The Spy Wore PetticoatsbyColleen Thomas©
Julia laughed and rose, crossing to where Charlotte sat.
"Very good. At least you are gaining an appreciation of which young men are handsome and which aren't. I feared I would never teach you that in time."
"You are a very good teacher, sister dear," he spat.
"Temper, temper. Smile prettily now," she ordered.
He did so, his face going blank save for the slightly vacant expression he had been taught to adopt.
"Very good. I'll be ready soon and we'll be off," she said as she exited the room.
Her first inclination was to stand and pace, as she had been wont to do before her training had started. This impulse she fought down with the ease of long practice. Having nothing to do with her hands was the worst part, but she managed to sooth that itch by taking up a book. Strangely, the duke had provided several books for her to read, all in Russian. She assumed that they had something to do with her mysterious mission, but so far neither the Duke who visited frequently, nor Julia had deigned to enlighten him as to what it actually entailed.
As she began to read, she thought back to that first day and how overwhelming it had all been.
"Now, Now, mademoiselle, you must learn to let me help you undress. A lady never removes her own clothing when her maid is at hand," the older woman said, rushing to the side of the tub and helping Charles out of his night shirt.
He quickly got into the hot water, using his hands to cover himself. She smiled and poured several small colored bottles of aromatic oils into the steaming water. He recognized sandalwood, and roses.
"Very expensive dainties those are, from the duke himself," she said as she busied herself with a long handled brush.
Charles resigned himself to the indignity of letting her wash him. Strangely, after a few minutes, it actually became rather nice to be so pampered, and by the time the water was cold he was feeling very serene inside.
Madame Deveraou helped him out of the tub and dried him off. She spent a long time fussing over his hair and generally making sure he enjoyed the experience. Despite himself, he had, but nothing she could do would ever make dressing enjoyable and he detested the strange feel of his heavy makeup.
Charles wondered about his new maid. She seemed matronly and while fluent in French, she occasionally talked to herself in English. One thing she never did during that whole first horrible day was to address him as anything but mam'zelle.
"Come, sister, or we'll be late," Julia said.
Charles nodded, carefully put down his book, and rose, following her out to the coach.
Claude, the new coachman, sat atop the coach, decked out in the family's sable livery. Henri acted as footman, opening the door and offering his hand. The old man seemed to be taking Charles's transformation in stride. He evidenced no sneer or any other emotion as Charlotte entered the coach.
Without thought, she dipped her hips and turned, sliding her left pannier through the door, then executing a swish of her hips, which brought the left side way up while dipping the right and swiveling her hips.
Standing behind her and watching carefully, Julia nodded to herself. She watched as her brother reached down and secured his skirt before he sat. He kept his back slightly arched and allowed his skirts to ride up only suggestively. Julia quickly mounted up to the coach and sat opposite him. Claude called to the team and with a snap of the traces, they were off.
Charlotte turned to the window, watching the estate slip by.
Coach rides, how he hated them. Every night they would ride through the city, sometimes to some event Julia forced him to attend, but often just to ride. She refused him the comfort of the satin cod piece, explaining he needed to learn exactly how vulnerable a woman felt, even when fully dressed.
The first time he sat, he flashed her as his skirt shot up into his face. He tore dresses, petticoats, and stockings and ruined one of his best panniers before he mastered the swiveling of his hips upon entering a coach.
Julia made them ride long hours after making him drink large quantities of wine. Often he felt as if his bladder were about to burst, and the cobbled streets only made it worse. Yet she was relentless, explaining patiently as he whined that a lady had to be able to endure long stretches between stops. He suspected this had something to do with his mission, whatever it was, but she remained vague.
Now he rode in his own little world, feeling neither the need to urinate, the tight corset biting into his sides or the itch of his hair on his neck. He sipped air rather than breathing deeply, using the upper part of his lungs, which were not as constricted by his clothing.
The coach slid to a smooth stop in the brilliantly lit drive of the Momfort house and liveried footmen quickly opened the door. Charlotte rose and reached out, taking the footman's strong hand and daintily alighting. From the small pouch she wore beneath her skirts, she took out and handed him a silver penny. Once Julia had gotten out, Claude took the coach around to the servants' quarters. The house steward, in his outrageously powdered wig, was waiting for them on the front steps and escorted them into the foyer.
Claude Momfort was waiting to greet them. He was an older man who had made his fortune at sea. While in his eighties, he was still hale.
And still a lecherous old goat, Charlotte reminded herself as he seized both her hands and leaned forward to kiss her cheek. As she expected, when he leaned forward his hands rose, and he took the liberty of caressing her breasts though her dress.
"Lady De Toberville, so glad you came," he declared in a booming voice that still invoked images of a ship's master.
She exchanged kisses with Madame De Momfort, a kindly old woman who, like herself, was still new to the role of society lady. This was one of the reasons Julia had so often accepted invitations from the Momforts. They were just recently wealthy and Claude had only been elevated to the nobility some five years previous. It was rumored that a highly successful buccaneering venture had so increased Louis's treasury that it had prompted the honor. Whatever the reason, the Momforts were perfect for Julia's needs. Charlotte's social faux pas passed all but unnoticed among them.
Reginald Momfort, the old man's foppish, dilettante of a son breezed in, tossing his riding gloves to a servant. He was tall but had a large paunch already and wore a scraggly black beard to hide the scars from the pox. He looked ridiculous in his riding boots and Charlotte doubted he even knew how to mount a horse, much less ride one. Still, she envied him the freedom to do so. His entrance was so contrived as to be comical and she deftly avoided his clumsy attempt to fondle her breasts during their brief embrace.
"It would be rude not to," Julia said imperturbably.
"But every time we go there, Reginald...touches me."
"I know, isn't it delicious?"
"It's nothing of the sort!"
"Well, dear sister, you must learn to cope. No matter where you go, men will be at you, like hounds to the bitch. A lady simply learns to avoid those she doesn't have any interest in."
"How do you avoid him? He's always near and his hands... No matter where I turn, they are upon me!"
Julia had left him in the room, nearly weeping in frustration, but she had returned some time later wearing one of his old riding outfits. What followed was an awkward but instructive four hour lesson in avoidance without seeming to be avoiding. That was, of course, the key. It was impolitic for a young lady to seem to be spurning the advances of a nobleman. As Julia told him time and again, she could not afford to earn the enmity of any one, least of all a man of power and influence.
Charles learned to use his fan like a rapier, jabbing it into a man's breastbone when they kissed. He learned to make deft moves with his body, placing the more attractive bits in awkward places and forcing a man to behave least he seem a cad.
He even learned the hardest lesson; there were some men you simply did not deny. Exactly whom you allowed to get away with indiscretions and whom you could tactfully rebuff was another hard lesson, mostly because Julia stressed that there were men you simply didn't want to rebuff. He assumed because she found them attractive, which he certainly did not. And there were some you could not afford to.
Yet he had ceased to try and deny Claude the minor pleasure, while consistently rebuffing his aggressive son. He had realized that Claude was a sweet if gruff man and he meant nothing by it. He wasn't a man Charlotte couldn't afford to rebuff, but one he chose not to. The first night Charles allowed him his minor pleasure he lay awake till the wee hours of the morning, wondering why. None of the answers he found pleased him.
"You look absolutely divine."
"Thank you, monsieur," Charlotte responded automatically.
They moved to the dining room, where dinner was served. As they ate, Claude regaled them with his sea stories, the same stories he had told over and over again. They grew with each telling, but Charlotte politely listened and laughed on cue. In some ways he was so much like her father.
"Tell me, son, what do you think of the political situation?" Claude asked.
Charlotte groaned inwardly. She did like the old man, but it had become obvious he really liked her and was trying to help his son make inroads. She managed a socially acceptable vapid expression and tuned out as he began his obviously rehearsed "musings."
"I don't care if he tells you that the army must march across the ocean and help the Colonials. Ladies do not argue military matters with men!"
"He's so insufferably stupid. Even you know we cannot defeat Prussia and Austria at the same time!" Charles exclaimed.
"Yes dear sister, I know it," she said, her anger abating like a summer storm.
"Then why?" he whined.
"Because you cannot show you know it. Your pretty little head should be filled with only a few matters. The latest fashions, the next ball, finding a husband so you can raise a family," she said, pinching his cheek playfully.
"You aren't stupid, dear sister. Why do you pretend to be so? You knew I was right."
"Because you aren't supposed to let them know you know, silly. One of your greatest weapons is that men will underestimate your ability. Even perceptive men will always assume a woman is inferior unless you let them know differently. This you must never do."
"Because you are a woman, Charlotte, and women don't profess to understand politics or anything else that is a man's province. With certain men, in certain situations, showing you have a mind will gain you much, but in general, showing such knowledge will arouse suspicion. It isn't done and you must not do it. I never want to hear you again showing you have a thought in your head more complicated than learning the latest dance steps from Italy or acquiring a new dress. Do you understand me?"
"That's all so terribly interesting, Reginald," Julia said.
Charlotte had learned to bite her tongue, but had never managed the affected interest his sister seemed to be able to muster so naturally. Still, she had learned her lessons well, and as soon as Reginald launched into his dissertation on the court in Russia, she saw her chance.
"I heard the women in Elizabeth's court no longer wear corsets. Do you know if that's true?" she asked, innocently batting her eyelashes at Claude.
The old man colored slightly and smiled.
"I've never been my dear. The only Russian lady I met was in Hanover and she..erm..she seemed to be wearing a corset at the time."
"Oh," Charlotte replied, seeming suitably dejected that her attempt at conversation had failed.
It so galled her to play dumb, but the effect she wanted was achieved as the conversation turned to things closer to home and she was spared one of Reginald's long winded, self important lectures.
It was late when the servants cleared the table, and Charlotte was looking forward to going home.
"Julia dear, would you mind joining me in the parlor a moment? I've been thinking of purchasing a new settee and I have heard you are knowledgeable about such things," Madame De Momfort asked.
"Of course," Julia replied, and they both retired.
"Well, you young folks enjoy yourselves. It's late and I must retire. Thank you for coming, Lady De Toberville," Claude said, with a theatrical yawn.
He rose as did she and he kissed her goodnight, again gently stroking her bust. She watched him leave and took another sip of wine when it hit her.
Too late, Charlotte realized her danger. It infuriated her when she realized that this had to have been set up before hand. The parents were obviously in on it and now she was left alone in the dining room with Reginald.
"Well, since Mother and Lady De Locke are busy, what say we take a stroll?" he said.
He was sweating and nervous. His little beady eyes glittered with lust and his skin was splotchy and livid. He was, without doubt, the most repulsive man she had ever seen, and she had to fight back the urge to retch.
Julia had to be in on it too, she decided. This was another of her tests. Biting back a sarcastic retort, she smiled and rose, making very sure to grab her fan.
"I'd love to," she said, forcing the words out and despairing at their failure to sound sweet.
Luckily, Reginald was too anxious or just too dense to hear anything in the words. He rose and came around the table. Charlotte was thinking fast now, remembering her lessons. She waited patiently for him to remember to offer his arm. When he did, she took it and they walked out into the cool refreshing night air.
Charlotte held onto his arm with a strong grip but allowed him to guide her down the walk, making sure to keep right next to him. Her skirts offered her a good deal of protection as long as they were side by side, which was why she waited for his arm.
"It's a beautiful night, isn't it? Simply made for love," he said. She wanted to gag. He wasn't even going to wait until they were out of sight of the house to press himself upon her. She had to think of something quickly; there was no way she would permit herself to be lead into the dark corner of the estate he was angling for. Her mind was working fast when she hit upon a plan.
"Actually, it's a lovely night for riding, or so I have heard. Reginald dear, would you show me the stables?" she asked in her sweetest tone.
"The stables? But of course!" he said, nearly stumbling in his eagerness to get her there.
The inside smelled of hay and earth, horses, leather and sweat. As she had expected, the coachmen were there and the stable boys, drinking from a jug. They all rose when the couple entered.
He was going to dismiss them, she could see it in his eyes, but she was ahead of him.
"Oh dear! How wonderful. The servants are here. You can show me how well you ride now!" she exclaimed. "Ride? Oh yes, of course. You there, boy, saddle my horse, at once do you hear!"
Charlotte smiled behind her fan and watched as the men quickly saddled up a large black stallion. The stable boy led it out to the open heath and Reginald clumsily mounted up.
"It's really very easy my dear, you should consider learning to ride," he boasted as he sat unsteadily in the saddle.
"He's such a magnificent creature, and you look so dashing," she fawned, getting closer to the animal.
When Reginald preened at the praise, he looked forward and that was all she needed. Charlotte jabbed the big horse in his flank with her fan.
He was a good animal, but the unsteady hand on the reins and being roused from his warm stall so late in the evening had him a little spooked. The sudden jolt caused him to rear and bolt.
Both horse and rider careened down the track and out of sight before Reginald could do more than yell imprecations at his mount. Charlotte smiled and looked over her shoulder at the grinning servants. She winked saucily and sauntered back to the main house.
"And then you prodded his mount?" Julia asked.
"Just then," Charlotte admitted.
Julia burst out laughing.
They were seated in the coach for the long ride back to their home. Julia had noticed his return, alone, and had made a quick dash to his side.
"I hope you didn't do anything stupid," she had hissed.
"Me?" she asked innocently.
Before she could press, Reginald had come in, his face welted by branches and his riding clothes covered in mud and grass. While his mother attended to his hurts they had said good bye and Julia made him recall the entire story from the moment she had left the dining room.
"You aren't upset?" she asked.
"Upset? Why should I be? He's a beastly fellow."
"I thought you were part of the plot," she mumbled.
"I was indeed. But you handled yourself beautifully," she said, leaning across the coach to kiss Charlotte's cheek.
"Why would you conspire to leave me in his company and then not be angry when I rebuffed him?"
"My darling. Tomorrow we must present you to the duke and his friends. I am sorry I put you in such a position, but I had to know if you were progressing as well as I had hoped."
"And you have exceeded my wildest hopes, dear one. You handled yourself like a lady. In fact, I am amazed at how easily you have taken to it. I never thought to see you manipulating anyone, but you have a talent for getting what you want when you're wearing petticoats. It's almost a shame you weren't born a woman."
"I suppose I'll take that as a compliment," she said.
"Please do. I know I've been hard on you, but I had to. Your very life will depend upon you keeping up the masquerade, and I did all I could to help you. I hope you bear me no ill will?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"I could bear you no ill will, sister. I am in a predicament of my own making. Nay, say not you were responsible too. You were only trying to help. I have thought hard upon this, in the long watches of the night. I feel...never mind," she finished lamely.
"No, go on?"
"I feel ashamed, every time I rise and must face another day as a woman. Yet I also feel serene at times for no reason I can put name to. I doubt I will ever be really comfortable as Charlotte, but I am at least comfortable enough at times."
She shook her head and smiled again.
"I know I face a dangerous mission. You have armed me as best you can for it. Now we must see if I am up to the task, or if it will break me."
Charlotte rose early and rang Madame Deveraou. The maid arrived and began the long, laborious process of dressing her mistress. Today was important, her long awaited meeting with the mysterious "friends" of Duke De Fleury. Knowing that her freedom, perhaps her very life rested on this, she was very anxious.
Her corset today was yellow, as was the lace trim on her pantalets. The dress was emerald green with black embroidery, and after dressing she anxiously waited for Julia to get ready.
The coach ride was hellish and by the time they reached the duke's receiving hall at his country house, Charlotte was close to hyperventilating.
Julia clamed her down and together they were shown into a small room where five men sat at a table. Charlotte recognized them but gave no sign she did, and for three hours they grilled her unmercifully. After that, the sisters were shown out and wine was provided for them while they waited.
"Extraordinary," De Raven said with awe in his voice as the door closed.
"I must admit, I had my doubts, but after meeting her, I'm convinced this might work," the Duke of Normandy said thoughtfully.