Monday, December 4, 2023

In The Shadow of Her Majesty, Chapter Five

Chapter Five: A Moment with Stewart

How long he had been standing there at the doorway to the ladies parlour, I don’t think I would have guessed, had not Constance (the Lady Loudon, dear reader, if your memory of my prior mention of her talent as a violist eludes you) made a point of crossing the room and gently interposing herself into my rather extended conversation with the Lady Shiflett, Viscountess of Albemarle. Jennifer and I both share an enthusiasm for the markswoman’s arts, one that we freely admit can border upon an obsession, and whenever she and I find ourselves in one another’s company our discussions invariably turn to that topic. Animated by both the port that had recently concluded our repast and the Turkish coffee that invigorated the ladies of the party for a long evening of social merriment, we were in the midst of a delightfully opinionated exchange about the relative merits of two different vintage target pistols, when Constance rested her delicate hand upon my shoulder.

“Rebecca? Forgive me for my intrusion, but I have noted that for the last five and a half minutes, your fiance has been quietly and patiently waiting at the doors to this chamber. I am sure that he would wait until the return of Christ rather than interrupt you in your conversation, but I did feel that you might like to be informed of his presence.”

“Thank you, my dear,” I replied. “Jennifer, if you will forgive me, might I take a moment to speak with my intended?”

A sly and teasingly vulpine smile crossed the face of the Lady Albemarle. “Of course. I will remain at your service, Rebecca, and will give you the benefit of a few moments of tactical retreat to consider the error of your position regarding the Ruger whilst I refresh my coffee. Please do extend my greetings and well-wishes to your dear Stewart.”

“I shall, dear Jennifer, I shall.”

It was then that I chose to gaze in the direction of the door, which like the entire ladies parlour was covered in the softest and most luxuriant material. Doors were of padded velvet, while ornate tapestries of vintages both ancient and contemporary covered walls and hung on display from the high ceiling, which itself was decorated with geometric patterns cast in cloth, patterns paying homage to the beauty of Iberian Moorish tilework. While eminently pleasing in its aesthetics, the primary purpose of this was not for appearance sake, but rather to quiet the acoustics of a room in which a score of gentlewomen would prefer to be able to hold simultaneous discourse with one another without all having to screech like common harridans.

There, just beyond the threshold over which gentlemen would be unwise to tread, stood my Stew, accompanied by Thomas, the significantly modified Series 8 who served him ably in the three-fold role of butler, footman, and laboratory assistant. Stewart’s eyes met mine, at which instant he almost immediately looked down and away, as if he had inadvertently stared directly into the sun; an affectation that some might consider reticent or furtive, but that I understand now as merely a distinguishing feature of his unusual, distinctive mind and his particular care for me. His pale, delicately-featured face rose again, and his deep blue eyes now held my own in their affectionate observance. A smile of genuine pleasure crossed his lips, and, I must confess, mine as well.

As I came near in my approach, he bowed slightly, our eyes remaining fixed, his long lean body folding over in the paradoxically precise and ungainly manner that is his wont, a posture he maintained until I stood close enough that he could take my gloved hand in his own. Still partially bowed (for he stands a full six and a half slender feet in height), upon the back of my hand he placed a single delicate kiss. Closing his eyes for a moment, he pressed my hand to his cheek, and then, as if in prayer or an expression of rapt genuflection, touched it tenderly for a moment to his prominent brow.

He let out a deep sigh, his eyes full and startlingly bright with the deepest fondness.

“Oh, Becca, I have missed you dreadfully.”

Then it was I who averted my eyes, for the unexpected boldness of his proclamation had such a fresh clarity and force about it that I found myself momentarily without breath. Never had I heard such a declaration from Stewart, and certainly not one spoken with such intensity. I do not doubt that the loosing of his typical reserve was in part influenced by the fine Kentucky bourbon that flowed freely in the gentlemen’s parlour; but Stew was not inebriated in an unseemly or otherwise observable way, and I must confess that I too still felt some of the headiness of that festive evening’s libations.

“Stew, Stewart, I…” I began, but whereas under almost all circumstances I have no difficulty finding the words to express any sentiment, the intensity of the moment caught me uncharacteristically flatfooted. I looked back into the deep earnestness of his dear face, but though my mouth opened and closed, not a sound came forth.

“Dearest Becca. I did not mean to upend you with my declaration. Do you forgive me?”

I nodded, as I remained momentarily speechless.

Stewart drew himself to his full height, and continued, still holding my hand in his. “I realize that I am being more…direct. As these months have passed, I have…found our separations more and more unbearable. Our correspondences and messages are but cold comfort, and I find myself…coveting every moment that we might spend in one another’s company. I had hoped, indeed, I had assumed, that the Duke’s gala would provide just such an opportunity. When I sent my messenger with your lamentably delayed invitation, it was my fervent desire that we spend as much time together as propriety allows.”

“Mine as well,” I replied, my voice and mind finally remaking their acquaintance.

Our time at the gala had, in actuality, been quite different than either of us had expected. I had anticipated spending much of it on his arm, telling him the news from Port Baltimore and the estate, discussing music, or engaging in any of the many intimacies with which we spent our time together, but the affairs of the Ministry of Defense had held Stewart in conversation after conversation, all behind closed doors, as they had also detained Father.

If a match is ill-chosen, as lamentably some are, the betrothed are often glad of time apart, as the marriage is little more than a convenient and productive bond between two houses. But while Stewart’s mind is capable of doggedly pursuing the most intricate and esoteric of problems, he assumes that the simplest course of action is nearly always best. From that hypothesis, he always operated under the following postulates:

Postulate the first; I was to be his wife. Postulate the second; that the best marriages are marked by intimacy and devoted attention. Postulate the third; that he was desirous of only the best and most amenable of unions. From these postulates, he determined that he would from the moment of our very first meeting treat me as if I were his closest companion, and that all about me must necessarily be of the most lovable and agreeable character. With others, he could be aloof, clinical, and distant. Alone with me, he was confidently intimate, touchingly romantic, and thoroughly attentive in the most pleasing of ways.

Granted, he could forget himself in his work on occasion, and was prone to speaking at great length about matters about which I cared little at all. He was still a male of the species, after all, and thus congenitally defective in matters requiring more than one thought at a time. For this, I gladly forgave him.

Clearly, his heart was troubled, for he continued on fervently.

“Oh, Becca, I had so hoped that we would have time together, as that was my entire purpose in drawing you here, but I have received the unwelcome news that the Ministry requires my presence in Williamsburg tonight. I must depart within the hour aboard the Royal Society’s research cutter Darwin’s Finch, which dashes all of my hopes to ruin.”

This was, of course, deeply grieving to me as well, as spending long hours walking alone with Stew in the gardens had been the anticipated leaven that gave pleasure to the upcoming day of ladylike duty. Yet from his lament my interest in the purposes of his journey, so clearly bound together with Father’s, was stirred even further, and it was from my fresh disappointment that I spoke out of turn.

“This has something to do with Father’s errand, and whatever vital cargo rests within the bowels of the Firedrake, does it not? If you must be sent ahead, I am assuming it must be something to do with the design intricacies of mechanical minds, or…how do you put it…tera-qbit processors…which are, as we both know, your particular area of renown.”

“It, uh, you know that I, it isn’t, it isn’t that I don’t…” It was his turn to struggle to formulate a reply, and torn between his complete trust in me and his sworn duty, his vulnerability and awkwardness again manifested themselves. Clearly, I was near the mark, but seeing his distress, I at once relented.

“Stew, Stew, no no no. I am so sorry. I cannot help what I perceive, or the interplay between my intellect and my feminine intuition. The truth of that matter is not for my ears, nor would I impose on your duty to the Crown by in any way causing you to divulge information that you have pledged on your honour to keep secret. It is just…that I…that I too regret the loss of this time with you.”

“Your insightfulness is quite fearsome, dear Becca,” he sighed, recovering something of his composure. And then, as the sun re-emerging from behind a wind-driven cumulus, his subtle smile returned. “Perhaps…perhaps once this business is concluded, you and I might visit with one another at your Montgomery Estate. Your Father has generously invited me to join him there following our time in Williamsburg, and I am sure the Ministry will not disturb us there for a fortnight once our work is accomplished. If he has not already informed you of this, perhaps, well, perhaps you and I might…”

“Yes, Stewart,” I said softly, with meaning, pressing closer that we might speak in confidence. “Yes.”

Our conversation from that point on was for our ears only, and I am not of a mind to share it.