20. His Scent and the Imprint of His Lips and Palms

8/29/17—

I woke up this morning feeling a strong sense of potential — the feeling one has in childhood when something rare and wonderful and exciting has occurred. I had a luxurious sense of possibility and joy.

I saw Tereus at breakfast, and felt a surge of joy so strong that I a certain it showed in my face. He asked me some commonplace question about business, and that allowed me to regain my countenance. I felt, again, his patience and acceptance.

It was a long day, and full of incident, and that allowed me to focus on simple, urgent, necessary matters. The hard labor of laundry day did me good.

For the first time in weeks, there was nothing driving us to work until nightfall and beyond. After dinner, Ancilla and I washed up. Lavinia retired immediately, making no pretense of joining us. The children played in the schoolroom. Tereus and Lucius retired to the parlor and spoke in low tones by the hearth. Once the dishes were done, I joined them, and pretended to read.

After a time, Lucius retired, leaving me and Tereus alone in the parlor. He asked me to put my book aside, and to walk with him to the barn.

It was beautiful out. It had rained earlier in the evening, so the air was cold and clean. I felt an animal vigor, and took pleasure in Tereus’s company — the sheer fact of his form next to mine.

“Do you mind if I smoke?”

I knew that he does so occasionally, but I’d never seen it. I said, of course not. He stopped to light a match, and cupped the flame while he lit the cigarette. I watched, openly fascinated. Over the last several months, so much has melted and cracked and fallen away from him — so much that obscured and soured his natural loveliness. His profile is breathtaking: Flawless, and entirely masculine. His hands are strong and graceful and sure. He caught me looking at him and smiled almost shyly. How odd it must be to be so strikingly beautiful.

It was chilly, so he offered me his arm, drew me close to him. “Are you cold?” I denied it, but he could feel that I was shivering. “You are cold — I shouldn’t have brought you out here.”

“It sounds silly, but I like it. It’s better to shiver out here than to be cooped up in the parlor.”

“Of course, but we’ll get you into the barn nonetheless. I can’t have you getting sick on me, too.”

It was warm in the barn, though none of the livestock were inside. It smelled of fresh hay and rain.

“Shall we go up to the hayloft?”

“Why?”

“No good reason. We can watch the sun set.” He set the ladder up and held it for me, then followed me up.

The view to the West was breathtaking. The stables were in the foreground, low, shadowy and indistinct. The sky was dark with the spent remains of the storm; the last rays of the setting sun dyed the clouds’ underbellies. Tereus settled us among the hay bales. He pulled his cloak around both of us in a very natural fashion, and pulled me close to him. It was strange and unfamiliar and thrilling to lie there with my head on his chest and his arm around me. I have never been that close to a man other than my husband, and Lucius is so very tentative — he’s been distressed and unhappy. I felt excited and giddy and happy and anxious and fearful, and I think my heart must have been beating quite fast.

He smelled of leather and wood smoke and the cedar used to store his cloak, and of something else, delicate and creamy. He was stroking my hair. If I am vain about anything, it’s my hair — it’s long, thick, and a true, deep red. He finished his cigarette and put it out carefully on a block of wood, and I realized that he comes up here regularly — that this is his private place or tree house.

His body heat warmed me. I stopped shivering. He noticed that my hands were still cold, and captured them and held them in his own to warm them up.

All this time, we were dreamily silent when we would normally talk eagerly about all manner of things. I felt him kiss my hair, the crown of my head, my temples. My hands were warm by now, and he kissed them one by one. I snuggled closer to him. He was warm and solid, and I felt happy and excited.

We lay there quietly for a long time. It calmed me to be close to him.

Finally he tilted my face towards his, and said very sweetly, “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I brought you here. I just wanted to be close to you, and quiet.”

I felt absurdly disappointed and sad, because I thought, Of course. I’m not beautiful. Why would he want me? Why would anyone?

He saw this in my face, I think, and said, “Valeria, my darling, please don’t be angry with me. I know what I want, but —” He smiled and said gently, “I need this — your kindness, your forbearance.”

I nodded, though it made no sense to me, and he kissed me, or tried to, taking me quite by surprise.

We both laughed, and suddenly he felt dear and familiar again, and so I apologized and said, “Try that again — I promise to get it right this time.”

We kissed properly, and I felt —

Understand that I have hated him. I have known him for more than a century, through the length of our marriages and courtships, the birth of our children, his brutality to Lavinia, the terrible scandal all those years ago. Before he started courting Lavinia, we knew him by reputation. Lavinia has confided in me very little, but I know she feared and hated him at times. His behavior has caused us all pain — me, Lucius, Lavinia — and has shamed his son Marcus. I truly hated him, wished him harm, thought he was vile and beyond redemption.

I have seen him seduce other women, sometimes under Lavinia’s nose, sometimes with the intent of humiliating and shaming her.

I know all of this, and yet —

I felt great happiness in his arms, and I desired him. I felt shy, of course. I did not realize that he saw me as a woman, perhaps because we have spoken frankly and openly of so many things. I have never been with any man but Lucius, and Lavinia is so very beautiful. I am awkward and anxious, always. But after the lessons of these last few months, I no longer live entirely through words and thought.

It is stupid to describe kisses and caresses.

If you had asked me, I would have said that such things may be sweet, but are all very much alike. I have felt pleasure and security with Lucius. There have been long, peaceful stretches in our marriage when we turned to each other often, and felt comfort and delight. As a young woman, I found him unbearably charming, and much kinder and more tender and respectful than his dashing brother. We have not been close lately because of his illness and my exhaustion; after Claudius was born, it took us longer to get back into our usual rhythm. I felt ugly and cold, as if I’d become nothing but a matron and a mother. We used to laugh so much — to the point where our sides hurt and we couldn’t catch our breath. But since we returned to Liamelia, it has been hard because of the scandal.

As I write that, I remember the sickening fear of that time — how I would berate Lucius for failing to stand up to him, commiserate with Lavinia, urge Marcus to intervene. As for Tereus, I abused him like a fishwife, called him names, railed at him. He never dared to threaten me, much less hit me, and never tried to intimidate or charm me. He was unfailingly cold and polite, and entirely refused to discuss any of it — his drinking, his brutality to Lavinia, the affairs.

There were times when Lucius and I would cling to each other like children, or castaway sailors on a raft. Poor Lavinia, with her inarticulate sadness and shame. That terrible, dark period after Sieia ran away.

Was there ever a time when I didn’t hate Tereus?

I remember the very beginning, when Lavinia was proud and star-struck. Of course she had a devoted court of admirers, but none so prominent as Tereus. Coming from a family of lawyers, barristers and estate managers, with the occasional magistrate, we were genteel, but not fit to breed with the Shelawns. Even then, theirs was the largest private fortune in Liamelia, and known to be solid. When Tereus began to court Lavinia in earnest, she boasted of his accomplishments, taste, beauty and masculine exploits — even of his scholarship, which was considerable, and conducted in the the most offhanded manner possible: He learned Latin to translate improper odes, and mathematics to calculate ballistic trajectories.

Once he decided he wanted her, he pursued her ruthlessly, cutting out his rivals one by one. I think it was a game to him, and of course for a debutante it must be deadly serious, whether or not she loves. He waltzed with her on every possible occasion, sent her flowers, wrote elegant and witty love poetry, and yet it always felt like he was playing a role. Beneath the sense of triumph, I know Lavinia feared he would jilt her. He was so glamorous and admired that if they had not married, it would be assumed that the fault was on her side.

During their courtship, I know that Tereus tried to extract ever-greater privileges from Lavinia: Vows, confessions, kisses. Her temperament is naturally cool, but even she was moved by his pleas. She whispered to me breathlessly that he’d demanded that she caress him, relieve the tension that her beauty excited. I resented this on her behalf, and glared at him over dinner. He laughed at me, and from then on, he went to some lengths to provoke and make sport of me. I had such a terrible temper! Lucius tried to make peace between us, saying that Tereus didn’t mean it, that he was honorable and kind. I said, Perhaps he is with you and his troops and comrades, but not to her, and not to me.

At this time, he started to make his reputation as a commander, and much of the foolishness stopped. I never knew the whole — we were so sheltered at that time — but I knew he’d engaged in every genteel form of folly and vice, and at times had behaved scandalously: Dueling, carriage-racing, boxing, and famously, showing up to a formal dinner party intoxicated and reeking of opium and gin. I remember that he paid us a morning call with a black eye and fresh stitches. When Lavinia expressed feminine solicitude and curiosity, he smiled and shrugged, and said that the subject was not fit for our drawing room. If Tereus had not been so very rich, Father would have rejected his suit and forbidden the banns. Of course I preferred Lucius. I was the sensible one.

Somehow we were all married, and quickly. I remember Lavinia’s very real fears about what marriage would entail. Mother spoke to us both together, the night before the wedding. I don’t remember her words, but the substance would have given any delicately reared young lady pause. I think Lavinia felt genuine dread — I know she did. It was as if she suddenly realized she would have to share her bed with a Comanche: A fine fellow by his tribe’s standards, no doubt, but an uncomfortable companion for a lawyer’s daughter who was poorly educated, vain, and too pretty for her own good.

I remember feeling smug because Lucius was so kind and devoted and respectful. Though he would not inherit, he had a promising career and excellent patronage, and expected to receive a worthy diplomatic posting as soon as something suitable became available. Albertus feared for my scholarship, but Lucius had promised not to distract me from my goals — after all, my intellect had drawn him to me.

It turned out much like the cynics predicted. Tereus was cruel and unfaithful, and created endless scandals. I took a break from my studies when we traveled out for Lucius’s first posting, and gave them up entirely when Valerius was born.

Tonight we lay together in a hayloft, and Tereus kissed and embraced me, and begged my forgiveness for sins unspecified — for all of it, I suppose. When I review the whole history from even a slight remove, I know that our actions are foolish and wrong.

I remember how heartless he was then, and I wonder if any of his sighs and protestations are in earnest.

I believe that they are, and that’s the most difficult thing of all. He may be entirely sincere, but that simply means he’s sincerely engaged in seducing his brother’s wife.

As I write, I’m sitting in the library. I’ve burned down one candle, and have lit a fresh one. I refused to grant Tereus what he desired, but I feel as if my hands and hair and lips smell of cigarettes and leather and wood smoke and cedar. I cannot bathe. I’m carrying his scent and the imprint of his lips and palms.

We are still young. Lucius and I have been happy. I can’t lie down next to my husband having repaid his kindness and fidelity in this way.

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

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