Lalage Fenster thanked the footman who admitted her to the house, and asked for lemonade to be brought to her in the small parlour.
Nuttenford House was hot and stuffy in the torrid summer weather, and deserted by the rest of the family: the Earl and Countess at Monks Garrowby hosting a house-party, Louisa paying a visit to Bess Ferraby, Eddy in Herefordshire with his mother and Sir Charles, and Geoff – Geoff upon a walking-tour with philosophers. She envied the orphans whose conveyance to the seaside for a few restorative weeks in the sanitive sea airs she had just been supervising. They had provided an entirely legitimate excuse for not accompanying Em to Maraston Towers.
A footman brought the chilled lemonade.
She sipped it and sighed. It was doubtless wrong of her, but she was becoming most exceedingly weary of observing Em’s enthusiasms for other young women. At present she had been lured to Maraston Towers by her current favourite, the Duke’s second daughter Lady Mary Dallistet; though, Lalage reminded herself, Em’s friendship for the current Duchess, Lady Mary’s stepmother, had surely played some part.
It would have been a deal less irksome had Em manifested similar besotted feelings towards men: for then she could have entirely given up any hope. But that Em continued to chase after young women entirely indifferent to her, oblivious that there was a heart that yearned to her and would have returned the passion she spilt like precious ointment at those feet: oh, it was quite exquisitely painful.
There was a sound of someone being admitted at the front door, feet running along the corridor, and Lady Emily burst into the small parlour.
O, Lalage, she cried, I am so glad you are returned and here, falling to her knees beside Lalage’s chair and resting her head upon her knee. O, that wretch. 'Twas entirely a plot to advance her dreary brother’s suit yet again, to lure me to Maraston Towers so that he could make me a declaration.
'Twould be an excellent match, said Lalage, stroking Em’s hair as she began to sob.
(But really, it was unfortunate that Em’s most eligible suitors were among the most tedious prospects currently hanging out for wives; not that she showed any inclination, either, to the penniless but besotted Lieutenant Horrocks, or any disposition to run off with a groom.)
Em continued to weep, as Lalage continued to stroke her hair and the back of her neck in a soothing fashion.
Why are women such beasts? sobbed Em.
Perchance, Lalage said after a pause, they are the wrong women. She was most greatly tempted to remark that there were ladies known to them who manifested the finest mutual devotion; but she feared to expose her own feelings did she do so. Had Em even noticed those examples among their circles?
Oh! cried Em, looking up, might it be so?
Lalage looked at her. She could not prevent her face from softening.
Em continued to look at her. Oh, Lalage, she went on, you are so very good to me and I am a tiresome creature that gets into these takings -
And leant forward and kissed her.
O, breathed Em very soft, leaning in to kiss her again and more fervently.
She could not resist responding to the kiss.
O, Lalage, murmured Em, drawing back a little, why did I not see what was before my eyes?
Somehow, she was now sitting in Lalage’s lap, kissing her, stroking her hair, whispering endearments.
And Lalage could not resist reciprocating. But after a while, finding herself kissing Em’s neck, she drew back and said, dear Em, you are entirely over-set, between the injury to your feelings and the wearisomeness of the journey. You should go wash and change, rest a little.
Em scanned her face. But, she began.
Dear Em, said Lalage, let us not rush headlong – may be but a moment’s excess of feeling –
Em looked for a moment as if she might contest this. Then rose from Lalage’s knee and pushed her hands through her hair. I am a sad creature for rushing headlong into matters, she said with a little quirk of her lips. I will go do as you bid.
Lalage sat pondering, her hands idle, for some considerable while, until Moffat, that acted as lady’s maid to both of them and for such requirements in that sphere as Louisa had, came into the room.
Her Ladyship, she said, is entire done-up; goes sleep a little. I go ask the kitchens to put up a light supper on a tray for her does she wake and feel hungry.
'Tis well, said Lalage. 'Tis a tedious great journey from Maraston Towers, particularly in such weather. While you are in the kitchen you might ask them to make up a like tray for myself – I will sup here.
The next morn she was at her desk wrestling with the orphanage accounts, and finding her mind sadly distracted by the memory of Em’s embrace. No sign yet of Em the morn, but perchance she was still asleep, or having a breakfast took her in bed.
Lalage shook herself. She was doing no good with the accounts, but what else might she do?
There were footsteps outside the door and Em came in, dressed in her riding habit and looking as if she had just come from a ride in the Park.
She hesitated for a moment on the threshold, then squared her shoulders, crossed the room, and came to kiss her cousin.
Em perched upon the arm of the chair and said, Quite the greatest good fortune – Lalage made a small noise of query – indeed, one would not anticipate her to be at home during this season, but I thought I would just see, and even was she not there, her people might know when she might be, or where she was – but for some reason, she was in Town for a few days, and was about her breakfast –
Em, what have you been at, going troubling people?
But 'tis Lady Bexbury! cried Em, that is entire the fairy godmother to our family.
Lalage swallowed. There had, indeed, been disclosures she had made to that ever-sympathetic ear…
So I told her what a fool I had been, not noticing what was before me, but that I had come to a realization concerning you, and she gave a little smile and said, About time, and laughed a little.
And so she poured me coffee, and desired me to help myself to some breakfast, and said, she hoped I did not go toy with your affections –
Lalage raised a hand to her burning cheek.
- and she will go come have tea with us this afternoon.
But sure she brought me to a better understanding.
I am glad to hear it, said Lalage. 'Tis quite the beginning of wisdom.
O! cried Em in delight, you go teaze me. I am a foolish creature, I know, and do not deserve your affection.
Lalage looked up at her affectionately. Kissing goes by favour, and not by desert, she said, and you are my dearest Em.
Oh, am I? Truly? She slipped down from the chair-arm into Lalage’s lap.
But when she had spoke to Lady Bexbury about mutual devotion 'twixt women, she had not even imagined this pleasure of bodies close to together, of Em’s kisses upon her lips arousing sensations she had never experienced from the few chaste pecks Mr Derringe had given her during the course of their engagement.