Chapter 19: I Know a Bank Where the Wild Thyme Grows
"She reminds me of the Cheshire cat." I sensed rather than felt him behind me. Even the silence did not deter me from believing he was there and that he heard me. The lack of response did not perturb me in the least, anyway, as I was quite use to his moods. Perfectly content to stay crouched, running a languid hand over the ground's stray cat, I waited patiently for him to speak.
"And why is that exactly?" His boots appeared to the right of me, and then his face as he mimicked my posture, neither of us caring about the wetness saturating into our garments. Settling his elbows on his knees, he stared intently at me with those staggering eyes of his.
I tilted the small kitten's chin to gesture to the thin white fringe of hair near its mouth, the presence of which called to mind a smiling cat.
"Because it appears to be grinning."
"Cats do not grin." He sounded baffled. The kitty dug its damp little paws into his trouser leg.
I withheld the sigh that was trying to escape my throat. "I'm perfectly aware of that. I'm talking about the grinning cat from Wonderland."
There was a silence that followed as I observed him searching through his pockets for something.
I settled more fully on the green knoll as he finally located his cigarette case and matches. In my attempt to get more comfortable my skirt sneaked up on me, exposing my boot and calf. Blushing profusely, I quickly covered myself, pulling me legs under me. The fog rolled lazily around us, seeking comfort around our toes from the darkening heights.
I stole a glance at him as he struck his match and inhaled deeply on his first smoke. Through the blue haze he examined me. "So where is this wonderland?"
"In Alice's mind."
"Who in the world is Alice?"
"It was in your book." I sounded short with him.
He looked surprised, perhaps that I had remembered a thing that seemed so long ago, "That's right."
I flashed him an amused smile that didn't reach my eyes and watched him settle down next to me; his long legs drawn up to his chest.
"You've never read it?"
"What was that?" he asked, leaning into me mockingly, avoiding the question blatantly and allowing his cool breath to waft over my neck and cheek.
"Alice in Wonderland? You've never read it, but you told your mum to buy it for me?"
He shrugged dismissively, "As you know, my reading material is very limited."
"Seems odd. How did you know I'd like it?"
"It's a children's book, isn't it?"
"Well," I fixed my attentions on the kitten, stroking it between its ears, "It is a wonderful book. Alice chases a rabbit into Wonderland and meets a Cheshire cat that grins and talks. She also meets a mad hatter and March hare who are stuck at tea-time."
"Why are they stuck at tea-time?"
My gaze wandered to his face to try to discern whether the interest in his voice was sincere or not. He was smirking at me but a faint twinkle in his eye betrayed his curiosity.
"Because the Mad Hatter had a disagreement with Time and so it stopped . . . working for him. So he was always stuck at tea. When he wanted a new cup he would simply move down a space at the table, over and over."
The smirk widened into a smile, "So what happens when they run out of clean cups?"
My smile matched his. Leaning toward him conspiratorially, I rested my chin on my own shoulder. "That's the exact same thing that Alice asked."
He leaned back on his elbows and stretched out. I resisted the urge to reprimand him for getting his suit wet.
"Sounds interesting." He wiggled his foot and sent the cat scurrying off in a sudden fright.
Seeing that there was not another soul in sight, I boldly stretched out next to him, letting the dampness seep into my back, feeling my hair tug at the ivory comb that I now wore at all times.
I felt him move and his shoulder touched mine then disappeared. He shifted again and this time did not move away when his arm pressed against me, silently letting me know he was close.
In the five months that had passed since my mother had died he never spoke of it. Never asked me how I was doing. But his silent presence at my side was more comforting than any verbal sympathy. Even the smell of his horrible chemical experiments was welcome to me and I sometimes would sit in my usual chair next to his table without doing anything at all simply to be near him while he tinkered with his toys. He was the only person in the house I would talk up now, though he had grown more silent over the weeks.
I pressed my legs together and let them drop slightly to the side, resting against his. I wanted to clothe myself in him, wanted him to shelter me. But we both knew that was not possible.
He tilted his head to the side and closed his eyes. I traced his Adams-apple and jaw with my eyes. He leaned down, the back of his head hitting the grass before he slowly lowered his spine onto the ground. He slid his arms across his forehead, his gloved hand wiping at the dew on his face. It was foggy in a melancholy sort of way, the skies grey and purple, the air filled with water that collected in the hollow of my throat as I lay unshielded from the weather next to him.
I boldly turned my body and lowered my head onto his chest. He jolted at the initial shock of it, but I felt him yield under me. I slid an arm around his waist, reveling in the feeling of having someone next to me. Since my mum had died, my bed had seemed too large.
His hand came down tentatively onto my head. "Je suis ici, ma fille," he murmured softly.
I closed my eyes. He ran his hand up my neck and I sighed at the first touch. I felt an almost surpassing comfort there in that moment, wondering if this is how we were meant to speak to each other, beyond the tedium of everyday conversation. In this way, we are outside our words, our motions perfected; our feelings clear.
I had a vivid vision of his hand emerging out from under my tousled hair, resting on my pillow, or rather, our pillow; his arm under my neck, fitting the soft curve perfectly, as if it were made for him. The daylight is filtering through the window, cool morning air drowning my senses; the window is cracked open, letting in a fine blanket of mist from outside. I smile and his hand moves, his fingers flexing absently during his slumber. I hold my breath until he settles back into a still sleep, unfettered by uncertainty or hesitation, troubled by nothing.
"Mary." My untenable thoughts are cut into by his lazy voice, though slightly strained.
"Hmm?" I murmured, cracking my eyes open. The vapor was flooding over his chest, making me squint. His arm covered my eyes as he raised it to draw deeply on his cigarette, his other arm now draped naturally across my shoulders. My response was slow, absent. I was still envisioning us in bed.
"I've decided to go to University." His sudden statement was rather startling and I stared at him unwaveringly through half-lidded eyes.
"That's good for you," I stammered, my words evaporating into a burst of frost against his chest. I hoped that the unexpected sadness that filled my lungs was not seeping through my words. "What do you intend to study? Chemistry?"
He shrugged, moving my head along with his shoulder, "It is the only thing I'm good at . . . that I can make a living off of."
"How will you pay for it?"
"My monthly allowance will cover most. My stepfather has agreed reluctantly to pay for all other costs. I think he's mainly hoping that if I get out on my own that I'll never ask him for anything again. This is, of course, entirely correct. My brother in London is also willing to help me."
"Going into the world at last? Suppose you've been hiding from it for long enough?"
"The world is a cruel jest. You cannot hide from it, it catches up eventually."
"Then I suppose it's found you at last?" I inquired gently, perturbed by his harsh words.
"It found me years ago."
"You're brilliant," I conceded softly, "You're able to do what you want. Your life is your own and no one -"
"No one's life is their own," he interrupted, his voice wintry and edged, "and that which we're allowed to taste is pathetic and futile."
"I don't believe that. You enjoy many things…your chemistry, your violin, your books and . . ." I took a breath, "do you not find me satisfying as well?"
He was quiet for a great length of time. I refused to speak. I refused to allow him to dodge the question. He finally sighed heavily, his hand wiping at the mist on the back of my neck. "These are only moments, Mary. Soon they pass away and all that's left is a shadow. Or worse . . . misery."
"You make it sound as if there is no point to anything." His words made me emotional. I hated knowing he felt that way.
"Perhaps there isn't."
I pressed my face into his chest and took a deep breath, "Then why leave?" I argued.
"I can't . . ." He trailed off before clearing his throat, "I want the freedom to do what I wish. I can't have that here. I don't want the usual 'of North Riding' to follow my name everywhere I go and along with it all the expectations of someone of my class, whether it be about my profession…or marriage." His hand roamed to my waist, gently kneading the curve of my back and sliding up and down my side. My heart skipped at his words. "And Jane . . . I can't handle Jane anymore," he confessed. I could feel him shift; looking away from me though I couldn't see his face anyway. "I don't know what she wants from me."
"I can guess," I muttered into his vest, my words unclear but not so much that he didn't catch them. He had never spoken so openly with me about this, and it surprised me to realize that he knew I was aware of it.
"She's becoming . . . insistent. I don't want to deal with it anymore."
I pursed my lips. I hadn't noticed her giving him attention at all lately, which only meant that more was happening in private. The thought angered me. I clenched my jaw and held onto his waist tight enough to make him squirm.
He pressed his face into my hair. We stayed like that for a while, silent and tense. "You're not wearing a corset," he whispered onto the top of my head. He massaged my waist harder. I felt him smile into my hair. "Who would have guessed women are actually soft under all that stiff material?"
I laughed nervously, the sudden lack of restraint allowing my eyes to well up. "When do you leave?"
His smile faded, "A week before Christmas."
I looked up at him, though I could only see his neck. The scruff of his neck scratched the bridge of my nose. "Two months?" I breathed.
He didn't respond.
I shifted onto my back and looked up at the sky, hoping the dew would disguise the tears gathering behind my eyes.