She thought of them like food, Lady Anne all watery vegetables, or sour, small potatoes, or salted fish, and the poet her husband like lamb cooked slowly for hours with garlic and thyme, or goose stuffed at Christmas. And she remembered in her childhood the watchful eye of her mother, her mother making her eat each morsel of bad winter food, leave her plate clean. Thus she forced herself to pay attention to every word Lady Anne said; she gazed at her with soft and sympathetic interest, she spoke to her with warmth and the dull intimacy that one man's wife might have with another, hoping that soon Lady Anne would be calmed and suitably assuaged by this so she would not notice when Lady Gregory turned to the poet and ate him up with her eyes.
Blunt was on fire with passion during these evenings, composing a letter to The Times at the very dining table in support of Arabi Bey, arguing in favour of loosening the control that France and England had over Egyptian affairs, cajoling Sir William, who was of course a friend of the editor of The Times, to put pressure on the paper to publish his letter and support the cause. Sir William was quiet, watchful, gruff. It was easy for Blunt to feel that he agreed with every point Blunt was making mainly because Blunt did not notice dissent. They arranged for Lady Gregory to visit Arabi Bey's wife and family so that she could describe to the English how refined they were, how sweet and deserving of support.
The afternoon when she returned was unusually hot. Her husband, she found, was in a deep sleep, so she did not disturb him. When she went in search of Blunt, she was told by the maid that Lady Anne had a severe headache brought on by the heat and would not be appearing for the rest of the day. Her husband the poet could be found in the garden or in the room he kept for work, where he often spent the afternoons. Lady Gregory found him in the garden; Blunt was excited to hear about her visit to Bey's family and ready to show her a draft of a poem he had composed that morning on the matter of Egyptian freedom. She went to his study with him, not realizing until she was in the room and the door was closed that the study was in fact an extra bedroom the Blunts had taken, no different from the Gregorys' own room except for a large desk and books and papers strewn on the floor and on the bed.
As Blunt read her the poem, he crossed the room and turned the key in the lock as though it were a normal act, what he always did as he read a new poem. He read it a second time and then left the piece of paper down on the desk and moved towards her and held her. He began to kiss her. Her only thought was that this might be the single chance she would get in her life to associate with beauty. Like a tourist in the vicinity of a great temple, she thought it would be a mistake to pass it by; it would be something she would only regret. She did not think it would last long or mean much. She also was sure that no one had seen them come down this corridor; she presumed that her husband was still sleeping; she believed that no one would find them and it would never be mentioned again between them.
Later, when she was alone and checking that there were no traces of what she had done on her skin or on her clothes, the idea that she had lain naked with the poet Blunt in a locked room on a hot afternoon and that he had, in a way that was new to her, made her cry out in ecstasy, frightened her. She had been married less than two years, time enough to know how deep her husband's pride ran, how cold he was to those who had crossed him and how sharp and decisive he could be. They had left their child in England so they could travel to Egypt even though Sir William knew how much it pained her to be separated in this way from Robert. Were Sir William to be told that she had been visiting the poet in his private quarters, she believed he could ensure that she never saw her child again. Or he could live with her in pained silence and barely managed contempt. Or he could send her home. The corridors were full of servants, figures watching. She thought it a miracle that she had managed once to be unnoticed. She believed that she might not be so lucky a second time.
Excerpted from The Empty Family by Colm Toibin. Copyright © 2011 by Colm Toibin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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