Fallen AngelBy: Elizabeth Thornton
The girl by the long sash window raised one edge of the heavy velour curtain and gazed steadfastly along the graceful sweep of Drumoak's gravel drive. A fine hoar frost had transformed the threatening aspect of the avenue of winter black oaks, fashioning them into a lace tapestry of incredible delicacy, and the dusting of snow which had fallen during the night dashed in a mad dervish against the small frosted windowpanes, driven by the blasts of cold air which habitually swept up the waters of the Firth of Forth to buffet Drumoak's grey granite walls.
Madeleina Sinclair, "Maddie" to her intimates, let the curtain drop from her fingers and she half-turned back into the saloon. Familiarity with Drumoak's commodious though sparsely furnished front parlour had inured Maddie to the uniform shabbiness of the place. Her eyes were drawn to the inviting blaze of coals in the grate, but she resolutely remained at her vigil by the cold window.
"It will be dark soon. He should have been here by now," she observed, and her eyes flashed a question, as if seeking confirmation from the other occupant of the room, but the lady's head was bent assiduously over the knitting in her lap.
Miss Nell Spencer, a handsome woman who looked to be a year or two shy of forty, carefully counted her stitches before favouring Maddie with a reply. "A watched kettle never boils," she said patiently, and looked reprovingly over the rim of her spectacles when the girl gave a sudden, unladylike snort. "Maddie!" she warned with a cautionary shake of the head, and she reinforced the admonitory tone with a quick frown. "Your Papa will be here directly. Now stop prancing about like an angry kitten and sit down and converse with me in a civilized manner."
Maddie pirouetted away from the window and made a great show of seating herself gracefully and decorously with the air of one well practised in such niceties, but her expressive and intelligent brown eyes twinkled perversely.
"That's better," said Miss Spencer, well satisfied with the ladylike demeanour her niece could show to the world when it suited her. "Now tell me what you have been doing today."
"You know what I have been doing. Oh, very well. I made a stab at that famous speech from Euripides's Medea. You know, the one. It begins, 'Of all things that live and have intelligence, we women are the most wretched species.'"
Miss Spencer clicked her tongue, and her knitting needles flew a little faster. "Why do you squander your time on such a labour? There are perfectly good translations available for the asking."
"Time is one thing that I don't lack. Besides, it's a matter of accuracy. It's true, I assure you. You don't think for a minute that Malcolm's father prepares his sermons directly from the Bible? Of course he doesn't! He goes to the original texts which, as you know, are in Hebrew and Greek. It's merely to clarify interpretation. Any scholar worth his salt goes to the primary sources."
Miss Spencer was not at all sure that she had known that the original texts of the Bible were in Hebrew and Greek, but she refrained from saying so. "But in your own case, to what purpose?"
"If I'm to help the girls at Miss Maitland's with the production of the play for next Founders' Day," said Maddie reasonably, "it is essential that I understand Medea's character and motivation. Her revenge on the man who wronged her, you must admit, was a trifle excessive."
"Oh? What did she do?" asked Miss Spencer, interested in spite of herself.
The answer that sprang to Maddie's lips was instantly rejected. Murder and infanticide, she knew, were not suitable subjects for polite drawing-room conversation. After a moment's consideration, she replied tactfully, "Medea brought her husband's house to extinction. Even in those days, men, so it would seem, were preoccupied with carrying on their line."
"It's just as well they are, or there would be few married men in our acquaintance."
"Aunt Nell! What a shocking thing to say!"
"But true, nevertheless," retorted Miss Spencer, not without a certain degree of smugness. "Time you learned to exploit that fact and find yourself a beau, my girl, instead of filling your head with Greek and Latin and goodness knows what else. You would do well to remember that gentlemen feel threatened by girls who are brighter than they are."
"'A woman, especially if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can,'" quoted Maddie with a straight face.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's a line from the novel I've been reading, Northanger Abbey, by an unknown lady."
"Books again, Maddie? Nevertheless, the author of that sentiment knows a thing or two. You should heed her."
"She is being facetious, Aunt Nell."
"Nonsense. Only you would say so. If you want to catch a husband, you had better forget that you ever heard of Greek or Latin."
It was an argument that Maddie knew she could not win, and she diplomatically refrained from reminding her aunt that the last thing she wished for was a husband who would in all likelihood stifle her individuality. She adroitly turned the subject.