Phyllis gazed out of the window. From here, everything you could see – the neatly rolled lawns and the wilder copses behind and the hills which sulked in the distance – all belonged to the Lord Chancellor.
It seemed to reflect a fundamental truth about Phyllis’ life.
A fanfare sounded. At once a party of lords came crashing into view on horseback, through the shrubbery, and were gone in moments. In their wake, the landscape seemed to quiver and right itself, like a bird ruffling its feathers.
Edith pressed herself to the window as the lords passed, watching with wide eyes and parted rose-bud lips for one figure in particular (though Phyllis wondered how anyone could hope to tell the Lords apart – they were all quite as ridiculous as one-another, and complete equals in dullness). As she spotted him, she let out a deep sigh: “See him! My Jasper! Or at least, he shall be mine! See: we are engaged!” Edith twiddled the fingers of her left hand in the light. An immodestly large engagement ring sparkled shamelessly on her finger.
Phyllis sighed too. Not with envy, but because it reminded her of her own situation. It was no secret that most of the lords who were visiting for the hunt had little interest in the grouse. Indeed, it was her own hand that they pursued with all the tenacity of a foxhound.
“Don’t you go near him,” Edith added. “If he falls for you, like all the others, I’ll see to it you regret it.” From the next window, several other wards who were watching the hunt broke from their tableau to murmur agreement.
For the other wards, the first day of the hunt was a source of excitement as the estate filled with rich, highly eligible bachelors for them to ogle. Phyllis felt only a horror for the birds and foxes, with whom she felt such an affinity.
As if on cue, the first gunshot sounded. It was followed by many more. Phyllis winced.
Edith laughed at her companion’s alarm. “It’s a hunt! What else do you expect?”
Phyllis glanced at Edith. It looked as if an entire bird had gone into the making of her hat. Of course she didn’t understand.
Most of the other wards resented Phyllis. It was universally acknowledged that wherever husbands were to be caught, she was at the front of the queue to pick whomever she liked. And until she did, they were always second choice. Why couldn’t she make up her mind!
But Phyllis had made up her mind: she had no desire whatsoever to marry. She was quite certain. And nobody could ever sway her. Not even her guardian, the Lord Chancellor, could compel her to take a husband.
The Lord Chancellor stopped her halfway up the staircase. “Phyllis, my dear, wherever are you going?”
“My lord,” she said, dropping an etiquettely curtsy, “I’m a little tired. I thought I might retire early.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but I must ask you to tarry a while longer. My guests will be most disappointed if you don’t make an appearance this evening.” Phyllis tried to conceal her irritation, but apparently failed. “Do try to look more agreeable, my dear,” the Chancellor gently chastised. “Consider that your future husband is among our guests.”
“Who?!” Phyllis was alarmed.
“Whomever you choose,” said the Chancellor levelly.
“I don’t wish to marry any of them,” said Phyllis decidedly, beginning up the stairs.
The Lord Chancellor caught her wrist. Her guardian was normally easy-going of temperament, but now anger flicked its tail.
“But you must.”
The other girls stood about, finely dressed and irritable, in the corners of the room, while the lovely Phyllis was presented to the lords. The Earl of Tolloller, as leader of the House, was given the honour of meeting her first.
Tolloller flattered dutifully. He was thoroughly bored. The girl seemed nice enough – polite and tidy, and her grammar was actually surprisingly good, if you made allowance for her lowliness. But he felt he was missing something.
“My Lord Tolloller!” Tolloller felt a friendly arm on his back. It was the Earl of Mountararat.
“Oh, hello there. How are you enjoying the hunt?”
“Which one?” asked Mountararat, with a wry tilt of the neck across the room to where the ward was now encircled by jostling peers.
Tolloller smiled blandly. “Between you and me, I cannot understand it at all.”
“No doubt,” said Mountararat, giving the lord another friendly shove. “Well, I supposed I’d better not keep the lady waiting.” Then he sauntered off into the midst of the peers.
Tolloller watched him, the touch still ringing on his arm.
Phyllis rose early, while the sky was still dim. She left the house, treading softly and with more caution than was strictly necessary. She wanted to be alone and unobserved. All evening after the hunt, lords had been buzzing around her like flies to a carcass, still smelling faintly of blood and gunpowder, boasting about the size of their kills. It made her feel sick. Then, one might take her hand, or hold her gaze a little too directly for a little too long, and she would feel even sicker.
The soft kiss of the breeze on her neck was a relief. Out here in the embrace of the elements, she began to feel at home. Could she marry a zephyr? Probably not.
For some reason, she headed for the kennels. The hounds lay about morosely, their heads hanging heavy on their paws. She knelt down and scratched one behind the ear. “Poor dear thing,” she murmured, “I suppose you’re bred for it, whether you like it or not. Rather like me. Bred and reared for it, whether I like it or not.”
She became aware the rustle of petticoats, light footfall and a voice, sweet and cheerful, raised in song. Looking up, she saw a milkmaid standing on the kitchen step. The milkmaid smiled at her, and she smiled back, getting to her feet.
“I hope I’m not intruding,” said the milkmaid politely “but is anything the matter? You looked troubled.”
“It’s nothing,” said Phyllis. “I was merely – thinking of how downright beastly it is to be surrounded by a whole houseful of lords who thoroughly adore you and thoroughly repel you!” It all came tumbling out. Phyllis had no one else to confide in, save the dogs, and this stranger looked kind and well-disposed towards her.
“You were! Oh, how funny,” cried the milkmaid. “When I saw you looking so miserable, I assumed you must be in love. Now you tell me that you are miserable because you are not in love! But tell me, do you really feel nothing for any of these lords?”
“Not one,” said Phyllis. “Nor any man, whatever his rank.” She was puzzled by the enthusiasm in the other girl’s voice: it hardly seemed an appropriate response. Perhaps the girl was mocking her.
“Oh, how wonderful! Then you’re just like me!” The milkmaid lit up with excitement. “Only I haven’t any lords, just the one poet, but nevertheless – it’s ghastly. What’s your name?”
“Phyllis,” said Phyllis.
“I’m Patience,” said the milkmaid, “and I’m ever so glad to meet you! I thought I was the only one.”
Phyllis quickly warmed to Patience. It was a relief to have someone so merry and honest to talk to. After they had delayed each other for half an hour on the doorstep, Patience said that she had to finish her rounds, but invited Phyllis to join her in the evening.
“Bring your needlework,” she said, “and we can get to know each other properly!”
That evening, she found Patience with no trouble by following her sweet merry voice to the doorstep of one of the village houses (though the cows were also a good clue). Patience was sitting in the parlour, singing cheerfully as she darned a pair of stockings. When she saw Phyllis’ fussy floral embroidery, Patience laughed. “Has no-one ever taught you to make anything useful?”
They talked about matters of the heart.
“I’m in quite a similar predicament to you,” Patience confided. “The poet Reginald Bunthorne is in love with me. He comes here and sits at my table and recites verses and eats all my butter, and I can’t get a sensible word out of him; and then when I ask him most politely to leave me alone, he starts soliloquising. He tells me that love is eating away at his soul like unto the very snail on the geranium.”
“How awful for you,” said Phyllis, full of sympathy.
Patience nodded her head sadly. “Snails don’t even like geranium.”
“Love certainly makes people behave in strange ways. I haven’t any notion how those lords can believe that shooting birds dead will endear them to me.”
“It does seem to make people beastly cruel,” Patience agreed. “And miserable. I fail to see the attraction. Yet every woman I know is in love with Bunthorne – and oh, how they suffer with it!”
“We should both be thankful never to have been afflicted with it,” said Phyllis, shuddering.
“Have you never loved?” asked Patience.
“I don’t believe I have,” said Phyllis. “If I did, I doubt I should know how to recognise it.”
“I have only ever loved my relations.”
“As a ward in Chancery,” said Phyllis, “I haven’t any. So no, I really have never loved at all.”
Patience looked at her in awe.
Excitement was in the air in the Lord Chancellor’s household. One of the girls had discovered that a poet of the highest renown, none other than Reginald Bunthorne himself, kept his residence in the nearby village. No sooner was this discovered, than the wards were all clamouring to meet him. Their letters entreated him to visit the estate and give a poetry reading as soon as was convenient, for they were all longing to hear him.
To their delight, the poet had obliged. All twenty of the wards now sat packed in the drawing room, listening with delight as he recited his poems.
Bunthorne was in his element. Calmly confident, he commanded a crowd effortlessly. Thrilling them with every word, he declaimed:
Do you like to be the subject of such odes
As those that I for thee have long composed?
And yet, methinks you are forlorn
Because, when from the garden torn
For my twin doting eyes to look upon,
You scratched me with your thorn.
O pretty little petals –
Wherefore do you hide among the nettles?
O modest little roots –
Why do you shy away from my salutes?
O fragrant little stamen –
Why do you thus betray men?
O slender little stem –
My poetry do not condemn!”
When the clamours of appreciation had died down to soft murmurs, Bunthorne continued elegantly. “Now, here is a little musing of mine which I call Rivals in Love :
Would I woo a ward
With a sword, milord?
Nay, I say, absurd!
I’d woo her with a word.”
“Oh, how splendid,” cried one of the girls, tilting her head picturesquely.
Several of the lords stood scattered near the back of the room, watching the proceedings with curious eyes. What kind of man could have caused such a stir? As the evening went on, curiosity turned to indignation. The wards of Chancery were enrapt, hung on Bunthorne’s every word, and paid them no attention whatsoever.
Tolloller stood apart from the rest. The poet’s unfathomable words washed over him, full of mystery and wonder and special meaning that, he let himself imagine, seemed directed especially at him. And then, what passion burnt in the poet’s voice! What elegance guided his aesthetical gestures! Tolloller was quite as enrapt as any of the wards.
One of the Peers interrupted his thoughts, approaching him with a look of bitterness on his face. “Jasper, old chap! Whatever is the matter?” Tolloller entreated.
“Oh, what is the matter! This scoundrel waltzes in here with words, head and coffer all as empty as each other, and wins with a few idle verses hearts that all our riches could not buy! Have they all lost their senses?!” He opened his hand to reveal a hideously large diamond ring: “My Edith has broken off our engagement!”
Tolloller quite understood.
Phyllis and Patience were soon the closest of friends. They met regularly, sewing and chattering together. Class was no barrier to their friendship, although with such an industrious friend, Phyllis began to feel rather unfulfilled by her own spoilt upbringing. “I do wish I had something more useful to do,” she remarked one day, setting aside her embroidery with a look of distaste.
“I can teach you to knit, if you like. Only you’ll need some wool.”
Thus the fates, with their own twisting threads, led her to Strephon.
Down a winding path, along the riverside and across a field of sheep, there was a little cottage that Phyllis had seen, from a distance, on her strolls, but never before given any thought to. She knocked at the door. A voice from the yard called “good morrow, stranger!” Phyllis followed the voice.
In the yard, a young man sat with a lamb in his lap and an expression of easy concentration on his face. His gentle hands were tending to a wound on the lamb’s foot. “Slowly,” he cautioned, as Phyllis approached. “Sudden movements make him nervous.”
Phyllis slowed her step. “Hello, I wondered whether –” The lamb bleated, and Phyllis paused, hovering.
“Heed him not, he’s just hungry. He likes you.” The shepherd let the lamb scramble free from his hold. “There – fit as a fiddle!” Finally he looked up at his visitor. His features were soft and kind, and his eyes glimmered like the night sky. “How can I help you?”
“You have a lot of sheep,” Phyllis said, feeling stupid. There was something wonderful and unplaceable about him. “I wondered whether you sell wool. Because – you keep sheep…” His eyes.
“Ah – we’ve begun wrong,” said the shepherd, with a laugh. “What’s your name? I’m Strephon.”
“Phyllis,” said she, and she bobbed a curtsey.
The shepherd smiled a smile so enchanting that Phyllis thought she would confidently cite it as evidence for the existence of magic. “It’s a delight to meet you,” he said.
The first poetry reading had been such a success that all the wards in Chancery had insisted on a second. Now it was over, and they had laid on a lavish tea for Bunthorne in the most aesthetic room they had been able to find. To their frustration, though, the girls found that they could never get close to him because everywhere he went, Tolloller trailed after him, keeping him engaged in what can hardly have been intellectually stimulating conversation.
Nevertheless, Bunthorne spoke with elegant enthusiasm, and even listened to Tolloller’s contributions far more attentively than one assumed they might merit. They settled together in two aesthetically upholstered chairs. Wards in Chancery swarmed around them with tea and platters of food, hoping to gain Bunthorne’s attention but in fact rendering themselves as invisible as servants. Tolloller reached for one of the cakes on the table. Then, remembering his manners, he offered it to Bunthorne first: “May I cut you a slice?”
“Are you fond of topping?” Tolloller asked.
Bunthorne raised his aesthetic eye to meet Tolloller’s. “In moderation,” he said. Tolloller stared at him blankly.
Nearby, the Earl of Mountararat choked on his tea.
Phyllis found herself drawn back to the cottage at the slightest excuse. Had the lamb recovered? Could Strephon teach her how to spin and dye wool? Did he know the name of this particularly beautiful flower she had found in the meadow? Patience was teaching her to bake – might she borrow a second rolling pin? Now would he like to try the biscuits? Strephon began to expect her visits, then to long for them when they did not happen at the usual hour, and Phyllis began to admit to herself that she went to see him not for the lamb or the rolling pin, but for himself.
They would take walks together, and talk at great length, stopping to point out plants or listen to the birdsong. Once they saw a water vole, and once Strephon caught a grasshopper for her, and she held it in her two hands and felt its legs flutter musically. She felt he was bridging the gap between her and the world – the world she loved, she rightly belonged to, but had been kept separate from for so long.
In truth, she loved that world a good deal more for having him in it.
Soon, she knew his whole flock by name, and they recognised her in return. She had coaxed stories and even songs from him (he was a fine musician who played the flageolet and sung with a rich lyrical voice, although never at the same time). But it was many days more before his hand finally dared to find hers, as they stood by the river watching the last red strokes of a sunset shine on the surface of the dark water.
“Oh – my love,” whispered Phyllis, surprise and delight chiming in her voice.
Strephon felt the sunset flare up once more, now on his cheeks. “My love,” he echoed.
Strephon’s initial euphoria at falling in love quickly developed anxious undertones. He knew himself to be all the more vulnerable in his delight: the blush which rose all too readily on his cheeks, the leaping notes in his laugh, all might betray him.
The secluded life he led had always allowed him to live simply and happily, loved unconditionally by his flock and protected by his mother, and pretty much left alone by the world at large. He had tended to shy away from mortal society. Now here it was: sweet and welcoming and wonderful, and yet he feared it.
Strephon stared into the gloomy depths of the river in the half light. His skin was prickling unpleasantly, not just from the cold. He was horribly aware of his own body, the blood pounding in his ears, his heart in his chest, straining like a bird behind bars.
To allow himself to love was to take a huge risk. What if she learnt his secret? She must, sooner or later. And then – would she abandon him in horror? He couldn’t bear the thought. But supposing she did not recoil from him – and what kind of life would that be for her? His Phyllis would happily throw away riches and rank for the man she loved, but he –
He must stop. He must free her heart to love a lord, as she deserved, and content himself with idyllic solitude. His love was a mere fairytale, something secret and magical and unbelievable, stumbled upon in the half-light, that ought to be forgotten along with dreams and visions and childhood stories.
The surface of the water broke in ripples, and from it rose his fairy mother, feet first, waterweed clinging to her dainty limbs. “Mother!” Strephon cried.
“Strephon, my dear son!” Iolanthe soothed, “remember that you are never alone while I am near. What is troubling you?”
Strephon sighed deeply, feeling his lungs crumple in his chest. “I love.”
A shadow fell over his mother’s face. The ghosts of her own love flickered in her sorrowful eyes. “But surely you cannot mean the dear girl I have seen you with at the riverside these evenings past?”
“On the contrary. That dear girl is precisely the one to whom I refer. Her name is Phyllis.”
“And she does not return your affections? I rather thought she did.”
“Oh.” Strephon heaved a deep sigh. “She does.”
“Then, my son, I fail to see the problem.”
Strephon flinched. His mother gently turned his cheek to face her, but when his eye met hers the look of anguish burning deep therein was almost unbearable for a mother to see.
“Mother,” Strephon began, falteringly, “she believes me to be a mortal man, but… as I know too well… I am not all that she expects me to be.”
“But your legs –”
“Deuce take my legs!” cried Strephon. He breathed quickly and shallowly, his chest rising and falling, face bright, trembling slightly. “They are mortal, perhaps, but what use is that to me! Mother, you know well what I want – I have asked you before…”
“Oh Strephon… I don’t know…”
Strephon could see fear on his mother’s countenance. He brought himself back under his own control with great effort, and began again: “Mother, I know that to your fairy mind a human lifetime passes in the blink of an eye, but to me it has been no inconsiderable time. Imagine how those years have passed for me. Must I always be at odds with myself? Live among sheep and never among my fellow men? Love, and let love go? For I cannot allow her to love me, like this –” Strephon’s voice grew raw and savage again. He struggled to tame it. “I am quite sure of who I am, but what use is that when a fairy body betrays me?” Worn out with emotion, Strephon all but collapsed at his mother’s side.
Iolanthe put her arms around him. The waterweed slopped cold and slimy onto his skin, but still her touch was comforting. In the pause, Strephon heard the the running river tickle the roots of the willows and the breeze caress their leaves. Iolanthe heard her own son’s heart beat – not so different from when she had held him as a baby – small and stout and strong and sure of itself.
Finally, Iolanthe spoke. “Very well. Mind, I can only change that which is already mortal. Your fairy half is protected by natural law that nobody wise would challenge – certainly not twice. But if this will truly make you happier –” Iolanthe hesitated a moment, and Strephon nodded vehemently, “then it shall be so.”
“O rapture!” Strephon kissed his mother’s cheek. “How can I ever thank you enough!”
Iolanthe smiled sadly. “I do believe that you will be happier thus. But take care of the fairy blood that runs in your veins, and do not despise it. It is a powerful gift, if you but rightly use it...”
And a powerful curse if not .
“This is a new work of mine. I call it On the Appearance of a Peer :
One might reform
These hoards of lords,
Were all intent
(As is my bent)
Aesthetic of the Orient.”
Bunthorne paused for effect, then approached one of the lords. A few of the girls tittered.
“Were we to probe
The entire globe
We’d scarcely find
Unsightly pillar-box-red robes.
Were these replaced
With silk and lace
Perhaps a peer
To have a little medieval grace.
But then bereft
Of robes, we’re left
One problem still: his very ugly face.”
As Bunthorne spoke, he extended his aesthetic arm to the lord. Tolloller blushed as Bunthorne’s hand grazed his cheek.
“Thomas!” Tolloller looked up to see Lord Mountararat lurking in the corridor.
“I’m sorry, I had no idea you were waiting for me –” but Mountararat cut him off.
“Let’s get ourselves out of the way.”
They hurried in silence along corridors and outside to a quiet corner of the garden. Mountararat walked with large hasty strides, and Tolloller trailed after him. When they stopped, Tolloller pushed the curly strands of hair away from his face and frowned at his friend. Mountararat looked agitated.
“Now, my dear George, will you please tell me whatever is the matter?”
Mountararat was staring intently at the brickwork, but his mind was elsewhere. An age seemed to pass. Then he turned abruptly back to Tolloller. “Thomas, you’re making a damned fool of yourself.” There was passion in his voice. Tolloller stared back. “Oh, don’t do that, you’re not that stupid! Carrying on like this…”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
No, he really didn’t. Mountararat breathed deeply. “Of course you don’t… Go on then – back to your poet.”
Tolloller shot a hurt look his way. He reminded Mountararat of a dog he had once owned, the way he hung his head and looked obediently guilty even though he clearly had no idea what he was supposed to have done. As he padded off miserably, Mountararat felt vaguely penitent. He had upset his friend pointlessly.
And – had he really believed that he was helping, trying to warn his friend off? It had been selfish. If only the man weren’t so slow to understanding, so impervious to insinuation, so completely lacking in subtlety –
A useless thought.
There was something particularly bright and lively about Strephon today. Phyllis noticed it as she walked with him by the riverside. There was an easy playfulness to his movements, and his features were softened with laughter. They stopped by the gate and Strephon spun her into his arms. Standing close enough to hear his heart, with his strong, gentle hands on her back and his deep enchanting eyes before her, she thought that she might happily spend forever in his embrace.
“The Lord Chancellor spoke with me again this morning,” she told him. “He is insistent that I choose a husband.”
Her lover’s eyes dimmed. He had been very close to asking her today.
“Strephon,” said Phyllis, urgently, “I don’t wish to marry any of them. There’s only one man in the world that I wish to marry.”
“Phyllis, my love,” said Strephon, “I have nothing to offer you. Any one of these Lords could offer you riches beyond compare, and rank and high society. I can only offer you picturesque poverty and sheep.”
“Then I accept!” said Phyllis. “And happiness and love and the world itself! Listen – don’t you think the very breeze in the air whispers his approval? Don’t you hear the birds singing?”
“You have taken leave of your senses, Phyllis.” Pain transformed Strephon’s face. “I love you. I want the world for you. I cannot marry you.”
Phyllis was afraid to mention the topic again. On their way back to his cottage, he recovered his spirits, and his goodbye kiss was evidence enough for her that no harm was done.
Nevertheless, she was amazed that he could think wealth came into it, let alone that the matter could cause him such distress. After all, there were many more shepherdesses than countesses in the world.
Phyllis entertained Patience in her rooms that evening, but she herself was losing patience with their meetings. So far as unwanted suitors went, they still had plenty of common ground. But Patience’s favourite topic – how strange and nonsensical love seemed to them both – was becoming awkward now that Phyllis found herself head-over-heels in it.
She hadn’t mentioned Strephon to Patience yet.
Patience was complaining about Bunthorne again. “He won’t stop sending me letters. I’ve told him very plainly that love is to me a sealed book, but still he persists. And he writes poetry about me.” Patience handed Phyllis a piece of paper, covered in pressed flowers and inscribed in an aesthetic sloping hand with the message,
O my sweet & elysian milkmaid,
Sweet is the butter you churn!
But no paler, more perfect’s an egg laid
Than the maiden for whom I yearn!
I’ll proclaim to our friends & relations
From the rooftops – from the gutter!
The sweetest of maidens is Patience –
Patience who’s sweeter than butter!
“It doesn’t seem decent, does it?” said Patience with a shudder.
Phyllis agreed distractedly. She was still thinking about Strephon, how his carefree features had been contorted in that moment. If it could have that effect on somebody, maybe Patience wasn’t so wrong about love after all.
“Is something the matter?” Patience was also becoming aware of the rift growing between them, although she had no clue to its source.
“Have you really never loved anyone?”
Patience thought for a while. “I had a great aunt once. I loved her. That is… I admired her, and I trusted her, and I loved talking to her, and…” Patience looked at Phyllis, as if for the first time. “I suppose that’s very much the way I feel about you.”
Tolloller retired early to his chambers. As Leader of the House, he had been given a very luxurious room; but today it was too big, and he felt lonely there.
The encounter with George – with the Earl of Mountararat, rather – had left him feeling flustered. He feared he had upset his dear friend. The Earl’s stony expression was still engraved on his mind. When he had taken Tolloller aside to talk alone with him, Tolloller had expected something quite different. What that might be, he couldn’t say.
Or wouldn’t admit.
Another set of features washed away the first. The poet’s beauty was more immediate and fresh than the Earl’s, although Tolloller recognised that it was a surface charm, not nearly so deeply planted or deeply felt. For some reason, this made it all the more magnetic.
Tolloller had watched the girls flaunt their admiration for Bunthorne – and watched Bunthorne revel in it. He himself was the fool of the group, the butt of the jokes, and though his friendship with the poet had grown a pace over the last week, it had grown lopsidedly. Tolloller felt silly: another doting admirer, his case more hopeless than any of the wards’.
There was a knock. Tolloller called “come in” absently – and Bunthorne appeared in the doorway. “Good lord,” said Tolloller, referring to himself. “I was just thinking of you.”
Bunthorne was holding a bouquet of white lilies. “May I come in?”
The poet sat down beside Tolloller on the edge of his four poster bed, laying the lilies down between them.
“What are the flowers for?"
“Suffering, traditionally,” said Bunthorne dramatically, casting his eye languidly downwards. “And sincerity.” The poet paused, poised, for a moment, then rolled his neck round to look at Tolloller. “Rather an apt insignia for men of such a mould as we, don’t you think? We could be true to ourselves, but we’d suffer for it. So instead we are cruel to ourselves, and we suffer all the same.”
Tolloller was lost. He couldn’t imagine what he and Bunthorne might possibly have in common. “Reginald…?” he began.
It took Phyllis a moment to realise what Patience meant. When she did, she was alarmed.
“Patience, there’s something I ought to tell you. I am in love” (Patience’s face lit up for a moment) “with a shepherd.”
Patience looked crestfallen. “How do you know you are? What does it feel like?”
“At present, it’s agony.” Phyllis began to pour her heart out. “He is suffering horribly, and I don’t quite know why but I’m sure it’s all on my account. And I can’t bear it!”
Patience frowned. “But that describes my situation perfectly. Bunthorne is very madly in love with me, and I can’t bear it. Do you think perhaps I am in love with him, then?”
Phyllis paused as her intellect wrestled with her conscience. Her conscience lost. “Maybe so,” she said. “I think you had better talk to him in person, and see whether you can untangle it between you.”
It was wrong of her to confuse her friend, but it was an easy way out of a difficult situation. More importantly, Phyllis had just made a decision herself. She knew what she wanted to do, and she could hardly bear to delay it a moment longer.
“I suppose I’d better go and talk to him right away, and find out whether or not I’m in love,” said Patience. She stood up, gathering her things, and sighed miserably. “He does love me very madly. I might as well know the worst.”
When they finally broke apart from the kiss, Bunthorne opened his eyes to one of Tolloller’s much-practiced puzzled expressions. “Whatever is the matter, Thomas?”
“I don’t understand… You were so rude about me in that poem.”
Bunthorne laughed. “Gracious! You’re really not very intelligent, are you?”
“No…” Tolloller frowned. “No, not intelligent.”
Bunthorne shot him a conspiratorial look. “Between you and me, neither am I,” he said, and pulled him close again.
As soon as Patience was gone, Phyllis laced up her boots, siezed a lantern and hurried out into the night. It was very late.
Despite the darkness, instinct brought her quickly to the cottage, and she saw the faint glow of candlelight still coming from inside. Strephon had not been sleeping well these last nights. He was sitting up with an almanack in his hands, although his mind was far too busy turning over the same wretched questions to absorb a word of it, when he heard the knock. In tumbled Phyllis.
“Strephon! Oh, my love! The Lord Chancellor would hate this, and the girls would scold me for asking you and not waiting for you to ask me. Well, damn the Lord Chancellor and damn etiquette! I love you – more than I ever thought I’d love anyone – now won’t you marry me for goodness’ sake!”
“Phyllis,” said Strephon brokenly, “I can’t explain, but – you mustn’t love me.”
She was shocked. Her beloved was trembling. His face was very pale, and he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“Please don’t tell me not to,” said Phyllis quietly. She stepped close to Strephon and gently placed her hands either side of his face. “I do love you.”
Strephon’s eyes darted across her features. She was entirely earnest. Her bright honest eyes were entirely full of him. He felt the heat in his cheeks again and wasn’t sure where to look, so he did the easiest thing, and kissed her.
Slowly, the fear ebbed out of him, and love was wonderful after all.
“Ask me now,” Phyllis prompted.
Yes. “Phyllis, my love. Will you marry me?”
When Tolloller awoke in the morning, Bunthorne was nowhere to be seen. He would have thought that he had dreamt the whole thing, but for the trampled lilies that lay perishing on the floor beside his bed.
He felt too injured for subtlety, so he asked the first person he met whether she had seen the poet today. He recognised her as that girl his fellow peers were all such fools for – except with rather more of a spring in her step than he was accustomed to seeing.
“I believe he left in the night, with the milkmaid,” she replied. Seeing his expression, Phyllis added: “They are not lovers, and I doubt they ever shall be.”
His thoughts dwelt on Bunthorne for all of five minutes. Then he found them tugged in a different direction. The wound was actually rather shallow, and instead of feeling awful about it, it dawned on him that something monumental had happened. And not a moment too soon: today was the last day of the hunt.
He tracked George down at about midday, just before lunch.
The Earl was pretending that their embarrassing conversation the previous day had never taken place. “Good day, Thomas,” he said, a little stiffly. “Are you looking forward to the hunt this afternoon?”
“Actually, George,” said Tolloller, colouring slightly, “would you mind terribly if you missed the hunt this afternoon? I’d like to talk to you privately, if I may? While the others are out of our way.”
Mountararat lightly touched Tolloller’s arm. “Goodness. Whoever would have thought you’d be the brave one,” he murmured, amazed.
Strephon and Phyllis sat side by side at the water’s edge, silently listening to the world and each other. There was a lot to say, but there would be time for that later. For now, to be together in the world was quite enough.
And the world was at peace. The bees, the breeze, the seas, the rocks, the brooks, the gales, the vales, the fountains and the mountains, and even the thunder-clouds, were all very pleased with the way things had turned out.