The Wistful and the Good, Chapter 21
The Cusp of Womanhood
Drefan has taken Elswyth riding, but after seeing his companions take village girls up before them on their saddles, Elswyth realizes that Drefan means to lay her down in Foxton Wood the way her father once laid her mother down behind a haystack on the day she was conceived. Get caught up using the index page.
The day was warm and a slight breeze rustled the high canopy of leaves above them. The grass all about them on either side of the narrow path was near waist high and full of wild flowers. The sky above them, where it showed through the canopy, was very blue, and the sun made the leaves of the canopy glow a brilliant green. Birds chirped and cricket sang. A rabbit passed by, getting quite close before he noticed them, and then scurried away, embarrassed at having almost disturbed the lovers.
They were both curiously aware of all of this, though the gaze of each was focused on the other. And yet, to each of them, the place mattered. It had to be a place of joy, a place of dignity, a place of happy memory. Drefan gazed at Elswyth for a long time, then turned his eyes away and looked around, assuring himself that all was as it should be for the moment to come. Elswyth looked around, too. She looked for some misshapen tree, some cleft stone by which she would be able to remember this spot, by which she would be able to return to it in wistful remembrance, so that she might one day bring a daughter, on the cusp of womanhood, to whom all must be explained, and say, “This is the spot. Here you were made. Do not hate me for it.”
She had been waiting for his initiative, but, now that this moment was upon them, he made no move toward her. Perhaps he considered that he had already made the first move, when he had kissed her before the hall in front of her parents. Perhaps his desire now was that she should take a step toward him. Perhaps his pride demanded this. Perhaps his courtesy granted this privilege to her. Or perhaps this was for him, for all his experience, a moment as uncertain as it was for her.
A man marries later than a woman, and thus there is a time, in the life of a young man of means, when he is pray to a pretty kitchen slave, to a buxom oven keeper’s daughter. Drefan need hardly have lifted a finger to have such as Willa, to have such as her own mother had once been. Elswyth did not doubt that he had lain with such as these. She was resigned that he would not come to her a virgin.
And yet, he did not look at her now as if this were some routine pleasure taking. And her mother had been right—he did not behave to her now as he had when Leif was present. Then he had expressed an easy and familiar possession. But now he stood opposite her with a look on his face that spoke tenderness, uncertainty, even a kind of reverence.
God makes many kinds of lovers. Some couple with greedy haste. Some with easy laughter. Some with submission yielding to conquest. Some with slow awe. Elswyth had expected easy laughter, for her mother and father were lovers of that kind. But Drefan was not such a man. With any but her he would have been a man of greedy haste. But he was not so with her, for the truth, which she could never have guessed, was that he was in awe of her. That he was worthy, by blood and birth and courage, of the most beautiful, the most lively, the most charming, the most enigmatic woman between Tyne and Tweed, he had no doubt. That she was that woman, he alone had the experience to know. In accompanying his father on the ealdorman’s progress around the district, he had met every thegn’s daughter of note, several of them pretty and accomplished young women. But none were like Elswyth in his eyes.
She was beneath him. He did her honor to raise her. Yet in his eyes she was the pearl beyond price. She was his, not because he was worthy of her, but because she must have a husband, and no man was more worthy than he. She was both beneath him and above him, and the contradiction made him shy.
Seeing him hesitant, and charmed by the adoring look she saw in his face, she took a step toward him, her skirts rustling as she moved through the tall grass. She stood before him and offered him her hands, which he took. He had fine strong hands, though not rough like Leif’s. Sword and spear shape a hand differently than rope and oar. The grip in which he took her hands—small hands, shaped by spindle and needle and idle wandering—expressed both strength and gentleness. She looked up at him and tilted back her head, just as her mother had done in the serving kitchen so many years ago. But the mouth that descended to meet hers was not sour. There was no belch. His breath was sweet, and, unlike the kisses he had given her before, this one was gentle, even tentative. It was as if he remembered that he owed her a first kiss, with all the hesitant enquiry that a first kiss demanded.
The result was not entirely satisfactory. Perhaps a first kiss can never satisfy once its place has been usurped in the grand order of kisses which must constitute a courtship and a marriage. It was a fourth kiss pretending to be a first, and so lacked both the charm of the first and the ardor of the fourth.
Still, there was much more to the great arc of their coupling, the coupling which would last till death, than an imperfection in a single kiss. She was not going to spoil the far greater first that was now before her by pouting about the imperfection of a single kiss. She kissed him again.
Imperfect still. But what art is mastered at the first attempt? Diligence is required for perfection in all things, and surely the diligent pursuit of perfection in kissing would be less laborious than the pursuit of perfection in needlework.
The third kiss was better, perhaps. A little better.
But they were here for more than kissing. If there was imperfection in the kisses, did that mean there would be imperfection in the greater conjunction as well? She stepped away from him and cast her eyes down. Let him take this for coyness. Was not coyness part of this, a proper and a necessary part? If she were too bold, surely that would spoil it for him. Oh! Had the kisses been as imperfect for him as they had been for her? Oh! How was one to know such a thing? She turned and looked at him again, searching his face for signs of satisfaction. Should there be perfect knowledge between lovers? Did they who became one flesh also become one mind? Did he know her doubts? Did he sense the imperfection of their kisses? And in the moment of consummation, would the whole of her mind be laid bare to him? And if it were, could she bear to show him all that she held there?
He lay down on his back among the long grasses and held out a hand to her, inviting her to condescend to him. She lay down beside him, leaving a little distance between them, a comfortable distance for holding hands and gazing at the glow of the forest canopy and talking softly of the things that courting couples talk of.
But neither spoke. Voluble as they both were by nature, the impending moment hushed them. He turned his head to look at her face, sunlit through a fringe of wildflowers as she gazed upward toward heaven. Welisc she was, in every feature. An inferior breed. And yet he had long fancied that there was something of the fair folk about her. Nonsense, of course, but could it not be that those conceived in field and forest might have some touch of the fey about them? Might she and he, this day, conceive another such child as this?
Her hand found his and he took it lightly, his thumb gently caressing her palm.
“No one would see us from the path, would they?” she asked.
“No one is like to pass this way,” he replied. “Besides, Sherwyn would give the alarm if a stranger approached him.”
She could hear the sound of their horses champing the grass nearby. The closeness of any creature, particularly a creature so much a part of her childhood like Spotty, made her shy. But Drefan was emboldened by her question, for he thought that she would not have feared discovery if all she thought they were to do here was to stare at the sky. He rolled toward her and placed a hand on her belly, propping his head up with the other hand as he looked at her. He had to beat down a patch of daisies that stood between her face and his and popped back up, insubordinately, as he tried to brush them aside. On the third try he pinned them down with his elbow and they both laughed. The thumb—just the thumb—of his left hand slowly caressed her belly as his hand lay across her.
Next Chapter: 21. The Cusp of Womanhood (coming next week)
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