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Heroine

Chapter 6

She had seen enough sickness in her lifetime to know when someone was in serious trouble. That sense of foresight did not wane as Marguerite quietly slid into Malone’s makeshift hospital room. The feel and smell of infection was universal and, at this moment, prevalent. The tent was positioned right below a large leafy limb of a great tree, to keep its occupant cool, and Malone himself - lightly covered with a blanket and currently dozing - was tucked as comfortably as possible into a small cot.

He did look a little better, Marguerite silently conceded, the man having been sponged down and clad in fresh pants and a clean white undershirt. Dr. Greer managed to get Malone’s fever down slightly, with real medication; not something Challenger or Veronica boiled up in the treehouse’s rough and ready kitchen. But still, as Marguerite kneeled beside his cot and lifted a hand to brush a bit of over-grown blondish hair away from Malone’s forehead, she knew he was not yet out of the woods. His eyes had sunken into their sockets, the eyelids an eerie bluish color, and the young man’s skin was very pale. Also, Marguerite could *hear* his breathing, more of a wheezing, as if Malone’s lungs labored to get their fill of oxygen.

His eyes flickered open and the journalist turned a bit to look at Marguerite.

Recalling his last words to her before their rescue, how angry Ned was then, the woman braced herself and attempted a smile. “How are you doing, handsome?’ she asked flippantly, appearing calm despite trepidation.

“Marguerite,” he whispered, “I’m okay.” and his own lips curled into a gentle smile.

She breathed a little easier, “Good to hear it. You had us all worried.”

“We’re really here in the Amazon? We finally made it off the plateau?”

Marguerite nodded, “Yes, and Challenger is furious.”

Malone looked at her, questioning.

“The last cave-in, when the men knocked in the stone ceiling to rescue us, was very timely. Unfortunately, a huge piece of stone fell right onto his backpack, destroying the two raptor eggs George had inside.”

Malone chuckled quietly, knowing how Challenger coddled those eggs through out the journey, despite knowing that the scientist would consider it a tragedy. “His proof …”

“It’s still there but in pieces. There will be no raptors in London Zoo, I’m afraid, but at least it‘s enough to prove his lost plateau exists. The Zoological Society should be willing to back him financially this time around -- and there will be more dinosaur eggs, I'm sure.”

“In six months he‘ll be on his way again.”

“You know our scientist well.” Marguerite nearly snorted a laugh as she straightened her shoulders, “At least he now knows a different route to get to the plateau, without having to worry about those awful updrafts.” Marguerite shivered a little, recalling that treacherous, life threatening balloon ride. “And with Roxton’s wall markings and his own journal entries ….”

“Yes, and I’m sure what Challenger doesn’t have in his logbook he can find in my last journal.”

Marguerite nodded and tried to smile but didn’t quite succeed. Bearing in mind Malone’s fever, she recalled one of his last entries very vividly. It was frightening and filled with such doom -- and he blamed her and hated her and ….

“I’m sorry, Marguerite.” Malone suddenly said.

She was puzzled for a moment, “Sorry?” Marguerite asked, thinking for a moment he had read her thoughts.

“About Summerlee … and what I said.”

It was a coincidence, she knew. “No,” Marguerite shook her head and looked down at her hand which was gently touching Malone‘s, “Don’t go there, Ned. You felt we had made a mistake and since I was the one who pushed it … it’s only natural for you to look at me and voice what the others were thinking. At least you were being honest ...”

“It wasn’t *just* your decision, Marguerite. If there had been another way; if Summerlee had just *asked* us to stay ... “ Malone coughed, and cleared his head to get the thoughts straight in his mind. “And if I hadn’t been a coward …” He closed his eyes a moment at the disclosure. “I had no reason to blame you for any of it. Roxton was right.” He admitted, embarrassed. “I didn’t want to leave Veronica behind but if I truly had the faith of my conviction, if I had believed we had a future together, I would have waited back at the treehouse with her for Challenger’s return but … I was weak. I wanted to go home, eat food that I hadn’t killed myself, and have my journals published. I missed … I missed …”

“Gladys?”

He paused a moment. Had he even thought of Gladys during the entire ordeal? “Yes, of course. But also my life and home. I think I now know how Veronica must have felt each time I pushed her to come back with us. Maybe she doesn’t belong off the plateau any more than we were meant to live the rest of our lives in her treehouse.” Malone hesitated briefly. Could he or any of them have been happy living on the plateau forever? “But I miss her too …Veronica.”

“You can always go back for a visit, Ned. Challenger would be happy to have you return with him.”

“No.” Malone closed his eyes, firm. “I won’t be going back. You know that as well as I do. No matter how much we care for each other Veronica could never be truly mine as long as her parents are missing. And, to be honest, I don‘t think she will ever find them.”

“You could be right about that.“ Marguerite nodded, sorry for Veronica but realistic. Yet, she hoped they were wrong. "Time has a way of changing a man and woman's mind." Marguerite whispered, deeply in thought, then refocused on a curious Malone. She squeezed his hand, “You’re still not well. You will see matters differently when you’re better, Ned. You‘ll either stay with Gladys or go back to Veronica. But you‘ll do so with a clear mind and no hesitation.” she said and meant it. Malone was much more of a free spirit and an adventurer than he knew. A healthy if secretive respect for the young reporter was amongst the things Marguerite had taken away from the plateau.

He turned away from her and closed his eyes, “Maybe.”

“Do me a favor, Ned.”

Malone looked back again at Marguerite, “What?”

“On the day you make your decision about either Gladys or Veronica, write me a note. I’d really like to know your choice.”

To his amazement he realized that Marguerite spoke sincerely. Malone returned her gentle smile.

*///*

The passage back to civilization went surprisingly without major incident. Yet, it was still a long and arduous journey. The men traded off, carrying the incapacitated Malone for most of the trek, which was tiring. However, there were no cannibal attacks and the single threat they did face, a plague of flying insects, did not last long. Near the end, when they could see tall buildings in the distance, a couple of the other men in their party became ill as well, but they were close enough to a land development - with a doctor and native medicine man - where they could be hospitalized without too much fuss.

Soon, the gleeful explorers were in The United States. Marguerite shopped extensively, Roxton sent a telegraphed message to his solicitor and Challenger supervised the crating of his shattered dinosaur eggs, to be certain they got safely onto their ship for the passage home to England.

Malone was checked into the best medical facility the young country had to offer.

Marguerite had visited Malone with Roxton and Challenger and finally met pretty Gladys Marie Norris. Initially Marguerite’s felt that Gladys was very dull and superficial, especially when compared to clever and capable Veronica Layton. She was a pretty little rich girl who could not see passed her Daddy’s wealth and the handsome young - and now very successful - journalist she planned to wed. Yet, as she further watched Gladys, Marguerite decided she wasn't going to dismiss the girl outright as an innocent. There was something cunning and slightly treacherous about the petite blond which puzzled Marguerite. She could not quite put her finger on what it might be but red warning flags came up in Marguerite’s mind every time Gladys tittered like a nervous school girl.

“Oh my,” Gladys had said, holding onto “Neddy’s” hand, at his bedside, as if losing her grip might cause him to escape from her once again. “Miss Krux, you were the *only* lady with all those gentlemen. Didn’t you feel … out of place?” she asked with wide ingenuous eyes which sweetly hid an overwhelming tactlessness.

Marguerite looked from Gladys to another young person, a gentleman called Richard Kuchar, who had brought Gladys to the hospital via his coach. He was introduced as a friend of her family. It was not lost on Marguerite how intently he watched Gladys. If Mr. Kuchar wasn‘t in love with the girl he was certainly enamored.

“No, Miss Norris, not at all.” Marguerite spoke coolly, “I prepared well for the journey. And, of course, I wasn’t the only woman …”

“The native women.” Malone interrupted, suddenly. “Remember, I told you about them.”

Roxton chimed in, “And, besides that, Miss Krux is one of the best marksman I’ve ever witnessed. You should have seen the way she took down raptors …”

“And Miss Krux also has a gift for languages. We would have been lost without her.” Challenger added.

It came to Marguerite quite unexpectedly that Malone hadn’t told Gladys about Veronica yet. ‘Interesting.’ she thought and simply nodded at the girl.

*///*

They took the luxury ship, known as King George, back to England. The media surrounding Challenger Roxton and Marguerite had been relentless even before they boarded. Marguerite was the picture of sophistication, draped in a dark green gown, black gloves and carrying a fashionable matching parasol. The men were equally impressive, wearing new tweed suits and smiling for the cameras as they waved goodbye to the American press, who were still calling out questions as the ship pulled from the dock.

Marguerite noted that Roxton had finally trimmed his hair, as she suggested, and also managed a close shave. He looked quite lordly and handsome in his fresh suit despite his admission to the contrary.

The three stood out on deck as the ship moved further and further away from the dock. Finally, as the clatter of noise died down and their fellow passengers began to ease away, moving to their own rooms or to the ship’s dining area, Challenger sighed. “Thank heavens that’s over.” he declared.

Roxton chuckled, “What’s the matter, George? I thought you were striving for notoriety. You are now famous and so is the plateau.”

“Yes, and watch as every Tom, Dick and Harry tries to retrace my steps, attempting to go back the way we came. The fools.”

“Fools?” Marguerite questioned.

“As many earthquakes as we experienced while inside the mountain it would not surprise me in the least if more than one of our exits has been destroyed. If any reconnaissance other than one *I* lead goes on an exploration through that fissure, they will die.”

“Some might think that’s arrogance, George.” Marguerite said, not hiding a smile.

“It’s being realistic.” he retorted and moved away from his companions. "Now, excuse me while I go talk with the ship's Captain."

“I think you bruised his ego.” Roxton said with a conspiratorial smile and stood beside Marguerite, leaning against the rail.

“He’s got enough to spare.” she replied and folded her parasol. “But George better get used to the spotlight. I suspect we‘ll be inundated once again when we reach home. I‘ve already been asked to go on tour of Europe by the Manchester Geological Society.”

“They pay well?” Roxton asked, pulling a silver cigarette case from the inside on his vest pocket.

“Yes, they do.” she replied, boastful but also a little annoyed that Roxton had pin pointed her motivation.

“You will do well with that, Marguerite.” Roxton pulled a slim cigar from the case then put it back in his pocket. “Challenger will not be the only person from the expedition to make a great name for himself.”

Marguerite looked at Roxton’s profile. He seemed a bit melancholy, “What’s the matter, John?” she asked, “Thinking of Summerlee?”

Actually no, he hadn’t. At least, not today. Distracted, Roxton lit his cigar.

“Are you worried about what his family will say?” Marguerite asked.

“No, I’ve already notified his children about what had happened, before the story broke in the London Times. They were sad but grateful and seemed to understand.”

“I thought that was something Challenger would do.” Marguerite commented.

“He notified the Zoological Society and took responsibility for Arthur.”

“And they will allow him to take it too.” Marguerite growled under her breath.

Roxton caught the disgust in her voice and could not help the urge to tease, “Why Marguerite, is that resentment in your voice? Are you actually *concerned* about Professor Challenger?” he smiled as he puffed, blowing the cigar smoke out into the sea air.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” she huffed and turned away from Lord Roxton, this time looking out at the water as he gazed at *her* profile.

“Sounds like it to me.” he spoke low with a rakish grin.

“You’re delusional.“ Marguerite’s hard-heeled shoes clicked stridently against the wooden planks as she turned and walked quickly to her quarters. She refused to allow him see the vulnerability in her expression. However, Roxton’s comment *did* remind Marguerite that she had yet to fulfill a promise. Carefully, she reached into her reticule and touched the firm envelope.

Roxton watched her as she moved away. Perhaps he *was* wasting his time. Women like Marguerite Krux never changed. Despite the progress they made together at that pond while still in the Amazon weeks ago, the heiress seemed determined in her selfish goals, which excluded everyone; especially *him* it seemed. Roxton was beginning to feel that all their little verbal battles, even those which had brought them together, were a detriment. He was losing the war. It would be best to just forget about her altogether.

Roxton looked out to the ocean watching as, in the distance, dolphins splashed about.

Marguerite was *one* woman and there was a bloody sea of gorgeous females out there in the world to choose from. He would not be lonely. No, not at all.

Aggravated, Roxton tossed his cigar into the ocean. It felt and tasted bitter on his tongue.

*///*

Professor Challenger, for their first day out to sea, decided to take lunch in his quarters, quietly pouring over some notes he would need when eventually addressing the zoological society and the science department at Oxford. When he entered into his small room he tossed his outer jacket on the shelf bed then walked leisurely over to the small desk positioned just under a port hole.

He was surprised to see an envelope, rather worn and grubby from all appearances, waiting for him. The cover read: To the Royal London Zoological Society. Challenger recognized the handwriting but could barely believe it. He picked the envelope up and carefully opened it.

Challenger pulled out a single sheet of paper and read what was written:

I, Arthur Everett Summerlee, being of sound mind and body, do solemnly swear that Professor George Edward Challenger spoke the truth when he declared there was a lost world ….

Blinking, Challenger looked from the missive to a space somewhere near the ceiling, as if he could see his friend in Heaven.

*///*