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Pandora's Box

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A man does not recover from such a devotion of the heart to such a woman. He ought not; he does not. Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

In the end, he didn’t come after her. And she didn’t return.

****

In the first weeks of her absence, Jack Robinson lived in barely-concealed turmoil. He went to his office, and saw her every time he closed his eyes. He examined crime scenes, and responded to Collins’ suggestions absently, thinking of her. He sat in his house, trying to read his novel, and obsessed over the meaning of her words, versus the implications of her actions. He had planned a quiet campaign for her heart. She responded with overtures of her own, and then abruptly discarded the country like last year’s fashions. She left him reeling.

He wrote her carefully-drafted letters, full of unexpressed meaning. He was afraid of committing too much feeling to the stark permanence of paper. He wanted to say it to her, in person, when he could watch her reaction in her eyes. Without her physical presence, self-doubt began to stalk him. He was afraid of saying more than she was willing to hear, just yet. He was afraid of overplaying his hand.

He was, simply, afraid. She made him feel too much, all at once, things he had never experienced before, and emotions he had believed long dead and buried. He hardly knew himself. She had unlocked parts of himself he didn’t recognize: desire, jealousy, recklessness, obstinance. He found he could no longer contain them.

At first she sent him playful postcards, and cryptic telegrams. He read and reread them, trying to parse the riddle of her intentions, building up his courage. He relived their farewell kiss every night; sweated through a tense negotiation with the Commissioner over an extended leave of absence. Withdrew a chunk of his savings and bought a second-class ticket on a steamer.

Then the Yarra River Killer murdered 5 women in as many weeks, and put an end to his plans. The Commissioner cancelled his leave. He sent a telegram, and received no reply.

When she wrote to him, explaining that she was selling the Wardlow and remaining in England for the foreseeable future, he knew he had been a fool to hope. He didn’t blame her for her decision. He had been a reprehensible coward. His paltry efforts had been too little, too late. The only thing left was to retrench, and find some way of going on without her.

****

Phryne watched as the effects of the crash in the American stock market rumbled towards her family’s estate with the inexorability of an avalanche. Her father’s debts were more complex than she had imagined, and it had taken all her ingenuity to keep her own income stable once the markets were in freefall. Her father, never one for subtlety, reacted to the news of his impending bankruptcy by having a stroke.

Her parents decamped to a more affordable residence and sold the townhouse in Knightsbridge to pay for her father’s nurse. Phryne sold the Tiger Moth, and found a comfortable flat in a bohemian quarter. The Wardlow, and the Hispano, would be flogged to cover Jane’s boarding school fees until Phryne could find a suitable institution for her in London.

She had originally intended to reunite her parents, untangle her father’s finances, and return to Melbourne within a few months – hopefully meeting Jack somewhere along the way. She had sent him teasing missives, eager to keep their game of push-me-pull-you going by post. She tried not to expect too much. It had been a glorious kiss, but Phryne still kept some part of her heart in reserve. She was not willing to risk it unless she had some indication that he was willing to meet her half-way, metaphorically if not literally. Jack’s quiet courtship had exposed secret parts of herself that she preferred not to examine too closely.  He was dangerous to her carefully constructed life; he made her feel vulnerable.

She had never seriously meant for him follow her; she only meant to indicate that she wanted him. She wanted him with her, in spirit, if not in the flesh. She felt the lack of his steady presence, his warmth, his quick humor, and at the same time was glad he wasn’t there with her. She no longer had the time and resources to play the fantasy socialite who had scandalized Melbourne. The hard Collingwood girl had resurfaced in order to save her family. She dreaded learning that it had been the fantasy he wanted, and not the woman.

When she received his telegram, cancelling his plans, it knocked the breath out of her. She understood her own heart then, now that it was no longer wanted.

His longer reply to her news was heart-breakingly formal. He sent her his best wishes and thanked her for her assistance in so many of his cases, and assured her of her welcome at City South if she ever found herself in the Antipodes again.

It was just as she feared. Flirting with the Honorable Miss Fisher had been a delicious daydream. The reality of Phryne Fisher was too difficult. He had changed his mind, just as she had made up hers.

As 1929 rolled into 1930, Phryne felt as if her aeroplane had come crashing out of the sky, leaving her stranded in the wreckage.

****

A week before his birthday, a package arrived for him at City South Station.

It was a copy of Persuasion, by Jane Austen. It came with a note, folded into the pages near the end.

Dear Jack

I saw this in a bookshop window and thought of you. It’s an old favourite, and perhaps you might appreciate a change from cowboys, and criminals.

Happy Birthday

Phryne

He hadn’t heard from her in months. Not a single telegram, or postcard, or even a post-script in a letter to Mrs. Collins. He stared at the note, then looked at the page in the novel where it had been placed.

The heroine, Anne Elliot, was thinking of her estranged lover, Captain Wentworth:

Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.

Jack placed the note carefully back in the novel, and put in on his desk. It was so like Phryne, to express herself with a sudden, grand gesture. He picked up his telephone extension and rang the Commissioner.

“Robinson here. I think it’s time I took that leave of absence we discussed.”

****

An evening of being charming and grooming potential investors had left her feeling drained and depressed. There had, however, been some productive conversations with a few enlightened gentlemen, and a few key allies had been made. The brewery was still a viable business, and with an influx of cash, could be built up to provide a respectable income for her parents. Once the details had been finalized, she would sign the enterprise over to her mother. Then she could return to Australia, secure in the knowledge that her father was no longer in a position to squander what she had managed to recoup. Jane was miserable in England, and Phryne was homesick. She missed Mac, and Dot. She wanted a fresh start, in Sydney perhaps, where there were no memories to haunt her.

She missed Jack, intensely, but had received no response to her impulsive gift. She had sent it in a moment of...madness, perhaps. Weakness, certainly. She knew him, knew he would spend his birthday alone, working at the station, and found the idea unbearable. But romantic tendencies had, as she feared, destroyed a friendship she had cherished, and there was no salvaging it.

She hung up her coat and shivered at the chilly atmosphere in the flat. Her maid-of-all-work had gone home hours ago; it was very late. She wanted nothing more than a whisky toddy and her empty bed.

She was taking off her earrings when she heard a knock at the door.

Jack Robinson stood before her, November rain dripping off his hat. They stared at each other for an endless moment.

“I love you,” he said simply, without preamble.  “I thought I could recover from it...but I can’t.”

She reached for his face, and kissed him with her whole heart.

****

They sat on the floor close to the fire, waiting for the room to grow warmer. He finally stopped kissing her long enough to explain his journey. Her gift had given him a kind of desperate hope. He had not written. If he wrote, he would think of what he was doing, and lose his nerve. He had spent too much time thinking, instead of acting. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

 The look in his eyes made her feel giddy; she needed to catch her breath. She grinned, taking refuge in her customary cheekiness. “You didn’t bring Mr. Butler with you, by any chance? I’m dying for a good stiff drink.” He laughed then, and requested a Scotch.

She rose, feeling unsteady on her feet. They made a surreal picture. He wore a familiar gray suit she had seen many times before, now rather worse for his travels. She was, absurdly, still in her pearls and white satin evening gown.

She handed him a tumbler, and sat behind him, in the armchair. She wanted space to collect herself; and yet she wanted to stay close. She was trembling, and swallowed her whisky in a gulp. He did the same, and put his glass on the floor. They both gazed pensively into the flames of the fire.

“Why did you send me the book?” he asked quietly.

“I hardly know,” she whispered. “I think some part of me...still hoped.”

He turned and looked up at her then. He saw the tears in her eyes, and was overcome with a sense of utter exhaustion. In that moment he wanted nothing more than to rest his head in her lap. And so, at last, he did. She sighed, and he closed his eyes at the sweet sound.

 He felt her fingers run softly through his hair, over and over, and his whole body shuddered.

“Will you come back to Australia?” he murmured against the fabric, warm with the heat of her body.

She bent her head and closed her eyes against the fierce tenderness that overtook her. “I’ve thought of nothing else for months.” His hair was surprisingly fine, and came loose in soft curls under her hands.

He smiled, a full, unrestrained smile. The room felt warmer when she saw it. “Well then,” he replied. “I suppose I’ll have to resign myself to being happier than I deserve.”