The Mercury Waltz
than her gems, meaning the rubies B. bought for me in Rome— en cabochon and dark as old blood, they would have suited you much better than I. My own family pearls are best on me, but I wear the jewels B. gives to me, those rubies, or that diamond Maharani crown, though I look a bit of a guy in it! Or the emerald bracelets he bought in London—“Deck her in emeralds/Make her your queen,” that is a song, a sentimental ballad they sing at the dinners these days, though nothing such was sung this night. This night was veal dumplings in sherry, and too-tight dancing slippers, and the urge to turn on the French ambassador’s wife and ask if she has ever in her lifetime read anything more challenging than a menu, or had a thought more complex than balcony gossip! These women are so vexing—most of them are twice my age, but they make me feel immensely old.
    Do forgive me for complaining, but I know you understand. You alone always have understood me, and B., and how we live, you who taught me everything and gave me everything that I hold dear. If only you were here to share these musicales and suppers, to read aloud together, and laugh and talk with, to be B.’s rock and my own. And to see our little Isau—oh, if only you had lived to see his face! And his eyes, the clearest, sweetest, palest blue, just exactly like your own.

For a time it is a German butcher with whom Haden lodges, straw bed and salt pork and daily lessons in the proper use of a knife; then a lazy-eyed coiner, unlucky at cards; then a tutor of rich merchants’ sons, met outside a drab pension , spelling earnestly from a dog-eared Bible: Follow along with me, Haden, now, “Blessed are the poor—” But why do you smile so?
    Because it’s a joke, an’t it? looking sidewise at the puzzled face on whom the joke is lost, the besotted tutor who teaches next the Song of Songs, who goes without eating to buy the books his new protégé favors—poetry and history, pleasure and might—and whose satchel library Haden rifles when he goes, abstracting a weighty book of plays and speeches—Ovid, Marlowe, Shakespeare—along with the tutor’s previous faith that goodness and beauty are the same.
    It is in this makeshift train of temporary men—always men; he has never slept with a woman, crawled beneath that tasseled shawl, he never will—that Haden leaves the last of his boyhood behind, in the rooms and roosts and quiet avenues, the saloons where he dices and deals cards, wins and loses, batters when provoked; and reads everything, gazes and faces as well as broadsheets and books, with a scholar’s growing skill and a stateless creature’s scorn for authority, for all who choose to answer to authority, who take what a meager life gives them without quarrel or complaint: Saving their pence, chewing their daily bread, in a rentier’s high-piled bed, litter of goose feathers across the tufted satin, the Christopher medal cool against his naked chest. So for what? So once a year they can have a bite of beef, drink bad wine, and squeeze the servants’ titties? And then confess it of a Sunday? What a joke.
    You’re amazingly cynical for a fellow your age. And speaking of drink, says the rentier not unkindly, you’ve had enough, Master Malapert, don’t you think? at which Haden only reaches again for the bottle, expensive black liqueur sucked between his teeth while the rentier wriggles and paws: a fellow his age just the right age for these men, who seem to find something very piquant about his cynicism, his lean body and wild blond pelt, his perfectly feral smile. One rentier in fact grows so fond that the fondness sours to a maenad’s fury when he finds himself unwanted and his bumbling gifts ignored: Have this, then! coming at Haden with an amethyst pin, horseshoe stickpin aiming for the eyes but wounding instead the cursing mouth, blood everywhere and not all of it Haden’s, its spill the only spoor when the constables arrive to find the rentier

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