An enormous bed with thick carved posts was the first thing Katy saw on entering her room, its opulent covers and hangings were deeply embroidered and lavishly quilted, matching the draped curtains at each of the three long windows. A wooden dresser laid with lace mats awaited the placement of all her treasures and objets de toilette.
The young maid assigned to her had already stowed her gowns in the giant mirrored armoire. Katy almost fainted as she pulled back a thickly embroidered curtain. Expecting to find another cupboard she was amazed to see a lady’s dressing room. Lit by a small lustre of candles suspended from the ceiling, it was delicate in appearance. A jug and basin adorned a large table around which bottles, trays, sponges and brushes were laid out in orderly fashion. A smaller table draped in satin and lace held the mirror and neatly placed caskets flanked each side. A convenient water closet sat at one end of the room while at the other stood a majestic bath. Katy recalled her few dips in the freezing tin contraption at the inn, not a place to dawdle for long. She wondered what it would be like to linger in an object of such sumptuous luxury, perhaps she would find out this very moment.
‘Madam wants to be left alone?’ said the maid. Katy wondered where she was from, her English was good but an accent was present, she would’ve asked but she remembered Henry’s warning not to trust any of the servants. If she’d been long in the service of Camilla and Prudence she would likely be spying.
‘I should like to take a bath,’ said Katy, ‘before dinner.’
‘Oh, but Mrs Calder does not advise baths before dinner, she says they quite ruin the appetite.’
‘Indeed,’ smiled Katy, ‘but Mrs Calder is not well-versed in the modern manners I’m used to in town. I assure its quiet fashionable to bathe before dinner. Please see to it.’
Katy was sure her manner would make it a certainty that the maid would pass the message to Prudence as soon as she could. The new mistress was already flouting rules and paying no heed to the doctrine according to Mrs Prudence Calder.
Not wanting to lose face, Katy suffered the maid assisting her to undress and enter the bath though she would have much preferred otherwise. She was so used to doing things herself, it seemed pointless being waited upon like that, not to mention embarrassing. She was not accustomed to showing her naked person to all and sundry, to anyone at in fact.
She hardly dared wonder on the subject which naturally followed in her train of thought. Such delicate matters were never discussed, she wondered if it was a sin even thinking about it. Of what nature was her marriage to Henry? She wondered what would be worse, lying with him or not doing so. How would it be if they did? Painful, as Esther had predicted, not just pain for her body but also her soul. But what if they didn’t? If he avoided the occurrence, which seemed likely. Even a brief kiss was unpleasant to him if the business in the carriage was anything to go by. But it would feel all wrong, especially if Prudence were to find out. She would know at once the marriage was a sham. They had to be authentic, that was the key, but persuading Henry to do that was a task more monumental than anything she’d faced today, being a lady was easy in comparison. His disinterest would render it impossible. She sank back into the warm water, the delicate scent of primrose filled her mind, calming and soothing every part of her, soon she would be as clean as him. Not scrubbed and scoured however, she would be refreshed and tantalising. Once dried with fine linen, smoothed by soothing cold creams and fragranced by rose water and lime flowers, she would be irresistible – or so she hoped.
Prudence surveyed her with severe distaste as they entered the dining room, Katy’s dress of deep red velvet seemed to convince her that she was indeed a woman of ill repute, one way or another. Henry however seemed deeply impressed, he offered his arm as they walked through the doorway and she accepted it with a wide smile.
‘I hear you decided to ignore our custom of not having baths in the afternoon,’ said Prudence, taking her seat.
The footman smirked again as he pushed her in. Katy thought he may be one servant not in Prudence’s camp, he seemed to be enjoying the sport too much.
‘I wasn’t aware of such a tradition, evidently one of these outdated country rituals. I’m so used to more modern establishments, where it is customary to take a bath whenever one feels so inclined,’ smiled Katy.
‘Your tone should be modified,’ snapped Camilla, ‘when addressing your elders.’
‘As should yours, when addressing guests,’ said Katy.
‘Young lady, how dare you insult my mother?’
Prudence glared, her severe face more wrinkled and lined than ever.
‘I’m sure I didn’t mean to insult, merely stating a fact, as she was to me.’
Unused to little more than a meagre supper, Katy enjoyed the soup, tucked into the chicken and potatoes, played with her vegetables, some of which she didn’t even recognise, and struggled through the rolls with sweet butter cream and jam. By the time cake and coffee arrived, she thought she might burst, if her corset dug any deeper into her skin, she’d split.
‘Not hungry?’ said Prudence with an evil smile.
‘I think I might have eaten my fill for this evening.’
‘I can see why you’d lose your appetite in your position. Being married to someone like Henry would certainly put me off my dinner,’ smiled Prudence.
‘Then I pity your taste,’ said Katy, ‘for I can think of no better man.’
She felt, rather than saw, Henry’s surprise. She must’ve have sounded authentic.
On retiring to the drawing room, Katy was amused at the industry of the nieces. Producing needlework and books they began to busy themselves. Prudence and Camilla also looked ready to indulge in some light reading, Camilla placing a sombre pair of pince-nez upon the bridge of her nose.
‘And what are you going to do?’ Prudence demanded of Katy, ‘what employment do you have? You needn’t’ think we’re going to amuse you, we don’t approve of gossiping late into the evening, we prefer quiet amusements.’
‘Oh, I should’ve realised. How quaint,’ said Katy, turning to Henry she added in a clearly audible tone, ‘and deadly dull.’
‘I know,’ said Henry, before anyone could speak, ‘but I have something that’ll amuse you.’ He sat down beside her, smiling.
‘You do?’ said Katy, her astonishment matching that of everyone else.
‘Yes, I do. I know of just the thing, something that’ll amuse you more than anything else,’ he whispered.
His tone was flirtatious, his eyes teasing, even the manner that he was leaning towards her, was suggestive. She hardly recognised him. She knew exactly what Esther had meant about his voice. It was steadily disarming.
She smiled uncertainly.
‘Something we can do that will amuse us for hours.’
‘And that is?’
Silence ensued, everyone waiting. No one even seemed to be breathing, Katy certainly wasn’t.
‘Questions, of course,’ he said, ‘after all, we all know how much you love questions. Shall we start with the capital cities of Europe?’
She smirked. There was a collective sigh from the room at large.
‘Let’s do it in the corner,’ said Henry, ‘it’s more private over there.’
Settling on the sofa in the corner, Henry smiled, patting the seat next to him, indicating that she should sit.
‘Authentic,’ he whispered, as she settled next to him. She nodded with a smile, she could hardly fathom the transformation in his behaviour. ‘Now first question, an easy one, the capital city of France, if you please, and its native pronunciation.’
The knowledge Katy had on such subjects was minimal, to the point of non-existent. Henry seemed to realise this but it didn’t prevent the game continuing, if anything her duff answers only caused more hilarity. Unbelievable as it was, she was beginning to enjoy his company. She didn’t remember ever having this kind of fun before, for such an occurrence to take place with Henry, was ludicrous. The general irritation their laughing and ribbing was causing made it even more amusing. Henry’s mood was testament to that. She could feel the satisfaction he was absorbing from the exasperation of his family.
‘I have had about as much of this as I can stand,’ snapped Prudence, ‘you are worse than a pair of twittering budgerigars. I can see we’re going to get no peace tonight. I’m going to my bed, girls I think you should do the same.’
‘Indeed, we all should,’ said Camilla, ‘this merriment is intolerable of an evening.’
The silence that ensued after their departure gave Katy a slight chill. Her spirits dropped.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t have been quite so loud,’ she said, looking at the recently slammed door, ‘perhaps I…’
‘Shh,’ said Henry, turning her face towards him, ‘you are… I can’t believe what you’ve done today, I don’t remember ever seeing anything more amusing. I never really believed it possible.’
‘You should’ve had more faith.’
‘You’re right, I should.’
Eyes locked, they considered each other.
‘Perhaps we should retire too,’ suggested Katy.
‘Indeed,’ said Henry, instantly becoming more upright, ‘we should.’
They climbed the stairs together and walked the length of the upper corridor. It was dark. The light bobbing in Henry’s hand cast odd shadows. Canvas faces appeared in the glow, their eyes watching. Katy was glad he was leading her, she couldn’t remember where anything was. At her door he waited for her to enter. She stopped and waited, he took her hand and kissed it.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked, not allowing him to drop her hand.
‘To my room.’
She pulled him closer.
‘I thought you wanted this to be authentic,’ she said, ‘or am I so repulsive?’
He stepped forward and she was suddenly aware just how tall he was, the smell of soap no longer repelled her it was seductive.
His lips touched hers. The feeling of giddy misdirection encompassed her again. Aware of moving backwards through the doorway, she allowed herself to be guided by a strong arm. The door clicked shut.
The elaborate costume that had taken so long to put on seemed to peel away of its own accord. The opulent bed encased her as she fell back.
The strength of his body against hers teased every nerve until she gasped. Taking this as an intimation to withdraw he pulled back, but she gripped his flesh, frantic with ardour.
‘Don’t stop,’ she breathed.
Her mind, blank to everything else, she felt only the race of desire, a desperate struggle to reach the pinnacle of all her yearning and to be satisfied in every spot.