The Song of the Nightingale

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Fingers strummed the old guitar speculatively. He was looking over the water, his dark eyes watching the surface ripples on the lake. Winter had faded to be replaced by the first blossoms of spring. Edward Garrison found himself at peace.

Five years ago, on this same spot he had loved and wooed a maiden. She was as fair as the flowers which now scattered the lake shore, her hair, golden like the sunlight flickering over the water. She had sparkled with laughter and intelligence. The lustre of her grey green eyes had stolen away his breath- but it was the radiance of her voice which took his heart.

She had sung to him with the beauty of the nightingale-- her voice rising on the air with piercing sweetness and clarity. It had made his heart break just for the hearing of it. So pure, speaking of wonderful depth and melancholy. So sweet, cascading over his senses like water from a fountain. He had heard her sing, and from that moment completely fallen under her spell.

The memory of it made him close his eyes. Sarah Roylance.... now the brightest opera diva in all of France. It had been a foolish happy dream which had never left him. Even now, while verging upon more mature years he still indulged in it- still imagined that she was even now leaning back against the old oak and letting her voice soar in glorious accompaniment to his humble melodies.

The guitar which he coaxed to music was his friend. It alone knew the secret buried in his heart. The women of the village loved to gossip about why the aspiring lawyer had not yet found a bride. Their speculations made him chuckle. They would never guess that a man with his reserve and self control could harbour such whimsical dreams as he did.

But his guitar knew. He whispered it to life of an evening, and they confided together in the shadows. And sometimes, rising early in the morning, before the village came awake, he went down again to the lakeside, and played the songs Sarah had sung.

She would have forgotten of course, he mused. Her village origins would have been swallowed completely by the fame and glamour of her new life. Sarah had always loved beautiful and luxurious things. No. It was better that life remained as it was. She would be happy, far away in her rich and stately mansion, and he- he in his way would be happy too- sitting by the lake and thinking of his memories.

If only -

Here Edward paused. No. He must not think of that- it was better not- and yet he knew already it was too late. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a yellowed piece of paper. It was a newspaper clipping.

He didn't want to read it. And yet he did read it. He hadn't wanted to read it on that awful day three years ago. He had wanted to throw it into the fire. Forget. Pretend that such a dreadful thing could never happen. That his dreams remained intact- unshattered.

Yet he did not. He had read it. And then he'd cut it out of the paper and placed the clipping in his pocket. He'd kept it in his pocket ever since- reading and rereading it until the print had faded and the words were memorised.

Sarah's engagement announcement.

Now his memories were all that were left to him. He could not dream. It was not proper now that Sarah was undoubtedly another man's wife. The memories hurt, but he clung to them with bitter tenaciousness. They were his. They were his and did not belong to another man. He would keep them.

He taught himself not to think of it. To remember only the past and the thoughts and visions legitimately his. Slowly he learned to dream again- always pressing that one terrible fact to the furtherest reaches of his mind. He would dream that he was with Sarah in their past. There was no dishonour in that.

And yet he could not quite forget. In fact, he knew that really he had not forgotten at all. The ache would often come suddenly with almost overpowering bitterness. Reality was harsh. It had no room for fancies such as his. He deceived himself pretending he had forgotten, and Edward knew it.

He dropped his hand from the strings with a sigh and rose wearily to his feet. It was getting late. The village was beginning to stir with the sun's dawning, and he wished above all things to preserve his privacy.

He walked the well-trodden path back to his house. He found himself dreading the sight of it. It was a big house. Sarah would have liked it- once. He had bought it when he still had permission to dream. Every nook and corner had been designed for her. Visitors were surprised at the almost feminine touches. It seemed that her taste and delicacy had permeated his being to the exclusion any personal desire. It had been his private joke- his hobby. To pretend that it was all in preparation for -

He shook his head viciously. No. It wasn't right to think of-- that. Soon he would put away temptation. He was going to tell the agent to sell. It was best. He had dallied too long. The house was a burden and a torment. He would speak to the agent tomorrow.

Edward sighed. He'd made the same resolution every day for three years.

At once cursing his own weakness and half-amused at his folly he passed through the gates and went in.

He felt the familiar sensation of soft velvet beneath his feet. Ornate oak panelling with reflecting mirrors threw variations of his person back at him. Chandeliers cast golden light in a cosy relief to dark mahogany. In one room a massive grand piano- a Steinway- majestically dominated. The villagers regarded it as yet another of Garrison's peculiarities, for he never played it, and although a few of them boasted how the famous Sarah Roylance used to play the church organ, it never occurred to them to link the facts together.

He shut the study door behind him and attacked a mounting pile of legal documents.

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"Paper, Sir."

"Thankyou Barryman."

The butler left.

Edward Garrison had not raised his head.

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An evening fire crackled merrily in the hearth. The butler arranged the tea things nattily on the tray and approached his master respectfully. Edward smiled up at him.

"Ah Barryman. It is good to rest for a little." He said, gesturing the tray to a side table. "I swear that woman's case is beginning to get on my nerves. She simply will not admit to the evidence."

The butler nodded impassively. "Raspberry jam sir?"

"No. I think the butter will be enough." Edward reached for a plate of scones and bit greedily into one. "Mmmph. My compliments to your wife again. The scones are splendid."

This time the butler allowed himself a slight smile. "She will be glad to hear it sir. It makes her happy to please you."

His master's eyes twinkled at him. "One day, Barryman," he said emphatically, "You are going to have to come off your confounded high horse."

"Yes sir." Barryman replied. "More tea?"

Edward shook his head with a chuckle and reached for The Clarion, settling the plate of scones comfortably in his lap. Barryman noted his usual cue for dismissal. The butler placed an empty dish back onto his tray and turned to leave.

He froze in surprise at a sudden clatter from behind him. Turning he stared at his master. Edward had risen suddenly to his feet and had upturned his plate upon the floor. The man's face was strained with shock.

"Master! Are you well?" Years of service had not trained Barryman to be indifferent to his employer and he could not conceal the concern in his voice.

Edward turned towards him and swallowed. "Um. Yes. I - I- think I shall retire though. I feel a little faint."

"Shall I send for the doctor, Sir?"

"No Barryman." Edward passed a trembling hand across his brow. "I shall be fine. Just a little rest I think. All will be well in the morning."

He passed the butler and left the room hurriedly, leaving a crumpled paper on the couch behind him.

Barryman was human. With a glance after his master he stepped across and turned the paper over.

"Sarah Roylance To Visit Hometown"

The butler frowned a little and put The Clarion aside thoughtfully.

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She was returning. Sarah was returning. He could hardly breathe with the thought of it. That she could come back to her own town-- perhaps see him.

He sat down on the edge of his bed and buried his face in shaking hands. No. He couldn't bear it. He couldn't. To see her- to hear her voice- and she the wife of another man!

That night Edward Garrison confronted the man he had become. Five long years spread open to his gaze, and he saw the waste of each and every one of them. Years where he ought to have written- visited- pleaded his cause and laid the truth before her.

It all came rushing back. All the years of loneliness and unacknowledged heartache. It had been his fault she'd left. He had been silent when he should have spoken. He could still remember the disappointment in her eyes. She had cared for him! And he had been silent.

Curses on his damnable reserve!

If he'd only spoken- only had the courage to tell her the truth. But the words had failed him.

She'd told him that she loved him, leaning across and shyly whispering it into his ear. He'd frozen, his look of shock and surprise etched all too clearly across his features.

He'd broken Sarah's heart. He- who would go to the ends of the earth for her. He'd driven the nightingale away.

Edward had hated himself ever since.

He wrote his first love letter to her the night of her departure. A boyish passionate epistle full of self-recrimination and apology, marred by suspicious smudges. Two days later he'd written another.

Neither letter had ever been posted.

Every time he passed the post office a vision of Sarah's face rose before him, the pain of her rejection clear and accusative in her eyes.

He'd wanted to apologise. To tell her the truth of his love. He did so, writing letters he knew he'd never have the courage to actually post. They rose to haunt him now- now that she was lost to him forever.

It was his own fault. He would bear the consequences of his folly like a man. He would go and listen to her sing. He would congratulate her if necessary. And then he would leave her life and vanish back into the shadows of his own.

She had learned happiness without him. Sarah had a right to it. She'd earned it. He'd destroyed her happiness once. He would be hanged if he did so again.

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A hum of excitement vibrated through the hall. The entire village was in attendance. It was Surryville's night. Sarah Roylance was one of their own- and they turned out in full magnificence to do her honour.

Edward Garrison pushed his chair far enough back into the shadow of his box so that he couldn't be seen and swallowed a lump in his throat.

The voices stilled and Edward gripped the arms on his chair until his knuckles whitened. She was there.

She had grown... matured. Yet the eyes looking out upon her audience danced with the same radiance he knew as of old. The golden hair still fell with the same grace and simplicity from her brow. And when she smiled it pulled the very heart from his chest.

She opened her mouth and sang.

He thought she would have chosen an aria. Something tremendous and magnificent to open the evening and demonstrate her voice.

The first notes which issued from her throat shocked him with their homeliness. A murmur of delight and surprise rippled through the audience before silencing again. Several women reached for their handkerchiefs.

He never knew that 'Home Sweet Home' could sound so beautiful.

Despite her training there was very little pretension in the voice which carried across the hall. Sarah sang with a rich simplicity, her voice rising and carrying with ease even to the furtherest reaches of the audience. Her voice flowed over the words with clarity and smoothness.

The song was farewelled by a tumult of applause.

That night Sarah didn't sing a single operatic aria. She sang the songs from the past. Every melody and word already known and cherished in the heart of one tortured, enraptured listener.

Edward felt he could no longer bear the strain. Every note burned like fire across his consciousness. His throat had constricted until he couldn't breathe. His body convulsed suddenly and he covered his face with his hand.

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"There you are, Mr Garrison! I was wondering where you were." Mrs Hodges caught him briskly by an elbow. "It's almost time to make the speech."

"Speech?" His voice was not quite steady.

She turned an enquiring eye towards him. "You haven't forgotten the official welcoming address surely?"

He winced. "No- I hadn't."

Mrs Hodges smiled and patted his arm. "I imagine you must be particularly proud of her, Mr Garrison. You knew her before you even became mayor, didn't you?"

She glanced at him expectantly.

"A-- a little."

"How times have changed to be sure! Why five years ago she was a mere stripling just out of school, and you'd just returned from college. You've both done very well for yourselves I must say."

Edward realized Mrs Hodges was trying to encourage him. He forced his face into a smile.

"Thankyou."

An expression of concern flitted across the woman's face. "Are you quite well, Mr Garrison? You look positively ghastly."

Edward opened his mouth, and then shut it again. Sarah Roylance was advancing towards them.

He coughed suddenly. "I'm very sorry, Mrs Hodges, but I really must go to the restroom for a moment. I shall be fine, I promise."

He vanished with a speed which left that good woman rather bewildered.

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Edward Garrison found his way to the punch-bowl. His hand shook as he dipped the ladle into the liquid and brought it back up again. It splashed over his dress suit. He didn't notice.

"Perhaps you should let me help with that?" A soft voice said by his elbow.

Edward dropped the ladle onto the table and turned a rather pasty yellow.

"Sarah- Sarah Roylance. What- what a pleasure- to see you."

A slim hand reached across and picked the ladle up from where it was dripping on the tablecloth.

She scooped up some of the punch and poured it into his glass.

"And I you, Mr Garrison." Sarah replied calmly. "Congratulations upon your appointment."

"A- appointment?"

She smiled at him "As mayor of Surryville. It is quite a prestigious position."

"Oh- oh yes I am the mayor." Edward swallowed and said with a rush. "We- we're all really quite proud of you. Famous singer and all. Surryville isn't used to all the attention."

To his astonishment she laughed. "Surryville? Or the mayor of Surryville? I'm by no means sure you haven't gotten the two confused."

"Er- Surry- I mean- no I-" Edward floundered helplessly.

Sarah was watching him with a merry smile. It seemed to him however that it did not quite reach her eyes.

"It is quite alright. We parted under rather - difficult circumstances," she said quietly. "I suspect I am mostly to blame."

Edward's eyes widened. "You!?"

"Yes. I was rather foolish in my younger days, and I fear I hurt you rather dreadfully. I hope we may be friends still."

"Yes- yes- of course. Naturally. I'm sure that you- were- not that much at fault really. You make- too much of it."

He spoke rather gaspingly. And then, suddenly- "Is your husband here? I've yet to meet him."

Sarah stared at him with a blank expression. Edward cursed his folly and shut his eyes. Why did he always have to make a hash of things?

"I don't have a husband." Sarah said slowly.

His eyes snapped open again. "You don't?" He could not keep the astonishment out of his voice.

"No, I never married. I don't see how you could have come by that impression," she looked honestly bewildered.

"But- it was in the papers. An announcement. You were engaged to a Michael Claydon." He fished in his dress pocket and brought out the yellowed scrap of paper.

Sarah looked at it with a rather odd expression. "May I see that?" she asked.

Edward handed the slip across to her. He watched her face as she read it. A puzzling mixture of surprise, amusement and incredulity seemed to flash by turns across her expressive features.

"This article is dated three years ago." She stated at last, looking up at him.

"Yes."

"You've kept it in your pocket for three years?"

He flushed a deep crimson. "I um- like to keep mementos of old friends. It's just a trait I have. No consequence really."

"Really."

Somehow, if it were possible, the simple repetition of the word made him blush all the more hotly.

"Er- yes. What of it?"

A rather astounding change had come across Sarah's face. Her eyes were positively dancing. Her lips twitched slightly as she handed the slip back to him.

"Nothing. The article is a hoax."

"A hoax?"

"Yes. Some journalist set it up as a publicity stunt for his paper. There never was a Michael Claydon."

Edward thought, not for the first time that night, that he was going to faint. Hastily he downed the last few dregs of punch left in his glass.

"So you never married."

"Never." She studied a decorative plant thoughtfully.

"Oh. Uh. Ahem." was his elegant response.

Silence.

"Would you like to marry?" The words popped out before he could stop them.

Her head swung around. "I beg your pardon?"

Edward stared at her, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. "I mean- I - I'm sorry. That was very rude."

She was wearing that odd expression again. "Yes. It was. But I would rather like to know why you asked."

"I- um- was wanting to know if- um-"

"Yes?"

"Is there anyone in your life?" He rushed the words out before he could make a mess of them.

"Not yet."

Her response held a note of speculation. She was watching him steadily. There was an expression in her eyes that Edward hadn't seen for a very long time.

"I wrote you letters."

He hadn't meant to say that.

"I never got any." It was more of a statement than an accusation.

"They didn't make it to the post office."

She looked down at the floor. Again he saw the hint of a smile play about her lips. "What did you do with them?"

"I put them in my cupboard."

"That was a singularly useless thing to do."

"Yes."

Pause.

"Would you like to see them?" He drew his breath in tensely.

Her eyes met his. "I think I would."

Edward let his breath out with a heavy sigh. "I'll- arrange- for them to be sent around to your hotel."

Sarah nodded. She didn't say anything.

He stopped uncomfortably. He had the vague sensation that he was doing something wrong. Sarah's eyes were looking at him with an almost expectant look. As though she were waiting for something.

"Would you rather we met by the lake?"

Her face lit up with a sudden radiant smile.

"I mean- I could take the letters to you there- you could read them- and then- well- I have to say something. I was wrong. Before. When you left. It was my-"

She pressed a single finger against his lips. "I think it'd be better to have this discussion later, don't you?"

Her eyes were soft with promise.

Edward found himself feeling unbelievably, ridiculously happy.

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