Mrs Frank Millet ("Lily", nee Elizabeth Merrill) John Singer Sargent -- American painter 1885-1886) via Wikipedia
Continuing the Archie & Frank series based on Jacopo della Queria's book The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy...
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Raps at the door startled Archie. He lay his book flat on the end table, cursing himself for forgetting a proper bookmark. He glanced toward Frank’s closed door.
Archie hoped the visitor’s knocks did not disturb his beloved painter. Frank was finally shrugging off malaise. He’d kissed Archie quickly, dismissing him with a playful shove after breakfast. Frank had closed his door, and presumably was throwing paint around even now.
Archie tip toed past Frank’s door and down the hall. The visitor did not share Archie’s concern. Three forceful tat a taps rang through the foyer. He lunged the final feet to the door, throwing it open before another percussive set could echo throughout the house.
The visitor stared up at him from under the brim of her cloak. He stared down at her. She cleared her throat. Manners lovingly drilled into him from his mother saved him. It was muscle memory that made him say, “How may I help you?” when what he was thinking was What in blazes are you doing on my porch, you she-devil?
“I’m here to see my husband.” She said. “I thought you were in Italy?” Archie said, stepping back as she forced herself past him. “Pardon me. I meant to say, is the family well?”
She spun on her heel as he shut the door. She jabbed a finger into his chest. “You tell me. Is my family well?”
Archie winced. “May I get you some tea?”
She flounced down the hall. “No, you could offer to get my husband.”
Archie rushed after her. “He’s painting!”
“Ha! He’s painting! Did you know that is what he used to tell me when he met his other lovers?
That he was painting?” Her chest heaved as she flung open one door and then the next. “Afraid of what you might find, Archibald? He’s painting.”
Frank’s door swung open. “In this case, I am painting, Lily.”
Lily froze, her flushed face rapidly losing colour. Archie dove forward to slip his arm around her. She shrugged him off. She took a step forward.
Frank took a step backward.
“Where. Is. My. Anniversary. Present.” She said, her voice barely a whisper. Archie took several steps backwards, then turned and shut the door behind him.
Frank let out a sigh. He studied the wood grain of the door, the golden knob. There was a thin line of light coming through the space between the door and floor. Minutes passed before he forced himself to look up at his wife.
“I’m the mother of your children,” she said. She blinked, but tears slipped down her face anyways. Frank slid his gaze back to the thin space of light under the door. Archie was so much better with people.
“Do you want to sit in the garden for awhile?” Frank murmured. Lily liked flowers. Maybe she could be coaxed into a conversation about the proper soil for roses.
“Yes.” She sniffled.
They settled across from one another in the garden, under hanging ivy. The long green fingers dripped down towards them, casting latticed shadows across their faces. Frank watched the light play along Lily’s pale skin, shimmering dots like boiling water in a kettle until a cloud overhead dissolved them.
“I missed you.” He said. She dipped her head, saying nothing. He studied the fine lines etched into her lovely skin, the places time had claimed as its own while he wasn’t paying attention. His chest ached for her loveliness, not just the gleam of her hair as it turned silver, but the kindness she had extended to so many people through out their lives. He tried to be kind, but he was not Archie. He was not Lily. And they loved him, the both of them.
His eyes burned as he contemplated that love. Surely undeserved, the love of even one person of their calibre, but he had been blessed twice. Such blessings always come with their own responsibilities.
Frank leaned forward. He lifted his hand to reach her, but she didn’t look up. He dropped his hand.
Birds chirped. The trees and the wind danced with one another. Lily was silent.
Archie appeared and just as silently disappeared, leaving behind a tea service. Frank poured two cups of tea. He held out a cup to Lily, and mercifully, she finally looked up at him and took it.
“Lily, I-” he began, having no idea where his apology might take him. “Wait.” She held up one palm. He pressed his lips together.
“Do you remember when I was ill… oh, it must be twenty years ago now… but anyhow. I was sick and you carried me to the garden. We sat out there all morning, and you scolded me. Scolded me! You told me I had to get better.”
Frank leaned forward, daring to scoop up her free hand. “Yes, I remember.”
“You asked me who would take care of an old, decrepit artist if I gave out on you.” Lily squeezed his hand lightly, and then let it go. “We didn’t need to worry about that.”
“Do you worry about being taken care of? I promise you, you will never go wanting.” He said.
Lily raised her eyebrows at him. “Is that right? You of all people know there are various things to want.”
“I’m sorry. We can go to the country if you’d-”
She cut him off with a shake of her head. “I was angry. I wanted to be the only one.” She paused, sipping. “I knew about your lovers before, but I thought it was alright as long as you didn’t love them.”
It was his turn to avoid her gaze.
“I was angry all the way here, thinking about why I am not enough for you. Our whole marriage… I was not enough. I loved you. Love you.” She corrected. “No one tells you love is a complicated mess.”
“No, Frank, I don’t need apologies. I just want us to be honest. We’ve earned that, haven’t we?” Lily nodded her head in agreement with herself. “I thought the whole time it was about me. But it never was.”
They sat in silence, each lost in thought. Lily poured herself another cup of tea.
“It was Archie all along.” Lily said.
“What?” Frank said, confused.
“Archie sent me the anniversary gifts, not you.”
“I’m… I’ve been terrible. I just assumed you were getting along fine when I’m out of town.”
Lily laughed. It started quietly, but it turned into the full throated laugh that had first got his attention all those years ago. “When you’re out of town…” she wiped her eyes. “You are something. Well, in the spirit of honesty, Sam and I have been exchanging letters since his wife died.”
“Sam? Sam Clemens?” Frank asked.
“I knew you would think it odd.”
“Everything about you is a bit odd. But that’s what I like about you.” He teased.
“I’m going to see him.” She confessed.
“You don’t need my permission.” Frank smiled.
“I know. But… I wanted you to know.”
“Because you’re angry?”
They embraced on the steps, and Frank tucked a loose strand of her hair back into her hood. “You’ll come see me again before you leave town, won’t you?”
Lily smiled up at him. “Yes. You are my dearest friend, even though you annoy me so.”
“We’ll get you an anniversary present,” Frank promised.
“I’d like that.”
Archie was in the hall when Frank came back inside. “You were spying!” Frank said. He clutched his chest in mock horror.
“Of course I was spying!”
Frank pulled on his mustache. “Why have you bought Lily anniversary presents?”
“She’s the mother of your children.” Archie said, as if that settled things. “I can’t believe I forgot this year. I’ve been so busy, but I feel terrible.”
“I feel terrible. I’m her husband.” Frank said.
“Alright. You feel terrible. I’m going to pour a whiskey. Do you want one?”
“It’s my goddamn anniversary. Fill my cup.”