Defining Moment

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In Which The Garret Is Entered

It was late at night, the first time Maggie opened the door. It creaked ominously, and Maggie felt no apprehension at going through it to see what was within. At the very least it could be a chamber which held an interesting painting – something Maggie had been expecting to see behind each door, but never found. Thus, she was quite surprised to see the room held nothing at all but a large rug, and another door, which was open straight ahead of her. Beyond the doorway, there stretched a flight of worn wooden steps, and a light appeared to be burning somewhere at the top.

Being a brave girl, and also nearly dying to discover something interesting, Maggie resolved to venture up and see what this new avenue could hold, but suddenly the light was blown out, and everything plunged into darkness. Maggie's taper alone burned bright, and, fearful of being discovered, she betook herself back to her own chamber and lay awake all night, puzzling her wits as to where and what it could lead to. Another corridor? An attic? A balcony? She rather hoped it was a balcony, as there had been one at the boarding school, but no girls had ever been allowed out on it. Only the headmistress and once, a visitor had been seen on the balcony, and that day was forever engraved with envy upon the memory of all who witnessed it. Maggie had never read Shakespeare, but was a romantic at heart, and thought somehow it must be lovely to be up so high, looking down, and perhaps another might be far below, looking up, and being glad to see you looking down.

She fell asleep and dreamed that Robert of the stick-up hair was helping her clamber along a roof-top to reach a balcony that seemed to be so near, and yet grew no closer each uncertain step she took. When she finally turned to confront him, he turned into her godfather, who stared at her with his deep-lined golden eyes and silently but firmly gave her his hand to take her down again. She opened her mouth to protest, but tasted only lint, and awoke to find it broad daylight, and her heavy coverlet nearly smothering her.

Maggie pushed it aside, and leapt out of bed, dressing hurriedly, and plaiting her hair into two tails, tying them together with a ribbon behind her back. Then she carefully heated some water in her fireplace for tea, and brewed it carefully, munching a biscuit with jam as she waited. She had finally decided that her godfather must send out for his food, for there was always an abundance of it, and there was certainly no cook. Once a week a knock would sound and parcels and casks would be left at the side door; Maggie knew, for she watched from the window as the performance was repeated upon two subsequent Mondays, and took it upon herself to answer the door the following week. The delivery man Maggie termed, “the coffee man,” for he smelt of coffee and carried it in a large sack about his shoulders. He was very surprised to see her, but was cordial, and shook her hand as Maggie explained who she was and why she was here.

“Most interesting, most interesting,” the ancient man had croaked, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. He had heard of her coming, and he had orders that if she ever needed anything she was to send for it, and it would be brought, paid for by her godfather. “I'm sure you will soon get used to the queer things that go on about this place,” he smiled a crooked toothless smile.

“What sort of queer things?” Maggie asked. “So far nothing at all has happened.”

“Just so, just so...” he had muttered, ambling away.

Maggie took a sip of her tea and found it much too hot. She could wait no longer. Setting the teacup in its saucer, and placing the saucer on the closed lid of the trunk, Maggie resolved to have a peek at her new discovery and return when it had cooled.

She found herself at the head of the second corridor before she knew it, and hurtling down to the end in an unladylike display of petticoats she threw her weight against the door, checked her speed upon the rug, and mounted the wooden steps to ascend. The first step creaked under her weight, but Maggie continued on unabated until she reached to top of the flight – 10 steps in all – and found herself in a most curious room. It appeared to be a study or library of some sort.

Before her was a large dormer window with a worn seat covered in discarded volumes and blotted pages, which was flanked on either side by massive bookshelves filled with volumes and volumes of books and stacks of papers. Before the window was an immense heavy carved wood desk, covered with clutter and papers, and a large chair with its back to her, facing out the window. To her left was a large fireplace, before which sat two wingback chairs, and to her right was a small oblong table which bore a large oil lamp upon it, holding down one end of an ancient-looking scroll of sorts. The room was empty, but something about it made Maggie feel as if she was intruding, which she had not felt in the previous rooms. She did not enter the library, but stood there silently observing signs of habitation – a worn jacket thrown over the backs of one of the chairs, discarded quills lying about, an abandoned penknife, a half-drunk cup of tea in a crumby saucer... Maggie found herself backing toward the steps, and then turning and returning silently to her room.

She drank her cooled tea in slow contemplative sips, and soon set down the empty cup, washed up in the basin, and went to sit in her sitting room, and practise her dance steps, which she was taking great care not to forget. Dancing was one thing she enjoyed learning at the boarding school. The other lessons were dull, and she remembered but little. Maggie imagined a partner as she always had done at school, carefully avoiding the furniture and flitting about the room until she was tired and decided to play-act with herself upon the chaise-lounge.

“Why, hello madam, hello sir,” she extended her hand to her imaginary company. “It is frightfully cold out, would you like some tea? Sugar? Of course.” She tended to her phantom friends until she grew tired of this, and then finally, about to burst from boredom, decided to return to the library. It was not that she was particularly interested in it, but that it seemed to have been so recently used, unlike the rest of this ancient manor.

Maggie wandered down the corridor, around the corner, through the door, up the half-flight of steps, and down the hallway to the last room. She laid her hand upon the latch and entered without a pause, crossing the rug, and climbing the steps, not abating her pace until she was in the study, and stopped to look about her. Nothing was the same as when she left it – the scroll upon the table had been unrolled further and was now marked a precise intervals with a blue pencil, the coat was no longer on the chair, but on the floor, books had been pulled down from the shelves and then pushed aside and – Maggie's heart began to pound – at the desk, his back to her, sat a figure, busily working. His head, which was the only thing visible above the back of the large chair, was covered with thick dark hair, which looked to have been combed carefully then wildly mussed. A shirt-sleeved arm, with the cuffs turned back, lay upon the desk, idly holding out the remnant of a biscuit to a rat which was curiously sniffing his hand. The man reached forward and redipped his quill, glancing at the book open beside him.

Maggie had no thoughts of retreating, but neither did she know how she should make her presence known to this individual who obviously had been living here, before her, for some time. Why did her godfather never mention..? Fortunately, or unfortunately, rather, just then she trod upon a loose board which let out a painful creak, and the scratching quill stopped. The figure turned and beheld her – a young girl with reddish hair, a frilly frock, and the light of curiosity in her gaze. He looked steadily back at her; a young man, younger than Maggie had at first supposed, with steady green eyes, a pale face, a firm mouth, and an intelligent aspect about him.

She spoke first. “I'm sorry –”

“No – don't be,” he burst out.

Maggie hurried, “I'm Mortimer Clancy,” and curtsied. “I didn't know someone else lived here...”

“Nor does anyone else.” He stood and wiped his right hand on his trousers, then offered it to her. “My name's Eustace. Your name is – Mortimer?”

“After my godfather,” Maggie said, taking his hand, and smiling in spite of herself at the hard pressure he gave it. “My mother recently died, and I came here to live with my godfather.” Maggie reclaimed her hand and watched Eustace curiously.

“So he is your godfather...” he murmured, running his hands through his hair. “Well, pleased to meet you, Mortimer.”

“Everyone calls me Maggie.”

“Rather, pleased to meet you Maggie.” There was an awkward pause, and then Eustace at last stammered, “Would you like to sit down?” Maggie, who had been staring at the rat who sat upon the desk, devouring the remains of his master's biscuit, abruptly brought her attention back to the young man.

“Oh – I mean, I wouldn't want to –”

“Intrude?” He laughed. “Well, you didn't mean to, so we should be friendly, don't you think?”

Maggie was beginning to like this Eustace very much, so she nodded and took the chair he set for her, saying, “Yes, I suppose. Besides I am terribly bored.”

“Bored?” Eustace raised his eyebrows. “Here?”

Maggie wondered if he was joking, but said nothing, instead enquiring, “What do you do here?” Eustace laughed and went to his desk, scooping up the rat from where he had begun to nibble the edges of the pages, and returned, seating himself at Maggie's feet, and letting the rodent sniff up and down his ink-stained arm.

“Well, I read, and I write – and I read some more, and I sleep occasionally... and eat if I remember...”

“All by yourself?”

“Not anymore,” he smiled. “Will you come and see me sometimes?”

“I live here,” Maggie reminded him.

“Yes. But so does your godfather, and he never comes to see you, I think.”

“How did you know – is he your godfather too?” Eustace didn't answer. “I suppose he never comes to see you.”

“No. No, he doesn't,” Eustace shrugged. “I am left completely to myself. I never leave my rooms – which are this one, and my bedchamber, through that door.” He pointed, and added in a low voice, “I'm not really allowed to.”

“Not allowed to?” Maggie said, alarm rising in her.

“I have plenty to do, though, and am never bored, nor lonely... much.”

“I leave my rooms all the time, and I still have nothing to do.”

“Come up here. It will be good for me to see another face. I haven't in so long. Would you like to meet Maggie, Scrabble?” Eustace held up the rat so that it and Maggie might get a full view of each other. The girl shrank back, and Eustace smiled. “He is really quite nice, once you get used to him. He and I keep each other company here, don't we, Scrabble? But he has an especial preference for Cicero, while I prefer Xenophon. Other than that, we rarely disagree.” He chuckled, and set Scrabble upon the floor, who immediately vanished. Slowly, Maggie lowered her feet back down, but still had an apprehension of the rodent skittering about her ankles.

“Do you like to study?” Maggie asked at length, looking about her, seeing as Eustace was regarding her in a curious light, and needing something to say.

His face lit up. “Like to study! Don't you?”

“No.” Maggie's voice was low. “It's so awfully dull.”

“What? Oh, dear...” Eustace stood to his feet, and Maggie followed his example in surprise. “Where are you going?”

“To prove you wrong.”

Maggie knew it was not polite to argue, but could not imagine what he meant. Eustace rolled his desk chair over to one of the massive bookshelves and stood upon it, pulling down several volumes from the highest shelf, flipping through them, and then replacing them, only to pull out another, and put it back as well, murmuring, “Now, where is it...”

“Oh, don't bother, I don't like studies at all,” Maggie found herself saying in the sweetest voice she could muster.

“Then what do you like?” Eustace snapped, clambering down and beginning to pace about, leaning over to peer at the spines of the various books laying about. “Do you like mathematics?”

“No.”

“Very well, it is quite good fun, but not completely necessary. Do you like the sciences?”

“I don't know enough of them to know, but –”

“Aha!” Maggie thought that he found what he was looking for, but he advanced on her, his finger outstretched. “Exactly. So how do you know you don't like history?”

“Oh, I know a lot of history, it is the most tiresome of all.” Eustace put his hand to his forehead in disbelief.

“Maggie! It is the most interesting of all! You say you know a lot of history. What do you know?”

Maggie thought for a moment, and then slowly began to recite, a far-away look in her eyes, “William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John, Henry, Edward, Edward, Edward, Richard, Henry, Henry, Henry, Edward, Edward, Richard, Henry–” she stopped short. “I don't remember from there. But you see, that's quite a lot. Nearly everything, I think. There's not much about someone as young as I am.”

“Do you know the story of our king who was crowned when he was your age?” Eustace asked, lacing his fingers together.

“Well, I'm sure–”

“Or of a lad just a few years older that turned back an entire Spaniard army?” Maggie made no reply. “Or of the true love felt by the father of our queen for his wife, and the things he did for her, and the passions that raged within him when she perished; or of the adventures and valor and legacy left by a poor man in China who lived many years of hardships so that girls here can wear silk sashes?” Eustace stopped short. “Come back someday, and I'll tell you those tales.”

Maggie regarded him suspiciously. “Are they true?”

“Of course they are.”

“Perhaps they will be good,” she sighed.

“Of course they will be good,” Eustace whispered. “They're history. Do you believe in God?”

Maggie looked surprised. “Of course. My mother was a good Christian, and taught me to pray and to do what He tells us in His Word.” Eustace smiled.

“That's excellent. So that alone should make you like history. History enables us to look back over centuries of time and see what God has done, and is still doing. Wouldn't that be wonderful to be able to trace His hand in everything?”

“I suppose,” Maggie admitted.

Eustace continued,“Well, history is sacred then. More sacred than the other studies. And I hate to think that you find it dull.” He rose. Maggie understood.

“I interrupted you. I should go; but I'll come back tomorrow.”

“Yes, do. And bring your teacup. A great pleasure to meet you, Mortimer Clancy.”

“And you, Mr. Eustace.”

He bowed, and she curtsied. And then Maggie left, leaving Eustace staring after her.

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