Sunday, March 25, 2012

“The Lost Heart”

         William Pennington’s demonic grin gave Lillian only a moment’s forewarning. Not nearly enough time to pick up her skirt and dash out of harm’s way. Willie’s Comanche yell bellowed wildly, causing everyone at the garden party to pause in their conversations to observe the brother as he hunted and captured his younger sister.
         “Oh, Willie, please don’t!” Lillian pleaded as her brother scooped her into his arms and effortlessly ran to the edge of the pond. With strength provided by temper, he flung her into the air.
         Lillian’s indignant yowl ended as she plunged into the cold water. Her breath, knocked out by the icy impact, made her inhale before she resurfaced. The layers of her new petticoats and dress dragged her to the bottom, and in stunned confusion she flailed helplessly under water.
         “She’s drowning!” Timothy Hughes, one of Willie’s comrades from boarding school warned.
         “She’s faking!” Willie countered, but not before Timothy dove into the nearly freezing water.
         In seconds, he located a stunned Lillie and pushed her head above the water. Within a couple of steps, his feet found purchase and he scooped the girl into his arms.
         “She’s faking!” Willie called from the pond’s edge, trying to hide the beginning of concern as he watched his friend struggle under the limp form of his sister.
         “Is she alright?” Mr. Pennington helped Timothy place Lillian on the grown, shifting her head to clear her throat. The girl sputtered, gasping air into her lungs with sudden force, and then she coughed uncontrollably.
         Someone brought a picnic blanket, and Timothy gently wrapped the girl in its wooly warmth. Her eyes fluttered open, but her shaking didn’t subside as he roughly rubbed the cloth against her frozen skin.
         “You’re fine,” he reassured her when he saw the panic in her eyes. “You’re fine,” he repeated as he scowled at her brother. “Can you put your arms around my neck? I’ll carry you back to the house. That’s a good girl,” he praised as he lifted Lillian, still wrapped in the blanket, from the ground.
         “I’ll dash ahead and let the servants know what’s happened,” Willie volunteered, making a hasty exit before his father and their friends decided to turn on him.
         Lillian’s breathing eased as Timothy marched across the meadow. She nestled her head against his neck, snuggling into the warmth of his skin. When they reached the back door, Timothy shrugged aside offers to let someone else carry her. Instead, he strode through the kitchen, and followed Mrs. Pennington and several maids as they escorted him up to Lillian’s room.
         The young man stood, a trail of rivulets running from his soaked clothing, as the women rushed to take care of Lillian. Mr. Pennington entered the room long enough to ascertain his daughter’s safe care, and turned to his son’s friend.
         Taking Timothy’s elbow, he nudged the young man out of the room. “We’ll leave Lillian to her mother’s care now. Why don’t I find you a change of clothes? And a drink?” The older man guided Timothy down the hallway, opening the door to a room. “Someone will pick up your wet clothes. I’ll take you back to see my daughter once you’re both dried.” He didn’t wait for an answer, but turned on his heel, entering his daughter’s room once again.
         Half-an-hour later, Lillian sat propped against pillows, a pile of down quilts pressing warmth onto her feet and legs. She sipped cautiously at the steaming tea her mother insisted she drink.
         Her mother’s creased brow eased a little as the color returned to Lillian’s cheeks. When the soft knock sounded on her bedroom door, Mrs. Pennington called, “Yes? Come on in.”
         Timothy Hughes’s damp head peeked around the door, a charmingly disarming smile spread across his usually serious face. He walked immediately to Lillian, took her free hand into his own, and bowed with honest concern. “I’m so glad that you are safe.”
         Mrs. Pennington caught the confused look in her daughter’s eyes and explained, “Dear, Timothy is the one who pulled you out of the pond. He saved your life!”
         And at that moment, fourteen-year-old Lillian Pennington fell in love.

Years later, she’d tell her friends how she knew she’d never, ever love any man but Timothy Hughes. Willie teased her mercilessly about her infatuation, and he made certain he reported every romantic encounter of his friend. But Lillian’s adolescent pining gave way to a stubborn determination that Timothy would marry no one but her. Because of the bond with her brother, Timothy often visited their home, and Lillian made certain she wore her prettiest dresses and spoke the perfect response. She managed to press herself closely to Timothy when they danced, and to sit next to him whenever possible. He enjoyed her adoration, grew to count on her as a fixture in his life. The Pennington and Hughes families regarded the marriage of Lillian and Timothy as inevitable. Everyone knew he only waited to propose because he wanted to “give her time to finish growing up.”
         The young couple elected to wed by the pond, where Timothy had saved Lillian. The Penningtons purchased a home for them that abutted their own property. Timothy happily settled into business with his own father while Lillian spent her days selectively decorating their house. She toiled over fabric swatches and paint samples. She designed beautiful gardens and sunburned her nose as she directed the planting. She threw her heart into making their life together perfect.
         Year after year, she yearned for a child. She hid her disappointment behind brilliant smiles and hoped no one sensed her disillusionment as her days stretched out in tedious repetition. Every morning, she sat in silence as Timothy submerged himself in the daily news. Her thoughts drifted aimlessly to the mind numbing visits with friends or family that she felt forced to make. The weight of her sadness pulled her down and under until she felt herself drowning in the indifference surrounding her.
         “A penny for your thoughts,” Timothy set aside his newspaper one morning in response to a heavy sigh from his wife. He watched her make certain their maid left the room before she began.
         “That’s the problem,” Lillian’s eyes welled with tears. “I’m so bored. I have no new thoughts to add to our life. I don’t want to chatter on about fabrics, paint, or plants.” She pointed an accusing finger at her husband. “Your eyes glaze over whenever I try to explain the value of velvets for the curtains.” At Timothy’s smile, she continued, “This is not the life I dreamed of having.”
         “It seldom is,” he seriously agreed.
         Lillian shook her head and continued, “I’m drowning, Timothy. Just as certainly as all those years ago, when you hauled me out of the pond. Only this time you haven’t even noticed.”
         Timothy eyed his young wife shrewdly, noticed that her delicate mouth nudged downward in a pout, not of pettiness, but of sorrow. He folded the news into a neat pile, drummed his fingers upon the table as he concentrated on his wife, probably for the first time in months.
         “Adele told me about the baby.”
         “Baby?” Timothy asked.
         Lillian leaned forward in her chair, her face serious and eyes determined. “I’ve thought of nothing else since yesterday, and I think I have the perfect plan.”
         “Plan?” Timothy took his wife’s cold hands within his own.
         “Yes. You see, we tell everyone I’m pregnant and that the doctor says I’ll need rest. I have to get away. Adele’s my maid, so it’s only natural that she’d come with me. No one would ever suspect that she’s the baby’s mother. And if we’re lucky, the child will favor you.”
         “Favor me?”
         “Of course, Adele couldn’t come back here. I’m ready to forgive an affair, but she cannot live anywhere in this region. So you see, no one will ever suspect that I’m not the mother,” she squeezed his hands tightly. “I will love the child as my own.”
         “Will you stop repeating me?” exasperation filled Lillie’s voice. “I’m telling you that I still love you. That I want this baby more than anything else in the world. Can you do this? Will you do this—for me?”
         “Have you spoken to Adele about your plan?”
         “I wanted to discuss it with you, first.”
            “I don’t want to disappoint you, dear. But Adele’s baby isn’t mine.”
            “Of course it is! I’ve watched how the two of you flirt!” Timothy shook his head. “I’ve seen you in whispering together. Getting quiet when I enter the room.” Timothy shook his head again. “You’re certain you’re not having an affair?” The irony in Lillian’s disappointment made Timothy laugh. She tugged her hands from his clasp, and irritation slapped pink on her cheeks.
            “Darling,” Timothy smiled, “I do believe you’ve given me the most loving gift today! Forgiveness for an affair I’ve never contemplated and the offer to raise my illegitimate child as your own. I’m not certain any man deserves a wife like you.”
            “Don’t look so smug!” Lillian thought a moment. “What about Adele?”
            “I think we need to talk to her.”
            “She said the baby’s father could never marry her. That she’s alone. She cannot go back to her family with a baby.”
            “Then we’ll talk to her about letting us adopt her child. Ring for her,” he shifted back into his chair and shook his head one more time in amazement at Lillian’s misinterpretation and obvious generosity.
            As Lillian rang for Adele, she quipped, “Just don’t take this admission of mine as permission to have an affair with someone.”
            “Of course, dear,” Timothy said as he picked up his newspaper.

William McGregor Paxot, The Breakfast (1911)

 Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman






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