandfather is gone, and I will not live here under his rule again.”
My voice was getting louder, I suddenly realized, and I was talking faster and faster. Slow down, I told myself. Just keep yourself together.
Robert spoke again, and his voice was even softer and more tentative than before. “Do you know… where you’ll go then?”
I shook my head. “I have enough education, I could get a position as a teacher or governess. It won’t be hard to find a place to live in the city. It’s just that…”
We had reached the edge of the trees now, and only the low stone wall around the garden separated us from the open moors. The wind shook the wild heather, hissing through the coarse brush and moaning over the rocks. A thin shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and lingered for a few moments, weaving in a curved line before vanishing again.
“Oh, I don’t want to leave this place,” I whispered, my voice scarcely more than a breath and my words intended for no one in particular.
“Elizabeth.” Robert’s voice made me pull my eyes away from the moor and look at him. As soon as I did, he looked away. He was sweating.
“Robert, are you alright?”
“I’m—I’ll be alright. Don’t worry about me.” He glanced back at me, then away, then back again.
In spite of his ‘reassurance,’ I was worried. Why was he, of all people, struggling to meet my eyes?
“Elizabeth…” he began again, but trailed off and did not continue.
“Yes?” I prodded finally.
“Elizabeth, I wonder if—” He bit off his sentence with a grimace. His hands were shaking now, as well. “Listen to me: I know that this is not proper socially speaking, and you have every right in the world to say no, I understand that.”
Suddenly my heart began pounding so hard that my hands were shaking as much as Robert’s. Was it possible? Was he really about to ask me—? No, don’t go jumping to conclusions, I told myself. Don’t even imagine that! “Robert…” I couldn’t even bring myself to ask!
He stepped closer to me—so close that I had to look up to meet his eyes.
“I love you.”
In spite of my anticipation, the statement struck me with force I had not imagined. My eyes widened, and I raised my hand to cover my mouth as I felt tears forming. “Robert!” There was so much more that I wanted to say, but none of it would come!
Robert stood absolutely still, his face solemn, staring intensely into my eyes while I fought to compose myself enough to speak.
Then the reality of the moment hit me again, and for an instant I was worried. Had he actually said…? Did he truly…? “Robert… say it again.”
The worried expression on his face softened, and suddenly the familiar smile in his eyes was back. “I love you.”
My breath started coming in gasps as I heard the words again. Now I knew that I had not imagined it—that it was true, it was real, he had said it! While I was trying without success to think of something to say, he spoke again.
“Elizabeth, I want you to marry me.”
Regaining my composure was a hopeless cause now. I burst into tears, even though I was smiling and couldn’t stop. Until…
Suddenly I remembered the conversation that had led up to this moment, and I was filled with regret for having bewailed my predicament so shamelessly. What if…
A cold, detached calm stole all the force of my emotions. I felt it encasing me, covering me in the protective shell that had enabled me to survive so many disappointments and losses before.
“Robert, you’re not just saying that—out of pity?” I asked. “Just because you feel sorry for me having nowhere to go… are you?”
With a groan of—anger? frustration? disgust?—Robert spun away from me and strode in a circle, tearing the hat off of his head and slapping it against his thigh, muttering under his breath the entire time. When he was once again in front of me he reached out and caught me by the shoulders—an act that caught me off guard and for a moment loosened the grip of my icy objectivity.
“I knew I should have asked you this sooner!” He almost spat the words out, looking not at me but out at the moor. Then he turned to meet my eyes again, his expression filled with the deepest sincerity I had ever seen in him. “Elizabeth, I swear to you, I was going to ask you when you came home for Christmas. I swear it!”
I drew a shaking breath but said nothing. I couldn’t.
Robert moved his hands from my shoulders to the sides of my face. “Elizabeth, I have adored you since the day we met, and I have known that I was in love with you for months. Deciding to ask you to marry me had nothing to do with your grandfather’s illness—nothing!”
My protective shell was cracking. I closed my eyes as tears slid down my face, and I clenched and unclenched my fists at my sides. When I opened my eyes again, Robert’s face was scarcely two inches away from mine.
“Elizabeth,” he whispered, “I have already told you: I love you. I want you to marry me because I love you and I want to know that you are going to be with me for the rest of my life!”
I blinked slowly and let out a long breath. Robert straightened, and I felt him withdrawing his hands. I quickly reached up and caught his right hand in mine, holding it in place against my cheek.
“Robert,” I said softly, “say it again.”
A puzzled look flashed in his eyes, but his smile—the beautiful but sheepish smile I loved—was back. “I love you,” he repeated shyly.
Now I couldn’t hold back my own smile as I took a step forward, closing what little distance remained between us. “Again!”
“I love you, Elizabeth Corrington!”
I jumped and threw my arms around his neck. “Again!”
His arms wrapped around me, lifting me off of the ground and spinning me around. “I love you!”
I squeezed tighter. This was everything I had ever wanted. Everything had come together perfectly. Perhaps the real world could work like a novel, after all.
All at once Robert stopped spinning me around, and sat me down rather abruptly on the ground. “You never gave me an answer,” he said. Dropping to one knee, he smiled up at me. “Will you marry me, Elizabeth?”
“Yes!” I laughed. And before I could say anything else Robert had jumped to his feet, grabbed both of my hands in his, and kissed my lips.
“There,” he said, long before I had had time to recover myself. “Now you can pound me with a book and I’ll deserve it!”
Laughing but still half-dazed, I tried in vain to think of something—anything—to say. Finally I realized that although he had told me several times now, I had yet to tell Robert the very thing I had wanted him to know for so long.
“I love you, Robert Hennly.”
He squeezed my hands. “I love you too, Elizabeth.”
As fresh realization hit me—Robert loved me! I was going to marry him!—a question rose in my mind that I had not thought of before. “Does—does Grandfather know?”
Robert nodded. “He gave me permission to propose just a few weeks ago—right after you left for school. We were planning it for when you came home at Christmas.”
I smiled, imagining what such a conversation between Robert and Grandfather must have been like—Robert’s nervousness and fidgeting, and Grandfather’s boisterous voice calling him ‘Young Hennly’. Suddenly it dawned on me…
“Is that why he asked to speak with you this morning?”
Robert’s eyes gleamed as he nodded. “He gave me the strictest orders not to wait until Christmas, because even though he has no plans of dying just yet, he saw no point in keeping a girl waiting, especially with your uncle so keen on finding a husband for you himself.”
“That is exactly what he said,” Robert said, shrugging.
“Uncle Roger suggested Nicholas Merrick to me, but that is all—at least that I know of.”
I puzzled over the matter for a few moments before deciding it didn’t matter. Nothing Uncle Roger thought or did mattered to me anymore. Even the idea of Shadowfield belonging to him did not pain me as it had before. I had Robert, and as long as I had him I would have a home. “Well then,” I said, “Shall we go and tell Grandfather the news he is apparently so anxious to hear?”
“And send a certain housekeeper into hysterics in the process, I suspect.”
“You mean Mrs. Logan doesn’t know?”
Robert shook his head. “Only your grandfather and I.”
I laughed. “Then there will not be another quiet moment at Shadowfield for a very long time.”
Robert gave me his arm, and together we walked slowly back to the house. Every few moments the realization struck me again, as if for the first time. Robert had asked me to marry him! We were engaged! I was going to be Mrs. Robert Hennly!
My overwhelming joy almost made me feel guilty—Grandfather was still ill and his condition could take a turn for the worse at any moment—but I couldn’t help it. As Robert and I walked into the house, arm in arm, I was the happiest girl in the whole world.