The Descent of Mary
Chapter 1 – Early Spring 1892
With a muttered oath, Erik pushed through the door of the mud-room off the kitchen and out of the driving rain. Stamping his boots on the cobbled floor, he cursed again in his native French as he watched the sticky mud cling stubbornly and refuse to be dislodged. With an irritated gesture he swept off his sodden black felt hat and equally damp cloak and hung them on their respective hooks.
Padding through the kitchen in his stockings, having left his boots in the mud-room (an aptly named chamber if ever there was, in his opinion) he retrieved his slippers from Sacha's basket and stalked into the drawing room.
"A fruitful meeting, M'lord?" Asked Alice as he threw himself into his usual chair by the fire. The older woman struggled to keep the smile from her face and voice. Wet weather always put the Master in a foul mood, not that she could blame him, but what could one expect in England? If he didn't like it he should move the entire household somewhere drier.
"I fear I must be getting old, I do not tolerate being soaked to the skin as I once did," he told her with a sigh.
"You're hardly soaked to the skin, sir," said Alice. "Although if you are getting old then so too am I as I cannot abide this filthy weather any better than you can."
"I suppose that's one advantage to living underground," said Talitha entering the room and depositing herself in her husband's lap. He accepted a kiss from her and pushed a curl back from her face with one cool, pale finger. His mood improved immeasurably with the appearance of his young wife. "You never need worry about how dismal the weather is above ground!"
Erik chuckled. "Says she who has never lived underground during a flood!"
"Oh no, sir! Really?" Exclaimed Alice.
"For certain!" Erik smiled, absently removing his mask and setting it aside. "When I was living beneath the Opera Populaire in Paris, the Seine broke its banks and the lower chambers of the Opera House began to fill with water – the water table raised the lake, you see. I was obliged to move my belongings to the third cellar, which was most tiresome!"
"Most tiresome?" Talitha echoed, smiling fondly.
"But of course! The third cellar was a notoriously dull place to spend one's days!" Erik told her. Talitha shook her head, unsure whether to believe her husband's outrageous tales or not.
"And how did your meeting go?" She asked by way of changing the subject.
"As well as can be expected, given the weather," he sighed, passing his hand over his scalp and removing his wig in one smooth motion. The wig joined the mask on the occasional table. "The client is impatient for the work to be completed and is not inclined to accept excuses, no matter that the excuses include such phrases as 'impassable quagmire' and 'too damp to mix mortar'." He sighed again and massaged his temples with his long fingers. "Remind me again why I re-entered this wretched profession?"
"Because you are a brilliant architect, a master mason and a genius, and you were driving us all to distraction rattling around the house like the Phantom you are!" Talitha told him. She pushed away his hands gently and massaged his temple and scalp as he dropped his head against the back of the chair and closed his eyes.
"Mmm," he murmured, but in response to her statement or her caress, she couldn't tell.
With uncommonly quiet discretion, Alice removed herself from the room and went to check on dinner.
Alone together at last, Talitha and Erik sat quietly before the fire simply enjoying the pleasure of their closeness. He traced lazy circles on her back with the palm of one hand, the fingers of his other hand entwining in her dark curls. Dispensing with her impromptu massage, she cuddled close with her head on his chest and listened to the quiet thud of his heart.
At length, as they began to doze off in one another's arms, Erik felt a cold wet nose push itself into his hand.
"Sacha," he murmured, fondling the sight-hound's pale grey ears. The little Whippet bore no resemblance to her namesake: his mother's spaniel which had been his one comfort in a lonely and abuse-ridden childhood. But she was as faithful and affectionate as his old pet. "Have you been stealing my slippers again?"
"She loves you," Talitha murmured sleepily against his chest. "She only wants something of yours to be near when she sleeps. As do I."
"And my slippers are an acceptable substitute?" He asked. "Perhaps I should purchase another pair for the bedchamber!"
"You shall do no such thing!" She told him. "Have I not already mentioned I won't tolerate being neglected in the bed-chamber? Well, nor would I accept a substitute!"
"You are a jealous Mistress my love, I wouldn't dream of neglecting you!" Said Erik, gently removing her from his chest so that he might look into her face. "My dear Talitha…"
His insistent lips cut her off, demanding and receiving without resistance her passionate response which had not, even with the passing of the years, been satiated.
A wet nose and a low whine reminded the lovers they were no longer alone.
"And I suppose, petit rat, you came to call us for dinner?" Asked Erik, grasping Sacha's muzzle and shaking her head gently. The whippet yipped once upon release as though in affirmation.
Talitha laughed. "You mustn't call her that; Nicholas will repeat it and people will think we have a rodent as a pet!"
"Many cultures keep rodents as pets, my dear, the rat is a very intelligent creature," Erik told her, setting her on her feet and smoothing her skirts.
"Be that as it may, I'm fairly certain sight-hounds never carried the Black Plague around Europe and intelligent though they may be, I will not allow a rat to be kept as a pet in this house!"
"As you wish, my dear," he replied. "Where is Nicholas?"
"Mary is teaching him to sew," said Talitha, handing Erik his wig and mask, which he replaced as absentmindedly as he'd removed them. Comfortable though he now was going bare-headed around his family, he still preferred to cover up while dining claiming that the sight of his disfigurement was not good for digestion. No one bothered to argue with him, however Talitha did not believe anyone in the household noticed his affliction any more than she did.
"Oh don't look like that; it'll do him no harm to learn some practical skills!"
"The boy has more practical skills than others three times his age!" Exclaimed Erik. "Why the devil does he need to learn to sew?"
"Hush, dear, don't get yourself all upset," Talitha soothed him. "He was bored today, what with the incessant rain. He needed something to keep his hands busy lest they get him into mischief. Were you not the same at his age? Far too intelligent and gifted and infernally busy to keep out of trouble for long? You must have driven your poor mother to distraction!"
"Indeed I did," Erik murmured, his eyes tight. Raising a child who showed all the signs of being as preternaturally bright as he himself had always been, he was beginning to understand that his mother's ill-treatment of him wasn't solely due to her revulsion.
"Well then, don't badger him about it at the dinner table, will you? Be thankful Mary managed to find work for the devil's fingers that didn't involve dismantling the clocks again!"
Erik winced at the dual memory, his own fascination with clocks and the beating he'd received for taking apart one of his mother's, juxtaposed with the memory of his small son sitting in the middle of the Persian rug in the drawing room, surrounded by tiny brass springs and cogs.
"Papa! Papa!" Called a musical voice from the top of the stairs. The tall and finely made five year old plummeted headlong down the stairs, launching himself from the sixth step to sail into his father's outstretched arms. The boy was a carbon copy of an old etching of Erik's father, executed at a similar age with one exception: he had his mother's sloe eyes fringed with uncommonly long dark eyelashes. With silky dark tousled curls, Erik's pale complexion and tendency towards tall slenderness, and Talitha's eyes, he was a stunningly gorgeous child with a voice to match and a mind advanced beyond its years.
"Papa, look at what I made!" Exclaimed Nicholas, pushing a scrap of material into Erik's hands. Turning it over in his hands, he found tiny, evenly spaced stitches of forest green thread holding together layers of white rabbit fur and deep green velvet cloth.
Talitha paled and asked: "where did you find that material?" at the same time Erik enquired: "what is it?"
Nicholas looked from his father, to his mother and back to his father, electing to answer Erik's question only: "It's a coat for Sacha, of course!" He took the alleged garment back and beckoned to the dog, who stood patiently as he fastened the coat around her neck and barreled chest, fur-side in. "See, now she will be warm when she goes outside, and what a pretty colour with her fur!"
"Ingenious," murmured Erik, running his hand over the 'coat' marveling at the simple yet effective design and once again at the fine stitching. "You made this yourself, son?"
"Mary showed me how to make the stitches," Nicholas nodded, "and I remember Mama saying how Sacha disliked the cold wind when she went outside to 'do her necessary', so I thought 'we all have fine warm coats to keep out the wind, why can't Sacha have one?'"
"Why indeed?" His father agreed. "And where did you get the material, Nicholas?"
"Erik…" Talitha warned, for she'd recognized the material as soon as she'd laid eyes on it.
Nicholas's eyes switched back and forth from his mother to his father again. "Mama's cloak," he whispered finally.
"Mama's cloak," Erik echoed, his voice quiet and dangerous. His hands closed into fists involuntarily and he forced himself to close his eyes and take a deep breath before opening them. It took some effort.
"She never wears it anymore, the material was going to waste hanging in the closet, and poor Sacha gets so cold…" his voice trailed off as his chin began to quiver, his large dark eyes swimming with tears.
"Darling, don't cry…" Talitha began.
"You took a pair of scissors to Mama's cloak, to the beautiful cloak I gave Mama as a gift the first Christmas we celebrated together… that cloak is precious to us!" Erik told him, his voice still low.
"Papa… Mama, I'm sorry!" Nicholas squeaked. He turned and dashed back up the stairs, streaking past a startled Mary who'd appeared in time to witness Erik's final words.
"Sir! I'm sorry! He told me he found the material in an old trunk in the attic!" She blurted out, hurrying down the stairs. "If I'd known…"
"Never mind," he said brusquely. "It is only a cloak, after all." And he turned on his heel to stalk down the steps to his basement study cum workshop.
"I'll hold dinner for a while longer then, shall I?" Said Alice.
"Please." Talitha nodded curtly. Left alone at the bottom of the stairs, she stooped to remove Sacha's 'coat' before heading up the stairs to the nursery. Erik would need time to cool down before she approached him.
Nicholas was sitting on his bed fiddling listlessly with a broken jack-in-the-box he'd been trying to fix and improve. He looked up as his mother entered the room.
"Papa is very angry," he said. It was a statement rather than a question.
"Yes he is," Talitha agreed. She sighed as the boy's shoulders slumped further and went to sit next him. "Nicholas, do you see this pendant?" She asked him, fingering the crimson-enameled silver heart. The pearly depths of the glass-like coating glittered in the lamplight.
"Yes Mama," Nicholas whispered.
"Your father gave this to me as a Christmas gift. He told me he was giving me his heart and that I should be gentle with it: do you understand what that means?"
"I think so," said the boy, frowning in concentration. "It means he had fallen in love with you, but was afraid you would hurt him."
"That's right," said Talitha, marveling at his depth of perception and understanding at such a young age. "Earlier that evening he presented me with a fine new green velvet gown, and a matching cloak with white rabbit fur…"
"I'm sorry, Mama!" He cried, burying his little face in her lap and sobbing.
"Shhh, darling," she crooned, stroking his hair and rubbing his small back. She held him until his tears dried and he sat up, rubbing his eyes with his fist. He is tired, she thought. "Nicholas, dear, I know you want and need all sorts of materials for your projects, but you must ask before you take them. They may be more precious and necessary in their original state than you imagine."
"I will," he said in a small voice, and yawned. "I'll go and say sorry to Papa, too…"
"No, leave Papa for now. Go and eat some dinner then you can go straight to bed, tired little man!"
# # #
From the landing at the top of the stairs, Mary watched Talitha disappear into the kitchen and listened as the door to the basement was opened, and then closed, and the muffled click of the lady's heels on the stone steps as she descended.
With a sigh, she returned to her bedchamber next to the nursery and threw herself onto the narrow bed. Lying on her back with her eyes closed, she imagined Talitha speaking calmly to Erik, who would be simmering in silent rage, perhaps stalking around the basement (Mary had never entered the basement domain of the Master of the house, and she was therefore forced to imagine what it must be like). His blue eye would be flashing, those long legs clad in the snug-fitted trousers he wore, pacing around like a caged lion. Grrrr.
Mary recognized the materials Nicholas had produced when he announced his intended "Coat for Sacha" project – although why on earth the boy wanted to clothe that skinny, ugly little rat of a thing was quite beyond her. And she ignored his childish lie about finding them in a forgotten trunk in the attic. It was true Talitha rarely wore the cloak on outings, but Mary had seen her swirling the lovely garment around her shoulders and the soft look in Erik's blue eye as he watched her do it. Remembering.
Talitha had told her a little about that night. Not a lot, only that he'd presented her with the new clothes before taking her on an evening outing. Then given her "his heart, Erik's heart, isn't it beautiful Mary?" She only hinted at what followed, but Mary understood the ways of men and women well enough to guess.
And by now perhaps Talitha had calmed the savage beast and he was taking her in his arms and apologizing for being such a brute. And she would of course forgive him, and their lips would meet, and perhaps his hands would begin to wander…
Mary's hands began to wander as she imagined herself in Talitha's place… A knock at the bedroom door startled her from her dark imaginings.
"Mary?" It was Alice. "Are you coming down to eat, child?"
Child, Mary snarled silently as she straightened her clothes and tied her pale blond hair up into her ruffled cap. No wonder the Master looked at no-one but his pretty wife, he probably thought Mary a child, also.
Mary paused before opening her door and arranged her features into those of a soft, shy creature, the gentle wet-nurse whose precious baby had died, who'd redeemed herself from her life as a harlot by suckling the son of her friend and milk-sister. The girl who was grateful to have a permanent roof over her head and a warm bed to sleep in at night and a family who loved her…
Mary, the illegitimate child of a stage actress. Elizabeth. Bessie. The woman who had served as Talitha's wet-nurse. Talitha had believed her surrogate mother to be a prostitute when she worked nights. This was untrue. In fact, Bessie had understudied many fine opera singers on the London stage, and her nights were spent in rehearsals and sometimes, joy of joys! On the stage! Five year old Talitha had not noticed sweet Bessie's clothes becoming tighter, her belly swelling with child. She had not noticed the tears in Bessie's eyes as she kissed Talitha good night that last time. Bessie knew she was saying goodbye forever. Talitha did not.
Unable to perform on the stage any longer, Bessie was forced out of the theatre. When her time came she was homeless, bereft of any friends or family and terrified for the life of the child which was about to enter the world. Alice, still an honest midwife, had taken her in and delivered the child, Mary, safely. Weak from malnourishment, her constitution grown frail from living exposed to the elements, Bessie still insisted upon nursing the baby herself. Her milk-filled breasts grew as the rest of her body shrank – its thin resources, already stricken with the demands of gestating a healthy infant, reduced to almost nothing. By Mary's eighth month on this earth, Bessie was in her grave.
Alice raised Mary as her own but told the child about her birth-mother when she was old enough to understand. Her dreams were the only place Mary remembered the frail, golden haired angel who sung to her and loved her more than life itself.
By the time Mary was of an age to be considered a woman, Alice had fallen upon hard times and turned to prostitution. Her house became a squat for down and out women like herself and Mary, a pretty enough little thing with flaxen hair and cornflower eyes, took to selling her fine figure to the gentlemen who attended the opera. In a strange way, she felt close to the woman who'd carried and given birth to her. Bessie had performed on the stage, and now Mary performed on her knees in the finest opera boxes, all the while listening to the beautiful music and learning the arias.
By this time, Talitha – five years older and never knowing Mary to be her milk-sister, suckled from the very same breast – Talitha had appeared and joined the women in their squat. The older girl was beautiful, her dark curling hair thick and lustrous in spite of the rough living conditions and her figure, though thin from the malnourishment they all shared, was fine and womanly. Next to her, Mary felt plain and pale. She grew to hate her own lank blond hair and coveted Talitha's mane. Talitha's dark sloe-eyes flashed when she was angry while Mary's blue ones only simpered. Talitha was strong and capable and haughty. Her disdain for their vocation was obvious whereas Mary had always taken a certain pride in her ability to reduce a man to a gibbering wreck with a single caress inside his trousers and a flick of her tongue in just the right place.
Mary was a natural whore. Talitha was not.
And then, the night after Mary sustained a horrific beating at the many hands of a group of drunken louts, Talitha disappeared…
An actress for all intents and purposes, Mary swept out of her bedchamber and down the stairs to join her family for dinner.
Nicholas wanted to play the violin. He was bored with the relatively simple-to-learn piano and was forbidden to touch his father's pipe organ, but the violin… now, that looked a worthy challenge to a bright five year old boy! His father could wield the instrument with passion and fury, or devastating tenderness, drawing tears from the eyes and hearts of his audience. When Erik played, Nicholas's busy fingers mimicked the action unconsciously.
At the conclusion of Erik's impromptu concert one evening, Nicholas summoned all the charm and good manners he could muster and approached his father.
"Please may I learn to play the violin, Papa?" He asked, deliberately keeping his hands behind his back, though they longed to take the instrument from Erik's hands, and his eyes on his father's face, though they longed to caress the deeply stained wood of the violin.
"How can I refuse such a polite request?" Erik smiled. "I think, however, you will find this one far too big for you, we shall have to purchase one more suited to your size."
Hunkering down to his son's level, Erik began a lesson in theory, pointing out and naming the strings and other parts of the violin and the bow, and playing a simple scale giving Nicholas a close-up view of the fingering. The boy's fingers mimicked the action again, they itched to take the too-large instrument and try for himself.
When the child-sized violin arrived a week later, Nicholas was beside himself with excitement and unable to sit still during dinner, in spite of Mary's sharp request that he stop dancing around in his seat, for pity's sake, he was making her nervous! As the meal concluded, Nicholas fairly skipped to the drawing room, followed by the more measured pace of his father to begin his first practical lesson.
Mary followed and took a seat by the fire so that she might unobtrusively observe the music lesson. Her sharp eyes focused on Erik's slender fingers as he covered those of his son's on the strings, teaching the pressure the boy would have to use. When he was satisfied with Nicholas's grip Erik crouched next to him, one hand on the small of the boy's back and the other on his chest, correcting his posture. Unconsciously, Mary's own hand fluttered to her chest as she sat up a little straighter.
When the violin lesson was over and Nicholas was sent to his room to study the theory, Erik joined Talitha at the piano, never realizing Mary was still in the room. From her place by the fire, she watched the couple with their heads together, arguing softly over Talitha's composition, and laughing just as softly at each other as their hands brushed over one another on the keyboard. Erik played a small snatch of the composition, humming the melody line he thought should follow, and Talitha nodded, dipping her quill in the ink and leaning over to make the correction.
Perhaps, Mary thought, drifting away in her mind, imagining herself not in Talitha's place but maybe standing beside the piano, singing as Erik accompanied her. Mary's voice was far sweeter than Talitha's, she knew it. And while she'd never consider picking up a violin or touching the keys of the piano, she would often sing to herself as she went about her chores.
Perhaps, Mary thought. Perhaps I could ask for singing lessons.
# # #
Every evening, Nicholas did not allow his father to retire to his basement until he had received further instruction on the violin. When he had mastered the simple practice pieces and begun working on the more difficult pieces, he took it to mind to try his hand at composition.
Delighted, Erik provide the boy with blank sheet music and a fine charcoal pencil and spent the evenings alternating between the piano and the violin stand, instructing and advising both his wife and his son and reveling in the chance to pass on his peculiar musical genius.
When Mary shyly approached him and asked if he could listen to her sing and perhaps give her a few instructions vocally, Erik was ecstatic. His household was filled with music; practically his entire family had become his students!
Mary's voice, while sweet and melodious, was nothing compared to the instrument his protégé in Paris had possessed, but he no longer felt the need to be served through song as he once had when living beneath the Opera Populaire. His mornings were now filled with his architectural drawings and his afternoons with the living stone beneath his hands. His evenings were taken up with music and his nights were spent in the passionate embrace of his loving and beautiful wife.
Chapter 3 – Late Spring 1892
A knock at the door one morning tore Talitha away from her composition and she sighed, irritated by the interruption. The notes still echoing in her head, she opened the door to find a young man standing on the doorstep wearing what appeared to be his Sunday best. He doffed his hat and executed a small bow.
"Good morning, M'Lady, would the Master of the house permit a brief interview?" The young man asked.
"Good morning, young sir," Talitha replied. "My husband is not available at the moment…" She paused. Then: "It's Richard, isn't it? You live but a few doors from here?"
"Yes, ma'am," smiled Richard.
"Well, good morning, Richard! Are your parent's well?" Asked Talitha. "I had heard your poor mother was suffering with this wretched damp weather we've been having."
"They are well, Mother dislikes the weather but her health is quite sound! Shortly she will begin complaining about the heat!" He assured her. "Did you mention your husband was not available at present?"
"I did, you will need to return this evening if you wish to speak to him," she said.
"Then that is what I shall do," said Richard. "Good day, M'Lady!" And with that he replaced his hat and disappeared.
# # #
"Well, what did he want?" Asked Erik when he returned that evening and was informed of the strange visitation.
"I haven't the slightest idea!" Said Talitha. "He was most proper in his speech, though. I felt as if I were being addressed by a perfect young gentleman!"
"My dear, are you blushing?"
"Of course not…"
"You are! Has this 'perfect young gentleman' turned your head?" Erik seemed greatly amused at his wife's discomfort.
"Don't be absurd, he was just a boy! And far too pretty to turn my head, you know very well my tastes run to older men with an interesting countenance!" She smiled fondly and caressed his distorted face. "Silly man!"
Erik chuckled. "Well, if he wasn't of a mind to steal my young wife, I wonder what he wanted…"
A knock at the door cut him off.
"I think, my dear, we have a guest!"
"Do try not to frighten him, Erik," Talitha chided, handing him his mask and gesturing towards the door. As he opened it she retired to the drawing room and began a soothing piece on the piano.
"Make yourself comfortable young man; I believe you have met my wife?" Said Erik, ushering Richard into the drawing room. Talitha nodded to the visitor without interruption to her playing.
"Yes, good evening M'Lady. Might I say you play beautifully!"
"Indeed she does," agreed Erik with a slight frown. "And to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?"
"I have come to ask your permission to court your son's nurse maid, Mary." Said Richard.
Talitha noted the expression of mild surprise on her husband's face and knew that he was deeply startled by the request. The lad, though, would be entirely unaware that the Master of his intended sweetheart was profoundly baffled.
"My dear…" Erik murmured, glancing in her direction and then discreetly at the seat next to him.
Talitha immediately abandoned the piano and joined him.
"Of course, it is customary for a gentleman to seek permission before asking a lady for the pleasure of her company," she said, smiling gently at Richard and taking her husband's hand.
"Of course… of course it is," said Erik, shaking his head as though to clear it.
"I should like to take her walking in the evenings, when the weather permits it. And there are a number of theatres and restaurants I'd be delighted if she could accompany me to," Richard said in a rush as though to assure them his intentions were pure. "When she is not busy attending to the little gentleman, that is!"
"And Mary is aware of your intentions?" Erik asked.
"Of that I am not certain," answered Richard. "We have a nodding acquaintance should we pass one another on the street…" here he paused and began to blush. "I… I followed her home one day… merely to discover where she lived, you understand…" He bit his lip, afraid he'd said too much and ruined his chances of obtaining permission.
"My dear," said Erik, turning to Talitha. "Would you be so kind as to call Mary? I feel she should have a chance to speak on her own behalf."
"Of course," said Talitha.
# # #
Foppish little man, Mary thought, studying her brave young suitor, taking in his nervous smile, his fashionable clothing and soft brown hair. His eyes sparkled softly when he looked at her and for a moment she could not fathom the expression she saw there. When she realized the gentleman who'd introduced himself as Richard was truly seeing her, not just measuring her with his eye like a piece of meat, she was deeply uncomfortable. No man had ever looked at her like that, as though she were a person and not just tits to fondle and a hole to grasp what he pushed into her.
Erik's expression as he also studied Richard was far more familiar: clearly the Master of the house did not like this young man, and viewed him with suspicion. It was Erik's distrust of Richard rather than Richard's obvious infatuation which decided Mary.
"I would be delighted to go out walking with you, sir," she said, her eyes cast demurely downwards, watching carefully for Erik's reaction. The slight frown on his face pleased and encouraged her.
# # #
Erik's expression of extreme bewilderment following the interview with Richard and Mary was so comical Talitha had to press a hand to her mouth to keep from laughing.
"The world is a different place since I was a young man," he murmured.
"Oh?" Smiled Talitha. "Did you simply clobber a maiden over the head and drag her back to your cave?"
"Young lady, I've a mind to turn you over my knee…"
"Promises, promises!" Giggled Talitha falling into his embrace.
"I'm getting old," he murmured in her ear, his hands wandering down her back to squeeze the swell of her buttocks.
"I disagree," she answered. "Come upstairs, I've something to show you."
# # #
Erik closed the bedroom door behind him and leaned against it, drinking in the sight of his young wife. Truly a more beautiful, passionate and sensuous woman could not exist and he wondered, as he had a thousand times before, what on earth he'd done to deserve her.
Talitha smiled back at him coquettishly and kicked off her slippers. "Perhaps you could help me with my stockings?" She invited.
Not needing to be asked twice, Erik closed the space between them in two quick strides and sank to his knees before her, taking one tiny foot in his slender hands. Without taking his eye from her face, he slid one hand gently up over her calf, the back of her knee, up the inside of her thigh to the top of her stocking… where his hand encountered an unusual silky fabric. A frown flickered across his brow as he fondled the fabric with the tips of his fingers.
"What the devil…?" He murmured, lifting her skirts and ducking underneath. Talitha bit her lip to suppress her giggles. "What manner of unholy undergarments are these?" Came Erik's muffled voice from beneath her skirts. "Do they go all the way up…?"
Talitha shrieked as his hands searched up into the bodice of the dress, and she clapped one hand over her mouth, shaking with silent, thrilled laughter. Gasping, she said: "Do you like them? They're French – the latest fashion."
Erik appeared from beneath her skirts, his blue eye bright, his wig disheveled. "Are they specifically designed to incite a lustful frenzy in a man's loins?" He enquired.
"Is it working?"
"My love, you should know by now you need only glance at me sideways to incite a lustful frenzy in my loins," he told her. "They're French, you say?"
"Mm-hmm," she smiled, swinging her feet back and forth.
"It's a wonder there's not an epidemic of rape in that God-forsaken country," he murmured, shaking his head.
"Well, they obviously don't have the same effect in this country," she told him, pointedly.
Erik raised a single eyebrow at her challenge. "Am I to tear them off you, my love, the fabric does feel rather expensive," he teased.
"Oh, no need," said Talitha, rising to her feet. She used one hand to hold her skirts up above her waist, and a single finger to pull the crotch of the undergarment aside.
"Good God, woman, are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Erik choked.
Talitha smiled broadly, pleased to have shocked him at last. She dropped her skirts and glided forward until they were bare inches apart. She removed his mask and wig and set them aside, then trailed her hands down his chest to his groin, gently squeezing the hardness she found there. He moaned. Taking his hand, she led him to their bed and pushed him down onto his back.
"Don't worry," she whispered in his ear as she leaned over him. "I won't make you work that hard."
Carefully, she unbuttoned his trousers and freed him. Then, settling her skirts and pulling aside the silky fabric at her crotch once again, she guided him into her.
"You see," she told him, beginning to move slowly. "We need not even remove our clothes!"
Erik moaned again, completely beyond speech now. His fingers gripped her buttocks through her skirts, encouraging her to move faster, his hips rising to meet her in time with his insistent hands.
Talitha smiled and firmly removed his hands. She leaned forward and held them over his head to keep them from mischief. "Slowly, love," she whispered in his ear, wrapping his fingers around the slats in the headboard to encourage him to keep them there. She slowed her movement until she was riding him at an excruciating deliberate pace.
"Oh God Talitha," Erik moaned, the words strangled and thick. His eyes were closed, his head thrown back and his knuckles white as he gripped the headboard. Talitha rained kisses on his face, smooth perfect skin and distorted scarring alike, moving to nuzzle and suckle at his earlobe, eliciting another strangled moan, all the while moving slowly back and forth, and knowing she couldn't maintain the slow pace much longer.
With a cry of her own, she clamped her lips onto his and began bucking her hips, unable to control herself any longer. His response was immediate, his arms crushing her to him and his hips rising to meet hers, screaming into her mouth as he reached his climax, and she hers.
For a few moments she continued to move against him, gently, squeezing the last drops of pleasure from the act before collapsing onto his chest, breathing hard. For many minutes neither of them moved with the exception of Erik's hands stroking Talitha's damp hair.
"My darling," he murmured at length, and she lifted her head to kiss him slowly on the mouth. Carefully, Talitha removed herself and they rearranged themselves until they lay together on the coverlet, Erik's body curling protectively around hers. "My darling, I love you," he whispered in her ear, brushing a lock of hair away from her slender white neck so that he could press his lips to her skin. "Promise me you will always wear those French undergarments," he whispered.
# # #
Foppish little man, Mary's thoughts echoed as she undressed slowly for bed. She smiled as she brushed her long pale hair, not really seeing herself in the mirror, but rather reliving her surprisingly pleasant walk with Richard.
The boy, of an age with Mary and no older, was terminally well-dressed and fashionable, softly spoken and polite, sincere and intelligent, and very clearly infatuated with her. He asked her opinion on all sorts of things and listened carefully to her answers. Her hand, in the crook of his elbow, he patted gently from time to time as though to emphasize his point, when he was making one. And he took no liberties nor tried to initiate a more intimate touch; he seemed perfectly content to have her on his arm and listen to her voice.
When she admitted the Master had been giving her singing lessons, he encouraged her to sing for him, applauding with delight at the conclusion, his eyes shining. And when he enquired gingerly about her Master's mask, she gave him the same vague reason Talitha had initially given her: "he has an affliction he wishes to hide from the world".
And when he returned her to the house, he took her hand and kissed it gently, blushing to the roots of his hair. Promising to return the following evening to take her to dinner, he executed another of his comical little bows, and left her.
And now, brushing hair that no longer needed to be brushed, Mary's thoughts slid from the soft sunshine of Richard's company, to the dark moonlight of Erik.
Chapter 4 – Early Summer 1892
An enraged shriek split the calm afternoon air and brought Talitha through the mud-room and out into the back yard at a run.
"Alice?" She called, shading her eyes from the sun. "Nicholas? Whatever is going on out here?"
A higher pitched yowl answered her and Alice appeared, her flushed and sweaty face like thunder, dragging a protesting Nicholas along by the ear.
"What in God's name…?"
"My best linen tablecloth!" Alice roared. "Ruined! Absolutely ruined beyond repair!"
"Ow! I'm sorry, Aunt Alice… Ow, you're hurting me!" Squealed Nicholas, clawing at Alice's iron grip ineffectively.
"Alice! Whatever has gotten into you! Unhand my son right this minute!" Talitha cried. Released, the boy rubbed his abused ear furiously and threw his arms around his mother, burying his face in her apron.
"That boy!" Alice spat. "That boy needs to be taken over the Master's knee and spanked till he's black and blue!"
"My son's discipline is none of your concern," Talitha answered, her voice like ice. "Nicholas, go into the house…"
"No 'but Mama', go to your room and practice your violin. God himself knows you pestered your father enough for lessons!"
As the boy stomped off inside, Talitha turned to her housekeeper and met her furious gaze.
"Begging your pardon, Madam," Alice snapped. "I would not wish to speak out of turn, My Lady," she went on. "But your son needs to be taken in hand! He is becoming bored and destructive, he has outgrown the need of a nurse-maid and Mary cannot control him any longer in any case! Nor can she challenge his extraordinary mind!"
Talitha's fury at the older woman's rough treatment of her son melted as the wise words struck home.
"You are right," she said. "Of course, you are right. He needs challenges, not coddling." Talitha sighed. "I suppose you had better show me what he did to your tablecloth then."
Alice turned on her heel and strode to the bottom of the garden. A small creek kitty-cornered the bottom of the yard, overhung by a pair of beautiful weeping willows. Between the pair of trees, Nicholas had tied a rope and over the rope hung the tablecloth, weighed down with large creek pebbles at each of its corners, to make a tent. This on its own would not have ruined the tablecloth, for the pebbles were only a little muddy, and mud could be washed off.
Talitha gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. The tablecloth was indeed ruined, but never had a piece of table linen been ruined in such an artful way.
"You have to admit, that is quite ingenious," Talitha murmured. Alice shot her a dark look and grunted in disgust.
The tablecloth had been torn in a number of places, forming "peep-holes" so that someone hiding under the tent could see out on all sides, but not be seen. In addition to that, it appeared that Nicholas had concocted a mixture of creek-bed mud and algae and daubed the mixture all over the cloth – a watery wash in some places, a thick paste-like coating in others, the dapples obviously the result of a keen eye and artistic mind. The thick parts of the "paint" acted as a glue, and he had stuck a number of willow leaves and small twigs strategically to cover the peep-holes and give the impression of a naturally occurring mound between the two trees, rather than a "man made" structure.
The result: a perfectly camouflaged hide-out.
"Erik shall have to see this," said Talitha.
"I'll say he should," huffed Alice. "My best tablecloth, you know!"
"Yes, so I gathered," said Talitha dryly, picking up her skirts and moving back towards the house. "I understand no amount of money will compensate for the loss, but I am certain my husband will wish to pay for a replacement anyway." She glanced over her shoulder as Alice opened her mouth to reply. "And I shall speak to him about Nicholas."
# # #
"The girl has certainly outlived her usefulness," Erik said when he'd been told of the afternoon's events. "No, don't look like that my dear, I have no intention of turning her out into the street, she's as much a part of the family as any of us."
"Well Alice will be glad to hear that, as am I," replied Talitha.
"We shall have to engage tutors, I suppose," Erik went on. "I doubt sending him away to any sort of school of collective education would be much use, I suspect he far too advanced for entry level in spite of his young age."
"Could you not instruct him yourself?" Asked Talitha.
"Indeed I could, my dear. I shall begin assessing his abilities first thing tomorrow and at the very least start him in the right direction. But I am not a natural teacher as you well know!"
"Rubbish, you are a fine teacher…"
"Fine and impatient and too close to him in personality to instruct him effectively," Erik summarized. "No, he will benefit from another's expertise I am certain. Once I am satisfied I have a grasp on his abilities, I shall procure a tutor for our son."
# # #
"Well, thank the Good Lord in Heaven!" Alice exclaimed. She had been mollified with the purchase of a new linen tablecloth and with a fine weave and beautiful embroidery its quality far surpassed the old one. She was also secretly relieved that Mary's absence at the time of the old tablecloth's reallocation as a camouflage tent had not been called into question. The silly girl had been skulking about in her bedchamber, no doubt pining for her young suitor and singing like a wretched nightingale.
# # #
Talitha was distracted that evening, pacing about the bedchamber in her robe, touching the objects on the bureau without really seeing them, staring into the oval looking-glass without really seeing herself. Erik watched her from his place on the bed, silently waiting for her to speak her mind.
"Perhaps if he had playmates his own age," she murmured. "Perhaps if he weren't an only child, if I'd been able to provide him with a brother, or even a sister, someone small and intelligent like him, to keep him busy."
"My dear, you know that isn't possible," Erik replied, and she looked at him as though surprised to see him sitting there. "Don't vex yourself with impossible dreams."
"I feel as though I've failed him. As though I've failed you, giving you only one child…"
"That is nonsense, Talitha! Come to bed!" He insisted, cutting her off. With a sigh, she shrugged out of her silk robe and entered the circle of his arms, cuddling into his bare chest. "What you have given me: a wife, a son, a chance at a normal life. Those things are beyond price, my love. I could not want for anything more."
Smiling gently, he tucked a finger under her chin and lifted her face to his, kissing her soundly.
# # #
With a grimace of distaste, Mary pushed away from the wall which divided the master bedchamber from a small storage room. I could not want for anything more, he'd said. And then the moaning began, and Mary was in no mood for listening to that this evening.
Privately, Mary was in complete agreement with Talitha on one topic: what kind of wife was she that she couldn't provide more children? Why, Richard had told her just this afternoon that he wished to become a father someday, many times over. A good wife should provide many sons and as many daughters, he'd told her. He did not hold with his wealthy parent's ideal of a single child to cosset and spoil, it was too much like putting all of one's eggs in a single basket.
You could not want for anything more, my Master? Mary thought, returning to her bedchamber. I disagree. I believe you could want for far more. I believe you do want for more…
# # #
Talitha had watched Mary's singing lessons with only a touch of envy that the girl could sing while she could not; however she was pleased the younger woman seemed to be making an effort to get along with her husband, even to the point of flattery that she'd asked for singing lessons when she knew the Master loved nothing more than music.
There had always been a certain undeniable tension between Mary and Erik. It had begun life as a childish infatuation of Mary's with this dark stranger who had so captivated her friend. Then suddenly her feelings had morphed into all-out terror when she'd finally seen Erik's face revealed. Over time, her horror at his disfigurement had diminished but it seemed that she might always keep some slight distance between them. Now, however, there was hope that the tension that lingered might finally be dispelled through their shared love of singing. The singing lessons had not banished it yet, but Talitha certainly hoped that in time they would. She did not like to see her husband and the girl she considered to be a sister at odds with one another.
When Mary abruptly ended the singing lessons, to the point of leaving the room and refusing to sing during an impromptu family concert, no one was more surprised or disappointed than Erik. The tension that Talitha sensed was also familiar to Erik, he interpreted it as the fear and revulsion he had faced all his life. His new life above ground, with a wife and a son and a normal household was marred by this single thorn in his side, this pale girl whose breath quickened with fright when he entered the room – would it ever end?
# # #
Mary sighed with bliss, cuddling the infant close, stroking its fuzzy head… The light glinted off a plain gold band on her wedding finger…
"My love… my wife… another perfect child," a voice murmured, and she looked up into the loving face of her husband. He removed his mask, and her smile widened…
Mary started awake, disoriented and stiff until she realized she was slumped against the wall of the store room; sleep had overtaken her as she spied yet again on her Master and Mistress.
Chapter 5 – Late Summer 1892
"'HM George VI and his wife Lady Elizabeth spend a week by the seaside in a bid to beat the summer's heat'." Erik announced, reading the morning papers in his shirtsleeves. Perspiration trickled down his face and he had dispensed with his usual convention of dining with his wig and mask in place. It was simply too hot.
"Oh, that'd be nice, it would!" Exclaimed Alice, wiping her own damp forehead with a dishtowel. "His Majesty has the right idea, so he has! A week by the seaside!"
"I've never seen the ocean," Talitha sighed.
"Neither have I," piped Nicholas, his voice mimicking the wistful tone of his mother's voice. He blinked in bewilderment as the adults laughed gently. His speech and mannerisms were usually so adult; the bright childish statement seemed comical.
"There's no reason why you couldn't go," said Erik. "I would have to remain behind of course; I am needed at the building site as long as the fine weather continues… Goodness knows the summers in this wretched country are too short. Damnable though the weather is at the moment, at least my masons can work without fear of a deluge any moment."
"Oh, could we Mama? Please?" Begged Nicholas.
"Oh yes, Tilly, wouldn't it be lovely to feel the sea breeze on your face after stifling in the city for so long?" Alice chimed in.
Talitha laughed. "Are there two children in this house now?" She asked, smiling at Alice's eager face which, in spite of being flushed and damp, looked ten years younger at the prospect of a seaside vacation.
"And Mary could help me find seashells! I think there's a book in the library about shells!" Nicholas darted out of the kitchen.
Alice chuckled. "What say you, child?" She asked, turning to Mary. "A week by the seaside? Mary?"
Caught staring into space, Mary shook her head as if to clear it. "I think…" she murmured. "I think I should prefer to stay in London. Richard would miss me…"
"It's become rather serious with your Richard, hasn't it?" Talitha teased gently. "Perhaps he might ask your hand in marriage!"
"Perhaps," said Mary, smiling demurely.
Upon return from their holiday, Talitha opened the front door of the house and dragged her suitcase in with a grunt.
"We should hire a butler," she muttered, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear and wiping her damp sweaty forehead with a handkerchief. Nicholas darted past her and shot up the stairs like a monkey.
Alice appeared dragging another two suitcases. "Phew," she exclaimed. "It's too hot for such exertions! Where is the Master when we need him? Would you like an iced drink, Tilly?"
"Yes, thank you Alice," said Talitha, looking around, distracted. "Hello?" She called. "Anyone home? Erik? Mary?"
"Mama, where's Sacha?" Asked Nicholas, appearing at the top of the stairs.
"I don't know, child, perhaps he's with Papa," she called back. "Wherever Papa is…" she muttered under her breath.
Shaking her head, she joined Alice in the kitchen. The older woman was stalking around, sniffing suspiciously, and Talitha became aware of a foul stench also.
"My, but that's an evil odour!" Alice exclaimed. "I don't believe it's coming from my kitchen, though…" she opened the door to the basement staircase and drew back, holding a dishcloth over her mouth and nose. "Good Lord in Heaven!" She cried, her voice muffled by the cloth. "What manner of alchemy is your wretched husband cooking up down there? It smells as though something died!"
"Erik!" Talitha called, her own handkerchief pressed to her nose. "Are you down there? Is it safe?"
Silence. Then… a shuffle. And a moan.
"Alice, the lantern," Talitha commanded. The older woman lit the small bulls-eye lantern, a souvenir from the theatre, and handed it to her mistress.
"Careful, Tilly, you've no idea what might be down there!"
Holding the lamp aloft, Talitha hurried down the stone steps. The smell thickened the further she descended and she pinched her nose shut entirely and began breathing through her mouth. The basement, usually lit by any number of lamps and candles, was in complete darkness, broken only by the feeble light emanating from the emergency lantern.
Picking her way carefully across the cluttered and uneven floor, Talitha shone the beam onto Erik's workbench, his shelves crammed with incomprehensible objects, the pipe organ he'd installed against one wall. Insofar as she was unfamiliar with many of the objects lit by the lamp, nothing seemed to be out of place. As she moved further into the basement, the smell became stronger, and she became aware of the somnolent buzzing of flies.
The lantern's beam crossed a bundle of grey rags in one corner, and she moved it back to look closely. With a horrified cry, she staggered forward onto one knee, stretching out her hand to touch the matted fur of Sacha's once-fine coat. Talitha wept as she ran her hand along the dog's spine, wincing as she encountered the place where her gracefully arching neck had been broken. The whippet must have been dead for days, but who could have done such a thing?
Behind her, Talitha heard the shuffling noise again, followed by another low moan. She spun around, directing the lantern's beam onto the far wall, and gasped. Her horror at finding her beloved pet rotting with her neck broken was nothing compared with the blind terror she experienced now.
Naked, half propped against the wall, his wrists bound cruelly with ropes and held above his head – tied to the exposed timber struts, was Erik. He moaned again, barely conscious, and his feet jerked spasmodically in seizure. The lower half of his body was coated in dirt and his own filth, and there was a dried crust of foam on his chin.
"Alice!" Talitha shrieked at the top of her lungs. "Come quickly and help me! But don't let Nicholas down here!" Sinking to her knees beside her husband, she stroked his filthy cheek. "I'm here, my love, I'm back!" She murmured, testing the knots with her fingers. It was no good; the rope would have to be cut. "Where is Mary? Did they hurt her, too? Who did this to you?"
Erik stirred and opened his eye. It rolled in his head and tried to focus on her.
"Mary," he rasped. "Mary did this to me." And he lapsed into unconsciousness once more.
# # #
With great difficulty, Alice and Mary carried Erik's unconscious form up the stone steps to the kitchen. While Alice ushered Nicholas to a kind neighbour and ran to fetch the doctor, Talitha set water to heating over the kitchen fireplace and wrapped Erik in some old blankets to keep him warm. She sat on the kitchen floor with his head in her lap and encouraged him to swallow sips of warmed water. The first few sips he choked on and vomited back up; however, once his shrunken stomach had finished its little tantrum, it allowed him to keep the fluid down. His dirty skin was dry and stretched across his bones and his already slender frame had become skinny in the week he'd been deprived of food and water.
The water was quite warm, and Talitha was gently bathing her husband with a soft cloth when Alice arrived, panting and sweating, with the very doctor who had delivered Nicholas five years previous.
Talitha ignored the man's unpleasant manner as best she could and gave him the little information she had. The doctor listened to Erik's heart and lungs, examined his now clean skin and the contusions and ligature marks on his wrists, but was unable to question the still semi-conscious man. He nodded with approval as Talitha coaxed another mouthful of water down his throat and advised she continue to hydrate him in this manner as, apart from being severely dehydrated and malnourished, and a little bruised, Erik was in no serious danger. His almost superhuman constitution and strength had kept him alive where lesser mortals would have perished, crucified as he was against the basement wall.
After a cheerful description of the nature of death by crucifixion, the doctor simply told them to let him rest and regain his strength, feed him clear fluids for a few days then gradually increase his intake to include soft, bland foods: "those fit for an infant, eh what!" He promised to call on them in a few days to check his progress. He made no mention of Erik's curious deformity and indeed did not even seem to notice.
Later that evening, having wrestled a still semi-conscious Erik up the stairs to the bedchamber and settled him beneath clean sheets and blankets, Alice fetched Nicholas from the neighbouring house and Talitha allowed him to sit with his father before putting him to bed.
"Is Papa going to die?" He asked, his eyes large and alarmed.
"No, my darling," said Talitha, smoothing his hair. "Papa is ill, he hasn't had anything to eat or drink for a while, but he will get better, you mustn't worry."
Talitha closed her eyes, fighting back tears. The whippet's broken body had been brought up from the basement and interred in a shallow grave in the garden.
"Sacha… Sacha is in Heaven, child," she told him. Nicholas's bottom lip trembled, then his small face crumbled. Talitha took her son in her arms and rocked him as he keened his grief. At length his sobs quietened and she realized that he'd fallen into an exhausted sleep in her arms. It had been a long day, a long hot journey home ending with a confusing visit with the neighbours and whispered conversations between the adults. Now his father was ill in bed, that all-powerful Angel of strength and music who'd never suffered a day of sickness in Nicholas's living memory, and his loving and faithful companion was cold in the ground. It was little wonder the child had escaped into dreams.
Talitha carried Nicholas to the nursery and tucked him into bed. The child barely stirred. Stopping briefly to check on Erik, she made her way downstairs to consult with Alice.
"Tell me again what he said."
"He said 'Mary… Mary did this to me'," Talitha told her. "But how could she? She's barely half his size and has perhaps a tenth of his strength, how on earth could she have overpowered him? And why? Did she murder poor Sacha as well? I cannot believe it of her; she suckled my son as though he were her own!"
"It doesn't make a great deal of sense," agreed Alice. "But she always was a little strange, that girl, singing and carrying on. We shall just have to wait until the Master regains his senses."
"Yes," said Talitha, and she sighed, suddenly overcome with her own exhaustion. "I think I shall retire and leave the unpacking until tomorrow. No doubt I'll be up in the night tending to Erik and who knows what nightmares will wake poor Nicholas…"
"Yes, off to bed with ye, go on!" Alice insisted, making little shooing gestures with her hands.
# # #
Talitha drifted off to sleep, reassured by Erik's deep even breathing, only to be woken by a shout and a commotion in the bed next to her.
"Mary!" He rasped, his voice cracking as it exerted itself to a scream. "You mustn't! No Mary! No..." He sat up in bed gasping and staring around him, his blue eye wide and terrified.
"Erik! Darling, you are safe! She is not here! You are safe!" Talitha assured him, stroking his cheek and staying his flailing hands.
"Talitha!" He gasped, seeing her for the first time in the bed next to him and touching her face as though to affirm it was really her.
"I'm here; I'll never go away again, that I promise you!"
"Never," Erik muttered, burying his face in her breast like a frightened child. "Never leave me again."
"Never," she promised, stroking his bare skin which was almost golden in the lamplight. "Here, drink this," she insisted, holding a cup of water to his lips. "Careful, not too much!" She admonished as he grasped the cup with both hands and sucked at the water greedily.
With a groan, he doubled over, clutching himself.
"You see, you'll make yourself sick," scolded Talitha. "Your stomach…"
"Not my stomach," Erik groaned. "My… I need to… help me…" He struggled to release himself from the bedclothes.
Understanding his need at last, Talitha hurried around the bed to help him sit on the edge, and brought the chamber pot. Erik groaned again as he emptied his bladder and Talitha winced at the strong smell. Helping him to lie down again, she took the chamber pot downstairs to empty it into the sluice. As she tipped the contents out, she paused and looked closely. The urine, which she knew should be a dark yellow considering his dehydrated state, was a dark orangey-pink, with threads of opaque pale yellow.
"That is not right," she murmured to herself as she rinsed the pot under the water pump and returned to the house.
Erik was still awake when she re-entered the bedchamber. His cheeks were flushed and his eye feverish.
"Talitha," he said. "I am ill."
"Of course you are, the doctor says you are severely dehydrated and…"
"The doctor is a fool," he cut in. "I need herbs from my study. Tinctures. You must help me…"
"I'll fetch whatever you need…"
"You won't know where to look, you must help me get down there," Erik insisted.
"You cannot!" Cried Talitha. "You can barely stand, never mind going back down to the basement!"
"I must," he said. "In my weakened condition, I could die unless I arrest the infection immediately."
Talitha swallowed, her eyes terrified. What on earth had Mary done to him? "I'll fetch Alice…"
"I cannot support you down two flights of steps on my own, and the racket we'll make will wake her in any case!" She told him. "I'll help you to dress and fetch Alice."
"Yes," he murmured, realizing his folly. "Yes. Do that."
# # #
"Must be out of your mind, M'lord," Alice muttered under her breath, one arm around Erik's waist and the other supporting herself against the banister. "Traipsing about the house in the middle of the night when you should be resting yerself in yer sick bed." Alice's vernacular dropped into street slang in her irritation.
Down in the basement once more, the stench of Sacha's departed corpse still lingering, Alice and Talitha set about lighting the lamps and candles, as many as they could find to dispel the darkness. They lit smoldering piles of herbs in clay dishes as well, herbs Erik called incense to erase the smell and replace it with a sweet, smoky scent.
Erik rested on his gilt and scarlet velvet chair, which had been moved from one sub-basement to another, scratching on a piece of parchment with his quill and muttering under his breath. When he was at last satisfied, he imposed upon the women to help him stagger along the shelves, selecting ingredients. He rooted through drawers and trunks and soon a number of strangely proportioned glass bottles were collected on the bench. Lighting a small paraffin burner, he implored to women to return to the kitchen. Alice complied and removed herself. Talitha demurred and refused to leave his side, and he resigned himself to an audience while he worked.
Talitha watched as he mixed and heated ingredients, allowing them to cool before adding to the potion further. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead and she insisted he drink more water.
As the sun began to rise, unbeknownst to those in the basement, Erik finished the potion, poured it into a clean glass bottle and plugged the bottle with a cork stopper. He nodded wearily to Talitha, and she helped him back to bed.
# # #
For the next week, three times a day Erik called for the glass bottle and the silver spoon usually reserved for opium and dosed himself with the potion he'd created. His fever rose alarmingly at first and Talitha spent two sleepless nights by his side cooling his brow and fevered chest with a damp cloth, tipping water down his throat when he woke and fretting while he slept fitfully. As the sun rose on the third morning, Erik's fever broke in a torrent of sweat and he sank into a deep and peaceful sleep. Talitha, exhausted with dark rings shadowing her eyes, fell asleep next to him.
Later that afternoon when they both awoke, Talitha held the chamber pot for Erik once again and his urine, while strong smelling was clear and yellow in colour. He examined it and nodded in a satisfied manner.
"Much better," he murmured.
"If you say so, M'lord," Alice remarked, taking the chamber pot with a grimace of distaste.
"My wife can take care of…"
"Your wife can take care of herself for once; all she's done in the last two days is take care of you!" Alice retorted.
"She's right, my dear," said Erik, turning to Talitha. "Draw yourself a bath and take some nourishment, I shall not shuffle off this mortal coil while your back is turned, I swear it!"
Talitha frowned but did as she was bid, washing herself quickly in barely warmed water and dressing in a clean shift and light summer gown. She drank the bowl of soup Alice set in front of her without tasting it and drained a tea-cup before heading back to the bed-chamber. There, she found Erik sitting up in bed wearing a clean nightshirt deep in discussion with Nicholas. In the boy's small hands was the silver compass which ordinarily lived on the carved bureau.
Talitha leaned against the door frame and smiled fondly as she watched her "men" together. Nicholas's small hands and long slender fingers were a perfect miniature of Erik's, likewise their mouths. The tilt of their heads as they bent over the little contraption was identical and the complicated language they were using was far above Talitha's head. It didn't matter to her, anymore than it mattered that the boy's handwriting already surpassed hers in form and beauty. As long as he was happy, and his intelligence nurtured and moulded appropriately, she would be satisfied.
Later that evening once Nicholas had been put to bed, Talitha lay quietly in the circle of Erik's arms, gently caressing the small amount of skin exposed by the open collar of his nightshirt with the tips of her fingers. He trembled and drew her closer, kissing the top of her head.
"Is it gone now? The infection, I mean?" She asked him.
"The worst is over," he said. "I will continue to take the mixture for a few days yet to ensure the last of it is scourged from my body."
"What was wrong, do you know? The doctor didn't seem to think…"
"I told you, that doctor is a fool." Erik snorted. "He would not have known without examining my… er, waterworks, shall we say! The infection was deep inside, in the bladder which holds the urine before it is expelled. Had I left it without treatment, or called that ignorant saw-bones and taken one of his useless preparations, the infection would have continued upwards to the next organs in line from the bladder – called the kidneys. Once there, it would have been well-nigh impossible to shift and I'd have died, painfully, within a week."
Talitha shuddered. She could hardly bear to think of it.
"And your… er, waterworks? Will they function normally, once you are well? Or will there be permanent damage?" She asked.
Erik smiled indulgently, deciphering her real question, although a shadow crossed his eye when he thought about it.
"No, there will be no permanent damage. Everything, waterworks and the rest, will function normally."
"And the infection – is it something you could pass on… to me," she swallowed as she framed the rest of the question. "When we make love, I mean?"
"No, my dear," he assured her. "I will make certain the infection is entirely gone before I allow that to happen."
Talitha nodded against his chest and continued to caress him gently. These questions had all been important, information that she'd needed to know, but she hesitated before asking her next question. She wasn't certain she wanted to know the answer, yet she knew she needed it, however painful it would be.
"Is the infection something to do with…Mary? With what she did to you?" She asked finally.
Erik closed his eye. He had known this question would come eventually, that he would have to tell his wife what had happened in the basement.
"You'd best call Alice in here, she needs to hear this as well and I do not wish to repeat myself," he said at length. "She is that wretched girl's mother for all intents and purposes."
When Alice was seated comfortably in a chair next to the bed, and Talitha settled beside him, Erik began his story:
"The day you left for the seaside, that evening, I was working alone in the basement. Mary, who had never set foot on a single stone step before that night, came down to tell me she was going out to see her beau, that boy from down the road who has been courting her…"
"Richard," Alice interrupted.
"Richard, yes. She was going walking with Richard; it was a lovely evening, very balmy, honeysuckle flowering out in the lane, some such rubbish. She brought me a goblet of spiced wine, and I was absurdly touched by the gesture, thinking she was finally making an effort to get along with me.
"I think now she must have laced the wine with my opium and thank goodness she erred on the side of caution, the silly girl! Too much and I'd have fallen asleep and never woken up. As it was I fell asleep almost immediately – I hadn't eaten since breakfast of course…"
Here Alice tut tutted him. He raised an eyebrow at her, and she motioned for him to continue.
"When I woke I found myself in the condition which you found me, my dear." Here he took Talitha's hand and kissed it gently. "The girl had removed my clothes and bound my wrists, fastening me to the wall. While I was unconscious my mask and wig must have come askew, for I was still wearing them, but they were quite crooked on my head.
"I don't know how long I'd been asleep, most of the candles were still burning but some had burned rather low; others had gone out. It was probably close to the middle of the night when I heard footsteps on the stairs. And then she appeared…" Erik trailed off and closed his eye. He swallowed once and continued:
"She was dressed in such a way… I have never seen such costuming, not even at the Opera Populaire when the chorus girls were made to dress as strumpets! It was obscene, not the least bit alluring, just obscene to see the girl who had wet-nursed my son dressed as though she were a concubine bent upon becoming the favourite of the harem!
"She jeered at me, strutting about before me flaunting her naked legs and her breasts pushed up so they spilled above her bodice and all the while I lay there naked on the dirty floor! The things she said, my love, I shall not repeat them. Oh my dear, but she was jealous of you! Of the happiness you had found with me, of the love we shared! The venom she spat from her painted mouth, I shall not repeat it!" He said again.
"I had no idea," Talitha whispered, her face pale.
"I suspected," Alice mused, and they both turned to look at her. "Oh, I never would have thought her capable of such a thing as you're describing, M'lord, but I knew she wished she could find some Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, and wondered what secret allure you had, Tilly, that she did not."
"Yes, she mentioned that," Erik said. "'What does she have that I don't?' She snarled a number of times. I tried to reason with her, to plead with her, I even tried to use that peculiar power of my voice to cajole her to let me up. She was unmoved. And then… oh God, and then…" he trailed off, closing his eye again.
"And then, she went down on her hands and knees and began crawling toward me. She put her hands on my body, her painted mouth too. Stroking and clawing with her fingernails, licking and sucking. She kissed my mouth but I clamped it shut, refusing to respond. But, oh God Talitha forgive me, my body, my wretched man's body betrayed me. She fondled and licked and sucked that part of me which is not ruled by my mind, that is only ruled by its own hedonistic desires and she laughed and mocked me. 'So you do want me, I always knew it!' she sneered.
"And then she climbed on top of me, she put me inside her and she… she…"
"She raped you," Alice finished for him gently.
He nodded. Talitha held his hands as he trembled. A single tear escaped his closed eye and trickled down his cheek.
"My darling, please understand I begged her to stop. I could have kicked out at her; I didn't want to hurt her I only wanted her to stop! A man's body is not his own! A man's body…" he trailed off, the tears flowing freely now. He shuddered violently and sobbed into his hands, which he had freed from Talitha's hold.
"I understand," Talitha whispered, holding him and stroking his misshapen head. "Alice is right, what she did to you was nothing short of rape. Unable to entice you into her bed, unable to overpower you, she drugged you and tied you like an animal, and she raped you."
She continued to hold and rock him as he sobbed out his shame and humiliation, stroking his head, crooning his name gently, suppressing the fury for the girl she'd considered a friend and sister, who had betrayed her in the worst possible way.
At length Erik regained his composure, mopping his damp face with one of Talitha's handkerchiefs and apologizing for his outburst.
"Don't be ridiculous you silly man!" Exclaimed Alice, not unkindly. "Should that wretched child ever show her face in this house again, she'll have me to answer to, so she will!"
Erik nodded and continued his story:
"When she had satisfied herself, she climbed off and went away, but she was back before long and she used me again. And again. I lost count of the number of times. I became sore, and a couple of times I experienced what I can only describe as a… a joyless… rubbery spasm, for it could hardly be called a pleasurable climax, there was no pleasure for me, only for her. But she took that as further proof of my desire for her.
"At some stage Sacha came down to the basement, looking for me. She sniffed at me and whined and licked my face, but of course she could not untie my bindings. She came back and tried to drive Sacha away, but the pup snarled at her and snapped her teeth. So she took a candlestick and used it to… to beat her…" his lip trembled again and another tear slipped down his cheek. "I heard her neck snap. I don't believe she felt much pain…"
Talitha's face crumpled at that and she wept for the poor defenseless creature whose only wish had been to protect her master.
"There was a light of madness in her eyes by then. I do not believe she was in complete control of her faculties. I no longer knew what to believe.
"She did not fear me, though. Oh no, she did not fear this face," Erik pointed to the distortions which marred the entire right side of his skull. "If anything my deformity inflamed her further. Her tongue… her wet little tongue on my blind eye, in the place where my right ear should be…" he grimaced with distaste.
"I became thirsty and I begged her for water, begged her to untie me. She only laughed and refused. She went away again – she must have been sleeping. Many hours later she returned, dressed in traveling clothes. I believe she intended to drug me again and untie me, but there was a knock at the door. She ran up the steps and I heard voices, hers and a man's…"
"Richard?" Alice asked.
"I'm not sure, but it must have been. I heard the door close, then silence. I lay there, alone except for poor Sacha's lifeless body. I knew you were coming home, but I had no idea what day it was, never mind how long I would have to wait. I was hungry, devilishly thirsty and my mind simply shut down. The next thing I remember was waking up in this bed."
# # #
When Erik was at last asleep, Talitha and Alice convened in the kitchen over a pot of strong tea.
"Tomorrow morning I shall call on Richard's parents and enquire as to his whereabouts. Perhaps they can shed some light on this mystery," said Alice.
"We should contact the police," said Talitha, stirring her tea listlessly. "She killed the dog, she held Erik hostage and for all intents and purposes she left him to die!" Her voice rose hysterically.
"No, dear, I don't think you should do that."
"Why ever not? She must be held accountable for her actions…"
"Do you want to make him tell that story to a member of the constabulary? They would laugh in his face and tell him he enjoyed it! The poor man's been humiliated enough, don't put him through that!" Alice admonished her.
Talitha sighed. "You are right, of course," she said. Then: "what if she comes back?" Her eyes darted to the kitchen door as though she were expecting Mary to appear that very minute.
"No," said Alice firmly. "No, I think she got what she wanted."
Talitha looked at the older woman sharply, certain that she'd said one thing and meant another thing entirely. "All the same, we should review our security precautions. I do not fancy the little trollop skulking around the house of a night time… we shall have the locks changed for a start!"
"Yes, M'Lady, we shall do that also, but in the meantime you should return to your husband and get some sleep. God knows you probably need it!"
And so they had the locks changed and Erik called for parchment and his quill and ink. Much to Alice's indignation, he began splattering drops of ink all over the bedclothes while he muttered to himself and designed a system which would warn them should a prowler come to call in the dead of night.
At the same time, Alice consulted with Richard's parents who believed their son to be studying in Paris and had no knowledge whatsoever of his relationship with Mary. And Alice was disinclined to tell them anything lest they begin making their own enquiries and perhaps decide to involve the police. In addition, Richard's parents, while wealthy, were shallow-minded folk and didn't look as though they would cope with a scandal of the magnitude Mary had brought into their son's life. If, indeed, she was with him.
The doctor, true to his word, called in to check on Erik a few days later. He cheerfully proclaimed Erik to be in the best of health (if a little undernourished), boorishly encouraged Alice to "feed him up, woman, for goodness sake" and departed with a purse heavy with coin for his trouble. Erik instructed Alice on no uncertain terms that she was never to engage the doctor's services again as it was only a matter of time before the incompetent imbecile's misdiagnoses killed somebody. He was beginning to believe Talitha's survival during Nicholas's traumatic birth was nothing short of a miracle.
Seemingly unaffected by the assault in the basement, Erik returned to his work at the building site and in his study cum workshop. Indeed Mary's underhanded attack may well have not happened.
Talitha, however, knew the truth. Erik was unafraid to enter the scene of his humiliation, but in the bedchamber he reverted to the shy chaste being he'd abandoned upon mastering his control. The mental walls were back in place, and this time they were built not from his fear of hurting his lover, but fear of the act itself.
As before, Talitha hid her frustrations and tried to be patient with him. She held him tenderly through the night, and was even permitted to caress his face, his hands and his chest. But should her hands wander below his navel the excuses began. First, it was too soon after the infection cleared, he was not confident she would remain unaffected. Then he was terribly tired, another night he suddenly needed to finish some work in the basement, and yet another time he claimed, of all things, a headache, although certainly he didn't become physically ill or call for the opium.
The music did not seem to help either, as he would stiffen and draw away from her if she attempted the employ the same technique as before.
No, the music did not appear to be the answer this time, and Talitha despaired. Until…
# # #
Sewing in the drawing room one afternoon, Talitha became aware of a commotion coming from the other end of the house. Wondering what ungodly mischief Nicholas was up to this time, she set aside her work and headed in the direction of the noise. Not the dining room, nor the kitchen, although the kitchen was closer. The din seemed to be coming from the basement.
With a cry of horror, Talitha lifted her skirts and ran down the steps to find not Nicholas, but Erik storming around the subterranean room, knocking down candlesticks and throwing papers about and roaring in a furious tantrum she hadn't seen the likes of in years.
"Erik!" She cried, and he turned on her, his blue eye blazing.
"I cannot do this anymore!" He thundered. "That poisonous harpy has destroyed my mind! Destroyed my music, I cannot create anything beautiful because wherever I turn I see her stalking around in her tart's uniform, ready to use me again and again!" Tears poured down his face as he screamed out his rage and humiliation.
"Why? Why I ask you, why did she do it? Why, Talitha?"
Her own eyes blurred with tears as she staggered over the wreckage of his study to throw her arms around him as he sank to the floor, sobbing. She held him, her tears mingling with his as they grieved for the loss of their idyllic existence.
With his head still buried in his hands, Talitha leaned against him, her face pressed to his back as she stared blankly ahead. In her direct line of sight, a scrap of sheet music and beyond it, the pipe organ. Carefully, she rose and began gathering the blank sheets, empty of anything other than staves waiting only to be filled with musical notes. She placed them on the stand of the organ and located a fresh bottle of ink and an unbroken quill.
Silently, Erik watched her and rose, exhausted and meek when she held out her hand.
"Come," she said. "You must lance this boil and release the poison. If you cannot compose anything beautiful because she has destroyed your mind and your music, then you must pour the poison out and compose something ugly, something suited to your dark state of mind. Because we cannot go on like this, my love. You must remove the disease that girl infected you with. Remove it with music."
"Remove it with music," he echoed, gliding toward the pipe organ as if in a dream. "Yes. Lance the boil. Release the poison. Yes…"
Trembling, Talitha returned to the kitchen and closed the basement door behind her.
Chapter 8 – Autumn 1892
The two things that changed their lives happened at once:
Erik emerged from the basement, his wig disheveled and his mask missing entirely, his eyes alight with the fever of composition but no longer haunted by the abuse he'd suffered at the hands of his son's nursemaid.
A knock at the door heralded an unusual visitor. Alice ushered the woman into the drawing room and hurried to the kitchen, ostensibly to make a cup of tea. She was whispering with Talitha when Erik made his appearance. The older woman eyed him shrewdly.
"You'd best come into the drawing room too, M'Lord." She told him. "It concerns the girl."
Erik nodded briskly and returned to the basement to retrieve his mask. When he entered the drawing room to join the women, his tie was perfectly knotted, his hair smooth and tied with a ribbon and his mask firmly in place. The visitor eyed him nervously.
"Start again, Molly," Alice coaxed. "Do not be afraid."
"As… as I was sayin' ter yer lady 'ere," the woman Molly stammered, stealing glances at Erik rather than looking directly at him. "It's Mary. She's dyin', so she is! I never saw a dolly-bird look so ill!"
"Where is she now?" Asked Erik.
"Alice's old squat," replied Molly. "The doctor said there weren't nothin' he could do fer her."
Erik raised a questioning eyebrow at Alice, who nodded.
"Aye," she whispered. "T'would be the same doctor."
"We must make arrangements for the girl to be transferred to hospital immediately," Erik said firmly.
# # #
"Erik!" Mary croaked, struggling to sit up in the hospital bed. "Tilly! Thank God, thank you God, my prayers have been answered!"
"Hush, dear, you mustn't talk!" Insisted the nurse. "You must save your strength."
"I am dying; nothing can stop that now…" Mary broke off, coughing. The nurse helped her to sit up, adding pillows behind her back to prop her up. "Thank you, Sister. You have been very kind. I…" she coughed again, a fine red mist of blood speckling the white sheets. "I must make my final confession." She finished in a whisper.
"Should I fetch the priest, dear?"
"No," whispered Mary. With trembling hands, she reached for the glass of water beside her bed. The nurse helped her to take a sip. "No need for a priest, my Confessors are right here." She indicated Erik and Talitha.
"Thank you, Sister," Erik said, opening the door. "Perhaps you could excuse us?"
"Of… of course… Sir." The nurse stammered. The curious charm of Erik's voice and the odd porcelain mask covering half his face moved the nursing sister to leave her charge in a way nothing else could have.
"Tilly," whispered Mary, holding out her hand. Overwhelmed with pity, Talitha took it, shocked by the skeletal feel beneath the papery-dry skin. "I'm so sorry, Tilly. Talitha. My sister…"
"Shhh, Mary, you mustn't…"
"I must!" Cried Mary. A flush rose in her cheek giving the impression of health, and her eyes shone with fever. "I must! We are sisters, we two. Not by blood, but by milk. I knew it the moment I laid eyes on you, Tilly. Alice knows. Alice can tell you…"
"I don't understand…"
"You were wet-nursed, her name was Bessie. Elizabeth. My mother. She left you to give birth to me, and then she died but not before she nursed me. We fed at the same breast, Tilly. We are sisters!"
Tears flowed down Talitha's cheeks. "I had no idea…" she whispered.
"You were always so strong, dear Tilly. So strong and beautiful, it shames me to admit how I envied you. You had everything, I had nothing. You had Erik, I had many faceless men. You had Nicholas, I lost Elizabeth. All those years… all those years and all those men and not one of them looked at me the way Erik looked at you!
"My mind," she went on, her eyes becoming glazed. "My mind… is twisted. All those years, all those men… my mind. It broke." She gazed into the middle distance. "It broke entirely when I lost my precious baby girl. It could have been made whole if she'd lived, but it broke… my heart broke and so did my mind…"
Talitha shot a look of alarm at Erik who shook his head slightly and gestured that she turn back to Mary.
Mary's eyes refocused, staring at Erik now.
"Erik," she murmured. She turned back to Talitha. "Tilly. I should have left; I should have removed myself from your life. That day… that day, the first time I saw Erik without his mask, I was shocked, you know that…"
Talitha nodded, and Erik winced.
"But I was shocked… shocked by the intense… physical… attraction. My mind was broken, and my body… my body tried to repair it. The longer I stayed, the worse it got, my twisted mind… I began to believe that if I could conceive a baby, Erik's baby, everything would be alright again."
Mary stopped there. She reached for the water glass again and Talitha held it for her. Mary coughed and choked on the water but managed to swallow a little of it. The colour was draining from her face and the light was leaving her eyes again. She doesn't have much time, Talitha thought.
"Thank you," Mary whispered. She focused her cornflower eyes on Erik's pale face. "Erik," she whispered. "I am so sorry. I did to you what countless men have done to me. I used you in the worst way imaginable and you did not deserve it. Nobody does.
"Tilly," she went on, turning to Talitha. "I tried to claim for myself what rightly belongs to you. I am no sister to you.
"I beg… for your forgiveness…" Mary's eyes had become unfocused again, the colour in her cheeks had faded, the shine in her eyes had risen for the last time. "Perhaps… if you forgive me… I can be with my precious baby again… my Elizabeth… and my mother…" her words slurred. The light left her eyes.
"She's gone," Erik whispered. Tears coursed down his cheek. "Pitiful creature of darkness, what kind of life have you known?" He murmured. Gently he reached out and closed Mary's eyes for the last time, holding down the lids for a moment. With infinite tenderness, he lifted each of her skeletal hands, kissed each of them in turn and folded them onto her shrunken chest. "I forgive you," he whispered.
At Mary's graveside, Erik produced his violin and began to play.
Talitha recognized the haunting melody – it was music he had composed during his dark time in the basement. The smoking spike of pipe-organ music which had lanced the boil and scourged the poison Mary had inflicted on their lives, slowed down and played on the violin became a fitting Requiem for the poor pitiful creature who had finally escaped from the twisted life she'd been born into and would, with the Grace of God, be reunited with her mother, and her precious baby girl.
Three generations who had never stood a chance.
# # #
Silence reigned over the household, for an entire week no music was played and when there was a need to speak, it was spoken in whispers.
On the seventh day Erik rose early while the rest of the household slept and walked the quiet London streets. He stopped once to leave a single white rose on a new headstone in the cemetery.
When he returned home, the household was still sleeping.
Removing his mask and wig before it could be done for him, he woke his wife with these words whispered in her ear:
"My love, do you still have those marvelous French undergarments?"