A Meeting In The Park

Janis

A mild breeze was flowing, twirling colourful leaves through an enchanting park. Though it was not considered the fashionable hour a quite fashionable set consisting of two gentlemen and two ladies walked through this patch of tamed wilderness in a rather turbulent city. By the style of their clothing an observer might have guessed that they were foreigners. And indeed such an observing character was present this day.

Henry watched the merry party from afar as he tried to assume the appearance of someone not watching anybody at all. It had become a habit of him. Whenever he encountered what he had come to call a British Air, Henry would remain in save distance from such a source. He considered himself well practiced at this task. After all he had lived on the continent for nearly eight years by now.

Unfortunately Henry had never learnt that watching one object closely might lead to being oblivious to everything else.

So the small voice addressing him startled Henry quite vehemently. He turned to his right to discover a young lady looking at the ground. In his surprise he only succeeded in making a rather rough but questioning sound.

"Excuse me Sir, do you speak English?" The lady inquired.

He simply nodded and wondered how this very British-Air-girl had managed to appear next to him.

"Sir, I do not wish to be of any inconvenience to you, but I have lost my way. Do you happen to know these grounds?"

"Yes, I do." As she did not say anything in response he understood her query for what it actually was.

"Er, may I be of assistance to you? May I escort you to the gates?"

Her eyes still focused on the ground, she nodded. He figured that if he was unable of watching her features she could not see his either and counted himself rather lucky to be surprised by a shy person. Then he offered her his arm and, as he was accepted, began to lead her out of the park. They were in the middle of it and he guessed that they would need about the quarter of an hour to reach an exit. It occurred to him that she probably had a habit of losing her way if she never looked up.

Instead of telling her so he settled for asking about her situation. "Madam, may I ask whether you are here all by yourself or with some companions?"

"I was with friends of mine before."

He cursed inwardly. After she had startled him he lost sight of the British party. Had he paid more attention he could have shown her to her party instead of accompanying her all the way through the park. "Two ladies and two gentlemen?"

"Yes indeed. Have you seen them?"

"No. It was just the most probable grouping."

"I beg your pardon."

"In this town the ladies are always complaining about the number of gentlemen being scarce."

"I guess this is why they are importing Englishmen."

He was a little taken aback by the girl making such a bold statement but grinned. "I dare say Englishmen are exporting themselves."

"I hope this will not be considered fashionable, men running from their country. Poor old Britannia - left to fend for herself."

He nervously glanced at her. Though she was not looking down anymore her face was obscured by her hat. She could not know how well her words hit their mark. After all he ran away, little less than eight years ago.

"Well, do not you think British females up to the task?" Henry asked, trying to convey a mixture of charm and teasing.

"In fact I think it might do for delighting times. It would of course be a very accomplished society. The ladies would entertain each other by playing music or showing off their screens. I only fear for two institutions."

"Politics and clubs?"

"No, not at all. Ballrooms and stables. The dancing will be rather dull and I have never met a stable-girl all my life." she replied earnestly.

He laughed and assured her that Britannia should never be bereft of all men. "It would not do to shower the continent with men, as they would be complaining about the lack of female company."

"I always thought men would welcome such a case, Mr. Harrington."

"Pray, why would you think so, madam?"

She turned her head and looked at him. "Because of your own choice."

Henry shivered and stopped. He realized, albeit belatedly, her address of him. He glanced at her.

"You have not even recognized me, have you?" she added bitterly.

He was at a loss for words. It could not be, could it? But seeing her face now, it could be indeed. The colour of the hair that was escaping from her hat. Had it not been fairer? He tried to remember the colour of her eyes but failed. It was all so long ago. Nearly eight years. He had only known her for ... what? Three months? And anyway, how probable was a meeting after such a long time and here of all places? But who would it be if not her? Which women might have a reason to ask him in such a manner?

She shook her head. "I thought I was wrong as I saw you standing there. I wished I was wrong. But it had to be proven. For a wife should be certain to err before she dismisses seeing her dead spouse, should she not?"

"Aye."

She took a few steps before turning around to him. "So I was right ... It is ..." She regained her composure and continued "Now I know. Thank you, Mr. Harrington, for accompanying me so far. As you might have figured out my asking for assistance was nothing but a ruse. I bid you a good day." She curtsied and went away.

Henry simply stared for a few seconds. "That was it?" he cried after her. Then he began to catch up. Slightly panting he reached for her arm. She stopped and Henry continued staring. She held his gaze, while he was wondering about ... everything. He thought her a mere girl. A strange girl only minutes before. He remembered when he had met her for the first time, eight years ago. He thought her to be sixteen then. Maybe younger. But his father told him later on that she was twenty ... and to be his wife. Her family was wealthy, her dowry extraordinary and his family's estate in need of some money. As an elder son he should consider marrying soon, even if he was only twenty and five years old. She was shy, biddable and considered a good match. Though her wealth came from trade its volume made up for it. She was handsome and her manners impeccable. So he married her.

"Sara." He all but croaked.

Sara remained silent. She only looked at him, but her impression was unreadable.

"I ... do not ... know what to say." He stuttered.

She replied that this was obvious but thanked him nevertheless for providing some information. He led her to a bench along the way just to do something.

"I ... I am sorry."

"Yes, I am too."

"No, I... I mean. ... I owe ... an apology."

"Pray, for what, Mr. Harrington?"

"Maybe for everything?" he asked carefully.

Sara laughed mirthlessly. "You have not changed have you? You still seek the easy way out."

"No! Yes ... maybe. I have ... will you hear me out?"

"My attention is all yours, Sir."

He drummed the fingers of his right hand on his knee and searched desperately for a way to start. This woman was certainly different from the twenty-year-old he had married once upon a time. Maybe she was right and he had not changed at all while the shy little girl of twenty had obviously become a grown up lady. Until now he had never regretted to have left England. It was past -- nothing to concern himself with. He attempted to forget his old life. Of course he would avoid British Air, but to own the truth, he met it quite irregularly. So in the times it was absent, he could pretend it would not exist at all.

He coughed. "I have made a lot of ... wrong decisions. Please accept my sincerest apologies for my actions. I have not planned for it all to happen. When I married you, I ..." She raised her eyebrows at this, as if to warn him and he could not help but smile, albeit faintly. "will not pretend that I was happy. But as marriages of convenience are not made to produce happy husbands but convenient circumstances I thought the task completed. At the beginning. Do you want me to be honest?"

She simply nodded.

"Naturally." He sighed."I was afraid. Of you I mean. That is not of you personally. But you meant responsibility. And I simply did not know what to do with you. You seemed to be afraid of me. And that frightened me. I have never meant to cause you any sadness but I was not able to understand you. I decided to let you do as you please."

"And ignore me."

"Yes, in a way I did. But this was not the reason I left. When father died a month later the estate was mine to handle. My brother helped me, but I came to realize that James was my better. I could not live up to my father's expectations or my brother's faith in me. I could not live up to the words spoken to you in church. Everything I did seemed to become a failure. One day I was in a particular black mood and decided to ride to London. I told you it was for business. But actually I needed to ... well ..."

"Run away."

"Yes. It was an accident. I fell of the horse and I think I was unconscious for a little while. I was confused at first. But then I started thinking. The horse remained. But what if it had not? It would probably have returned to the stables then. Horses mostly do. What would they think at the house? They might think something serious happened. And then I wondered if it was such a bad thing if something had happened. Would somebody truly miss me? I had ... have ... a wife with no true regard for me ... a brother who would excel at being master of the estate if it was not for me ... and a bunch of acquaintances who would not care a jot if I was not to ever meet them again. And so I decided to leave."

"How did you do it?" she asked almost curiously.

He grinned sheepishly. "It sounds like a novel, doesn't it?" He schooled his features as he perceived her disapproving look. "I took my baggage and sent the horse back. It was a long journey with a lot of strange encounters, but I should learn that it was the hardest thing to convince this beast to take the other direction." He smiled as she giggled. "Really. It would follow me. I do not know whether it finally realized that it was most unwanted or was afraid of me, after I threatened it to be the main dish on the following dinner ... Thunder was the name. A truly faithful chap." He smiled ruefully.

"I assure you, Sir, that Thunder was safe and sound when I left for the continent."

"Thank you. That is a great relief. I should have thought him to be alive. Guess he's still too obstinate to leave ... However, after I was bare of all companions I walked. I slept outdoors for I did not dare to enter any of the local inns. When I finally chose to travel by other means I was sure that neither my clothes nor my appearance would give me away. If they did, nobody cared. I went to the nearest port. I was nearly at my wit's end, for I could not imagine how to go aboard without giving myself away. There was no need to worry. I learned some captains do not care for names, if the pay is sufficient. I found myself on the continent, changed my name to Miles Smithee and became a teacher for the English language. After many stations I found myself in this town, decided to like it and settled down." He drew a deep breath to gather his thoughts. It started out as an apology, but frankly, he turned it into a narrative about the wondrous adventures of Henry Harrington. He knew not much about apologies but certainly they were supposed to involve the ones to which they were given. Maybe this was his fault. Come to think of it he had never cared much.

"You see," he resumed "I have been a rather selfish creature all my life." He dared another peek and saw her approving nod. Henry was overcome by a sudden rush of insult as well as delight. Delight, for he seemed to be on the right course with his words. Insult, for he wondered how this woman who had known him for such a short time would dare to judge him. What could she know about his selfishness if she did not know him at all? He chose not to dwell on this revolting feeling. After all she was his wife. Every married man he had encountered so far was sooner or later complaining about the judging qualities of a wife. "You asked for honesty and so I should inform you that I have never entertained any sincere thoughts about what I have left behind. For this, I dare say, I am sorry. But I can't own up to anything else yet. As I do not know what my actions might have caused ..."

Sara looked at him with these big eyes. He thought instantly that he would have recognized her on first sight had she looked like this. This was all he remembered about her. This look he still could not comprehend. Was she asking for help, was she afraid? It drove him to despair. It was this kind of look that made a man feel responsible at once. Like the eyes of a child that met a stranger and was not yet decided whether he was friend or foe.

She cleared her throat. "Sir, may I inquire as to what exactly prompts you to be sorry now?"

What? So, there were other things about her Henry could not comprehend. What kind of question was this? He met her today. She came to him. What was he supposed to do?

"I beg your pardon." There. A save universal answer.

"What exactly prompts you to be sorry -- now?" She looked at him. Clearly expecting an answer. He had never thought her to be so ... demanding? tenacious?

"Have not you approached me for this very reason? To know about the circumstances that made me leave?" he asked incredulously.

She huffed. "Mr. Harrington, I wish to inform you that I did no such thing. An apology conveyed under duress or false pretences is worthless. I have not once asked you to beg for forgiveness as this is not my decision to make."

"Pray, madam, why did you bother to seek me out if not for this very reason?"

She rolled her eyes. "I have already told you. I thought to be deceived by my own eyes. But in this case I had to be certain as to your identity. I only have one life and like to have every part of it settled."

"You only wanted to be certain?" he asked dumbfounded.

"Yes, Mr. Harrington, as I have already stated before."

"You like to have every part of your life ... settled?"

She shrugged. "Yes. It is useful to know about such things. One might lay certain thoughts to rest."

"... to rest." He echoed bewildered.

"Mr. Harrington, would you be so kind as to refrain from repeating every word I said? It makes me rather uncomfortable."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Yes, I understand. I'm sorry."

He started at her giggling again. "What?"

She tried to compose herself, and finally managed to say "Nothing at all. It is just ... you seem to grow rather fond of apologizing today."

He smiled. "I thought it an achievement to be admired, not to be laughed at."

She gave him a rather striking answering smile. "Oh it is. I have a severe lack of admiration for your first attempt but your second one was rather convincing."

His smile widened. She was teasing him but he realized he liked it. Rather, he thought, I come to like her. "Maybe you care to enlighten me what you found my first attempt lacking of?"

"It was rather insincere. Mr. Harrington, you managed to find something to be sorry for, namely behaving selfishly, but you appear neither regret- nor remorseful."

He tried to intervene but Sara held up her hand.

"This is not necessary, Sir. If you do not have any regrets you lack a reason and thus simply are unable to offer an earnest apology."

He thought about it. Did he really regret leaving England for good? He could not say. This woman next to him, the wife he left behind, seemed not to have suffered greatly. He had never dared to think about her prior to meeting her here today. Maybe he was frightened to picture this big-eyed girl alone, left behind by an irresponsible husband, fending for herself. Henry was glad to discover her being in good spirits but nevertheless there was this nagging feeling of being un-needed. But this was his reasoning of leaving years ago, was it not? He really wanted to know how her life has turned out after he left. No, after he ran away.

"May I offer earnest curiosity instead?"

Sara smiled again. It seemed easy to make her do so, Henry mused.

"Of course, Sir. What do you want to know?"

"What has happened after I ... departed?"

She leaned back. "Hm. What has happened to Britannia after Mr. Henry Harrington has exported himself to foreign lands ... let me think about it."

"Pray, let me rephrase. What has happened to the Harrington family when I ... exported myself."

Abruptly she turned serious. "We were at luncheon when your brother received word that your horse came back to the stables. James was serious about it" He flinched at her using his brother's Christian name. Why was it that she continually called him 'Sir' or 'Mr. Harrington' and his brother was James? They were definitely not familiar with each other when he had left. Besides, James was always serious. "But he was not yet in despair. He was worried about you being wounded and men were sent to search for you. When darkness fell most of them returned but you were not to be found. James was the last to come back but, as you know, he could not find you either. They kept looking for you, first for days, then for weeks. I do not think that James has ever ceased to look for you. Since then he rode every single day, you know. However you could not be found. People were set on finding you alive first, but by-the-by they only wanted to find you at all." He shivered. They hoped to find his body? "The rumour spread that you must have been robbed. Your horse came back, but there were none of your belongings. One day I heard the gardener's boy say that these evil men must have shot you and then they were sorry and buried you." He remembered the boy. Peter. He was a good lad. "We went in mourning. James took over the estate and, as you so elegantly put it, excelled at being the master. Frankly, I thought he would never leave the mourning state ..."

Henry paled. He would not have thought his little brother to be so dedicated to him. James was of a serious nature. Actually he was the most rational man Henry knew. So it was difficult to believe James capable of so much feeling or of believing such a strange story about his brother's disappearance.

"A few months after the proper mourning time passed, Sutherland Hall was sold and we had new neighbours. Their eldest daughter is a rather spirited and vibrant girl. The following year she, Clarissa, was married to James. It was surprising for most, as they are so different in nature. But I think this is why they match so well."

Henry was glad that his little brother obviously found a wife suitable to him. And Henry was glad it was not his own wife who married James.

"Is he happy?"

Sara sighed. "Happy, what is true happiness, Mr. Harrington? He is happy in marriage, a loving father and a successful master of the estate. I presume he would describe himself as content. Actually I heard him say so occasionally."

"I am an uncle?" Henry asked. He had never thought of James as a father.

"Yes, Sir. You have two nephews by the ages of five and three as well as a niece aged four months."

He smiled. His little brother seemed to have been quite busy this last eight years. "What are their names?"

"Henry, George and Sara."

Upon mentioning his own name he stared at her. "Your brother loves you well, Sir."

Henry refused to answer this. If what Sara said was true, he must have caused a great deal of grief for James. But it would not do to dwell upon it this very moment. His eyes felt suspiciously moist, so he tried to urge her to carry on. "What about you. My niece has your name. I presume you are close?"

She smiled at this. "Upon our marriage James and I became brother and sister. I never had any siblings and would not think that through marriage I could gain such."

"Brother and sister?"

"Yes, Sir. It was James who brought this to my notice. When you were thought dead, the question arose of what should become of me. James called me to the study. I will never forget this day. He asked whether I would prefer to go back to my uncle's family. I hesitated and he told me that it was my choice. As I bore the name of Harrington now, I could stay as well if I liked and remain under his protection. I was surprised then but in hindsight I think he could never stand my uncle." Henry tried to remember Sara's uncle. All he could come up with, was that he thought him to be a rather cunning man who would always ask for the best bargain. He was Sara's guardian before and would not conceal that he championed the match of his niece and Henry as it would provide an attractive connection for a man whose wealth came from trade. "I decided to remain and James simply nodded, offered his hand and said 'So, welcome you are, sister.'"

Henry suddenly felt rather proud of his younger brother. When they were younger he had often mocked James for his serious nature. But James was a principled man. It appeared he was a stronger man than his elder brother.

"As I was afraid of any talking that might occur I went to live in the cottage east of the house. Of course I would still care for the household and would serve as hostess if necessary."

"Of course" he mumbled. It seemed everyone was bound for duty except of him.

"When Clarissa moved into the house it became unnecessary. We became friends and when her sister visited with her husband I formed an even deeper band of friendship with Clarissa's sister. You might have seen Marguerite today. She was the lady in pale blue."

"So, you know the party."

"Indeed, Mr. Harrington. And I know you have observed them, for I was observing you."

"Won't they miss you by now?"

She shrugged. "They went to the park. As I had to make some visits I told them that I might follow them. But they do not know that I did so for I happened upon you before."

"How did you recognize me?"

"The way you walk."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Every person has a different way of moving. And I thought I knew your way of doing so, Mr. Harrington."

This woman was full of surprises. "Sara, as you are a friend of my brother would you consider to stop calling me 'Mr. Harrington'?"

"As you wish, Mr. Smithee."

"You know what I mean."

"As you wish." She grinned.

"Do you not harbour any ill thoughts to me on behalf of your own?" Henry looked at her, earnestly.

"No, I do not. Although it was not by your design, I gained a lot from our marriage. A brother, friends, a home, that is solely my own, and the independence that can only be claimed by a widow. Suffice to say that I am grateful for the life I have."

"Are you still ... I mean ... have you never married again, Sara?"

"No. I am quite content as it is. Though if I had, I would definitely harbour ill thoughts towards you."

"I understand." At least Henry thought he did.

"Have you?"

"I beg your pardon."

She rolled her eyes. "Married? Again?"

"No. I thought one wife was quite enough for me."

"One wife was too much for you."

He smiled self-consciously. "Indeed."

The bells of a church chimed and they were reminded of the time.

Sara told him that it was best for her to return to her accommodation, as the maid who had accompanied her to the park was sent back when Sara perceived him and might become worried. She would not wish a search-party upon him as he had evaded the previous ones so proficiently.

"I am sorry, Sara. I truly am. Mostly I regret what I have done to James. But to be honest I regret as well that my brother was there for you when I was not. Does it make any sense?"

She smiled serenely and took his hand. "You should be cautious, Henry. You might become a proficient for apologies. I accept on my behalf. But I cannot grant forgiveness for James."

"What am I to do? Should I return and ... explain?"

She sighed. "It is not my decision to make - on either side."

"Will you tell him?"

"Do you wish me to?"

"You won't be swayed to decide for me, eh?" he said with that sheepish grin.

"You are old enough to do so yourself, Henry."

Sara rose. "I need to go now. We will stay here for another week and then travel back to England."

She gave him the direction of her lodgings. "Henry, you will need time to ..."

In spite of himself he grinned. It was nice to see her at a loss for words. "Settle every part of my life?"

"Yes ... exactly. If I may be of any assistance to your plans you know where to find me."

"Are you not afraid of what would people think if a stranger called on you?"

"Nay, there is nothing improper in a husband calling on his wife, is there?"

They smiled at each other. Abruptly she curtsied and he bowed more out of reflex than anything else. Then Henry watched her swiftly go away.

Her message was clearly received. She would help him, if he decided to become Henry Harrington again. Belatedly he registered that she would wander to her lodgings unescorted. He had not even offered this little consideration to her. It dawned on him that Sara was a remarkable woman. She would not yield to empty phrases neither did she allow any weaknesses to blur her mind.

Would she really keep silent about meeting him? She had given no promises, he realized. Was it really his wish that she remained silent about him? Meeting him has provided an awkward situation for her. She could choose to either expose him or leave his brother in the dark. She had said James was her brother as well. Could she really keep Henry's confidences then?

There were so many things to think about. James. He realized he missed him. He wanted to see him happily settled, getting to know his sister-in-law and his brother's offspring. But would he not cause more grief, tearing up old wounds, if he went back? Sara said she thought that James was still searching for him. Would he keep up his search until the end of his days if Henry was not to return? He knew that James was tenacious. He would not accept what he had not seen himself.

Henry sat down heavily on the bench and let his mind ramble on. Worries, doubts and fears were chasing reason at an amazing pace.

Henry was confused at first. But then he started thinking. He had thought to be happy and carefree on the continent. But what if he was not? And then he remembered her calling it content. Was he content? He wondered if it was such a selfish thing to long for his family. And suddenly he found himself questioning if it was such a bad thing to court one's own widow.

The End

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