The Knights of the Round Table

by Kadorienne
Email: moggy at belladonna.org

I heard a creak and glanced around quickly. Light was coming through a half-open door. Perhaps a candle had been left lit. I moved to the door and opened it.

"Oh!"

But soft! What light the yonder window breaks?

It was not a candle, but a fire in the hearth, and before it, her. The young lady of the house, quickly closing a book as she turned to look at me.

Her fingers and her lips had burned my cheeks, but that was nothing compared to the fire I now felt. It tore through me like a bolt of lightning.

She was wearing only a thin nightdress and a dressing gown wrapped snugly around her, following the contours of her form. Her golden hair was bound into a braid, bringing out the catlike shape of her lovely face; a few curling tendrils escaped. Her large eyes were as dark as the shadows in the corners of the room and as warm as the fire in the grate. I tore my eyes away from the neckline of her gown; the fabric, and the flesh beneath it, had to be very soft….

My God. I was going to have to marry her.

I heard my own voice. "Pardon my intrusion. I saw a light."

I had better get out of there before I insulted my host’s daughter. I was surprised at myself; I was not given to such feelings, such forbidden thoughts. Never had I felt anything like the fire that was coursing through my veins, warming my cheeks.

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face, else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek….

I was retreating through the door when her voice stopped me.

"It is no intrusion. I come here to read when I am wakeful."

I paused, and then, contrary to every bit of wise advice my rational mind was giving me, entered the room. I had never spoken to a lady who was dressed for sleep before, yet it felt strangely natural to be here with her, I in my shirtsleeves and vest, she in her dressing gown. If we were married, I thought, if she were my wife, I could see her, like this, at any time. The thought of simply having her presence always there was as alluring as the thought of going to sit beside her and encircling her with my arms….

Say something, Crane. Don’t stand there like a dolt.

She was tucking her book under the cushions of the sofa. "To read books which you must hide?" I asked. I think my tone was faintly scolding, as if I had a right to reproach her for reading improper material. But I felt as if I did have such a right.

She promptly put me in my place. "They were my mother’s books," she informed me firmly. I suspected this was her late mother’s stern tone, the one she used when putting her foot down. I caught the implied rebuke, for having suspected her of impropriety. "My father believes tales of romance cause the brain fever that killed my mother." A shadow crossed her lovely face. "She died two years ago come midwinter."

For a few seconds, thoughts of following up that kiss on account were dispelled. She and I shared that bereavement. I nodded sympathetically. "I saw it written in the front of the Bible."

"The nurse who cared for her during her sickness is now Lady Van Tassel."

She was looking right into my eyes, as if she could read my very soul.

Once again I heard my own voice, bringing up something that had caught my attention earlier, while my mind was quite elsewhere. "There was something else, too. Why did no one think to mention that the Van Garretts are kith and kin to the Van Tassels?"

She looked surprised. She was so very beautiful. Without my willing them to, my eyes moved over her, from her throat to the cleft at her neckline, on to the skirt of her nightdress – I thought I could, very faintly, discern the outlines of her legs – I dragged my eyes back to her face.

What’s gotten into you, Crane?

"Why, because there is hardly a household in Sleepy Hollow that is not connected to every other by blood or marriage."

Marriage.

Why had she said that word? I felt myself flushing again. My eyes met hers and I almost thought that she would know and accept my proposal in that meeting of gazes.

I had never truly thought of it, had without reflecting expected to end my days a bachelor. But now I knew that marriage, to this exquisite, daunting woman, was exactly what I wanted. And what I would have, or die trying.

Her voice was continuing. "I have more cousins than fingers and toes to count them on."

Involuntarily, my gaze went to her soft little hands folded on her lap and then to her feet. She was wearing slippers, of course, but her ankles were quite bare, very slender, the skin fair.

"I see," I managed in a strangled voice.

Abruptly I turned and went to the window. If I continued to stand there before her, the direction of my thoughts would become only too obvious. Already I felt that they were written on my face as clear as day, that my mind was shouting them loudly enough for all Sleepy Hollow to hear.

I looked out at the darkness, at the first pale light of dawn. It was colder here, away from the fire. The cool air was a relief, clearing my head a bit.

There was nothing for it. I was going to have to propose to her. The thought terrified me more than that of chasing a brutal murderer through supposedly haunted woods. But I had no choice but to try. And she would refuse me, and marry that valiant oaf, who was only brave because he was too obtuse to be otherwise.

I was going to have to find a way to compose myself. Already I was shaking like a leaf. If I lost control, if I did what I wanted to do more than anything in the world at that moment, I would destroy my chances, such as they were. She was a lady, so much was evident as much in her demeanour as in her fine clothes and rich house. And that thought plunged me abruptly from the fires of yearning to the depths of despair, because I could see quite plainly that she was as far above me as an Empress. She was wealthy and beautiful and had a dozen admirers, one in particular who had already given me a clear enough warning – what could she want with a penniless constable obsessed with techniques no one wanted to hear about?

How could I win her? What could possibly induce her to marry me?

I would have to find a way. Somehow, I would prove to her what seemed absurd and yet was obvious enough to me, that she belonged to me already, that a wedding would be a mere formality, setting the seal of approval on a state of affairs intended since the stars were young….

I heard her soft steps, and she came to lean against the window frame beside me. Her expression was serene, as if it never occurred to her that this meeting was not altogether seemly. She was too innocent to realize that some men would take advantage of such a situation. Fortunate for her that it was I, who would not.

I would not.

I would not.

But I could not stop my eyes from taking her in once more before staring firmly out the window again.

"This land we’re looking at," she said, "was Van Garrett land, given to my father when I was in swaddling clothes. The Van Garretts were the richest family round these parts. When my father brought us to Sleepy Hollow, Van Garrett set him up with an acre and a broken down cottage. My father worked hard for his family, and prospered, and built this house, and I owe my happiness to him." She smiled suddenly, lowering her eyes at a memory. "I remember living poor in the cottage."

Then she had not always been wealthy. She had been old enough at least to remember what a simpler life had been. But would she be willing to return to it?

She was scarcely a foot away. If I took one step, I could hold her. From there, it would be quite natural for our lips to meet, and for her slender form to press against mine….

I clamped my jaw. I had to stop those thoughts, or before I knew it I would have acted upon them, and she would grow quite justly angry, and I would find myself banished from the house and forced to concede the field to that thuggish blacksmith.

Her eyes suddenly met mine. "Should I show you?"

I forced myself to think about what she had said. "Yes. I would like to see where you were as poor as I am." Perhaps the sight would give me hope for my audacious suit.

Without warning, she partially opened her dressing gown, letting it fall away from her.

Don’t faint. Not in front of her. Don’t faint don’t faint don’t faint….

She reached for a pocket on the inside of her robe and removed a small blue book which she extended to me. "Take this. It is my gift for you."

I managed a deep breath and knew I was going to keep my feet. I glanced at the cover of the book, and once more my spirits were plunged into the blackest abyss. A Compendium of Spells, Charms and Devices of the Spirit World. She and I were worlds apart, centuries apart.

I kept my hands clasped behind my back. "No, I have no use for it," I mumbled, too disappointed to be courteous.

Her eyes narrowed slightly. She did not seem even slightly daunted at my obstinance. With grudging respect, I realized that she had the courage of her absurd convictions.

"Are you so certain of everything?"

No. I was not certain of anything, except that she belonged at my side, always. I was definitely not certain of what I most desperately needed to know, how to win her.

Swallowing, I dared a glance at her and slowly took the book. I would have accepted a vial of poison from her hand. I opened it and saw her name written on the front page, below another.

My throat constricted. "It was your mother's!"

"Keep it close to your heart. It is sure protection against harm."

Our eyes met again. She cared, at least enough to give me something that had belonged to her late mother – I knew how precious a gift that was. And she was trying to help me, foolish as her methods were. She was not completely indifferent to me. My hand tightened on the book. It had suddenly become more precious to me than anything on earth could have been.

And perhaps just a bit of doubt had entered her mind, that her childhood sweetheart was perhaps not the man for her….

"Are you so certain of everything?" I asked in turn, hoping to plant some of that doubt in her mind if it was not already there. In response, a lovely smile bloomed on her face, just as the first pink stained the sky.

It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!

 

 

Fiction
Sleepy Hollow