After Gregory’s account of his journey to Portsmouth and the argument over the future of our relationship, my visits to the study began to change. We still made love in hushed abandon. With Greg, the climax was a given. But afterwards when we sat by the fire, talk always turned to his latest obsession: marrying me off to Anthony Winterbourne, this man I’d never met, and by osmosis, ending my days of service and getting me out of Rosegate.
I wanted none of these things, however. All I cared about in those days was to be with Greg, even if it meant I had to live within the confines of my job. If I had to choose between being free and never seeing Greg or being in the captivity of my profession and seeing him every day, I’d choose captivity every time. Besides, if he was trying to marry me off to someone else, was he not just exchanging one form of captivity for another? For as a wife to Anthony Winterbourne, I’d still be living a life of servitude, but without the pay — and without Greg.
On the night of which I’m thinking now, however, we didn’t make love before the new routine of draining discussion. Before I entered the study, I shook down my hair and began to unbutton my blouse to reveal the corset which I’d already tightened.
“Not now, Justine,” Greg said as soon as I stepped into the room. “Please do yourself up.”
Stung not only by his rejection, but also at the spiralling gesture he made with his hand toward my open blouse to bolster his little command, I reddened, feeling slightly ashamed at myself as I re-fastened the fabric and re-pinned my hair, taking the chair opposite him. I was aware that he was about to broach the subject of me leaving Rosegate yet again — or at least I thought I knew because, as I’d soon learn, he was about to tackle the same issue but from a different angle than usual. However, no matter the angle, old or new, I predicted I wasn’t going to like it.
“I need to get you out of here, Justine.” His voice was quiet, serious.
“What if I don’t want to get out of here?”
“But you do want to get out of here. You simply don’t realise it yet.”
“Then until I do realise it, I don’t want to leave.” I looked at him in the chair opposite. He was beginning to look haggard and grey. “Besides, where would I go, Greg? I have no family, no friends other than Bertie to help me. So, tell me, where — would — I — go?”
“That’s what I wish to discuss tonight.”
“And if I don’t wish to discuss it?”
He rose from his chair and went to the cabinet, pouring himself a glass of port, half-turning and raising the bottle as a way of asking me if I wanted a glass which I didn’t.
“Have you spoken with Bertie lately?” he asked, returning to his chair and sipping his drink.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I always speak with Bertie.”
“I meant to say have you truly spoken with her about serious matters?”
“Not about serious matters — no.”
“Then what I’m about to tell you will come as quite a shock, Justine, but Bertie is leaving for Italy in the new year. It’s always been a dream of hers to travel on the continent and she has the funds –”
The embarrassment at having been sexually rejected was gone, replaced with instant anger.
“So off Bertie hobbles into the sunset,” I interrupted aggressively. “And seeing as I won’t be marrying anyone, particularly anyone of your choosing, I can move into her cottage like your little trollop on the side. And how the devil will I earn my keep in that foolhardy scheme? For God knows I won’t be taking money from you. I’d rather be your plaything here than your bloody mistress over there. And, before you say it,” — I raised my hand to keep him from protesting — “don’t tell me you’ll be leaving your big house to live with me in Bertie’s little one!”
“No–no–no–I couldn’t do anything of the sort–and I’ve never thought of you as a mistress, Justine. I love you and I’m sick to death of seeing you in service. With Bertie leaving, you could stay in Foxglove, keep it safe for her whilst she’s on her travels.”
“Truly, Greg? Have you lost your bloody mind? In what world are you living? How would you explain this to your wife? And who would look after Rosegate in my place?”
“I know a girl –”
“Oh, I’ll bet you bloody well do, Greg. And when that runs its course, what will you do with her? Abscond her to another cottage somewhere? Think of it. In a matter of five years, you could have a whole lineup of sacked maids waiting in their little huts for your royal highness” — I looked down at his trousers — “to pay a visit to their privy counsels.” I raised my voice up a notch, taking on a higher pitch. “Oh, good afternoon, Sir. What a surprise, Sir. Would you like a cup of tea, Sir? Would you like for me to serve it to you in my corset and my boots, Sir? Or are we going for something far more deviant this afternoon? Shall I tie you up and hold the teacup for –”
“Quiet!” he whispered gruffly. “This is nothing to make light of.”
“To make light of?” I returned. “Don’t you dare talk to me about making light of things. Because your idea of shoving me in Foxglove is making light of my love for you. I don’t know what I want, Greg, because I know I can’t marry you. I can’t be the mother to your children. I can’t have the things I want. So, I’m left to consider how to settle for any number of things I don’t want.”
“Bertie is leaving for Foxglove in February,” he said, completely overriding what I’d just said. “The cottage will be vacant. It was fully paid for at the time of Herbert’s death and he’d left enough money to keep it going. With her uncle Arthur’s death, Bertie has sufficient funds to travel and she’s willing to let you live at the cottage whilst you get on your feet. It has nothing to do with me so, therefore, if Lady complains, she doesn’t have two legs on which to stand.”
“If it has nothing to do with you, then why are you speaking for Bertie?” I hissed. “Why isn’t she the one making the offer to me? And why have the pair of you been conjecturing about this without me?”
“Because I’m your employer, Justine.”
“And what an employer you are!” I spat. “You have me on my knees both day and night!”
“And Bertie doesn’t want to bring the matter up until I, as your employer, let you go,” he continued, ignoring my statement. “And I will let you go, Justine, with my blessing and my reference. I must let you go. I cannot continue to see you working here.”
“I don’t want your blessing, nor your references. I want you.”
He stayed silent, looking at me over the rim of his port glass. His lips were pursed, his brow furrowed, and I could tell he was deciding how to whittle further at my stance to budge me closer to his way of thinking. I looked back at him, wondering if I could seduce him from his current train of thought. Flashing him a sultry glance, I began to unbutton my blouse anew.
“I already told you not tonight, Justine,” he said. “Certainly not tonight.”
Livid at the second rejection, I played my own sick game, continuing to stare at him and think my part of the conversation, testing our telepathy. ‘Why not tonight?’ I thought. ‘Wouldn’t you rather we undress each other in the firelight and revel in what we have?’
“Is that your answer to everything, Justine?”
‘It’s the answer I most understand,’ I thought, stung by his question.
“Well then,” he responded. “You better marry a man with an endless appetite.”
‘Like Anthony Winterbourne, Sir?’ I projected the ‘Sir’ with extra force.
“Like Anthony Winterbourne,” he confirmed.
I could feel my eyes glassing over and I didn’t want to cry in front of him, but then again, perhaps I did; perhaps I needed to show him how much his words were hurting me. But there was more to it than that; it was something I was having difficulty articulating to myself in that moment. In hindsight, though, I see it was the act itself which hurt me. The dialogue between speech and silence was preparing me for conversations with Greg to come, conversations in which the tables would be turned, when he’d be talking without words and I’d be speaking with them.
Setting down his port glass on the trolley, he rose and sat down at his desk, opening the top drawer and pulling out an envelope. Closing the drawer, he went to the bookshelf, pulled down a book, slipped the envelope inside and returned the book to the shelf.
“You’re a woman of free will,” he said, coming back to the hearth and sitting in the chair. “And you’re proud so, very well, for now the choice will be yours. In that envelope, I’ve put the key to Foxglove, a letter of reference and the name and address of the girl I have in mind to replace you. And before you send me any more of your questions, yes, Bertie was the one who gave me the copy of the key because she knew I was going to try to sway you at some point to take care of Foxglove for her.”
“Why, Greg?” A tear had escaped against my will and was carving its way down my cheek. “Why are you pushing me away?”
“The truth of it is,” he replied in a softer tone of voice, “I’m not ready to lose you yet and I don’t want to push you away. But you need a way out, Justine. Whether you’re ready to admit it to yourself or not, you need a way out of service here at Rosegate. But you need a safe way out and, at this point, Foxglove seems to be the only way. Bertie worships you, and she knows that. And then, there’s Anthony –”
“Enough about Anthony,” I interrupted vehemently. “Enough.”
“Very well,” he said. “But one day — one day –” His voice trailed off.
I rose from my chair with the intention of kneeling and laying my head on his lap so he could stroke my hair the way he always did after we’d had a heated discussion. Often that habit led into our passion but that night, he raised his palm to stop me and said, “I’m far too tired tonight, Justine, too tired for that. I can’t. I simply can’t. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too,” I said, turning and leaving the study.
Tangled and angry, I didn’t go to bed that night. I donned my cloak and left the house by way of the kitchen, making my way to Bertie’s cottage, determined to question her on what Greg had just told me. As soon as I arrived at Foxglove, I thumped my fist on the door and didn’t stop thumping until the door opened and my fist was in middair, an inch from Bertie’s frilly white night cap.
“Wat the devul — Justine — wat on urth are yer doin’? ‘Tis gone pas midnight. Yer gointa catch a cold, yer are. Then how yer gointa wurk?”
“And wouldn’t that be marvellous, Bertie?” I spat, storming in and setting my lantern on the kitchen table. “For if I couldn’t work, you and Greg would be most happy, it seems. For you could leave for Italy and I could live here in your cottage happily ever after doing God-knows-what and having treecalmoons with Gregory every single night.”
“Ahhhh,” she said, dropping down into a kitchen chair. “I see Sir has told yer.”
“He bloody well has,” I returned, yanking out a chair and sitting opposite her. “But what I’d very much like to know is why you weren’t the one to tell me. Your leaving the country is no small thing, Bertie. Your wanting me to live in Foxglove is no small thing. You’re my dearest friend. Why wouldn’t you confide in me about those things? They’re serious matters.”
“Becawse I thawt yer’d be mor likely to come ’round to the idea if yer hurd it from Sir.”
“I loathe the idea, Bertie. It doesn’t matter from whom it comes.”
“Well, lass, there are many times in life wen we ‘ave to do things we dont want to do.”
“Yes,” I said frostily. “But I’m not going to let you and Greg bully me into such things. And why? Why would the pair of you even want such an arrangement to happen?”
“Becawse we luv yer, tha’s why. Becawse we want to see yer out of Rosegate, tha’s why. Becawse we dont want to see yer in service. And becawse I haf the meens to make it ‘appen. I haf the money but I dont haf any childrun. Yer the dawter I n’er had.”
“Greg says you gave him a copy of your house key,” I said, softening slightly.
“Tha’ I did, lass. Tha’ I did.”
“So, you’re serious about this?”
“Ded serious, lass. N’er been more serious in me life.”
“And if I were to live here, whatever would I do? How would I earn my keep?”
“Yer wudnt haf to,” she replied, but slowly as if to choose her words carefully.
“And why not?”
Staring deep into my eyes, she asked, “How many munths since yer bled, lass?”
“What?” I couldn’t believe it, but I could. “What sort of a question is that?”
“A veree gud one under the circumstances,” she retorted. “A veree gud one indeed.”
“I bled last month,” I said, believing a direct question warranted a direct answer. “Besides, I’m always vigilant. I count the days. I know when to abstain” — ‘and when to do other things,’ I finished off in thought, privately acknowledging all the times Greg and I had pleasured each other without intercourse. “I’m not with child, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“Humph!” Bertie huffed. “But if yer were to be with child, yer know how that’d go. Yer’d be sacked by Laydee and yer wudnt find wurk. There’d be no one to watch the infant fer yer. Yer’d be needin’ shelter and a way of makin’ money. If yer were with child tha’ ’tis. But if wat yer say is true, then p’rhaps there’s nuthin’ to worry ’bout.”
“I can assure you that I’m not with child,” I returned. “Is that what Greg’s worried about then?”
“He’s a prospectur, ’tis Sir. He sensus things uthers dont, even the ones who has the tresures in them withowt knowin’. Like the way he knew how to find the gold o’erseas. He knew wat uthers had before they knew it themselves. He sees the welth in everything and tha’ goes with peeple too.”
“Greg had an education, Bertie. That’s how he knew what to look for.”
“He had more than an educashun, lass. He had vishun an’ he still dus.”
“Well, currently, his vision is failing then, and I’m not going to take either one of you up on this offer you’re so adamantly making. I’m not with child and I’ll keep on working at Rosegate whether you go to Italy or not. That key of yours can stay in Greg’s keeping. I’m not going to be needing it!”
“Right, lass. But jus’ becawse yer holdin’ furm fer the time bein’ dusnt meen yer always gointa be holdin’ furm. Foxglove is mine and I decide who I’m gointa lend it to and I’m decidin’ ’tis gointa be yer, the dawter tha’ I n’er had. And wud yer please considur this?” She leant forward, reaching for my hands which, reluctanly, I gave her. “I’m gointa Italy wethur yer like it or nor and yer’d be doin’ me a favur by stayin’ here and takin’ care of the place, protectin’ it from roburs. Foxglove is a home, lass, a place wer yer cud cook and write and watch the heath at awl hours o’ the day and night the way yer luv to. And as far as I’m concurnd, me home is yer hom wen yer need it.”
“Well, I won’t be needing it, Bertie.”
I rose and snatched my lantern up from the table, moving to the door, saying goodnight to Bertie then leaving. As I returned to Rosegate, I thought about what she’d said to me about being in a home where I could cook and write and watch the heath at all hours of the day and night the way I loved to. Bertie knew me well and I knew that she was right in that I would love all those things. And what a friend she was to recognise that and make her offer with Greg’s encouragement. But there was no way in which I was going to give either one of them the satisfaction of pushing me in a direction in which I might just want to go. And even if I did accept Bertie’s offer, what would happen with Greg? And why was he pushing Anthony on me? Pressing my hand against my stomach as I walked, I didn’t sense that I was pregnant. I had no inkling of an infant. Although I was much calmer than before, I found the matter unsettling.