Defining Moment

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In Which Eustace Ventures Out

Maggie slowly led Eustace forth from his haunt, the first time the twenty-three year old student had set foot outside those two rooms since he was seven years old. Maggie looked back over her shoulder to see what effect this was having upon him – his face was a mask of serenity, and impossible to read.

Together, they crossed the manor house, their footsteps echoing ominously in the huge shadowy mansion. Supposing correctly that nothing had changed since the day Eustace himself had come to live at the manor, Maggie forwent her notion to play tour-guide and led Eustace directly to the side door. He took in a deep breath, and laid his hand upon the latch. Then he threw open the door.

Sunlight streamed in upon them, and Eustace squinted, raising an arm to shield his face. Taking a first step into the side street, he heard Maggie close the door behind them.

"Shall we take a walk, sir?" Maggie spoke for the first time since they left the study.

"I'll follow you."

Maggie struck confidently out into the main street, Eustace following her a few paces behind. She kept looking back over her shoulder to see how he was doing; the first time she looked back he was moving along in a daze, taking small uncertain steps. The second time, he was looking all about him, open-mouthed at the hustle and bustle. The third time he caught her at it, he said, "Stop that." Then he smiled. "You will make people stare at us."

The fact was no one in the busy city even glanced at the fresh pretty girl leading along the bookish-looking young man with thick dark hair, a pale face, and wondering eyes.

"What do you think?" she asked, coming alongside him, and taking his arm.

"It is certainly a defining moment in my life..." he murmured. And it was. Thus they continued along the busy streets of the city, and reached at last the park. Maggie had to pull Eustace away from the shop window into which he was peering, much to the chagrin of the woman arranging hats and ribbons within, and direct him across the square.

"And here we are," she said, gesturing to the green upon which people walked, talked, romped, or reposed. "Isn't it nice?"

"I'd like to sit down," Eustace murmured, and Maggie obligingly led him to a bench – the same bench, in fact, where she had first met Phillip. She told Eustace this, and he nodded soberly.

"I see. I can imagine it, I think. That's history too, you know."

There was a pause, and then Eustace asked, "Does Phillip come here every day at this time?" He looked about him and saw a man and a little girl romping together. He watched them shyly out of the tops of his eyes. The little girl noticed him watching them and waved; Eustace ducked his head, but then, thinking better of it, and seeing the lass continue to stare, offered her a smile. She smiled back and scampered off to catch up with her tall father.

"Phillip will come soon enough," promised Maggie. "I am so glad for you to meet him. And I think the fresh air and exercise will do you good."

Eustace clasped his hands together in his lap and fought the urge to fidget, uncomfortable in his open, unsheltered surroundings. "I suppose you're right. I'm just not used to it – it makes my head spin."

"Well, it doesn't look like it's spinning, if that's any comfort," Maggie offered, trying to set him at ease before Phillip arrived. Her efforts proved good-intentioned, but alas, tardy, as that very moment she sighted a well-dressed figure hurrying toward them. His hat cast his face into shadow, but Maggie knew Phillip Melville at once by his care-free step and boisterous cheerful voice.

"Halloo, Maggie!" He called, doffing his hat and and giving a small skip in his steps to speed him along. "So glad you are here!"

Maggie ran to him, and taking him by the hand, which seemed to delight him, brought him before Eustace, who stood and stiffly bowed.

"Eustace Reid. Pleased to meet you."

"Phillip Melville. An honor to make your acquaintance..." Phillip bowed as well, and looked at Maggie. "So this is the Eustace I hear so much of?"

"I'm afraid so," Eustace said dryly. Maggie gave him a reproving look that said, be nice to him. Phillip surveyed the slight, unruly-haired scholar with simple clothes and ink stains on his cuffs, and said,

"I understand you are a dear friend to my Maggie?"

"I am a friend – I was not under the impression that I was dear to her," replied Eustace, "Or that Maggie belonged to you. Yet."

Phillip forced a laugh, but Maggie didn't like the tone of voice that he used as he replied,

"Oh, that is only a matter of time. At least, we were hoping you would agree with us on the subject. You cannot be ignorant of it, can you? I'm sure such a scholar as I hear you are cannot be ignorant about anything."

"I see my reputation has preceded me; but you would be surprised. In spite of my years of study, there is much I do not yet claim to comprehend in this world."

"Such as –?" Phillip raised his eyebrows obsequiously.

"The ways of the wealthy – the rules of society – many things."

"Those, I can happily condescend to teach you," began Phillip in a mocking voice, but Maggie stopped him.

"Phillip, please. Don't tease him," she said softly. Eustace took the opportunity afforded him to elaborate.

"Nor do I understand the ways of a woman's heart. I have not had the happy privilege to love as many do, and to be loved in return. That would, perhaps, account for my perplexity at you relationship. Maggie hardly knows you, sir." Eustace finished mildly.

"Something, which, again, shall be soon remedied. I care deeply for her, and have a great desire to have her by my side. I can't see what is preventing us from being married."

"Proper permission prevents you," Eustace said. Maggie sighed.

"Eustace, please, I just thought you two should meet. You don't have to promise anything just yet."

"I promised nothing," Eustace said to her, his eyes still holding Phillip's evenly. "And I am quite glad we met."

"As am I. The acquaintance of such a distinguished... unusual... studious man is never a thing to be taken lightly," Phillip concluded. Eustace abruptly seated himself again, and crossed his arms upon his chest, lowering his head in thought. Phillip looked from him to Maggie and then back again.

"Sir –?"

"You seek my permission by telling me what you intend to do? Very well. I have no real ties to Maggie, only those forged by years spent in solitude with her; you do not need my permission. Though her godfather, of course, will be pleased to find he has such an eager heir to his fortune." With that, Eustace stood, and stalked off, leaving Phillip and Maggie staring after him.

"I'll go talk to him," Maggie began. Just then Eustace stopped in his rapid retreat, and looked about him confusedly. Maggie began to approach him.

"Which way is the manor?" he demanded of her, the moment she was within earshot.

"Eustace, please forgive him. He has never done this before, and I don't know why he –"

"He doesn't like me, that's all. And I don't much like him, but that isn't the point. You do, and there's an end of it. I'm going to return, if you'll just tell me the way to go."

"I'll go with you. Let me say goodbye to Phillip first." Eustace dropped his chin and rested it upon his hand, his hazel eyes full of an an unnamed emotion. "Just walk about for a minute. I'll join you shortly," she said.

Leaving Eustace standing all alone like an alien on a desolate foreign shore, Maggie lifted the hem of her dress and hurried back to where Phillip stood, his hand resting upon the truck of a tree, his back to her.

"Phillip." He turned. "You were not very kind to Eustace –"

"'Kind to Eustace'?" He mimicked, snatching his hat from the ground. "I don't like him. Not one bit."

With that, he caught her hand, pressed it ardently to his lips, and then turned, leaving Maggie standing in the park and looking after him, her heart aching with pent-up feelings she could not sort out. She returned slowly to Eustace, and took his offered arm. "Let's go home."

"Aye, let's do." He seemed wearied by this excursion, and they walked back along the quietened streets of the city in silence. They had nearly reached the narrow side street beside Godfather Cadogan's manor when Maggie felt Eustace's arm stiffen in her own. She looked at him in surprise – his face had grown as white as a sheet , and he opened his mouth to gasp for breath.

A moment later, and he was down upon the pavement at Maggie's feet, his arms locked over his chest, upon his face an expression of excruciating pain. Maggie dropped to her knees beside him, as rapidly there grew a small gaggle of onlookers about them, watching as Eustace shook violently, and then subsided into a faint.

Maggie called his name, chafed his cold hands, and at last, lowered her head to his chest to listen to his heart, which was throbbing painfully fast within his breast. Her own heart was knocking against her ribs in panic, and when at last he opened his eyes and looked about him blearily, Maggie heaved a sigh of relief.

"Eustace – are you alright?" she whispered, touching his face gently. "Can you hear me? It's Maggie..."

While the crowd looked at one another and talked excitedly, Maggie felt Eustace's pulse, and continued to speak softly to him. Finally he made an effort to speak.

"Where am I?"

"We are outside Godfather Cadogan's house," This speech caused a ripple through the crowd that pressed closer in curiosity. "I think you had another fit..." Just then, the group of passers-by parted with angry gestures and offended exclamations as a rickety wheelbarrow was thrust through their midst, pushed by an old man with a wrinkled brown face who was wearing a dirty cap of questionable origins.

"Make way, make way all of you, what's goin' on here? Delivery for old Cadogan," he said in an ancient voice, stopping short before the scene. "What, miss? An accident?"

Maggie looked up to see the coffee man examining her with his gleaming dark eyes. "Yes, an accident," she managed. "Help me send the crowd away. He needs air."

Tugging Eustace's head and shoulders into her lap and ignoring the efforts the coffee man made to shoo away the curious townspeople who reluctantly went back to their business, Maggie stroked Eustace's thick hair out of his face and told him to lie still.

"Get me inside – I am not supposed to be seen –" he gasped.

"Nonsense. Rest for a moment longer... Everything will be fine," promised Maggie, looking up, and thanking the coffee man, who, hands on his hips, was peering down at them.

"Well, now, this is a curious happening. What did I say, right?" he said, smiling a lopsided grin. "And who might be you, young chap, eh?"

"Help me get him inside," Maggie said, ignoring the question, and helping Eustace stand. She draped his arm over her shoulder, and asked, "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," he murmured, leaning heavily on her, and making for the door. Maggie opened it, and snapped,

"Did you hear me? Help us! Take his other arm!" But the coffee man shrank from the doorway.

"And go into that house, no miss, I shall not certainly never do no such thing, and that I tell ye," he said, regarding the looming manor with a superstitious eye. "Wouldn't be right to be intruding into Master Cadogan's business, anywise," he muttered. "This fellow live here?"

"Yes," Maggie sighed, as Eustace disentangled himself from her, and protested, leaning against the wall just inside the door, that he was feeling much better now.

"What interest do you have in him?"

"Nothing, miss, nothing at all, just following orders. I never knew a young gentleman lived here with the old gentleman, or has been living with him for any amount of time a'tall," he said, grunting and beginning to unload his deliveries. Maggie wordlessly took them one by one and carried them just inside the door, then thanked the coffee man, and her hand on the latch, said curtly,

"Thank you. Have a nice day." Then she slammed the door. The coffee man stood and scratched his rough chin in the alleyway, and then ambled off, his wheelbarrow bumping along the uneven ground.


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