Saturday, September 28, 2019

Jazz Age, part III

There was a sudden jolt. She woke slowly, blearily.

“Sorry,” Michael was whispering. He sounded chagrined.

“What time is it?” she said after a moment. Her mouth was very dry and tasted foul.

“A quarter after four.”

She took it in silently, reviewing. The jolt had been his body, she realized; he had convulsed under her, then collapsed back again.

“How long have you been awake?” she asked, mostly to have something to say.

“Maybe ten minutes.” He sounded anxious, and she felt his left hand, which had still been resting against her hair, slide away and strike the bed.

“Mmm.” She pushed herself up slowly, feeling thoroughly disreputable. Squinting down, she saw his apprehensive look and smiled tiredly, reaching down to cup his cheek. “Don’t worry,” she said, her voice cracking from dryness, “I’m like this when I wake up even under normal circumstances.”

He managed a smile, and pressed his cheek into her hand.

“Please tell me,” she murmured, rubbing her eyes with her other hand, “you have water somewhere here. And a cloth.”

“Yes – there,” he said, glancing to the side of the bed, and to her immense relief she saw on a nightstand, shadowed by the bedpost, a glass carafe full of water and several linen towels.

She drank first, and deeply; then she helped him sit up and sip carefully. She moistened one of the towels and set about cleaning off the both of them. She couldn’t help lingering over his body a little when it came to his turn, but sped her pace when she realized that both of them were flushing, and that little spasms were beginning to shake his torso. She kept her face studiously neutral.

Finally she threw the towel aside, and sat back on her heels. She ran her fingers across one of his collarbones as he looked at her, his arms splayed out to either side of him, twisting slowly. “You know I can’t stay here,” she said.

“Of course not,” he said. His tone was even, but his face looked drawn. 

“Will any of the servants be awake at this time?” she said carefully.

“I don’t think so. Not in the main house.”

“If anyone is… is there somewhere I could plausibly have fallen asleep without having been noticed? Somewhere nearer the party?”

“The music room,” he offered. “If you leave the west door of the assembly room and keep following that hallway, it’s at the end.”

Who among the Byrnes was musical? she wondered deliriously. Perhaps Mrs. Byrne; she could imagine her drilling something out on a piano with military precision. “The music room,” she repeated consideringly. “I had too much champagne, and I fell asleep in the music room. I’m very embarrassed and now I simply must find my chamber…”

“In the gold hall,” he put in eagerly; she realized that he was, again, trying to show that he was informed about goings-on.

“In the gold hall,” she echoed. There was a pause as they could not avoid staring at each other. Her heartbeat was beginning to quicken, and there was a sick little feeling like panic in her stomach.

He broke the silence by saying, “You’re going to have to help me dress again. Just my underclothes and my shirt and tie.” The rest, he would have been able to take off by himself, she inferred.

Silently she climbed off the bed and went to put on her slip, regather his clothes. He told her where there was a basket where she could hide the towel with other things to be washed. Again she could feel the weight of his gaze on her, and the rustling of his body and the ticking of the clock – it was on the dresser, she realized – seemed louder and louder.

When she was kneeling before him, buttoning his shirt methodically, as if pushing each button through its hole could tamp down her rising distress, and her distress at being distressed, he whispered, “What are we going to do?”

She didn’t pause her motions. “I don’t know, Mr. Byrne.”

“God. Please call me Michael.”

“I don’t know, Michael,” she repeated. There was a sour twist in her belly.

“I can’t ask you to come back,” he said.

“It certainly wouldn’t be proper,” she agreed hollowly.

“Would you want to come back,” he persisted. He did not exactly say it as a question.

She finished his top button, straightened his collar, and began with his tie. Her lips were pressed tightly together. The soft slapping sound that his right arm made as it struck rhythmically against the pillows suddenly seemed enormously distracting, as if magnified. “You can leave the knot loose,” he said stiffly.

“All right,” she murmured, and did. Finally she looked at his face again: he was pale, and the lines around his deep-set eyes were deepened by tension. The image came to her suddenly of Winston Byrne, who, she thought, had much the same pattern of lines; but his would have come came from squinting into the sun while riding.

She pressed her hands together. “I would,” she whispered slowly, “like to come back, but I can’t see how it would ever be possible.” The enormous impossibility of the idea… it was like something she was much too tired to climb over.

But Michael’s eyes had lit up. With a small shock she felt a slap on her wrist as he sought to grasp her with his better hand; after another try he was able to grasp her hand and hold it, shaking.

“Miss De Vries,” he began.

“You can call me Helena,” she said, wearied by the absurdity as she said it.

“Helena,” he said; she tried not to hear how caressingly he said it. “Helena, we have to try.”

Do we have to? she wondered, but didn’t say.

“You’re only here for the summer. We can try… as long as you’re willing to. And if you decide otherwise – well, you can simply stop coming. After all, you can go back East and forget you ever met me.”

“That seems unlikely,” she said. And she thought: Do you really imagine I’m cold enough to do that?

He gave a small laugh that sounded slightly hysterical.

“And how,” she continued, “do you propose we would go about this?” She couldn’t help how distant her tone had grown – the idea of leaving him alone again with his books and his little birds and his three rooms filled her with a cold dismay… But then again, was it really any of her business?

The most dangerous thing, she thought, would be to hold herself responsible for his happiness…

“The art,” he said with quiet urgency. “I can tell my mother about your work with your aunt. She can say that she heard about it at the party; she can say that she wants you to help us review the documentation of our holdings, arrange the redecoration of a gallery, curate a new collection, whatever… It’s clear you like history, know it enough to like it, and my father may not know anything about it, but he likes things to look historical, if you hadn’t noticed–”

“Your mother?” she interrupted incredulously. She thought of that proud, proud woman, with her fair hair pinned up smoothly on either side of her remote, oval face – like the formidable abbess of a medieval nunnery. For a woman like Mrs. Byrne to be complicit in arranging – what would you even call it? – arranging the assignation of her confined son… “Michael, I’m sorry, I haven’t met your mother for more than a moment, but… surely it’s a crazy idea.”

He paused. She stared down at his wavering hand, clasped around hers. “Mother is… complicated,” he said, sounding as if he were agreeing with her. “But – and I hope this doesn’t sound self-deluding – I know her to be partial to me in certain ways. I know it. And she takes a certain pride in knowing that… I am happier than I might be otherwise. – It was her who first gave me the finches to watch, you know. When I was very young.”

“The finches?” she said, startled.

“Yes, the little birds in the conservatory. I know you noticed them.”

She couldn’t disagree. She ran her free hand through her short dark hair; her head was fairly reeling.

“She has these odd little outbursts of tenderness, you see… and she isn’t nearly as old-fashioned as you might think.”

“Michael, you can say that, but I think there’s an ocean of difference between seeing to it that your son has finches to watch, and – and this.” And she gestured to her near-nudity.

He looked uncomfortable; she knew she had scored a point. But he rallied. “Don’t be silly – it doesn’t have to be ‘this’ that she knows about. I can just tell her that… you grew bored of the party and went wandering to look at the art, the tapestries. You found me. We spoke for half an hour; we discovered interests in common; you charmed me. You suffered a headache from the champagne; you said good-bye and went away to sleep. And there, we’ve made a neat circle with the story about you falling asleep in the music room. You could even leave,” he said with sudden, unseemly brightness, “a jewel or something behind in the music room… to prove you were there…” In his excitement, his torso was lurching from side to side, and his hand swung hers about. He added thoughtfully: “Besides, the De Vrieses all have immaculate reputations.”

“Of course you would know that,” she said tensely. She didn’t have to add, And will that still be the case, if anyone else finds out about this, by the end of the summer? She could it see it in the shadow that crossed his expression.

“You only feel… questionable,” he went on, “because you know that ‘this’ happened. To be brutally frank: no one else would ever believe that it had. To be even more frank, you might be… the only person I ever meet who would even conceive of it as a remote possibility.”

Something, a sorrow, twisted inside of her. She bit her lips and looked aside.

The clock ticked on the dresser.

After a minute had passed, she said abruptly, recklessly, “We’ll try it.” She had worn herself out chasing down every path of possibility; she thought of how, earlier in the night, all she had wanted was to see where the evening might go… And how it had gone.

His eyes lit again, and he jerked at her hand excitedly. His other hand wavered through the air, brushing against her face twice before he managed to bring it to rest alongside her neck. “Helena,” he said in a low voice.

“We have to do it properly,” she said flatly. “Every step has to be irreproachable. You must be introduced to me as one of the Byrne sons. I’ll be shy and remote. You – you can’t twinkle at me the way you’re twinkling right now,” she said, crossly.

He laughed and swayed forward to kiss her; reluctantly, she felt warmth spread through her at the renewed touch of his lips. But she pushed him away again, gently. “I’m being serious. Michael, listen. If we’re to see each other, they’ll want to chaperone us… at least for a long time. It will be hard not to… not to show what you’re feeling. And you might think highly of your mother’s broad-mindedness, but I have my doubts. If she sees anything that she finds the least bit suspicious… And you realize, it would very likely all reflect back on me, if anything were to be questioned?”

“Because I couldn’t possibly wish anything for myself,” he remarked bitterly.

“That’s only one piece of it,” she said, more gently. “Think… at the end of it, people would be more than happy to concede that an invalid man would… crave a young woman’s attention. But what about the young woman’s intentions? Especially when the invalid man is a son of one of the wealthiest families in America…?”

His face was twisted with dismay.  

“People would say horrible things, Michael. Horrible. It would never be believed that I could feel anything like… natural affection for you.”

He looked pale again. “You’re right. Of course,” he said, very low.

“I’m sorry. But we have to think about these things.”

“Of course,” he repeated. “But we can try.” And his hand shook hers about a little, as if telling her put her chin up.

“We can,” she said, in a slightly warning tone. She didn’t want to go on further. They would have days and days to think about everything that could possibly go wrong, and how very few chances there were for things to go right. And what was “right,” anyway? Again she stopped herself thinking.

“Michael,” she said, looking him in the eyes.

“Is it time to say good night?”

“I think it must be.”

“Come closer, please.”

She did, straddling him again, and he flung his arms around her, pulling her tightly to him in a spasmodic gesture. He pressed his nodding head against her chest, and she touched her fingers to the crown of his head, stroking him. He sighed deeply.

When he looked up again, she could not have named the expression on his face. 

“Is there anything else you need before I go?” she asked quietly.

“No. Thank you.” He released her, one arm simply dropping down heavily, the other springing up to shoulder height at his side, the hand gesticulating at the end of his wrist.

She dressed hastily. She bent to kiss him one last time before she unlocked the door again and stepped out. Behind her she could hear a soft storm of sound that must have been his body suddenly thrashing against the bed; it took all her resolve not to look back.

He hadn’t asked her to promise she’d come back; and she hadn’t promised anything.

As she hurried through the corridor just outside his room, she glanced warily at the one other door there. Surely it was a servant’s room, so as to be within earshot of Michael’s… but there was no sign of anyone having noticed anything.

She retraced her steps through the little conservatory, through the gallery full of books, back to the stairs. Then she remembered the damn bottle of champagne, left by the table hours ago. She doubled back to reclaim it; she could hide it somewhere closer to the party.

Returning to the stairs, she swore softly as she discovered the long-forgotten champagne glass; this she re-collected, too.

The Tudor Hall was dark; someone had been by to turn out the lights. She wondered if Michael habitually kept late hours, so that the lights in his little wing beyond were often left on.

She looked down from the landing at the cavernous hall. It truly did look haunted now, the shapes of the heavy furniture severe and brooding, touched only with the bluish light of the night outside. She had a sudden sense of being a Shakespeare character, Hamlet perhaps, stalking about moodily, burdened with – here she almost snorted at herself – complex sorrows.

But truly, she wondered as she hurried through the hall, how many others could ever be said to have arrived in her position?

She wanted him to be happy. He was kind and witty and, in his strange way, elegant. He was so lonely. Notwithstanding his family’s position, his circumstances were grotesquely unfair: to be treated like some kind of half-tolerated pet because of things about his body that he could not control… Picturing the way that his body writhed when he was taken by surprise or strong emotion, she had a sudden delirious notion that it was not because of physical affliction, but because of some spiritual transference of others’ unkindness to him.

She wanted him to be happy, but she did not know if she could, or should, hold herself to be part of that happiness. What could they even hope for? She tried to picture strolling through a park with him, side by side as… It was unthinkable; she could not imagine it. War veterans might return home infirm, yes, and then vows to them must be honored – but to choose someone who was… that way to begin with…

Her thoughts were running on so wildly; it had to be the lateness and strangeness of the night that was making them veer to the most drastic questions imaginable. She almost laughed when she thought about the engagement, her engagement, that had fallen apart last year: she had been so awfully depressed about the whole thing (not least about her own behavior), so unpredictable and uncharacteristically tremulous, that her parents had gone soft on her, had said yes to just about everything she had suggested might contribute to her recovery, to getting back on the track to a good marriage to a man of appropriate status. And see how she had repaid her parents’ trust and hopes tonight. Well, no one could say he wasn’t wealthy… Here she restrained herself from laughing again.

At least the idea of a friendship might be entertained. There, finally, was a reasonable conclusion. But even then, her mouth twisted bitterly as it struck her that they would never even be able to exchange correspondence frankly: he would need someone else to write his letters for him. Even a telephone he would need help with, and someone might always be in the room, listening…

And yet, and yet: how could she ignore him, having met him, however briefly? Having known that she could feel so passionately about him; that not only friendship, but desire could flow so naturally between them. No, she could never believe there was something unnatural about what had happened between them; it was only, only, what anybody else at all would think…

She realized that she had found her way to the music room; she fumbled for the light. Green velvet settee, gleaming grand piano. Her head was spinning, and she felt cold and almost sick with fatigue. She put a hand to her mouth and cursed herself for not saying good-bye to him more sweetly.

Why was she here? Yes, his silly, novelistic remark about leaving something behind, to show she had been here. She would have to remember to make a point of asking after it when she woke again in a few hours. She fumbled at the bodice of her black dress, where large faceted crystal beads lined the neckline. One came loose easily, and she weighed it for a moment in her hand before tossing it lightly – “For Michael,” she said softly – to land on the settee. It glinted conspicuously.

She put out a hand to turn off the lights again, then turned back briefly; the crystal was invisible now. Somehow she had hoped to see it still… Never mind; she shook herself and hastened back to find her room, where she would lie awake until the grey light of false dawn, thinking of the resonance of Michael’s lilting voice, the uncertain grip of his hands, the light in his dark sad sharp eyes; wondering if he, too, lay awake in a room that after all was so close by that she could have run to him in a few minutes; wondering when they would see each other next, and how she could keep from running to him when they did.



Thank you all again for reading. I originally intended for this to be a stand-alone story, but I admit that I started daydreaming about a sequel almost as soon as I finished writing this one, though it'll take me a few months to get around to it. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you thought of the story overall, and if you have any other dreams of devvy historical scenarios (in which case maybe you should also check out DevoGirl's playful 18th-century novel with a blind hero, The Adventures of Tom Finch?!). 

Take care!


  1. I loved this!! I’m sad it’s over, but I can’t wait to read the sequel.

  2. I want more! Thank you for sharing. I look forward to reading the sequel.

  3. Thank you for the story and I'd love to read a sequel!

  4. This is so deliciously poetic, even if it is a bit sad. I love it! I'm very eagerly awaiting a sequel, as it does sort of end on a cliffhanger.

    And thanks so much for the shout-out! I'm all for more devvy historical fiction. Just because there was less institutional support doesn't mean some individual PWDs didn't live rich, fulfilling lives, and many did get married. We don't always have to focus on the mainstream prejudices against them; many did their own thing kind of under the radar. I have so many ideas for more stories. Some I'm working on at the moment so I won't mention the details yet, but here are some additional ideas:

    -wounded WWI veteran
    -anything connected with the Perkins School for the Blind. Check out their online photo archive, it's amazing!
    -the deaf community in 18th century Paris which invented one of the first sign languages
    -freak shows in late 19th/early 20th century USA, where some PWDs controlled and profited from their public image; it wasn't all exploitation
    -Matthias Buchinger, quad amputee and total player of the 17th century
    There are so many possibilities!

  5. Well, this demands a (very long) sequel!

    I enjoyed this so much. Your writing is stunning, as always, and these characters made me absolutely light up. Fantastic work. Thank you for sharing, and I truly hope we see more of Helena and Michael in the future!

  6. This was an entertaining but sensitive read, thank you for sharing your story. You could probably take this story to all types of scenarios of drama and love. I liked how she thought of leaving a button in the music room, very clever. Thanks again and stay safe Rowan!

  7. Love it! Sad but beautiful. A great beginning to a hopefully long and beyond doubt awesome story ;-) No just kidding, don’t feel pressured, I’d be beyond happy to read a sequel one day, regardless of its length. Already miss those characters now, thanks so much for this gem <3
    PS: If they run out of ideas how to arrange a secret meet up (and more) they should probably read the Decameron again. Plenty of wisdom there on this topic :D

    1. ‘You – you can’t twinkle at me the way you’re twinkling right now,” she said, crossly.‘

  8. This was the best thing I've read in so long. I'd read the hell out of a sequel. An entire novel, perhaps?!