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Heroine

Chapter 8

 
Less than a half hour into the gathering a note was sent to Roxton from Challenger. It stated that he had been called to the ship’s telegraph office and needed to make his apologies, pressing its urgency. However, he further told Roxton and Marguerite to continue having a good time. He would give them details later.

“A shipboard telegram?” Marguerite questioned, looking up at Roxton as he sat beside her. “Sounds important. You don’t suppose anything is wrong, do you?”

“No.“ He shook his head and Roxton’s expression appeared honest and, to some extent, unconcerned. “Probably just the zoological society asking his advice, wondering where they should display the raptor eggs when he arrives in London with them.”

As one hour passed into another a sumptuous meal was eaten, pleasant conversation exchanged and a few watched as their hostess, Baroness Noble, drank heavily of the expensive wine brought to their large table.

“Dinosaurs alive in this day and age.” exclaimed a posh young lady, a guest of Lord Lawrence. “It’s hard to believe.”

“If I hadn’t witnessed it myself I would be as skeptical as the rest of you.” Marguerite said, smiling genially. “But believe us, there *are* dinosaurs alive and well in South America in this year, nineteen twenty.”

“I heard there was a Tyrannosaurus egg as well.” Percy said, looking from Marguerite to Roxton. “Is that true?”

“It’s *was* true.” Roxton spoke low and a little forlornly, “But it’s … lost.”

Sorrowfully, Marguerite knew what Roxton was not saying. They had all saw it but did not comment on Challenger’s sacrifice. Just before the professor had left the cave, before Arthur had given Marguerite the letter to give to his friend and rival, Challenger had pulled his treasured T-Rex egg from its pack and sat it on the ground next to Summerlee. Challenger spoke sincerely if a bit irrationally. He told Summerlee that he was so certain they would be coming back for him that he was leaving the egg in the botanist’s care. Marguerite recalled Summerlee whispering back that it was utter folly but Challenger refused to budge. The egg - which would never hatch in the cool temperature of the caves - was staying.

“The Mad Man of Edinburgh.” someone whispered, unthinking.

The comment warranted an uneasy chuckle from the table.

“Actually, he’s extraordinary.” Marguerite said and put into plain words how brilliant Professor Challenger truly was; how he had planned to eventually build an electric fence around their treehouse for protection.

“In the jungle?” a skeptical Mrs. Elva Winton, of the South Hampton Wintons, questioned. Like Challenger, her husband had been called away but promised to come back as soon as he picked up his telegram.

“He would have used a windmill to generate the charge needed.” Roxton further explained.

“Why didn’t he?” Percy asked, enthralled by the conversation … and Miss Krux.

“Not enough time.” Roxton replied frankly, finding himself a little ill at ease with Percy’s constant ogling of his companion.

The Baroness, quiet but vigilant as she drank her wine, watched Roxton and Marguerite as they sat together. They couple spoke cordially with the others, occasionally coming together to whisper quietly, then chuckling in private. They looked quite cozy -- but was it love? Perhaps the dark haired beauty was a mere play-thing for Roxton while they were on that miserable plateau, a mere attraction, and now that he had returned … he would be open to new experiences and a woman of substance.

A small orchestra began to play behind them and a female singer, Italian and sensuous, joined the musicians.

Felicia was about to make a suggestion when Roxton turned to Marguerite and asked her if she would like to dance. The woman seemed surprised for a moment but then smiled and took his hand. A few of the other couples moved out onto the floor as well. Coming to a decision, Felicia looked directly at Percy Lipton and stood. “Let’s dance.” she commanded.

Marguerite moved gently with Roxton, one hand on his shoulder and the other holding his own, and smiled with amusement. She looked into his somewhat thoughtful expression, “You really are a wonderful dancer, John. I’m surprised.”

“I was taught when very young. It was part of my education when growing up as the youngest Roxton heir. My instructor was surprised by how quickly I caught on. He said I was born to dance.”

Marguerite chuckled and looked into his warm eyes as they continued to slowly dance, “The Baroness is beautiful, Roxton, but lonely. I’m surprised you want to keep such a distance between the two of you. Isn’t rescuing lovely ladies in distress part of your emotional makeup?”

“I don’t think Felicia needs rescuing. She is quite capable of taking care of herself.”

“A woman to be admired then. A lady of fire and steel, milord?”

“Yes,” he admitted, “But in her case the distribution is all wrong.”

Roxton dipped Marguerite in time with the music and when he brought her back up they both laughed; he because he loved the expression on her face and she because she hadn‘t expected him to dip her ... And he did it well.

“Charming couple.” Percy commented, unsmiling, as he and Felicia danced while looking at them from across the room. “I wonder how they spent their time, when not battling the wildlife, on that plateau?”

“Shut up, Mr. Lipton, and dance me over there.” Felecia demanded.

To say it wasn’t calculated would be foolish. Anyone who saw Percy staring at Miss Krux or had even the slightest inkling that Baroness Noble was wildly attracted to Lord Roxton saw the maneuver from a mile away. Perhaps Roxton and Marguerite didn’t see it right away because at the moment of switch, holding each other close, the “friends” were lost in one another, staring into each other’s eyes and unable to focus on anything other than each other and the music carrying them along.

Dazed, they allowed one another to be parted as Felicia and Percy cut in.

Roxton watched, disappointed, as Percy moved Marguerite away from him.

“Miss Krux is a very attractive woman.” Felicia said as she swayed gently, holding Roxton’s hand tightly in hers.

“She said the same about you, Felicia.” He replied, focusing on his new dance partner.

“So, tell me, John. Are you and she serious?”

“We’re close.” Roxton replied, dreading this interview but knowing it was inevitable. “She saved my life on many an occasion while we were in South America. She‘s a very unique woman.”

“So many months together in that hot jungle.” Felicia reflected, “And you, my dear Lord Roxton, saved Miss Krux’s life a time or two as well?”

“Yes.”

“And I imagine she was *very* grateful.”

“We were all grateful for each other. Being together was how we survived.”

“Yes, but of your little group she was the only one with smooth, rose pedal skin and also the only member who wore a corset.”

Roxton considered what Felicia said, “It was a camisole actually.”

*///*

When the current melody ended and the music moved into another tune, Marguerite parted from Percy and curtsied politely. “Thank you, Mr. Lipton.” she said and made a move to go back to their table.

“Miss Krux,” He gently took her arm and stopped Marguerite halfway to the table, “You have to know I am very fond of you. I think it was love at first sight.”

Marguerite smiled and tried to bite back the laugh she felt bubbling up. She had known men like Percy Lipton all her life. Handsome and debonair, he was a high class gigolo and a blatant fortune hunter; a man more than willing to live off a woman who would be willing to take him in. His type were not necessarily bad men and they often made great lovers and, when finally assuaged, good husbands. However, right now Marguerite was looking for neither. “You are a dear man, Percy.” she said because she did believe, at least in part, that he was telling the truth.

He kissed her gloved hand and looked up at Marguerite, clasping that hand between his own. “Please, tell me what I can do to prove my devotion.”

“Go find someone that can love you back.” she said simply but firmly and returned to their table.

Disappointed, he followed her and was about to ask another question of his chosen when both he and Marguerite saw something was amiss. “Mrs. Winton, is something wrong?” Percy asked, pulling a chair out for Marguerite but looking at the older woman.

Neither could help but notice the despair on the lady’s gently creviced face as her husband stood, reading from a piece of paper, beside his spouse.

“It’s most distressing.” she whimpered, “Seems a horrible fever has overcome our son, Fredrick. We just left him at school to go on vacation in Wales, where Horace’s great grandfather was born, and he‘s come down terribly ill.”

“He’s not the only one.” Horace Winton folded the telegram, “Half the cadets at West Point are sick.” He sat beside his teary wife and rubbed her satin covered back gently, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to turn around and go home the minute we arrive in England.”

“I’m so sorry.” Marguerite reached forward and touched Mrs. Winton’s hand. The woman smiled at the sympathetic young English woman, gratefully.

Sadly, Mr. and Mrs. Winton would never make it home to South Hampton. Both would die of a fever on the return voyage.

*///*

Marguerite stood on the deck of the great ship, a thin wrap around her shoulders, and breathed in the sea air as the music played within the ship. The night was young and couples still danced. She had managed to pawn Percy off on Amanda Sheehan, the lone single female at their table. She was a shy, bookish and a very plain young lady but was also very wealthy - an heiress - and Percy was immediately intrigued, as Marguerite knew he would be. Miss Krux could almost smile at the situation, amused by Percy’s obvious antics and over-blown compliments, except for one thing. In the background dancing, as Percy spoke with she and young Amanda, Marguerite could clearly see Roxton and the baroness, laughing and apparently enjoying each others company quite a bit. Roxton had never once looked in her direction during the three dances he shared with Felecia, as if he did not want her coming between them after all.

“I’ve failed him.” Marguerite whispered, looking up at the stars. Roxton had asked her to the dinner for the sole reason of diversion. He wanted her to rescue him from the clutches of the baroness, make her believe that Roxton was not on the open market, and that she was obliged to stay clear. But it hadn’t worked. Poor Roxton knew his limitations and was now in the clutches of ‘the barracuda’, as he had called her.

“Why should I even care?” Marguerite mumbled, suddenly grumpy.

Roxton wasn’t a little boy. If he wanted to stay away from Baroness Noble he should have been able to find the words to tell her to take a long walk, Marguerite decided. After all, once they returned to London he was going to have more than Felicia to worry about. What’s more, Marguerite Krux wasn’t going to be around to fall back on.

Not that he would want to have her to fall back on … not the way he was looking at that woman as they danced … and the way he held her in his arms … and the way they bantered …

“Hi honey, you want one?” An American accent interrupted her thoughts as another woman stepped up to the rail and stood beside Marguerite. She was holding a golden cigarette case.

Marguerite, irritated and not wanting the company, spoke politely but curtly. “Thank you, no.”

“New studies say these things can kill you,” the woman snapped the case shut, “but so can a lot of things.” She sighed and stuffed the case into a hidden pocket of the large fur coat she was wearing. From another pocket she brought out a small flask of brandy and unscrewed the cap. She took a short swallow and lifted it up in offering to Marguerite who shook her head.

The interloper was wealthy, with her fur coat and large expensive hat, there was no denying that. However, from the sound of her, the way she had boldly offered Marguerite the cigarette and spirit, she was also very much her own lady and did not find herself weighed down by standards. Marguerite could admire that. “It’s a lovely evening.” she commented, warming to her company.

“For this time of year it certainly is.” The older woman looked from the sea and night sky to once again glance at Marguerite‘s profile, “So what is a nice lady like you doing up here when you could be down there, dancing with your man?”

“Did he send you after me?” Marguerite ask, now looking directly at the woman.

“Not at all. I saw you two earlier and couldn’t help thinking what a perfect couple you make. I asked the Captain who you both were.”

Marguerite rolled her eyes, “If you had looked a little longer you would have seen that Roxton is capable of being “perfect” with more than one woman.”

“If you’re talking about Baroness Noble, I’ve never seen two people so utterly wrong for each other.”

Marguerite stared at the woman a moment, dubious. “*Who* are you?” she asked.

“Oh, sorry.” The stout woman lifted a black gloved hand to shake Marguerite’s “ My name is Margaret Brown. My friends call me Maggie and my good friends call me Molly.” she said crisply.

The handshake broken, Marguerite stared at the woman for another few moments. She felt as if she should know her from somewhere.

“Think long and hard.” the woman snorted, amused. “And I hope you’re not superstitious.”

“Maggie Brown.” Marguerite searched her memory, “Molly Brown.” Then it came to her, “The Titanic?” she whispered her question.

“That’s the one. Eight years ago next month.” she replied.

“And you’re back on a ship.” Awed, Marguerite tried not to gush. This woman was a genuine celebrity.

“If you’re going to Scotland it’s the only way to travel from America.” Mrs. Brown chuckled.

“I’ve read newspaper accounts about you, Mrs. Brown. Some consider you a great heroine. You saved at least ten people that were in your rowboat.”

“Fifteen.“ she corrected, “Damn quartermaster tried to tell us that there was no point in rowing because when the ship went down, we’d all go with it, no matter how hard we paddled. He was wrong just as he was wrong to have that boat lowered so soon. We could have fit thirty people in there at a squeeze.”

“So you took over.“ Marguerite smiled, admiring the woman‘s vim and vigor and imagining how brave she was in that boat eight years ago, standing up to the men and determined to do what was necessary.

“Lives were at stake. I made everyone row despite what was said. I had family to return home to and wasn’t going to be cheated. I just wish we could have fished some of those poor wretches out of the icy water …” Mrs. Brown sighed and shrugged, “Honey, I did what had to be done.” She then looked out upon the water once again, “Sometimes that’s all a woman can do. My husband, J.J., appreciates that and I think Lord Roxton does too.”

“I’m not so sure. Lord Roxton and I have had words about my independence, speaking my mind and doing things the way *I* see fit.”

“He adores you, Miss Krux. It runs deep. I learned long ago how to see such things in a man and woman. It‘s a gift but also a curse.” Her voice grew low, “There was a young couple on the Titanic who were so in love. I could see it. She was British and well bred and he wasn‘t. They were mismatched. Yet, when the ship went down I saw them … clinging together on a piece of wood in the ocean. They died out there … but they were together. When I saw them looking at each other, saying things I could not hear, and even smiling ….”

Marguerite watched the haunted look in the woman’s profile closely.

Mrs. Brown looked at Marguerite and her eyes clear. “Do what you need to do, Marguerite. But don’t wait too long. You brought him home to live but I don’t think he’ll do that while you two are purposely separating yourselves. Neither will you. He‘s your future, Marguerite. Forever.” She glanced briefly to where the music was floating up from the lower decks, “As for tonight ... Be bold. You know what to do. Take no prisoners.”

“Thank you.” Marguerite chuckled, valuing the advice.

Satisfied, Mrs. Brown made a move to leave.

“Wait,” Marguerite urged, “Why don’t you come down into the dining room and be with us. I’m sure Baroness Noble wouldn’t mind and everyone there would love to hear you speak …’

“Oh no.” Mrs. Brown adjusted her hat and laughed heartily, “The reason I wasn’t invited in the first place was because there is a lot of old money down there and me and mine don’t rate. I’m just a poor girl from Missouri who worked hard all her life and managed to marry a man, an engineer, who came up with a good idea that made us wealthy. We’re rich but we’re the ‘nouveau riche’ and that’s unacceptable to so many.”

Marguerite nodded, saddened by the truth of it. She wouldn’t be at the dinner either if it wasn’t for Roxton. “I’d like to speak with you again, Mrs. Brown. Would you mind?”

“Not at all, honey. I’m cabin three-sixteen. Just give me a shout whenever you want to have tea.” The woman winked and made her exit.

Turning back to the night, looking up at the stars, Marguerite shook her head back and forth.

She and Roxton? Forever?

If only matters could be wrapped up in a nice, tight package as Mrs. Brown seemed to envision. Marguerite had never escaped a sinking ship but her life wasn‘t exactly uneventful. One thing she knew for sure was that she wasn’t going to be spending her future with anyone exclusively until she made her peace with ghosts and reality. Still, Mrs. Brown was right about one thing. Roxton needed her and, for now, she would be bold … because it was necessary.

With a sigh, Marguerite was about to turn around and head back down to the dining room when she saw a shadow approach her.

“Marguerite.” George Challenger called. “I need to speak with you and Roxton.”

“About the telegram?” she asked, puzzled by the professor‘s dour expression.

“Yes. I need to talk with you together. Alone.”

Marguerite nodded. “I’ll go down and get him.” she said, “Stay here.”

Challenger nodded, looking profoundly thoughtful.

Marguerite made her way down into the dining area. The singer had taken a break but the musicians still played softtly and the lights had been dimmed for late evening.

Nearly everyone, with the exception of the Wintons, had returned to the table. Baroness Noble was now sitting in the chair Marguerite had vacated, appearing flushed and overly confident. Roxton was standing. Marguerite could hear him telling the group that he needed to find her and was preparing to apologize for the early evening.

It would have been easy for Marguerite to just leave it there, to have Roxton escape his companions and meet her at the door but she could hear Mrs. Brown say, “Be bold.” and decided that’s exactly what the occasion called for. Pulling the wrap from her shoulders and laying it across her arm, Marguerite approached the table and the standing Roxton.

“Needed a bit of fresh air.” she called, sweetly.

Roxton looked at her, relieved. Nonetheless, he was not expecting what came next.

“Did you miss me, darling?” she asked, stepping purposely in front of Baroness Noble. Marguerite, without hesitation, put her arms around Roxton. She then moved forward and pressed her lips firmly and passionately against his, holding Roxton tightly, feeling the give of his lips and his arms, as they raised to embrace her in return.

They kissed far too long and Marguerite could hear an ‘oh my’ murmured from Miss Sheehan.

She pulled from the dazed and content Roxton and addressed the table, “Excuse us, please. Professor Challenger needs to speak with Lord Roxton and myself.” She gave the wrap to Roxton and turned, allowing him to drape it over her slender shoulders. “I hope you all have a wonderful evening. And Baroness,” Marguerite looked down at the woman, who was silent but appeared ready to burst from indignation, and took her hand. “Thank you so much for the lovely dinner.” Marguerite looked meaningfully over her left shoulder at Roxton then back to the woman, “It was perfect. Just what we needed.” She then winked at the woman, as if the two of them had been conspiring to a mutual end.

“Good night, Miss Krux. Lord Roxton.” Percy called, jovially as did others to their backs as they departed.

His arm draped very gently around her shoulders, Roxton leaned in and whispered. “I know you did that on purpose … Thank you.”

“Anytime, milord. Anytime.”

*///*

Challenger was leaning on the rail, looking into the darkness below when Roxton and Marguerite joined him on deck.

“You wanted to talk with us, George?” Roxton asked as he approached.

“Yes.” Challenger turned about and looked at his friends. His expression was distraught.

“George,” Marguerite reached up and touch his arm, “what is it?”

“The telegram … Malone.” Challenger’s voice was strained, “He’s dead.”

“What?” Roxton stared at the professor, hardly able to believe what he just heard. “But he was fine. The last message we got said he was standing up …”

“He had a relapse a few days after that telegram was sent. He fell into a coma … then died.”

“Oh, my God.” Marguerite whispered and lifted gloved fingers to her lips.

Later, when they returned home and Marguerite was able to thumb through her mail, she would see a telegram from America. She would recall what she had asked of Malone before they left on the voyage, how she wanted him to tell her what his decision was when he finally made up his mind. Was he going to choose his fiancée or the woman he left behind on the plateau?

There was only one word on the telegram and, after she read it, Marguerite dropped it onto the oatmeal colored carpet of her flat. She would not pick it up again until the following morning.

It said: VERONICA.

*///*