“But they are so crude, Mary,” Elizabeth remarked, setting down her cup of tea on the arbor’s table. A slight Summer breeze made the cool, foliated shadows wag like tongues all around them. “What possible enjoyment could be had in a servant’s company?”
“He is well versed in many pastimes,” Mary said. A hot flash of redness flared in her pale forehead and breast. It was so red as to nearly match her auburn hair. It was not a shade of embarrassment, however, nor fury. She fanned herself leisurely, despite the cool breeze and shade. “Many a singularly fine pastime.”
“He is handsome,” Elizabeth said. A smile betook her face, as if she had tasted something quite sour and wished to hide it. “I will grant you that. But there are many handsome gentlemen in London of equal looks, and far superior wealth.”
“I have no need of wealth,” Mary said. “I am an only child, as you know, and subject to no male relative who might contend my claim to my father’s estate. Moreover, Desmond is excellent with his hands in a manner entirely unknown in gentlemanly circles.”
Elizabeth cast a curious glance to Jenny, nettled. The latter was too concerned with a white ribbon in her hair to notice. Elizabeth chided her.
“Jenny, you are of an age that ribbons such as those should be abandoned utterly. And you are married. Married women have no need of girlish ribbons.”
“These ribbons were blessed by Father Willoughby last Sunday,” Jenny said, still attempting to tighten the ribbon. “They are marks of chastity.”
“But you are married,” Elizabeth argued with an irritated shake of her head. Her black curls quivered, tied up atop her head and away from the nape of her neck like some tragic Greek heroine from bygone times. “Chastity is impossible for a proper conclusion to such a ceremony.”
“To the contrary,” Jenny said fussily, pulling at the golden strands of her hair. “William and I have decided to remain chaste for the time being, even while in wedlock. When he is…when we are ready to produce children, the ribbons shall come down.”
“And the petticoats shall go up,” Mary said, giggling. Elizabeth frowned at her, which only provoked greater giggles. Mary sipped her tea to regain her composure. Birds sang in the distance. Evening wore on slowly, the sun descending reluctantly.
“You are a naughty creature!” Jenny exclaimed, encrimsoning as a cherry unclaimed from the stem.
“And why should I not be?” Mary posited, seriously. “I am a woman of independence and means. I need answer to no one.”
“It is a luxury not all can afford,” Elizabeth admitted begrudgingly. “Nor do I think it one I might indulge, for I cannot discern how it could be worth the price.”
“A failure of experience,” Mary said, sympathetically, “leads to a failure of imagination. Were that your husband could be capable of speaking Desmond’s tongue! You would never wish to leave the house, either for society or for a fresh prospect. Nor would Paris or Rome offer, in all their splendours, temptation enough to lure you thither.”
Jenny frowned, then finally released the ribbon in her golden hair. “Surely he could speak such a tongue anywhere in the world and you would find yourself doubly satisfied in being abroad and being in desirous company.”
“Not so,” Mary said. “For it would presume impudence and impropriety. Desmond is apt at his tongue, but not at many others, and so his low-breeding would be immediately apparent, even to a Parisian crumpet.” She tapped a finger upon her chin thoughtfully. “Especially to a Parisian crumpet.”
The conversation now at an end, they nodded and sipped their tea. Mary looked very pleased in all accounts, whereas Jenny and Elizabeth were perplexed, albeit in different regards. Another of Jenny’s ribbons had come undone, and so she was very vexed in setting it right atop her head. Elizabeth frowned, casting furtive eyes of judgment sidelong at her host and friend.
“It is all jolly-folly,” she said meaningfully.
For Mary’s part, she was so warm and glowing with a language only she knew among the three of them that when the wind grew chillier, she did not mind it, even as her friends shivered. The trees themselves seemed to shiver, too, for the shadows stretched long and the sun slowly sank into its shadowy bed.
“My, I should be getting home,” Jenny said, hugging her shawl about her shoulders. “Arthur will be wondering at my absence. Though, I doubt overmuch. He loves spending time with his schoolyard friend, John. They are inseparable, you know. They get along so well together. Much more, I am afraid, than even Arthur and I get along. But we are young, and our marriage fresh. I am sure there is time enough to grow together.”
It was Elizabeth’s and Mary’s turn to exchange shrewd glances.
“Will he keep you warm, Jenny?’ Mary asked, mischievously.
“With a fire, perhaps,” Jenny said, misunderstanding. “Arthur is so thoughtful that he always insists that my bedroom be tended to most, often to the neglect of his own bedroom.”
“Separate bedrooms?’ Mary said, suppressing a smile. “But how does Arthur tend to your fire, then?”
“Alfred, his butler, tends to it when the night comes on with its drafts,” Jenny said simply. Naively. “Alfred uses the poker rather deftly, like a wizard conjuring fire.”
“So, too, does my Desmond,” Mary said, barely suppressing a giggle. “But Elizabeth,” she said, turning to her other friend, “what is the arrangement between yourself and your husband, Matthew?”
Elizabeth cleared her throat, though she could not clear the sharp edge of vexation in her voice.
“Matthew and I sleep in separate chambers,” she said, as a judge delivering a bitter verdict. “ I cannot abide his smoking…or…” She faltered a moment. “…or his attendance to my fire.”
Mary gave Elizabeth a sympathetic smile, patting her gloved hand. There was a goodly deal of condescension in the latter act. “I am sure there is a servant apter at the art. My Desmond is indeed a wizard, conjuring flames with a mere wag of his tongue.” She smiled puckishly. “He speaks whole infernos into being. And they keep me warm throughout the most frigid of nights.”
Again, Elizabeth cleared her throat, shifting uncomfortably. She eyed her red-headed friend enviously.
“I do not see how it should take much art to tend a fire,” Jenny opined, obliviously. “Alfred is nearly senile, and yet he accomplishes the task very adequately. At times even I tend to my own fire, exciting it with a clumsy poker. The propensities of fire, and the plenitude of wood, should be sufficient for the need, no matter how novice the pyrolater.”
Mary and Elizabeth exchanged glances—the former, sly and mirthful; the latter, shrewd and irritated.
“Indeed,” Mary said. “Any sufficient measure of wood may feed a fire, but here is something to be praised in that heathenistic affinity in the art of pyromancy. Why, I feel as a wicker woman all aflame with…passion…when Desmond speaks his special tongue to me.” She laughed with a girlish cadence of unconscientious joy. “I am utterly consumed by it, you know. It is always Beltane when he is speaking his special tongue to me.”
Elizabeth scowled. “One can lose one’s soul to such heathenism,” she said, her voice cold with something akin to resentment. “We must be wary of the Devil’s tongue. It can sway angels to lower stations with debased practices and unworthy company.”
“The waves lap wonderfully in my Lake of Fire,” Mary said, too pleased to be affronted, and too emboldened to be restrained. She tucked a curl of red hair behind her ear. “Maybe Lucifer was right. Maybe it is better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
Jenny gasped, a dainty hand to her little lips. “But your soul, Mary! Truly, we must attend church and repent together! Father Willoughby will rectify these mortal failings. There is no salvation except through Christ, and so you must recant such confusion in your compass. Otherwise it will cost you everlastingly.”
Mary regarded her earnest friend with a condescending smirk—tight lipped, with a nodding of her head. She then turned to Elizabeth, the latter stiff-shouldered and scowling openly now.
“There are times when Desmond’s heathen tongue is so persuasive that I could die in the moment and be eternally contented. Whatever lay beyond that moment of…exultation…is nought but dreary, drafty winds through a dusty hallway. The world burns away with the intensity of it, and all else becomes as soot beneath my feet.”
“And what of the tongues wagging behind one’s back?” Elizabeth demanded, setting her teacup down hard for emphasis on the point. “They can raze reputations and family legacies with the tempests they whip up. Have you ever paused to give thought to that?”
“They are impotent cinders,” Mary replied lightly. “As impotent as the cries of herons on the Isle of Skye. All is obliterated in the inferno.”
“The tongues of fire lap at lost souls in the inferno,” Jenny said, so far amiss in the conversation that her input was no more than the whispers of the breeze through the arbor. Her two friends ignored her.
“And what of friendships?” Elizabeth continued, still scowling. “What of the cost such heresies might entail in regard to them?”
For the first time, Mary’s smile and gleeful tone faltered. “I…I should hope that any true friend might weather the infernos for the sake of a friend as devout in her loyalty and its reciprocation.”
Elizabeth stared hard at her friend, her thin lips set in a narrowly compressed line.
“You take more than you give, Mary,” she said. “It is a problem plaguing many relationships, it seems to me.”
Desmond stood at the foot of the bed like any butler awaiting orders. Tall, lean, and with a grimly-set expression of diligence, he was the very figure of decorum and servitude. Except he was out of uniform. Very much out of uniform.
Mary lay on the four-poster bed, watching Desmond with a cat-catches-canary smile upon her face. She, too, was very much out of uniform, and spread her freckled arms, fixing her fine, smooth fingers upon the headboard. Her pale body flickered orange in the clandestine candlelight. There was no one else in the entirety of her estate. She had sent the other servants home to visit relatives or friends or lovers or whoever would preoccupy their evenings. She did not care. The only interest stood before her.
“Come now, Desmond,” she said. “Attend me.”
“I will,” the denuded man said. “But first…”
He hesitated, falling silent. She could see by the flaring candlelight the ambiguity etched upon his handsome features.
“What do you want?” she asked. “Less chores around the estate? A bauble? I could get something for you while I am away in London next week, visiting Vivien. She knows the quaintest shops where nearly anything can be purchased.”
“I mean to accompany you in London,” he said. “But not in a servant’s capacity.”
Mary cackled in delight. “Oh, you have a mercenary heart! But you know such things cannot be.”
“And for what reason so?” he demanded. “You have said many times that you do not care if high society should know of our attachment.”
Her tone was sobered now; incredulous. “It is not an attachment, Desmond. Do not forget yourself.”
Desmond swayed as if stricken, and Mary’s tone softened.
“I would not have you away from my estate,” she said. “You know I cannot trust anyone to see to it but you.”
The fire in the hearth behind Desmond fluttered to one side, as if a cold draft had hurled itself headlong into it.
“Such patronage does me much honor,” he said, his face dark and his tone sour. “To condescend to someone so low as myself esteems you as to a saint.”
“I will not tolerate insolence, Desmond,” Mary snapped. “You are a servant. In this service do you serve me, still. But that is the total of it insomuch as we are bound. To stoop to pretending that you are my equal would be to lose face. Not in society’s estimation, but my own. And I will never shame myself, nor depreciate my self-worth through such short-shrift.”
“So I am nothing more to you than a servant,” he said, bitterly. “You view me as just another pleasure to be taken for granted. Our intimacy is one strictly of mistress and servant.”
“You are well-compensated,” she said, sitting up and sliding forward. She reached out with both hands and took hold of his wrist, attempting to draw him down onto the bed, toward her spread legs. “Come, Desmond. I will permit you to sleep here tonight, beside me, if you like. Is that the intimacy you require?”
Desmond drew his hand away, and her coaxing smile hardened to an irritated frown.
“Desmond,” she said, “do not ruin this lovely evening with your unwarranted umbrage. We could be both of us quite satisfied if you would simply surrender to the strong instinct inherent in your breeding…”
Desmond yanked his arm free from his mistress at once, turned, and strode to his uniform, gathering it up and donning it in the dimming glow of the hearth.
“Where are you going?” she demanded, her voice pitched with alarm.
“I have attended you in all ways a husband might,” he said. “I have seen to your finances. I have seen to your servants. I have seen to your needs, whatever myriad ways they might manifest. Yet, you have always neglected me in all respects a man should be afforded by the woman he loves and to whom he is devoted. I had hopes for a relationship by daylight such as we share by moonlight. But you value me no more than a beast in the field, wanting me for nothing but to expend your carnal propensities. Nor are you equal in those indulgences, oftentimes affording me no reciprocation pleasure whereas I have selflessly given and given unto a cornucopia of giving!”
“Desmond, please do not leave me now!” She leapt up from her bed, hurrying to him in a bereft state of undress. “Please, do not leave me alone! Come to bed with me. Please.”
He paused at buckling his belt, almost looking at her. But the anguish overtaking his face was dismissed and dignity resumed itself with an austere measure in his demeanour. He donned his shirt and jacket, not bothering with his tie. He headed to the dark portal that was the door.
“Please tend to the fire tonight,” Mary pleaded, following after him. She lay a trembling hand upon his shoulder. “That’s all I wish. You do not have to join me in bed. Just…just tend to the fire and keep me warm.”
“Tend to it yourself,” he retorted. He opened the door and hastened out into the dark hallway, leaving her behind.
Mary felt quite cold, and walked aimlessly about her bedroom like a lost soul. She had come, it seemed, to the Ninth Circle of Hell. Her womanhood was now a frozen lake. Her heart gnawed on Judas in bitter disappointment. She looked into the embers of the darkening hearth and felt the world grow cold to its core.
Elizabeth held her legs apart as Matthew, her husband, thrust against her. It was, as always, over after a handful of minutes. He groaned, convulsed, and then collapsed onto the bed—onto her— and lay there, heaving and breathless against her breasts. Afterward, she looked upon the wrinkled, flabby and pale body of her old husband as he sprawled over her, panting. Pale, loose skin— reminiscent of candle wax long ago melted and now cold—gleamed in the light from the hearth. She was reminded of a warm, wet slug. She shuddered, and not from pleasure.
After a few moments, he rolled off of her and to the side, crumpled like a leaf in Winter.
Elizabeth’s gown was hot, or so it seemed. She flung it from her body, and kicked away the sheets near her feet. She wished for a cold shower.
“You will catch a cold,” her husband said, his breath labored still.
“I am likely for a fever,” she said, laying stiffly now, as if a frozen body in the snow. Her black hair was arrayed about her head, like the halo of some martyr.
They said nothing else. Matthew lay in bed a while longer, then began to crawl toward the edge, slowly, painfully, slipping out and onto his shaky feet. He leaned on his mahogany cane, limping to his nightgown. Shakily, he lifted the nightgown up and over his head, down his cadaverous body. He struck up a cigar before he was to the door, blowing smoke into the dark. The flaring faggot illuminated his vulture features for a flashing moment just before he disappeared through the door and down the hall.
Again, Elizabeth shuddered. She leaned toward the bedside table, taking the bottle of wine in hand. She did not bother with a drinking glass, but kissed the bottle more ardently than she had ever kissed her husband. Drinking herself into a stupor, she set the bottle down—tumbling it to the Turkish carpet below—and sprawled insensate upon the bed, her skin bare to the crisp, cold air. She welcomed the cold, and the oblivion. She welcomed the scorn that was a frigid draft through her bedroom.
She hoped the cold would find her husband in his bedroom and snuff out his smouldering cigar light. There were times when she wished it would find her, and snuff out her own light.
Jenny lay naked beneath the heaving form of Alfred, moaning in pleasure as the butler rutted upon her. It was past midnight and her husband Arthur had gone to bed, joined by John. It was an arrangement both sides found very pleasing.
After Alfred finished, and he had helped Jenny finish, Jenny lay panting to one side of her bed while the butler rose to gather his clothes. He did so swiftly and economically, with no fuss or words. He was much younger than Jenny had said to her two friends while at tea together earlier than day. Virile and somber and handsome and, most importantly, discreet, he was just what Jenny wanted in a servant assigned to such duties. He opened and closed the door with tactful silence, his lean frame disappearing down the dark hallway without the faintest whisper of a footfall.
The butler gone, and the door closed, Jenny sighed in great satisfaction. The warmth of the recent rigors still smoldered within her, hot as the hearth across the room. She spoke aloud to herself.
“Discretion best serves mischief alongside shrewd naivete,” she said. “Strategic naivete. It really does make one impervious to the wagging of tongues, whether they be sheathed in the mouths of society, or one’s own friends. There is no shield like naivete against prattle. They may demean the naivete itself, but what does it accomplish if even a million tongues whip at a mirage in the desert? They may wag themselves dry, but the mirage remains, and so distracts from my little oasis that I keep to myself.”
Having thus spoken at leisure, and in an ease equally earnest, she reached a hand up to the white ribbons in her fair hair. They were tautly tied. She undid them with a pinch of her fingers and twist of her wrist. Her golden hair tumbled down wildly. The white ribbons lay in a heap, like discarded snake skins. They would coil there, in their little nest, until the morning when she would take them up once again and tie the tongues of the world up in incessant gossip entirely amiss of the actual truth.