52. Leaving His First Love Behind

For the first time in his life, Inglorion is entirely love-struck. After one evening in Virginia’s company, he’s gone from finding her intriguing and feeling excited about the possibility she represents, to the conviction that he must have her, and that he’s willing to remove any obstacle, overcome any objection. He wakes up the following morning full of energy and overflowing with details: Her dark, candid gaze; the many different kinds of smile that play around her lips, from a look of sweet amusement to a broad grin; the grace of her gestures; her fascinating fragility. 

This last topic preoccupies him for much of the morning as he bathes, dresses, and prepares to go out. She’s really quite tiny, a few inches shorter than his 5’4”. Though he doesn’t often consider it, Inglorion is not a big guy, which is a tactful way of saying that he’s a small one. He’s short and naturally slender, and if he’s stressed, quickly starts looking weedy and underfed. On rare occasion, Inglorion has thought it would be nice to be as tall and commanding as his father was. Just over six feet tall, a colossus for an elf! It would be handy to be 10 inches taller, but he’s never needed that to compel either enemies or lovers to surrender. 

And yet, there’s something appealing about Virginia’s doll-like perfection. Her hands are small in his. Like Greta X, she’s animated and assured when she moves and speaks, but she retains a quality of reserve and quiet invitation. He doesn’t just want to fuck her — he wants to embrace her, kiss her, waltz with her. He wants to protect her and shield her from harm, an unfamiliar and pleasant impulse. 

In order to achieve these ends, he sends a note to Artemisia requesting to pay a morning call. Normally he would just walk over, but he wants to give the occasion weight, and to be sure that she’s prepared to receive him, and to listen to what he has to say.

Her reply is brief:

Yes, come. You’re always welcome.

—AAdV

When he enters her library, she greets him with simple, unaffected pleasure: “There you are! I’ve missed you.”

He kisses her hand out of habit, then paces over to the fireplace, where a fire is already lit. He leans up against the mantlepiece, looks at her, tries to gauge her mood and put his thoughts into words. Finally he says, “I’ve been remiss. I could plead the press of business and social engagements, but I think we both understand what happened. I needed time to think. Once I stepped away to do that, I found I was happier — much happier — away from you.”

His words quench the glow in her face. Her gaze drops. She looks penitent, and says, “I know. I don’t blame you, darling. Matters between us have been difficult. I’ve felt it myself.”

“Artemisia, I admire you very much. For a time I loved you desperately —” he breaks off, looks away. He can’t stand to look into her eyes, to see the injury in her lovely and beloved face. “I’ve been very unhappy. I wanted to care for you, to show you kindness, to make up for the wrong I did. I don’t know how it is, but I think I’ve made your condition worse, not better.”

She break in, “Oh, no, no. Oh, Inglorion, you’re the only thing that’s sustained me all this time, that’s prevented me from simply giving up. I know it’s been terrible, that I’ve been terrible — I’m trying so hard. Being without you all this time, I’ve been thinking, too, trying to understand what’s happened. I know things have to change, that we can’t continue like this.”

He sees the trap closing: She will accept all the blame, and promise to change. In return, he will be expected to wait patiently and faithfully and to help her, which has been his role all along. And perhaps he can, somehow. They’re no longer lovers, but perhaps he owes her this as a friend.

He thinks of Virginia’s words to him: “I would like very much to see you again, but only if you’re —” and though she didn’t finish the sentence, her words leave no room for interpretation. He can’t approach her again until he’s entirely free.

And so he says, “Artemisia, whatever changes you make are up to you. For me, only one change is possible. I must be free — completely and entirely free.”

She looks stunned and miserable. Inglorion feels an impulse to comfort her, to hold her, speak words of reassurance. He presses his palms against the mantle, feels the sharp edges of the moldings against his palms. He stays where he is, and keeps his mouth firmly closed.

“I’ve missed you so much,” she says finally. “You’ve been everything to me. You always were, all those years.”

“And yet here we are,” he says. “You’re desperately ill. I’m miserable. We’re not lovers. You don’t care for me. If I had the power to make you happy — to help you or care for you — it would have happened long ago.”

“I know that I’m ill,” she says. “I don’t understand it. I’ve struggled — I’m trying. You know, I only drank once, all this time while you were gone? It filled me with horror and disgust. I don’t want to do that. I want to be with you, darling. I know I drove you away, and you can’t imagine how sorry I am.” She starts to sob, still looking him full in the face. 

He realizes it’s only the second time he’s ever seen her cry. The first time was all those years ago, when she learned of his engagement — that first, crushing wave of betrayal and disillusionment. He couldn’t comfort her then. She screamed at him and threw him out, and he found it impossible to cure the wound he’d inflicted, or even to acknowledge it fully. 

He could comfort her now. She longs for it, longs for him to soften as he has so many times before, to plead with her, kneel before her, kiss her tenderly. He feels dizzy with temptation. He knows all too well the scent and feel of her, her sweet penitence. She would make it worth his while.

But no. He hurt her before, but he didn’t inflict this wound, and he cannot cure it, or even nurse her through. It’s an illusion to hope that he can: Powerful, seductive, but an illusion nonetheless.

And so he says quietly, gently: “Artemisia, I came to say goodbye. I will not see you again in any role: Suitor, lover, friend.”

She cries harder, and finally chokes out, “Do you remember what you wrote to me long ago? You wrote, ‘If you knew how much I’m suffering, I believe you would forgive me.’ I forgave you then, Inglorion, because I knew you felt remorse. I think you should forgive me now.”

He turns away. He can’t look into her face and hear her repeat his words, the words of a callow, empty young man. He clears his throat, says, “No, Artemisia. I’m ending our acquaintance entirely. I won’t respond to letters. I’ll instruct my servants to deny you. If you approach me in public, I will give you the cut direct.”

She’s so shocked that her tears stop. She’s too shocked even for anger. Finally she asks, “Is there someone else?”

Inglorion’s innate truthfulness prompts him to reply, “Yes. Two weeks ago, I met a young man who reminded me of myself. We became friends, and he showed me everything I’ve been missing.” She starts in with a flow of objections, and he cuts her off ruthlessly. “Let me finish. I’ll give you the facts. I no longer care what you think of them.” She falls silent and he continues, “He introduced me to his mother, and I knew —” he nearly chokes on the next words, because they are so unfamiliar. “I knew I could love her, and I think that she could love me. I might fail, but I have to try.” Now Artemisia is crying very bitterly indeed. His gaze and tone are deliberately harsh as he says, “Nothing will get in my way. Nothing. You can debase yourself, humiliate me, cause us both pain and regret and shame. My heart is set. I’m done here.”

It’s as good an exit line as any. Though he still longs to apologize and offer her comfort, Inglorion bows, says, “Good day, madam,” and walks out, leaving his first love behind. 

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