As the quarantine for the Covid-19 pandemic continues, like everyone else I am seeking more creative ways to occupy my time. I have a soft spot for sweet and gentle love songs, and for a couple of days I kept humming this one, an old English folk melody rewritten by Newfoundland musician Ron Hynes. I began to wonder what “Old Brown’s Daughter” really thought of marrying a Lord Mayor, a Marquis or an Earl? I decided to ask.
There was no one behind the counter when he came into the general store, but the clanging from the brass bell above the door drew footsteps from the back room. He knew it was Mina by the sound of them. Light as air, with a dancing, artful rhythm, if footsteps could be artful.
He had determined that today was the day, but as he stood motionless and breathless until she came into view, he thought he might lose his nerve. She was wearing a striped green dress and looked as fresh as an acorn. Her expressionless face broke into a bright smile when she saw him, and for a moment he thought she might genuinely be pleased to see him. But he shook the idea off just as quickly, since Mina has always had the rare talent of making everyone feel welcome.
“Mr. Blake,” she said, her nut-brown gaze falling on the wooden box he held in his arms. It overflowed with clothbound cheddar and goat cheese.
“Miss Brown.” He nodded in reply and then his throat constricted, making the utterance of more words difficult. He shifted from one foot to the other and couldn’t quite look her in the eye.
The corners of her mouth twitched upwards while she gestured toward the counter. “You can put it there.”
Emory followed her to the counter while a gruff voice descended from the stairs at the back of the room. “Who is it, my daughter?”
“Emory Blake.” Mina raised her gentle voice just enough to be heard and cast her eyes at the ceiling. “He’s brought the cheese you asked for.”
“Tell him a dollar fifty and not a cent more, Wilhemina!” came the terse reply. “And I don’t want any more of that blue cheese. It was vile.”
Her smile twisted into an apology as she glanced at Emory, who tried not to look disappointed at the offer. Mina held up her hand in a gesture of assurance—how did she always seem to know what he was thinking before he said anything? She called upstairs again. “Stay where you are. l take care of it, Father.”
A few tendrils of soft, brown hair fell out of the curly bun piled atop her head as she leaned over the cash and pulled out five dollars. “I do the books,” she whispered, as she handed them over. “He won’t know the difference. This is what I paid you last time, I think?”
He nodded and accepted the money. A spark of electricity went through him when his fingers brushed hers. “Thank you,” he mumbled.
Emory hovered in a moment of indecision.
“Can I do anything else for you?” Mina asked, with the warm smile she offered everyone, all of her father’s patrons and suppliers.
His heart leapt. There was plenty she could do, if only he could say. Emory tipped his hat before turning to leave but he paused with his hand on the door handle. He swallowed hard and cleared his throat before returning to the cash. He pulled his hat off and twisted it. “Miss Brown, I was wondering if you were going to the Harvest festival dance this weekend?” Feeling an imminent rejection, he decided to make light of it. “I suppose a girl like you has her pick of invitations.”
Her eyebrow flickered upward, accompanied by the merest little grunt. “One would like to think so.” An unguarded sort of look flitted across her features and for some reason, it gave him hope, even though her expression returned to its usual composure so quickly that he thought he had imagined it.
Emory hazarded another question. “What does that mean?”
Her gaze fell to the counter. “It means a girl like me has little choice in the matter.” For a few moments, she busied herself straightening up bottles of peppermints, candy kisses, and saltwater taffy. Then, she stopped and gave him a square look. “Father has been negotiating with the Lord Mayor.”
Emory gave her a confused look. “About?” He immediately regretted the question, because he knew the answer. Why did he ask that? It just made him look daft. “Negoti– oh, you mean about…?”
“Yes, his son. John Hoskins,” she replied. “I expect a proposal any day.”
That’s it, then. Mina was going to marry John Hoskins, the man who runs the manufacturing company that his father started. John Hoskins, who was tall, handsome and good at just about everything. He would likely be Lord Mayor himself one day.
“Sounds more like a business arrangement.” His lips twisted in concern while he squeezed his woolen cap. “Do you—do you like him?”
“He’s pleasant enough, although…” She leaned a bit closer to Emory. Her dark eyes were soft and earnest. “I don’t fit in his world. I would much rather muck about in the garden with my gumboots, but my father feels I should find my place in society.”
He nodded at the floor, his heart bursting. “You do everything well, Miss Brown.”
She smiled broadly then. She had the most beautiful smile. “Thank you.”
The bell over the door clanged loudly as a group of chatty teenage girls burst in the door. They didn’t acknowledge Miss Brown at all but headed straight for the aisle with fabrics and lace.
Was there any point in asking her now? “Well, I should be off. Let me know if you need anything else.” He jammed his cap back on his head and she murmured a goodbye as he turned toward the door.
The faint of heart never won the fair maiden, his father used to say. With stomach roiling, he turned around again and straightened to his full height. “What if you really did have a choice?”
She cocked her head. “I’m sorry?”
He cleared his throat and took a step toward her. “In whom to marry? What if you had a choice?”
Mina’s face softened and broke out into a slow, cheeky grin. “Then, Mr. Blake, I would take it.”