The Elusive Miss Wakefield

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And fall in love.

As Henry’s clothes had dried out over a clotheshorse by the fire, and they had conversed further, they had all watched attentively as the young Mr. Stavely quickly sketched the girls in turn. He suggested that each should sit in the fading light from the window. He rapidly drew their likeness with the approval of their parents. They had never seen anyone draw so quickly or capture their images so well, or who was so breathtakingly interesting to them, in turn.

As he drew the eldest girl sitting in the window embrasure, her younger sisters migrated to lean over the table beside him—one on each side of him, gradually losing their shyness and inching closer as they knelt on the bench, leaning away from time to time to get a close look at him, engrossed with his drawing as he was. Soon, they had lost all shyness as he spoke to them and told them what he was doing and what he was seeing. They watched as he outlined the space and then began drawing their sister with light strokes of the pencil at first, positioning her and establishing her proportions, using the window behind her as a frame of reference. Her dress was simple enough—long and plain, and extended down to just above her ankles where she was sitting. The only parts of her needing a good deal of care, other than a delicate shading to suggest her developing breasts, which no one spoke of, though they magically and shockingly appeared with such gentle strokes of his pencil, were her face, hair, hands, and feet, as she sat there with her head held proudly, itching to see what he was doing. She had a severe smile frozen on her face, much as a church gargoyle’s look is caught in the sculpting. She had never posed to be drawn before. After a few moments, her muscles relaxed into a more natural pose, as she had to, and learned how to smile better, especially as he had looked at her and smiled, as he had winked. She blushed almost beet red. The other girls had seen that and looked at each other, wide eyed. They giggled silently at what he had dared to do. Their sister was blushing at the sudden feelings that washed over her and had averted her eyes in a proud fashion, as he had intended, only to come back to his face again. He caught that expression on her face so skillfully before it might be lost.

The ease and grace with which he drew, with so few lines and yet capturing their sister as she really was, fascinated them and filled them with more than admiration. They learned so much by watching him for just those few minutes, and fully intended to learn what they could so that they might also try to do such a drawing. The middle girl—as mature in many ways as her elder sister and even better developed—had pulled away and began to study his face in profile as he drew. She could see his thicker eyebrows and his long eyelashes that any girl would have loved to have had. His hair shone after being so well washed with that special soap her mother used from time to time, rather than the coarse gritty stuff that left hair dead and like straw, and the skin, rough. He had a firm chin and a strong, wide forehead, which was how her mother seemed to gauge the quality of every male as showing the size of his brain. She decided that he could honestly be described as handsome. She thought him handsome. His skin was unmarked by pocks or those awkward eruptions that many youths seemed to get at that age. She would ask her mother why a boy would need nipples, which she could see, and about other strange differences between him and her sisters that she had been surprised to notice as they had washed him down. They couldn’t give milk, could they? He sensed that he was being watched and turned his head to look at her, causing her to blush profusely and to avert her eyes, but not before he had smiled at her as though he had been able to see into her mind and what she had tried to see of him before he had caught her, and he had not taken offense. He set her heart fluttering. She hoped he had not been able to read her thoughts, or she would die of embarrassment!

Then it was their turn. Their mother brushed their hair out, as she had for their sister. They sat together in that same window space and followed his directions as to how they should sit, as the eldest girl came over to see what he had done of her as they positioned themselves. She could not believe her eyes. Did she really look so poised and confident? Or even so beautiful, with such a pleasant look, and a smile that quite brightened her entire face. She hadn’t felt it. And she had breasts! How dared he draw them? One never referred to them or acknowledged them except in private before one’s own mirror. How embarrassing that he should notice them as he had. Were her hands that delicately shaped? They seemed mostly reddish, rough and sore, to her, from working in hot water all of the time; but he had preferred to see them, and her, as she would have liked to have been seen. She watched in turn as he took a fresh sheet of paper from a fold in the back of the book, along with another pencil, encased in a wooden sheath, from a small flat box with a sliding lid, and sketched her sisters. She sat close to him on his left side and studied his face as her sisters had, and not caring, at that moment, that her leg was touching his, as she moved closer to him than she ought to have done, but careful not to obstruct his movement. She was still breathless over his daring to wink at her. She glowed. She observed every stroke of his pencil, his attention to proportion, to perspective, and especially to gentle shadow. Her sisters sat motionless for him, afraid to move or to scratch at a sudden irritation on a nose, lest he might capture her in that position, yet confident that he would draw them as well as they had seen him draw their sister. They would not be disappointed.

“Margaret, is it?” She nodded as he turned and smiled at her too. He spoke, and described for her his thoughts as he drew, where the light was intense and the shadow deep. She began to see things she had never noticed before. He explained what she should look for and what she should be careful not to directly draw. He created a suggestion of quite interesting features, not by drawing them, but by gentle shading, as he had done so discreetly with her breasts, or a simple and light line, which he might then blur with a finger. As he drew, her eyes frequently rose to his face, as her sisters’ eyes had done and for a similar reason. With her sisters, his attention was focused quite intently on their hands, which they held delicately between them now, and resting on their legs, as well as their expressions and the shape of their faces. “The hands are important.” She could see that. He drew more skillfully than anyone she had ever seen, even better than their mother, who was a good artist too when she had the time. He then passed the pencil to her and told her how she might provide a suggestion of the window at the side, or add some shading to their dresses. She was hesitant at first, but with his hand touching hers, and guiding it as he spoke encouragingly to her, she did as he asked. His other arm moved about her waist to get it out of the way from between them, and to hold her snug and close to him—close enough to feel each other’s warmth, but without any hint of anything improper with her mother and father there; she did exactly as he suggested, and as good as the detail he had drawn on her own portrait. She wondered what he would do with them.

Their mother watched from an adjoining doorway as she baked her bread and saw water heating in the laundry cauldron once more. She saw everything unfold. Her eldest daughter had just fallen in love, and so had the younger ones, but in a slightly different way. She did not mind. There would be no repercussions from this. He would soon be gone from their lives and with no emotional damage done that would not soon be corrected with time. It would not be the first time, nor the last, but it would have a long and lasting impression on her eldest girl—indeed upon them all, considering what little her husband had quickly told her of what had happened at the docks. Fortunately, he had not told her all of it, and wouldn’t, until later, when they were alone—though still not all of it. They would not need to hear about anyone dying in a violent and strange way that he did not understand the reason for himself. She watched how Henry so easily captivated her girls and felt the first stirrings of fear. Soon, another man, young men, perhaps not as well positioned as this one, would come along and would captivate them, one by one. She hoped that that time was still a little way off, though not far enough off, for her. Fortunately, this young man, with his gentle manners but who had already devastated her daughters, and even her, to a small degree with no sons of her own, would soon be gone from their midst; and that would be the end of it, leaving them with just their memories and their dreams—the kindest things to be left with. She expected that when he became a man, he would break many hearts in his course through life and never know that he had done it. They would be gone from his thoughts almost as soon as he left their home, but he would not be gone from theirs, nor from the thoughts of her girls for a long time, if ever. One never forgot one’s first love.

When Henry had finished, he initialed and dated each of the pages that he had drawn of them and left the girls those drawings, without saying that he had drawn them to thank them for their help in getting him cleaned up and seeing to his clothes. It might not be easily spoken of in front of anyone else, but they would have their own special memories of it, and of him—his graciousness, his kind words of thanks, his gratitude, and even his gentle teasing (she had seen the wink, and it had certainly enervated and perked up her daughter into a beauty that she might never have believed she was capable of being) as befitted the gentleman that he would clearly become. Her daughter might believe that she was beautiful now, with evidence of it caught so well in his drawing. They would be able to speak of it between themselves for the rest of that evening, as they wondered about him: who he was, how old he was, and where he lived. They would exchange other secrets and thoughts and hopes before they went to sleep, thinking only of him.

Their father had slightly different memories and thoughts on that same young man. He had seen a depth of character that one rarely saw in one so young. He was clearly a young gentleman, with his expensive clothing, that name—Stavely—and despite his relatives; but give him a few years, and he would be a man that one would not wish to displease. He had not hesitated to rescue him from the predicament he had been in, nor to see his cousin take his place. He decided that he would like to learn more of this lad and his family, but would do it gently and cautiously.

“I owe you my life, young man, so I hope you don’t feel too bad about what happened with that cousin of yours. It was either him or me, but it could have been you as well.” Henry knew that for himself. “If ever you want anything, please come and see me, or put a message out for me down here. I have a lot of friends.” He watched as his wife checked the lad’s clean clothes. She nodded at him. “I see your clothing is dried now, so you’d better get yourself dressed, and then I’ll see you safely home.” Their mother pointed the girls off and out of sight, to leave him to it, but was aware that they did not go further than the top of the stairs, as before, and stayed quietly where they could watch him from the shadows.

Henry gave no indication that he was aware that, as before, he had an attentive audience as the three Grundy daughters watched silently from the darker stairs, all agog, and even more curious than they had been earlier. He knew that they watched him, but he knew he would not be harmed by their gentle curiosity.

When he was dressed, he thanked Mrs. Grundy for what she had done. She whispered something in his ear and then stepped back from him a little, to see what his response might be. He blushed, and then smiled and nodded. When it came time to leave, he had bade each of the girls’ goodbye. He held each by the shoulders and gave her an unexpected kiss upon her cheek as he thanked her properly. For Margaret, he took her completely by surprise as he held her gently by the arms, but did not lean in to kiss her as she expected. “May I kiss you properly, to thank you, for what you and your sisters did for me, Miss Grundy, Margaret?” She had blushed and nodded her head.

He lifted her head as his own sister had shown him to do when they had been rehearsing for a play that she had persuaded him into, with a touch upon her chin as he looked deep into her eyes in a way no one had ever done before. He then gave her a gentle kiss, full on her lips for all of three seconds, which caused her eyes to widen in shock, her heart to race, and had her blushing intensely.

Her suddenly envious sisters watched to see how she would respond to that. He smiled at her. “Thank you for your help.” Their mother felt satisfied that he had acquiesced to her request with such kindness and good grace before he left them. Her older girl would be walking on air for the rest of the week. He also embraced Mrs. Grundy, to her surprise, and thanked her for her kindness in helping him. They all accompanied him to their door as he tucked his sketchbook under his arm, though leaving the drawings of the girls behind. He had not been as shy as she had at first expected. He told Mr. Grundy to keep the satchel and its contents, the gold coins too, for all the trouble that had been caused him. He could not easily have explained them in his possession if he had taken them home with him.

Henry had been escorted by Mr. Grundy and his little dog to the street in front of his own home, in an area where Mr. Grundy knew he’d be safe.

They shook hands and parted. After seeing him walk into the gates of a relatively fine house, Mr. Grundy made his way back to the docks but did not immediately return home to let his wife know what kind of a day he’d had, in addition to the little he had already told her. He knew that she and their daughters would have more than a somewhat enlightening conversation about boys—just one boy—without him being there to make everyone shy about asking what they were fired up to know. They had questions to ask and things to learn about boys and men that they would need to hear from their mother. His girls would take some time to get to sleep that night with their heads being filled with dreams and fresh ambitions and the first stirrings of love.

It was comforting to see that, despite his recent violent adventure, little had changed at the docks he knew so well, though they presented a different aspect to him now with a deeper, darker side. He would not be without a pistol of his own when he next walked of an early morning. His dog had recovered quickly enough, though was still nervous and hung close to him.

He decided that while there was light enough to see by, he would get back aboard that ship, now sitting in the mud, and see what he might find under that canvas. Perhaps a bloody pair of feet, untied now, after Stavely had untied them, not realizing they were his own son’s. He could see no purpose in any of that violence nor did he know what had been intended. It was to be hoped that there was not a headless body there with them, though he knew there wasn’t. The splash they’d heard had been of a weighted body dragged over the rail. Whatever had been the elder Stavely’s purpose, by those feet being found there, parted from their body, and not Grundy’s feet separated from Grundy’s body—thank the Lord—he could now see unraveled. He would remove those shoes and keep them too, along with the ones he was left with, but would toss the legs over the side for the lad who owned ’em to find in the next life. If he could. He’d not begrudge him that small comfort despite what he had intended for him. Two pairs of expensive shoes with silver buckles and a finely made coat, clean and dry now, along with the gold, would not make up for what he had come close to suffering. He would keep them by him to remind him of that man and this day.

If there was a judgment day, happen he might meet up with the older man again sometime, somewhere, and tell him what had happened with his own son, and see the expression on his face when he learned what his fate had really been and why the lad had missed the tide and his departing father.

On the following day, a relatively large parcel was brought to the Grundy house. It was addressed to the Grundy family and contained three large drawing books with soft lead, for drawing, graphite from Cumberland, and pencils—some encased in a wooden sheath with others spirally wrapped with paper, to save soiling the fingers. There were some things they could thank Napoleon for. The French made excellent drawing pencils, as did one German gentleman called Hardtmuth. Those pencils were not nearly as soft as the graphite sticks from Cumberland and were far lest dirtying.

Each of the books had a name of one of the Grundy daughters on it: Margaret, Louisa, and Rebecca. It was understood that he might have remembered Margaret’s name, after kissing her like that, but how he might remember the names of the other girls was not easily fathomed, as they were sure he had not been attentive at the time their names may have been mentioned. It was a gift well sent, as the girls had been fired up to learn to draw after seeing what Henry had done in drawing each of them and had shown them what was possible with care. Those drawings were now hanging in frames, behind glass, in pride of place in their living room. In addition, there had been a finely worked cameo broach for Mrs. Grundy and a small case containing a pistol, one of the newer percussion cap types, for Mr. Grundy. It was obvious where they had come from, and they were all accepted gratefully, with a note of thanks signed by them all, sent back in return.

Mr. Grundy and his wife sat down that evening after dinner, as their daughters drew each other, learned to pose, and began to understand the power of an expression or gesture, though always difficult to capture. He could not help but note that, considering what young Mr. Stavely had done in saving his life, they were the ones indebted to him, and yet the lad had behaved as though he was the one in their debt. He had the makings of a true gentleman for all of his youth. Mr. Grundy decided at that moment that he would keep an eye on young master Stavely and his family, and he reiterated a promise made to himself that if ever the time came when he might be of service to any of them, then that service would not be denied.

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