Monday, September 30, 2019

Jazz Age, part I

The noise of the party diminished the further she persisted in her wandering, which was of course her aim; by the time she reached the east wing, the babble of the guests and the frantic band had entirely abated. She felt a vicious jab of pleasure upon achieving her goal. This subsided into the simpler satisfaction of snooping at her leisure, buoyed up by the effects of several glasses of champagne.

Some hours earlier, the east wing had been described to her by the host – the coal magnate – as “the Tudor Hall.” Now she gazed, not unimpressed, at soaring oak-paneled walls, a series of tapestries depicting a hunt, and hulking carven chairs that looked as if they had previously housed bishops awaiting their beheadings. She sipped her champagne; she walked on. It had all been constructed less than ten years ago, of course, but the effect was total. Even the electric lighting was tastefully low. She allowed herself a sense of reverie: she might have been a time-traveler. On an impulse, she called ringingly out to the woven hunters on the wall: “Tantivy, tantivy!” – and raised her glass in toast to them. The half-full bottle of champagne with which she’d absconded was a happy weight in her other hand, and she swung it loosely as she walked on.

At the far end of the hall, a Gothic archway gave onto to the darkness of what looked like a games room, where billiard tables lurked under padded leather coverings, like staunch, blanketed horses. She found herself restraining laughter at the self-conscious masculinity of it all. To the left of the archway, a small, enclosed half-flight of stairs disappeared into darkness, carpeted thickly with the same leafy motif as the hunt tapestries.

Along the wall at the left of the foot of the stairs there was an array of large and imposingly dour portraits in gilt frames. She lifted her champagne glass and rested it against her lower lip, not drinking, as she scanned the gallery of fat-faced dukes in furs and hollow-eyed women whose pasty fingers looked pinched off by stacks of gold rings. What had they been thinking about as they had had their portraits painted? Lunch, probably. A sick child. An annoying mother-in-law…

“He imported the aristocratic relations, of course,” someone said suddenly, “just like the rest of the décor in the hall.”

She started, disoriented, and looked around. A light had appeared at the top of the little staircase: how long had she been staring at the portraits, drifting? Silhouetted against the light was a figure – a man – sitting at the top of the stairs, slightly hunched.

She stared, wordless, rankled. She’d been caught unawares, and resented it, resented the loss of her private reverie. She felt the return of the vicious mood that had driven her away from the party in the first place.

“Have I scared you? I beg your pardon,” said the figure.

“I’m not scared,” she said loudly and sharply. “You don’t have to beg.”

The figure laughed. The laugh sounded odd, in a way she couldn’t have described, and then it – he – moved in a way that was also odd, a sort of lurch to one side, his head rolling to that shoulder also. “Oh good,” he said, “then maybe I won’t have to do much to convince you to share some of that champagne with me.”

Slowly she turned away from the portrait gallery and took a few steps closer to the staircase, squinting upward. “So those aren’t his great-grand-whatevers, then?” she said, evading his suggestion. “Not even distantly?”

After a moment, he laughed again. “Not even distantly. The Byrnes are Irish through and through. Upstarts in American soil.” Despite her irritation, it struck her that his voice was delicious: it had a kind of easeful theatricality, deliberation balanced by humor.

She wished the light were better; she tried to examine him more closely. He was not much older than her, she thought, but so lean, even thin, that it made him look older, especially in the dim lighting, which cast heavy shadows under his cheekbones. He had dark, slightly waving hair, deeply parted on one side and cut rather short. His nose was pronounced, balanced by a wide mouth. From what she could see, his eyes were deep-set, narrow, in a way that accentuated the sense of habitual humor that he gave off. He was wearing a crisp shirt and tie, but no vest or jacket.

Under her gaze, he moved again, and the movement was undeniably unnatural, a kind of rolling spasm that seemed to travel the length of his whole body, stretching some joints and collapsing others. She noticed that, leaning towards her, he had hung his arms straight down between his bent knees, and was gripping one wrist with the other hand; both hands jerked gently.

She raised the bottle of champagne and put her head to one side. “Are you sure you haven’t had enough already?”

He paused. “Would you believe me,” he said, “if I said I hadn’t had a drop all evening? Maybe that’s what’s the matter with me. If you do share and it turns out your champagne has cured a lifelong affliction, I’ll be awfully in your debt.”

She kept looking at him, uncertain. She thought that a note of strain had entered that lilting voice, but it was hard to say.

“Damn,” he said finally. “You’re not really drunk, are you?” His body moved restlessly.

She didn’t bother answering, just kept looking.

“I’m a cripple, you see,” he said, as if in response to something she had said. His voice had not risen at all, but its gaiety had become cutting.

The questions that had been turning slowly in her mind stopped, clicking together. A new rank rose to take their place.

“Who are you?” she said curiously, taking another step forward.

He answered with another question: “Have you met Winston Byrne?”

“Winston? The middle brother? The one who’s mad about horses – polo and things?”

“That one. The centaur.”

She smiled uncertainly; she waited for him to say something else. When he didn’t, she turned over the image of Winston in her head, looking for a clue. The elder and younger Byrne sons were fair and rounded, like their mother, but the middle was dark, tall, very upright, sunburnt brown, edgy and superior. He always looked as if he were wanting a riding crop he could whack into his thigh in order to more fully express himself. She felt bad for the women who trailed after him because she could sympathize; there was something mindlessly attractive about the hard-edged masculinity that he exuded.

She thought about his lean, rawboned frame; his prominent, somewhat knobbed nose and sun-weathered cheekbones. She began to get an uncomfortable feeling. Take Winston Byrne: take away the sun, the hard-packed muscle…

“You,” she began to say to the man on the stairs, taking another step forward, squinting again.

“I think you begin to see,” he said. “Well, nobody would have told you he had a twin brother.”

Twin brother,” she breathed. She felt it like a shock of cold water. She had only gotten as far as maybe a cousin, maybe a brother –

“It’s unfortunate, isn’t it,” he said, almost as if apologizing. Another of those spasms ran through him: one of his feet kicked out abruptly and dropped down one step, and one of his arms gestured oddly. Trying to interpret it, she realized that he had lost his grip on the wrist of that arm, so it was now wandering through the air by itself.

“Well,” she said, and stopped, unsure of how to continue, trying not to watch him trying to recapture his own arm.

“What’s your surname?” he said, helpfully filling in the silence. After several awkward grabbing motions, he had resettled his grip on his wrist; his hands sank between his legs again.

“De Vries,” she said softly.

“Miss De Vries,” he said.

“Helena,” she added automatically.

“Helena De Vries,” he said thoughtfully. “Of the Philadelphia De Vries?”

“Those ones,” she said.

“Hmm. Michael Byrne, at your service. You see,” he said, as if continuing an earlier train of thought, “it’s not too uncommon for twins – especially the younger – to be afflicted with palsy, after a difficult birth. – You’re about to spill.”

Hastily she looked down and righted her glass just as she was about to let it list too far to one side. “Thank you,” she said uncertainly. She found that her cheeks were hot.

There was a laden pause. Having looked away, she kept her gaze slightly averted from him. Finally he said, “You haven’t met someone like me before, I suppose.” How could he keep talking so lightly? But she could hear the effort it cost him, too.

“No,” she admitted. Maybe seen them in city streets before – poor children, ragged weary men on crutches, blurry newspaper images of veterans from the Great War – but she wouldn’t say that out loud.

“Well,” he said, “I did hear you crying the hunt, and thought I might come see what game was afoot, if you’ll pardon the expression. But I’ve disturbed you, when you took the trouble to come be by yourself here in the first place. I can retire, and leave you to enjoy your evening.”

“Do they make you stay back there?” she said, raising her eyes to look at him again. Her spirits had gathered again, into something like anger. “In – what – the servants’ quarters?”

“They’re my quarters,” he said, “but, yes, it’s much the same idea. Wouldn’t you do the same thing if you had a son like me?” With a wrenching gesture, he lifted both his hands, to show her their trembling. After a few moments, they dropped back down again heavily, as if he didn’t have the strength to keep them raised.

“Don’t be cruel,” she said, deeply stung. “How could you say something like that when I’ve just been talking with you? And seen –”

He waited for her to complete her thought, but she found she couldn’t express what she meant.

“So what you’re saying,” he said then, “is that champagne is not entirely out of the question.”

She laughed, and the feeling was lovely. Without another word, she went up the stairs to him. When she reached his level, she stopped and, with deliberation, topped off the champagne glass. She could feel his eyes on her as she poured; the hiss of the bubbles that sprang up in the glass sounded dangerously loud in the waiting silence. She bent and deposited the bottle on the landing above. She turned back to him, beginning to outstretch the glass, and then hesitated. “Do you need…?”

“Yes. Please.”

She sat next to him and stretched out the glass to his lips. A moment later, seeing how he struggled to keep his head still, she put her other hand to the back of his head, gently steadying it.

“Thank you,” he murmured, flicking his eyes up to hers. He held her gaze for a moment; then she tipped the glass, and he drank.

After a few swallows, abruptly his head fell to one side, and she failed to catch it in time, so a little champagne spilled on the corner of his mouth. Swiftly she withdrew the glass, murmuring in dismay. He righted his head, grimacing. Without thinking, she moved her free hand to his mouth, put her finger to the side, and let her black satin glove soak up the little trickle of champagne.

He looked at her. His eyes were very dark. Hastily she withdrew her hand, dropped her gaze.

They turned and looked out over the dim hall. She held the glass of champagne a little stiffly, as if it were no longer hers. She listened to the rustling as his body moved restlessly. She discerned a strange sense of guilt in herself: as if she had seen something she shouldn’t have – or even as if she were personally responsible for his condition. How could that be? But perhaps she ought to leave, anyway… But there was a pull, there, in that dimly lit, antiquated hall, where it could have been any century and any hour of the night. She wanted to stay there; she wanted to hear more, somehow get ahold of a sense of reality of this strange man.

She drank from her glass of champagne again. “So,” she said, “appropriated ancestry. A secret scion in the east wing. Please tell me, does your –” she hesitated, it was still hard to believe, “– your father also have a literal skeleton in a closet somewhere? A suspicious femur, at least?”

He laughed. “I don’t know if he has the imagination for anything so exciting. If there’s a forbidden vault somewhere in the house, it probably just has stacks of bonds and deeds inside. Then again, I did used to like to imagine him being quite the adventurer when he was a young surveyor. People do like to exclaim over how much Winston brings back the younger Father.”

And where did that leave him, she thought, who was Winston’s twin? She pushed the thought away. “Did you imagine him – what, murdering a claim-jumper? Swimming a flooded river to deliver an urgent message? Fending off a mother bear?”

He laughed. “All of those, and more. And then the next time I saw him, I’d see him complaining about the boiled potatoes or whatever, and think, my god, he’d probably just lecture the bear about land lease agreements until she stumbled away to drown herself.”

“But anyway,” he continued, as she smiled to herself, “what brought you out here, to our West Coast?” Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his body lurch, and she realized that he had turned to look at her, but his body’s awkwardness had forced his head to twist at a strange angle, while one of his shoulders had dropped forward.

She shifted; she found that her cheeks had warmed again. “I’m helping my aunt with her archives.”

“Archives?” His voice had brightened with curiosity.

“She’s a sort of – she traveled the world a great deal when she was young, and she has all sorts of letters and maps and things. And art – lots of it.”

“And does she have good taste?”

“She has excellent taste.”

“Oh, thank God.” As she laughed, he said, “I just can’t imagine having to sort through stacks of lifeless art while numbly agreeing with auntie that yes, it’s all remarkable.”

“No, no, she’s not that kind of aunt,” she said quickly. At the same time, she thought that, for the first time, something about his urbanity in that moment had grated on her. She paused briefly to fish out the notion: he was forcing it, it was too clear that he was putting it on, this appearance that he had met and passed judgement on lots of people and things. Well, what did she know about his life, really? Maybe he had. But no – the slightly too-forceful artfulness with which he acted that experience was its own giveaway.

But again, she pushed those thoughts away.

“She’s really an original,” she resumed, “she traveled all over – Morocco, Egypt, India– and she refused to ever get married. Her taste is – it’s surprising, in little ways. She likes beauty, of course – anything that’s too modern repels her – but she doesn’t mind things that are broken, or stained. She has a way of picking things so that it seems like part of the piece. She likes silver better when it’s tarnished…”

She could sense him smiling beside her. “That sounds lovely. I’d like to see some of those… And so you’re here for – what, one month? To help?”

“I’m here for the summer. And maybe again in the winter, if some plans work out. She’s hoping to start a little museum, you see, with her collection,” she finished, a little bashfully.

“Why do you say that as if you’re embarrassed?”

“Oh,” she said, startled. “I… well, it’s something I really want to happen, and I suppose I feel that it’s my project, too, and… I don’t know. Maybe I’m a little superstitious about things that aren’t entirely worked out yet.”

He gave a speculative hmm.

She straightened and was about to offer him more champagne to cover her embarrassment, but then put her hand out and touched his arm. “Hold on –”

He jerked. “What is it?”

Coming towards them, distant at first but growing with great speed, was a trail of confused laughter. Two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, very drunk – she could hear them careening and stumbling, alternating giddy laughter with exaggerated shushing. They arrived at the archway to the Tudor Hall with a particularly shrill burst of laughter from the man. She felt Michael jerk under her hand again, this time slipping out from under her touch. She froze, as the woman at the other end of the hall cried out, “Oh!”

“What is it? What’s it?” the man slurred. She could see him slumping against the doorway; the woman glimmered in a short silver dress.

“It’s spooky in there,” the woman cried.

“Oh? Ghosts?”

“No, don’t say that –”

“I’m sure there are ghosts,” the man said leeringly. “Here comes one now – ooooo…”

And they veered back in the opposite direction, shrieking.

Helena let out a breath. She looked to Michael, about to make a jesting remark, but found, to her dismay, that he had collapsed across the steps, his limbs sprawled out in every direction. His back was arched awkwardly to one side, his head had been forced back, and his lips were pressed together into a tight grimace. The fingers of his upraised right arm twitched in and out of a claw.

Her gaze flickered across his form rapidly in distress. Should she try to help him? What if she hurt him? Was it a seizure? – no, she could see that his eyes were focused, and hear that his breath was regular, if harsh with exertion. His eyes met hers briefly, and then flicked away deliberately.

“Mr. Byrne?” she whispered. “Are you all right? Can I help you?”

He grunted and then shook his head a fraction of an inch. She could hear and see that he was trying to force deeper breaths; his ribcage swelled against his shirt.

She continued watching for any signal that she should help. A few moments later, he forced his head back into a more natural position, and said faintly, “I’ll be another minute.” His eyebrows were drawn together severely, she wasn’t sure if with frustration, discomfort, or both. Slowly he drew his feet back together, one at a time, and then with his better arm, the left one, pushed himself back up to sitting. His right arm had twisted into another strange configuration, raised and sharply bent, with his hand pressing into his own neck, but he appeared to have given up on it for now.

“Don’t look so stricken,” he said, smiling wanly at her. His speech sounded a little thick. “This is just how things are. You are remarkably patient, though.”

During that time, she had for the first time allowed herself to wonder what it would be like to not be able to trust any part of your body, to be bound to such an uncertain vehicle. He spoke of patience: surely his life required nothing but that. She wondered what it was like for him to see his twin brother striding around, racing off to drive, play with his horses, court women… But then again, how often would he really have seen his brother at all – any of his family? If he was more or less confined to his own quarters – and she doubted if any of his brothers was the type to stop by for a confiding chat…

He must have seen something of these thoughts in her expression because he said then, “Please don’t pity me. I find it encourages bad habits in me.”

Abashed, she looked aside. She found she had set down the champagne glass at some point in the confusion with their drunken guests; she extended it to him again, a peace offering, and he accepted gratefully, this time drinking without mishap.

“It was as if they came at us out of another century,” she said, looking out again at the hall when he had finished. The tips of her gloved fingers felt warm, where she had supported his head.

“There’s a dreamy thought. I wouldn’t have minded a century with less drunken shrieking.”

“Has there been one without any?”

“A fair question. We might have to look back to somewhere circa Eden… I do keep hoping that some interesting ghosts might find themselves drawn here out of sympathy with the décor, but no luck yet. If our visitants were from the past, at least we might hope to learn some things from them.”

“You should ask your father to ensure that the next round of imported portraiture comes with at least one respectable ghost attached.”

“If my father ever spoke to me, I would. You should ask your aunt.”

“She does have a Mughal dagger that is supposed to be cursed.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a blackened fingerprint on the blade – no matter how many times you clean it, it always comes back in a day or so. There’s a whole story about it, with a usurper, of course.”

“Oh – I would like to see that. Maybe one day I’ll be able to go to your aunt’s museum, and you’ll be there sitting in a little office where you’ll give me a ticket. You’ll take me inside and tell me all the stories about usurpers you can manage.”

She smiled down at her interlaced fingers. “Maybe.”

“Would you like to see my museum?”

“Excuse me?”

He craned his head back over his shoulder to indicate the little passageway turning off from the stairs. “Where I live. Would you like to see it?”

She hesitated. His dark eyes glinted at her hopefully, and he swayed slightly where he sat, with his arms once again hanging between his knees, left hand tightly clasped around right wrist. Part of her said that it was getting later and later, that this entire exchange was ill-advised for any number of reasons, and that she ought to take this moment to excuse herself; but it was a small, dry voice. The rest of her didn’t even have words; it simply wanted to see where the night would keep going.

“I would like to see that, yes,” she said, and was rewarded with the sight of his face creasing with a deeply warm smile.

She was startled when he pushed himself up the stairs without another word, using his legs alone, and then set off down the hallway in the same fashion, pushing himself backwards with short, deliberate thrusts of his legs. She rose and turned to follow him down the oak-paneled hallway. A little way down the passage, she saw a high-backed wheelchair of wood and wicker, backed against one wall. He positioned himself in front of it and then turned to her with a measuring look. “My chariot awaits. Won’t you help me up, my dear Hippolyta?”

***

On to part II
On to part III

22 comments:

  1. Hooray for a new story! I look forward to the story continuing!

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    1. Thanks, lu5! Hope you enjoy the next part on Saturday.

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  2. Omg soooo good! So devvy, thank you so, so much. Love it, everything about it, the age, the chance encounter, descriptions of him moving... <3 Can’t wait for the update, it’s driving me crazy!

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    1. Yayyyy, so glad it pushed all the right buttons for you <3 I feel like I have a huge Lovis "debt" to pay down, for the bazillion hours I've spent reading and re-reading your stories!

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  3. Such a wonderful beginning. Can't wait to read the next part. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. Great beginning! It unusual & I look forward to reading more.

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    1. Thanks, Michelle! It was really fun to commit to a historical setting, and I do hope to do more historical stories in the future.

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  5. A wonderful story! Thank you so much!

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  6. Great writing, so creative. Interesting characters for sure. Thank you for this well thought out story and setting. It is interesting how disabled persons were dealt with in the "olden" days, hide them away from everyone, how sad.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Dani; I did spend a lot of time figuring out how to work with the setting. Honestly, I've found it challenging to figure out historical scenarios that are neither unrealistic nor too depressing to write about for fun because PWD were treated so terribly for most of history.

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  7. This was great, thank you!

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  8. Yeay another CP story and in a historical setting! The period details are great; very realistic. I love all the classical references; it feels very true to the era. I can’t wait to find out more about these characters.

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    1. Of course I needed to have characters who think it's flirty to make classical references, hahaha. I read a chapter of The Great Gatsby before most writing sessions to make sure I was keeping the tone & details in the right range!

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  9. Wow, what a wonderful and unique story! It feels so real. I love a good period piece. I can’t wait to read more!! -EJ

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    1. Thank you for the lovely comment, EJ. It's so nice to hear that it's coming to life for you.

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  10. Oh golly, I'm hooked. Only wish I'd discovered this later so I didn't have to wait a week for the next posting!

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    1. Your comment made me smile so much; thank you! We're almost halfway through to Saturday... :)

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  11. Thank you so much.
    I was just wondering why isn't anyone bored enough now to write sthg nice? And here it is. A great addictive surprise.
    Thanks again. Well written

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    1. Glad to deliver diversion in a stressful time, and so glad you're enjoying it so far!

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