Author's Note: When I was watching Return to Cranford, I felt that the relationship formed between Peggy and William lacked a basis in what passed between them before the proposal; the conversations were few and far between, at least onscreen, and here I intend to change that. This first conversation picks up when William and Peggy are riding to the Buxton home after Erminia sends him to fetch her. Enjoy!
The air was beginning to change, becoming cooler and a bit breezier, rustling the as yet unchanged leaves. Autumn was on its way, and William Buxton had never been more eager for a season to come. Perhaps it was simply having such a pleasant companion riding beside him that made him feel so optimistic; he found himself turning often to gaze at Miss Bell, seated like a man without a saddle, her brown eyes growing brighter with every minute. She was laughing, something he had not seen her do before, and he found that he liked it very much, for the stray curls that lay to either side of her face flew about, and her eyes glistened with something unfamiliar and indescribably beautiful. Averting his eyes, William found himself smiling as he entertained the possibility that she took as much pleasure in his company as he did in hers. The countryside passed by at dizzying speed as the two galloped downhill, and William found himself having to make an effort to catch her; soon he was laughing along with her, feeling an overwhelming sense of freedom that usually evaded him.
When they had finally slowed the horses at the bottom of the hill, William heard Miss Bell let out a little sigh, and he turned to find her expression much changed; her smile still lingered on her lips, but it did not reach her eyes as it had before, and the laughter seemed little more than a fleeting dream, the faintest memory. This puzzled him greatly, and he softly spoke her name, fearing that she might become afraid if he spoke too loudly. She turned towards him, a bit startled at the sound of her name from his lips, and blushed a bit at his expression, turning away almost as quickly as she had to face him. His brows came together with concern as he observed her, holding the reins with one hand and fiddling with her bonnet ribbons with the other. What had changed?
"Are you well, Miss Bell?"
Again she turned her head, and she gave a brisk little nod, trying desperately to maintain the smile that had been so long on her lips.
"Yes, I am well…" She paused, pondering what was an appropriate explanation for her behavior. Unfortunately, she could find no believable excuse, and found herself forced into painful honesty after a few moments. "It's just, moments like this never seem to last long enough."
William did not need her to elaborate, for her face told him enough; moments of freedom, he thought, moments when no one expects anything of you, and you may do exactly as you wish. This he understood perfectly, for the expectations of home followed him almost everywhere, and any moment of solitude was quickly snatched away by poor, unknowing people who could never know how much he craved a change. However, he found he could say nothing in response, simply nodding and hoping that the gesture would communicate his understanding to her. If only he could find the words to make her laugh again!
Peggy felt her heart grow heavy at the bottom of the hill, despite all her efforts to remain cheerful and pleasant; it would be a wicked thing to appear sullen in front of Mister William, who had been so very kind and agreeable towards her all through the ride. Alas, the rush of joy that had accompanied the gallop was over, and try as she might, she could not bring the feeling back, not even in memory. Mr. William, as kind as ever, asked if she was well, and Peggy felt the color rising in her cheeks and on her throat as she cursed herself for thinking such ungrateful thoughts. But the look on his face was one of such genuine concern that she found herself explaining just how she felt, for she could never bring herself to lie to someone so thoughtful and compassionate as Mr. William. A long pause followed her answer, and it seemed that neither had a thing to say to the other, until Mr. William broke the silence.
"I hope you will not think I am prying, Miss Bell, but… Forgive me, this will seem rude, but I am curious, are you happy at home?"
Peggy's eyebrows raised as she looked up from the horse's back, and again a rush of blood betrayed her as she saw the earnestness on his face, displayed even in the depths of his captivating blue eyes. Ducking her head again, she murmured, "Yes, sir," hoping she would not be questioned again; her troubles were nothing he needed to concern himself with. Unfortunately, he persisted, gently questioning her, coaxing the answer from her unwilling lips with unimaginable ease. The more he spoke with his gentle cadence, the less she could refrain from speaking exactly what came to her mind.
"Well, I suppose not, Mr. Buxton-"
"William," he interrupted, "just William, please. But please, continue, I didn't mean to interrupt."
Even more surprised than before, Peggy nodded slowly, trying to grasp what was happening; why did he show so much interest in her affairs?
"Of course, sir, if that is what you would like… I suppose, well, at times, it feels rather lonesome. I, I mustn't be ungrateful, I'm very fortunate to have Mother and Edward, but sometimes…" Her voice broke, choked by the growing lump in her throat, and she hid her face again that he might not think she was crying. She cursed herself inwardly for not having more restraint than this, when she suddenly saw a hand - his hand!- touching hers, and when she faced him again, he gave her such a look of compassion that it left her breathless; she had noticed before how very handsome he was, but he was so close now, and his striking features overwhelmed her into a reverent silence. She did not even pause to think that it might not be proper for him to touch her hand so, as she wanted only to observe him longer.
"You needn't continue, Miss Bell. Forgive me, I did not mean to upset you."
He removed his hand, and the enchantment that he had cast over her was broken. Peggy tried her utmost to look away for the rest of the ride, but found she could not; he understood, she thought. He understood it perfectly.