“And thus the Bhomiri Islanders, submitting perforce to western rule, have ostensibly accepted western moral standards. They’ve abandoned their traditional cannibalistic practices, outlawed polygamy, and banned human sacrifice, or so they’d have us believe. Investigation, however, has revealed the falsity of this apparent transformation. Beneath the thinnest veneer of what we Vonahrish call civilization, the old culture persists. It is a culture that we can hardly afford to dismiss or despise, despite its disturbing aspects, for it is just such sources that teach us of humanity’s past, of our origins, and ultimately, of ourselves.” Luzelle Devaire concluded her lecture.
There was silence, and she tensed. She should never have described those Bhomiri cannibalistic feasts in such detail. She’d shocked her listeners, and it had been a mistake.
Then the audience erupted into applause, and Luzelle relaxed. Her instincts had been sound; she was good at her work. Sometimes she wondered, but the present response allayed all doubts.
Her eyes swept the ranks of enthusiasts to light upon a couple of faces in the back neither pleased nor approving.
Her father was sitting there, irate, disgruntled, affronted; her mother beside him, dutifully reflecting similar sentiments.
Why had they come today, of all days?You invited them. You encouraged them to come.
But not today.
Questions popped at her from the audience. She answered almost automatically, while her real attention remained fixed on her parents. They were both visibly impatient. Maybe they’d get tired of waiting and go away.
No such luck.
The questions sputtered to a gradual halt. The spectators trickled from the lecture hall. Even the young would-be gallant in the front row, he of the glinting teeth and hopefully gleaming pince-nez, finally gave up and withdrew. But Master Udonse Devaire and his wife Gilinne remained.
There was no need to ask them what they had thought of her speech. Their identically pursed mouths spoke wordless volumes.
The last of the audience departed and Luzelle found herself alone in the auditorium with her parents. They were still sitting motionless in the otherwise empty back row. No way to pretend she didn’t see. Drawing a deep breath, she descended from the stage and made her reluctant way up the carpeted aisle toward them.
“Father. Mother. How good of you to come. I’m so glad,” Luzelle lied. She produced a suitably gracious smile.
Neither the words nor the facial contortion produced the desired effect.
“We came,” Udonse Devaire informed his daughter, “because we wished to be just. I desired impartiality, and therefore chose to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
“The Judge took pains, as always, to weigh all circumstances,” declared Gilinne.
The Judge, she always called him. Grim, but understandable enough, for Udonse Devaire, justice of the Sherreenian Higher Court, seemed formed by nature to project grandeur. With his tall brow, aquiline nose, cold eyes, square-cut greying beard, and deliberately majestic mien, Udonse inspired awe in malefactors and family members alike — especially women. No wonder his wife, his sisters, his mother, and his various mistresses all deferred religiously to His Honor. Luzelle herself had done so, in past years.
“I have listened, I have pondered, and I have reached a verdict,” announced the Judge.Guilty.
She’d thought he might reconsider, once he heard what she actually had to say, but she should have known better. Of course she couldn’t have guessed that he would choose to listen today. Polygamous Bhomiri cannibals. Hardly a topic recommending itself to the Judge.
“It was repugnant, far exceeding my worst expectations,” declared Udonse. “I must confess, I was appalled.”
“Really, daughter, I don’t wish to seem unkind, but it was disgusting,” complained Gilinne. “How could you?”
“Your lecture — if so repulsive an outpouring of filth and horror may be dignified by such a term — revealed a shocking lack of taste, propriety, and above all of the general fineness of sensibility that may be termed womanly,” decreed Udonse. “Your description of savage abominations plumbed the depths of lurid sensationalism, revealing a coarseness of mental fiber I should never have thought to encounter in a female bearing the family name of Devaire. Your blood is good, and you have been properly reared. Thus I can scarcely account for your mental and moral deficiencies.”
“How can it be morally deficient to recount the literal truth, sir?” Luzelle inquired, and felt her lips curving in the old smile she knew would infuriate him. She had told herself she would resist the temptation, that she had grown beyond adolescent challenges and provocations, but her face automatically resumed the accustomed expressions.
“There is such a thing,” Gilinne Devaire reminded her daughter, “as a lapse in taste so extreme as to rouse genuine distress in the listener. That is what the Judge means to explain to you. Do you understand, dear?”
“She should understand,” remarked His Honor, “at her age.”
She understood all too well. Luzelle felt her blood and breath quicken. Ridiculous.
She had promised herself that she would never again allow her father’s words to set her internally boiling. But now her heart was pounding and her pulses racing as if she were still sixteen years old and miserably subject to paternal autocracy.
Only she wasn’t. She was an adult, and free. Time to start acting like it.
“Father and Mother, I’m sorry you were offended,” she offered, carefully cleansing her face of all save courteous concern. “Another time you might be better pleased — ”
“There will be no other time,” His Honor informed her. “I have listened at repellent length, and now I am prepared to render judgment.”
“I’m afraid it will have to wait, sir,” Luzelle returned. His brows and chin rose, and once again she found herself compelled to justify, to appease. “I’m sorry, but I can’t speak now. I’ve an appointment that I must keep.”
“That is no way to speak to the Judge,” Gilinne Devaire reproved. “You mustn’t be disrespectful, child.”
“No disrespect intended,” Luzelle countered, “but the truth is — and I’m sorry — but the truth is that you’ve come at a very bad time. See, this will explain it all.” She did not need to explain, but old habits died hard, and so she dipped into her pocket to bring forth the letter, which she extended to her father. He accepted as if granting a favor, and scanned the message frowningly. The last few words so far strained his credulity that he could not forbear reading them aloud:
“...and therefore, should you prove willing to undertake the venture, we are prepared to offer full sponsorship, underwriting all legitimate expenses, including personal transportation of every necessary variety and description, both expected and unforeseen; concomitant costs of baggage transfer; room and board, to ordinary and reasonable standards of comfort throughout the course of the race; and all justifiable incidentals and emergency expenses encountered en route.
“We anticipate a meeting with you upon conclusion of your next scheduled lecture at University Dome, one week following the date of this correspondence. At that time we shall expect a reply, and hope for an affirmative beneficial to all parties concerned....”
“What is this new lunacy?” For a moment it seemed that Udonse might shred the offending document, but he chose to hand it back intact.
“It is an offer of government sponsorship.”
“Sponsorship. Is that what you choose to call it? Are you disingenuous, or simply gullible?”
“You note the letterhead, sir,” Luzelle replied steadily. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs — ”
“I note the official stationery, easily purloined or imitated. Surely you are not so simple as to accept this proposal at face value?”
“It’s caught my interest, as well it might. The winner of the Hetzian king’s race will receive an enormous prize — a legitimate Hetzian peerage, which carries with it ownership of some ancient manor or castle or something, somewhere in the Low Hetz — and I’d like to know — ”
“It is not a legitimate offer. That is all you need to know.”
“How can you be so certain?”
“The Judge knows best, dear,” Gilinne interjected. “Trust in your father.”That’s rich, coming from you. He’s betrayed you a dozen times over, with his little seamstresses and shopgirls. And somewhere underneath all that wifely loyalty and respect, you must know it.
Luzelle compressed her lips, holding the words in.
“This missive hardly carries the tone of an official communique,” His Honor stated. “Your correspondent, this self-styled Deputy Underminister — vo Rouvignac, was it?”
“The fellow’s connection to that famous and ancient House is very much open to question. In any event, you will note that the writer requests a meeting, but fails to specify an hour or location. If he is what he claims to be, then why has he not summoned you to the Republican Complex? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stands close at hand, and its offices are spacious. Why do you not meet him there?”
“The hour and location have been tailored to suit my schedule. The Deputy Underminister vo Rouvignac does not summon me, but rather, waits upon my convenience,” Luzelle rejoined, determined to disguise her own misgivings.
“Do not try my patience with puerile absurdity. Have you at some point applied to the ministry for financial backing? Have you filled out the necessary forms, submitted the appropriate credentials and references, together with a written declaration of your proposed use of government funds?”
“No, I’ve asked for nothing.”
“You have, at the very least, notified the ministry of your desire to participate in this nonsensical race, this international goose-chase, this — ”
“Grand Ellipse,” Luzelle supplied. “No, sir. I have expressed no such desire or intention.”
“And yet, of all the doubtless eager and well-qualified male candidates, you have somehow been selected, by unknown agency, to represent the nation of Vonahr in this asinine competition, presumably at the taxpayers’ expense. Tell me, daughter — does this strike you as probable?”
Luzelle was silent. Her father only voiced her own unacknowledged doubts.
“It is improbable to the verge of impossibility,” the Judge instructed his listeners. “I tell you once again, this invitation you have received is a ruse, and a clumsy one at that.”
“And the object of the ruse, sir?”
“Can scarcely elude the most limited understanding. Surely you will not wonder that the world questions your virtue. The immodesty and license of the life that you lead invite irregular solicitation.”
Luzelle felt the angry color burn her cheeks. She managed, with effort, to keep her voice even. “The life that I lead is blameless and useful.”
“The utility of pornographic public lectures is limited at best.” His Honor’s nostrils flared in distaste. “I regret the indelicacy of expression that your conduct obliges me to adopt.”
“That’s ridiculous, insulting, and completely untrue! There’s nothing pornographic about my lectures. They’re accurate accounts of foreign habits and customs, inoffensive to all but the hopelessly insular, as the reaction of the audience this afternoon certainly demonstrated!” She could hear her own voice rising, but found herself powerless to control it.
“I will not tolerate impertinence, daughter. You will address me with appropriate respect.”
“Then don’t attack my work unjustly, and don’t smear my character with false accusation!”
“Your work? What need has a spinster of good family to work outside of her father’s home? Are you quite blind to the embarrassment you cause your parents, or are you simply indifferent? As for your character, I should prefer to regard it as unblemished, but your actions constrain me to suspect otherwise. What unmarried female aptly described as a lady courts the attention of multitudes? Accepts financial remuneration in exchange for such public display? Lives alone in defiance of all established convention, and travels the world alone like some common adventuress? Where is your propriety, your sense of duty? Are you remotely capable of grasping such concepts? Do you dare to feign surprise that such libertines as this soi-disant
deputy underminister regard you as their natural prey — an assumption no doubt reinforced by the unbecoming freedom of your manner, and the vulgarity of your appearance?”
To her horror, Luzelle felt the tears sting her eyes; tears that she would rather have died than allow him to see. She’d thought her father had long since lost the power to make her cry.
Her throat constricted. For a moment, pain and fury struck her uncharacteristically dumb.
Surprisingly, her mother came to her rescue.
“Oh, come — surely that is a little hard,” Gilinne remonstrated apologetically. “Luzelle’s appearance cannot rightly be termed vulgar — she is quite modestly and decently clothed.”
His Honor deliberated.
“There is perhaps nothing blatantly amiss with her attire,” he conceded at last. “But there is something in her air, her carriage, her general demeanor, that somehow contrives to suggest indiscretion. A thick and loosely draped shawl might improve matters, or else a capacious manteau — ”
“Her figure is exceedingly well proportioned,” Gilinne observed mildly. “In that our daughter is blessed.”
“She need not flaunt her good fortune. Then there is the objectionable appearance of her hair — excessively abundant, ostentatiously curled — ”
“The curl is natural. I remember when she was a baby, and — ”
“Flamboyantly and improbably colored.”
“The shade is popularly known as strawberry blond, I believe, and the fault is entirely mine, husband, for my own mother possessed locks of just such a reddish gold.”
“Face swarthy as a laborer’s.”
“Browned by the sun of the Bhomiri Islands, but the color will fade. Perhaps nightly milk-rinses for her skin might — ”
“Her facial expression is displeasing — it lacks innocence. I think the fault lies in the contour of her lips, which are too full for true refinement, and seem set in a perpetual pout.”
“Your own sense of justice, sir, will hardly permit you to blame our daughter for the shape of her mouth,” Gilinne suggested respectfully.
“I do not hold her culpable.” The Judge favored his wife with a penetrating glance, as if suspicious of veiled levity. “But the soundness of my judgment reveals itself all too clearly in the sorry reality of her present situation. She has, through her obstinacy and imprudence, stained herself in the eyes of the world, and the results are all too apparent. She is aging, unwed, and certain to remain so. She willfully threw away her best chance, and now all chances are gone.”
“But she is only twenty-five,” Gilinne appealed, “and still so handsome. Perhaps it is not yet time to give up all hope? I have it upon good authority that Master Girays v’Alisante has returned to the city — ”
The name shot along Luzelle’s nerves like a jolt of electricity, finally breaking her paralysis.
“And the women pursue him in droves, but he remains unattached. I am convinced that our daughter’s declaration of heartfelt contrition could persuade M. v’Alisante to take her back — ”
“That’s enough,” Luzelle interrupted, pent rage and humiliation finding outlet at last. “There are a few things I wish to say to both of you, so please listen. In the first place, I’d like to point out that I’ve no intention whatsoever of contacting Master Girays v’Alisante. I do not care to speak to him, much less implore his forgiveness. M. v’Alisante and I are strangers. Should he presume to call on me, I will not be at home.”
Excerpted from The Grand Ellipse by Paula Volsky. Copyright © 2001 by Paula Volsky. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.