The two women stepped over the grimy threshold and slipped out of their wrinkled traveling cloaks. The older of the two sniffed the air, detecting the ancient dust and dankness of a house left too long untenanted.
“Well, Amelie, a depressing end to a miserable voyage!”
The younger did not reply. Instead she walked to the tattered curtains in the window and pulled them back. The spring sunshine created a glow on her young face; she was little more than twenty, and on her mass of dark hair and warm brown eyes.
“I know Mama, but it will not take us long to make the house quite comfortable, and at least we have our own home now.”
“You should not be here” Mary Ellison muttered. “You could have stayed in France.”
Amelie turned. “No!” she said, her soft accent making her nationality obvious. “I chose to come with you. This will be my home now!”
“I came to this house as a bride”, her mother-in-law mused, hardly hearing her. “I never expected to return to it a widow, or to leave my husband and son in a French cemetery.” She covered her face and began to sob bitterly. Amelie drew the dustsheet from one of the chairs, guided her onto it and comforted her. She would take care of the house later.
A stocky gentleman, hat and gloves in hand, tapped at the door of Clover Cottage. “Mr Branscombe, How good of you to call.” Amelie returned his warm smile and stepped back, “Will you not come in?”
“Thank you Madam. I trust you and Mrs Ellison are both in good health?” He stopped and surveyed the inviting room. Although he had visited several times since the two widowed ladies had returned from France, he was struck anew at the transformation of this once drab cottage. Where dust and mildew had formerly reigned, there were flowers in vases and the warm memory of the beeswax and turpentine polish that had made the old furniture glow. Fresh yet inexpensive curtains framed the sparkling windows. The house resonated with love and care.
“Indeed, we are well. Please take a seat, I will bring tea.”
When Amelie returned, Mr Branscombe took a cup of tea gratefully and glanced over at the corner work-table.
“You are making a gown, Mrs Ellison. I assume it is not for yourself?” The brilliance of the unfinished gown’s azure hue was an acute contrast to Amelie’s sombre mourning.
“No sir,” Amelie set down her cup. “Mrs Patterson, the local seamstress contracts out some of her sewing to me. Frenchwomen are noted for their needlework as you know and it helps to supplement our income.”
“I understood that you taught young ladies French?”
“I do sir, and I enjoy it very much, although I have few students as yet.”
“I honour you Mrs Ellison, for your goodness to your Mama-in-law.” He smiled and Amelie saw the warmth and admiration in his plain features. She ducked her head.
The kitchen door banged and Mrs Mary Ellison entered the room. She accepted a cup from her daughter-in-law and noted her pink cheeks while Mr Branscombe skillfully turned the conversation to other matters. He made a mental note to find a few new clients for the young Mrs Ellison.
“You should embroider some slippers for Mr Branscombe, my dear,” Mary Ellison murmured adding wood to the fire against the November chill. “They would be an excellent Christmas gift, and he has done so much for us these past months.”
“I have begun some, Mama,” the other Mrs Ellison replied softly.
Mary Ellison smiled.
“Please allow me to thank you, ladies for your very kind gift.”
“Not at all, Sir.” Mrs Mary Ellison replied. “You have shown us so much kindness, and have been so helpful, both with finding students for Amelie and then helping us put all our affairs in order. We have been overwhelmed with your goodness.”
Mr Branscombe disclaimed any excessive benevolence and, after some idle smalltalk, Mrs Ellison rose.
“Would you care to sample some of our Christmas cake, Mr Branscombe?”
“That would be very kind of you, madam,” he replied. She caught his eye and a complicit understanding passed between them. She left the room with a knowing smile.
An echoing hush fell. After a moment, Mr Branscombe rose, crossed the room and, sitting beside Amelie, silently took her hand. She gave a little start and looked up into his face.
“Mrs Ellison, ” he began, “Amelie. I have long known of your kindness to your Mama-in-law; how you left your people and your home in France to come home with her. How you have cared for her and done so much to ease her sorrow ever since. I have long esteemed you as a good, generous and loving woman. But now I must tell you that admiration is the least of my sentiments concerning you.”
He paused. There was no sound save the coals shifting in the grate. She seemed to be scarcely breathing. “I love you, Amelie. Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
“Sir,” Amelie lowered her eyelashes and a delicate rose blush warmed her cheeks. “I had not thought to marry again.”
“I realize I have little to offer,” murmured Mr Branscombe, “I was never handsome, and I will not see forty again but…”
“Oh no Gerald!” Amelie interjected warmly, “It is not that, but, I could not leave my Mama in law.”
“Oh Amelie, I would not ask it.” He paused. “Can I hope then that you will marry me?”
His heart swelled as he saw her nod, then he bent and kissed his fiancée on the back of one little hand, and then the other.
“My dear, the kindness you showed in caring so well for your Mama is nothing to the kindness you have done me today.” He kissed her again.
“Adorable Amelie, may our dear Lord reward you as you deserve. Today you have made me the happiest of men.”
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