First Stirrings of Love.
No one said anything to him about that afterward, but the younger girls; friends of Stefanie, all looked at him differently after that incident.
They had been astounded and impressed that he had not hesitated to take his shirt off and get it all bloodied as he knelt there in the cool wind, until another of the girls, seeing his need, put one of the coats from the sidelines around his back as he knelt with their friend.
He had smiled and thanked them for that too. He was gracious, and well mannered, and they had not expected that. He was also deadly calm about it all and infused them with admiration and desire to become as much like him as they could be.
The girl who had put that coat over him, had seen pale marks; scars that were not normal, on his upper body. He must have been in the military at one time, and had been wounded.
She stored her observations away, and would ask her father when she got home that next holiday, about what she thought she had seen, but the other girls had seen nothing, and she said nothing. Their attention had been only on Stefanie and the blood, and then on the ambulance taking their friend away. They had all been sick with worrying that she might die, and spoke about it tearfully for the rest of the evening.
Robert had become like a distant, protective father-figure after that to many of the younger girls—distant, because he had to be, but always ready to be there for them—even becoming a demi-god to those younger girls in the school, and for whom he always had a smile, remembering an occasional name from that event with a kind word, while otherwise continuing to ignore them. They were not yet a threat.
They talked often about him, and that one incident, and learned why he ignored them from some of the older girls. He had to, or he risked being dismissed, or having some parent complain about him being there with so many vulnerable girls.
He was a much older man, relative to them, and they learned that it was generally dangerous for them to have an older man become interested in them in the wrong way, or for them to develop an interest in him, yet there was that dawning curiosity about those feelings too.
How, would he become interested in them, how, would he express it with them, and why was it dangerous or wrong, as others said? They had difficulty believing that.
Other of the more worldly-wise girls soon explained it to them, and about men in general, even though that girl actually knew little herself, other than what her mother had tried to drill into her.
She explained how men could become like wild animals around any unwise female who encouraged him, and should not be trusted; that it was men who sometimes murdered precocious little girls like them to hide what they had done to them, describing some of it in ways that they did not yet understand, but had the desired effect of scaring them.
There was also a new word (among others) that they learned in that regard, and which was ever only whispered—rape—but what that older girl had said, did not seem applicable to Mr. Illingsworth. He was not interested in any of them that way, and had shown no sign of it. Nonetheless, they became cautious around him for a while, just as they had been before. It did not take long for them to recognize that all men were not something to be afraid of.
This man was different from all other men that they had heard about. However, that was also a dangerous assumption.
They discussed all of that in that inevitable learning process that girls went through in their private gatherings. Much of what they were told and believed, as they learned new things about boys and men, would need to be corrected as they learned more. That more threatening and dangerous time was not far off for any of them as they became interested, and more interesting to men.
They were always interested in Robert, Mr. Illingsworth, after that eye-opening event, but he still mostly ignored them.
When Stefanie returned to school the next day, pale and shaken up, moving slowly with a bandage about her middle and several stitches to discreetly show off, she approached him and thanked him nicely, reaching out nervously to shake his hand, unable to thank him enough, but still not sure how he would respond to her.
She was teetering on the brink of being a woman and entertained strange stirrings about what he had done for her, and how he had done it. Touching her without hesitation as he had, lifting her shirt to be sure of what he saw, but ignoring everything else about her.
He was surprised to be thanked, not expecting it, and smiled at her good manners in thanking him, bowed to her, and actually raised her relatively delicate and small hand in his own massive one to his lips, and kissed it unexpectedly, as a gentleman of earlier times would have done with his queen. Such chivalry was strange to them, but as strangely, very gratifying.
She felt like a queen at that moment, and walked on air for a week as the other girls asked what he had done, and wondered why he had done that, of all things. He was her hero, and could do no wrong.
“I am pleased and relieved to see you with us again, Miss Boltzman, Stefanie.” Yes, he could use her first name now. The smile he gave her, and the words of pleasure he spoke in seeing her back on her feet again, were burned into her heart and mind.
He was her first love from that moment, and the safest one she would ever have.
In later years, she often looked at her fingers where he had kissed them, and remembered that moment over the rest of her life, taking comfort from it as she felt that same warmth and thrill all over again.
She often wondered where he was, and what he was now doing. Was he still in the school? Was he happy? She had dreamed of many possibilities with him, but knew that it was all just impossible daydreaming. And then she had grown up. But she had never forgotten.
He had been magnificent!
Miss Bagnold had seen that delightful exchange from a distance. Her heart sang to see it, and at that moment she knew that she had made the right decision in bringing him into the school two years earlier, but it had taken a long time for him to settle in, considering the difficulties he had to put up with from the older girls as they tried to waylay him.
He would be a good influence upon the girls. All of them now, but she hadn’t been entirely sure how it would work out, until then.
The girls began to notice other things about him. He gave the impression of being aloof, but if they watched him closely enough, they could see that he was always aware of what was going on around him, seeing his eyes twinkle when he noticed them watching him, even winking at them. Had he done that, or had he got something in his eye? He was always ready to step in and help them if no one else was close by. He became the father that they no longer knew, but he never allowed himself to get close to any of them, or them to him, and he picked no favorites.
By that simple act that day on the hockey field, half of the school was in love with him, and would have done anything for him. He was a conundrum to the other half of the girls; those older girls in the upper school, and whom he also ignored, while they didn’t understand how he could so easily ignore them when they didn’t want him to, and needed to know why they didn’t attract him.
There were those who felt slighted and vaguely annoyed by that, that he could so easily overlook them.
They were no longer little girls, and he was only a man and should have been vulnerable to their wiles, and their developing bodies and frustrations as they experimented upon him in their own way.
He seemed to sense that he would always be a target for the more precocious of the older girls, and so had to be vigilant at all times, never getting himself trapped alone with any of them.
Associating with the younger girls was safer for him, but he didn’t do that, either.
They argued that there must be something wrong with him that he could ignore their frequently provocative antics around him, and the promise of everything they could do for him, to get him to pay them attention.
He didn’t smile at them, or kiss their hands, or wink at them. He never touched any of them in any way if he could avoid it. One would have thought they had leprosy.
Except, there was nothing wrong with him. Absolutely nothing that they could see, as they had to grudgingly admit. He was perfect. A perfect man. Impossible! And he was immune to them and he shouldn't have been. He was a man, wasn't he? They didn’t understand it.
Then a more disturbing thought rattled their composures and caused a lot of internal reflection. Perhaps it was something wrong with them or their way of doing things? Such critical inner reflections and doubting, were healthy lessons for growing girls to learn.
Growing up was painful, and none of it was optional. It was all a difficult learning process.