“Years later, Camilla remembered the sound
of the knock on the front door”
“Yes’sir, I expect I could be of some use around here. I’ve always been handy, and the Cavalry kept me busy most of the time fixing whatever was broke, including equipment I’d never laid eyes on before.”
“That sounds very impressive, Mr. Ainsworth. How long were you in the Cavalry, and what brought you to my door?”
“I got out quick after the fighting stopped, but I was there long enough to figure out how to get near anything back up and working. And I been travelling around for a few years and hiring out to keep my hand in. I knew I’d get rusty if I didn’t. I’m a fast learner and I work hard.”
“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 in the whole area. A young man from town takes a day here and there, but he’s not more than 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. I’d need a good bed, a bath once a week, and my food at regular times. And that’s about it.”
It was a long speech for Martin Ainsworth.
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 identified a lack of education. Her father, a pastor with his own church, could tell if a man had been to school by the sound of his voice. The first goal of anything like a formal education was to smooth out the telltale signs of “country,” a word that needed no explanation in this part of the world. “He sounds ‘country’” was not a compliment. But Megan knew that her father was really more interested in whether a man read books. She couldn’t have said why, but she 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. Today had been hard, but she was 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 sounds awful good, thank you.” Megan was having a difficult time getting a clear impression of this man. He seemed confident and sure of himself one minute—here he was, his gaze firmly on hers, his handshake without hesitation. But the man she had heard talking to her husband sounded self-effacing, almost shy. She laughed at herself for trying to figure someone out on a first meeting, and she shook her head and turned toward the kitchen.
Pushing open the 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 explain 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 Megan hesitated to deprive her of any new experience.
“I’ll tell you what, Mil. Your father has already told our guest that he will be meeting both of us, so let me take in this tea and I’ll ask if this is a good time for you to join us. Will that suit?”
“Yes, Ma’am, it will.” Camilla knew her father had a difficult time saying ‘No’ to her about anything. And, in fact, it wasn’t five minutes later that Meg put her head around the kitchen door and nodded at her daughter.
She straightened her skirt, took a deep breath and, walking on tiptoes, slipped into the living room and seated herself 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 over here 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 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, and he had no sisters. He had left home early and had pretty much kept to himself ever since. Camilla’s greeting—and her beauty—caught him off guard, and his silence was about to become awkward when he finally smiled and said, “Pleased to meet you, Miss Whitfield.” For a split second he was sure he had made a mistake coming here. But the uncertainty 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 still smiling occasionally at Camilla. The Whitfields’ daughter was young and Martin could see that, although in other families fourteen might be considered a woman, this fourteen-year-old was still very much a child. Martin liked this place, and he wanted to stay. He couldn’t do that if he was mooning over Camilla. But still he was conscious of the girl.
They all liked him. Only Camilla went to bed feeling the slightest bit of unease, and she didn’t really know why. He didn’t appear to be a threat in any way, nothing like that. It was more that she was experiencing a kind of nervousness or restlessness around him. Martin himself was clearly harmless. Her impression was of an older man—she would have guessed he was at least twice her age–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 so relieved at the idea of having some help that he had forgotten about delivering the mail until the storm was too heavy to allow it.
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.
“[I] supposed Mr. Ainsworth had taken a room”
For a good long while, several months at least, I saw almost nothing of our boarder, Mr. Martin Ainsworth. His days were entirely taken up either by long sessions when Father provided detailed instructions on what needed doing and how it should be done or by the work itself. Judging from some real changes around the place and from Father’s increasingly untroubled mood, I concluded that Mr. Ainsworth learned quickly and that there was more work than instruction.
Although Father was by far the best educated and the most successful–with a profession, a wife, a daughter, and a home–somehow their relationship was one between equals from the first day. Father spoke to Mr. Ainsworth with genuine respect and liking, more like a partner than a boss. I had never seen my father quite that quickly at ease with anyone, and Mr. Ainsworth, for his part, clearly did not feel inferior or beholden to Father. His plan for taking his meals alone in his room was soon abandoned at Mother’s insistence, and we all sat down together as if we had been doing it forever. All in all, Martin Ainsworth seemed to suit our Whitfield household remarkably well.
I was aware of his attention, almost from the day he arrived. In the beginning, it was so understated that I might not have noticed it had we not been such a small group, and even with only four I wasn’t sure all at once. But thinking back, and whether I was aware of it or not, I am confident that the particular notice Martin took of me explains the discomfort I felt in the beginning. It was something new. It took some time to get accustomed to, and I didn’t really see Martin that much. Often, Mother and I would excuse ourselves to take the dishes out to the kitchen, get them washed and put away, make a pot of coffee, and generally put the house in order for the next morning. By the time we had finished, the men had often either gotten into one of their discussions–the two of them could talk for hours about nearly anything–or they would have already gone off to bed.
So, Martin remained a bit of a mystery.
With one thing and another, we exchanged very few words and hardly even saw each other except at the dinner table. His presence in the house changed almost nothing in my daily life. Nonetheless, and although I didn’t understand it at the time, a man’s constant awareness of you whenever you are in the same room exerts a pull, no matter how subtle, that is nearly irresistible.
But the day came–and I knew that it would–when Martin and I found ourselves alone. Mother and Father had made one of their rare excursions together. The much larger Post Office in the next town over, had secured a display of photographs of some of the latest vehicles used in the cities to deliver the mail. When Father heard about it, he was determined to drive over and, for once, Mother felt up to joining him, a treat for them both. Although they always denied it, I have wondered over the years whether they had planned this.
Two years before, my parents had taken on more tasks at home so I could attend the small schoolhouse in our town. I only went there two days a week, but I was assigned enough pages that I could work at home the other days and most of the time keep up with the class. I was sitting comfortably at the kitchen table, pages of schoolwork spread out in front of me, when Martin came in. It was early for him to have stopped working, and he surprised me.
“Oh, Miss Camilla, I didn’t mean to make you jump. I have run out of the nails to finish the fencing around back, and I guess I missed your parents. They could easily have picked up what I need.”
“Yes, Mr. Ainsworth, they left almost an hour ago.”
“Well, the fence will have to wait a day or two, and I can start on something else in the morning. That’ll work fine, and I’ve got a couple of jobs in mind.”
“I know Father is very grateful to you for all the help, Mr. Ainsworth. And I think he is also grateful for the company of another man around the place.”
“I’m the one should be grateful. This place, the work, the way you all have welcomed me, it’s been the saving of me.”
I remember the conversation between us was strained at first. It felt odd to even be in the same room with him with no one else there–not improper or anything, just unusual. I honestly couldn’t think of another thing to say, so I looked down at my papers and started shuffling them around, like I was about to get back to working on them.
“I hope it’s not out of line for me to say, but if that’s any kind of arithmetic, anything with numbers, and you ever need help, I’d be glad to offer it. It’s the one thing I did just about better than anyone in school, and a good thing since you need to know something about numbers to work on machines.”
I laughed, “I might take you up on that, Mr. Ainsworth, because arithmetic is the one thing I do just about worse than anyone else.” There was silence again before we started talking at the same time.
“Miss Camilla, would you mind if I sat . . ?”
“Can you explain how numbers are . . .?”
This time we both laughed and, as he started to describe some of the machines around our place, and how knowing numbers let him use them in new ways, Martin pulled back the chair next to mine and sat down. Even at the time, I saw how smoothly he managed it, and yet he didn’t seem conniving. I didn’t feel he was tricking me. And I noticed, too, that when he was explaining something about the work he did, he talked more easily and had more to say. Usually, Mr. Martin Ainsworth was a man of very few words. But on the subject of something he’d figured out about a machine that was headed for the junkyard, he was forceful. His voice even sounded different.
After a few minutes of numbers and machines, most of which I didn’t understand, Martin all of a sudden stopped talking and sat looking at his hands. I completely forgot the proprieties and blurted out, “Mr. Ainsworth, is anything wrong?”
“I expect so. I expect there is. I don’t even know what I’m doing sitting here at this table. I don’t think William and Megan would like it one bit. And they especially wouldn’t like what has been in my head from the minute I saw you.”
“Mr. Ainsworth, now I think would be a good time to stop. I’d like you to leave me to get back to my schoolwork.”
I remember how sad Martin looked as he stood up from the chair, and I didn’t want to let him go without saying something.
“Thank you for explaining about the machines and the arithmetic. It gave me some new ways of seeing things. But now you should go out.”
He left without any fuss, and I sat without doing much of anything until Mother and Father came home and I got up to help with dinner.
I must say that Mr. Martin Ainsworth impressed me when he came downstairs to eat, the same as always, greeting Mother and describing to Father the nails he needed and the way he intended to use them. He seemed so much his ordinary self that I almost wondered if I had imagined that whole time in the kitchen. But I hadn’t imagined it, and there was one change that nearly made me gasp. I wonder if my parents noticed. Without appearing the least bit nervous or embarrassed in front of Mother and Father, he turned to me, and said, as if he said it exactly like this every day, not ‘Miss Camilla’ but simply, “Good evening, Camilla, I hope your day was worthwhile.”