Abingdon, Berkshire, England
They’d made a very good start, George and Ellen. They were quite taken by each other in the beginning. At Abingdon’s edge he was the purveyor of milk to doors of the wealthy who lived on Marcham Road. Tall, George Henry Argyle was, handsome and lean. Latent mischief sat in his eyes. A certain confidence rode in his gait.
Ellen Sessions was the maid who answered at one of those doors. Her small, rounded figure did not escape George’s notice. Although she felt ever so giddy upon opening the door to him, she ever kept a tight rein on her normally proper self.
Master of the house was Mr. Bromley Challoner, a lawyer. Ellen and sister Eliza were in Mr. Challoner’s employ there. In fact, they lived there. Ellen had held her position from the age of fourteen, as both maid and children’s nurse. The sisters were from a pretty Berkshire town further along the road named Wantage. History tells that Alfred the Great once lived in Wantage.
Ellen knew her place. She was merely a domestic, a children’s nurse who had learned to be deferential. Domestic service was considered acceptable employment on her rung of the social ladder. Factory work was no alternative at all, being very low class. She earned an insignificant salary but received room and board for her long hours of toil. Thus, no financial strain in her behalf weighed on her impoverished parents living back in Wantage.
It carried on for months, the same polite and rigid conversation, repeated twice daily at the servants’ door. Good morning, Mr. Argyle. Good morning, ma’am. Here you are, then: two quarts of milk and a jill of cream. Thank you, sir. Shall I see you on afternoon rounds, then, Miss Sessions? Yes, I shall still be here. Very well, ‘til then, ma’am. Good day. Good day.
And then, one idyllic June day when pale pink hedge roses bloomed through cracks in old walls, romance simply had to begin. Mr. Argyle would no longer be satisfied with simple dairy vocabulary and he, finally, said something new. All Ellen had said was Cook needs extra butter today, sir. A pound’s enough, I expect. Then a pound it shall be, he replied. With smile widened he returned to his cart and fairly bounded back. Here you are, then, ma’am, one pound of butter as ordered. Oh, yes, it’s as fresh as fresh can be. He was not at all ready to close the transaction but rather, seemed elated and on the verge of something terribly important. Ellen wondered whatever could be the matter. When his hands were relieved of the butter he removed his hat and looked down to Ellen, all apron-covered. A rush of words erupted. Miss Sessions, ….. I’ve held a rather nagging thought lately. You see, it occurred to me that, gracious, I see you more than I see my own sisters working such long hours as I do Since I call them by their Christian names surely I can call you by yours may I be so bold as to ask your Christian name?
Ellen was so taken aback that she hiccupped. Ellen, she then said. George quieted right down and paused as if to consider the name Ellen. … Ellen? … I see. Ellen. Well, then, would it be acceptable if I abandoned the formality of ‘Miss Sessions’? Yes, it would be acceptable, Ellen said. She replied so fast upon his question that she clipped off the last syllable of her surname when he spoke it. He said Sess and she said yes, the combination creating an apparently new word in the English language: Sessyes. The two laughed together and right away realized their first enjoined intimacy had taken place; it felt very good and yet they withdrew a little, in the same instant embarrassed. Ellen had been waiting eons for the moment. Yes? asked George. It is acceptable? Wonderful! I mean, very good. Until tomorrow then, ….. Ellen … His expression lit up in the saying of her simple and ancient name. Yes, Mr. Argyle. Tomorrow. Perhaps you will call me George he said as he put his hat back on. Oh, the highest wave of excitement had not waned after all and it was with forced calmness that she spoke. Yes, all right then … As George again walked the path to his cart Ellen quietly uttered his name. Ever so quietly; he mustn’t hear; a lady daren’t be overzealous. George did hear her, though, as the red nape of his neck indicated. It said I hear you, oh yes, I hear you very clearly. Ellen backed into the house and closed the door so that she could smile and let herself feel joy. Until the morn when he would return with milk. Absently she put her hand to her bosom. How her heart fluttered.
It was Bonfire Night. In the grey dusk of the November evening Ellen and George came upon one another in the market place. Ellen was not much surprised. The entire town seemed to appear at the market place annually for the event. George tipped his hat lightly in greeting.
“Well, I see you’ve come to watch the bonfire too, Ellen.”
“Yes, George, with my sister.” She now found it easy to speak his name.
“There is Eliza, just coming through under the arch of the County Hall, beside that corner pillar. Yes, we, both, were given a little time from the manse. The Challoners wished to bring their children themselves.”
Master and mistress of the house were reasonable when reason was to their advantage. This being such an occasion, Ellen benefitted. As a rule, one half-day to herself of a week was the sum of her leisure.
George held a peeling chair rung in his hand. “This is my contribution to the fire,” he said, holding it up for inspection and snickering. Ellen, certainly, did not detect the humour in his explanation.
“Mother and Father didn’t have much to give away,” he said. “Not much goes to waste in our home.
“I see your hands are empty. Is your donation already atop the pyre?”
“Yes, helping out my employers, I was. I toted some old upholstered materials.”
Ellen had taken many rests between the Challoner home and the site of the bonfire. It was a considerable distance and the sack which she moved from shoulder to shoulder was a heavy burden indeed.
“The Challoners,” she said, “brought old papers, a great quantity of them, coming by carriage, of course.”
“Will you walk home with your sister?” George asked.
“Yes, she said, “She will meet me after the excitement is done, close by the County Hall.”
“Then,” said George, “We three shall walk back to the Challoners’ together.”
It was, in the same moment, too generous an offer and one which Ellen found most comforting and exciting. “Goodness!” she offered, “It will make you very late getting home.”
“Never you mind, Ellen. I shall handle it. Unless you don’t wish my company, of course. I do not wish to impose.” George was playfully twisting his full, dark moustache.
“Oh, goodness, no,” Ellen replied.
“No? You do not want my company, then?” He pulled his hat down a little further on his head, said he regretted she felt that way, turned on his heels and with the chair leg tucked under his arm like a battered walking cane, began to leave although ever so slowly.
Ellen stepped quickly towards him calling out, “Oh, no, I meant it the other way! I meant that I do want, I should say, it’s quite fine if you come with us.”
At which point the two laughed. It was in his eyes where one best detected playfulness. His eyes betrayed him no matter what emotion he might be feeling.
“Oh, well, then, I’ll stay.”
George then leaned down to encircle her waist without actually touching it, guiding her towards the fire, as if to demonstrate she was not quite but was very nearly, his. She was not his, at least, not in any official way. One day, perhaps, they would be able to marry but not until he could support a wife and family and certainly not until he won her father’s permission for them to marry. Oh, and definitely not before he proposed marriage to her. Goodness. Cart before the horse, as it is said.
In towns across England Bonfire Night had taken place for hundreds of years. It celebrated the unsuccessful attempt of the Catholic Guy Fawkes, to burn down the Houses of Parliament in London. The event created Abingdon’s most exciting event of the year.
‘Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!’
The distant chanting of a small band of instigators about to enter the Square demanded everyone go to the fire for a known purpose. The feverish, noisy spectators began to chant as well. All knew the words, George and Ellen included.
‘Guy Fawkes, Guy, t’was his intent
To blow up king and parliament.
Three score barrels were laid below
To prove old England’s overthrow.’
The square filled to overflowing, all but a lane left for the arriiving gang who must carry out their task momentarily.
Ellen marveled annually at Guy Fawkes’ treasonous act. This once respected citizen had suffered cruel treatment at the behest of KIng James the First because he was a Papist, a Catholic, and King James was not. James was Church of England. All Papists suffered under him. She had little knowledge of history and perhaps less interest but she had sympathy for his complaint. It did seem to her that people should have been treated equally in matters of religion no matter how long ago. However, she was not sorry that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled and King James saved.
George took advantage of the parted throng and approached the fire. He flung his chair leg atop the pile but withdrew in haste, repelled by the astonishing heat. The ring of revellers was several yards distant from the inferno. Flames raged and imprinted heat on faces but backs felt the cold, damp night air. George and Ellen huddled together shoulder to shoulder. This stance pleased them more than the event itself which was, it could not be denied, the town’s event of the year with respect to bonfires and to excitement. Perhaps it contributed to their personal excitement.
Suddenly, it happened. Coming forward, held high on a long stick was an Guy Fawkes in effigy wearing a tall and wide-brimmed hat and a belted Richardet with a very wide collar in the fashion of his times. The figure would be burned. Older boys surged forward. To Ellen it almost seemed that a real man was being herded towards his end. She shuddered. She could not sing the last verse. George merely mouthed it.
‘By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match.
So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.
And what shall we do with him?
The helpless puppet was flung onto the wildly crackling heap.
Thought Ellen, the poor man was not burned. Was he not hanged, drawn and quartered? And also, what was it all about, really, more than two centuries later?
With all that excitement done George had a question.
“Shall we walk by the river for a few minutes before getting on our way?”
It was a short distance to the ancient bridge over the Thames, just beyond the Square, on the other side of the County Hall. They passed the lamplighter who went about his business, using a lit rod to ignite the wicks of the street lanterns. On the ancient bridge it was quiet and a pair of black and white little tufted ducks plied water as they passed under the bridge to the other side. The
night was brighter there. The open door of the Nag’s Head Inn could be seen. Loud activity on the inside sounded very loud on the outside as well.
He put his back to the cacaphony and turned to the quiet Ellen who was much preferred company by far. The two were almost nudged against each other, close enough to gain a slight degree of warmth, warmth of the emotional kind which passes between a woman and a man. Ellen actually felt the boniness of George’s elbow through his coat sleeve. It was the first time she had ever felt any part of his body. She held as still as he and savoured the moment.
The ducks disappeared beyond a bending, blackening willow tree. The dairyman and the maid must rise early on the morrow to meet the daily expectations of their employers. Eliza must be found at the County Hall.
She was and the threesome departed the Square.
On return Eliza, good and observant sister that she was, said, “I shall find out the time for you” and hurried to open the door and pass through it. She returned before George could step forward and pat Ellen’s shoulder.
“Our curfew has passed,” she said and she entered the house again, closing the door behind her.
The walk had taken rather longer than anyone had expected. Ellen turned to George. He stood with his hands out as if he were pleading. She pulled with
agitation on her shawl.
“I am so sorry,” he said. “I thought we walked apace and I hoped for just a minute or two with you here in the garden.” His voice echoed with dismay. “But you must obey the curfew.”
“Yes, I must, “ she said with equal chagrin.
“Goodnight, dear girl.” He took Ellen’s hand and laid upon it a kiss so unanticipated, so tender and so disarming that she wished never to be released. She summoned every ounce of strength to break away. She watched George as he repositioned his hat, turned around and walked toward the road, all movement performed with hesitation.
Ellen’s dour expression when she stepped into their bedroom did not escape Eliza. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I see you cherish George! Well, then, I expect you can cheat for a bit. The Challoners are busy with the children. They are settling them for the night. Go, then. Take a few minutes in the garden whilst you can.”
“We did say goodnight,” said Ellen who was already running along the corridor to the door. “He has gone by now, no doubt.”
But, no. There he was! Out beyond the hedge in front of the gate. He had tarried. It was a bold thing which Ellen then did. She approached him. He opened the gate and rushed to her. Now, he took both hands in his and kissed them, fingers and all, over and over, as if they were candy. Ellen had never felt such a warmth, never known her body to throb so. She untangled their hands and clasped hers over his. Neither spoke. They could scarcely look upon one other.
George made a request. The gentleness of his nature tempered the urgency in his deep, resonant voice.
“Please, may I put my arms around you?”
Perhaps he was certain of an affirmative response, for in the midst of posing the question he did that very thing. Ever so gently and slowly, as if she were a delicate flower he wrapped his arms about her. She did not back away. He bent down until his cheek met hers. Her arms reached around his coat to encircle his lean waist. Just touching him, not clasping. They stood as one. Stood still. Stood there and stood there. Ellen’s entire being ached from the power of this delicate and gentle familiarity. Still stood. Stood until a creak signalled that the door was opening. Eliza. With reluctance the two magnets pulled apart, drew back, drew away until fingertips alone touched. Neither smiled. Ellen backed her way to the door. Tears began to fall. Oh, but she was miserable in her joy.