‘How come you can read, but not write?’
Oh, he could not miss another opportunity to remind her of her shortcomings and lack of substance. Eliza’s already blushing cheeks turned a shade darker, but she braved his stare.
‘Now that I recall the instances I had you read something out loud during our lessons, I sincerely am not surprised that you are semi-literate.‘ Higgins was looking down at her with an eyebrow raised in contempt. ‘You could hardly decode the meaning of the letters, so indeed, how would you be able to put them on paper in the correct order.’
He turned his back on her, and walked up to his drawing table only to start idly fidgeting with the ink container.
‘Well, you could read your Freddy’s love letters, this I know,’ he said bitterly at last.
‘Reading and writing require different skill sets in my understanding.’ Eliza stood tall, already regretting that she had uncovered an aspect of hers that would potentially make her appear more vulnerable in his eyes.
‘Your understanding is flawed. If you can recognize them, you can reproduce them.’
‘Then there must be something surely wrong with me.’ She felt like she was about to lose her temper, and she wanted nothing less than breaking the regal posture he had mounded her into and which served now as an armor on her against his insults.
Higgins turned around and screened her with his eyes. ‘There is nothing wrong with you, Eliza. Nothing on Earth is wrong with you. You are the product of your own life experience, and if learning to write has never been part of it, that is reflected in your character.’
‘You could teach me.’
‘And why would I do that?’
‘Because-‘ She could not quite come up with a response.
‘For old times’ sake? Or because you enjoyed so exquisitely much our phonetics practice? Are you perhaps expecting a discount for my services?’
‘I... I would trust nobody else with such a matter, Professor,’ she said hesitantly. ‘You know my level of education, there is not much additional shame in revealing it to you. But how could I go to someone who knows me as Mrs. Fr-‘
‘I am no elementary school teacher, Eliza. And don’t utter that faint-hearted manchild’s name in my house ever again. If you wish to receive proper education of the sort, go back to first grade.’
He averted his gaze, but did not move. They were standing in strained silence for minutes before she elegantly turned around, and left.
The quiet noise cutlery made seemed to be obscenely loud and awkward that Saturday. Higgins invited Pickering for lunch, hoping to share with him a brand new discovery of his, but the Colonel had the audacity to show up with the one-time flower girl, and he lost his appetite at once.
It was mostly the pair of them who were having a conversation at the table, while Higgins were grumpily poked his food and side-eyed Eliza’s now impeccable table manners.
‘It takes much effort and a wide range of skills to run a flower shop, one would never think of, Colonel. Your kind advices are greatly appreciated by both Fr- both of us.’ Eliza caught herself just in time before Higgins could notice the slip of her tongue. ‘Accounting and bookkeeping for instance are activities we were not prepared to do.’
‘It is a profession in itself, my child, and proper businesses have employees to take care of these matters. I do keep urging you to consider hiring someone, since in the long run, it surely pays off.’ The Colonel, wearing his heart on his sleeves, had done his best to assist the couple where he could, to Higgins’s great dismay.
‘Well, Freddy took up polytechnic classes and-‘
Higgins’ uproaring derision stung her like nothing else.
‘Oh, the notion of that useless boy succeeding at anything is the finest joke there is.’
‘He is willing to improve himself as well as to better his knowledge, and so am I,’ she remarked coldly. ‘If you would let me.’
‘I do not stand in your way, Eliza, not even for a split second. See, Pickering, this dear girl have reached out to me to-.’ He stopped abruptly then, realizing that her disgraphic difficulties had been shared with him confidentially. ‘To... for advice as well, and she is upset now that I was not willing to provide her with any.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Higgins might not be the best choice for information on how to manage a shop,’ Pickering smiled in a fatherly manner.
‘Yes, so have I noticed, Colonel,’ she said curtly, then excused herself from the table.
Coffee was served in the study, but Pickering had to leave to another engagement before the trey arrived. Former mentor and protégée found themselves again in the same room together.
‘What is on your mind, Eliza? I could read your face quite well by now; you are hesitant and embarrassed. If you are worried, I can assure you that my wording did not allow Pickering having found out your little secret.’
‘I am certain that the Colonel would not judge me for not being able to write.’
‘Oh then you shall ask him to teach you how to transfer your thoughts onto paper. Or your beloved husband. I have been wondering why you refrain from seeking his help in the first place anyway.’
She seemed very stiff and somewhat flustered. ‘Well, I know that your pet artistic fancy next to Milton’s verse is calligraphy and... you write a most beautiful Italian hand I have ever.... Your writing is much more beautiful then that of...’
‘I would take it as a compliment,’ Higgins said after a long pause and somewhat breathless, but when Eliza’s hopeful eyes met his, he could not help, but retorted instead. ‘At the same time you are congenitally incapable of forming a single letter worthy of the least of Milton’s words.’
‘Just as I used to be perceived as a lost cause by you before our phonetics lessons. And I proved you wrong.’
‘You are not a lost cause,’ Higgins protested, contradicting himself, and walked to the other side of the room. ‘But our chapter has ended. I offered you an... assistant-like position in his house and in my life with a stable income and decent conditions... until of course you would have married an ambassador or a lord-lieutenant, and... well you threw all this away and settled for a life not worthy of you! You have wasted the knowledge I gave you on speaking, and you will waste the skills I could give you on writing.’ He chucked down his coffee.
‘Why would I be content with an assistant-like position in anyone’s life when I can be loved and adored in someone else’s?’
‘If that is what you want, cheap romance instead of an intellectual adventure of a lifetime.’
‘I would like to be around someone who builds me up instead of tearing me down.’
Something menacing flashed at those words in Higgins’ eyes.
‘I AM the one who have built you up, I am the ONLY reason you have become who you are now, don’t you understand, you self-important pile of rugs?! Your Freddy does nothing more than reaping the fruits of MY and YOUR hard work, and exploiting its results. Am I tearing you down, you imply? Very well, Eliza, you might as well be right about this. I tore down and made you shed all the obnoxious behavioral traits of yours you had acquired due to your upbringing and social standing, so that a much better version of Eliza Doolittle could be built up from scratch. One which reflects your soul and spark in an elegant and agreeable manner. That monkey got infatuated with MY masterpiece.’ He was panting indignantly. ‘How dare you accuse me of...?’
‘Of treating me like your property?’ Eliza crossed her arms.
‘Ungrateful slut,’ he muttered under his breath.
‘Don’t you ever call me like that.’
‘Ungrateful?’ Higgins asked somewhat lighter, since the real weight of his offense hit him too right in the chest. ‘Are you not ungrateful?’
‘Good bye, Professor.’
She felt numb and hurt as she was crossing his study. Calling her a slut was a new low for Henry Higgins, and his words sent her again into such a pain like the one she had been upon winning the bet for him and being discarded right in the next moment.
She heard his voice, concerned and remorseful from behind her back, but she did not stop. She could not wait to get home so that Freddy could kiss her tears away.
‘Eliza.’ He reached her and pulled her back towards him by her arm, making her face him. ‘I should not have. Forgive me.’
She slipped her arm out of his grab and backed away from him with a heartbreaking expression on her face.
‘You should not have said or did not mean it?’
‘I should not have said it, because I did not mean it.’
Eliza let out an exhausted sigh.
‘You insist you don’t tear me down, then you call me something in an attempt to crush my spirit I would never repeat. When you think I can’t or refuse to understand your reasoning, you proceed with intimidation. You can’t intimidate me anymore, Professor, it is only the image of you in my head you stain.’
She thought she had made it clear a while ago.
‘I came here and asked for your help because I respect and trust you to be my tutor. Or so I thought. And because I very much like your handwriting,’ she finished somewhat clumsily.
‘You came here because Pickering brought you along with him.’
‘I asked the Colonel to let me join him. He left, so we could talk.’
‘You are so hellishly determined to become my student again,’ Higgins wagged his head.
‘I was, as a matter of fact.’
‘All right,’ the professor said suddenly. ‘You are too persistent to resist, Eliza. Three hours three times a week, and you will be writing like a calligrapher in three months’ time. We could start tomorrow at 9 a.m.’
Eliza was taken aback by the sudden turn of events.
‘You don’t have to bring anything besides yourself. And your perseverance of course.’
She was blinking at him, trying to catch up with his pace.
‘I might not wish to take lessons anymore from someone who offended me in such a cruel manner.’
‘Also, you don’t need to pay a penny. Accept this offer as an apology for my disgraceful choice of words.’
‘I- well, all right, I do,’ she said after a rather long moment of hesitation. ‘But no experiments of any sort this time.’
‘None.’ His lips curled into a smile.
‘Only that...’ she paused, frowning. ‘I work at 9 in the morning and would only be available from 7, well from half past 6 in the evening if I hurry up.’
‘So be it.’ Higgins gestured ceremonially. ‘See you tomorrow at 7 in the evening, Eliza.’
Higgins threw himself into the task of teaching her with a combination of stormy intensity, concentrated patience, and occasional bursts of interesting disquisitions on...
‘...the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny of human handwriting. Each and every person has a unique style to them, an extension of their personality. You may never recreate my personal style, Eliza, but it is only natural.’
But before they started with the actual letters, Higgins made her practice wrist movements, explained and demonstrated to her how to hold a pen correctly. The first three hours were entertaining, but in Eliza’s mind, useless. By the next day she had sore muscles in her right wrist and fingers. Then they proceeded with drawing lines and circles, loops and curves for weeks on end. It turned out that her basic style was still too cramped, not delicate and relaxed enough for managing later anything more than niggling handwriting.
‘Writing must have a rhythm to it,’ Higgins reminded her. ‘Like pacing in one’s speech. Remember, Eliza how crucial of a factor it was to spoken words. Therefore, today you will practice the right amount of pressure you should exert when using a pen.’
He was much more patient and gentle with her now that neither real time constraint, nor any bet were present. Higgins explained and demonstrated the task, Eliza attempted to recreate what she saw and understood.
‘It must be intuitive. Feel it, don’t force it.’
‘When are we going to draw letters?’ Eliza put down her pen. She could not get the rhythm Higgins was talking about. ‘I do not want to write nicely, I just would like to now how to write. It’s been a month, and the paper in front of me is filled with loops and lines.’
‘If you wish to achieve progress faster, come every night.’
‘Five times a week?’
Eliza swallowed. She had barely seen Freddy recently, and he had mentioned several times how much he missed her.
‘Six,’ she bargained.
‘Then you practice at home on your own on the seventh day.’
‘Be it seven then,’ Eliza relented. She would have slacked at home, she knew.
Higgins stood up.
‘I was meditating on the issue, Eliza, and your trouble might lies in you right hand.’
She was looking at her professor with wide eyes.
‘You might be left-handed. Let’s switch them and try again.’
She did, and... well at least they became certain that she indeed was right-handed, just clumsy.
‘Writing does not start and end with being able to copy and memorize the shape of letters. You will see that grammar makes the real difference.’
‘It has already been a much more demanding undertaking then what I expected.’
They just finished the capital letters when it dawned on her that she might spend another six months in his study.
Which she, in fact, did not mind at all.
It came all back to her why he had become important as well as one of the strongest personal interest in her life in the first place. Her superstitious devotion to him bubbled up again more entirely and frankly then before, and showed no sign it wanted to go away. The naïve, but less than innocent fantasies she had indulged herself about Higgins before marrying Freddy, were not so slowly creeping back into her mind.
‘Could you show me?’
‘Show you what exactly?
‘How it feels to be writing.’
Despite her obscure reference, she knew he understood her very well. On several occasions he had taken her hand to guide her pen. He had moved and adjusted her wrist, fingers and arms freely, his palm covering the back of her hand, his arms almost enveloping hers as he had been slouched over her. She had always had dreams afterwards at night, reliving the experience, hearing his instructions from his lips, right next to her ear.
‘And not just figures and words, but real sentences.’
‘This is a much foolish idea,’ Higgins grumbled. ‘You will know how it feels when you will be able to do it yourself. Don’t waste any more precious time, now that you no all the capitals, write them one right after the other, and we are done for today.’
His reaction humbled and left an unpleasant sting in her. She was halfway through the alphabet when she felt his hand on hers, derailing her pen. With his left palm coming to rest on her left side, on the desk, he almost caged her as he leaned slightly over her and started- no, not guiding as before, but taking control over her hand.
He was writing in such a velocity that she was unable to read it right then and there, but she was sure that he was not spelling the alphabet. When he was done, Higgins reluctantly let go of her hand, but didn’t step back right away. She heard his soft breathing right above her, and felt his shoulder briefly brushing against her back.
‘There you have it.’
Higgins’ hands were still resting on the surface of the desk on each of her sides, his right one next to hers. Possessed by a sudden thought, Eliza reached for it with trembling fingers, knowing that he must be following her motion with his gaze, but as soon as she touched his skin, he abruptly pulled his hand back.
‘I assume our time is up.’ He checked his watch. ‘Yes, yes, it is. 10.20. Rather late.’
Higgins started randomly organizing a pile of documents, meticulously avoiding her eyes.
‘I felt it,’ Eliza said it in a haze.
‘I felt the rhythm.’ Her eyes lit up with excitement. ‘I truly felt it.’
She was lightheaded with contentment on her way back home, and remained so up until she met Freddy’s sad puppy eyes. He looked awfully abandoned, which made her awful in turn. Also, something was holding her back from sharing her afternoon progress with her husband. Their moment with Higgins felt almost intimate and too personal. It didn’t help either that Eliza dreamt with the professor again, and this time the dream resembled much more of her mischievous little fantasies than ever.
Learning to write was not as tedious as learning to speak, Eliza concluded. Learning written grammar however appeared to be more difficult than spoken grammar. She felt the frustration returning. There were moments when she felt stupid and hopeless, and the Colonel was not there anymore to soothe her.
‘Eliza.’ Higgins placed his hand gently on her shoulder. ‘Think about it as a combination of reading, phonetics and writing. Knowing the rules of all of them and cross-practicing, helps good grammatical skills becoming second nature over time. Give it a rest.’
She put her pen down.
‘Observe it,’ the professor poked at the paper in front of her.
‘Another mistake?’ she moaned.
‘No. Your handwriting. Observe it.’ His hand was still resting on her shoulder, right next to her neck. A warm shiver ran through her body at the thought. ‘You have acquired an extremely uncommercial handwriting; a positive extension of your personal beauty. Appreciate it for a second.’
She looked at her letters. They were delicate and exquisite indeed, result of months of dedication and hard work. Her style inevitably resembled that of Higgins, yet there was something inexplicably unique about it. Although it was not what really caught her attention.
‘Y’think I’m beautiful?’ She turned her head and lifted her gaze up at him.
Higgins looked bewildered for a moment. ‘It’s “do you think”, not “y’think” in case it’s a question, Eliza’, he corrected the girl once he regained his control over his head.
‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’ she repeated.
‘I said personal... personal beauty.’ He cleared his throat, seemingly bothered by her straightforward question. ‘Your personality , as I have told you before, therefore I revealed nothing new, is rather pleasant to me.’
His hand slid down from her shoulder to her upper arm, and gave her a little friendly-like, reassuring squeeze, then he walked away from the desk.
Eliza felt so silly immediately. What does it matter how Higgins like her outer appearance? Yet she could not really recall him saying anything like that before. He had branded her “not terrible; quite tolerable; or not unpleasant to look at”, she had caught him stealing looks of her in the past, and remembered how taken he had seemed with her at the embassy ball, but...
‘At any rate, your handwriting is indeed neither ugly, nor unreadable,’ Higgins’ continued. ‘Although how could it be? After all, you have learned the style I practice, which is, according to my humble opinion, is the most esthetically pleasing one out there.’
‘How much more time do you think I need?’
‘Oh, I think we are done.’
Eliza’s heart sunk.
‘But my texts are full of mistakes,’ she protested.
‘Well, your desire was not more than to learn penmanship. I think I took this task a little too seriously.’
‘If only money is the issue, I will pay for the remaining lessons. I do not wish to have you dedicating your time to me without any return. I have already forgiven you for calling me a-‘
‘By George, Eliza...!’
Higgins buried his face in his palm.
‘If three hours are too much, take up too much time, then be it two. Or-‘
‘Too much? Not enough!’ he exclaimed.
Eliza ascended from the chair like the princess she portrayed at the ball, and snatched her purse from the desk. ‘My spelling is not that ghastly. Should I move in again, so you could torture me for hours on end without a break?’
‘You might as well, but-‘
‘Oh, look, an empty headed mannequin who can do nothing more than charm with her manners and pronunciation, and can write pretty letters which look good on expensive stationary, but content-wise are a disgrace.’
‘Eliza, don’t be unreasonable and allow me to explain myself, for God’s sake.’
His voice snapped hard, and she stopped, blinking rapidly.
‘I- er...’ Higgins appeared to be very much disconcerted as he was looking for the right words. ‘Never- never mind.’
‘Please go ahead,’ she nudged him impatiently.
‘You... ah, you would only misunderstood. I have no doubt about it.’
Eliza crossed the room so that she could face him properly.
‘I am not that ignorant, Professor.’
‘It was not what I was implying, silly girl.’ He took a couple of steps backwards.
‘Then what is the matter?’ He though that something was irreparably wrong wit her, and she wanted to know what it was. ‘Why don’t you explain it in a simple manner?’
‘There are things which are better left unspoken,’ Higgins insisted, turning to pack the pens and the ink away.
Eliza was however not willing to let him escape from the situation. She pushed the pens aside from underneath his hands and leaned against his desk with her back in a rather unladylike fashion, in order to block his access to the surface of the desk.
‘I won’t be offended, unless you say it in a vulgar way.’
‘You need to respect people’s boundaries, Eliza. Your behavior is invasive,’ Higgins declared, his face less than an inch from hers. Then he set his palms on the desk on either of her sides, and towered over her. She could feel his body pressing against hers. ‘You won’t hear a word from my lips.’
The situation was positively frightening. Nobody has ever been that close to her, except for Freddy, but his husband had never elicited such wild, all-consuming desire from her than the one which surged suddenly in her. She felt paralyzed under his screening eyes which finally settled on her slightly parted lips. But he didn’t proceed.
‘So, is that... is that it? The end of the practice?’ she stuttered. ‘Are we done for good?’
‘No, we are not.’
Higgins kissed her with such passion she would have never imagined him being capable of. He gave no explanation to her, not then, not even later, but he kissed her breathless and dizzy, and it was only his sense of morality - although hanging by a thread - which prevented them from committing adultery. He held her instead, tightly and dearly, whispering her name into her neck.
‘You should have never left, Eliza. He doesn’t deserve you. You are my masterpiece, my capolavoro.’
She had no energy to refute him, and deep in her heart she knew he was right. Instead, she leaned back and looked into his eyes.
‘I could have been a bad girl, if I’d like. I’ve seen more of some things than you, for all your learning. Girls like me can drag gentlemen down to make love to them easily enough. And they wish each other dead the next minute,’ she recited what she had told him during their last verbal sparring, before she had decided to marry Freddy.
‘I would never wish you dead.’ He tilted his head a bit to the side.
‘You would only call me a sl-‘
Higgins cut her off promptly.
‘Forget that word, Eliza, forget it,’ he barked then with ragged breathing. ‘And forget that feeble-minded boy as well.’
‘Freddy needs me,’ she insisted, having stabilized herself with her hands on his chest.
‘Damn him, I need you more.’
‘He loves me.’
‘And do you love him?’ he asked, masterfully avoiding a confession on his side.
‘I- I care for him. With affection. I- I am his wife by oath.’ Tears welled in her eyes suddenly. ‘He is kind to me.’
‘He is an inexperienced loser without character. He only feels the need to demonstrate kindness, so that he could make up for all his shortcomings.’
‘And what if it is so? He makes my life better with his kindness and never insults me.’
‘And yet you have readily spent the last number of months with me every single night lettering, only to return home to your snoring man.’ He apparently couldn’t bring himself to say husband.
‘Results need dedication,’ Eliza pointed out stubbornly, but deep down she didn’t mind that she had been freed recently from Freddy’s clumsy fumbling on her body. ‘And now please let go of me.’
Higgins stepped away, defeated.
‘I am not going to promise that I will stop thinking of how it would feel to get you alone on a deserted island,’ she said quietly, ‘away from all the ties and with nobody else in the world to consider, and just drag you off your pedestal and see you making love like any common man, but-‘
‘Eliza, I am no common man, and you are no common woman,’ Higgins interrupted her. And you... you don’t love Freddy.’
‘I don’t love you either, Henry Higgins,’ she snapped. ‘I might be immensely interested in you, I might... I might fantasize about you now and then,’ she continued with crimson cheeks, ‘but I don’t love you. I- I don’t love you. No, I don’t.’
‘But I do, Eliza.’
Eliza looked up into eyes gleaming sincerely. After all the poses he had stricken, and the masks he had worn, Henry Higgins finally peeked through.
‘By George, I am no common man, and I wouldn’t make love to you as a common man.’
‘What are you expecting of me?’ she whispered, with her voice faltering, ‘To divorce Freddy and run into your arms? Or to move in, be your assistant and lover, and send the money I make home to my husband? Now I have a reputation to guard. You think that the world is orbiting around you.’
‘What can Freddy provide you with apart from his kindness?’
She remained silent.
‘Nothing, that’s what,’ Higgins growled. ‘We would-‘
‘We would tear each other to pieces, couldn’t last for a month. Nothing, but some emergency or calamity great enough to break down all likes and dislikes and throw us both back on our common humanity would ever alter this.’
She turned away from him, but he reached for her and turned her back around encircling her waist. ‘I would challenge that observation, Ms. Doolittle.’
And with that he kissed her again. He kissed her until her muscles became of jelly and her sighs became moans. Until her dress was bunched up around her waist and his belt unbuckled; until he sent everything on his desk crushing to the floor with only one sweeping motion; until they were hot and messy, out of breath and limp. Until that and beyond.
They did not wish one another dead afterwards, quite the opposite, but they did not spoke of what happened that night ever again, either.
And that was all. That was how it had turned out.
It was astonishing how much Mrs. Eynsford-Hill still managed to meddle in the housekeeping at Professor Higgins’ home in spite of the shop and her own family, but she willingly shared his time with both her beloved Colonel and the Professor despite everything, and Higgins willingly received her every time as an old and dear friend, despite everything.
Well, maybe secretly wishing in the meantime that one day she would gather her right mind and turn her back on her husband, but every time the gloomy thoughts started to creep in, he hit up one of Milton’s classics, and drowned his feelings in it.