She made her way slowly up the stairs. She had changed for the evening, though it was barely teatime. The dress in heavy luxurious blue silk flowed in opulent folds from her restricted waist. At the top of the stairs, she had to catch her breath. The action gave her some satisfaction. Her hair was piled up and she held her chin high. Turning on the landing, the sough of her skirts accompanied her to the first-floor drawing room.
She called it her drawing room. As she opened the door, the sunlight poured in on the carpet from the two long windows secured with French balconies. They were lucky to live on a square. Facing west meant they were always blessed by the setting sun. She sat at the long table and took a deck of cards, which she shuffled with prolonged easeful movements. She laid them out for Patience. She sat bolt upright and gazed at the cards with a light attention. Every ten minutes or so she rose and adjusted her chair slightly to avoid the encroaching sunlight. Sometimes she took a vial from her pocket and sprayed the air with bergamot and lemon. Soon the maid would bring in the afternoon tea.
The maid, Hazel, was a plain, small girl, perhaps in her late teens. Neither particularly chatty nor sullen. She bobbed and curtsied profusely. The Lady of the House thought her absurd. And Hazel, for her part, thought the entire run of rituals of this upper middle-class household were equally absurd: life acted out rather than lived. That was a sentiment she felt but could – and would – never articulate. The aroma of the Earl Grey scented with Orange Blossom pervaded the warm air.
A visit to the Salon du Thé used to be one of her chief diversions. She took the sugar tongs and allowed one cube to sink into the bottom of her cup. She did not stir and, as she sipped, the tea grew sweeter and sweeter, the smokiness of the Earl Grey finally choked on syrup. Below, she heard him come in. The imperious thrust of a cane into the umbrella stand and a house suddenly jolted.
The butler deferred to her as she turned and mounted the stairs. In the afternoons, when a lull descended on the house, she preferred not to be on the lower floor in the company of a man. On the landing she turned and stared down into the hall below at the empty umbrella stand. The rustle of her skirts gave her confidence and she proceeded to her drawing room with conviction.
The room was decorated in a Pre-Raphaelite pallet and filled with high Victorian ornamentation. On the right, as you entered, the wall was lined almost completely with a single piece of furniture that was part sideboard, part bookcase, part cabinet of curiosities. Not very deep, it seemed to sweep up the wall in a rich mahogany burgundy. Here and there, nooks and perches held exotic bric-a-brac; a ceramic Kannon, a jade toad, a coral-handled rattle with silver bells.
She moved a dish of browning fruit, took her cards from a box in the centre of the table and began to play: a Seven of Hearts on an Eight of Spades. Interesting, she mused… and moved on. The sun was a nuisance. She took her perfume bottle from her watch pocket and pressed the cool glass against her face. Perversely, she added a slice of lemon alongside the cube dissolving in her porcelain cup. Quaffing the tea briskly, she rose. She took a deep breath, brought her hand to her chest, groped for air… no, not air, for her talisman. No, not there. She had lost it and with it her confidence…
On the sideboard on a silver tray stood a bottle of Buckfast wine. This new tonic was recommended by the monks to be taken in the quantity of three small glasses per day… to fortify the blood. She took one now. She found herself standing between the two windows, leaning against the wall, glass in hand. The sun flooded the carpet either side of her. It was stifling.
At five thirty she heard the hall door burst open and her husband enter. A self-assured man. The clatter of the cane. The dismissive commission of hat and coat to the waiting butler whose obsequious ‘Yes, sir… No, sir’ resounded up the stairs.
She paused a moment, card in hand The Queen of Hearts on the King of Spades? A footfall on the stairs? No. She dismissed the cards and poured another glass of wine.
The final step at the top of the landing was painful. The full skirts, the bone stays of the corset, pulling on her ribcage as she rose to the landing. She sat down heavily. The table was spread with a deep green chintz tablecloth. The high glazed finish was ideal for card playing. Yet this was a dining room and the long central table could comfortably seat ten at dinner. The sunlight was such a nuisance and she could hardly remember a time in London when so many cloudless sunny days had succeeded each other one by one.
Paris was different. She could only remember it in sunshine, arm in arm with her maman in the Bois de Boulogne, Napoleon III’s gift to Paris. The thought of her mother and the romantic idyll she had instilled in her daughter gave her a start. To the fortifying glass of wine she added a few drops of laudanum. And so the evening wore on, and the maid came with the tea, and her husband came home, and no one came at all.
She thought that she might have been in her blue silk evening dress all day long… To help with her English he had given her a copy of the well-attested New England Primer. He had his boyish grin as he handed her the parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied cleverly with string. She struggled to undo it and he cut the string for her. She was dismayed but smiled appropriately. The many conversations she had had with her mother who boasted about having attended the Theatre de Vaudeville for Dumas’ The Lady of the Camellias – the work that would become the sensation of the age – swam into her mind. She stole her husband’s penknife and sent the staff to search for it. The sounds of his frustration, the low grunts and the drawers being slammed shut, seemed to rise throughout the house and reach out at her, swelling over the blue silk folds, her waist, her bosom, her mouth…
Dispensing with the cards she opened the Primer now and read; ‘In Adam’s fall, we sinned all’. She drained her third glass of the blood-enriching Buckfast and a sense of having done her duty rose in her. So hot. She stood up and sprayed a shaft of bergamot and lemon into the air. For a moment, it formed an aura in the beams of sunlight. She walked into the mist and twirled around. She smacked her lips and reached for the wine and laudanum.
So the tea came. He said that the maid would have to go. She made the family look bad with her gauche ways. Hazel did not fit in, he said, though he had fitted into her well enough, she thought crudely as her glass tipped over on the tablecloth. Their place in society was delicate. He had to be careful. She, too, had to be careful. To be chic was naturally acceptable, but to be fanciful… No. Some portraits – copies – of Rosetti’s saintly yet voluptuous women lined the walls. He liked big women or perhaps dreamed of them as of some ideal. In the meantime…
A bitter taste in her mouth: she looked down and realized that she had put half a dozen slices of lemon in her little teacup. The sun had swept the floor and was now gilding the red hair of the beauties of imagination.
She shuffled the cards. In the early days of their marriage there had been dinner parties at this very table. Vivacious and convivial. After the first few glasses had been drunk she found she could no longer follow the conversation. And, later on, that she simply did not want to follow it. She should have a child.
Her mother came to visit and they made princely plans for the proposed infant who never arrived. Year after year went by and no one came at all. Perhaps buying that delightful rattle with its silver bells had been tempting fate. Her mother had got so caught up in the moment as if the pregnancy was real and had bought the rattle on a trip to Hatton Gardens in a whirl of euphoria. She never quite forgave her. Oddly, she found she could forgive Hazel who would soon be spirited away. She could even forgive him if he would only let her. The person she could not wholly forgive was herself.
She noticed that she sighed as she walked the short stretch of landing from staircase to dining room door. She told Hazel to take all of her umbrellas and put them in the bottom drawer of the armoire. She told her to order more wine and to go to the chemist.
She used to go shopping herself in the early days. When study was paramount she liked to pop along to Hatchards to browse books. She was determined not only to speak English but master its literature as well. Yet she found herself gliding inexorably to the French; Dumas, Daudet, Balzac … And when it reached the point where he went out to his Club every evening, smiling outrageously at her as the butler helped him into his overcoat, she found herself slipping into the fiction of Gustave Flaubert. When she had actually become sad – that particular point in time – she could not remember. She dressed as well as they could afford. She bought perfume, though not the heavy modern scents based on civet and musk, but the lighter floral ones of a more romantic age.
The stained green tablecloth was piled with books, some still in their parcels. When she saw the assistant tie her parcel up she immediately recognised the knot, a clever looping of the strings that created a fern like pattern of successive whirls. She was about to comment but as the girl bent towards her holding up the parcel she noticed the amulet. A green jade forearm extending to a closed fist, mounted in gold. The hand was unusual in that the thumb protruded between the ring and index finger.
She had taken to drinking the wine warm. Hazel had developed a knack for preparing it, bringing in a kettle of boiled water, removing the cork, and sitting the bottle in the kettle. She no longer bothered with tea. Or rather, she no longer bothered to drink it. She took the lid off the teapot and allowed the aroma the waft on the pungent air. The sun seemed to grab the orange scent and embroider upon it. Hazel would sniff rather unpleasantly when she came into the room. The Lady of the House, watching that slim abdomen begin to heave and drop, did not care a jot about what Hazel thought. But Hazel herself was thoughtful and began to leave small plates of macaroons and perhaps a boiled egg or two beside the kettle and its suspect cargo. But the fruit in the bowl went black and no one came to remove it.
Hazel had been sent to look for the amulet. Each maid in turn had been given this futile mission. Futile because the Lady of the House herself had searched high up and low down to find it. Unique, he had called it. Not another like it in the world. Nothing resembling it could be found for love nor money. A symbol of profuse good luck…and of true love. She could not believe it when she lost it. She did not believe that she had lost it.
She began to buy a lot of books. Using the stolen knife she cut the fronds of knots and hid them in her pocket. She never spoke to the assistant. But she liked to stare at her, watching her serve other customers, the light caress of ungloved fingers and the multiple loops of the knot that attended the transaction with a handsome stranger. The amulet gleamed on her neck as she lured them in.
Five thirty. She heard the cane slide home and for a moment she thought she heard footsteps on the stairs. But no… only her imagination. Another sip. Another drop. The sun crawled up the walls. A strange clamminess in her mouth. She crunched into a macaroon and it tasted like a funeral biscuit. She had noted with some qualms the English fetish for funeral biscuits but never having tasted one she imagined they were like compressed ash.
She could not account for the lightness in her step or the way her skirts wafted about her like the indigo of the sky around Venus. As she opened the door, the sun hit her like a bolt of lightning and she dived for the shadows. She snatched up a deck of cards and sighed happily at the thought of tea. The hours fell to the game of Patience, black pips on red, red pips on black. Success. Start over. Failure. Start over. No matter…
Long before five thirty there was a huge commotion at the hall door. He bounded up the staircase and the door to her room was flung open. Her heart leapt. She stood up and froze in anticipation. Just to see his face, his silly boyish face, would be wonderful. Wonderful for just the two of them to be together even for a few moments.
He barged into the room and gazed down at her. He was aghast, bewildered, shocked. He went to move forward but could not. She smiled at him, a happy complacent smile. She was thrilled to find that she still loved him. He came forward, stifling some reaction that was rising in his gorge. He went to kneel but squatted over her body instead. The blood was mostly around her wrists and forearms but had pooled and congealed on the faded carpet and formed blackish contrasts on the blue silk of her dress. He withdrew hopeless and stared at her.
She rose from the table and stepped over the corpse. Others were gathering at the door. They didn’t mean much to her. She took a glass of wine – no tea today – and returned to gaze into her husband’s face. His butler was beside him, not quite doing anything. Then some gentlemen friends accosted him, consoling and pulling him away. A man earnest with self-importance – a doctor – entered and rushed to the body. But she kept her eyes on her husband the whole time, examining his handsome face. It had hardly aged a day from that time ten years ago when he had approached her in the Bois and eventually disengaged her from the arm of her mother. He was all she ever wished for. Charming, debonair, sophisticated…and she fell…fell as so many had fallen. Then she saw it…Scrutinizing his youthful face she saw it. His shock slowly faded, his breathing subsided and then the condition she had suspected all along suffused his countenance. Relief. He was relieved of her…
The fruit bowl offered a wedge of filth. Above the picture rail, severed arms hung like the ghastly festoons in the palaces of wrathful Hindu deities. The blood dripped down, adding highlights to the red hair in the pictures. She looked from the window and saw the sun falling away into a chasm beneath her. She sighed plaintively and returned to her cards. The din faded and the shadows appeared early racing the light to the few spots remaining on the luscious portraits of beautiful women. Soon everything would be black. But she was calm, collected, resigned to her lot. Tomorrow she would try again…
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