Song of songs, p.8
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       Song of Songs, p.8

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  ‘Hellie, Hellie, I’ve wanted to hold you again all day.’ He buried his face in my neck and my hands slid round his back as I hugged him as hard as I could. I was panting with excitement, and then I held my breath as our tongues danced again.

  I cried out in soft protest when he pulled away. I heard his voice, very determined. ‘I want to see your breasts again, Hellie.’ He sat back on his heels, his eyes pools of darkness in his pale face as he stared at me.

  I raised my hands and began to undo the buttons of my bodice. In silence I started to pull my frock and my camisole down over my shoulders. When my arms were free I began to unfasten my corset. I had to struggle to tug it out from my waist; he leant forward to help me, and it was his hands which pushed down my petticoat until I sat before him, with my small round breasts swelling in the moonlight. He looked at them for a long moment, and I felt my nipples rise and tighten in his gaze. Slowly he leant forward and I sat quite still while his warm hands stroked me. Then he sat back again, pulled off his jacket, threw his tie to one side and began to unbutton his shirt. As I saw the dark downy shadow on his chest my heart leapt and I threw myself forward - so we sat, clasped breast to breast in the pale moonlight.

  At last he eased me down, until we lay side by side on the cushions. It seemed only natural then that his caressing hand should slide down my back. He curled his head against my breast and stroked the length of my leg, gliding over the filmy stuff of my skirt, down, down until his warm fingers clasped my ankle. He paused, and I shifted a little, so that his questing hand could find its way under my petticoat, into the warmth below. We were breathing more quickly now. He raised his head and his eyes were dark as we stared at each other, but we both lay quite still, only his hand moved. Slowly but inevitably it slid up my calf, slipped inside my drawers and up over my knee. And as it moved I felt an exquisite sweetness in the pit of my belly, growing and swelling, to a pitch where my body seemed barely able to contain it. I waited for his hand to creep higher, my eyes fixed on his face, until with a last swift movement it slid over the top of my stocking and touched my bare flesh. And as his strong fingers probed higher the pressure in my belly mounted and became beyond bearing, so I moaned aloud until he bent his head and fastened his lips on mine, and as he thrust his tongue into my mouth the exquisite sweetness reached bursting point and exploded. I jerked and clutched at him until at last I lay limp and shaken, with a strange slippery wetness between my legs.

  He slid his hand out from under my skirt, sat up and reached for his trouser buttons. I lay quiescent, waiting for him. But even as he undid the first button the stillness was shattered by a deep, rasping cough. We both froze. Then Sir Ernest’s voice, very loud, rang out over the hedges. ‘Now, Lady Pickering, I’m not sure that I trust your guidance in this undoubtedly puzzling maze.’

  ‘I am going in, with or without you, Sir Ernest.’ It was my mother’s voice.

  I jumped up, frantically holding my frock up to my breasts. Conan sprang to his feet, seized his jacket and began kicking the cushions under the seats.

  ‘If you insist, Lady Pickering.’ Sir Ernest’s voice still rang out loudly.

  We ran out of the pavilion and headed for the exit from the glade. A noisy burst of coughing rent the night air. ‘I’m so sorry, Lady Pickering - the smoke…’

  I collected my scattered wits and ran to the left, twisting and turning, away from the true route out, away into the shelter of the thick green walls. At last we reached a dead end. I huddled against the privet and Conan stood over me, very still.

  My mother’s shoes stirred the gravel of the central clearing; Sir Ernest trod heavily behind her. We heard his exclamation, ‘Ah, a deserted glade!’

  ‘Deserted now - oh!’ My mother’s sharp intake of breath told me she had seen the cushions. I thought frantically, but it might have been one of the gardeners, with a maid - oh please let her think that. Then Mother’s voice rang out, very loudly and distinctly, ‘I am rather concerned about Helena, Sir Ernest - perhaps she is unwell. I will send Fisher to her room to inquire as soon as we get back.’

  The footsteps moved off. I sagged against the hedge as Conan began to shake with laughter. ‘Caught in the act - Sir Ernest is a shrewd old so-and-so - still, at least he did the decent thing and gave us time to escape.’

  I whispered, ‘You don’t think he knew?’

  ‘I’ll bet he guessed this morning I’d be trying to get you off on your own somewhere. No doubt he’s been up to the same game himself in the past.’ Conan actually sounded admiring.

  I felt sick. I pushed past him and began to run out of the maze.

  ‘Hey, Hellie, I don’t know this place as well as you do!’ But I ignored his protest and ran on, doubling backwards and forwards until I reached the entrance. Outside I took to my heels and sped like a hare up the path, desperate fingers fumbling with my frock as I ran. I was doing up the last button as I panted across the magnolia lawn; I pushed back my plaits and circled round the orangery so as to slip in by the servants’ door. They were all in Hall at this time of the evening, so I ran unseen up the back stairs. Once in the safety of my room I flung myself down on my bed, panting and trembling.

  Suppose Mother and Sir Ernest had come upon us in the glade without any warning? I shuddered with relief, then went to the dressing table and began to attend to my hair. It was tidied again by the time the tap at the door came.

  I called, ‘Come in,’ and it was Miss Fisher. But my mother’s maid was carrying a brown paper parcel. She placed it carefully on the dressing table, murmured, ‘With her Ladyship’s compliments,’ and left. I stared at it for a moment, then broke the seal with shaking hands and began to undo the string. I unfolded the paper, and looked down - at my corset.

  Chapter Nine

  I dreamt I was being chased through the maze by an enormous man who was hooded and wrapped in a long black cloak. He moved quite slowly, but my feet were leaden - I could not run - so I could never escape from him. As I reached each corner the looming dark shape appeared round the one behind, blocking the way back. I twisted and turned frantically until I reached a dead end, and swung round at bay, crouching with my hands over my eyes while his steady padding footsteps came nearer and nearer…

  I woke up, drenched in sweat. I only slept in fits and starts for the rest of the night and was wide awake long before breakfast time - but I dreaded the thought of going downstairs. Agnes came in with my tea and drew back the curtains. ‘Another lovely day, my lady.’ But it was not a lovely day. I watched her come back with the can of hot water, and lay my clothes out, then I climbed reluctantly out of bed. I washed quickly; perhaps if I hurried I might be down and finished before anyone else arrived. I struggled to hook myself into my treacherous corset.

  At first I thought the morning room was empty, then I saw Sir Ernest over by the sideboard, helping himself to kidneys. He replaced the silver cover with a clang and smiled at me, showing his strong yellow teeth. ‘What a careless little girl you are, to be sure!’ His vulpine grin widened, then he threw back his head and roared with laughter.

  I turned to run away, but I cannoned into Papa in the doorway. At his look of surprise I went slowly over to the table. Papa held out his cup and I lifted the coffee pot - and splashed the tablecloth as Mother walked in. ‘Helena, how very careless. Ring for someone to clean up that mess.’

  I tugged at the bell and tried to slip out of the door, but she called me back and I sat with my eyes on my plate until she had finished her breakfast. She ate slowly, her face thunderous. Conan came in, but I did not look at him. At last Mother rose, and gestured to me to follow her.

  I walked after her into her boudoir, my legs shaking. She sat down at her writing desk and I stood in front of her, staring at the floor.

  ‘I want to know exactly what happened last night, Helena.’ Her voice was very cold. I was dumb, what could I say? ‘I’ve spoken to Conan already.’ My head jerked up. ‘He swears he never laid a finger on you below the waist.’ The
hot blood rose in my face. ‘Mm, I assumed he was lying - men always do in these situations. Come along, Helena, I want the truth - what exactly did the two of you get up to?’ I stared at her, horrified. How could I tell anyone, let alone Mother? ‘Helena, I must know.’ She was very angry now. ‘Don’t you realize you could be with child? - and the pair of you are far too young to marry, there’s not a penny between you - but if the damage has been done…’

  I was bewildered, ‘with child’? Me? But I was still a child myself. At last I blurted out, ‘But I can’t be with child - I’m not out yet.’

  Her cheekbones flared red. ‘Helena, are you totally stupid? Don’t you know what I’m talking about?’ I looked back at her blankly. ‘I see you don’t - really, the time you spend round the stables I would have thought by now . . She leant forward and spoke very clearly, as though to an idiot. ‘Helena, you know how your brothers are made?’ I nodded. ‘Tell me, truthfully, did Conan put his cock inside you?’

  The astonishment on my face must have given its own answer. She sat back in the chair, her shoulders sagging. ‘Thank God for that. I’d never have forgiven you if we’d had to ruin his life like that, with a marriage at seventeen - my own dear Alice’s son.’

  I was beyond thought now: too much had happened too quickly. It took me a moment to realize what Mother was saying next. ‘I was going to send you abroad next autumn in any case - I shall send you this year, now, as soon as I’ve found a really trustworthy governess. I had thought of Paris, but’ - she shuddered - ‘and not Dresden, there are too many English, so Alice told me. Sir Ernest suggests Munich: you should be safe enough there. I shall make inquiries at once about a reliable German governess - I understand they can be positive gorgons - and I shall instruct her never to let you out of her sight. In the meantime Conan has promised me solemnly that he won’t be alone with you again, and I want the same promise from you, Helena.’

  I whispered, ‘I promise.’ The tears trickled down my cheeks.

  ‘Why ever did I have daughters inflicted on me - a dozen sons would be less trouble. Go to your room and make yourself presentable.’

  I crept out. My thoughts were in turmoil; when I had been with Conan everything had seemed so natural, so right - yet clearly what we had done was dreadfully wrong.

  When the luncheon gong sounded I stole downstairs and slid into a seat at the bottom of the table. I looked from under my eyelashes at my fellow criminal, but he was laughing and joking with Juno as he came in. He flushed slightly when Mother beckoned him to the seat on her right hand, but she turned a smiling face in his direction and soon they were chatting easily together. Sir Ernest joined in, and their laughter seemed to mock me as I pushed my food around the plate, utterly miserable.

  In the drawing room after dinner Conan sauntered over to me as I sat in the window seat. He gave a rueful grin. ‘Hard luck, Hellie, but I suppose it’s as well they flushed us out before any harm was done. After all, as Aunt Ria says, you’re not a kitchenmaid to be tumbled and forgotten.’ I stared at him blankly. He gave a slight frown. ‘You should really have known better, Hellie - you are a girl, it’s different for a man, he can’t help it. But a girl shouldn’t let him behave like that.’

  Hot anger flared up, but I sat dumb until he shrugged his shoulders and walked away, whistling. I saw him join the group round my mother; her high clear laughter rang out as he spoke to her. He was base, a traitor.

  Sir Ernest’s dark bulk loomed over me. ‘Ah, Lady Helena, it’s time we had a song from you. Lady Maud tells me you have a nice little voice - come to the piano and sing to us now. I will accompany you.’

  I muttered, ‘I can accompany myself.’

  ‘No, no - I insist. I enjoy tinkling the ivories. I am quite competent, I assure you.’

  Ungraciously I followed him through to the piano and began to turn over the music, then stopped suddenly. ‘I will sing this song, Sir Ernest - can you play it?’

  ‘Why yes, in the key of F; you are a soprano, of course.’

  He walked to the connecting door and clapped his hands. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Lady Helena and I are about to entertain you, so you must all come through, draw up a chair, sit down - and be silent!’ His gaze fixed on my mother; she tossed her head, but stepped forward. Conan rushed ahead, swung a chair into position for her, then stood behind her like a young squire, his hand on the back of her seat. I took a deep angry breath and went to the piano.

  ‘Ready, Lady Helena?’

  I nodded to Sir Ernest and stood very straight, my gaze fixed on Conan. I did not need the music. Sir Ernest played the opening bars and I began to sing, in my fullest, strongest voice:

  ‘Early one morning, just as the sun was rising,

  I heard a maid sing in the valley below:

  “Oh don’t deceive me, O never leave me!

  How could you use a poor maiden so?” ’

  The complacent smile was wiped off Conan’s face as though by a cloth. I sang on:

  ‘Remember the vows that you made to your Mary,

  Remember the bow’r where you vowed to be true;’

  My voice filled the room, but I sang only to Conan, until the last plaintive:

  ‘How could you use a poor maiden so?’

  Sir Ernest took his hands from the keys and clapped loudly. ‘Bravo, Helena, bravo!’

  Conan joined in the polite applause of the other guests, looking rather foolish. Juno called ‘Encore!’ but I shook my head decisively. The murmuring of conversation filled the room again.

  ‘Thank you for playing, Sir Ernest - I don’t wish to sing any more.’

  He gave his reptilian smile. ‘You could hardly follow that, my dear - but one moment,’ his heavy hand on my wrist detained me. ‘Lady Maud is wrong: you do not have “a nice little voice” ’ - he mimicked her hoarse tones for a moment - ‘no indeed, you have a voice, a good voice, which with proper training could be a very good voice indeed. You are going to Munich, your mother tells me - Elsa Gehring is the best singing teacher in Munich - I will write to her. She is much in demand but she will hear you at my recommendation, and if you sing as well for her as you have done for us tonight she will take you on.’ He bared his teeth again. ‘After all, if you are to be exiled, you might as well pass the time usefully.’

  I shook my head. ‘Mother doesn’t like me to spend time on my singing.’

  ‘I will speak to Lady Pickering - I can persuade her.’ He bent over me until I could smell the brandy fumes on his breath. ‘Rim away now, little one - and dream of your faithless lover.’ He burst out laughing and I hated him. I stalked from the room and up the stairs, then ran along the corridor and flung myself down on my bed to weep.

  Several miserable days later Mother summoned me again. I stood mutely before her, waiting for sentence. ‘A Fraulein Washeim has been highly recommended to me - she is luckily available now, due to the death of her previous charge - measles I believe, still, you’ve had that, so there shouldn’t be any problem. She will arrange suitable lodgings and teach you German. As soon as Miss Ling gets back with Letty next week she will take you straight down to London.’

  I cried, ‘But the twins - the twins will still be in Scotland - I won’t be able to say goodbye!’

  Mother shrugged. ‘You should have thought of that before you behaved like a scullery maid.’ Her face was blurred now, as my eyes filled. ‘Sir Ernest has recommended some singing teacher - I suppose that’s as good a way as any of keeping you out of mischief. You can stay overnight with Alice at Eaton Terrace, then Guy will take you on to Germany.’

  Back in my room I wept and wept.

  The following evening the familiar cramping pains began. I slipped upstairs early and sent for a hot-water bottle. Agnes wrapped it in flannel when she brought it and I clutched it to my stomach until at last I fell asleep. But the pain woke me early in the morning; I climbed out of bed and knelt doubled up on the rug, gasping between each spasm. As my discomfort increased I knew I had to go to the water close
t, so I wrapped my dressing gown round me and crept along the corridor.

  As I came near my Mother’s bedroom on the way back I heard the door handle creak and I slid into the dressing- room alcove: I did not want her to see me like this. But the footsteps that came out were heavier than hers, and I caught a glimpse of a garish red dressing gown. Shrinking back I watched as Sir Ernest Webern cautiously surveyed the corridor, then, treading as delicately as a large jungle cat, passed in front of me. I saw the look of smug satisfaction on his face before the creak of his own door handle was quickly muffled and he disappeared from sight. I stumbled back to my own room and knelt down by the empty grate, sick and cold.

  Miss Ling brought Letty home a few days later. As my sister ran out of the drawing room on to the terrace the sun glinted on her golden plaits, and I remembered Uncle Arnold’s blond head bending over her in the nursery, and felt very old and tired.

  Mother spoke to Miss Ling before I was allowed to see her. Miss Ling was awkward and embarrassed with me, and I with her. We travelled down to London almost in silence. When she said goodbye in Alice’s drawing room I wanted to thank her - but I could not find the words. She put out her hand to me and said quickly, ‘Helena, you’re a sweet loving girl - but don’t let that loving nature lead you astray.’ She looked at me anxiously.

  But all I could blurt out was, ‘I’ll write, Miss Ling - I’ll write,’ and as she turned away I saw the disappointment in her eyes.

  I ran upstairs to Nanny; she kissed me warmly but she was busy with the new baby. ‘There, isn’t he a little pet? A nice brown curl already, just like his Papa. Elsie, what are you doing with that towel? Really, Lady Helena, these London girls have no idea with young babies - you wouldn’t believe the things they do. Lady Alice is in her sitting room - she’ll be pleased to see you, she’s been a bit peaky lately.’

  Alice put down her magazine as I came in. ‘Well, well, so here’s the erring daughter banished in disgrace from the family mansion.’ She laughed. ‘Really, Helena - and you look such a child in your short skirts with your pigtails down your back! Come along now, you must sing for your supper - tell me exactly what you were doing with Cousin Conan in the maze that night. Mother’s letter didn’t go into details - though I gather the “Worst” did not happen.’

 

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