Defining Moment

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In Which A Tale is Told

Maggie had just gotten Eustace up the stairs and into his chair before his desk, and covered his lap with a blanket – at which precaution he chuckled – when she heard a very strange noise. Maggie stopped in the act of pouring a cup of tea for herself and her invalid charge. It was the sound of a heavy tread across the polished floorboards of the mansion, and it grew closer and closer.

Eustace's closed his eyes and leaned his head back upon the chair, his lips moving silently, and Maggie went around and stood behind him, placing a strengthening hand upon his shoulder. The footsteps stopped, and Eustace opened his eyes, his face set and resigned. At last, the door burst open, and Godfather Cadogan, in an impeccable old-fashioned suit, stood framed in the doorway. He looked no different from the only other two encounters Maggie ever had with him; his white hair was wildly erect, and his eyes were blazing.

"Where have you been, boy?"

"On a walk," he replied quietly. "The weather was so fine."

"On a walk! On a walk, you tell me, just like that, as if it hadn't brought danger upon me, and danger upon yourself by setting foot outside these doors! Girl! Is this your doing?"

"It was my own doing," Eustace began, but stepping out from behind the desk, Maggie curtseyed gracefully to him, and said,

"I asked if he would go with me, godfather. I am awfully sorry." The old man stared in shock at the young woman before him. Maggie met his eyes respectfully, but bravely. Godfather Cadogan stared into her round blue orbs for a long moment, while Eustace watched, holding his breath. Finally he spoke.

"Girl, you've grown," he said somewhat roughly. Then, he added, in an almost reverent tone of voice, "You look like your mother." Just as suddenly as he had come, he vanished, just like that, leaving tension hanging in the atmosphere of the room, so that if one threw a handkerchief up into the air, it would have been suspended at head-level before your very eyes.

"How did he know you left?" Maggie marveled after a lengthy pause.

"He is a mysterious man," Eustace replied, heaving a sigh, and removing the blanket from his legs. He rose, and folded it over the arm of one of the chairs, and then returned to his desk, a queer light in his eyes.

"Would you like to hear another history story, Maggie?

"Not if you aren't feeling well enough," she rejoined.

"I am fine now. I don't know why that keeps happening..." Eustace put his hand to his forehead, and then looked up. "You mustn't blame him, you know, for being so unpleasant."

Maggie shrugged, and looked at her lap, but he could tell by her stiff form and flushed face that she beginning to bristle now in a delayed response to her godfather's tempestuous visit.

"He wasn't always as he is now. Once he was a young man, ardent, full of hopes..."

"How do you know?" Maggie interrupted. Eustace let loose in a fit of laughter, but when he stopped, his eyes were sad.

"You don't believe he could have been anything other than what he is now. But I will tell you otherwise, though it is difficult for me to recall the day I discovered these things myself, by reading his notes. All his letters and correspondence were kept in the room next to his library downstairs. Now, have patience,for this is a long tale – at least it seemed long by the time I finally made heads or tails of these letters, journal entries, and private musings."

"And did it ever strike you that this might be very rude?" Maggie was becoming more of her old self again.

"Yes, it did," admitted Eustace, "But I think you'll agree with me when all is told that I had as much a right to know as anybody. Now –" he raised his eyebrows reprovingly. "Shall I begin?"

"Yes, do," Maggie assented.

Eustace let his face relax and heaved a large sigh. "Very well. Here I begin the tale of an old family, one of the oldest in England, and one of the wealthiest in England as well. Their name was Cadogan, and they had an eldest son, one Mortimer Cadogan, and he had a sister, called Julia, I think. Yes, Julia...

"Mortimer was a young man full of adventure, and longed for something beyond the hum-drum existence that his inheritance provided him with, and set off one day to find something useful to do. And so it happened, that a perfectly useless, rich young man of twenty or so years of age rode into a small village in Warwickshire one day with nothing but the clothes on his back, which were very fine, the hat on his head, which was very silly, and the horse beneath him, which was very dashing.

"It also happened to be market day in the tiny wold, and as such, people had come from miniscule boroughs all around to sell their wares. Even so, a young stranger on horseback attracted a good deal of attention. Finally, the eldest inhabitant went to ask him what he would? He replied:

"'I would be where I can be of use.'

Everyone laughed – everyone, that is, but a girl in the middle of the crowd, surrounded by an army of little lads and lasses – a girl not much more than a lass herself, with large eyes and thick hair. She gazed curiously, openly at the stranger, and offered him a pure and encouraging smile. Mortimer ended up staying with the family of the young girl, whose name was Flora, and though he took a good deal of help before he could be quite useful about their establishment, which was a place to card and dye wool, I believe, he eventually came to love his new life in the tiny village. He also came to love the sprightly girl with the waving hair who loved to spend her time in the fields, braiding chains of flowers for the lassies or chasing about with the little lads of the town.

"One day he came upon the girl late in the evening, braiding flowers into her own shining hair. The setting sun cast it's fiery colors over her features and struck gently upon her strong and supple form. Mortimer had daily fallen more and more in love with her, and though she tried to deny it and fill her time and thoughts with work and frolicks, the young woman found she also had quite lost her heart to this rick young stranger with sandy hair and earnest golden eyes.

"He had told her she was beautiful before – she never blushed, only laughed, but now, as the ardent glow of the setting sun illuminated her whole face, he told her how beautiful she was, and how much he loved her. He had asked her father's permission to wed her that very day. As night fell over the forsaken down, the two walked or sat with their arms about each other; she entwined heady-scented flowers into his hair in the dark – he laughed, touching her face, and felt her breath upon his hand. The whole of the night passed away in such things, and more like them.

"Not to weary you, morning at last came, and the two returned rejoicing to the village. Though worried as to what might have become of the well-bred stranger, no one feared for Flora, for she would spend many a night among the downs alone. They lived in happy anticipation until the day came when Mortimer said he must go and advise his family of his good fortunes, as they had not heard from him in over a year, and must have nearly given him up. Reluctantly, the village bade goodbye to the naive stranger they had come to love, and waited for his return. And waited. And waited...

"Winter came, and with it, many hardships. The harvest had not been good that year, but the lovers had been too happy to notice or care. Meanwhile, Mortimer had reached his family's old country seat only to find it had been sold, and they had moved to a large mansion in town. He obtained directions, and followed them to a huge, darkly imposing structure. Announcing himself to the servants as Mortimer Cadogan, the eldest son and heir of the old master, he discovered that his old mother was very unwell, and the master had taken her to someplace in the German-Alpine mountains for a convalescence. His total sojournings to overtake them amounted to about three months of travel. His mother he found much worse than he had expected, and his father was quite distraught about the amount of business to be conducted back home. After sharing his happy news, Mortimer agreed to write to a few of his father's friends with whom he had business, and then go and fetch his bride.

"Such delays nearly drove him distracted, but he told himself all would be well, and he would reach Flora sometime in early spring. In the meantime he wrote to her, advising her of his plans; but the letter never left his desk. It remained unfolded and buried underneath piles of his father's accounts. He believed he had sent it, however, and so thought nothing of the fact that his departure for the village was half way through the month of May instead of as early as he had hoped. The moment he reached the village, he realized that something was terribly wrong. Though the weather was splendid, he had not seen Flora romping in the fields with the children and animals, in fact, not a child or an animal was visible about the tiny village. Only a few grim-looking adults took one look at him and scurried into their crofts.

"Mortimer spurred his horse through the streets, calling aloud to his friends, but they each gave him a baleful stare and hurried away. Dismounting, he caught hold of a man who had once taught him woodworking and demanded of him what was the matter. Shaking his head, the poor man managed to gasp out,

"'I will not be the one to tell you!' Then he wrenched himself free and vanished. Mortimer ran the rest of the way to Flora's house. Bursting open the door without knocking, and standing there, the spring breeze fresh around him, Mortimer called,

"'Flora! Flora! Are you here? I've returned!' Not a sound answered him but the echoes of his own eager cries, and momentarily, the sound of footsteps in the yard behind the house. The door opened, and Flora's father entered, looking stooped and gray. Flora's mother had been standing silently at the hearth in the adjacent room, listening to Mortimer's dramatic entrance, but making no sound.

"'Mortimer?' the old man exclaimed, his face growing pale.

"'Mortimer!' the old woman whispered, her eyes filling with tears.

"'What is it, dame?' the young man asked, his heart filled to the brim with alarm. "'Where is my dear Flora?'

"Alas! Alas, she was no more, they told him – dead, buried, gone. That difficult winter had taken several lives throughout the village, one of them the beautiful strong-spirited girl everyone loved. But first, her father said, shame had come upon her – for she had given birth to a child before she died. Mortimer could not believe his ears. Even the cries of the babe who was placed in his trembling arms could not convince him that his dear Flora was truly gone. And who was this child? Was it his? He thrust it from him angrily, and fled to the fields. He paced the downs, calling her name like one deranged, and refused to come under any roof or eat or drink a thing for days. Finally, he came to some measure of reason, and returned to Flora's family.

"'I'm leaving,' he said simply.

"'Take this child,' they begged him. 'Own your child.'

"He left without a word. Weeks passed, and the broken-hearted young man traveled through the countryside, passing villages and boroughs, wolds and farms, but stopped at none. Broken in body as well as soul, one night he found himself knocking upon the door of the only structure in sight, a modest dwelling surrounded by a large garden. The door was opened by a young man with an honest face and small smiling eyes. Mortimer nearly fell through the doorway, and the young man caught him.

"He found out over the next weeks that he stayed there, that he was at the dwelling of two siblings, orphans, who lived together and took care of each other: Elizabeth and Charles Toliver. As much as he liked Charles, what really healed the young man's bleeding heart and absolved his guilty soul was the kind attentions of young Elizabeth. True, she was nothing like Flora, and he would have murdered anyone who dare make the comparison, for she had pale reddish hair and clear blue eyes, but he came to feel something like love for the young woman who had such compassion on him.

"Once, nearly a year after he had come to live with them, helping to tend the garden, watching Charles take odd jobs for extra money, and being cared for by Elizabeth, he dared make so bold as to tell her he loved her. She burst into tears. In confusion, Mortimer went to Charles, and found that she was engaged to be married to a gentleman soldier who had fallen in love with her and promised to raise their fortunes by the marriage.

"Mortimer was devastated. That very night he left the Toliver's, refusing Elizabeth's entreaties for him to stay and meet her betrothed, who was due to return from his service any day now. He rode in angry, broken silence, rebuffed from his tender love that sprouted from the ashes of his smoldering passion. He reached the town house of the Cadogans and was somehow neither surprised nor hurt to hear that in this past year his mother had also died, his father following her a few months later. His younger sister had been sent to Europe upon her parents' deaths to finish her education under the instruction of an aristocratic aunt, returning several years after Mortimer had come into the possession of the family estate.

"Young Julia was shocked to find her brother such an unfeeling young man, and knowing nothing of the circumstances that made him so, left at once to stay with some friends – a family that had recently come into fortune and was desiring a companion for the young and fragile wife. It proved to be none other than Elizabeth Toliver, now Elizabeth Clancy, and her new husband.

"Later that year, Julia married Neville Clancy's best friend, James Melville, and they moved to Brighton. Mortimer Cadogan Esq. knew nothing of this, and as far as I know, he had no contact with the world beyond his house until the following year when he surprised the only lackey he kept on at that time– a cook – and sent for 'the boy from the village,' as he wrote. The cook was then dismissed, and duly, a lad of six or so came to live with the mysterious man who did not know of his own sister or her family; for she gave birth to a daughter the year after she was married. When 'the boy, Eustace, as he has been called' was seven to be exact, Meville and Elizabeth Clancy had a child whom Elizabeth named for the poor broken man she once took pity on and nearly loved, a little girl named Mortimer, but to be called Maggie."

Eustace slumped forward; this long tale had cost him a great effort to tell. "You see now why we both have a right to know this."

"So –" Maggie groped, beginning to breathe again after this astonishing story, "Phillip is Godfather Cadogan's nephew?"

"Yes."

"Why did he not tell me this?" she murmured. Maggie pulled the ribbon from the end of her braid and untangled it, twining it about her finger. "That is why I was sent to live here when my mother died – and – and – my godfather – Mortimer Cadogan, Esq. is your–"

"My father," Eustace responded wearily. "He permits me to live in these rooms, and rarely sees me if he can help it, I suppose because I resemble my mother. But you see –" He smiled. "I have made the best of things. Years and years of reading, an early childhood in a delightfully unknown little borough, and now, a life of writing all I think and know– is that so bad?"

Maggie's eyes were full of tears, and she did not know why. Eustace rose, and went to her, putting a friendly arm about her shoulder, though inside his courage quailed at his own boldness. "You are not sorry for me, I hope..." was all he could think to say. "I hope you will grow to feel sorry for him, as I have."

But Maggie did not reply. I think we all can agree that Maggie had borne up very well the last few days, and we can forgive her for suddenly jumping to her feet, and running from the room, holding her breath to keep in the silent sobs.


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