Seneschal [Part One]
Some people softened the stark impossibility of a loved one's return with an iron determination to preserve. The trappings of the daily rituals with which he or she had measured the hours between the nights were now sacrosanct--the slippers by the bed, the pipe filled in readiness, the favorite books waiting on the table. At first glance, it seemed that Walter had done the same, but those familiar with the late Mr. Winter's habits would know that the old man had never been so precise in his habits. The papers, neatly arranged on the faded blotter, the chair tucked inside the desk--that was Walter's fancy. And the spotless white mugs, scattered at random, were pale shadows of Mr. Winter's defiant collection, loud as they were with offensive quotes, scarred and scored with years of vicious stirring. He always stirred the sugar into his coffee as if it had insulted him personally.
Mr. Winter had refused to be the nominal head of the historical fiction quarterly, and he insisted on personally reading every submission--even the the painful puppet shows of crimson-gowned ladies with spitfire personalities and the adoring knights that won them. Walter had occasionally made perfunctory remarks about "cutting back" on hours or duties, but he would have been stunned if Mr. Winter had reacted with anything other than an artfully performed outrage.
They both worshipped the same god of scholarly history, the bemused, deprecating, detached voice that saw eight questions in every statement, that strained to hear the individual timbers within the full-throated chorus of movements and eras and wars, that sought the human even while denying it within kings and prime ministers and great generals.
Mr. Winter had once shown Walter the first story he had submitted to the Wandering Minstrel. "Rejected flat out," he said ruefully. Walter could see why--it read more as an indirect biography of Henry of Navarre than a work of fiction. "I could have submitted it elsewhere, and I did--it got published somewhere or other, but the Wandering Minstrel was what paid in those days"
Later, he had told Walter that he had met the editor months after the ill-fated submission. "He recognized my name--and before I knew it, he was inviting me to come in about an opening on the staff." He had gone without any real intention of abandoning his duties as a teacher of history at a second-rate boarding school, which he had "drifted into" after he had dropped out of college. One of his professors had pleaded his cause to the headmaster, who had earned his own position by steadfastly denying his soft-heartedness.
The debt had soured him, but he had taken it greedily, and would have blinded himself before incurring the charge of ingratitude--but he had handed in his resignation within the month. Mr. Winter liked to blame the proximity of the summer holidays. "It wasn't a bad school, and I could have done worse than stay--I did worse than stay. But it was easy enough to clear out my room and hand in my papers when the term was over anyway...I was a fool." All the while, his fingers would, with surprising gentleness, glide over the soft cardstock cover of the latest issue, still chilled from its delivery from the printers.
Walter had enjoyed the loose arcs of the story, told to him as they were at odd moments--usually just after the delivery boy had emptied a crate of carefully addressed envelopes on the eight-by-eight board atop empty barrels that had come to serve as a table, and they cautiously took their time before opening the first--like some form of Pandora's box, the craze of reading and skimming and cursing and rejecting would explode with the first crack.
Most of the good furniture had been sold in a last-ditch attempt to pacify gaping budget deficits.
"I should have jumped ship then," Mr. Winter growled. Instead, he had stepped up to become editor-in-chief. "I rushed in where both fools and angels might fear to tread."
The Wandering Minstrel had recovered under his indifferent matter-of-factness, and it sputtered along comfortably enough for its incessant hypochondriac whimpers. The number of submissions grew steadily, though their quality did not. Mr. Winter read every issue as if he had never personally approved every accepted story, as if he had not written the editor's note. Walter used to, but his preferred reading consisted of the scholarly journals, which Mr. Winter filed in tilting stacks. He must have had a system, for he could extract any desired issue instantly, but he never shared it and it was never obvious to anyone else.
Walter had been twenty-six at the time, with a plump baby and a wife that was, by common consensus, a wonderful mother. Stay like this, he thought sometimes, when April bent her head over the baby, letting her golden hair spill carelessly down, locking them into their own little world.
Mr. Winter liked April, and had an embarassed fondness for the baby. His awkwardness with the infant was affected, when he was unobserved, he was as deft and natural with the child as a veteran father. April saw this, of course, but she had enough delicacy not to call attention to it. She said it to Walter, though, when Mr. Winter had left, the way she said most things nowadays--without apparent premeditation and without anticipation of a response. And Walter heard it the way he was used to hearing them--with the calm, dignified acceptance of a child tasting sunlight, unable to imagine a demand for something in return. He was shocked when he discovered when April was not happy, and horrified to find that his regret sprang more from his reason than from his heart. Regret did not register in that romanticized organ until she finally packed up her belongings, said her cliches with a quiet dignity that just saved them, and left with the baby sleeping calmly on her shoulder.
Mr. Winter let him curse April, and wallow in the drama of tragedy, and curse April again, and bitterly enumerate all that he had done for her and given up for her, without trying to rebuke him or to console him, and for that, Walter would always be grateful. No mention was ever made of these fits after they had subsided, and for that, Walter loved him.