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“Love Dies Slowly” by Eileen Tighe

Published: August 21, 2018

Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ‘50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. In “Love Dies Slowly,” an illustrator will seek a tender affair with her son’s headmaster if she can ever move past the recent death of her free-spirited journalist of an ex-husband.

 

It had been raining for 10 long days, a steady, relentless downpour that dampened the human spirit as well as the good brown earth. One dreary day followed another with monotonous regularity. The river looked black and threatening and the hedges along its banks were hardly visible through the heavy mist. Even the small ferryboat that crossed from shore to shore had disappeared from sight, but its foghorn tooted eerily all through the day and night. I was working in my studio, an upstairs room with a view of the river and its far shore, when I heard the front door open unceremoniously and close with a shattering bang.

“Chip!” I called. “Haven’t I asked you not to use the front door?”

“It’s raining, Maggie.”

“I know, dear. That’s why I want you to come in the back way.”

“Roger,” said Chip. “Over.”

“Please don’t track up the house. I’ve just finished straightening it.”

“Roger. Anything to eat?”

“Sandwiches in the pantry. Milk and soda pop in the refrigerator.”

Mille grazie,” said Chip. “Yatcha lubia.”

I went back to my drawing board and the sketches I was doing for a new children’s book. My son walked into the studio nibbling on a three-decker peanut-butter sandwich and drinking his pop from the bottle. His bright hair was wet with rain, but it was as rebellious as ever. He was growing so fast that nothing seemed to fit him. There was always a space around his ankles and his wrists that remained uncovered.

“Are you still working on that silly old book?” he asked.

“I’m working on 500 silly old dollars,” I replied.

His eyes clouded. They were very expressive eyes, full of joy or sadness or wonderment or laughter. He had the fair hair and skin and the chiseled features of his grandfather, but the great dark eyes were strictly his own. They had a disturbing way of looking straight through you and of always seeking the truth. He came over and put an ice-cold pop-bottle hand on my shoulder.

“I love you, Maggie,” he said. “I wish you didn’t have to work so hard.”

He was so sincere and so very young and vulnerable that I longed to put my arms around him. But he was growing up and he didn’t like to be babied.

“I love you, too, darling,” I said, “and I’m a very fortunate woman. I have a wonderful son and work to do that I enjoy. By the way, did you see the lunch box in the pantry?”

He nodded.

“I thought you might like to take it down to your friend, Aristotle. It must be difficult to navigate a ferryboat in this fog.”

“It’s spooky,” said Chip. “Aristotle says that fog is celestial, but I don’t agree. It’s unearthly all right, but it’s not divine. It’s cold and clammy, and it wraps itself around you and blots you out of sight. It’s not like flying through a cloud. It’s more like vanishing into a vacuum.”

“Sounds like a good idea for a composition.”

“I wrote one on it last week and Mr. O ‘Hara told me today that it may win a prize. He was in Japan, Maggie. When we were there.”

“Is that so?”

My son gave me a long, searching look. “He said he met you once in Lisbon and once in Singapore. He said you might not remember him, but he’d like to come over and talk to you. He asks me about you all the time.”

I remembered Mike O’Hara very well. He was a brilliant, charming, supercharged correspondent; a romantic type who got into trouble with a colonel’s wife. I was surprised when I heard he was teaching at Bolton, because he was a really gifted journalist and his father owned a chain of New England newspapers.

“I remember him, Chip.” I said, “but I’m not ready for people yet.”

“It’s almost a year, Maggie.”

“I know, darling, but let’s wait until summer. We’ll invite all your new friends to come and see us and I promise to be very gay.”

Chip studied me in silence and then he washed down his thoughts with the bottle of pop. “OK.,” he said, “but I wish summer would hurry.”

“You know what I wish? I wish you’d stop drinking out of a bottle.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s so unaesthetic. Nice people don’t drink out of bottles.”

“Around here they do. Everyone at school does, and so do the guys at the gas station. Why, even Eddie Fisher drinks out of a bottle on television.”

I couldn’t argue the point because, presumably, these were nice people. “How about the great Mr. O’Toole?” I asked.

Chip grinned. “Y’got me there, Maggie,” he said. “You really got me. I don’t think Mr. O’Toole drinks out of a bottle. He has a mother too.”

“So I’ve discovered. His mother called me today.”

“Did she invite you to tea?”

“Yes.”

Chip whistled shrilly through his front teeth. “That means I’m in some kind of trouble,” he said thoughtfully.

“I got that impression too. Have you any idea what kind of trouble?”

Chip’s eyes widened anxiously. “No, Maggie, I haven’t,” he said. “What did you say to her?”

“I thanked her, but I regretted. I asked her to have Mr. O’Toole call me.”

“And did he?”

“He called and I invited him to dinner.”

“Well, hallelujah!” my son exclaimed. “Will she let him come?”

“Who is she?”

“Macushla, his mother. They say she won’t let him out after dark.”

“Chip,” I said incredulously, “didn’t you tell me that Mr. O’Toole is over six feet tall, weighs almost 200 pounds, and won all kinds of medals for shooting down planes over Europe?”

“Roger. What’s for food?”

I couldn’t help smiling, although I knew this wasn’t a celebration. There was, as my son said, some kind of trouble ahead. But Chip’s eyes were so bright and his cowlicks so unruly that I put my arms around him and gave him a kiss of confidence.

“Your favorite menu, darling,” I said, “and I think you told me it was also a favorite of Mr. O’Toole’s. Steak and apple pie.”

Mr. O’Toole is not only the current authority in our home on everything from Bach to Buchmanism, he is also the headmaster of Bolton, a small private school for boys. It is an old and venerable institution — my father is an alumnus — with a granite façade and disciplinary ideas that are as rock-ribbed as the New England town whose name it bears. It is not a school I would have chosen for my son — mainly, I think, because father is one of the trustees — but when Jeff was killed, father took my affairs in hand, enrolled Chip in Bolton and, because I refused to be separated from him, installed us in this old house which was once the family’s summer home.

Mr. O’Toole was, as my son had so accurately reported, very tall, unemaciated and well-mannered. I was sure he did not drink out of a bottle. He greeted me gravely, hung up his coat in the hall closet and followed me into the long, low-ceilinged living room that looked out through many windows to the river. There was a fire sputtering on the hearth and Mr. O’Toole crossed the room and stood in front of it.

He studied me silently for a second or two and then he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this moment.”

It was a provocative opening, but I chose to ignore it. “Chip talks about you constantly,” I said. “You’re one of his real heroes.”

“Before I knew who you were,” Mr. O’Toole continued, “I noticed you driving around the village in an open car. When I inquired about you, I learned that you were an artist and that you were married.”

I couldn’t think of any reply, so I didn’t try to make one. If he had discovered that I was married, he must know that Jeff was a journalist and that we were out of the country most of the time. We never settled down, we never had a home, but we always came back to Bolton. We both liked the old town and the old house, and that was why father thought I would be happier here than anywhere else.

“When your husband was killed,” said Mr. O’Toole, almost inaudibly, “I wanted to write to you, but I was afraid you might think it intrusive. Grief is a very personal thing.”

It was well-spoken and hard to say, and I tried to smile my thanks. “It’s an emotion that can’t be shared,” I said. “I guess that’s why I haven’t been able to face people. You’re the first guest since the accident.”

“I’m honored.”

“And I’m grateful,” I said, “for all you’ve done to help my son.”

“Your son,” said Mr. O’Toole, with a rather shy smile, “is a very unusual 10-year-old. I’ve learned a great deal from him.”

“He’s led an unusual life.”

“It’s been a rewarding one for him in many ways. He’s impressionable and he has a remarkable memory. But you can understand that his background has made it rather difficult for him to adjust to a normal life with boys of more routine interests.”

I knew this was educational double talk, and while I had no doubt that it was sound, I had little patience with it. If I have a blind spot, it is for my son. I think he’s exceptional. I know that he’s honest, kind and courageous. If the boys of Bolton School found it difficult to get along with him, the fault must be theirs. But I didn’t want any trouble. It would bring my father to town on the run, and father is a man of action. He is also fanatically proud of Chip, who so closely resembles him that even strangers remark upon it.

“I don’t know what the problem is,” I said, “but I was thinking today that if Jeff were alive he would say the net result of normal living, in Chip’s case, is that he’s learned to drink out of a bottle.”

Mr. O’Toole smiled. “I’ll have to confess that it’s normal,” he said, “but it’s only a phase. There is a serious problem that I must talk over with you, and I thought we might set up a meeting with the faculty on Saturday, if that day is convenient for you. We can get together in my office and discuss things informally.”

“A serious problem? Has Chip done something dreadful?”

“Not at all,” said Mr. O’Toole. His voice had a soothing quality that was very reassuring. “It’s an educational hurdle that we can’t seem to solve. It has nothing to do with discipline. Believe me, Mrs. Hillyer, I’m very fond of your son. By the way, where is he?”

“In the pantry. Reading a book on how to mix drinks.”

“Has he ever mixed one?”

I shook my head. “Never, but he feels that it’s one of his duties, now that he’s the man of the house.”

“Do you think he’d mind if I gave him a hand?”

“I don’t know. He’s rather touchy about his new responsibilities. I’m sure he’s anxious to impress you, but I’m afraid the result may be lethal.”

“Whatever he concocts we’ll have to drink.”

“That’s what worries me,” I said. “I’ll leave it up to you, Mr. O’Toole. You’re his best friend.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” he replied, “I’ll see what I can do. And please call me John. I’m your friend, too, Mrs. Hillyer.”

 

On the following Saturday, a day distinguished by brilliant sunshine, I drove across the hills to Bolton School. The week had been an eventful one for me. I was beginning to live again. I had done a lot of thinking and I had found a friend in John O’Toole. It was good to have someone to talk to and I was rediscovering the joys of companionship. I had been too long alone and I had forgotten how exciting it was to be alive.

When I turned in at the gates I was struck with the beauty of the place. The grounds were handsomely planted and there was an air of serenity in the tall trees, the sweeping lawns and the ivy-covered buildings. Seclusion, protection, security — they were all here. These were the things that Chip had never known and I wondered how much they might mean to him, now that he had been given a chance to sample them. He had grown up in many lands; he never had a real home, no close friends, no formal schooling. He learned as he grew by asking questions, and he got his answers from the experts. He went with his father to political meetings, to military headquarters, to palaces and parliaments, to interviews with people of all kinds. And he went with me to market places and museums, to concerts, luncheons and receptions. He talked to anyone and everyone who would talk to him and he learned to speak many languages.

It was not a life my father approved of for a growing boy, but it was the way Jeff wanted it and the only way he would take ii. For Jeff there was no tomorrow; there was only today. If I tried to talk about the future, about a home, about settling down and giving Chip a chance to grow up normally, to have roots and security, I found that I was talking to myself. My loyalties were divided, but I couldn’t find any way out. A boy needs a father even more than a home. So we followed him. We followed to the end.

My marriage, which had ended so abruptly in an airplane crash, was one that father had opposed bitterly, but when his grandson was born he became reconciled to its existence. Now that he was in the driving seat, financially and paternally, he would be hard to handle. He expected a lot of Chip. And he expected even more of the school. Since he was a trustee, it would be like him even to demand a certain amount of special consideration for his grandson.

I parked the car and walked across the pebbled path to the front entrance. I had dressed carefully, with what I hoped was proper solemnity for the occasion, but I felt depressed and inadequate, and wondered if I could rise to whatever the situation demanded. I would never forgive myself if I let my son down with tears or emotional protestations or anything that indicated a soft upper lip.

The door was opened by the headmaster himself, who welcomed me with a friendly smile. “I’ve been on the lookout for you, Maggie,” he said.

“Thank heaven you’re here,” I replied. “I’m beginning to panic.”

“It won’t be that bad. Let me have your coat.”

He led me into a book-lined room with a long table in the center of it. There was a large stone fireplace on one wall and on the other a great bank of windows looked out over the lawns to the river far below. The masters, who were assembled around the long center table, were young or youngish men, conservatively clothed in more subdued fashion than the ubiquitous gray-flannel suit or the journalist’s unpressed tweeds. There was one exception. Mike O’Hara looked as dashing and as handsome as he had several years ago in Tokyo and Singapore and Lisbon. He came over and took my arm and guided me toward the fireplace.

“I’ve got to see you, Maggie,” he said. “Please tell me when I can come.”

“I’ll phone you.”

“When?”

“Soon,” I said.

The headmaster was waiting to call the meeting, and when I turned he was standing directly behind me. I was presented to the sea of strange, floating faces, and then John led me to one end of the table and motioned to the faces to be seated.

“We have looked forward to this meeting, Mrs. Hillyer,” he said, in his soothing voice, “in order to acquaint you with the special problems attendant upon the education of your son. We will hear first from Mr. Forbes, whose subject is world history.”

The story was the same in every case — in social studies, political science, art, languages and economics. The masters were being challenged by a student who questioned the accuracy of their information on the basis that it was dated or prejudiced or factually incorrect.

The masters were unanimous, and very kindly so, on one point: the boy was not trying to show off; he was not impertinent or discourteous; he was simply and honestly skeptical. When asked to substantiate a protest, he launched unhesitatingly into a detailed, firsthand, eyewitnessed account of some event, place, painting, political treaty or commercial project. In his language classes he demurred on meanings or inflections or pronunciations. It was only in English and in mathematics that he was a quiet scholar, and in both of these subjects he was making excellent grades.

Now came the question of what was to be done. It was obvious that the other boys in the class were entitled to an education according to the curriculum. Examinations would be based on textbooks and not on eyewitnessed accounts. This matter of examinations affected Chip also. If he disagreed with the textbooks, how could he make official grades now, or later when the time came for his college boards? In the opinion of the faculty of the Bolton School, it was an insoluble situation, and the recommendation was that another school be sought.

We all rose at a signal from the headmaster and, after I had expressed my thanks, the masters filed out noiselessly and I was alone with John Francis O’Toole. “I don’t think we made much of a case for education today,” he remarked ruefully.

I was worried about something else. “John,” I said, “this is going to cause trouble for you. Father will fight you — and he won’t fight fair.”

“I can’t help it, Maggie. I don’t care about myself, but I’m very much concerned about Chip. I’ve tried every way I can to lick this situation. I’m not very proud of any of us, but I do have to consider the school.”

“You have to live with yourself too,” said a clear, sharp voice from the doorway. “Fourteen grown men against one small boy. You all ought to be ashamed.”

We turned our heads quickly, like automatons, and faced a woman with an impressive figure who wore her years lightly but with great authority. Her hair was startlingly white, combed high on her head like a crown, and her eyes were very blue.

“My mother,” said John O’Toole. Autocrat of the dinner table, terror of the faculty, champion of the underdog, and grandmother by adoption to your son.”

“Patience is an outmoded virtue,” said Mrs. O’Toole. “I couldn’t wait any longer to become a grandmother.” She put her arms around me and gave me a warm hug. “Maggie, Maggie,” she said, “let me look at you. I’ve wanted so much to meet you. I love that boy of yours; I find him better company than anyone

“I’m sure that includes me,” said John.

“I’m afraid it does,” his mother replied. “Now, how about lunch? I haven’t fussed, so don’t protest. I wish Chip could join us.”

“Impossible, mother,” said John firmly, “and you know it. He’s due in the dining hall at 1 o’clock, the same as every other boy in this school. Let’s not have any more trouble. We have enough to worry about as it is.”

“Oh, all right,” said Mrs. O’Toole. “Rules, rules, rules. And bells. I’m so tired of bells. . . . You come along with me, Maggie. I have someone I want you to meet. She’s a friend of Chip’s. Her name is Muffin.”

 

That evening, after my son had kissed me good night and gone off to bed, I sat down in the study and tried to figure a way out of our problem. From Mrs. O’Toole I had learned a great deal about Chip and his life in Bolton. She and Chip had the sort of unique relationship that sometimes exists between the young and the old. They respected each other. When Mrs. O’Toole walked into the shoemaker’s shop late one afternoon a month after we came back to Bolton and found Chip finishing off lifts on the big power machine at the back of the shop, she showed no surprise. Chip introduced her to Mr. Cantonelli, the shoemaker, and his small daughter, Muffin, who was wrapping up the repaired shoes. She noticed that Chip and the Cantonellis spoke Italian to one another and the whole episode enchanted her. A few days later she asked Chip to bring Muffin to tea, and now she was taking Italian lessons from them.

Muffin was only one of Chip’s many new friends who were welcome at the home of the headmaster’s mother. There was Aristotle Perez, who captained the two-car ferryboat that chugged back and forth across the river. Captain Perez was from Portugal and he liked to have a boy aboard his boat who knew his native land and spoke his native tongue. Mrs. O’Toole was getting her afternoon rides free now, including one in the fog, which, for sheer horror, she said, had no equal in her experience.

There were other friends too. There was the Polish farm family whose land adjoined the school grounds. And there was Mrs. Skourian, who owned the Greek beanery where Chip liked to help out behind the counter. These were my son’s best friends, according to Mrs. O’Toole, because they were sharing his experiences in a strange new land. He knew their countries better than his own and he felt at home with them.

“I’m running a sort of international salon,” Mrs. O’Toole said to me in parting, “and I’m having the time of my life.”

I came to the conclusion, after my visit with Mrs. O’Toole, that my son must have been a very lonely and bewildered boy during those first months at Bolton. How deeply Jeff’s accident had affected Chip I didn’t know. The shock had paralyzed me to such an extent that nothing seemed to matter. But from now on, my son would be my first consideration. Never again would I forget that he had problems, too, and he needed at least one parent to help solve them.

I heard the clock strike 10, and then I must have dozed because I was startled by the ringing of the doorbell. I remembered that John had asked me if I would be at home.

I hurried through the darkened living room and opened the front door. Mike O’Hara was standing hesitantly on the steps. He had a large bouquet of flowers in one hand and a big square box in the other.

“I saw your light,” he said, “and I thought you might be mulling things over alone.”

“I am.”

“Would you like someone to mull with?”

“Very much,” I said. “Won’t you come in?”

He followed me into the study and lowered himself wearily into a chair. The packages made it difficult for him to relax, so he handed them to me. “Flowers,” he said, “and candy. Pretty routine, I’m afraid, but I’m out of practice.”

“That’s hard to believe,” I said.

He came out into the pantry while I fixed the flowers, and then he got out some ice cubes and mixed himself a drink. “I’ve been thinking about you all evening,” he said. “I’ve been driving around for hours trying to get up enough courage to ring your bell.”

“Why should it take courage? We’re old friends.”

“I don’t know, Maggie,” he said. “I guess it’s because I’ve always had a thing about you. I watched you take a beating for so long. I hate to say this to you, but I’ve got to — you’re grieving over a guy who died 10 years ago, not in a plane accident last May.”

“You frightened me once before by talking like this.”

“And you ran away. I tried to tell you then to cut your losses, to pull out and make a life for yourself and your boy.”

“There were reasons — I was half a world away from home, and there was the money problem too.”

He came over and sat down beside me. “Maggie,” he said earnestly, “I want you to believe this. I was trying to shock you into action. Jeff Hillyer was one of my oldest friends. I knew you couldn’t save him, but I wanted you to save yourself. I saw what he was doing to you and it scared me. How much longer could you have stood the humiliation and neglect and utter disregard for your welfare or future?”

“You can stand a lot when you have a child.”

Mike looked at me impatiently. “You were beginning to crack up in Lisbon,” he said harshly. “What good would that have done your child? And what good did it do him to watch you being treated without consideration or respect? He could see things straight, even if you couldn’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I have a composition of his called “Why I Don’t Want to be a Foreign Correspondent.” Any time you want to read it, you can have it.”

“You’re deliberately trying to upset me, Mike. Why?”

“Because I want you to give up the ghost — for Chip’s sake as well as your own. He can’t live in that shadow. He has no respect for it. If you cling to it much longer, you may lose your son as suddenly as you lost your husband.”

This was shock treatment all right and I was so numb and cold from it that I reached out for a cardigan that was thrown across the arm of the chair. I had refused to face the failure of my marriage. I had sacrificed everything to it. I was still refusing to face it. Dreams always died hard with me. I had avoided Mike because he knew the truth. I remembered how many times he had phoned after we came back to Bolton. I saw that he was watching me and I tried to hold back the tears, but I could feel them running down my face. I turned my head away because I knew he hated tears

“Here,” he said.

It was a large pocket handkerchief, and I disappeared gratefully behind it.

“Thank you. I didn’t mean to cry.”

“That’s OK. I told you I’ve grown up. I hope I wasn’t too rough on you.”

“You were disturbing,” I said, “but profound. Someday, when I’ve worked my way out of this mess. I’ll try to thank you.”

He leaned over and kissed me. “I hope that someday isn’t too far off. What are you going to do now?”

“I guess I’ll have to tell father. I’m afraid he’ll be very difficult.”

“That’s something of an understatement. He’ll probably have the school charter revoked and all of the faculty blacklisted.”

The clock was winding up for the long midnight chime and Mike looked at his watch. “I’ll have to leave you, Cinderella,” he said. “In a small town staying anywhere after midnight is synonymous with spending the night.”

I was walking through the living room with him when a sleepy voice called from upstairs, “Are you still up, Maggie?”

“Yes, dear,” I said. “Anything the matter?”

“No,” said Chip. “It’s just about today. I was thinking how hard it will be for you to tell grandfather.”

“I’ll manage somehow. Don’t worry about it.”

“But suppose grandfather blows his top at Mr. O’Toole?”

“I’ve thought about that, Chip. I even spoke to Mr. O’Toole about it.”

“What’d he say?”

“He said he didn’t care about himself; he was concerned only about you.”

“Golly,” said Chip.

“Mr. O’Hara is here, but he’s about to leave. Do you want to come down?”

“No,” said Chip. “G’night, Maggie…. G’night Mr. O’Hara.”

 

On the following evening I was sitting alone again in the study trying to finish a letter to my father. I had started it earlier in the day, but it was a hard letter to write. I had to tell him the story of my marriage and the mistakes I had made and everything that led up to the present problem of Chip’s future at Bolton. Somehow I had to convince him that I was the one person responsible. No one else was at fault; not Chip nor the headmaster nor the faculty. If I had stayed home after Chip was born — as everyone, including father, had urged — I might have an untarnished memory of Jeff, the brilliant journalist who wanted only to be free. And if Jeff had been allowed to roam the world alone, he might have come back from time to time and Chip would have a memory of his father that he could cherish.

Now, for both of us, there was only the memory of a past without peace or possessions, without roots or responsibilities. There was the memory of dimly lit airports and dark railway stations with no one to meet us; of the weary search for a place to stay because no provision had been made for our arrival. There were some good memories, too, when we were all together and happy and, for a few months at least, there was hope for the future. But something always happened. Sooner or later we were alone again.

All of this I told father, and it was not easy to tell, but I needed his understanding. It would confirm his worst suspicions about my marriage, but it couldn’t hurt Jeff now and it might save the faculty of Bolton School and its headmaster. I begged father not to interfere in any way, and I told him what a debt I owed to John O’Toole and his mother for their kindness to Chip. I assured him that I would keep him informed and that I would make no plans for the future without first consulting him.

I was folding the letter when I heard a step on the porch and then the bell rang. I opened the door, half expecting to see Mike O’Hara standing there, but the figure was taller and straighter and when he stepped into the light I saw that it was John O’Toole.

“It’s rather late,” he said, ‘‘but I’d like to talk to you.”

“Come in.”

He followed me into the study, but he didn’t sit down. He walked around restlessly and studied the titles of the books. I left him for a moment to go into the pantry for some ice cubes, and when I returned the telephone was ringing.

“Help yourself to a drink,” I said. “I don’t know who can be calling at this hour, but I’d better answer before it wakes Chip.”

“Hello,” I said softly.

“Maggie?” inquired a clear, sharp voice. “Is my son there?”

I looked over at John, who gave me no clue. “Yes, Mrs. O’Toole,” I said. “As a matter of fact, he arrived only a moment ago.”

“He left here three hours ago. What’s he been doing?”

“I don’t know,” I said quietly.

“Honestly,” she continued, in a voice that carried across the room, “I wonder if he knows what he’s doing. He forgot the flowers and candy — and last night he didn’t even ring your bell.”

I again looked over at John, who still gave me no clue. “That’s funny,” I said. “Why not? I was here all evening.”

Mrs. O’Toole harrumphed. “He’s not competitive,” she said. “He saw Mike O’Hara’s car, so he wouldn’t go in. Has he told you he’s not competitive?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s supposed to explain everything. I admit it’s beyond me, but I thought it might mean something to you.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “Do you want to speak to him?”

“No,” she said. “I just wanted to be sure he got there. He’s in love with you, Maggie, but he’s not competitive. You’d better send him home around midnight. I don’t think he knows what time it is anymore.”

When I hung up the receiver I looked over at John to see what effect the call had on him. As far as I could tell, it had none. He was staring at me a little vaguely, as though his eyes were not focusing.

“You forgot the flowers,” I said.

“They didn’t seem important,” he replied.

I sat down on the sofa and motioned to him to join me. “I’ve written a letter to my father,” I said. “It’s a very personal letter, but I’d like you to read it. There are a great many things you should know — about Chip and me.”

When I had him settled, letter in hand, I mixed a drink and put it on the table in front of him. Then I went upstairs and looked into Chip’s room. He was not asleep. He was kneeling in front of the window, looking out at the stars.

“Chip,” I said, “why aren’t you in bed?”

“I heard a car in the driveway. It’s Mr. O’Toole’s car, isn’t it, Maggie?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Did he bring you flowers too?”

“No, dear. He forgot them.”

“May I come down and speak to him — just for a minute?”

“Of course. But put on a warm bathrobe. It’s cold downstairs.”

John rose quickly when we came into the study. He had my letter clenched tightly in his hand and he was staring at it with an expression of great indignation. There was something in his eyes that I had not seen before. “Chip wants to speak to you,” I explained.

“Yes, Chip?”

“Is it confidential?” I asked.

“No,” said Chip. “I want you to hear it, too, Maggie. It’s about all the trouble I’ve caused at school, for which I’m very sorry.”

John’s face relaxed into a sympathetic smile. “No apologies are necessary, Chip,” he said. “You acted honestly and courageously.”

“But, Mr. O’Toole,” said Chip, earnestly, “I don’t want to leave Bolton. I don’t want to leave you and Macushla and Muffin and Aristotle and all my other friends. I never had friends before — not real ones who lived in the same place every day. And I don’t want Maggie to have to leave here, either. I want her to be happy and not have to worry about something all the time.”

“That’s what I want for her, too, Chip,” said John.

“I’ve figured it all out, Mr. O’Toole. All I have to do is learn what’s in the books and not argue about it. I don’t have to believe it — I just have to keep my mouth shut. Then I’ll pass the exams and everybody’ll be happy.”

“Maggie?”

“Any decision Chip wishes to make is all right with me.”

“Does that mean I may destroy this letter?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Very well. Chip,” said John. “I’ll get the matter straightened out with the faculty tomorrow.” He looked at me for a long moment before he tore the letter into small pieces. Then he gave Chip a loving slap on the back. I don’t know whether or not you’ve made the right decision, young man,” he said, “but it’s a brave one. I’ll be around any time you need help.”

“To bed now,” I said. “And to sleep, please.”

“Roger,” said Chip. He came over and put his arms around me and tightened them into a hug that left me breathless. Then he went over and threw his arms around his favorite real-life hero. “G ‘night, John,” he said. “G ‘night, Maggie.”

“Good night, son,” we replied simultaneously.

We listened as he ran whistling up the stairs, and then we heard his door slam with a loud, triumphant bang. A moment later the clock in the living room wound itself up for another long chime. We both listened attentively as it struck.

“It’s midnight,” I said.

“So it is,” said John. “Take that receiver off the hook, will you, Maggie? I have a lot to say to you and I don’t want to be interrupted.”

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