Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's
THE LOST WORLD - The Girl Next Door
Author's Note: After nearly five years on the Plateau, only Marguerite and Roxton stay at the treehouse full time. Veronica spends most of her time in Avalon, Ned is still on his walkabout and Challenger travels to London quite often. Today, Roxton and Marguerite have the treehouse to themselves.
The Plateau, 1924
Guilt closed in the moment he saw her, like a secret fear. She had rushed to the gate with such enthusiasm; somehow, that made it worse.
"Did they have any cloth?" Marguerite did not wait for an answer. She was already digging through the cart, appraising the goods that Roxton had brought back from his Zanga trade run.
"Like a kid at Christmas," he said. The words felt like a lie, just anxious noise to fill the silence. But Marguerite was distracted with the supplies and he pushed the feeling away. He tried again, "There, under those sacks of flour— they had some red."
She lifted the bolt of fabric from the cart. "It's crimson, John," she corrected, with a shake of her head.
"Right. Well, get your crimson up to the treehouse and I'll get the rest of this put up. It's going to rain soon." He was trying his best to sound like his normal self, but everything felt forced. Marguerite did not seem to notice; with renewed enthusiasm she hurried to the lift— cloth in hand and a bag of flour under one arm.
An eye on the gathering clouds, John began his work. After a time, he stored away the last of his load; then he returned the cart to its shelter and carried the treehouse goods onto the elevator. But the rain never came. He looked to the sky again as the lift climbed its way up into the canopy, but the darkness just hung there— a pending threat.
Marguerite's voice was nearly a purr. "This is so good," she said, taking a second bite before she finished the first. They were seated across from one another at the kitchen table.
She had made flat bread while John finished his day's work and then cleaned up before the evening meal. The treehouse had been without flour for more than a month and the warm bread with freshly churned honey butter was a pleasant change.
Roxton hadn't noticed. His bread was getting cold and his mind was halfway across the plateau. Marguerite was looking straight at him while she licked a runaway trail of melted butter from her wrist.
A moment passed and then another before he realized that she was speaking. His mind caught up and his focus snapped back to the meal.
"What? I'm sorry," he apologized, but just how deep that ran, she could not know.
"Where have you been, John? You haven't been here since you got back from the Zanga village. Did something happen?"
He looked down at his plate. He knew that he had to tell her, but he didn't know how to start.
"Borboleta?" She just plucked her name from the air. John felt his chest tighten and he looked up far too fast. She was waiting for him to respond but his mouth had gone dry.
He was surprised; of course he had noticed the girl's infatuation, but he had taken care to stay clear of her advances whenever Marguerite was nearby.
"Little-miss-grass-skirt has been batting her lashes at you for months, John. You only shoo her away when you see me coming near. Did you really think I hadn't noticed?"
Roxton looked away. He had thought himself quite discreet; he certainly hadn't encouraged the young woman. But today… she knew that he was watching her, and he knew that she knew. It was a dangerous game and he crossed a line.
Here, in this remote jungle, there were things he could say to Marguerite that he would never say to a lady back home in London. Still, the man chose his words carefully, "Let me say: she was a lot more direct without you there today. There was a lot of stretching and bending— the kind of work you shouldn't do in a grass skirt."
Marguerite reached across the table and placed her hand on his. She was about to speak, but he wasn't finished and he continued.
"I was thinking about her the entire hike back," he admitted, still unable to look her in the eye. "Alone, with those images fresh in my mind, I thought of stopping in a secluded grove along the trail."
"What? Stop why?"
He just shrugged and turned up his palms. As the implication registered on her face, he rushed to add, "But I didn't." But he had, and that was his own guilt to carry.
She sat quiet for a time. John shifted in his chair, wondering if he'd said too much.
"I feel like I've let us down, Marguerite."
At length, she spoke, "To be flattered by the flirtations of that beautiful young woman isn't an infidelity, John." And now he could see that it was her turn to pick the right words. She continued, slowly, "Just remember what we have— don't let some passing fancy tear down what we've built."
He wanted to make assurances— let her know how important she was to him. But words seemed trite; instead, he picked up his flat bread and held it up with a sad smile.
As they finished their dinner together, the conversation shifting to the mundane. Roxton was left with the haunting knowledge that he had let things go too far at the village. Marguerite retired first and he stayed behind to clear the table and put up the food.
From the corner of his eye he caught a shadow in the hall and he turned. Marguerite stood, framed in the opening. She was wearing her white lace half-shirt and an authentic Zanga grass skirt. She turned as she executed an exaggerated stretch to one side and then the other.
Roxton knew only a handful of Zanga phrases, but Marguerite spoke the language fluently. "Ophethe," she said, "you come?" It was what the Zanga girl had always called him. He had no idea what it might mean.
Marguerite tilted her eyeline low and batted her lashes. "Ophethe, you come?" she said again. Her impersonation was remarkable. With an outstretched hand, she beckoned to him. As John crossed the common room, his imagination began the beat of tribal drums.
They lay together, drifting in that moment when all else has lifted and the body is lighter than the world around it. It was then that Roxton heard the rain quietly slip from the sky.
Marguerite rolled into his arms and began to whisper. As if on queue, the sky tore open with a thunderous roar, but Roxton could still make out her words.
"Have you seen Jordão since he earned his warrior's chest plate? He's quite fit— let's say tomorrow, you wear this skirt."