“Consequences follow, my dear,” Lady Thatcher said. “They are the most faithful of hounds.”
“If only men were so faithful,” Lady Fairsdale said, fanning herself with her little oriental fan. “Then I would not fret so much over Henry’s time abroad.”
The two ladies exchanged mischievous, knowing smiles.
“The stray cannot remain away for long,” her elder friend returned. “Perhaps you should seek consequences of your own in the meantime.”
“I have enough dogs in the kettle,” Lady Fairsdale said, tucking a stray tress of russet hair behind her dainty pale ear. Her ear was tinged a faint cherry at the topmost curve, as were her cheeks and the flat of her chest above her bodice-bound bosom. “And of dogs and men and consequences I have tolerated enough. They all make such a terrible ruckus.”
Lady Thatcher sipped at her tea, a glint of mischief enlivening her otherwise dull brown eyes. “In my day the ruckus was what made dogs and men and consequences, my dear. A good ruckus makes the world go round.”
The pool of shade plunged from their broad parasol and soaked the two Ladies in its cool depths while the lustrous sun rose to peep over the treetops, burning the cool mists into fairy-fire that disappeared in the crisp dazzle of the dawn. The two Ladies chatted away, and gazed upon a young man and his happy father by the hedgerow. Lively petal lips found compensatory fare in conversation, though younger petals longed to quiver in other diversions.
“A man’s task is to prove himself worthy of a Lady’s affections,” Lady Thatcher said. “A Lady’s task is to prove him wrong. If she fails, then he has met his match. If he succeeds, she has failed herself.”
“You speak as if no man is worthy of a woman.”
“A wealthy geriatric may be,” she said. “Provided he has the decency of an imminent grave.”
Lady Thatcher was herself mottled with age, and yet like a well-kept antique she yet clung to a certain luster and fine figure which had possessed the hearts of many susceptible men when in her youthful bloom. And she still spoke as if fresh from the bud, in full array of her colors and her fragrance.
“That said,” she added, “a poor servant may be worthy, too, for a while. At least insomuch as he proves adept at the task given by his Mistress.”
The faint cherry of her young companion’s cheeks bloomed into a scarlet blush that no high breeding could conceal. She fanned herself fervently, and gazed out upon the lawn. The gardener and his son trimmed at the hedgerow. The old man stood with a bent back and a sweaty forehead, pointing and directing his son. The latter—in his prime years—worked the sheers assiduously, scissoring away the offensive leaves from the otherwise squarish greenery. Distantly, the dogs in the kettle barked with incessant insistence.
“When is Lord Fairsdale to return?” Lady Thatcher asked absently.
“However long he requires in Venice,” Lady Fairsdale said, disinterested. “Two months? Three? He has been gone already for two months.”
“So you have time, at the least, for more consequences,” Lady Thatcher remarked meaningfully. “A Lady in her youth, such as yourself, should always seek the fulfillment of such idle time in whatever means are natural to you.”
The young man glanced at the young lady from the distance, smiling to himself. His father took no note, but the young Lady did. Lady Fairsdale noted the young man’s large, strong hands, watching them flex and relax, her green eyes traveling up his thick forearms to the folded sleeves and up his broad shoulders to the slight slit of his white shirt, the cleft of his chest, the straight neck and square chin, dark eyes and dark hair. He was a strong buck, she knew, and yet the doe led him on like a dutiful fawn. Lady Thatcher watched Lady Fairsdale watch the young man, and smiled with vicarious pleasure. Lady Fairsdale’s bosom heaved, crowded with frustrated breath and its own largess within her bodice.
The dogs continued to bark, but both Ladies ignored them.
“It is needful work,” Lady Thatcher said.
“What is?” Fairsdale said, entirely dazzled and distracted by sunlight on a labour’s dew.
“Caring for gardens,” she said. “There are consequences in failing to attend them. They can grow positively riotous if unchecked.” She smiled. “And there is so little ruckus heard when one’s husband is away. The dogs can yap all they please, but none will mind them.”
“I should mind them,” a voice said near at hand, startling the two Ladies. “The temper of a dog is only equaled by faith to his Master, and he will bite those whom his Master mislikes.”
The gentleman loomed, a shadow with the sun at his back. Cradled in his arm, like a newborn babe, was a rifle that gleamed blackly in the forenoon sun.
“Henry!” Lady Fairsdale gasped. “I thought you were yet in Venice!” She cleared her throat, and calmed her heaving chest with the flat of her hand. “Has the venture been a failure?”
“To the contrary,” Mr. Fairsdale said, his tone casual between grinning yellow teeth. “The venture went rather well. So well, in fact, that I sent Howard to manage its conclusion while I returned home to see to…other affairs.”
He abruptly stepped around the table and headed toward the gardener and his son.
“Henry!” Lady Fairsdale exclaimed, close to fainting.
Lord Fairsdale halted and turned about, still grinning. He looked cheery and cheeky, ear to ear, though the thin wisps of gray hair at his temples— in their disheveled state—lent an air of uncouthness to his overall visage; as though frayed by some wayward tempest. An unhealthy sweat bedewed his reddish forehead, trickling over wrinkle and pox scar alike. Yet, his features otherwise were cast in a mold of hard-chiseled amicability.
“What is the matter, my dear wife?”
Before she could speak, a group of men— likewise cradling rifles—stepped forth together. Mrs. Fairsdale, attempted to contain her heaving breast and the hammering heart within. These men were her husband’s friends. Lords, one and all.
“Hunting today?” she said, glancing to Lady Thatcher.
“Of course,” her husband said, still grinning. “It is a lovely day for it.”
“Must you?” she asked, feeling frantic and febrile. “It does not seem a good day for it. Looks like rain.”
There were dark clouds converging on the horizon.
“A quick hunt will not take long,” he countered, still grinning. “It is my land, my wife. I will do as I please. The rain will not keep me off from it, however sadly it falls.”
The dogs in the kettle barked in a great clamour as the group of men converged on the gardener and his son. Lady Fairsdale watched them unblinkingly, feeling powerless and faint. Her hand instinctively sought the hand of her elder companion, tremulous at the clutch.
“Do not fret, Ellen,” Lady Thatcher said. “He suspects nothing.”
“He never smiles so dreadfully much,” Lady Fairsdale said, breathing labouriously. “Not ever on our wedding day, or the next morning.”
“You fear overmuch,” Lady Thatcher said. “Your husband is like most English husbands. Thinks himself lord of his lands, but is ever asleep on the throne. All is quite safe. No need to faint at phantoms, my dear.”
“But the hounds…” Lady Fairsdale said, trembling. “What a terrible noise!”
“Oh, they are beasts without reason,” the older woman said. “As are most cuckolded men.” She giggled softly. “You did well by marrying a man twice married before and twice your age. He is likely, thus, twice certain to be abloom within a meetly season. And then, my dear, your true life will begin.”
“I will not marry again,” Lady Fairsdale vowed. “I wish only to serve myself.”
“And so you should,” Lady Thatcher said. “Just keep plenty of comely youths in service. It has done wonders for my woeful years of widowhood.”
Lady Thatcher’s sly smile encouraged Lady Fairsdale’s to debut. It was a most winsome smile, charming both man and lad and lord and pauper, and had won her many an invitation to London’s most prestigiously exclusive soirees. Her smile suddenly vanished, for she could hear, at a distance, the conversation between her husband and the gardener’s son.
“I have never hunted before,” the young man said. “Perhaps you would rather I serve as a beater?”
“Nonsense,” said Lord Fairsdale blithely. “You are a hunter after my own heart. This I know to be entirely true.”
The young man’s father admonished his son to acquiesce to the Lord’s proposal. The dogs barked ever more loudly.
“It will be my first time using a rifle, sir,” the young man said.
“I think you will have much luck in it,” Lord Fairsale remarked. “The Devil’s Luck, I dare say, and a happy disposition toward it. All young men do. Just aim to the heart.”
The young man looked to his father and, sheepishly— almost shamefully— glanced to Lady Fairsdale. She shook her head only slightly, her eyes wide.
“I insist,” said Lord Fairsdale.
The young man was handed a rifle and shuffled away with the hunting party. Lady Fairsdale watched as the group of men walked down the sun-gilded field, toward the dark arbor of the forest; divided as day from night. Lady Fairsdale sighed. All cherry tinge had drained from her cheeks and ears, her face a pallid mask of bloodless fear as the men vanished within the woods.
“My dear,” Lady Thatcher said, “you mustn’t fret over such things. There is a proper order in society, and the English are known for following decorum among their peers. No harm will come of it to anyone of importance. Least of all to you.”
A shot rang out vengefully, like the crackling thunder of an old, angry god. Lady Fairsdale’s heart leapt as if to burst. The dogs’ clamour died at once to a deathly silence. The rain began to weep along the horizon.