After the meal I added stronger loops to a second pair of gloves just in case the first loops were too weak. I didn't think they would be but it would be a disaster if the broke during the portrayal. We went back to the dressing room to try to duplicate the positions in the portrait again.
"Look at the Count," Ben said suddenly. "He's not that muscular. He looks rather small. Could he have carried the Countess if she was struggling?"
We studied the painting carefully. The Countess was as tall as the Count. That was ideal for us since we are of similar build. But could he carry her? The only way to find out was to try. I put the first pair of gloves on. Ben threaded the fichu through the loops, matching the painting, before knotting it at my waist. He picked me up across my shoulders in a fireman's lift. He could do it.
If I had been struggling, even with my legs bound, Ben would have had real problems. He certainly couldn't have carried me any real distance like from the chateau to a ship. That was impossible. We tried again with Ben bound, and I carried him. I could lift him, walk a couple of paces, and that was it. We couldn't carry each other any distance. If we couldn't, then an 18th Century French Count couldn't have carried his Countess. He must have had help.
"The Maids!" we blurted together.
"The maids must have helped," I said.
"I'm sure the Count wouldn't have let the Countess be carried by any of the manservants," Ben added. "That would have been too humiliating for her."
"I think Harriet and Ruth would be willing to help carry me," I said. "The three of you could easily carry me offstage, and that's all we need. I could even pretend to struggle..."
We agreed that I would ask my friends.
"Can you release yourself from that fichu?" Ben asked. "It looks right, but is it really immobilising your arms?"
I wrenched my wrists and arms as much as I could. The fichu stretched, allowing me a small amount of movement of my hands at the expense of cruelly tightening the knots around my elbows.
"Ouch!" I protested. "That hurts."
It took Ben several minutes to untie the knots. When I was free I had to massage my arms to get the circulation back. Ben looked concerned.
"We're only supposed to make it look as if you are helpless," he said. "We don't really need to truss you up like an oven-ready chicken. How do we make it look good without hurting you?"
"I'm not sure," I replied, "but I can't see when I'm the one tied up. I'd like to try it on you again. Is that OK?"
"Yes, Julia, but I won't try to struggle until we've altered the shawl. You look as if you've bruised yourself."
I had. Ben kissed my arms.
Once he had put the white gloves on, the second pair with the stronger loops, I tied the fichu around him firmly with no slack. We compared his bonds with the painting. They were exactly right. I picked up two scarves and we tried to duplicate the positions in the picture, the Count just about to gag the Countess, with a maid kneeling behind her ready to tie her legs. I went the step further and actually gagged Ben before wrapping the second scarf around his legs and tying it.
Despite his muffled protests, I picked him up and carried him into the bedroom, lowering him to the bed.
"See!" I said triumphantly, "I can carry you a little way."
Ben's body thrashed helplessly. A few faint grunts came from his gagged mouth. Almost immediately I removed his gag, untied his legs, and loosened the fichu's knots. He unwound it from his body and then grabbed me, pulling me to join him on the bed. He rolled himself on top of me and kissed me fiercely. My hands went to his waist and before I remembered that we were separated, slid his trousers down. He kicked them off the bed as I raised my skirt.
His erection sought me and thrust deep. I lifted my hips to accept him. He penetrated me deeper than he had for years. We coupled frantically, his thrusts parried by my acceptance. He came into me with a grunt of surprise before subsiding against my body. I kissed his face, his eyes, and his lips while clamping his fading erection inside me. We lay like that for half an hour before I began to feel his erection returning.
I rolled us over. For once we remained engaged as I did. On top of him I gradually squeezed and released until his erection was totally hard again. My hands pushed at his chest as I pounded up and down, seeking release for myself. Ben tried to help but my movements were too fierce, too frantic, for me to be aware of anything but a need to reach my own climax. I didn't notice when Ben came again. I hadn't, so I carried on banging down onto him until my own orgasm reached its peak. Even then I continued to mount him cruelly until the sensations began to fade into exhaustion. I slumped onto him. His hands stroked my hair as I surrendered to semi-consciousness.
The rest of the evening was an anti-climax. We couldn't do any more with the shawl without remaking it. We had another coffee and Ben left. By then both of us were regretting our love-making. It hadn't solved anything. We liked making love to each other. We enjoyed each other's company but we both wanted children and that we couldn't do.
Within a week we were back to misunderstandings over texts and emails. At least I now knew that Ben wasn't seeing anyone else, neither was I. We were unhappy and scratchy apart but we hadn't solved our marriage's basic flaw, lack of children.
That evening had been two months ago. Ben and I haven't been face to face since. The work on the holiday cottages was reaching a climax. The contractors were keen to finish all the external work before the weather became unsuitable. Once the buildings were weatherproof, the internal fittings could be installed at less of a rush, although at least one cottage needed to be sufficiently complete for publicity photos.
I had worked with Harriet and Ruth, making their maids' costumes. We had practised my abduction. The two of them could easily carry me, even without Ben's help. I had adapted two fichus with invisible elastic segments and a rip-out section. If I wanted to, I could loosen my bonds, or even break them but either action would ruin the scenario. I was happier knowing that I wouldn't actually be as helpless as I or Ben had been with the original binding.
I was unhappy not just with our continuing estrangement, but because from time to time I felt awful. Normally I would be beginning to be excited by attending the Halloween event. I just didn't have the energy or enthusiasm any more. I wanted to compete, for us to win again, but now it seemed meaningless.
A couple of weeks before the event Ben emailed me to say he was travelling to the US to meet another uncle, an investor in the holiday cottages, who wanted to meet Ben whom he had never seen. That sudden absence made me even more miserable. It was bad enough not seeing Ben, but he had been nearby. Now he was thousands of miles away.
Ruth came on the Saturday morning, a week before the event, for a final fitting of her maid's dress. She found me spewing my guts out into the kitchen sink.
"What's wrong, Julia?" she asked when I could speak.
"I don't know," I replied. "I've been feeling awful for the whole week..."
"In the mornings?"
"Are you pregnant?"
"I said: Are you pregnant?" Ruth repeated.
I sat down on the kitchen floor. Could I be pregnant? We had stopped fertility treatments a couple of years ago.
Ruth moved me to the living room, gave me a bucket in case I wanted to be sick again, and went back home to get her pregnancy tester. I was feeling slightly better when she came back. She told me how to do the test.
According to her tester, I was pregnant. I didn't believe it. That afternoon I checked on the internet. I could have false positives particularly since I'd had fertility treatment. On Monday morning I called in sick and went to my doctor. She checked me over and referred me for an ultrasound check, that day. I went to our local hospital clutching the referral form.
I am pregnant! With possible twins! I will need to wait a few weeks for the twin diagnosis to be confirmed but I am definitely pregnant and the timing is right for the evening with Ben. Not that it could be anyone else. That coupling is the only sexual encounter I'd had all year.
I couldn't tell Ben by email. I'd have to tell him face to face. He'll be back a couple of days before we go away. I'm sure he'll be as delighted as I am.
The sickness passed almost as soon as it had come. I was so much happier that the occasional twinges of nausea were irrelevant.
As soon as I knew that Ben was back I telephoned him.
"Ben," I said, "can we meet, soon, perhaps today? I've got some news for you."
"So have I," he replied mysteriously. "Shall I come to you?"
"Yes please. When?"
"Now would be good, Ben."
He was with me within twenty minutes.
"Do you want to tell me your news?" he asked once we had stopped kissing, "or shall I tell you mine?"
"Can I go first?" I said, suddenly feeling reluctant.
"Of course," Ben answered.
"I'm pregnant," I announced baldly, "or rather, we are pregnant and expecting a child..."
Ben swept me up in his arms and hugged me, kissed me. I kissed him back. We laughed, cried, dried our tears, kissed again.
When we had calmed down I added: "It could be twins..."
We celebrated again. Eventually we sat down on the settee with cups of coffee. I was cradled in Ben's arms where I should be.
"What's your news, Ben?" I suddenly remembered to ask.
"Not as earth-shattering as yours, Julia, but it might go together very well. My American uncle wants me to manage the holiday cottages and develop a complete holiday complex on the farm with about eighty units. My local uncle has got planning permission and the finance will come mainly from the US. The complex could be built by the end of next year and operational the Spring afterwards. It will be aimed at holidaying Americans and will have to meet their requirements. That would be a reasonable job for me but he wants me to be a partner, not an employee.
As a partner, our accommodation will be purpose-built, a large house at the entrance to the site. He thinks that four en-suite bedrooms and a swimming pool will be right for a partner. We could raise a family there..."
I could leave that boring estate. We would have capital from the sale of our house, a large house of our own. It was almost too much to take in. A family, and a house to bring them up in...
That evening Ben didn't go home. He was home, with me and my slight bulge. We made love slowly, carefully and gently. We didn't know how we should make love when I was pregnant. We would find out. Lying with our arms wrapped around each other, knowing we would soon be the family we had always wanted to be, was bliss.
The Halloween event seemed irrelevant. We would go. We would compete. We might win. It didn't matter. We had already won all we wanted.
Ruth and Harriet were delighted for us. We met up in the bar at The Maison early on the Friday evening. I was drinking fruit juice, frightened to jeopardise our baby or babies. We practised our scenario in my room with only one slight problem. One fichu with the rip-out section broke as Ben tied me. It didn't matter. We would use the original. As long as I didn't struggle too much it would look right and not tighten.
On the Saturday morning the staff of The Maison had arranged a series of optional guided tours of the house and grounds. Most of the participants went on one of them which were carefully timed so we didn't meet the other tours. They all ended in the basement museum beside the guillotine. The guide demonstrated with a plastic mannequin how a victim would be strapped to the guillotine and the demi-lune clamped across the neck, with the condemned person either face-up or face-down. One part made me shudder.
"Whichever way the demi-lune is used, the victim is said to croak like a frog. Until the blade falls, their throat is held so tightly that they struggle to draw breath..."
Ben looked very closely at the guillotine and its blade. He even put his head through underneath the blade and looked up. The guide remonstrated with Ben.
"It is dangerous, sir," she said.
I could see that Ben didn't agree with her. I didn't ask why. I still had the image of someone choking, gasping for breath while waiting for the blade to fall.
On the Saturday morning the competitions were for children. The afternoon was adult individuals, pairs and groups in various categories.
Our category, re-enacting the Countess' abduction, wouldn't be until after the evening meal. It was to be the last item on Saturday's programme and was intended to be the highlight. Only the most experienced re-enactors had entered and the rivalry was as fierce as ever. We had all rehearsed in secret. The judges would announce the results about midnight.
Sunday morning would be an anticlimax, a trade fair for costume suppliers and stands for the various groups. Neither Ben nor I were involved in anything on Sunday and could leave after breakfast if we wanted to. We hadn't decided. We didn't need to buy any new materials. We needed to settle our future and a quiet day, perhaps strolling in the grounds of The Maison, would be better than a crowded market.
Ruth, Harriet, Ben and I watched some of the afternoon competitions. The group Ben had been visiting had entered a team of eight female devils in the Halloween category. They were in overall red zentai suits, with their faces anonymous under the red material. Their suits had horns and tails with a long red silk rope wrapped several times around their waists.
They danced to an extract of Saint-Saens' Danse Macabre and then rushed into the audience unwinding their waist ropes. They lassoed some of the audience, possibly prearranged volunteers, and dragged them on stage before tying them more securely and carrying them off-stage to 'Hell'.
It wasn't one of the better performances. I wasn't impressed and said so. The others agreed with their own detailed criticism. Perhaps our standards are too high. After all, all four of us have been performing in costume for more than a decade. We couldn't tell who were wearing the anonymous zentai suits. It could have been the group's novices. They were obviously female, slim and fit, but uncoordinated as a group. With more practice it could have been a good performance but not a winning one.
We were due on last for the Count and Countess scene. I assume that was because we were expected to win as multiple winners from previous events. We had time to watch some of the earlier entries.
I wasn't impressed with the first few. The costumes were vaguely period but nothing like the picture. All the Counts struggled to carry the Countess. One Count, from Ben's group, even dropped her and she had to hobble off stage half-carried. One Count who was built like a Rugby forward swept the Countess up in his arms and carried her easily despite her being a hefty wench.
The next few were better except some had no dialogue. It looked as if the organisers had put the competitors in order of assumed competence. That meant that we wouldn't see those who were our real rivals. We would have to be preparing while they performed.
When it came to our turn, we had been hearing the increasing applause as the others ended their act. The applause was getting louder each time.
We had made an innovation. Ruth, dressed as a maid, went on first as a Prologue. She said:
"We have made a change to the published story. If you look at the picture," she pointed at the picture prominently displayed at the side of the stage, "you will see that the Count is about the same build as his Countess. We don't think that he could have carried his Countess on his own, certainly not all the way to the ship. So our scenario suggests how it could have been done."
There was silence as Ruth walked off stage and returned with all of us. I was dressed a la victim, tightly bound in the fichu a la guillotine. All four of us were wearing exact replicas of the clothing shown in the picture.
Ben, as the Count, spoke to me in formal 18th Century French, asking me to go for a walk on the terrace. I accepted his invitation, also formally. Ruth and Harriet helped me from the chair. Ruth whisked the chair off-stage and she and Harriet followed a couple of steps behind, carrying shawls as Ben took my hand and led me across to the edge of the stage.
He asked me, again addressing me formally in French, whether I would accompany him to England. I refused, dropping him a curtsey. He held out his hand behind me to Ruth who gave him the shawl to gag me. In one quick flurry, Ben gagged me while Ruth and Harriet tied my legs. All three of them lifted my slightly struggling body and carried me off-stage.
The applause was deafening. When we came back on stage almost the whole audience gave us a standing ovation. There were a few unhappy faces of those supporting other competitors but generally we seemed to have succeeded.
We left the stage after taking several bows. All the competitors were expected to remain in costume until the announcement, in reverse order, of the winners. The audience thronged the bar.
Ruth and Harriet were as excited as we were. If the noise of the audience's applause was an indication, we must have been placed and had probably won. I was slightly irritated. I would have to stay bound until the end of the awards. I said so.
"But why should you be the only one to suffer?" Ruth asked. "What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Ben can wear the other fichu."
He objected but was outvoted three to one. It would make the audience laugh. Ruth and Harriet put the other white gloves on him, over his coat's skin-tight sleeves, and threaded the weakened fichu around him following the original example on me. Once he was tied, they kissed him. I kissed him too although that was awkward with both of us trussed up. Ruth hung a non-period cloak around Ben so that his bonds were unseen.
The competitors were in an adjoining room where they could hear but not see the judges. After each group had been mentioned they were to enter the main room and take seats at the back.
The awards ceremony seemed interminable. The judges announced a short list of ten, including us, before giving detailed comments on those who were not short listed. Some of their comments were painful to hear.
When they started on the short list, they discounted five and commented on them, all good attempts that fell short because of particular details. The Count who dropped the Countess was mentioned. His supporters moaned.
The Rugby forward Count who had swept his Countess away was criticised for being too unlike the historic Count but commended for being energetic.
There were prizes and certificates for the first five. The group who came fifth had been downgraded for having no dialogue at all. The fourth were rejected for speaking in colloquial Modern English with no attempt at period language or manners. The third had fumbled the gagging of the Countess and their fichu wasn't right. The second?
We weren't second. We had won. We barely heard the detail of the second's slight failures.
The judge announced our win to loud cheers. He stated that we had shown that the history couldn't be correct, but we had produced exact detailed costumes and manners correct for the period. He invited us up on stage.
We came through the audience with Ben still wrapped in the cape. The judge commended Ruth for her prologue. When he had finished his speech, Ruth stood forward again and held up her hand for silence.
"We thought," She said, "that this scenario was humiliating for whoever played the Countess, the victim of her Count. So..."