“Alred!” Lili was feeling too weary to run to him, but she rose and waited for him to kiss her hand. “What a wonderful surprise!”

“I hope you have been having nothing but wonderful surprises today, Lili, since it is your birthday. And I hope it is happy.”

Lili blushed and laughed. “I didn’t know anyone knew that!”

'I didn't know anyone knew that!'

“I make a point of knowing ladies’ birthdays,” Alred said gravely.

“I’m eighteen today!” she said proudly. “And it’s Egelric’s birthday today, too!”

“I know.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? But he isn’t here.”

'Isn't that wonderful?  But he isn't here.'

“I know.”

“I’m certainly glad you are here. Hetty and I expected to have a quiet day, but now that you’re here we shall have some fun. Come here and sit down,” she said and dragged him to the couch. “Shall I play you a song on my harp?”

“Now, Lili, I’m here to amuse you, not to be amused.”

'I'm here to amuse you, not to be amused.'

“But it would give me a great pleasure to sing for you.”

“Well, then! Anything I can do that might give you a great pleasure I shall most gladly do.”

“I shall go call Hetty! Wait just a moment.” She turned to go to the stairs, but Alred caught her hand and held her.

Alred caught her hand and held her.

“Wait just a moment,” Alred echoed. “Please sit down, Lili. I haven’t given you your gift yet.”

“Oh, no!” Lili laughed to hide her embarrassment. “You saw my husband’s face the last time you gave me a gift!”

“I have not forgotten the reception my harp received, which is why I only brought you a poem.”

“Oh, a poem! That’s different.”

Lili smiled and sat beside him.

Lili smiled and sat beside him. Ordinarily she did not sit beside other men than her husband, but there was no doubt that this was what the tug on her hand was asking, and she did not know how to refuse without making the situation still more awkward.

“You will forgive me if I don’t read it to you, Lili, though it is generally the way poetry is meant to be enjoyed. However, some poems are better left upon a lady’s pillow and read silently by candlelight. But this is more than I dare at my age. It is many years since I had the boldness of eighteen. Or the beauty,” he sighed.

'It is many years since I had the boldness of eighteen.'

Lili smiled slightly as she opened the folded parchment. Her first thought was that Alred had a pretty hand for a man.

She continued smiling as she read, for it was the best she could do under the circumstances to hide her embarrassment – laughing didn’t seem quite the thing.

It was a lovely poem; Lili’s English was good enough and her sensitivity great enough to judge that. But it was a love poem.

It was a love poem.

She did not know what to say. Perhaps eighteen was not so very old or so very wise, she realized. She folded the parchment again, slowly, to give herself time to think.

“You see, Lili,” Alred said softly, “that I have a bad habit of giving inappropriate gifts to other men’s wives. However, in my defense, this is the first one that is as inappropriate it seems.”

'This is the first one that is as inappropriate it seems.'

She swallowed and tried to speak. “Alred…”

“It’s all right, my dear. You don’t need to say it. I know that if you cared for me you would have… done some things differently. One does not give birthday gifts with the expectation that they be returned.”

Still she could think of nothing she could say. She thought of things she could tell him to comfort him, but they would be lies. She thought of telling him the truth, but it would hurt him.

'I see you do not understand why I did this.'

“I see you do not understand why I did this,” he said and smiled gently. “There are two reasons, Lili. First, you may not realize that there is a certain bittersweet pleasure to be had by men such as I in such a gesture. In the very futility of the gesture. Poetry is not only something to be written, dear Lili, but to be lived. Second, I had the idea that it would go more easily for me after I had said these things. There is always a chance that, after I have taken my heart out and offered it to you, the wound will heal over and I shall live on without pain. Without feeling. Or perhaps I shall die,” he chuckled sadly. “You see, whatever happens, I shall be better off. The only thing that could make me regret my gesture would be if you were to take my heart and toss it scornfully back at me. But I think you are too kind and gentle a lady to mock a man for loving you.”

“I never would,” she murmured, and she felt strangely relieved that she had been able to speak at last.

'I never would.'

“But there is something else I regret,” he said slowly. “I regret not having spoken to you sooner. It took me so long to understand what was happening to me. For so long I had thought I would never love again. But, Lili – if you had known… you would not have needed to do what you did. And I think it is dreadfully unfair.”

“Unfair?” she asked weakly.

“I know you didn’t care for me then, either, but if you had known that there was a man who cared for you, perhaps you would have gone to him for help?”

“I don’t know,” she whispered.

“You didn’t need to do it, Lili,” he lamented. “It’s all the rest of your life. It’s all your happiness. You threw it away on a man who had so little respect for you that he allowed you to throw it away.”

'You threw it away on a man who had so little respect for you that he allowed you to throw it away.'

“I wish you wouldn’t say such things,” Lili croaked. “My husband is very kind to me and honors me.”

“He was not kind to you nor did he honor you that day. Or that night, rather.”

“But it isn’t his fault! I made him think I was a bad girl.”

'I made him think I was a bad girl.'

“Lili,” Alred smiled indulgently. “Egelric has known enough ‘bad girls’ in his life to recognize them when he sees them.”

Lili’s face burned. She had no idea how effective her acting had been. She had not known enough bad girls herself to know how they should act. She had thought she had him fooled! But perhaps he had only pretended to be fooled so that he could fool her…

“But he is very good and kind to me now!” she insisted.

'But he is very good and kind to me now!'

“I am certain he is. Egelric is an honorable man, though he has his own, private code of honor. I do hope you will manage to be happy with him after all. I simply think it quite unfair… or rather, not unfair, but unfortunate, that you did not trust me or any other man with your troubles. If you had told any one of us – myself, or Sigefrith, or Cenwulf, or anyone – that you were in danger, we would have helped you. This was not necessary,” he said and waved a hand vaguely at the hall, though he swept it back at the end towards the door to the bedroom. “And even if it had been necessary, Lili,” he added softly, “I wish you had gone to a man who loved you. I would not have done what he did to you, even if you had asked… but I would have done anything else you asked. I still would, for that matter.”

She could no longer hold back her tears, though today it was not only her eyes that were unhappy. “I wish you had not said those things about my husband.”

'I wish you had not said those things about my husband.'

“So do I,” he sighed wearily. “It was not my intention. I only wished to tell you I love you, not remind you that your husband does not. I only wished to make you happy, not make you cry. I suppose I am growing a very bitter man. That is twice now that a woman I cared for has been stolen away from me by a man who thinks only of his own pleasure.”

“He did not steal me from you.”

“That is true. You never belonged to me. You must forgive me, Lili. I am a poet. I live in a world of what-​​ifs. I live in many possible worlds at once. Lately I have spent much of my time in a world where you had come to me last winter, instead of to him. It is the real world I avoid as much as I can. It is the only world that seems impossible to me. Impossible to bear.”

'It is the only world that seems impossible to me.'

“I hope you will be happy someday,” she said hesitantly. “I hope you will make one of your possible worlds real. I am certain you will find someone to love, who loves you.”

Alred snorted. “I am forty years old, my dear. I no longer have the beauty of eighteen to interest a woman, nor the boldness of eighteen to win her.”

“But there are many women who would love to receive such a poem.”

'But there are many women who would love to receive such a poem.'

“There are few women who could even read it. Fewer still who could feel it. Perhaps only a handful who could inspire it in me. You are young yet, and do not realize how exceptional you are.”

Lili smoothed the folded parchment out across her lap. She longed to ease his pain, but she didn’t want to lie to him. She said the only thing she could find that was true and might console him: “I wish there were two of me!”

'I wish there were two of me!'

It was true; if there had been two Lilies, she would have gladly given one to make this gentle man happy. She would have sought her own happiness with the other.

But Alred laughed sadly and shook his head. “If there were, I would only want the both of you.”

“That would be selfish of you.”

'I am selfish.'

“I am selfish. It is selfish of me to want you at all. It was very selfish of me to do what I did today. It will not make you happier, nor your husband. Nor even myself,” he sighed. “I was wrong, Lili. I am neither dead nor unfeeling. And as for the gesture…” He shrugged. “It is cold comfort, as they say. Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas.

'Vanitas vanitatum; omnia vanitas.'

They had once discussed the Book of Ecclesiastes, which Lili had – in her vanity! – always liked to ponder, and he had told her that she was far too young to understand the truth in the Preacher’s refrain. Thus she did not dare to attempt a reply to it. After a very long, very uncomfortable silence, she only said, “I shall go tell Hetty you are here. I believe she is in the baby’s room.”

'I shall go tell Hetty you are here.'

“That is an excellent idea,” he said, obviously attempting to make his voice light.

“Yes!” Lili said as she rose. “She will be so happy to see you. Wait just a moment.”

This time she held the small parchment between her two hands so that he could not drag her to a stop again as she went for the stairs. But this time he did not seem to want to try.

'But this time he did not seem to want to try.'