He spoke: "Will you permit me?"
She nodded, without speaking, and watched his face, and then his hands, as he began to untie the garter; she saw that his hands, slender and strong, were trembling a little, and she looked back at his face until he returned her gaze; he paused, hesitating, until she smiled assent and encouragement. He carefully looped and folded the ribbon and tucked it into his waistcoat pocket; then did the same with the other; so methodical that she wondered at it until she guessed that he needed not to be in haste: that this was part of the self-restraint which, she was now beginning to understand, he had imposed on himself for months. She knew where this would lead, knew what was to come, and – trusting him absolutely – she welcomed it; but how could she reassure him, she wondered, that her heart was in this, that she was sincere; that, knowing now who and what he really was, she loved him deeply; indeed ― remembering what she had felt as she watched him sleeping with his head in her lap on the Day Dream ― that she wanted him too? She did not know ...
Now he began to take off one of her stockings, gently slipping the fine silk; at one point he had to ease it away from her skin where she had bled after becoming caught in a thorn bush; he was so patient and light of touch that it hardly bled again. She could see the concern in his face – but this foot was not the worse, and she wondered what he would do when he saw the damage on the other, where her heel was throbbing painfully now.
He began to slip the other stocking, carefully peeling the silk away from her flesh.
He saw she had a little mole, just above the knee on the inside of her thigh: oval, hardly bigger than the half-moon on his thumbnail, so smooth and dark against the ivory skin that he longed to kiss it; but with a huge effort of will he tried to ignore it and concentrate on his task. Finally the stocking reached her ankle; he could feel the swelling on her heel where it lay in the palm of his hand and he dreaded finding some wound which would need stitching. He had no faith in most doctors and now that he had seen how many hurts she had sustained in the long trek behind the cart, he had a terror – irrational, he knew – of Marguerite having some injury from which she would not recover, but would become lame; he knew that he must not let her see his fear, that he must make light of it: at least until he knew the worst.
He began to roll what was left of the stocking down over her foot; cupping the swollen heel in his hand, he reached into his boot for his knife and cut the tattered silk away.
Turning her foot up a little, he examined the heel. There was a deep gash, in which he could see earth and one or two small stones embedded; but his experience told him that it was probably not much worse. Guessing her concerns, he smiled at her in his own relief; "I think it is not as bad as you or I feared, Margot; if we can arrange a basin for you to bathe your feet, I think the dirt will wash out and all will be well – although they will be sore for a few days, certainly."
She smiled back and replied, "Thank you, Percy; I have to confess I was a little afraid of what you might find. I am glad there is nothing really amiss."
He was still cupping her foot, the heel lying gently in the palm of his hand; her skin was warm and soft, despite all the cuts and scratches, and he wanted to touch her; he moved his other hand over the arch, then around the slender ankle, and up and behind to the crook of her knee: luxuriating in the feel of her skin, he did not want the intimacy of the moment to end.
He seemed, she thought as she watched his face, transported to another world, unaware of the mantel clock ticking the seconds away; she leant forward and raised her hands to each side of his face; he drew his eyes from where his own hands lay and met her gaze; she gently pulled him towards her and kissed him. He returned the kiss, deeply and ardently; and as he did so she knew that this was what she had remembered and had thought of so often; this was what she had wanted, and missed, all those lonely months; this was what she had realised, during their encounter on the terrace at Richmond, that she needed more than anything else: to feel his lips upon hers, to know that beneath the mask he had created, the passionate man she had married was still there, and that he loved her still.
They suddenly heard a small sound outside the room, and, breaking apart, both realised that the door had swung open – he could not have fastened it properly – and that Mrs Phillips was not only in the passageway, but had witnessed the intimate scene: Milady sitting with her legs bare to the knees, Sir Percy kneeling with one of her feet in his lap ― and was now blushing with confusion. He saw her embarrassment and instantly reproached himself; recovering his own composure with some difficulty, he stood and said, "I am so sorry, Mrs Phillips; I fear I did not properly close the door. Lady Blakeney has received some injuries to her feet – having lost her shoes, as you saw – and I was keen to see there was no wound which would cause trouble in future. I am sorry you saw us so private." He judged it best, now, to turn to the matter-of-fact: "Is there hot water enough now? Lady Blakeney has said she too would like a bath – if it does not mean waiting very much longer, I think we shall both feel better for it. Is there hot water enough now?"
"There is certainly enough for the first, Sir Percy, and I shall tell Robert to keep the copper well-fired; I am sure you would not have to wait very long for the second."
"That is excellent news, Mrs Phillips," he said; "if you could get the tub ready I believe Lady Blakeney will use it first."
The housekeeper left the room – with some relief, wondering if she might have to grow accustomed to such unusual behaviour from Sir Percy, if his wife were to be much with him at the cottage from now on. She had no idea how Milady had come to lose her shoes ― indeed she could only speculate about the circumstances of Sir Percy's arrival, with his lady, at the cottage – but, however it was, it seemed to her that there was a different expression in her master's face, from what she had grown used to: he appeared at once both happier and more serious – but she was not sure she would feel altogether at ease to see him at her Ladyship's feet again... With much to do, she bustled away to the outhouse to ensure Robert knew there could be no slacking yet over the firing of the copper.
"H'hmm", Percy coughed, looking rather mischievously at Marguerite. "I think mayhap it would be wise for me to turn the key in the door in future, m'dear!" he said with a grin – the like of which she had not often seen in recent months but which had always made her smile in return; it was wicked, conspiratorial. She laughed, a sudden carefree sound which gladdened his heart. He had always loved to hear her laugh but recently it had often seemed forced: he was beginning to realise now how very unhappy she too had been, and he prayed that they would be given time, and quiet solitude, to begin their marriage afresh. For her part, Marguerite, weary and footsore though she was, felt a kind of simmering excitement, for all the world the same that she had felt on her wedding day; as if the past year – for it was nearly that – had been a bad dream from which she was now waking, to find that the love, the loyalty, and the passion, which had been the overture to their wedding, was real, still present, running deep between them after all. She wanted to tell Percy how she felt but she did not know how to put it into words; she could not know that he felt the same excitement but that he was consciously restraining it, deliberately holding back: both until he could feel quite sure that this was not some caprice on her part, and because he believed that their rapprochement should not be hurried: he wanted to savour every moment.
He returned to his seat beside her, taking her hands in his; he saw the nails on one hand were broken and dirty; he touched them and looked questioningly at her. She understood the unspoken query: "I remember stumbling – oh, goodness only knows how often – and I think I put my hands out to save myself. A few scratches and bruises, nothing worse."
He turned the hand over: sure enough, there was a rough, bloody graze on its heel. He stroked the palm gently, then raised it to his lips.
He was tired, so very tired, partly from the pain in his back – which he hoped might ease a little after a bath – and he wanted nothing more than to take her up to the bed in the quiet room under the eaves, to hold her in his arms, to lie beside her; to make love with her if she wished it, as it seemed she might; and afterwards they would sleep peacefully, deeply, and later they would wake together, side by side as they should be ...
Both watching their hands intertwined, neither of them spoke, and both were a little startled when a few moments later there was a knock on the door: Mrs Phillips to say the water was ready.
It having been implicitly agreed that Marguerite would bathe first, he had to rely on the housekeeper to provide for her needs and to ensure her absolute privacy. The weight of the tub, made to accommodate his own large frame, had made it impossible for it to be used anywhere other than in the outhouse, which to himself was no difficulty but which was considerably less luxurious and convenient than what he would have chosen for her; but she seemed to be relishing every opportunity to share his customs and tastes, and since Mrs Phillips had gone out of her way to ensure the partitioned space in the outhouse was warm and welcoming, Marguerite was able to enjoy the hot water, scented with herbs and even with a few late rose petals, and her husband's good soap. He had been right, that to bathe her feet would help reduce the swelling, and they were much less painful afterwards.
Having left her small bag at the Chat gris, she had none of her own things with her, but was reluctant to dress again in her stained travelling-habit; but she saw that Mrs Phillips had folded one of his dressing-gowns over the back of the chair, and much to her amusement, one of his shirts also: it turned out that he preferred to sleep undressed and so there was no nightshirt for her to wear, but his shirt, being – inevitably – of exquisitely fine linen, and with the fragrance of lavender from the press upon it, was sweet against her skin, comforting and comfortable. There was also a pair of his stockings, much too large of course for her little feet but soft over the cuts and wounds; and for garters, two lengths of the lace taken from the cuffs of his shirts going for laundering. Altogether, she thought with a smile, quite a pleasing ensemble – not perhaps the gorgeous silk nightgown in which she might have expected to go to her wedding bed, but fitting for the circumstances.
Little did she know that, sitting beside the fire in the parlour, he had begun to muse on the delights of seeing her wearing his shirt, which he knew would allow him glimpses of much more of her than would a lady's nightdress: "Necessity hath become a virtue", he said to himself with a smile.
In the outhouse, Marguerite was dressing in his shirt and stockings, tying the improvised garters, and realising that she felt both more weary and refreshed after the bath. She wondered if he would feel the same, and what course the events of the coming hours would follow: the light outside had steadily grown and she thought it must now be around eight of the clock – were they to retire to rest immediately, or did he wish to talk awhile yet? She could not guess, and concluded that she must take her cue from him. Mrs Phillips had left a pair of pattens by the door: Marguerite did not know whether they were intended for her use, but she put them on anyway and left the outhouse.
Picking her way across the little yard, she could scent the fresh tang of the sea, and could hear a bird twittering softly in the hedge; the smoke rose lazily from the cottage chimneys into the still morning air and it was such a peaceful scene that she raised silent thanks, again, for their escape from France.
She went along the passageway and lifted the latch into the little parlour. Straight away he rose from his chair and crossed the room towards her with such love in his face that it almost took her breath away. He saw how the steam from the bath had made her hair a mass of small tendrils around her face, and the warmth had brought a soft glow to her skin; the sight of her in his clothes was disconcerting and distracting, but delightful; and he wanted her very much. He put his arms around her and drew her to him, as if nothing could be more natural; neither of them spoke but she knew what was in his mind, and they kissed, long and deeply.
Finally he pulled away and, his voice catching a little, he said that he would show her upstairs and that he would rejoin her there after he had bathed; that he would instruct Mrs Phillips to leave them undisturbed for a few hours so that they could rest; and he asked if there was anything she needed before retiring. On being assured there was not, he took her hand and folded it within his arm, led her to the door at the foot of the stairs and indicated without speaking that she should go up ahead of him. She was glad of his reassuring presence behind her: the winding stairs were steep and narrow; but the little chamber at the top, once the door was closed, was quiet and inviting. The uncurtained bed, she saw quickly, was high and large, with a thick blue eiderdown and snowy linen; a plain washstand and glass, a tall press in one corner, and a low chair by the fire, were the only other furnishings. Apart from a small jug of late roses on the washstand, the whole was simple, masculine and quite unadorned, but, like everything else she had yet seen here, it was very clean – everything gleamed – and smelt of beeswax and a faint but unmistakable sweetness from the roses. She knew he was watching her face, wary perhaps of unfavourable comparisons with the elegance and luxury of her apartments in the house at Richmond; she smiled and nodded firmly and said, "This is very pleasing, Percy; very pleasing indeed."
He smiled back and, aware of how painful her feet must still be, asked her if she wished to get straight into bed or would prefer to rest first in the chair. She was suddenly almost overcome by shyness and was lost for words, and after waiting a moment or two for a reply which did not come, he made the decision for her and, partly because he was afraid of her becoming chilled, he drew her gently towards the bed. He pulled back the covers and saw with gratitude that Mrs Phillips had put hot bricks in to warm it. As Marguerite doffed the dressing-gown, he saw that the borrowed shirt reached only to her mid-thighs, revealing a space of smooth, creamy flesh above the stockings. He deliberately looked away as she climbed into the bed – but not before seeing that it was so high for her that she had to rise on tiptoe to do so, which made him smile fondly as he carefully arranged the covers around her whilst she settled herself against the pillows.
"I shall take my bath now, my dear", he said as lightly as he could manage, "and then I will join you to rest awhile."
She nodded again and he left her; and as she looked around the quiet room, she thought that altogether it was a delightful refuge, simple but comfortable and intimate, quite fitting for their first reacquaintance with one another.
As the bed gradually became warmer and exhaustion overcame her, she began to doze.
Some while later she heard soft movements in the room and she woke to see him standing at the foot of the bed, gazing at her. He spoke:
"My dearest, you are so tired. If you wish only to sleep I should not be surprised, and I hope I shall not disturb you if I lie quietly beside you."
She returned his gaze for a moment or two before ― in a gesture of familiarity which belied their unaccustomed circumstances ― patting the bed beside her by way of reassurance, and replying,
"You must be very tired too, Percy – and how is your back? Is it feeling any easier for the bath?"
"A little, thank you, my dear", he said, sitting sideways on the edge of the bed so that he could see her face. "It is good to feel clean, at least – I had begun to think the grime from the clothes I borrowed had worn its way into my flesh, especially after the beating Chauvelin's men gave me." Here he managed a smile, but she could see the strain in his face and it struck her again how difficult it must have been for him to submit to the blows – which had been cruel ― especially without retaliating in any way. She took his hand and they sat without speaking for a few moments.
He found himself growing cold and, although he did not take off his dressing-gown, he rose, turned the covers back, and got into the bed alongside her, and they sat together, propped up on the pillows, hand in hand; until he knew that he must either begin, or they would sleep. Turning to face her, he gazed at her for a moment or two before he spoke. Then, not knowing how else he should proceed, he said, "Will this truly be the end of our estrangement, Margot?"
"It will, Percy", she replied quietly.
And with that, she rearranged the pillows and lay down under the covers. Understanding her meaning, he took off the dressing-gown and also lay down, before turning to face her and gently taking her in his arms. He spoke quietly: "Do you trust me, Margot?"
"Oh Percy," she replied, "I have nothing to fear from you, I know that absolutely. But do not shame me by speaking of trust: if there were any question of trust, it would be yours, of me!"
"I think you know my meaning, dearest", he replied; "we cannot pretend all those long months of separation did not pass, but now that we have been given a second chance, I think we must ― " here he paused, unsure of the words; and then he continued in French, "I think we must renew the promises we made at our wedding, and if we are to be truly married, we must become one flesh: if that is what you also would wish. So I must ask you, sweetheart, if you give yourself with your whole heart?"
"I do, Percy", she said simply.
"And do you promise never to leave me again?"
"Oh, I do, Percy, I do promise!" she replied.
"Thank God", he breathed, "Before I let myself show you my love again, I had to know – I had to hear you say it, and believe that you mean it: because I don't think I could bear it otherwise;" he murmured, "I cannot countenance aught else."
The tears sprang to her eyes at this and she nodded, raised her hand to stroke his face, and kissed him. And he returned the kiss, and drew her even closer to him, and they kissed each other long and deeply.
She was not afraid, nor even hesitant, and she knew that what she felt for him was not only love, but bodily desire: and that he felt the same. They both were trembling, and although she responded lovingly to his touch, he restrained his urgency and was infinitely gentle and unhurried. As their limbs entwined and their bodies joined in the passionate union which had haunted their dreams for so long, having each of them travelled through dark unhappiness and doubt, their mutual joy was intense and absolute, and they thanked God for allowing their love to blossom once more.