39. The Spinsters’ Chaise Lounge Incident and a Masculine Demand

As promised, Inglorion introduces Valentine to his intelligence sources in Amakir. It would be unjust to call Inglorion a honeypot, but he does count several attractive, unattached women among his professional acquaintance. After a few weeks in Amakir, it’s obvious to Valentine that his older cousin freely mingles business and pleasure, and can’t imagine operating in any other way.

It’s true that Inglorion is handsome, and that every emotion looks better when expressed by his lovely features. Over time, Valentine begins to appreciate the more subtle elements of his appeal. Most obviously, he notices when women struggle, and smoothly adapts to their wishes. On a typical day, Inglorion opens dozens of doors, pauses to load luggage into cabs, and holds the leash of a woman’s pug while she searches through a half-dozen shopping bags. He helps women to hail waiters and cabs, produces an umbrella when it rains, and offers a light to any fair smoker in his vicinity. He provides these little services without seeming to require a return on investment. As a result, he makes women’s acquaintance easily, and they freely confide their worries, frustrations and enthusiasms.

Soon after they’ve relocated to Amakir, Valentine participates in what he thinks of as the Spinsters’ Chaise Lounge Incident. The two cousins are strolling across a tidy, green square on their way back to the flat. Inglorion is carrying his coffee and a paper bag of pastries. On the far side of the square, two women are struggling to lift a chaise lounge out of a carrier’s van and onto the brick roadway. The driver is holding the horses’ heads, grinning, and calling out casual advice. 

Inglorion leaps to their assistance as efficiently as he enters battle. Before Valentine has fully grasped the situation, his adroit cousin has stashed his coffee and sweets on a nearby stoop, and taken one end of the couch, saying “Oh, here, madam — that’s awkward — allow me. Where do you need it? Valentine, can you just guide us around the corner? And madam, if you could get the door?”

At first they’re flustered, but his manner is so quick, natural and irresistible that they give in and allow him to maneuver the sofa up two flights of stairs and into a narrow, empty flat. By the time the couch is where they want it, all four of them are joking and laughing. The two women — spinster sisters — thank Inglorion profusely, and try to treat them both to a cup of tea. Inglorion refuses laughingly, saying, “No, we won’t take up any more of your time. Moving is an all-day affair. I’m glad we could make it a little easier for you.”

Back on the street, Inglorion tips an urchin to holds the horses, and negotiates with the driver to unload the heavier items, murmuring, “You don’t want to spend all day on one fare, man — help them out and move on with your life.” 

They retrieve their coffee and resume their stroll. After awhile, Inglorion says with a mock-pious air, “That’s the hard, day-to-day work of being a ladies’ man. I’ll point out that even before we’d been properly introduced, we were deep in their territory, graciously refusing tea.”

“Why did you refuse?”

“It would be too hard for them to find the tea-things and make it. There’s an art to knowing when to withdraw, and when to press your advantage.”

Soon thereafter, Inglorion is invited to a small dinner party, and he wangles an invitation for Valentine, allowing the latter a chance to see advantage well-pressed. “Nathalie’s not a source,” he says, “but I always see her when I’m in town. She’s an intriguing woman — rich, eccentric, never married, an amateur naturalist and member of the Royal Society. She’s introduced me to many people worth cultivating. I think you’ll like her, and she can connect you with men worth knowing back in Liamelia.”

In fact, Valentine doesn’t like her. She has a kind of pale, angular beauty, but when they’re introduced, she strikes Valentine as cold, dismissive and abrasive.

After this unpromising start, Valentine acquits himself as well as he’s able. At dinner he’s seated between a dour naturalist and a lighthearted poet; he smiles, murmurs occasional encouragement, and resigns himself to accepting instruction on the habits of flightless beetles and the niceties of hexameter verse. The salon afterwards is worse. Somehow he’s cornered by the only debutante present. Once she learns he’s the heir to the Shelawn fortune, she pursues his acquaintance with the steely good cheer of a nurse examining and injecting a bashful patient. He finally resorts to open incivility, deposits her with her chaperone, and takes flight, determined to find Inglorion and beg him to leave.

Inglorion is in the library, tete-a-tete with their hostess. They’re seated alone at a little table, deep in intellectual discussion. As Valentine watches from across the crowded room, Nathalie demonstrates something — a principle of physics? A battle maneuver? — using her wineglass, a desert-plate, and two forks. Even now, her manner is precise, enthusiastic, unattractively assured. Inglorion observes her gestures narrowly, asks a question, adjusts one of the forks. 

After a moment, they both fall still. She sips from her wineglass. They’re facing each other, knees almost touching. Her free hand is toying with her napkin. Inglorion reaches over, covers her hand with his, stills it. Their eyes meet. He draws her hand off the table. Valentine can’t see where he’s placed it, but there’s a shift in her posture and attitude. Her head inclines to one side, a flush stains her cheeks, and a smile plays on her lips. Her knees fall open.

Soon afterwards the party breaks up, apparently of its own accord. As the final guests are departing, Inglorion finds Valentine in the hall and says in a matter-of-fact tone, “Go ahead without me — I’ll catch up later.”

As Valentine walks back to the flat, his thoughts return to Inglorion’s gesture — so intimate and raw — in the middle of a civilized dinner party. In one sense, the scene could hardly have been more explicit: Even in quarter-profile, Valentine saw his cousin’s manner shift from intellectual engagement to masculine demand. His expression was commanding, even imperious; her surrender, immediate and unconditional. 

Even so, Valentine finds the whole thing baffling, mysterious. He might have been able to sneak a kiss from the debutante, at the risk of a lawsuit for breach of promise. But if he’d grabbed her hand like that… He shudders. The consequences would be immediate and humiliating: A slap in the face swiftly followed by a horsewhipping from her brother.

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