Out on the terrace, the late afternoon’s warm summer air, straining to contain its own fragrant richness, had drawn tiny beads of condensation from the Viscountess Felicity Fabreigh’s glass of water. In the silence that had opened up between exchanged insults, she chewed elegantly on her lower lip. Her glass threw off thin beams of iridescence, which played tricks of light and color on Viscount Frederick Fabreigh’s monocle.
“It will be pointless to plant it along the north wall,” the Viscount said. “That side of the house receives so little sun. Nothing will survive outside of a few weeks in June.”
Felicity looked at him, making little effort to suppress her great annoyance. “You know that no one ever walks the grounds on the south side of the house,” she said. “If you wish to set up a small plot for your own personal amusement, then do so, but this garden is to be seen by our friends. Who will see it on the south side?”
Frederick fairly shook with displeasure. “Our friends,” he thought, bitterly. As though their friends had not made every possible effort to avoid their company for the last year and a half, since that party when he and she, in a moment of port-induced passion, confessed their respective marital sins before the whole of society. If only one had made a revelation, it would have been the swift end to their marriage—regardless the performance of the matrimonial act had certainly come to an end—but their mutual admissions had trapped the Viscount and Viscountess in a sort of agonizing stasis.
Under such circumstances, there could be few hours in life more painful than those dedicated to the dark ritual of afternoon tea.
They only wanted for something—someone, perhaps—to tip the balance.
“What will there be to see on the north side?” Frederick replied. “Just a square of tilled soil in which nothing can grow, in which those shoots that do break through to the open air will soon find that the warmth will never touch them? They will give up, and wither, and die. Such a garden would soon be only of use or interest to ourselves, because therein we should recognize and acknowledge a metaphor—”
“Don’t speak,” Felicity interrupted. She impaled her crumpet with a fork.
The dispute continued, neither of the two particularly invested in its outcome, and both of them unwilling to stand up and go inside. The tea had been finished, and the evaporated dregs had left small, withered flecks at the bottom of each cup. The stones of the terrace radiated the absorbed heat of the early afternoon back out into the dry, angry air which surrounded the Fabreighs.
In the distant fields, however, the trees were healthy, moistened with the previous Thursday’s rains. The leaves of the tall oaks brushed against one another caressingly, and when the wind came in short breezes the leaves gasped like the ocean. Out in the small orchard, the plum trees sagged, their branches laden with ripe fruit. Frederick thought it was the loveliest pastoral tableau that he had ever seen.
Slowly, inevitably, his attention was drawn back to the terrace, back to Felicity, back to the table laden with porcelain which sat between them. There was nothing more to say of the garden, though they would probably return to the subject over next afternoon’s tea, and the next and the next and the next...Frederick stood and turned toward the house.
“The tea was particularly bad this afternoon,” Felicity said, as though she wanted to hold him with his words, forbidding his departure. “You should tell Sophie that there’s no need to steep the pot for a whole fortnight.” This was one of Frederick’s sensitive points. Felicity knew it, and she continued. “Any intelligent man would have let her go right after your father’s funeral. In any case, he didn’t keep her around for her housework.”
Frederick’s eyes flared as an inarticulate sound of rage crossed his lips. Quickly, stiffly, he grabbed one of the teacups and made to hurl it towards the terrace. He had done this before, however, and Felicity, anticipating what was to come, clutched his wrist. The two began, simultaneously, to berate each other: insults, oaths, and threats of the most vile sort.
Until, suddenly, they stopped.
A sound had silenced and frozen the couple, a sound at once clear and clean and decisive. It was the sound of chopping wood and then—thwack!—it reached their ears for a second time. They both looked in that direction. There in the middle distance stood a stable boy, poised gracefully at the peak of his next arc above a cord of oak. The axe, a natural extension of his body, fell.