Read The Mistress of Nothing Online
Authors: Kate Pullinger
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents
either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead,
is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Kate Pullinger
Originally published in UK in 2009 by Serpent’s Tail
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The mistress of nothing / Kate Pullinger.
Originally published London [England] : Serpent’s Tail, 2009.
1. Duff Gordon, Lucie, Lady, 1821—1869—Fiction. 2. Aristocracy (Social class)—
Fiction. 3. English—Egypt—Fiction. 4. Lady’s maids—Fiction. 5. Tuberculosis—
Patients—Fiction. 6. Egypt—History—19th century—Fiction. I. Title
PR9199.3.P775 M57 2009
ISBN 978-1-4391-9506-2 (ebook)
HE TRUTH IS THAT, TO HER, I WAS NOT FULLY HUMAN.
I was not a complete person and it was this thought, or rather, this lack of thought, that compelled her, allowed her, to act as she did. She loved me, there’s no question of that, and I knew it and had felt secure in it, but it transpired that she loved me like a favored household pet. I was part of the background, the scenery; when she entertained, I was a useful stage prop. She treated her staff well and I was the closest to her; I did everything for her in those last years. I was chosen to accompany her on her final, long journey. But I was not a real person to her, not a true soul with all the potential for grace and failure that implies. My error was to not recognize this, to not understand this from the very beginning. When I did wrong, I was dismissed, I was no longer of use to her. No, worse than that—I was excised, cut out, as though I’d become part of her dreadful disease, a rotting, malignant supernumerary limb that needed to be got rid of. So I was amputated. I was sent out into the world, a useless lump of flesh and bone cast off from the corporeal body.
But that’s too much, that’s too dramatic. I’m not given to drama, though my situation called for it. The truth is that she hated me for being happy. She hated me for finding love when love had deserted her. She hated me for creating a family when she had lost hers. She hated me for living when she herself faced death. And she could not admit to these feelings; how could anyone admit to feeling this way? So it suited her to treat me as though I was not worthy of the empathy, the considered compassion and generosity, the spirit and humor she bestowed upon her fellow man. I was not worthy.
But that is not where my story starts. And, more importantly, that is not where my story ends either; she was not my ending. Once she cast me out, she could no longer control me. No.
My story starts in England, in Esher, in 1862, a long time ago, and very far away from where I dwell today.
SO. I AM A PLAIN-SPEAKING WOMAN, AND I’LL TELL MY STORY
plainly. My Lady collapsed at dinner.
All her favorite gentlemen were there—Mr. George Meredith, Mr. Alfred Tennyson, Mr. Arthur Taylor. She looked beautiful, her hair black and glossy, the threads of gray shimmering like silver in the candlelight, one of her Persian shawls draped around her shoulders. But so pale, too pale, I should have known. When I entered her room earlier in the day, she was in the middle of a coughing fit; she turned away from me and made me leave, insisting she was fine. Sir Duff Gordon will be angry that I played along with her deceit, but I knew she was looking forward to the evening; she hasn’t been well enough for supper parties of late. She’s been spitting blood almost continuously; when I enter her bedroom I can smell the tang of it.
But wait: this is not what she is like, my Lady, not really, not truly. She is not an invalid, translucent and tilting as though she might keel over and die at any moment. My Lady is robust, she is hale, she is learned and argumentative and adventurous and charming and entertaining and large-souled. People notice Lady Duff Gordon. People remember her. When she enters a room, that room is altered, the lamps shine more brightly, the fire snaps and pops and blows out sparks, ladies sit up straighter, men stand more crisply, and someone in the company always says, as though it has to be said, “Here she is! Lucie!” My Lady is much loved, even by those she infuriates, even by those—her mother-in-law, for example—who feel that her hungry mind is too manly, that she can’t possibly be a good wife.
And I knew that she wasn’t well enough to host a supper party that day. But I kept quiet and stayed close by. When she began to cough halfway through the meal, I stepped into the room, right behind Cathy and her serving tray. My Lady, her eyes watering from the strain of containing the fit, gave me a small wave, a gesture I understood immediately. I helped her away from the table, not that any one of those great gentlemen would have understood she needed helping; my Lady stood, smiled, and said, “Gentlemen, please excuse me for a few minutes,” as though she’d been called away to attend to some domestic duty. It was clear she couldn’t manage the stairs, so I took her through to the kitchen; it wasn’t the first time. I helped my Lady into a chair, Cook handed me a cloth, and I placed a steaming bowl in her lap.
It was terrible. It was one of those times when the coughing was so violent, it was as though her lungs were tearing themselves apart in their attempt to escape her breast. Phlegm and vomit—and thin streaks of bloody tissue with it. She coughed and coughed and then her breath became so ratty and weak I thought she must faint, surely, if only for a moment’s relief. She wouldn’t let me treat her; instead, my Lady gasped her way through. After a time the fit ended and, with it, the wretched coughing. She sat for a while, shivering cold, her body’s heat dissipated through fever. A few minutes and a sip of broth later, she was on her feet, adjusting her shawl. I accompanied her back into the dining room, where the guests had moved on to the sweet. She waved me away as though I’d been pestering her (I didn’t mind) and said to Mr. Meredith, “Now, George, what have I been missing?” When he expressed his concern over her health—Mr. Meredith was always observant of my Lady—she said, “It was Rainey. She woke from a bad dream and the girl could not calm her.” I could see Mr. Meredith did not believe her, but he kept this to himself, wisely.
Later, when I looked in once again, she was smoking a cigar and arguing her point with such animation that no guest new to the house would have believed my Lady was unwell. Her husband, Sir Alick, gave me a smile and winked, as though to say, “Look at her. She is a marvel, isn’t she?”
OUR TRAVELS FIRST STARTED TWO YEARS BEFORE. WE SPENT THAT WINTER,
1860, in the Isle of Wight at the behest of Doctor Izod, who was adamant that the Esher climate was too harsh for my Lady to bear. It was a low time. I often wondered if Doctor Izod had ever been to the Isle of Wight as it was never dry, nor light, nor warm, nor in any way resembled a place that might effect a cure for my Lady. We crept about the corridors of that tawdry hotel—it was not completely sordid, but near enough—while my Lady lay in bed, all of us, my Lady included, feeling as though she was about to die.
The next winter we embarked on our very own odyssey, all the way to the southernmost tip of Africa and back again. Just the two of us this time, a Lady and her lady’s maid. There was no money for any kind of entourage. The Duff Gordons are always hard-pressed financially, though since Sir Alick moved from the Treasury to the Inland Revenue in Somerset House, my Lady says things have become a little easier, and I can attest to that. My wages are almost always paid on time these days. And so, an adventure—a brilliant escapade in fact. I loved it on that ship, I loved the port cities and the sights, ever more exotic as we traveled south. I loved it best when we were far out to sea: no sign of land, no trees, no buildings, no people; just water, the ship, my mistress, and me. “Don’t you miss the household?” she asked one day. “The other servants. The companionship?”