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The Girl in the Park
It was a gloriously bright day and a young man had debts to pay. It was not financial debts that made him cross through the park that day; it was the debt of time. He was off to visit a friend with whom he traded time. If he invited the friend over to discuss his own whims and notions, he must then return the favour. It was a sort of friendship—by the most common definition of the word—as it gave both parties a chance to speak to something animate but acquiescent, and it meant they each had to spare lengthy periods of time for the tedious task of listening. However, it suited both the young man and his friend. The only problem was when the young man—as young men often do—forgot his obligations and had to rush to make amends.
This was what compelled the young man to take the shortcut through the park on that fateful day. It was fateful because it was the first day that the young man saw the girl. There were women enough wherever he went, with their sashays and their curtsies and their batting eyelashes, but this was different. The girl was a beauty, a true beauty, with large, innocent, grey eyes and soft, rose-coloured lips. Her hair was free of ornaments, hanging long and loose in luscious waves of honey. Her face was small and pointed and her cheeks were a little hollow, but it did not matter in the slightest because they glowed red when the wind picked up. The rest of her was smooth, delicate porcelain, complimented by a pastel blue dress with white trim. She was an angel.
The young man stared the whole way as he walked down the path that was a few yards away from her, and he delayed his disappearing past the shrubbery until he caught her eye. Panicking inside, he managed to remain halfway calm and he tilted his head graciously at the angel. The corners of her mouth peaked up in the most charming way and she gave a hint of a bob, as best she could whilst seated so prettily. A new sense of wonder given to him, the young man walked the rest of the way to his friend’s abode with a skip in his step and entered the study beaming.
“You’re terribly late,” the friend huffed.
“I always am. But you shall forgive me a million when I tell you why.”
The friend sighed. “You forgot again, I’m sure, and although it is a young man’s duty to forget things, it does leave other parties involved a little put out.”
The young man jumped onto a velvet-covered chaise. “I can’t imagine anyone feeling put out. Indeed, I cannot believe I shall ever feel so again. The most wondrous thing has happened. I can barely believe it. To me—me of all creatures—and to her—to such a beautiful angel. No! An angel is not enough, no she is goddess. She is higher than any other of this world. She is the ultimate... the ultimate... everything.”
“Calm down, lad! What is this? I left you yesterday as sullen as youth and today you come back to me as crazed as a child. What has caused this change? Surely not just some silly little girl?”
“Just? Just? And silly? Silly?! How dare you say so! No, this is something more, my friend. This is it. This is love. This is life. I feel like it’s the moment every other restless, tedious, aggravating day has been leading up to. And yet yesterday I was just any other of the idle and wealthy.”
“Yes... maybe too idle. Young men like you get these fancies in their heads and then they think it’s something real. I suppose she’s a singer or a dancer or an actress, is she? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. A fad, that’s all it is. A passing fad that, within a week, you will outgrow. And hopefully before you do anything rash. Rashness, that’s another thing; everyone is so rash nowadays—doing anything on the slightest whim and making huge
mistakes just because they felt like it. Some of us can take a more practical approach. Some of us are sensible.”
“Sensible to what? The only thing I would like to be sensible to is love. Love, sweet love. An image on a horizon, a face in the mist, a skirt rustling in the breeze. Merely an hour ago, I did not even know it could be. But I fear her image in my head shall not stay long. I must see her again. I absolutely must. For she is no singer or dancer or actress; she simply exists as a beauty. That is enough for me.”
“Beauty, you know, is very simple. It is all very well to appreciate and admire but it does not endure. In time, the elegant lines crinkle and the eyes grow weak and the lips, once so kissable, shrivel up into prunes. No, what is beauty worth in comparison to durability?”
“Durability? Why! there is nothing more durable than love. I shall love my angel—my goddess—until the sun fades and the earth shrinks and all the stars flicker out.”
“You never knew a thing about science. That is why you do not understand love, because love is a science. If I say I love something halfway now, then it probable I shall love it that much forever. If you say you love something entirely, you shall only love it until the next lovable thing comes along. A beauty is to be admired, but the ones we stay with must be robust.”
“Robust?! You know nothing of women if you think they should like to be deemed robust. No, a woman wishes to be fragrant and feminine, like a flower. The hair must be light and gently waved, not harsh and straight. The skin must be soft as velvet. The lips must be like rose buds of the most pleasant kind.”
“Stop!” The friend suddenly jumped up out of his seat. “I have been trying to tell you something this entire time but all you can think of is yourself and your own ridiculous folly.”
“Oh,” said the young man, frowning to himself. “I’d forgotten; I’m supposed to be listening to you today, aren’t I? Well, what was it you wanted to say?” The young man nestled down in the chaise, waiting to be talked at.
“I have am engaged,” said the friend calmly, sitting back down on his chair.
“Engaged!” cried the young man, sitting upright. “Engaged to whom? You’ve never talked of anyone at all and now you are suddenly engaged? Engaged to be married?”
The friend seemed amused at the young man’s excitement. “The arrangement has been in the planning for some time. It is only today I have news of its certainty. Should you like to know the story?”
“Of course not,” scoffed the young man. “I should like you to tell me only a short sentence about how you came to meet her.”
The friend laughed. “Oh, such charm you possess sometimes. Anyway, I shall tell you, but only because I feel it may strike some sense into you. The woman I am engaged to be married to is the sister of the acquaintance of an old school friend of mine. By chance, I happened to meet this acquaintance at the theatre one evening, after the show, and I mentioned the name of my school friend and the usual exclamation about us each knowing the same person ensued. (It is really quite silly, for there are only so many people in this country that it is really more improbable for people not to have a common acquaintance.)
"I am invited over to the family house and I meet the woman. A little older, but all the better for it as I could see the vague start of how age will take her. She is steadfast and shrewd and sagacious, the perfect woman for a wife. I shall partake in her father’s business sometime—for they are in investment—and she shall continue with her teaching. She teaches underprivileged children to read and write, not because (she told me) she enjoys teaching or feels it is her duty, but because she hopes to eliminate the illiterate of the world so that she can send a note and have the messenger deliver it correctly for once. We shall marry in the autumn.”
The young man was speechless. He sat there, staring. His friend watched him, smiling as he smoked his newly-lit cigar. The young man was shocked at such disgusting prudence on such a marvellous day. Marriage for durability, or some such nonsensical security, looked like the worst sin in the world to him now he had tried a taste of real love. How could anyone commit such a gross indecency? The young man was repelled by his friend more than he had ever been.
However, this did not stop their friendship. Indeed, the young man visited his friend more and more often after that, enduring hours of wedding talk and speeches on the idiocy of man, just to catch a glimpse of the girl in the park. She seemed to come very regularly. Soon, the young man was going to and from his friend’s house every single day, and each trip showed her to him. He learnt the patterns of her movements which were, quite simply, that she visited the park every day to sit on the bench. Sometimes, very occasionally, he caught her just as she was wandering round to seat herself. In those cases, he would pause to watch her float along to the bench and sit down gracefully.
They got on friendly terms. Not a single word was spoken between them, but after days and days of bowing and bobbing, they began to wave. It was she who started it. One day, when the young man came round the corner, the girl was leaning forward on the bench looking here and there. When she saw him, she blushed and sat still. He smiled at her and walked most of the way along the path. Then, at last minute, she lifted one white-gloved hand and, in a child-like manner, twiddled her fingers. A week later, the young man was at the stage of flapping one hand high in the air and grinning whenever he saw her. She would beam and blush but wave a little hand back with almost as much animation.
Once a full six weeks had gone by since the young man first saw the girl in the park, she was waiting close to the entrance of the park for him. At least, she sidled around, twirling her cotton parasol. The young man was not quite sure what to do, so he simply continued to walk. It seemed the right thing to do because the girl joined him as he passed her. They did not walk together, exactly; they walked a few paces away from each other, but their steps were in time. The young man stopped when they reached the clearing where the bench was and watched as the girl walked with her back to him and then sat, shielding herself with the parasol. He walked along the usual path, a fever in his step, and he caught a glimpse of her as he neared the corner. She was giggling under her parasol, watching him. When they saw each other, they gazed deeply for what seemed like a lifetime. And then, as she looked like she was about to burst out giggling again, the girl in the park quickly hid herself with her parasol. The young man danced off, laughing to himself. It was a fine game they were playing.
Later that night, when he was sat smoking in the chaise at his friend’s house, the young man decided that the game needed to move on a stage. His friend had become more tolerant of the young man’s love-talk as time went on, perhaps because he, like the young man, saw it was more persistent than either had imagined.
The young man sighed happily. “It’s hard sometimes, because I want to look at the flower beds and shrubbery and trees of the park—it really is the most beautiful in the city—but I cannot because all I want to see is her face. She is the best flower in the world, the only flower to me. I feel like I should give her a token of my love, but as flowers will not do and she already has a pretty parasol, I am at a loss. She waved once at me a little lacy handkerchief and I felt insanely jealous. I’ve told myself it was a gift from her mother or her brother or an elderly aunt who took a shine to her, but I cannot believe it. What if she is committed to another?”
“Women who are committed rarely go around waving handkerchiefs at other men. And if they are, they are usually brash women who are neither sensible nor beautiful. I cannot believe a young girl like that would wave her handkerchief at just anyone, let alone flirt with a parasol.”
“It is not a mere flirt as you put it, although I know you meant well. It is a sign that she is ready for me to go in for some rash act of dedication.”
The friend snorted. “Rashness—have we not gone through this before?”
“Yes, but I do not mean rash. I loved her from the minute I set eyes on her but now time enough has passed to ascertain that my love is relentless and hers has had a chance to develop. Now, it seems like something more is called for.” The young man blew smoke through his lips in a restless way.
“What about a fan? I offered a beautiful, embroidered silk fan to my sweet just last week and she scoffed at me. She said she did not want frivolous endowments; she would prefer new books for her students or a bag of potatoes for the dinner.” The friend sighed. “She is so practical all the time that she makes me feel like some merry fool. But, your lady seems very different and she might appreciate such a token.”
“I do not think so,” said the young man, frowning. “It is a lovely gift, I’m sure, but she is not the type to flutter her eyelashes over it. When she has such beautiful, large eyes, I cannot imagine she could every make herself more attractive by hiding them for seconds at a time. And though she taunts me with the parasol, I should prefer to see her face as much as I can.”
The two men sighed together and sat smoking a while longer, until their cigars burned out. The young man thought and thought and thought and then, after a long, long, long while, inspiration struck him.
“Oh I have it, my friend!” he exclaimed. “What does she love more than anything?”
The friend hesitated. Uncertainly, he suggested, “You?”
“I hope so! But no, that is not what I was hinting at. She goes to the park every single day. She is dedicated to nature, and the park, and the bench! I shall propose to her at the bench. It shall be perfect. What greater gift can I give her than my undying love, secured by an unbreakable oath?” The young man leapt up and gathered his coat and hat. “I must go now and wait for her at the bench.”
The friend gasped. “It’s eleven o’clock at night!”
“Yes, and she shall be there by nine, I am sure of it.” The young man pressed his palm to his heart dramatically. “A pitifully short wait it seems, but for me I fear it shall drag on. I must, though. I must!”
And so, skipping, the young man went all the way through the dark, dank streets until he reached the park. He slowed, savouring the delightful dusk, and paced softly past the flowers and the ferns and the forest-like area until he neared the bench. Dreams of dancing and picnics and holding his love tight filled his head and his heart. He saw the ceremony, the people, the carriage to drive the newly-weds through the streets. He saw her smile and her glittering eyes and her lovely blue dress. He saw himself, happier than anyone ever was. The walking would turn to waltzing, the sun to the stars, the waves to embraces. The future seemed to spread itself before his eyes, showing each beautiful scene in all its brightness and colour and wonder.
He was smiling so much that he didn’t look up until he standing right before that blessed bench. When he did he nearly jumped out of his skin, for what he saw was something he had never imagined (although it seemed obvious once he saw it):
There, on the bench, curled up with her darling head cushioned by her dainty arm, was his sweet. And in the moonlight, he saw no angel, no goddess, no flower; there was just a fragile little girl who lived on a bench.