It was an odd sort of day, in spite of the predictable late August weather. As always in this corner of northwestern Georgia, it was hotter than blue blazes and so humid that even the rambunctious new puppy was panting on the front porch, his chin drooping half in the fresh bowl of water that Camilla had just put down. The late afternoon skies held out the familiar false hope that this time the storm would cool things off a bit. They grew ominously dark, in anticipation of the first peals of thunder, the flash of lightning that startled Camilla every time, even though she’d grown up with it every summer for fourteen years, and finally the downpour that, for the few minutes it lasted, felt like it would drown the world and save them all.
“I suppose Father will be going out with the rest of the post.”
Camilla was angling to find out not just whether her father was about to leave for his afternoon round of delivering the mail but whether she might be able to get her mother’s permission to go with him. She knew perfectly well there was work needed doing in the house and that her mother was feeling worse in this heat, but she would gladly promise to get every single thing done the minute she was back. Camilla was a responsible girl, and her mother knew the work would get done. Still, and even as poorly as she was feeling, she couldn’t resist teasing her serious daughter.
“Mill, honey, you know he’s going out, at least down to that house by the creek and back, so that’s seven boxes to fill and a lot of miles between them. You’ve got these chores in the kitchen to get done.” Mill’s mother, whose name was Megan, had a hard time keeping her smile back when she saw her daughter’s face fall, but she managed for a minute more before putting an arm around Camilla’s shoulder and squeezing.
“And I expect you could drive on out with your father and still have time left over for housework when you get home. I mean, if you want to go.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. I do. I will. Oh, yes.”
Years later, Camilla remembered the unexpected sound of the knock on the front door, the quiet, raspy voice in conversation with her father, and her father’s deep call back into the house to her mother, “Meg, could you come out for a second? I’d like you to meet someone.” Her mother pulled off her apron, smiled at Camilla, and said only, “It’s fine. I’ll be right back. You go ahead and get ready to go on the mail run.”
“Yes’sir, I expect I could be of some help around here. I’ve always been handy in that way and the Cavalry kept me busy most of the time fixing whatever was broke, including equipment I’d only laid eyes on for the first time when it needed repairs. So I learn fast.”
“That sounds very impressive, Mr. Ainsworth. I’ll not deny I could use some help around here. I’m trying to keep up the little bit of farming I do, and I am pretty much the only person delivering the post. Young Harley Brown takes a day here and there, but the boy’s not but twenty and he gets distracted. Anyway, you don’t need to hear all that.”
“Oh, no sir. I’m interested. I had a feeling when I walked in and saw your place that I might be able to stop here for a while, unpack my bag, do some honest work, and settle in. I’m a quiet man, Mr. Whitfield. I’d get as much work done for you as I could, eat my meals in my room so as not to disrupt your family, and mostly keep to myself. I’m just looking for a place to be and anything I can do to make your life easier I’d like to do. I’d need a good bed, a bath once a week, and my food at regular times. And that’s about it.”
When Megan stepped out of the kitchen to join her husband at the front door, the men were talking, and she stood back so as not to interrupt. Her husband was facing away from her, his attention on whatever their caller was saying. Megan couldn’t yet see the man and she was curious; normally, she would have joined them, but this time she decided to wait.
Although she couldn’t make out his words, she could hear the stranger’s voice. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it had the slight twang by which her father would have immediately labeled it “uneducated.” Her father, a pastor with his own church, wasn’t as interested in a man’s formal schooling as with whether or not he read books. Meg was fairly certain this man at the door did not.
Megan Elaine Whitfield, William’s wife and mother of fourteen-year-old Camilla, was of average height, with thick, dark hair that she pulled to the back of her head in a heavy twist. The typical symptoms of her illness–extreme thinness and unnaturally pale skin–only seemed to enhance her appeal. Megan Whitfield was a beautiful woman. She had suffered for years from consumption, and on her worst days was unable to get out of the bed. Although the weather had made breathing even more difficult than usual, she was feeling better, and happy, after the easy banter with Camilla and ready to see who this stranger at the door might be.
She heard William say, “Well, come in, Martin, and meet my wife and daughter.” Then he turned and held out his hand, “Meg, come and meet Martin Ainsworth. He has stopped by to ask if we might give him room and board here in exchange for work.”
Meg stepped forward and held out her hand, “Mr. Ainsworth, welcome to our home. I am Megan Whitfield. Could I offer you a glass of water or tea on this hot day?” Martin looked Megan straight in the eye, shook her hand firmly, and said, “Ma’am, that would be very fine. I thank you.” He was reticent, but Megan didn’t think it was due to a lack of confidence, possibly only some habit from childhood of staying mostly alone. Whatever the cause of his shyness, she noticed that he was, at the same time, relaxed and at ease, not at all intimidated by these new surroundings.
Pushing open the kitchen door, she nearly walked into Camilla, who was crouched on the other side, listening as hard as she could, but without much success. While she was making a glass of tea, Megan tried to describe Martin and to tell Camilla what was happening.
“May I come out, Mother? I will be very quiet–silent, in fact. I will sit in the very far corner of the parlor and only listen. Much like a small mouse.”
They both smiled at that wildly inaccurate description of Camilla’s personality. She was not a mouse of any size.
Megan was delighted with her daughter, as usual, but didn’t for one second believe her capable of holding her tongue. Still, there was little for a girl of fourteen to do, and she hesitated to deprive Camilla of any new experience.
“I’ll tell you what, Mill. Let me take in this tea and I’ll ask your father what he thinks. Will that suit?”
“Yes, Ma’am, it will.” Camilla knew her father had a difficult time saying ‘No’ to her about anything. And, of course, she was right.
A few minutes later, Camilla was almost tip-toeing into the living room and seating herself, as she had promised, in the chair furthest from where everyone else had gathered. As she had hoped, her father said, “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Mil, come and join us. Sit next to me and be formally introduced to Mr. Martin Ainsworth who might be coming to live here for a while.”
Mil smiled in her straightforward way–she had a great deal in common with her mother–and simply said, “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ainsworth.” It was enough to make an impression. Camilla Whitfield had inherited her mother’s exotic good looks, as well as her open manner–but not her illness. Already at fourteen, she drew attention without realizing it.
Martin Ainsworth had spent very little time around women. His mother had died when he was young; he had no sisters; and he tended to keep to himself most of the time. In response to Camilla’s greeting he was unable to do anything but smile and duck his head. For just that moment he was sure he had made a mistake coming here. But it didn’t last, and soon he was answering questions for Megan, talking about various work that William had in mind on the small property, and smiling occasionally at Camilla. The Whitfield’s daughter was a child, and Martin wanted very much to fit gently into this family. But still he was conscious of the girl.
They all liked him. Only Camilla went to bed feeling just the slightest bit of unease, and she didn’t really know why. Her impression was of an older man, tall, extremely thin, with large ears and the high cheekbones of hill people. Not a handsome man at all. He was polite, soft-spoken, and mostly concerned with the particulars of the work her father might want him to do. Everything he said about repairing or building things sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and she could tell already that her father was feeling relieved at the idea of having some help.
She shook off her reservations and was asleep within minutes. When she woke, just before dawn, she heard Mr. Ainsworth and her father talking in the kitchen. She supposed Mr. Ainsworth had taken a room.