Book one in
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“This is well and truly real love,” he continued. “This is what I’ve awaited my whole life. Until last night all my existence has been a wasteland, a wilderness of nothing, a desert…”
He went on like that for quite some time until Oliver managed to get in another question.
“Who is this girl?”
“She’s not a girl; she’s a fairy princess come from A Midsummer Night’s what-you-call-it. No, she’s more than that; she is a goddess. She makes all other women look like…like…”
“Mortals, I suppose. What’s her name, Tony?”
“Nora. Isn’t it beautiful? It’s like some rare flower on a moonlit hillside. Oh, wait ’til you meet her and you’ll see what I mean. My words fall utterly short of the reality.”
Oliver doggedly went on. “Nora who?”
“Jones. Miss Nora Jones.”
The name was still unfamiliar to Oliver. “She sounds wonderful. Where does she trade?”
Tony snapped his head ’round, full of outrage. “Good God, man! She’s a respectable lady. How dare you?”
Oliver made an about-face of his own toward true contrition. “I do beg your pardon, I’m sure. I had no idea. My most humble apologies, to you, to her, and to her family. Who are they, anyway?”
Tony settled back and after a moment’s consideration, accepted the apology. “The Jones family, I suppose.”
“From Wales, are they?”
“France? How can someone named Jones be from France?”
“Obviously they’re not, you great fool—she’s just come from France! Been living abroad for her health and only recently returned to London.”
“How did you meet her?”
“Robert—that’s Robert Smollett”— he said as an aside to me— “had a musical evening on last night and she was one of the guests. She was there with his sister and Miss Glad and Miss Bolyn and all that crowd. She stood out like a rose in a field of weeds. She’s the most beautiful, the brightest, the most graceful creature I ever had the fortune to clap eyes upon.”
“She must be something if she can eclipse Charlotte Bolyn,” said Oliver. “But we shall have to see her for ourselves to make sure your praises haven’t been overly influenced by the strength of your feelings.”
Tony smiled with patronizing confidence. “Of course, of course. Seeing is believing with you. But I can promise that you will not be disappointed. The Bolyns are giving a party of their own tonight and I’ve been invited, which means you can both come with me. It’s in honor of some foreign composer who’s gotten to be favorite in the more fashionable circles, but if we’re lucky, we won’t have to waste any time on him. Think you can come?”
“Given the chance to prepare. My cousin may need a bit of help. His clothes have been crammed into a sea chest for the last couple of months and—”
“Oh, that’s nothing. I’ll have Crispin look over the lot and dust everything off for you.”
“Dust was hardly my concern, Mr. Warburton, considering that I was on board a ship the whole time,” I put in.
Tony waved away my reservations. “Just leave it all to Crispin. You’re in the hands of an expert. He never lets me out the door unless I look respectable. I only got away with this costume because he was busy with you two. You must both forgive me, I was up very late last night.”
We protested that we were not in the least offended, then he lapsed into more praise about Nora Jones.
“I’m going to marry her, Oliver. I mean it. I’m quite serious this time, so stop laughing. Those other girls were a fool’s whim, a passing fancy. This is the real and true thing. I know. I even dreamed about her last night. Thought she was right there in my room, so I shall have to marry her to save her reputation. For God’s sake, don’t you dare repeat that to anyone. The gossips in this town would turn a beautiful dream into a ditch of night soil given half a chance.”
“And just how beautiful was this dream?” asked Oliver, unable to suppress a grin.
Tony’s pale skin reddened. “None of your damned business, sir! I wish I’d never mentioned it. What are you here for, anyway, besides to distract me from joyful thoughts of my one true love?”
Oliver told him about our own party last night and the need to recover away from his mother’s sharp and disapproving eye.
“Can’t blame you for that,” said Tony. “It’s just as well my parents and the rest of the family are away at Bath taking the waters. Lord have mercy, I can hardly wait to take my examines this year. As soon as I set up a practice, I’m getting my own place. I might even be able to take Crispin along, if I can persuade him. He’s a terribly superior sort, y’know. Might think it beneath himself to leave this household for another, even if it is mine. Servants!” He concluded with a shake of his head.
Oliver commiserated; I said nothing. Jericho could easily have come with me, but was convinced that if he left, his place in the house might be filled by another servant more suitable to my mother than myself, despite Father’s promise to the contrary.
Jericho and I discussed the subject seriously and thoroughly and concluded that he would be happier left at home. Though I respected his wishes, I could not be accused of being content myself with the outcome. Now that I was off the ship and in surroundings similar in many ways to that home, I missed his company.
It was for the best, though, for I realized he would look after Elizabeth in my absence and had left him a sufficient amount of money to post letters to me at regular intervals. I had charged him to send reports of all the other news that my sister might be unaware of or ignore from lack of interest. He knew how to read and write for I had taught him, having followed Rapelji’s example that a lesson is more thoroughly learned when one must teach it to another. However, Jericho and I had long ago decided never to speak of it, for many people thought it dangerous to have educated slaves, and his busy life might be unpleasantly complicated by their disapproval. Father was in on the secret, though, and, of course, Elizabeth.
I wondered and hoped that they were all right and enjoying good health. That one hope and many, many nebulous worries about them returned sharply to mind, along with a familiar ache to my heart. “Why such a long face, cousin?” Oliver asked.
“I feel like ‘a stranger in a strange land,’ “ I replied mournfully.
“He means he’s a long way from home,” explained Tony. “What we need is something to occupy the time until this evening. I was going to go someplace today, but I’m damned if I can remember where. Crispin!”
His shout brought the butler and a quick question got a quick response.
“You are to visit Bedlam today, sir,” he said.
“Bedlam? Are you sure?”
“Your ticket for entry is on the hall table, sir.”
Oliver was all interest. “Really? That would be a treat.”
Tony was dubious. “You think so?”
“Oh, yes. You know how fascinated I am in such things.” He turned to me. “You used to be able to get in whenever you pleased, but the governors of the hospital shut that down. It’s a shame too, because they were bringing in a good six hundred a year from the admissions. Now one has to have special permission and a signed pass. Not everyone can get it, you know. This is a wonderful bit of luck.”
“For you, perhaps,” said Tony. “I don’t feel I’m up to it, even if it is for the furtherance of my education. Why don’t you go in my place, then tell me all about it later? I don’t share your passion for studying lunatics.”
“Surely you won’t want to miss this opportunity?”
“Surely I do. I have other ways to entertain myself; I’m sure of it.”
“This is hardly for base entertainment, Tony. I’ll be going there to learn something.”
His friend burst into laughter. “Oh, the things I could say to that.”
Oliver scowled. “What things? What?”
“Nothing and everything. You’re better than a thousand tonics, my dear fellow. You two go on to Bedlam and get all the education you want, but please, leave me to rest up here. After the excitement of meeting sweet, lovely Nora, I still feel quite drained and need to recover. I want to be at my best tonight.”
Oliver’s scowl instantly vanished and he gave up trying to fathom the cause of his friend’s amusement. “If you’re certain.”
“Yes. I shall do nothing more strenuous today than compose some sonnet, an inadequate tribute to her beauty.”
That ultimately decided things for Oliver. He pulled out a great gold watch. “Very well. We’ve plenty of time, perhaps we can even take in Vauxhall, too.”
Tony held up a cautioning finger. “But I thought you wanted to remain sober?”
“Damn. Yes, you’re right. We’d better stay away from there ’til later.”
“Come back at six and I’ll have my barber scrape your chins off.”
We took our leave of Tony Warburton, redeemed our hats and walking sticks from a footman, then sent him off to secure a couple of sedan chairs for us.
“I think it’s worked out for the best for him not to come,” Oliver remarked as we waited outside. “When he’s in this kind of a humor, he’s likely to try out lines of his poem on us.”
“He’s such a bad poet?”
“Don’t ask me to judge that. One and all, my friends assure me that I can’t tell the difference between Shakespeare and popular doggerel.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It just occurred to me what bad idea it is to enter Bedlam with a lovesick fool who’s sure to disrupt things by lapsing into verses about his wife-to-be whenever the fancy takes him. We might never get him out again.”
The chairs arrived, and I listened closely while Oliver haggled over the price with the men. The only way to cease being a stranger in this land was to learn how things were run and the minutiae of local customs. Since I would be living here for at least four years, it was to my best advantage to keep my eyes and ears open at all times.
This resolve, I was to find out, was somewhat restricted once I got into my sedan chair. Though it had two large windows on either side, the view was much more limited than the one I’d enjoyed on the pony cart. Owing to my natural height, my head nearly brushed the roof and frequently did so as the bearers bounced along their way.
We passed by other chairs with more top room, something necessary to the ladies within who wished to preserve the state of their hair. I noticed that the leather ceiling of my own bore oily evidence that more than one woman had been here before, leaving behind a dark stain mingled with white flecks where the lard and rice flour had rubbed off.
“Have a care, sir!” one of the bearers warned when I leaned too far out a window to catch a glimpse of the myriad sights we passed. My enthusiasm was an endangerment to their balance. Having no wish to crash face first into the filthy cobbles, I forced myself to keep still and resolved to engage some other means of travel for the return trip. Anything, up to and including being pushed along in a barrow, would be considered. Confined like this and cut off from conversation with Oliver, the hundreds of questions popping into my head with each new sight had to go unanswered. There being so many, I regretfully knew I’d never remember them all later, for surely they would be replaced by others.
At least I was spared the grime of the streets and shaded from the sun, but despite these advantages, the ride was long and wearisome. If not for the guiding presence of my cousin I should also be quite lost, for I had no idea where we were or where we had come from. Though the bearers might have little trouble navigating to and fro through the crowds boiling around us, I would not have been able to find my way back to Warburton’s unaided.
Though our destination was a hospital for lunatics, it turned out to be a pleasant and restful sight; I’d expected something much smaller and uglier than the building before us. Vast and long, three stories high, with tall towers marking the corner turning of each wing and the tallest of all in the center, Bedlam, once known as the hospital of Bethlehem, looked as fair as any edifice I had so far seen in this great city. We stood at the beginning of a wide lane leading directly to the central entrance from the street. On either side, a simple white fence enclosed sections of the front grounds, protecting the perfectly spaced trees within. If one grew tired of observing the inmates, this wholesome patch of greenery would serve to soothe the eye.
There were few people about, though the quiet air carried an odd note to it that I did not immediately identify. As we drew closer to the entry, it increased and became more varied until I finally identified it as the drone of human voices. Drone would serve for want of a better word, for it frequently broke off into high laughter or outright screaming. The hair on my head began to rise and for the first time I questioned my cousin’s wisdom in bringing me with him.
Unaware of my misgivings, he presented his ticket to the proper authority and after a delay that only increased my unease, we were assigned a guide to take us around. Though Oliver was the medical student, I was not, but no question against my being here was ever raised. Oliver said the right things and asked intelligent questions, while I nodded and imitated his manner so as to not arouse suspicion. In truth, I need not have gone to such trouble. On the one hand, no one was too curious about us, on the other, after five minutes, I would not at all have minded being expelled.
Our guide led us into the men’s wing only, the women’s side being barred to us. Some of the more lucid inmates were allowed to take their exercise in the halls, all of them closely watched by their keepers. Only because they were somewhat better dressed than their charges, and armed with clubs and keys, was I able to tell them one from another.
Though assured by our guide that the straw in the cells was frequently changed, the stench of filthy bodies, night soil, and rotten food. pervaded every breath in the place. My cousin and I found some relief by holding handkerchiefs to our noses, which amused the guide and the other keepers. They maintained that they were quite used to it, and we should soon be, too. I prayed that we should not stay so long as to verify the truth of their statement.
Some of the more interesting cases were pointed out to us, and Oliver took time to study each with an absorption that surprised me. Flighty as he seemed most of the time, here he was a genuine student, apparently serious in his pursuit of knowledge when the fit was upon him. It was contagious, for his comments to me quickened my own curiosity and sparked a lengthy conversation on the causes of madness.
“You and I both know that it can be passed along in the blood,” he said. “There are whole families running loose that should be chained up in the basement. But some of these cases just seem to come out of nowhere as if the wretch had been struck by lightning. That fellow back there in the straw cap preaching so fervently to the wall is an excellent example. You missed hearing about him, but his keeper said that his was such an occurrence. He was once a curate and while doing his rounds one day, he just fell right over. They thought it was apoplexy or too much sun or the flying gout, but he fully recovered the next day, except for his wits, which were all gone. Now he thinks he’s a bishop and spends all his time in theological argument with invisible colleagues. To add to the singularity of his circumstances, his arguments are quite sane and sound. I listened to him and he makes more sense than others I’ve heard of a Sunday.”
The poor man was certainly in a minority, for all those around him either stared at nothing with frightened or blank faces or raved in their cells, rattling their chains and howling in- a most pitiful way. If anyone became violent, then others might follow, so the keepers had to watch them constantly. I’m sorry to say that when drawn to one of the barred windows set in the stout door of a cell, the creature within began screeching in a most alarming way at the sight of me. I fell back at once, but that alone did not calm him and he continued until a keeper opened the door and threw a bucket of water on him. This inspired much merriment in those others who were able to appreciate it. The screams turned to sputtering, died away, and his door was again locked.
“That’s the only bath ’e’s like to get in a twelvemonth,” the grinning keeper confided to me. “Lord knows ’e needs it.” Considering the his own utter lack of cleanliness, I thought he had no reason to judge another, especially one unable to care for himself.
With my handkerchief firmly in place I caught up with Oliver, who was talking to a lad whose sullen expression reminded me of young Nathan Finch back home.
“I don’t belong ’ere,” he insisted. “ ’m not like them others. I never ’urt no one nor meself, so they got no call to put me ’ere.”
“Is this true?” Oliver asked our guide.
“’Tis true enough the way ’e tells it. He never ’armed ’imself or others, but they put ’im ’ere anyways.”
“Why? If he’s not mad—”
“Oh, ’e’s mad enough, sir, for they found ’im ’sponsible for slittin’ open the bellies of a dozen cattle. Said ’e could ‘ear the calves ’nside callin’ ter get out ’n’ ‘e were just ’elpin’ ’em along lest they smother. They’d a lynched ’im at Tyburn for ’is mischief, but ’e were judged to be too lunatical for it to do ’im any good, so he were brung ’ere.
Leastwise ’e won’t get no more chance to cut up no more cattle.” Laughing heartily at this observation, the guide patted the lad on the head, and moved on. Looking back, I saw the boy make a murderous face at us, followed by an obscene gesture. Harmless or not, I was glad to see that he was solidly chained to a thick staple set in the floor.
The hideous stenches, the noise, the pervading sadness, anguish, and rage assaulting us from every direction were exhausting. After two hours, even Oliver’s earnest quest for knowledge began to flag and he inquired if I was prepared to leave. Out of consideration for his feelings, I tried not to appear too eager, but indicated that a change of scene would not be unwelcome.
He consulted with the guide, who quickly led us to the entrance where we settled with him and were invited to return at our earliest convenience. Again, he laughed at this, giving the impression that he was not expressing hospitality, but something more sinister. We were well down the lane before finally slowing to a more dignified pace.
“What did you think of it?” asked Oliver.
“While I can appreciate that seeing the sights within was a rare opportunity, I can’t honestly say that they were entirely enjoyable.”
“I’ll be the first to agree with you on that point, but it was certainly of excellent value to a student of the medical arts. I hope I can remember everything for Tony later.”
“If not, then please consult me. I’m sure I shan’t forget a single detail for the rest of my life. I hope that man of his does as promised with my clothes, the stink of the place clings to me still. I shall want to change them, but what I’d most like is a decent bath.”
“Well, if you think you need one,” he said, but with some doubt in his tone. “I’m sure something can be arranged before the party tonight. There’s the Turkish baths at Covent Garden, but we haven’t the time or deep enough pockets, I should think.”
“How much could it cost for a bit of soap and water?”
“Very little, but it’s the extras like supper and the price of the whore you sleep with that add up, and that can go as high as six guineas.”
I abruptly forgot all about Bedlam. “Really?”
Oliver misinterpreted my reaction. “Yes, it’s disgusting, isn’t it? Even if you forgo the bath and meal, the tarts there will still demand their guineas. And they’re not much better looking than the ladies that trade at Vauxhall, who are considerably more reasonable in their prices, I might add.”
My head began to reel with excited speculation. “Where is this place?”
He waved a hand. “Oh, you can find it easily enough. But another time, perhaps. We’ll have to get back to Tony’s before that barber he promised disappears.”
It was just not fair. I’d spent a horrid afternoon in Bedlam when I could have been wallowing in a scented bathing pool like a turbaned potentate with any number of beauteous water nymphs seeing to my every desire. Though Oliver and I had much in common, it seemed that our ideas on practical education were quite different. I wanted to ask him more about his experiences at Covent Garden and Vauxhall, but we’d reached the end of the lane and had to consider our mode of transport.
After expressing my preference of a cart over a sedan chair, we managed to find one going in the desired direction. This one had outward facing seats and was crowded with other passengers, two of whom were ladies of the respectable sort. Their inhibiting presence kept me from obtaining more details from Oliver, so I had to content myself with conversation on less exciting topics than the tarts of London.
Our trip seemed shorter, whether by speed of the horse, or the amusing nature of my cousin’s comments as we traveled. The streets were just as busy as ever as people hurried to finish their errands before nightfall. Oliver said that the city could be a deadly trap to the unwary or the unarmed and if the footpads were bold enough during the day, they were positively bloodthirsty at night. Since we would be going over by carriage, with footmen running before and behind with torches, we would probably be safe enough.
“Can you defend yourself?” he asked.
“Oh, yes.” With an easy twist, I opened my walking stick to reveal part of the Spanish steel blade within. Oliver whistled with admiration. “It was a present from Father,” I added. “He’d ordered it nearly a year ago, intending it for my last birthday, but delivery was delayed. As it was, it made a fine parting gift for my trip here.”
“Or anywhere,” he added, his eyes lighting up with a touch of envy. “I shall have to take you along to the fencing gallery we have at Cambridge so you can show us your skill.”
“I should look forward to that.” It had been ages since my last match at home, and I wanted the practice.
“Tell me, before you left, did you have any opportunity at all to put it to use?”
“Use? What? Against the rebels? They’re miles from where we are.”
“No-no-no! I meant against all those bloodthirsty red Indians!”
He explained his eagerness to hear whatever exploits I might have had fighting savages, being under the misapprehension that the colonies were comprised of besieged forts under constant threat from roaming hoards of feathered fiends. My lengthy explanation about the complete lack of hostile natives on Long Island disappointed him, but served to fill the time until we reached Tony Warburton’s front steps. Though ostensibly a guest in the house and therefore not subject to paying for lodging and board, I might have spent much less money had I remained at The Three Brewers. The many vails were adding up, and my supply of pennies dwindled before I came to an understanding with the butler that all things could be settled at the end of my visit. This promise, rather than putting the servants off, caused them to be more attentive than before, so my request for a bath was greeted as an easily met challenge rather than an impassable obstacle.
Because Mrs. Warburton was a great believer in maintaining a clean body (hence the family holiday at Bath), facilities were at hand, even if they weren’t exactly ready. Two stout boys carried her bathing tub to my room and then lugged bucket after bucket up the stairs to fill it, while another man lighted a fire to warm the room. Though it was August, the weather was cool today, and they weren’t going to risk my catching a chill while under their care. Their concern might also have been that if I died from that chill I should be unable to pay them for their trouble. Even so, the water they brought was barely lukewarm.
Ah, but it was water and I sank gratefully into the cramped tub for a much-desired soak. With a fat bar of soap and a flesh brush I was a happy man. Oliver and Tony came in for a short visit to view “the antics of this rustic colonial” as they joked to me. In turn, I shocked them by briefly recounting the many times on the crossing voyage that I had voluntarily stripped and had myself doused with seawater from the deck pump.
“Well-a-day, man, ’tis a wonder you’re not dead,” Oliver exclaimed with hollow-eyed horror.
“On the contrary, I found it to be refreshing and greatly improving to the appetite.” I left off telling them about the awful food.
“He is still alive,” Tony pointed out.
My cousin conceded that I was, indeed, still alive, by the grace of God and no thanks to my foolish habits.
“You made mention of Turkish bathing, Oliver. How is it so different from this that it is better for the health?” I asked.
“For one thing you’re not slopping about in a drafty room, but working up a proper sweat wrapped in a hot blanket.”
This didn’t sound much like the marble-lined pool surrounded by the graceful seraglio I’d envisioned. He apparently didn’t hear my invitation to continue his description, suddenly recalling a task he’d left undone in his room. Tony chuckled at his departure.
“Oliver is a bit bashful when it comes to talking about his winching,” he said. “It seems he’d rather do it than waste time in discussion, which is quite sensible, after all. Perhaps later I can persuade him to take you ’round to meet some of our fair English roses after the party.”
Well-a-day, I thought, a deep shiver coursing through me at the prospect. I applied the soap to the brush, and the brush to my flesh with happy diligence.
As the boys carried the buckets of dirty water back downstairs, I worked to get my hair combed and dried before the fire. Mother had insisted on fitting me out with a wig, which I suffered to accept in order to keep the peace. However, the one she chose was a monstrous horseshoe toupet nearly a foot high with a sweep of Cadogan puffs hanging from the nape. No doubt another man would look quite handsome in it, but my first glimpse was enough to convince me that my own appearance would be extremely grotesque. I would sooner sport a chamber pot in public than to be seen wearing that thing. Brightly oblivious to my pained expression at the buffoon in my mirror, Mother pronounced that it would be perfect for any and all social functions I should be fortunate enough to attend and gave me lengthy instructions for its proper care. This upcoming musical evening would have met with her rare approval.
But she was thousands of leagues away and unable to command my obedience; I blithely cast the wig aside. This was no light decision for me, though.
During today’s travels, I had ample opportunity to observe that no matter how mean their station in life, every Englishman I’d clapped eyes on that day (except for only the worst of the wretches in Bedlam) wore a wig. Foreigners like myself who chose to eschew the custom were either laughed at for their lack of fashion sense or admired for their eccentricity. Since I had a full head of thick black hair, I would take a bit of sinful pride in what God had given me and wear it as is, tied back with a black ribbon. In this I was almost copying Benjamin Franklin, at least in general principle.
He’d made himself quite popular in polite society by choosing to dress simply and make an affectation out of his lack of affectation. He’d made a sober, but good-humored contrast to all the court peacocks, and had enjoyed no lack of female companionship. Though I utterly disagreed with his politics and those of his fanatical friends, I could admire his cleverness.
Tony Warburton’s barber came and went, leaving my face expertly scraped and powdered dry. He grumbled unhappily over my attitude about the wig, which he had expected to dress. If all gentlemen made such a calamitous decision to go without, he would lose more than half his income. Before sending him on, I compensated him with a generous vail, having made it a practice to always be on good terms with any man who plays around my throat with a razor.
Crispin lived up to his reputation; all my clothes had been cleaned, aired, and laid out as though new. After careful thought, I picked my somber Sunday clothes, but offset the severe black with an elaborately knotted neck cloth, and highly polished shoes with the new silver buckles. One of the younger footmen had been detailed as my temporary valet, and I was pleased with his attention to detail, though I said little lest he develop an exaggerated idea about the size of his vail when I left.
“Heavens!” exclaimed Tony when he and Oliver came to collect me. “They’ll think you’re some kind of Quaker who came by mistake.”
“That or a serious student of the law,” I returned with dignity.
Oliver agreed with me. “I think he’s made a wise choice. Everyone will expect him to be either an uncivilized savage or an insurrectionist lout. Dressed this way he looks neither; they may trouble themselves to stop and make his acquaintance first out of sheer curiosity at the lack of spectacle.”
“Thank you, Cousin. I think.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said cheerfully, and led the way downstairs.
# # #
With footmen running before and behind our coach, their torches making a welcome light in the darkness, we suffered no interference from criminal interlopers on our coach ride to the Bolyn house. It was an enormous pile, and though it probably presented a pleasant face to the world, I hardly noticed for all the people. There seemed to be hundreds milling about, reminding me of the crowds I’d seen in the streets earlier, but infinitely better dressed, with less purpose and more posturing. Oliver wanted to stop and talk whenever he saw a familiar face, but Tony kept us moving, for he was anxious to see his Miss Jones again and introduce her.
We did pause long enough to pay our respects to our host and hostess, and Oliver’s prediction that my garb would inspire a favorable impression proved true, at least with them. I was asked many questions about the colonies, which I rather inadequately answered, hampered as I was by having lived in only one small part of them. Most of the interesting news had happened elsewhere, though I was able to provide some information regarding events in Philadelphia. For that I could thank Dr. Theophilous Beldon, who had quite exhausted the novelty of the subject in his efforts to cultivate my friendship before my departure.
He would have loved it here, for I saw many dandies of his type roaming the house and grounds, bowing and toad-eating to their betters to their heart’s content. Several in particular stood out so much from the rest that I had to stop and gape. Elizabeth often accused me of being a peacock, but then she’d never seen these beauties.
Their wigs were so white as to blind an observer and so tall as to brush the door lintels. Instead of shoes, they appeared to be wearing slippers; a silver circle served in place of a buckle. They were painted and powdered and so richly dressed that for a moment I thought some members of the French court had wandered in by mistake.
I had certainly given thought to augmenting my own wardrobe while in London, but if this was an example of fashion, I would sooner go naked and said as much to Oliver.
“Oh, those are members of the Macaroni Club,” he informed me.
“A theatrical troupe, are they?”
“No, scions of wealthy houses. They’ve done their grand tour of Europe and brought the name back from Italy.”
What Italian I had learned did not include that particular word, so I asked for a definition.
“It’s a kind of dish made of flour and eggs. They boil it.”
“Then they eat it.”
I tried to work out how boiled flour and eggs could be made edible and gave up with a shudder.
“Everything these days is done a la macaroni, you know. You could do worse than follow their example.” He looked upon them with wistful envy.
“Truly,” I said, as though agreeing with him while thinking, if worse existed. “If you admire them so much, why don’t you?”
“Mother won’t let me,” he rumbled, and for a few seconds a singularly nasty expression occupied his normally good-natured face. I’d seen it briefly last night when we’d talked about ourselves and our families while getting so terrifically drunk. It worked across the lean muscles of his cheeks and brow like a thunderstorm. Even without any knowledge of our family ties, I would have recognized the Fonteyn blood in him at that moment. He seemed aware that he was revealing something better left hidden and glanced away as though seeking any kind of a distraction to help him mask the thoughts within.
“Awful, isn’t it?” I said aloud, without meaning to.
Though surprised, he instantly understood my meaning and looked hard at me, his eyes oddly clear and sharp with sudden weariness, as though waiting for an expected blow to fall now that I’d gotten his attention. None did.
The odd silence between us lengthened. “I just know it really is awful,” I murmured, trying to fill it, but unable to think of, anything better to say.
Some of the tightness of his posture, which I hadn’t noticed until he shifted restlessly on his feet, eased. The anger and hatred against his mother that had battered against me like the backwash of a wave began to gradually recede.
“Yes,” he said, the word emerging from him slowly, as though he were afraid to let it go. He sucked in his lower lip like a sulky child.
There was more that could have been voiced, months and years of it, perhaps. But nothing more came from him. Vacuous good humor reasserted itself on his face, first as a struggle, then as a genuine feeling. He dropped a hand on my near shoulder with a reminder that we should not lose sight of Tony, then carefully steered me through the crowd of Macaronis like a pilot taking a ship through dangerous waters.
Despite the people pressed close around, each talking louder than his neighbor to be heard, I discerned the clear tones of a harpsichord nearby. This was supposed to be a musical evening. Being unable to play myself, I had cultivated an appreciation for the art and expressed the hope that I might be allowed the time to enjoy the artist at hand.
“You’ll have buckets of time, I’m sure,” said Oliver. “The fellow here is frightfully good, but new here and his name escapes me. Knowing Bolyn’s ambitions, he’s probably German.”
“What’s his ambition to do with his taste for music?”
“It’s well known that the king prefers German music, and Bolyn must be hoping that an evening like this will somehow get him royal attention.”
“To what end?”
“Who knows? He’s probably angling for at least a knighthood; they usually are. I never saw much point to playing such games. There was one fellow I knew whose father was knighted and the only advantage he noticed was for the tradesmen, who doubled all their bills.”
We moved out of range of the music, through some wide doors, and into a graceful garden surrounding the house. Lanterns hung from flower-festooned poles, taking the place of the sun, which had departed on our drive over. Here we caught up with Tony, who had grown fretful.
“She’s supposed to be here,” he told us. “Mrs. Bolyn assured me that she acknowledged her invitation.” Nervously, he tugged at his neck cloth. The afternoon’s rest had restored his color and now it all seemed gathered in two dense spots high on his cheeks.
Love must be a frightening thing indeed to put a man into such a state, I thought, and wondered if I would turn into a similar wreck if the conclusion of this evening lived up to my expectations. I was in pursuit of physical gratification, though, and aware that other young men achieved it without exhibiting Tony’s alarming symptoms. Perhaps if I were careful, I would not fall in love with my hired mistress, and thus be spared such agonies. I was more than willing to take the chance.
The estate had a marvelous garden with thick grass and a hedge maze lighted by paper lanterns. Somewhere within musicians played. A table with cold meats and other things was set up near the entry along with many chairs and benches. Though Tony claimed to have no appetite and moved restlessly on, Oliver and I did, and tarried to take full advantage of the offerings. We each promised the other not to overindulge in the matter of wine and with that understanding made up for it by our consumption of food. In between bites, he would point out this person or that to me, always with some amusing note about them, which helped to fix their names in my memory.
“Over there is Brinsley Bolyn—that’s Charlotte’s brother, you know. She’s the raving beauty this year, but no one’s been allowed to propose to her yet. They say their father is holding out for someone wealthy enough to do his family some good.”
“Are they descended from Anne Boleyn? Or rather from her family?”
“No, but they like to think it and have put the story about so long and so often that people are beginning to believe them. I’d put as much stock in that claim as I would the footman who takes on his master’s name and title and insists on being called ‘my lord’ by other servants.”
“Are there any real titles here?”
“I’m certain of it. Bolyn’s spent enough on this to try to impress them. They wouldn’t dare not be here.” He nodded in the direction of a slight fellow conversing with a fat man. “There’s Lord Harvey, for one. His title outlived the family fortune and he’s looking around for an heiress to help him recover their lost dignity. Of course he hasn’t a chance with Charlotte. Her dear papa guards her too well. I wonder why he’s talking with old Ruben Smollett? That’s Robert’s father. Robert’s part of our group, y’know. Unfortunately for Lord Harvey, Smollett’s oldest daughter only just turned twelve. I doubt if his creditors will wait until she’s old enough to be married off.”
Tony rushed up just then, his eyes alight and hands twitching. “Wipe the grease from your faces and look lively, you two. She’s here!”
“I should never have guessed,” said Oliver. He obediently dabbed the corners of his mouth and passed his plate to a convenient footman. I reluctantly left my own tasty burden on a table where someone’s lap dog jumped up to finish it for me. “Lead us to this paragon of beauty, my friend.”
Oliver meant only to mock Tony’s enthusiasm, but once we’d turned a corner formed of hedges we could see that his praises had been well placed.
“By God, Tony!” he gasped.
“Just as I said. The peerless Miss Nora Jones is truly a goddess. What say you, Mr. Barrett?”
Words altogether deserted me. The young woman conversing with her friends on the path before us was beyond them, anyway. She had dark eyes, a pleasing nose, a mouth perhaps too wide for convention, and a chin too sharp, but the totality of their merging was such as to strike even the blind speechless. I felt as though I’d taken a step and found the stairway mysteriously shortened, leaving me jolted from head to toe and ready to fall over.
“Just as I said!” Tony repeated gleefully.
Indeed, yes, I thought, and my heart began pounding so loud in my ears I could scarce hear anything else.
“I’ll introduce you to her in a minute,” Tony promised.
“Why not now?” my cousin demanded.
“Because you look like a dying fish. When you’re able to properly breathe again, I’ll invite you over. In the meantime, I must have a word with her.”
He excused himself and joined the group of women. They received him kindly and with some giggling as he solemnly bowed to each. He reserved his lowest and most courtly bow for Miss Jones, who accepted it with no more than a nod and a polite smile. Evidently she was still unaware of his true feelings for her, though they were painfully obvious to anybody who happened to be glancing their way.
“His parents may not approve of this,” Oliver remarked.
“Him wanting to marry her. Old Warburton is a dreadfully practical man with a horror of penniless girls with no name. Unless she has money, property, family, or all three, they’ll have to elope.”
“So you’re taking Tony seriously?”
“I think so this time. I’ve chided him on his susceptibility to beauty and for falling in love with a new girl every other week, but there’s something different about this one.”
That was an understatement. She was no less than astonishing. I couldn’t pry my eyes from her. I also felt a familiar stirring that made looking away imperative lest something embarrassing develop within the snug confines of my black velvet breeches. But I continued to stare at the unearthly beauty not a dozen feet away, shifted and dithered uncomfortably, and had a passing thought about being caught on cleft sticks.
Then she looked right at me.
Oh, those eyes . . .
I gulped—unsuccessfully, for my mouth was dry—and my heart gave a lurching thump that everyone must have heard. She certainly seemed to, for she smiled, looked me up and down, and smiled again. By then I was certain the world had paused in its spin only to start over faster than before to make up for the time lost. In contrast to the one she’d bestowed upon Warburton, this smile was warm with interest. I had to turn and see if anyone was behind me, hardly able to believe that I was the focus of her attention.
She tilted her head to say something to Warburton, who instantly broke away and came back to us.
“Would you like to meet her now?” he asked.
Would the incoming tide like to meet the land? That’s how I surged forward.
Warburton made introductions that included the other ladies, but hers was the only name that I heard, hers the only face that I saw.
She inquired about my health, and I mumbled and muttered something back. With my blood running all hot and cold through my loins, I was too distracted to make intelligible speech. It was wonderful, but agonizing, for I truly wanted to make a good impression upon her, yet found myself unable to think of anything to say or do except act like a stunned sheep.
Hardly a minute had passed and she was drifting off with Warburton. No doubt he would find some secluded spot in the garden, make his proposal, and that would be the end of any chance I might have to improve my own acquaintance with her. The color suddenly drained out of my world.
“Something wrong?” asked Oliver. “Good heavens. Perhaps you’d better sit down.
“I’m fine,” I lied.
“You are not and nearly being a doctor, I should know. Come over here and I’ll find you some brandy.”
He led me to a bench and made me sit. Helpless, I watched Warburton and Miss Jones disappear in the crowd. I had had my chance and now it was lost. When Oliver returned with the promised spirits, I heartily wished the glass to be loaded with hemlock. I obediently drank without tasting a drop, and either owing to the heavy meal or the force of my mangled emotions, it had absolutely no restorative effect.
“What has happened?” Oliver demanded, his face puckered with concern. “Oh, don’t tell me. I can see it now. Good heavens and well-a-day, but this is turning into an interesting evening. Just promise me you won’t get into a duel with Tony and murder each other over her.”
“That’s how these things usually end up, and Tony’s been my friend for years and years, and I’ve gotten fond of you even if you are half Fonteyn and I’d rather not have you running each other through…”
I held up a hand. “Peace, Oliver. I’m not the sort of fellow to come between a man and his potential bride.”
“That’s a relief to hear. I mean to say, I wouldn’t have known which of you to second.”
For his sake and the sake of his jest, I smiled, but it faded the moment someone else claimed his attention and took him away. I remained on the bench thinking of everything and nothing and hoping to catch a glimpse of Miss Nora Jones again. A few of the young ladies that had been in her company descended upon me and tried to open a conversation, but I doubt that my replies to their remarks made much sense. When they drifted on it occurred to me that I was being a fool about the whole business. Yes, I had met an extremely beautiful girl, but it was an idiot’s dream to think that I’d fallen in love with her at first sight.
Now that was a terrifying word: love. The very fact that it had so swiftly cropped up in my mind had an immediate sobering influence. It was utterly impossible, I concluded. Impossible because I knew nothing about love, about this kind of love, anyway. I did love my sister and father, my home and the people there, even my horse, but what did any of that have to do with what I was feeling now? Nothing. Perhaps some of the food I’d eaten had gone bad and the symptoms had manifested themselves at the same time I’d clapped eyes on Miss Jones.
Life would be so much simpler were that true.
I gave a start. “Yes?”
A middle-aged woman with a pleasant smile and kindly eyes looked down at me. “I’m Mrs. Poole, Miss Jones’s aunt.”
A knot formed in my throat. I tried to gulp it down so my voice wouldn’t crack. “Yes? I mean, I am very pleased to meet you.” Belatedly, I found my feet and made a bow to her.
“As am I,” she said. “Would you mind very much coming with me? My niece—”
I didn’t hear the rest. It was blotted out by a strange roaring in my ears. I did not think it had anything to do with the digestion of my dinner. She led the way into the garden and I followed. We turned corner after corner until I thought we should run out of space to walk. We did not seem to be very far from the house, though. The hedge maze must have been of a very clever and intricate design. Then my knees went jellylike as we turned one last corner and came upon Miss Jones standing in the faint nimbus of light from one of the lanterns scattered throughout the place. Her eyes brightened and she extended her hand to me once more.
“Good evening again, Mr. Barrett,” she said in her angel’s voice.
I stammered out something polite, but before I could follow it up with anything better, a dark thought intruded upon me. “Where is Tony, that is, Mr. Warburton?”
“Gone back to visit with his other friends, I expect.”
“I thought that he . . . that he was going to—” I broke off, belatedly realizing Warburton’s intentions toward her were none of my concern. I found breathing to be a bit of a struggle.
“Yes,” she said serenely. “He did propose to me, but I turned him down.”
My eyes must have popped just then.
“We had a nice talk and got everything sorted out,” she continued. “I am happy to say that once Mr. Warburton realized that I have no wish to marry, he pledged himself to remain my very good friend, instead.”
Now what did she mean by that? I decided I didn’t care. “Perhaps we may also become friends, Miss Jones.” My words were light, but difficult to bring forth. Not knowing quite what to say or do, I babbled on. “I should like that very much.”
“Of course, Mr. Barrett. That’s why I asked my aunt to bring you here. I wanted to get to know you better, too. I hope you do not think ill of me for doing so.”
“Not at all.”
“Good. I do tire of all the rules that society has invented to prevent men and women from holding intelligent converse with one another. Sometimes it is tediously impossible. If it weren’t for my dear aunt . . .”
At this second mention of Mrs. Poole I glanced around, thinking that she might take this opportunity to put in a word, but she was nowhere in sight. Leaving us alone didn’t seem quite proper, or at least it would not be so back home. Here in England, though, the customs might be different.
“She’s a little way up the path,” said Miss Jones, correctly discerning my thoughts.
“Indeed?” I was feeling hot and cold again. All over.
Her mouth twisted into a wry smile. “Oh, dear, this is perhaps new to you, isn’t it?”
“I . . . uh . . . that is ...”
Now she took my hand and came so close that all I could see were her wonderful eyes. They were darker than a hundred midnights, but somehow caught the wan light and threw it back like sparks from a diamond. I found myself blinking against them.
“It’s all right, Mr. Barrett,” she whispered soothingly.
And so it was. A great calmness and comfort overtook me as she spoke; a cheering peace seemed to fill me in the soft silence that followed. My worries and self-doubts over this new situation vanished as though they’d never been, and I came to realize that my inexperience, rather than trying her patience, was entirely charming to her.
Not quite knowing how we got there, I found myself sitting on a bench in the shadows chatting with her as though we’d known each other for years. She had me tell her all about myself. It didn’t take long; I hadn’t done very much yet with my life and thought any lengthy reminiscences of it might bore her. I need not have worried, for she seemed to find everything of interest. It was highly flattering and most encouraging to my own esteem, but eventually I ran out of subject matter. I burned to know more about her and thought that if I could put the right combination of words together I would learn everything.
While I paused to think, she took advantage of it to shift the subject slightly.
“You really are so very beautiful,” she told me, her fingers brushing my cheek.
“Shouldn’t I be the one to say that to you?” I asked. Without, I was surprisingly calm, but within I wanted to leap up and turn handsprings.
“If you wish.”
“Perhaps you hear it too often.”
“Often enough,” she admitted. “And there are other subjects one may talk about with equal enthusiasm.”
“If you asked me to name one, I don’t think I could possibly meet the challenge.”
“I judge that you underestimate yourself, Mr. Barrett. What about love? Have you ever loved a woman?”
Some of my earlier awkwardness returned.
“Oh, it’s all right to talk with me about such things. Other girls might not be so minded, but I have always had a great curiosity. With some men, one may tell right away, but with others…” She shrugged. “So tell me, have you…?”
“I have never loved a woman,” I admitted. “I have never been in love…at least not until I saw you.”
She was pleased, which pleased me, but I had hoped for a warmer response. No doubt other men had confided similar sentiments to her and repetition had dulled the meaning for her. I wanted to be different from them, but did not know what to say or how to say it.
As it turned out, I said nothing, for we were suddenly pressing close and kissing. While growing up, I had seen others so engaged and had concluded that observation had little to do with active participation. My surmise proved to be more than correct.
Until this moment I had had no real inkling of the incredible pleasure such a simple act could produce between a man and a woman. No wonder so many people took any given opportunity to indulge themselves. This was far more addictive than drink, at least for me.
My first efforts were less polished than enthusiastic, but she had me slow down to a pace more suitable for savoring and each minute that passed taught me something new.
I was a very willing student.
She pulled away first, but not very far. “You’ve never before loved a woman?”
“Would you like to?”
I was not so far gone as to be confused by what she meant. “More than anything in my life.”
“And I should very much like to be that woman. Will you trust me to arrange things?”
She drew back a little more. “I think it’s best if we are both very prudent about this.”
I understood and immediately agreed, but wasn’t prepared to give up her company just yet. Neither was she and we pursued our initial explorations until I was faint for want of air. Nora—for she had become Nora to me by now—did not seem to need any, but allowed me time to recover.
She knew that I was there with Oliver and Warburton and my disappearance for the evening would raise questions requiring an answer.
“Tell them that you met one of the servant girls and came to an arrangement with her,” she suggested. “It’s a common enough practice, so you need not provide more details than that. I shall excuse myself to the Bolyns and leave. You’ll find my carriage waiting at the west gate of the grounds.”
“I’ll be there,” I promised.
She had me go first. The maze wasn’t too difficult; I found my way out after a few false paths and was nearly knocked over by the light and noise upon emerging. The contrast between the activity by the house and the intense interlude in the garden made me wonder if I’d dreamed the whole thing. But a few moments later Nora glided out, graced me with a subtle and fleeting smile, and moved on. My heart began to hammer in a way that no mere dream could inspire.
I grew nearly feverish searching the crowd for some sign of my cousin. My patience was nearly at an end when I spied Tony Warburton standing off by himself holding a half-full tankard by its rim. Distracted as I was, I noticed that he looked a bit disturbed, like a man trying to remember something important.
“Hallo, Barrett,” he said, coming out of it as I approached. “Oliver told me you weren’t feeling well.”
“I’m better. Fully recovered, in fact.” Almost word for word, I passed on the excuse Nora had provided for me. In the back of my mind, I thought that I really should feel some sort of remorse for what I was intending to do with the love of this man’s life, but there was not a single twinge against my conscience. Nora had made her choice and who was I to argue with a lady?
“Yes, well, I wish you a vigorous time, then. Which one is she? Oh, never mind.”
In spite of myself I couldn’t just run off. He looked damnably white around the eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I think so. Little dizzy, but that’ll be the drink, I expect.” He raised the tankard and drained off a good portion of it. “Go off and enjoy yourself with your English rose. We’ll see you in the morning? You know my street? Good, good, but not too early, mind you. Enjoy yourself.”
Walking away, I glanced back, troubled. He had returned to his preoccupied state. It was so different from the excitement that he’d shown earlier. As a jilted suitor, surely he should have been morose or angry, anything but this calm puzzlement. I wondered what in the world Nora had said to him.
Concerns for Warburton mercilessly cast aside, I asked directions and made my way to the west gate.
# # #
Oliver had wondered about Nora’s finances. If one could judge anything by the well-appointed coach and matched horses drawing it, then she had no worldly worries at all. The only reason that I had the mind to notice it was the dismal fact that Mrs. Poole was unexpectedly with us. I had completely forgotten about her and got a bad shock when I entered the coach to find her sitting next to Nora. Both of them were amused, but not in a derisive manner.
“How nice to see you again, Mr. Barrett,” she said. “I’m so glad that you and Nora have become friends.”
“Er . . . yes,” I responded idiotically. I dropped into the seat opposite them, confusion and doubt invading my mind and cooling my initial ardor. Was Nora setting things up to play some kind of cruel trick on me? It did not seem likely. What might she have told her aunt about us? I could hardly assume that Mrs. Poole knew of our plans for the rest of the evening. It wasn’t the sort of thing one confided to one’s chaperone.
“How do you like England?” she asked with bland and benevolent interest.
Nora gave me a slight nod, a sign that I should answer. Perhaps her aunt was totally ignorant; that, or she knew all and had no objections, which struck me as odd.
“It’s very different from home in ways that I had never imagined,” I said truthfully.
The coach lurched forward. The noise of the wheels made quiet talk impossible so Mrs. Poole found it necessary to raise her voice to continue her conversation with me.
Nora contributed little herself, content to simply watch me with her bright eyes. This, of course, made it difficult for me to hold up my end, as my thoughts were constantly wandering back to her. By the time the coach rocked to a final stop, my mind was in a particularly unsettled state.
A footman opened the door and assisted the ladies out. He was a young, handsome fellow with a cool demeanor, a trait he shared with the driver and the other footmen. All were in matched livery and carried themselves with quiet pride. For the first time since the practice was forced upon me, my offered vail was politely refused.
At a word from Nora, I followed her up the steps to the wide doors of her house. Within, all was clean and orderly and in careful good taste. I glimpsed a dozen paintings and sculptures decorating the front hall, booty from her tour of the continent, perhaps. I had no time to ask, for Mrs. Poole took my hand.
“The party has quite worn me out. You’ll please excuse me, Mr. Barrett, if I retire now?”
I did so with mild surprise, but the lady favored me with another sweet smile and went upstairs accompanied by a maid. All the footmen magically disappeared. Nora and I were happily alone.
“I’m sorry about the interruption,” she said. “I could hardly leave my aunt behind at the Bolyns’.”
“It’s all right, but I confess I am puzzled by her attitude. All of this puzzles me.”
“What, that a lady like myself should bring a man home as I’ve done with you?”
“And yet if a man brings home a lady, no one thinks much on it.”
She certainly had a point there.
“Now, if a lady is so inclined, should she not be allowed the same freedom as a man?”
“I suppose…” I glanced toward the wide stairs where Mrs. Poole had taken herself.
Nora took my hand in two of hers. “Put your mind at rest, dear Jonathan. My aunt and I have a perfect understanding of one another on such matters, as do my servants. My only demand of you is your discretion. May I rely on it?”
I could hardly blurt my answer to that one out fast enough.
“Very well, then. Now…would you like to see my bedroom?”
Strangely, it was on the ground floor, but by the time we reached it I was out of breath, as though we’d run up several flights of stairs. The air seemed very scarce once more. My chest was tight and my knees trembled with an intriguing mixture of fear, anticipation, and lust. Nora was aware of and enjoyed her effect on me, but in a sympathetic manner. She gave my hand a reassuring squeeze before pushing open her door.
She drew me into a room decorated for delight. Candles were everywhere, burning away with a supreme lack of thrift to turn night into day for us. Each added its small warmth to what was being produced by the fireplace, comfortably dispelling any chill that might have lingered from our drive over.
The walls were papered halfway up with Oriental-looking flowers on a dark pink background. The ample bed was draped with embroidered tapestries to match, and the sheets—when I got close enough to touch them—were of ivory-colored silk and scented with rose. A special recess in one wall opposite the bed held a lovely and striking portrait of Nora, wearing antique clothes.
“It is very like you,” I said. “What was the purpose of the costume?”
“A whim of the artist. He was very talented, but eccentric.”
“Did he love you?”
“How did you guess?”
“Anyone seeing this work would know.”
Her lips curled in a smile that any man might die for, and I found my arms going around her, drawing her tightly to me. We resumed the kisses begun an age ago in the maze.
“Slowly, Jonathan, slowly,” she cautioned. “This is a special time for you. Don’t let it go by so fast that you’ll not remember what was done.”
I laughed at that impossibility. With her help and encouragement—for I won’t deny that I was nervous and shy—we began the lengthy and fascinating necessity of removing one another’s clothes. As things progressed, I discovered a hundred places other than her mouth where a kiss might be joyfully applied. As for my first sight of a naked woman, I admitted some surprise at the silky fluff between her legs. I’d been misled by the lines in the Song of Solomon where the bride’s own charms were compared to jewels. The reality Nora possessed was hardly a disappointment, though, and certainly worthy of careful exploration.
“Heavens,” she said in turn when the last of my things dropped away. “I have chosen an eager stallion. Gently now, we’ll find a place to stable him in good time.”
This did not take long, fortunately, for I was almost to the point where I had to have release or go mad from the waiting. But Nora had grown warm enough under my hands and mouth to be in a similar state of near-bliss. She gave a soft, happy cry as I went in and held the small of my back so hard as to nearly break it as we traveled from near-bliss to its totality in a few swift moments.
When I finally caught my breath, when the sweat on my temples cooled and dried, when my heart stopped thundering between my ears, when my eyes rolled down to their proper place and I could see Nora beneath me, her head thrown back on the pillows, I knew that I was helplessly and hopelessly and forever in love with her.
Unable and unwilling to stop, I began kissing her again.
# # #
“You are so very beautiful,” she said, repeating her earlier judgment. She teased my hair with gentle fingers.
I pulled them down to my lips and nibbled at them. It seemed the thing to do.
“And vigorous, too. Midnight’s just gone by, are you not yet tired?”
“Never,” I mumbled. “I shall always be ready and waiting for you.”
Something like a shadow flowed over her face, but vanished before it could take hold. “Of course you will, but wouldn’t you like something to strengthen you first?”
Since she’d awakened the idea, I realized I’d worked up a tremendous appetite in the last few hours of activity. Disengaging from my grasp, she slid from the bed and crossed to a table holding several covered plates.
“Some cold meats and cheese?” she asked. “Some wine?”
Trailing after her, I wouldn’t have cared if it were stale water and weevil-infested ship’s biscuits. She saw to it that everything was within easy reach and watched while I ate.
“You must have something for yourself,” I said. She shook her head. “No, thank you.”
As the food took the edge off the worst of my hunger and the wine made its way to my head, a dark thought began to curl unpleasantly through my mind.
“You’ve done this often before,” I pronounced.
“What do you mean?”
“The servants being so well rehearsed, your aunt’s cooperation, this all ready and waiting…” I gestured at the table.
“Yes. That is true, Jonathan.”
“Who were they?”
“It doesn’t matter, does it? You’re the one here now. I only rarely ask anyone to come home with me as I’ve done with you.”
“And who will be here the next time?”
“Please listen and understand, Jonathan.” Her mouth hardened slightly and her eyes snapped. “Listen.”
I felt myself instantly sinking into their darkness.
“Please listen to me…”
And I did. And I tried to understand.
She loved me, but she loved others, too, and would continue to seek them out. That was her nature and she wasn’t going to change for my sake or for anyone else’s.
However, she could not abide jealousy in any form, and told me that I should not give in to it. Above all, I should never be jealous of her other lovers; otherwise I would never see her again. I knew she meant it and, nearly choking, I swore to do as she asked. The impossibility of her request knotted my throat with tears. How could I not resent those unnamed interlopers?
But she talked to me, sweetly, soothingly.
Her voice filled my whole world.
Her voice became my world.
Then, like the sun breaking through a black cloud, it became entirely possible.
The best and easiest task I could ever take upon myself was to please her. And what she wanted of me was certainly within my abilities. I would love her and willingly share her and enjoy the privilege and honor of it with others. We would be like courtiers of old, gladly waiting upon the pleasure of our lady.
I had listened. I now understood.
My head and heart were at peace.
I finished my meal, content to simply look at her and marvel at the perfection of her face and figure. Nora was not as quiescently minded, though, and came around the table to sit on my lap. Since neither of us had bothered to dress, I found this to be very inspiring and began to express my feelings to her in a such a way as to leave no doubt over how I intended to conclude things.
I started to rise up to carry her back to bed, but she told me to remain in the chair. With a quick shift, she straddled my lap. I gulped, a little shocked at this new presentation of her boldness. I would never look at horseback riding in the same way again.
The chair creaked under our combined weight and exertions, but even if the damned thing had collapsed, we wouldn’t have noticed or paused. She wrapped her legs around my waist and back and pressed close upon me. Her lips dipped down along the column of my neck, her teeth and tongue dragging against my now very sensitive skin. With a sigh, she fastened her mouth on the very pulse point of my throat and began sucking there.
At first it felt no different from the other kisses she’d given that I’d received with such joy, but it continued much longer and with no sign that she planned to stop. Not that I wanted her to; it was utterly wonderful. And the wonder of it only increased when she opened her mouth wide and her teeth dug deep and hard into my skin, finally breaking it. A full-blown cry of ecstasy burst from me then, along with the climax that overtook us both.
My loins were spent soon enough, but instead of the all-too-brief moment of glory I’d known before, the sensation there continued to increase. It spread to flow throughout whole of my body and went on and on and on, building upon itself like a great storm cloud seeking to touch the moon. Each breath I took was a long gasp of gratification; each exhalation a pleading sigh for more.
My brain was afire; my body shuddered as though from fever as she held to my throat and drank the blood flowing from the wound she’d made. The triumphant couplings we’d shared before were nothing compared to this. I moaned and writhed and could have wept from the ecstasy that blazed like lightning over and throughout my flesh. One of my hands snaked up, the fingers pressing upon the back of her head, a silent invitation to dig deeper, to take more, to take as much as she liked, to empty me completely.
But she had more control of herself than I. An hour might have passed for us locked together like this or a week. I was too overwhelmed to know or care until she began a gradual and slow drawing away from me; something I sensed at once and tried to hinder. She licked and kissed me in a most tender way, but remained firm, and eventually and most reluctantly I came back to myself again.
I don’t remember getting there, but we’d returned to her bed, for it was only then that I really woke up, soaked to the bones with a vast and heavy weariness. She’d donned a dressing gown and was kneeling on the floor to put her face at a level with mine. She’d put out many of the candles, and those that remained seemed to have a strange effect on her eyes. The whites were gone, darkened . . . flushed with crimson through and through.
“How do you feel?” she asked, her brows drawn together with light worry.
“Cold,” I croaked.
She tucked the coverlet around me and crossed to the fireplace to add more wood. Despite my listlessness, I noticed that the firelight shone right through the thin fabric of her gown, revealing every graceful line of her figure. In my head, I wanted to take action about it, but my body inarguably insisted upon rest.
“Better?” She leaned over me, stroking my forehead with one finger.
“Tired.” And dizzy. Warburton had been dizzy…
“Have some of this.” She held a cup of wine to my lips, but I could only manage a small swallow. “It will pass. I fear I’ve asked too much of you tonight.”
Warburton…white around the eyes…and dizzy.
“What did you say?”
I dredged more air into my lungs. “Warburton. You did this to him earlier.” I touched my neck where she had kissed…bitten…?
“It’s all right, Jonathan. Please trust me. Everything will be all right.”
“What have you done?” Limited as my experience had been before this night, not once had I ever heard of women biting and taking blood from their men. My once-solid feeling of well-being was slipping away like a ragged dream.
“Exactly what you know I have done,” she calmly replied. “There’s no need to be alarmed.”
“What do you mean? Of course I should be alarmed.”
“You’re not hurt, are you? Does it hurt now? Did it hurt then?”
No… I thought. Far from it.
“Only the idea of it is strange to you but, my darling, let me assure you that it is entirely natural and necessary to me.”
“For how I live, how I’m best able to love.”
“But the way we did it earlier ...”
“Was the way of most men and women, yes. Mine was a divergence that gives me the greatest form of pleasure, not just for myself, but for my lover. Did you not find it so? You didn’t want me to stop.”
“I must have been mad. Damnation, Nora, you were drinking my blood!”
Her features dissolved from concern to amused chagrin. “Yes, I was. But be honest, was it so terrible?”
That took all the wind out of me.
Wry amusement surpassed her chagrin. “Oh, my dear, if you could only see your face.”
“But…well, I mean…well, it’s damnably strange.”
“Only because it’s new to you.”
“This isn’t, well, harmful, is it?” I asked.
“Hardly. You may wobble a bit tomorrow, but sleep and good food will restore you.”
She kissed my fingers. “Yes, my darling. I would never, ever harm you. If it were within my power I would protect you from all the world’s evils.”
I settled back, overtaken by another bout of dizziness and the oddity of dealing with her…preferences. It was hardly without struggle, but I found myself curiously able to accept them. The sincerity of feeling behind her last words was so sharp that it was almost painful to hear, but at the same time a thrill went through me. I’d hardly dared to hope that she would love me as I was loving her.
She was absolutely right about her needs not being so terrible, quite the contrary, in fact. And if she’d started kissing me again in the same spot and in the same way I would not have stopped her. The mere thought of her lips light touch on my throat revived me greatly in mind and in spirit. My body, sad to say, was not yet sufficiently recovered for me to put forth the invitation just now, but soon.
Gingerly, I explored the place on my throat with my fingers. It felt slightly bruised, nothing more, and the only evidence of her bite were two small, raised blemishes.
“They’re not very noticeable,” she said. “Your neck cloth will cover everything.”
“Have you a mirror?”
“Not handy, and I don’t like to trouble the servants this late.”
“Good God, what time is it?”
“Close on to three, I should think. Time to sleep. My people will see that you get home in the morning.”
“Not too early,” I said, echoing Warburton’s instruction. Instead of resentment toward him, I now felt an almost brotherly compassion and camaraderie. “Poor Tony. He’s so terribly in love with you.”
“Yes.” She rose and lay down next to me, but on top of the coverlet. “Perhaps too much in love.”
“Don’t you love him?”
“Not in the way he wants. He wants marriage and children, and that is not my path.”
“It’s too long a story and I don’t wish to tell it.”
“But I know nothing about you.” The whites of her eyes were not so flushed now. The darker pupils were slowly emerging from their scarlet background.
“You know enough, I think.” She stroked the hair away from my brow and kissed me. “You’ll learn more in the nights ahead.”
The dreamlike comfort that had begun to envelop my thoughts abruptly whipped away once more. “No I won’t. I’m going up to Cambridge tomorrow, God help me. I’ll never see you again!”
“Yes, you will. Do you think I’d let anyone as dear to me as you get away?”
“You mean you’d come with me?”
“Not with you, but I can take a house in Cambridge as easily as in London. The place is a dull and windy fen, but if you’re there…
Her mouth closed over mine, warm and soft and tasting of salt.
Not salt. Tasting of blood. My own blood.
But I didn’t care. She could do what she liked as long as I had a place in her heart. She wholly filled mine.
We talked and planned for a little while, but I was exhausted and soon fell asleep in her arms.
# # #
I awoke slowly, lazily, my eyelids reluctant to lift and start the day. I had no idea of the time. The room’s one window, though large, was heavily curtained. I was alone in the big bed. Nora must have risen earlier and gone down to breakfast.
Rolling on my side, I noticed a fold of paper on the table by the bed. Written on it was the simple message, “Ring when you are awake.” Next to the paper was a silver bell. I did as instructed and presently a large and terribly dignified butler appeared and asked how he could be of service to me.
“Where is Miss Jones?”
“Gone for the day, sir, but she left a message for you.” I sat up with interest. “Yes?”
“She will try to meet with you again tonight, but if she is unable, she will certainly see you in Cambridge within the week.”
My disappointment fell on my heart like a great stone. I’d hoped for more. A lengthy love letter would have been nice. A week? That was an eternity. “Where has she gone?”
“She did not confide that information to me, sir.”
“What about Mrs. Poole? Would she know?”
“Mrs. Poole left early to go visiting, sir. I do not think she will be able to help you, either.”
“Would you care for a bath and shave, sir?”
“Really?” Considering all the trouble Warburton’s servants had been to yesterday, this was an unexpected boon. I accepted the offered luxury and while things were being prepared for me in another room, sat at the table and composed a note to Nora.
Like my first kisses, it was chiefly more enthusiastic than polished, but sincere. Some parts of it were doubtless overdone, but love can forgive anything, including bad writing. When I came to a point where I could either go on for several more pages or stop, I chose to stop. It struck me that the whole thing was highly indiscreet, and Nora had specifically asked for my discretion. Virtuously, I recopied it, but changed the salutation to read “My Dearest Darling,” rather than “My Dearest Nora.” I signed it with a simple “J” and threw the first draft into the fire. That was as discreet as I cared to be for the moment.
Her servants saw to my every comfort and made sure I was groomed, fed, and dressed in clothes that had been magically aired and brushed anew. I was—as Nora predicted—a little wobbly, but that was hardly comparable to the twinges in a number of my muscles and joints unaccustomed to certain horizontal activities. I also found it necessary to tread carefully in order to spare myself from another kind of unexpected discomfort, for there was a decided tenderness between my legs due to last night’s many goings-on. Perhaps a few days of rest would not be so bad for me, after all.
A coach was engaged to take me to Warburton’s. It was early afternoon by now, but I had no great concern about my tardy return—not until Nora’s coach stopped at the front steps and Oliver burst out the door.
“My God! Where on earth have you been?”
“I told Warburton—”
“Yes, yes, and so you went off for the night. Well-a-day, man, you could have at least given him a hint on where you’d be so I could find you.”
“Is there some trouble?”
“Only that we’re supposed to be on our way to Fonteyn House to meet Mother by now.”
Oh dear. With that pronouncement of doom hanging in the air like a curse, he hustled me inside.
Warburton greeted me with a grin and a wink and I had the decency to blush to his face. Courtiers to Nora we might be, but I wasn’t yet ready to talk about it with him now. If ever.
“You’re white as a ghost, but seem well enough,” he said. “Poor Oliver thought you’d fallen in with a press gang or worse.”
I regarded his own pale skin with new eyes. “Yes. I do beg everyone’s pardon. It was wrong of me to go off so suddenly. I didn’t think that I would be so long.”
“One never does,” he purred. “Come in and sit and tell us all about her.”
“Absolutely not!” Oliver howled from the stairs he was taking two at a time. “As soon as they bring down your baggage, we are leaving.”
Warburton shrugged expressively. “Another day, then. She must have been extraordinary, though, eh?”
I had to remember that he was still under the impression I’d been with some servant girl. “She was, indeed. That is the only word that could possibly describe her.”
His eyed widened with inner laughter. “Heavens, you’ve fallen in love, and after but one night. Do you plan to see her again?”
“Yes, I’m sure I will. At least I hope so.”
“Then you’ll have to lay in a supply of eel-skins. No offense against your lady, but you don’t want to pick up a case of the clap or pox while you’re with her. They’ll also keep you from fathering a brat, y’know.”
“No arguments. There’s not a doctor in the land who won’t agree with me. Oliver would tell you the same, only I’m sure he’s too shy, but once you’re up at Cambridge, ask him straight out, and he’ll tell you where you can get some. Or me, if you can wait that long. I won’t be leaving for another week or so.”
He was different from the preoccupied man I’d left last night, and very different from the high-spirited suitor I’d first met: genial and interested in things outside of himself. I again wondered what Nora had said to him. I knew just how persuasive she could be but this taxed all understanding.
Oliver returned, followed by several footmen wrestling with my trunk and other things. He had asked the coach that brought me to wait and now supervised its loading.
Finished, he rushed back and wrung Warburton’s hand.
“Sorry to have to hare off, but you know how Mother is.”
“It’s all right, my dear fellow. I’ll see you at the same rooms later this month?”
“Certainly! Come on, Jonathan. I’m not Joshua, I can’t make the sun stand still, though God knows it would be damned convenient to do so right now.” He seized my arm and pulled me out. I waved once at Warburton, who grinned again, then tumbled down the steps and into the coach. Oliver’s fine horse was tethered behind, its saddle and tack littering the coach’s floor and tripping me as I charged inside. By a lucky twist, I managed to correctly land my backside on a seat.
Oliver collapsed opposite me with a weary sigh. “Damn good fortune you picked this instead of a chair or wagon. When we’re clear of the town traffic, we should make good time.”
Once more I apologized to him.
“You needn’t worry about my feelings, it’s Mother who may take things badly. Some of her friends were at that party last night and it could get back to her that we were out having a good time instead of hurrying home to introduce you to her. She has to have things her way or it’s the devil to pay otherwise.”
That sounded uncomfortably familiar. Ah, well, if his mother and mine were so alike, I would only have to endure her for a short while. Cambridge had suddenly become highly appealing to me, and if I was anxious to get there and take up my studies, then she could hardly object to such an attitude. All I need do was keep silent on the source of its inspiration.
“Has Warburton spoken much about Miss Jones?” I asked.
“Eh? No, I don’t think so. He got a bit drunk last night, but that’s all I can recall. I suppose his proposal was a failure, but usually when a girl turns him down he sulks in bed for a week. He seemed in good spirits today.”
“Why do you think it was a failure?”
“Had he succeeded, he would have told us.”
“You seem rather incurious.”
“It’s hardly my business.” His expression changed from indifference to interest.
“Oh-oh, are you thinking of—”
“If the beauteous Miss Jones has turned him down, it would smooth the path for you, wouldn’t it, dear Coz? Only I’m not sure what Tony would make of that. He has the devil’s own temper at times.”
“The jealous sort, is he?”
That could be another reason why Nora refused his offer. “Jealous or not, it is the lady who should have the last word on who she chooses to spend her time with.”
“Yes, I’ve always thought that way myself. So much the better if she chooses to spend it with you.”
I lost my power of speech for a few moments.
“Don’t look so surprised, I saw you following the girl’s aunt into the maze. From the look on your face I knew it wasn’t to have a quiet talk with her. You needn’t worry; I’m not one to tell tales. I’ve found that it’s healthier to stay well removed from any romantic intrigues that are of no direct concern to me. All I ask is that if you have a question, come on out with it. This hedging around for information is bad for my liver.”
So. Dear Cousin Oliver wasn’t as simple as he pretended. Perhaps it was the Fonteyn blood. I chuckled. “All right. You’ve my word on it. I’ll even drop the subject. It’s bad manners to talk about a man when he’s not present, anyway.”
“Heavens,” he said, returning to his normal careless manner. “Then what shall we talk about?”
“There’s one thing that comes to mind. It’s what Warburton was saying to me in the hall before we left.”
“He said you’d help.”
“If I can. Help about what?”
“I’m not exactly sure. Could you please tell me…what’s an eel-skin?”
© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod