As she pulled up outside the pretty little Guernsey cottage, Madge Russell could see Sally Denny at work in the garden, planting up some early flowers into pots. She looked up as Madge got out of the car, and she straightened slowly, watching as Madge bent to retrieve the Moses basket from the passenger seat, hooked it carefully onto her arm, and walked across the front lawn to greet her. But while her looks were suspicious, Sally’s greeting was filled with its usual friendliness.
“Well, well," she said, “and here you are. Congratulations, my dear. I'm very pleased for you." Her eyes twinkled in the way they always had, though Madge thought she could detect a hint of sadness in her old friend’s manner. “I did wonder when you might come to see us."
“And here I am," said Madge, “and I’ve brought the baby with me. I hope you’ve not been waiting too long for my visit,” she added, and she could not stop herself from glancing over towards the house. When she looked back, she thought that Sally was giving her a very knowing look, and Madge felt herself blushing in spite of herself.
"Yes, well," said Sally. “And how is the little one?”
“Sleeping soundly, as you see," said Madge, tilting the basket enough for Miss Denny to see inside. For all Sally’s cautious manner, she looked eagerly enough and even smiled to see the long black lashes settled on the pudgy white cheeks.
“Tristan’s inside," was all she said, however, and waved her hand towards the front door. “I expect he’s in the music room.”
Madge took this as permission to go in, and she did so eagerly, down the warm carpets of the hallway and round to the left, where she found the door to the music room. She put out a hand to the handle, and realised that she was feeling suddenly and stupidly nervous. Supposing he wasn’t pleased to see her?
She changed the gesture into a quiet knock at the door, but was taken aback when it was flung open and she found herself face-to-face with him.
"Madge!” he said, and he looked almost as startled she was. He passed an embarrassed hand across his forehead and stood aside. “I crave pardon - I thought you must be my sister. Please - will you not come in?”
She passed over the threshold and sat down in the chair he indicated, setting the Moses basket down at her feet. He followed her in, solicitous but uncertain.
“You are well, I trust?" he said, perching on the piano stool and leaning forward in concern. “You have not…I mean you are not…you did not suffer too much…?”
Madge had forgotten, even in this short time, what it was like speak to Tristan Denny - how madly absurd he could be over the simplest of enquiries. But where once it might have frustrated her, now she smiled in fond reminiscence. She smiled, and then she laughed, her hair falling forward as she bent to hide her smiles, and when she looked back up at him she seemed more like the girl of twenty-five that she had been when they first met, than a married woman and mother of three.
“It’s no walk in the park," she said. “But we are both here, and both well. I thought - I thought you might like to meet Josette.”
"I would," he said, softly. “I would, very much indeed."
Madge reached down and picked up her little girl. Supporting her head, she lifted her quietly to her breast and held her close, then looked up into Tristan’s dark eyes.
“Will you hold her?” she asked.
He gave no answer, but stretched out his arms, and Madge handed the child over, watching carefully to make sure that he held her safely.
She need not have worried. One hand under the baby's head, he drew the small child in until she was cuddled against him, and the expression in his eyes as he gazed down at Josette sent a stab of pain into Madge’s guts.
“She is so tiny,” he said, in no more than a whisper.
Madge could see he needed no answer. She got up and came to sit beside him on the piano stool, and though he would not look at her, there was something about sitting together, Josette between them, that made Madge feel the happiest she had for weeks.
“Look," Tristan said. "She is waking up."
Sure enough, Josette’s eyes were opening, and Madge was poised to rescue Tristan from a tearful wail. But Josette merely blinked up at the strange man who held her, and his smile could have given her light enough for her whole life, so bright it was, so filled with joy, and love.
“She is very dark, isn't she?" said a voice from the doorway, and they both turned to see Sally standing and watching them. “Not a bit like David and Sybil.”
She came over, and looked down at the wide-awake Josette.
"Dark eyes, too," she added, and glanced at her brother, who averted his own dark eyes and looked back down at the baby. Sally smiled faintly, and looked instead at Madge. “But it's getting late for you to be out, Madge, especially so soon after everything - and the cold can't be good for young Josette. Why don't you let Tristan drive you back? He can walk home - it’s not far. But you’d better hurry - it’ll be dark soon. These short winter days…”
They were quiet in the car. Madge was attending to Josette and Mr Denny was keeping his eyes on the road. But when they were almost half-way home, Madge turned to him with the faintest of smiles.
“Do you remember how, back in Austria, I asked you to run away with me?” she asked, and he smiled.
“And you refused. But you did it anyway, didn’t you?”
He paused, then laughed as he understood her words.
“That is true,” he said. “Though we took an entire school with us!”
“We did!” Madge laughed too, but she sobered quite quickly. “We never did manage to do things properly, did we?”
“No,” he agreed, but though he, too, stopped laughing, his face remained quite serene. “But we have, perhaps, done the right thing at last.”
"I only wish it felt like it,” said Madge, and he let go of the steering wheel long enough to reach out and take her hand, and squeeze it gently.
“The time will come," he said, but the time for what, he never told her, for at that moment they drew up outside the Russell household, and they could both see Joey Maynard standing on the doorstep, craning her head to see where her sister had got to.
“There you are!" she cried. "I was beginning to give up hope. I came over specially to see you and the baby, and I found you’d gone out - and now it’s getting dark! Jem’s home, you know, wondering where you’d got to.”
"I only went to see the Dennys,” said Madge, getting out of the car. “Mr Denny was kind enough to give me a lift home,” she added, as the singing master got out and lifted Josette’s Moses basket out after him.
Madge hoped that Joey might give them a final moment alone, but her younger sister was oblivious and kept up a steady chatter as Mr Denny handed over the Moses basket with a smile, with one last glance at Josette.
“We will see one another soon,” he said, by way of farewell, and he turned and began the long walk back to his own house. Madge watched him go, and she wished that she had spoken up, for she knew that this was the last time that he would allow her so close to him, the last chance she would have to speak what was in her head, her mind, her heart…
"What are you looking so forlorn about, Madge?” asked Joey, curious as ever. "It's only Plato!”
Madge saw Mr Denny half-turn, and as his eyes caught hers, she seemed to see him nod as if to say, “Yes, she is quite right - it is only Plato.” Then he turned back and carried on walking, and after watching him for a moment longer Madge turned away herself and went into the house, where her sister, her husband and her children were all waiting for her.
“We may not have done things properly,” she said to herself, “but at least we did do the right thing. It's not enough, but it’s something to live by, isn’t it?”
And the sleepy Josette waved her fists as if to agree.