I would that your sweet lips were e’er pressed to mine.
The script was Victorian, old fashioned, neat and regular. The paper had weight and was silky to touch. No one I could see in the room would be likely to have such a style of handwriting but perhaps someone had dropped it? I held up the piece of paper as if to offer it out but no-one who saw me moved towards me or made any comment. I was left with this evidence of someone’s desire, but whom?
Perhaps someone had left it purposefully for me but if that was the case, well, it would not be welcome. I quickly decided that it was not intended for my eyes and I spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming of the possible author and then of the recipient. Where I work is quite unusual. I am the caretaker of a house which has been transformed into a museum of the 1800s. Everything in each room was authentic and even I was dressed in period costume. The visitors were mainly school children with their teachers or tourists on holiday, usually sheltering from rain. The rest of the time I read 19th Century novellas and dusted the ornaments and pictures that had been bequeathed to the charitable trust which owns the house. I put the loose leaf of paper into the second drawer of the Queen Anne desk in the entrance hall and quickly forgot about it. However, that was until I found another one.
I opened the front door on Tuesday morning, the house being closed each Monday, and there it was. Another small sheet of bonded paper carrying the same handwriting. This time it read
Restrain me most urgently! I cannot wait for your reply
There had definitely not been anyone in the house when I locked up on Sunday afternoon and I remembered sweeping the floor before leaving. But here it was, placed beneath the portraits. As I bent down to pick it up, I could have sworn I saw from the corner of my eye, something move. It was nothing, a figment of my imagination. This is starting to make me jumpy, I thought and I took a deep breath, sat at the desk in the hallway and took out the other piece of paper from the week before. I held the two side by side but they offered me no further information as to their origin. I glanced back at where I had found them and I thought I noticed something peculiar, but I doubted myself and couldn’t put a finger on what it was. A little afraid of what I didn’t understand, I shoved both pieces of paper into that second draw of the desk and went back to my usual post by the portraits.
It rained hard that afternoon. There were no visitors and I took my ostrich feather duster and began dusting the edges of all the paintings in the living room. When I arrived at the pair of portraits under which the papers had been found, I saw that Henry’s portrait (as that was what I had decided to call him) was crooked on the wall. I straightened it. The week rolled on and of course, apart from being in the occasional daydream, the notes were left largely forgotten. Forgotten, until the following Tuesday morning. I opened up and immediately glanced through the living room door beneath the portraits and not only was there a note on the floor, but Henry’s portrait was once again crooked upon the wall.
I am dying my love, with no words from you. Revive me, I beg you.
I retrieved the other two notes and looked at Henry’s crooked frame. - Did you write these, Henry? - i asked the painting. - Perhaps she’s not your sister - I said on examining the portrait beside it. The second portrait, I had named Emma, presuming them to be brother and sister. They came as a pair to the museum long before I was employed there. - You’re writing to her - I whispered as I straightened Henry’s frame. - They are for her, but how…?
I liked being 16. I liked how, as my aunt puts it, life is one big space for expectancy. Logic would dictate that the notes had not come from the painting but what if they had? At that time in my life I hadn’t formed any opinions which would prevent me from embracing possibility and so I decided to facilitate the transfer of notes. I decided to be a postman.
Everyone knows that magic happens in the dark much more easily than it does in daylight so I decided to leave the first note on a chair beneath the portrait of Emma. When I returned the next morning, I was disappointed to discover it remain where it was placed. In fact, every night I left the house, I placed the note in a different position, each time near to Emma’s portrait. Nothing ever changed. I decided upon a cunning plan. I would clean up, lock up and remain inside the house for the duration of Sunday night, hoping to see something happen between the two portraits so convinced I was of their now romantic connection. Of course I fell asleep and by the time I woke, the sun was high and once again, nothing had happened.
Dejected, I left the house and spent much of that Monday debating on whether to tell my supervisor who came by every afternoon at 3.30pm to collect the day’s takings from the price of admission and tourist postcards on sale in the entrance hall. I felt foolish in saying anything and yet it was with some trepidation that I opened up on the Tuesday morning. I saw once again, another note.
False heart, how can you leave me so bereft of any notice of your attentions?
I felt awful. I felt somehow, to blame and placed a chair in front of the two paintings and sat there, staring at them, the new note in my hands. I stared at Emma. I stared at Henry. Something was wrong. Emma’s face was turned in a different direction, away from Henry. It struck me. I was wrong. The answer was so simple it made me laugh out loud.
After a busy day, my supervisor came to collect the money and I began to clean. Once she had gone, I took down both portraits and laid them beside each other upon the freshly mopped, wooden parquet floor. I took all the notes from the desk and placed them directly upon Henry’s portrait. I closed the door to the room and locked up. I didn’t need to spy on them to know what would happen. I knew as sure as eggs are eggs that it was Emma who had written the notes and for some reason, they had tumbled into my world. All I had to do was restore the passage of communication and all would be settled. On Wednesday morning I unlocked the front door, felt the sun stream in with me as I opened up the house and …
Text: A short story Take Note by JL Nash
Images: A pair of exquisite miniature portraits from Austria, early - mid 19th century.