A Gentleman’s Agreement
Margaret strolled over and closed the door to his library, forbidding even the warmth in the room, while she read the letters. “Why am I doing this?” she wondered. “This would not have happened with the old Margaret,” she told herself.
Sitting down, she pulled out the little pile of letters from the drawer, all addressed to her. She noticed a mixture of dates and wondered why John had never sent them. Two were before their London meeting on the veranda, and the rest were after that day. None of them were finished. Why had they lain in wait to be completed?
The ink on two of the earlier ones seemed to have been smeared, and she assumed this was the reason he had never sent them. However, as she began reading, she realized they had been wet with his tears, and he had poured out his devastated life, and his need of her, with his pen and paper. Her eyes filled in spite of herself, adding additional tear stains to the inked words.
. . . . . . . . . . that snowy day. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . if you looked back. . . . . . . . . . . . . took my heart . . . . . . . . . . . . . . alone with only memories . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . love you more than . . . . . . breath of my life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . able to go on . . .
John’s heart and soul were wrung from his body onto those pages. Margaret lost herself in his words of love and emotional disaster. She wept, adding more of her own tears, to the words describing the desecration that she had caused in John’s life.
The next two letters were equally forlorn, but showed a ray of hope. She remembered that day on the veranda when she discovered that there was more between them than she had realized before, but he, apparently, had known it for a very long time. He had written that he understood nothing could be done, and she could not speak to anything, but he left that day, happy that she had come into his arms. He felt he could cope with a life based only on that one memory. Still, these letters spoke so much of his heart and his hopes, they would never have been sent. Continuing to weep, she sought out the last two.
The final letters, written after Booker’s passing, showed a tempered joy, no tears, and much hope in the future with her. There were many references to his intimate and sensual desires, some of which she had heard of last night. She almost had to put them down, but she continued reading as she fidgeted in the chair. Margaret doubted these were ever meant to be sent, as he was speaking most passionately from his heart and body. She came across a strange reference to a sign from his mother. “Whatever could that mean, with his mother now being gone?”
Still thinking about John’s strife, Margaret stowed the letters back where they came from and pulled out a sheaf of paper. Suddenly, he came through the door.
They looked at each other, startled, and Margaret wondered if the guilt was prevalent on her face.
“Good evening, John. I wasn’t looking for you this early. I wanted to post a note to Edith; Dixon thought you had paper in your desk. I hope it was alright to take a piece.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Take all you like. I’m sorry to disturb you. I thought you had retired, so I was coming to look for some correspondence that is stored in my filing cabinets. It’s of no importance; I shall leave you to your letter. Would you like the fire lit?”
“No, thank you. I shall be brief in my writing.”
John walked back to the parlor. He had sensed a stiffness in Margaret, and wondered why the closed door. That room was freezing with no fire lit. Feeling a bit uneasy, he picked up the partially read paper from this morning. Opening the pages, his mind elsewhere . . .
The letters! She must have found the letters.
John did not immediately know what to do about it. He never wanted her to know how bad his life had been without her. She might think him weak, but it was in every one of those letters. Why hadn’t he destroyed them since learning of her return to Milton? As he heard her footsteps coming into the room, John began to pay more attention to his paper. Eventually, he looked over at Margaret’s quiet form, sitting across the room from him. She was perched on the couch, looking a bit awkward, as though she wanted to speak, but didn’t know how to begin.
“You look like you have something to say. Is anything bothering you, Margaret?” Now, he thought, was as good a time as any to discuss last night.
“Yes, there is John, but first I must summon my courage.”
“Summon courage?” John thought. He was certain she was going to bring up the letters. Aside from the matter of harboring her brother when he was in the country and under an arrest warrant, which he, himself, never understood at the time, she was almost totally defenseless in the use of deception. However, how was he to explain them, he wondered.
They sat in silence for a few more minutes, clearing throats and shifting in their seats, when John, not being able to wait any longer, said, “Margaret, if it’s about the letters in my desk, you need no courage to summon. They should have been destroyed a month ago when I knew you were returning. I am quite ashamed and embarrassed for you to know the state of mind that I have been in since you left Milton. They do not matter. That is all water under the bridge. They are just ramblings of a man who loved and lost. And the later letters are the delusions of a man in love still, never for your eyes or anyone’s but my own. They were like a catharsis for me; instead of reliving all those moments of hopes and dreams, putting them to paper helped me not to dwell on my situation every minute.” He could not bring himself to look directly at her.
“John, how can I apologize for looking at your private writings? I, too, am ashamed about what I did and I knew I had to speak to you right away, but I wanted to form my response with some thought. It was accidentally done. I was looking for paper, but when I opened the drawer, I saw papers addressed ‘Dearest Margaret’,’ and I wondered why you had never sent them. I can understand the why in each one of them, now. I will not speak to the contents, but I want to talk with you about me . . . and you.
Silence was suspended in the room; the wait for Margaret to begin was almost intolerable for John. He had much to say tonight, himself.
“Foremost, let me say that I am sorrier than you will ever know, for the misery I have caused in your life. It’s been devastating to read. I have never known of such love from one person to another as you expressed in those letters and last night. I didn’t see, or know, of that depth with my parents, or in my own marriage, but I am slowly coming to know of it on my own. You and I have fought our own demons and were lost, but now, we may be found. My demons were self-imposed, and yours were also imposed by me – unforeseen circumstances and deception by my family – all of your private hell is on my shoulders.
“No, Margaret . . .” John tried to interrupt, but Margaret continued.
“Please, John . . .” John sat back, but found himself gripping the claw carved hand rest on his chair, with white knuckles.
She cannot take all this blame. It is behind us, now.
“John, please forgive my intrusive question and abrupt conduct of last night. I am sure I surprised myself more than I did you. It was unforgivably rude of me. I laid awake most of the night thinking about our conversation, but came to some realizations while eating alone at your table this evening. Firstly, I asked the question and you gave me your honest answer. I’ve wondered why I asked it. It seemed to come out on its own. I think it was in my thoughts because I hope to be part of your life someday, and I guess I wanted to know where the memories might be buried. As for your answer, because of your deep love for me, you felt compelled to explain yourself, and I think it was a conscious decision you made that ran very deep. It was a tremendous sacrifice you made and a risk you took for both of us, in admitting those intimate events, you knew would hurt me. However, you trusted me to see my way through all that hurt, coming out on the other side knowing you have experienced all in life, and still you chose me, unknowing of the woman I may be.
She -did- understand.
“You did this because you wanted me to know all of you and have faith in your love for me. I am prostrate at your feet for the great trust you have placed in me to find my way through that, and for the confidence, you knew I needed to recover.”
John was soon going to need to be strapped down in order to keep from coming out of his chair.
“That was not my only revelation that came out of last night, “Margaret continued. “When you talked about your passionate promises . . .”
Bolting out of his chair, John took to the center of the room, “Margaret, I must insist that you stop there.”
“But . . .”
“No . . . please no buts. I, too, have had a lot of thoughts, and it relates in a way to that which you are about to speak.”
“If you feel you must speak now John, then, by all means, go ahead.”
“Please try to listen with your head and not your heart.”
The moment was suspended as John paced the floor, running his fingers through his hair, endeavoring to form the hardest words of his life.
“Margaret, I have been very selfish. You know I love you, but that should only be my concern right now. Somehow, I’ve adopted the attitude that you are mine, or soon will be, and I have been very possessive in my thoughts, and maybe some of my actions. You have never discouraged my advances, but that isn’t good enough. You have lived in innocence all of your life. You do not know the world outside your husband and me. I cannot be totally comfortable with your lack of discouragement to me, because you have had nothing to base my affections on, except for your marriage, which you know was never a real marriage of love. You are allowing me close, perhaps because of your touching naivety, or some obligation you may feel because of how I feel about you, or any number of other reasons. It may be love, but we don’t know for sure, do we?”
“I think my heart does. John, I don’t think I understand where you are going with this.”
“I am going to step back and try not to insist myself upon you so quickly. As difficult as this is to say, I would like you to accept invitations from other gentlemen. I would want you to compare all of your suitors, so I know when you turn to me, that you do it with a confident heart. Just think about it, please. When I thought about those words I spoke last evening, as much as I wanted you to know my heart, I realized I was laying an encumbrance upon you. I don’t want you to turn to me unless you have chosen me for the one you want to spend your life with, and how can you choose without choices? You must experience more of life. For my sake, use your mind and see all the way through this, to the other side, for both of us,” John said, in a very agonizing but serious voice.
“John, I want to scream and yell and beat my fists against your chest, but if that’s what it takes for you to be sure of my decision, then I will do it. I can understand you seeing it that way with my naivety, but I already know the result. I know where I’ll be when I reach the other side. As much as I do not want to be put through this charade, I will accept other invitations, including yours – I will not let you step back that far. How will you handle my advancements to you? Am I allowed that?”
“Only in moderation, until you have spent time with other men.” John replied, almost smiling now.
“Can the Professor count as one?” Margaret asked with that pouty face.
John, now laughing said, “No. Spending time with your father figure does not count toward experiences of the heart.”
“You know John, I started out thinking of him as a father figure, but he is closer than that. Strange, but he’s more like a close brother or sister to me, one who I can really open up to and talk about things that one would never speak to a parent, yet he has the intelligence and life experience to guide me, better than a parent, really.”
“Margaret, I am glad you have such a confidant in your life. I’ve never had that, even with my Mother, and I envy you. Perhaps, someday your husband will take on that responsibility.
“Can I ask a final question?”
“Margaret, always know that you can. What is it?”
“In those letters in your drawer, there was a reference about your mother working on your behalf. What did that mean?”
“Margaret, that is for another time to explain, but I promise I will some day.”
“So when does this game begin?”
“There is nothing like the present, I suppose, or whenever you feel you are passed your bereavement time, which I think should be about now.” John said.
Margaret, breaking the tension that had saturated the air, presented her hand for a handshake. “We have a gentleman’s agreement, then?” she asked.
John, smiling, took her hand and shook it, “I dare to say it’s better than pistols at dawn.”
They both laughed. Every laugh between them was drawing them closer.