Strephon has learned much about fairies in the last few weeks - more than he ever expected to, and perhaps rather more than he would have liked.
It is on a chill spring evening that they take a walk from Westminster Palace. Phyllis is exceedingly eager to learn about the race she is to marry into, and it is all Strephon can do to keep up with her queries.
“Frankly, as of this day but two weeks since, I was under the impression that I knew all about fairies that I would ever know.” Phyllis stares up at him from where she sits on the park bench, her chin rested on her hands as she drinks in his every word. Why, to think that such a man as he could entice such affection… He shakes off the unsavoury thoughts and carries on his tale. “My mother, in her exile, was truly permitted very little to do with the fairy realm, and she felt strongly that she must not impose upon her sisters’ imagined leniency any more than was strictly necessary. Thus…” He glances around furtively, grateful for the near solitude of St. James’s Park at dusk. “Well, you must at least have guessed that it is frowned upon for mortals to know of fairy-kind’s existence.”
Phyllis nods at once. “Why, all the stories say so. Indeed,” she smiles coyly up at him, “since you told me of your fantastic heritage, I thought that perhaps those stories had only survived into our mortal realm with the express purpose of discouraging our belief in fairies!”
Strephon blinks, taken aback. “You know, dear Phyllis, you may well be right.” He laughs as she preens - only his darling Phyllis could be so witty as to keep thinking up assumptions that he has not even considered. “In any case, my mother felt that, on account of her kind’s secrecy, she should tell me only what I needed to know. Practically all knowledge of my ancestry, I have acquired only since my aunts decided to champion me in Parliament.”
Phyllis considers this for a moment. She stares across to the lake, seeing but not truly noticing the geese softly clucking as they settle for the night. “To me, it seems that you must be taking this new knowledge very well. To learn so much about one’s family so quickly… Well, if I were to find out that much about my own lost parents in so short a span of time, I think that I should faint!”
Strephon turns to look at her, but her gaze is still distant. It is not often that Phyllis reminisces on her past, the tragedy and mystery surrounding her babyhood, and whenever she does she approaches it as a journalist might approach a stranger’s life. Perhaps it is unhealthy, but then perhaps Strephon’s own relationship with his past is not in the best of health. “I often wonder,” he remarks quietly, “What my life might have been like if I had known my father. Perhaps he might have taught me how to become a man…”
Phyllis twists around to look back at him, concern in her eyes. “Why Strephon! You have become a very fine man all by yourself.”
Strephon truly has learned much about the fairy race recently, and with that new knowledge he has come to understand many things.
He does not know what fairyland looked like before they all arrived, but he imagines it was very different. The fairies still trip around giggling and gossiping among themselves, but they do not include the once-mortal men who now live among them; the newly-fledged fairy Lords trip hither and thither as well, and fairy-lights glow in the trims of their capes. Every clearing is the scene of a potential confrontation between true fae and recruited fae, so much so that the gentlemen of the House of Lords seem in constant trepidation - Strephon has yet to witness any such entanglement, but he is willing to concede that he does not make a point of wandering the fairy halls at times when drunken debauchery is common.
Thus, he is quite shocked when he rounds a corner to see the Earls Tolloller and Mountararat in the midst of what appears to be a heated argument. They snarl at each other in rough voices, unaware of Strephon’s presence, and then suddenly Tolloller reaches up and grasps Mountararat by the cravat, and pulls his head down to an inch away from Tolloller's own. Strephon rushes to intervene, but then is halted by his own surprise. There is passion on both earls’ faces, certainly, but it does not strike Strephon as passionate anger. Mountararat tugs Tolloller's monocle off his cheek, and opens his mouth - to say something, perhaps? what could he possibly say at this point? - but Strephon does not give him the opportunity.
"My Lords!” He cries.
They freeze, and then Tolloller sighs dramatically. He turns his head towards Strephon, still holding Mountararat’s cravat.
“Yes, my Lord Strephon?” He responds waspishly, as Mountararat raises an eyebrow.
Strephon balks at their carefree reactions. “You dare to dishonour my aunts so, and you do not even offer an apology?”
Mountararat frowns at Tolloller, then gently unclasps his companion’s hand from his cravat, so that he can stand straight once more. “My Lord Strephon, you must forgive us, but we do not quite understand your meaning.”
“Your wives sit mere chambers away, and you are here, being -” he wildly gestures at the earls, too incensed to truly articulate himself.
“My dear Lord Strephon.” Tolloller interrupts. He calmly puts his monocle lens back on and takes Mountararat’s arm, whilst looking Strephon straight in the eye. “George and I are the truest of friends.”
“Indeed,” Strephon splutters, “and after such antics as these am I surprised that the whole of fairyland is not aware! You defile the very ladies who gave you sanctuary in these hallowed halls - you tarnish their heartfelt trust - you spurn the love of marriage they offer!”
Tolloller huffs a breath and blows his curly fringe above his forehead. “These accusations are indeed most scandalous, and woe betide the man to wrong a maiden so, yet the scoundrels you describe are nowhere to be seen!” He spreads his hand to indicate the empty clearing around them, and shakes his head patronisingly at Strephon.
Strephon glares at him, straightens his tailcoat, and turns on his heel to leave.
He turns back at Mountararat’s call, to see the earl leaning in close once again to Tolloller.
“I think I understand young Strephon’s dilemma.” Mountararat remarks to his friend, and then he addresses Strephon once again. “Although you are too polite to say so directly, you mean to say that we are being unfaithful to our fairy wives.”
Tolloller guffaws. “Goodness me, no! What we do, we do with our brides’ full knowledge and consent.”
“Lord Strephon, do understand us - they are wonderful and beautiful ladies. Frankly, I could not ask for a better wife -”
"Nor I.” Tolloller agrees with a smirk up at Mountararat.
“- they simply do not particularly care for us.” Mountararat shrugs. “They find us intriguing, handsome -”
“Obviously.” Tolloller interjects once again, and rolls his eyes when Mountararat frowns at him.
“- and completely lacking in intelligence. They enjoy our company in short bursts”, before Tolloller can even attempt to open his mouth Mountararat silences him with a glare, “and as such we have come to our current arrangement.”
Quelled by his friend’s gaze, Tolloller speaks more seriously. “Fairies simply do not much care for anything mortal. Of course, if she should need an Ark, I’ll give her one, but…”
Mountararat smirks. “Well, we generally live in our separate ways.”
Tolloller looks away from Mountararat to where Strephon stands frozen in the hallway. “We gentlemen can certainly keep ourselves entertained, can’t we?”, he says with a leer towards Strephon’s mortal half.
Strephon feels blood rush to his cheeks, and swiftly leaves so that the earl’s gaze falls on something less incriminating.
Strephon learns many things, but sadly they lead only to understanding of his current condition, rather than any practical means of altering it.
Fairies simply do not much care for anything mortal. The phrase spins around and around in Strephon’s fairy brain, and it seems to explain exactly the actions his mother took when he was but a child. Yet he does not wish to admit that his own mother - she who went into exile for her love of a mortal - would ascribe to such a philosophy. Everything is different for one’s own children, or so he has heard, so perhaps that is it. It does not make him feel any more comfortable. He thinks on a phrase his mother often repeated when he was a tiny babe: “no one born a man may be a fae”. The men who had been transformed into fairies this past month would always stay thus - but they were tainted with their manhood, and could never truly be fairies. Strephon is afraid to admit it, but he has the worrying idea that, tainted as he was with fairyhood, he could never truly be a man. Long years ago, the babe he was had seemed all that a fairy child should be… except that he was a little boy.
He stares moodily out of his chamber window, wearing a silk gown and wishing frightfully for his sheep. Nothing had been so complicated when all he had had to worry about was shepherd and shepherdess. Suddenly, he hears a cough from behind him and he jumps in shock. On turning to see that his visitor is none other than the Lord Chancellor, he leaps again and quickly pulls a blanket over his shoulders in an attempt to preserve his dignity.
“Oh, come now!” The Chancellor chuckles awkwardly. “There is no need to be afeard, my boy. Heaven knows the lords have seen me in worse states… And anyway, it is only me”, he walks to Strephon and slaps him heartily on the shoulder, “Your own father.” He finishes pointedly.
Strephon winces. He pulls the blanket tighter around himself, and in doing so surreptitiously dislodges the Chancellor’s hand. “Indeed, sir. I am - simply feeling the chill.”
“Ah.” The Chancellor drops his arms to his sides, and then starts to look around the room as though he has never seen it before.
Strephon waits for him to continue speaking, but he does not. Used to this state of affairs after many such unannounced visits, Strephon takes a deep breath, lets it out again, and then speaks. “Might I ask the reason for your visit, sir?”
“Of course, my lad!” the Chancellor smiles. It seems forced, and Strephon returns one that almost equals it. “I - ah, well, I know this is late, but…” Strephon is generous as his father casts around for a suitable conversation topic, and goes to close his curtains and shut the cold air outside. “Well, I should just like to say that I truly am very pleased about your marriage to Phyllis. If someone else must marry my ward, then who better than my own son?”
Strephon bit his lip in an attempt to control his temper. “Thank you, sir. I am very lucky to have such a lovely bride.”
“Quite, quite. Such a beautiful girl - intelligent and comely, and oh so…” He coughed. “Well, yes, you know my feelings on the matter.”
Strephon closed his eyes and looked away from the Chancellor. “I must remember that patricide is just as criminal as incest.” He remarked under his breath.
“Why, she could not hope for a finer gentleman.” His father continued without pause. “Just look at you! A finer specimen of a man I never saw. Big and strong”, he gestures at Strephon’s legs, “and, uh, stout of heart!” He punctuates his final word with a slap to Strephon’s chest. Strephon choked, and gasped for breath as the Chancellor hurriedly backed away. “Are you alright, lad?” He asks in a whisper, as though afraid someone might hear him care for his own child.
Strephon hacks out a cough, and replies in a voice that has leapt up at least an octave since he last spoke. “I am perfectly fine, sir!” He breathes shallowly, and attempts to drag his voice back down to the range he normally uses. “It must be the chill.”
“Yes…” the Chancellor glances at the closed windows, and at Strephon in his thin nightgown. “The chill. Well, uh, get yourself warmed up then, my boy! I’ll… I will go and inform your mother of your condition.”
Strephon sighs in relief as his father leaves, and slumps down onto his bed. He undoes the top of his gown and thinks a fervent prayer of thanks that he had not been wearing his baleen-boned corset. Wooden stays were never quite as effective, but if he had been wearing whalebone, that hearty slap could have punctured his chest with bone… That evening, when Phyllis greets him with a kiss in their shared chambers, he allows himself to loosen the lacing on his corset. Phyllis either doesn’t notice, or is polite enough not to mention a thing, except for to ask how he had fared during the Chancellor’s visit. He laughs, and explains that just because a man is suddenly your father, it does not make him any more personable.
Strephon supposes that he might in fact be learning about all people, not just fairy-kind. After all, he has spent most of his life up until now with sheep.
Surprisingly, his mother does appear the next morning, on the Chancellor’s advice. She tuts and fusses over him, and indignantly reminds Strephon that whenever he wants for anything, he should remember his mother. She gives Phyllis a distracted greeting, and Strephon’s wife smiles at her antics as she leaves to go about her day.
“Mother, I am no longer a child!” He says, laughing. “I am a man now, and I can care for myself.”
Iolanthe raises an eyebrow, and clucks her tongue. “Perhaps you have learned how to take care of your manly half, but it is your upper body I am concerned with. My Lord husband told me that you had taken a frightful chill.”
“Oh, mother, I am fine, truly. The Lord Chancellor -”
“Your father, you mean to say?”
“Yes, yes, my father - he did not know what he did, but my corset was forced too close to my chest, that is all.”
Iolanthe frowns. “What on earth was he doing?”
Strephon winces. “Nothing untoward! Heavens, no, he was simply over-exuberantly congratulating me - you know, as men are wont to do, with slapping each others’ shoulders, and backs, and so forth.”
“Oh.” His mother rises gracefully, and flits over to open the curtains. “He has never struck me so. In fact, he has never struck me at all...” She looks out of the window, but Strephon can hear the sorrow in her voice. He makes to speak, but before he can she turns back towards him with a sunny smile spread across her face. “Now, my son, would you care to tell me just how tightly you had your corset laced, so that such a petty blow could wind you?”
“As I usually do! No more so.”
“As you usually… Strephon, you will damage yourself!” She hurriedly trips over to his bed once more and demands to see his corset lacing. “And do stop flinching so, I am your mother. This is nothing I haven’t seen before.” Strephon sighs deeply, but pulls his shirt up to allow her to see his back. She gasps - “My child! Goodness me, this is not healthy, not healthy at all.” She loosens all the ties, and Strephon slumps over in resignation.
“My son - my child - my dear one.” She cups his face in her smooth-skinned hands, and Strephon bites his lip. “You may do whatever you like to your lower body. It is mortal, it matters not.”
Strephon squirms out of his mother’s grasp and gets up to pace around the room.
“We have talked about this before, my child!” Iolanthe pleads. “You know that you may change whatever you like about your lower half - which is why, when you asked it of me, I altered your lower body so that you might be more comfortable, and more like a man. You say that you are a man now, and of course I accept that - but you must remember that your upper half is fairy. You must not - you cannot - alter that part. Your legs are, frankly, inconsequential, but your body is what matters, as it is fairy! You cannot alter that which is fairy, my child. And I will not allow you to risk your body so - I do not wish to see you in such a tight corset, ever again.”
Strephon sighs, and stops walking. “Yes, mother.”
“You know I only have your best interests at heart!”
He smiles sadly at her. “Of course, mother.” Before she can continue the hated conversation again, he swiftly changes the subject. “And I, myself, only have your best interests at heart - why are you so sad when you say that my father has never struck you? Surely, that is common courtesy!”
His mother shrugs her dainty shoulders. “Quite naturally. I merely meant that… well, frankly it seems that your father has paid more attention to you men these last weeks than me! You are his son, of course I understand that, and yet… well, I am his fairy wife. He comes home to me in the evening, and I wake to up to see him every morning - and yet…” She pauses, but then laughs. “It is silly of me. He spends much of his time with his lordly friends - only almost as much time as I spend with my fairy sisters!” She smiles over at him. “I can worry too much, as do we all at some times in our lives.”
He smiles back, but does not trust himself to reply.
Over his first weeks among his mother’s people, Strephon learns that mortal men and fairies are truly much alike - if only in opposite ways.
It was not that either race hated the other, not at all. They were content in each other’s company, appeased with each other’s love. However, Strephon has realised that this is the full extent of any relationship between man and fairy: acceptance and satisfaction - but nothing further. After the initial excitement, fairies are by and large indifferent towards mankind, and men largely indifferent towards fae. He walks alone through fairyland when he finally admits this horrible truth out loud, and he is shaken. He runs from tree to tree and chamber to chamber in all but a blind panic, like he has gone mad with grief and does not know where to turn. The world turns, faster and faster, and his feet trip from under him, and suddenly the blur that was his surroundings is darkness, and he falls.
He wakes to see Phyllis’ anxious face above him, her fingers caressing his cheeks.
“Oh! Strephon!” She sighs in relief. “You frightened me! Please do not go fainting without at least warning me in advance!”
She laughs, but Strephon finds that he cannot laugh with her. He gently pushes her hands away from his head, and sits up. He automatically adjusts his corset, and realises with horror that he has not re-tightened the laces since his mother’s outburst. He turns away from Phyllis in shame, and apologises for being seen in this state.
“My love, what in Heaven’s name is the matter with you? I fear something is terribly wrong! Yesterday, you were angry with your father, and Celia tells me that but last week you were dreadfully rude to her husband,” she places a hand on his shoulder, but he will not look at her, “Strephon, it is not like you!”
He takes deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself down, but he cannot. He jumps up, and cringes when Phyllis flinches away from him. “D--- it but I cannot stand this!” He sighs. “I apologise for my actions and my harsh words, dearest Phyllis. I have been most confounded these last few days. It seems I have learned too much about our two societies for my own good, and now it is too late to forget that knowledge.”
Phyllis bites her lip, but does not touch him again. “You may tell me anything - I will dry your tears, my dear one.”
“I simply do not know how I can live as myself, Phyllis! The fairy race cares not about the race of men, and men care not for fairies - how can I live, as half of one and yet half of the other? How can I live if my legs are indifferent to my body? If my head is nonchalant to the needs of my feet? If my mind - my own mind! - is inattentive to the very fibre of my lower body?” He sobs into his hands, and then finally looks around wildly to find Phyllis. “How can I live, and claim to be a single person, in control of my own existence, if my own body cannot be reconciled with my brain?”
“Oh, Strephon…” She runs to him and pulls his tear-stained hands into hers. “You can live because I love you so.”
“No!” He shouts as he tears his hands away. “You love my legs! For they are a mortal man’s. You cannot possibly love me above the waist, because that half of my body is…” He chokes, and continues in a voice so quiet that Phyllis has to lean in to hear. “...is that of a fairy.”
Phyllis is quiet, until finally Strephon raises his head to look at her. “It is true, that most sons are masculine in sex. But I ask you, when have I ever implied that I might only love one who is all a man?” She laughs at Strephon’s dumbfounded expression. “I cannot believe that you thought that of me - that I would only love your legs. True, they are very nice legs…” Strephon coughs and surreptitiously drops his hands into a tactical position; Phyllis smirks. “But I love all of you, Strephon! All of you.” She reaches out to him slowly, in case he doesn’t wish her to, to place her hands on his waist. She gradually moves her hands upwards until they are nestled under his arms, and he releases a harried breath as he leans into her embrace. She carefully unties his corset laces, and his wings slowly unfurl from where they have been hidden for all the long years of their courtship. For the first time, Phyllis sees all of her husband.
It is not just Strephon who is learning of his peoples - Phyllis learns as well. She learns what it is to be between man and fae, and what it is that exists between man and woman, alongside her love.
The moment passes, and suddenly what seems to be the whole of fairyland flies into the chamber. Strephon stretches his wings, wipes his eyes, and bends down to hide behind Phyllis. She laughs and clasps him tighter to her. They see Celia and Earl Tolloller trip in arm in arm, her hair flying around them and his curls bouncing up and down. Tolloller turns around to leer suggestively as Earl Mountararat enters holding hands with Leila, and the fairy girls giggle as Mountararat moves as if to slap his friend, but ends the gesture in a caress of the cheek. From the other end of the clearing, the Lord Chancellor leads a troop of flighty Lords in some kind of heated discussion that Phyllis cannot bring herself to care about: the Fairy Queen herself even appears, deep in conversation with Strephon’s mother. As the whole company collides, Strephon watches as Iolanthe steals away from her queen to slip her hand into her husband’s, and the Lord Chancellor swiftly pulls her aside in the confusion. Strephon smiles into his wife’s shoulder at the scene, and pulls away from her just enough to send her into a spin under his arm to start a blameless dance.
Strephon has learned much about himself in the last few weeks. He has learned to accept himself, much more than he ever expected to.