"All extremes of feeling are allied with madness."
-Virginia Woolf, "Orlando"
It was sundown. The carriage reached the cottage on the cliffs. Porphyria told the driver to wait. "And don't disturb us even if the sky is falling."
She followed the path to the cottage door, but hesitated before knocking. Maybe I should go back, she thought. Maybe I should just throw myself off the cliffs instead. That would be better. But she knocked, and when the door opened she went in without waiting to be invited, or even greeted.
She had to duck a bit to fit through the doorframe. She was a great, tall woman, with strong arms and broad shoulders and a hard face, but she was often called beautiful. A duke wrote a sonnet about her hair two seasons ago. She called the verses "quaint."
Hester wiped flour-covered fingers on her apron. She was small and delicate and anyone would admit she was pretty, but gentlemen of every stripe stayed away from her, and no one would have dared write her love poetry, no matter how smitten. She said nothing to Porphyria but instead went back to the kitchen and continued rolling out dough on the sideboard. Porphyria waited as long as her patience would bear and then coughed as loud as she could. Hester looked at her. "Well?" she said. "What do you want?"
Porphyria took a box from her pocket and set it on the countertop. Hester smeared flour on it as she picked it up. "Open it," said Porphyria. Inside was a diamond necklace.
"How...pretty," said Hester.
"It's priceless. It was worn by my mother at Queen Victoria's coronation. Just one of those stones would buy all the land from here to Marblehead Hall. It should be more than enough."
Hester turned the necklace over in her hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "But I wouldn't have a thing to wear with it." She dropped it onto the dirt floor.
Porphyria scowled. "If that's not good enough then what is?"
"You know my price," said Hester, continuing to knead the dough.
"I will not pay it."
"Then you will not. It's your decision."
"I'll find someone else to help me," Porphyria said, turning as if to leave.
"But there is no one else. You've traveled all over the isles and even to the continent, but found no one who can do what I can."
Porphyria turned back. "How do you know that?"
"I know," said Hester.
Porphyria seethed. Hester separated the dough into pans, singing under her breath.
"If I agree," said Porphyria, "do you promise to give me what I want?"
"You know I will," said Hester, without looking up.
Porphyria went to the window. She felt ill. Her eyes burned, but she refused to cry.
"Fine then," she said.
Hester stood up straight. "We have a deal?"
Porphyria bit her lip. "Yes."
Hester picked the necklace up off the floor. "I'll keep the jewels too, if you don't mind?"
"Not a bit."
Hester hung up her apron. She washed her hands in the rain barrel and took her hair down one layer of brown curls at a time. She took Porphyria by the hand (her fingers disappearing in the great woman's palm) and led her into the little bedroom. She turned her back as Porphyria undressed, but after several minutes it was clear that Porphyria was having trouble with her layers of undergarments. Hester bit her lip to keep from laughing. This went on for some time. Finally she said, "Let me help you."
"I don't need help."
"Plainly you do," said Hester, moving behind the other woman and undoing the snaps and buttons. Porphyria made a noise very much like a growl but kept still long enough for Hester to undo everything Porphyria herself could not reach. Then Hester stripped Porphyria down to her chemise and Porphyria on the edge of the thin mattress, hands knotted in her lap. Hester undressed by herself, and then both women stared at one another, unsure what to do.
Finally, Hester leaned in and kissed Porphyria on the lips. Porphyria nearly fell off the bed. Hester kissed her again, with a bit more force. Porphyria's body went rigid. It was like kissing a blacksmith's vise.
Hester sighed. "This is not going to work," she said.
"Wait!" said Porphyria.
"No," said Hester, reaching for her dress. "It won't work. You don't love me."
"Did you expect me to?"
"No, but I expected you to be a little more convincing." Hester looked out the window. "Do you remember when my mother stood at this window and watched us play down on the rocks?"
Porphyria blinked. "Yes. I suppose. We were there almost every day."
"Do you remember when your father took you away and made you promise not to come back, telling you that you should never associate with our kind? You remember that day in particular?"
"Yes," said Porphyria.
"I loved you even then. I think about that day every time I look out this window. Do you know what it was like for me when married that man and went to live at Marblehead Hall and left me thinking I would never see you again?"
She looked at Porphyria.
"I could have had you for myself if I'd wanted. I could have forced you to believe that you love me. I have that power. But I didn't. For you. And you can't even do this one thing for me, not even when you need my help. I gave up a lifetime, and you won't give me a night."
"Give me a chance!" said Porphyria. Her words came between little hiccups, like sobs: "I have never...done...this before. It is not easy. But...I'm willing if you'll just help me!"
Hester had never heard this tone in Porphyria's voice before. It almost sounded like pleading. Hester drummed her fingers on the windowsill, thinking.
"Maybe I should make it easier for you?" Hester said.
"What do you mean?" said Porphyria.
Hester went to a shelf and took down a round box. She drew a pinch of something that looked like crushed rose petals from it.
"Taste it," she said. "Just a little."
Porphyria came no closer. "What is it?"
"Something to make you forget. For a little while." She held her hand higher. "Taste it."
"I don't need witchcraft."
"If that were true you would not be here."
Hester touched the substance to Porphyria's lips and Porphyria felt lighter. She sighed, and then swooned, closing her eyes as she fell onto the bed. She was not sure where she was all of a sudden, but she felt too good to care.
Someone touched her bare arm. It felt very good. Someone else was in the bed with her, she realized. Who was this woman? Porphyria was not sure, but the touch of her hand was soft, and warm, and sensual.
Porphyria closed her eyes again. She felt the other woman removing her last few underclothes but did not object. The sensation of silk against her skin was thrilling. Once naked she stretched like a cat.
She forgot that Hester was there as soon as her hands went away, and then when she was touched again she experienced the surprise of finding another occupant in the room all over again. When Hester kissed her she pondered the sensation of another pair of lips, decided that she liked it, and responded in kind.
Hester was momentarily alarmed when Porphyria's strong arms wrapped around her as tightly as they could. For a second she feared she would not be able to breathe. Porphyria's tongue darted into Hester's mouth, and then she bit Hester's lower lip. Her hands pawed Hester's undergarments and Hester only just managed to slip out of them before they were torn. Both women tumbled naked across the bed, limbs entwined. The night turned hot.
Outside the driver wondered, idly, how much longer his mistress would be.
Porphyria felt like she was on fire. Everything that grazed her skin jolted her. She could concentrate on nothing for more than a few seconds before becoming distracted by something else. She kissed Hester again, filling her mouth with the taste of the other woman. The more she had, the more she wanted. Hester barely caught her breath between kisses. She broke off long enough to kiss Porphyria's neck, tongue moving in a circle. Porphyria's red, red lips opened and she moaned. Hester cried out as nails raked her back.
Hester's tiny, shapely breasts were pressed to Porphyria's ample bosom. Her little fingers cupped Porphyria's breast and squeezed as her teeth grazed the tip of one nipple. Porphyria convulsed. She took hold of Hester, strong fingers fondling her body, and Hester gasped, shuddering.
"Take me," Hester whispered. "I'm yours."
Porphyria's hand slid between Hester's legs as Hester's tongue flickered out, licking her nipples one by one, lapping around and around them before flicking the tip. Porphyria pressed on the back of her head. Hester began to suck. Porphyria's hand pushed against Hester's sex. Hester whimpered, whispering between the darting movements of her tongue:
"I belong to you. Own me. Use me. Do whatever you want with me."
One finger slid inside Hester, then two. She was wet and hot, and she clenched around the invasive touch. She rocked back, breath quickening. Porphyria smiled as she pushed harder. Hester whimpered.
"Oh God!" she whispered, as Porphyria thrust a finger up into her again and again, causing her sex to quiver and ache. "Oh God, oh God, oh God!" she repeated. She was sweating all over. Porphyria's other fingers nudged her clit, and she almost passed out. She was pushing down with her hips now, chasing Porphyria's touch whenever it retreated. Porphyria slipped a third finger inside. Hester's eyes rolled back. Her body jerked and twitched. She tried to move but it was difficult, as Porphyria rammed her fingers up inside each time she did, reducing her to a writhing mess. She fell onto her back, legs splayed, knotting the blankets.
Hester was coming down off her climax when Porphyria grabbed a handful of her hair, dragged her up, and, before Hester could say anything pushed her face between Porphyria's thighs. Hester was nearly smothered. Her lips parted instinctually and they met something wet. She pushed her tongue against the slit. Porphyria grunted. Hester opened her mouth, fixing her lips and running her tongue inside, tasting the inner rim, then went deeper.
Hester watched Porphyria's breasts quiver with each breath. She was grinding against Hester's mouth. Her breathing came in slow moans and little sighs, and then there came a deeper, harder panting sound, and an insistent growl from somewhere in her throat. Eventually she was screaming.
Hester moved her head up and down. Her tongue lapped over and over. She was legitimately afraid of what Porphyria might do if she stopped, so she concentrated entirely on the moment. Her fingers massaged the Porphyria's inner thighs, her calloused fingers moving along the pale, delicate flesh of the other woman's gleaming white nakedness. She tasted wetness. She found Porphyria's swollen, trembling clit and engulfed it with her tongue.
The entire bed shook as Porphyria threw herself against the mattress. Her hands clawed Hester's back. Hester didn't stop. Porphyria ached all over. She was burning up inside. She tried to push the feeling out, but there was always more of it.
She screamed: "More!"
Hester went faster. Porphyria was covered in sweat, twitching all over. She buried was screaming non-stop now:
"More, more, more!"
She pulled Hester away and slapped her across the face. Hester blinked, stunned, and then Porphyria pushed her down again, and her mouth opened again, and they went on like that until Porphyria shuddered and screamed her last and collapsed, exhausted. Hester wiped her mouth and took a deep breath, then kissed Porphyria one last time, risking being crushed in another embrace.
They lay side by side for a little while. Then Porphyria's stomach lurched and she ran to the window just in time. She spat bile into the weeds and brush.
"Sorry," Hester said. "I should have mentioned that can happen once it's run its course."
Porphyria tried to reply but the pain made it too hard. Eventually she settled down.
"I don't remember anything. Did we..." Porphyria said, and then realized that she was naked and sweaty and sore. She felt sick again, but dressed herself without incident. Hester seemed bored as she watched, sliding back into her own clothes.
Porphyria did not look at Hester, or seemingly anything at all, after they left the bedroom. She stared at the floor, and muttered:
"Well. You're paid. Now give me what I came for."
Hester went to the mantle and removed a loose chimney stone, taking a small leather bag on a chord from behind it. Something rattled inside. She put it into Porphyria's hand.
"Is this it?" Porphyria said.
"If this is a trick—"
"Then you know where to find me," said Hester.
Porphyria put her cloak on and left. Hester watched her from the door, but Porphyria did not look back. Her coachman had fallen asleep waiting for her.
"Danner!" she said, waking him. She climbed into the cabin. "Harness the horses. We're finished. Back to Marblehead Hall."
"Yes, mistress," he said.
"The workman, they should have arrived by now?"
"And they're reliable, and know how to keep their mouths shut?
"Yes, mistress." Danner climbed into the bucket.
"Good," said Porphyria, and it was the last thing she said the entire trip back.
"Heave gents, heave!" said Danner. Rain dripped into his face from the brim of his hat. His boots squelched in the mud.
"Begging your pardon sir," said one of the workers, "but we've been heaving all night."
"Then perhaps you lack proper motivation," said Danner. "Move that box or you forfeit your pay."
The worker scowled, but wrapped the rope twice around his hands and braced himself against the fence to pull harder.
"Danner, why aren't they finished?" said Porphyria. She stood under an awning, watching the workman pull at what looked like a great trunk that had become stuck in the mud. They were at the gate of the little churchyard on the other side of the estate, trying to pull the box out and load it into the waiting wagon.
Danner took off his hat and rung it out. "We had a problem with some of the men. Half of them refused to work when they found out they would have to open the mausoleum. The rest had some trouble moving the coffin on their own. They've almost got it now."
"Have them take it to the old stable on the east side, the empty one," Porphyria said. "Make sure that none of the house staff are around to see them."
"Yes, mistress," said Danner. "Shall I dismiss them after?"
"No. Send them to the kitchens. Wake the cook and give them whatever they want, then tell them they can sleep in the other stable tonight, and that tomorrow they'll be paid to take the coffin back to the crypt and seal it up again."
"Back?" said Danner.
"Yes, back. Do you have any objection to following my orders?"
"No, mistress, none at all."
"Good." Porphyria watched the men work. "I suppose you're wondering what this is all about, Danner?"
"Not at all, mistress," said Danner. "I do your business and I mind my own."
"Good answer. Did you turn out the old servants?"
"Yes, mistress. There's not a single person in the house who worked here while your husband was alive."
"Excellent." She paused. "I think it's time for a drink. Take care of this lot, then join me in the study, will you?"
Twenty minutes later Danner changed his clothes and knocked on the study door. He sat on the red velvet couch opposite Porphyria, sipping the absinthe she poured for him.
"Well," she said.
"This seemed like a good occasion to talk," said Porphyria.
"Indeed, mistress? Whatever about?"
"You've been...very faithful to me, Danner, these last few years."
"I've been able to rely on you for everything, and I appreciate the services you've rendered me. All of the services. And the discretion around them."
"There's no need to thank me."
"I didn't," she said, though she smiled as she said it. "And do you have any regrets, Danner?"
"None whatsoever, mistress."
"Not even about those mausoleums that you had a hand in filling?"
"It had to be done, mistress."
"Yes," said Porphyria, looking far away. "It had to be done. I'm lucky to have you around, Danner. It's hard to find good help these days.
"Nevertheless," she continued, "as much as I value everything you've done, it should be noted that, as of tonight, certain improprieties in our relationship must be discontinued."
Danner's heart sank, but didn't show it. "That is entirely your decision, mistress. I serve in whatever capacity you deem suitable."
"Yes. But you see Danner, that makes me a bit nervous."
"Yes. To put it bluntly, I'm just not sure if I can trust you now that certain...choice rewards are beyond your grasp."
Danner nearly spilled his drink. "There's no need to worry about that-"
"And the thing of it is Danner, you know all of my secrets. I don't like it when any person knows too much about me."
Danner's palms were sweating.
"Given everything that's happened, I'm afraid we have to part ways. Starting tonight. Starting right now, actually, unless I miss my guess." Porphyria looked at her nails.
Danner rolled the absinthe around his mouth. Something tasted funny...
"Ah," he said, after he swallowed. "Oleander."
"A good choice, mistress. I didn't even notice it." His limbs felt heavy. "But what do you intend to do with the body? I won't be around to dispose of it."
"You already have. You'll be in the coffin when the workman seal it back in the vault tomorrow. You'll lie next to the Grey family's ancestors until the end of time. A fitting reward for all of your service to the great old house, don't you think?"
Danner's vision tunneled. Even now, he had to admire her thoroughness. It was her most charming quality. She patted his hand. "For the record Danner, it was...nice, while it lasted. Nice for what it was."
He tried to answer, but his throat closed up.
"I would give you a kiss for old time's sake, but I'm afraid it just wouldn't be appropriate.
"After all, " she said, standing, "I'm about to be a married woman again."
And that was the last thing he heard.
Porphyria rolled the body up in a rug, then slung it over her broad shoulders. She locked the door of the study, then went to the old stable on the east side. As per her instructions, there was no one in the corridor to see her. The rain had stopped.
The coffin lid was unscrewed but not removed. She had worried that one of the workers might take the opportunity to rifle through for valuables, but it seemed that Danner picked a trustworthy lot after all. Such a shame to have to let him go.
The lid was heavy, but she was a woman of unusual strength, and she popped it free after a little work. A sour smell greeted her. She picked up the shape wrapped in the tattered winding sheet and laid it on the ground then, panting from exertion, she replaced it with Danner's body and put the lid back on. She sat down on the casket, wiping her brow with a silk handkerchief.
Now, for the business at hand. She unwrapped the winding sheet, and looked at the shrunken, moldering form inside. She did not flinch. Why would she, when this was the man she loved?
She took the leather bag from around her neck. Unlacing it, she dropped something that looked like a dried, black walnut into her hand. There were more inside. Remembering Hester's instructions, she crushed the black thing in her palm. It left a stain.
She pried open the mouth of the corpse, popped the crushed mass inside, and watched. First, the body quivered. Then the bones rattled. Porphyria backed up a step when the arms moved. Then the whole thing sat upright, jerking and twitching. It turned its head, joints creaking, and opened its mouth. The rags of its clothes disintegrated as it stood up.
It walked toward her, one skeletal hand reaching out. Porphyria backed away. Was this how it was supposed to happen? Had she done something wrong? The dead thing came closer. A horrible noise came out of its mouth. Its empty eye sockets stared at her.