Shadows of Devotion

She could start a new life, she could finally be free. That was her plan, when first the scheme was conceived in her imagination.

"Do you understand everything? It must be clear, very, very clear." she emphasized.

The stout middle-aged man nodded, but did not move his thick arms from their rigid position at his sides, nor lift his eyes to meet hers, though he was aware of every frenetic movement as she paced, her fingers knotted together behind her back.

"Olsen?" she prompted, for much to his discomfiture, Mrs. Foxworth always expected a verbal response. Then he did look up. His eyes flicked from her to the door, then to the window and the reassuring sight of the verdant lawn and summer flowers without.

"Yes M-Ma'am."

"Very good. Tomorrow, then, we are agreed. You may go now." She softened her manner, and added, "Thank you, Olsen."

Willard Olsen was not a simpleton. One didn't need much of an education to learn that it is prudent to be a man of few words, keeping one's eyes and ears open. He'd done that from the day Malcolm Foxworth hired him, and he'd sensed this day coming from the first time he looked up from spring blossoms and, through the glass, met the bedazzled, gray eyes of the bride of Mr. Foxworth.

Now he looked through that glass from the opposite side and tried to see the world from her point of view, and knew he never could, yet he did see that she was in need of his help. Olsen did not ask for more explanation than was provided, none was needed. The bruises on fair skin and the downcast shift of his own daughter's eyes, when she'd still lived, had taught him how vulnerable women are, how in need of protection from their own foolish, but loving inclination to forgive. The memory was now a reproach for his passivity and willful blindness to an unpleasant truth, and a reason to make the right choice, now.

Mrs. Foxworth was never displeased with his work, and she seldom spoke to him; if she came into the garden, she worked in silence. A few of the younger maids, Olsen knew, disliked Mrs. Foxworth, some even feared her, but only those who tried not to perform fully the jobs they were hired on to do. Olsen's misgivings had, over the years, transitioned into genuine respect for her, even admiration.

She'd chosen to keep him on when she let the other servants go, and he was grateful, for he was responsible for the support of grandchildren, after his son's death in the Great War.

In Mrs. Foxworth's figure, Olsen had noticed the changes that revealed her delicate condition. He watched, with a well-concealed feeling of tender protectiveness, as Olivia Foxworth, without assistance from her husband, alighted from that man's gleaming automobile, and walked without a backward glance toward the house.

Olsen went on about his business in the potting shed. Sometime later, the sound of fractious voices penetrated his own thoughts. He tried not to listen to the voices from the garden. He did not wish to be detained in the hot, stuffy shed, but he would not embarrass himself or his employers by interrupting them by walking out into the middle of a distressing, private discussion, and the time to make his presence known passed before he realized he should do so. He hoped the couple would leave the garden, but they paced its central path as they conversed.

"We have two handsome boys. Let them be enough for you." said Olivia. The words fell upon the evening air as a quiet, wistful plea.

"But her child is mine."

"Is it?" she asked, planting a seedling of doubt in Malcolm's mind.

"Do you doubt her?"

It was an earnest inquiry, Olivia realized, but all she knew to do was volley a question back.

"Don't you?"

In Malcolm's eagerness to acquire the daughter he longed for, it hadn't occurred to him to receive Alicia's announcement with skepticism. Now it seemed incumbent on him to give the impression that he'd harbored doubts all along. Otherwise, he would look a gullible fool.

"There is doubt," Olivia said, counting on Malcolm's own poor opinion of Alicia to solidify her argument. "unless," she said tentatively, "you want this baby because... because you care for Alicia."

Malcolm, taken aback, was nonplussed. He could see the mistrust filming his wife's face, clouding it like a brewing storm.

"You're only thinking of Alicia." she pressed on, with a cold glitter in her eyes, as bright as the diamonds pinned to her dress. "You think of her all the time. You love her."

"I have never been accustomed to love." he said stiffly. "I don't believe I have ever in my life either given or received it."

"You did not wish to receive it."

"Surely, you know better than to think that."

"No," Olivia replied, astonishment at his previous statement shaking her reserve. "You have never intimated otherwise. There has always been, between us, a greater dissidence than we can repair. But once, I was prepared to love you..."

Fear silenced her candid speech, and he knew that fear, understood it, often living beneath its shadow, himself. She had made the first overture, and so he risked a question.

"And now?"

There is apprehension in his utterance. There is a query, a plea.

"Did you think I could ever forgive you, or love you, after what you've done?"

Malcolm shook his head. She had voiced his own doubt. This was the question he'd always anticipated hearing, in one form or another. Every day that she did not speak, he breathed a little easier, though he could sense what remained of her feeling for him ossifying into indifference.

"But I do." she admitted in a whisper, then her voice gained vehemence. "I do love you, but I wish...I wish to God I didn't!"

She leaned forward, and with sacramental concentration, placed her lips on his.

He embraced her cautiously; years of history and knowledge in the embrace, but drew back, when he heard her next words.

"I don't trust you and never shall, and I can't go on living in a state of permanent doubt."

"What? What are you saying?"

Rather than replying, she turned away, perhaps to allow herself a moment to choose carefully her next words, important, devastating, final words.

"I don't understand why Alicia fascinates you so. What do you want from her?"

From within the potting shed, Olsen pondered this same question for himself, his heart drumming in sympathy, and wild apprehension. Had he misunderstood some key element? Should he, as before, passively stand by and wait, or should he seize an opportunity?

"I want to know," replied Malcolm haltingly, "why a woman like her-a woman like my mother-would abandon her child. I want to know how she could kiss my forehead and tell me she loved me, and then vanish, as if I'd never existed."

His wife started to speak, but wasn't given the chance. She reached a tentative hand toward him, for a moment overcome by the compassion she felt whenever he spoke of his mother, but withdrew before making contact, as his tone became one of anger.

"YOU can't tell me that, Olivia."

"Alicia is not at all like your mother." she refuted. "And you'll be forcing her to abandon her child. Malcolm, no one, including Alicia, can tell you why Corinne went away. I know how you were hurt; you talk as if she left here only yesterday. Once, I believed that I could make you happy enough to overcome all of that. It seems there are so many things I am not able to do, and give to you."

"Can't or won't." Malcolm cringed, recalling his own cruel words, harsh ones meant to deflect any opposition, and halt the interrogation Olivia would indubitably attempt.

It was not their custom to speak candidly of feelings. His words, sharp as scimitars, had been his mode of defense, for he was so unequivocally the transgressor.

After a prolonged silence, Olivia said, "I'm sorry I can't give you another child."

Malcolm, though discomfited, felt grateful she'd said it, even if the regret she expressed was feigned.

He would be gratified, in some primitive way, if together they had created another life, but that life, Malcolm knew, would incite equal parts pride and discontent in himself-he'd experienced it before. His son's arrival had called forth the ghosts of his own early childhood, and an unreasonable emotion, almost like envy, for, until he saw how Olivia adored Mal, he hadn't fully guessed how little his own mother had cared for him, and how shallow had been Corinne's emotions, how pathetic were her efforts at mothering.

It would be no different with a third child, undoubtedly, and yet... Malcolm looked forward, willfully dismissing Olivia's recent startling admission and the knowledge of his own confusion, imagining a scene five months hence, when he would take the infant to her mother, belatedly bestowing a gift, hoping a daughter will bring the missing joy into their lives.

"Yes." he said slowly. "We are both sorry."

She spoke his name quietly, free of the anger that had sparkled on the surface of every word she spoke to him, of late. Seven years ago, her voice had caressed the syllables of his name as if speaking the sum of everything she hoped to treasure; he'd since forgotten how it had made him feel. Remembering, he wished he knew how to say he was sorry-not that soon, they might have a daughter, but for the way he had gotten this daughter. Sorry that, until he'd seen the depth of emotion that was the source of his wife's distress and cause of her confrontation, he had not known a well of feeling still existed in her, or that he could draw upon it to wash away his own feelings of valuelessness.

Bathed in the direct gray of her gaze that was free from hostility for the first time in months, Malcolm had a sudden sense of well-being, as though he had inadvertently stumbled onto the correct homeward path after a trek in a relentless winter freeze.

"Malcolm, don't misunderstand me. I can't give you this child. I cannot allow this child to be part of our family."

He had known, of course, that he expected too much, and that his treatment of both women had been ruthless. If he insisted on keeping Alicia's baby, he would be courting disaster, for Olivia could not be forced to fall in with his plans, nor coerced.

She had been so near loving him, accepting his faults as no one ever had, but that love so quickly could wither, as a flower withers, nipped by frost. Malcolm could see their future in the way she had already begun to draw away from him. It would become second nature for her to mask despondency from everyone, even from herself, by covering it in an exterior of austerity, until the woman she'd been before was gone and forgotten, the familiar life they had formed forever changed, and that would be his doing.

If he should never again see Alicia's beautiful face, if he never claims as his own the child she carried, his life would go on as before. If he were to lose Olivia, he realized, the necessary constructs of his world would disintegrate, all that he cherished likely would be wrested from him, and all because of an act of thoughtless impulse!

It may, in time, mean losing the respect of his sons, as well, for Malcolm did not doubt that once the boys were of an age to understand, they would see their father for the fraud he feared he was, and cease to respect him as the responsible head of the Foxworth family.

The gardener had known, even before the dismissal of the servants and the announcement of her condition, that Mrs. Olivia Foxworth was pregnant. He knew he wasn't mistaken; he had seen it in her face; he had observed the slight weight gain in her arms and face and the fullness of her bosom that signified a new life within. In that early knowledge, however, Olsen was alone. But it was late July now, everyone had been apprised of the fact, and Olsen was deeply confused by what he heard.

Meanwhile, In the parlor, a flame from an untended fire leapt and ignited a blaze that crawled, then leapt throughout the lower level of the house, making escape from above impossible, and entry out of the question.

"The CHILDREN!"

"Don't go in there!" growled Malcolm, as he struggled to detain his wife. "If they are inside, you won't be able to find them, but I tell you, they were in the side yard just fifteen minutes ago."

She was past hearing and processing his sensible words. She shouted at him, flailed arms wildly, and he was forced, finally, to try and push her into the unused carriage house, and bar the door, but this solution proved impossible.

She need not have worried. The three boys had been playing out of doors when the fire began, and they remained in the side yard, gaping at the spectacle the fire made. Christopher's face streamed with tears of incomprehension, and Mal and Joel were frozen by disbelief and fear.

"Alicia! She's still upstairs-"

They continued to struggle, shouting through the crackling hiss of the fire, and the splintering of falling beams and shattering glass as the house imploded.

"You cannot go in there!" Malcolm shouted, grabbing Olivia's hair, then her clothing, while she fought to free herself. He realized he held nothing but an empty sweater. He sprinted across the darkening garden after her. They fell to the ground. He pinioned her arms. Dirt was in her hair and smudged her cheek. She was coughing and still screaming to be let go, when Olsen came from the potting shed carrying a rake, misinterpreting what he saw.

"L-L-Let her go." he ordered fiercely, but Malcolm could neither see nor hear the gardener in the few seconds of Olsen's final deliberation, before the rake was wielded, to deliver a fatal blow.

"No!" shouted Olivia, but it was too late. Malcolm fell over into a thorny berry patch, his blue eyes vacant.

The shock that crumpled her trembling form to the ground was not feigned; sobs racked her body as she pounded her bruised fists into the unyielding earth that would soon enfold the mortal remains of her husband.

Suddenly, completely without warning, her stomach leaps, the spasm violent, she struggles for breath. All the sorrow she has suppressed comes pouring out of her in the form of illness. She gasps, knowing she could not fight, only accept the illness, the truth, the end. There was to be no mistaking, in the darkness, the truth with the wished-for reality of dreams.

"This man killed my husband!" she screamed, in an impressive loss of control such as no one had ever before seen from her. "He's a madman."

Olsen was discreetly cuffed and driven from the premises, his ruddy face drained of its color. Her statement was believed, her story solid. What chance did an aging, half-witted supposed illiterate have against the respectable word of a Foxworth-a young widow with small children?

"He was furious, and suffering a loss of confidence," she explained later, with a remarkable calm, "because my husband recently dismissed all of our staff, including Mr. Olsen."

It was commonly believed that with so many to support, Mr. Olsen was fearful of the likelihood that he would not be able to find employment elsewhere."

The Foxworth family, each one of its members, was diminished by the tragedy and subsequent scaled-down style of living. It took a year for their feelings of disorientation to subside.

Olivia had never conceived of a world in which her husband and Foxworth Hall did not exist, and so many losses stunned her. But she believed herself to be in God's favor when, on the first day of March, she was blessed by the birth of a daughter, Doris.

Once, there was speculation that Mrs. Foxworth might adopt Christopher, but these proved to be nothing more than rumors, and the boy was sent to live with his grandmother in Richmond, until the miraculous recovery and reappearance in Charlottesville of his mother, and a new pair of siblings, twins who, everyone remarked upon it, looked so like Garland, but for their chestnut curls.

An overcast dawn broke over Foxworth hall, a new day bringing a fresh start, and yet similar to distant and recent bygone days, and all days yet to be lived by those waking from the revelatory chimerical visions of the night past.

Olivia surfaced from slumber, chilled, solitary, as always she had been, as she would evermore be; nothing would alter the truth that her existence was unchangeable.

Filled with doubt, husband and wife made their way, separately, downstairs, joining for a silent breakfast.

Malcolm, frequently given to preoccupation, began the day even more withdrawn than usual. Neither the fragrant aroma of the coffee which Olivia poured out for him, nor her half-hearted conversational overtures roused him from contemplation, until, suddenly, the last drop of his dark, bitter brew swallowed, he looked up, clear-eyed at last, to find her gaze as avidly seeking his.

"We cannot continue." they said, and sighed in mutual relief and agreement.

"I'll tell Alicia, and transfer the necessary funds." Olivia said. "You make arrangements for her departure."

"As soon as possible." he agreed.

Note: I thought I should add a few explanatory words; a few readers have expressed some confusion, and it wasn't my intention to write an incomprehensible story! :)

This is revealed to be a dream, whose dream, I leave it to you to decide. Malcolm's? Olivia's? Both? Olsen's? LOL

This came about because I'd written a few versions, and couldn't decide which ending I liked best. So I left a little bit of all of them, and made it a dream, in the end.

First, I was going to have Olivia leave Malcolm (someone asked me to write such a story, which I intend to do, whenever the inspiration strikes.) :)

Or, I was going to have her plot his demise...

Or maybe a fire would be a good ending... But before any of these dramatic events happened, I still wanted them to clear the air, try to come to a better understanding of their relationship and what was amiss with it.