7. He Will Not Submit to Boredom Tonight

The social ordeal begins the night before the ball. Two sets of elderly nobles emerge from the North Mountains the day before, and of course they stay at Shelawn House. There’s a small house party, and Tereus is forced to feign lighthearted sociability.

Dinner is tolerable. He finds he rather likes Lady Soane. She’s 800 if she’s a day, and she proudly dates from an earlier, more raffish era. She’s a tiny, parrot-faced, flat-chested thing, possessed of an iron handshake, and well able to carry her wine. He bestows only polite interest on his right-hand neighbor, Lady Wallace, until she reveals in a fierce stage whisper that she and Lady Soane were rival beauties, and that the poor thing had to pad her bodice extensively for any man to look at her.

“I always had an excellent figure,” Lady Wallace murmurs complacently in Tereus’s ear. She leans over in a helpful fashion, an absurd but touching gesture, given the effects of childbirth and time on her figure.

Tereus obliges her by surveying her bodice. His expert eye does discern the wreckage of an excellent bosom, precisely the sort prefers. Certainly she has no need of artificial padding. “I’m sure I would have admired you excessively,” he replies. “I’m half in love with you now.”

Dinner is no great hardship, then. Both ladies claim the privilege of extreme old age, and flirt outrageously with their host. He proposes various toasts with Lady Soane, and allows Lady Wallace to tutor him in the art of taking snuff off a lady’s wrist. By the time Lavinia gives the signal for the ladies to withdraw, they’ve exercised all the arts of the ballroom that belong properly to his grandfather’s era. 

The covers are drawn. A single, perfunctory glass of wine allows Tereus to establish that Lord Soane is senile and Lord Wallace cares only for his dinner; he suggests that they join the ladies.

The ladies seem languid and jaded. Lady Soane is the type of female who finds other women insipid. Lady Wallace has established to her satisfaction that Lavinia Shelawn is an empty-headed widgeon, and has informed Lucius’s wife, Valeria, of this fact in a fine, carrying tone. Lavinia doesn’t much mind this, but she’s unhappy with a small modification her dresser made to the sleeves of her dress, and can speak and think of nothing else. Valeria doesn’t much care for company, despite having been a diplomat’s wife. She was a promising scholar in her youth, and the forced segregation of the sexes in gray elvish society forces her to admit that the majority of her sex is poorly educated and ill-informed. She never flirts — she’s far from a beauty — but she already misses the distinguished men that graced her table during Lucius’s various foreign postings.

Tereus surveys the assembled company and resolves that even if they end up eating each other like Kilkenny cats, he will not submit to boredom tonight. Somewhat at random he says, “Lucius, I haven’t heard you sing for quite some time. If you give us a song, I’ll accompany you on piano.”

Lucius seems inclined to object, but Tereus whispers, “Come on, little brother — you’d be doing me a service.”

And so Lucius delivers an old ballad, singing with his usual accuracy and taste. His voice is more sweet than powerful, and more correct than expressive, but it provides a pleasant diversion. It doesn’t hurt that Tereus plays beautifully. The company applauds; they’re old enough to appreciate good amateur musicians.

Lucius accepts their praise, then turns to Tereus and urges him to sing, saying, “Your voice is so much better than mine.”

“I’ll gladly sing, but not alone. If only I had a soprano.” As he says it, he realizes he’s probably out of luck. Lavinia is proudly tone-deaf, and the two peeresses are too old.

Lucius looks over at Valeria, says, “My dear, would you? Now’s a poor time for modesty.”

“You sing?” Tereus says with surprise and delight.

“Not brilliantly, but well enough to do my duty in company,” she says. “More hard work than talent, I’m afraid.”

“That will do very well,” Tereus says. “I hope you’ll oblige us.” It’s difficult for him to ask. She loathes Tereus, and cannot refrain from listing her reasons each time they meet. Tereus regards her with amusement, because she’s easily baited; outrage, because she needles him about his worst qualities; and admiration, because he’s always known she’s at least as bright as he is. She’s got a great rack, too. She keeps it covered, but he has a good eye. He’s open about the first three facts, but would never admit the last, even under interrogation.

The company applauds and urges her on, so she selects a pretty Italian duet that she and Lucius used to sing during their courtship. Once they’re underway, she and Tereus both remember that the lyrics go well beyond the usual chaste longing. It’s in Italian, thank God — if he had to sing those words to his sister-in-law in Elvish, he wouldn’t be able to keep his countenance. His mood is light and reckless, so he enjoys seeing her realize her mistake and strive to recover from it.

Her voice is full and rich. She sings with accuracy, and keeps her eyes firmly fixed on the score. He exploits her error mercilessly, using the teasing, pleading tenor role to alternately scold her and beg her to relent from her cold indifference. Lady Soane clearly knows Italian, so he glances over to enjoy her reactions to the more suggestive parts. 

Really, it’s exquisite. At the climax, he’s supposed to melt her resistance with a forced kiss. As the moment approaches, he sees the color mounting in her neck and cheeks — she’s afraid he might actually do it.

Of course, he does no such thing. His delivery is impeccable, however: His voice is rich with longing and pathos, while his gaze mingles rueful camaraderie and genuine appreciation. There’s a brief rest during which the kiss should occur. She glances up, and he winks at her. An expression of pure mischief crosses her face, and she delivers her reply with such arch sweetness that he feels his own color rising.

It’s over. There’s laughter and applause from the audience, which she uses to murmur, “I’d forgotten — I’m sorry — the most foolish thing —”

He laughs and says, “I knew immediately that it could only be an honest mistake.” To ease her embarrassment, he says, “I found I struggled with the timing. I wonder.…” He flips through the score, asks how she rehearses it. This allows her to regain her composure, and to agree when he offers to play while she and Lucius sing.

After this, they turn to other forms of entertainment: They toy with charades, and he persuades Lucius to demonstrate a series of card tricks he picked up abroad.

The night ends early, but it’s generally felt to be a success. As the guests prepare to retire, Lady Soane whispers to Tereus, “You’d best see to your wife, sir. You’ll need to steal a few kisses there to get back in her good graces.” She’s right. When he takes Lavinia’s arm, she’s stiff with displeasure.

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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