His first impression of her is not particularly memorable. He vaguely recalls appreciating her apparent calm and sense compared to the other flightier girls. The first time he hears her sing at Polly’s recital is when he truly starts to take notice of her – indeed, so does everyone else, with that captivating voice of hers.
The first time they truly talk is after he accidentally catches her trying to escape, with tear-streaks down her face. He has possibly never spoken so harshly to a girl before, but the things she says about being a bother to Polly while clearly being jealous instead of grateful is not something he can let pass. So it leads to a follow up conversation in his mother’s little sewing room, wherein she explains how the other girls think she’s stealing the limelight from Polly. He explains how silly this is, and that Polly isn’t the sort to care about this type of thing anyway, so why should it bother her? Then surprisingly, he is won over by her heartfelt wish not to be a burden, but to be useful to Polly in some way, and it is a feeling with which he is well-acquainted. He suggests that there will be some way in which she can be a help to Polly, if only she keeps an eye out for the opportunity.
He presumes that will be the end of it, and does not foresee any future deep conversations.
Their next conversation takes place at the Higby’s farmhouse, where he finds her taking care of baby Johnny. She tells him about all the young men who adore Polly Pepper, including Jack Loughead. (She doesn’t tell him about the pang of jealousy she feels when the handsome young man comes around, but it’s not like he would ever look at her anyway, so there it is.) It’s painfully obvious to her that Jasper is in love with Polly – to which he gives a shout of surprise, which just goes to show how blind boys can be – and that he is the only one worthy of Polly, in her opinion. He supposes in the end the only thing that matters is who Polly decides to set her affections on. She nods and adds that while Polly is sweet and kind to all, her face lights up just that bit more whenever Jasper is around. (She wonders if there will ever be a man who will look at her in the same way Jasper looks at Polly – like she hung the stars and is the source of light in his world.)
He tells her about the little brown house and how they made do with what little they had, and how they first came to meet Jasper, after which their fortunes were turned around. She tells him about growing up after her mother died, with two aunts who gradually controlled her household and her life while her father was busy with work. She marvels at how responsible he had to be at such a young age, while never complaining about poverty. He marvels that she managed not to become embittered despite not having the support of a loving family, and pities her for the lonely childhood she must have had.
It turns out she was right about Polly and Jasper, he finds out, to the delight of the entire family. She eventually goes home to live with her father, but comes back to visit the King household every so often. Polly asks her to sing at her wedding, which she protests a little before giving in to Polly’s sincere enthusiasm and reassurances that she won’t be stealing the limelight at all. (Polly never admits to her that the only time she was envious of her singing was at the first recital because of Jasper’s admiration for her voice.)
Life goes on, as he continues to work at Cabot and Van Metre, while she starts getting music lessons at the King household. He comes back early from work one day and is drawn to the garden where he can hear her singing. She looks like a vision with golden hair among the flowers she’s tending while she sings a lovely melody to herself. The sudden depth of emotion within him shocks him into backing away and retreating to the house.
He has hardly had romantic feelings for anyone before – having focused on work and bettering himself for so long – but thinks this must be what it feels like. Before the elation of feeling one’s heart drawn to another can eclipse him, he clamps down on it. She is from a genteel family, educated and cultured, and anyone with ears can tell she is meant for greater things with that voice of hers. He has no business harbouring such thoughts or feelings for her. What is he really? A country boy from a poor family who had the good fortune to benefit from Mr King’s generosity, who would never have made it far in education anyway, and has been at work since he can remember. She is like a nightingale – to be heard and admired from afar, not for holding in hands roughened by hard labour. He chides himself for his momentary lapse in good sense, and pretends it never happened.
Mr King sees her potential and eventually arranges for her to go to Germany to get proper lessons from a famous teacher. She is immensely grateful for the opportunity, and especially indebted to Phronsie who selflessly gave her a significant amount of Mrs Chatterton’s inheritance to make this possible. How can she ever repay their kindness to her, she sighs in despair?
He says simply that it’s not about repayment, merely about doing the right thing, which seems to come as easy as breathing to the Peppers, she thinks woefully. She recognizes she is selfish and prideful and feels woefully inadequate next to this family, next to him and his unfailingly cheerful sensible nature and inherent goodness. She will never be good enough for them (for him).
He balks initially when Mr King personally insists that Mr Cabot give him time off for the whole family to go on a trip to Europe to send her to Germany. It isn’t right to be asking for special favours from Mr Cabot, who has been very generous to him already. But then he thinks about not seeing her for the foreseeable future, and feels a guilty sense of relief when Mr Cabot tells him he deserves a holiday after all the hard work he’s put in these past several years. He thanks both Mr Cabot and Mr King profusely, and admits to himself that he understands how she feels to be so indebted to another's generosity.
They all go aboard the ship to Europe, with baby Elyot in tow for the long journey ahead. Aboard the ship, she finds herself gritting her teeth as she tries to ignore the girls on the ship fawning over him, with his stupidly handsome face, muscular frame and refreshingly honest way of talking. She is honest enough to admit to herself that she is indeed jealous, but she doesn’t confide in Polly nor Phronsie about her feelings. They in their kindness would most likely try to make a match of her and Ben, and she doesn’t think she could bear it if he tried to let her down just as kindly. She still has her pride, after all.
He himself is torn between trying to make the most out of the limited time left before they separate, and trying to wean himself off her company so that it hurts less when they go back home without her. Perhaps that is why he allows these fellow ship passengers to take up so much of his time. Then he nearly drowns while trying to save a child who went overboard, and has to spend a few days in his room recuperating. It is possibly the first time he has ever seen his mother so upset, he reflects, although there is really only one person whose affections he yearns for.
She is beside herself with worry when it happens, and takes it upon herself to be his nurse even after they reach Germany. Instead of going out with the Kings and Fishers at every opportunity, she hovers at his bedside and tries to be as helpful as possible. He then tells her she needs to spend more time acquainting herself with her new home rather than wasting it on him.
It is Mrs Fisher who finds her, upset and almost in tears about his apparent rejection, and kindly explains to her that he just doesn’t want to be a burden to her, which really stems from his fondness for her after all. She can’t believe it, won’t believe it because she doesn’t want her heart to get broken (but does she really think Mrs Fisher doesn’t know where her oldest boy’s heart lies?)
After they leave, she remains a faithful correspondent to all of them, including him, although she writes to him less than to Father, Polly and Phronsie. She writes to him about her singing lessons, learning German from her friendly landlady and getting used to sausages. He writes back about the family – about Polly’s new baby girl, Joel’s theological training, Davie’s accolades at university and how King-Fisher is getting taller day by day. She appreciates how his letters are like a taste of home, but secretly wishes it wasn’t so like him to write glowingly about everyone except himself. Instead, she depends on Polly’s and Phronsie’s letters to give her snippets of his life, each time secretly fearing that she will hear how he’s met a charming young lady and getting along with her famously.
She comes back to America after a year, and they throw a party to celebrate her return. He has an emergency at work and only manages to reach home after the party has started. He thinks he sounds appropriately pleased to see her as he shakes her hand – but Phronsie notices the delight in his shining eyes and the slight tremble in his voice as he says her name.
When they find a moment to converse alone, she is the one who brings up the topic of marriage, to which he haltingly admits that there hasn’t been any girl in his life other than his sisters. When she asks why (while trying to hide her delight) he mumbles something about being busy at work and how he’s not a smooth talker to the ladies unlike his brothers. A shy glance from him is all it takes for her to also admit that she doesn’t have a beau. He expresses shock, because how could such an amazing lady not have men beating down the door for a chance to woo her? He blushes fiercely after the sentiment slips out, and makes an excuse before escaping from her presence, not realizing that she was blushing too.
He spends the rest of the time avoiding being left alone with her, certain that she must have realized the long-harboured feelings towards her which he has guiltily treasured. He doesn’t think he could bear to hear that angelic voice reject him. She doesn’t understand why he is avoiding her, wondering what she did to make him upset with her.
She leaves again for Germany, an ache of disappointment in her chest that only dims a little after she throws herself back into her singing with determination. There are one or two young men who do treat her with an interest that is flattering. Her landlady tuts at how choosy she is, it’s not like she could do much better than them, and what if she becomes a spinster just like her Aunt? They are, to their credit, courteous, well-off and handsome, but every time she sees them she cannot help but compare them to the hardworking, honest man at home whom she longs to see.
When she cannot bear it any longer, she writes to him again, and it is an agonizing few weeks before she receives a short but sincere reply from him. They resume their correspondence, and soon there is no one else she writes to more often than him, with the exception of Phronsie who will always be dearest to her. The content of their letters gradually expands from mere reporting of events. She shares about her fears of being forgotten while far away in Germany, her inadequacy next to other more talented singers, and of being perceived as cold by others when all she wishes is to emulate the warmth of the Peppers. He shares about his fears of tarnishing the Kings’ reputation by association, of being given favours at work because of that association, and the bittersweet realization that his younger siblings have all grown up and no longer depend on him.
It takes a while to see that the reason they are able to share the darkest parts of themselves is that they are both insecure, not wanting to disappoint the people dearest to them, and yet understand each other enough to spur the other on. It does not really occur to them that despite the physical distance separating them, they have become each other’s closest confidante in all things except for romance.
She wonders if Phronsie realizes how she feels towards him, for the younger girl always seems to have some new thing to report about him in her letters, whether it’s a compliment he received from a customer, or his promotion in the company. Once in a while she dares to ask about whether he has found someone suited to be his wife – someone as kind, humble and industrious as he is. Phronsie always denies it, and says she thinks that if he has indeed found such a lady, that she is definitely not anywhere in their town as far as she knows. She quashes the spark of hope that lights up when she reads this – after all, Phronsie cannot possibly mean her – and wonders with a sinking heart if he has met someone during one of his business travels.
It takes Polly a little while longer to come to the same understanding about them. He doesn’t quite notice it, but Polly gradually stops introducing him to girls from her music school, and instead asks him how she is doing over in Germany, requesting him to send a message from herself when she is too busy to write. He is also unaware of the way his face lights up whenever he talks about her, but Polly finds it adorable, and warns Joel and Dave not to tease him. Polly only mentions it once, at which point he goes red and stutters about how she deserves someone so much better than him, after which Polly uncharacteristically cuffs him on the neck and tells him that there is no better man in the world than her older brother (except Jasper, of course).
The next time she returns is in sombre circumstances as Roslyn May lies at death’s door, and she feels utterly guilty for the unquenchable joy she feels at the thought of seeing them all again, when she ought to be as distraught as her beloved Phronsie must be. She sings (what else is she good for?) to Phronsie, and it relieves her soul to see the young lady finally rest from the nursing post she has adopted for days on end. He finds her later on after he has managed to rock Barby to sleep, while Polly has taken over the vigil at Roslyn’s bedside. She never fails to take his breath away, after more than a year of relying on his memories and one of the family portraits to envision her appearance. Seeing him with the little girl nestled in one arm makes her heart ache in longing, a fierce longing to have a family with him.
She tells him that she’s missed him, with a sincerity in her voice that humbles him. He echoes the sentiment, and stands there with a wistful smile for the longest time, before Barby starts to fidget and he continues rocking her back to sleep, opting to place her back in bed where she will be more comfortable rather than with his shoulder for a pillow. She disagrees, blurting out that she thinks his shoulders are rather nice, and then covers her face in utter mortification – how tired must she be to have just let that thought slip out?
She peeks through her fingers and is amazed to see his face all pink like a schoolgirl’s. With that spark of hope that had never been truly extinguished, she clasps his large hand and confesses that seeing how Phronsie may never have the chance to marry the man she loves has made her decide not to let life take that chance away from herself too.
He stares at her with those large brown eyes, and with hope in his trembling voice, asks her what she means.
She tells him that her heart has always belonged to him, and then starts babbling about how she wouldn’t be able to bear it if something happened to him without him knowing how she felt.
He grips her hand tightly and admits that he’s loved her for years, and that he will spend the rest of his life trying to become worthy of her, if she will have him.
She huffs, albeit with tears in her eyes, and says that if anything, she wants to be worthy of him, and that they will both just have a lot of growing up to do.
When they kiss, no words are needed.