Defining Moment

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In Which A Stormy Night is Not Wasted

First thing the following morning, Maggie rose, and dressing herself carefully, pinning her hair up off her neck, and purposefully leaving her sketchbook sitting upon the iron-bound trunk, she quietly let herself out of the dark manor and set her face toward the park.

Phillip was there, waiting for her. Slowly, Maggie crossed the square, and stepped across the green sward, her dress trailing over the tender blades of grass, and bending them in gentle homage of her passing, like the fairy queen of the morn.

"Maggie." Phillip smiled, appraising her approvingly. "You look fresh and fetching this morning."

She nodded, but made no response, taking his offered arm, as they began to take a turn about the graveled path. She seemed pensive, and Phillip tried his best to break the mood.

"Did you bring your little drawing book this morning?" he asked at length. "I've hardly ever seen you without it."

"I left it behind. I'd rather talk to you," Maggie replied at last.

"Oh? And when did this sentiment become foremost in your intentions?" he began in a patronizing tone – the same tone he had used with Eustace... Maggie stopped short and faced him, taking a deep breath.

"Only when I have something of a very particular nature I wish to speak with you about."

"It can't be of a pleasant nature, or else you wouldn't look like an angry goddess, with your gentle brows drawn, and –"

"No matter how gentle the brows, one is likely to draw them when they discover they have been deceived by one they thought they loved," Maggie said, meeting Phillip's eye. "Why did you not tell me who you were?"

Phillip's eyes flashed. "What on earth do you mean, girl? I have told you everything, my full name, my family history, my intentions in life –"

"But not all of them. I knew your father, and he was one of the best men of my acquaintance. I was very young, but still I –"

"Then perhaps that accounts for your mistake. My father is a shiftless sulking coward, who left me and my mother that he might live a life that pleased him –"

"He left your mother so she could live a life that pleased her! Don't lie to me again, Phillip Melville. I know your history, and I now know that of my godfather, your uncle. And I know your intentions."

"What do you know?" Phillip demanded, seizing Maggie by the arm, and drawing his face close to hers. "What do you know beyond the facts that I have declared I love you and want to marry you? That is all you need know – isn't it enough for you?"

"It is not enough for you," Maggie said, disdain in her face. The remark stung Phillip, and he released her, saying,

"You are not what I thought you were."

"And you are not what I thought you were. If you don't mind, I think I will return where at least I can believe what I see and hear."

"You mean return to your gloomy mansion and your pasty-faced historian?" Phillip spat. Maggie abruptly struck him, gasping,

"How dare you!"

An angry red patch flared on Phillip's cheek as he turned back to Maggie. "I know your secrets, and his too. Your godfather is a demented old miser, and not fit for the wealth he enjoys, and the world will soon know it! All of England will soon know the undisclosed mysteries of Master Mortimer Cadogan!"

"Not by your lips, Phillip Melville," Maggie said through clenched teeth. "God will punish the guilty, and the righteous will go free!"

"Oh, so it's a question of God, is it? I have never seen one thing in this world that made me think that God took any interest in our affairs. But since you insist that He has something to do with it," Phillip turned on his heel and began to stalk away, shouting,

"–Consider it a challenge between us!"

"And may the best man win!" Maggie couldn't resist calling after him. Heaving a deep sigh, Maggie began to walk back toward her godfather's house. Letting herself in the side door, and going at once to her room, Maggie sat down upon her bed, and stared blankly at the wall before her, noticing not the passing of the hours, nor the growing coldness of the room as clouds concealed the sun, and thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.

Along the dingy streets of the town Phillip strode, taking a glance above him at the bleak gray sky, and quickening his pace, his face burning with suppressed anger, and his eyes bright with a vengeful plan. Periodically he would seize a passer-by and demand of them directions. They would give him a few words or point up the street, and he would stride on, looking about him for a particular dwelling.

Coming at last to an unkempt door, Phillip knocked a peculiar knock upon the rotting wood, and stood back to await response. Eventually, the door opened, and the coffee man stood in the doorway, his wizened form shrouded in shadow, his leathery face creased in some sort of unrecognizable expression.

"Come in, come in Melville. We meet again," he croaked, shutting the door behind the well-dressed young profligate. "What brings you here, righ', on a day such as this? Middle of the week, eh – looks like rain?"

"You knew I would be coming."

The old man bobbed his head. "I suspicioned it, I did suspicion you'd be coming sooner or later. What with the young man living with Cadogan that nobody was any t'wiser about, and the young lass..."

"About that young man. Who is he? I must know." Phillip demanded. "I have his name and have gotten reasonable verification that he never leaves the house if he can help it, and is a scholar of some sorts."

"Never leaves the house a'tall, fainted dead away on the doorstep was how I come upon 'em," the coffee man whispered, going to the window and drawing a decrepit curtain over the gash in the wall.

"What do you mean?"

"Just what I says, was in a terrible fit, young Maggie holding him and telling me to send the crowd away so's he could breath some air."

"What day was this?"
"Why, Monday, I was just comin' to make my delivery, and come upon 'em there."

"They had just come from the park where I was talking to Maggie," Phillip said, stroking his chin. "How very strange. Was he seen by anyone else?"

"By a medley of people," the coffee man assented, "I sends 'em away, I did, at Miss Maggie's orders. You know the lass? She used to come and see me when I brought things as was wanted, and she was such a pretty child, standing and prattling away to me all the while. She's grown now," he said, his eyes twinkling at the young man, "and is as fair as any I've seen."

"I know – do you remember nothing? I told you last time my intentions were to marry her," Phillip snapped. "But that is all given up now."

"Did you now?" The coffee man went to his cupboard and set out two mugs upon the heavy table at which Phillip had seated himself, pouring them full from an earthenware jug that smelled strongly of several different beverages. Phillip took a swallow without inquiring as to what it was, and continued, his eyes blazing,

"And so the fortune of old Cadogan slips from my grasp once again."

"T'would thing your heart would be nearly broken with sorrow for her refusing of you, Melville," the man said, watching his response closely.

"It isn't that!" exclaimed Phillip. "Yes, she was fair enough, I suppose, and yes I wanted to have her, but she was our link! Our key! And now all I have is you, and all you do is make a delivery in an alley once a week," Phillip said disdainfully.

"Oh, you are wrong about that. I know much more than any soul would suppose, and I'd be willing to help you, young Melville, if you'll listen to my plan."

"Your plan won't be any good, though your information might be. We have done business together before; now this is serious. And I know the only way to ensure that no one suspects who has done it..."

Their voices dropped into clandestine whispers, and no one passing on the streets before either the ramshackle abode, nor the imposing mansion had the faintest idea of what diabolical plots were being hatched by the son of James Melville and the creature dubbed "the coffee man".

Lightning tore across the sky, and jerked Maggie from her reverie. She had no idea what hour it was, and rose, going to her window to look out and try to ascertain the time. The sky was dark, and rain soon began to drop down from the boiling black clouds above onto the windowpane, and Maggie helped herself to a cup of tea, and then betook herself upstairs to the garret library to apprise Eustace of what had transpired between herself and Phillip.

She did not find him in the study, but went on into his bedchamber and saw Eustace in his shirtsleeves rifling through his trunk of belongings, oblivious to her entry. She rapped upon the doorframe and he turned, breaking into a smile.

"Maggie. I wondered what had become of you."

"I know not," she sighed, clasping her hands and letting her eyes wander about the sparsely furnished room. "I talked to Phillip. I will not be seeing him again."

Eustace stood, and put his thumbs into his braces. "Really."

"Don't tease me."

"I'm not." His face was earnest. "What happened?"

Maggie proceeded to relate to Eustace the interchange at the park, and when she had finished, she said, "I am worried, Eustace."

He nodded and inquired soberly, "Why?"

"Of what he will do to us. He was very angry, and frightened me with his manner."

"We need not live in fear. Just live day by day until eternity passes us by. I think you will agree we have enough to do. I have made good progress on our timeline." Maggie smiled in spite of herself, welcoming back talk of their brainchild.

"I must be fearfully behind," she admitted, following Eustace out into the library.

"Not really. I had a deal of research to do upon this section, and am not nearly finished yet. I think we'll only do a few drawings for this one since I have written so much text." He settled himself down behind his desk, and began to pore over his stacks of notes, not noticing that Maggie slipped back into his chamber. Momentarily she appeared, holding something in her hand. It was the picture of the beautiful young lady, and she looked at it with a serene face.

"Eustace, you never told me who this is," she said, laying it upon the desk, and sliding it toward him. Eustace sat very still, and did not look up. Maggie continued quietly,

"I'd like you to tell me about her – about how you loved her, and why you never speak of her."

Eustace looked up and smiled sadly. "Do you know who this is?"

"One you once loved," Maggie said evenly, promising to keep quiet and let Eustace tell his tale without her interruptions, questions, and accusations. To her surprise, he shook his head.

"No."

"No?"

"This is my mother." Eustace touched the cheek of the woman in the portrait, and then slid it back across the desk to Maggie. "Do we look alike?" Suddenly, Maggie saw the likeness, and wondered why she didn't realize it before. The woman did look a good deal like Eustace, but with a different mouth, and a finer nose. Their eyes, however, were identical, as were the irregular waves of dark hair, the fine fair brow, and the well-formed face.

"My – my father... he drew it for her," Eustace managed. "You see the initials?"

"He must have given this to her before he left..." Maggie murmured, marveling, "I didn't know he was an artist."

"Nor is he. Aside from a few drawings in journals that I discovered, and those being of maps and various bits from nature, I have never found any other works of his. I never knew my mother, and I have always treasured this from the day I received it, as my only memories of her. Would you put it back where you found it?" Eustace finished.

Maggie did as he asked, and returned to find him busily at work, as if nothing had passed between them of any sort of importance at all. He looked up to find her watching him, her mind clearly mulling over an idea.

"You once said that a dark and stormy night in an old solitary manor was a terrible thing to waste," she said. "Since I convinced you once to venture out into the streets, could I convince you to come to my sitting room, just this once? I think you would like to see it."

"Is it that wonderful, that you keep asking?" Eustace grinned and then, sobering, continued, "You aren't afraid of getting into trouble?"

She shook her head, and to her surprise, he replied.

"Neither am I. Lead the way."

Her heart rebounding in excitement, Maggie took the scholar forth once again from his haunt, the second time he had left those rooms in her lifetime. Bearing an oil lamp, the two figures cast wraith-like shadows upon the walls of the empty manor as they crossed it, thunder rumbling without, and lightning periodically illumining their way.

Maggie stopped at the end of her corridor, and opened the door to the sitting room, gesturing for Eustace to enter before her. Slowly, the student set foot upon the fine carpet, and looked about him, as Maggie set to the task of lighting the candles upon the walls. Eustace began to lower himself into a chair, but suddenly stopped, as if he had sat upon a cushion of pins, and stood upright.

"May I?" he asked momentarily, giving a polite bow. Maggie laughed.

"Certainly, fine sir. It is an honor to have you."

A moment later, looking about him, Eustace asked,

"Have you ever read the books on that shelf?"

"Nearly all of them," Maggie said. "Sometimes I have been able to find information for our chronology in them. If it wasn't an insult to your intelligence, I might offer to lend them to you, but I'm sure you already know all that is in them anyway."

It was Eustace's turn to laugh. "This is such an interesting room. I have never seen anything like it before. What is it meant for?"

"Oh, receiving company, like tonight," Maggie said, "Or having afternoon tea, or relaxing and reading a book, or practising one's dancing..." Maggie rose and began to twirl about the room as Eustace watched her interestedly. Somehow, she was surprised when she stopped, and saw him next to her, looking curiously at her feet.

"Do that again," he demanded. Maggie complied, slowly going through the steps of a simple waltz, and Eustace said,

"I read about that once, and used to try and learn it, but I never saw anyone do it before, so I got on rather slowly."

"You know how to dance?" Maggie asked, surprise on her face. But then she added, "I really shouldn't wonder, as you know practically everything. Would you like to try it?"

Eustace hesitated. "I'm sure I'm quite dreadful –"

"I'm sure I am too. I've never in my life danced with a real partner. At school, we all had to imagine. One gets used to it."

Eustace shook his head. "I never got used to it. Remind me how to begin."

Maggie told Eustace to hold his hand out, palm up, and place his other hand as if it was around someone's waist. He complied, and began to slowly step about on the rug, examining his feet all the while, and Maggie exclaimed,

"That's right – you do very well indeed." Just then, Eustace, intent upon his footwork, crashed into the small lace-draped table behind him and sent it toppling to the floor with a loud clatter. He winced.

"Not so well, I fear," he said, apologizing and helping Maggie set the table to rights.

"I have an idea." Maggie looked up.

"Excellent, let's hear it."

"Downstairs, before the staircase. There is a large area that would be perfect to practise in."

"Are you sure it will be alright?"

"No, but don't you want to try it?"

To her surprise, Eustace agreed. "Very well. After all, we mustn't waste this stormy night."

With silent tread and a few quiet words, Eustace and Maggie made their way down the grand sweeping staircase and onto the polished floor of the atrium. Maggie paused upon the bottom step and watched as Eustace, silhouetted by the light from the single high window, stepped vulnerably out onto the open floor. It was fascinating to her to see the student whom she had so rarely beheld anywhere by in his dusty study, or on occasion, in his tiny chamber, move about freely in a large space. He turned, and saw her watching him from the stairs.

"Come on, then," he said quietly, and Maggie did so, her skirt swishing noiselessly along the polished floor.

"This is going to be an adventure," he murmured, "Since neither of us have ever really done this before."

"We will learn together," Maggie replied softly, a lightning flash lighting up her face as she looked earnestly at him. The rain poured from the heavens and thunder rolled outside as Eustace, forcing himself to breathe and stop the shaking inside him, reached out, and turned his palm upwards. Maggie laid her hand lightly in his, and extended her other hand to rest upon his shoulder. Slipping his hand about her waist, Eustace silently counted in his head, knowing the girl was doing the same, and slowly, carefully, they began to move about the large empty court in perfect unison.

At last, Maggie got up the courage to look Eustace in the eye, feeling as she had never felt in his company before. When she did, she saw him gazing into her face with such undisguised admiration that she did not even have the power to look away. Step by step, they swirled and turned about the room, looking deep into each other's souls, and somehow, not seeming very surprised at what they saw there.

When at last they came to a standstill at the foot of the staircase, the drumming rain the only sound in the soaring chamber other than their soft intake and exhale of breath, Maggie could not bring herself to meet his clear eyes, but focused somewhere between his chin and the collar of his white shirt.

"Are you alright?" Eustace asked gently, touching her cheek, and thrilling to the warmth he felt there. "Maggie, why won't you look at me?"

"Because I am afraid of what I will see," she whispered back.

"You will see what has been there since the day you walked into my library," he said, slipping his arm about her waist once more without realizing that he did. "Look at me..."

But Maggie shook her head. "I am afraid."
"Of what, dear girl?"

"Of what I will show you," she replied, burying her face in the front of his shirt. Eustace's arms were about her, and they stood there in silence, tears trickling silently down the cheeks of the young student, who at last had found the courage to display his long-concealed love.


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