Part Thirty Eight

Maud’s Obsession and Melanie’s Dream

Although the décor of Mountsell Park’s Venetian Salon seemed, in general, too lavish for Francine’s tastes, she enjoyed a particular large south-facing window at which, in her enforced idleness, she would spend sometimes hours of her mornings dreaming up her ideas for formal gardens that could so enhance Arthur’s well-kept, but somewhat masculine landscape.  This morning, however, though her eyes beheld they scarcely saw.  She was seriously troubled.

Upon arriving home from their excursion to St. Benedict’s Rock, she had tucked an already slumbering Samuel into his bed before taking a late supper wih Arthur from trays in the withdrawing room.   It was a restrained affair, far from the tète-a-tète either had anticipated, each hesitating, though much wanting to pursue their passion of the previous night.  In the end they took to their individual rooms with the sweetness of one kiss as compensation.  Alone, Francine had scribbled the letter which now waited concealed within her escritoire, for urgent dispatch to Maud Reybath, at Bleanstead, though by what means she had no clue.  She had slept late.

The mantel clock had struck the half-afterr-eleven when Arthur discovered her, her slippered feet up upon the sofa as she dozed lightly, a book unregarded in her lap.   He came to stand behind her, his powerful, gently determined hands finding the bare flesh at her shoulders.  She stemmed their advance with restraining fingers:  “Desist, sir!”

He obeyed immediately, “Because you fear discovery, my love, or for other reasons?”

She rested her cheek against his forearm; “Oh, Arthur! There are a thousand reasons!  If I were ever free of all that boils inside me, of all my confusion.  You are right.  I shall always feel in danger of discovery here.”

“Confusion?  Inner torment?  This bodes ill!”  He said seriously, coming to sit beside her; “A thousand reasons you  could never be persuaded to become the mistress of this house?”

Francine smiled; “If when all is known, that were still your wish?”

“Most certainly!  I have sent for a goldsmith this very morning.   He will be here before nightfall, I guarantee.”

“Ah!”  Francine sensed an opportunity, “Then if I have good news may I also send a messenger?   Why are you laughing, sir?”

“Because you said ‘if I have good news’ – that implies a certain consent, does it not?  Madame, you may send as many messengers as you want!”

“Nay, I need only one.”   As the humour left her, Francine rose from the settle and crossed to her favourite window, head bowed to avoid her lover’s discriminating eyes.  She was silent for a while, allowing Arthur, who sensed her need for time, to wait pensively.  At last she murmured, only half aloud:   “No, I may not do this.”

“Do what?”  Arthur prompte her gently.

“Deceive you.”

“Ah.  Was that your intent?”

“I need to get a letter to Maud Reybath…”

“She of Bleanstead?  Samuel’s aunt?  No deception is necessary there, surely?”

“We both know that ‘Aunt’ is a courtesy title, for my dearest boy and I have no relations in this world.  Oh, how to begin?   Arthur, I must forewarn you concerning Maud Reybath.”

“I have not had the pleasure of this woman’s acquaintance.  Does she pose some threat to you?”

“No, Arthur, no.   We have always been – were, are- friends!   Maud first made herself known to me in my very early days in the care of Mr Fletcher, my former guardian, while Samuel was still a baby.  We met at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Mountchester; I was seeking answers to my situation and she seemed to single me out.   She too, as it transpired, was new to Mountchester and in need of friends.   She perceived my shyness in society to be a characteristic she shared; so we revealed as much of our histories as either of us knew – which, in my case was barely a minute of explanation – and discovered we had this much in common: we were both foundlings, Arthur!”

“When you say ‘foundlings’, d’ye mean Miss Reybath was abandoned on a doorstep too?”

“As she explained it, yes!  Yes indeed, exactly that!  Although she was a matter of months old when she was found and in a location in common with some few others – before the gates of a monastery!   The monks took her in, educated her and raised her in their faith until, upon a certain day that was claimed as her eighteenth birthday they received an allowance that was sufficient to provide for her independence.”

Arthur pursed his lips, “A pretty story.  An anonymous benefactor.”

“When we met she was living in her own rooms.  We were close for years, and she seemed inclined to marry a young solicitor’s clerk for a while, but as it transpired there was a higher mission  – in the end Mountchester proved too much for Maud.  She had saved enough from her allowance to purchase the property in Bleanstead and this she did.  I was visiting her for the first time in her new home when I met you.”

Arthur frowned;  “I see this journey has a destination, though I cannot hazard as yet what it may be.  So far you have revealed no deception, unless you intend to depart by the light of the moon and live with your friend Maud?  When you first arrived here, did you not fear putting her in danger by leading your pursuers to her?”

“I did, very much.”  Francine’s eyes were distant, even lost, letting her train of thought move freely.  “No sooner had I returned to Mountchester after that visit than the pursuit, the menace that drew me to your door began.  I was being watched; my guardian threatened.”

“And you believed that whatever endangered you might implicate your friend as well.”  Arthur raised a quizzical eyebrow, “Perhaps in some manner more particular than the mere risk of damage:  what is it you share with this woman, Francine?  Would the same villains we despatched at the fallen oak have an equal interest in her?”

Sighing resignedly, Francine turned to meet Arthur’s eye.  “You must know this, although the story is not really mine to tell, and I pray the knowledge will not cause you pain.

“When Maud’s time came  to leave  the monastery the Father Abbott told her that those she believed to have abandoned her were a conclave of a church he referred to as ‘The Brotherhood’.  This close band of monks had told him she was the child of a seer who died at the hands of their enemies, so they left her to be raised, hidden in the anonymity of his monastery.   Now of age, she must continue her mother’s dangerous mission, which was to lead them to the one they called ‘The Pilgrim’.  They believed ‘The Pilgrim’ alone could read a Holy Scripture they kept in a secret place, and with his guidance they might re-write all the evils of history”   Francine took a deep breath.  “Their judgement of Maud was justified, because she saw something in me that would lead her to you.  It is you, Arthur.  I am certain, as is she.  You are the one they seek with great urgency.  You are The Pilgrim.”

His eyes were kindly when he laughed, she thought; a humour turned in upon himself with no hint of mockery.  He did not believe her; she scarcely expected him to, but neither did he scoff or ridicule.  Instead he came to her as she loved him to do, and closed her explanation with a kiss.

#

  Melanie Fenton was beginning a dream.  The dream opened with a brief, almost subliminal image of a frightened woman, a woman in a nurse’s uniform staring at her.  It seemed, although for sure she could not tell, the cause of this woman’s fear was none other than herself, but the scene flashed by so quickly it was gone almost as soon as it came.

Then there was sunlight; the weak, struggling sunlight of an English morning, and there was a scent of rosewater.  There were warm sheets enfolding her, a soft pillow of duck-down cushioning her cheek.  Behind heavy brocade curtains (which her maid had drawn when she brought her tea) and beyond the open lattice windows a blackbird announced its entitlement in song, with a choir of garden birds as witnesses.   She loved their music, was loath to rise when she might spend the hours here, just on the borders of sleep, listening.

She was thirsty.  Lazily, she rolled to her other side, taking in as she did so the soft, warm colours, the hangings and the rich furnishings of the room.   There was no doubting its tranquil beauty, yet, although in a part of her mind she had never seen this place before, another part of her barely noticed its charm; was even slightly disapproving of a tall oriental vase which stood upon a what-not in the corner.  And there was a passing of time, how much she did not know, or care.  When she reached for her tea it was still warm: the maid had not yet brought the ewer of hot water she needed to wash, something which struck her as faintly unusual, for she was certain the hour was already late.   But then, there was an expectation, a frisson of excitement, too.   She could not account for this, though she felt she should have a reason.

The tea roused her a little.  She slipped her feet over the side of the bed, sat up. Her nightgown rode up over her knees and she sat, for some minutes it seemed, inspecting them.   They were, she thought, quite passable knees.

Satisfied as to the acceptability of these particular joints she stood and walked across the floor with them, her bare feet tingling at the chill of the boards.   At  the furthest of the windows she paused in her night attire to take in the colours of the day, quite uncaring that the gardeners would be at work outside, aware how the thin cloth which was all she had to cover her might fail to entirely do so in some respects.   It would amuse her, this particular morning, to attract the percipient upward glance of a young face, see how she might captivate its owner, and then how hastily it turned away when it realised who it looked upon.

Her way took her past the cheval mirror, her dressing mirror. She was surprised by her own face:  the delicate features, the swan-like neck.  So poised, so assured, so refined.   And so old!   In the unforgiving light of day, she saw herself as only a woman of advancing years might see.   Mirror, mirror…..

“You are thirty-six;” the mirror said.

“Five.  I’m thirty-five.”   Was she?

“You will be thirty-six soon, my dear.   You are no longer in the bloom of youth, you know.”

“Is not my skin still smooth; my hair still fair; my figure neat?”

“Not as neat as once it was.  Turn to the side.”

This was a silent conversation, but real enough, nonetheless.  She stood critically examining her body this way and that, making certain she was sufficiently far from the window before she shrugged her nightgown from her shoulders – there were things that even a young gardener should not be allowed to see.  She scarcely recognised her own body.   Where had the time gone?

Hurriedly, she reached down to retrieve the pool of filmy cloth around her feet.  She should not be here in this vulnerable state, in the middle of her room, knowing what was going to happen.   What?   What was going to happen?

Only as she straightened, drawing the gown back over her breasts, did she catch sight of the figure in the open doorway.  The dark figure of one who had entered silently – who had been watching her for – oh, how long?

She felt the blood rushing to her neck, her cheeks.  

“You have discovered me, sir!”  But despite her instinct to blush, she did not move to cover herself further.

“I apologise.”   The figure said in a dark voice.  “Should I withdraw?”

She did not answer.  She moved back towards her bed, sitting primly upon it.

The figure came further into the room, closing the door behind him.  “You think I should have let him die.”

At this she shook her head: not emphatically, but with sorrow.   “I could not possibly wish that.   He is my husband.”

“Even having seen him?   Last night I thought…”

“Last night I was…confused.   He is so, so very ill.  How soon may this pass?”

“If by pass you mean recover?”  The dark intruder drew closer to her.   “He will not.   I restarted a heart that wished to beat no longer.  I could not restart the man.”

“Then…”

“Then with time he will die.  We both must seek new masters.   I think you already have yours.”

Ah, mine!   Why did a faint rancour come into her mouth when she thought of that ‘new master’?  Why was there a disappointment, a feeling of betrayal?  Oh, she knew why.   A fateful conversation of a January afternoon here, upon this very bed.  So soon after their first meeting, so soon after she had committed herself completely to his care:  but so late, far, far too late to climb back from the mire of discredit she had willingly entered in return for his attentions.

Matthew Ballantine had no wish for there ever to be an heir. He abhorred the thought of children.  She had gone so far for him, down the road to disreputability.   And now the years would slip by without hope, without the consolation, ever a chance at motherhood!   She took a sip of tea, a moment to reflect and measure what she was about to say.  What she was about to do!

“You are very perceptive.”  She said.  “And a little familiar.”

“I am honest.  We both know this.   He is your lover, and soon he will be my master.  But he is less your lover than you would wish, and not the lover you need.”

The dark man stood right over her now, his shirt open so she could see the sweat glistening on his ebony skin.

“Have a care!”   She tore her eyes away from the brazenness of his manhood to meet the hunger in his stare.  “We both must serve him.”

He was not to be diverted.  “You bade me come.”

“That was last night.  I was,,.”

“Confused?”

“Yes.”

He placed his hands upon her shoulders.  They were gentle, but strength pulsated from them.   “Then should I go?”

She did not answer; could not.   Once their eyes had met there was no turning, no going back.  There was such a heat within her, a desperation which only this man might fill.   And so she stood, and took him to her, and the dream faded, and stillness returned.

There were three people by the bed.  One, a technician, turned and adjusted the monitors, his concentrated expression lit by their glow.  The second person present wore the uniform of nurse in charge, the third was a doctor.   He was speaking.

“There is absolutely nothing irregular.  I can find no changes in the girl’s condition and I take it there isn’t anything wrong with the equipment?”

The technician shook his head.  “No. All fine here.”

“So just run this by me again,”  said the clinician.  “What did the nurse say?”

The nurse in charge shrugged helplessly.  “She screamed.  That’s what brought me in here.  She said the patient’s eyes had opened and stared at her.  That’s why she knocked the drip over, she said.   Then she said the monitors went wild…those were her words.  They were throwing up peaks consistent with violent activity.”

“And when you came in?”

“Everything was normal.  As you see it now.  Except for the nurse – she was in hysterics.”

“And on her own.”   The Doctor said.

“Yes.  Her partner seems to have taken it on herself to go home because she was “ill”.  She did not trouble to report to me first, unfortunately.”

“Very well.”  The clinician nodded.  “Let the new team come in.   Make certain this Aneesha woman is transferred to less demanding duties.  She should never be allowed near this patient again – you understand?”

He need not have been concerned.  Aneesha was already in the air, on a flight to England.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

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