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Drama Historical Fiction Suspense

In the Shadows

(Genevieve)

Little did I know as I lay sweating in my bed, too ill to get on with my duties, that the mistress of the house was working on a remedy for me in her still-room. Normally an apothecary would have been sent for, but he was away and his apprentice didn’t know when he would be back. One of the handmaids, Anne, interceded on my behalf and the good lady of the house took her ladies to the household distillery to concoct a remedy for me. According to Anne, they mixed various herbs, which were ground to a fine powder and blended with a fruit liquor to mask the bitter taste of it. I am fortunate indeed to be in the service of such a skilled woman.

All of life is a circle I am told, and I believe it to be so, for the draught was administered, and a few days later I was feeling much better. Now I am tending the herb garden with Miranda and Lilibeth with renewed energy. It’s all very poetic if you think about it.

Oh yes, my name is Genevieve, and I grew up like most girls of noble heritage, under the watchful eyes of my mother, grandmother, and our governess. When I turned twelve, however, mother called me to her chambers and told me it was time for me to continue my studies in the service of a noblewoman. Someday I will marry and run a household of my own she has told me, and as she is often heard to say—

“Those who would command others, must first learn to serve.”

So here I am, attendant to one of Lady Escombe’s handmaids. I have been here for over a year, and in a year or two I will be ready to become a handmaid myself, but I overheard Mother speaking to Father during my visit home a fortnight ago saying she plans to send me to the French Court soon for my finishing off so that I can petition to become a lady in waiting to the princess. In that position, she feels, I would be able to marry well; one of the gentlemen of the court; a Baron perhaps. I don’t know how I feel about any of that; I’m not ready for marriage yet, though there are many girls my age who are betrothed already.

While life at court would undoubtedly be exciting, the intrigues of Escombe Manor are enough for me at the present.

Did I mention intrigues? Oh yes, well, being one of the lesser of the ladies in service here I often go unnoticed. Due to my current position I blend in like human tapestry. I tend to be quiet so people seldom realize I am there, often speaking within earshot, so I’m frequently the first to learn of fresh gossip, scandals, or secret doings. It can be a lot for a fourteen year old sometimes, but I certainly am getting my education.

It was while I was waiting outside Lady Margret’s room that I had my first inkling that something was afoot. Lady Margret is Lady Escombe’s eldest daughter, and while she isn’t homely exactly, I wouldn’t call her pretty either. She is one of those rather average people who is lucky to have been born first, otherwise she would most likely have ended up in a convent. She is, however, the Escombe’s first born and given her rank she is betrothed to a gentleman from the House of Rhensford. I’m not sure of his position exactly, but the chamber maids were sniggering in the lower hall the other day, making all manner of inappropriate remarks about his good looks, his fortune, and his close relationship with Lord Rhensford, so I gather he is a person of some importance.

Lady Escombe is beside herself with joy as Lord Rhensford is often at court and this would move their family into the first circles of that society, giving her younger daughters an edge when it comes time to find them suitable husbands.

The good fortune, however, is not all on their side. Lord and Lady Escombe have three girls, and no living sons, so Lady Margret stands to inherit the entire estate upon the death of her father; no doubt the gentleman in question is well aware of this so the fact that she is a bit older than the average single woman, and rather plain, probably isn’t bothering him too much. Lady Margret’s sisters, Beatrice and Chloe will receive modest dowries when they marry, or when their father dies if they do not marry, but that is all. Beatrice, seventeen, is a pleasant girl with a sweet face, but Chloe is a little beauty already at fifteen, and I’m afraid to say it—a bit of a flirt. Lady Escombe will have no trouble marrying either of them off, but as my mother says—

 “It doesn’t do to be too sure of yourself, or you may find when the game is over; you have nothing.”

Anyway, as I was saying, I was standing outside Lady Margret’s room. It was that hour or two after supper when Lady Escombe likes us to join her in her parlor to sew. Tonight we will be working on Lady Margret’s trousseau. I’m not as good with my needle as I should be, but I do have a knack for making lace, so I have been tasked with making twenty yards of delicate lace trim for Lady Margret’s new silk gowns and nightdresses.

While I was waiting for the other young ladies to join us, I became aware of the sound of muffled sobs, and a shushing sound as of one soul attempting to comfort another. Before I had a chance to focus in on what was happening on the other side of the door several of Margret’s ladies arrived with enough racket to make listening impossible for that time.

Reluctantly I joined the others as they swept me off to Lady Escombe’s parlor, and there we sat; Lady Escombe reading to us from a novel while her ladies worked on new muslin shifts and night gowns. I was carefully moving the threads and pins on my cushion, weaving the intricate lacework that would trim them to perfection. By the end of the night my fingers were stiff, and my neck was stiffer, but the lace was coming along beautifully.

Most of the chatter later in our bedchambers was about dresses, and men, which I find less absorbing than I suppose I should, since I will be going to court in a little over a year, but in truth I’d rather have talked about the latest mystery at Escombe Manor.

I spoke of it briefly to Lady Margret. She dismissed my enquires saying there wasn’t anything to worry about, but I felt her eyes betrayed her. Whatever it is has distressed her, and that is why she doesn’t want it brought up. Beatrice seems clueless, and is as curious as I am to find out what is going on. Chloe has put up a façade of indifference, pointedly staying out of any discussions whenever the other young ladies have started down that path.

I suspect Lady Escombe has told Margret and Chloe not to get involved; she doesn’t feel that gossip is lady like. She has likely admonished Beatrice as well, but Beatrice seldom listens to her mother where gossip is concerned.

(Beatrice)

Mother has been frustratingly strict during the second half of our visit to Rhensford Manor. The first two weeks we were here were glorious! Balls and parties every night, and while they were specifically made for Margret and her fiancé Richard Wainscot, in honor of their betrothal, Chole and I were allowed to attend as well.

We each had new gowns made for the occasion, and of course Chloe was the bell of the ball, but I never wanted for a partner when the dancing began so I don’t complain. I do think she should curb her flirting just a bit, however, especially with Richard. I know she thinks it’s funny, and I suppose it’s not really a big deal since he will soon be our brother-in-law, but still, it was making Margret quite uncomfortable, and if expressions mean anything, I strongly suspect she wanted to take Chloe out in the hall and box her ears.

At any rate, we had a wonderful fortnight of fun, ending in a masked ball. Each of us was to dress up as a character from a story. It was great fun watching the elegant Lords and Ladies prancing about in strange clothes, with masks covering their eyes and noses. Chloe and I made a game of trying to figure out who was who, using their mouths as their identifying feature. We were also allowed to dress up, though Mama didn’t feel it appropriate for us to be part of the games and dramas that the older guests were playing at after dinner. Chloe soon grew bored and said she was going out to the stables to visit her favorite horse.

I ride like most everyone else, but I don’t like the animals the same way Chloe does. She lets them get right up into her face—Ugh! I stayed inside and when the party began to get a bit too raucous mama sent me to my bedchamber to read a book before going to bed. Margret isn’t much for those sorts of antics either, we simply weren’t raised that way, so it wasn’t too long before I heard her go into her room also. Lord Rhensford and his friends on the other hand were enjoying themselves immensely. With a wine goblet in one hand and his arm around a pretty lady-in-waiting he demanded the musicians play a coranto, and tossing his drink aside swept her onto the floor to dance La Volta! Mama was scandalized, but as a guest in his house there was little she could do but purse up her lips and send me away.

I heard mama enter Margret’s room where they spoke for some time before she came in to bid me good night. I drifted off waiting for Chloe to return from spoiling her gelding, Trixie, awakening many hours later to find her in her prayer closet where she stayed until I had left for breakfast.

I do not believe Lord Rhensford or Richard made a very good impression on Mama that evening, but the bargain has been struck and nothing can change that now. I am so grateful I am not yet in a position where my future is being sold off to the highest bidder. I don’t know how women bear it, but that is our lot in life so there is nothing else to be done but to get our fun where we can and look the other way when men choose to make fools of themselves.

(Chloe)

The journey to Lord Rhensford’s manor was uneventful and we settled in to the north wing without ceremony. I love the view from my bedchamber window. There is a small lake to the east with a surface that shimmers like glass amongst the reeds and cattails, and to the west, are the stables which are very handsome and beautifully kept. I have chosen a lovely velvet brown gelding to be mine while I am here, and Lord Rhensford says I may ride her whenever I choose. He is so generous and has made us feel quite at home. There have been balls and parties nearly every night, and I have had a wonderful time.

I must admit it has been very nice to have mama so preoccupied with Margret and Richard as it has given me an opportunity to make the acquaintance of several young men amongst Lord Rhensford’s friends and relations. They clearly find me attractive, and a couple of them have been uncommonly flirty with me. John even stole a kiss behind the stables as he was helping me to saddle Trixie. I didn’t mind a bit, though of course I had to pretend that I did, I don’t want him to think me fast.

Tonight there was a masked ball. At first I was excited to go, I had a lovely dress of wispy fabric and a mask made of forest leaves to give me an elfin look. I had several lovely dances before they began to serve the wine and many of the guest began to forget their manners. Mama has little tolerance for that sort of thing and forbad me or Beatrice to dance any longer. It was so boring merely sitting there watching the others that I slipped out when she wasn’t looking and went to the stables to visit Trixie. The stable hands had locked up for the night, but know where the spare key is to be found and let myself in. The moon was full, casting a bright glow through the doorway and windows; more than enough for me to find my way.

The music and laughter was so loud I could hear it all the way in the back as I stroked Trixie’s velvety nose, and time passed as the moon and it’s light moved across the floor. I was enjoying myself in my own way, gently brushing her when Trixie began to snuffle around my skirt where I would normally have a pocket full of sugar for her.

“I’m sorry love,” I spoke to her softly, “ I don’t have any sugar with me tonight. No pockets in this getup”

“Nonsense,” a voice behind me whispered causing me to jump and squeal in surprise. “You bring sugar with you wherever you go.”

“Who’s there,” I gasped softly.

“It is I,” the voice continued, “I, know your sweetness.”

Relieved, I let out a soft huff of air.

“John,” I exclaimed, for it had to be John. Who else could claim to know of my sweetness? He was the only young man I had ever allowed to get that intimate with me. It was true that I flirted with many, but he was the only one that had ever kissed me.

“What are you doing sneaking around,” I asked, “you frightened the wits out of me?”

Softly chuckling he reached his arm around my waist and pulled me toward him. “Your costume is bewitching; I couldn’t take my eyes off you tonight.”

I had long since removed my mask, and allowed myself a coquettish moment, tilting my head with a quick flutter of my long lashes; just enough to let him know that I was flattered.

“Why don’t we go for a walk down by the lake,” I suggested. “the moon has slipped behind a cloud so I don’t believe anyone will see us.”

“I prefer it right here,” he breathed heavily, pulling me closer, and claiming my lips as his.

Instinctively I raised my hands against his chest and began to pull away. This was making me uncomfortable.

“John, this isn’t what I had in mind,” I gasped, struggling against the strength of his embrace, as his lips found mine again, this time more demanding and insistent.

Gripping me tighter and lifting me off the ground, he moved me with ease away from Trixie’s stall into the empty one beside her. Pressing me roughly against the wall with his own body, his hands lifted the side of my skirt, moving quickly up my inner thigh.

Now I truly was frightened. This was no school boy’s embrace. Struggling harder I managed to turn my head.

“John.” I gasped, “Stop this at once! Stop or I’ll scream!”

His laugh was low, and arrogant, his lips pressing against my ear as he stopped groping me long enough to answer. “I’m not John. Scream all you like, no one will hear you, they are all inside, either drunk or asleep.”

“No,” I screamed as he pushed me to the ground and ripped my skirt out of his way.

“Hold still little minx, you’ve dallied with me long enough. Now you are going to get what you’ve been asking for, and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

Suddenly, I knew who he was, I hadn’t recognized his voice before because he had been whispering, but now I knew, and all I wanted was to escape, as quickly as possible.

This can’t be happening, a voice screamed inside my head, but it was happening, and there was no escape. He had me; he knew he had me and he was reveling in my desperation.

(Genevieve)

We never found out what had happened that fortnight at Rhensford Manor, but there were rumors that Richard and Chloe were having an affair behind Lady Margret’s back, and there were whispers that he had gotten her pregnant. Well, there's plenty of gossip around a manor house and you can’t believe everything you hear. Whatever actually happened, Chloe was very different after we returned home. No more flirting, and whatever her mother asked her to do, she did it.

Three months after our visit to Rhensford Manor, after the wedding of Richard Wainscot and Lady Margret, Chloe went away to visit relatives. A year later she chose to enter the order, and she lives the life of a nun now.

Well, I hope she is happy with her choice, though it did seem an odd one for someone of her beauty and charm.

August 06, 2021 03:41

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