Emily Buckingham and the Major’s Madam
Up until the point at which she first met Mrs Wilberforce, Emily Buckingham’s life had been about as eventful as a well-prepared cucumber sandwich; there were few shocks to be had in such a thing. Now though, as she lay supine in the mud – a Bruegelian Lady of Shallot, her dress billowing in quantities of putrescence, it could hardly be more eventful.
Matters began with an incident on an omnibus. The vehicle in question had come to a precipitous halt at the roadside, near to where Miss Buckingham’s carriage rested, in order to discharge a passenger for failing to pay the requisite fare. Miss Buckingham herself had just returned from her afternoon promenade with a friend. As was their custom; the two of them, bustled, frilled and parasolled like china ornaments with faint blushes of colour dabbed here and there to hint at life beneath the upholstery, had undertaken their parade, for this is what it was and hardly a constitutional, and repaired to the café in order to be seen by matriarchs whose eligible sons required well positioned wives. Following this, they would normally decamp, each to her own carriage, to rattle off home with tales of young Earl This, most agreeable Lord That, and how shocking it was to be hailed by that dreadful Monsieur de Beauvoir who affected himself to be French but whom everyone knew to be from somewhere undoubtedly squalid just south of the Thames.
On this occasion, however, with tea safely stowed in tiny bites and sips somewhere unfathomable beneath each prim décolletage and above each minutely wasped waist, Miss Buckingham’s friend departed in her carriage and Miss Buckingham was about to do likewise. She was arranging her gown so that she could rest upon it her exquisitely kid-gloved hands, when a common rumpus broke out nearby, and a woman of some proportions could be seen wailing and threatening to collapse into the mire of mud and horse dung that remained from a recent downpour.
While it was not entirely clear at this stage that the woman in question should be classified as a lady in distress, or even a lady for that matter, it was evident that several gentlemen in the vicinity, whether giving benefit to the doubt or having reason of their own to make haste in her rescue, could not ignore such an event; especially one that had ostensibly come about at the hands of a villain. Miss Buckingham observed, from her lacquered sanctuary with its comforting quilted interior, a small army of gallants, including her own driver, to rush across the street and to bolster the swaying victim, thereby saving her from the ignominy of a public bemiring. That the villain was in fact the conductor of the nearby omnibus and not a villain at all, and that the woman, by virtue of having failed to pay her fare, might be described as the more villainous of the two, was of no concern to anyone. Conversely, her impecunious state and reason for undertaking this particular journey would certainly have been of interest, had anyone been keen to detail them.
Mrs Wilberforce had, in fact, just come from the residence of a certain gentleman of her acquaintance whose financial affairs were in rude good health, and whose assistance with her own she had successfully secured. But since neither the money, which was to go directly into the purchase of the property wherein she delivered her services, nor the services, which could hardly be offered on the Number 49 omnibus, were available to exchange for a ticket, Mrs Wilberforce had found herself cast out onto the street. This was, fortunately for her, a temporary state of affairs as the crowd of gentlemen in attendance seemed keen to ensure she continued her journey as quickly as possible. She was, therefore, bundled back aboard the omnibus with at least three times the necessary fare pressed into the hands of its bewildered operative; the heroic gentlemen thereafter melting anonymously away without a word to anyone.
Miss Buckingham’s second encounter with Mrs Wilberforce, a little less indirect than the first, occurred quite some months later during the former’s sortie to an Emporium wherein, she had good reason to believe, an exciting delivery of foreign silks was to be found. Miss Buckingham had come upon this information while passing by her father’s study one evening and, while not one to loiter like a lapdog in hope of scraps, she had applied restraint to her usual brisk pace in light of his conversation with his visitor, a merchant who, she recalled, was an importer of foreign goods.
‘Most exotic, Major,’ the merchant was saying. ‘Very smooth and, ah – extraordin’ry delicate to the touch, sir.’
‘Like a second skin, sir.’
‘Ah, very good. Yes, very good indeed!’
‘Colours like jewels, sir. On the crowned heads of the far East, sir.’ The merchant was warming to his theme. ‘The ladies who wear these silks will be like royalty itself, sir. But maybe a little more accommodating, if you get my drift.’
The Major cleared his throat with a hearty harrumph, ‘Quite so, Pilbeam, quite so.’ His leather seat made a creaking sound as though it were being relieved of a significant burden, ‘Usual arrangements, of course. The ladies,’ – and Miss Buckingham was sure she heard a heavy emphasis on this word – ‘will not be advised until a wardrobe of costumes is made ready.’ There followed some coughing, guttural rumbling and a rustling of papers, and Miss Buckingham moved smartly along the hallway as it seemed apparent that the merchant was about to leave. Soft as skin and colours like jewels! And to be kept privy from the ladies! She was unquestionably the principle lady of whom they spoke, and this was most certainly the material from which her gowns for the coming Season were to be made. Bravo Papa! How wonderful that her father had gone to such trouble. But then it made perfect sense, of course: a suitable marriage might dangle on the difference between fashionable modernity and the wearing of a faded old frock that absolutely everyone had seen at least once before. She might even attract the attentions of a more pleasing suitor than Captain Bertrand; a man with no discernible interests and smelling of wet hounds, whose few words appeared mostly to comprise commands which he exploded through both barrels of his nose as though scattering vermin. With this thought uppermost in her mind, Miss Buckingham conveniently failed to consider the plurality of the proposed recipients and instead elaborated a plan. She would seek out these materials and then surprise her father with her extraordinary cleverness in getting ahead of him in his little enterprise.
In fairness, the task did not require the skills of a super sleuth, there being few outlets to which such finery might be delivered, and so the very next week Miss Buckingham made a journey to the shop in question, requiring there and then to be shown the special fabrics she knew to be recently arrived from the East. Instead, however, she was unaccountably subjected to an endless catalogue of brocades, velvets, and lace-edged satin – all of them tiresome remnants of the previous season – which she waved away, bolt after unsuitable bolt:
‘Did not the Felsome girls use that material last year? Perfectly awful!’
‘Cotton is so very common.’
‘Who could possibly wear that after the Duchess had particularly remarked on its vulgarity?’
Finally, with the authority of a Governess in high dudgeon over the importance of owning up to the moving of an item of cutlery just before dinner was to be served, Miss Buckingham demanded to see the silks that she absolutely knew to be on the premises. The shop girl, after offering one bleak, ‘But Miss …’ and receiving an arched eyebrow in response, scurried away, to return bearing the most glorious cascade of shimmering materials. Oh, such colours – these were truly the stuff of Eastern palaces! Albeit, Miss Buckingham allowed, a little brighter than she might have expected.
‘It’s not actually for sale, Miss.’ With eyes already pleading forgiveness, the girl stood back from the kaleidoscopic display, rather as one who sees the edge of a cliff and retreats just far enough to hope not to fall over it.
‘Of course it is. It is here, is it not – in a place at which such commodities are sold?’ If Miss Buckingham had entertained any doubts about making a purchase, they were dispelled by the simple prospect of being denied. But the wave upon wave of whispering silks now reflected in her much widened eyes were, the girl informed her, ‘a very particular order, Miss, for a Gentleman, Miss,’ whose identity could not be revealed as he was of ‘very high standing’. For a shop girl, telling her customer that she could not have something upon which she had clearly set her heart was unheard of, and the young woman, perched like a reluctant lemming on the edge of a yawning chasm of immediate versus later approbation, took refuge in the shop’s declaration that customers were always to be accommodated, especially when they were the daughters of Patrons. She therefore made the sale which was to impact not only upon her own fortunes, but those of several other individuals who were, as yet, labouring under entirely different illusions.
But before the threads of consequence could find their way into the local warp and weft, Miss Buckingham was about to have her second indirect encounter with Mrs Wilberforce. On leaving the shop wherein she had successfully negotiated, if that is the correct word when such vast clefts of social position are opened up, her rights to swathes of silk that would be made up into gowns for the various engagements of the coming Season, Miss Buckingham found that the driver of her carriage, far from giving the shop doorway his assiduous attention in order to dart to her assistance and hand her aboard, was deep in conversation with a raucous sounding woman. He must have been accosted by this fish-wife surely, but no, there was laughter. As she approached, Miss Buckingham could not help but overhear:
‘Needs a bit of discipline, that one; feisty old bugger!’
‘You want to watch that tongue of yours, Mrs W. Sharp as glass, it is, and lively as a bag of elvers!’ There followed a throaty laugh, like a witch gargling, if there could indeed be such a thing. Miss Buckingham strained her ears.
‘Nothing like a good tongue lashing, especially one as is good and sharp.’
‘Keeps ‘em in line, does it, a bit of a lashing? Crack! Crack! Crack!’ The driver seemed to be most enthused about all of this.
‘Now who needs to watch their tongue? No more afternoon tea parties if the cat gets out of the bag.’
‘Cat! That’s very funny, Mrs W, very entertaining. I’d fancy a bit of cat, I would,’ and he leaned in towards what Miss Buckingham could now identify as a chest of significant breadth, barely contained in a straining and oddly familiar blue bodice.
‘On the house, for you, if you keep bringing in personages as would like a little colour in their cheeks.’ At this, they both threw themselves about in wheezing snorts, which ended abruptly when the driver spotted Miss Buckingham.
‘Go on, get on your way, there’s nothing in a lady’s carriage for you,’ he shouted, in public declaration of dissociation. He turned to Miss Buckingham, ‘Miss, am I to collect your purchases today, Miss?’ he enquired, scanning the shop doorway for an assistant soldiering under a mountain of boxes and paraphernalia. He was relieved to note that there was none to be seen.
‘Not today, thank you. I should like to leave now, please.’ Miss Buckingham positioned herself next to the carriage door and waited for what seemed to be an entire age for her driver to open it. The man’s behaviour was extremely irritating, but she had to admit to being just a little intrigued at what she had just witnessed. Miss Buckingham had always understood that servants had their own lives, vulgar and unenlightened in comparison with normal people of course, but until now she had also thought them plain and uninteresting too. It seemed she might have to revise this view as they had quite unexpectedly demonstrated some familiarity with the notion of formal discipline and even saw it as a kind of entertainment. Who could possibly have guessed?
Some time later, and with the Season about to start, the arrival of a number of boxes at the Buckingham household gave rise to a great deal of excitement. The fittings had gone to plan, with only the tedious standing around to be endured while pins and tucks were pinned and tucked, unpinned and untucked, and then once more tucked. There had been, Miss Buckingham thought, many admiring glances too as she paraded before the shop’s full length mirrors in her various gowns, pausing now and then to allow some poor unfortunate, drably drooping in last year’s fabrics, to be cheered by her elegance and style.
But there had also, on reflection, been a few expressions that had not been so obviously admiring. Most disconcertingly, they had flitted across the faces of the dressmakers until chased away by her observation of them and replaced by something more suitably deferential. Once or twice she thought she even heard giggling. Such behaviour, and in her presence too! Those girls needed firm discipline, she thought; taking in hand by someone who knew how to command authority. Suddenly, her driver’s formidable acquaintance came to mind: she of the ability to tongue-lash anyone at all into shape. Yes, there was the solution! She would see to it that the woman was consulted in this matter. In fact, she would speak to her in person because quite obviously she was the more suitably placed to advise on the ways in which servants should conduct themselves. After all, there was no sign of improper behaviour in her own Lady’s Maid who just now was occupied, without the tiniest slip in her sober demeanour, in tugging the architecture of Miss Buckingham’s bodice into place. Miss Buckingham breathed in to allow the final fastener to be closed – and there it was, perfect! The green silk, the precise shade of an emerald waterfall with the sunlight shining through it, swished exquisitely as she turned. The front panelling, which was inversely reflected in the bodice, gave rise to an even tinier aspect on the eye than she had thought possible, pinching in at her waist and pitching out again like an hour glass. With matching ribbons perched like silk butterflies in the hair beneath her hat, a purse of deeper green – as of the China Sea on a wild afternoon, she fancied – and a matching parasol, Miss Buckingham was quite ready to be seen out and about. But first she had an important mission to accomplish. She summoned her driver.
‘You will take me to call upon your acquaintance, Mrs – Mrs – I was most taken with her approach to discipline and we have very particular need of it in certain places.’ She gave the man an authoritative look to show she expected him to know precisely who she meant and not to prevaricate in his response.
‘Miss, I’m at a loss, Miss, to identify the personage – ’
‘Please do not deny you know the woman. I overheard you talking to her by my carriage. Quite by accident of course, and I should not have done so had you been properly attending to your duties, I might remind you. Luckily for you, this was a most fortuitous lapse on your part as I have a pressing need for the talents of a woman such as she.’
‘By your carriage, Miss? A person as knows about discipline? I don’t – you mean Mrs W – Mrs Wilberforce? You want to visit Mrs Wilberforce?’ The man’s eyes were almost out on stalks and his eyebrows had risen so far up his forehead as to join forces with the grimy plimsoll line whereat his cap was normally berthed.
‘Mrs Wilberforce. Indeed, I certainly do. I understand she is a fine disciplinarian and I wish to recommend her services. It is only courteous that I call upon her in person to advise her of this, and impress upon her the privilege and responsibility that accompanies my personal introduction.’
‘And you want to go now? In that?’ The driver gaped in a most unseemly manner and appeared to have lost all sense of the demands of social order. He also seemed more than a little amused, in a crude and unsophisticated way. This was puzzling but who could possibly understand what went on in the minds of the lower classes? Miss Buckingham decided out of expedience that she would deal with his impudence and disrespect later. For now he was her only connection to the redoubtable Mrs – whatever her name was – Wilberforce.
‘Do I have to tell you twice? I shall be down shortly and I expect you to be ready with my carriage.’ Miss Buckingham turned sharply in dismissal, making much of the effect this would have on the rustling silk of her hem. Let it remind him of his station. She would have him in front of her father before the day was out.
Mrs Wilberforce, meanwhile, was engaged in a meeting of her own and was expending a deal of energy upon it, such that she was becoming quite out of breath. After a volley of explosive deliveries that had doubled her over in a coughing fit, she said, ‘Getting too old for this … need a change of hands, you do … someone with a bit more willingness in their limbs.’ She glanced sideways at the purple and red whiskery face alongside, the owner of which was also bent double. ‘And this bloody thing pinches me privates,’ she added, tugging at the leg of her attire and squirming herself into a more comfortable arrangement with it.
‘Fine looking woman, you are yet,’ said the man whose whiskers glistened with spittle but whose cheeks were now gradually settling into a more genteel shade of pink. The ones on his face, at any rate. ‘But a vigorous new arm might go some way to satisfying the needs of a red-blooded gentleman.’ He straightened up, fetched a fat fryer’s pan of a hand around at speed and landed it on Mrs Wilberforce’s rump so that she stumbled forwards.
‘You’re a right wicked one, you are!’ She dropped the instrument she had been wielding in the region of the gentleman’s rear elevation, halted her forward momentum on the back of the chaise longue, and then also drew herself up to the vertical to look her assailant in the eye. ‘Definite grounds for a right royal beating, I’d say.’ Mrs Wilberforce let out a cackle fit for a farmyard, accompanied by a gaseous discharge that would not itself be out of place there, and stepped smartly aside to avoid the two big hands that were lunging towards her hips. ‘Time’s up,’ she said, ‘you’ll have to wait your turn for that, naughty boy!’
‘I am minded to put the rent up – ’
The elephantine guffaws and hen house scrawks that reverberated around the room, and exited the open windows to amuse the street whores and pimps loitering below in hopes of cast-offs, would have shocked Miss Buckingham into a veritable faint, had she been within ear shot. But she was as yet some streets away, holding onto her determination to see this venture through by the simple act of keeping her eyes closed against the increasing odiousness of the scenery. Upon reflection, some advance warning of the nature of her destination may have been of value. But then in that case, Miss Buckingham may not have continued with her journey and so would not have found herself in the first of many unusual positions.
However, keeping her eyes closed while the carriage rattled and squelched, heaved and bumped along ever darker and narrower streets was forcing Miss Buckingham into imagined confrontation with the malodorous Captain Bertrand. He was tall, which was good because tall men were invariably superior to short ones, and he was of reasonable complexion if one disregarded the mole under his eye. Admittedly, this was quite a task to accomplish, the mole being embellished by a sturdy black hair which grew out of the centre and looked as though it might have the strength of watch spring. The effect of this was an unfortunate twitching of the eye so that the Captain appeared forever to be making lewd or furtive approaches to anyone upon whom his sight rested. He was, though, due to inherit a considerable fortune and also a large property, which one might consider reasonable balance in respect of his aesthetic and social deficits. But the property was located in the countryside in many acres with only deer and dogs for company. Miss Buckingham was not a fan of either. Miss Buckingham was a fan of Society and chatter, fashionable company, tea and small fancy cakes. Where, she wondered, were all the eligible gentlemen blessed with both prospects and a personable nature, who did not spend all their time puffing and blowing about their own importance? Miss Buckingham sighed a baby bird’s breath of a sigh, and opened her eyes just as the carriage came to a halt, whereupon a cacophony of shrieks penetrated her ears, and the smell of something unwholesome assaulted her nose in the manner of a pox patient’s blanket thrown from the workhouse window.
Miss Buckingham, determined now to rely for the duration on only the clean breath already within her lungs, sat as still as possible while the carriage stuttered back and forth, the driver trying to find a gap free enough of foul deposits as to accommodate a delicate shoe.
‘Got anovver one, ‘ave you?’
‘Nice rich Lord or a Prince what likes his pants pressed, is it?’
The rabble at the doorway to Mrs Wilberforce’s establishment was quite accustomed to the arrival of Important Callers in curtained carriages, and made a point of camping out there in hopes of a few spare coins being tossed their way. So many now gathered, in fact, that several of the visiting gentlemen had taken to wearing disguises such as large hats with flamboyant brims and shiny silk scarves pulled up over the nose like a highwayman. One gentleman had actually chosen to sport a hood, the like of which the hangman – or the man to be hanged – might wear. Some of the loiterers prospected on the possibility of further pickings: a gentleman as didn’t quite get what he wanted, or enough of it, maybe? Others were here just to gawp. You never knew, a Prince might really turn up one day; or a member of Parlyment. They goggled and gestured. Miss Buckingham’s driver gestured back, waving his arms in the manner of a farmer shooing cattle.
‘Gerrrronnwiyer!’ he said, with as much authority as he could muster. ‘This is a lady on board, so show some manners.’
‘Ooh, a Lady, is it? Ooh!’
‘A proper lady as goes to the hopera, or a pertend one as entertains the lady’s gentleman so she doesn’t get her pretty nightdress all rumpled?’ A cackle broke out which threatened to attract the attention of the whole street, and indeed, heads were emerging from windows already to see what the fuss was about.
It was at this point that Miss Buckingham stepped out of her carriage, her sunlit emerald silk gown swishing and swirling before her; her waist a veritable dot of infinity within a bodice that permitted barely a single breath to escape and, for as long as possible, absolutely none to enter.
‘Blimey!’ said someone into the silence that dropped like a dead crow onto the crowd.
‘Where’d Mrs W get this one?’
‘Welcome to your new palace, yer Majersty!’ said a man with a coal bunker for a mouth, and who underlined his greeting by expectorating with precision into the morass near to Miss Buckingham’s foot. Miss Buckingham angled her face away: how unspeakably disgusting!
Hardly less disgusting, at least from the outside, was Mrs Wilberforce’s place of business; an edifice pinioned on one side by a ramshackle building that might have been a stable, had there been any horses in it, and on the other by a shop selling slabs of meat out of which the bones of unidentifiable animals protruded. The top floor seemed to overflow its neighbours in a permanent shrug, while the ground floor had the look of a wedge driven between to keep them apart. The detail of its architecture was obscured by layers of soot and grime which it seemed to have sucked in from the air, and the effluent splashed upon it by passing traffic. The windows were, by consequence, impenetrable to the eye but seemed additionally to be shielded by thick curtains – apart from the ones out of which several faces were now emerging and peering at her. Some of these were laughing out loud.
‘Oh my goodness – Miss Buckingham!’ One of the gawkers suddenly clapped her hands to her face, ‘Miss Buckingham, what are you doing here?’ she called down, her eyes starting out like hat pegs in a chapel hall, ‘And dressed like that too?’ Miss Buckingham stared at her; she knew that girl, did she not? But from where, and how could that be possible? The face withdrew, leaving a chorus of disharmonious foghorns to honk its appreciation of the unexpected entertainment.
‘Joining the family business, is she? Well I never!’ hooted one; a woman whose upper echelons appeared uncontained by anything more substantial than a wisp of black smog.
‘What can they mean?’ Miss Buckingham enquired of her driver. ‘What is this family business, and why are these, these, people,’ she expelled the word as though it were an imposter that denied her access to the one she needed, ‘so amused about a lady keeping a perfectly ordinary business appointment?’
‘I don’t know, Miss, really I don’t.’ The lie was a limping creature destined to fall at the first hurdle, and the driver felt his livelihood vanishing faster than a bet on a three-legged dog. This was confirmed to him the moment the front door opened and Mrs W appeared.
Mrs Wilberforce, fending off the attentions of her visitor and bending forwards in an attempt to field the low grasps of his hands, while also pulling at the leg of her outfit, was reversing into the street, presenting a set of cheeks such as might be seen in an exotic zoo, and not at all covered by the green silk that arched above her buttocks and ran in a narrow thread between them. As she stooped further forwards and progressed further backwards, the gentleman whose rear aspect she had recently been addressing with a butter paddle came into plain view.
At this, Miss Buckingham’s day, which had begun in the most agreeable manner with the acquisition of her new wardrobe, but which then subsequently degenerated to the point where she was standing up to her ankles in vile detritus outside a house full of screeching harridans, now descended a further rung on Dante’s scale of infernal circles:
‘Who?’ Mrs Wilberforce turned around, tugging now at the top of her bodice, out of which a volume of pale flesh was threatening to spill, like cod from a bucket, into the open air. But Mrs Wilberforce, not one to be thrown by such minor matters as public decency, or to pass up a business opportunity, re-settled her costume and subjected Miss Buckingham to a cursory appraisal, ‘Well, well – here’s a fine one, Major. And all done up ready for business, too.’ She cast a glance downwards, ‘Them skirts come off, do they luv?’ Mrs Wilberforce slithered forwards in the mud and began to inspect Miss Buckingham, her eyes squinting and probing like a horse trader in the market for a nag.
‘Not much meat on her, but she’ll suit our haristocrats very nicely.’ Mrs Wilberforce poked Miss Buckingham in the ribs, an action that fractured the stunned immobility into which Miss Buckingham had slipped, and caused her to inhale. Major Buckingham, also adjusting his dress and, from the deep well of entitlement, dredging up the dignity of rank, marched forwards, blustering orders at the crowd, ‘Get away, move along, look sharp!’ He took Miss Buckingham by the elbow, ‘Emily, you will get in the carriage and you will go straight home. You will take a bath and a nap and you will forget all about this.’
But Miss Buckingham, dizzied by the sight of Mrs Wilberforce’s escaping flesh and her father’s appearance, the lack of oxygen and sudden influx of noxious fumes, stumbled sideways. In so doing, her right foot encountered the slick residue of a spillage from the shop next door and she slid in a graceful glissando that tipped her slight frame irretrievably towards the horizontal. Then she descended – silks, skirts, petticoats, nipped-in waist, lace edged décolletage and all – into the mire. There she lay inert; the vile tide closing over her dress, soaking into her undergarments, and threatening to breach the most delicate of her private regions. She waited: rescue would come, she was sure.
Everyone else waited too – whose job was it to pick up a lady? Even one as far away from any ladyshipping as any of them had ever seen? Fortunately, Major Buckingham, more familiar with military yarn-weaving than actual manoeuvres but remarkably sharp witted in the matter of appearances, came up with an emergency strategy. He and Mrs Wilberforce, therefore, hoisted Miss Buckingham aloft – the Major raising her up from under her arms and Mrs Wilberforce, after rummaging around beneath the sodden mass of bilious moiré, grasping a leg in each hand. Thus, the party transported her, like a sodden wheelbarrow decorated for a church fayre, into the house, attended by a crowing band of girls and the carriage driver, who brought with him a mud-blackened shoe in hopes of leniency.
Once indoors and restored to the vertical in a room filled with red furnishings, Miss Buckingham was given a further once-over by Mrs Wilberforce. ‘Essie, fetch one of your frocks. One with a bit of something to cover her front and her legs – can’t have her ladyship feeling a cold draught where there’s never been a draught before, can we?’ She expelled a loud belch in anticipation of Miss Buckingham’s objections. ‘Well, you can’t stay in them things, can you? You’ll set solid as an old dog turd!’ Somebody chuckled and Miss Buckingham heard footsteps clattering up wooden stairs.
‘And you, Major, you get yourself out of here while we make her decent.’ Major Buckingham, stalled like an old tractor now the successful retrieval of his daughter had been accomplished, also needed to be expelled. ‘Get out of it, into the parlour with you!’ Mrs Wilberforce pointed a fingerful of imperative at the door, and Miss Buckingham, from a mental position as detached and chill as a small sculpted ice floe adrift in the ocean, noted that even her own father could be held to account by this most remarkable woman. She had certainly not been wrong about her. Indeed, she had been quite right to come here. Quite right. Miss Buckingham repeated this to herself because, as everyone knew, firm conviction was interchangeable with truth and this was a far better truth than the one her eyes would have her believe was extant at this moment.
Essie returned with a garment and held it up for Mrs Wilberforce’s inspection. Her mouth twitched into a smile and she pulled it back with almost professional efficiency.
‘You alright, Miss? Took a bit of tumble there, and just look at you.’ She ran an eye – also somewhat professional – over the bedraggled mess before her. ‘That’s proper ruined, that is!’ she concluded, with rather more cheer than might seem appropriate.
‘I know you. Why do I know you?’
‘From the shop, Miss, where you bought the material.’ Essie gestured at the drapes sagging beneath Miss Buckingham’s waist. ‘Insisted on having it, you did. Told you it weren’t for sale.’ Essie’s restraint gave way and she snorted with quite unprofessional gusto. ‘You all done up in your bows and frills and us making specials out of the same stuff as would please Mrs W’s gentlemen callers!’ Pink and wet-faced with laughing, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘Didn’t the Major say nuffin’ when he saw what you bought, Miss?’ Cos he’d know, him being the owner, like.’
‘The owner? Of what?’
‘Ah,’ said Mrs Wilberforce, and rubbed her chin. ‘What was you actually coming here for, if I might ask?’
‘I heard you were a formidable mistress -’ someone coughed, ‘of discipline -’ another cough, and a muffled squeal, ‘my driver assured me – ’
‘I did not, Miss!’ Here at least was something for which he would not be blamed. ‘Are you still here?’ Mrs Wilberforce scowled at the driver, ‘Out!’ she instructed, ‘and get the Major back home before I decide you ain’t worth your keep. Not a word to anyone, mind!’ The driver scuttled rapidly out of the door, hopes of salvation now unexpectedly dawning: there was people as might pay him to keep his mouth shut and others as might pay him to flap it a bit. Things were looking up.
Mrs Wilberforce turned back to where her uninvited guest was dripping effluent onto her carpet. ‘Right, let’s get you out of this mess and into a nice little frock. Come on, Essie, you’re the one as knows how to do this, get the lady properly dressed.’
‘Improperly, more like, Mrs W, unless you got a fancy cape we can tie over the front!’
‘You just do your best, Essie, and look sharp, your gentleman is due soon.’ Mrs Wilberforce left Essie to the task of stripping Miss Buckingham down and equipping her with sufficient coverage as to allow her outside again. Miss Buckingham, head held at an angle commensurate with supreme dignity, despite an encrustation of mud on her cheeks and nose, allowed herself to be divested of her once pristine gown.
‘This is a most unusual circumstance,’ she said. ‘I find that I am intrigued to know how you came to be, ah – working here.’
‘Got dismissed from the shop, Miss, after the silks and all.’
‘Oh, how very unfortunate. And such a miserable position to which you have sunk. Is it absolutely terrible?’
‘Oh no, Miss. Mrs W runs a clean house, we don’t do nuthin’ we don’t want to. In fact we make the gentleman callers do what we want them to do, actually.’
‘You make the gentlemen do your bidding?’ Miss Buckingham had never considered the possibility that men could be made to do anything at all. ‘What is it, if you can tell me, that you make the gentlemen do?’
‘We discipline them, Miss.’
‘You discipline them?’ Of course, was this not why she was here? ‘How? In what way?’
‘Goodness me, Miss, you don’t know much, do you? See those things hanging on the wall there, the straps and paddles and the like?’ Well, some gentlemen like the feel of that, Miss. Probably reminds them of their nannies, I shouldn’t wonder!’
‘You apply those – instruments – to their …? Oh my Lord! And my father, the Major – ?’
‘Well, you might say he gets his on the house, Miss. Step up your feet, let’s have this right off you.’ Essie dragged the muddy gown and its bedraggled petticoats out from under Miss Buckingham’s feet. ‘Now lift your arms.’ She slithered a set of ruffles over Miss Buckingham’s head and settled them on her hips.
‘On the house? What do you mean, exactly?’
‘Well, he don’t pay, Miss, on account of he’d be paying himself really. Wriggle your hips a bit, get this down where it should be.’ Miss Buckingham wriggled and the ruffles cascaded down towards her knees.
‘You’ll need some stockings for them legs, Miss. You look like a stork!’ Essie rummaged in a drawer and picked out a pair. ‘There you are, put them on and we’ll see what’s next.’
‘I don’t understand – how would he be paying himself?’
‘Those fit right? Pull them up a bit. That’s better.’ Essie fluffed the ruffles over the stockings and cast a studied eye over the result. ‘Well, seeing as he’s Mrs W’s business partner, like, and he owns the premises, Miss, that’s how.’ She giggled again, and untangled a boned and laced contraption from the pile of mysterious garments draped over a deep red velvet chair. ‘Arms up again, and breathe in.’
‘My father owns this place?’
‘He does, Miss.’
‘So he is your – employer?’
‘Oh no, Miss. It’s the gentlemen callers that pay us, the Major just gets some of the takings, like rent for the facilities, you might call it.’ She swept an indicative glance around the room.
‘He profits from these activities?’ Miss Buckingham was almost certain that this must be illegal, but surely it could not be so if her father was involved?
‘Course he is, Miss. And right well too, with ten of us doing a good trade here. Some of my customers more than likely paid for that fancy gown, I should think. Would have kept that money myself, if I’d known!’ Essie wrinkled her nose at the mess on the floor and shuffled it to one side with her feet.
‘And this place is a – bawdy house?’
‘Certainly not, Miss. Not a bawdy house. Very respectable, we are – we got Lords and famous gentlemen comes here, Miss, for our special services. Gentlemen that like to be told what to do by a woman for a change. Not in public, of course.’
Well, that was a relief, Miss Buckingham thought, special services provided to important people away from the vulgar stares of the public. Quite reasonable. The detail of it remained a little troubling though:
‘You do not mind doing this work? It is not rather unseemly for a woman to see a man exposed thus?’
‘Not in the least – seen one, seen ‘em all, I reckon. And there’s much worse you could call work than beating haristocratic bottoms with a paddle till they’re yelling at you to stop, and then paddling some more because they don’t want you to stop really! Then when you let them loose, they pay you handsomely for it. No, Miss, I don’t mind at all. I’ll have enough put by for my own carriage and driver soon. Then maybe a little house …’
Essie finished persuading the new bodice, built more for exposure than containment, into a less revealing attitude. Miss Buckingham shifted within it and observed a personal attribute she had never considered before: her cleavage. She squeezed her arms into her sides a little to find it became even further accentuated. How intriguing! If she were to squeeze a little more … Dear Lord, such unsuitable thoughts! It would be far safer to return to her interrogation of Essie’s occupation. If one were not a young lady, then almost anything might be acceptable, although surely not some of these.
‘I imagine there is a certain revulsion in administering these acts of discipline such that one might feel quite demeaned?’
‘I should say not! Most of ‘em got it coming – wouldn’t look twice at you in the street. Spit on you, most likely.’
‘So, you have the whip hand …’
‘You might say so, Miss!’
‘And the men come especially to experience that?’
‘They certainly do – ain’t that something, Miss!’
‘Most illuminating.’ Miss Buckingham looked down at herself: shoes with black buckles and feet in black stockings poked from beneath a flounce of indigo silk that ended at her knees. Out from her hips were thrust panniers of violet chiffon edged with black lace. Her waist, just as tiny as before but embellished with tassels rather than lace buds, was pinched in by a boned bodice that, instead of embracing and subduing her bosom, cradled and exalted it – elevating it against the force of gravity and cantilevering it out from her chest like a balcony at the opera.
‘We should get you covered up a bit, Miss.’ Essie said. ‘Can’t go home like this.’ She pulled open a drawer, poked around in it, and retrieved a black velvet scarf of substantial dimensions. She was shaking it out when Mrs Wilberforce reappeared.
‘Quick quick, Essie, your gentleman’s arrived,’ she said. ‘And he mustn’t see the Major’s young Missy; that would never do.’ She looked around for something to disguise Miss Buckingham and spotted a mask – full-face, black, and leathery as a bat’s wing. ‘Put this on, he won’t recognise you. More wits in a whore’s drawers than he’s got in his head, and that’s not saying much. Hurry up, girl.’ Miss Buckingham took the mask, placed it over her face, and Essie tied the strings behind her head.
‘You should leave now while I see to my gentleman,’ Essie said, guiding Miss Buckingham towards the door. The gentleman, however, who had already been waiting longer than he felt appropriate, now made his entry; marching across the room in great strides and standing before the fireplace as though he owned the room.
‘Aha – two girls today, I see. Very good. Very good indeed.’ He rocked back on his heels and then forwards, ‘You, in the mask, you will take instruction from Mistress Essie, she knows my preferences.’ He waved a hand at Miss Buckingham.
‘And since when, sir, did you tell me how to go about my business?’ Essie’s voice had taken on a remarkable timbre of authority, Miss Buckingham noted. ‘Mistress – Charlotte – has someone far more important than you to attend to.’ Essie put her hand into the small of Miss Buckingham’s back and gave her a push, ‘Out, now,’ she hissed, hoping to propel her beyond sight of the gentleman awaiting her services. ‘And you, you, wicked boy, you take your hood off, and your britches. You were most disobedient, coming in before I gave you permission.’
‘Immediately, Mistress Essie, I am your servant.’
‘You are not worthy to be my servant, you are a useless dreg and you will be beaten for it. Turn around, present yourself, and wait.’
‘Yes, Mistress.’ The gentleman undid the ties at the back of his hood and slid it up over his head. Then he worked on the fastenings of his trousers and began lowering them to the floor.
Miss Buckingham stopped, the voice beneath the hood had been somewhat familiar in resonance, she thought, with a quite distinctively nasal quality, and now her gaze was taken by the twitching eye, the watch-spring black hair, and the mole that spawned it, of the gentleman whose pale buttocks were emerging from beneath his linen under-garment. Essie gave her another shove and hissed again into her ear, ‘Go on, Miss, you got to leave.’
‘I think,’ said Miss Buckingham, ‘that I should prefer to stay.’ She shifted her hips and rustled the chiffon with the tassels on it. ‘I am of the opinion that Mistress – Charlotte – may be inclined to deliver a most accomplished service in this gentleman’s regard.’
First published by Ether Books in 2014.