8. The Smooth, Hard Surface of His Indifference

When they reach her bedchamber, Lavinia hisses, “How could you humiliate me like that?”

He’s a bit taken aback. She’s taken much more flagrant behavior in stride. “Pardon me?”

“The way you fawned over those vulgar, nasty old women.”

He says in a commonplace tone, “If you’re bent on quarreling, come into my dressing room so that I can rid myself of this absurd neckcloth.”

She follows him through the series of doors that connect their two suites, and struggles to retain an air of outraged virtue as he removes his swallow-tailed jacket and the embroidered waistcoat underneath. He prompts her, “You were saying?”

“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life.”

He regards her with clinical interest. “Really? Why?”

“You flirted shamelessly with those two old ladies, and went out of your way to — the three of you yowling half the night — it was the most stupid evening I’ve ever spent.”

He’d forgotten the rules of the game. He’s free to pinch parlor maids’ asses and bang every opera dancer in Covent Garden, but Lavinia hates to be reminded of her intellectual shortcomings.

“You should have applied yourself more,” he says mildly. “You two must have shared a governess and voice lessons.”

Applied myself,” she says scornfully. “Sir Wallace had eyes only for his dinner, and Sir Soane couldn’t remember his own name, let alone mine.”

“It must have been very dull for you. It was an ill-assorted company. I did my best to make the time pass.”

“Those vulgar old ladies. To think that Lady Soane is a peeress, and related to an earl. I hardly knew where to look.”

He’s impatient with her social error, and can’t refrain from correcting it. “A different standard applied in their generation, and the peerage claim more license for themselves. You might not admire the tone of her conversation, but I assure you it’s not vulgar.”

“You know nothing about it,” she says. “Look at who your father was.”

He’s stripping off his neckcloth now, and unfastening the studs on his shirt. He half-hopes that the prospect of his nudity will chase her from the room. “I don’t know why you struggle with such a simple principle,” he says. “Agamemnon was a reprobate and a criminal — a murderer and open sodomite — but those are matters of morality. No one has ever accused him of having bad taste. He was well-bred and highly educated, and spent his money like a gentleman. You might as well try to argue that he was a bad businessman. It’s simply not the case.” He drops his shirt in the laundry, and can’t resist adding, “When you complain of it, you expose your own lack of breeding.”

He’s perversely pleased to see her fists clench, and her breath quicken with anger. “You didn’t think Valeria was beneath your notice. She’s an attorney’s daughter, just like I am.”

He pretends to consider. “Well, yes. The difference is that she’s genuinely accomplished. Her intellect and education command respect.” He seats himself at his dressing table, unties his queue, begins to brush out his long, blond hair.

She eyes him angrily, considering how best to hurt him.

He’s far from drunk, but he is tired. He woke up hung over, and still feels a lingering malaise. He asks, “Are you done yet?”

Now that he thinks of it, he would like a drink. His senses and intellect are too acute, and he longs for that gradual blurring. He’d like to strip off his breeches, lie back on a bank of down pillows, smoke a fucking cigarette, and drink — really finish the job. As he does it, he’ll think of the new housemaid: The nasty way her hips flare out. There’s a thickness there that he likes, that he’s certain would repay study. Or perhaps he’ll remember Valeria’s confusion, the flush in her cheeks. A redhead like that — he’s certain that the tops of her breasts turn rosy when she blushes, and if he slapped her ass, the mark would linger. It’s not hard to imagine alternate endings to their duet: One where she invites her advances, another where he overrides her objections and uses her tits and ass however he wishes.

He glances over at the sideboard longingly, then back at his wife. He repeats the question: “Are you done yet?”

With that, she has him. She stands over him, quivering with indignant tears, reciting every every grievance. Occasionally he says, “Yes, well — certainly. You’re entirely correct.” She’s reluctant to bring up his rape conviction, or the fact that the second footman is his bastard, or the time he blackened one of her eyes, so the list sounds petty and trivial.

The longer he sits there, blank and exhausted, the more agitated she becomes. Her voice — never pleasant — grows increasingly shrill and accusatory. After a time, he’s able to filter out her words, and simply takes in the gradual, twittering, screeching crescendo. She pauses for breath, paces for a moment. He says, “Yes, very likely,” and she’s off again.

In the end, she can’t get any purchase on the smooth, hard surface of his indifference. She leaves. It’s late, but he’s able to to end the evening as he wishes.

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

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