"Elizabeth. Would you do me the fine honour of consenting to be my wife?"
William paused for a moment, frowned at his reflection and sighed. "No, that won't do."
He'd been practising for over an hour and was still no closer to being happy about how he was going to do this. For a librarian, a man of words, he certainly had problems putting them together. He straightened his tie and tried again.
"Elizabeth, we've been courting for some time now and I was wondering if perhaps ... if it were agreeable to you ... you might consider..."
He let out another sigh of frustration. This was ridiculous. He was going to look like a fool. He'd just have to stand here and keep practising until...
William let out a startled yelp and turned to find Jacob, his manservant, standing in the doorway. He'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts that he hadn't heard him knock.
"The carriage is here, sir."
William gave a tight smile and nodded. "Thank you."
As Jacob's head disappeared William turned back to the mirror and adjusted his tie one last time. This was it. He put on his coat and headed outside to face the most difficult challenge he'd ever encountered.
* * *
Throughout the journey words churned through his head as he desperately continued planning how he was going to propose. The only problem was that the closer he got to Elizabeth's home the more his mind seemed to empty. He was certain that by the time he arrived he would barely be able to speak.
The carriage rolled to a stop and William stepped out into the night, too nervous to notice the icy chill biting into his skin. A grey stone townhouse stood before him, the lit windows looking warm and inviting. Yet he didn't move. Fifteen minutes passed until he finally summoned the courage to approach and raise a trembling hand to knock on the door. A few moments later the door opened and William found himself being ushered in by the butler. Without a word his coat was removed and he was taken up to the parlour.
"William!" Elizabeth's mother greeted him warmly, pressing a kiss to his cheek almost as though her were her own son. "It's so good to see you."
William smiled in return. Elizabeth's mother always had a way of making him feel completely at ease. "The pleasure is all mine, Mrs Summers."
"I'll have Daisy bring us up some tea. Elizabeth will be joining us shortly, she’s just finishing changing."
William gulped in what he hoped was a discreet manner before turning his attention to Elizabeth's father who was sat by the fire reading his newspaper.
"Good evening, Mr Summers."
The paper lowered slowly to reveal a well-dressed, clean-shaven man. Elizabeth's father dealt in textiles and was rapidly becoming the most sought after man in London for fine cloth and linen. He gave William a short nod of greeting before the newspaper was raised once more. William was used to this by now. When he'd first met Elizabeth's father he'd been convinced that the man hated him. He soon learned, however, that Elizabeth's father was the same with everyone and in fact had no objection to him at all.
He turned to see Elizabeth framed in the doorway, her face lit by a radiant smile. "I'm so pleased you're here. I have something for you."
William felt his face flush red as she stepped forward and took his hands in hers.
"Father, may I take William into the library for a moment?"
"Do what you wish," The faceless voice replied from behind the newspaper.
"Don't be long though, dear," her mother requested. "Tea will be here soon."
Elizabeth nodded and pulled William out of the room.
* * *
This is it, he thought as they entered the library. This was probably the only time he and Elizabeth would be together tonight. If he was going to propose it was going to have to be now.
The library was one of the larger rooms in the house and William had filled most of it himself. Elizabeth's father had decided that he wanted a library for his wife and daughter to enjoy and had hired William to select the books for it. He'd spent a lot of time speaking with both Elizabeth and Mrs Summers about the books they liked and it was then that he and Elizabeth had discovered how much they had in common. Once his task had been complete he had started courting her.
The shelves were made of the finest oak that could be bought and the books which filled them were in perfect condition. Elizabeth had taken it upon herself to take care of the books as though they were her children.
"I found this in a quaint little bookshop and I just knew you'd like it."
She picked up a small book from the table in the centre of the room and handed it to him. His eyes widened. It was a copy of the poems of William Blake - very rare.
"Oh, Elizabeth, it's wonderful. How on earth did you know … this is just what I've been looking for."
She smiled shyly and lowered her eyes. "I know you, William."
He stared at her in complete awe for about thirty seconds before he found his voice.
"Elizabeth, will you marry me?"
William raised his eyes to meet hers, amazed that not only had he just proposed to the woman he loved but that it had been startlingly easy.
"Elizabeth," he repeated, "I love you. Will you marry me?"
Her eyes brimmed with tears as they held each others gaze and then she threw herself into his arms, sobbing into his shoulder.
"Of course I will, William. Of course I'll marry you."
William felt his own tears begin to fall as he stroked her hair and held her close. "Oh, Elizabeth. You have no idea how happy you've just made me."
* * *
"Mr Summers, I'd like to ask your permission to marry Elizabeth."
The newspaper lowered ever so slowly and William could feel his heart pounding. This was the difficult part. The newspaper was placed on a small table beside the armchair as Mr Summers rose.
"William." He said, his voice low and soft. "I'm amazed at you."
William flinched and Elizabeth tightened her grip on his arm.
"Now, Henry." Her mother tried to intervene but he raised a hand to silence her.
"You've been visiting our house for a long time and now you propose to my one and only child. May I just ask you one thing?"
William swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "Of course, sir."
"Why has it taken you so long?"
William blinked. "Sir?"
"My wife and I have been expecting this for months. Why has it taken you so long?"
Elizabeth stared at her father like he was a stranger while William stammered in a desperate attempt to find an answer that wouldn't offend anyone.
"Well ... I ... you see ... I ... "
"Oh, stop that and give your future father a hug."
And before William could utter another word the older man had pulled him into his arms and was clapping him very firmly on the back.
"Welcome to our family, William."
* * *
He'd spent the remainder of the evening drinking tea with Elizabeth and her family before finally leaving. Elizabeth's parents were keen for the wedding to take place as soon as possible, which he had no objection to. All he had to do now was tell his mother. He knew she'd be pleased. She'd always liked Elizabeth and had been dropping hints about seeing an engagement for some time now.
He pulled his coat more tightly around him, almost regretting the decision to walk home. Not knowing what time he was going to leave Elizabeth's he hadn't arranged for a carriage to take him home and Mr Summers' coach was being used for business. It wasn't a long walk at any rate.
"Scuse me, sir. D'you know what time it is?"
William raised his head to see a young man standing in front of him, in torn clothes, unshaven and dirty. He resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose and instead reached for his pocket watch. A moment later someone grabbed him from behind and something struck him on the back of the head. He caught a brief glimpse of a whole group of men standing around him before everything went dark.
* * *
When he awoke he was aware of his stomach lurching and for a moment he was sure he was going to vomit. He lay there willing the feeling to pass and trying to work out what had happened when suddenly he was pulled roughly to his feet.
"Outside, you piece of scum."
"W-what?" He opened his eyes long enough to see that he was in a darkened room and that the floor was covered thinly with straw. Before he could get his bearings fully though, he was shoved through a door and had to close his eyes again as the sunlight assaulted them. Although he couldn't see, and had no idea where he was or what had happened the words he heard next chilled him to his very soul.
"Gentlemen. Welcome to the Royal Navy."