Picnics & Poetry
As Elsie stepped outside onto the lush green grass and deeply breathed in the sweet spring air, she could only think of one word to describe the beauty of the day: perfection. The garden flowers had just begun to fully blossom with the recent arrival of a pattern of warmer weather and frequent yet light showers, and the birds in the trees seemed to sing with a renewed joy over the promise of the mild weather. The gentle breeze that blew reminded her of the feel of a crisp, cool bed sheet caressing her warm skin and ruffling her hair.
"Are you ready?" Charles asked, tearing Elsie away from her thoughts as he emerged from inside the house with a basket and a folded blanket.
She gave a smile and a nod and reached to take something from him to lighten the load he carried, but he swiftly withdrew from her.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hughes, but I have everything taken care of here," he said with mock defiance.
"Don't be silly," she retorted, quickly stepping up to him again. "I want to help."
Again he was too quick for her, turning his body away and holding the basket and blanket out of her reach.
"I imagine we could be making greater strides toward our destination if we spent less time arguing and more time walking," he teased, enjoying seeing her cheeks redden in frustration.
He struggled to conceal a chuckle as she mumbled under her breath and gave an indignant sniff before turning away from him.
"I'm not some delicate lady, you know," Charles heard her say as she continued walking ahead of him.
He wasn't so sure about that. He had touched her soft, smooth skin before, if only in a "friendly" manner, and it had certainly been what he could only think to describe as "delicate." Her full, supple lips looked delicate as well, though he had only truly had the pleasure of experiencing the feel of them in his dreams and fantasies...
"I just want to make things special for you," he called to her.
The hesitance in her steps now was not lost on him. He walked faster to match her slowing steps until they were side-by-side once more. He glanced sideways at her, but she would not meet his gaze. Something about those newly colored cheeks, reddened this time for a noticeably different reason than before, caused a stir low in Charles' stomach.
"It's such a lovely day," Elsie said quietly, hoping to give him a reason to stop staring at her.
"It is, indeed," he replied, fighting the urge to move closer to her for fear of making her more uncomfortable.
They walked the rest of the way in comfortable silence. Charles had been delighted as Elsie was the one to move closer, not at all appearing ashamed as she did so. He had battled with the desire to reach out and take her hand within his own, but again he refused to allow his forwardness to destroy the closeness they had worked so hard to create.
When they arrived at the big oak tree he had chosen as their picnic location, Charles quickly busied himself with spreading out the blanket so that Elsie would not have the chance to argue once more that she wanted to help. However, when he turned to her and saw the innocent questioning on her face, her head tilted slightly to the right, he could not have denied her anything.
"You can help with the food," he acquiesced with a small sigh.
The bright smile she gave him in return banished any regret before it even had a chance to creep into his thoughts.
"What is this?" Elsie asked, holding up a tattered leather-bound book she had found in the bottom of the basket after having readied all the food.
"Ah, I almost forgot," he said as he sat down beside her on the blanket. "That is my favorite book of poetry. You like poetry, don't you, Mrs. Hughes?"
Her lips trembled as they curved into a small smile.
"You know I do," she replied in barely above a whisper.
Charles felt a tightness in his chest as Elsie gently bit down on her bottom lip and raised her eyes to meet his.
"Will you... read it to me?" she requested softly as she traced her finger down the wrinkled spine of the book she still held tightly in her arms.
"I'd be honored," he replied just as softly.
She handed him the book and settled herself back against the tree trunk with a couple biscuits to nibble on. He thumbed through the yellowed pages quickly, as if he already had something in mind. When he had found the desired page, he lifted his eyes back to hers as if to question if she were ready, to which she gave a single nod of her head. Charles cleared his throat as he began to read aloud.
It was the day the sun's ray had turned pale
with pity for the suffering of his Maker
when I was caught, and I put up no fight,
my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
It seemed no time to be on guard against
Love's blows; therefore, I went my way
secure and fearless-so, all my misfortunes
began in midst of universal woe.
Love found me all disarmed and found the way
was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes
which have become the halls and doors of tears.
It seems to me it did him little honor
to wound me with his arrow in my state
and to you, armed, not show his bow at all.
Charles watched as a contemplative frown deepened on Elsie's face and her chest rose and fell with the intake and release of a deep breath. She caught his eye with such sadness within that he wanted to do anything to make her smile again. He opened his mouth to speak, but she began first.
"Keep going," she requested in a low voice.
Again he turned the pages as if his fingers had an objective.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
This time when Charles looked up from the text, Elsie's face was softened with a smile as she leaned her head back against the tree trunk and allowed his voice to wash over her like the gentle spring breeze. He knew of her fondness for Shakespeare had suspected that this particular sonnet would be one she would very much enjoy hearing.
"One more?" he asked, finding it difficult not to get lost in the beauty of Elsie's relaxed, peaceful figure reclining next to him.
"Please," she whispered in reply.
Charles began reading the sonnet quietly, yet seemed to find strength as he read on. Elsie hung on his every word, allowing her eyes to flutter closed for a moment as she relished the moment and the deep sweetness of his voice.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Elsie quietly spoke the last two lines along with Charles. When they had finished, a certain heaviness hung in the air between them. She hoped he would not see her tremble as she found herself, strangely, on the very verge of tears.
"Thank you," she said, struggling to keep her voice steady.
He remained silent as he closed the book and placed it down beside him on the blanket. Elsie's attention rose to the sky as a large flock of birds flew overhead as if they were traveling with the sudden strong gust of wind. She smiled as Charles' hair was tossed in the breeze, and she wanted to reach out and smooth down those flyaway locks.
As they returned to the food and a light, casual conversation, Elsie moved closer to him on the blanket until they were a mere few inches apart. She even dared to trace her fingertip down his arm as he spoke to her. He stopped speaking, and she waited for his reaction as he paused. He stared down at her hand, the goosebumps spreading like a wildfire on his skin, before taking it into his own.
"I was caught, and I put up no fight, my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me," Charles quoted softly yet boldly.
"Love found me all disarmed and found the way was clear to reach my heart down through the eyes which have become the halls and doors of tears," Elsie replied with waxing confidence.
Charles smoothed her cheek with his thumb and then traced across the silky line of her bottom lip. He heard her sharp intake of breath just before he leaned in and tasted the fullness of her mouth. He suddenly became aware of how hard he must have been pressing her against the trunk of the oak tree and immediately softened his force upon her. She responded, however, by pushing back against him to deepen the kiss until it became a war of give and take.
They heard the splashes of water falling around them before they felt them. The cool, gentle raindrops sent a shiver down Charles' spine, but not quite as deliciously as did the sound of Elsie's bubbling laughter ringing in his ears. They scurried together to get the remainder of the food placed back into the basket before it was spoiled by the rain.
"You can cover yourself with the blanket so you won't get wet," Charles offered as he shook off the loose blades of grass from it.
Elsie shook her head, a playful spark still dancing in her eyes.
"It won't hurt me," she teased as he took her hand and helped her to her feet.
Charles couldn't help but be mesmerized by the way the tiny rain droplets caught in her eyelashes like glittering jewels and made gave a dewy sheen to her light skin.
"Are you just going to stand there and stare at me, or are we going to get out of this rain?" Elsie laughed.
Charles seemed to step out of his thoughts at her words and retrieved both the basket and the blanket. He felt a warmth spread through him when she hitched her arm to his as they began to walk.
"Thank you for a wonderful day," Elsie said, reluctantly slipping her arm from his as they came into view of the house once more.
He stopped in his tracks and squeezed her hand tightly before placing a trail of kisses along her jawline. She blushed slightly, and he knew that she was concerned that someone would see.
"May I see you again soon?" he asked with a brightness in his eyes.
"I think that can be arranged," she replied with a laugh. "How about tonight?"
"I shall look forward to it," he said seriously.
They were both drenched from head to toe, but neither cared in the least. Together, it truly was a beautiful day, come rain or come shine.
The poems in italicized bold are, obviously, not mine. The first is from Petrarch's Rime in vita e morta di Madonna Laura (which Charles and Elsie also later quoted to each other), the second is Shakespeare's Sonnet 116, and the third is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnet 43.