(A/N: Usual disclaimers apply. I don't own "The Secret Garden" musical, Lucy Simon and her partner do. Nor do I own Dr. Neville Craven, much as I wish that weren't so. ;) Also, just to warn you, this is probably the most self-indulgent story I've ever written. Also, it's un-betaed. Yes, I live dangerously. And--wonder of wonders! I can write something besides Harry Potter! Who knew?)
I had not even been in Paris a fortnight before duty called. I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. My neighbor Lady Fairfax's young daughter had suffered a bad fall at the skating pond, and I was called in to treat her.
It was not as bad as it first appeared, however. Little Anne Fairfax had merely suffered a sprained ankle--not comfortable, granted, but not dire, either. She would survive just fine.
Unfortunately, I am not sure that I will! Perhaps I should have let Lady Fairfax pay me instead of accepting the invitation to her ball. I think my noble knight of a brother, Lord Craven, is rubbing off on me. A thought that frightens me to no end.
It is not that I hate my brother. I feel sometimes that I should, and sometimes I think that I do--but on the whole, I cannot. Not after his kindness to me, in a time when I did not deserve it in the least. I am--was--jealous of him. (Hopefully, the past tense will come into more common usage for me, along with that phrase. Like Archie, I might do well to put the past behind me...but how difficult that can be!)
And now here I am, standing on the sidelines of the ballroom in my evening clothes, watching as the dancers flutter by in a rush of silk and taffeta. This is not the kind of situation that I normally find myself in. There are no screaming sick children in this place, and no long, dark corridors. It is so unlike Misselthwaite Manor, and at this moment I feel very far away indeed from all of it--Archie, his son Colin, and niece Mary....
...and even Lily, my brother's wife--and my only love.
I watch as Lady Clara Fairfax glides by on the dance floor with her husband. They moved with astounding grace together, and wholly dominated the dance floor as befitted a lord and lady.
The music ended, and the dancers applauded themselves. I caught sight of Lord and Lady Fairfax heading my way.
"Dr. Craven!" Lady Clara called, waving to me. "I am so glad you could make it."
I gave a slight bow. "It was my pleasure, your ladyship," I said stiffly.
"Anne is getting on much better now," Lord Gerard told me. "Though it may be awhile before she goes back to skating."
"Perhaps that is for the best," I said. "Children get into the most dreadful messes when left to their own devices." I could not help but think of Mary Lennox at this--even though her 'dreadful mess' may have turned out for the best, though I would never admit to that aloud.
Lord Gerard laughed. "True. Though I admit the fault was not entirely hers. I should have paid closer attention to her. I am unused to skating myself. Usually it her aunt who takes her, but she was away for the week."
"Yes," Lady Clara put in, "And I shall have a word or two with Lenore when she gets back. She's nearly an hour late, and she said she would be here."
"Well, the modern traveling systems are not as reliable as they should be," I put in, still not believing that I was participating so willingly in this small talk. Perhaps when this was over, I should have myself checked over for mental illness.
"I suppose," Lady Clara said in mild disgust. "Still, it's just like my sister to pull something like this. I believe she enjoys making an entrance."
"Well, who doesn't?" came another female voice from just behind me. I whirled around sharply.
A woman in a dark blue gown approached us, and came to stand beside Lady Clara. She was fairly tall for a woman--nearer to my height than Clara's. I assumed she was the lady's sister, as they shared the same dark red hair and dark eyes. The woman before me was not as beautiful as Clara, though she did have an interesting and intelligent face. She could not have been more than six and thirty.
"Lenore," Lady Clara said. "We were just talking about you."
"So I heard," Lenore replied with a smile. "I am sorry to have kept you waiting, Clara. I arrived earlier, but I wished to see Anne before I dressed and came down."
"Oh, that's quite all right," Lady Clara said quickly. "You're just in time to meet Dr. Neville Craven. He's the one who treated Anne's ankle. Dr. Craven, this is my elder sister, Miss Lenore Grey."
Lenore extended her hand, which I--after an awkward moment of simply staring at it--kissed in what I hoped was a gentlemanly fashion.
All this takes me back--back to the balls in Yorkshire when I was a young man, where I first met and danced with Lily--
No. No! I will not think of her anymore. I cannot keep doing this--chasing after the ghost of a woman I could not even have when she was alive. My brother's wife, Lady Lily Craven--the love of my life, though she did not know it.
Neither did Archie. And he never would, either. For all his flaws, he is a good and honorable man. I respect him very much. I could never bring myself to hurt him like that.
I do envy him. He, at least, had her love for a brief time--though it ended tragically. Is that not always the way?
Growing up, Archie depended on me. I was the 'normal' son in the family. My father expected Archie to inherit his lands, and for me to cut a figure for myself in the world. And I did, for better or for worse. Instead of me relying on my elder brother, it was the other way around. When Archie took off on one of his voyages, trying to forget Lily, I looked after his son Colin. They both depended on me.
Now that Colin is well, no one depends on me. It should feel liberating, but instead I feel as one cast out to sea--lost and estranged.
The music has started again, and Lord Fairfax looks to his lady. "Dance, Clara?"
"Very well," Lady Clara agreed. She looked to me--then significantly at Miss Grey.
Oh, dear. Even as I try to form a graceful escape in my mind, I know that it is now inevitable. I am doomed to make an appearance on the dance floor. Heaven help me.
"Would you care to dance, Miss Grey?"
Her dark eyes lit on me, and she smiled. "Yes, thank you, Dr. Craven."
I am used to dealing with aristocrats, and I knew her tone. She knew perfectly well I had only asked her out of politeness, and in politeness had she accepted.
I offered Miss Grey my arm, and she took it. Together, we followed the Fairfaxes onto the dance floor. A soft waltz was now playing.
"Was your trip agreeable, Miss Grey?" I asked, as we moved into a slow dance step.
"Oh, yes, indeed," she replied.
"Where did you come from?"
Miss Grey laughed as we turned in time to the music. "My sister claims I was left on the doorstep by Gypsies."
"I was referring to your trip, madam," I said stiffly.
"Oh, I know that," Miss Grey replied. "I was in Marseilles."
"I have never been there," I commented. No, I had never really been anywhere. I had lived in Yorkshire for nearly all my life--except for my years in medical school and occasional business in London.
"It is lovely enough, but it's nice to be back in Paris. Who could resist the artists and absinthe?" she asked, dry humor all too apparent in her voice.
I hid a smirk. "You do not care for it?"
"Not in the least," the lady replied. "But I care for my niece." She looked sharply at me just then.
"You attended her, I hear? Gerry sent me a telegram about it."
"Who?" I asked, rather foolishly.
"Gerard. Lord Fairfax."
"Wha--oh, yes, yes, I did," I replied.
"I'm just so glad she's all right," Miss Grey said, and I could see at that moment the cool, practical mask was dropped.
"You needn't worry, madam. She's fine."
Miss Grey smiled. "I'm glad of that. And this is how you came to be here?"
"It is," I replied. "Your sister invited me as payment, I think. I would not take her money."
"Might I inquire as to why?" Miss Grey asked.
"You may, but do not expect much in the way of an answer."
Miss Grey raised an eyebrow at me. "So the rumors are true. The Craven brothers are men of mystery, are they?"
"Who told you that?" I asked, more sharply than I intended to. Miss Grey did not flinch at my tone.
"The servants, of course," Miss Grey replied matter-of-factly. "Servants know everything."
"So it would appear," I said sarcastically.
"And my sister--she has been curious about Lord Craven ever since he first came to Paris years ago. He rarely left the house, you see, and all sorts of rumors spread. Clara is a nice enough creature, but she's very silly, and she can't help herself when it comes to gossip."
"I'm not surprised," I replied dryly.
How interesting now that I should think of Rose Lennox as I crane my neck to get a good look at Lady Clara, several couples away from us on the dance floor. Clara is certainly beautiful--though I hope against hope she will not be as vapid and selfish as Rose was. Granted, I don't pretend to know Clara or Lenore well--but their interaction reminded me a great deal of many I had seen between Rose and Lily. Rose, the elder sister, with her idle chitchat, pretty words and looks, and Lily, the youngest, who saw through all of it into the beauty of things around her.
"Do not worry," Miss Grey said. "I don't intend to question you about the rumors."
"For that, Miss Grey, I thank you," I said loftily, as the music ended. We bowed to each other, and applauded with the other dancers.
"You are a doctor, my sister tells me?" she asked, tactfully easing back into aristocratic small talk as we took seats at a nearby table.
"I am," I responded. "Until recently I worked mainly at my brother's estate in Yorkshire."
"Ah. I have heard tales of young Master Craven's illness," Lenore Grey said slowly.
"Then you must also have heard of his miraculous recovery," I said, attempting to hold back the rush of bitterness that threatened to burst forth. Almost to myself, I muttered, "I have spent the last ten years looking after a boy who was not even ill!"
Miss Grey studied me thoughtfully, but made no move to speak as I went on. "I spent ten years looking after Colin, trying to cure him--"
Ah, but did you, Neville? an impish voice in my brain taunts. If the boy had died, you would have been next in line to inherit Archie's estate.
I did what I could. Colin was Lily's son. I could never harm Lily's son. I do not hate Archie! I swear I do not!
The impish voice responded, But you could have.
"--and two children succeeded in doing what I could not," I finished at last. "His cousin, Mary--and her friend Dickon--they cured him. I failed. I worked for so long, but it was all for nothing. Nothing!"
Mary. Mary, who has those startling hazel eyes of Lily's....another reminder of a world I could never hope to see, a woman who would never love me. A reminder of everything I could not do....
Lenore Grey was looking at me curiously, though I read nothing insulting in her gaze. I sighed, somewhat embarrassed at my sudden display of emotion. "I am sorry for my outburst, Miss Grey."
Miss Grey smiled. "Don't be," she replied. "And I assure you, I am quite capable of being discreet."
"Of that, Miss Grey, I am sure," I said positively. And it was true. She did not strike me in the least as being a gossiping sort of woman.
She smiled at me. "Though I must admit, this is not the usual cocktail party conversation. You are very interesting, do you know that?"
"Am I?" I asked.
"I think so. Normally I am bored out of my mind at my sister's parties. Idiotic, puffed-up men who walk around in their tailcoats and talk of money all the night long, and women who talk of nothing but dresses and jewelry."
"If you hate it so, why don't you leave?" I asked practically.
The lady shot me a dour look. "Men make everything sound so simple," she said, with more than a trace of cynicism. "I have alluded that I stay only because of my niece, and to some extent that is true. The fact of the matter is that I am dependent on the kindness of my sister and brother-in-law. I have no money of my own, unless I were to go make a living on the stage or something of that nature. But if I did that, Clara and Gerard would never allow me to see Anne again."
Then she smiled again, arching her eyebrows conspiratorially. "We are even now, it seems. One secret for another."
I found myself returning her smile. "Indeed, Miss Grey."
"You may call me Lenore," Lenore Grey responded. "It seems silly for me to spill my secrets to you and still insist upon formality."
"Thank you, Miss--Lenore," I said, quickly amending my mistake.
Lenore chuckled. "And if I might be so bold, Dr. Craven, may I in turn call you Neville?"
"Er---yes, I suppose," I replied. What strange creatures women are! I had not talked so much with one since Lily.
"Do you ice skate at all, Neville?" Lenore asked suddenly.
"Not in years," I remarked, surprised at the question. "Why?"
"My niece loves it," Lenore replied. "And I confess I myself have gotten addicted as well. When her ankle is recovered, would you care to accompany us sometime?"
"I--well, I--" I could not help but be mildly taken aback by Lenore's bold suggestion. And yet, I did not want to refuse. I do not know if it was the course of our conversation, or the course my thoughts had taken--but it had been long and long since I had any sort of friend or confidante.
Lily. You came close to being one--but there were some things I could never confide to you about. Just know that I love you, now and forever, though I shall never have you as I would have liked.
"Well?" Lenore was looking at me expectantly.
"Yes," I said at last. "Yes, I believe I would like that."
"Wonderful," Lenore said brightly.
"If it is agreeable to you," I said slowly, "Might I call on you before that?"
"Of course," Lenore replied, smiling.
"Lenore!" Lady Clara called, walking towards us with Lord Gerard in tow. "Have you been keeping Dr. Craven to yourself all this time? I wish to introduce him to some of the other guests."
Lenore shot me a wry look, then turned back to her sister. "I'm sorry, Clara. I did not mean to steal one of your guests."
"Of course not," Lord Gerard said grandly. "I personally am glad to see it. I have not seen Lenore speak so long with any man."
For some reason, this remark brought color to Lenore Grey's cheeks. She rose quickly from the table, and I did the same.
"This way," Lady Clara was saying. "Sir Robert and Lady Marianne are here, they just had a child last winter..."
I listened only halfheartedly, though I felt better than I had in a long time--as if I myself were springing back to life, like the plants in Lily's locked garden.
I would call on Lenore Grey, I decided. I do not know if I could love her the way that I loved Lily, but perhaps, with time, I would heal. At any rate, I needed some kind of friend--and I could tell that Lenore did, too. Perhaps I could become whole and alive once more, as Archie had done. And return someday to Yorkshire, to start the practice Archie spoke of. But that will take time, as do all things.
Many hours later, as I closed my eyes to sleep, I dreamed of Lily's garden. Lily was there, planting flowers with Lenore Grey. They were both giggling like close friends or schoolgirls. Lily looked up and saw me, and waved. Lenore looked up as well. She did not wave, only smiled at me. I watched, rooted to my spot, as Lily picked a gardenia from one of the nearby bushes, and placed it in Lenore's hair.
For the first time ever, I had a dream about Lily that did not leave me in tears. I was reminded of one of her favorite poems, one by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe...
I have been happy, tho' in a dream.
I have been happy - and I love the theme:
Dreams! In their vivid coloring of life,
As in that fleeting, shadowy, misty strife
Of semblance with reality which brings
To the delirious eye, more lovely things
Of Paradise and Love - and all our own!
Than young Hope in his sunniest hour hath known.
(A/N: The above poem is a selection from the Edgar Allen Poe poem "Dreams.")