Authors: Robert Neill
Tags: #historical fiction
‘How old are you?’
He had almost snapped his question, all thoughts of politeness gone, and she had begun to answer, begun in a different tone. Then she had stopped, cutting off short while her eyes widened in surprise. They were staring at each other, as if neither knew what to say, and then he tried to get a grip on it, tried to say what he ought to say.
‘I’m sorry. I---’
She spoke quickly, telling him in one urgent word that she, too, was finding it beyond her, that she too could have no pretence. They stood silent while he moved a little closer, and then impulsively, as if she could not help it, she held out her hands. He grasped them, drawing her to him while the ship in its bottle fell forgotten to the floor, still folded in the scarf. Then he had her in his arms, pressing her tight while she pressed herself even tighter, and thought seemed to stop. Even surprise was missing. There was merely the moment, and it seemed inevitable.
She recovered first. Her head jerked back, and he saw that her eyes had sharpened as she looked keenly down the stair. He swung round also, and then he heard her voice come crisply. She was speaking to the footman, who had been watching from the hall.
‘If anyone should call, William, I am not at home. And you may tell Susan to bring my tea.’
She turned, looked for an instant at Grant, and then led quickly along the landing and through a door that was ajar. He stooped to recover the ship, and then followed her into a room that pleased. It was gracious in cream-and-gold, delicately feminine, yet not to the degree that makes a man feel awkward. It had some satin-seated chairs, a sofa that was wide and comfortable, and two delicately inlaid side-tables. The wine-coloured carpet blended with the walls, and candles behind ivory shades gave a soft and gentle light. There were two good windows, curtained in brocade, and a fireplace between them, warm with a glowing fire. Across the room was another door, also in cream with a gilded handle.
She was standing with her back to the fire, and for once she did not seem quite sure of herself. He looked into her eyes and thought them puzzled. But there might have been something more, an expression he could not interpret.
‘You’re different,’ she said slowly. ‘I’ve told you that before.’
‘And what are you? You’re different from all--’
‘I know.’ She sounded as if it were obvious and did not interest her. ‘What were you asking me?’
‘I asked how old---‘
‘You shouldn’t ask that. Nobody ever does.’
‘All right. I did say I---‘
‘I’m twenty-three. That’s true, by the way.’
‘The others don’t know.’
‘Then I’m even more---‘
‘Stop it.’ For an instant she looked petulantly at him. ‘Don’t be so polite to me. Anyone can be
‘It’s more or less expected, at a first visit.’
‘I don’t expect a man to get hold of me and kiss me like
at a first visit. Not the first minute, anyway.’
‘Don’t be silly. If--if you can do
to me---‘ Again she was looking oddly at him, with the expression he could not interpret, and then suddenly she changed. She flung herself on the sofa, smoothed her dress, and then smiled up at him. ‘I think we’d better be sensible.’
‘If we know what that is.’
‘Ye-es. What’s that under your arm?’
‘Something I brought for you. It’s nothing very much.’
‘But how---‘ She stopped short, looking up at him with a sudden doubt in her eyes. ‘You didn’t bring it because you thought you had to?’
‘Of course I didn’t.’
‘Most men do. They come here because they want something, and they think they’d better start the right way. So they bring me a present. It’s expensive, and---‘
‘I hope not.’ She was looking at him with a strange earnestness. ‘Because I
to come, and that’s different.
I wouldn’t take---‘
‘Don’t worry. I just thought it might please you. It’s something you asked about.’
He began to unwind the scarf, with a quick fear that the fall to the floor might have broken the delicate rigging of the model. But all was well. The scarf and the thick soft carpet had saved it, and there was a quick squeal of delight from Anice as he held it out to her.
‘But it’s lovely. But what is it? Is it
He pointed happily to the gilded name, and he was still explaining details and answering a stream of questions when there was a discreet tap at the door and a careful pause until she answered. Then the prettiest of parlour-maids came in with a silver tray which had tea things and a decanter. She took it to the side-table and looked inquiringly at Anice, who nodded.
‘Yes, Susan, you may pour.’ She seemed thoughtful for a moment, and then turned to Grant. ‘I won’t ask
to drink tea, but I’m not having port. It isn’t good for me. It makes my head go round, and then I get all silly.’
She fell silent, watching critically while the girl busied herself with teapot and decanter, and then came forward with a salver. Grant took the wine with a smile of thanks, and the girl dipped a curtsey and made for the door. Before she reached it she was called back.
‘Susan . . .’ The voice was quiet and level. ‘I told you that Captain Grant is my friend, and therefore a friend of the house?’
‘Then don’t treat him, please, as part of the furniture. He might have been, for all the notice you took of him just then. Can’t he have a smile from you?’
‘I’m sorry, ma’am.’
‘Don’t apologize to
Anyway, it looks as if you’re forgiven. But don’t forget to smile another time. Now run away.’
Susan curtseyed and slipped quickly from the room. Anice stirred her tea and seemed to shake with silent laughter.
‘Poor Susan!’ she chuckled. ‘She’s always catching it somehow. Did you understand all that?’
‘I doubt if I’m supposed to.’
‘You aren’t.’ Again the chuckle came. ‘But Susan’s what you might call an apprentice. She wants to be--well, what I am, and I think she might do it. But, of course, she’ll have to learn manners first--the sort gentlemen expect--and to speak like them and eat like them, and know what to say. She’s all kinds of things to learn first--just as I had.’
‘Well, of course. What do you expect, for a little village girl who didn’t know anything?’ ‘Anice!’
‘I’ve surprised you?’ She sounded defiant, and her face tightened as she watched him. ‘What did you think I was?’
‘I--I’m afraid I hadn’t thought.’
‘Nobody ever does. We’re just taken for granted. But that’s what I was.’ For a moment her hand pressed on his leg. ‘You won’t tell people?’
‘I won’t tell anybody, ever.’
‘Good.’ Again her hand pressed quickly, and then she spoke impulsively. ‘I did three years as a lady’s maid--the nastiest little bitch of a mistress any girl ever had, and it seemed like thirty years. It was worth it, though.’
‘Because you learned?’
‘Yes. She taught me a lot, because it made me more useful, and I learned the rest by watching and listening. She always had men there, the right ones. Well--that’s what Susan’s doing now. Just the same.’
‘But with a better mistress?’
‘I hope so. I’m strict with her, mind you. I have to be, if I’m to teach her.’ The little head tossed imperiously for a moment. ‘Of course, she doesn’t always like it, but I can’t help that. She’ll never be any use if she doesn’t keep her mind on things. Now we aren’t going to talk about Susan any more. I think it’s lovely.’
She had picked up the ship again, in its bottle, and she was holding it to the light, turning it about and peering keenly at it with little squeaks of delight. Then suddenly she jumped up and ran with it to the mantelpiece of fine cream stone. Half a dozen pieces of china were on it, possibly Dresden, and she swept them unceremoniously aside, crowding them to the ends to make the centre clear for the ship. She put it carefully into place, plucking hot wax from a candle to wedge the bottle lest it should roll, and then she stepped back, tilting her head as she looked critically.
‘Lovely,’ she said again. ‘How do you pronounce
‘Accent in the middle, and make it rhyme with
‘What does it mean?’
‘One of the sons of Zeus. But---‘
‘There’s so much I don’t know.
never went to school--much. I just got taught to read and write.’
She came slowly back to him, looking down on him as he reclined on the sofa, and for a moment she seemed to stand in thought, her eyes very bright. Then she dropped gently on the sofa next to him, close to him, sitting with her knees bent and one leg under her. He twisted to face her, and before he could speak she had flung her arms round him and kissed him, deliberately and completely. He felt her lips on his, soft and relaxed, precisely placed, and then he felt her tongue. He turned further, trying to press closer, and suddenly she was holding him off.
‘You know what that’s for?’ she said. ‘It’s for being very sweet--and kind.’
‘I’ve done nothing to---‘
‘Oh yes, you have.’ She turned to glance quickly at the ship. ‘You wanted that. It was your ship, and you brought it home to remind you. You meant to keep it, and now you’ve given it to
--and that means something.’
‘It isn’t anything, really.’
‘I’ve told you it is. Do you think the other presents mean anything?’ She pushed herself close again as she spoke, with her head resting now on his shoulder and a scent from her hair helping to intoxicate. ‘Somebody brings me a brooch or something, and it cost a hundred pounds, or two hundred, and what does that mean, when a man’s so much money that he doesn’t know he’s spent it? So I sell it next week, and why not? It’s all it’s meant for.’
Again she pushed back, blue eyes intent on his, and then again, for another short instant, she glanced at the mantelpiece.
‘I shan’t sell that, though.’ Her eyes came slowly back to his, and both her hands had taken one of his as she spoke. ‘I’m not going to part with it ever. It’s the first present I’ve ever had that’s real, and it’s going to stay
right in the centre, always. And I hope Hillie likes it.’
‘Hildersham, of course. At least . . .’ She sat back again, with another change of mood, and her eyes were twinkling with delight. ‘I say it when I want to tease him. He doesn’t like it, and he gets quite cross.’
‘I hope so.’
‘Now what does that mean?’ Her head tossed mischievously again, and her tongue showed between her lips for a moment. ‘You should have seen him tonight when he heard from Prinny. We were going to the Opera together, and there we were, just starting dinner--second spoonful of soup--when it came. Note from Prinny. Desires Hillie at dinner, and so on. At Carlton House. Of course, it’s a command, and the poor dear had to jump up from his dinner and rush off to eat another one. You should have heard his language.’
‘Well, I haven’t heard much to the credit of the Prince Regent, but I’ll remember this one.’
‘Horrid thing! What about poor me, left all by myself like that?’
‘That was when you sent for me, I suppose? Which was also a command.’
‘That’s better. You’re not jealous, are you?’ ‘How could I help being?’
‘I don’t see why.’ Her tone changed again, and the amusement had gone from her eyes. ‘It’s quite different. It’s what I have to do, but this isn’t. I asked
because I wanted you, and I haven’t done that with the others. It’s Hillie who could be jealous.’
‘Must you go to Paris with him?’
‘I’ve promised. Besides--I’ve told you, it’s what I have to do.’
‘Then it shouldn’t be.’
I have to do what I
do, and there isn’t anything else.’ She was facing him truculently now. ‘Did I tell you what I was before I was a lady’s maid?’
‘I was a chamber-maid in an inn--making beds and emptying slops--at a shilling a week and what I could pick up. I’m not going back to
‘And Hillie’s rather nice. They haven’t all been, and one was a perfect beast. But it’s all right now, and I’m not going to spoil it. You shouldn’t
me to spoil it, and you needn’t think I’m unhappy or not enjoying it, because I am. I’m doing what I
do, and we all like doing that, when we can do it well.’
‘I wish I’d called on you before Hildersham did. You’d have been going with
if I had.’
‘No, I shouldn’t. It wouldn’t have worked. You don’t know that, but I do.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You’re different. You aren’t like the others. You---‘
‘I’m just like other men.’
‘Not like those, or you wouldn’t be talking like this.
don’t see anything wrong. But I should drive you mad inside a week. I’m never steady at anything. Besides, I’m expensive--
expensive, and getting worse.’ She stopped again, looking at him searchingly for a moment, and then her tone changed. The note of argument went out of it, and she was caressingly soft and quiet. ‘Now you’re not to be jealous. And you’re not to look miserable. I didn’t bring you here to be miserable. I wanted you to be happy tonight, with me. You’re
to be happy.’
The eyes seemed suddenly to be a deeper blue as they gazed into his, calm and untroubled. Then she came to him, moving close till he could feel the softness of her leg pressing into his. She was smiling, and then she lay back, quiet and unhurried, so that she was below him, looking up at him. His arms were round her now, and Hildersham forgotten as he pulled her to him and kissed her fiercely. She came at once, pliant and willing, and his hand rubbed over her shoulder, bare above the low-cut dress. For a moment she seemed to resist, jerking abruptly, and he heard a little crack as the shoulder seam broke open with what could have been suspicious ease. She wriggled again, and the primrose satin fell away to show nothing of any undergarment. The light fell on her breast, smooth and firm, and his hand moved down from her shoulder. Again she twisted, and he heard the seam rip on the other shoulder. Then abruptly she wriggled away, with a lithe strength that surprised him, and he saw the flush of excitement in her cheeks as she sat erect and began to sound indignant.