The smile she gave him when he stepped inside told him that Lili had not come prowling in search of her yet.

Alred had spent enough time staring at Margaret’s sleeping body that he was greatly relieved to find Hetty still reading in his study. The smile she gave him when he stepped inside told him that Lili had not come prowling in search of her yet.

And he was relieved to see it was that same sweet smile, that innocent smile – though he knew he would never again see it after this night.

He did not remember the last time a lady had smiled upon him so. Matilda must have transferred those smiles to Leofric long before she had died. Certainly she had stopped giving them to her husband.

Nor did he know when or whether a lady would ever smile on him with love again.

Nor did he know when or whether a lady would ever smile on him with love again.

But he could not allow Lili to tell her. He did fear that it would be humiliating for her to learn that he had known all this while, but his long scrutiny of his daughter’s sleeping face had reminded him how generous, open-​​hearted innocence looked on a girl, and he did not think he had ever seen it on Lili.

He feared that Lili’s explanation would be subtly more humiliating, even if she did not mention him. He feared that Lili would make her sister understand that not only had Alred never loved her, but also that Alred never could have.

“Still reading?” he asked.

“Yes, though if you want your room, I was about to go to bed.”

'I was about to go to bed.'

“I only want my room if you will stay in it a while.”

She smiled, but she was shy enough that she had to turn her face away. “I like this room,” she said. “It is so quiet and comfortable and booky.”

“Booky?” he grinned.

“Is that wrong English?”

“It is wrong English and right poetry.”

“I thought… ‘noisy’ means having a lot of noise…”

“And so ‘booky’ must mean having a lot of books. It is a fine word. But I also think the room is a little ‘darky’ tonight. Can you see to read? You may sit at my table, you know.”

'You may sit at my table, you know.'

“I can see well enough here, though the fire has been growing dim.”

“We shall see about that,” he said and went to stir it up.

“Don’t add any wood,” she pleaded. “I shan’t stay long.”

“As you wish.” He poked the fire into a brief brightness again, though it seemed his courage was only being consumed by the delay.

'I hope you will stay a moment with me.'

“I hope you will stay a moment with me,” he said gently when he came to sit beside her. “There is something I should have told you long ago, and I fear I shall have only hurt you by waiting so long. But I am a coward at heart. I hope you will forgive me for that, and for what I am about to say.”

He watched as a slow blush spread from her cheeks up across her temples, and down her neck, and over her breast and shoulders. She was indeed as pale as a moon, and as long as she lived her fair skin would show every rise and ebb of the tides of blood beneath it. For so shy a lady, he thought, this transparency of feeling must be an excruciating vulnerability.

She did not turn her face away from him.

But she did not turn her face away from him, and this – and the little smile that quivered in the corners of her mouth – showed him that she trusted him even with her vulnerability, and also that she thought she knew what he was about to say.

He too had loved and trusted like that before, or tried. Matilda had tired of it, perhaps, and put his love and trust aside; and Lili had valued it so little that she had simply mislaid and forgotten it.

The remarkable thing was that Hetty had found it, and recognized it for what it was, and kept it carefully all this time. She had never questioned him; never pouted that he did not come more often to see her; and had never sulked because he had missed her birthday, though Egelric had scolded him loudly and long for it.

He could not see from whence the fragile girl drew the serenity that was her strength. Perhaps it was the lingering traces of the peace of her studious girlhood, spent working her way through stacks of books like a modest little caterpillar on its diet of leaves. Perhaps it had been hidden away, asleep inside herself, through the few dark years she had spent with a husband whom Alred had come to believe rather cruel. Now the innocent, deep-​​dreaming girl could come out again, but as a butterfly, granted wings for a while.

Or so it seemed to him, who was about to crush them.

Or so it seemed to him, who was about to crush them.

“First,” he said slowly, “I wish to tell you that you are a remarkable, charming, clever, beautiful, and very sweet, very gentle woman. You are worthy of great love, great happiness, and even great poetry.”

There must have been something mournful in his voice, or perhaps in his face. His voice sounded like another man’s to him, and he could not see himself in her eyes because the fire was behind him and his face was all in shadow.

Then she let them fall.

He only saw a shower of sparks reflected in them for a moment as the brittle embers collapsed, and then she let them fall.

He thought she was beginning to think he would tell her he had erred. She could not yet imagine that she was the one who had made a mistake.

'I'm afraid there's been...'

“But I’m afraid there’s been…” he began.

She closed her eyes and turned away her face that had grown suddenly pale.

She closed her eyes and turned away her face that had grown suddenly pale.

At the sight of that white cheek, Alred realized at once that there had indeed been a mistake. The girls’ parents had got their names all wrong. Lili could have been called for any number of other flowers: Marigold, Daisy, Poppy, Rose. The true lily was the sweet, shy lady before him. It was no wonder he had delivered his poem to the wrong person, if their names had been switched.

“I’m afraid I can only promise you one of those things,” he said, “though I shall do my best to provide one other.”

She opened her eyes and turned her face to him again, and the pale pink that had begun to well up beneath her skin was more beauty than he could bear. He leaned closer to her and stroked the backs of his fingers over her blushing cheek.

He leaned closer to her and stroked the backs of his fingers over her blushing cheek.

“I can promise you great love,” he said softly. “And I shall dedicate the rest of my life to trying to offer you great happiness. But the great poetry is beyond me, though I shall probably also spend the rest of my life trying.”

She had been leaning slowly towards him as he spoke, but at the mention of poetry she had shrunk away from him again. Had she guessed that there was something not quite right about that poem? Had Lili told her after all? And had she cared so little for him that she had continued smiling?

“If you will permit me to try, of course,” he said quickly. He dropped his hand and passed his arm behind her back so she could not pull farther away from him. He could not bear to lose her now.

But her arm came up easily and settled over his shoulder, and she allowed him to pull her very close.

She allowed him to pull her very close.

“But I am already greatly happy,” she murmured, “and I love your poetry.”

Her German accent was very strong in her agitation, and he was beginning to see why Cenwulf always became sentimental whenever Edris grew excited and replaced her th’s with t’s. Lili had a sort of universal accent that she applied to any language she spoke, including her own, and which belonged to no country. Lili was also too proud to say “luff” in place of “love,” for which Alred rather pitied Egelric. It meant she might not dare say it as spontaneously as she ought.

“Then I shall continue writing it,” he said, “and it will at least contribute to your happiness even if it never becomes great.”

'Then I shall continue writing it.'

“But, Alred,” she said mournfully, “I think you will believe I do not love it, and I think you will be angry if I tell you what I did.”

“I don’t see how you could make me angry, but if it pleases you to try, you may proceed.”

“I lost your poem that you wrote for me last summer. I keep it in my Psalter, and I read it every Saturday before I read my Psalms. But the first Saturday we are here, I read it, and since then I cannot find it again.”

'Since then I can not find it again.'


“I remember it all,” she said quickly, “but I like to read it. And I am sorry. I did love it very much, and it did make me greatly happy. And to feel greatly loved.”

“Hetty, let us forget about that poem,” he sighed and pulled her very, very close. “I shall write you many more.”

'Hetty, let us forget about that poem.'