Mater Artium: Uncle

Leopold caught Kate around her back and behind her knees, and swept her up before she could touch the floor. Only then did the string quartet’s melody die away, player by distracted player, as he peered anxiously into her pale face for a sign that this was only a faint. A hitching breath hissed fitfully between her pouting lip and her chipmunk teeth, then her forehead lolled forward against his collar. With silent thanks he shifted her weight to prevent her head tipping back again.

The guests were now paying Leopold as much attention as was paid to the announcement of his engagement only minutes ago. “An eventful day,” he said, eliciting a few chuckles from the audience. Before he could take a single step toward the guest quarters, both Otis and his uncle appeared before him, each subtly vying for the dominant position.

“I must speak with you immediately,” came Uncle’s familiar clipped whisper, a premonition of a belt resurrected from Leopold’s childhood.

Otis, who had looked about to offer assistance, snapped his mouth closed in humor at the command. Leopold answered Otis’s look of amusement with one of urgency, and Otis very purposefully turned on his heel. Leopold followed him out of the ballroom with Kate nestled as comfortably as possible in his arms, leaving dear Uncle to revive the quartet and return his attention to what he loved most in the world: hosting garish evening parties for equally gaudy people.

“I can not explain,” Leopold said as they eased their way through the hallway’s parting crowd of businessmen and family friends. He tightened his grip on Kate’s small body in superstitious fear that an airing of the unbelievable truth might steal her away again.

Otis looked over his shoulder. “I haven’t asked,” he replied, but every note of innocence in his tone rang false: he was asking.

Around the corner from the front door and down the next hallway stood the manor’s nicest guest bedroom. Upon reaching it Otis made way for Leopold to brush past him, and with gentle care Leopold deposited Kate onto the canopied four-poster bed. While Kate didn’t stir, her weight did physically sink into the bedding, proof that this manifestation truly did exist in the here and now, her skin dewy and green-pale, and — he stopped a bead of sweat at the delicate hinge of her jaw — utterly, perfectly real. In defiance of all Earthly knowledge, the presence of Katherine McKay in the year eighteen seventy six was not borne of a lovesick time traveler’s fever dream.

Otis cleared his throat and handed Leopold a dampened cloth. In all the attention he paid to Kate, Leopold had failed to notice Otis pouring the bedside table’s pitcher into its basin, soaking a handkerchief and wringing it out. “Thank you,” Leopold said, and used it to blot at Kate’s brow. Suddenly conscious of his own indulgently attentive fidgeting, he lay it across her forehead. “And thank you for receiving her.”

“She knew me.” Otis corrected himself: “She knew of me.”

“I told her all about you,” Leopold said.

“When?”

“Uuuhhgn,” said Kate. “What a… what a weird… thing.” Her eyes fluttered open. “Dream?”

“Leopold!” shouted Uncle from the doorway. The old man had long been able to hone his outbursts so that while any uninvolved ears in the vicinity fell deaf to the sound, the target felt the full brunt.

Leopold swallowed his newfound scowl and relaxed his shoulders. “It’s all right,” he whispered. The assurance failed to ease Kate’s visible dismay. Nevertheless, he left her to face his life’s primary source of unpleasant noise. “Yes, Uncle.” He moved into the hall, forcing his uncle to follow him beyond the range of Kate’s eyes and, with luck, ears. He trusted Otis to provide a distraction by conversing with Kate. He trusted Kate not to present herself as an asylum escapee.

“These guest rooms are reserved for the Trees.” Uncle’s papery eyes were wet with rage, but at least he had the grace to speak quietly. “Could you not have ushered your harlot to the attic instead?”

Leopold clasped his hanging hands together dutifully so that they would not act without his consent. “You would have my fiancee rest in the maids’ quarters?”

“A bed in the maids’ quarters would be a hospitality. Be grateful I haven’t already abandoned you both to the streets for this embarrassment.”

“As I am sure you would were you not so devoted to the judgments of others,” Leopold snapped.

The insult was lost on Uncle. “That is exactly right,” he said. “How is it possible that while you so often understand, you consistently fail to obey? Did you spawn from my sister’s womb or from Satan himself?”

“Perhaps both.” A pause impregnated the space between them with dark implication, and Leopold savored it bitterly. “You needn’t hesitate to be plain when speaking ill of my mother and father in agression toward me. I have developed an immunity.” His blood betrayed him: feigning apathy only made his face burn. “Yet I am more than vulnerable to any insinuation that my fiancee is a whore.”

“I did not insinuate it, I stated the obvious outright. How dare you invite a harlot into this house? Not only is she orphaned — ‘Massapequa,’ as though she descends from a tribe of savage Indians! — she betrays her occupation with every mannerism. The cheap gossamer excuse for a dress, the sway of the hips, the slovenly, drunken ease of lustful expression, the tendency to slouch.”

“She works,” Leopold snarled, “in research.”

Uncle laughed. He still managed to look down at Leopold as he always had, despite having become the shorter man. “Nonsense. The decadent truth was plain to every eye in the hall tonight from the moment she arrived — late, due to a preceding appointment the nature of which I daren’t infer. I had hoped that this was your attempt at stopping my heart with a scandalous jest, but now that I see you truly do intend to marry a fallen woman who hasn’t a penny to her name, I… well, I…”

In fantasy, Leopold hit his uncle so hard across the face that his head hit the wall.

In reality, Leopold waited for his uncle to finish.

“… I simply will not allow it. And that is the end of it. Instruct Otis to notify the girl’s madam of her wherabouts in order that she may be retrieved. And further, advise the madam to have a doctor in to determine whether Miss McKay of Masapequa’s fainting spells stem from an occupational illness, and to further share the news with you, so that you might be spurred to seek medical remedy yourself.”

A familiar numbness crept across Leopold’s mind as his uncle went on. It was much like the drawing of drapery across a window to shield sleep from a piercing glare. He stared through the old windbag as it emptied, tirelessly, of wind.

“Did you exchange even a single word with Miss Tree this evening?” Uncle paused, but received no answer. “You fancy yourself thoughtful and misunderstood, yet you are as transparent as the glass in my hand. Miss Tree’s father reports her fascination with the technology of the steam engine, but never mind that; likewise never mind her talent in ballet, a graceful compensation for her boyish intellect; and never mind her intensely private vocation of writing poetry, over which she obsesses yet shares with no one: for Miss Tree is homely. And so you have refused to offer her even a second glance, let alone lend her your ear. Instead, with the hedonism of an adolescent, you prefer a loosely statured, doll-eyed harlot who possesses no class, no name and certainly no dowry.”

An icy wave spread over Leopold’s skin, turned to fire, and faded. He wished he had a drink.

“You have no sense, Leopold.” His uncle sighed in genuine disappointment, nearly out of wind and deflating fast. “You have never had any sense.”

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