A Victorian Affair

Submitted into Contest #76 in response to: Write a story told exclusively through dialogue.... view prompt


Friendship LGBTQ+ Historical Fiction

“Good evening, dear. Lovely little soiree the Loughtons have put on tonight, isn’t it?” Lavinia said.

Isabella took a sip of her wine and glanced around the room. “Indeed it is. I haven’t seen such gaiety in some time. I suspect it’s because Lord Loughton is trying to save face after his son refused the position he had set up for him with the East India Trading Company.”

“Whatever for?”

“From what I hear, the boy wants to be a poet.” Isabella sneered.

“Percival refused such an honorable and lucrative position for THAT? With his eldest brother getting the inheritance, how will he ever get a wife?”

“I would certainly try to make people forget that if he were MY son. It’s a shame, too. He grew up quite handsome. Too bad he lacks the sense needed to be an upstanding member of society.”

“I happen to like poetry,” Lavinia pouted.

“But very few are worth their weight in sand. We can’t all be Oscar Wilde.”

“Speaking of Master Wilde, have you heard about his. . . proclivities?”

“My dear Lavinia, one would be hard-pressed to not hear about his penchant for buggery when engaging with the upper echelons of society. His work is laudable, but one must worry that his immorality may be transmissible.”

“I’ve only read a small selection of his works. You don’t think I might be at risk from that?”

“Ideas are contagious. Allowing yourself to be sullied with the words of a buggerer may make buggery seem more acceptable. Don’t you think?”

“But he doesn’t talk about buggery in any of the works I’ve read.”

“Every word from that man is tainted with his sinful worldview. You start reading Master Wilde’s poetry one day, and the next you find yourself in a relationship like the young Bernard Crawford.”

Lavinia moved closer to better hear Isabella. “I haven’t heard anything about him. What kind of a relationship does he have?”

Isabella raised her eyebrows. “A virile young man living with his wife and another beautiful woman under one roof? You tell me. From what I hear, he even brought both of them here tonight.”

“If the Loughtons were trying to save face, one might think they’d want to avoid having a young man bring his harem to their party.

“Word has it that his mistress is a widow, but I have my suspicions about that, since she has no children.”

At this moment, Esther Williams inserted herself between Isabella and Lavinia. “Good evening, friends. Did I hear mention of someone’s mistress? You know I’m always itching to hear the latest gossip.”

Isabella’s eyes lit up. “Aren’t you a friend of young Master Crawford? Perhaps you can confirm the veracity of what I’ve heard.”

“If it has aught to do with a mistress, then I’m sorry to say but I’m bound to disappoint. Bernard hasn’t a mistress at all from what I know.”

Isabella huffed. “That’s boring. Surely there must be something going on. How long has that widow been living with Master Crawford and his wife?”

“Sylvia? It’s been nigh on six months now, I suspect.”

“But the Crawfords haven’t any children, have they? It’s not as if Miss Sylvia is acting as a governess for them.”

Esther giggled. “No. Not at all. As you mentioned before, she is a widow. Her husband came down with fever and passed on during the return trip from India, where he was doing business for the Crown. She could live comfortably on the estate he left behind, but she is staying with Bernard and Evelyn as she recovers from the tragedy. From what I understand, the company does her good.”

“That poor woman,” Lavinia said. “She’s lucky to have friends like the Crawfords, then.”

“Quite,” Esther smiled. “They have been friends for years, so Bernard felt it was only natural to extend their hospitality.”

“But surely there must be something else there,” Isabella protested. “If she accompanied them to a masquerade ball, then there must be something deeper.”

“Let’s say that Sylvia was Bernard’s mistress. Do you think that Evelyn would be content to accompany the two of them to a masquerade? She is too strong-willed for that,” Esther protested.

“You make her sound like one of those damnable Suffragettes,” Isabella sneered.

Lavinia frowned, “Are you saying that you would accompany your husband and his mistress to a party if you were in her position?”

Isabella waffled, “That’s not. . . What I mean to say is. . .”

“I think that Esther has made it quite clear that there is nothing untoward happening in the Crawford residence.”

“Well, has it occurred to you that as their friend she may be lying on their behalf?”

“I promise you that I have told no falsehoods tonight. Remember our Lord’s command: ‘Thou shall not bear false witness,” Esther said. “Do you know what? I see Evelyn across the room. I think I shall go and say hello. Good evening ladies.”

“This conversation has left a sour taste in my mouth. I think I’ll go refresh my cup and taste the night air.” Lavinia excused herself.

Evelyn sat in a small, private alcove, chatting amicably with Bernard and Sylvia when she spotted Esther approach, “Good evening Esther. I hope the Loughton hospitality has been kind to you tonight.”

“I have nothing but praise for the Loughtons, save that they let that bitch Isabella in.”

Bernard cringed, “That bad?”

“You should have heard her. Actually, you should have, considering you three were her newest fascination.”

“Go on.”

“She’s got it in her head that Sylvia is your mistress and that Evelyn is allowing such disgrace to go unchallenged.”

Sylvia laughed, glancing knowingly at Evelyn. “Imagine if she were to sniff out the actual truth, dear.”

“And what might that be, my sweet? That I am the one having an extramarital relationship with you?” Evelyn smirked. “Imagine the scandal. If it came from someone other than a gossip-monger like Isabella, we might have reason to fear.”

“One of these days, you may have cause to worry,” Esther cautioned. “I didn’t lie for you, as lying would make it harder for you to mask the truth, but there may be a limit to the amount of information I can selectively feed the socialites.”

Bernard clapped a hand on Esther’s shoulder. “Thank you for that. It truly does make getting by in this godawful repressive society more manageable.”

“I do have to wonder, Bernard. With all of the risk you three are taking, why do you accept Sylvia and Evelyn’s relationship so?”

Bernard smiled widely and gave Evelyn a kiss. “What other option do I have? Evelyn may be my wife, but she is her own woman. I knew that when I married her. It’s one of the things I love about her. If I had said no, I would have been keeping her from being the fullest expression of that woman with whom I had fallen in love. And it’s not as if Evelyn loves me any less now that she has Sylvia’s love as well.”

Evelyn bumped Bernard with her shoulder playfully, “That is, of course, assuming that I would have chosen to stay with such a possessive man in the first place.”

“And what of you, Sylvia? Aren’t you concerned that you are moving on a little quickly after your husband’s passing?” Esther asked.

“While I am sad that Marcus died, I can’t say whether I ever truly loved him. I married him more because it was sensible than for any romantic reason. I played the role of the dutiful wife, but hardly even understood what attraction was until my relationship began with Evelyn.”

“I could kiss you were there not so many prying eyes,” Evelyn teased.

“Imagine if there were such a place where you did not have to worry about the proprieties of society.” Sylvia said, gazing out at something unseen in the distance.

“I may be able to help arrange for that, at least for a short while,” Esther offered. “My family has a hunting cabin in the highlands that lies vacant for a good part of the year. It is hard living, but you would be isolated enough to be yourselves for a long weekend. I know how servants talk, so it should be a fair bit more private than even your own home.”

Evelyn smiled warmly at Esther. “That is quite the generous offer, Esther. Whatever can we do to repay you?”

“I am simply happy to support you in throwing off the repressions of society, but I may be able to think of something so that you do not feel like you owe me.” Esther paused a moment before continuing. “I would like a job.”

“A job?”

“Your house does extensive dealings with the Americans. My father hopes that I will have a suitor soon, but that is not the life I want. I want to work and support myself. Not as a teacher or a servant, but as as professional, in the way that men in our society are permitted to do. I want to study and learn and experience the world. I want more than to be the bearer of a man’s children.”

Bernard considered her request. “I would like to agree. It would be helpful to have an ally who knows our situation and is able to defend our good name in both personal and professional settings. First we need to figure out what your father needs to hear to give his agreement.”

“I am sure that we may be able to persuade him if we frame it as me having the opportunity to meet eligible young men,” Esther rolled her eyes.

“But if I place you in professional contact with our business partners, they will discount you for your being a woman.”

“Let that be to your strength. Train me in business. When you want to portray strength, we can send a man out to negotiate. When you want to feign weakness, I can represent your interests directly. Let your competition underestimate you and we can take them by surprise.”

“I will begin drawing up a contract tomorrow morning,” Bernard promised. “I will come up with a role that your father will find acceptable and then we can begin training you for the position you desire.”

Esther shook Bernard’s hand to confirm the deal. “Thank you. I believe this may be the beginning to a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Bernard glanced at his wife and her partner. “With these two at my side, how could I not appreciate the value of a strong, sharp woman? I am sure that we both stand to gain much in the years ahead.”

January 16, 2021 02:55

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