In honour of Valentine’s Day, here is a short story about my new hero, Edward Gardiner, as he returns home after three years away from England. Although he is carrying with him a slightly bruised heart, he will discover—and in the strangest way too—that something wonderful lies in wait.
A Heart Ready for Love
Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia, 1796
Edward stood on the deck of the ship, watching the shoreline slip away into the mists. He had spent three years on these shores, and had come to think of them as home, no matter that his parents, childhood friends, and future all lay in London, nearly three thousand miles distant. He had left England as little more than a lad of nineteen summers; he would return a man with the education and experience that would allow him to take over the management of his father’s business.
He had not returned home during the three years he had spent in Nova Scotia. The ocean voyage was both long and variable in duration—for the speed of the ship was determined by the whims of nature and not the doings of man—and costly. Indeed, whilst his family was more than comfortable by any standards in England, with a fine house in London, a full carriage and team of horses in the stables, and a thriving business, that wealth had not been accumulated by needless spending. Such a journey, across the vast and cold Atlantic, for the sake of a few days or perhaps a week with his parents, was a luxury to be laughed at rather than sought. Likewise, his parents could not visit him in Nova Scotia, for his father had the business to mind, and he could not be absent for several months at a time. And so, at last, he was returning home, to the family he had not seen in more than three years.
It was only due to a kind offer by one of Edward’s father’s old friends that he had even been offered the chance to travel and study in that far-flung colony. Not quite of the social class for Oxford or Cambridge, despite the family’s comfortable income, Edward had begun to look abroad for his education. He had thought about Scotland, or even Germany during these uneasy years of unrest on the Continent, and had all but decided on a journey to Edinburgh, but for some reason felt unhappy with this choice. Then Mr. Yarrow had come to pay a visit. After dinner, when Edward’s problems had been explained, he sat up in his chair and announced, “By gum, but I have the answer!
“I have business interests in the provinces—in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, in the New World. I have, for some time, been engaged in buying and exporting timber and fur, to ship to England, and I spent five years there when you were a lad. My lady wife and children needed me at home, however, and so I obliged them. Before I departed, I set up my business and engaged a man there—Glenn by name—to work my interests from that side of the ocean. He often writes to request an assistant for some few weeks at a time when the work is heavy, although he admits that there is not enough call for a permanent underling. He has his offices in Halifax, which is the capital of Nova Scotia, and which is a short fifty miles from the new college there. The school is good and well-stocked with Loyalists from the southern colonies. I shall write to the college to secure your admission, and then inform Glenn that you will be his new assistant during your term breaks. You, in turn, shall both earn your degree and learn what it takes to manage the export side of the trade. This will make you more knowledgeable and competent once you return to the import end of the business.”
The offer was too good to refuse, and before long the appropriate inquiries had been made and terms accepted, and Edward found himself setting off on a grand adventure, the likes of which he had never considered possible.
The situation was exactly as he had expected. The college was very new but boasted excellent teachers and intelligent and hard-working students; likewise, Mr. Yarrow’s manager was a pleasant man for whom to work, and who trusted Edward with more and more responsibilities over the years until he had a thorough and extensive background in the supply end of a shipping and import business. With every letter home, Edward thanked his parents and Mr. Yarrow for this opportunity, and elucidated his father as to what new experiences and knowledge he had most recently gained in the course of his work, and which would give him a set of skills to take his family’s business into the future.
Three years had passed in the wink of an eye. And now, at last, he was on his way home.
Edward carried with him more than a first-rate education and a wealth of experience in shipping and exports, however. He also carried with him a slightly wounded heart.
It was not broken. For that, he knew he would have to have given it fully to another, and in truth, he had never done more than lend it for a while. Janet Rush had been the daughter of one of the burghers of Windsor, where King’s College lay, from a good family of unremarkable heritage. She was bright and open in nature, pretty in a fresh summery way, and generous with her affections. She had taken a liking to Edward, and he to her, and they had spent much of the three years of Edward’s sojourn in the colony in each other’s company. Societal strictures were looser in the colonies than in England, and more so amongst the farmers and merchants who made up so much of the society in which Edward now moved. Although Janet had her own personal notions of propriety and activities in which a young unmarried woman ought to engage, Edward had been the happy recipient of more than a few kisses behind closed doors during the length of their acquaintance.
But he—and she—had known that this was no grand amour, no attachment to last past the end of Edward’s stay in the colony, and thus it was that as he saw the end to his degree approach, so did he see her begin to remove her affections from him and begin to attach them to another. As he had spent the final weeks of his residence in Nova Scotia in Halifax, helping Mr. Glenn with the last details of his apprenticeship, he had received news that Janet was now to marry his replacement. There were no tears, for this news was not unexpected, neither was it alarming. Still, a man cannot hold some affection for a young lady for so long and not be moved by her defection, and thus Edward permitted himself a long sulk. He would recover quickly, he knew, and likely with the next pretty face he saw, but for the moment he would wallow in half-hearted misery.
A sudden gust of wind brought Edward out of his musings and back onto the deck of the ship. The tides were strong and the wind brisk, and before long the ship cleared the narrow neck that protected Halifax Harbour and was out in the open ocean. Darkness was falling quickly. Wrapping his arms about himself to ward off the ocean chill, Edward ventured inside the body of the vessel, where he would dine with his fellow shipmates before taking himself off to his small bunk for the first in an interminable number of nights’ uneasy sleep.
When rest finally came, it was fitful. Edward was unaccustomed to the rocking of the ship on the swelling waves and his meal lay heavily in his gut. The company had not been unpleasant and he felt he might find more than one fellow passenger upon this vessel to suit his tastes in conversation, but he had been of little mind to be sociable. He regretted the memory of Janet more than her actual loss, but he had been sufficiently out of sorts that he had departed the cramped mess hall whilst his shipmates had lingered to take their brandy and break out the cards.
Now he lay on his hard bunk and tossed with every motion of the waves until at last his body succumbed to the rhythm and he slept. In his dreams, he saw England, as if he hovered above a large map. In that strange, disjointed manner which is so confounding upon waking, but so natural in the dream, he rose from his bunk on the ship and walked directly into his parents’ sitting room in their house in London.
“Oh, Edward, you are home. How nice.” His dream-father did not even glance up from his newspaper.
“Good morning, dear,” his mother waved in an offhanded manner. “Would you care to get me a cup of tea? The coffee is still hot. Cook has had it waiting for you since you left.”
His dream-self walked to the breakfast table and poured his mother her requested tea, and himself a cup of three-year-old coffee which was, as promised, still hot, and settled into a chair to take some bread and cheese.
“No, dear,” his mother scolded. “Those are not for you. They are for Janet. We know she will never come for them, but we must be polite and have food for our guests.” She clucked at her son and stood to leave. Her dress had changed to the simple farmwife’s frock from the lands around Windsor, rather than the elegant gowns of London. Her hair, too, was of a sudden pulled back into a rough twist at the back of her head, the carefully styled curls and elegant lace cap of a moment ago vanished. This, too, seemed perfectly natural in the dream. “I am off to visit the duchess,” she announced, then swept from the room, only to call from the doorway, “Save the scones for Janet.”
His father, suddenly in his banyan and slippers, put down the pipe he had not been holding a moment before, and yawned. The sitting room was now the bedroom, and Edward’s father was snoring contentedly in his bed. Careful not to waken the old man, Edward crept from the room and into the large loading docks at the back of his family’s warehouse in nearby Cheapside. A dray had just now been pulled to the open loading doors by two sturdy workhorses and a flurry of men from the warehouse were unloading the groaning cart, throwing the bolts of fabric in every which direction.
“Stop!” Edward yelled, but the workers affected not to have heard him. “Stop!” he shouted again. “Those are delicate muslins, have a care!” But his words fell heavily at his feet, and the workers heeded him not. “Stop, I say!” He tried a third time, but to no avail.
Then a small voice rang out from within the pile of textiles, whispering, “Stop.” And at once the men ceased their careless ways. The previously strewn bolts now lay in neat piles along one wall, waiting to be listed on the inventory sheets, their values totted up in the ledgers. The voice from the pile called out quietly, “Will somebody help me?”
Edward reached his hand toward the pile to seek the speaker, but the voice warned, “No, not you. Our time is over. I prefer him.” One of the workers turned to face Edward; he was the young student who had been his replacement in Janet’s heart, the man Janet was to marry. Edward felt no rancour towards him in this dream, but with a tranquil voice and a tranquil heart said, “Your lady needs you.” And Janet appeared before him as if she had not been lost in a heavy pile of fabric, gave a sweet curtsey and a pretty smile, and walked over to her new lover, whereupon they both vanished into the air.
“Should I be angry?” Dream-Edward asked the air. “Should I mope like a child and drown my sorrows in the rum the sailors drink upon this ship?” (For even in his strange dream, Edward was somehow cognizant of his real environment.) But there was no anger, no sense of loss or abandonment, nor even of mild loss. He had stepped aside and handed his erstwhile lady to her chosen husband and he felt no pain. He was satisfied that things were as they should be.
“You will always remember her well, and she you, and that is good.” This voice was that of a young woman, low and sweet, from somewhere behind him. He spun in his place, but no matter where he turned, the speaker was out of his view.
“Do not seek me yet, Edward,” the voice said. “It is not our time. You must have patience, for we shall meet soon enough.”
“Who are you?” He called out in his dream. “What are you?”
“I am one whom you do not know, nor who knows you. Do not seek me yet.”
“Are you a demon?”
The young woman laughed, the sound of gentle bells floating through the air. “My brother might think so, and some of my tutors, but only they.”
“Why do you come to me in a dream, to taunt my sleep with these cryptic remarks and strange comments?”
“This is your dream, Edward,” she replied from somewhere behind him, where he still could not see. “I do nothing. This is all your own thinking.”
And yet, in his dream state, he knew that she was, somehow, not of his making. His parents had been his phantasmal imaginations of them, quite unchanged despite the gap of years since last he saw them; Janet and her beau were no more real than the three-year-old pot of coffee he had held in his hands—he looked down to see he was holding it still. The warehouse was a construct from the wisps and threads of dream-stuff, as were the bolts of fabric that had now become the trunks of tall trees, a forest through which he walked until he came to a gurgling stream. But this voice… the owner of the voice…. These were real, external to his thoughts, independent of his existence.
“I know not who you are,” he told the sprite who vexed him so, “but one day I shall find you, and,” he realized with a sense of finality that both terrified and exhilarated him, “I shall marry you!”
The voice laughed its bell-like laugh and faded into nothingness, as did the dream.
Edward slept soundly and awoke several hours later with almost no recollection of the remarkable events that had occurred in his sleeping mind. He did, however, rise with a new sense about him. He had said his farewells to Janet and he truly wished her well. If he should ever chance to see her again, he would long to meet her husband as an old friend, with not a stitch of jealousy to mar his joy in seeing her happy. His wounded heart was quite healed, although he knew not how.
And he also knew that somewhere, somewhere in England, in an unknown place and at an unknown time, he would meet the owner of a sweet voice he scarcely remembered, and would and make her his bride. The future seemed to glow before him and he strode onto the deck of the ship to gaze into the blue skies and blue seas before him, his heart ready for true love.
Who is the mysterious lady whom Edward is destined to meet? Find out in The Apprentice, coming next month to your favourite bookseller! Sign up for my mailing list (I promise never to share my lists with anyone, and I won’t flood your mailbox) for details on the release date.
Here is the opening chapter of The Assistant.
The painting of the ship is of HMS Shannon leaving Halifax Harbour [Canada] 1823 by Thomas Luny. This is the view that Edward would have enjoyed as he set sail back to England.