The weary man leaned against his hoe. The field was so big; how would he ever finish tilling it in time for the corn to be sown? Rocks of all sizes and shapes littered the ground. Once upon a time, when he was young, he had tried to clear the field. Not so now. He tried to just get the field ready to sow. That took him long enough these days.
Once upon a time… it was a world away now. He had been young; his strength had not left him. Standing there, in the middle of the field, he remembered as clearly as ever. Once upon a time, he had not been a peasant. He had been practically royalty, or as close as anyone but the monarchy got to royalty in France.
“Ferdinand, come help your father in the field.” His mother’s voice shot into his consciousness as he lay in bed one morning. “There’s been a storm – the crops are everywhere. We all need to clear the field.”
Ferdinand threw off the thin blanket and pulled on his trousers and shirt. “Coming, Mother,” he called.
He ran outside, hoping his mother was exaggerating as usual. His heart sank as he surveyed the ruins of their corn and barley.
“What’re you standing there for, boy?” his father shouted across the field. “We have to clear the field. Get moving and get your sisters out here if your mother hasn’t.” His face was red from exertion, though the morning was chilly.
Ferdinand sprinted back across the field to the house. “Mother!” he panted. “Father says to get the girls out here. It’s bad.”
“They’re on their way. They can’t get ready as fast as you can.”
That whole day, Ferdinand dragged the soaked, limp corn stalks into huge piles ready to be stored. His hands, calloused as they were, became chapped and bled. By the end of the third day, the field was ready to be ploughed.
“It’s going to be a late crop,” Ferdinand’s father said, stroking his beard the way he did when worried. “We may have to harvest a little bit earlier than I’d like to be able to get it all in in time for the frosts. I don’t like it, but we’ll just have to make do.”
The family was poor. They could not afford to lose a year’s worth of crops. So they planted the field again, watched it grow, and hoped for the best.
But the winter was cruel, and the frosts were early, killing all hope the family had of keeping a crop alive. They awoke one morning to find that in the night, rain had fallen and frozen everything outside the warmth of the house or barn.
“We are ruined!” Ferdinand’s mother cried. “There’s no way for us to eat this winter. The animals won’t starve – they’ve got the last lot of stalks to see them through – but we can’t eat corn stalks.”
“Now, Martha,” Ferdinand’s father said. “It’ll be hard, but we’ll make it. We may go hungry, but we’ll eat at least once a day. We’ll survive.”
“Mama?” Ferdinand’s littlest sister said, “Are you sad? We’ll be all right. I promise. God’ll look after us.”
“Oh, Mary, you’re right. He will. I… just don’t have much confidence in me being able to look after you. If only it had held off for another week.” She sighed.
“Mother, why don’t I go to school this year instead of next year and I’ll finish a year earlier?” Ferdinand put in. “You said you had the money all ready and waiting, so it’ll just be one less mouth to feed.”
“Good idea.” Martha nodded vigorously. “I hadn’t got as far as to think about that yet. Are you sure you want to go now? I know you wanted to be able to help out a bit in the spring.”
“I do. But I’ll be helping more by getting out of your way for the winter. That all right by you, Father?”
“Yes, I think it’s a wonderful idea. Do you know when the term starts?”
“I sent away for some information a few days ago,” Martha said eagerly. “I’ll see if I can find it.” She darted into the bedroom and ran out a moment later holding a thin paper leaflet. “Oh, Ferdinand! Quick! Pack a trunk! It starts next week, but it says they’ll be taking bookings until the day before it starts. You can take the next mail coach out and be there the day before. Give them the money and ask them if you can stay the night before school starts. Hurry! The coach leaves in an hour!”
Everyone helped Ferdinand pack for his long stay. His father pressed a few small notes into his hand just before they left and told him to use it for clothes, as they had not had time to make new ones for him. Then, as the coach drew away, the family waved goodbye to him outside a tired-looking depot. He would not be able to see them for another five years.
The building loomed up above Ferdinand, taller than any other building that he had ever seen. This was to be his home for the next half a decade of his life. Hesitantly he lifted his hand to knock on the door. His fist seemed to make very little noise on the hardwood door. “How can I ever bear it here?” he thought to himself.
He rapped again, harder this time. Presently he heard quick footsteps coming toward him inside. The door opened to reveal a young girl with her hair done up in a pretty white cap. Ferdinand could not help staring.
“Hello,” the girl said. “Are you a new one?”
“You’ve left it a bit late, haven’t you? Where’re you from?”
“Down in the south. I’ve never been to Paris before.”
“Overwhelming, isn’t it?”
“Well, come in and warm up. Follow me to the study. The master’ll see to your papers.”
The girl stopped and turned to him. “Are you all right?”
“Yes. It’s just…what’s your name?”
“I was just wondering…see, in my town we all know each other. Here you don’t seem to know anyone. I just need to know someone.”
“Ah. Yes. It’s the same where I come from. Now, come along.”
Ferdinand followed meekly, but his thoughts were whirling. This girl, did she come from a town like his? And where was she from? Who was she really?
He made it through the interview and handed over his money. Kathryn then showed him to the room he would share with five others. The beds were small, but comfortable, and he sank onto his with a sigh of appreciation. “I’d better get those clothes away now,” he realized a moment later. “That clock says it’s almost supper time.”
He quickly unpacked his scanty belongings, then wandered through the halls till he found a bathroom, then he washed the grime of the journey off his hands and face. “Oops,” he thought, “I should have changed my clothes.” So he ran back the way he had come and changed just as the bell rang for supper.
“Oh, no! I don’t know where the kitchen is!” Ferdinand realized. “This is going to be an interesting meal.” He climbed down three flights of stairs and along the main corridor until he bumped into a maid who was walking around a corner.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he apologised.
“Now, what are you doing here?” It was Kathryn. “The dining room’s up on the next floor. Here come with me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t know where it was.”
“It’s all right. I’ll get you in tonight, but I warn you,” she turned to him and looked him straight in the face, “this place has strict rules. If you’re not punctual, you’re locked out. No questions asked. So consider yourself warned.”
That was the beginning of a long and fruitful friendship. Kathryn helped Ferdinand find a job in the city so he could send some money home to his family. They in turn truly appreciated the financial support, and Ferdinand also started saving some of his wages for himself as his pay increased.
When Kathryn came to him one day, her eyes red and swollen from crying, and told him her mother was dying, he took out the money he’d saved and made her use it to get help for her mother.
“Oh, thank you Ferdinand!” she cried, throwing her arms about him and bursting into a fresh flood of tears. “I’m sorry, but my wages only just feed us combined with Father’s and she’s so sick. Oh, thank you!”
And Ferdinand was surprised to find that he was holding her, but more surprised to discover that he didn’t want to let her go. “I hope she gets well,” he said huskily.
Kathryn lifted her head and kissed him softly on the cheek before running off to put the money in a safe place until she had time to send it to her family. Ferdinand rubbed his cheek where her lips had touched his skin and thought of her.
He finished school a year after this, and to his family he seemed as nobility. He was rich in their eyes, though his income was still small in the eyes of the city-dwellers, and their own fortunes had improved since Ferdinand had left. He decided, despite the urging of his family, to rent a room and stay with his job in the city.
“I can keep on there, and I’ve got another promotion coming up soon. I’ll be fine,” he assured them.
Since Ferdinand left the school, he had not seen Kathryn. It was almost a month before he met her again, and that was in the market, buying food.
“Ferdinand! Ferdinand, wait up!”
Ferdinand whirled around and searched the crowds. “Kathryn!”
“Kathryn! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Well, if you will move out, what do you expect? I don’t have much time off, and you should know that by now.”
Ferdinand hugged her to him. “Marry me,” he murmured to her.
“What?” Kathryn pulled away. “What was that?”
“Marry me. That way we can be together forever.”
“Oh, Ferdinand! Of course! I’ve waited and waited for you to ask me that question.”
“So why did you ask what?”
“Because I wanted to be sure you didn’t just accidentally say it,” Kathryn said. She giggled. “After all, it’s been a month since we saw each other.”
“And it’s been five years of every day before then.”
It was several minutes later when Kathryn remembered her shopping and they reluctantly parted. But they saw each other at least one night a week after that, and made wedding plans. Kathryn was given time off in the weeks before they were married to finish getting ready, and afterwards, they spent their honeymoon at Ferdinand’s farm.
The years were kind to Ferdinand and Kathryn, and they lived happily in their city home until the year she died. At fifty years old, she ran through rain on her way home from market, caught a severe cold which turned into influenza, and died from it.
Ferdinand left the city and returned to his family. His children had all grown up and had families of their own, so he moved by himself. Soon after he returned, his father died of old age, his mother having left them several years earlier, and Ferdinand was left to look after the farm that had been in the family for many generations.
Once upon a time… yes, once he had been strong, had had Kathryn, had been young. But now, Ferdinand thought, now he had lived his life to the utmost and waited only for death to take him to Kathryn, when his son came to him. After years by himself, he was ready to go home.