Defining Moment

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In Which A Portrait is Perused

Eustace looked up from his work with a sudden light in his hazel eyes.

“Maggie, come here!”

Maggie put her hands on her hips and gave Eustace one more chance.

“Are you going to come and eat something, or not? It's getting cold.”

“Of course, of course...” Eustace muttered. “I'm sorry.” He carefully marked his page in the gigantic illustrated essay on the burial customs of the ancient Chinese, and made his way over to where Maggie had set up a substantial luncheon upon the oblong table.

Many years had now passed which the two had spent in happy company, Eustace telling the eager girl tale after tale that he loved from the pages of history, and Maggie creatively illustrating each one as accurately as she could from the descriptions and clues Eustace helped her find among the dusty library.

Time seemed to have passed Eustace over entirely, for the only differences that appeared in him were that he had grown a bit taller, and his features more firmly defined. Though he had not grown much, his voice was certainly deeper, and he now had the wonderful aspect about him of a mature young man. Maggie, on the other hand, would be scarcely recognizable. If before she had been a pretty child, to describe the young lady of sixteen that now looked back at her from the glass as pretty would be a terrible understatement. Her reddish hair had grown brighter and thick, and she wore it in one braid down her back with a ribbon at the end. The freckles that once ornamented her face had faded, leaving her an unblemished ivory sculpture, accented by her large blue eyes, a decided nose, and well-formed lips. Her motions had grown graceful, although she had lost none of her childhood impetuosity, and her figure was lithe and fair to look upon. None of this was lost upon Eustace, in whom daily an appreciation for Maggie had grown.

The room was changed but little, unless it were better organized and less dusty; now the welcome feast that o'erspread the table proclaimed that these changes were for the better, even if Eustace's slight form and pale face spoke but little of any nourishment he may have received at Maggie's hand over the years.

“Truth be told, I had forgotten,” he smiled innocently, seating himself, and pouring a cup of tea. “It seems that just when I am in the midst of the most remarkable discoveries –”

“I interrupt you and am forced to keep you alive somehow,” Maggie answered, taking the tea pot from him and replenishing her own cup. Eustace helped himself to a slice of bread and buttered it slowly, distraction coming over his face. He appeared to be listening intently. Suddenly he stood, hurried over to his desk, and yanked open one of the drawers. The remains of gnawed quills rolled about in the ink-stained bottom of the drawer, and presently, Eustace found what he was looking for – Scrabble, an old scruffy rodent by now, crawled guiltily out, dark splotches upon his fur, and shreds of feather in his mouth.

“Oh, you greedy thing, what have you done?” Eustace cried, picking up the wheezing rat, and examining his mouth and teeth which were stained black with ink. He looked up with a sorrowful face. “I don't know how I could have left him. I'm afraid he has had too much ink...” As Scrabble convulsed in Eustace's hand, Maggie slowly approached, and gave her handkerchief for the pet to be wrapped in.

“Keep him warm –”

“Yes...” Eustace tenderly wrapped up the rat, and began to rub him gently. “Poor poor thing,” he murmured, tears in his eyes. “It's very toxic.”

Maggie stood silently by, watching the young man kneel in the floor, his first friend struggling for breath in his hands, while he gently stroked his ears and whispered fond things to it. At last, the rat lay still and relaxed, and Eustace looked up, hot tears upon his cheeks. “He was very old,” he choked.

Maggie nodded, tears coming to her own eyes at the passing of Scrabble, their quill sharpener, and dear friend. Eustace carefully took Maggie's handkerchief from the little corpse and held it out to her, but she refused to take it back, instead, swathing the rat in it like a burial shroud. Eustace stood slowly, and bore the body to a small box which he emptied of its contents, and placed the rat inside.

“I'll bury him later in the garden,” Maggie said softly. “I know where a trowel is.”

Just in the past month, Maggie had begun venturing out into the decrepit yard behind the manor, and taking air there. She knew of the perfect spot to lay their fallen friend to rest. Their meal was finished in sober silence, and Maggie, clearing away their dishes, took them across the silent mansion to her rooms to wash later. She returned to take up the coffin of Scrabble, and asked if Eustace wanted to come and see her bury him. He shook his head, and Maggie left him to his work. Reverently, she bore the box down the stairs, across the empty room with a rug, up the corridor, out the door, and down the giant staircase. In the midst of the large polished floor of the high-ceilinged atrium, Maggie paused and listened.

No sounds were heard in the shadowy house, and she sighed, going past the door that let to the kitchen, and into a small ante-room. Opening the large door, Maggie stepped out into the small walled garden. Three large trees grew in that small space, so that it would seem there was room for little else, but there was a path lined with dead trailing vines and mossy stones, a small fountain that was in disrepair, and a shed built in the corner of one of the stone walls. Two of the large trees grew on either side of the shed, completely shading it from the spring sun that steadily was burning it's way through the English morning mist, while the third tree grew against the house, its branches obscuring, she knew, the window at the end of her corridor. The garden could be so pretty, Maggie thought, if all the remains of the once living vegetation could be cleared away, and fresh things planted. But Maggie knew next to nothing of horticulture. She smiled. Eustace probably did. She would have to ask him.

Taking up a rusty trowel which lay within the crumbling fountain among a heap of dead leaves from which several unruly mushroom poked their spongy heads, she straightened up and looked about her for a proper spot. Clearing away the tangle of matted vines and dead grasses from the spot she chose, Maggie knelt and set to work digging the small grave. It was a long task, for the ground was hard and stony, and when at last Maggie laid Scrabble to rest, and mounded the displaced earth above the box, she sat back and blew out a long breath. The sun was warm upon her back, but the air was still crisp. Standing and dusting off her dress, Maggie replaced the trowel in the fountain, and stood with her head bowed above the little grave. Then she took a last deep breath of air, and returned inside. Eustace was hard at work, as usual, when she returned, but he looked up at her entry.

“How was it?” he asked quietly.

“The weather is fine. I found a very nice spot for him,” she murmured. “I will miss him.”

“As will I,” sighed Eustace. His sigh turned into a smile, however, as he sighted Maggie's smudged dress and scratched hands. “Adventures in the wilderness?”

Maggie looked down and grimaced. “It's quite overgrown out there. Let me just run back to my chamber and wash up.”

“Alright. I want to talk to you about this when you get back.” Eustace drew his brows together and ran his finger down the length of a paragraph in the huge volume he had open on his desk. “I want to see if this concurs with what you found to be true about the cloak that the king wore the night of the assassination attempt.”

“I'll be right back,” Maggie assured him, and duly returned in several minutes, her hands rinsed clean, and a moistened handkerchief to scrub at her dress. She rubbed at the muddy patches intermittently as Eustace read her the description, and then compared it to several drawings she had just made.

“It seems to be alright, I just never came across this account before,” Eustace concluded, admiring the drawing. “You have improved a good deal, I think.”

“Are you saying that I used to be bad?” Maggie asked, trying in vain to reach a spot near the back hem of her dress where her muddy boots had left a print. Eustace took the wet handkerchief from her and, going about behind her, sat upon the floor and set to work scrubbing at it, as she continued, “Because if you are, I shan't take kindly to it.” She tipped her nose in the air, and looked over her shoulder at him.

“No, of course not. I just mean you have increased in skill. They look so lifelike, I could swear they just stepped from the pages of history.”

“And they have.” Maggie smiled, taking the hankie from him, and swishing her skirt around to examine his work. “Thank you. It will dry in no time, and I can wash it properly later.” Eustace sat back in his desk chair, and motioned for Maggie to sit in the window. He looked the very picture of studious intelligence sitting there, a slight figure behind a massive wooden desk overstrewn with books and papers, inkwells, and quills. He seemed to have something on his mind, and at last opened his mouth to speak.

“Do you know if your godfather is an artist?” he said at last. Maggie looked surprised.

“Is he?” she exclaimed. “How would you know that?”

“Well, I don't really. I was just thinking–”

“A very bad habit of yours.”

“Don't tease me.” He smiled nevertheless. Stroking his chin, Eustace mused, “I am glad every day for you.” He looked up, the spring light strong in his bright eyes. “We have spent so much time together. Do you get tired of me?”

“No.” Maggie smiled. “Not at all. I really like it in here – and I really like working with you. I learn so much.”

“I'm glad.” He still looked distracted, and at last asked Maggie, “Do you ever wonder what will become of you? I mean, what you will do with your life?”

“I don't like to think 'what will become of me',” Maggie said, brushing a stray wisp of hair behind her ear. “But I know what I'm doing with my life; I am illustrating a master chronology of the entire history of the world.”

“And you are happy doing that?”

“Are you?” Maggie wondered why he was asking her this.

“I am completely content. I just don't want you to think that I am making you do this.”

“Never.” Maggie stood, and going to his wide desk, gave Eustace her hand. “I do it because I want to.” A flush of color suffused his face, and he retained her hand for a moment.

“You know it's important to me,” he said at last.

“But that's not why I do it. I love history now.” Maggie reclaimed her hand, and took up a stack of her recent drawings. “But not as much as you do, I'm afraid. I don't think I ever could.”

Eustace took the stack of drawings from her and spread them out over the desk, not bothering to move the papers and books underneath. He nearly upset his inkwell every time he attempted this feat, but recently Maggie had taken to diving for it, and setting it someplace safe so he could rifle fearlessly through their work. They sorted and examined in silence for quite some time, Maggie periodically asking Eustace where in time this particular picture belonged, Eustace occasionally making a note in a blue pencil upon the back of the sheet.

Then Maggie enquired, “Why did you say what you did about Godfather Cadogan being an artist?”

Eustace didn't reply for a moment, but then said, not meeting her eye, “I thought perhaps you might know something I didn't.”

“Impossible,” Maggie laughed. “You know everything, and I don't.”

Eustace knew he should have smiled at her cajolery, but instead rose, and went into his bedchamber. Maggie looked after him, confusion on her face. Momentarily he returned with a drawing in his hand, and held it out to Maggie. It was of a beautiful young woman. Rough lines formed her thick hair, but her face was made up of soft shading that shaped her fine features and large eyes. Her clothes too were left in ragged unfinished strokes, but it was a marvelous composition. Maggie said nothing but looked at Eustace. His eyes held those of the portrait, and there was a wistful look on his face as he soberly regarded the young lady who looked back at him. There was a seeming understanding between the eyes of the young scholar and those of the beautiful girl in the picture. Maggie thought she understood, and gently handed the picture back.

“The initials are M.C.,” he said softly, gazing once more at the picture, before returning to his room. When he came out, it was without the portrait. “I wondered if perhaps you heard of his drawing.”

“I never even heard his name before I came to live here. My mother once told me when I was very young, and asked her about my name– I believe someone had teased me about it at school... that I was named for a man she once knew. I later found out it was him, although I don't know how he ever met my mother if he never leaves here, or why on earth she would name her daughter after him even if she did meet him.”

“Perhaps he hasn't always been as he is now.” Eustace murmured. “Did you ever think of that? You haven't always been as you are now.” Maggie never gave it much thought, nor did she intend to, she said. This seemed to satisfy Eustace. The rest of the afternoon they spent in compiling, studying, writing, and drawing; and Maggie did not press Eustace about the picture toward which he so obviously felt such deep emotion. He was a mysterious young man indeed.

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