Friends and Foes
The heart is like the sky, a part of heaven; But changes night and day too, like the sky.
The following morning brought Antoine Vallois back to the Academy. As Margaret shyly entered the parlour, she saw him sitting on the window seat, caressing her old cat.
"C'est un chat joli," he murmured, perceiving her entering. He rose from his window seat and approached her, producing a small velvet box from his waistcoat pocket and holding it out to her. "Tenez – pour vous."
As Margaret looked down at it, she hesitated whether or not to accept it – would he seize her wrist and dive in for an impertinent kiss, or simply stare contentedly at her as she unveiled the gift?
"You do not trust me?" he asked, shifting to English.
"Whatever it is, I cannot accept it."
"Because it is from me?" He stepped closer to her. She looked indignantly into his eyes, but did not move an inch.
"You are trying to impose yourself on me, monsieur, and that is highly ungentlemanly."
"Then why do you not draw back?" he asked with a triumphant smile.
"Because I do not wish to appear intimidated by your pitiful attempts at seduction." A cloud passed over his brow at this abrupt utterance and he seized her waist, holding it fiercely to his. He looked searchingly into her steely eyes, but finally set her at liberty when his grip squeezed nothing more out of her.
"I see you are as stubborn as ever… but you once loved me."
"M. Vallois," she said, betraying no emotions whatever. "Be so good as to leave my parlour – my house – and my country."
He replied, between laughs, "Ah, the English! You shall always hate the French, no? It is in your very nature."
"I said nothing of hatred, monsieur," she shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. "Come, M. Vallois. I do not wish to part with you on such inimical terms. Shake hands with me." He fervently clasped her hand, responding, "À l'anglaise? Comme toujours. Good-bye, Marguerite. I shall dedicate my next play to you."
"Do," she said with calm indifference, showing him to the door. "It would gratify me beyond expression. Now I bid you good morning, sir."
"Au revoir, ma chère," he sighed, leaving with what he had come – nothing.
That night, Edgar's old mistress came to him in a dream. He had been thinking of Margaret all day, and yet it was Brigitte he saw in his mind's eye. He saw her as she had looked the first day they had met at a friend's soirée: tall, tanned, charming, and cunning. She looked like a ravenous social animal on the prowl for rich men. He had been one of Brigitte Beale's many victims, and yet upon leaving her, she had made such a scene that he was convinced that her trifling and mercenary attraction had developed into something more profound. But the despairing disappointment so theatrically displayed had sprung merely from her past conviction of having full sway over him – that no matter how many times he left her, he would always come back. And yet he never did.
She was like a nightmare: confrontational, grotesque, and tormenting. In spite of her charms, Edgar started out of sleep feeling disgusted. "Filthy," he muttered, seized by an overpowering urge to rinse his hands. He crept out of his bed and frantically plunged his hands into the water basin. "Oh, the fresh air!" he exclaimed, throwing himself at the window and opening it wide, his hands stretched out as if reaching for something that was out of his range.
The balmy breeze stroked his brow, cooling the hot beads of sweat clustered on his face, and the crisp fragrance of damp night blossoms filled his nostrils. Suddenly there was a voice. It was below his window. He looked down. There – a man standing in the bushes. It was none other than Alfie Briscoe.
"God's foot!" Edgar scoffed, grasping the windowpanes in fierce incredulity. "You sneaking bootlegger! You tormenting twit! Away with you – be gone, you fiend! Get off my lawn – you are trampling my flowers!"
"Come down, Edgar, and face me like a man," his cordial visitor snarled in reply, a derisive smile stretching his sunken cheeks. "For you have avoided me like a coward – come down, I say, and kill me with your bare hands!"
"Oh, is that what you want?" he snarled, trembling with the dark passion devouring his heart. "Just you wait, you little weasel! I'll cut your throat!" He seized his sword from a remote part of the room and jumped through the window. After regaining his balance he glared up at his opponent, his scorching rage suddenly freezing into arctic anger. His fierce black eyes hardened, and his mouth stiffened into a straight line. His cheek looked pale in the moonlight, and he looked dangerously calm and collected, like an approaching storm.
"Come on, Alfie," he said slowly, holding up his sword with bloodthirsty enthusiasm. "You wished to fight me – then persuade me that you are a worthy opponent."
"That is not fair," he cried, shrinking away from him. "I am armed with nothing but a meagre little dagger."
"No matter – if you have cunning, you may manage to defeat me with it." Alfie hesitated before answering, but then, seeming to make up his mind, he produced the dagger from its leather sheath and pointed it at him. Ere long, their blades were crossing, and by dint of good fortune, Alfie managed to wrestle Edgar to the ground; with one swift movement he sliced his cheek with the coarse blade. Edgar gave a violent jolt – enough to frighten him off – and seized his collar, landing him a facer that nearly caused him to lose consciousness.
"Now," he panted, wiping the dribbling blood from his wound. "If you dare to trespass on my property again, you will be a dead man. I have started a new life – do not have the presumption of invading it like you did the former one. I washed my hands of you more than five years ago." He gave him a kick in the side, barking, "Away with you!" Alfie struggled to his feet and trudged towards the iron gates. Edgar watched him as he exited the premises, whereupon he flung himself on the grass, burrowing his bloody face in the greenery and remaining in that same position until the morrow.
Maria found the master snoring softly on the front lawn as the clock in the hall struck seven. She was standing shyly over him, not knowing what to do, as she was of that useless caste of servant girls who have known nothing but benign ladies' work that did not require them to be creative in their thinking. A sword lay a few feet away from where he lay, and thankfully there seemed to be no bloodstains speckled across the blade.
At length, Maria rallied her senses and scampered back into the dwelling-house to fetch the headmistress. Margaret came clad in her nightgown and a black velvet cloak. Her plenteous brown curls tumbled down her back and reached her waist. She stooped down to the ground and shook his shoulder. "Mr. Thurlow," she murmured, pushing the messy strands of raven hair from his face and stroking the muddied cheek that they unveiled. "Mr. Thurlow," she repeated, patiently giving his shoulder another shake. Finally his eyelids began to quiver, and in another moment he was staring confusedly from Margaret to Maria.
"What have you done to me, madam?" he blubbered, struggling to sit up. Margaret hoisted him up with some effort. "Where am I? Is this your underground crypt?"
"Please, sir," she said, smiling. "You have fallen asleep in the school grounds. I say sir, did you go into a wild rampage last night? There is your sword, and – goodness! You've a scar across your cheek. Don't tell me you fought with yourself?"
"A scar did you say? Well, though it is only a scratch, I must make use of your kindness. Margaret, will you help me up?"
"Always, sir," she did so with Maria's assistance. "There. How do you feel now?"
"Oh… faint, very faint."
"Have my arm sir – and my shoulder, if you like." Edgar swung his arm over her shoulders, and with her aid plodded back indoors.
"Maria," she said as they paused for breath in the front hall. "Take Mr. Thurlow up to his room and lay him down on his bed. I shall bring him a tray of food." Edgar scowled at this undesirable switch, but reconciled himself by the thought of being fed – or very nearly so – by the woman he loved so earnestly. In another ten minutes, Margaret came up with the tray of food. However, she was not willing to linger in his room, for she began turning around when Edgar cried, "Wait just a minute!" with tea spattering out of his mouth.
"Tilly will be up in another hour – and it is highly improper, sir, for me to remain here with you. You are not ill enough for me to delay my exit."
"But – does it not please you to be in my company? Even in silence I must admit that I benefit from your presence."
"I like being with you well enough," she said with a hesitant smile, "But I really must go, sir. I hope you do not forget to disinfect that scratch of yours."
The teachers' garden was no formal, French garden with pavilions and statues, but a quaint, gardenesque place that soothed whoever wandered into it. It featured shrubberies with gravelled walks, a variety of trees to sit underneath and sweeping beds of flowers. Whoever the designer had been had certainly succeeded in retaining the natural aspect of this green patch.
A wooden arch overgrown with pink roses separated the public garden from the private one. A stone walk had been spread from the entryway to the heart of the smaller garden; a bare oval patch of grass surrounded by shrubbery with a bench in the middle – while two more gravel paths led to even smaller nooks of the romantic enclosure. In one of these well-hidden nooks, a wooden bench was nestled in a grotto-like alcove. A pale statue of the Virgin Mary stood burrowed within it, with her graceful palms turned up in welcome, and her fair face bent down on the occupant of the bench.
Margaret often retired there to seek refuge from the world, for it seemed utterly bewildering to her that year. From Antoine's renewed ardour to Edgar's mysterious melodrama, she was overwhelmed with a yearning to be at home with her father, and to ramble in their grounds once more, when life had been simpler. She missed the babbling brook that slithered through the copse, and the overgrown fields of flowers spread out in the back of their manor house. She even missed the aroma of her home – a pleasant mixture of lavender and oak.
If she could have but one wish fulfilled it would be to return to Codway Manor as it was before her mother's death, and to walk in the meadow again, read in the Cherry Garden, and stroll up and down the Walk of the Nymph arm in arm with her father. Tilly could join too, but she would soon grow bored and marry a wealthy Londoner, and leave them to their own devices, as they had always supposed she would. She was thus occupying her leisure hour when an intruder startled her back to the present. It was the sister of her thoughts. She came thoughtlessly towards her in spite of Margaret's evident wish to be left alone. The world had sought her out, as it always did.
"I knew I would find you here, Meg!" she said, pattering to her side and knocking into her as she filled the spot beside her. "Well, my dear, what is the matter? I am sure you look very pale!"
"I feel stale," she muttered, bending her eyes down to the grass that was being disturbed by her feet. "And I am constantly dreaming of being at home with papa." She looked up at her sister with displeasure, irked by her dissatisfying present. "Cannot we make a trip to Codway, Tilly? Would you mind it awfully?" Tilly sighed and looked undecidedly to the sky.
"I don't know, Margaret. Papa is so miserable, and I sought your company to enliven my spirits. How can I be happy and light-hearted when both of you insist on wallowing?"
"Tilly!" Margaret scoffed, piqued by her sister's insensible words. "I believed you to be more understanding. Really, how could you? You talk of papa's woes as of a plague. We are his children, and should not think of amusing ourselves but of diverting him, and trying our best to make his life more bearable."
"What is left of it, you mean? At any rate, Miss Barlow and Miss Harriet have both requested a full account of London's parks and places as they have never been, and said they wanted so much for me to bring them back a keepsake – therefore I cannot allow myself to see him at such short notice. He is so indifferent to what goes on about him that I could not be persuaded to make an effort for such a wraith."
"You seem only to look for excuses to stay away from him. You are too concerned with the brittle glazing of Society to mind the true fragility of a passionate life."
"Are you an advocate for passion, then?"
"Without passion, there would be neither art, poetry, or love. How can anyone condemn that noble sentiment – the food of genius and the spark of the soul? You are dry, Tilly, with your indifference to all but finery. Even Edmund, who is a dandy, has more fire in a finger than you do in your heart. For shame!"
"Well!" she scoffed, rising in imperious disdain. "Everyone knows that you are plain as paper and soon to be a spinster. As for Edmund, I know that ever since we were children, your steely, manly mind retained a firm hold on his pliable character, and that you have trained him to follow you around like a dog. Your false accusations have half-sickened me. How dare you attack me so? I am neither cold nor mercenary."
"But you are," Margaret said sharply. "Or you would not brush aside our father's increasing loneliness. There now – I am going to visit him this summer, whether you accompany me or not. I leave in a month, and will inform him of my upcoming visit today – nay, the moment I procure myself a pen and paper. I leave you to worry about finding adequate souvenirs for your mistresses in the meantime."