Note: Thank you all for the reviews – here and on TLW forum – as well as encouragement. I will definitely take into account the suggestions! The reason why I write the speech marks down at the beginning of the speech is automatic, since my keyboard and computer are programmed for Czech users, but I thought I might as well use copy and paste so from now on the speech marks shall be where they are supposed to be in English.
Two more days passed. The tension in the Treehouse grew almost unbearable. Veronica, for the first time in her life immobilized, was bored to death. She tried to read, but no book could hold her interest for more than ten minutes. She tried to paint but gave up after several dismal attempts at Finn´s portrait she had promised to make. Usually she was quite able to paint faces from memory thanks to her inborn sense of detail, but she was not happy with the result she was getting and finally decided to just wait for the object of her artistic endeavour to get home. Two more days... Veronica tossed away the brush with a frustrated groan.
"Well, they do say that pen is mightier than the sword but you may just kill with a brush."
The invalid turned and saw Roxton standing nearby, a beige stain on the blue shirt, in the middle of his chest. The unlikely weapon had caught him unaware.
"Sorry," Veronica smiled sheepishly. "I would wash that for you but..."
"No worries. I still have a few clean shirts left and this one can wait with the rest of the laundry when the others get back."
"I feel so terribly useless!" sighed Veronica for a thousandth time. "I am not used to be sitting around for days doing nothing! Guess I would never make a proper lady of leisure in England."
Roxton couldn´t help but chuckle at the idea of the jungle girl in the mids of high-born ladies of London Society. He was quite sure she would be elegant enough, given some proper learning and tips, but in the end all the trappings and things considered proper would most probably weight on Veronica like iron chains. And her uncompromising honesty would have the same effect on that snobbish herd as opening a Pandora box.
"It would do you no good," he agreed. "But there are some wonderful women among the lazy and vain ones too."
There was silence for a bit. A soft wind played with the tree leaves just outside the balcony and they could hear a T-Rex roaring somewhere in the distance. It was mid-day. The sky was wonderfully blue and for once the Plateau was showing its peaceful, calming face. Roxton suddenly seemed lost in thought, while Veronica was biting her lip. For as long as she could remember she has never talked to Roxton about his life in England. She did question Summerlee, Challenger, Malone of course. With Marguerite she never tried. At first she did not care to know more about the woman who betrayed her and sold her to the Zanga chief without as much as blink of an eye, later she instinctively realized it would be pointless. But Roxton was her friend from the very start. The companion she could rely on to watch her back, to help whenever he could. He had offered his advice and encouragement. He complimented her, boosted her confidence. He even stubbornly fought Marguerite when she tried to undermine Veronica´s hopes of finding her parents, in spite of himself being sceptical. How come she never asked about his life, his family? She knew about the accident that cost his brother´s life, but surely there was more to Lord Roxton than just that one tragedy. The idea of his mother, so suddenly brought to light, made Veronica ashamed - and intrigued.
"What is it?" Roxton asked, noticing her slight frown.
"I just realized how selfish I am. I have never even asked you … where is your mother? Is she alive? But if you don´t want to talk about her I´ll understand," she added quickly, knowing all too well the family issues may be too personal a matter to Roxton. To her relief he smiled, the first genuine smile she saw his wearing since the others went away six days ago.
"Yes, she still lives. I mean, it has been three years since I´ve seen her last, but she has always been quite a force, so I have no doubt she is doing well. Very energetic, with great organizational skills, and extremely witty. She enjoys some gossip, but doesn´t live for it. She is part of many a great committees; from local hospitals and orphanages to yearly floral festivals. And yet she is lady of leisure, as you put it. She has breakfast in bed, writes letters, knits, paints, has teas with friends and my old Nana, loves long walks and shopping. My father was lucky she chose him over a Duke and two Barons. You know what? Give me a second."
The unusual animated Lord disappeared, but Veronica had hardly a chance to draw a breath before he was back, handing her a small photograph. The picture was no larger than her palm, with worn sides and yellowish tint. There was a young girl in it, with clear eyes staring in the distance, light hair carefully arranged above the nape of her neck, and with an expression of mild curiosity rather than the sad, grim frown typical for the old photos. On the reverse side there was a faint pencil inscription: Estelle Victoria Crawley, 1878.
"Is that your mother?" Veronica asked. It felt so funny, holding that picture from another time, another world, and yet feeling its connection to her friend in the present.
"Yes. A year before she became Lady Roxton. She was just 18. I look nothing like her," he said, noticing Veronica´s eyes traveling from his face back to the picture. "But my brother did. The same fair hair, the same blue eyes. And he inherited her love of dance and music. He was more of a Crawley than Roxton, they say. He was considerate, polite and gallant. While I was a true Roxton: brash, arrogant and self-centered."
Veronica raised her eyebrows.
"You? Self-centered? Arrogant – yes. When you first came to the Plateau your ego almost equaled Chalenger´s. But self-centered? Never."
"You did not know me back then, Veronica. If you had, you would hate my guts, trust me," he laughed. But after the intoxicating nostalgia he had experienced remembering his mother, he was beginning to fear the topic of his family would soon turn to that one terrible event. There was no escape from it, not even here, and every though, every memory, every conversation about his family, his title or anything connected to his past inevitably ended with reliving the fateful Kenya safari. There was only one person who could truly offer him comfort when the past stuck out its ugly head from time to time, and she was presently miles away, possibly still angry because of their argument. Fortunately Veronica either sensed his fear, or was genuinely too taken in by the photo. The dreaded question was never spoken. Instead...
"Roxton, would you mind if I try to paint your mother?"
"I would be delighted and she would be honoured!" he said, his eyes brightening again. "But haven´t you just decided to finish your artistic career off?" he added cheekily, waving the brush she had thrown at him earlier, in front of her face.
"Oh, just give me that!" In one swift motion she grabbed it. "Frankly, I think Miss Estelle here has awoken my Muse. Painting something I have never tried before is almost as exciting as stumbling into an apemen village."
"Just be careful not break any more limbs while you´re at it."
She worked diligently and without a pause for about two hours. When her wrist finally began to hurt and her empty stomach started to protest, she set the brush aside.
"You know, if you ever change your mind and come with us to London, you could easily pursue the career of an artist," Roxton stated admiringly when she called him to look at the finished portrait. Young Lady Roxton looked exactly like her photograph, only much more vivid with colours Veronica had carefully chosen. The hunter felt an overwhelming wave of tenderness towards the younger woman. "Do you think I can keep it?" he almost pleaded and was happy when the portraitist merely smiled and nodded.
"Veronica? Are you at home? May I please go up?"
An unexpected call from below the Treehouse roused Roxton. Leaning over the balcony railing he easily spotted a small, dark-haired woman just outside the electric fence.
"Hello Asaai! Yes, Veronica is here. Come in, I´ll send the elevator down!"
Roxton helped Veronica to move from the balcony to the living room, as they both listened to the squeeky waltz of the ropes and pulleys. They both felt delighted at Asaai´s arrival that broke the monotony of the past week, however as soon as the Zanga woman stepped out of the elevator and they saw her mournful expression all their good mood disappeared.
"Veronica, Lord Roxton," she addressed them and fell silent, as if unsure of how to continue.
"What happened?" asked Veronica, feeling her heart beating more rapidly with each second. Sometimes was wrong. Very wrong.
"Are the others here?" Asaai finally broke her silence, hoping somehow that she was mistaken in her assumptions.
The simple word hang in the air as an impending doom. Asaai, pale and uneasy, without saying anything more reached into a colourful traveling bag by her side.
"A trader came to the Zanga this morning, bringing many curious things. Me and the other women went to look at what he offered. He is not unknown in our village, although he is not a favourite. Everybody knows he often buys things from the slave traders, things that they have no use of. Today he had these included in his merchandise."
Veronica´s heart may have been beating madly, but Lord Roxton felt his own heart stop for a moment. Right there in front of him, laid out carefully on the table, covered with dust and and dried jungle dirt, there were Finn´s boots and Marguerite´s hat.