The Gentlemen's ClubbyBane©
PROLOGUE — The Sermon
Reverend Nathaniel Crutchfield, a short, portly man long-separated from most of his hair, stood uncomfortably upright at the lectern of the Atkins, Georgia Primitive Missionary Baptist Church. This, his regular Sunday sermon, typically ran an hour and a half; already two hours on, Rev. Crutchfield showed no sign of slowing and indeed seemed piqued for another hour or more's worship. A widower, his daughter sat alone in the front row, Bible propped on her thighs, carefully following along. The girl's long red hair—flared as it was with flashes of brilliant gold and pale orange with small, random splotches of blond here and there, her hair seemed almost ablaze, so extravagant was the confluence of colors—fell below her shoulders and never failed to draw a weary glance.
These folk had heard the stories of witches from days past, women of questionable judgment and sordid vice willing to use magic—too, their bodies—to get what they coveted. While none would say so publicly, for fear of retribution by the crotchety reverend, they spoke of it among themselves frequently enough: the little Witch Girl who always sat in the front pew. She was the first to find passage when referenced, the first to stand for hymns, and certainly the first to raise her arms in adulation. None of these virtues could erase the uneasy feeling that permeated the congregation.
Rev. Crutchfield, having caught his breath, continued: "Women shall know their rightful place! Was it not Eve herself who bit from the forbidden fruit?" he said, gesticulating wildly. "We have all heard of women up North"—when he said North, it was almost a sneer—"and their quest for suffrage. Suffrage! Scripture tells us a wife should stay about the home and raise her children; should prepare a meal for her husband fit for their finest guest each and every day. A Southern wife honors her husband and obeys him without question! She speaks to no man, save her husband, about matters of the home. No man! Her loyalty to God and husband shall be tested, oh yes, but NEVER found wanting!"
A hail of amen's followed this last. This was something the men of the congregation could warm to, a careful recital of their wife's duties and obligations.
He continued, speaking at length, while his ten year-old daughter looked on, captivated by her father's words, absorbing every detail.
Surely, she was his best student; surely, she would know her role; surely, she would be a proper Southern wife.
CHAPTER 1 — The Office
There were two people in the office—a lean, darkly tanned man in his mid thirties seated behind a broad oak desk, and a woman who appeared to be barely twenty in the seat opposite, she a pale redhead carrying a few extra pounds.
Of average height and build, the man wore a conservative yet elegant russet suit, replete with a richly textured yellow tie. His brown hair was short and simply cut, and he framed dark brown eyes with a neatly trimmed goatee. He lounged comfortably in an expansive leather chair, one hand perched on the edge of his desk while the other idly twirled a wooden stylus back and forth. He did it automatically, deftly looping the writing instrument between his fingers so quickly it was difficult to believe it wouldn't go flying across the room at any moment.
She sat on the edge of a tall, stiff hardwood chair with her hands folded primly around a small purse, wearing a cream-colored billowy long-sleeve blouse and dark ankle-length dress. She sat on the barest edge of the chair, her back ramrod straight and head held regally high, very much a Lady of old—albeit a very young one. Indeed, she appeared somewhat younger than her actual age; twenty-three years old and married to the most junior clerk at the firm, she might have been eighteen instead, a very inexperienced young woman sheltered by her religious upbringing and overbearing marriage. Her face, slightly fleshy, gave small sign of the figure she intentionally shielded beneath layers of clothing.
"I know you are having troubles," the man said abruptly, his voice harshly cutting the silence between them.
The young woman squirmed uncomfortably.
"Come, let us not be coy about this. You would not be here otherwise." As he spoke, the man's voice took on deep, measured tones, the result of a decade of accomplished law practice. His baritone voice had no trouble filling the largest of courtrooms; here, in this intimate setting, it possessed the richness of tone and certainty of content that he saved for his most compelling arguments.
She knew that his statement was true. She and her husband were experiencing difficulties—and absent those difficulties, she would have certainly ignored the imposition of this man's request. Her husband was away on business; his boss, the man sitting behind the desk, had sent a courier with a tersely worded message barely an hour before, practically demanding her immediate presence while hinting at trouble. Surely, with her husband away, she should have stayed home... and yet she had to come, had to be sure that nothing had happened.
"Is... is Robert alright?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to talk about her—their—problems.
"Robert's fine, physically."
Sarah Higgins sighed with relief. She took a deep breath and held it momentarily before exhaling.
"However, let us speak about your troubles. Robert is very likely the most mediocre clerk at the firm. Perhaps, one day, he'll earn his stripes and become a full-on lawyer, enjoying all the prestige and honor of such a station—but for now he's mired in the sundry tedious duties of the, ahem, Junior Clerk. He's good enough, I suppose," the man said, waving his hand dismissively. "Good enough to just keep his job. Good enough to just avoid being the worst. I often think to myself, 'He's good enough.' But you see, 'good enough' is far removed from Good Enough. Do you understand, Sarah?"
Sarah startled. "Mrs. Higgins, please," she said quickly, distressed that he would address her so familiarly.
The man erupted in laughter. "Mrs. Higgins, indeed!"
Sarah recoiled as if struck. 'Is he having a laugh at my expense?' she wondered.
"Sarah," he said, exaggerating the syllables, "I fear I am going to have to let your husband go."
All the blood drained from her face; her shoulders trembled once, then held firm.
"Understand, I do not wish it."
Sarah looked up from her purse to the man sitting behind the desk. He gazed back at her stoically. They sat, staring at each other for several long minutes, neither saying a word.
"Excuse me," she said, running her hand along a non-existent crease in her dress, "but why am I here? If my husband is... is having so much trouble, that is," she finished uncertainly.
The man leaned forward, resting both hands on his desk.
"First, you acknowledge there is a problem?"
Sarah bit her lip, confused. She was taught to speak with no one about her home life, save her husband. Her father, God rest his soul, had often spoken to her of the duties and responsibilities of the virtuous wife. A Southern Baptist, Daddy had never failed to mention that loyalty and honor, above all else, should prevail in the holy matrimony she would one day share with her betrothed.
'Cover thyself,' he said, almost always followed by 'Honor your husband, and obey him.' Another maxim was, 'Trust your husband and your preacher—and no other man.' He had said these (and many other) words so frequently she knew them to be true; they were ingrained into her very soul. She had been faithful to her father's teachings throughout her seven years of marriage: she went to lengths to cover her body so that men would not lust after her; trusted completely her husband's judgment in all things; and listened carefully to even his most mundane pronouncements. She truly was her Husband's Wife.
Robert had mentioned that things at the firm could be better. He had hinted darkly at a rift with his boss, but never elaborated. Certainly, he never intimated that his position was in peril! She had assumed that, as men do, they would eventually sort things out and everything would be fine. Her husband stayed busy, going from county to county, closing deal after deal for the railroad and speculation companies that his firm represented. There had to be some value in that, didn't there? She had given it very little thought until this very moment, sure any trouble her husband was having at the firm was a minor thing that would eventually pass. She felt her heart racing. Would Robert be fired? What for? Why?
The bigger question: would Robert—or her father—approve of her discussing this matter with her husband's boss?
"Yes, Mr. Brown," she answered automatically, the way she would her husband or, if he were still alive, her father. It seemed her decision had been made.
"I asked you a question."
Sarah licked her lips nervously. "Yes, Mr. Brown. Robert—my husband— has spoken of some, ah, issues," she said, voice lightly soft-spoken.
Douglas Brown, proprietor and Lead Counsel at the firm, peered across the desk. He had very rarely been this close to Sarah Higgins, having crossed paths with her in the practice lobby exactly three times, each very briefly. He was struck now as then by her mane of thick, rich red hair, pulled back into a tight roll at the top of her head. He noted that her skin was quite fair—and she had the lightest blue eyes he had ever seen. Her pale skin had almost no freckles save a tiny smattering beneath both her eyes. Obviously, she didn't get out much. Her face, more than striking, was slightly pudgy, and gave barely a hint at the figure hidden beneath the loose top and dress. She seemingly always covered herself in this way. Still, it was clear enough she had an ample chest, and her thighs could only be so thick. He was sure she would be very satisfactory.
He took all of this in so quickly she failed to notice—for all she knew, his eyes had stayed glued to her own, a direct view with which found herself increasingly uncomfortable.
No man, save her husband, should gaze at her so.
"Therefore, unless we can reach some sort of accommodation, Robert's employment has come to an end."
"But my husband travels and works many long hours! Surely this... misunderstanding... can be resolved?" she asked, unable to accept that her husband could be as mediocre as Mr. Brown claimed.
"Ah, I only wish it were so. If it were not for his, shall we say, religious perspectives, more importantly his proclivity to share them unbidden, we would not find ourselves in this predicament."
So it was true. Robert had intimated that he was being singled out because of his outspoken Christian views. He never apologized for it—nor did she—and would never stop telling everyone the joy of the Father, no matter the consequences. Rather than mediocrity, her husband was suffering from religious persecution! It was beginning to make sense.
"Have you nothing to say?" her husband's boss asked pointedly.
"I... don't know what to add... certainly, we are Believers."
"Certainly," Brown replied, nodding his head. He had heard more than enough about the obscure, fundamentalist sect Robert and Sarah Higgins were part of. "And, you are loyal to your husband."
She nodded and smiled weakly. It was difficult, this, speaking to a strange man about the nature of her marriage. She would have to pray at length about it later.
"And you would do anything for him." It was a statement, not a question. Douglas H. Brown, Esq. might have been cross-examining a hostile witness with a series of leading questions, rather than speaking to the junior clerk's wife.
"Without question," she said quickly.
"To be perfectly clear, you would do anything for him." It was almost an accusation.
Sarah found herself staring anew at the man across the desk, a knot forming in the pit of her stomach.
"Of... of course. He is my husband."
"Even... this will sound indelicate, forgive me... help him keep his job?"
"I'm not sure I understand how I can do that."
"Certainly you can't be so naïve."
Suddenly it dawned on her. 'He doesn't think... I never... how dare he?'
"No!" she barked, face and neck flushing the deepest crimson.
Brown, for the first time, smiled.
"Now, now," he said quickly, gesturing with his hands expansively. "I'm sure you misunderstand."
Sarah had already risen to her feet and taken three steps towards the door. She reached for the knob.
"If you walk out of that door, Robert Higgins shall be terminated forthwith."
She froze, hand on the knob.
"Now, you can choose to help your husband keep his job, or you can choose to get him fired. Either way, the choice is yours."
Slowly she turned, pulling her hand away from the knob. She stood, back against the door, as far away from Mr. Brown as she could be without leaving the room.
"I see you have at least a little sense about you. Very well, then. As you may or may not know, I find myself thirty-seven years old and still very much unattached. I am not asking you to ply your wares on my behalf," he added quickly, "or to prostitute yourself for your husband's job like a common street walker."
Sarah blinked quickly, heart still pounding thunderously. She felt hot and faint, the flush still filling her upper chest, neck, and face.
"Still, if you wish to secure your husband's position, you will submit to a very simple request. A client of some prestige is coming to town tomorrow evening, and I find myself in need of a female companion. This particular client would frown upon a man of my stature going unescorted to such a meeting. Robert is not due back for a fortnight. If you will accompany me tomorrow evening, I shall see to it that Robert maintains his position, irrespective of his ponderous religious blathering."
Sarah clutched her purse. Face tight, lips thin, she couldn't decide which was the bigger outrage—her husband's boss imposing such an inappropriate request on her person, or his making light of her husband's 'ponderous religious blathering.' She said nothing but merely stood, breathing rapidly, evidently considering the offer. She heard her father's voice ringing through her head: 'Anything for your husband.'
"Should you accept, a carriage will come for you at six o'clock sharp tomorrow evening. Should you decline... well, suffice to say, Robert's career, such as it is, will be over."
She took another deep breath and held it momentarily before slowly exhaling.
'I suppose I can do this one thing,' she reasoned, 'to ensure my husband's continued employment.'
"If you give me your word as a gentleman, that this will be the only time, and that Robert shall keep his job, I will honor your request."
Brown could barely contain his enthusiasm.
"My word," he said quickly, nodding his head.
Sarah Higgins curtsied once, turned, and left.
CHAPTER 2 — The Carriage
Sarah was nervous all night and the following day. Upon arriving at home she immediately composed a letter, telling her husband Robert how very much she cared for and missed him. Of course, she avoided altogether any description or account of her meeting with Mr. Brown.
And she prayed for a full hour before bed.
After waking the next day, she was going about her daily duties ('A clean and orderly home is your husband's rightful expectation') when there was a knock on the door.
Curious, she opened it and withdrew a frilly white laced dress, accompanied by a long red embroidered shawl and a three-word note:
"Wear this tonight. — DB"
Sarah held up the thin garment in the light, shook her head softly, and walked to her bedroom whereupon she threw herself on her bed and lay very still, searching desperately for the strength for that to which she was already committed.
'I must not damage Robert's prospects,' she reasoned, understanding perfectly well their future depended upon her course of action. They boarded, childless, in a most modest single-room dwelling at the back of a barbershop on the edge of town. They were broke; Robert's family had left him nothing, while her father, most pious, had left everything he owned to his church. All Robert and Sarah Higgins had was their faith and each other, pinching every penny to make ends meet.
She didn't know much about their finances, but she knew this: Robert needed the security of his position. She resigned herself to helping him keep it.
She whispered a prayer, a short request for strength and guidance, as she gathered herself and began the task of arranging her clothing for the evening.
Next she drew and boiled a pot water, preparing a pail of it for bathing. Cleanliness was next to Godliness, after all, and she saw no reason to be anything less than perfectly clean, irrespective of who she would be spending the evening with.
'I'm not spending the evening with Mr. Brown,' she chastised herself, as she stripped her clothing and undergarments. The only time in this world she would ever be naked was while bathing—and then only when the house was perfectly empty and all the locks securely fastened.
Sarah took a seat by the steaming pail and, washrag in hand, began soaping and wiping her body clean. 'It's merely a social gathering, nothing more,' she told herself, having attended get-togethers after hours at least a dozen times at church. She fully expected to be returned to her home at a decent hour.
Surely, they would not be out past eight o'clock.
She paid no mind to the swell of her breasts, round and full, nor their darkly colored tips, as she bathed her flesh with a wet soapy washcloth, dipping it into the pail and wringing it out every so often. As she squeezed and scrubbed, over, around, and under her heavy breasts, water trickled down across her plump belly in rivulets, splashing her thighs. She was healthy, to be sure, a woman of substance, though clearly removed from being overly stout or slovenly. True enough she carried a few extra pounds, evidenced by twin hip hand holds—but she gave it no thought whatsoever, as it failed to interfere with her wifely duties.
Ah, wifely duties. 'Twice a month,' she thought, absently rinsing her calves. Every other Tuesday, her husband would claim marital rights—always in the dark, never more than two minutes in duration. 'Such a dear man, he doesn't seek to impose, even upon his wife,' she reasoned. Her role, during the bi-monthly trysts, was very simple: crawl between the sheets and pull her nightgown up about her hips, and then wait for his arrival. He would enter the room a discreet amount of time later and climb into bed dressed in his nightclothes.
It was somewhat fuzzy what happened next; Sarah willed herself out of the room, instead closing her eyes and thinking of the wash, of what food she would prepare in the coming days, anything but what her husband was doing on top of her in the dark.
After he was done, she would quickly pull her nightgown down, covering herself, get out of his bed and go to her own, smaller, twin-sized bed in the corner where she would immediately fall asleep for the night.
She and her husband never prayed before bed on these Tuesdays each month, instead preferring silence and solitude.
It was always so.
Very clean, undergarments (thick and cumbersome, as any woman's should be) in place, Sarah draped the silky white-laced dress over her body and grabbed the tiny two-inch by two-inch mirror (the only mirror she owned) from the back of the bottom drawer.
Satisfied that she was perfectly proper in every way—not even the slightest bit of her body could be seen under Mr. Brown's specially delivered dress—she sat by the window and waited nervously, randomly touching the knot of hair pulled high atop her head.