December and the Christmas season came and went with a subtle tension in the air. They ate in silence, except for Lucy’s gay chatter. As for their evening talks, they were stilted and short. They never touched each other. They avoided the mistletoe at the holiday parties. They danced one respectable dance at each society function. On Christmas, they smiled at Lucy’s antics when receiving her gifts. They laughed uncomfortably when they both got each other a safe set of handkerchiefs. Shae felt that she had somehow offended her husband. He had up more walls than ever.
It was now the beginning of January. The early Friday afternoon was quiet, as Lucy had declared herself exhausted, and went to the nursery to nap. Shae was concerned for Lucy, thinking of her heart condition, but after checking on the sleeping child, she saw that she was fine. She had some free time, so she made her way to the piano. She had seen a few favorite scores in Matheson’s collection that she wanted to revisit. She had just finished her third piece, “Moonlight Sonata”, when she realized that she had an audience.
She stood up quickly, and brushed a couple of wrinkles off her skirt. It was her husband in the doorway. He seemed conflicted, and his eyes bewildered. She realized there was a man behind him in the hallway. No one spoke for a few minutes. Mr. Matheson seemed incapable. She was too confused at his reaction to speak.
“Hello,” she greeted, at last.
“Hello,” her husband replied, stiffly.
That was all he said. There was more silence.
“You are home early,” she attempted, “And you brought a guest. Should I have Mrs. Klein set another place at the table?”
“No,” he said.
“No? Then tea?”
“No. Well, yes,” he stumbled.
She was thoroughly confused. The man behind her husband began laughing boisterously, and stepped around him.
“What your husband means is that we already talked to Mrs. Klein. I will be staying for tea and for the evening meal. Really, Rand, I’ve haven’t seen you so befuddled since the moment you first met Claire all those years ago. It must have been your wife’s brilliant piano playing that made you so useless.”
Shae looked at her husband, who looked fiercely at her, and then her guest. Then the look was gone, replaced with his normal congenial, albeit serious look.
“My apologies. I was indeed moved by your playing, Wife,” he said, as he bowed and kissed her hand.
“Let me introduce our guest, Mr. McClure. He is a longtime friend of the family. John, this is my wife, Shaelene Matheson.”
“Well, I certainly know her last name, Rand,” he teased, winking at her, “Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Matheson.”
He stood up and grinned widely, sticking his thumbs in his vest pocket. Rocking back and forth, he looked between the husband and wife.
“Nice to meet you too, Mr. McClure. How was your work week, Husband?”
“It was pleasant, until McClure came into town. Please ignore his shameless flirting. He does it with every grown woman he meets.”
“That is true. That is true. So tell me, Mrs. Matheson, where did you learn to play piano so well?”
She began talking of her experience, when Mrs. Klein brought in tea. They had polite conversation over tea, and Mr. McClure’s reputation of being a flirt rang true the entire time. Her husband didn’t seem to mind, as he laughed at some of McClure’s antics. He obviously trusted her character to not be swayed by his friend’s bravado.
Right after tea, Lucy came in and threw herself at Mr. McClure.
“Johnny!” she cried, leaping into his lap.
“If it isn’t a fairy princess! How are you, Lucy?” he clamored.
“I’m not a fairy princess,” Lucy giggled. “How silly!”
“I see you’ve engrained practicality into her already, Randolph. What a shame.”
“We all can’t be fanciful like you, McClure.”
“What a bore that would be! Eh, Lucy?”
He waggled his bushy red eyebrows at her. Mr. McClure was a tall man, just under Rand’s height, but more slender in frame than him. His red hair was curly, and a bit wild. His bright blue eyes were merry as he played with Lucy. Lucy giggled some more.
“Your eyebrows are like caterpillars.”
“So they are, Fairy Princess. Would you have me shave them off?”
Lucy pealed with laughter, but started coughing after a few seconds. Mr. Matheson looked at her with concern and then at Shae.
“Has she been ill?”
“No, but this afternoon she wanted to nap.”
His brows furrowed. And even McClure’s ever happy eyes stopped dancing, and became grave.
“Is the Fairy Princess feeling alright?”
“I was just tired,” she answered. “I’m fine. Really.”
Rand looked at Lucy intently.
“Her pallor is just slightly pale, and her lips aren’t blue. Has she had any undue stress lately?” he asked Shae.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. Maybe the excitement of the holidays?”
“Perhaps,” Rand reluctantly agreed.
“I should treat you more carefully,” McClure said. “After all, you are a wee, delicate fairy.”
“You’re silly,” Lucy stated again.
“That I am. That I am.”
“McClure and I have business to discuss in my study,” he said standing. “If you’ll excuse us.”
“Certainly,” Shae replied.
As they left the room, Shae rang for Mrs. Klein, and told her to retrieve the tea tray. Then she began teaching Lucy how to play piano.
After the meal, Shae put Lucy to bed. She was heading to her room, when Mr. Matheson met her in the hallway.
“Are you not feeling well?” he asked her.
“I’m feeling quite well, actually.”
“Why do you ask?” she pried.
“You were heading to your room, correct? You aren’t coming down to the study to chat?”
“I assumed, since you had company, that you wouldn’t want me to come.”
“It’s only McClure. He’s forward-thinking like me. I thought you might enjoy conversation between the three of us.”
He looked at her intently. The hallway was dark, and he couldn’t see as well as he would have liked. So, he stepped closer to her. A brief wisp of his cologne came at her, reminding her of their waltz at the party a month ago. His closeness and scent made her feel dizzy again. That wasn’t like her. She scrunched her eyebrows.
“Would you?” he ventured.
“Would I what?”
“Enjoy our company?”
“Of course. I’ll be right down. I need to get my shawl. It is chilly this evening, despite the fires.”
He nodded at her and walked briskly away, tromping down the stairs so fast that she thought he might fall down them. Mentally shrugging off his behavior, she went into her room and grabbed her brown wool shawl from when she was living with her parents. Wrapping it about her shoulders, she headed downstairs and into the study where the fire was crackling.
When she walked into the room, McClure was sprawled casually in one of the chairs by the fire. Her husband was near the fire, leaning on the mantle and staring into the flames. McClure stood when he saw her. Her husband barely glanced at her, and then looked toward the fire again.
“Mrs. Matheson,” McClure greeted her, gaily, “I’m glad you could join us. Your husband has told me how brilliant you are. I can’t wait to speak with you.”
“I’m sure he has exaggerated.”
“I’m certain he hasn’t. You have that smart look about you.”
Shae stood in the doorway, unsure of where to sit.
Finally, Mr. Matheson gestured towards the chair opposite their guest.
“Do have a seat, Wife.”
“What about you? Where will you sit?”
“I’ll pull up a chair beside you.”
She briskly walked to the chair, uncomfortable. She didn’t understand her husband’s behavior. He was even more formal around her than ever. She didn’t understand it. She looked to McClure to see if he noticed. He was smiling at her.
“With that shawl on, and how you flitted over here. You reminded me of a little brown bird.”
“Oh, really,” she returned.
“Certainly. Certainly. What type of bird have you captured here, Rand?”
Rand was placing a much-smaller chair beside her.
“I’m not sure what you mean, McClure,” he responded.
As he sat down on the chair, it creaked and groaned under his big body.
“Are you sure you don’t want this chair, Husband?” she asked.
“Quite,” he harrumphed. He was quite grumpy.
“A thrush isn’t quite right, is it?”
“What in God’s name are you talking about?” said Matheson to McClure.
“You shouldn’t swear in front of a lady, Rand.”
“Are you certain about the chair?” Shae interjected.
“Oh, stuff it!” her husband ranted, his eyes stormy.
Shae was shocked. Rand realized his mistake.
“I wasn’t talking to you, Wife. My deepest apologies,” he said, grabbing her hand and patting it, “If it will make you happy, I will gladly switch seats with you.”
So, they switched seats, while avoiding eye contact, or any other contact for that matter.
“No, a thrush is too large of a bird. A chickadee, perhaps?”
“You are the most persistent cuss, I’ve ever met, McClure.”
Shae had never seen her husband so exasperated or open with his emotions. McClure and he must have a long history together.
McClure laughed, but then said something about a chickadee being the wrong coloring. Mr. Matheson leaned back and sighed.
“A wren,” her husband said, wearily, in an effort to shut McClure up.
“That’s it!” McClure exclaimed. “I knew you’d have the right one. A wren, my dear Mrs. Matheson. That’s what you reminded me of. Brown and small.”
“Oh, I see. Thank you,” tentatively.
“Can we now talk on more adult topics, McClure, as opposed to what bird you think each of us looks like?”
“I suppose. Aren’t you curious about what you remind me of?”
“Not really. You’ll only say something preposterous like a squab.”
McClure laughed heartily.
“Touche,” he admitted. “I am parched. Might a guest have a drink?”
“Certainly,” Matheson said, walking over to the table. “Scotch?”
“What else would I be wanting?”
“And your usual, Wife?”
Rand made his way to them with their drinks. Then he went back and poured himself some Scotch also. After he sat back down, they spent a couple of hours talking on politics. After, Shae almost dropped her glass, she realized she almost fell asleep.
“Are you tired, Wife?”
“Yes, I must admit that I am. I’m going to head upstairs.”
As she stood, so did they. Rand took her glass.
Shae then headed out of the study. Mr. Matheson watched her go. McClure watched Matheson.
“Well, well,” he said. “It is late. I’ve got to catch the early train tomorrow, and I have a decent journey into town still.”
“Would you care to stay the night here?” Rand offered.
“No, no. I’d rather be up tonight than up even earlier in the morning. I’m not much for mornings. Besides,” he stated pointedly. “Surely you want some privacy with your fine, little wife.”
Rand stiffened and took in a sharp breath. Letting it out slowly, he merely stared at McClure with iron eyes. McClure nodded knowingly.
“I thought so,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Rand asked, crisply.
“You aren’t as clever as you think you are. Who do you think you are fooling? I’m your closest friend since childhood. You can’t lie to me, and you know it.”
Rand turned away and put the empty glasses on the tray. He refilled his Scotch a couple of fingers, and gulped it down.
“Surely the town’s people can see through your poorly concealed ruse.”
“You know I am more open around you, McClure.”
“Just so. Just so. Have you had anyone questioning the marriage?”
“At first,” Rand admitted, “But they were rumors sparked by the machinations of Neva Langley.”
“Ahhhh, the very lovely Miss Langley. Still out to catch you, eh?”
Rand didn’t answer.
“And how did you squash these rumors?” McClure asked.
“I waltzed with my wife.”
“Waltzed?” McClure snorted. “Ah, yes. That showed them, I certain. Splendid idea that, proving them wrong by spinning your little wren about the floor.”
“I waltzed very close to her,” he defended.
McClure scoffed, and asked how closely. Rand strode over to him.
“Very close, McClure, until there was no space between our bodies, and all I could feel was the small fluttering of her heartbeat. So close, that all I could smell was her lilac soap. So close, that all I could think about was Shaelene. Then afterwards, I made a fool of myself and kissed her so soundly under the mistletoe, I nearly forgot there were other people around. And so very close, that for a moment I forgot all about Claire.”
He growled the last sentence fiercely right in McClure’s face. With that admittance, he strode over to the tray and downed another two fingers. McClure whistled.
“I haven’t seen you in this state since Claire showed you her pretty, little ankles that day at the picnic. You were as stubborn then about love, as you are now. How long did it take you then to admit it? A year or two?”
“I’m not in love with my wife. Blast you!”
“Then what do you call it, Matheson?” McClure contradicted.
“Merely curiosity. She’s different than any woman I’ve known.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Rand demanded.
McClure rolled his eyes at him.
“I think it’s time for me to go, my friend.”
He made his way to the door.
“I say,” he paused. “Are you sure you aren’t curious which bird I think you are?”
“Absolutely sure, you fiend.”
McClure clicked his tongue.
“Resorting to name-calling. How dignified the politician is.”
“You test every bit of my patience, McClure, always prodding and provoking.”
“Just so. Just so.”
McClure turned to leave, but abruptly stopped.
“Oh, yes. A chicken, my good man. That is what you are.”
And with that McClure strode out the front door in his clipped, strident way.
Rand Matheson drank another finger of Scotch.