A Night of Chocolate and RosesbyMSTarot©
"Merciful Heavens, the cold."
Trying to not look like I was shivering I approached my destination. The almost impossible scent of the place came to me well before I got to the gate.
Roses? More a spring or summer smell than one for the depths of winter.
The iron gate, flanked with its columns of white stone, was cold under my hand. I looked to the vines that trail off down either side, their flowers long gone, their leaves hidden in frost, fairly cover the whole of the wall with their thorny mass.
"Would that it was spring," I said under my breath. My words were a foggy mist before my eyes as I neared the door.
The morning's cold, bitter winds still tore at my clothes, biting into me when it blew my coat open. The wet cobblestones had long since stripped my feet of any warmth. My button-top boots, worn more for appearance than warmth, had allowed the cold, muddy slush from the street in far too easily. Still, I walked on. Let there be snow on the rooftops, and I would have walked on. The horror and embarrassment of that morning gave me the strength, terror of the scandal waiting to be born spurred me on. Knowing that even then my beloved husband was being held prisoner gave me the will to see myself to journey's end.
My cold fingers closed around the little brass pull. I heard the bell ringing inside. Just as I was about to give a second pull, the door opened.
"Oh lordy, ma'am." Her eyes went from my face to my feet, taking in the good quality cloth, the cut and style of my coat. "What are you out upon such a day for? Your clothes are near soaked from the snow. Come inside before you catch your death."
Smiling with gratitude, I stepped in through the door and past the saucy, pert woman in the black maid's uniform. The maid's deference was so very heartwarming after the morning I had been having. The rudeness... no... absolute brutishness of the bailiffs!
"Caught me in the middle of my dusting, you did, ma'am. Otherwise you might have had to stand out there for a goodly while. Everyone's off getting party supplies gathered for tonight, don't you know? Come in here by the fire. I take it you are needing to speak to Milady?"
The heat from the fire was almost more than my chilled skin could take. I drank it in, trying to not shudder luxuriously. With a sigh, I turned and gave the maid a nod.
"If you please. Would you tell her Mrs. Upton, the wife of James Upton, is asking to see her." Behind my back, I held my hands out to the flames. It was a small fire in truth but to my fingers it was almost painfully hot.
"Oh, Mrs. Upton, she told us you would probably pop round today. She said for you to join her in the Rosarium." The little brunette gave the mantelpiece a quick flip with her feather duster.
Smiling, she looked at me.
"The Rosarium, ma'am. The greenhouse. Come, I'll guide your steps."
I followed her, my eyes going to her black skirt. It was far too short. I had seen the style in the travels of my youth, but I hadn't thought anything that scandalous had made its way here. Mother chastised father once when he looked upon a woman dressed so. I pushed the memories away, overcome by the shame I felt from this morning. Thoughts of the shame I have brought to our family made me almost glad that they were gone to a better place. Although, I know, if they still lived, they would have helped us.
"Right through those glass doors and then through the second set. Mind the thorns."
"Thank you," I said.
Ahead of me was a wall of glass, iron and brass. Beautiful filigree-worked metal held the glass panels with strong but delicate swirls. In the center is a set of double doors, also made of glass. I went to them only to yank my hand back from the door at first touch.
The handle was burning hot!
Very hesitantly, I moved to it again, my fingers ready to pull back, I slowly touched it again. The metal was probably not as hot to warm fingers as to mine, but the cold of the day would not be chased from my fingers with so little time before a fire.
As I stepped through the opening, the scent of roses came to me again. Hesitantly, I walked to the inner doorway. This handle was if anything even warmer.
As I opened it, I stood for a second, eyes closed, and just basked in the warmth that flowed out to me.
My eyes opened to take in a riotous mélange of thousands of shades from red to pink. Then the scent, the strongest perfume, washed over me. I felt as if months had slid by, and I was standing on a June day, smelling flowers in the garden.
Even my feet started to thaw. I bend down quickly and placed my hand on the stone floor.
It was miraculously warm!
"It's a trick the Romans invented."
I stood up quickly, embarrassed at having been caught like that. I turned to look at the woman walking towards me. The light dress she wore would be far more appropriate for summer. Even as the thought came to mind, I realized that I needed to open up some of my own clothing, for I was beginning to sweat.
I undid my scarf and unbuttoned my coat to hide my sudden disquiet.
This woman was clearly not wearing stays under her dress. It was positively vulgar.
"Lady Sionly, if you please," she said with a smile. "My illustrious great-grand-sire did so very little saving someone of no consequence to earn the title. The least I can do is see to its use."
"I'm sorry, my husband told me, Miss," I started to say, but she waved a set of brass shears at me.
"Don't be sorry, my dear. Least of all for the foolish mistakes of a man. Now, you are the wife of James Upton."
"Yes, my Lady. I came to..." I said.
"Oh, I know what you're here for. The bailiffs came round and fetched him this morning."
"Yes, my Lady. Just as I was putting breakfast on the table. They tapped him and took him off to a sponging house. I have come to see if you would give him more time."
The lovely woman smiled at me sadly.
"Men. They get themselves into trouble then wish us to help get them out of it. With no thought to our dignity. Imagine if you had asked him to go beg someone you owed money to." She gave a sigh. "Come with me, my dear."
I followed her into, what I later learned, was called a terrarium. The table she lead me to must have been near the middle, because I saw the glass and metal roof high above. I felt even greater warmth coming from the four great pillars that held that frost-rimed ceiling up.
At my surprised look, she smiled.
"They're tile pipes my dear. I have a furnace burning in the building next door. In fact that's the structure's only purpose. I have the heat pumped under the floor and through these columns. It warms my Rosarium nicely don't you think?"
The very idea of a person with so much wealth that they would spend it to keep flowers, however beautiful, in bloom when they are out of season, staggered me.
"Rose-water tea, my dear?" she offered, taking a seat.
Still feeling lost, I sat down and nodded my head.
The cup steamed. She held a spoon over the sugar bowl, and red crystals were sifted into my cup at my nod.
The taste was not much to my liking. Like licking a perfume bottle. But I did my best not to be rude.
"It's a shame that I had to employ the High Sheriff and his bailiffs. I gave your husband a year and a day to pay me back at least half of what I loaned him. Then a year and a day more to pay back the rest. He's not even managed a third, let alone a half." Lady Sionly sipped at her tea. "I sent a letter to ask him to have payment ready by the evening bell last night. I got no reply so..."
"I'm sorry..." Her eyes stopped my words.
"I told you not to be. Least of all by what a man has done. Your husband was a man of some means at one time. His lack of forethought reduces you both to a level that's shameful. That he thought to restore his losses by borrowing more is a sign of a less-than-wise man as well. I did give him warning. I insisted he outline his plans to me before I gave him the money. It was a risky venture with a large chance of loss. In truth he was doing little more with the money I gave him than building ice castles. That he should be surprised when the summer heat melted his efforts is beyond me."
"He was misinformed. The people involved gave him false information," I tried to explain. To defend my husband.
The Lady nodded.
"And now with his feathers to the flames he sends you to debase yourself to his creditor to gain him succor. Typical," she sniffed.
I felt like crawling under the table or maybe going to hide in the flowers. To hide what pride I had left from sight. My heart burned at what James had led me to do here.
"So you won't give him more time?" I said more than asked.
"I have said no such thing my dear."
I looked up to her with hope.
"Do you know what today is?" she asked me, picking up a cut rose from her basket.
"It's St. Valentine's Day," I said with a sad tilt to my tone. I had hoped for a bit of color to the day, not the horrid event that ruined not only breakfast but also the whole holiday.
"Yes. The celebration of Valentinus."
I nodded at the archaic wording. Puzzlement must have been showing on my face.
"Well, on this day I hold a celebration here in my Rosarium... every year. I invite a private and very select group of friends and associates. I have done this every year for more than a decade."
I just looked at her, unsure of what this had to do with my husband.
She lifted the rose to her nose, turning her head. Seeing her in profile, I thought that she must have been truly lovely when she was my age. Before the turning of years touched her eyes with tiny wrinkles.
Her eyes went suddenly sharp.
"I will let you earn the remainder of what was due today. Your husband will be paid half back to me in one night. Would that suit your needs my dear?"
"Yes of course! Oh thank you..." I trailed off as I suddenly wondered what I would have to do to "earn" that generosity.
She smiled at my sudden unease.
"At my party I have...'special entertainment'...to keep my guests happy. If you agree to be one of these entertainers I will settle what's owed."
"What...what do you mean? What kind of...entertainment?" I asked.
She sat back with a smile, and I quickly moved my eyes from the rose when she laid it against her chest. The dark circles of her...breasts... showed through the thin cloth. I felt my color rise at such lewdness.
"That you will know, my lovely, when I have your agreement to be one of my entertainers. You will not be harmed if that is what you are fretting over. I have never had a single complaint in all the years of my hosting this gathering. You will wear a mask to protect your reputation. I can let you know that much at least. My guests will also be masked. For the same reason, of course. Some of them are from a station far above even mine let alone yours, my dear."
Her, superior than thou tone set a fire in my heart that burned away any remaining cold. My current circumstances not withstanding her status was not that far above mine! Why my family...
"It has the sound of a bawdry affair," I said with utmost disdain for her and her celebration, "and I will have no part of it."
I got to my feet and started to walk away. Her words stopped me.
"You have two lovely daughters, yes? He spoke of them, even brought the youngest, Emily I believe her name was, here with him. I think he may have hoped I would be swayed by her sweet, innocence to lending him even more money." She shook her head, sadly. "How will you feed them tomorrow? How about the tomorrow after that? The bailiffs will drain every piece of money from him at the sponging-house, then turn him over to the courts. How will you feed their hungry mouths when he's in debtors' prison? How will you win his release?"
I stopped, my back to her, her words dug into the place where I had locked such thoughts away. She broke the prison gates and they ran loose, threatening to tear me apart. A sudden rage at James that he had bought our daughter here without telling me, flooded me. To use our child in that way!
"You would be wearing a mask. No one will ever know it was you, save myself and I promise I have no wish for what happens at my... bawdry affairs... to become public knowledge," she said.
I heard her move behind me. I cut my eyes to the side when she walked around then followed till she was in front of me. She slowly lifted the rose and let its soft petals brush my cheek. The scent of it after the wet, barren odorlessness of winter was all but overwhelming. Sweet, heady, rich... it pulled at me, trying to take me into one of the oldest memories from my childhood, summers in my grandmother's huge rose garden. Gathering flowers with her under the warm sun. I wanted to run and hide in those old memories... to hide from this moment in that rich perfume.
"It will be kept 'Under the Rose', my dear."
I closed my eyes to her intense gaze. I breathed in the smell of the rose.
"Your husband will never know either. No man should know what a woman will do to see her children fed," she said in a low soothing tone of voice.
My breathing had become panting as nerves settled into my stomach... then went lower.
My eyes opened and meet hers. Those hazel depths, they looked into mine with a power that I could not but acknowledge.
"I won't be hurt?"
"Not in any way that will leave a mark for more than a moment."
I paused at that.
"I don't like the idea of being used by a man for his...entertainment." I told her.
She brushed my face with the rose again, almost slapping me with it in truth.
"It's women only, my dear. Even my male servants are sent away for the night. Ladies only. Don't you think we deserve as much fun, as can be had on this day of romance? How foolish is it to think that so simple a creature as a man can understand the romantic needs of our sex?"
I slowed my breathing down as best I could. The butterflies were chasing the rose tea in my stomach though.
"I'll have a mask?" I asked. I saw her start to smile. She was reading my face all too well.
"We will all have them. I know who all the guests are but they know only me. Maybe a few of them continue to meet after my parties, but that isn't my... bawdry affair." She lifted her eyebrow then gave me a wink.
Slowly, I nodded.
"Excellent! Here," she handed me the rose she was holding. "I'll have my maid take you up to a room you can use. There will be a bath run, and then she will see to you." Her eyes dropped down to my waist. "There must be certain... adjustments... made to meet the... tastes of my friends."
I know my eyes must have been the size of tea saucers. She laughed merrily at the look on my face.
"Do not fret so, my dear. As I said, nothing will be done that will cause you any lasting harm." She turned from me as we heard shoes on stone. "Ah, Molly, I was about to ring for you. She will be staying."
"Yes Lady. I have her bath already drawn." The little maid looked to me and smiled in a way I didn't care for. "Come along with me. I'll set you to rights, and then you can take a nap till the guests arrive."
I looked to the Lady Sionly. She smiled and gestured towards the maid.
Just as I was about to reach the edge of the stone circle, I heard her call. Turning I watched her cut a rose from a bush and hold it up.
"Be mindful of the rose I gave you. The thorns are small, but like any tiny prick, they can draw blood," she said, her eyes merry.
I followed the maid and wished I was leaving the whole house. The front door was in sight, but I followed her up the wide marble steps.
The room was furnished to a level of elegance I had never known. Not even my grandmother's bedroom was that beautiful. There was a bathtub! There in the bedroom! Not put before the sitting room fire was at my house. First for the children to use, then myself, and finally John. The tub was copper and trimmed in gold filigree. It had clawed-brass feet that rested on balls of alabaster marble. I saw a large kettle steaming by the roaring fireplace.
The rising steam made me ache for the warmth it promised. My last bath had been three days before, and the water had been nearly cold.
"You can undress behind the screen. There is a robe back there for you to wear. I'll just top off your bath for you." The pert maid moved to the kettle.
The screen drew my eyes to it as I turned. The dark wood frames held panels of white upon which delicate scenes of golden peacocks strutting in display and flowers entwined with brilliantly colored fish were shown with a simple artistry. Going behind the oriental screen I wanted to ask questions of the maid, but didn't want to appear vulgar.
As I slipped my buttons, I saw the robe she meant and stopped. It was silk! I touched the fabric and shivered at how wonderful it felt. Then the idea of what it would feel like on my bare skin sent a second shiver through me, this one laced with nervous misgivings.
"Need help with any buttons or hooks, ma'am?"
I leaned past the side of the screen and saw her pouring the whole kettle of hot water into the tub. The water steams like fog. I watched the ghostly curls drift up to the copper-paneled ceiling.
"No thank you. I have it." I said.
"Right. Well, I'll just turn down the bed and set a warmer to the sheets."
"Why do I need to take a nap?" I asked. I figured that question wasn't too much.
"The party will run late. Can't be having you nodding off in the middle of it all," she answered with a grin.
I nodded and hide behind the screen again.
Item by item, I shed my clothes. Doing this in a strange place had my heart in a-flutter. Folding my dress I unhooked my stays, then my chemise dropped away. Then my drawers and girdle unlaced. I unhooked my bustle and set it aside. I covered my nipples as they came clear of fabric, and the chill of the air behind the screen made them rise. I hated the feeling. Always have. So very unwomanly. When I can't get them to settle back down, I ignored them and slipped my drawers down my legs. I grabbed the robe and draped it around me as quickly as I could.
Oh, the feeling of it! I loved it and hated it at the same time. I pulled it close to me, trying to regain my modesty. The fabric felt almost wet as it brushed my skin. My unruly nipples rode even more at the sensation. I tightened the belt around my hips and looked down at my bare legs. The robe came to just past my mid-thigh!
"Mercy, I can't wear this," I said to myself. Turning, I saw myself reflected in a mirror set just behind a vase, filled with gold-leafed cattails. The silk fabric, with all those racy patterns those Celestials love to decorate with, now covered me... if only just. All my curves and bumps showed through the thin fabric in a horribly indecent... immodest way.
I saw to my horror, the face of the maid reflected from around the side of the screen.
She could have seen me!
"Your bath's ready, ma'am"
Gathering my courage into the small bundle it made, I walked around the screen and over to the bath. The ridiculousness of tying the belt came to me as I realized I was going to have to untie it just as soon as I had done it. My hands shook on the knot.
I felt the eyes of the maid on me as I worked the knot loose. They made me squirm. When I had the belt at last undone, I gave her a look till she turned around.
Looking down into the tub, I saw patterns of rainbows in the water, and rose petals floated on the surface. I looked quickly to where I laid my rose but saw it was still intact. I wondered what oils that girl added. I was going to smell like some "French house" woman.
The water slid up my skin with the sultry embrace of heat. I couldn't quite stop the moan of pleasure as I sank into the oil-softened depths.