Defining Moment

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In Which Maggie is Taken Away

“Mortimer Clancy.” The name rang throughout the room of girls, a name so strange, and so seeming not to belong to a girl that the very sound of it stopped pens from scratching, stopped hands in mid-reach for copybooks, and fell unrecognized upon the ears of even it's owner. The poor disowned name bounced through the open door, and through all the corridors of the boarding school, turning into nothing but echoes, and had to be repeated a second time by the headmistress.

“Mortimer Clancy – ” She held up a long envelope that bore a heavy black scrawl upon it, nowhere near the center, and with a frightful slope to it. At the same time, two beribboned girls reached out friendly hands and pushed their schoolmate up from her seat, whispering, "Maggie! Maggie – that's for you.”

Maggie Clancy, as she was called, stood from her desk. The headmistress's eyes rested upon the red-headed girl, beckoning her to the front. Maggie looked about her, and made her way up the aisle of girls, suddenly feeling as if she were much younger than her nine years, and forgetting that the girls staring at her were the same age. None of them were cruel to her, that was for certain, but it was equally certain that she had no true friends among them. Not particularly bright, Maggie was neither a favorite with her teachers, nor renowned among her peers for her manners. It was her late father's memory that he had earned through a lifetime of service to Her Majesty the Queen in the Royal Navy that kept her a place in one of the most sought-after boarding schools in West Sussex. Maggie derived her only pleasures from doodling in her copybooks, for which she was often reprimanded, and in receiving the kind letters her invalid mother would send her, filled with fond thoughts, still fonder memories, and wishes that she might see her dear girl soon.

This envelope did not, however, bear her mother's fine writing, and as she approached the desk, Maggie saw the headmistress had opened it and hastily read the brief memorandum.

“Maggie – a moment with you.” She smiled kindly to dispel any fear the girl might have of bad news, at the same time wondering what inspired this unusual writ.

“This note is to inform us of the arrival of a certain gentleman here to see you. He is waiting in the hall. Shall we go and see him?” Maggie nodded. A certain gentleman? Her father was dead. She followed in wonderment as the headmistress exited the room in a swish of skirts, leaving the girls to titter in guiltless glee about Maggie being singled out upon this first day of the week.

The distinguished-looking gentleman who stood in the hall perceived the headmistress' coming, and nodded to her. But his eyes searched for the small figure behind her – the figure, he finally sighted, of a small red-headed girl with a pretty face and the tidy dress of all the girls at the school. They were now close enough for the gentleman to distinguish that the girl's eyes were a bright blue, and that her ivory face bore faint traces of reddish freckles upon her cheeks. She looked so exactly like her mother that he started in surprise for a moment, and then, recovering himself, took the hand of the headmistress.

“James Melville,” he said quietly.

“A pleasure, Mr. Melville. What can we do for you, sir? This is Maggie.” The mistress indicated the lass, who curtsied.

“Of course. I would recognize her in a crowd of a thousand. I remember the day she was born, and since then she has grown to look more and more like her beautiful mother.” He smiled at Maggie, who felt obliged to smile back. “A word with you, ma'am – alone.” The gentleman met the eyes of the mistress.

“Certainly.” Concern was in her eyes, but she directed Maggie to a bench, and disappeared into the small room used for drawing up accounts; it contained a desk and two chairs, and besides lots of shelves holding ledgers. The gentleman followed her within. As soon as the door closed and the mistress beckoned for the gentleman to take a seat, he began to speak.

“I did not wish to shock the child by speaking so before her – especially as she doesn't seem to know me at all – but I must take her with me from here. Her mother's health, which is already frail, as you know, has taken a dire turn.”

The mistress's face clouded. “I am terribly sorry to hear that, but of course, you must take her. How long will she be under your protection, sir?”

“An indefinite length of time.” The gentleman stroked his chin and looked thoughtful. “It depends on what happens with her dear mother. I must do as she would have me, and –”

“Pray, sir,” the mistress interrupted, not liking the turn this conversation had taken.

“Of what relation are you to the Clancys?”

“None at all,” the man replied. “I am an old friend – the closest friend, I believe – of the child's late father, and I have great interest in the well-being of his surviving family. As such, I wish to bring Maggie to her poor mother –” he looked up, “ –before it is too late.”

“Very well.” The headmistress stood. “It looks as if this is what must be done. I am terribly sorry to be ending for an uncertain length of time the education Maggie is receiving here. She would, perhaps, have gotten on better, given enough time.”

“Is she not a good pupil?” the gentleman enquired. “Her father was one of the most intelligent men of my acquaintance.”

“She is bright enough, only terribly bored.”

“Then perhaps the fault lies with the bored-ing school, not with her.” The man smiled. The headmistress pursed her lips, but said nothing, opening the doors instead to indicate their exchange was concluded.

“There. Tell the child who you are and what you have come for.”

The gentleman, with a deep breath, advanced across the polished floor to where the girl was seated upon a bench against the wall, swinging her booted foot to and fro and watching the loose laces trail along the waxed wood by way of amusement. She looked up to see the gentleman, and stood, giving him a demure curtsey.

He smiled. “Sit down, Maggie.” She slowly did so, watching him curiously as he seated himself next to her. “You perhaps are wondering who I am, child?”

“Yes, sir.” Maggie's voice was clear and sweet, just like her mother's. The thought rushed him on.

“You may call me James. Do you remember your father's friend, James? I have come to fetch you.”

“Father's friend James...” Maggie mused. Suddenly she looked up at him, and stood, a curious light in her eyes. She went quickly around to his right ear and peered closely at it. The lobe was split, the result of an old accident.

“James!” she cried, throwing herself into his embrace. “I do remember you! I remember you telling me about your ear when I could just barely sit up and listen! What have you come for? I haven't seen anyone in ever so long.”

James chuckled and put the girl gently from him, and repeated in an even tone, “I have come to fetch you.”

“Fetch me?”

“Yes. Your mother – Maggie – your mother is not doing well.”

aggie's face grew still. Her dear mother! “Is she alright?”

“I'm afraid not, pet. I must take you to her. She wished me to write for her, as she cannot now, but I told her to let me go and fetch you. The thought seemed to bring her strength. I fear that might be the only thing that is keeping her yet alive, so we must hurry.” James saw the effect his words had upon the girl, so he gave her a quick embrace, and set her on her feet. “Be strong, darling. Let us go to her. Shall we?”

“Yes. Must I pack my things?” Maggie asked. Just then, the headmistress entered.

“Everything is in order, Maggie. Here are your personal effects, in this portmanteau. The trunk containing your clothes has already been taken to the carriage. We hope you shall return as soon as you can.”

Maggie allowed herself to be embraced by the headmistress, and then turned and put her hand into James'. “Let's go to Mother.”

“Yes. Farewell, and thank you.” James bowed to the mistress who returned to regain order and finish the morning's lessons with the other girls, and to explain what had become of Maggie Clancy.

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