THE FIFTH DAUGHTER
Maresa sat silently beside Percy in the carriage, as they drove across the moors toward Whitby, where the town and harbor met in a ravine at the mouth of the River Esk.
They chose a place on a cliff top, near a ruined Abbey, where they could look down upon the quaint streets and narrow alleys that wound their way down to the busy quayside.
She remembered once, long ago, when they were no more than children, when they had come here and counted the number of steps from the streets below, up to the parish Church of St. Mary, and the number was one hundred and ninety-nine.
Her mind snagged on that for a moment, and she found herself wondering why they didn't go ahead and add one more step to make it an even two hundred.
"There's a bug on your dress."
She glanced down at the pale blue linen skirt, and gave the bug a thump. It landed in the plate of biscuits. She forced a smile and looked at him, and the smile he returned was equally forced.
She decided to stop forcing anything further, for it was too much an effort for such a poor result, and her head had begun to ache, so she sat stiff and erect on a blanket across from him during the remainder of their meal.
She simply did not feel very hungry or talkative today, either of which was quite unusual for her. But then, it wasn't every day that Percy was leaving to embark upon a new life and a future that did not include her, while she was left to continue on, to try and make something of a life that she feared would never be quite the same without him in it.
He was leaving and she could not bear to think what it would come to mean in the days ahead.
She had barely eaten anything, or as he said, she "picked at her food," yet she was surprised when he spoke and she realized the meal was not only over, but that he had packed everything neatly away in the basket.
"I'm sorry, my mind was wandering. What did you say?"
"Nothing important." Like her, he fell into silent regard for a while, before he stood and held out his hand and said, "Come, walk with me."
They walked along the cliffs toward the old Abbey, and climbed among the ruins, as they had when they were children.
"Do you remember the time we were caught in that terrible storm and had to take shelter in one of the shops in town?" she asked.
"Yes, and I had no coin to purchase anything, and the shopkeeper was worried that we were in there to pilfer something."
She gave a shiver and rubbed her arms.
Are you cold?
"No, I was only remembering something. You know, to this day, I don't think I have ever been so cold, or so wet as I was then."
He did not smile, but the corners of his mouth did threaten to. "Do you recall that day when we found that small bronze cross?" he asked.
"Yes, we buried it near the altar, because we thought it should remain here."
"Do you think we could find it again?"
"Oh, let's do try," she said, and they walked toward the place where the altar would have been."
"It was here," they said in unison, but each of them pointed to a different place."
"Uh-oh," Maresa said, "it seems our memories fail us."
"Or at least one of our memories does."
"I am sure you are right," she said, "so let us dig where you thought it was."
Percy took out a knife and scraped away the dirt in the place he had indicated, but the cross was not there.
"I lose. Let's try your spot," he said, and they moved to the other side, and the place she had chosen.
The cross was not where Maresa remembered, either.
Percy scraped away the dirt in several more places near the place where each of them remembered burying the old bronze cross, but they never found it.
"Well, I guess it is lost for all time," she said. "As lost as our childhood."
"Yes, I suppose it is. There are some things you cannot return to, no matter how hard you try."
She nodded. "A lot like life, I think."
"Do you have regrets? Are there times or places you would like to go back to?"
"Only the mistakes."
"The mistakes? Why? So you could make them all over again?"
"No, so I wouldn't make them in the first place."
"No mistakes, no discoveries. It is better not to go back, I think."
They walked back to the carriage, and after helping her into the seat, Percy sat beside her and took up the reins. With a slap, he started the horses toward home. They rode along without speaking, for almost an hour, each of them preoccupied by their own thoughts, and she wondered if the painful lull in conversation was as uncomfortable for him as it was for her.
At last, feeling on the verge of melancholy, and knowing she did not want to go there, she forced herself to ask, "Why aren't you wearing your uniform today?"
"I decided this would be my last official day in civilian clothes. Starting tomorrow, I'll be wearing my uniform every day."
"Yes, I suppose that is one of the requirements, now that you are a lieutenant," she said.
He stopped at the edge of a rise to look out over the purple moors and rolling hills of their home. "Let's stretch our legs a bit," he said, and came around to help her down.
He put his hands to her waist and lifted her into the air. His hands slid upward, until his thumbs caught at the swell of her breasts. Her feet touched the ground, but he did not release her. He leaned his forehead against hers and whispered her name. "Maresa, Maresa… how difficult it is to leave you."
Her head flopped against his chest like a rag doll. "I think it is more difficult to be left, than to leave."
"Not true," he said, "if you only knew…" He stopped himself and did not finish his sentence.
She tilted her head back. "If I only knew what?"
"What? I want to know."
"It is gone. The sentiment has escaped me," he said, but she had a feeling that was not quite true.
There was such a sense of space and solitude here, where ridges and hills of purple heather moorland extended as far as the eye could see. She knew the deep secret valleys that cut across the plateau as well as she knew the streets in the red-roofed village, lined with white cottages. And now that it was spring, everywhere the valleys were alive with the bright yellow of daffodils.
He gathered a few and handed them to her. "Yellow as lemons, and they will last about as long."
"I shall press one in my journal. A memory to hold onto, so..."
She turned away and looked out over the valley, and never finished her sentence.
He came to stand behind her with his hands on her shoulders. "What is wrong? Are you worried about anything? Has something happened? Have you received any bad news from your father? Do you feel well? Have you affianced yourself again?"
She sighed deeply. How could she tell him she was feeling so miserably downhearted-- a vague longing, a separation from reality, and a tendency to be the cynic? In short, her insides were a jumble. "No, nothing like that," she said," although I do wonder sometimes if I will ever see him again."
"Who? Your father?"
"Yes. He has been absent from my life these many years, and not by accident, as you well know. Do you suppose he will ever send for me, or put in an appearance at Hampton Manor, or will I live out my days here, in exile on the moors?"
"There are worst places," he said, speaking in a way that said he was trying to lighten her mood. "You could be in Liverpool."
"Ugh, you know how much I hate liver, so how could you even mention a place like Liverpool?"
"Because I always liked the way you wrinkled up your nose whenever you heard the word. He released her and stepped forward to stand beside her.
Hands thrust deep into his pockets; he gazed out over the moors, much in the same manner she was doing.
"Here we stand, like two matching obelisks," she said, "marking the entrance to the valley.
"You still haven't told me what is wrong. It will make leaving much more difficult if I am worried about you."
She did not want him to leave at all, but it would not do to send him off in a worried state. He was going to war. He would need his wits about him in the coming months at sea. She did not want the weight of that responsibility hanging over her head. "I would tell you if I knew. My august Cousin Augusta says it is growing pains. Perhaps she is right."
"Growing pains? I don't know if I agree with her. Do you?"
She shrugged. "I suppose it is as good an explanation as any," she said, then changed her mind. "No, it isn't something I agree with. Not really, for it isn't pain I feel but confusion. I feel so lost, Percy, as if I no longer know who I am, or what I want from life. I miss the way things were when I was younger, without a care or worry, but I have no desire to go back there. I am not, as yet, comfortable with my role as a woman, and I worry about what lies ahead. Will I make the right choices, or will I be forever making the same mistakes? I feel as if I'm standing at a crossroads and I haven't a clue as to which direction I should go. I can't stay where I am, but I'm terrified of going in the wrong direction. Was growing up this difficult for you?"
He threw back his head with a shout of laughter. "Well, thank you for the compliment, but tell me, who it is that says I've grown up?"
"You were born grown, for I have never seen any of the angst in you that I have felt."
"That only means I do a supremely better job of hiding it. You do love to vocalize your misery, I must admit."
She gave him the point of her elbow. "Always the teaser! You know what I mean."
"Yes, I know, and I think everyone experiences at one time or the other, precisely what you are going through right now. In the end, we all arrive at the same destination, but we take different routes."
"If that is the case, I must be going to France, via South America."
He chuckled and hugged her to his side. "There will come a time when we look upon this day with fondness."
"I look upon it with fondness now." She turned toward him. "Do you think we shall always be friends?"
"Of course, unless you decide otherwise."
"Even when we are married?"
"To each other?"
She gave him a shove. "No, silly, we are best friends. That, I think, is even better than being husband and wife. How could we marry?"
"The same way other people marry, I suppose. Get engaged for a time, and then stand at the altar, etc., etc…."
She had a vision of them married-man and wife living on a tropical isle with sunsets behind palm trees and a cozy garden beyond the kitchen door-all painted in the pale hues of illusion, for that is all it would ever be. Why, she wondered, did everything seen in the mind and in the future, become poetry set to music?
A breeze rippled about her, loosening a skein of hair and draping it across her face to tangle in her lashes. She reached up to push it away, but Percy caught her hand.
"Here, let me," he said. "This may be the last time for several months that I will be able to do such as this."
"Do not remind me, please."
"Are you not afraid of the war?"
He tucked the hair back in place. "No, things are relatively quiet right now. The blockade is working."
"With Napoleon still hating the British as he does, they will never remain quiet for long. I cannot help being frightened. I don't want you wounded, or . . ."
When he saw she had difficulty finishing the words, he took her arm and they began walking back to the carriage. "Nothing will happen to me, and I'll be back before you know it."
"I know, and I look forward to it already. You know, I simply cannot imagine being here with you gone. It seems so strange. What will I do?"
"Get engaged again, more than likely."
"You will notice I am ignoring that ridiculous comment, she said, and hastily changed the subject. "Will you write to me?"
"As often as I can."
"I shall write you every day."
"At least until you get yourself affianced again."
It was a teasing remark that carried a lot of weight, and hit uncomfortably close to the mark, but it had never been her way to look too closely at her own shortcomings, and today was no different. "Will you stop? You are being unkind to tease me so, especially when I don't think I will ever fall in love again."
Percy's response was a laugh born of doubt, while he handed her into the carriage.
On the way home, Maresa was her old self, animated, full of talk and laughter, stricken by attacks of silence only when she succumbed to bouts of reminiscence.
Once they reached Hampton Manor, he stayed long enough to play two games of chess. It was a noisy game, with much laughter and teasing, but then it was her time of triumph, for Maresa won the first game.
A more somber mood settled over the room as the second game progressed, and much of her cheerfulness and playful mood did not last, and by the time Percy declared he had bested her, it was completely gone. He began to put the chess pieces away, and when they were almost finished, he stood to go.
"Wait a moment," she said, putting the last chess piece away. "I will walk to the carriage with you."
When the carriage was brought around, he kissed her lightly on the cheek.
She looked at him crossly. "Is that all the kiss I get?"
"You would have gotten more, if you'd let me win both games," he said.
"Or if you had let me win both."
"No, it's much better the way it was," he said.
Yes, one game for you, and one game for me. We are perfectly matched."
"In everything but love," he said, and kissed the back of her hand.
The Fifth Daughter
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