Her mouth is still warm from kissing that anvil salesman, her nose still full of his vile aftershave, the smell lingering on the cool July air, her chin stinging slightly from his rude stubble. The world gone all blurry before her eyes and rippling under her feet. The wind knocked out of her, leaving her in an utter daze, tongue heavy. Chest heavy. A sense of trepidation rising in her throat.
"Who do you think you're protecting? That guy's got a girl in every county in Illinois, and he's taken it away from every one of 'em! And that's 102 counties! Not counting the piano teachers like you he cozies up to, to keep their mouths shut!"
She barely hears the four gentlemen of the school board singing as they walk on by, their once-squabbling voices arranged in perfect harmony.
"Lida Rose, I'm home again, I'm home again, Rose, without a sweetheart to my name..."
That was Harold Hill, too…
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees them lift their hats in greeting to her. She doesn't turn her heard in response; it doesn't register.
Their tuneful melody fades away as her mother's own shrill voice pierces the bubble, her heavy tread accompanied by the door swinging shut behind her.
"Marian-Marian! Marian, dear, who was you talkin' to just-"
She pauses. Out of the corner of her eye Marian sees her mother's concerned expression melt into something warm.
"Why, Professor Hill!"
"When may I call?" His voice suave as ever, with only a hint of curiosity threaded through the question.
As if he knows what her answer will be.
The blush on her neck as she looks up into his eyes threatens to consume her cheeks in shades of scarlet.
Her breath catches in her throat as she responds, something hot thudding insistently in her chest, feeling braver than she is-
"Why, any night this week."
Marian turns her head suddenly toward the street to see him in his impeccable white suit, hair combed just so. That wily glint in his eye belying any guise of innocence he might try to slip into. What could only be impure intentions sliding from beneath the mask of benevolence. Meant for her eyes only. That heat on her lips she can only anticipate from this distance. Everything.
His deep voice tickles her spine. "Mrs. Paroo! The top a' the evening!"
He climbs one of the steps and gestures towards her. Approaching. Coiling. She's never felt quite like prey as she does in this moment. Strangely eager prey, in part. Prey with misgivings. Hesitation. "Miss Marian-"
This is how it happens. In the books-this is-
She lets out a sigh of relief, crosses her hands in front of her, looks down at her shoes as her mother interjects. "You and Marian come up and set. I-I've-I've got some jelly on the stove."
Marian breathes in sharply, eyes widening, feeling more like a child than she should. As if wishing her mother would shoo him away. Give her an excuse to come back inside, close the door in Harold's face-more time, more time-
"There's no jelly on the stove, Mama-"
It's a weak attempt, and they all know it.
Her mother sighs, martyr-like, leans in towards her. Meaning abundantly clear. "Well, I'll put some on."
"I was talkin' about that stranger-with a suitcase, who may be your very last chance-"
The door closes once more, and then it's just the two of them. He steps up until he is right before her. Eyes narrowed confidently, that ever-present smirk on his face.
"Shall we 'set,' as your mother said?"
Her hands lacing together in front of her as she looks away, down at her shoes, the grass in the yard, anything. Cloaking that nervous twist in her gut with something approaching an appropriate demureness. Her head airless as she turns away from him.
She can feel him stepping in closer behind her. Growing closer. Cornering her. Catlike. Licking his lips, doubtless.
It's so delicious and painful that it damn near threatens to tear her into pieces.
She swallows a shiver as he cuts her off. "You did ask me to call, remember..."
"I have some wonderful caramels back at the hotel-"
"It's all right-I know everything, and it doesn't make any difference-"
"I'll only be in town a short time, and-the sadder, but wiser girl for me..."
His invitation-and meaning-too clear. Too bright before her eyes now, gasping like stars. It's too easy. Too tender. She's nearly at a loss.
Of course. This is what he meant-this man, with his-his women-and what that anvil salesman said-he-
She manages to eke out a quiet string of useless syllables. "Did I...?" Her breath stilling. "I didn't mean anything-"
She senses a change in him as his voice is overlaid with a veneer of seriousness. "Oh now, Miss Marian, I'm not suggesting your invitation inferred anything but academic enlightenment."
As if to say it was all my own assumption-
As she turns around to face him, her brow wrinkling in confusion, she realizes her mistake as his eyes meet hers cunningly. Like a mouse entranced by a cobra, all motions ceased. Heart stopping as he smiles gently, lifting his hand to tap at his forehead. "The Think System? I've been by your house a time or two to try to explain it to you this week, but there always seemed to be people around-mostly ladies, I thought..."
Before she's realized it, he's shifted again. Ever closer. His chest a mere inch or two from her shoulder, his arm reaching behind her to grasp the porch column. Encasing her bit by bit. His keen eyes boring into her cheek. Focusing in with precision, as if she's the only thing he's ever wanted to look at, to study, at close range.
She can feel his breath on her neck and everything is wrong, wrong, wrong once more-and yet-
Of course-he couldn't have meant anything but that-
But-with the ladies there-why couldn't he have-
She dips her head slightly in acknowledgement. "Yes-Mrs. Squires and several of the other ladies..."
She bites back a damned sigh- where it comes from, she cannot bear to think- as his voice caresses her ear. Timbre rich. Velvety. "I'm glad."
She feels him lean in a mite closer and prays uselessly for something. His voice growing soft and almost intimate as he continues. Raindrops pattering on a window.
"I wouldn't want anybody beating my time."
She hopes that he doesn't see the slight weakness in her knees when he talks this way. A way she doesn't understand-but she is beginning to, and oh, it's so much and she's reminded of how she is-oh, she could understand-it's nothing he hasn't said-implied-before-
"And a fella would know that his darling had heard every word of his song in the moonlight..."
He's studying her again. Intently. Listening to her shallow breathing. No doubt comprehending in some small way. Knowing. Like he is. Has. Always must have-reading her so plainly and clearly-
He pulls away, a lightness coating his tone. Something like surprise at her manner, her sudden reticence, but of course, he should know, he should understand-after all, if what that anvil salesman said is true-
"Well, it's evidently not the convenient evening. I'll see you later at the sociable."
"Guy's got a girl in every county in Illinois-"
Something snaps inside of her as he turns away and glides down the steps of the porch. She feels herself following, hears herself nearly crying out, breathless, near-frantic:
"Professor Hill, is it true that you've had a hundred-"
The blank look on his face stops her in her tracks. Makes her realize what a mess the whole thing is. She doesn't want to know-she can't know. Not when she's practically an old maid and he must be-well, experienced-
She can't bear to think of it. Not asking the question allows her to straddle that line. Of it being true and not true. Of her being significant and not so. Of something inside her being wasted.
She clasps her hands in front of her once more, looking down at nothing in particular, trying to keep the sob out of her voice.
"What I'm trying to say is-"
"Yes?" All cocked head and concerned tone. He's there again. His mouth by her neck. Close. Too close. Not enough-he's kissed her once before, her cheek blooming with the feel of his mouth for what felt like hours-but this just makes her want to weep-to run back into her mother's arms and heave out wails of loss, of fear, of the knowledge that this is all a game to him-she is-
She turns towards him quickly. "I was wondering-"
He's closer than she thought, his red mouth quirking into a smile and wise eyes brimming with chaos, and she feels her breath stop.
Her gaze shifting downward, delicate, polite—then fixating on his lips. His eyes still searching her as she turns away.
"-how-you developed the Think System."
Veering away from this course of action. Retreating. Safer within herself, talking about something nonsensical.
"The Think System?" he repeats gently, thoughtlessly, as if slightly lost in something.
"Oh-the Think System!"
She turns to face him once more as his voice grows appropriately professorial. His gaze lifts to some fixed point off in the distance. Searching for the right words.
"Well, it's quite simple, really-it's as simple as-as whistling."
She cannot help looking at his mouth again as he continues, lowering his gaze to rest on her face once more. Warming her cheeks. Behind her ears. Everything. A gleam in his eyes.
"Now, no-one had to develop any elaborate technique for whistling." He lifts his hand to his forehead again. "You simply think the tune up here," he says seriously, tapping his head, "and it comes out clearly here." His finger floats before those lips, drawing her to them once more.
He leans in, imperceptibly closer, her heart going all wrecked and ruined as he whistles some familiar notes to a song, his breath playing on her mouth, fresh and caramel and oh, my, things get all ruddy and unclear again, something unruly swirling around her, around them, something sweet flitting through her mind as his finger touches her chin. "I don't suppose you'd try it yourself...?"
His lips are a hair's breadth from hers, that being curling and uncurling in her chest nearly purring when the anvil salesman's unwelcome words ring in her ear, cruelly and clear like bells-
"Not counting the piano teachers like you he cozies up to, to keep their mouths shut!"
She pulls away, brushes past him, cheeks ablaze, voice breaking softly, feeling the rooted earth of the garden beneath her shoes, a blessing, sanity. "I'll take your word for it." Retreating into the rosebushes. Safety. The knowledge of what must be true, awful and red and raw, raking itself across her lungs.
She hears him approach from behind, this time keeping a safe distance. "Why don't we all sit down?"
No trace of embarrassment at a failed kiss-no, he only moving on to the next attempt. To be sitting beside her. His hand moving to her cheek. His other hand-she swallows hard thinking of it-moving, most rudely, to lie on her knee-
She cannot hide how broken she feels when her voice issues dully from her lips. "Are all music teachers as dense as I am?" Because whatever game he's been playing-he's won it. And it's sickening, this feeling. Of her heart not being within her own body, but fluttering in someone else's hand-someone like him-
All of the women-the others-in Illinois, everywhere-and the ones that will surely come after-
She feels him step closer once more, as she tries to make herself move away. Can't. A numbness flooding her sense as his voice, too careful, too gentlemanly, winds around her ears:
"All music teachers?"
Questioning. Tentative, curious, as if she has moved one chess piece too soon, too far ahead of him, before he could have contemplated the next angle of strategy.
An undercurrent of bitterness stains her tongue as she responds. "I daresay you've met dozens, maybe even a hundred." Like she's closing off. Reverting. Remembering the disdain she once felt for him, covering up something softer and sadder. It's so easy to remember, to drape herself like this-
"Well-" she hears him begin, a witty bantering return no doubt percolating rapidly in his mind, as she cuts him off, feeling heartless and cold. She turns towards him abruptly, a stick of ice piercing her heart through her back.
"Have they all been as fascinated as I with-the Think System?"
His hands are on his hips, his eyebrows raised, still trying to understand, doubtless—this new-old distance she's trying to create between them—and he really doesn't know?—he couldn't possibly not know—what I mean—
He cocks his head almost benignly, and she is reminded of how much older than she he must be. Not only in years, surely—but in things—like experiences—things she doesn't know, only seen in pages of books hidden beneath her bed as a child, now propped up on bookshelves, being thumbed through by the town youths—things she's studied, yes, but not known—
She feels impossibly small. She turns away from him once more, the words trailing off her weak tongue.
His voice is smooth as ever. Unruffled. Always an explanation for everything. "Well—some more and some less." His voice picks up, confident, as he continues speaking to her unresponsive back.
"Now, one young lady thought up the same system before I got to her town—she showed me a few refinements."
She doesn't want to think of what this means, a mean, pinched feeling rising within her, flooding her veins—of course, of course there were others—this other he's only just now thinking to mention, countless others—with their endless refinements and such—knowing this man, however—he can't merely mean something so innocent—not this man—
She grasps her skirts and walks further away from him. "I see."
His voice is low, cautious, almost reeling. Uncombed. "Have I said something wrong?"
Now he seems caught off-guard. Evidently she has surprised him with this reaction—not what he expected, surely—surely he would have thought she'd have fallen into his arms, his bed by now—if not now, then long, long ago, like—like the others—
She swallows back something thick and hurting. Knowing what is best and what it is she wants—wants to be true, wants to be a lie—it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter—only that if he stays much longer she'll crumple into some sort of chintzy puddle.
"Please don't let me keep you, Professor Hill. You must have many more important things to do than explain the Think System to me." Her mouth tastes salty and sour as she folds her hands in front of her, clasping them tightly. Shoulders bowed. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for him to give up at last—to walk away, to take his endless words and light steps away with him—to confirm these things eating away at her, a kindness, perhaps—sparing her more trouble, more torment than he's already caused her—
His voice grows louder as he approaches her, a jolt quivering through her as his hands grasp her arms, burning her through her sleeves. "No, but can't think of a one," he replies, earnest as ever and she wants to scream—"now, come on and let's sit down-"
She daren't move. Daren't grow soft at this touch—this—this unasked-for, yet confidently given, she, taken like this—his grip gentle, needling—
"I must be very dull company for a man of your—" the word flickers past her lips before she can stop it—"experience."
He pauses and pulls his hands away; she pictures his eyebrows lifting again in query, he knowing—knowing that she knows what she knows—suspects—she knows she's made herself as clear as she can. There it is, that filthy word, that word that describes everything he is and everything she isn't—his excitement, his charm—her reticence and quiet fear.
He almost sounds offended—the audacity—as he fires back, "now say—wherever'd you get an idea like that?"
She imagines him scrambling for cover, burying himself in that awkward chuckle that, even to her ears, sounds false.
"One hears rumors about traveling salesmen."
"Oh—now, Miss Marian, you mustn't believe everything you hear—" she turns her head slightly, sees him lifting out a hand towards her, finger pointed and scolding gently as an adult would a child—
"Why, after all, one even hears rumors about librarians."
It is as if he has slapped her back into cold consciousness. She whirls around, mind racing—how could he possibly know about what the ladies say—it isn't his to know, not theirs—it's not even the truth—
That bitter, bitter story—to think he's believed that—that nonsense—that awful, awful lie-
"I presume you're referring to Uncle Maddy." She injects a tartness into her voice—scolding, scalding scorn as she studies him, him and his smugness, thinking he knows anything about her, anything at all about her in this way-
-dear Uncle Maddy, who was never anything but kind to her, wise and old and strange, never anything like what they believe, never, never, never like that-
It evidently catches him by surprise, as he repeats, shock coloring that baritone, "Uncle Maddy?"
Fury erupts within her, a short, choppy rage tearing through everything, threatening to turn the whole world to discarded embers. Indignant—the anger of the righteous, of the wronged—as I surely have been by this whole affair—
"The sadder, but wiser girl for me…"
The thought pricks her, needlelike. He's only been chasing me because of the rumors—
-that—that he thinks I'm—I'm like him—in any way-
"Mister Madison—my father's best friend—no matter what they say, he left that library job to me so that Mother and Winthrop and I could have some security—"
Her voice catches on itself against her will, something fresh like a wave of tears brimming behind her somehow-steely gaze as she regards him, he caught off-guard like this, a wrinkle etching itself into his brow, into his game. "Surely you don't believe—"
He lifts his hands in front of himself in a gesture of appeasement, voice soft and smooth once more. Confident, untangled. In tune. "No, no, no, no, no, no—of course not, but that's what I'm saying! Now, why do you suppose people start those rumors?"
A million thoughts fly through her head, each catching, glancing off, light. "Narrow-mindedness! Jealousy!" She turns away from him sharply, feeling her eyes well up, crackling brightly, hands shaking by her sides. "—jealousy, I guess…"
"Exactly!" he crows, relief in his voice palpable. "And jealousy mostly starts rumors about traveling salesmen!"
The strangeness of his words catching her off guard. She turns back to face him, confusion tearing through her, breath escaping, leaving her strangely light-headed. What can he possibly mean—does he think I'm a fool? Jealousy—of traveling salesmen—what a thought—
Out of the corner of her eye, she sees it. A strange stillness embedding itself in him. Uncertainty flickering across his features as he approaches her slowly. Tentatively. Looking for all the world like he is moving towards something beautiful and fragile. Something he fears, his eyes suddenly wide and unsure—it is utterly unfamiliar to her, this look on his face. Foreign. Cutting.
His voice is deadly serious as he stands behind her once more, she feeling his closeness. Wishing she could wrap herself in it. Wishing she could tear it to pieces.
"…what have you heard?"
As if he cannot anticipate her answer. As if this is something, with all of his meticulous planning and crafting of every aspect of their interactions, that he did not plan for. Something seemingly vulnerable. Open. As if she is holding something of his in turn.
"He's got a girl in every county in Illinois, and he's taken it away from every one of 'em!"
She takes a deep breath, feeling it catch in her chest, all torn and ragged, trying to layer a coy air into her voice. Nonchalance. "Oh—oh, nothing about you personally—just, you know, generally."
His voice matches hers, note for note. Humoring her. "Well-what have you heard generally?"
She turns to face him, searching out the planes of his face for something she can hold onto. More than that glimmer she'd heard only moments earlier—that her opinion of him was suddenly of gravest importance to him. What she thought—the sudden gravity in his manner—
She takes a deep, quavery breath.
"Just that—but of course, it stands to reason that—that disappointment and jealousy can lead to—well, take you for instance—your attentions to customers and—well—teachers—might be easily misconstrued, now, mightn't they?" She is sputtering now, leaking like a water-pump, words gasping from between her lips artlessly, hopelessly, waiting for him to say something, anything to console her, to assure her that it's not what she thinks, no, no, that it can't be—
His hands, his clever hands, press against his chest in a show of affront.
"—I mean, now, honestly—mightn't they?"
He looks utterly baffled as he tries to speak. "Why…"
She's talking too quickly now, the strange syllables she's not sure she wholly believes tripping off her tongue and into the night air. "And—as you say—if another salesman or somebody were jealous-why, they could be downright lies, now, couldn't they?"
"What could?" He leans in towards her, looking down at her almost fondly.
"Rumors and things!" Her voice several pitches of desperation too high for her liking.
She sees him understand, lift his arms briefly in some graceful gestural motion. "Why, of course."
She feels a crinkle in her forehead as she finds herself prattling on, hoping to drown out any last doubts, anything, if only to be able to return to the prior day—even to earlier that evening, when she was so sure—sure, afraid, but sure that this was what she wanted, not just for Winthrop but something for herself as well—
"It just proves you should never believe everything you hear, doesn't it? I mean, if you just discuss things—"
The softness in his voice—the sudden resurgence of that familiar hunger in his eyes—leaves her breathless.
"Miss Marian, I would be delighted to discuss anything in the world with you."
The humming of crickets in time with the sudden thrumming in her chest—she can't help but look up at him, lips pressed together to prevent something awful and romantic from slipping past her lips. Something silly and girlish to a man who could only want anything but.
"I love you madly, madly, Madam Librarian—Marian!"
His tone grows wry, playful, his gaze never leaving hers. "But couldn't we do it sitting down?"
Despite herself, she smiles. Something in her chest unclenches and warms her from within.
"You do sit? Your knees bend and all?" She almost laughs aloud as he bends and straightens his knees in rapid succession.
"We could sit on the steps, I suppose." She begins to turn and lead him there, then bites back a startled noise as she feels his hand snag in the crook of her arm.
Though the gauzy sleeves she feels callouses on his hands, and then feels wholly strange—like she is thinking of things she's read in books and not felt properly, but to feel something like this now, with this man, of all the men in the world-
"We could also sit on a large hollow log over the footbridge."
Panic suddenly seeps into her veins, voice disgustingly wobbly as she replies, feeling once more like that poor mouse, hypnotized by the charms of the swaying cobra. Like she is walking ever deeper into a pool of water where she cannot see the bottom, ripples closing higher and higher above her head.
He couldn't mean—could he? Of course he could—if he knows about the footbridge, he surely knows what happens at the footbridge?
A memory of her sitting on that porch as a young girl in her best dress drops behind her eyelids, unbidden. Silklike. A memory of waiting. Waiting and wanting—like the other girls—an invitation like this. An invitation never coming. Years of waiting. Knowing—praying—that if a boy were to ask her to the footbridge—that she'd be ready and not—not rendered speechless and frightened and confused and desiring—and not knowing what to do with such a desire—
-not like this-
"Oh—no, I couldn't do that—I've never been to the footbridge with a man in my life."
"Just to talk." But that gleam in his eyes—
A melody floats on the air. "Lida Rose… oh, won't you be mine?"
Perhaps she is imagining it. All of it. This. It's too much, and yet—
-something within her is yearning, and all she can think to do is run and hide.
"I've got to dress for the sociable." Rabbitlike, she finds herself darting past him, moving up the steps of the porch, heart in her mouth. As if she could go inside. As if being inside her room, her home, where things are simple and make sense and she doesn't have to acknowledge that—by god—that she is a woman—with all of the strange, womanly things she doesn't know but wonders about—what she would like to know, in some shameful way—
-what he could show her, if she would only let him-
He follows her up, fleet of foot, hovering before her like some cruel vision. His features so tempting and downright enthralling—menacing-in their implications, in the subtext carved into the lines of his face. "Then meet me there in fifteen minutes."
She lifts her hands between them, palms clasped together as if she is in church. "Oh, no-I can't—please—some other time—maybe tomorrow?" But she is stalling, plainly and inelegantly, and he knows it. Stalling him. Stalling herself, digging in her heels stubbornly. Stalling some inevitability she ought to have foreseen the evening she met him.
"Please." The sound is a useless afterthought, and her breathing is surely shallow and weak enough for him to hear it.
She looks back up at him and finds him regarding her with that look of wisdom, of knowledge of so many things, worldly things, once again. As if it will only take a few words to tip her over that edge—she knows it and he knows it. "Oh, my dear little librarian—you pile up enough tomorrows and you'll find you've collected nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don't know about you, but I'd like to make today worth remembering."
She feels herself melting on the spot, her vision growing all hazy and blurry with the thought of it. Her knees weak, stomach aflutter like all of the girls in the books. "Oh-so would I…"
But this is not a book. This is real.
He quirks an eyebrow, lifts a finger, barely brushes her cheek as his eyes bore into hers. "The footbridge. Fifteen minutes."
"Fifteen minutes." As if she could say anything else—as if there could possibly be anything else.
She barely notices him disappear into the night, all of the air being let out of her slowly like a bellows press until there is nothing left—nothing of ice, nothing of stone or wood but flesh—flesh and confusion and something like sureness-
The footbridge. She finds she is woozy, drunk on the mere thought of it—what his kiss might feel like, those lips against hers in a way that isn't forced or false but shared—
-other things like that—
"Mama!" That little-girl feeling, that blush, that sudden fear of him, of herself, of everything she's done and hasn't done, the things he has done and would surely do to her if she would only let him—let him in-makes her nearly scream out the word as if it is the middle of the night, a bad, bad dreaming lingering in her mind's eye.
Her mother bursts through the door as if she has been leaning on it all night, pale face aghast. "What?"
She is shaking; her mother lifts an arm to steady her. When she speaks, her voice jumbles out in a high-pitched rush, like she can hardly understand what she is saying—as if the abstract quality of it all has finally snapped into scorching reality. "I just told Professor Hill I'd meet him at the footbridge in fifteen minutes!"
Her mother, however, has never looked more relieved. "Glory be and the saints be praised—it works!"
"What works?" Marian cries out before she can stop herself, wanting to wring her hands like some poor wretched maiden-to lock herself away somewhere safe, bury herself under coverlets and quilts—someplace she can loose this impossible, dangerous feeling from her body-
"I been usin' the Think System on you from the parlor!"
As her mother ushers her inside roughly, she feeling like a rag doll caught in the midst of a thousand strong winds, Marian Paroo cannot help but take a deep, shuddering breath, knowing—thinking, dreaming, believing—that perhaps, perhaps, everything will fall into place.