The Gentlemen's ClubbyBane©
Right on time, she saw and heard the carriage pull up.
"You're sure it's back here?" a gruff voice said.
"Aye, that's what Brown told me, said she'd be most ready," another equally gruff, heavily accented voice replied.
"This place is a right dump."
Both men laughed at this, which caused Sarah to blush mildly.
Footsteps on the porch, followed by a loud "Rap-Rap-Rap!" told her it was time.
She opened the door.
"Greetin's, miss," a short, dark-haired, very ugly man said, bending slightly at the waist. It was almost-but-not-quite a bow.
"How do you do?" she replied.
"Mr. Brown sen' us."
"Very well," she said, stepping out and pulling her door to. She walked clumsily to the carriage, pulling the shawl snug, aware that the frilly dress threatened to catch on every nook, corner, and cranny she traipsed by.
The ugly man—ugly was too kind, his face looked very much like a hog beaten about viciously with a heavy wooden club—opened the carriage door and gestured Sarah in. She noted that the driver, sitting high astride the carriage with reins in hand, twisted around so he could watch the proceedings.
"Thank you," she whispered as she stepped up into the coach.
"Don' mention it," the man said as he none-so-subtly reached out with his hand and pushed on her derriere, squeezing her buttocks tightly in the process.
She jumped, startled, into the coach and fell onto the floor.
As the carriage door slammed shut, she heard both men laughing heartily at her expense. Her face and neck colored again—a common problem, surely attributable to her pale complexion. It seemed that any time a man spoke to her out of turn, or she heard the tiniest hint of impropriety in a conversation, she turned the deepest shades of red and felt a visceral heat build in her chest, neck and cheeks.
Humiliating, certainly; no man should think he had such an effect on her! And yet, she couldn't help it and, even now, with the two questionable characters sitting atop the coach, laughing energetically, she felt the hot shame fill her body and knew not how to release it.
Eventually, it would disappear on its own.
It was a spacious coach; there were two leather-covered padded bench seats on either side, each capable of comfortably seating four. A small, unlit lamp was perched on the panel opposite the door. Sarah chose a side and slid over as far into the corner as she could. It still being light out, she pulled down the window shades, preferring instead the lowered lighting.
Besides, no one could see her if the shades were down.
With a lurch, the coach began its journey.
A quarter hour later, the coach stopped again. This time, the voices outside were much more subdued, respect and deferment obvious in both tenor and volume.
"Yes, Mr. Brown, as you requested."
"Certainly, Mr. Brown."
"This way then, Mr. Brown."
The coach door opened and Douglas Brown stepped up.
"Sarah," he said, nodding towards her as he pulled the door shut. He sat on the opposite side.
"Mr. Brown," she responded, voice a bit high and somewhat strained.
"I see you received my package."
She said nothing.
Brown opened the shades, allowing a broad swath of waning light to fill the coach. Not yet half past six the sun, though it would not set for another hour, tracked low in the sky, swarming the coach with effusive yellow light. Sarah sat stone still, observing small dust particles suspended in the shimmering light.
The carriage began moving again.
"What, pray tell, are you wearing under that garment?"
His comment arrested her attention, drawing her eyes back to him.
Brown reached out a foot and lifted the hem of her dress, revealing a heavy opaque slip.
"You look like a white triangle, with a bit of gauzy lace thrown over."
Sarah felt her cheeks color again—'Why does that always happen?'—and immediately dropped her gaze.
"I'm afraid that just won't do. You're supposed to be my, ah, escort, tonight. Not my mother."
"Mr. Brown, I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
Brown, sitting beneath the coach driver, seized his cane and thrust up, slamming the capped end into the ceiling.
A small window opened above Brown's head, revealing a screened outside view.
"Yes, Mr. Brown?"
"Turn around. We need to return my special lady friend to her residence."
"As you say, sir."
Sarah felt the carriage swing out slightly before beginning a long u-turn.
"Mr. Brown, I—"
"There's nothing to discuss, Sarah. You will honor my request or not, with all the ramifications that follow. If we just hurry, I can still meet my dinner obligations, although this may well leave me short of time."
The carriage jostled and banged across the rutted road as it spun around. Finally, wheels appropriately placed astraddle the deeply grooved road, they began rolling again in the direction from whence they had come.
Sarah looked across the coach, noted the way Mr. Brown avoided her eyes, instead gazing emptily out the window. He seemed almost bored, as if he had expected as much, had known in advance she would disappoint. The corners of his mouth frowned slightly.
He continued looking out the window.
She cleared her throat and tried again.
"Ahem, ah, Mr. Brown."
He said nothing, sitting comfortably, but did turn his eyes in her direction before slightly raising one eyebrow.
"Could you... that is, I... please, Mr. Brown." Her voice, smaller than usual, was virtually inaudible, drowned out by the sounds of the wheels clogging along the rutted road, the jingling harness, and the random whinny and snort of horses.
Brown again lifted his cane and rapped the ceiling viciously.
"POPOPOP!!" The sound was deafening.
"Mr. Brown, is everything alright?" a voice asked quickly. It was the ugly man, obviously concerned.
"Could you go any slower? I have a very important meeting and this will tragically delay my arrival!"
"Certainly sir. HAGH!" The sound of a whip cracking, followed by horse bray, filled the air. "HAGH! GO!"
The carriage sped up noticeably.
Sarah, troubled, breathed deeply and bit her lip in frustration. Stark, unbridled panic was building within and threatened to overtake her completely. With each passing second, she felt the impending loss of composure, the sense that she would quite literally beg for mercy. There was nothing she could do—well, not quite nothing, there was one thing. She could comply with his request...
Strangely, at that moment, she heard her father's voice in her ear: 'Cover thyself,' he whispered urgently. 'Cover thyself!'
Certainty. She felt it, the knowledge that Mr. Brown would deliver on his threat and terminate her husband's employment.
She reached over and closed the shades.
She knew what she must do.
Sarah ponderously raised first one foot to remove a shoe, and then the other.
Brown watched it all with a forced sense of detachment. He nodded approval as she removed her shoes, before leaning forward in her seat. He soaked in her comely features, so clearly defined, the staggering blue eyes as she turned to face him.
"Mr. Brown, I—" she said, stopping herself. She quickly recovered. "Could you turn away, please?"
"Certainly," he answered immediately. "I am pleased that you comprehend your position tonight. However, we must fully understand each other before I have the coachmen turn around for a second time."
Sarah's arms stopped, frozen in place.
"Yes, Mr. Brown?"
"If this happens again, there shall be no second chance."
He didn't have to explain what 'this' was—he was speaking of her unquestioned obedience.
"Yes, Mr. Brown," she answered in a strangled voice.
"Very well, then. I shall do you the courtesy of leaving the coach, to afford some level of privacy." He paused a moment. "I am not an indecent man."
"No, sir, of course not," she answered, validating his statement.
He again banged on the ceiling. The screened window opened.
"Stop the carriage. I'm coming up top."
After sliding out of the dress, Sarah proceeded to remove the heavy slip, careful to position the long red shawl so as to keep her body covered, as the slip was the only undergarment she wore, aside from knee-length stockings, beneath the frilly silky dress. She had had no reason to believe she would need more underclothings, a heavy opaque slip being all that should be required.
Now naked, save the shawl and stockings, she couldn't stop her rapid shallow breathing. Very quickly she slipped her feet back into the dress and slithered it up her body, past her rounded hips and up her torso. She reached back, struggling to fasten the buttons needed to keep the dress in place. The process was made more difficult by her shaking hands—she was petrified at the prospects of wearing such a garment in public.
Dressed, shawl wrapped tightly around her torso (and held firmly in place with both hands!), Sarah again reclined in her seat, leaning back and wedging herself comfortably into the corner. She had shoved her slip underneath the bench seats wooden plank, not wanting Mr. Brown—or anyone else, for that matter—to see such a personal article of clothing lying about.
It was then that the carriage slowed. They had been moving at terrific speed for what she supposed was half an hour. She peaked under the window shade and noted the rapidly fading light.
'Late,' she thought, 'past seven o'clock, certainly.'
Just then, the carriage stopped. Moments later Douglas Brown, accompanied by a man and woman, entered the carriage. Mr. Brown took a seat by Sarah, close to her person but not inappropriately so. The other couple sat on the bench opposite.
"Charles Winthrop, this is Sarah."
Charles nodded vaguely, glanced at Sarah briefly and then put his attention back squarely on Mr. Brown.
"Yes, Douglas, but you realize, we simply MUST get this deal done!"
"Profit, Charles, always you speak of profit!"
Mr. Winthrop turned to his female companion. "He speaks of profit as though it were a personal failing!" he exclaimed dubiously. His companion patted his arm in understanding.
"See, Douglas? SHE understands, don't you dear?"
"Of course," she said demurely, staring into his eyes with pure adoration.
"See, Douglas?" he said, never looking away. "My Jennifer has a full grasp on things!" Mr. Winthrop laughed heartily before none-so-subtly placing his hand on Jennifer's thigh and giving a hearty squeeze. "Very good, dear," he cooed, leaning in for a kiss. "Yes, very, very good."
Sarah sat back, shocked. This was outrageous behavior, OUTRAGEOUS! To handle a woman so, in public no less! 'Not exactly in public,' she chided herself, 'but certainly in the company of strangers.'
"Well then, Douglas, what DO you have in store for us tonight?" Mr. Winthrop said, sitting back and pulling his companion close.
"Charles, you always ask, and I always answer the same. We shall have a fine dinner at The Visum, in our usual corner. Afterwards, Collins will join us for a bit of heavy negotiation—"
"—after which we will do what gentlemen do."
"Do we need him, Douglas? That clerk of yours, what's-his-name, is really making himself useful, I hardly think we need the services of that uncouth Collins fellow at this late date!"
"We have not yet secured the last of the land deals to cement the railroad, Charles. There are a handful of properties yet to close in the southern counties. To be sure, we are close. Notwithstanding the efforts of my clerk, there is still a task only Mr. Collins can fulfill." As he finished this statement, Brown's voice became deep and somber, as if he regretted having to involve Collins at all.
Sarah, for her part, was hopelessly lost, having no idea of what they spoke. Instead, she couldn't help noticing Mr. Winthrop's hand, wrapped as it was around the thigh of the woman sitting next to him. Winthrop would squeeze, sometimes tightly, as he spoke, as if exaggerating his words with his handling. Jennifer sat quietly, back straight and chest up thrust, calmly accepting his course treatment.
"My word," Sarah breathed, for the first time noting the state of Jennifer's dress. It was exceedingly low cut, exposing nearly three-quarter moons above lace-edged cups. With each breath, the poor girl's heaving flesh expanded, threatening to spill over. Sarah looked up and caught Jennifer staring right back. She was smiling; not a kind smile that girls in similar circumstances might share, nor a beckoning smile that invited conversation; no, it was a calculating smile that failed to reach the eyes, a smile that suggested while she, Jennifer, certainly knew—and accepted—her place, this other girl, Sarah was it?, was hopelessly miscast and tragically ill-informed.
The two men continued speaking for a short time before stopping, upon which Mr. Winthrop, without ceremony or preamble, turned and lowered his face to Jennifer's and opened his mouth.
"Darling," Jennifer whispered, kissing him open-mouthed.
Sarah, unable to hide her disgust, turned her face sideways. At the same time, Brown sidled over to her.
"Sarah," he whispered, his mouth inches from her ear. She felt his breath play across her ear lobe, accompanied by a vicious pounding beneath her breast.
"Yes, Mr. Brown?"
"I think we've arrived," he said, glancing out the window.
So they had.
CHAPTER 3 — The Gentlemen's Club
The sign outside the Gentlemen's Club had three words written in ornate script:
Dus Aliter Visum
From the Latin, "The gods decreed otherwise." The Visum, as they called it, was an establishment with very limited membership. It wasn't bloodline, occupation, or university that garnered membership to such an august institution; heavens no! Rather, the two requirements were very simple: Wealth, and Approval.
Wealth because one had to be in possession of such a worth personally and make a donation to the club coffers sufficient to convey unparalleled superiority to any non-member, and Approval because any potential member was obligated to secure a staggering 75% vote of the standing members to join.
Winthrop was the first to exit the coach; he immediately stepped around the carriage and up to the Club door, ignoring completely the doorman. Jennifer, his companion, struggled to keep up, careful to keep her gaze fixed down on a mark ten feet apace. Brown was next; he afforded no assistance to Sarah as she exited the coach, but lingered just long enough so that she saw and followed him.
Having stepping through the Club doorway, Brown paused for Sarah.
"Sarah," he whispered.
He cleared his throat impatiently.
"Sarah?" he repeated, a bit more forcefully.
"Yes, Mr. Brown?" she replied, blinking rapidly.
"You will not eat unless I place food before you. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will look at a spot ten feet ahead, eyes cast down, the entire time you are about The Visum. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mr. Brown," she answered quickly.
Without another word, Brown turned and strode away. Sarah followed in his wake, struggling to keep up.
Out of the corner of her eyes she saw many tables, perhaps a dozen, half of which were occupied. The opulence and ostentation, even from her abbreviated view, could not be understated. At each table there was seating for six, although typically there were only four—and without exception, for every man there was a woman. At some tables, the women seemed to be actively engaged in conversation; at others, they were little more than decorations, sitting idly by as the men spoke of important things.
Without a specific sense of their eventual destination, Sarah focused on Mr. Brown's worked alligator-skin shoes, the way his slacks rose and fell against his calf, the pivot of his foot as he turned and changed direction. She followed him around one corner, down a long straightaway, past and around another table and then back down an adjacent straightaway. When they walked past Mr. Winthrop and Jennifer, sitting at a favored table deep in the far corner, Sarah faltered ever so briefly—wouldn't they be dining with them? Instead, Mr. Brown blew right past, walking in a purposeful way.
Sarah dutifully followed.
The scene was not lost on any of the Dus Aliter Visum crowd. After the second go around the dining room, most of the conversations had ceased and the attention of the room was candidly on Mr. Douglas Brown, parading around his evening's escort. One table chuckled softly before returning to their own conversations; at another, a larger man paid particular attention to the young female, quite taken by her fair complexion and fiery red hair. He saw glimpses of flesh through the vapory material of her white dress, the hint of her hind quarters as she rounded a corner, a sway of her chest, that told him everything he needed to know about what was beneath: a full-figured filly, a bit thick in the bottom, but primed for a hard ride. This particular gentleman grinned widely as he raised his glass bottoms-up.
By now, Sarah was beginning to catch on. They had passed Mr. Winthrop's table twice, and continued walking about, not terribly fast but certainly not leisurely, merely at a pace convenient for getting where one wanted in a reasonable period of time.
On their third pass, Brown did, indeed, slow and stop at the table. Amid no small amount of fanfare, Brown selected and pulled back a chair for Sarah; however, he failed utterly to even gaze in her direction, instead sliding the chair up underneath her as if he were seating an invisible guest.
"There now, Douglas, that was quite interesting," Winthrop said, obviously amused.
"Was it, Charles? I was merely... searching for the table. I was unable to locate you initially, but I had a sense that you were seated in this area. Perhaps I missed you the first time around?"
"Perhaps. Let's speak of more important things, shall we? This Collins business, for instance."
Brown gestured with his index finger; immediately, a platter appeared, replete with various delicacies and appetizers.
"I've already told you, Charles, Mr. Collins has yet a role to play."
"What of this clerk?" Winthrop said, waving his hand. "He's been nothing short of extraordinary! We've been able to, ah, use a bit of finesse, shall we say, in the areas he has personally visited!"
"I agree. I much prefer to pay the extra five percent, rather than have Collins and his goons shake things around over-much. Still, there are some who are simply unwilling to accommodate our requirements."
"Send the clerk again, then! Let him try! The fool has no sense of his value, he's still collecting a clerk's pay!"
Both men erupted in laughter, toasting their underlings and blissful ignorance.
Sarah, meanwhile, sat upright, shawl wrapped firmly about her chest and draped over her waist. The sight of her arms, clearly visible beneath the thin material, sent shivers down her spine. She was thankful for the shawl, the only thing permitting her any small amount of dignity, and clutched it tightly.
She hoped the low level of light from the various oil lamps wouldn't afford too close an observation of her body; at any rate, she sat, eyes glued to the table, allowing the conversation to pass unnoticed.
If she were quiet enough, perhaps she would be ignored...
After half an hour in which she neither ate nor spoke, Sarah suddenly felt hands about her shoulders. Someone was grabbing her shawl, trying to wrest it free!
She looked up—it was Jennifer, of all people, pulling swiftly and smoothly such that the ornate shawl simply slipped between Sarah's own fingers. It happened very quickly.