Hastily fastening the brass buttons of his waistcoat, Felix Doyle checked his appearance in the mirror one last time before nodding his approval to his reflection. Every strand of his normally messy, brown hair was slicked back into perfect placement, and his beard and mustache had been neatly trimmed. He was a young man, but already his facial hair was full and was constantly having to be cropped. Looking at his hands in disdain, he frowned. He had scrubbed them in soap and water for nearly half an hour, but hadn’t managed to remove all the dirt and grime from the dry cracks. But it would have to do.
His garments had been professionally cleaned early that morning, rendering them spotless, and his heavy, black, leather boots, embellished with silver clasps, were polished until they shone.
He wore a white cotton shirt, tucked into stiff, dark blue trousers, underneath his walnut-colored waistcoat. Over that, he donned a navy blue tailcoat jacket, fastened down the middle with brass buttons like that of his waistcoat. A brown bow tie was secured around at the base of his throat.
The gentleman had a sudden surge of panic as he checked once more to ensure that he was, indeed, ready. His clothing, while to him was fit for the occasion, could be seen by others as inappropriate. Other men would have flowers pinned to their lapel, fancy belt buckles, or embroidery stitched into their waistcoats; their clothing would be colored with light blues or purples, greens, and reds. But what he had would have to do - it was the most formal thing he owned.
Grabbing his hat, a wide-brimmed, felt, top-hat with black ribbon tied around the base, Felix took a deep breath, then headed to the door. He walked down the stairs, his shoes making clop, clop, clopping sounds with every step.
At the base of the stairs, he entered into an entry, where a plump, motherly-looking woman with graying hair pulled back into a messy bun, was sweeping the floor. She was dressed as all lowly housewives were at that day and age: a simple, dull, cotton dress with a starched white apron over it. She smiled as Felix approached.
“Good evening, Mrs. O’Neil,” he greeted, tipping his head in respect. The O’Neil family had given him room and board while he lived in Oak Springs, a small but friendly town situated in a valley, surrounded by rolling hills and grasslands. They were an elderly couple - their children having been married with families of their own, with the exception of their youngest, but even she was out east gaining an education to become a nurse. They had enthusiastically accepted the young spirit as a boarder. Felix had moved from the east himself to the little town about six months ago, hired as a coal miner, which explained his meager pay-check, and filthy hands.
“Good evening, Mr. Doyle,” she replied, a sly smile on her face. She paused in her task, leaning on the broom handle. “Where ya off to?”
He assumed a look of innocence. “Just going for a drive, ma’am.”
“In your best clothes?”
Looking down at himself, as if he had forgotten what he was wearing, he flushed, then replied, “Yes.”
Mrs. O’Neil grunted, unimpressed. “Say hi to your missie for me, will ya?”
Felix raised his eyebrows. “How’d-”
She patted his shoulder, grinning. “I’m a ma, and a grandma,” she added as an afterthought. “It’s my job to know things. Don’t ya forget that, lad.”
He nodded. “Yes ma’am.”
“Now get.” She jerked her head towards the door. He bowed his head again and hurried outside. To his surprise, the carriage had been harnessed and the pair of dapple-gray mares were waiting patiently. Mr. O’Neil held out the harness to Felix as he climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Enjoy your evening, boy,” he said, and as Felix drove away, he wondered if he would ever be as knowledgeable as the O’Neils when he was old and gray. Then he figured probably not.
The evening was warm and peaceful. There wasn’t much wind - the stillness of the boughs of the trees testified to that fact. The dirt road was empty, except for the typical farmer leading a cow to the town for market the next day. The sun was low in the sky, painting the horizon in streaks of orange, pink, and purple.
Felix wheeled the carriage down a lane off the main road, coming to a clearing with a cozy little cabin in the center. Off to one side, there was a small shed where the horses would be kept and a chicken coop, the birds in question milling around searching for scattered grains.
As he halted the carriage, the door to the cabin opened and a man and woman exited, followed closely by a young woman that sent Felix’s heart turning flips inside his chest. She hugged her parents, then stepped off the veranda, heading to where Felix was waiting. He dismounted the carriage, his limbs like lead, to help her up.
She flashed him a dazzling smile and his tongue officially tied itself into a knot. She was wearing a light yellow dress that flowed gracefully at her ankles and framed her slim form in the best way possible. A purple shaw had been thrown over her shoulders. Her brown hair had been curled and hung delicately around her shoulders, a gold clip shaped like a butterfly pulling some of it back. Her hazel eyes sparkled with merriment and excitement.
“You look...stunning,” he said, holding out one of his hands.
One of her slender, gloved hands accepted his and her grin widened. “Thank you,” the girl said, her voice sweet and soft, like smooth honey on his throat. Then she stepped up into the carriage, Felix swinging up after her. With one last wave back at the couple standing on the porch, he flicked the reins and the horses started at an easy trot.
“Good evening, Mr. Doyle,” she said.
He opened his mouth to reply, then found that he couldn’t say anything. Clearing his throat, he tried once more, flushing as it came out as a hoarse croak. “Good evening, Mrs. Johnson.”
She giggled. “Are you ever going to just call me Lily?” she asked.
He smiled at her. “One day, Mrs. Johnson. One day.”
That seemed to startle her a little and they elapsed into companionable silence. As the sun sunk lower into the horizon, the only conversation that they had was Lily emitting little gasps of surprise and delight when a nighttime critter scurried out of its cover, or when the first star appeared in the sky. Felix watched her, enraptured. She didn’t seem to notice, or if she did, she playfully ignored him.
It was almost completely dark by the time they reached their destination. As he reined in the horses and stepped down, Lily gasped, a thrilled sound that warmed Felix to the core. Taking Felix’s offered hand, she stepped down, never taking her eyes off of the landscape.
About ten yards away, there was a little pond, the millions of stars in the sky reflecting off it’s surface. Weeping willows formed a circle around the banks, creating a little cove. Lily looked at Felix, awe and pure joy in her expression. He exhaled a brief laugh then reached into the back of the carriage and pulled out a basket, then grabbed her hand.
“Come on!” Whooping and laughing, they ran to the edge of the water, stopping breathless once they passed the willow barrier. Breathing heavily, Felix spread a blanket on the ground, while Lily spun in a slow circle, taking in her surroundings. Again, Felix found himself bewitched by her beauty. She noticed him watching and flushed, then sat on the blanket, folding her legs beneath her.
“This is magical,” she breathed as Felix laid out a simple meal: a loaf of bread and cheese, a side of plums and berries, with milk to drink. He wished he had more to offer, but again, this would have to do. Lily studied him in silence, and as if she guessed what he was thinking, she remarked, “It’s perfect.”
He looked up, meeting her eyes. She smiled and added, “I couldn’t ask for more than this.”
“But it isn’t much,” Felix protested. “You deserve so much more.”
She blushed, and said, “I don’t want any more. I only want what you have to offer me.”
They maintained eye-contact, both of them shocked at what she had just said. She looked away, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t-”
He cut her off gently. “Do you mean that? Like honestly?”
She nodded without hesitation. “I don’t want anything else other than what you have. I don’t want anyone else...other than you.” Her cheeks reddened at her forwardness and she rose, looking anywhere but at him.
Heart racing, Felix grabbed her hand to stop her from moving away. “Then…” he paused, waiting for her to look at him. Once she did, he continued. “Will you...marry me...Lily.”
She stiffened, emotions warring behind her eyes. Tears welled up, like stars, a universe in her soul, and when she smiled, it lit up the night as if the sun had just made its appearance in an early dawn. Despite that, shivers ran up Felix’s spine in anticipation, anxiousness.
After a long silence she said, in the midst of quiet sobbing, “It would be my genuine pleasure, Mr. Doyle.”
Rain dripped off the brim of Felix Doyle’s hat, plopping on his nose. He didn’t move to wipe it away. It crawled down his neck, soaking his clothes, filling up his boots, but he didn’t care.
He stared at the photo in his hands, rain soiling it. A happy couple stared back, unmoving just like he was.
Even though the photo was black-and-white, he could see past that, see the vibrant yellow of the woman’s dress, the expensive quality of the man’s suit. He could smell the fragrance of her hair, the flowers scattered through it. She was laughing, mirth lighting up her face, looking at the ground. The man studied her, all the love and dedication plain on his face, enchanted by her youthful beauty.
A tear trickled down his cheek, but one wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from the rain drops dotting his face.
“I wish you were here, my Lily,” he murmured.
He received no answer.
More tears joined the one and he dropped to his knees, disregarding the fact that the mud would soil his trousers. The photo fell from his hands, instantly getting covered in mud. He didn’t retrieve it, watching as it slowly disappeared from view.
Reaching under his vest, he pulled out a withered flower. Once it had been a beautiful white, its petals full of glory and beauty. Now it was shriveled and brown, dead, just like the love of his life.
She had been snatched from his life only two weeks after their joyous wedding. The train she was on heading east had derailed, then as the passengers struggled to escape, had burst into flames.
No one survived.
He tossed the lily in front of the stone slab, watching as it too, disappeared in the muck.
Rising slowly, with one last, longing look at the grave, he turned and trudged slowly down the dirt path towards his...their home. The stone seemed to watch him go sadly.
The main street of Oak Springs was quiet as he stumbled down it. The inhabitants felt the loss of Lily keenly, but none so sharp as the cutting edge in Felix’s heart.
There was no more laughter, no more joy, now that the crowning jewel, the woman who had stolen his heart with the first glance, poisoned his blood with longing, the human manifestation of heaven on earth, Lily of the Valley, was gone.