Defining Moment

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In Which Maggie is Given a Fright

That evening, Maggie suddenly had an idea.

“Eustace?” He looked up from where he seated at his desk to where Maggie was curled in one of the wingback chairs before the fire, for though spring was on its way, the nights were still chilly.

“I think I do know something you don't know.”

“Really.” He was writing hurriedly, and glancing between four different books he had opened, one upon his lap, one on either side of his page, and one large book lying open on the floor at his feet.

“You once told me you were born around this time of year. Obviously we have been having birthdays all these years, but never done anything to celebrate them.” Eustace still didn't look up, but his mouth curved in a smile.

“I suppose you're right. But I don't like a fuss being made over me anyway. When is your birthday? We could –”

“When is yours?” Maggie looked hard at him, a gleam in her eye. Eustace sighed, and lay aside his quill, glancing at a small calendar he kept upon the mantlepiece.

“Today.”

“I knew it!” Maggie exclaimed.

“How did you know that...” Eustace frowned playfully.

She smiled. “You told me once. If I had remembered – or if you would have reminded me – we could have had a little celebration.”

“Oh, not necessary... I've passed so many years without marking it that I wouldn't know what to do – I don't even know if I like celebrations...” he said. “How old are you, then? Twenty?”

“Twenty-three,” Eustace smiled. “We should work on mathematics after all.”

Maggie rolled her eyes. “I have an idea. It isn't much, but you said you wouldn't like much. I couldn't persuade you to come to the garden with me, but,” she stood and gave a graceful curtsey, “I would be greatly honored if, on the occasion of Master Eustace Reid's twenty-third birthday, he would condescend to visit the sitting room of Miss Mortimer Clancy.” Seeing Eustace's face, Maggie hastened to add, “Oh, please say you'll come. You've never even seen it, and I never have company.”

Eustace shook his head soberly. “No.”

Maggie sighed. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am. I haven't left these rooms in sixteen years, Maggie – as many years as your lifetime. Why should I leave them now.” It was not a question.

“Not even for me?” Maggie said in a touching tone. Eustace's eyes sparkled.

“Not even for you, Maggie. Besides, it being my birthday, it would be difficult to say with certainty that it was for you.”

She shook her head. “Very well, sir. But you are very stubborn.”

“Thank you, miss,” he inclined his head. “So are you.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I know what you are doing.”

“What am I doing?”

“Mulling over your next plot on what to do for me. I'll tell you what you can do for me,” Eustace said, putting his hand to his head. “I feel very tired. If you are eager to play serving maid, I wouldn't mind a cup of tea.”

“Certainly.” Maggie rose and began the long search among the untidy study for Eustace's teacup, and at last discovered it underneath a pile of papers. Imagine that... Maggie thought with a smile. “I'll be right back,” she said. Eustace didn't respond.

Maggie descended the wide staircase and entered the kitchen, finding a tin of tea and measuring out just enough. Then she filled a kettle with water and bore it back up the stairs, around the corner, and to the end of the second hallway. Opening the door carefully, cautious not to spill the water or drop the tea, Maggie slowly climbed the steps and entered the library, hanging the kettle over the fire to begin heating, and setting the tea down on the small table nearby. Then Maggie realized she didn't hear the scratching of Eustace's pen, or the excited flipping of pages. She turned and was shocked to not see him at his desk – nor anywhere else in the room. Alarm rising in her, Maggie called his name.

“Eustace? Eustace –” There was no response. Suddenly she heard a noise – the sound of labored breathing and a low moan. Rounding the corner of the massive desk, Maggie saw him. Eustace was lying in the floor in a heap, shaking uncontrollably, and gasping for air, his arms locked over his chest.

“Eustace –” Maggie dropped to her knees beside him, and grasped him by the shoulders, pulling him free from the chair in in which his legs were tangled, and pressing him to the floor to try to abate his shaking. “Eustace – what happened? Are you hurt? Can you speak? It's me – it's me, Maggie! Eustace – can you hear me?”

His eyes were large and wild, and Maggie cradled his head in her lap, peeling his hands away from his chest. Being satisfied that there was no blood, Maggie began to stroke his hair away from his sweaty forehead, and murmur softly to him as the trembling gradually subsided: “It's alright. I'm here... it's alright. Take a deep breath. That's right. A deep breath. I'm here. You're going to be fine.” Maggie'e heart had been pounding, but only now, as Eustace lay limp and white in the floor, did she become aware of how frightened she was.

“Eustace –” she whispered, shaking him gently. “It's me, Maggie. Are you alright?” Slowly, ever so slowly, he opened his eyes, and took in a painful breath. A smile flitted over his face, and his lips moved. Finally, Maggie heard his voice, high-pitched and as light as a puff of wind.

“I'm alright.”

She helped him to his chair, and Eustace collapsed, his head lolling weakly to one side, as Maggie knelt before him and put her hands on his knees.

Are you alright?” she asked, worry in her eyes.

“Yes, I'll be fine, just let me rest...” he managed. The kettle begin to whistle – it jerked Maggie out of her trance-like state as she stared at Eustace's pale face, and she went to begin to steep the tea, returning at once to his side. He opened his eyes presently, and Maggie peered deeply into them. His pupils were not dilated; everything seemed quite normal.

“What happened?” she asked at last.

“I don't know,” Eustace said, his voice still light and weak. “I had a great pain in my chest, and then I think I fainted.”

“I should say so,” Maggie murmured, pouring a cup of tea and putting it into his hands. “You frightened me so. I only left for a moment.”

“I'm sorry.” He smiled weakly.

“Has that ever happened before? When I'm not here?” Maggie asked, suddenly very worried for his health.

“No.” He took a sip of the piping hot tea, and winced.

“What–?”

“My chest still hurts so awfully.” He sighed and took another sip of tea, closing his eyes. A moment later, he opened them, and they appeared quite clear. The color had begun to return to his face, and Eustace smiled again. “God willing, it won't happen again.”

Maggie's fears were not completely dispelled, and she watched Eustace closely for the rest of the evening. Other than his weakness, one would never guess anything had happened. They worked long into the night, and the next day came to a milestone in their progress. They finished a complete draft of the first century B.C., and celebrated by taking a bit of a rest for the next few days. Of course, taking a rest for Eustace meant reading philosophy, or other ancient literature, instead of histories, but Maggie was more than happy to take a bit of a true rest.

As the weather was extraordinarily fine, she decided, in an adventurous spurt, to take a walk beyond the manor and see if the park that she once visited seven years ago was still there. She was encouraged in this, surprisingly, by Eustace, who said:

“It will be good for you to get some air – and some sun.”

“What about you?”

“I'll stay here and read.” He smiled. Maggie shook her head.

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