Out of the Frying Pan
Genre – Historical
Words – 1277
She’d had the dream again, the very vivid one, and for the third time. It was always the same: she was in the orphanage’s kitchen and there was a pan of food on the stove. She was desperately hungry, and the food was perfectly fried and ready. She was afraid, though; afraid that the handle would be blazing hot and her hand would be horribly burned if she touched it. She had to decide; in a few more moments the food would be overcooked and inedible. At this point she’d awakened each time.
Riddling the dream out wasn’t helped by him obviously watching her. He was standing with one of his brothers. She’d seen him every Sunday for her entire memory, but the orphanage enforced a ban on their charges approaching the families, and the working poor of the parish had enough troubles without dealing with orphans.
A few years ago he’d started glancing at her with a shy, pretty smile, and then quickly looking back down at the floor again. His family’s name was Shaw and he was their fifth and youngest son, but she didn’t know his Christian name. She’d heard that his father, a blacksmith, had died during the past winter, and it was after that she’d noticed he was looking at her longer and not always turning away when she looked back.
She supposed she should be flattered, but young women like her could not afford to be flattered. No one knew how old she was or when her birthday might be, but she was very nearly all grown up now and she’d overheard them talking about turning her out of the orphanage. Once they did, she wouldn’t have to give over her wages from the mill, but even if she kept it all it wasn’t quite enough to live on.
She hated the mill, with the screaming machinery and the section supervisors covering their own ineptitude by being hateful to the workers. The air there was already causing her respiratory problems. Breathing all that cotton fiber would probably kill her in another ten years. What could she do, though? With her shabby appearance and lack of skills she couldn’t get better employment.
She knew a few of the girls had run from the orphanage to the other life available to young women, but for nearly all of them it turned out to be just as hopeless as slowly suffocating at a mill. There was the dream right there, she thought. If you decided you didn’t want to starve, you grabbed the pan and burned the flesh off your hand.
She startled where she was sitting and her head snapped around. She’d been so engrossed in her own thoughts she hadn’t noticed he’s walked right up to her.
She looked into his eyes. “Hello…” Had seconds or minutes passed? She finally gathered enough wits to call him by his family name. “Mr. …Shaw.” Up close he had big, brown eyes to go with his shy smile. “We’ve never been introduced.”
He continued to smile at her. “We’re in a churchyard after services with hundreds of other people around. We’re not doing anything improper, Miss Smith.”
The name they’d made up for her at the orphanage always embarrassed her, but for some reason she liked that he knew it. She liked his confidence, too. He wasn’t all so much older than her, but she saw he was already taking on the heavily muscled build of his family’s trade. His lovely eyes were still on her, but that – well, that she didn’t dare to like.
“Miss Smith, I want to ask you something. No, wait, first I have something for you.” He produced a small paper tube, closed on both ends with ribbon, and handed it out.
She looked at it for a while, then slowly reached and took it. “Open it,” he said.
She did as he instructed, and found a small brown lump inside. She caught a faint scent, then held the lump to her nose, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. “It’s chocolate, Miss Smith. They said you’d like it.”
“I’ve never had chocolate before.” The fragrance was intoxicating and she couldn’t stop herself. She took a small bite. “Oh,” she whispered.
She savored the tiny morsel, then jerked her eyes back open and looked aghast. She quickly put the remainder in the tube and thrust it back towards him. It had to be a sin to accept something like that from a young man. What did he want from her?
He ignored her attempt to return the gift. “You probably know that my father died three months ago.”
She felt foolish with her arm outstretched now that he was talking about his father’s death. She slowly pulled the chocolate back.
“Well, you see,” he continued, “my oldest brother has inherited the smithy, and his oldest boy will be big enough to start helping him this year.”
She didn’t see.
“My brother has packed up a chest of blacksmithing tools for me and offered to pay my way to immigrate to Australia.”
She remained still, looking at him.
“It’s expensive for a person to immigrate to Australia, because the trip is so long. It’s much more than twice as much money to immigrate to Canada.” He turned the full power of his big brown eyes on her. There was more silence.
“We have family in Canada. They’ve written to us about what it’s like. I’m young, but I’m skilled, Miss Smith, and I can find good work. In Canada I’ll be able to afford a good place to live, a house that’s warm in the winter, and enough land to have a big garden.”
“That sounds wonderful, Mr. Shaw.” She meant it, she really did, but she had no idea why he had walked over to tell her all this.
“I already have the name of some farming towns in Canada near my family that need a blacksmith, and I’ve saved up my own money to start out on. I’ll apply myself, work hard and make a good living. It’ll be very different there than here in the city, but in a good way I think. I want to get a dog. You could have a pet, too.”
She was staring up at him now, absolutely frozen, her mouth slightly open. It dawned on her. He’d said he had enough money for two people to immigrate to Canada. Silent seconds ticked by.
“Aaah!” he cried out. “I’m so sorry, Miss Smith. I’m making such a hash of this. You must think I’m the most awful man in England. Of course we’d be married before we go.”
There was more silence and more staring. “My sister-in-law said this would come very sudden to you and you’d be unsure.” He looked down, painfully shy again. “I wouldn’t touch you, if you didn’t want…you know, the way men and women are together, that is…well, until I had a house for you and showed you I could earn enough money for a family. That way if you weren’t happy you could get the marriage annulled.” He scuffed at some gravel with his shoe.
She’d had the dream all wrong, and he’d already made her happier than she had ever imagined possible. “I…I’ve never had a pet before, Mr. Shaw, but I think I’d like to. There was a dormouse once at the orphanage I used to leave crumbs for…”
He looked back up and considered what she’d just said. “They have a little animal called a chipmunk in Canada. I’m fairly certain that’s the same thing.” They smiled at each other.