Originally written for my sister, Elizabeth; for all those swooning moments and shared admiration for everything and anything “Jane Austen.”
Imagine the crinkle of the envelope as you slide your fingernail under the wax seal, unveiling its contents. Printed expensively on a piece of card, is an invitation for you and your family to attend the ball of some grossly rich and eligible young man, newly arrived in the countryside. Reading his name and title, you can’t help but imagine how his voice will sound upon the sweet utterance of your name, asking you to dance.
With every intention of being noticed by this handsome suitor, you set to work improving your best gown for the event. You are confident that, should you have the opportunity to speak with him, he will see a definite future with you. It would be of great convenience to your family, since you are one of eight children with a shared inheritance. Your father’s solid family ties and fine estate make you – more or less – a reasonable catch for your host. In addition, the odds of this fantasy bend more in your favor since you and your sisters have enough handsome features to make any man swoon in your presence. Your brothers, too, are all equally as pleasing to the eye. Why would the man not fancy you? If it were not for your divided dowry, you would be his match for certain.
Anxiously, you and your sisters anticipate the evening with great impatience. Amongst the five of you, only three are eligible for marriage since your father won’t permit the younger two, twins, to be handed off until at least you and your elder sister are wed. Your eldest brother, Phillip, is courting fancy Miss Rachel Dawson, while your other brother, John, is contemplating a life in the church. Your third brother, Billy, otherwise called Will or William, is two years the twins senior. The youngest, Aribella, is nine. You are the fourth oldest and probably the more excited of the eight for the evening. The younger three are dismayed they will not be attending the party, despite having been invited; your Father insists it would be inappropriate.
Finally, with the night still young, you find yourself – arms linked with your older sister – gawking at the impressive home of your prince charming this evening and, hopefully, for the rest of your life. But as you near the entrance, you find yourself being pushed on all sides by dozens of other guests as they arrive and head for the entrance. Feeling a sense of panic, you are separated from your sister amidst the thick of the excited crowd. Suddenly you experience a sinking feeling in your gut as you lose your footing; gravity pulls you, and your perfect gown, towards the mud-spattered ground. As you brace yourself for impact, an arm links through yours, replacing your sister’s with a new strength.
Soulful brown…that is the colour of his eyes: soulful brown. His hair, also brown, curls loosely to frame his strong jaw, set at ease. You do not know this man, but you know by the state of his boring clothing that he is not a guest. And so, without delay, you awkwardly pry yourself from your rescuer to find your sister. Guilt ebbs at your conscience for not at least thanking the man, but you push it out of your mind. Besides, you have a purpose this evening: to win the affections of the wealthy suitor, with every intention of becoming his future wife.
Rejoining your party, you, along with the rest of your attending family members, are announced at the grand entry to the ballroom. You flit inside, sweeping across the floor toward some familiar gentlemen, pulling your sister in tow behind you. They are all young men with whom you are already well acquainted, but who sadly don’t interest you. Regardless, you hold their devout attention with small talk, hoping your wealthy host might spot you being gawked at by so many suitors. You feel bad for it as you casually flirt with them, in spite of your indifference. But again, meeting your future husband is of higher importance to the feelings of the less interesting men, you remind yourself.
A strong hand touches your shoulder and your audience begins snickering as they look past you. Smiling and hopeful, you turn with eagerness, but are met by disappointment: it it is the man with the brown eyes -of no importance- and not your wealthy host. The laughter of the men echoes in your ears, making you perceptively aware of just how out of place this man looks beneath the bright chandeliers
His clothes are pitiful, his face smeared with dirt and sweat, and there is a thin scratch on his cheekbone. You reach up with your handkerchief -a reflex- to wipe his cut, but he flinches and you reconsider the action. Your eyes flicker, then, and you notice a smudge of dirt left on your shoulder from his brief touch. Heat burns in your cheeks.
Slowly, he releases your hand and speaks in a confident, low voice. “Pardon me, Miss,” he says, “but I believe you dropped this.” From behind his back, the man produces an orange tulip. You know it does not belong to you, and that you recall tulips growing around the expensive home. His helplessly beautiful eyes, swim with emotions you cannot identify, and the pulse of your heart accelerates.
The giggling continues around you. Your heart wavers, as does your courage. But before you can say anything to the expectant stranger, Mr. Frederick Zimmer rudely points out your secret observation: “That tulip looks like it came from the garden.”
More laughter erupts and a second gentleman interjects with mockery. “How cheap. He couldn’t afford a rose so he cut that tulip from the estate’s garden.”
“Where’s your invitation? Are you a servant? No, you must surely be the gardener. Clearly, you are not a gentleman,” Mr. Zimmer scoffs.
The man fixes you with his brown eyes, penetrating deep beyond the surface. He is challenging you, you realize, as you avert your gaze to your baby blue slippers. He puts the tulip down on the table beside you, and retreats to join the crowd. You scan the approving faces of the spectators, feeling intense shame at the emotions displayed on your sister’s face. You tilt your head and shrug your shoulders at her, seeking validation, but she only shakes her head.
Mr. Zimmer picks up the tulip and begins mimicking the man. You don’t know why, but you grab for the tulip. He pulls away and laughs.
“Oh, give it back Freddie!” you insist.
“Oh, give it back Freddie,” he mimics with a feminine pitch. He backs up as you lunge forward and he crumples it into a withered form, carelessly pitching it beneath a table. The surrounding crowd laughs at you now, causing you to flee across the hall and out of their sight.
You settle yourself against the far wall and welcome the distraction of the dancers as they bounce up and down to the fiddle music; twisting and turning, they weave around each other like thread at work in the finest of tapestries. A hand rests on your shoulder again, a perfect déjà vu, and you are pulled from your reverie. The crumpled tulip springs painfully to your memory, as you turn to apologize. “I’m sor…,” you start, but it is not the mysterious gardener this time.
“Good evening, Miss…?”
You feel your lips part as your eyes behold the vision before you. The man is tall, strong and gorgeous, reaching far beyond what descriptions you’d heard of him.
“The one and only: Timothy McAvoy. And who, might I ask, are you?” Mr. McAvoy, your esteemed host, asks you.
“Miss Samantha Evans.”
His eyes are a sparkling bright blue and his black hair is groomed to perfection. His white smile is inviting, making it difficult to breathe.
“May I have this dance, Miss Evans?”
You hesitate at his outstretched hand, soft and clean. This is what you wanted, right? You’ve been waiting for this all week, and your parents would be so pleased if you were to begin courting this wealthy and kind-looking Mr. McAvoy. Yes, you convince yourself; this is what I’ve always wanted. You paste a smile on your face, accepting the dance.
After a series of twirls, your dress fanning out the way you designed it to, the music slows and you are whisked out to the balcony. A romantic glow is reflected against the glass of the windows, and the stars twinkle across the sky. The noises of the hall fade into the background, freeing him to talk. You watch the clouds of his breath formulate on the night air in front of his mouth: its movement caught by his mesmerizing and steely voice.
Imagine the exhilaration! This handsome man, has chosen you for a private audience: to talk, to admire, to just be in this sacred space of each other’s presence. And yet, when you close your eyes to print this moment to memory, the face of the gardener pries its way into your heart.
His soulful brown eyes – the remembrance of them brings warmth, deepening your curiosity. Shame, however, hangs over your conscience under the heavy cloud of guilt.
You force your focus on your host. “I’m sorry, Mr. McAvoy,” you hear yourself say, “I truly am, but I do not think this will work.”
Your host looks downcast and asks if you can explain. “You are all kindness, sir. And, before this evening, the thought of you was my only preoccupation. I am sorry for wasting your time, but there is another with whom I have recently, and briefly, been acquainted and with whom I need to make amends. It would be dishonest and selfish of me to remain in your company when I am clearly, and regretfully, no longer interested. My sincerest apologies, Mr. McAvoy, but I must ask your leave.”
Mr. McAvoy clutches the railing. “I had hoped to get to know you better: such lovely things I’d heard of you…” he pauses to sigh. “However, I refuse to be a covetous man. Having been blessed with a forgiving heart, I will surely find it in myself to let go…to let you go. If you change your mind, Miss Evans, and it is not too late, I would very much enjoy resuming our conversation. Still, if this is your decision, I must regrettably withdraw my attentions, and return to my other guests.”
Reaching up, you rest your hand briefly upon his smooth face, and imagine reconsidering. The action is both unfair and cruel, encouraging his hopes, but your resolve remains intact; you need to locate the gardener and clear your conscience. Once Mr. McAvoy is gone, you set yourself in motion, your new purpose propelling you forward.
Strutting past Freddie Zimmer and his lot, you gracelessly fall to your knees, pressing your dress against the floor, as you reach under the table where you find the twisted flower. As you get up to dust the dirt from your skirts, your sister eyes you peculiarly and then smiles, pointing to the exit.
Out in the courtyard you search for the plain, yet handsome, man who gave you the tulip, but he is nowhere to be found. You retrace your steps, to the front of the estate; but, again, you do not find him.
Sadly, you resign to a bench on the front lawn under a weeping willow. Bringing the tulip to your heart, you shiver. Through the billowing branches you gaze at the starry sky and wish that the man would suddenly appear, but he doesn’t. When the evening comes to a close, your sister seeks you out and guides you to your carriage. You care not for conversation as you ride home, left to your dim thoughts.
Before you retire for the evening, you find a stick in the yard and place it in a vase. You tie the fragile tulip to the stick and fill the vase with water. You know that your efforts will be fruitless and that the flower is beyond repair, but you can’t help hoping. Setting the pitiful flower before the window facing the barn, you take one last, sorrowful look at it before you make your way upstairs.
In your chamber, your sister presses for details about your encounter with Mr. McAvoy, but you fear the emotions might spill over if you open your mouth to speak. She scoffs and rolls on her side, sleep finding her miraculously fast. You, yourself, find sleep an impossible feat following the troubling events of the evening, especially due to your cruel behavior. Despite your disturbed conscious, guilt is powerless in stopping the morning from coming.
Having had such a difficult night, you sleep late until noon. Your brother, Billy, is commanded to wake you. Faithful as he is, he obediently complies to the best of his abilities, clanging on a pot with a ladle. You sit up fast from the rude awakening, your ringlets a mess and your eyes wide from shock. You’re furious! After chasing your brother out of the room, you refresh yourself and head downstairs to the kitchen where you sneak some leftovers for a quick meal. Satisfied, you wander into the piano room.
Sitting on a stool, you prop up your elbows on the sill of the window and gaze at the miserable tulip petals. Your regret feels somehow greater now than it did last evening. A blurry movement behind the tulip catches your attention and your gaze refocuses; out in front of the barn, wearing a gentleman’s suit and top hat, is the man with the soulful brown eyes.
Your heart has removed itself completely from your chest and you jump up from your seat, the stool crashing to the floor behind you. Without giving it much thought, you dart out of the room and into the yard. As you approach the man, you find him holding a red rose. “Who are you?” you ask, bemused.
He smiles and offers you the beautiful flower. This time, you return the smile and reach for it. The recollection of your selfish behavior from the night before however, stops you, mid-action, and you cry out, “I must beg your forgiveness! I have been the most cruel, unmitigated and self-absorbed creature that ever lived upon the earth. I not only brought embarrassment on you in the midst of so many gentlemen, but I wounded your vulnerability. I feel an insensitive fool and can only hope you may forgive me”
The man takes your hand, his own now washed and clean, and he places the rose in your delicate clutch. “All is forgiven,” he assures you and he kisses the back of your hand.
“Wait,” you gasp, recognition setting in. “Haven’t I seen you before? I mean, before last night?”
The man grins, letting go of your hand. “I used to live here as a boy. I worked as a servant in the barn and out in the garden. But I left when I was nine to live with my Uncle Gregory, and to attend school. I am educated now, and have done so, for you. I have not forgotten you, you see, and I have loved you since the day we parted.”
You scrutinize him and hear no lie in his words. You stroke an inquisitive finger the length of his dimpled cheek, an eruption of tenderness spreads through you entirely. Squinting hard, you find memory of him within his deep eyes, laughing suddenly. “You were the boy who cut my hair, that time I napped under the reading tree! Aren’t you?”
“The very same,” he admits, embarrassed. “But, I only did it to add your locks as the final touch to the doll I made as your likeness. The thought of it now, is mortifying, but I assure you the sentiment was not ill-born. It was intended as a gift for your birthday.”
“I never received such a gift,” you mutter.
“I know. Your governess hid it from you in utter disgust.”
You giggle and bring the rose up to your nose, inhaling its delicious scent. “Were you the same boy who stole my berries when I went berry picking on my own for the first time?”
“I only did so to protect you,” he says, bringing his hand up to touch yours for the second time.
“How so?” you ask.
“They were poisonous.” You shake your head as you make sense of the memory.
“And here I thought you to be the most conniving boy there was. No wonder why I forgot you so quickly.” You snort and turn up your nose in a jest.
“Yes, but you must see that your perception of my character was mistaken. My only wish was to win your affections. That is why I have returned: I…” He takes a breath. “I love you, Miss Evans; I have always loved you, and I would be honored if you would accept my offer, taking me to be your husband?”
Your eyes water, your jaw quivers and you realize at long last that this was what you were looking for. Not a rich man, but a rich soul. It just took a wilted orange tulip for you to see it.
“Forgive me,” you giggle. “You seem to already know my name, but it appears that I have forgotten yours.”
“Samantha Snowe? That’s not too ridiculous,” you muse, “In fact, I believe it could suit me well.”
James’ lips pull back slightly and he smiles at your humor. “Is that a yes, Miss Evans?”
Imagine the thrill, the peace and the joy. “Indeed, Mr. Snowe, that is a yes.”
As always, thanks for reading and God bless!
1 thought on ““Imagine” A Short Story”
Great story – well done on following Austen’s style as well! Also, I expected a somewhat more “predictable” twist, and enjoyed the fact that I remained surprised. Thanks!