“Elizabeth, if you think he stole it, then I don’t even see why we’re having this conversation.” Mercy’s eyes seemed to shoot sparks. “Rodney would never do something like that, never, never, NEVER. He’d starve before he’d steal. Don’t even incinerate such a thing.”
“Insinuate, not incinerate,” was on the tip of Elizabeth’s tongue, but this was not the time.
Lavinia regarded her for a moment. Then, as if she were the sun magnanimously breaking through storm clouds, she smiled. “I can never stay angry at anyone for very long,” she said, opening the door wider and ushering the astonished Elizabeth inside. “You are much too dear to be angry with anyhow. Though I have to say that you have committed an unpardonable sin and I’m very close to telling you that you are the silliest little fool that ever lived.”
“Lavinia, I have to do this,” Elizabeth began, but Lavinia cut her short.
“No, no, no excuses. Hush. I shan’t listen. I shall put my fingers in my ears and sing loudly to drown you out. And then you will flee from the room shrieking, as would any poor soul who had to listen to my voice raised in song. I can’t forgive this error on your part, Lizzie, but I can ignore it, and ignore it I shall.”
“I wish I could have stayed at the table,” Jonathan spoke up. “But Mamma made Miss Markette take Isabelle and me up to bed. Whenever the grownups are doing something interesting, they always send us away. We never get to hear any arguments.”
Elizabeth sighed. Apparently she had been outvoted. “Very well, then, we’ll read out here. But we will walk around the garden as we read, for I will not have the two of you turning into mushrooms.”
“This isn’t Wonderland, Miss Markette,” said Jonathan gravely.
“I know. I’m merely indulging in a bit of humor, which evidently is not appreciated. Ahem! Where were we?”
If this moment were a scene upon the stage, the accompanying music at this point in time should have risen thunderously, perhaps with some stirring strings and fast and furious piano. As it was not a scene upon the stage, Elizabeth was forced to simply imagine the music, but she was not particularly good at this and had to abandon it. Nevertheless, she felt that the moment was of great dramatic import and must be dealt with properly.
The hasty knock came barely two seconds before Mercy burst into Elizabeth’s room. “Elizabeth! Look!”
“Come in,” said Elizabeth.
“I am in.” Mercy danced to the desk where Elizabeth sat and flung her arms wide, twirling so that the skirt of the dress flared out. “Look at it. It’s perfect. It’s utterly gorgeous, it’s dazzling, it’s the most beautiful thing in the whole world.”
“I sat up till two last night--er, two this morning--and had a romantic proposal all written out. Quite nicely, in fact, with neat margins, and the writing didn’t slant upwards to the right. My writing so often does, you know.”
The heavy scent of flowers from the funeral still hung, stifling, in the air around her. It had probably clung to the folds of her dress—another reason to never wear the horrid thing again. She hopped off the bed and threw open her window. Warm, humid breezes from the streets blew in, partly clouded with a stench from the sewers. Anything was better than the weighty perfume of the lilacs and lilies.
“Um, thank you, Mr. McTavish.” (Were you supposed to call an enlisted man Mister? Shouldn’t she have said Private? Too late now.) “And, um, I’m actually not the nurse—I’m the nurse’s aide. Annabeth Creighton, pleased to meet you.”
No, you were definitely not supposed to tell a patient you were pleased to meet him. It implied that you were glad he was in hospital. Ugh.
His blankets were straight, his water pitcher full, and she wasn’t responsible for the bandages on his leg—besides, they looked fine, which was a relief because she definitely didn’t want to deal with anything bloody on her very first day. But she had to do something, or at least say something.
“Pleasure,” said Private McTavish. “Is this a social call, or have you come to stick me with something sharp for the sake of my health?”
She was babbling and they both knew it. He rolled his eyes. “You don’t need to look it up. You memorized it years ago, I know you know it.”
“Yes. I know it.”
“Okay, say it.”
“Greater love… greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
“See? It’s that simple.” Thatcher folded the paper up again and tucked it into her sleeve. “Keep it and don’t forget it.”
The cold lump in Annabeth’s stomach rose up into her throat. “Thatcher… he’s not your friend. He doesn’t deserve to be helped. You can’t do this.”
Thatcher closed his eyes and flopped down on his back, hands behind his head in his favorite pose. “So, maybe he’s not my friend. And maybe he doesn’t deserve it. That doesn’t change what I have to do. Jesus laid his life down for me hundreds of years before I was born, Annabeth. I didn’t deserve it.”
“But you’re not Jesus—and Arnold’s not your friend; you have no obligation to him. You’re not laying down your—your life for a friend.”
Peter, who Annabeth had thought was asleep, pulled himself up on one elbow. “You’re right, Annabeth. Arnold’s not a friend.”
No one said anything.
Peter looked up through the maze of leaves to the stars. “Well, then… so maybe that makes it even greater love.”