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Rara Avis

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He sat for quite a long time after she departed. He found he could not bring himself to move from his armchair, lest she reappear a second time, ready to . . . .

To what? He could not begin to finish the thought. What did he want Eliza Doolittle around for? To fetch and carry for him, as she had alleged? Much as he found her useful in that regard, he had a small army of servants at his command who did perfectly well at all that. To have fun, as he'd told her in his mother's drawing room? To simply go on as they had before, plugging away at phonetics and tricking the unsuspecting gentry?

He could not think what he wanted Eliza home for. Henry Higgins only knew what he was trying to prevent from happening, whether that was marrying Freddy or apprenticing herself to Zoltan Karpathy. He could play those scenarios out in his mind, and they gave him a sick, roiling feeling in the pit of his stomach. She mustn't go off with those other men and leave him behind in his big, empty house. It was an untenable proposition.

For four days, he believed she would return at any moment, and, consciously or not, did not leave the house for those four days so that he would not happen to miss her return. Pickering watched him cautiously over cups of tea and copies of The Times. Never once did either man say Eliza's name. They spoke of nothing much, but the entire house was gripped in a queasy state of unease as the Eliza-less hours ticked by.

The tension was broken five days after the ball by a letter addressed to the Colonel, which he read silently to himself after it was delivered by Mrs. Pearce.

Dearest Pickering,

Forgive the tardiness of this letter, but I had to hire a man to take it down for me, as I cannot write well enough to satisfy my own scruples.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the kindnesses you have shown me these past six months. I have found that the true difference between being a flower girl and being a lady is not how one speaks or dresses, but how one is treated by others. And yet you have treated me as a lady from the moment I set foot in the house on Wimpole Street. Had you not, I do not know if I could have found the strength to strike out on my own.

I do not wish for you to worry about your Eliza. I have always been a good girl who knew just enough to survive, and six months in the lap of luxury has not changed that. I shall be all right. Please do not search for me.

I wish you all the best, sir.

Yours etc.,

Eliza Doolittle

Colonel Pickering read the letter quickly once, then a second time more slowly. He felt Higgins' eyes boring into the back of his head, and knew he had a duty to his friend to tell him the truth.

He folded the letter and tucked it into his own valise. “She is not coming back, Higgins.”

The professor startled as if a gunshot had woken him from a dead sleep. “What's this? What nonsense is this?”

“Higgins, old chap, I hate to be the bearer of bad news.”

“Give me that letter at once! Not coming back, indeed!”

The colonel shook his head. “No, no, that won't do at all. You'll have to take my word for it this time.”

Higgins leapt to his feet and strode towards Pickering's valise with the obvious intent of taking the letter. Pickering vacillated a moment, then plucked it from the case himself and handed it to Higgins. “You are only making yourself miserable.”

Higgins ignored the spoken warning and snatched the letter from the colonel's grasp. His eyes darted about on the page, almost as if he had lost the power to read at all. He held the letter and stared at it for an indecent amount of time, then handed it back to Pickering and sank to the floor with a groan that startled his friend.

“Pickering, what is this? Why has she done this? Why do I–” Here he clasped the letter to his breast and fell silent, apparently unable to articulate, for once in his life, precisely what he wished to express.

“Higgins, answer me this. When I return to India, will you be this disconsolate?”

Higgins stared at Pickering. “Good God, man, no.”

“If I were to take a bride, even at my late age, would you shut yourself inside the house for days on end?”

“Pickering, you know I shouldn't do anything of the sort, what are you driving at?”

Pickering, who was certainly no ace at social graces, was at least savvier than his grieving friend. “Perhaps you ought to think about why a woman has left you in all this state, a state you cannot imagine entering into should a man such as myself do precisely the same thing. Why can't a woman be more like a man, indeed.”

As it happened, Pickering didn't leave for India immediately. He dared not, not while Higgins was in a state of mourning obvious to everyone aside from himself. His staff tried to coax him to eat, but he only picked at tea trays occasionally. He continued to shut himself within the house, opening his mail only to glance at the signature and toss each letter aside. He was often seen scratching away at stray pieces of paper or bound blank books, but he sent no post himself.

After a month or two, he began attending church again, and a couple of weeks after that, he resumed his habitual Sunday dinners with his mother. His mother was a woman of great intelligence who never breathed a word about Eliza Doolittle, only read her son's face and measured how far along in his grief he was.

About this time, Colonel Pickering felt it was time for him to be returning to his piece of the Empire in India. He had learnt Higgins' phonetic alphabet, and even to distinguish a dozen more vowel sounds than he had before. Moreover, he could sense that his friend would certainly survive this blow, with or without his fellow linguist. So without much fanfare, he booked passage to India, informed Higgins he'd be sailing in a week's time, and packed his things. They took one last trip to the opera together, shook hands heartily, and promised to write each other. Then the colonel was gone, and Higgins was alone in his grand London home, with only ghosts for company.