Wallie the Imp has always been fascinated by “unreliable narrators”.
So am I.
In response to the Daily Post’s weekly writing challenge on the subject, I decided to try my hand at an unreliable narrator in a romantic context. Most of the blame can be laid at the step of my course in Victorian literature.
Elizabeth Corry imagined it went something like this:
There is a kiss between them. It is the wrong sort entirely. When Mr. Dray kisses Mrs. Dray, it is as if they never knew passion, a mere soft pressing of the lips that holds, fixes, and grows warm with none of the true ravages of desire. Was it a tender kiss? Perhaps. But it is so very dull. Look at how Mr. Dray’s grip tightens and trembles on his wife’s waist, and how Mrs. Dray’s nose keeps bumping against her husband’s (she has nose enough for the two of them). Look at how she tugs his neck cloth but doesn’t dare pull it through.
“Mr. Dray,” says the wife, inclining her head.
“Mrs. Dray,” says the husband.
There is something in his voice that makes the woman blush.
“Well,” she says, “let me go then. You’ve got what you want.”
Was this not a crude thing to say? Mr. Dray takes it quite the wrong way. He obeys and releases her.
“You used to dance,” he says, so softly that he is almost unheard.
Mrs. Dray hears him. “You used to shine my shoe,” she counters.
That is a decidedly lacking response. It is also a proper one. It would not do for Mr. Dray to forget her blood, which is poor, and his blood, which is poorer. And the memory she refers to is not an unpleasant one. Mr. Dray’s shoe-shine had been more in gentle mockery than for business, and her acceptance the same. But, shining shoes is not dancing, and Mr. Dray’s large eye flutters and his breath is a little more unevenly drawn. He takes his wife by the shoulders and presses her gently to her chair.
Mrs. Dray has the grace to look ashamed.
“Give me your foot, pray,” says Mr. Dray.
She looks at him, astonished. “What? I—I didn’t mean—”
“Your foot, my dear,” her husband insists.
Mrs. Dray would like to protest. Seeing a certain shine in his eyes, she decides not to, and extends her foot.
He holds her by the ankle. His touch is practiced, for he has done this much to-day, and the day before. His knees, though he will not tell Mrs. Dray so, are raw from his labor. But ah, this is different, and the look his wife sees in his eyes is not a bitter one. He unfastens her shoe and lets it fall.
“John!” exclaimed Mrs. Dray. “What are you doing?”
“My darling,” was his reply. Like most poor folk, his speech is limited. “My darling.”
How earnestly he lays his lips upon that ugly foot. Mrs. Dray has dirt under her nails. Does Mr. Dray care?
He is too low to realize the absurdity of it.
Mrs. Dray watches him. She does not lift her gaze for an instant. An instant is all it takes, for him to reverence the unworthy object. The woman had meant to stay him, to lift his chin with her hand and stop his motion with a tender word; perhaps to shed tears in recognizing his humiliation; but she is as pressed as he. She rises from where she sits and kneels beside him, and takes his face in her hands. Now she captures his pale dry lips in a kiss that is no longer shy for wrath. She takes his coarse slim fingers and presses them so hard they might have broken, but for that innate hardness that comes with poor, rough work.
“How—how,” she says, between firm kisses. “How…how could…how…”
Mr. Dray is surprised by her attentions. And, he is touched by them. He does not know “how” and he doesn’t care, for he is afraid to move, and interrupt her dedicated wooing of his numb and weary senses.
She holds his hands. He is her prisoner. Mr. Dray trembles and wishes she could take his soul with her sweet, greedy kisses, delivering him at his weakest to God’s tender mercy. And then (as they all must) the good thing ends. His eyes are wet for grief. He would wrap his arms around her lowered neck, but she has his hands still, and keeps them.
“Do you love me, Jonathan Dray?” she asks. “Do you love me?”
“I love you, my dear,” he replies. “I love you.”
“Then swear to me…”
He looks intently into her face. “I have sworn you my life,” he says. “What more can I give?”
Is it not like unrefined birth, to give all without thought for a bargain?
Mrs. Dray bites her under-lip.
Her husband glances down at their twined hands.
“Do you trust me, Marianne Dray?” he inquires. “Do you love me?”
Her mouth wrenches. She takes his captive fingers and presses his knuckles to her cheek.
“I love you, John,” she said.
He takes her chin in his thin, callused palm.
“Do you trust me?”
He catches her when she falls into his arms.
How predictable. See her lay her head on his breast in the common way, and wrap her fingers in his shirt like a child? And he, poor fool, cradles her close. He hasn’t any wit against warm tears and soft embraces. And what is it that she finds in listening to his heart? Does she count time when the beat is steady, or make a mark when it skips?
“John,” she whispers.
“I am with child.”
The heart stops. Then, it trips on.
Elizabeth Corry frowned. What poor and silly things they were! And yet to her, how fair was the husband, in spite of his poverty. Mr. Dray was beautiful; he was young, slim, and if work roughened his hands he was still of a shape more suited for ease and poetry, than heavy burdens. In his eye there was mischief; but what was that mischief, but a love of life in spite of life’s ills, and a vulnerable devotion to the woman who bore her own share of woe, and his? What sort of a love was that? Was it sensible? Was it false? Was it wise to bring a child into the world, when neither father nor mother could offer more than pitiful security?
Elizabeth Corry hated rhetorical questions.
Wallie wasn’t at all impressed when I read my scene to him. But then, he is an unreliable narrator himself…