The smell of the wine on his breath, the lingering residue of it burning at her throat, flavoring her laughter. The dawn would come soon; through the window she could see lavender begin to edge the sky, dulling the stars. Eilert was close to her, the book of Latin poetry still balanced on his knees, though they had not consulted it for hours. He did not stop speaking, even for an instant; his words flowed unceasing, with easy surety. He was beautiful, the curve of his chin in the light, long hair falling over his forehead.
Hedda’s eyes were sore with sleeplessness, and her stays pinched between her ribs. She thought: this is ecstasy. She thought: I love him.
“We will create something together,” she told him, “I know it, a work of genius, blazing so bright that it will immolate even those fools who wed themselves to custom.”
They have spoken together, that night and nights past, of the constraining tedium of the world in which they live, the falsity of marriage, of politics, of polite society. Hedda felt herself alight with possibility, her skin prickling, lightning running in her veins. Her mind ran so fast through the fantasies - treatises, epics, dramas. She thought of readers and audiences going silent with astonishment. She thought of Eilert beside her, their minds forever dialoging, entwining, as they had that night. What they spoke of was truth, and it blotted out so many of the other words her mouth had spat out over the course of her sixteen years; how are yous and very well, thank you; how lovely; you are so kind; more tea, if you would; what a mild winter we have been having. She felt cleaned out, purified, as if the dizziness the wine was beginning to induce was burning through all the parts of her brain dedicated to such nonsense, making space for the images blooming in her mind, the fruit of their future collaborations.
Eilert leaned forward, his lips parting. “Oh, Hedda. My muse, my life.”
She refilled his glass, and her own, lifted hers. “To glory.”
“To love,” he answered her.
She stood, on impulse, straightening her stiff skirts underneath her, smoothing out the creases from where she had sat too long. “To the vine-crowned god!” she cried, “Euan euaoi!”
He laughed and stood, his balance unsteady, and suddenly there his hands were at her shoulders. “My beloved.” His palms were too warm, even through the fabric of her clothes. She could feel them slip across the silk, moist with sweat. Something within her curled up, and she almost pulled away, though to do so would have been to violently wrench herself from his grasp. His head bending forwards, his lips. There. Soft, yielding, pressing against her. She was hard as metal. She could not force her lips to open beneath his, or her body to curve. She felt her teeth like weapons. But he is not my enemy. His lips separated from hers, and he exhaled on her cheek. “I want you,” he said, “god, Hedda, I want you more than I have wanted anything in the world.”
She could not make her arms lift to close around his shoulders. Her body seemed to have seized up, gone out of her control.
“I would not shame you,” Eilert was saying, “I know it is different for women, I know you have so much to fear - I don’t demand anything of you, I would never. But I desire you, so much, so much it consumes me. I think you must feel it as well.”
A moment before there had been ichor running through her veins, and she was impervious, blessed by Bacchus. Something had changed, too quickly for her to track. There was Eilert’s beauty, of mind and body, there was what she thought must be desire, to be ever near him, to drink in his genius, to mingle it with her own. But then there was the horror of this closeness, slimy on her skin, clinging to her. It did not match to the image of him, to the sound of his voice, to what she believed she had felt.
She could not tell him that she loved him; she thought of General Gabler, urging her to steely strength, watching her shoot. How he would laugh if he heard her admit love so easily, with her mouth tasting of wine.
She eased herself from Eilert’s grip until it was just hands against hands, until she could meet his gaze, see his face in all its lovely entirety, not in the ugliness which was his too-close pores, the fine hairs around his mouth. She said, “Can’t you see what I feel?”
A smile broke over his face, and it was like a vase of the young Dionysus. “Tell me what you want, whatever it is, Hedda. I will touch you, I will worship your body, I would count it a blessing - I would avoid anything that made you fear pregnancy, anything that you think might harm your chances in the world. I know I am unworthy for you in so many ways, but in this I think I can give you pleasure. Let me sate your desires. You are like a goddess to me.”
They had spoken before of the contempt they felt for their time’s artificial restrictions on sexuality, how oppressive they were, held against freer times and places. But now, when Eilert was before her, offering himself, Hedda did not know where to search for desire within herself. She felt as if it would kill her, to have his hands upon more parts of her, to lie down and spread her legs for him. It was like the wine left her suddenly, and she was made cold and still.
“Our desire is energy,” she told him, speaking slowly, cautiously, “let us not waste it. We can create so much if we allow it to build between us, to swell, unsatisfied. The spark of our wanting will ignite into the brightest fire this city has ever seen.”
It was the first untruth she had ever spoken to him, and as it left her lips she felt as if something inside of her began to immobilize, like wood petrifying.
She could tell that the footsteps were Brack’s by their softness, by the light, hardly perceptible tap of his cane. He liked to surprise. She turned around quickly, before he could have the pleasure of it. “Judge Brack!” she addressed him brightly, “What a pleasure.”
He smiled as if she had surpassed his expectations, and he was not yet sure whether he liked it. “Miss Gabler, it is indeed a delight to find you alone.”
Her heart caught, like that of a girl in the kind of novel that she would never admit to reading. She did not let it show, schooled her face into stillness. “Do you have something to say that you would prefer others not to hear, Judge?”
He settled himself down, smoothly flipped his cane to rest upon his thigh. Hedda watched him, and kept her fingers curled around the windowpane.
“I have no great confidences, to share I am afraid. But there are some types of admiration which one may not voice in polite company.”
Hedda laughed, timing the sound with care. “If your conversation takes a turn towards the sordid you know that I shall be obliged to end our friendship.”
Brack smiled in return, and Hedda tracked the ease in his back, the way it made him appear in control of the room. If only she could do so well. “Not for the world would I put that in danger. I simply wished to tell you what pleasure I am finding at watching you come into your own this season.”
Hedda felt herself relax, and went to sit, feeling the satin of her skirt between her fingers. “I am grateful for the compliment, but I do not quite take your meaning.”
“If you will forgive my bluntness, your inexperience was clear when you first began making your way into my circles. It was clear to all of us that, however much learning General Gabler may have provided to you, he did not precisely have the touch of delicacy that a young woman needs. But you have acquitted yourself well. I can tell you - in confidence, of course - that you have caught many eyes, these past months.”
She did not like this kind of praise, as if she was a schoolgirl whose embroidery was finally deemed passable. But Brack was smarter than the rest of the salon put together and, moreover, he was right. She wanted the control and ease which he so clearly exemplified; she wanted what he could teach her. “Your presence as my ally has been an indispensable help, as you well know.”
“I am glad to hear it,” he answered smoothly. “Do you have a timeline yet, by which you intend to have found a husband?”
Calm, she reminded herself; Brack was not someone who respected a loss of control, whether it was in anger or distress or joy. She kept her tone light. “Are you putting yourself forward as a candidate?”
He laughed, and tapped the cane against his knee. “I am a committed bachelor, as you well know; the married life is not for me. Though I will admit that you pose a more tempting prospect than any other eligible young woman I have met in a good many years.”
Although Hedda knew that she needed a husband, that this was the ultimate goal of all her forays into high society, it was not something she could stand to think on for more than a few moments at a time. With Brack at least she would have been free of boredom, wouldn’t she? Speaking in double entendres until they tangled up her tongue in knots. Would she enjoy that life? Was enjoyment even the goal?
“What is it I tempt you towards then, if it is not marriage?”
An eyebrow raise. “My, Miss Gabler, you lead me to speak things unfit for a young woman’s ears.”
“I am not so young,” Hedda said, and felt ashamed afterwards at the petulance of the statement, “and I am not so innocent. Have you mistaken me for some virginal ingenue who faints if a man so much as sees her ankle? You forget, it was General Gabler who raised me, not some tender-hearted mother.”
“Ingenue, perhaps not, but virginal, yes.” Hedda felt her neck tense, without her willing it, and he smiled. “Your body gives you away, my dear; you have not learned enough about being with people rather than horses to hide how much you long to draw away when a man waltzes with you. I have had the pleasure of being your dance partner, remember. You, I think, are uninitiated into the Cyprian mysteries.”
Hedda suddenly felt caught, trammeled; the wide parlor, with its bright windows, suddenly seemed small. “Speak your meaning, Judge, without making imputations on the lack or presence of my virtue.”
“You’re blushing, Hedda. It’s very charming, in one so icy as you. All I mean to say is that there are a number of things that a man and woman can do without endangering the purity you will bring to your husband on his wedding day. And while I may not be able to take on the responsibility of being your groom, I would be honored beyond measure to help relieve you of that anxious virginity which seems to be causing you such discomfort.”
Bile soured Hedda’s mouth. She tried to keep the contempt out of her voice - there was no need to give Brack any more windows into her weaknesses, not when he already believed he could read her as easily as he’d spread a book across his thighs. She perhaps did not entirely succeed. “And you think it would benefit me to become some sort of concubine?”
“Don’t take such offense, Miss Gabler; please do take my suggestion as representative of my high opinion. With your intellect dominating that of everyone else in our circle, I simply thought you might find pleasure in finally being overcome yourself as well. You can trust in my discretion. And once, you do find a husband who meets your stringent criteria, I know it can be most gratifying to have some opportunity for….triangulation.”
She thought, fast; to express any more revulsion could turn him against her, cause her to lose the entirety of his good opinion. It was like a very delicate, and very deadly, game of chess. “I will consider your flattering proposal. But I will tell you now that I think the thought of your desire gratifies me more than any consummation could.”
He laughed, and she felt she had won a small victory. “How clever you are; you are right that the experience of being denied is a novel one for me, and so we shall perhaps both savor it the more. You provide me a challenge - I shall have to refine my strategy.”
Hedda stood, taking pleasure in the sweep of her skirts, in the distance between them. “I await it most eagerly,” she told him, and the smile they shared left her as dizzy as wine.