Authors: Gene Doucette
She was, as Joanne said, very young. How young? I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t ask. Young enough to attend college if she was a twenty-first century girl instead of a nineteenth century one, let’s say. Probably.
She was also eager, and full of energy, and happy to slip into my room every night as soon as her duties were over. She was
energetic, I actually had to start asking her for nights off so I could get a proper amount of sleep.
Joanne was as delighted as anybody.
“When we’re married we shall have to bring her with us!” she exclaimed one day. This was during one of our more brazen attempts to heal me of my condition. It involved my exiting the house and walking to the edge of the lawn with her and John Corrigan, where we laid out a blanket and ate a lunch out of a basket while I played a game of chicken with the forest floor that I was close enough to touch.
“Is our marriage on again?” I asked.
“That depends on who you ask. What do you say, Mr. Corrigan? Do we not make a good match?”
John smiled, nearly timing it correctly enough to not come off as creepy, but not quite. “Marriage is a wonderful thing,” he said. “But not for the two of you, I think.”
She gasped theatrically. “Then him we shouldn’t ask. My mother, we could ask her. She is already preparing the ceremony.”
“She isn’t really, is she?”
“I’m afraid you may be forced to break my heart soon, Mr. Bates.”
“You would mourn my departure?”
John cleared his throat, which he had a tendency to do when looking for the present. We’d become conditioned to wait for words to follow, although Joanne probably didn’t think of it as a sort of training.
“I suppose it’s cruel,” John said.
“Cruel?” Joanne asked. “How do you mean?”
It should be said that Joanne had grown somewhat accustomed to John’s odd nature, and tolerated him as warmly as she could given he was my friend and she appeared to genuinely value me for some reason. But she never truly relaxed in his company, and tolerated his occasional moments of tactlessness with a demeanor that fell just shy of polite.
He looked at me to see if he had perhaps spoken before what he was responding to had been said aloud in the present. I nodded a tiny bit. We’d developed a familiarity with one another that made it easier on both of us. I occasionally needed him to remind me that something I was seeing wasn’t there, while he needed me to keep track of the present.
“I mean that your mother only wants what’s best, and if you do not have any genuine intentions on a marriage to
man, it would hurt her less to be told this, in the end. I’m sorry if I offend by saying so.”
“I understand, Mr. Corrigan,” she said, adding, “No offense taken,” but in a tone of voice that suggested otherwise. “I understand well, but you see I’ve already told her this many times. She believes what I have is a temporary condition that will be cured by the
man, or perhaps the right application of his manhood. My proclivities are only a secret because she refuses to recognize them.”
“Then I apologize,” he said. “I speak only as a parent.”
“Are you a father? I didn’t know this.” Joanne looked at me, but I didn’t know either. “You’ve a wife?”
“I have a son, but no wife, if you understand my meaning. I fear the boy is growing without a father, to my eternal shame. I had hoped to regain my senses sufficiently to leave this place, find and speak to him before my grasp of the present slipped away again. He needs to understand our curse.”
“He means,” I said, “the peculiarity of his madness. Unique but inheritable, John?”
“That’s it, yes.”
Joanne patted him on the knee. “I’m sure you’ll have a chance. You’re getting better! We can all see that.”
He smiled back, but there was nothing positive behind his eyes. He still had no expectation of leaving the mansion grounds alive. I hadn’t discussed it with him since the night he’d made the prediction, but that prediction colored everything he said and did.
“Why don’t we eat?” I suggested, as we were in great need of a subject change.
In the basket was a loaf of bread and some cheese, which I extracted. Beneath those was a bottle of wine, and three cups.
I don’t know whose idea it was to keep me dry while recuperating, but it wasn’t mine. I’d assumed it was a policy of the household. Whoever’s it was—and it wasn’t a terrible idea, let’s be honest—this was the first wine I’d seen in months.
“Surprise!” Joanne said. “I snuck it from the cellar.”
“You’re a godsend. Maybe I
I had the cork out and the wine poured in a matter of seconds, not drinking directly from the bottle only because that would have been unseemly.
“Cheers,” John said, and we drank.
Across the lawn—we were some distance away but could still see and be seen—Joanne’s mystery royal guest had taken his usual spot. He was facing us, but if he saw he didn’t indicate.
“Maybe we should have invited him,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sure the prince doesn’t want our wine,” Joanne said.
John looked at the man for an uncomfortably long time, as was his tendency. “He isn’t a prince,” he said. “He’s a Saxony duke.”
Joanne gasped. “How do you know?”
“He’s going to tell me.”
“You mean, John, that the duke
you who he was.” I said, attempting to correct his temporal linguistic problem.
“Yes, Reggie. That’s what I mean.”
“When did he tell you this?” Joanne asked.
“Next week. He told me next week.”
* * *
Later that same evening, Margritte paid me a visit.
I had just wished a good night to both of my luncheon companions and headed off to my own room when she manifested at the landing of the stairs. That’s probably not the right word, but with the way the candlelight played with the shadows in this home, it feels correct. I didn’t know she was there, and then she was.
I’ve probably not spent nearly enough time describing the layout of the mansion itself, but in my defense every time I went exploring I ended up getting lost and confused. I knew how to get to the library, the dining room, the sitting room and the veranda, and I was getting good at figuring out how the servant passages went, but that was about all. And if that sounds like a large portion of the home, well, it was a large home.
In addition to what I’ve already described, then, was the staircase in the center of the house. It was a vast, ornate, marble stair that headed straight up to a landing halfway, then to the left and the right side the steps branched off to two more landings before curling to the second floor. From the second was a more modest stairwell that led to the third, directly above the main set. This was the only way to get between the three floors if one weren’t a servant.
My guest room was in the left wing on the second floor, only a few feet from the second level landing. The third floor, where I had never been, was where the chambers of the lady of the house could be found. For reference, John Corrigan’s room was about halfway down on the same wing, and the duke of Saxony’s quarters were (I believe) at the far end of the wing.
I had actually engaged in almost no discussions with Margritte since my arrival. We exchanged courtesies, but aside from her routine verification that I had everything I needed, we’d barely spoken.
“Mr. Bates!” She exclaimed, as if our encounter was entirely by chance, which I doubted. “I’m
glad I caught you!”
I was tired and buzzy from the wine, and thinking about the naked body of maid Miranda, which I expected to get my fill of shortly. “Evening to you, Missus,” I greeted back, my hand on the doorknob. If I could get inside I could save myself from a lengthy chat, but Margritte moved too quickly.
“I wanted to tell you how very happy we all are with your progress. You seem to be very much more yourself of late than when you arrived. Do you agree?”
“Oh yes,” I said, and it was true. I no longer entertained thoughts of abandoning civilization, and I hadn’t had a real panic episode in a few weeks. I’d reached a pleasant midpoint, with two friends whose company I greatly enjoyed and all the sex I could ask for. About the only thing that could ruin it—or so I thought at the time—was my hostess’s irrational belief that I was mere days away from asking for her youngest daughter’s hand.
This was where I thought the conversation was leading, which was why getting away from her and safely into my room was at the forefront of my mind. What she had to say instead
ruin everything, but not in the way anybody could have anticipated.
“I’m so very glad. Now, you don’t need to answer this immediately, but next week we are having a
“Oh!” I said, legitimately surprised. “What sort of event?”
For a home this large the absence of any full-on parties was actually unusual. Margritte had guests all the time, for the day and sometimes for a night or two, but they tended to be visiting family matrons and their brood. It was never a formal thing, so I had no obligation to converse or even extend courtesies, and as a consequence was never formally introduced. The same understanding was extended to the other two long-term guests, so far as I could tell.
“We’re going to have a dinner party. Our
friend is taking our leave, you see, and I thought it only fitting that we send him off properly. It will be small, I promise. A few guests, all of us, and his retinue, once they arrive. Cornelius as well, if he can get away.”
understand if the prospect is too daunting for you just now. Your last party was eventful, I’m told.”
I laughed. “It was at that. I would be happy to attend, Margritte. Thank you for taking the time to speak to me personally.”
“Of course! Now I must find our dear Mr. Corrigan and see if he is up to it.”
* * *
I was going to be overdressed.
I’d arrived at the mansion in my finest suit, which could have meant that a party was the one thing for which I had adequate clothing, except that this was a dinner meant for one’s second- or third-finest, and those were still in my place in London. But the other option was to borrow one of John’s spares, and while his leisure clothing fit me well enough to get by, real suits are tailored to the man, and I was the wrong man.
The choice, then, was to look
good, or not good at all. I went with the former.
“You should wear that every day,” Miranda said.
This was the night before the party. I was trying on the suit because it occurred to me I should make sure it still looked okay. I wasn’t worried that I had gained or lost significant weight and therefore no longer fit into it, because my basic physique has remained effectively the same for my entire life. The concern was that the suit had perhaps suffered a malady while being cleaned and pressed.
“I look presentable?” I did a slow turn. The room had only one mirror, and it was a small one. Miranda’s gaze was much more encompassing, and I trusted her enough to be critical if something was amiss.
“I don’t know how
could resist you dressed like that.”
“You’re a naked girl in my bed. I respect your opinion, but let’s accept that there may be a bias. Are there no spots or blemishes or tears?”
“None that I can see. Would you like some? I can rip it off of you.”
“That would be deeply counter-productive.”
“Then you had best take it off on your own, sir.”
“As you say.”
Despite her youth, Miranda had become more brazen with each encounter. In my company she’d gone from shyly curious to modestly insistent, to actively directing our coital escapades in order to get what she wanted and how she wanted it. I may not have been her first lover—the evidence suggested I was not, but she could also have been an active rider of horses—but it was obvious already that for this beautiful young maid I was going to be only one of many. I almost pitied whoever came after me.
I undressed slowly, not out of any particular showmanship but because clothing back then was incredibly difficult to get into and out of.
“I spoke to him once,” Miranda said.
“Who? The duke?”
“Is that what he is? He’s
young. He’d be cute except for that nose.”
“I can’t say I ever noticed.”
“It’s a large nose. And his hair looks greasy.”
“But you spoke to him.”
“I did! His usual girl, Bethany, she had a touch of the queasy. Missy thinks she got herself with child, but I think it’s Missy’s cooking what did it. It was sudden, and we didn’t have nobody else to bring him his tea, so I had to. Put on my best and went out and I gave him his tea, and that’s when I first saw you, sir. Sitting in your corner all full of thoughts.”