There was something eerily familiar about the current situation. Ever since the Hon. Clarissa Carter arrived at the school, Mary-Lou found her attention drawn to her. Ever after her schoolmates - apart from Gwen of course - had given up on the girl, Mary-Lou's interest remained unabated. The glasses and braces didn't matter, since Mary-Lou knew that looks didn't mean much in the end. Would anyone call Darrell beautiful? No, but Darrell was still a girl that anybody just had to admire.
In addition, Mary-Lou felt guilty about abandoning Clarissa to Gwen's tender mercies. It had already happened with Daphne and then with Zerelda. Neither of the girls deserved such treatment, no matter how bad they might have been at first. Although Mary-Lou felt bad for thinking about such things, Gwen seemed to have attached herself to Clarissa only because she was charmed by the glamour of Clarissa's rank and the possibility of emulating Clarissa's weak heart, even though that apart from Mam'zelle Dupont and Clarissa, there wasn't a single soul at Malory Towers that believed in Gwen's weak heart.
However, the attention that she was paying to Clarissa was already affecting Mary-Lou in an adverse way. Daphne had noticed and the unspoken tension remaining between them had revealed itself again.
"Mary-Lou, can we talk?" said Daphne to Mary-Lou the day after half-terms, just as they were leaving the classroom after their last lesson for the day.
Although she had an inkling of what was going to be the subject of the conversation and dreading it, Mary-Lou nodded. They waited until the girls had passed them by and even Miss Potts disappeared in the corridor, giving them only a short glance, and then they looked at each other, both fully aware of what was going to happen.
"Mary-Lou," said Daphne, "Are you really that interested in Clarissa?"
Now that the subject was out in the open, Mary-Lou felt a weight lift from her shoulders and felt a little more at ease, even though there were still several tonnes of weight hanging around her neck. "I am," she said, still leaving the initiative to Daphne.
Daphne sighed, her suspicions apparently confirmed. "I thought so," she said, "Oh Mary-Lou, do you have to?"
"I can't just leave her to Gwen," said Mary-Lou, "I almost did that with you, and look how that turned out."
Daphne was opening her mouth to speak even before Mary-Lou finished, but she closed it again and bit her lip. When she spoke, it was slowly and Daphne sounded uncertain, "I… I understand. Sorry, I won't get in your way."
Instead of responding immediately, Mary-Lou stepped closer to Daphne and hugged her. "Oh, Daphne," she said after few moments, "Don't be like that."
There was no reply and each second of silence send another wave of guilt at Mary-Lou. Why couldn't Daphne understand- No, Daphne did understand and that was the problem. If Daphne didn't understand, Mary-Lou could go on thinking that only if she explained, everything would be better. She still felt guilt over how she treated Daphne before and now, Mary-Lou was apparently hurting Daphne again.
"I'm so sorry, Daphne," she said to break the torturous silence.
Daphne drew away from her and smiled, a small, forced smile, caused more by a conscious effort on Daphne's part, rather than any happy feeling. It was probably an attempt to comfort Mary-Lou, but the effect was quite the opposite. "Don't be sorry," said Daphne in a voice that sounded as if she was on the verge of bursting into tears, "That was all my selfishness. I can't keep you to myself all the time."
Mary-Lou smiled though she suspected her smile was very much like Daphne's. "Thank you," she forced herself to say, ignoring the plea she had heard in Daphne's voice.
This time, there seemed to be more genuine feeling in Daphne's smile, but maybe it was just Mary-Lou trying to convince herself that she wasn't betraying a friend she had already hurt so much.
Mary-Lou had a chance to speak with Clarissa on the evening of the same day. Gwen was serving detention under the auspices of Mam'zelle Rougier, catching up on all the work she had wormed her way out of doing during Mam'zelle Dupont's lesson, and therefore, Clarissa was left alone for once, sitting in a corner of the common room, already finished with her prep, reading some book or the other – Mary-Lou thought that she saw horses on the cover. The light in the corner can't be good for her eyes, thought Mary-Lou, reminding herself about Clarissa's thick glasses.
She approached Clarissa and sat into an empty chair that was usually occupied by Gwen. While Clarissa briefly looked up when she heard Mary-Lou coming closer, she did not say anything. As they have never really talked outside of basic courtesies, Mary-Lou found it a little awkward to address Clarissa, but eventually she gathered her courage to do it. "Um… Clarissa," she said.
"Yes?" said Clarissa, still not lifting her eyes from the book.
"I just wanted to ask how are you doing," said Mary-Lou, "You do not seem to enjoy yourself here that much."
"Oh, I'm just fine, thank you," said Clarissa, finally looking at Mary-Lou, "School's for work after all, isn't it?"
"Yes, yes, of course it is," said Mary-Lou, "But having a good time isn't prohibited."
"I had a splendid time during half-term," said Clarissa, "It's a bit harder at other times." She said those last words while putting a hand on her chest.
"You heart can't prevent you from talking to others," said Mary-Lou, "You don't have to be all alone just because Gwen isn't here."
Clarissa smiled, a little sadly. "The others aren't much interested in me," she said, "And besides, everyone here does so much running around, that I'd just hold them back."
"Nonsense," said Mary-Lou, "Come see me and Daphne some day. I promise we won't do anything that would strain your heart too much."
"Actually," said Clarissa, blushing faintly in the lamplight, "I'm a little afraid of Daphne. Gwen told me-"
"Gwendoline Mary says a lot of things," said Mary-Lou, not even thinking before cutting Clarissa off, "But Daphne is the nicest girl in the entire school. I guarantee that."
"I-I see," said Clarissa after a little hesitation and then she fell silent. Gwen must have been talking not only about Daphne, but Mary-Lou as well. And about Darrell and Bill and Belinda and everyone else who had ever given Gwen a fair shaking or at least inconvenienced her a little.
Feeling awkward, Mary-Lou racked her brains for something to say and draw Clarissa out once again, but before she could think of anything, Gwen entered the room looking tired and annoyed, heading towards her customary seat – the one that Mary-Lou was currently occupying.
"What are you doing here?" she said immediately after reaching Mary-Lou.
"I was just talking to Clarissa," said Mary-Lou.
"Well, it seems that she doesn't want to talk to you," said Gwen with a smirk, since Clarissa had once again returned to her book, "Right, Clarissa?"
"What?" said Clarissa who apparently needed only a few seconds to become engrossed in the pages, "Oh, hello Gwen."
"Is she bothering you?" said Gwen, motioning towards Mary-Lou.
"No, not at all," said Clarissa, "We were just chatting a little while ago."
"Is that so?" said Gwen before turning towards Mary-Lou, "I ought to shake you, but my heart-"
"Oh, stuff it with your heart," called Darrell from over the room, probably attracted by Gwen's volume, "Mam'zelle Dupont is the only one who believes in that rubbish and you should be ashamed of yourself for lying to her so shamelessly."
"I do have a weak heart," protested Gwen, wiping some imaginary sweat from her forehead, "In fact, I do feel faint even now. I really ought to sit down and rest a little."
With Gwen present and guarding her like a hawk, there was no chance of talking to Clarissa any more, so Mary-Lou rose and went to join the other girls, leaving the chair vacant for Gwen. "I can't believe that Gwen," said Darrell, "I say, all this will turn out badly for her. Though Mary-Lou, it was capital of you to try and talk to Clarissa a little. She may not be much, but it's beastly of Gwen to keep her away from everyone."
Mary-Lou had to smile upon hearing Darrell's praise. However, just as she felt her cheeks turning light pink, Mary-Lou saw Daphne, sitting together with Mavis, but looking so forlorn that Mary-Lou couldn't help but feel sad at the sight. Yet, even when she joined Daphne and took of her hand, lightly squeezing to reassure her friend, Mary-Lou's sight kept moving from Darrell to Clarissa and back again.