Did she lean / To the soft side of the heart, or wisely bar / Love from amongst her griefs?
“A hermitage.” Septimus looked around skeptically. It was a perfectly nice stone cottage, with a door and glass window, utterly lacking all the patina of age Mr Noakes had put into the drawing.
“Yes, and it’s all wrong, isn’t it?” Thomasina wrinkled her nose. “Mr Noakes has no notion of hermits, I don’t think. I thought our hermit would have to be as the Baptist in the wilderness, but there’s no sign of wilderness here.”
“Yes, even St Jerome was never given study so cozy by the most ignorant of artists. I do not think hermits, being ascetics, generally go in for flags rather than dirt floors.”
“Those would be aesthetic hermits.”
“Very good, my lady.”
Thomasina looked out of the window. “Some day, the trees will be thick and tall and you won’t be able to see the house at all. And the roof will be covered with moss, and the house will never have a proper sight of the hermitage at all. So why has Mr Noakes so angered Mama by building something that will become invisible?”
“It is the modern style that everything grow more and more difficult to see. Lady’s gowns, even, are disappearing at alarming rates.”
“I do not think Mama wears less than she used to.”
“I mean since my childhood, my lady.”
“You make yourself sound very old, Septimus.”
“I am very old, my lady. Otherwise, I should not be permitted unchaperoned in your company.” Today in particular, it was very evident that his pupil was less child than lady.
“Oh, phoo.” Thomasina looked away. “I turn seventeen in a week, Septimus. How much longer do you suppose Mama will permit us to stay?”
“Permit me to stay, I think you mean. I suppose that depends on your marriageability.”
“That you have been so brilliantly ruining?”
“I, my lady?”
Thomasina laughed at his mock protest. “Yes, you. Augustus doesn’t believe a word I told him about carnal embrace.”
“Your inability to tell your brother the truth has no bearing on whether another man wishes you to lie to him.”
“To lie with him, don’t you mean?”
“Oh, yes, of course. How else did Mr Chater continue to think his wife did not consider every room, building, or general shelter a meat locker?”
“Precisely. And truth, my lady, is what will affect your marriageability.”
“Because I do not lie like Mrs Chater? Or Mama?”
“I should hope you never lie like Mrs Chater or her ladyship.”
“I shall never sit like Mama, either. I have no best position,” Thomasina pouted. But leaning against the windowsill as she was seemed, to Septimus, quite the best position he had ever seen her in. Something in the way her bonnet shaded her face and her utter unconcern were far more charming than even Lady Croom with her head in her best position displaying her disapproval of drawers. “I suppose she had her head in her best position when she met Count Zelinsky.”
“Your mother has had her head in many positions since meeting him, I believe,” Septimus replied darkly.
“I missed you very much when you were in London, Septimus. I don’t think you missed me at all.”
“How could I have failed to miss you, my lady?”
“You were in London!” she cried. “How could you possibly miss me when you had all of London? Mama won’t even tell me at what age she would consider me old enough to go.”
“Perhaps that is because she fears you would spend your time at the Royal Society rather than the Royal Academy.”
“As if one could be ruined by a botanist!”
“Ruin of that nature does not make one unmarriageable.”
“Yes, I will forever have the Chater as the corollary to every fable’s moral. Do you miss her?”
“Once in the gazebo - and once in the boathouse” he corrected after a look from Thomasina - “were simply that. A brief embrace of more satisfaction to her than to me. I never think of her in terms that might suggest I miss her. Captain Brice is perfectly welcome to her.”
“You left something out in your explanation. If sexual congress is not to be confused with love, then what is love? Because your friend Lord Byron seems to confuse the two constantly.”
Septimus paused for a moment - even now, Thomasina could still throw him out over intricacies unrelated to mathematics. “Poetics are not life, as Mr Chater certainly learned to his detriment. Or perhaps did not learn, as there was far more of Eros in his wife than in his ’Couch’. In any case, love and sexual congress are - are like pudding and custard. You may have each on its own, and they are very fine things, but when put together, they have reached their ideal state.”
“So one can be in love and not be brain addled, because it is sexual congress that makes noodles of all my sex?”
“The conclusion is almost certainly true, though I am not so certain of the premise.”
“Is that why the waltz is so scandalous, then? Because sexual congress addles a woman’s brain?”
“The waltz addles a man’s brain.”
“It a waltz really so very close to sexual congress?”
“No more than a country dance is close to a bacchanalian orgy.”
“Is your tone scandalised or annoyed, my lady?”
“You don’t permit me to be scandalised about the classics. But I may never dance again once you have done. So is it true or not that everyone in London knows how to waltz?”
“The waltz is performed with precision within the same circles which accept voluptuousness as a common and desirable trait in human intercourse.”
“So everyone of any interest in London knows how to waltz. Oh, Septimus, I must learn to waltz!”
“I tell you once of carnal embrace, and now you seek to embrace carnality?”
“Septimus,” she begged, taking both his hands in hers. “How can I have a broad mind and a deep education if I cannot waltz? I cannot be left countrified and backward and innocent!”
“Innocence is a virtue.” But he rather liked the press of her hands and did not back away from the perhaps too strong familiarity.
“Innocence has never been practiced in this house. Please?”
Somehow, they were no longer at arm’s length but had drawn closer, nearly into a closed waltz position, through sheer instinct. “And if I asked your mother for her permission?”
“She’d say no. But please, Septimus?” She was looking up at him, not with the devouring insatiable desire of her mother or the Chater, but with a gentle pleading. “I’ll do anything you like, if you just do this.”
“And if I said yes, my lady?” He could not be flippant now - the moment seemed terribly serious.
“Is that a promise? It must be properly sealed if it is a promise.” Thomasina had picked up on the changed tone as well - her plea was as solemn as his question.
Without a thought, Septimus kissed her. The briefest touch of his lips to hers, it was the only possible action he could take in that moment, an attraction of bodies in space that he could not now deny Newton.
Thomasina giggled. “Sealed with a kiss, then. It’s a promise.”
She dashed away, out of the hermitage and up the hill, grinning as she had not so long ago, a girl promised rice pudding instead of the most scandalous lesson he had yet agreed to teach. Septimus stood in the doorway of the hermitage for a moment, watching her take a rather childish spin across the grass in her excitement, before joining her for the walk back up to the house. He paused at the crest of the hill to look back at the little stone cottage. It was strange to think how recently it had been the gazebo, how quickly associations could change.
“Septimus, I have to work on my equation!” Thomasina called to him insistently. With a suppressed smile, and every outward show of courtesy, Septimus gave her his arm so they might return to the schoolroom together.
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