I shivered with cold. Or was it fear? Perhaps both, I thought. Hmmm…. fear was not something I was overly familiar with not having experienced it often. I wonder where this will all lead, I said to myself, as I trudged through the thick, newly fallen powder snow. Not meaning the path I walked. I knew exactly where I was going and why. It was more about what would happen – or not – once I arrived at my destination.
My day had started early, before sunrise. I am not accustomed to getting up early, let alone going out before the cock crows to welcome the start of a new day. Used to a more leisurely pace in my life, I found myself not a little disconcerted at this sudden turn of events. And not a little bemused. After all, why me ?! I lived alone and had little social congress with anyone other than a few select individuals of my own choosing. A man of means, I had never had to work for my living in the usual sense of the word. I chose to work for I enjoyed it. My parents had been very wealthy. When they both died suddenly in a terrible accident, everything came to me as their only son and heir.
I suspect this would not have been the case had they foreseen what was to happen. Although my education had included a solid grounding and training in all things to do with business, I don’t believe my father ever intended for me to take over his empire in its entirety. It is something we had never discussed. His will, such as it was, had not been reviewed since I was but a child. I believe his intention had been to do so but as often happens it was still on his list of things to get to. The will as it stood stipulated quite clearly that all possessions were to go to any living heir/s. As I was of legal age, being twenty and five years old, the matter was a foregone conclusion despite the ‘ahems’ and harumphs of my father’s lawyer at its reading. One look at me was enough for him to know I would brook no argument. My inheritance was vast. He clearly did not approve.
The well-oiled machinery of my father’s business empire meant it would continue to flourish and grow with little direction or involvement by me. Not that I distanced myself from the responsibility. Quite the opposite. I made my move strategically, without unseemly haste, and cemented my authority and position when members of the Board of Management were still shell-shocked by the sudden deaths. Before they had time to begin jockeying for positions, I called an extra-ordinary meeting. It was then I informed them of my decision. I simply stated my intention to step fully into my father’s shoes. Then I left the meeting. Over the next few years, I replaced those people in key positions who opposed me. They were replaced by people I handpicked and groomed personally. By my tenth year as business owner I had fully replaced all those who had been loyal to my father and had refused or expressed reluctance to follow my direction and leadership. Their terms and conditions of release from my employment were swift, generous and watertight. It was non-negotiable. If they refused, all terms and conditions were negated. They were simply fired. After the first such occasion the rest chose to leave quietly and graciously.
My reputation as a business man grew and solidified. I was considered to be a fair and good employer. A visionary even. Deemed by society to be an eminently ‘eligible bachelor’. Invitations to social events were orchestrated to introduce me to suitable young damsels. This practice soon ceased. I refused them all without exception. I was not interested. Nor did I wish to waste my time in such trivial and meaningless frippery. The very thought of being caught in a matrimonial web horrified me. My social reputation was quickly cast as that of an unapproachable social recluse. Having never married, let alone had any kind of long term intimate relationship with another person, I found myself answerable only to myself. It suited me very well indeed. I kept my private life very private and totally separate from my business life.
My relationship with my parents had been distant all my life. Nannies raised me until I was deemed to be of an age to start my education. It started the day I turned three. My birthday present was to bid farewell to the only person with whom I had had a nurturing relationship, my Nanny. It is the only time I recall crying, only to be sharply rebuked and told to act ‘like a man’. This was my introduction to, and welcome from, my first tutor. From then on my live-in private tutor – or rather, a series of them over the years – took over all aspects of my life. My education was solely conducted at home. The tutors I had were all highly respected in their various fields and well compensated for their services whilst in residence. Although a cold man, my father was passionate when it came to learning. I believe now it was his way of showing me he cared. He ensured my education was broad, solid, and the most up to date in theories and practices. For this, I am eternally grateful. It has left me with an unquenchable thirst for the demanding Mistress of Knowledge. And a private passion that consumes my time and challenges my intellect.
My mother, on the other hand, was histrionic and obsessed with public and social opinion. To that end, she had control of the tutors who schooled and mentored me in the social graces, turning me into a fine example of the perfect gentleman. A son to be proud of in public. A priceless ornament on public display. To be acclaimed and admired but never touched. I am skilled in all the fine arts and social etiquette, as well as other gentlemanly pursuits of the elite. As my father, I believe now that this too was my mother’s way of showing me she cared.
I only ever remember seeing my mother and father at the end of the day when we all sat at a formal dining room table for the evening meal. Conversations were stilted and uncomfortable. Meals were served by an ever present, silent and attentive staff. This made private conversation impossible. My mother was fond of saying “Mind the servants. They might hear…” It was not deemed fit or proper to discuss any personal matters in their presence. Hence, I never had those conversations with my parents. It was as if my very presence was a nuisance to be tolerated for as short a time as was socially acceptable. I used to wonder why they ever bothered to have a child at all given I was such an inconvenience and encumbrance. Resilient by nature, I had learned very early in life not to expect any more from them. They were truly unable to give more. What comfort and love I had in my childhood came from those into whose care I had been entrusted. There was scant little of it. I had no childhood friends or playmates.
As I grew older I learnt to seek the arms of a variety of lovers to relieve my tensions. I was not comfortable with closeness, preferring to seek physical contact with another only when my baser needs demanded it. This suited me very well. It also meant I had no demands or obligations placed on me. Having never experienced a close, emotional relationship, I had no understanding of it, nor any need for it. As I grew older and witnessed the dramas other people had in their families and relationships, I was grateful to be spared such tribulations.
Life was good. I enjoyed the challenges of business life. Twenty years on it did not require a great deal of my time anymore other than to oversee, problem solve and consider issues and reports brought to me for my decision. I had the final say in all matters of importance. However, such was the calibre of my staff that very little of any great consequence came to my attention other than annual reports, financial statements and proposals for expansion. It freed me up for my private pursuits, my passion.
And therein, for the first time in my life, I am now confronted with a conundrum. It is in the hopes of resolving it that I find myself trudging through soft snow on a cold winter’s morning with dawn barely breaking. You see, in the pursuit of my all-consuming passion, I seem to have become befuddled, confused, discombobulated. How this happened is in itself a mystery. I do believe I have fallen in love. Having closely studied the symptoms of just such an occurrence in order to diagnose my condition, I am, it seems, afflicted with them all to a rather extraordinary degree. Let me explain how this came about.
My very private passion is horticulture. Specifically, the cross pollination and breeding of rare and exotic plants. This passion came upon me as a young child. I was introduced to the genteel art of flower arranging by one of my tutors. Quite why a budding young gentleman ought to be taught such a thing remains a mystery to me to this very day. I suspect it was one of my mother’s many unusual demands from my tutors. However, I found I had a knack for it. And not just a knack. It quickly became an obsession. I loved the fragrances, the colours, the shapes, and sizes, losing myself in their splendour. Such was my skill I was given the job of putting together all the floral arrangements for my mother. Not once did she comment or let me know she knew it was my work. Through my tutor I asked, and was granted permission, to be in charge of the gardens. Over the years I created an exquisite masterpiece. The gardens of my main residence are much admired to this day. My childhood passion was kept secret from my father. I suspect this was under instructions from my mother. Were he to find out it would have been stopped immediately. He would not have considered it a suitable pursuit for his son. However, he often commented on the exquisite floral arrangements and enjoyed a walk in the gardens admiring its evolution. In this pursuit of my passion, the staff were resolutely complicit in maintaining a stiff upper lip. Gardening became my refuge and salvation from misery. My father never questioned whose work it was, assuming it to be the head gardener and his staff. To this day, I remain in charge of all the gardens and their development, as well as floral arrangements for my home and business. I am often asked to divulge the identity of my florist and the source of my flowers. Unfortunately, I tell them, I am sworn to secrecy. It amuses me to keep the mystery alive.
I now own a gentleman’s country retreat which I have had converted into a hothouse for the pursuit of my specific passion. I have created for myself a second, secret persona in order to keep my two lives separate. Having had a great deal of success in the cross pollination of orchids from the tropics, I published my work under yet another pseudonym. It was very well received and acclaimed within the horticultural circuits. The review declared it to be “a masterpiece of ingenuity and complexity, supported by meticulous scientific research, data and drawings. The finest example and instruction for those aspiring to reach the heady heights of such endeavours.” Needless to say, this spurred me on to further endeavours and publications. All are enthusiastically acclaimed and lauded. Many seek audience with me. Reluctant to become a public figure in this arena, I do not accept speaking engagements or interview requests. I wish, above all else, to keep this mistress of my passion deeply private. It is mine exclusively. I want no external intrusion into this world.
I go to extraordinary lengths to protect my privacy and identity. The staff who work for me at the retreat are gentle, simple country folk who follow my orders and ask no questions. Their terms of employment specify strict conditions of privacy. If in breach, they lose their job. This they do not want for I pay well for their silence and loyalty. No mail or deliveries ever come directly to the residence. Everything is collected by my employees from various locations at different times of the day by different individuals. My comings and goings are always under cover of darkness.
However, one enterprising young lady turned out to be a master detective. Determined to find the author and the location of such exquisite plants, she managed over a period of time, to penetrate the web of silence and protection. With perseverance and skilful deduction from the evidence she collected, she found the location of my hothouse. Surveillance over a period of time bore fruit. She spied my arrival late one night and deduced that I was the very person with whom she sought audience. Thus, one fine afternoon, she knocked on the door. As I employed no servants in the house whilst I was in residence, I answered the door myself. It was highly unusual for anyone to come a-knocking. I was annoyed at the intrusion. Opening the door, I was ready to fly forth with a barrage of abuse, only to stop in astonishment before I had even started.
Standing before me was the most exquisite creature I had ever laid eyes on. She literally took my breath away. Even the most delicate and rarest of orchids in my collection paled in comparison. Her soft, delicate fragrance whispered on the breeze, teasing me with its allure. Skin as lustrous as the purest alabaster, her eyes were liquid cornflour blue surrounded by impossibly long curled eyelashes. Rosebud lips under a perky, turned up nose, cheeks delicately tinged in soft pink, the face was framed with a cascade of long, curly hair the colour of golden wheat. I took all this in within the first glance at her face. She had rendered me speechless before a word was spoken. My heart thumped as if I had just done a heavy days’ work. My breath laboured and caught in my throat. My hands had become clammy and my mouth dry. A million butterflies churned in my belly. Like a fool, I just stood there gawping. She fluttered her delicate, tiny hands to her face, wiping away a tendril of hair tickling her nose. Licking her lips with the tip of a tongue the colour of ripe summer raspberries, she cleared her throat. It sang like the sweetest music in my ears, so besotted was I by this time.
With a look of surprise and consternation on her face, she said “Oooh, I do beg your pardon! I had not expected the master of the house to answer the door himself.” Her voice was like the tinkling of silver bells. She paused expectantly, waiting for me to say something. I could not utter a single word. Flustered, she spoke in a rush of words “I’m so sorry to disturb you. I had intended to ask your butler for an appointment and leave my calling card. I know you are a very private man and do not give of your time. It’s just that , well, umhhh, I, aah – damn it! I did so promise myself to be on the very best of polite behaviour. And now it seems I have lost all sensibility and thought! “ With that, she stamped her dainty little foot in frustration. Taken aback with the expletive coming from such delicate lips, I noted her foot was encased in a cornflour blue satin shoe that matched her eyes perfectly. As did her tastefully plain yet obviously very well cut and tailored dress which adorned her perfectly proportioned frame. Truth be told to me she looked like an ethereal angel or faery. In stature she barely reached my shoulders. Biting her lips (aghast, I expected ruby red blood to flow ), blinking her eyes to stop the tears from falling (oh those precious diamond droplets !) she thrust an envelope in my hand and ran off.
I stood there for I know not how long. Eventually a semblance of normality returned to me. I closed the door. My legs felt weak, my head felt woolly and dizzy. Alarmed, I wondered what on earth was happening to me. Heading for the nearest chair, I sat down heavily and stopped a moment to gather myself. What had just happened ? Had I had some kind of visitation from the angels? Not that I believed in them at all. Well, not till now. Or was I in still in bed asleep and this was just a dream in which I found myself awake as sometimes is purported to happen. All this and more I thought as I sat in a daze. Slowly, I became aware of holding something in my hand. Glancing down, I saw the envelope she had thrust at me before disappearing out of view. So, it was real after all, I thought.
Opening the envelope with trembling hands I removed several sheets of paper. A whisper of her fragrance emanated from within. It was scented with the same fragrance she had worn. Just this one reminder of her presence was enough to transport me back in my mind to the moment I first opened the door and saw her. Closing my eyes, I breathed it in with long, slow, deep breaths. Desperate to embed the memories and scent into my very core, I clung to the vision until it faded. In that instance, my heart broke. She was gone. Sobbing with the deepest of despair the tears fell unnoticed. Eventually the grief abated enough so I could see to examine the contents of the envelope.
The first two sheets were written in her hand. Perfectly formed letters, not unlike their mistress, leapt out at me. It took a great deal of effort on my part to focus on the contents of the letter in my hand. In it, she explained that she had read all of my published works many times over. She was transported to another world whilst doing so, she said. One that she wanted desperately to immerse herself in. To this end she had determined to find me so she could discuss with me how she could go about doing so. It had been difficult but she had persevered. The last sentence begged me to spare her a few precious moments of my time to talk to her. The other sheets of paper were drawing parchments. Images of some of the orchids in my publications were spread across the pages in exquisitely perfect detail. So real were they I felt I could touch the very flower itself. Never had I seen such perfect work.
My life had been turned upside down in a matter of less than five minutes when she had presented herself at my door. I could not get her out of my head. My appetite and sleep suffered as did my work. Everywhere I turned, there she was. Not understanding what was happening to me, I spoke to my closest confidante, describing what had happened. He laughed uproariously. “My dear fellow! It has come to you at last. You are besotted with this wench.” I objected in the strongest of terms at his use of such a base word to describe my angel, as I now thought of her. He laughed even more heartily. “ Why, I do believe you have fallen head over heels in love.” His advice was for me to seek the ‘wench’, meet with her, and see what befell me then. It could cure me of this enchantment – or not. If not, my fate, alas, he laughed, would be to join the rest of mankind. I did not understand what he meant by that. Again, he laughed till the tears streamed down his face. This amused me not in the slightest for he seemed not to take my malady at all seriously. “Why, you may well find yourself betrothed to the wench. A life of married bliss could well await you.” I was aghast. A lengthy and more respectful discussion ensued once my friend had collected himself sufficiently not to burst into fits of mirth at every turn. I must say I was most put out by his merriment, for I was not at all amused by this turn of events. He described his own experiences and that of many of his friends. Mine, it seemed, was not so unique after all. It had just come later in life as my contrived circumstances had enabled me to avoid such encounters. Love, he said, nodding wisely, will find a way if it is to be. And, he added that he looked forward to meeting the wench to see if indeed she was as angelic and delightful as my descriptions of her. Love, he said, has a way of blinding one. As if to rub salt into the wound, he teased she may indeed be perceived by others as an ugly witch. At this, I leapt up and challenged him to duel for daring to utter such an insult. So tormented was my mind, that I rose to uphold her honour on the basis of a five minute meeting during which I had uttered not a single word!
Following this most elucidating, if disrespectful conversation with my friend, I determined that the best course of action would be to honour her request for a meeting. To this end I set about composing a note to her. It was a torment. Nothing that I scribed seemed right. Piles of crumpled paper littered the floor. I slept fitfully, in my dreams constructing missives that were to all intents and purposes the mournful writings of a lovelorn fool. A week later I had come up with what I thought would be fit and proper and showed it to my friend. He was surprised I was still procrastinating. “Is that the best you can do?! Monday next at 10am” he read. “It has taken you a WEEK to come up with THIS?!” Looking at me, he noted with concern the agony on my face. Relenting, he helped me construct a note that read better. Happy with the result, I signed and sealed it on the spot and organised its delivery.
What seemed like an eternity of torment followed. In fact it was just three days. I received a written reply. Once again with shaking hands I tore open the envelope like a starving man. A single sheet of heavenly scented paper lay within. It transported me to paroxysms of ecstasy. Until I read the first sentence. She regretfully informed me – my heart plummeted. I could not bear to read any further. I was doomed to die of unrequited love. Never to see her again. Never to hear the tinkling bell that is her voice. Never to behold her angelic face. I paced the floor frenetically, still holding the letter in my hand. Eventually it dawned on me that perhaps I should force myself to read the rest of this heartbreaking note at least the once. Steeling myself, I glanced down and started reading. My heart leapt out of my chest with joy. She did want to meet me! But she was due to leave on the morrow. If it were not too much bother, she wondered if I could present there instead in the morning at eight of the clock. She would understand if this were not possible due to the early time and short notice. Due to other matters of import this was the only time she could offer me. Should it not suit me, perhaps other arrangements could be made for a later date. I leapt around the room shouting for joy. I danced and swirled like a demented man.
It was at this point that my friend walked in the door. “I see you are in the throes of ecstasy. I take it this has to do with the wench? You are to meet her at last?” I nodded happily and thrust the note in his hand. Even his deliberately provocative description of my angel did not bother me such was my joy. “ So. It seems you are indeed beyond reason. It is time we had a ‘father to son’ talk about matters of the heart. I take it you never had such a one with your father?” Looking at him in confusion, I shook my head. Hours later, I was reeling from an overflow of worldly information that landed me back on solid ground with a thud. My friend warned me to keep my head on my shoulder. First love, he said, is often infatuation and can be heady, leaving its victim demented. This, he told me, seemed to be my current state. I was outraged. As a grown man, I told him, I am well able to control myself in all situations. He looked at me quizzically, lifting his eyebrow and glancing at the note. I blushed. And listened to his words of wise counsel and wisdom. On his leaving, I was far more level headed and reasonable within myself. And fearful for the first time in my life of perhaps losing something precious which I did not yet possess. On the morrow I would need to leave very early to get there on time. I did not wish anyone to know my destination so had decided to walk. The cold morning air would serve to clear my head.
I arrived an hour early. Having noted that there was a Traveller’s Inn only a short walk away, I made my way there and ordered a hot breakfast and large cup of scalding tea to wash it down. To my surprise, I realised just how hungry I was. For the last week I had barely eaten. Having polished off every crumb, I paid for my fare and made my way to her residence.
With faltering steps, I walked to the front entrance. Hesitantly I lifted the brass knocker. The door opened at first knock. There she stood, my angel in the flesh. Even more radiant than I recalled her to be. With a delighted exclamation of welcome, she ushered me into the drawing room where breakfast had been laid. Blushing, she said she had hoped I would be able to come. She had prepared the breakfast with her own hands so as not to jinx her wishes. “And look,” she said with a big smile,” here you are!” Despite having just eaten a hefty breakfast, I devoured the heavenly feast with relish.
I will not bore you with further details of our meetings. There were many to follow. Each more delightful than the last. Each time I found myself to be more deeply enarmoured of her. And she of me. It was not six months before we were betrothed. Another two, we were married. I have joined mankind in that blissful state of matrimony. I could not be happier.
On a final note, my friend, on meeting the wench for the first time, whispered to me, “You understated her charms my friend. She is not just an angel, she is a goddess!”
© Raili Tanska, February 2015