"Tears are not love and laughter is not love. A head on a shoulder is not love and messages written at the front of books given as gifts are not love. Apathy is not love and numbness is not love. A pain in your chest is not love and clenching your fist is not love. Rain is not love.
"Only you. Only you, are love."
1. Students must stand up to answerquestions and wait to be given permission to speak.
2. Students must call teachers 'Sir' or 'Ma'am'.
3. Students must stand when an adult enters the room.
4. Students must wear clean shoes and clothes.
5. Students must sit and stand with straight backs.
6. Students must use the right hand at all times for writing.
7. Students must wear their hair tied back with string or plain ribbon.
8. Students must not speak unless spoken to.
9. Students must not put their hand up unless told they can do.
10. Students must not ask questions.
11. Jewellery is forbidden.
12. Students who truant, are late, behave badly, have poor table manners or do poor work will be caned.
13. Talking and fidgeting during classes will be punished.
14. Counting on fingers is forbidden.
15. At night, students must retire to their separate beds and stay there until they hear the signal for breakfast.
16. Students may not wander out of the garden during recess.
17. Students may not waste food.
18. Students may not read novels.
19. Desks are checked for tidiness every week.
The hallways of the Messina School for Girls are still, the air filled with nothing but the gentle snores of slumbering students. You peer up at the cavernous ceiling and will sleep to come to you, to no avail. Turning on your side in the darkness, you begin counting up to one hundred- a method that has always worked at home. But, as you soon learn, it has little effect in this strange new place.
It is because of this restlessness that you hear the footsteps, cat-like in their stealth. You can tell from the soft rustle of cloth against floor that the girl is clad in only stockings and her nightgown. The footsteps move ever closer, and you allow yourself a small smile before the bed dips and she clambers in.
"Meg," you whisper, "You cannot stay here tonight; we'll be caught."
You are certain your friend will laugh and toss her head at your words, but instead, she merely wraps her arms around your waist and sighs.
Taken aback, you ask, "Is anything the matter?"
After a few seconds, Meg nods reluctantly.
"I miss home terribly," she admits. "You, my dear Freddie, are the only one here who is not a stranger."
You soften much too quickly at her tone. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Allow me to stay here, just for tonight?" Meg asks, looking up at you hopefully.
You can hear the vulnerability in her voice; hear how the girl in your arms now is so different from the bright and shining creature the world sees as Margaret Winter. Somehow, that thought breaks your heart.
"Just for tonight, if it helps you sleep."
You try to sound unwilling, but you are not certain it works. After all, you like having Meg here- familiar and close and warm and safe, her cheek smooth against the crook of your neck- and you think she knows that.
Your friend is already drifting off, her breaths steadier and her heartbeat slower.
"Thank you," Meg whispers.
You wake Meg as the sun is rising. Thankfully, none of the other students have risen early. She leaves you with a small wave and a smile. You turn onto your side and wrap the blanket more tightly around yourself. The bed suddenly feels much too cold.
Your first proper day at Messina is rather uneventful. Much of the time is spent following directions. You sit when you are instructed to sit, stand when you are instructed to stand, and eat when you are instructed to eat.
At least there's some sort of order to events, even if the school still feels strange to you. The schedule goes like this: After breakfast, the new girls (at fifteen years of age, you are one of the eldest in that group) get a tour of the school. Then there are classes, which are interesting enough, you suppose. Lunch and recess follow, during which you stay by Meg's side and avoid eye contact with the other girls. After recess is more classes and supper, and after supper is Bible reading, and finally, right now, it is time to wash and go to bed.
Yawning slightly, you change into your nightgown and slip under the covers. An hour or so later, as you are beginning to fall asleep, you hear footsteps headed in your direction. In your pillow, you hide a secret smile.
"Freddie," Meg whispers, breath warm against your ear, "Can I sleep here again? Just for one more night?"
"Just for one more night," you murmur, and move over to make room for her.
"Just for one more night" soon becomes "just for the first week," which then becomes "my mattress isn't soft enough," or "it's warmer here, Freddie," or "the girl in the bed next to mine snores dreadfully loudly, please take pity on me!" And then, eventually, Meg stops making up excuses, and you stop asking for them.
You cannot sleep tonight. It has been well over an hour since the girls all went to bed, and Meg still has not made an appearance. Perhaps she wants privacy. Or maybe she has somehow fallen asleep.
The bed creaks as you lower yourself to the ground. You make the rest of your way to your friend as carefully and quietly as you can.
"Meg?" you whisper.
Not asleep, then.
"Yes, it's me. Do you want my company tonight?"
Meg shrugs, but she sits up and moves over to make room for you.
As soon as you are safely seated on her bed, you start.
"What were you thinking?"
Your friend refuses to answer.
"You're lucky Mrs. Richards didn't give you more lashes; remember that poor girl last week?"
Meg scowls at her still red-marked palms. "I meant every word I said! It is ridiculous that students in this school aren't allowed to ask questions if they're confused! We're supposed to be here to learn, not be lectured at! I think we ought to run away, just to teach them a lesson."
This last sentence is accompanied by a toss of Meg's hair and a haughty sniff.
Holding back a laugh, you say, "Yes, I know, but shouting at Mrs. Richards in the middle of class doesn't make a whit of difference, does it?"
Meg's scowl deepens.
"I cannot say you surprised me, though. Remember that time last year when we went out to town by ourselves and ran into Mrs. Aaron-"
Your friend's eyes spark immediately- "-and she told me the hem of my dress wasn't long enough?"
You nod. "I am nearly certain that, had I not dragged you away, you would have struck her across the face right there, and in front of her husband, too!"
Meg is giggling by now, which you take as a good sign. "I did shout at her quite a bit, though."
"But your mother was so angry at you when Mrs. Aaron told her-"
"Yes, untilyou told her thatMrs. Aaron must have been mistaken, that you were the one who had been 'insolent' to her and that the poor old woman's eyesight needed repairing. Remember?"
You had, but you didn't think Meg would. "Of course."
She giggles again. "Who would ever think that Winifred Kingston, prim and proper little lady, could fib?"
"I'm only prim and proper around adults!" you protest.
Meg shakes her head.
"We both know you're prim and proper around your cousins and the girls at school, too," she says, her tone teasing. "I am afraid, my dear, that I may be the only one in the whole wide world who knows your true identity. Do you trust me to keep it a secret?"
I would trust you with anything.
"Perhaps," you reply, as lightly as you can, and quickly turn your face away.
You are in Mrs. Richard's class again, a few weeks after the incident, when you see Meg narrow her eyes at something the teacher says. You wait and hope she does not try to ask a question again. The frustration in her eyes is obvious, but her hands stay still.
Mrs. Richard turns around to write something on the board, and you take the moment to touch Meg's arm.
"I'll explain it to you during recess," you whisper, and she gives you a nod and a startled smile.
When Meg visits you tonight, she is clutching a very thin book in her hand.
"A romance," she explains when you ask. "Hero- the kind girl, the one who eats her meals at the table next to ours, remember? She lent it to me."
You are almost certain that such books are forbidden at Messina, but you've broken enough rules in the past few years to stop caring. Besides, you're curious.
"Is it any good?"
Meg shrugs. "I haven't begun it yet. I thought we could read it together."
She opens to the first page, and both of you lean over the book simultaneously. The lack of any light besides the moon makes it difficult to distinguish the words, but you manage to make do.
It does not take you long to decide that the book is not particularly well-written, nor are the characters interesting. It tells the tale of two men trying to win the hand of a fair heiress. One of the men is honorable and handsome, but poor, and the other is despicable and ugly, but rich. The personality-less woman is treated more as a prize than a person, and it is obvious which man will "win her." The only redeeming factor, you think, is that the book is short. And also that the love letters the poor suitor writes to the lady are actually well-written. Meg seems to think so too, judging by the way she sighs at some of the more heartbreaking lines.
The climax of the novel occurs at a dance hosted by the rich suitor. Everything ends as expected, with the girl rejecting the rich suitor and running out into the rain, where the poor suitor proposes to her with a gloriously poetic speech. She accepts, and the novel ends with their wedding.
"And so Mrs. and Mr. Jonathan Bretton lived out the rest of their lives together," you read. "The end."
Meg closes the book and turns to you. "What did you think?"
"It was a bit silly."
Meg grins. "I think so, too. If only my life were half as exciting, though!"
"Wouldn't you get tired after a while?"
"Perhaps. Though I do wish someone would love me just as much as our handsome suitor does his lady. Imagine if I had someone say such wonderful things to me!" Meg brings a hand to her forehead and falls back on the bed in an exaggerated swoon.
You don't know if it's your sleepiness that makes you say, "I could," but your friend just shakes her head and laughs.
"I meant someone wholoves me romantically, dear Freddie."
Thankfully, your lips do not betray you this time. You nod, ignore the roiling feeling in your stomach, and set that awful romance down on the ground.
It is halfway through a grammar lesson the first time you turn your head to look at Meg and find that she is looking at you.
Meg turns away immediately, face flushing scarlet, but you can still remember how her eyes looked in that one second, a look that makes your skin tingle and your heart thud and your veins flood with hope because what if...
You and Meg have just finished reading another romance (Hero, it seems, has quite a collection) when she taps you on the arm.
"Erm. Freddie..." Meg says, her voice unusually tentative, "the people in these novels seem to place a great deal of importance on physical appearances… do they not?"
"Do you find that strange?"
If it weren't for the slight edge of desperation in her voice, you probably would have answered Meg's query with a shrug, but instead, you think a little.
"Now that you mention it, yes."
Some of the tension seems to seep out of Meg's shoulders.
"Many of the people in these stories fall in love just because a lady is fair or a gentleman is handsome…" you muse, "I haven't the faintest idea how that happens."
Your friend nods quickly. "Yes, exactly. I can admire a person's beauty, the same way I admire a bouquet of flowers or a painting, but I don't know how a… a gentleman being handsome could make me desire him. What about you?"
Meg waits for your response with anxious eyes.
"I feel the same." Doesn't everyone? "Perhaps that will change when we are older, though?"
Meg lets out a relieved breath before shaking her head. "I… I don't think so."
You shrug. "Maybe not."
You are woken by Meg shouting, "Merry Christmas, Freddie!" into your ear and yanking your blanket away.
"Is this to become a tradition now?" you mumble, rubbing your bleary eyes, "You, pulling me out of bed on Christmas Day when I'm barely awake?"
"Did I do this last Christmas here as well?"
"Well then, a tradition it is," Meg declares, and then leans down to peck you on the cheek. "Come on, we have to get to church soon and I'd like to eat breakfast first."
The only thing you can think about throughout the service is the memory of Meg's lips on your skin.
"Freddie, will we ever learn to dance here?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
Meg gestures at the just-finished volume in her hands. "It seems that nearly every one of these books features a ball."
"Have you ever learned to dance?"
"No, but I've watched other people."
"Will you show me what you saw?"
"Okay," you reply, as casually as you can.
Climbing out of bed, you shiver as your feet touch the ground. Meg follows.
"Well, you see…"
Extending your arms out to accommodate your imaginary partner, you take a few awkward steps, back-back-left-front-front-right-repeat. Meg watches with intent eyes, and you stumble a little on the last step.
"Um. The fox trot, if I remember correctly. D-do you want to try?"
Meg nods, reaching out and placing a tentative hand on your shoulder. You rest a steady (you hope) hand on her waist and take her free hand in yours.
"Imagine you are walking along the perimeter of a square," you whisper. "The steps are forward-forward-right-back-back-left. If you're having trouble, just follow my lead."
Your friend has some difficulty with the dance at first, but she catches on quickly. After the first few minutes, Meg's clumsy movements become somewhat graceful. She moves in time, her hand no longer clutching your shoulder, just resting there.
It's... nice. So nice that it feels like a dream.
Not because of your proximity to Meg, or at least, not exactly. You have held Meg's hand before; you have been this close to Meg before, much closer than this, in fact. But somehow, this feels different, knowing that this is something almost completely reserved for men and women, not girls and girls.
Meg seems completely unaware of this, or if she is aware, it doesn't seem to matter to her. Her smile is brighter than you have ever seen. She looks absolutely joyous, a creature made out of light, and although you have never understood love at first sight, you think any gentleman passing by could see Meg, and love her immediately. You know you would.
A rustling sound from a nearby bed yanks you out of your train of thought and sends the both of you scampering back to your bed. You spend the rest of the night in a state of half disappointment, half relief, until you finally fall asleep.
"Freddie, what are you doing?"
You hastily cover the notes you have taken with your arm, noting that you'll probably have to wash ink out of your skin tonight, but that is not your first priority right now.
"Just… working. On a paper."
Meg peers at the book open on the desk before you get the chance to cover that with your other arm.
"You're writing a paper… on a love poem. By Christopher Marlowe."
You nod vigorously.
Meg raises an eyebrow. "I don't remember Mr. Hobbes assigning us that."
"Ah, it's… it's a…" you flounder. "A… special project?"
Meg still looks doubtful. "Can I read it?"
Meg frowns but doesn't question you any further. You let out a sigh of relief as she walks away, and continue copying down the first verse of "Ignoto."
You've rehearsed what you're going to say and do so many times that fragments of your plan appear in your thoughts even when you're not thinking about Meg. Step one, wait for Meg until she is in your bed, has already been completed, so now it's time for step two.
You take a deep breath.
Should I move farther from Meg for this?
"How… How do you see me?"
Meg frowns. "What do you mean?"
"Like, as an acquaintance, a friend, a close friend, a sister… or a…" lover?
"I… I don't think any of those terms are quite accurate, Freddie," she says, and then, "Why?"
Of course Meg would give you a response you don't know how to answer.
"I… Because the way I regard you… is…" (you swallow) "different from friendship. I think."
Meg looks properly confused, and you squeeze your eyes shut so you won't have to see the disgust that will likely be making its way across her features in a few seconds.
"I think I… love- am in love with you, the… the way a man would be in love with a woman. Romantically."
Meg is silent.
"And, I… I don't expect anything from you, of course, and I'm nearly certain you don't feel the same way, but I just wanted to tell you, and I… I hope this doesn't disrupt our friendship. In any way."
Meg is still silent.
You lie in your bed, trembling, eyes still shut, waiting for something to happen.
A slap, even, would be better than this uncertainty.
"I'm here," she replies, voice unusually quiet, and then, instead of slapping you, Meg reaches out and takes one of your hands in hers.
"Freddie," she whispers, "you ridiculous girl, open your eyes."
You obey, stomach churning, and are immediately struck by how close Meg is to you. She looks… sincere, eyes soft and lips curved up in a half-smile. A sliver of hope makes its way into your heart.
"Freddie, you ridiculous girl," Meg says, again, "Freddie, I'm in love with you too."
She loves you. Meg loves you. She loves you she loves you she-
"Oh," is all you say.
You think your heart might explode.
"Meg, a-are you sure?"
Meg laughs, a clear, bright sound that somehow chases away the last of your uncertainty.
"My dear Freddie, when have you ever known me to be unsure?"
You are certain that you can name countless examples, but that's a conversation for another day. Especially seeing that Meg chooses this moment to reach up with the hand that is not holding yours and cup your cheek with it.
You think for a second that she might kiss you, and are about to issue some kind of warning- you're not opposed to the idea, but you'd rather not try it now; but she merely leans forward and presses your foreheads together.
"Is this okay?" Meg asks.
"Yes," you reply, and smile.
Nothing has changed, really, since you told Meg how you feel and she told you how she feels in turn. The two of you don't exchange passionate kisses at night, or have intimate conversations in darkened hallways, or anything else that lovers do in those romance novels the two of you still read sometimes. You talk during recess and in bed like before, nothing more. The only thing that's different, you suppose, is that you're both happier. You know how she feels, and sheknows how you feel, and neither of you have to guard the affection in your eyes anymore.
So, actually, that's not "nothing" at all.
"Freddie, dear," Meg murmurs one night, "What shall we do next month, after I turn eighteen? I know most girls go home to their families, or get married, but I doubt I shall do either."
You pretend to think, when really, you've already mulled over this topic in your mind too many times to count.
"Some students stay on as teachers. We could both stay here together."
You weren't trying to be funny, but Meg laughs anyway. "Wouldn't that be dull?"
You think about the familiarity of Messina now, how you know every nook and cranny of the school, how everything is organized and predictable and easy to control. Dull? Safe would be a better word.
"What would you suggest, then?"
Meg turns over on her back and hums before facing you again.
"We ought to run away," she decides. "No one cares enough to look for us. To Paris, maybe. Or America. I think I'd like Paris better."
"And how do you suggest we get the funds we need to run away?"
"I hadn't thought of that..." Meg hums again. "Perhaps a compromise, then?"
"We can teach here until we have enough money for Paris."
You think over her plan, think about how low a teacher's salary is, think about how hard it will be for two women to make a living in Paris, think about how, even if no one cares very much about either of you, your disappearance most definitely will be noticed. And then you stop thinking.
"Okay," you promise, and kiss her cheek.
"Oh, hello, sir!" Meg exclaims. "You must be the new school inspector. My name is Margaret Winter; I teach French to the upper classes."
"Mr. Fred Boyet," the man says with a smile, bending over to kiss her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
You are lying awake on your bed, staring out the window, when there is a knock on your bedroom door. Your heartbeat quickens immediately. It's been two weeks, at least, since she last had time to visit, but who else could it be at this hour?
You push the door open.
"Freddie, I haven't seen you all day!"
It is her.
Meg sets down her candle and rushes into your arms. Smiling, you press a kiss to her shoulder.
"I'm sorry; I was grading essays and I missed dinner."
You can't see Meg's face, but you are certain she is rolling her eyes. "You were gone yesterday too, though! You work far too hard, Freddie, you must stop, for my sake if not for yours."
Meg untangles herself from your embrace to lie down on your bed. After you join her, she rests her head on your shoulder and wraps the blanket around the both of you.
Leaning into her shoulder you ask, "Was dinner really so dreadful without me?"
"Well, I suppose it was tolerable. I talked to Mr. Boyet for most of it."
"Mr. Boyet? Is he… is he back again?"
Meg frowns. "Yes, haven't you heard?"
"No, I didn't. Did he say why he was back?"
"Something about his employer needing him to check something again, I believe," she says with a shrug.
Meg burrows closer to you. "Freddie?"
"Do you think Mr. Boyet might…"
She shakes her head. "Nevermind."
A few seconds, and then, "Freddie, we're not going to stay trapped here in Messina forever, are we?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
Meg shrugs again. "I don't know. Goodnight, Freddie."
During your time as a student here, the school inspector never visited more than once a year, but this new Fred Boyet (why does he have your name?) has been visiting monthly. You don't know why.
Well, that's a lie. You do know why, but you'd rather not think acknowledge it. Her. Them.
You are sitting in your room, reading a book by candlelight, when Meg rushes in through the door. She is obviously agitated- her cheeks are flushed and her fingers tremble. As she sits down, she refuses to meet your eyes.
Your immediate fear is not helped by the fact that this is the first time you have spoken to Meg in a week.
"Meg, what ever is the matter?" you ask, reaching over and taking both her hands in yours. Meg flinches at the touch, and you move back immediately. A sense of dread coils in your stomach.
"Meg, please, tell me, how can I help you?"
Meg looks up at you briefly before her eyes skate away.
Again, she looks up, and then, as if the sight of you pains her, her gaze darts down to her lap.
You wish desperately to cradle her hands in yours, to hold her close until all the problems in the world leave the both of you behind, until she tells you what is wrong so you can fix it.
Meg squeezes her eyes shut and lets out a breath.
"Mr. Boyet proposed to me," she whispers.
The room is silent, the air suddenly stifling. It feels like the exact moment after something is broken, and all you can do is sit there in shock and disbelief, staring at the shattered pieces on the ground.
Meg glances up at you for the third time today, and something in your expression makes her blanch.
Somehow, you manage to force out a question. "What… what did you say to him?"
Silence greets your words.
She bites her lip, and the last shred of hope you have dissolves.
"Oh," you say, and it sounds so insignificant, this one syllable, but you say it anyway, because how else does one express defeat?
More silence follows, and then...
"I don't love him."
Meg's voice shakes, but it is filled with a steely determination (a steely determination that you've heard before, that you've witnessed directed at other people before, like her parents or Miss Richards or the head girl, but not you, never you). "He is kind, and very good, but I don't love Mr. Boyet one whit. Not the way I love you."
Not the way I love you… I love you…
"Why are you marrying him, then?"
Meg flinches, and you hate yourself for the petty burst of satisfaction it gives you.
"I… I don't want to be trapped in Messina forever. I want to see society; I want to see the world; I want to do something, and that is impossible here."
Of all the reasons...
"Meg, we have vacations for seeing the world. You have your students. You have me. What part of that is not enough?"
You don't realize you're crying until you feel a tear roll down your cheek. Meg makes a movement as if to brush it off for you, and you quickly get out your handkerchief.
"We… we'll still be friends, right?" Meg asks, her voice pleading (and that word, friends, cuts you like a knife). "I promise, I'll visit you whenever I can."
"I… we aren't friends, Meg, we're lovers- but if you plan to m-marry this Mr. Boyet, then of course I would like you to visit me as much as possible, and I would still consider you a very close… acquaintance, but I- I don't know how to answer this question."
You take a breath.
"When is the wedd… When is it scheduled?"
"Spring," Meg says. "Three months later."
"W-will you stay at Messina? Until then?"
You think you are trembling, but you are not certain.
"Meg, do you… do you remember when you promised me that we would run away to Paris?
You swallow. "I… We… we could do it. If- if you wanted."
"It… it would be difficult, of course, but we both know French, and I think we have enough money- well, we definitely have enough money for the train, and I think we could rent an apartment for a few days, at least, and it wouldn't be too difficult to find work; there are schools in France that need English teachers, and it's okay, of course it is, if you'd rather not, because there's a high chance we'll end up beggars or caught but I... I want to. If you do." You conclude this speech with a nervous nod.
Meg is still staring at you, mouth now slightly agape.
"A-are you sure?"
"As in, if I weren't engaged, you still would have wanted this?"
You mean to reply with another "yes," but something about Meg's eyes stop you from uttering the partial falsehood.
"I don't know," you say instead.
Meg gives you a resigned nod. "I thought so."
She rises to leave, and you just barely stop yourself from grabbing her hand to keep her there.
"I… I think we ought to talk about this tomorrow night, when we can both think clearly," Meg says.
"Maybe," you reply, eyes fixed on the ground.
Meg pauses in the doorway.
"Freddie," she whispers, and the way she says your name shouldn't hurt as much as it does- "I'm sorry. Truly."
Stay, you want to tell her, but don't. I love you.
What you do say is "okay."
And maybe you will regret this later, and maybe you will be caught before you reach your destination, and maybe you and Meg will die on the streets or get separated or robbed in an alley but what matters is that here, now, you know you love her and you know you want this.
"Two tickets for the six o'clock train to Paris, please."