That delightful spring moment upended Ethan with its delicious smell of peonies. Flowers of all sorts wafted their allure, now one meadow assortment, blue with golden pollen, followed by ravishing red clusters sprinkled with sparkling dew. Ethan had so many to choose from so early in the morning. A smile bloomed on his misshapen face as he staggered forlornly for one spray of lilies, only to be entranced by purple larkspur, starry arms to steady his gaze so that even the air itself was untroubled by any bustle of importance.
All thought was banished, as it shuddered to rise to consciousness. The height of the gently swaying trees and the idle barking of lazy dogs serenaded him.
This is the time.
Ethan was certain. He must go see her. A little of this and some of that. Picked flowers, so earnest to impress even in their dying moments, that one hope. To be seen, to be held.
There was always someone lazing about. A fine perch for Mitch it was, that hammock. Late for chores.
“She’s not home!”
Ethan would have dropped his bouquet as he limped up the path to that cottage. But he held it so tightly, fiercely.
“Mitch, don’t cross me.”
“I don’t mind if I do!”
Mitch upended his hammock, nearly tumbling out, yet still finding his feet as farm people do. Then he pouted, his face a grand inquisitor.
“Ethan goes a-courting?”
“This is none of your business Mitch!”
“Oh, it’s business now, is it?” He sneered. “I told you Sheila is not home!”
Ethan did not have to work because his mother was rich. His only redeeming quality in the eyes of many townsfolk was that he would always be the butt of jokes. He was a lightning rod for dissatisfied people, for whom grinding oppressive work was the bane of their existence. That and the fact that he was courting one of their own was turning the evening at the tavern inside out.
It was his misfortune that he was in love with the one woman who did not care for money. There were plenty of other women who would trade menial labor for a life with Ethan. Their scowls and comments could be seen and heard all over town.
"Ethan be a courting Sheila!" laughed one woman as she mocked his slight limp, making off with yet another stein of ale to her table.
“I bet he could scare his children before they are born!” screeched another wretch, her ample jowls trembling with delight, reeking of stale alcohol. Yet another woman stood up, and hooting like a crazed owl raised her glass of ale, “Children! We'll never see hide or hair of 'em! Here’s to what can not be, must not be, and won't be missed!”
“Give that woman another round!” shouted a man who tossed a coin at the barkeep.
Sheila was not used to making decisions. Her father used to run the farm. It wasn't her place to deal with such huge problems that she now faced. Unnerved by all the racket that she could hear even from the street, she tried the stuck tavern door, hesitating as it gave way grudgingly. She didn’t frequent places of such ill repute. But before she could retreat and leave, a sudden hush descended, word spreading about her arrival. Lowered eyes were mistaken by Sheila for unearned respect as she made an entrance, her beautiful long blonde hair falling about her slender shoulders. She was not used to commanding such attention.
"Good evening," she quavered.
"Good evening," parroted a choir of guilty voices.
That awkwardness finally at a close, Sheila threaded her way past the sticky tables and half-drunk glasses, men doffing their caps as she passed, everyone hushed and expectant, waiting to hear the import of Sheila's visit. She waved off a stein of beer proffered by the barkeep.
The barkeep's face was aglow with anticipation. He played for his audience, affecting a low bow over his bar, an intimacy with Sheila that all the men in the tavern could wish and dream of.
“Rebecca won’t tell me who she was with,” Sheila half whispered as she gazed about the tavern, wondering what gossip she might yet provoke.
The barkeep bent his head closer. “Mitch,” he said.
Sheila’s head spun at that thought. Mitch! He had promised that the farm would come first! And here he was galivanting about with her best friend!
Ethan’s father had died a long time ago. Mrs. Abelard kept up appearances by being a very important person, not just in the town, but also in the surrounding countryside. She saw it as her place to set an example. She would stay aloof from daily events, but her demeanor left an impression wherever she went. People would curry favor by gossiping with her servants, who were only too quick to pass this gossip on.
“Are you courting Sheila, that farmer’s daughter? Aren’t they in a terrible state since the death of her father?” asked Mrs. Abelard after a sleepless night of worry about her son.
“She is far below your station! And her brother is worse. He is dissolute and lazy!”
“I know,” replied Ethan. He stared at the marble floor in the foyer of this grand house he had lived in his entire life, while he deeply regretted how upset his mother was getting.
“You know? Yet you are still intent on pursuing this relationship?”
Ethan stared. “Yes. But I have a plan that will benefit everyone."
Tears stained Mrs. Abelard’s frock, tumbling down with her dreams of an advantageous marriage.
“I know only that no one will have you. I’ve tried so hard.”
“Yes, Mother. But this is for the best. You will see."
Mrs. Abelard fumbled for her handkerchief. Such a pretty thing, blue with embroidered red cardinals traipsing about on suggestions of suspended green leaves and branches. All about the edges, they were. She dabbed her eyes and tried to smile.
“You are all that I have left in this world. What will I do without you?”
It was by happenstance that Ethan ran into Mitch. Sheila had been furious with him. She didn’t want him in the cottage. Mitch tried pleading with her, complaining that the farm was too big for just one man to manage. But Sheila would hear nothing of it. He had to sleep in the barn. She spent the better part of a day railing against him, predicting their demise if he didn’t start to work much harder and leave off on the womanizing. Rebecca was no longer Sheila’s friend either. Sheila could not be friends with someone who carried on as Rebecca did.
Mitch was leading a horse and cart away from the dry goods store when Ethan stood in his way.
“We need to talk,” Ethan said simply.
Mitch nodded and tethered his horse.
“We should be friends. I can help you if you help me.”
“How so?” asked Mitch as he lowered his eyes and listened.
That bouquet. More beautiful than ever, Ethan’s hands found the vase by the cottage window, with water and sunlight.
“Why it’s wonderful, Ethan,” said Sheila. She smiled like she had forgotten what it was like to be happy.
“I’ve arranged for help,” said Ethan. “On one condition. Mitch has agreed to marry Rebecca and they will run a smaller tenant farm on my mother’s land.”
Sheila looked worried. “But Mitch is all the help I have. How could he give up this farm?”
Now it was Ethan’s turn to smile. He took Sheila’s hand and led her to sit in the cozy small space that was used to entertain visitors. The sun dappled through the half-closed window, playing upon the leaves and blooms, a slight breeze caressing the room with delightful coolness.
“Everything depends on you Sheila.”