p u P r h s ac p o uc ae oy f

t et k r h ae
a o eo t e er t ie s t n f h s e al r

The Taker

233

e only subject that interested Adair and his entourage, the only endeavor they undertook with any seriousness, the preoccupation that filled their days, was sex. Each member of the entourage kept a playmate, whether for the evening or for a week; it could be a Brahmin met at a soiree or a comely footman co-opted for the night. ere was a stream of women parading through the mansion, too, blowsy prostitutes, as well as daring society daughters. No one in the household ever slept alone. Neither Alejandro nor Donatello seemed interested in me at all, and when I asked Alej if he didn’t find me attractive, he laughed and told me not to be obtuse. e family was given over to seeking and experiencing pleasure, it was as simple as that. Everything about my surroundings was the antithesis of how I was raised and eventually their lack of industry would disgust me, but at first I was seduced by luxuries I’d had no idea existed. St. Andrew had been a town of homespun linen clothing and raw pine furniture. Now I lived surrounded by finery, each new temptation better than the last. I ate food and drink I had never known existed, wore dresses and gowns made from exotic European fabrics by a professional tailor. I learned to dance and play cards, was given novels to read that would expose me to even more worlds. Adair was fond of parties, and since he was still a sensation in Boston, we went to one almost every night. He took his entourage with him everywhere, letting Alejandro, Dona, and Tilde charm the Bostonians with their continental ways, outrageous fashions from Paris and Vienna and London, and tales of decadent European aristocracy. What really stunned the Brahmins, though, was when Adair forced Uzra to accompany us. She would venture outdoors wrapped in a swath of burgundy cloth that covered her from head to toe. Once we had arrived among the partygoers, the wrapping would fall to the floor to reveal Uzra in one of her costumes, tight organza bodice and a skirt of veils, her eyes rimmed thickly in kohl, adornments of brass ringlets circling her bare waist, hands, and ankles. e richly colored silks were pretty, but sheer; she was practically naked compared with

234

Alma Katsu

the rest of us women in layers of petticoats and corsets and stockings. Uzra jingled softly as she walked, eyes downcast, aware that she was being ogled and leered at like a carnival animal. e women clapped hands over their mouths, now fallen open in shock, and the men—the air would become thick with the musk of their desire, frock coats hastily rearranged to cover their clumsy erections. Adair would laugh later about the propositions he received, men offering huge sums of money for an hour with his odalisque. ey would part with their souls if he gave them the chance, Adair would say later, when we had decamped to our house after the party and sat around the cook’s table in the kitchen, next to the still warm hearth, sharing a bottle. “You could do the same,” Adair said to me in private, as we walked up the stairs to our bedchambers, his voice soft as velvet. “A man’s desire is a powerful thing. It can reduce a strong man to nothing. When he sees a woman who fascinates him, he will give up everything for her. Remember that, Lanore: everything.” “Give up everything for me? You are mad. No man has ever given up anything for my company,” I scoffed, thinking of Jonathan’s inability to give himself wholly to me. Deep in self-pity, I wasn’t being fair to him, I know, but I had been stung by my faithless lover and was hurting. Adair gave me a strangled look and said something I had never considered. “ at is sad to hear said about any woman, but especially sad to hear said about you. Perhaps it’s because you have never asked for anything in exchange for your attention. You don’t know your own worth, Lanore.” “My worth? I understand my worth only too well—I am a plain girl from a poor family.” He took my arm and tucked it under his. “You are hardly plain. You have an appeal for certain men, the type of man who values a discreet freshness and disdains a vulgar display of womanly charms. Too much breast pouring out of a bodice, too prominent a bustle, too voluptuous—do you understand?” I didn’t follow him; in my experi-

The Taker

235

ence men seemed bedazzled by these very parts, and the fact that I did not possess them had seemed a detriment my entire life. “Your description of ‘vulgar’ womanly charms sounds an awful lot like Uzra to me, and she never fails to render any man who sees her agog. She and I are as opposite as two women can be,” I said, meaning to tease Adair. “ ere is not only one measure of beauty, Lanore. Everyone adores the red rose, and yet it is a common sort of beauty. You are like a golden rose, a rare bloom but no less lovely,” he said, meaning to flatter, but I nearly laughed out loud at his attempt. I was thin as a boy and nearly as flat-chested. My curly blond hair was as unruly as a thistle. I could only think he was flattering me for some purpose of his own, but his sweet words were appealing all the same. “So if you trust me, let me guide you. I will teach you how to have power over ordinary men. Like Tilde, like Alej and Dona,” he said, stroking my hand. Perhaps that was their purpose; maybe that was their industry. ey did seem able to make most people—most men, and they were the ones with power—do what they wanted, and that seemed to be a good skill to have. “It is not enough to be able to conquer your enemies; in order to control them, you must be able to seduce them as well.” “Consider me your pupil,” I said, letting Adair lead me into his bedchamber. “You will not regret it,” he promised.

TWENTY SEVEN

nd so began my schooling in the business of seduction. It started with evenings in Adair’s bed. After that night when Adair opened my eyes, he seemed determined to prove to me that I was worth a man’s attention: his. We continued to go to parties, where he charmed the Bostonians, but he always returned home with me on his arm. He took me to his bed every night. He indulged me and gave me anything I asked for. I had beautiful undergarments made, corsets (though I hardly needed them to hold up my breasts, modest as they were) and stays of colored silks, trimmed with ribbon. Garters decorated with tiny silk roses. Delights for Adair to find when he peeled off my clothing. I devoted myself to becoming his golden rose. I would be lying if I said I did not think of Jonathan during this time. He was my first lover, after all. Still, I tried to kill the love I felt for him by remembering the bad moments between us, the times he wounded me to the quick. e times I’d heard that he’d taken up with a new girl. Standing next to him on the hill as we looked down on

A

The Taker

237

Sophia’s funeral, knowing he was thinking of her. Kissing Evangeline in front of the entire congregation mere moments after I’d given him news of my pregnancy. I tried to see my love for Jonathan as a malady, a fever burning up my heart and brain, and these wrenching memories were the purgative, the cure. And the attentions of my new lover would be my restorative. Comparing my experiences with the two men, it seemed that the act with Jonathan filled me with such happiness that I felt I would die. At those times, I was barely aware of my body, I could have floated to the ceiling in his arms. It was sublime. With Adair, it was all sensation, a neediness for flesh and the power to have that hunger satisfied. At the time, I wasn’t afraid of this newfound hunger Adair had created in me. I delighted in it, and Adair, instead of judging me indulgent and sluttish, seemed pleased that he brought this out in me. Adair confirmed as much one evening in his bed, lighting up the hookah after an acrobatic session. “I judge that you have a natural disposition for the business of pleasure,” he said, grinning obscenely. “I’d daresay you enjoy your adventures in the bedroom. You’ve done everything I’ve asked, haven’t you? Nothing I have done has frightened you?” When I gave a little shake of my head, he continued, “ en it is time to expand your experiences, because the art of love is such that the more expert lovers one has, the more expert one becomes. Do you understand?” I greeted this statement with a frown, sensing that something was amiss. Had he tired of me already? Was the bond that had developed between us an illusion? “Don’t be cross,” he said, feeding the narcotic smoke from his mouth to mine in a kiss. “I’ve made you jealous, haven’t I? You must fight feelings like that, Lanore. ey are beneath you now. You have a new life ahead of you, one filled with a richness of experience, if you aren’t afraid.” He wasn’t inclined to explain any more to me at the time, but I found out the next night when Dona slipped into the bedroom with us. And Tilde the night after that. When I objected, protesting that I was too self-conscious to enjoy myself in front of the others, I was

238

Alma Katsu

given a blindfold. e next morning, when I glanced at Tilde shyly as we passed on the stairs, still dazzled by the pleasure she had given me in bed, she growled, “It was only a performance, you stupid cuny,” and trotted away, dispelling any doubt that it had been anything more. I suppose I was naive, but the pleasures of the flesh were new to me, the sensations overwhelming. I would become numb to all of it, and numb to what it did to my soul, soon enough. It was not long after this that a most notable event occurred, though I didn’t gather its significance at the time. It started with a lecture on astronomy and navigational arts that we attended at Harvard College. Science was a bit of a fad in that day and sometimes the colleges would host public lectures. ese were places to be seen as much as any party, a way to show that even though you were a socialite you still had a bit of brain, so Adair made it a point to attend. e lecture that day was of little interest to me, so I sat at Adair’s side and borrowed his opera glasses to scan the audience. ere were many faces I’d seen before even if I couldn’t remember their names, and just as I was thinking the outing was a waste of time, I spied Tilde chatting up a man on the far side of the auditorium. I could see only a quarter profile of his face, and mostly my view was of his back, but I could tell he had a striking physique. I handed the opera glasses to Adair. “It looks like Tilde has found herself a new man,” I whispered and nodded in her direction. “Hmm, I believe you’re right,” he said, peering through the glasses. “She is a born hunter, that Tilde.” It was common to meet up with other socialites after the lectures at a nearby public house. Adair had no patience that afternoon for the small talk over coffee and beer, however, and watched the door. Before long, Tilde came in on the arm of the young man we’d seen at the college. He was quite dashing, with a beautiful face (a trifle on the delicate side), a sharp little nose, a cleft in his chin, and glorious blond curls. He looked all the younger on Tilde’s sophisticated arm,

The Taker

239

and while Tilde could hardly be mistaken for his mother, the disparity in their ages was hard to miss. ey joined us at our table and Adair spent the whole time peppering him with questions. Was he a student at Harvard? (Yes.) Did he have family in Boston? (No, he’d come from Philadelphia and had no family in this area.) What was he studying? (He had a passion for science, but his parents wished him to continue the family business, which was law.) How old was he? (Twenty.) At this last answer, Adair frowned as though displeased, a quizzical response to so straightforward an answer. en Adair invited the young man to dine with us that evening at the mansion. I will be blunt: the cook may have served a saddle of lamb, but it was clear that the flaxen-haired young man was the main course. Adair continued to ask him all sorts of personal questions (Any close friends here at college? A fiancée?) and when the young man became nonplussed, Alejandro would jump in and distract everyone around the table with self-deprecating stories and jokes. More wine than usual flowed, particularly into the young man’s glass, and then after dinner the men were given snifters of cognac, and we all repaired to the game room. At the end of an evening of faro, Adair claimed we could not send the young man back to his rooms at the college in such a state—he would be reprimanded for drunkenness if caught by the tutors—and insisted he stay with us for the night. By that time the young scholar was almost unable to stand without assistance, so he was hardly in a position to refuse. Adair had a footman help him up the stairs while we gathered outside Adair’s bedchamber like jackals preening before dividing up the night’s kill. In the end, Adair decided he and I would enjoy the young man’s company and dismissed the others. Drunk as he was, he stripped gamely when commanded and followed me eagerly into bed. Here is the curious part: as the boy stripped, Adair watched him closely, not with enjoyment (as I had expected) but with a clinical eye. It wasn’t until then that we learned the young man had a club foot;

240

Alma Katsu

it wasn’t terribly misshapen and he had a specially made boot that helped him walk without much of a limp. But upon noticing it, Adair seemed visibly deflated. Adair sat in a chair and watched as the young man swived me. I saw, over the boy’s shoulder, disappointment on Adair’s face, a detachment toward our guest that he fought to overcome. In the end, Adair took off his clothes and joined us, surprising the young man with his attentions, which were nevertheless accepted (he didn’t resist in any case, though he did yelp a little when Adair got rough with him). And the three of us slept together, our guest relegated to the foot of the bed, succumbing to the effects of alcohol and the usual result of a man’s amorous effusions. e next morning, after the young man was sent off in a carriage, Adair and Tilde had heated words behind closed doors. Alejandro and I sat in the breakfast room and listened—or tried not to—over tea. “What is that about?” I asked, nodding in the direction of the muffled argument. “Adair has given us standing orders to be on the lookout for attractive men, but only the most attractive. We are to bring them to his attention. What can I say, Adair enjoys a pretty face. But he is only interested in perfection, you see? And I understand the man Tilde brought to Adair was less than perfect?” “He had a club foot.” I didn’t see how that made any difference; his face was exquisite. Alejandro shrugged. “Ah—there you go.” He busied himself buttering a heel of bread and said no more, leaving me to stir my tea and wonder about Adair’s strange obsessions. e thing was, he’d swived that boy as though it was punishment for disappointing him somehow. It made me uneasy to think about it. I leaned across the table and clasped Alejandro’s hand. “Remember the conversation we had a few weeks ago, about my friend? My handsome friend? Promise me, Alejandro, you will not tell Adair about him.”

The Taker

241

“Do you think I would do that to you?” he said, hurt. I know now that his offense was all pretend. He was a good actor, Alejandro was. We all had to be around Adair, but this was Alejandro’s role in the group, to be the one to lull the distressed or uncertain, to assuage and calm the victim so she doesn’t see the blow coming. At the time, I thought of him as the good one whereas Tilde and Dona were evil and bitter, the deceivers, but I see now they each had a role to play. But at the time, I believed him.

p u P r h s ac p o uc ae oy f

t et k r h ae
a o eo t e er t ie s t n f h s e al r

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful