I couldn’t sleep.
And I could always sleep.
Every day, I worked myself to the bone and most nights, I made love with Gregory, so, by the time I tumbled into bed, exhausted but fulfilled, slumber was a yawn away. And on the rare occasion that it wasn’t, I’d close my eyes, bringing Greg’s phantom into place, lying sideways, placing his transparent arm around my waist and hooking his invisible leg over my calf. Then unbuttoning my nightgown for his ghostly kisses on my breasts, I’d will him back between my legs until I spasmed with him into sleep. He’d confessed he did that too sometimes, turning me into a sexual ghost who made him “climax hard” into the notion of my body.
However, things had changed since Bertie and my return from London.
To start with, Gregory hadn’t seemed himself. He was paler, more agitated than I’d ever seen him. Constantly on edge, he found it difficult to concentrate when we were talking. He mentioned that Mr. Clarke had visited again, but still with no elaboration as to why, even when I pressed him for an explanation.
Furthermore, he’d been behaving strangely. Several days after my time with Bertie on Holywell Street, I’d been taken aback to glimpse Greg from my bedroom window. Top hat on, cape flapping, he was striding down the pathway through the garden to Cemetery Grove, pushing through the gates and turning onto Sorrel as if he were headed toward Foxglove. The sight of him alone outside like that was strange and it was stranger still when Bertie responded to my query with a genuine, “No, lass, he didnt visit me. Must’ve headed into town fer somethin’ but yer rite. He ne’er leeves the howse so tha’s very strange indeed!”
When I’d questioned Greg that night, he’d simply said, “I was wandering the heath, Justine, where we walked together. I needed to get out of Rosegate. Sometimes I feel it’s trying to kill me.”
Then, two mornings later, he’d left for London without warning.
“To visit Mr. Greaves,” Lady said. “To deal with the encyclopedias.”
Infuriated that he hadn’t told me, I couldn’t sleep.
And I could always sleep.
Standing at my bedroom window that night, staring down into the snow-brushed garden, I suddenly felt like the Other Woman I truly was, the outsider reserved for sex. Of course, why would he tell me of his trip to London? I didn’t wear his wedding ring; I wasn’t his wife. All day long, I was his maid, his servant. I had no place knowing of his comings and his goings unless they were between my legs. After all, his business was none of my business. And if we were going to be discussing business, mine was with the dirty linen whilst his was with the books.
Cheeks burning, I left my room and, checking that Lady was asleep, went downstairs and donned my cape, headed for the back garden by way of the kitchen. Following my breath to Cemetery Grove, I stood against the tree where Greg and I had made love the month before. Tipping my forehead toward the trunk and clutching the bark, I ached with the memory of that episode, its twists and turns, its angles and positions. Had that meant anything to him? Or had his talk of death been just another of his dark persuasions to knife his way into my shadows?
And what about our treecalmoon at Foxglove?
How foolish could I have been? To think that it was anything more than playing without clothes on, pretending to be the couple that we’d never be?
And madder still it was that I had taken it upon myself to get involved in his marriage, in his wife’s past, in his relationship with Cyril Greaves. And to do it in disguise with Bertie? The only redeeming thing about that preposterous adventure was our meeting with Seymour Higgins. Standing there on Gregory’s future grave, I deemed myself an idiot for having thought that there’d be any chance of anything with him.
And yet, as I abandoned Cemetery Grove, turning right and wandering down the moonlit lane, not knowing why I did so, the other half of me began to speak, the deeper half that seeks to murmur louder than the high-pitched strain of second-guessing. Seeks, I say, because it doesn’t always manage it.
“Rustlings of the heart” is what Greg called those messages. “The low intuitive voice reverberating underneath the self-depreciating chatter.” “The soul-sound swelling underneath self-doubt.”
And there it was – just like that – his voice.
‘I was listening to a violin solo once and I thought it was the loveliest thing I’d ever heard. It was so distracting, I believed it for a while. But then the cello entered the piece and I realised that I’d been listening to the surface, that the deeper voice just hadn’t yet arrived. How I wish you could hear the music coming from the cello, Justine. In your lifetime, I wish for you to hear that sound, not only in the orchestra but in your own soul.’
But this time, the surface voice was louder. You’re nothing but a mistress, but not even a mistress because you’re a maid – his maid – his wife’s maid – their son’s maid – and you’ll always be their maid. He’s free to do whatever he wants, to go wherever he desires. But you? You’re caught. You’ll never get out of Rosegate, let alone go to hear an orchestra. What an arrogant thing for him to say.
I love you, Justine. I love you with all my heart. Don’t ever doubt that.
“Silence!” I said aloud, gripping the sides of my head as I walked. “Quiet!”
As the two voices vied for my heart, I kept on walking, quickening my pace, still not knowing where I was going. I walked against the wind, my cloak winged out behind me, my hair flung out like flames. I heard my bootsteps on the gravel, the soft beats of my breath erupting from my chest. And suddenly, it happened. It was instinctual, a lure beyond compare.
And faced the open heath.
Just as I had on the morning I’d been walking to Foxglove for my time with Greg, the longer I looked at the land, the more I saw myself. My curves – my breath – my shallow places – my body extended were the heath. And listening closely, I heard it – the sound beneath the voices I’d been hearing. And the moment it filled me, I realised that the deeper of the inner voices I’d been hearing had been Gregory’s, not my own. My voice had no words. It was a hum coming from deep inside the earth, but fixated on the moon-swept heath, I was the earth; the earth was me; its voice was my voice; my voice was its voice. I heard us then, just for a moment. We were one. And that one, for the moment that it lasted, was greater than the oneness I’d achieved with Gregory. My oneness with the earth was pure and absolute.
Of course, the moment faded, and I found myself a separate entity again – Justine – standing in the moonlight, listening to the wind rush through the gorse. But the other two voices had gone: Gregory’s and my own self-doubting one. My anger vanished, I turned and made my way back to Rosegate.
Back in my bedroom, I climbed into bed and closed my eyes.
And, finally, I could sleep.
That was good.
Because I always sleep.
“You didn’t come to the study last night,” Greg said in a low voice.
It was the day after his return from London. Lady was upstairs bathing and he’d come to find me in the kitchen where I was to and froing from the island to the pantry, putting dishes away.
“Oh? Well, funny that,” I said coldly, “because I’d intended to take your coffee up to you in the study several nights ago when Lady informed me that you’d left for London and that you’d made a point of leaving whilst I’d been at the Tuesday market. So, I’m now under the impression that we’re not to take the other for granted. At least that what your behaviour suggests, Sir.”
“Look, Justine,” he said, still in a low voice. “Please. Come and see me tonight.”
“Did you get yourself a sexual labourer in London?”
“Pardon me?” he looked surprised but painfully so.
“I said: Did – you – get – yourself – a – sexual – labourer – in – London?” I spoke through gritted teeth. “Because to be quite honest, I think that’s what you’re needing. In fact, I think that’s what you’ve been needing all along: a woman overworked and underpaid to relieve your royal highness down there” – I cocked my head toward his trousers – “of its chronic swelling and stiffness. And, just in case you’re wondering, I’ll no longer be uttering the word ‘whore’. Those women are workers, plain and simple.”
“Justine!” he exclaimed in a vehement whisper. “Don’t!”
“Why? Because it’s not ladylike to speak of such things? Well, isn’t that a riot because I’m not a lady, am I? No. Your wife upstairs? Now, she’s a lady worth informing of your trips. But I’m just the maid playing dress-up and undress-up with you on the sly without getting paid. A sexual labourer makes more money than I do for the services I provide.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Justine.”
“Ridiculous is what’s been going on,” I spat. “Ridiculous is this, you here in the kitchen, begging me to serve my body to you on a platter with a cup of coffee on the side. That is ridiculous. And let me tell you, Sir, like I said in front of your fellow plunderer Mr. Bevin, you can sack me if you like. I’m sure to find employment elsewhere.”
“Sacking you is the last thing I want to do, Justine,” he said softly.
“Of course, it is,” I said defiantly. “Because then you’d have to pay for a sexual labourer.”
“Enough about sexual labourers,” he commanded under his breath.
“Perhaps I like using the term, considering I created it, Sir.”
“Truly, Justine. That’s enough. It’s well – it’s not very – becoming.”
“Becoming? Is that the bar for which I’m aiming? You know, Gregory, I think it’s high time we started calling things for what they truly are. A spade is a spade. And a woman who pleasures men for money is a SEXUAL LABOURER.” I stamped my foot to give the expression an added flare. “Do you not agree with me on that?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, if it’ll get you to stop using the term, yes then. I do.”
I ignored him for a few moments, carrying on with my work, waiting for his next attempt to get me up to his study. And oh, he was good, a man who knew how to play because he said quietly, almost in a whisper, “I didn’t go to London, Justine. I told Lady I did, but I really went to Portsmouth and I didn’t want anyone to know that I was going. So, please – visit me in the study tonight and I’ll tell you why I went and why I didn’t tell you.”
That was a shock, a hand well played.
“Portsmouth?” I said incredulously. “But why?”
“I’ll tell you tonight,” he responded. “So, will you come up?”
How I hated that he had me wrapped around his finger in that moment. I simultaneously loathed and loved it. Loathed because he’d won me over, melting my vexation into a hot mess inside my ribcage, a mess that was my heart perhaps. But loved because, with Greg, I wanted to be conquered in an argument in the same delightful way I wanted him to overthrow my body on the floor and vanquish every single inch of me until I felt like I would perish with the impact.
However, just because I wanted him to be on top of anything didn’t mean I wanted him to finish there victorious. If he were under the impression that he could abscond himself from Rosegate with nary a word to me then use his wily ways to get inside my petticoat, he could jolly well get out from under that impression before he got too comfortable.
“Very well,” I whispered in his ear, giving his lobe a gentle bite. “With a condition.”
“Condition? What sort of condition?”
“I don’t know yet.” I wished I did, but I needed time to think. “But I’ll come up with one.”
“I’m sure you will,” he said with a tsk.
Wonderful, I said to myself sarcastically once he’d left the kitchen. Now you must come up with a condition and a wicked one at that. Right then, Justine. Best get thinking.
After lunch when Lady was gathering boughs of holly in the garden, I went up to my room and opened the airing cupboard in the corner, pulling out the carpet bag with which I’d come to Rosegate, removing the base layer and pulling out the protective belt my mother had given me before she’d died.
It wasn’t unattractive, despite its dreadful purpose. Made of thin, pale metal, the slender waistband, which parted at one side, was bound with a tiny padlock, its key extending from it. A cradle of metal with a narrow tear-shaped slit dropped down from the centre before it curved, attaching to the back of the belt.
I’d always loathed the contraption and, despite my mother’s urging, had certainly never worn it, insisting that there hadn’t been a point. But now, as I turned the heart-shaped bow of the little key and parted the belt, I thought perhaps the time was nigh to try the device out. Was that too cruel a move? I thought, as I turned the apparatus through my hands. To lock myself up and hide the key, daring Greg to find it? Was it fair to punish him so harshly for something he’d done in order to protect me?
It was, I decided, but in the name of foreplay, I resolved to wear it.
Yes, I would be cruel but purely for the pinnacle of pleasure. I’d manipulate the belt and make it do the very opposite to the function for which it was created. By the time I was done with it, this little item would draw Greg into me as far as he could go; it would never keep him out, not even with the jagged little teeth which rimmed its tear-shaped mouth.
Returning the belt to the carpet bag, I pushed it to the back to the cupboard, deciding that I’d wear one of the corsets Bertie had made for me but sans chemise as on the night I’d climaxed without touch. And then, what more? Perhaps the cream silk stockings tied with ribbons at the knee? Yes, those.
Decision made: the corset, the belt, the stockings, the black maid’s skirt and blouse over top.
That night, once Lady was asleep, I took great care to prepare myself. I sponged myself with rosewater and softened my skin with Bertie’s homemade lotion. I piled my hair into a gentle bun, allowing tendrils to descend in silken lines around my face. I dabbed perfume behind my ears and on the insides of my wrists and pinched my cheeks to make them flushed.
Then came the clothes.
I slipped the corset around my naked body, hooking the tiny buttons into the eyelets, watching my breasts crush with the restriction of the fabric, forming that dark line Gregory adored. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I donned the stockings, tying them just below the knee with a silk ribbon. Next came the belt. Twisting the key from the lock, I parted the belt and, standing, stepped into it, pulling it up and straddling the metal, closing the belt and locking it up. Setting the key on the bedspread, I put on the maid’s skirt and blouse and slipped into my boots, lacing them up over the stockings. This was going to be delightful. I could feel it.
Going downstairs to the kitchen, I went into the pantry and slipped the key into one of the coffee cups on the shelves and then, I went up to Greg’s study empty handed.
“No coffee tonight, Justine?” Greg looked surprised as I entered the study.
“Oh, there’ll be coffee, of course, just not yet.”
“Is this the condition?”
No sooner had I closed the door behind me than he was up, holding my face in his palms, telling me how delicious I smelled through an onslaught of kisses, letting his hands slide from my face onto my blouse so he could undo the buttons.
And there it was, one those run-on sentences I loved so much. But it was more than one sentence; it was two sentences as one, foreshadowing our bodies.
“Not yet,” I said, fighting the urge to rip myself out of it.
He reached down to the V in my skirt and then felt the metal under my skirt.
“What on earth? Justine? What the devil is that?” Shocked, he let me go.
“That is your condition,” I replied with a wink.
“What the hell is it? It feels absolutely evil.”
From the tone in his voice, I thought I’d lost him for the night.
“Come – Greg – come here.” I led him to one of the chairs by the fire and sat him down, standing back in the black maid’s skirt and with the blouse open, but the corset intact. “Let me show you.”
And then, as sensually as I could, I removed the blouse and the skirt, standing before him in the corset, the belt, the stockings and the boots.
“It’s a chastity belt,” I said, my eyes dancing. “And it’s locked.”
“Where’s the key then?”
“The key,” I replied, “is down in the kitchen. You’ll find it when you make the coffee.”
Honestly, he looked like he’d been shot.
“Yes, that’s right.” I sat down in the chair opposite, put my right foot on the little stool in front, sloped forward and began to unlace my boot in the most provocative manner I could muster. “I thought it’d be lovely if you served me coffee for a change. It’d give me a chance to imagine what I’m going to do to you after I drink it.” The boot came off, revealing the rest of the silk stocking and my left foot went up on the stool. Leaning forward, my breasts pushed against my kneecap, I unlaced the left boot, watching Greg darken and harden in his trousers. “I thought it’d give me a chance to rest so I’d have more energy to have sex with you when you came back.”
“My God, Justine. I don’t know what to say. I’m everything at once. Aroused. In shock. Intrigued. Terrified. If this is your condition –”
“Which it is,” I interrupted, dropping my other boot on the floor, moving the footstool aside and continuing to lean forward. “My condition is that you go downstairs and make me a cup of coffee and in the act of making the coffee, you’ll find the key. Once you’ve found it, you may return and I, not you, will open myself up at which point, I will cast the belt aside” – I flung my hand out to add some dramatic flare to the statement – “and we can revel in the pleasures of the flesh for the rest of the night.”
“It’s just what?”
“It’s just that I’ve never made coffee before and I don’t know where we keep the cups.”
Now, I was wondering if he’d lost me for the rest of the night; the mood was dying fast.
“What? You can’t be serious?” I sat back in the chair, unintentionally subjecting him to a full crotch view of the metal device. “You don’t know where the coffee cups are in your own house?”
“I haven’t had to,” he replied with a sniff.
“Seriously? Greg? Tell me you’re joking.”
“Never mind,” he said, inhaling deeply and sitting up straight. “I’m sure I can get through it. If that’s your condition, then I have no choice but to comply. I will go downstairs and make the coffee.”
“Very well,” I said, crossing my legs, feeling deflated. “I had a delicious little seductive act planned to warm you up to the coffee making condition – but now – well, now, it’s just going to appear silly – immature – and trite. I feel ashamed of myself.”
“Let me tell you something, Justine,” he said softly. “Nothing you do is silly, immature and trite. Not to me at any rate. Perhaps others might think so. But I’m not them. And since you’ve come into my life, you’ve taught me how to play again, how to give this dull old life a touch of mischief, an unexpected twist. And if you feel foolish—well – imagine how I feel, not knowing how to make a proper cup of coffee for my lover. I feel ashamed of myself. Here I am with the loveliest woman in the world in front me. She’s wearing clothes that are driving me wild and I can’t even do the task I need to do to break into them.”
“Well,” I said, “My original plan was that I was going to have you break into some of them before you made the coffee – well – to get you started.”
He rose from his chair and knelt between my legs, brushing his lips up over the corset, kissing each button before he unhooked it. “Is this what you intended?” he whispered, opening the corset fully and handling my breasts whilst he kissed me deeply on the mouth.
“That’s what I intended,” I whispered as he broke away, making room for me to unbutton his trousers and feel him hardening in my hand. “This is what I intended.”
“I could climax now,” he murmured. “In a matter of seconds.”
“So, could I,” I said. “But then – my condition?”
“Your condition,” he echoed with a groan, extricating my hand. “With which, my darling, I am going to comply, or I’ll never hear the end of it. You stay there.” He rose, buttoning himself up. “And think of what we’re going to do to one another once you’ve got that dreadful monster off whilst I go down and make the coffee. It might take me a while,” he added, “as I’ll need to get my bearings. Am I mistaken, Justine?” he suddenly added. “Or does that diabolical creature have little jagged little teeth?”
“Like the gates of Hell,” I replied wryly.
“The gates to Heaven rather. It’s always harder getting into Paradise.”
I’d been waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time, when I heard a shattering sound down in the kitchen, its echo coming up the stairs. Afraid that Gregory was going to wake Lady, I quickly fastened several buttons on my corset and dragged my skirt and blouse on, hurrying to the passageway outside and moving to the landing. To my horror, I heard voices. They were muffled, also coming from the kitchen, but loud enough that I could hear what they were saying and one of them belonged to Lady.
“What’s all this mess?” she was shouting. “Where’s Justine?”
“She was feeling ill this evening,” Gregory was explaining. “She looked about to faint.”
“Well, she looked on top form earlier!”
“I don’t know about these things, Em. I told her to go to bed.”
Dashing back into the study, I grabbed my boots, rushed down the stairs as fast as I could in that dastardly belt and hurried down the corridor to the back bedroom. Thank God I was in stocking feet and could move without being heard. Wrenching off my clothes and tossing them in the airing cupboard with the boots, I scrambled into my nightgown and dove into my bed, pulling the bedspread up around me. And just in the nick of time as well because Lady’s footsteps were already sounding up the stairs and coming down the corridor.
A second later, there she was, standing in the doorway with a candle, her face looking ghoulish in its light. Her long blond hair was down and draped over her dressing gown.
“Justine?” she said quite sharply. “Are you well? Gregory says you’re poorly.”
“Yes, M’am – I’m sorry, M’am,” I replied in the groggiest voice I could muster. “I don’t know what the matter is – I was as right as rain all day. And then, when I went into the kitchen to prepare Sir’s coffee, I felt like I was going to faint. It was as much as I could do to tell him.”
Marching over to my bedside, she reached down and held her palm against my brow. My heart was racing, my temples veined with sweat, not for any illness, bur rather out of fear Lady would pull back the bedclothes and see me in the belt. After the fact, I realised that the belt would’ve been great proof for my chastity in the house. But at the time, such rationale had left me.
“Well, you do feel warm,” she said. “And you’re perspiring. Perhaps you should take some of those bedclothes off, cool yourself down.”
“No, M’am. Please. It’s terribly cold.”
“Very well, Justine,” she said, stepping back. “Let’s just hope you’re over this by tomorrow so you can get back to work. I don’t know what’s gotten into Gregory these days. The last place he should be is in the kitchen dithering around.”
“Yes, M’am,” I responded, sinking as far down as I could in the blankets.
“We have a serious problem, Justine.”
It was Gregory, at least an hour later. He was leaning over my bed, nudging my shoulder.
“I know we do,” I whispered vehemently. “But give me the key.”
“That’s the serious problem,” he said in a hushed voice.
“What are you talking about?” I was up on my elbows, my eyes going wild. “The key. I left it in the top coffee cup in the pantry. If you’d gone to get the cups, you would’ve found it. So where is it?”
“I was in the pantry,” he whispered, casting a furtive glance over his shoulder in the event Lady should wake up again. “And I was reaching for the cup.”
“And then Lady came up behind me and startled me so much, I dropped the cup.”
“And then what? I could feel the panic spreading throughout my body.
“And then, well, very unfortunately, she saw the key amongst the shards and picked it up and said, ‘What a quaint little key. I wonder what it’s for. It looks like something Bertie would use. I’ll bet it belongs to Bertie. I shall have to ask her about that.’ And then –”
“And then?” My heart left my body, hit the ceiling and came back upside down.
“And then she put it in her dressing gown pocket.”
“Tell – me – that – you – got – it – from – her – pocket.”
“Well, I did go into her room a minute ago to see if she was sleeping which she was. But when I searched her dressing gown pockets, I saw it wasn’t there. She moved it and I don’t know where to.”
I sat there stunned, but just for a moment before I got going.
“Are you meaning to tell me, Gregory Wells, that the key to this monstrous belt has gone missing? Somewhere in Lady’s room, nonetheless? And that she’s going to ask Bertie if it belongs to her? No – don’t answer. Because what are we going to do when Bertie says she’s never seen the key before? And more importantly, what am I going to do in the meantime? I’ll tell you what I’m going to have to do, Greg. I’m going to have to urinate through that vicious little mouthful of teeth down there. And I won’t be eating at all because I don’t intend on going to the toilet in that way.”
“In what way?”
“You know, Greg, I played that game with you once on our treecalmoon, but I’m not playing it again because I was in much better spirits back then perhaps because I was free as bird down there and not caged in a medieval apparatus.”
“We’ll have to call the locksmith then,” he whispered, his eyes aglow.
“No, we won’t,” I hissed. “You’ll have to find that key!”
“I could take you to the shed tomorrow night and get you out with a saw.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Well then,” he whispered. “Looks like you’ll have to give up food altogether.”
As I stared up at him over the horizon of the bedspread, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But I knew one thing. I’d have to swallow my pride along with my dignity and get to Bertie first thing in the morning with the pretext of going into town and explain the situation.
“Aftur wat we saw on Holywell Street in London,” Bertie said the following dawn, “nuthin’ yer say cud surprise me, not anymore. Yer situation is veree taim indeed. Veree, veree taim. Sides. We’re seesond thespiens now aftur awl our actin’. If I cud pass meself off as a blowk, I can pretend absolutlee anythin’ to Lady of awl peeple. Yer leeve this up to me.”
And sure enough, by ten o’clock that morning, I had the key back in my hand and a moment later, I was free. That freedom came with a vehement vow to myself that I’d never imprison myself in anything again, especially for the sake of pleasure.