There is nothing so beautiful in all the world as
I've been nearly killed several times in the past few months. There's nothing that gives a person perspective as much as facing death, and nothing that gives as much liberty to speak dramatically as having survived. I have not known Jonathon Whitby, Lord Denbury, for long. And yet, we have saved each other's lives several times now. Nothing shows truth of character or purity of heart more than saving another soul. I daresay Jonathon and I know more of one another in a mere few months than those who have spent untroubled years side by side. We have seen death side by side and our mere survival has shed a deal of light on love.
Descending the stoop and drawing onward toward the grand expanse of the park ahead of us, I had hopes in my heart, as any young romantic might. My father had his pressures and concerns. Denbury's lineage had still further strictures. I was a nervous wreck, wondering if this might be the day that he would ask for my hand or if some heretofore unknown obstacle would yet keep us apart. He was eighteen, as I would be within a few months, and we were no longer children. Society placed demands upon a man and woman who enjoyed each other's company in the way that we did.
My preoccupation was overtaken, as it always was, by the charm of the park. My racing thoughts calmed once surrounded by lush green, over eight hundred acres worth, in winding vistas and charming expanses. The park has been over thirty years in its construction, with improvements yearly. It is a man-made
We entered the park from one of the transverse open gates; many of them had begun to have names etched in stone, but this open mouth had yet to be named. Jonathon and I strolled arm in arm, my light yellow lace parasol cocked at an angle to block as much of the hazy autumn sun as possible. My father hung back many paces, pretending not to be looking at us, a newspaper tucked under his elbow. I felt strained and scrutinized, and my natural urge to relax against Jonathon's hand that so often liked to wander freely over my back was held in check. My muscles were rigid against my corset boning, Jonathon's hand stiff upon the stays; all the effortless ease of our relationship felt stifled by all that was expected of us.
Once we were inside the park Jonathon looked to me to guide him, and I gestured forward, curving slightly downtown along a winding path, one I knew well.
Jonathon took in the surroundings. "Lovely place. It looks like the English countryside."
"I believe that was rather the point," I replied.
Jonathon shook his head. "Americans. You child imitators."
I scowled. "Don't tease my favorite place. You just wait until you see her..."
Ahead of us lay my patron saint, my Angel, the crux of the park's magic.
The Bethesda Terrace was the park's new crown jewel, an enormous arched stone terrace with finely hewn stairs and elaborate stone carvings on vast rails leading in a grand descent to a brick courtyard below stretching generously out towards a still pool of water where gentlemen rowed parasol-bedecked ladies in rowboats about a curving inlet, a more thickly forested patch of the park beyond.
At the center of this grand plaza was the Angel of the Waters, tall and gloriously presiding atop her fountain; a vast circular basin and uplifting cherubim lay below her. She represented that biblical story of fresh spring bubbling up from the rock she touched, her step bringing forth life and renewal, her wings outstretched, the folds of her skirt billowing, her form of powerful grace serving as a memorial for the Union dead. The fountain poured water from a basin at the angel's feet towards a larger basin below, and then dropped further unto a vast wide circular pool, its basin at knee level.
"This is admittedly spectacular," Jonathon murmured.
This got a smile out of me and I squeezed his hand before breaking away. Bending to touch my fingers into the water, I instinctively brought my wet finger to my forehead and made the sign of the cross as if in renewal of baptism. The Angel had become, from the moment I first laid eyes upon her, my patron saint. I brought all my troubles and joys unto her. Today I had brought her my greatest joy, this man at my side. Despite all the troubles he'd inadvertently laid at my feet. I begged the Angel's blessing as if she were my mother, and I hoped that my mother indeed was watching now, as she'd been present in my last battle. I could only hope she was with me now when life was so gloriously alive, not only when death was so perilously close.
"We've been through so much, you and I," Jonathon began hesitantly, taking a seat upon the rounded basin ledge of the fountain. "I don't know where to begin. How could I capture the last few months?" He spoke as if he weren't sure he were in the right tense or even language. A decisive conversationalist in normal circumstances, this was an odd departure.
"My diary helped frame my thoughts. At first. But then, in gaining my voice, I no longer needed a diary in the same way. Then I had you to talk to... So just...talk to me," I offered with a little smile. Jonathon stared into the water, his handsome reflection looking up at him with wide eyes. He didn't seem able to look at me so I looked at all the glory around him.
Behind Jonathon marched the beautiful Romanesque arches of the terrace platform where painted tiles graced the ceiling and led couples promenading , children running, contemplative souls wandering on their own, underneath the transverse road and toward another grand staircase beyond that led up unto the Great Mall where trees arched in one long avenue toward
Jonathon was oddly still, but the park around him burst with life and activity. Boys ran about in clusters on the grass, couples reclined upon blankets in the shade of the rolling hills that sloped up beyond the terrace walls, the occasional bird fluttered about from tree to tree, a few notes of music were carried on the breeze from a balladeer or from a boat passengers serenading on the water.
"There is so much expected of me," he murmured. "So much I'm afraid I've failed at, because of everything that's happened to me. I don't know if I can fix it, Natalie. Can I be the lord I'm meant to be in this lifetime anymore?" He pierced me with a wide, panicked stare that unsettled me. I wasn't sure what answer he wanted out of me, and his nerves were affecting my own confidence.
"I believe," I said, trying to keep my voice calm. This was not helped by the sight of my father. He stood far beyond on the terrace balcony and looked away when I looked up. "That you, Jonathon Whitby, can do and be anything you wish."
"All that's been taken from me, Natalie. It's maddening. Every day the anger and injustice of what's been done builds. I've had no resolution. No justice. I don't want to be driven by revenge." He looked up at the beautiful surroundings, and I kept hoping he would take comfort in them as I did, but he looked back into the water again, and I could see the expression of his reflection darken. "I hate when hate consumes me... That's not who I want to be."
These were hardly the words of affection, promises, or question I was hoping he'd ask.
"No, hateful isn't who you are," I said, trying to be soothing. I understood his pain, his loss, never allowed to grieve his parents, his estate, all that had been stolen for no comprehensible reason. But I couldn't change what had been done to him. "Look around you, at this beautiful space, none of what happened to you matters here—"
"But it's here, in me, and I can't just ignore it," he hissed, hitting his chest with a fist and standing suddenly. He began to walk away. I followed, forward, toward the inlet of the reservoir beyond, where a path veered off along thick bushes. "I don't want to rise to all the challenges I'm being put to. Right now, I'm not sure I want to be the better person, not toward my enemies." He whirled to me, grabbing me by the arms then dragging me farther into a copse of underbrush. "But you, I do want to be better to you..." he murmured, a desperate edge to his voice that I hadn't heard since his soul's trapped days in the painting. "And your father insists I do what's right. Of course. But I just... I'm forced to do so much..."
I blushed, feeling awkward. "I don't want to be the reason you're forced into anything." I couldn't be sure about where my father had shifted to; for the moment the foliage blocked us from the above road. I'm sure our disappearance had him wondering too.
"Well, like it or not, Natalie, you are," Jonathon responded. His clipped words were not comforting. "I have to do many things that defy convention. My life has seen to that now. You're not of my class, not of my world, but I must do right by you."
I stared at him, wondering if I'd just been insulted while he was trying to be "noble."
"I know I'm not of your station," I murmured, kicking at a pebble on the uneven path with my boot that, next to his, was hardly as fine. "Not of your world. I already feel awkward about that, Jonathon, you don't need to make it worse—"
"Natalie, I don't mean—"
"I don't see how else that could be interpreted, it's true…"
This path wasn't as kempt or populated, and perhaps it was this that emboldened Jonathon. Clumsily, he dived in to kiss me, which I allowed for a moment because I was too disoriented to stop him, though an inelegant pawing wasn't his usual method and I was debating on whether or not to be insulted. The upper class often dismissed the rest of the world with ease. I could not tolerate that for myself; it would hurt too much to be thought "lesser" when I didn't believe that to be true. I drew back and stared at him. He stared back with wide eyes, a flash of panic in those ice-blue spheres.
And then, suddenly, he dropped to his knee, one hand fumbling in his pocket for something, a branch whacking me in the leg as he did so. My eyes went wide. No, no. After that troubled outburst? And here? In the shrubbery?
"Marry me—" he began but was stopped by my fingertips as they pressed fully upon his mouth.
"No, Jonathon, you're doing it wrong."
He blinked up at me for a long moment before ducking to the side of my hasty, shushing fingers, abandoning whatever had been in his pocket. "Beg your pardon?"
"Jonathon, the way you're talking? No. You're unsure, sweating and stammering—"
"Proposals make men nervous—"
"And vaguely rude. You need to be absolutely sure about this, pressured by nothing else but your own heart." I looked around at the unkempt underbrush we were surrounded by, frustrated. Did I not deserve some grand place where if his noble offer was seen by others, it would merely be applauded? Was I some secret to be kept? Hidden? Yet another of his burdens, rushed into legitimacy? "And we're in the middle of the bushes, Jonathon," I added, hurt in my tone. "Try again with a...better vista. Darling."
He stared up at me from his knee, baffled, speaking as if he could not believe his own words. "You, Miss Natalie Stewart, just turned down a British Lord."
I blushed, partly in embarrassment, partly in frustration. "I did not turn you down, though considered your entitled position, I bet you aren't used to that."
"All that's happened to me of late hasn't felt very entitled, Natalie," he said, deep pain in his voice.
I stared up at him with wide eyes, willing him to see both the overwhelming love in my heart and my fear that he wasn't ready. "I want to marry you," I exclaimed and said his title achingly, "Lord Denbury, and be a lady to you, like none other could ever be. But only if you sound like you really mean it." I stared at the ground. "Ask me because you don't think class matters. As if my father doesn't matter. You ask because you want to—"
"For the love of God, Natalie, I want to marry you!" he exclaimed, exasperated.
I looked into his eyes a moment, my stomach churning. "Here? In a tangle of briars? Here it's like I'm some rushed secret you're afraid to share, like you're hiding me—"
"That isn't true, and that isn't fair," he muttered, standing finally, brushing off his slightly mud-besmirched knee.
"Maybe it isn't. But this isn't the place. And you're not in a state of mind that should make this promise. Not right now."
"You are something else, Miss Natalie Stewart," Jonathon said with a chuckle, shaking his head. His chuckle lightened the admittedly awkward moment, and I dived in to kiss him softly upon the cheek.
"My father often uses the word 'particular,'" I offered.
"I may add 'difficult,'" Jonathon muttered, stalking away and back to the path. I followed after him. It wasn't as though I could argue that point. But I wouldn't apologize either. Facing death, it would seem, only solidified my stubborn self. I had to believe there would be a better moment ahead for a proposal.
At the head of the path, I could see my father pretending to be engrossed in a newspaper he wasn't holding right side up. I could see his gaze zero in on my hand. He wasn't the best with subtlety. When he did not see a ring there, he frowned and tried to wipe the disappointed expression off his face when he saw us looking at him, but it was too late. He knew there had been no progress toward propriety today, and I'm sure he assumed it was somehow my fault. There was an exchange between my father and Jonathon—perhaps an eye roll or an exasperate shrug—but I missed it, needing to focus on lifting my skirts enough to not trip up the walk. I caught the swing of my father's head as if he'd been shaking it wearily.
We all walked in silence to Mrs. Northe's home where we had planned on eating dinner together. As Mary let us in the front door, I noticed extra top hats on the pegs beside the great foyer armoire and heard voices in the parlor beyond.
The widowed Mrs. Northe appeared to greet us, statuesque and stately as ever, blonde hair with streaks of silver swept up in artful, stunning filigree clasps that were nothing compared to the finery of her plum gown and the elegant jewels glittering about her smiling face.
She approached us with a fond chuckle, kissing my father on both cheeks first, a different fondness in her blue eyes for him than the affection she had for me, something I was still getting used to. Thankfully their courtship was unfolding far slower than mine, a likely case with a widower and a widow. I couldn't say I entirely understood the draw. I adored my father but he just didn't seem nearly as interesting as Evelyn Northe. I knew that was horribly unfair of me to think. It would seem Mother and Evelyn were very similar. Maybe my quiet father's gentle, steady hand and sensitive heart were just the sort of thing for inimitable, imperious women.
Taking up my hands in hers, she glanced at them briefly. She was dressed to the nines; finer than a mere dinner with friends required. A subtle exchange of expressions between her and Lord Denbury, her raised brow and his shrug told me something was a bit off. It then hit me like a swift punch to my gut. There had likely been a celebration planned for the evening. To celebrate our engagement. My stomach dropped even further as I looked up into Mrs. Northe's eyes and watched as she masked any presumption and beamed implacably, utterly unruffled.
"I've quite the dinner party lined up tonight, friends," she said in the sisterly, conspiring tone I was accustomed to, "but we've very serious business to discuss, and so it's best that we save our celebratory airs for another day," she stated, absolving me of my mishap. I tried to give Jonathon a look of apology, but he was actively avoiding my gaze.
Maybe I was too particular. But I couldn't have said "yes" being that uneasy. In the shrubbery. What's done was done and I hoped there'd be a picture-perfect opportunity in the future. In the meantime, we had company. Mrs. Northe's tone indicated she had gathered out-of-the ordinary company. For that respite, in this case, I was grateful.
(End of Chapter Two. Chapter Three: 3/26 -- Copyright 2013 Leanna Renee Hieber, The Magic Most Foul saga - If you like what you see, please share this link with friends, Tweet it, FB, + it! Pick up a copy of Magic Most Foul books 1 and 2: Darker Still and The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and/or donate to the cause via the donate button on the sidebar! Cheers! Happy haunting! See you next Tuesday!)