Dangling Participles by Jon McDonald

            To say that Dexter Wiggin was handsome would be a gross understatement.  He was radiant.  He had the fair skin of a maiden.  His midnight black hair set off his fine features in sharp contrast.  Whether in profile or full face his perfect head graced a slim, supple body equally admired.  But, oh, how he suffered.  He was so extremely shy and retiring as to be almost pathological.  Growing up with no siblings in the small town of Quincy, south of Boston, he had lived quietly with his mother – his father having been killed in the civil war.  He was bright, studious and sang like an angel in the church choir.  He was often teased by the other boys because of his stunning, androgynous looks, which drove him even deeper within himself.  The headmaster at his school sought to guide him into law, thinking he would make a fine attorney with his sharp mind, but Dexter was far too modest and timid to take up that profession.   And of course the military was totally out of the question for a young man of his sensitivity. 

            Instead, after graduating from Harvard at twenty-three, he took the position of tutor with a prominent Boston family, the Howland’s; engaged to lead the studies of both the younger, fifteen year old boy, Charles, and his only slightly older sister, Flora – a ravishing beauty herself at only seventeen.

            Trevor Howland and his wife, Martha, who were often engaged in social and civic duties, seldom had time to monitor their children, and were greatly relieved to finally have a fine young gentleman with a sterling reputation in charge of the moral and scholarly education of their somewhat rambunctious progeny. 
            Dexter could see that he had his work cut out for him, though, especially with Flora.  At seventeen she already considered herself a grown woman and had little use for the distractions of any further education; even though her mother insisted she master French, as it was considered such a fine ladylike accomplishment in Boston social circles.
            Flora was slouched at the breakfast table and had a ribbon in her hand that she was winding around her forefinger.  She would not look up at Dexter even when he spoke to her.
            “Flora, have you studied the verbs I assigned you yesterday?”
            Flora pouted, and pulled the ribbon off her finger in one grand gesture, flinging it out towards Dexter with a snap like a whip.  “Nasty old French verbs.  I hate them.”  She rose from the table and flounced out of the room totally ignoring Dexter’s entreaties for her to remain.
            Poor Dexter hated confrontation of any kind.  And despite the authority granted him by the Howland’s, he had absolutely no will to exercise his disciplinary prerogatives with Flora at the moment. 
            But at least there was Master Charles, a willing student and an eager, wide-eyed acolyte.  He hung on Dexter’s every word and ferociously completed every assignment with great enthusiasm and mastery.  But this afternoon Master Charles seemed to be having a hard time concentrating on his English grammar assignment.  The schoolroom window was open for the first time this spring and Charles was gazing outside at the maple tree putting out its first few tentative leaves.  A soft warm breeze played with the curtains at the window.  And he was further distracted by the sounds of the horses and carriages in the street outside.  Poor Charles could not get his mind around to the subject at hand.
            “Please, read me your last sentence,” Dexter demanded once again of Charles.
            “What?” Charles snapped back into the present.  He looked down at his exercise book.  “Ah, ah…” he read again the sentence he had just finished.  “Rushing to finish his essay, Tom’s pencil broke.”
            “Now, tell me what’s wrong with that sentence,” Dexter quizzed.
            Charles stared blankly at the notebook.  He shrugged.  “No idea.”
            “You have a dangling participle.  The verb and the subject do not agree.  ‘Rushing’ – the participle and verb - does not agree with the noun – ‘pencil’.  The pencil is not rushing, Tom is.  Thus the participle - rushing - is dangling.”
            Charles stared up at Dexter in complete bewilderment.
            “Now complete the sentence so that it makes sense, please,” Dexter demanded.
            Dexter was standing in front of the open window.  He was backlit and as he turned his head towards Charles the sun broke through the clouds for a brief moment and lit up Dexter’s face like the subject of the Dutch painting in the library.  Charles was stunned.  It was a defining and illuminating moment in his life. He had never seen anything so absolutely beautiful before.  He felt stirrings in his loins that he could not account for, and he rushed out of the classroom.  “Excuse me, Mr. Wiggin, I have to use the commode.”
            When Charles returned his face was flush.  He had obviously splashed water on his face, as the hair framing his face was wet.  He stood in the doorway, not sure how he should proceed.
            “Are you coming in, Master Charles?” Dexter queried.
            “Sir.  Sir.”  Was all he could muster in response.
            “What is it, Charles, are you ill?”
            “Sir…” Charles suddenly rushed forward to where Dexter was now sitting at his desk.  He took Dexter’s hand in both of his.  “Sir.”  He leaned forward and kissed the back of Dexter’s hand with great intensity.  He then abruptly straightened, letting go of Dexter’s hand and stared at Dexter like a startled deer, and then turned and rushed out of the room.  The soft breeze blew a curtain against the back of Dexter’s neck.  He lightly brushed it away.  He was utterly bewildered, and uncertain now as to how he should respond.  Should he go after his charge, or pretend it never happened?  He was paralyzed with indecision.  He was blushing brightly, and for the first time felt he might not be up to the task of tutoring this household.  He was frantic with regret and guilt, even though he had instigated nothing.  He was far too embarrassed to speak to the child directly and could only think to retire to his attic room, lie down, and restore his equilibrium.
            He rushed out of the schoolroom and headed for the main staircase leading to his room.  But as he passed by the solarium, Madam’s voice called out to him.
            “Oh Mr. Wiggin, may I see you for a moment please?”
            Dexter froze in the dash to his room.  He was certain that Charles had told his mother everything and he would now be tossed out of the house in utter disgrace and humiliation – even though he had not instigated anything.
            “Madam,” he responded, and hesitantly poked his head through the solarium door.
            “Please come in, won’t you?”  Madam smiled and patted a welcoming place on the sofa next to where she was seated with a tea tray on the table in front of her.  “Tea?” she offered with a smile as she began to pour even before he consented.
            Dexter was beginning to feel that perhaps Charles had not communicated the unfortunate occurrence to his mother after all. 
            “Tea would be nice.”  He sat gingerly on the edge of the sofa, a comfortable distance away from Madam. 
            “Milk, sugar, lemon?” she asked, the cup poised in her hand.
            “Lemon only, thank you.”
            Madam placed a small slice of lemon on his saucer with a pair of silver tongs.
            “Do have a lemon tart.  It will be such a delicious compliment to your tea.”  And again, without his response, she placed a small yellow nugget of tart on a plate and handed both the tea and the tart to Dexter.
            It was late afternoon now and the sun was spilling into the garden room with the force of the burgeoning spring.  Mr. Howland was quite fond of Orchids and the mossy, woody haze of the solarium air was set in motion by the afternoon sun streaming in through the double glazed windows.  Dexter was beginning to feel uncomfortable.  He was not used to sweating and he delicately brushed back a lock of hair off his, now, moist brow.  Madam remained as cool as the cucumber sandwich, sans crusts, on which she was ever so politely nibbling.  Her blond curls were as perfect as an alabaster freeze.  Her muslin dress was taught and trim across her breasts and around her perfect little waist.
            “More tea, Mr. Wiggin?”  She slightly lowered her gaze and turned more directly to him.
            “Thank you, no.”  He was even more uncomfortable now.  Madam did not seem to have a perceptible reason for calling him into the garden room.  The scent of the Orchids was now becoming cloying and he felt that he might soon fall into a swoon if he did not escape this oppressive room.  He put down his teacup. 
            “I really feel I must get back to my room now,” he spoke abruptly.  “I have to prepare the lessons for tomorrow’s classes.
            “Oh please don’t go just yet, Mr. Wiggin.  It has been such a pleasure sharing afternoon tea with you.”  She reached over and placed her hand on Dexter’s knee.  He was so startled he actually executed a slight jump on the sofa.  He looked around wildly.  The giant ferns seemed to imprison him.  The Philodendron, climbing the pillars, scowled down on him - ancient disapproving gargoyles.  The scarlet Hibiscus scolded from their pots in the corners of the room.
            Madam gave a crystalline laugh and scooted closer, placing her arm lightly around Dexter’s shoulders as her other hand slid slowly up his leg.  “Now Mr. Wiggin, I got the impression in our first meeting that you were a man of the world.  I certainly wasn’t wrong was I?  A Harvard man, after all,” she uttered, as Dexter strove to disentangle himself from her advances.
            “Madam,” he asserted as he rose from the sofa and backed towards the entrance, “I’m afraid you must have a mistaken idea about me.  I am your family tutor, and I have a responsibility that does not allow for familiarities with any members of the family.  I am gravely sorry if you have found me wanting.”
           Again Madam laughed lightly and leaned back against the sofa, her arm languishing along the back.  “Oh Mr. Wiggin.  Are you always so serious?  My, my.  Do come back.”  She patted the sofa seat next to her.  He refused to move.  “Well, you have quite bewitched me, what can I say?  Surely you don’t want to fall into my bad graces now, do you?”  And then, with just an edge of pleading, “Dexter, certainly the life of a solitary bachelor cannot be long endured – a handsome, virile, young man of your age.  I’m certain you must have needs as well.  Just imagine how advantageous it could be to both of us if you could melt just a little.”  She scooted down the sofa even closer towards Dexter.
            Just then Charles came bounding into the garden room.  He froze and blushed bright pink upon seeing Dexter with his mother.  He feared the worst.  It was all over now.  Mr. Wiggin had certainly revealed all about his schoolroom indiscretion. 
            Madam looked intently at Charles.  “My dear, do come closer.  You look so flushed.  Do you have a fever?”
            Charles sidled over to his mother who put her hand up to his forehead.  Charles kept his eyes on Mr. Wiggin and awaited the reproach from Mama.  But none came.  She pulled him around so he faced her square on. 
            “I think some hot water and lemon, and then to bed for the rest of the afternoon.  Don’t you think, Mr. Wiggin?”
            “It might be advisable.”
            “No, I’m fine, mother - really.” Charles pleaded, wanting only to escape the solarium at this moment.
            “Now don’t argue with your mother, Charles.  Mr. Wiggin, would you please kindly escort Master Charles to his bedroom, and see that he gets undressed immediately and put into bed.  I shall have Clara bring up the hot water and lemon straight away.
            Poor Charles was now doubly confounded - not only was there the kiss earlier, but now he must completely undress and stand naked in front of Mr. Wiggin.  He was not at all sure what the result of that would be. 
            Dexter was also feeling uncomfortable about this development for much the same reason. 
            “I’m not quite sure that Master Charles needs my assistance, Madam.  At fifteen and with his agile mind, I am certain that he can undress and get himself into bed quite efficiently without my supervision.”
            Madam paused, brushed a crumb from her dress, and turned to Mr. Wiggin once again.  “I seem to remember, Mr. Wiggin, that in our interview with you for this position, you clearly stated that you would be more than willing - nay, eager even - to assist any member of our family with any need that might arise.  So far I have not witnessed that willingness, Mr. Wiggin.  Am I to assume that you no longer desire to continue in this position?”  She smiled very sweetly.
            “I am very much obliged to assist Master Charles, as you wish, of course.”
            “And as to the other matter that we were discussing earlier, l shall wish to resume our conversation on that subject again at another time - soon.  Good afternoon.”  She waved the two away and sank back into the sofa where a delicate Ghost Orchid seemed to whisper in her ear.
            Dexter marched Charles to his room.  Neither of them spoke about the kiss, but Charles was clearly nervous and expecting a reprimand.  Dexter, however, could not muster such a response and quickly left the room as soon as Charles had undressed himself and slipped into bed, gratefully, without any further incidents. 
            Dexter was so distraught after the episodes with Madam and Charles that he went immediately to his room.  He asked that his dinner be sent up to his chambers that evening, and retired early with the idea that a good night’s sleep would refresh him and allow him to more fully consider the consequences of what was happening in this wretched house.
*      *      *
            It was about one in the morning.  Dexter knew because he had just turned over in bed, surfacing slightly from sleep, and heard the church bell chime the hour.  It was then that he became aware of the very slightest movement in his room - a rustling.  He was instantly awake and sat up in bed and peered into darkness.  There at his door was a faint white shape.
            “Hello?” he called out.
            The shape moved hesitantly forward but stopped, still some distance from his bed.  He was unable to make out who it was.
            “Who’s there?  What do you want?”
            Suddenly the form rushed forward and Flora threw herself on top of Dexter, flinging him back onto his bed. 
            “Oh Dexter, my beloved, I can resist you no longer.”
            Dexter tried freeing himself from her, but she was straddling him and her hands were holding down his arms in a vice like grip.
            “Flora, please get off.  This is totally inappropriate.”
            “Oh my darling, do you not feel the same about me?  I have lain awake many nights thinking only of you.”
            She leaned down and gave him a moist, passionate kiss.  He turned his head away and struggled to free himself from her grasp.  She reached down and slid her hand under his nightshirt.  But by releasing one of his hands to do this, it allowed Dexter to finally get some leverage, and he pushed on the bed with great force and flung the quite distraught Flora most ungraciously onto the floor.  Dexter immediately lit the lamp by his bed, pulled down his nightshirt, and put on a robe.
            “I don’t know what to say to you, Flora.”
            Flora rose from the floor and rushed forward, flinging her arms around Dexter’s neck.
            “I can’t help myself.  I am consumed with love for you,” she sighed. 
            As Dexter was considerably taller than Flora she could not quite reach up to kiss him again, as he was leaning backwards, trying to pull away from her, so she threw her arms tightly around Dexter’s torso, buried her head in his chest, and began to cry. 
            Once again Dexter was utterly perplexed.  What was it about this family?  Yes, he had been admired all his life for his stunning looks.  But never before had he been so unrelentingly accosted.  He finally managed to pry Flora from him and held her out at arms length.
            “Flora, this has got to stop, right now.  I will not tolerate this.  You have somehow turned my concern for you as your tutor into some kind of romantic nonsense.  Let me assure you that I have absolutely no romantic interest in you whatsoever.”
            At that, Flora gave a soul-wrenching cry and fled out of the room as quickly as she could.  Poor Dexter collapsed onto the edge of his bed and rested his head in his hands.  It was clear to him now that this was a very disturbed family, and he decided that he would have to give his notice to Mr. Howland first thing in the morning.  Needless to say he did not get much sleep the rest of the night.
*      *      *
            Mr. Howland was in his study first thing in the morning, and Dexter was determined not to delay tendering his resignation.  What he had wrestled with all night was how to give his resignation without incriminating the rest of the family.  It would be entirely inappropriate for Dexter to disclose to the head of the family the indiscretions of his wife and two children.
            “Sir, might I have a word with you?”
            Mr. Howland looked up from his paper.  He nodded.
            “I regret having to do this, sir, but I have had word that my mother is gravely ill and I must return home.”
            “Indeed?  I am saddened to hear that.”
            “And as I don’t know what the situation is with her, or how long I might have to remain in Quincy, I believe it best if I tender my resignation now.”
            Mr. Howland was silent as he contemplated this news.  He put down the newspaper and rising, crossed over to his desk.  He turned and looked out the window at the blustery spring morning.
            “Sir?” Dexter was becoming unsettled by the long silence.
            Mr. Howland turned to face Dexter.  “Son, I don’t believe a word you’re saying.”  He walked over and put his arm around Dexter’s shoulder and led him to the window.
            “But sir…sir,” Dexter stammered.
            “No, no, listen.  I don’t care what you told me.  You mother may be ill or not, but I know that’s not the issue.  I’ve taken quite a liking to you, my boy, and I know my children are devoted to you as well, even after such short period of time.  If it’s a matter of money….”
            “No sir, it’s not that.”
            “Well, it must be something else, then.”  He paused and turned to look directly at Dexter.  “Is it my wife?”  Dexter turned pale and looked away.  “She and I lead very separate lives, except for the family, of course.  She’s a very attractive woman and has a great many admirers.  And she is not above entertaining them, if you know what I mean.  I am guessing she expressed an interest in you that has not been reciprocated.”  He paused and looked again directly at Dexter.
            “Sir, I cannot say.”  Dexter was now extremely uncomfortable and moved away from Mr. Howland. 
            “Well, I’m guessing that you might not follow that particular persuasion.  Am I correct?”  He walked over to Dexter and put his arm around Dexter’s shoulder once again.  “As I’ve said, I’ve taken quite a liking to you, and I feel that we might have a lot in common you and me.  If you could find your way to accommodate me, then I am certain you would benefit greatly.  I have a great many friends who could offer you similar companionship; they are highly placed gentlemen, all with sterling connections for the advancement of a young man of your persuasion.  And I am certain we could offer you a far more generous salary for your position here at this house.  What do you say?”
            Dexter was now in utter panic and could not even speak.  He just looked incredulously at Mr. Howland and fled the study.  He rushed up the stairs to his room, threw his few belongings into his bag, and fled the house without saying good-bye to anyone.  He went directly to the stables where his horse was quartered and searched for Daniel, the groom.
            “Daniel, you there?” Dexter called out.
            “Sir?” Daniel responded coming from his small room behind the stable.  “Were you wanting something?”
            “Yes, my horse, as soon as possible.  I’m leaving.”
            “Going for a ride, Sir?”
            “No, I’m leaving this house and all its degenerate occupants.”
            “Sir?” Daniel queried, somewhat confused. 
            “I’ve resigned my post.  I’m going home.”
            “Oh that is a pity, it is, a handsome young gentleman like yourself.  Why I was thinking that you and I might go riding together one day.  I know some really beautiful spots where there are no prying eyes - if you get my meaning, sir.”
            Dexter stared at Daniel in utter disbelief.  “No, not you too?”
*      *      *
            Dexter sat with his mother by their fireplace with its warming fire.  It was still nippy, even this late into the spring. 
            “I don’t know.  I just don’t know,” Dexter responded to his mother’s question about what he was going to do next.
            “Well, Mr. Todd, I hear, is looking for a tutor for his six children.  All sorts of ages.  From six to about sixteen, I believe.  You should stop by and have a chat with the Mistress.  I’m sure they would find you most agreeable.
            “Yes, I’m sure they would.  But no thank you, mother, no more tutoring for me.”
          “Really?  Well, you must have had a very nasty experience up there in Boston, then.  Why won’t you tell me about it?  You’ve been so secretive ever since you’ve been back home.  What happened?  Do tell me, dear.”
            “No, Mother, I don’t think I can.”  He paused and was lost in contemplation for a moment.  Then he looked up at her.  “But I have reached a decision.  I’m going to become a priest.  I crave a totally spiritual life.  I’ll go into the seminary, where there are all those young men just like me - so chaste, so pure.  It will be the perfect place for me, don’t you see?  And then finally, I shall have some peace.”

Jon McDonald lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He currently has three published novels - a satire, Divas Never Flinch; a humorous vampire thriller, Bloodlines – the Quest and The Seed – An Ironic Political Thriller.  His fourth book Gotta Dance With the One Who Brung Ya – Sex, Scandals and Sweethearts will be published in early 2013.  He won first prize and was published in the New Mexican holiday short story contest, 2009.  He has also been published in Jonathan, Raphael’s Village, ImageOutWrite, and now Bay Laurel.  His website is: www.jonmcdonaldauthor.com

Bay Laurel  /  Volume 1, Issue 2  /  Winter 2012