We retreated to the hayloft again. The days are so very long. We were tired, and I think we felt that we deserved a small reward for all our hard work and diligence. He made no attempt to persuade me. We lay in each other’s arms in a dream-like state, as if we were brother and sister, or very small children.
He makes some reference to battle, and, feeling idle curiosity, she asks, “What’s it like? Combat?”
He smiles and shakes his head and says, “I don’t think I can explain. It’s as if someone asked what life is like.”
“You liked it?”
He hesitates. “In some ways, yes. I found it endlessly fascinating and alluring — addictive, really. It fulfilled a need. I’ve thought about this a lot, as so have others, of course. It’s a heightened form of existence, grotesque and beautiful. So much that’s unnecessary falls away, which is not to say that it’s especially profound or sanctifying. And yet —” He falls quiet, strokes her hair absently, twines his fingers through it. “There’s so much remorse and sadness. It’s said that the morning after Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was overcome with grief. The scale of battle was unprecedented. Soldiers died alone and untreated, from wounds, or disease, or exposure. The horses suffered terribly, and he’s said to have felt that. Any cavalryman would.”
He sighs. “I wish I could explain.” He turns so that they’re face-to-face. His gaze is dark and fierce, and he says, “As a soldier, you do what you must to survive, and you comfort yourself by cursing your commanders. As a commander, you know soldiers and civilians will be injured and die. You understand and accept this, but you can’t afford to feel it, and you damn well can’t let others see that you do. You put aside grief and rage and fear, and you show others how to do the same, and I thought —”
He’s silent for so long that she finally whispers, “What?”
“I thought, I’ll feel this later, when there’s time. I’ll mourn this comrade or that one, reflect upon this particular Drow atrocity. I told myself, Not now. But there’s never time.” Now his voice is rough with unshed tears. “It’s not possible to feel it all, and so you carry it around, numb, suffering, a dumb beast of burden.”
She’s shocked at the depth of pain in his face. She’s always thought of him as volatile and uncontrolled, assumed that his expressions were an immediate reflection of his inner state. This riptide of sadness feels indecent.
He continues, gravely, “I loved combat because it allowed me to put grief aside. When it stopped abruptly, I had no reason not to feel, and no ability to do so. And so of course I longed to be back there, doing things I knew how to do, deferring the moment when I would remember and reflect.”
When he asked for forgiveness, she assumed he meant for the long train of domestic crimes — the things that she’d seen personally.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I didn’t know.”
“Of course not,” he says gently. “How could you?” He kisses her forehead and lips, then buries his face in her neck, inhales her scent. He groans and says, “I want to lose myself in you. You have no idea how it comforts me — just the smell and taste and feel. You give me pure joy, Valeria.”
He feels her pull away, though in the dim light he can’t quite make out her expression. They’re still close — he can feel her warmth.
She says, “You should reach out to Lavinia. She’s a simple creature. She thrives on kindness.”
His face convulses with rage: a violent discharge, like lightning. It’s unsettling — she almost doubts that she saw it.
“How innocent you are, Valeria! There’s nothing between us, and never has been.” He stops himself, and when he continues, it’s in a carefully measured tone. “I won’t speak ill of Lavinia. She’s not to blame — I’m the worst possible husband for her. Her affections aren’t deep, and her temperament is naturally cool, but she could have been happy in marriage. It grieves me. I regret it.”
Valeria thinks back on what she knows of their engagement. Tereus pressed Lavinia for favors, and she resisted without effort or hesitation. She had no moral objection to anticipating her vows, but felt it would be a tactical error to concede too much ground. Looking back, Valeria thinks she felt distaste, either for the acts, or for Tereus himself.
She says, “We needn’t speak of it. I’m sorry.”
Goaded, he adds, “I’m not a saint, Valeria. What should I have done? Insisted on my rights as a husband? Gone to whores, or despoiled virgins, or formed a connection with a complacent wife or widow? I tried all that, you know.”
Though they’re silent, the facts lie between them, unspoken. Lavinia isn’t clever, and doesn’t aspire to be. She’s not witty, and doesn’t care for wit in others. She’s not a cruel mother, but no one would call her a fond one. She took moderate pleasure in the pomp associated with wealth, and felt pride that Shelawn House appeared in architectural guidebooks, but felt little interest in the house, its inhabitants or contents. Valeria feels loyalty and affection for her sister, but she admits that Lavinia speaks and thinks mostly about maintaining her face and figure, and how to arrange an elegant setting for these things. Physical affection was the only bond they could have had.
She wonders if he could have been happy in marriage. Certainly his cruelty has left him no grounds for complaint.
She wishes she could offer further comfort. Since she cannot, she says, “I should go back.”
“Stay a moment,” he says softly. He strokes her hair. It’s so beautiful: The rich color, and the scent, so purely hers. He feels a surge of grief. He draws her closer, bathes himself in the scent and feel of her, which both soothes and agitates him.
He longs to keep her there and believes that pathos may do it, so he says, “At the time I didn’t know — they don’t tell you — that you can’t choose which emotions to feel. You lose fear and anger, then grief and despair. After some time, you can’t remember feeling joy or love. You find yourself longing for the simplest things. You imagine a whole life for yourself, how you’ll savor everything, feel gratitude. You think, there will be time for everything, when all of this is over.” He falls silent, releases her.
“What happened? When you came back?”
It’s dark, but she can see the faint glow of his features in dark vision: Vague, angelic. “I don’t know. It was a blank. It had been for awhile. I know what happened, but I don’t know why. I’m sorry. It doesn’t make any sense. It was a blank. It sounds like an excuse, and a bad one. But that’s what happened.”
She reaches out, touches his cheek. He captures her hand, kisses her palm, each finger. He’s close to tears.
They walk back, hand in hand, like lost children returning home.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.