He remembered the first time he saw her. The short dark-brown hair, framing a pale face – just the color of white roses. The witty black eyes, sparkling with mischief and joy.
The party at Adams'. Himself, laughing and talking of gardening with the hostess. Suddenly, that girl – the dark-haired lovely girl – turning up. Asking him what the time is… Telling him she, too, is interested in flowers…
"And what is your name, dear Miss?"
"Judith Slen. And you are?"
He often thought Judith was the example of supreme beauty. Of course, such thoughts never lasted long. Judith was a bit too short – her face was not the perfect shape – she had many flaws. But she had that sweetness, and that charming simplicity of hers, that drew him to her for several months.
What happened then? He never understood it. On Sunday, she smiled at him and her eyes shone with love… They were pretty near to official engagement… On Monday, though… Again, he never understood.
"Hello, darling Judith," he appears on her doorstep.
"Good morning, Mr. Garfield," she greets him coldly.
"Judith? What's wrong?"
She blushes and frowns. Her voice is firm, besides an accidental tremble:
"Mr. Garfield, I'm moving to another county. I'm extremely sorry to cause you pain… But I tried to sort out my feelings towards you – I discovered that they are not as strong as I thought them. I unwittingly deceived myself and you. Again, I'm dreadfully sorry – but it's better to end this now… We will never be happy."
He was young and foolish. For the first several hours, he was convinced he'd die of a broken heart. And then, unexpectedly, salvation came. He didn't know how. But it was just as sudden as Judith's words. He just thought of her and felt nothing but a little admiration. The wonderful lilac tree he planted in his garden blossomed – it was all covered in flowers, and pride was filling his heart, instead of sorrow.
Yes, he had definitely got over Judith.
No, he had never really got over her.
He never felt anything for a woman anymore. The women who came in his life were used for his purposes, for the money, and then thrown away like faded flowers. It was one of his female admirers who got him the job of a gardener at Mrs. Llewellyn-Smythe's in Woodleigh Common.
Judith was living there too! He tried to ignore the strange, almost guilty feeling in his heart when he heard of it. She had been married to an airplane pilot, then widowed and left with a daughter.
Miranda was a sweet little child. She loved the beauty of nature and had a kind of ethereal air around her. If he hadn't known that the late Max Butler was her father, he might have thought she was his own daughter.
That guilty feeling that arose when he was near Judith was irritating him. He hoped that soon he would move to his childhood-dream-come-true – some lonely Greek island, and turn it into an earthly Eden. Then all he would have to do was to get rid of that ogre, Rowena Drake, and prosper. Forget about Judith and her daughter.
Now, alone in a dark cell, he had no escape from the memories. He thought of the lives he caused to end – almost caused to end. His minded drifted to Judith. Judith giving evidence on his trial, glancing at him with hatred. Miranda, pale and tearful, clenching her mother's hand.
And then the shocking revelation just after the trial. Judith demanded to have a few words with him. The guards stepped a bit away, and Judith went to him, tears sparkling in her eyes.
"Do you want to know the truth, Michael?" she whispered. For the first time in years she called him by his Christian name.
"What…" he began the question, but she cut him:
"I don't care if you want to know it! You never cared about truth and honesty! I'll just tell you. Miranda is your daughter."
"Miranda? But isn't she your husband's child?"
"She most certainly is not, I never had a husband. There, you have to live with it, Michael. You were very close to killing your own flesh and blood."
He was stunned. He hoped he would wake up, that he was having a nightmare – but he didn't. Now tears fell freely from Judith's eyes.
"Well, I suppose I just got it off my shoulders. You know it now. But I doubt you will care. The only person you love, respect and care for is your precious self."
With the last furious remark, she turned and marched away. He felt iron claws press into his heart. Miranda was his child. Judith was never even married. He could have lived with Judith and raised the little girl. If Judith hadn't walked away years ago… how did she say? "The only person you love, respect and care for is your precious self."
Judith was wrong. She was wrong, wasn't she? If she stayed with him, nothing of it would have happened.
As he was led back to his cell, he spotted her weeping uncontrollably on a bench.
He turned his head:
"Michael…" she raised her tear-soaked face and looked at him. Her eyes reflected burning conflicting feelings, despair, hatred…
That look was the last he had seen of her. He heard she and Miranda moved to Edinburgh, to get away from the memories.
That look – it still haunted him.
"It was all her fault. If it wasn't for her…" he murmured angrily. "Why had she left me?"
These phrases soon became something like old chewing gum – spoken for a long time, with no real feeling behind them anymore. He said them over and over to silence his mind.
He remembered his metaphor for the women he used for money in his life. Faded flowers, indeed. They were not living flowers. They were paper ones. They don't really fade – you just throw them away, after soon getting fed up with their fake beauty.
Now Judith, she was the true faded flower. After all the time, she lost her full bloom, but, like a flower preserves its elegance and fragrance until it crumples into dust, she still had something – and will have it until she dies.
He groaned. He had long ago asked for a pen and a paper – he wanted to write a letter to her… what for? For now, he couldn't even properly begin it! The paper looked like a list of various beginnings, every one of them a thousand times crossed and renewed:
Dear Mrs. Butler
Dear Miss Slen
My dearest Judith
Judith, I write to you for
Dear Mrs. Butler, I would
Dearest Judith, try to believe me
He closed his eyes. The image of Judith, as he last saw her, appeared in his mind. Then the image of Miranda with the poisoned drink. Then more and more of it… He prayed for the torture to end.
3 MONTHS LATER
An extract from The Times:
DEATH IN A PRISON CORRIDOR!
NO ESCAPE FROM POISONS!
MURDERER DEAD A BIT TOO EARLY!
The body of one Michael Garfield, serving his life sentence for Willful Murder in Brixton Prison, London, was found dead in the morning of the 14th of May. Death was caused by an administration of some poison from the neurotoxin group.
The body was lying in the prison corridor, a dozen yards away from the cell of Mr. Garfield. It was discovered by Sergeant Henry Raldock, an officer. It is heard that he is a distant cousin of Mrs. Rowena Drake, who was Mr. Garfield's accomplice in his crime…
FIVE WEEKS LATER:
Another extract from The Times:
It is definitely proved now that Mr. Michael Garfield, a prisoner in Brixton whose mysterious death has intrigued many of the authorities, committed suicide. After his trial, the man wished to bring some of his favorite flowers from his dearly loved garden to the prison cell. Among those faded flowers was aconitum, that contains the deadly aconitine poison. Mr. Garfield swallowed every single stalk of aconitum he had.
Also, in his cell the wards discovered a sealed letter to his old acquaintances, and by its side – a farewell note, which proved beyond doubt that no one but Mr. Garfield himself is to be blamed for Mr. Garfield's death.
TEN DAYS LATER:
Judith Butler gasped as she looked at the address on the envelope. Brixton Prison? She tore it open and found another envelope and a formal note enclosed:
Dear Mrs. Butler,
We write to you on behalf of the late Mr. Michael Garfield, who committed suicide while serving his life sentence in Brixton Prison. This letter was found in his cell. The farewell note of the said prisoner ordered to post this letter to you…
Judith didn't read further and tore the second envelope open. Several old flowers – roses, daisies and chrysanthemums – fell out of it, and a letter:
It was very hard for me to write this letter, though I know you have every right to throw it away without looking at it. I am even sure, fairly sure, that if you read it, you won't believe a word. But I needed to write it. The look on your face I saw when we last met haunts me constantly.
You will not believe that I have never forgotten you. Neither, of course, will you believe that I grew more than fond of Miranda. Neither – that I deeply regret everything.
You said I only loved myself. I have to admit it is partly true – I love myself very much. That's why I tried to throw the thoughts of you away – they tortured me. They still torture me, Judith – and that's why I can't lead this life anymore. I wish I was tried several years earlier and sentenced to capital punishment.
I thought only you're guilty of the end of our relationship. But when I saw you – weeping on the bench after the trial – I knew it couldn't be so. I saw the pain in your eyes, my dear, when you looked at me then. It wasn't just hatred.
Now I know you were wrong in one thing. We could have been happy together. If not for?.. Whom? If life hadn't turned out this way. Many people are to blame. Myself included.
How can I end this letter? Ending is as hard as beginning…
Keep these flowers, Judith. Do me just a small favour. The faded flowers of my love.
And take care of Miranda. Don't let her fade.
I've never been more sincere in my life. Please forgive me, Judith, my first and only beloved.
With trembling fingers, Mrs. Butler picked up the flowers and for a moment pressed them against her heart. She wondered if she would ever stop being torn in halves at the sound of Michael's name. Her heart beat faster and her eyes moistened, and at the same time cold fury raised in her – the fury of a mother whose child's life was threatened.
She put the letter and the flowers into her own jewelry box. These are not for Miranda to see, until she's older. "Don't let her fade…"