Authors: Gene Doucette
It was maybe my fourth or fifth day on the veranda before someone developed the courage to strike up a conversation. That person was Joanne, of all people. She hadn’t even been interested in introducing herself upon my arrival, and so was just about the last person I expected to find in the chair next to mine.
“Papa goes hunting,” she said, after a lengthy silence in which we took turns sampling cucumber sandwiches and sipping tea.
“Pardon?” My voice sounded weird to my ears, as I’d not used it for a little while. Her voice sounded very pleasant. She was also comelier than memory served, but that might have been because it didn’t look as if she was making any particular effort to impress. She had her auburn hair down and wore a casual dress, and her face had no heavy makeup to it. Everyone in her family was a natural beauty, but somehow when she tried to make herself attractive she looked worse than when she made no effort at all.
“In the trees you can’t seem to stop looking at,” she said. “Papa goes hunting in there, on Sundays. Fox hunting, with the dogs. I’m certain if you asked he would happily bring you along.”
“Ah,” I said. “Thank you. Is Cornelius here?”
“Oh no, he’s in the city for a time. He’s not expected back for a month or more. Business, I’m told. As much as I’m told anything.”
In the uncomfortable silence that followed I went back to staring, while Joanne remained where she was and we made a game attempt at not feeling awkward.
She started and stopped two or three different sentences, before settling on one. “They want me to talk to you,” she said. It was in a conspiratorial near-whisper. “But I don’t know what to say.”
I leaned forward. “They?”
She nodded over her shoulder. Behind us was a set of French doors that led to an indoor sitting room. As it was bright and sunny outside, the inner room appeared dark, but not so dark I couldn’t see Margritte and another woman trying hard to pretend they weren’t looking at us.
“I don’t think I understand,” I said.
I sort of did understand, but it was hardly polite to say so. At twenty-seven, Joanne was approaching spinsterhood. It was something of a minor family scandal that she had thus far failed to land an appropriate suitor, although it must also be said that as the youngest daughter she had the least pressure of any of them to marry. Cornelius and Margritte didn’t need her to wed for political, social or financial reasons, so far as I knew. She should have been more or less free to marry for her own interests alone. That she’d not done so I took to mean she simply hadn’t found the right man.
“Oh, sir, of course you must,” she said.
“It would be my pleasure to enjoy your company for as long as you wish to extend it, but surely all concerned are aware of my current mental state.”
your unseemly preoccupation with the local flora. But you are hardly mad. I have met madmen, and you don’t meet the qualifications.”
“You are an expert?”
“I have become one. Papa has been tending to the…
, shall we say… for some time.”
Looking down the lawn, she pointed out another guest. “There,
is a madman.” There were several tables and chairs set up on the manicured grass, and sitting at one such table was a man I’d seen a few times but not spoken to. (Not that I’d been speaking to anybody.)
“He’s reading a book,” I pointed out. “I fear your definition of madness is wanting.”
“That depends on what he’s reading, doesn’t it? I agree right now he doesn’t appear fearsome, but he is very much mad. Speak to him if you don’t believe me.”
“Perhaps I will.”
There was a second guest on the lawn, one who had a vague sort of foreign quality that was difficult to pin down but impossible to ignore, even for me. “Is he also mad?” I asked.
“No, he’s not mad, he’s royal, which may be worse.”
“Royal, you say?”
“So far as any of us here knows. He hasn’t said, and neither has papa, but his demeanor is a telltale. We think he may be a prince, and we’ve heard him speaking in another tongue, but it’s not one any of us can parse.”
“Your mother, surely she knows.”
“Oh yes, surely, but she’s not sharing it. No, I mean
so to say myself or my maids. I am not, at any rate, to speak to him. It’s just as well. He’s much too young to be interesting. And I’m not entirely certain but I don’t think he much cares for women as a whole.”
I laughed, which no doubt pleased Margritte to hear.
“You can’t speak to the prince or the madman on the lawn, and your third option is me, another madman, shabbily dressed and a comparative pauper. Surely there is a fourth option.”
“As I said, Mr. Bates, I don’t believe you mad, and I know perfectly well you’re no pauper. You are also not option number three. Numbers one through seven or eight precede you, and do not include either of the men seated below.”
“You’re not shy for suitors, then.”
“They are the only thing I don’t lack excess of.”
“And yet, under apparent duress, you’re being pushed toward lunatics. I worry for the quality of your prior matches.”
It was her turn to laugh, which was a lovely, infectious sound that was nearly good enough to distract me from the fact that I could see an imp named Silenus the Elder dancing at the edge of the woods with a bottle of wine and a goblet. He wasn’t there, and I knew he wasn’t there, but it had been seemingly an eternity since my last taste of wine—and an actual eternity since I’d tasted the ancient Greek permutation—which made me wish I were wrong about him not being there. Eventually, I was going to see something or someone I so preferred to think was actually there that I lacked the strength to convince myself otherwise.
I turned all of my attention to Joanne. Hopefully, she was real.
“It pains me to say so,” she said, “but I fear my options have rolled downhill, not up. There were the younger, the wealthier, the better dressed certainly. Perhaps none so charming.”
“I thank you, but I can’t imagine how you could mistake anything I’ve evinced thus far as charm.”
“Not charm, then. A levelness of character. You’ve not spoken to me as a woman.”
“Haven’t I?” In my thinking, this meant I’d insulted her somehow. “I apologize.”
“No, no, you misunderstand. I mean you’ve not spoken down to me, or behaved as though it was my honor to be in your company. You are clearly a man with a congested mind and a deep reserve of private stories, but that only makes you more interesting. I might even enjoy pretending to be courted by you for a while. It would make mother so happy.”
“Ours is to be an imaginary courtship, then?”
This was all very confusing, but not unpleasantly confusing. She was an attractive young woman, and if I were in playing the scoundrel and not the lunatic I might consider pursuing her, only not with marriage in mind. I’m not precisely in a good position to marry someone. The problem begins and ends with the part where I don’t get any older, as this impacts my long-term relationships in a surprising number of ways.
“I hope that’s all right,” she said. “I’ve asked about, and the consolidated opinion regarding Mr. Reginald Bates is that he is not in the habit of eyeing women with any long-term perspective. And I’m afraid my assets will not be made available to you on a short-term basis, although I can arrange that for you with another if you find yourself with an urgent need.”
This was quickly becoming the most unusual conversation I’d had with a maiden in a hundred years.
“Tell me, if we are to be honest with one another during this imaginary courtship, how it is that I have become the great hope for your parents in a claim for your hand?”
“I don’t think they have
great hopes or expectations. They’ve only run through all the other possible combinations they could think of for lighting the necessary spark and appear to be reenacting their own courtship at this stage.”
“How is that?”
“Oh it was a scandal, such as these things go. Papa was wounded in a minor skirmish with uncle Brandon—have you met uncle?”
“I don’t know that I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Yes, well, a scoundrel by all accounts. Brandon and papa were close friends at a young age, up until they had a dispute that coincided with too much ale and two swords too many. Papa was wounded, and it was mother that nursed him back to health. It’s how they met.”
“I understand. So now you are here—”
“—to nurse you back to health.”
“I’m afraid I have no wounds to dress.”
“We take what we can get. And you are far more tolerable than any of my prior madman suitors, for which I’m thankful. As for dressing your wounds, I don’t believe I can be of any real use to you aside from conversationally, unless you’d like to tell me what exactly is so fascinating about a tree.”
“It’s not the trees,” I said. “It’s the shadows between them.”
She looked at the woods. “Yes, I do see the shadows, but no more than that.”
“That’s the problem with shadows, isn’t it? They keep secrets.”
“Surely whatever secrets might be contained within that darkness is limited in scope, sir.”
“Not in my experience.”
As I said this, another dragon poked its head around one of the trees, winced in the face of the sunlight, and retreated.
It wasn’t there.
My attention must have drifted obviously at the sight of the dragon, because it was at this point that Joanne stood.
“Well, I have overstayed,” she said. “I will leave you to your shadows for now, but perhaps I can stop by again tomorrow?”
“I would like that.”
I was being honest. Something about engaging her in conversation did a good deal to keep away the madness I could feel lurking at the edge of my vision.
“But before you go,” I said, “I have one question I don’t think I can leave unasked for a day.”
She glanced into the darkened sitting room, where there actually
lurkers in the shadows. “Proceed, sir. Much longer and I’ll be hearing nothing but stories of young women who appeared too desperate, but proceed.”
I took her hand, so it looked as if this was perhaps an extended goodbye. “It’s only the most obvious. Why have you
found a suitor by now?”
“Perhaps I am just exceedingly picky. That would be the consensus.”
“You dismissed me as a viable candidate before we spoke a word with one another. More than picky, milady.”
“’Milady’. Very courtly, Mr. Bates. I hope that you take no offense at this, and further that you don’t relay it to anyone else, but I know what men want from a woman, and I know what women are supposed to want from a man, and I neither wish to give nor to receive those things.”
“Not from a
* * *
I accidentally ended up speaking to the madman from the lawn later that evening.
It was after sunset, in the library. By coincidence I had gone there to get a book to read on the theory that if reading was helpful to a
lunatic, it would probably be of use to me as well. It was also pretty clear that staring at the trees wasn’t doing me much good. Maybe disappearing into someone else’s make-believe was a better idea than staying in my own.
The lighting in the library wasn’t splendid, which was really true anyplace after sunset up until electricity but seemed especially true in this cavernous room. It made it difficult to see the titles on the spines—vast, leather-bound collections taking up whole walls—and also difficult to notice when someone else had entered.
He surprised me, in other words. It’s a difficult thing to do when I have my head straight, but obviously less so when I’m in a condition. I turned around from a wall of philosophical treatises and there he was in the leather chair near the door.
“Oh!” I exclaimed. As one does. “You startled me.”
He looked to be in his late-forties or maybe a bit older, but it was hard to tell because he also bore the look of someone who’d aged prematurely due to some sort of trauma. Though sitting, he seemed roughly my height, but was dangerously thin. If someone told me he’d been a prisoner until very recently, I would have believed them.
In response to my exclamation he neither moved nor spoke for a solid five or six seconds, which was legitimately creepy, especially to the guy who was already seeing things.
It was long enough of a pause for me to decide he either didn’t want to talk or wasn’t actually there, and I liked neither option. Or, he was deaf, but I imagined Joanne would have included that in her description, as that’s an important thing to know about a person.
“Hello, I’m sorry,” he said finally, startling me a second time. “I had to be sure you were finished.”
“Finished looking for a book? No, I’ve just started. If you—”