"Very well," Simon says. Smiling, he excuses himself. Now I've done it. I've pushed him away. But moments later, he returns with Felicity and Ann. "Now we are safe. Or at least, your reputations are secure. I don't know about mine."
"What is this about?" Felicity demands.
"If you ladies would care to join me in the billiards room, you shall find out soon enough," Simon says, taking his leave.
We wait a respectable length of time before making our way upstairs to the Worthingtons' billiards room. If I felt ill at ease about being alone with Simon, I feel doubly so about having Felicity with us.
"What have you in mind, Simon?" she asks. Hearing her use Simon's name so freely gives me a sick feeling in my stomach.
Simon walks to the bookcase and pulls a volume from the shelf.
"You intend to read to us?" Felicity wrinkles her nose. She pushes a white ball across the wide green felt of the table. It smashes into the neat triangle in the center, sending the other balls careening against the bumpers.
He reaches into the space behind the book and brings out a bottle of thick emerald green liquid. It is like no liquor I have ever seen before.
"What is that?" I ask, my mouth gone dry.
His lips curve into a roguish smile. "A bit of the green fairy. She's a most congenial mistress, I think you'll find."
I'm still confused.
"Absinthe. The drink of artists and madmen. Some say the green fairy lives in a glass of absinthe, and she spirits you away to her lair where all manner of strange and beautiful things can be seen. Would you like to try living in two worlds at once?"
I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this. "Oh," Ann says, worried. "I think perhaps we should get back. Surely we have been missed."
"Then we shall say we were in the cloakroom having a tear in your dress mended," Felicity says."I wish to try absinthe."
I don't wish to try absinthe. Well, perhaps a little bit--if I could be certain how it would affect me. I'm afraid to stay, but I don't want to leave the room now or let Felicity share this experience with Simon alone.
"I'd like to try it too," I croak.
"An adventurous spirit," Simon says, smiling at me. "That's what I love."
Reaching in again, Simon brings out a flat, slotted spoon. He pours himself half a glass of water from a decanter. He sets the glass on the table and places the strange spoon over the glass's opening. With graceful fingers, he reaches into his pocket and retrieves a cube of sugar, which he perches atop the spoon.
"What is that for?" I ask.
"To take away the bitterness of the wormwood."
Thick as tree sap, green as summer grass, the absinthe flows over the sugar, dissolving it on its relentless way. Inside the glass, a beautiful alchemy is taking place. The green swirls into a milky white. It is extraordinary.
"How does it do that?" I ask.
Simon takes a coin from his pocket, palms it, and shows me his empty hand. The coin has disappeared."Magic."
"Let's see if it is," Felicity says, reaching for the glass. Simon holds it away, hands it to me.
"Ladies first," he says.
Felicity looks as if she could spit in his eye. It is a cruel thing to do, to goad her so, but I must be cruel myself because I can't help being satisfied that I'm the one chosen first. My hand shakes as I take the glass. I half expect this strange drink to turn me into a frog. Even the smell is intoxicating, like licorice spiced with nutmeg. I swallow, feel it burn my throat. The moment I finish, Felicity grabs it from me and drinks her share. She offers it to Ann, who takes the tiniest of sips. At last it goes to Simon, who takes his turn and passes it to me again. The glass makes its rounds thrice more, till it has been drained.
Simon uses his handkerchief to wipe the last of the absinthe from the glass and places everything behind the book to be retrieved at a later date. He moves closer to me. Felicity comes between us, taking hold of my wrist.
"Thank you, Simon. And now I suppose we'd best make that visit to the cloakroom to add truth to our story," she says, a satisfied gleam in her eye.
Simon isn't happy, that much I can see. But he bows and lets us get on our way.
"I don't feel much different," Ann says as we stand in the cloakroom, fanning ourselves, letting the maids search for imaginary tears in our gowns.
"That is because you didn't take more than a sip," Felicity whispers."I feel quite fine."
There's a sweet warmth in my head, a lightness that makes it seem as if all is well and no harm can come to me. I smile at Felicity, no longer upset, just enjoying our indiscretion together. Why is it that some secrets can drown you while some pull you close to others in a way you never want to lose?