The Mistress of Holt HousebySputnik57©
As we all aware, the world in the 1880's was a very different place. Though a great era in the advancement of industry and technology for mankind in general; for womankind the world was much as before. It was still considered that females should 'know their place'- somewhere beneath the male. For some women though, this could never be.
Percy Blandish-Wright was typical of Victorian upper-middle class gentlemen. He owned his own building and textiles business with his own small army of tradesman at his beck and call, each individual paid just enough to keep them alive but never enough to keep them happy. Business was booming and today he had an appointment at a large Georgian residence on the outskirts of town; 'Rendelsham'; Holt House.
He stepped from the carriage and passed through the impressive gateway between two white pillars and ascended the marble stairs to the front door and pulled the bell lever. He had a rudimentary scrape of the sole of his boot on the foot-scraper, and looked up and around the grandiose whitewashed building as he awaited the response. A smartly appointed maid in a starched uniform pulled back the heavy front door. He puffed himself up arrogantly before he spoke.
"Morning, Percy Blandish-Wright; Is Mr Rendlesham available? He has required my presence." The maid smirked slightly at the approach of the pompous male, and at his assumption that a 'Mr' should be head of household.
"Miss Rendlesham is expecting you; she is Mistress of Holt House, the request for your services will have come from her. Please come in." The portly gentleman coughed in a slightly irritated fashion; his flabby jowls flapped as he did so. Like most businessman of that era he was unaccustomed to speaking directly to women unless they had been introduced by their masters. He had rarely discussed business directly with women; on the few occasions he had, they had been elderly widows. He was led into a drawing room by the servant, where he expected to be confronted by a vinegary old maid. He was quite taken aback by the presence of the woman who awaited him.
Miss Marcia Rendlesham was a very prim and shapely woman, her tightly corseted bodice accentuated her full breasts, and her tight blouse buttoned at the collar was complemented by a black choker with cameo about her feminine neck. She was resplendent with bustle under her long velvety skirt. Her face was worthy of any music hall or opera starlet, and her warm brown hair was neatly tied in a bun. Though obviously in her late forties at least, she was every inch the picture of womanly perfection in the eyes of any male. How could this creature possibly have remained a 'Miss'? He thought to himself. Nonetheless, as a woman she would be easily swayed into agreeing to no end of superfluous work -- or so he thought.
He was ushered into a maroon chesterfield and she sat opposite, her piercing blue eyes surveying the bumbling male before her. It rankled with her that in this age of progress within the many booming industries, there were never any females to converse with when requesting necessary services. For his part, the meeting was a strangely sobering experience, he did not understand quite why, but he felt humbled by this woman. Even her maid seemed to ooze certain contempt for him as she served the tea to them both. He soon found that she was not to be fobbed off with agreeing to any work not specifically required. She would also remain in residence whilst the majority of the work on the required extension was carried out. It was apparent she would wish to keep her eye on the progression of the work and would not tolerate any attempt to prolong it and thus extend the cost.
After some studied deliberation and inspection of his estimates in which he was made to feel very small indeed, they agreed on the cost. The work would commence tomorrow and he bade her good day and felt himself hurrying down the steps on the way out. He glanced back at the house and wiped the perspiration from his neck; he'd done good business, but would not want to cross that woman in a hurry. As he climbed back into the waiting carriage the horse relieved itself, as though sensing his anxiety. They pulled away leaving a steaming pile as testament to the visit.
Within a fortnight the ground work and main structure had been added to the house; having been plastered it was now down to the decorators, carpenters and finishers to make their completions. The situation was a hive of gossip amongst the tradesman who readily extolled the virtues of the beautiful mistress of the house who regularly made her presence felt. Some had purposely not applied themselves in producing their best quality work simply so she would question them about it to ensure whatever inadequacy was made good; such was the thrill of engaging this siren in conversation.
He had many aspirations as a working man, though of humble origins he had an artistic flair, and had spent a great deal of time in London's museums and galleries taking in the works of many famous artists, architects and writers. He had expressed himself down by the Thames embankment in chalks and pastels on the cold grey paving stones and had received much acclaim from those who had witnessed his work; particularly those upper middle class people who liked to promenade there. Unbeknown to him, it was likely he had a far greater knowledge of art than did they, though he accepted their praise and the few extra coppers. He particularly enjoyed the praise received from some of the ladies; especially those who were well spoken and confident in manner, and who towered over him as he knelt. He was not really sure why, but these sort of women strongly appealed to him.
He had been engaged by Blandish-Wright as a decorator initially, and he had noted his artistic talent. He now earned the odd extra shilling where some artistic finishing was required. His fat employer had managed to convince Miss Rendlesham of the need for a little of this, knowing his pavement artist may encourage her to request even more. This would also suit the artist as his love of literature meant he had to find extra money in order to acquire copies of the latest books he's read or heard about , some of which were regarded as somewhat risqué and did not come cheap, even when second or third hand. He had heard of a book called 'Venus in Furs' and knew this would be both hard to come by, and expensive in any condition.
He was hard at work in the extension, applying the base emulsions to the walls; the plaster now nicely dry, he glanced through the window at the sun drenching the fine gardens and had a moment of grandeur fantasy. He imagined being at home in this house and enjoying the company of women there. He was just beginning to venture into a more carnal dream when he was rudely interrupted.
"This is the man I told you about; he will prove his worth when the basic decoration has dried." He removed his painter's cap and stared into the eyes of the Mistress of Holt House for the first time. He was immediately struck by her commanding presence without her uttering a word, though the warmth of her smile made him feel at ease. Even so he subconsciously accepted that she would be very much in control.
Though he was very modernistic and progressive in outlook, this was still an era whereby a working man was supposed to know his place, and this eased the situation for him. She inhaled sharply before she spoke, suspecting she would be more than happy to make the acquaintance of the male before her.
"Mr Blandish-Wright has shown me some examples of your work from his portfolio; I am sure I will be very pleased with your work. You won't mind if I come and watch you from time to time, will you?" He would be delighted.
"I really wouldn't mind at all; it would be a pleasure." He said, being sure to pronounce each word as delicately as he could. She gave him an interesting smile and grasped his hand in acknowledgment; he squeezed it gently, and she and his fat master moved on. He inhaled deeply to keep the scent of her with him for as long as possible. She glanced back as he did so, making him feel foolish, though she smiled again reassuringly.
He attended his duties each weekday and commenced his artistic tasks toward the end of the week; carefully hand painting swirls and small motifs at various points. He and a contemporary worked alone in one of the large rooms of the extension; at the appointed time, the other retrieved his hat and bade him farewell till after dinner break. This was fifteen minutes longer than the 30 minutes allowed lesser tradesmen, as 'Finishers' were considered halfway to becoming craftsmen. As his associate left he felt the waft of the door swinging behind him, no sooner had he left than he felt the waft from the door once more; he assumed the tradesman had forgotten something, and then he noticed the sweet scent. He turned on his knees to see Miss Rendlesham stood before him, looking radiant in a purple dress and blouse. She wore a contented smile.
"So, I have you alone at last , I do so like to watch you work and it's so much nicer when no-one else is here to eavesdrop. You can tell me all about you now, without worrying about anything being passed on. Mr Blandish-Wright tells me you like to 'Scribble chalk pictures on footpaths' at weekends; I don't think he fully appreciates or approves of the Passions of a pavement artist the way I would, for instance." She stood with her hands on her hips, her knee visibly to one side beneath her flowing skirts in a way which would have been considered very Avant garde for a Victorian woman in any situation, never mind alone with an unrelated male. He found her very exciting indeed and he sensed she knew this already. He summoned up the courage to respond to this vivacious woman.
"I've always had an interest in the arts, and find the embankment is a way to experiment at low cost and obtain the opinions of a mixed audience first hand. Though it may be perceived as a form of 'begging' by some, the small amounts of change I receive in appreciation of my work allows me to purchase books by contemporary writers." This made her raise an eyebrow provocatively and she placed a hand on his shoulder.
"What sort of contemporary literature do you like to read?" She smirked in a subtle way as he blushed visibly and struggled to think of something recent which would not offend a lady; the little he knew of the lurid book by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch taunted him as he his brain whirred... Dostoyevsky!
"Err... The Brothers Karamazov is one I've finished recently." He stuttered out attempting to appear nonchalant. She smiled knowingly at him.
"I'm sure someone as obviously artistic as you have read many books of a more exciting content. I'm sure you will tell me about those at some other time." The fact that she had said 'some other time' made him tingle, as it seemed she were intent on speaking to him again. This thought kept haunting him through the days.
Saturday came and warm sunshine bathed the artists as they applied their talent to the flagstones above the Thames. He had drawn her in pastels from memory and he had her depicted in a romantic style against a backdrop of fountains. The work received much acclaim from passers-by as they enjoyed their promenade; he had received Nine pence in his cap by 11 o'clock, which was very good going indeed. He heard the heavy chink of another coin and looked to the cap; a silver florin had been cast there; two bob! Two shillings was more than he could earn on some days. He looked to one side to see feminine boots at the base of a black skirt and then he looked up. Miss Rendlesham was smiling down at him. She was very pleased with the work in itself, and even more pleased of the fact that it was obviously her in the picture. She sighed with satisfaction.
"Will that be enough to allow you to call it a day and accompany me? I really should like to take tea somewhere." He was dumbstruck.
"Why of course, if you'll just wait a minute or two, I'll change." She smiled and sat on a bench close by as he hurriedly changed in the nearby public convenience. Discarding his chalky trousers and after a very quick wash which had the attendant using some choice Cockney slang terms as he splashed the floor in his haste. He passed him his bag of chalks and dusty clothes and a three penny bit to keep them for him and launched himself back out into the sunshine. She stood as she saw him approaching. He could still not quite believe it.
She passed her soft gloved hand and took his as though they were a couple and smiled at him. He could not help but look about himself to ensure that no-one he knew had seen them; though he had done nothing wrong, it felt as though he were doing something illegal; to take the hand of a woman in such a fashion was something he was not used to. Once again she had shown him just what a daring woman she was to come all that way on her own without a chaperone or companion. She sensed his discomfort and squeezed his hand.
"Relax you silly man; I have taken charge of you now. I intend to see you have a thoroughly enjoyable day. Let us take one of those open top buses to Piccadilly; I've always wanted to do that." He nearly fell over, but relaxed as he was told. To think of such a lady on a bus with the hop polloi! This was almost unheard of, but he sensed the humour in the situation and warmed to her sense of adventure.
They waited with a motley bunch of Londoners, from the lower-middle class scribes to the downright threadbare working men. The omnibus arrived with a clatter of hooves and she took the lead, ascending the steps past the enamel advertisements to the rear of the vehicle; 'Borax', 'Lipton's Tea' and 'Brasso' etc. She took a seat near the front and pulled him down beside her. The omnibus pulled away and made its way through the noisy streets to Piccadilly.
"This is such a thrill for me" she said as she took his hand and held it with both hers on her lap. This was a thrill for him; he had an involuntary rise in blood pressure and hoped his trousers would conceal it.
They alighted at Piccadilly and went into a Tea House on one of the corners. They drank tea together and talked about art and architecture and he told her all about his general life as a single working man. She carefully avoided talking about literature at this point; she was saving this for him.
"I like your work very much and have been very impressed by the way you work also. I would like to obtain your services on a private basis. I feel the need for some artistic work in my library, and have friends who would also require your services; I'd pay you a little more than I pay Mr Blandish-Wright, and that will be considerably more than he passes on to you. I would rather not involve that awful man who presently employs you." His heart leapt. He was speechless, literally. This was not helped by two dainty booted feet squeezing one of his beneath the cloth covered table. Was there no end to the mischievous streak of this woman? He smiled and found his voice.
"How could I refuse you; I would love to spend more time on my artistic work; how can I ever repay you?" She smiled at him with sweet satisfaction and clasped his hand.
"I intend to make very good use of you; I have lots of female friends with interests similar to mine and can assure you, you will never have to work as you did before." This struck him as a slightly strange statement and made him shiver somewhat, but he was still enthralled with the proposition. Just being close to her regularly was bonus enough.
"When shall I start for you?" She released his hand and pursed her lips in a way which did not help his blood pressure, and opened her clutch-bag. She produced two train tickets.
"If it's ok with you, I'd like you to accompany me home today; you can start tomorrow; I'll pay you double time of course. I would like to show you my library when we get back, and we will toast our little arrangement. I will have my maid prepare one of the spare-rooms for you." She held his hand again, firmly;
"You'll come without making any fuss. I've made up my mind." He just smiled at the control she had over him, she was supremely confident and with the promise of working directly for her, he would do anything she asked of him, anything. She asked for the bill and made sure everyone in the tea-room knew she was paying it.
"Well I never!" said the proprietor, "whatever next?" They left for the station and she kept a tight grip on his hand throughout the journey. He was going to go wherever she wanted him to go.
When they arrived back at Holt House the maid took his coat and smirked at him when Marcia advised he would be staying indefinitely and that she should prepare one of the better and larger rooms.
"The room to the south side would suit him." She said, winking at the maid as she walked on up the stairs to freshen up and change for the evening. This brought about an even bigger smirk from the maid; that room had an internal door which allowed discrete access to Miss Rendlesham's room. She would not tell him that yet though- even though she had been forewarned of this eventuality happening; she allowed her mistress time to disappear into her room before taking him up to freshen up also. She showed him into the room which was three times the size of anything he'd lodged in before and seemed incredibly plush, even with a bare mattress. There was even a sink in the room with running water. As if this were not overwhelming enough, the maid smiled at him and opened a wardrobe. "You'll want to be comfortable for the evening" she produced a pair of silk pyjamas wrapped in brown paper, fresh from a tailor's outlet, and a three quarter length woollen dressing gown.
"Madame has made every preparation to ensure you are comfortable; the wash room is opposite, I'll show you." She took him into the white marble and tile wash room and showed him a strange apparatus which looked like a pipe leading up to an upturned sieve.
"This is my favourite; it's called a shower." She turned the taps and he was amazed as warm water rained down.
"It's so much quicker than a bath and is so refreshing; you can rub some of this bath oil on as well to make you smell nice!" she giggled. He had not lived in a house with an internal bath before, never mind this. She left him to it and he put it to good use. He dried himself down and donned the pyjamas and gown. He felt very strange about being in the company of a woman dressed this way, but also felt very comfortable and relaxed in the silk. He had not smelt so nice in a long time either.
He ventured back into the room before going downstairs; the bed had now been made and looked incredibly soft and inviting, it was a double so appeared huge to him. He then noticed there was a door handle in what appeared to be the middle of the side wall; closer inspection showed it to be a door which was decorated as per the rest of the wall, though curious about it he did not open it and went downstairs.
The maid met him as he reached the foot of the stairs; her appearance had changed too. Her hair was down and she wore a green gown which left her ankles showing and her feet were adorned with what looked like Roman sandals.
"You may call me Mistress Belinda, I expect we'll be seeing a lot of each-other from now on" she said, as she showed him to the Library. She sat him in a large leather sofa and wheeled a small round table bedecked with various alcoholic drinks in his direction. He felt like a king and was finding it difficult coming to terms with it all. The library was filled with books wall to wall; this in itself was paradise to him.
Belinda giggled as she left. The door opened and Miss Marcia Rendleshaw entered the room. His jaw dropped and he swallowed hard at vision the before him.