by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by beili
The blood was splattered all over the floor, great gobs of it. It looked fresh, as if someone had been butchered but a few minutes ago and his or her poor carcass hauled into the lodgings, dripping fluids in a trail like grisly breadcrumbs. The red was still bright enough to affront the eyes of any civilized lady, which Mrs. Hazel Hill of 65 Guthers Road no longer considered herself to be, but it was the principle of the matter. No London woman should have to return home to find the remnants of a lurid massacre on her doorstep, not without giving her spirits bottle a very suspicious look.
“Mrs. Glaive!” she called out.
There was, as expected, no response. The eminent Glaive would hardly dignify her poor landlady with such a gift.
Mrs. Hill had no choice but to trudge up the stairs, steadfastly ignoring the congealing pools of blood. A good thing it was that she had worn solid boots today. They were her husband’s old boots. Dear old Alfred with his small feet!
“Mrs. Glaive!” Mrs. Hill bellowed again, once she had reached the landing and had stepped into the sitting room that was the whale belly of the lodgings the two of them shared. From the sitting room there were the little doors to their respective bedrooms, as well as a cramped but clean kitchen where she immediately headed, tucking away the basket of bread and salted fish she had bargained heartily for down on Winchester Street — and in the rain no less! Her own hair, which was nearly as bright red as the blood on the stairs, stuck to her face in damp circles. She chuckled to herself. Glaive could tell the entire history of Mrs. Hill’s day by something as small as a stain on her fingers, but one did not need to be a private detective to surmise the weather today.
“Isn’t that right, Mrs. Glaive?” she called out, growing cheerier when she saw there was very little blood on the sitting room floor. Some, certainly, but the majority of it pooled inside a copper tub, which housed a dead pig. Mrs. Hill, being a practical sort, started minding less and less. A mess on the steps was one thing, but here, to an enterprising mind, was supper for the next week.
Mrs. Ernestine Glaive unfolded herself from the depths of her armchair. Her eyes had followed Mrs. Hill’s entrance, but her face was as grim and solemn as always, unwavering in its nun-like dedication to silence and contemplation. She resembled a nun in other respects, dressed all in stern black, which only made more noticeable the red smears on her long, thin fingers. “I remember your disagreements the last time I performed this particular experiment,” she said simply.
“Yes!” Mrs. Hill retorted, still rummaging through the kitchen. “Blood on the bedsheets is quite — quite inappropriate. Unless, of course, one is a recently deflowered virgin.” She laughed. Glaive did not.
“Oh, come,” Mrs. Hill said, moving to the sitting room. “We are both women of certain age and experience. I have a grown son, and he didn’t pop out between my pure, innocent thighs, let me tell you that.’
“Vulgarity is the dreck of a simple mind,” Glaive said.
“Oi, this simple mind was going to cook you supper,” Mrs. Hill said, “but now I may have to change that mind, what with it being so simple and all.”
“Unlikely,” Glaive said slowly. “Seeing as how I pay you for food as well as board, and you value compassion too greatly to allow me to starve.” She gestured at the pig. “I thought you might use it after I was done.”
“It’s hard work, breaking down a pig,” Mrs. Hill agreed, “but wouldn’t you know, I’ve been longing for some potted heid. You can’t get good potted heid in the city, I would imagine.” She thought dreamily of her childhood home in the hills of Scotland. Long gone, of course, what with her poor ma and pa dead in the ground and her eight siblings scattered to the various corners of the empire. But the cheese! Her hands already itched to recreate that old recipe.
Glaive would never possess the urge. Glaive was the city’s foremost female consulting detective, a fact that even Scotland Yard grudgingly admitted. Glaive considered herself to be the foremost consultive detective entirely, woman or not, but even Mrs. Hill — whose domain was the kitchen and the market and backgammon games with other widows down the street — could see the difficulty there. Glaive was cold and calculating and could smell a criminal from ten paces away, but she was not in possession of that most useful of detecting equipment: a cock.
Mrs. Hill made herself comfortable in the armchair opposite her boarder’s. She shook out her mop of wet hair and put up her feet, sighing happily. “So, what is the pig for?”
Glaive pressed her fingers together as if testing the stickiness of pig innard. “A monograph that I plan to submit to the Royal Society, should they prove hospitable enough to accept a piece of experimental procedure from the likes of me,” she said, and not for the first time Mrs. Hill admired the cadence of Glaive’s speech, so slow and certain. She imagined it was how Oxford dons and them people in fancy universities spoke — she had tumbled a professor once, when she was younger, a dear skinny thing who had spoken just like that in between his furious blushes. To hear it from another woman was a delight.
“They’ll accept it, if they’ve got any sort of head on their shoulders,” Mrs. Hill said reassuringly. “By the by, it’s good to see you hard at work again, not mucking about miserably because there’s nothing to do.”
“I do not ‘muck about,'” Glaive said harshly.
“Mope? Skulk? Break my best china in fits of boredom?”
“You make me sound like a thug, Mrs. Hill,” Glaive said. Mrs. Hill resisted the urge to lean over and pat the poor, affronted lady’s knee. Glaive would likely not appreciate it; she did not like being touched, not even in the easy affection Mrs. Hill carried with her everywhere.
“No, my dear, you are the one who catches the thugs,” Mrs. Hill said. “Now let’s clean this pig up and have some tea.”
A pig and two more unlike women had never shared such a space together. Even to look at them side by side was to observe a most unusual tableau: Ernestine Glaive tall, dark and bat-like, and Hazel Hill, short, round, and with hair like strawberry jelly. Glaive, who seemed to choose her every word carefully, lest they reveal her innermost thoughts, and Mrs. Hill, who stopped on the street to chat to urchins and beggars alike. Glaive, who only went by ‘Mrs.’ to lend herself an air of respectability, and Mrs. Hill, who had scrambled out of more men’s beds than she could remember and had no respectability to speak of, but at least had claim of the title legitimately, what with marrying Alfred Hill some twenty-odd years ago. Glaive seemed to have never actually approached a man at all, not unless she could prevent otherwise.
They had met on the account of a peppermint humbug. That was: on a crowded street on a warm July afternoon, Mrs. Hill had purchased and was relishing, with wholly public joy, a peppermint humbug. She had licked its sweetness off her fingers long after the humbug was greedily consumed. So entranced was she by this rare luxury that she did not take heed of the thief who had grabbed her coin purse.
When she saw him running off with her money, there was only one course of action: to catch the damn devil and make him pay! Hence Mrs. Hill had run off after him, shouting and waving her arms, but she would be the first to confess a lack of any athleticism outside of making men tremble against her hips. She had watched in frustration as the thief increased the distance between them, when all of a sudden, whoosh! A lady in the crowd stuck out her leg and sent the thief flying.
There had ensued a brief, fascinating struggle in which the thief got up, ran straight again into the lady’s leg, and then the lady’s arms, which grabbed him by the collar and shook him down. Ernestine Glaive had practiced arcane oriental fighting arts, and she had the reach of a particularly insistent stork. After the whole matter was over, and the thief had run away in horror of her, she dropped the coin purse in Mrs. Hill’s palm.
“You must be more careful,” she had said.
“Oh!” Mrs. Hill had cried in appreciation. “Oh! Look at you! Like a Robin Hood!” Which had not pleased Glaive at all, being the sort of sentimental declaration she detested the most, but Glaive was no match for the brute force of Mrs. Hill’s gratitude. After that day, Mrs. Hill was keenly aware of Glaive’s presence in her neighbourhood, stopping her on the street whenever their paths should cross, inviting her in for tea. When Glaive was finally ejected from her landlord’s domain on cause of her professional experiments, it was Mrs. Hill who cleverly mentioned that she had a spare bedroom that was no longer being used now that her son had run off to join the navy.
Mrs. Hill did not like living alone, and she was very glad for Glaive’s looming presence, even if it meant odd visitors in the middle of the night and putrid chemical smells masking the scent of Mrs. Hill’s freshly baked scones. Life was too short, and full of too many nasty, brutish ways to die. Better spend it at least with interesting people.
A prime example: Glaive on her hands and knees in the sitting room with a piece of chalk, drawing square patterns straight onto the wooden floorboards.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Hill asked curiously, yawning. It was still only just dawn, too early for anyone except for fishermen and obsessive private detectives.
“The Glory of Sappho,” Glaive said.
“Hmm? Who’s this Sappho fellow and why does he have glory?” Mrs. Hill scratched her neck and thought about porridge.
“Incorrect on your very first assumption,” Glaive replied, rising up to her haunches. “Sappho was a woman in Ancient Greece. She resided on the isle of Lesbos where she ran a school for girls. She was a poet also, which has all the need of glory.”
“I thought you hated poets. All that romantic rubbish, you said. All form with no substance, and poor form too.” Mrs. Hill beamed. “Me, I quite like a pretty word or two. Helps if it’s spoken by a pretty mouth.”
“Yes, we are all familiar with your weakness to the opposite sex,” Glaive said, her mouth growing tight. Mrs. Hill gave her a lusty wink, and Glaive looked even more disapproving. “With regard to the Glory of Sappho, however, we are speaking of a set of jewels owned by Anacosta Jamison, the Duchess of Longfield. They were stolen from her residence three days ago, and have caused quite a furor among high society. The duchess is hysterical with grief over her loss.”
“I suppose you’ve taken this on as a case then?”
“An associate of the duchess approached me yesterday evening, while you were out. He offered a handsome sum for the return of the jewels.” Glaive hesitated. “It would be more than enough to secure my portion of the rent.”
“Oh my darling,” Mrs. Hill said softly, “you needn’t worry about rent.”
Glaive’s shoulders stiffened as she bent back down to resume her etchings. “I am far from a beggar,” she said under her breath. “I may be a woman in a field unfriendly to those of my sex, but you will see that I earn my keep.”
Mrs. Hill perched on the edge of an armrest and watched her work. “All right then,” she said at last. “Tell me what’s this for.”
“The thief scaled the walls of the Mayfair residence,” Glaive responded straightaways. “There are scuff marks on the wall where they climbed. I visited the scene and was able to see the marks for myself, and now I am recreating them on this floor, which is a large enough medium to give me an accurate sense of proportion.” Mrs. Hill nodded, no longer surprised at all that Glaive could recreate what she had seen only once — her memory was prodigious.
“Any clues in the scuff marks?” Mrs. Hill asked. There were times in which Glaive did not want questions, but more often than not, she seemed to tolerate them — welcome them, even, but she would never admit such a weakness.
“Yes,” Glaive said, tracing her finger amongst the chalk. “Look at this, the rhythm of the marks, so to speak. See how it first starts here, and then goes here? It is absolutely apparent that whoever scaled this wall to the second story window was left-handed.”
“That helps some,” Mrs. Hill observed. “But how are you going to find your left-handed thief in all of London?”
“It is the Glory of Sappho,” Glaive replied succinctly. “Reported to be carved from a set of jewels from the very household of Sappho herself. In some circles it is also known as the Glory of Women.” She raised her eyes and met Mrs. Hill’s squarely, with great intensity. They were bright green, those eyes, and remarkable. “Therefore our inquiries must logically begin at one certain place.”
Glaive did not further elucidate what that one perfect place was, but such was typical in their household. Mrs. Hill merrily chose to make herself useful, inviting in the stream of visitors who paid Glaive a visit the next few days. As they only had the sitting room and no study, Glaive received them in her armchair like a schoolmarm. Mrs. Hill half expected her to produce a yardstick and start slapping recalcitrant folk about.
“Are you certain that is what you saw?” she said to a fidgety young man in dirt-stained trousers who Mrs. Hill wanted to take under her wing and mother. “Can you be absolutely certain? The human mind plays its tricks.”
“Did it smell of phosphorus or of sulfur? Tell me quickly!”
It seemed to Mrs. Hill that her lodger, although glass-sharp in her skills of logic and precision, did not fully understand the vagaries that were other human beings. With her tools and her studies, she was careful. With people, she was clumsy.
“You must be kinder and gentler with them,” she tutted while pouring Glaive some warm Irish Breakfast.
Glaive accepted the cup. “The world is neither kind nor gentle. Am I somehow to be better than the world?” Her thin lips touched the cup’s rim. Mrs. Hill watched her, and then it seemed she was watching her for too long, as Glaive frowned. “What is it? Speak.”
“Speak?” Mrs. Hill said. “I can speak of many things. Should I tell you about little Christopher down the street and his missing cat? Or how about the orange marmalade I bought that tastes so divine?” She rustled her skirts and grinned. “I know you like orange marmalade.”
“I have no opinion on the matter of orange marmalade,” Glaive said. “I must focus my attentions on the Glory of Sappho.”
“Yes, yes,” Mrs. Hill said briskly. “Carry on.”
And then there was the Woman. At least, that was what Mrs. Hill thought of her, for she knew not the woman’s name. She only knew that the Woman, when she entered the humble walls of 45 Guthers Road, seemed to make it alight, filling its nooks and crannies with her feminine presence. Like Diana out with her hounds, or Hera come down from Olympus. Like a woman posing on a daguerreotype carried in a soldier’s pockets — Britannia herself. She noticed that Glaive received the Woman with keener attention than she had yet extended any of her previous visitors.
Mrs. Hill was made quite alarmed. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the Woman take a seat in what was Mrs. Hill’s armchair — strange how with the others, she had not minded. But this Woman, slender and elegantly dressed with glossy blonde hair and a creamy complexion — Mrs. Hill worried that somehow she would contaminate the chair, introduce it to a new world after which it would never be satisfied housing Mrs. Hill’s large old bottom anymore.
“Tea?” Glaive asked the Woman, who smiled like a Madonna.
“Yes please, if you don’t mind.”
“Why would I mind? It is a basic courtesy,” Glaive replied. She prepared to pour out the tea, but then stopped. “This is not the right sort at all. Mrs. Hill!”
Mrs. Hill stepped out. “Yes, my dear?”
“Can you go down to the market and buy some strong black tea?” Glaive said. “Here, I will give you my own money. Kindly do not overspend it.”
Mrs. Hill stared in faint outrage. The Woman seemed to sense her malcontent, for she smiled sympathetically and then shrugged. What could any of them do in the face of Glaive? “I — I, if you must,” Mrs. Hill said.
“Thank you,” Glaive said, turning back to the Woman.
Mrs. Hill did not hide her displeasure. She made sure her footsteps were recklessly loud as she jammed on her hat, tucked the coins into her skirts, and marched down the stairs out into the — yes, once again, it was raining.
When she returned to Guthers Road, tea clutched in her fist like a round of bullets, she ran into the Woman. “Oh!” the Woman said, adjusting her no doubt very expensive hat that was soon to be ruined in the rain. Then Mrs. Hill noticed that she was carrying an umbrella, and that there was a hansom cab pulled by the curb. “I do hope you aren’t too soaked,” the Woman said kindly.
Mrs. Hill bristled. Then she sighed. “That Glaive. Runs me about like a servant sometimes.”
“She does seem to be lacking in certain niceties,” the Woman agreed. She twisted her head around, as if to make sure Glaive was not lurking at the top of the steps to confront them. “But is she not dangerously, deliciously sharp? I would fear to hide anything from her. I am glad I came to her for help, and I am sorry that I missed the tea.”
Mrs. Hill lost the edge of her anger — she could never dislike people for long. Such a soft, sweet young lady! A princess! “Come back anytime,” she said. “I have marmalade.”
She bid the Woman farewell. Upstairs, she found Glaive lost in contemplation while cleaning her revolvers. “Planning on shooting someone soon, are you?” Mrs. Hill said. “A certain thief?” A thought struck her. “You don’t think that woman is the thief, do you? I fear I didn’t like the looks of her at first, but now she seems a sweetheart.”
“A sweetheart,” Glaive mused. “Well, perhaps. She has invited us to a country manor party next week. Her aunt is the hostess.”
“A country manor party!” Mrs. Hill savored each word, so foreign were they to her. “She has invited both of us?”
“Well, what for?”
“I helped her resolve an issue of an unwanted suitor,” Glaive replied. She did not look happy. Issues involving suitors were beneath her, but they also paid well, and Mrs. Hill often informed her a million times over that a woman alone in the world had to do what she could. “In any case, there is to be a party held by her Aunt Dorothea in Wessex, and we are to come, the both of us. You might say that we could not attend without each other.”
“Why is that?” Mrs. Hill laughed. “Do they need an even number of place settings?”
“Nothing so mundane,” Glaive said. She reassembled her revolvers with a determined click. “They need us to be lovers.”
Mrs. Hill’s belly ached. At Glaive’s pronouncement, she had laughed until her sides felt fit to burst. Then she had seen the expression on Glaive’s immobile face and had fallen silent for several long moments.
“Truly?” she had asked at last, suprised to the very bones.
“It is for justice,” Glaive had responded. “Surely even you do not wish to see a jewel thief run free?”
“I don’t care much one way or another,” Mrs. Hill had said. “Jewels thieves aren’t as bad as murderers, and murderers aren’t as bad as those silly drunks who keep singing at the top of their lungs in the middle of the night — but if this is important to you, then lovers we shall be.” By now she felt quite amused. Sapphic lovers! This was not a situation she had ever managed to catch Glaive in, and she thought it might prove entertaining. Glaive barely unbent long enough to lean over for a biscuit, never mind in an intimate situation.
They were therefore packing their valises for the Wessex party. Mrs. Hill went through her sturdy dresses and hats to find what might be appropriately frivolous for a country party. There was a blue dress she had not worn in a very long time, not since her son Harry was a young boy. Although having slipped out of her own mother’s womb as round as an owl’s eye, Mrs. Hill had been slightly smaller then. She eyed the blue dress, and then spent several moments struggling to fit into it, nearly wishing for a corset — but that was nonsense. What sort of woman who had anything sensible to do in life owned a corset?
“Glaive!” she called out. “Will you come and help me into this damned thing?”
Glaive entered her bedroom warily, a book in her hand. “That dress is not nearly large enough for you,” she said, setting the book down.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Hill said. “I never noticed. Now be a good lady and help me tuck my rolls inside.” She stood still as Glaive circled behind her, and then sighed in pleasure as Glaive’s fingers began to nimbly manipulate the buttons, which some tailor sod had placed at the back, of all places. “Why would he do that?” Mrs. Hill murmured, and she felt the puff of Glaive’s response against the nape of her neck.
“For women who can afford handmaids, of course,” she said. “I am hard pressed to think of why you own a frock like this. Except the answer is obvious. This dress was purchased for you by someone else as a gift. A man, yes? One of your many suitors.” She fastened the top button. “Or no, not a suitor. From the age of this dress and the particular time period in which it was in fashion, it your husband who purchased it for you.”
“Dear old Alfred,” Mrs. Hill said fondly. “Never understood a thing about women’s clothing unless he was wearing it himself.”
“According to the current mechanisms of the post and the weather off the shore of the country, his latest letter will arrive sometime in the middle of next week,” Glaive said. She stepped back around and folded her arms, examining her handiwork.
“While we’re gone, you mean?” Mrs. Hill said. “Ah well. I’ll read it when I get back.”
Mrs. Hill was not a woman of particular mystery, save on the matter of her dead husband, who had not died so much as he had run off to the Indies with his male paramour. She had helped arrange it. Alfred’s tale was that he was a lavender boy who had grown into a lavender man. His fondness and talent for female mimicry led him to performing in obscure, dank theatres where men of his persuasion gathered and watched Alfred sing and dance in a pair of stockings.
Mrs. Hill would accompany him sometimes, never minding when Alfred disappeared with one of the patrons at the end of the night. It was why she had married him: because Alfred was so dear, and so safe. A government clerk by day, he had been the only man willing to marry her when she came out of Scotland already pregnant, having tumbled a handsome blacksmith. Said blacksmith had not delivered on his promise of marriage, but Alfred did, pretending Harry was his own child. He had set aside his desire to leave England to provide a good name for Hazel and her child, and when Harry was grown, it was Mrs. Hill who had touched Alfred’s hand across the breakfast table one morning and had said, “My dear, go.”
Everybody else was under the impression that Alfred had passed, and Mrs. Hill thought she had done a rather impressive job of creating that illusion — even Glaive could not fault her cleverness. The real Alfred wrote her letters under the guise of a distant cousin George, and sent her and Harry as much of his earnings as he could.
Mrs. Hill smiled in remembrance and tugged at her hair. She sucked in her belly as much as she could. “It’ll have to do,” she said. “Pray the buttons hold.”
“Bring additional buttons, in case,” Glaive advised. “Also, there is a rip at the hem of the skirts.”
“For easy reach upwards,” Mrs. Hill said. Glaive faltered, so Mrs. Hill patted her on the arm. “Sapphic lovers, my darling. Sapphic lovers.”
“You need not fear any molestation from me, madam,” Glaive said stiffly. She bit down on her lip briefly. “You are quite free from that danger.”
“What a shame,” Mrs. Hill said. “How will we be convincing then? Surrounded by all those pretty, eager ladies. I would very much like to see you play the coquette.”
“When I was five years old, I could put together my father’s rifle and disassemble it with my eyes closed,” Glaive replied coolly.
“Ah, good with your hands then,” Mrs. Hill said, and Glaive sputtered.
Aunt Dorothea’s country house in Wessex was a very fine thing, Mrs. Hill thought when she first glimpsed it coming round the bend. A very fine thing indeed!
“Look at how many windows there are!” she breathed as their coach jostled them up and down the gravel road. “How hard do you think it is to keep them clean?”
“The employ of several servants,” Glaive said. She looked green at the gills from the roughness of the ride. Glaive had never done well with moving vehicles; Mrs. Hill was only glad they had never sailed on a ship together. Glaive would handle it most monstrously.
“Here,” Mrs. Hill said, “my handkerchief.”
“I have one of my own,” Glaive said.
“Take mine anyway,” Mrs. Hill said. “Better two handkerchiefs than one if you need to spoil them.” She stuffed hers into Glaive’s hand, and Glaive groaned as the coach rocked one more time before grinding to a stop in front of the manor. “Gentle hop down!” Mrs. Hill cried cheerfully, lumbering out. Glaive followed her slowly and gingerly, clutching both handkerchiefs in her fist.
Mrs. Hill knocked on the great doors with vigor, gulping in the clean country air. It was so different from London — it was almost like being in green old Scotland again. Meanwhile, Glaive gathered her composure, tucking a wayward strand of hair back into her hat — which was nearly as out of fashion as Mrs. Hill’s dress. The pair she and Glaive made, Mrs. Hill thought. The rigid detective and her bumbling landlady. This would be a grand adventure, no two doubts about that.
The door opened, and a Valkyrie stepped out. What was in the country waters, Mrs. Hill wondered, to produce a woman like this, as well the Woman they had met in London? This was clearly Aunt Dorothea, as she shared similar features with her ravishing niece, though the aunt was much taller and wider, more Wagneresque. Aunt Dorothea’s bosom heaved underneath her tailored partridge dress and Mrs. Hill’s own generous bosom sighed in jealousy.
“Dorothea Thorpe, at your service,” Aunt Dorothea said in a pleasing baritone.
“You mean, Dorothea Thorpe, Countess Wiley,” Glaive corrected.
“Simply Dorothea, or Lady Dorothea if you must,” was the response. “In London I am Countess Wiley, indeed, but this is hardly London. You must be Mrs. Ernestine Glaive.” She peered at Mrs. Hill. “And Mrs. Hazel Hill — yes. My niece told me a great deal about the two of you. It is a delight to finally make your acquaintance.”
“We’re charmed,” Mrs. Hill announced. “Never met a countess myself. And what a grand old house!”
“My late husband was very proud of it,” Lady Dorothea said. “He was a fanatic for these wide open fields, which he would take to with his hunting hounds.”
“My late husband was fond of doggies too,” Mrs. Hill informed her, winking. “Oof!” she added, as Glaive elbowed her roughly.
“We are tired from our journey,” Glaive said. “Please show us to our rooms.”
“You can’t speak to a countess like that!” Mrs. Hill whispered as Lady Dorothea called for a footman to fetch their bags. “It isn’t proper! She isn’t one of your criminals, is she?”
“No, she is not on my list of consideration,” Glaive murmured in return. “However—”
“Would you like me to place your bags here?” the footman asked politely.
“Yes, yes,” Glaive said dismissively, in that moment it dawned on Mrs. Hill that Glaive herself had been born into genteel wealth. It was not always apparent in London, where they had no help and Glaive was as likely to wear worn slippers with holes as she was to smear pig’s blood over the floor — but now it seemed as clear as a finely cut diamond. Then again, it should have always been apparent. How many lowborn women were so educated? Glaive must have had a very permissive, indulgent father.
“As I was saying,” Glaive continued. Mrs. Hill drew her thoughts back to her companion. The footman bowed and left, and Glaive sat down on the edge of the bed. Only one bed, Mrs. Hill noticed. “—the Countess Wiley is not on my list of suspects. Several factors prevent her from being a viable jewel thief. No, my attentions are on her niece, Miss Jane Thorpe, and another young woman who will be making an appearance at this party, a Miss Lydia Allgood.”
“Gently bred young women becoming jewel thieves,” Mrs. Hill said sadly. “What is this world coming to?”
“Greed,” Glaive replied shortly. “Avarice.” She cast her eye on the cotton bedsheets. “Love,” she added, as if the very word was a toad on her tongue.
“Speaking of, this Sappho was quite the scoundrel, eh?”
“Awed by her splendor / stars near the lovely / moon cover their own / bright faces,” Glaive said. There was a catch in her voice, unusual enough for a woman who could speak of grisly death and outrageous revenge schemes in nothing less than a perfect monotone. Mrs. Hill looked at her with hooked-and-caught interest, but Glaive was already moving away to unpack her valise.
“That’s lovely,” Mrs. Hill said honestly. “She wrote that then?”
“Yes,” Glaive replied. Then her head jerked up as footsteps sounded down the hall. “Come, give me a kiss — quick!” She dragged a squawking Mrs. Hill to her side and pressed her lips to Mrs. Hill’s cheek just as Lady Dorothea poked her head around the corner.
Mrs. Hill, were she given to this fantastical endeavors, would have imagined Glaive’s lips against her cheek to be cool and fishy. They were not.
“Ah,” Glaive said when she pulled away. Her eyelashes performed the most remarkable piece of acrobatics — they fluttered.
Mrs. Hill swayed where she stood, out of deep shock.
“I apologize for the interruption,” Lady Dorothea said at the door. She was eyeing the two of them inscrutably. Surely it was not shock. By all accounts, this was a gathering for a certain type of woman to be free from the preying eyes of husbands, brothers, and sons. Lady Dorothea could hardly be ignorant of the theme of her own party. She did not seem soft in the head or criminally insane, hence the flicker in her eye could not be shock. What it was, Mrs. Hill could not say.
Glaive put her hand on Mrs. Hill’s arm, and Mrs. Hill, for the first time in a respectably long life, did not say anything at all. She looked up at Glaive, whose pale specter face bore what appeared to be a flush of all things. A stone rolled in Mrs. Hill’s plentiful stomach.
God help us, she thought.
“If you are not otherwise preoccupied,” Lady Dorothea added, while Glaive tightened her hand on Mrs. Hill, sliding her fingers to grasp Mrs. Hill’s elbow. Mrs. Hill blinked and stepped closer to Glaive, to maintain appearances. This seemed to satisfy Glaive, for she relaxed her serpentine grip and spoke directly to Lady Dorothea.
“We are not occupied,” she said. “How may we help you?”
“The other guests are gathering downstairs in the salon, to enjoy refreshments and share idle conversation,” Lady Dorothea said. “Though many of us know each other from years past, the two of you are fresh faces. This will be vastly invigorating.” She smiled, and Mrs. Hill saw what a beauty she must have been in her youth. The countess would not fail to secure attention even now, but as a girl she must have been quite, quite bothered by excessive suitors.
“The salon is downstairs past the piano room. Jenkins will be in the main hall, should you need further directions,” Lady Dorothea said. “I shall meet you there.” She nodded and took her leave, her shoes sinking into the lush carpet, leaving Mrs. Hill to stare at Glaive, who abruptly released her arm.
“I did not know your eyelashes could do that,” Mrs. Hill spoke at last.
“What are you on about?” Glaive asked. She tucked in a strand of hair that was never out of place to begin with. “My eyelashes have done what they always do – and now we must go and make merry with perfect strangers, one of whom is a feckless criminal mastermind. Are you prepared?”
Her familiar tone enlivened Mrs. Hill’s spirits. “I live with you, do I not?” she said, and Glaive almost, nearly smiled. Mrs. Hill was the one who took her arm this time, and with military precision that her son would have been proud of, marched Glaive to the salon where the other ladies were waiting.
What ladies they were too! Mrs. Hill felt like she had stepped into ones of Mr. Anderson’s fairy tales – was there some sort of divine rule that if a woman was to abjure all men in favour of her own sex, such a sacrifice would be compensated by terrible, generous beauty? Mrs. Hill had not seen so many lovely women together since the last time she had visited her younger sisters, and that, perhaps, owed more to personal opinion than any God-like rule of law. These ladies, however, would pass muster in any court; they were alternatively tall or short, sweet-eyed or cunning-nosed, dark of hair or with locks as yellow as cow’s butter. There was a fascinating range of them, like candies in an expensive box, and Mrs. Hill glanced down at her own blue dress, which seemed plainer than ever before.
“Well,” she said aloud. Glaive ignored her. “Well!” she said again. “We are the poor country mice, are we not? Even if we are from the city.”
But Glaive had already moved on.
“Oi!” Mrs. Hill said, following her. “What’s got you in a tizzy?”
It was the Woman, naturally. Or Jane Thorpe, as was likely a more polite way to address her in public. She was standing by the mantel in a green muslin dress, deep in conversation with a tall, athletic-looking auburn-haired lady with freckles across her nose. Both Miss Thorpe and the freckled lady stopped when they saw Glaive approach. “You arrived safely!” Miss Thorpe cried sweetly. She embraced Glaive, and to Mrs. Hill’s second nasty shock of the day, Glaive returned it, and there was nary a sign of grimace.
The world was no longer a familiar place, Mrs. Hill marveled. It was as if eggs fell from the sky and the Thames were full of pudding.
“It is wonderful to see you too, Mrs. Hill,” Miss Thorpe said, turning to her. She shook Mrs. Hill’s hand – no handshake for the landlady, apparently! Though Mrs. Hill could forgive her. She did not know Miss Thorpe nearly as well as Glaive, from what she could see.
“This is Miss Lydia Allgood,” Miss Thorpe went on to say, smiling at her freckled friend. Of course, Mrs. Hill thought. Here were their two suspected jewel thieves together, side by side. How completely convenient. But of course, in a country manor party for Sapphists, one must put inside one’s natural incredulity. Even more so when Glaive gave Miss Allgood a small smile and bent over her hand like a gentleman. It was both astonishing and not astonishing at all, for Mrs. Hill had seen Glaive dress as a gentleman to solve some of her cases. She could manage the effect nicely when she made an effort, for Glaive’s chest was not large and she was bony like an underfed sailor.
Neither Miss Thorpe nor Miss Allgood were regarding Glaive the way one might an underfed sailor, though. No, Mrs. Hill realized. Lady Dorothea had been completely accurate – Glaive was intriguing new blood to them. There were two additional thoughts to go along with this realization: the first was that Mrs. Hill felt more than a little slighted. She was no beauty herself, but plenty of men had found her ample curves and cheerful smile a boon to their weary souls. The second thought was that if these ladies’ tastes did not run towards stout and strong, then clearly their tastes ran towards tall and willowy, a condition Glaive did fulfill.
Mrs. Hill snuck a better look. Glaive was conversing gently with Misses Thorpe and Allgood by now and was paying her no mind. It was an utter failure as a devoted Sapphic lover to Mrs. Hill, but a convenient ploy for Mrs. Hill to better examine her lodger. Glaive’s nose was too long and her jaw too stern, and must she always insist on dressing like an undertaker? But she was … striking. The way Medea must have been striking in that story Glaive told her once, Medea in her dark fury.
“You must love reading,” Miss Allgood was saying when Mrs. Hill shook herself back to watchfulness.
“I read when I have time,” Glaive responded. “Lately I have been absorbed in Goethe. Have you read him?”
“Not yet,” Miss Allgood replied sadly. “I have heard of him, though. German writer, judging by his name?”
“Yes, quite German,” Glaive said. “I brought a copy of his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen with me. I would very happily lend it to you.”
“That would be wonderful, Mrs. Glaive,” Miss Allgood said.
“It is in the original German, I must warn you,” Glaive said. “If that is a problem, I am equally happy to translate passages for you. It would be a diverting task when we are not occupied with any of the other little entertainments Lady Dorothea plans to arrange for us.”
So this, Mrs. Hill thought, was how Glaive wooed. Books and Germans and tragedy. In their part of London, this would not fly at all. But then again, they were not anywhere near London at all – they might as well have been on the other side of the world.
After the salon, there was luncheon, and after luncheon there were darts. Mrs. Hill had always considered herself a dab hand at darts, but she was no match for the prowess of Miss Allgood, the lady who loved Gertie or whatever that German chap’s name was. Mrs. Hill put up a valiant struggle, and was only buoyed by the realization that Glaive, despite all her claim at skill with firearms, did not advance in the competition.
When she brought up the matter later that night, as they prepared for bed, Glaive looked at her flatly. “It was a ruse.”
“A ruse?” Mrs. Hill echoed. “You missed half the time, my good woman!”
“It does no good to remind these guests of my profession,” Glaive responded. She faced the vanity mirror and began undoing her hair. Mrs. Hill watched without word. “They realize that I am a private detective, but there is no point in emphasizing this fact, else they begin to suspect that we are here not for pleasure but on business.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mrs. Hill said. “Those dainties were plenty pleasurable.” She patted her stomach. “I wonder if I can get the recipe from the cook.”
“Even if you did, you would not have the materials to make them in your little London kitchen.”
“I know,” Mrs. Hill said. “But it does one good to dream.” She gestured airily. “Would you like me to pass you your brush? I see it over there on the table.”
“Yes,” Glaive said.
“Yes what?” Mrs. Hill coaxed.
“Yes, in the affirmative,” Glaive responded. Mrs. Hill was about to puff out her chest and give her a good talking-to on manners, but then Glaive turned slightly, and Mrs. Hill saw the faintest glimpse of humour in her eye.
“Why, this is unexpected,” Mrs. Hill said out loud, and the sheer absurdity of their situation caught up to her. She began to laugh. It started deep in her belly and traveled up through her entrails into her heart and her throat. Glaive’s mouth pulled upwards, magnetically, and Mrs. Hill said, without thinking, “You have lovely hair. So dark and thick. Do you know that even after years of living together, I have not seen it loose until now.”
“I do not like it loose,” Glaive replied, accepting the brush. She began tugging it through her hair with clockwork speed. “It seems intimate and wanton, neither of which are images I wish to project to the public.”
“Am I public then?” Mrs. Hill wanted to know.
Glaive’s efforts with the brush slowed. “No,” she admitted, and a queer warmth settled into Mrs. Hill’s chest where the laughter had been.
“What made you the way you are, my dear?” she asked. “There must have been something! Oh, don’t stop and glare at me like that. It is a perfectly normal question between friends. And we are friends. If you disagree, I will take the word and bludgeon you with it.”
Glaive’s mouth tilted upwards again, though she quickly did her best to hide it. “What is it you wish to know? Do you imagine I will tell you a sordid tale about a controlling father and a distant mother? Or perhaps I was kidnapped as a child and thus began my lifelong desire to put criminals behind bars?”
“Something like that,” Mrs. Hill agreed. She leaned back on the bed and waited.
“None of those things are true,” Glaive said, “so rein in your fanciful thoughts before they grow over-wild.”
“My fanciful thoughts,” Mrs. Hill retorted, “is why you like me so much. Imagine how boring your landlady could’ve been if she weren’t me.”
“Do I like you so much?” Glaive asked.
“Indeed you do,” Mrs. Hill stated. “I won’t brook any argument otherwise. Now come. Tell me one true thing about how you became the great and mysterious Mrs. Glaive.” As she spoke, she felt a strange, wild spirit settle into her, and she realized she was addressing Glaive the way she might a handsome soldier boy who looked twice in her direction. Mrs. Hill prided herself on an array of useful skills, from cooking to cleaning stubborn stains from laundry to playing the coquette. She had done the first two for Glaive, and now, it appeared, she was willing to do the latter.
But Glaive’s hair was indeed long and dark, Artemis-lovelier than Mrs. Hill had ever let herself imagine it being. That sort of hair made even a strong-boned woman a bit weak in the knees.
“I loved my father and my mother,” Glaive finally said. “We were gentry, well-off in our affairs when I was born, less so as I grew older. My older brother, you see, racked up gambling debts that my father struggled to pay off, because he loved him so much. My father could never say no.” She looked towards the mirror, perhaps seeing the history of her family in the curve of her lips, the slant of her cheekbones. “I had a younger sister too. In the end, when my father could no longer pay off my brother’s debts, she did.”
“What do you mean?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“She died many years ago, when I was still at boarding school,” Glaive said. “I received the letter and came home immediately, but she was gone. Still, I could feel her everywhere.” Her voice grew brittle. “I was a happy child. It will be difficult for you to imagine, but I was as cheery as any Jane or Susan. That day, I learned to put away my toys. That day, I was educated in wrath and grief. I set about righting my family’s wrongs. I was strong where the others were weak. I put away my girlish silliness and learned to stalk, to shoot, to think.”
“Where is your brother now?” Mrs. Hill asked gently.
“I do not yet know,” Glaive said. “He ran like a coward. One day I will hunt him down.”
“And you’ll have me to help you,” Mrs. Hill said firmly. “Don’t think you won’t. Two of my sisters died too, though not nearly in the same circumstances. Large family, many diseases — such is life! But such sweet babes they were.”
“I have never doubted the beauty and worth of women,” Glaive said, and they both sat in silence, thinking on that.
The bed they shared was as large as a forest. The sheets twisted between them like gnarled branches, and if Mrs. Hill thought, rather racily, that it might have led them towards each other, it was not to be. The bed was large and so was the space between their two bodies as they slept. When morning came and she yawned herself into wakefulness, Glaive had already departed. The bed was no longer even warm on her side.
For breakfast, there was a table laden with five sorts of tea, sausage, and crumpets. Mrs. Hill tucked in heartily. Glaive was not there either, clearly having moved on past the bodily needs of their Eve-born race, but Miss Thorpe was present, looking strangely weary, as if she had not slept well all night. It weighed down on her kittenish face.
“Sweetheart, you don’t look well,” Mrs. Hill said in concern.
Miss Thorpe lifted her head and smiled. “Sleeplessness, I am afraid. It comes and goes.”
“Have you seen a physician for that?” Mrs. Hill asked. “Or warm milk? It worked wonders for my son when he was a boy. A dab of warm milk and he was as limp as a snotrag.”
“Limp as a snotrag,” Miss Thorpe marveled. “Something for all of us to aspire to.” She smiled again, to take the sting out of her words. Mrs. Hill found herself beaming back. “There is no need for me to see a physician. It is merely a condition of my temperament, but I thank you, Mrs. Hill. You are much kinder than anyone I thought the steely Mrs. Glaive would have chosen to fall in love with.”
Mrs. Hill choked.
“Have I offended?” Miss Thorpe asked.
“No, no, ah,” Mrs. Hill said, fanning herself. “These are very good sausages, ha ha! I think I shall have some more!”
“Well,” Miss Thorpe added with a hint of mischief now to war with her weariness, “the two of you make a very sweet pair.”
“Jolly good,” Mrs. Hill said.
“However, I understand if it makes you uncomfortable to speak of it,” Miss Thorpe said. “Those of our persuasion must always take pains to be careful.” She sighed. “Do you ever wish, though, that we could be as bold as we like? As men do. Not men who share our predicament, of course, but men of public upstanding reputation, men who love as the world tells them to. I wish I was born a man.”
“It’s never occurred to me,” Mrs. Hill said. “I don’t think I should much like being a man. Too many dangling parts, like a tropical plant.”
Miss Thorpe trilled in laughter. It was the most remarkable sound, clearer than crickets. When they finished with their breakfast and joined the others as they dallied in the music room, Mrs. Hill said something that made Miss Thorpe giggle again. Glaive was there, in the music room, and the look on her face when she spied Miss Thorpe and her wonderful laughter — Mrs. Hill found herself not liking it, not one bit.
Glaive approached them without pause. “Miss Thorpe, I have heard you play the pianoforte with great skill. Would you entertain us with a melody?”
“I have but middling talent,” Miss Thorpe said.
“I have a fine ear, so I will be the judge of that,” Glaive said, and oh dear, her eyes were gleaming. Mrs. Hill knew of only two reasons for someone’s eyes to gleam like that: either a bee had flown right into it, and or they were swept up in the warm regard of attraction.
One must be fair, she scolded herself. If Glaive was of a Sapphic persuasion, she could do much worse than the lovely, sweet Miss Thorpe. And did Glaive not deserve joy like anyone else? She could not spend the rest of her life sitting in Mrs. Hill’s lodgings, ticking away like an automaton. Even Glaive must have… needs. Stirrings. Desires. And the sooner Mrs. Hill stopped thinking of these things, the better.
Glaive accompanied Miss Thorpe to the pianoforte. Miss Allgood, who had been in conversation with Lady Dorothea on a nearby settee, looked up the way a hound might when sensing blood. Her gaze tangled with Miss Thorpe’s for a brief second, before Miss Thorpe sat down on the pianoforte bench and put her fingers to the keys. Glaive stood by her, waiting with those strangely gleaming eyes.
The music was beautiful. Of course.
Mrs. Hill ate two biscuits and had no stomach for the third.
“I am reminded,” she said later in the noontime, when she finally had Glaive alone in a corridor, “that we are here to catch a thief.” She put her hands on her hips. “I hate to be the reasonable one, as it does not suit me, but you can’t go making eyes at poor Miss Thorpe all day. Didn’t you say? She might be our thief!”
“Lower your voice,” Glaive hissed.
“Shush, there is no one here,” Mrs. Hill replied, “and even if they were, they would have the good decency to ignore our lovers’ spat.” She glared at Glaive. “I am here to eat, drink, and make merry. I cannot spend my entire time worrying about where your head is! My own is enough to keep me busy, thank you very much.”
“By all means, continue in your hedonism,” Glaive said. “I cannot think of a single thing I have done to inconvenience you so.”
“Not a single thing? An indiscretion with a certain Miss Thorpe comes to mind! By God, the entire room could tell you wanted to announce your intentions!” Mrs. Hill glared one more time before feeling her resolve weakening. “If you are in love with her, I understand — I can’t fault your taste there. But I worry. It is not like you to be blatant. I do not like to see you so changed.”
She made to pull away, but Glaive surprised her by grabbing her elbow. “I am not changed.”
“Perhaps now you are seeing me, for the first time, as I truly am,” Glaive said.
“Then it is quite an education!” Mrs. Hill said, trying to imagine Glaive as a child and failing. She seemed like a soldier carved out of stone, born ready to leap into battle.
Glaive moved aside. “Did you pay keen attention to what I mentioned before?” she said as she started walking down the hall. Mrs. Hill scurried to keep up with her.
“No, what do you mean?” she asked.
“I said that the thief of the Glory of Sappho was left-handed.” Glaive paused and narrowed her eyes. “When Miss Thorpe was playing the pianoforte, did you happen to see which hand she favoured?”
“You use two hands to play the pianoforte,” Mrs. Hill said reasonably.
“Even so, an expert eye can tell which hand is the preferred!” Glaive said. “And later on, when she entertained us by harpsichord?”
Mrs. Hill was forced to confess that she could not recall.
“A fact that surprises no one,” Glaive muttered.
Mrs. Hill’s temper sparked. “Then what did you observe?” she asked. “Since you clearly know all the answers that my mealy brain does not!”
“Your brain is not mealy,” Glaive retorted. “It is capable of the same tasks that any other human mind is, only you choose to keep it closed, like a room with all its windows barred. The fact of the matter is, Miss Thorpe demonstrated preference for neither hand, and was fully capable of switching from her left to right with ease.”
“Then that is not helpful at all!” Mrs. Hill cried. She remembered to lower her voice, but it was far too late. Glaive shot a sharp glance down the hallway, and they were fortunate to see no one lurking about — well, Mrs. Hill was not an expert in detecting malevolent eavesdroppers, but no doubt the perfect Mrs. Glaive possessed such an ability, she thought moodily.
“On the contrary,” Glaive said. “It is eminently helpful. What sort of woman is equally adept with left and right hands? Do you think it is such a common talent? No, it must be cultivated. It must be learned. For what reason?” she mused.
“Thievery, obviously,” Mrs. Hill said. “Ah, but Miss Thorpe seems so sweet! If I had to guess a thief, I would guess Miss Allgood instead.”
“Why?” Glaive asked swiftly. “Tell me your deductions.”
“Deductions?” Mrs. Hill said. “I just mean that Miss Allgood seems rather sharper than Miss Thorpe. Reading all those German writers. Doesn’t seem quite so ladylike or innocent. A more cunning mind, as you might call it.” She folded her arms over her bosom. “Why are you looking at me like that? Speak plainly, my dear.”
“I would,” Glaive said, “but it seems to do me no good.” It was an enigmatic remark, and she did not elucidate. “Fondness for Goethe is hardly a sign of a criminal character. You will remember that I also read German.”
“And you’d make a dashed good criminal too, if you were not so obsessed with being just,” Mrs. Hill said. “The talent’s there even if the will is not.” She shrugged. “I’ve got nothing ill to say about Miss Allgood, from what little I know of her. But she is more like you than Miss Thorpe is, and that is something to keep an eye on.”
Glaive blinked. “Your reasoning lies entirely upon the foundation of whimsical character inferences. Of people you have only met a handful of times.”
“I’m a good judge of character,” Mrs. Hill replied stoutly. “Took you in, didn’t I? Even though you’re raving mad.”
“A fact that you remind me of constantly, as if I should be a grateful stray,” Glaive said. She adjusted her gloves, pulling them slightly off her fingers before sliding them back on. Mrs. Hill knew what this meant; it was Glaive’s habit when she was contemplative. “Do you think of me as your child?” Glaive asked abruptly.
Mrs. Hill reared backwards. “Where did you get that ridiculous idea? You are but a few years younger than me!”
“Yet you are a woman of a certain age and maternal temperament,” Glaive said. As Mrs. Hill continued to regard her in horror, Glaive made a humming noise under her breath. “I wondered, was all.” She paused and lifted her chin. “Do you hear that? They are calling us for croquet. Let us go then.”
“You as my child indeed! What nonsense,” Mrs. Hill said, joining Glaive down the last few lengths of the hallway. “As for croquet, don’t worry. I’ll watch which hand Miss Allgood favours. I’ll be her bloody shadow, just you wait.”
Generally speaking, Mrs. Hill considered herself a touch lucky. Her finding a good man to marry her, for instance, when she was nothing more than a pregnant stranger to him. That was the big windfall. But there were other smaller things too: how her jam never went bad, how dogs never bit her, how she found more shillings lying on the street than anybody she knew — if asked, Mrs. Hill would quite happily admit that she had as much luck as she ever needed in life.
Over the next few days, however, she seemed to misplace her luck as easily as she had misplaced her good stockings on their first night of arrival, leaving her to drift through Lady Dorothea’s manor with neither fortune nor respectable leg protection. Or, drifted was a touch too ethereal to describe what Mrs. Hill did, which was march promptly through every entertainment eager to help Glaive find more clues as to their jewel thief.
She found little. One would think it quite simple to catch Miss Allgood in the process of using her hands! It was hardly as if Miss Allgood had become an octopus with eight of them. Mrs. Hill should be fully capable of narrowing down which of the two she had greater skill in. But, shockingly, she could not decipher this basic fact, for Miss Allgood was in possession of the same ambidexterity as Miss Thorpe.
“How strange,” Mrs. Hill said grumpily. “How very strange!”
To worsen matters, Glaive began to ignore her. It was a slow, gradual process, so masterful that Mrs. Hill began by thinking Glaive merely had a cold and was doing the courteous thing by staying away from her. This was not to her liking, as they must needs keep the pretense of being lovers, which Glaive was, quite frankly, not very skilled at. The women at Lady Dorothea’s country party were a gently bred sort, not given to ripping each other’s dresses off mid-croquet game, but some passion was evident. Mrs. Hill could see the little glances some of the ladies gave each other, the tilting smiles when they thought no one was looking. Glaive, on the other hand, wore black every single day and complained about the tea.
She did not touch Mrs. Hill at all, not even to help pick her up the one time Mrs. Hill should trip over one of Lady Dorothea’s lapdogs. That made Mrs. Hill quite despondent indeed, and no small amounts of embarrassed. Why, to these ladies, she must seem like an utter fool, to dote on Glaive so! If they were in London, and not lying from behind their teeth, Mrs. Hill would inform them that she would spank any lover of hers so callously irresponsible.
She thought about spanking Glaive, and felt such a vindictive rush of pleasure that she almost developed the urge to go to church, because such a fierce desire could hardly be moral. Additionally, she had glimpsed the local vicar when he had come to pay Lady Dorothea a visit; he was young and not precisely handsome, with his blotchy skin, but Mrs. Hill would make do.
It was as such, sitting alone in the garden while contemplating the debauchery of vicars, that Miss Allgood found her.
“Mrs. Hill!” she waved. “We were looking for you.” Miss Allgood had in hand a brown hunting dog on a leash.
“Yes? What for?”
“We are taking Lady Dorothea’s dogs out for some sport,” Miss Allgood replied. “There are several of us, your Mrs. Glaive included. Will you not come?”
Mrs. Hill peered over Miss Allgood’s shoulder, and yes, she could see Glaive with a few other women in the distance, including the unmistakably willowy shape of Miss Thorpe. “Did she ask for me specifically?” she asked with a tone of great suspicion.
“Er,” Miss Allgood said. “I am afraid not.”
“That woman!” Mrs. Hill said.
Miss Allgood shifted her hold on her dog, who waited patiently at her side. She was using her left hand at the moment, but even as Mrs. Hill watched, she shifted to her right. “I sense there is some discord between the two of you,” Miss Allgood said politely, even though her expression fully belonged to a woman who had no interest involving herself in other people’s tender affairs. This was what Mrs. Hill had observed about Miss Allgood by now: she was practical whereas Miss Thorpe, her friend, was romantic.
“Never mind all that,” Mrs. Hill said. She stood up, coming only to Miss Allgood’s shoulder. “Yes, I love dogs. Let’s go.”
“Excellent,” Miss Allgood said. They walked side by side to join the others. “I do not imagine you have dogs of your own. It is so crowded in London, after all. No room to let them run.”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Hill said. “But my pa used to have dogs. Two great ones. They were lively boys, they were.” She smiled at the memory and pointed to the trotting hound in front of them. “Is this Lady Dorothea’s? Or your own?”
“This is Charlie,” Miss Allgood declared. She stopped to rub Charlie behind the ears. “I raised him myself. A great cracker at fox hunting.”
“Can’t abide fox hunting myself,” Mrs. Hill said brightly. “The poor foxes.”
Miss Allgood smiled slightly. “Beasts hunt beasts, and are themselves hunted by us. I will admit it is a touch barbaric, but you must also consider that we cannot allow England to be overrun by foxes. They are such nuisances in the countryside.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Mrs. Hill said, never one to pretend grandeur that she did not possess. Charlie began barking as they reached the other women, and Mrs. Hill went to Glaive’s side. Glaive barely flicked her a single glance, so absorbed was she in a conversation with Miss Thorpe that she did not even allow Miss Thorpe to greet Miss Allgood, as she was manifestly trying to do. Glaive was behaving like an insistent barnacle, forcibly dragging Miss Thorpe’s attention back to her. It was comical to watch, and also infuriating. That was attention she was supposed to be paying Mrs. Hill, her poor erstwhile lover.
What did I do wrong? Mrs. Hill wanted to demand. She tried to ask these very questions when they were alone in their room at night, but Glaive always found reasons to elude them. We were jesting with each other but a few days ago. What changed in that reptilian mind of yours?
She responded by commencing what she did best: blatant, shameless flirtation, this time directed not towards any young vicar but towards Miss Allgood. Let Glaive have a taste of what it was like! Let Glaive be the one embarrassed by her mercurial partner! As they readied the dogs and began strolling the green fields of Lady Dorothea’s estate, Mrs. Hill kept close to Miss Allgood, turning against her the full force of her smile and the rumble of her bawdy laughter.
She told Miss Allgood all about Alfred, and Harry. She told her about the stage where Alfred performed in borrowed stockings — borrowed from her! — and about how they would dress up sometimes, she as the husband and Alfred as her blushing bride. She told her about the strapping arms of the blacksmith who had sired Harry upon her before he so conveniently developed a passion for Mrs. Hill’s closest friend, a dairymaid, and ran off with her to Wales. She told her about Harry’s first fumblings with girls, and how Mrs. Hill had delighted in causing him great embarrassment whenever possible.
There was, in short, no subject that Mrs. Hill would not willingly discuss to a fellow sexual deviant. Miss Allgood seemed rather bemused by the end of it, but smiled at the appropriate places in the conversation and expressed her desire to one day meet Alfred and Harry, to see what an unconventional family they made.
All the while, Mrs. Hill watched Miss Allgood’s hands, and then she watched Glaive. The latter was a far easier task than the former, though demonstrably less enjoyable, as every time she looked at Glaive, she saw Glaive preoccupied with the charms of Miss Thorpe. Well and good; they were beauteous charms indeed, but must Glaive be so entranced by them? She even laughed when the hound Miss Thorpe had a grasp on tugged her astray — Glaive, laughing! Mrs. Hill couldn’t be more shocked if a Mother Superior stripped to her underclothes. It seemed entirely too lewd when Mrs. Hill had never thought anything too lewd before.
“Look at that sun,” she tried to say to Glaive when Miss Allgood managed to extricate herself from their increasingly one-sided conversation. Mrs. Hill had then caught up to Glaive, who was examining her own hound with a critical eye.
“Hmm?” said Glaive.
“I said, it’s a fine day,” Mrs. Hill replied, testy. “Sun. Air. Dogs. Don’t you think so?”
“Oh, Miss Thorpe,” Glaive said, turning aside. “Come here. I want your opinion on whether this dog looks sickly to you or not.”
Miss Thorpe glanced over. “He seems fine to me, though I am hardly a Noah with my ark of animals to watch over.”
“I do believe there is something amiss,” Glaive said. “I will go ask the kennel master. Will you come with me, Miss Thorpe?”
“Of course,” Miss Thorpe agreed. “Mrs. Hill, would you like to join us as well?”
“No need,” Glaive interrupted. They waited for her to give an explanation, but she offered none. Mrs. Hill felt herself swelling inside like a dirigible. She did not need to look in a mirror to know that her face was becoming as red as her hair, and she was close to boxing someone’s ears, just like she would have Harry’s if he was being incorrigible.
“What have I possibly done to offend you so?” she hissed at Glaive. “If I were your mother–”
“We should not waste any more time,” Glaive said sharply. She extended her arm. “Miss Thorpe, shall we? There is no need to worry about Mrs. Hill. She can entertain herself.”
Miss Thorpe threw Mrs. Hill a helpless look, but politely accepted Glaive’s stern arm the way any lady might gravitate towards someone of great authority and certainty. Ernestine Glaive, for all of her personal shortcomings, had a sort of raw charisma after all.
Mrs. Hill sputtered as they strolled away, and then yelped as she felt a wet slide up her ankle where a dog was trying to lick it. Damn it all!
She was not in the daintiest of moods when the guests retired that evening in the salon. Her mood was more akin to Odysseus’ when he was swept out to sea at the mercy of the vengeful gods. Nasty bit of luck, that Odysseus. Mrs. Hill would pour him a good stiff drink if she could.
In the salon, Glaive arranged herself on Miss Thorpe’s right while Miss Allgood took the spot to the left. Mrs. Hill was squeezed in a darkened corner where no one paid her any attention, save for Lady Dorothea, who sailed in and calmly sat beside her. Mrs. Hill looked up at their hostess, who was a great deal taller than her, sitting or standing. “That is a very fine necklace,” she said.
“Thank you.” Lady Dorothea touched the amethyst baubles around her neck. “I would like to claim it is a family inheritance, passed down from my grandmother to my mother to myself, but in actuality I purchased it from a London shopkeeper.”
“Not the kind of shopkeeper I’m familiar with, I imagine,” Mrs. Hill said. She looked over at Glaive to find that dratted woman expounding on the qualities of baroque music to her captive audience. Lady Dorothea stirred, and Mrs. Hill dragged her attention back.
“How do you find the party so far?” Lady Dorothea asked kindly. “Do you feel it is overlong for your tastes?”
“Never been to a party that lasted more than one night, true,” Mrs. Hill agreed. She flicked a piece of dirt off her elbow — how in the world had it gotten there? “But I’m enjoying myself. Lots to eat and lots to see. And a lovely hostess, of course.”
Lady Dorothea laughed. She had a muscular throat, like a man’s, and Mrs. Hill found herself admiring it. The Sapphic party was rubbing off on her more than she had expected.
“We are the titled rich,” Lady Dorothea drawled when she had finished laughing. “It is the least we can do. I must admit that I find you to be one of the more fascinating guests — you come from an entirely different world from the rest of us. Even your Mrs. Glaive, though she gives off the impression of a disillusioned urban native, has surely not seen as much of the world as you have.” Lady Dorothea smiled, revealing a girlish dimple unexpected for a woman of her age and magnificence. “I was speaking to Miss Allgood this afternoon. She said you tell wonderful stories.”
“They’re only stories if they aren’t true,” Mrs. Hill said. She sat back and tried to make herself more comfortable, patting her sated stomach. Then she heard the sound of Miss Thorpe’s laughter, and she abruptly looked again, only to see Glaive touch the inside of Miss Thorpe’s elbow. Her stomach curdled.
Lady Dorothea saw what she was scowling at. “It is very strange, is it not,” she mused.
“What?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“How, for a woman who does a gifted imitation of a steel rod, she can be quite the skilled seducer.”
Mrs. Hill narrowed her eyes. “Not the word I would’ve used for her.”
“But she is,” Lady Dorothea pointed out. “See how she knows exactly where and how to play Miss Thorpe, who, I might add, has admirers aplenty in this crowd. But Mrs. Glaive has the timing of a magician; she knows when to press and when to pull away and be enigmatic. She is cool-tempered, of course, but that can be an allure in and of itself. Miss Thorpe is courted by many passionate ladies; perhaps she grows tired of their childish eagerness.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Mrs. Hill declared. “Perhaps Mrs. Glaive is good at tumbling ladies into her bed, or perhaps she isn’t. What is it to me?” She folded her arms over her chest just in time to hear Glaive lead the other guests into a conversation about the Glory of Sappho.
“…A great shame,” Miss Thorpe was saying sadly. “I had the opportunity to see the jewels once, when I was visiting Her Grace. They were beautiful.”
“It is an affront,” Miss Allgood said, more harshly. “Duchess Longfield is one of us, and those jewels with their history — I feel like a piece of our hearts have been lost. It shouldn’t be borne. They should find the thief quickly.”
“Do you think Scotland Yard cares?” one woman called out.
“They are jewels, and this is a duchess,” another shot back. “Why would those silly constables not care?”
“Because those jewels are connected to us,” Glaive said smoothly. “Because Duchess Longfield is a known Sapphist parading under her husband’s magnanimous eye. Scotland Yard will not put a high priority on the jewels’ return.”
“We should have you investigate it,” Miss Allgood said. “I have heard of your skills and your ability to find what Scotland Yard does not. Can you not bend your intellect towards this problem, Mrs. Glaive, like our very own Sherlock Holmes?”
Glaive did not smile, but there seemed to be a strange light in her eyes. Satisfaction, perhaps? Mrs. Hill, from her distant corner, could not tell. “As you say, this is a matter of duchesses,” Glaive said. “I concern myself with the elevation of the poor and downtrodden, the wronged and the weak. They need my help. The duchess does not.”
“So high and noble!” Miss Thorpe laughed. “But not too high and noble to play a kissing game, I hope!”
“Is it time for kissing games?” Miss Allgood asked.
“Always,” Miss Thorpe declared, and she reached for a vase on an endtable. Emptying the vase carefully of its bouquet, she set it on the longer table before her and spun it with a delicate finger. “Do not look so shocked,” she said to the women watching her. “I am not all kittens and butterflies.”
Lady Dorothea leaned over and whispered in Mrs. Hill’s ear. “I would hate to be indiscreet over a blood relation, but this is quite true.”
Mrs. Hill snorted.
Miss Thorpe glittered at Glaive. “Tell me, if I should spin this vase, whom would you like to kiss?”
“You press me for my secrets,” Glaive responded. “It shall not work.”
Miss Thorpe giggled, and now Mrs. Hill could see that she had possibly imbibed too much of supper’s wine. Her cheeks were flushed, and as she stood, she was half leaning against the coltish Miss Allgood, who stood with her. “I do wish to know all your secrets,” Miss Thorpe declared. “I would also like for you to have the first spin. Go ahead, go ahead!”
Glaive raised an eyebrow. She leaned forward and wrapped her fingers around the neck of the vase. She looked up — she met Mrs. Hill’s eyes.
Mrs. Hill blinked.
“Let me play matchmaker,” Glaive said. “Instead of my kissing anyone, I will spin twice and the two people shall have to kiss each other. I think we will discover some interesting combinations that way.” Miss Thorpe made a disappointed noise.
“You are a voyeur,” she accused.
“I like to observe,” Glaive agreed. She twisted the vase gracefully and spun it with a flick of her wrist. Mrs. Hill watched it with growing unease, as if she were tumbling down some sort of dark well. When the mouth of the vase spun towards her, she could not claim to be surprised. Glaive always did have mastery of calculations and movement; she had likely known exactly how much force to put to make the vase go where she wanted. “Mrs. Hill,” she acknowledged. She spun the vase again. “And… ah. Our Lady Dorothea.”
Mrs. Hill was neither afraid nor shy — a woman of her experience would be a chit if she claimed either. But she had never kissed another woman before, and when Lady Dorothea turned towards her expectantly, she found she did not know what to do. “Do not be afraid. Follow my cue,” Lady Dorothea whispered so that no one could hear them, and then Mrs. Hill found herself tugged gently over on the settee and her chin tilted upwards. Their mouths met; Lady Dorothea’s was soft like plums. They breathed against each other. There was a great silence.
She does not love me, Mrs. Hill thought, and it was not Lady Dorothea she was thinking of. The realization pierced her deeply. She could not say when it began to matter, that Glaive loved her. But now she knew that she did not.
Many men in Mrs. Hill’s life had not loved her. Many men had used her and left her. She had never minded so much before — that was the way of the world, after all, and life was but a big game to constantly cheat. Be merry and do not dwell on what is out of your reach. But in that moment, as Lady Dorothea pulled away from their kiss and looked at her thoughtfully, Mrs. Hill felt her cheeks flame. She felt suddenly, terribly alone.
Lady Dorothea touched her cheek with a cool finger. “Shhh,” she said. “You see? It can be as easy as that.”
Mrs. Hill looked towards Glaive, as always, but Glaive was already spinning the vase again. The games need must go on.
She remembered something else now, something she had never thought would ever be important to her, but it was: one afternoon, coming home to find Glaive making yet another mess on the carpet, Glaive in men’s trousers sitting cross-legged with a book in hand. What are you reading? Mrs. Hill had asked, half in exasperation, and Glaive had indulged her with a reply.
Shakespeare, she had said, folding over to the correct page. ‘Teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made / For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.’
What would you know of kisses? Mrs. Hill had teased.
I know of kisses what I know of violence, Glaive had replied evenly. It is sufficient.
Kissing Lady Dorothea had not been such an awful affair, Mrs. Hill reflected in the day to come. It was actually pleasant, if she were to divorce her conflicted sentiments about a certain other lady from it. Lady Dorothea was grandly beautiful, she was compassionate, she was as rich as Croesus — Mrs. Hill had been kissed by much worse than that before. She let herself entertain a brief fantasy of becoming Lady Dorothea’s gilted will-o-wisp, lying about the manor in a silk robe eating New World chocolates. It made her chortle.
How ridiculous. Lady Dorothea was very kind, but she was not London, and Mrs. Hill belonged to the dirty, grimy, hit-you-once-and-hit-you-again world of London. There, at least, she felt of some use. Here, Lady Dorothea would not even let her bake a cake.
“I hire a cook for that,” she said with some amusement when Mrs. Hill approached her.
“And the poor dear is as sick as a gutted fish,” Mrs. Hill said. “The maids told me so. Let her have a day off, and I’ll make you a cake for dessert later on. You won’t be disappointed.”
“There is no need,” Lady Dorothea said. “I shall hire another cook from the village to come and take her place.”
“What, are you so afraid of my cooking?” Mrs. Hill asked in mock outrage, pinning her fists to her voluminous hips. “You are supposed to eat it rather than it eating you, you know.”
“I would very much relish the chance to eat the fruits of your labours,” Lady Dorothea replied, running each word over her tongue in a manner that was nearly inappropriate for a countess. “But you are my guest, and I do not want you to have to do any work while you are under my roof. Now, let us forget this matter, shall we? The others are playing whist, and I am quite eager to trounce them at it.”
So they played their whist, and Lady Dorothea kept her word. She won the entire table, and afterwards she invited Mrs. Hill to share a cigarette. Mrs. Hill, who had only smoked a handful of times in her life, began to cough. Lady Dorothea reached over to pound her back. “It is an acquired taste, admittedly,” she said. They were standing outside near the stables, and it was beginning to rain. Neither of them cared.
“I like the look of it though,” Mrs. Hill said. “Doing something only gentlemen are supposed to do.” She tried the cigarette again. It was not so bad the second time around. “What do you think Glaive and Miss Thorpe are doing right now?”
“Again?” Lady Dorothea said. “You are preoccupied with that question.”
“As a landlady, I am concerned for the well-being of all my lodgers,” Mrs. Hill said. She looked up at Lady Dorothea and smiled self-deprecatingly. “That is what I am telling you anyway!” She leaned against the stable wall. “You must have looked a great deal like Miss Thorpe when you were younger.”
“Are you saying I am no longer dewy and beautiful?” Lady Dorothea asked.
“I know I’m not,” Mrs. Hill said. “Dewy and beautiful is only good until you discover something even better: talent.” She barked in laughter. “I like Miss Thorpe very much. She is full of surprises.”
“My niece is a bright but sheltered girl,” Lady Dorothea said. She blew out an elegant mouthful of smoke. “She was raised to be the consummate lady, as I was. She is restless, however, as I was as well.”
“What fixed it for you?” Mrs. Hill asked.
“A husband who liked dogs more than women,” Lady Dorothea said. “It worked to my advantage. The earl is distant but not cruel. He lets me have my own run of affairs. Rather like Duke Longfield towards his wife. I always tell Jane: when picking a husband, pick the boring one.”
“But where’s the fun in that?” Mrs. Hill said. “Perhaps it is different with earls and dukes. Alfred was not interested in women, but he was my greatest, dearest friend. He was never distant.”
Lady Dorothea laughed. “Did the two of you ever compete for the attentions of handsome men?”
“We would take bets on it,” Mrs. Hill declared.
“Yes,” Mrs. Hill said. “It truly was. No one could stand in our way. If I didn’t win them, dear old Alfred did. And now I live with Mrs. Glaive, who does not bet so much as believe herself completely and utterly correct every single time. I don’t believe she has ever had a suitor to play games with before, though I could be wrong — I did not know she was of the Sapphic persuasion until I came here.” She shook her head. “Now I find myself questioning all the women who had ever paid our lodgings a visit. Thinking. Wondering. Why didn’t I see?”
“It drives you mad,” Lady Dorothea said.
“A smidgen,” Mrs. Hill confessed. “Ah, but I shouldn’t be bothering you with my little problems. Not when you’ve been so kind to me.” She looked at Lady Dorothea directly, expressing with her face what she did not want to say in words: I know your kindness stems from interest. I know that you wished to kiss me last night, and that you wish to do so again.
Lady Dorothea’s mouth twitched. Then she finished the stub of her cigarette and brushed the ash off her skirts. “I told you. Mrs. Glaive is a strategist. She knows when to apply amour and when to withhold it.”
“Aye, so you’ve said,” Mrs. Hill said.
“She looks at you,” Lady Dorothea remarked.
“She looks at many things,” Mrs. Hill replied. “Walls. Ceilings. Birds. Supper. Sometimes I am merely standing in the way of them.”
“I have never seen anyone look at someone the way she looks at you,” Lady Dorothea said.
“What a baffling thing to say,” Mrs. Hill replied. It seemed there were more requirements to this country party than she had expected: be a Sapphist, speak only in riddles.
“Come to my room tonight.”
“I — I will think on it,” Mrs. Hill said.
All the rooms in the house, and in one — a dragon.
Mrs. Hill thought on it, walked a few paces down the hall, and thought on it some more. It was night and Glaive was nowhere to be found. Where she should have been in their rooms, spending time with her supposed paramour, instead she was somewhere out in the darkness, no doubt spending time with an entirely different paramour that Mrs. Hill could not approve of. Though perhaps it was for the better. When Glaive was present in their chambers at night, they slept with such a distance between them on the bed that a ship could have passed the Atlantic before it touched the corners of their skin.
A dressing-gown had arrived for Mrs. Hill after supper. It was made of Oriental silk, featuring fine blue birds on golden plain. When she wrapped it around her shoulders now, she laughed at how decadent it made her feel.
Lady Dorothea had included a note with the robe: For the beautiful woman currently under my roof.
Mrs. Hill found it a sweet but wayward gesture. Beauty was the providence of the young, as she had explained earlier. In any case, Hazel Hill had never been beautiful, even when in her youth. She had been striking and original and capable of arm-wrestling a man down to the table — but beauty was for the tender lilies and the statuesque Athenas. Beauty was for Miss Thorpe and Miss Allgood, and Lady Dorothea, and even Glaive herself, tenderly bred but with cartilage in their character. Mrs. Hill was warm summer rain and sturdy slippers and the taste of raspberry currant. It was another world altogether.
So she did not go to Lady Dorothea, even though she thought about it: what might a woman’s hand feel like on her thigh, where only a man’s had ever been? How might a woman smile when Mrs. Hill took her into her mouth? What did it mean to take a lady into her mouth, anyhow? She found she was curious, but she could not set aside the knowledge that to trifle with men was a pleasure, but to trifle with Lady Dorothea — that could be a high price.
By now they had been in Wessex for a week. By the calendar’s reckoning, there were only the two days left before the party ended and the guests dispersed. The night before the last, Lady Dorothea announced a ball, and Mrs. Hill saw Glaive in their rooms for the first time in a while, as they both prepared their toilette.
“Not black?” Mrs. Hill asked in pretend shock. She watched Glaive button up an earthy brown dress, unconventional to the extreme. It suited her, of course, not that Mrs. Hill would ever tell her that.
“And for you?” Glaive responded. “But ah, I should not even have to ask. It will be the blue. It is the only one you have.”
“I mended the rip,” Mrs. Hill said, tugging at it ruefully.
“It is an unfortunate oversight that Lady Dorothea chose to send you a dressing-gown rather than a dancing gown,” Glaive said. She turned to the mirror and ran a finger over her lips, though for no reason Mrs. Hill could fathom, as she was wearing no maquillage.
“Why, what do you mean by that tone?” Mrs. Hill demanded. “You have not been paying me one jot of attention! So what if Lady Dorothea does?”
“What Lady Dorothea does, she does for a reason,” Glaive said. “However, I know perfectly well you are only teasing me. You have not given yourself to her.” She straightened. “I would see the signs if you did.”
“Is that so!”
“I have observed your ways for years now, Mrs. Hill,” Glaive said levelly. She turned around, and their eyes met like crossing swords. “There is little you are capable of hiding from me.”
Mrs. Hill sputtered. “Damn your arrogance!” She stomped her foot. “I will say it again: damn your arrogance! You don’t know me at all, and even if you did, people aren’t little dolls you can put in your box and they will stay there for-ever and ever, even if you never bother to check on them again. People change just as often as the weather! So for all your brilliance and your logic, you don’t know a single rotten thing!”
Glaive sucked in her waxy cheeks. “Are you telling me you are in love with Lady Dorothea then? Ha!”
“I could very well be!” Mrs. Hill huffed. “In fact, I have half a mind right now to grab her in a great deep kiss!” She glared at Glaive, who stared back at her with that same hellfire beginning in her eyes. They must have stayed like that for a long time, at least until Miss Allgood walked by their room and knocked, asking if they had a hairbrush she could borrow.
“No,” Glaive said shortly. “Now leave us.”
“On the contrary, my dear Miss Allgood,” Mrs. Hill interjected. “I was just about to leave.” Which she promptly did, gliding out of their rooms and to the ballroom where Lady Dorothea was already present, speaking to the conductor of the orchestra, with tightly budded flowers woven through her greying hair. Mrs. Hill went straight up to her and smiled with her teeth showing.
“I hope it will be a wonderful night,” she said.
Lady Dorothea lifted her head and tilted it. “Indeed, I suspect it shall be.”
The ballroom resembled a storybook, pale and golden with the candles throwing light as milky as the moon’s. The ladies started to arrive, one by one, or some in pairs. Miss Thorpe arrived on the arm of Miss Allgood, who seemed to have located a brush after all, attacking her auburn hair into an elegant coil. Lady Dorothea gave the cue, and the orchestra broke into low sweet strains, and servants in black livery came by with plates balanced on one arm, gilt plates with airy little delicacies that Mrs. Hill could not help but marvel at. Such a deft hand the cooks must have here, she thought, and made it a point to remark on this to Lady Dorothea, who nodded.
“I am choosy in three matters: the food I eat, the music I waltz to, and the company I keep,” the countess replied. Her eyelids lowered, and Mrs. Hill beamed up at her. “Shall we dance?”
“I may step on your toes like a clod,” Mrs. Hill warned.
“I will somehow learn to bear it,” Lady Dorothea replied majestically. Mrs. Hill accepted her hand and allowed herself to be led onto the dance floor. Lady Dorothea must have given another cue to the orchestra, for the music changed then, became something quick and mischievous. She laughed as Lady Dorothea took the man’s role and guided her through the steps. Mrs. Hill was no liar — she was indeed every bit as awful as she claimed. Alfred used to tease her all the more for it. But Lady Dorothea was perfectly charming, and did not even wince when Mrs. Hill landed on her toes like an African wildebeest. Iron toes, those must have been.
It was diverting, dancing with a woman. In many ways, it was no different than dancing with a man, except that Lady Dorothea was cut of a much brighter cloth than any man or woman Mrs. Hill had ever met before. Her jewels glittered around her neck, and her gaze lingered on Mrs. Hill’s face with that compelling mixture of command and experience that only older, richer women could possess.
The good lady wants me! Mrs. Hill thought, revising her original opinions. That isn’t such a bad thing, is it? A tumble with a countess?
Her previous reservations began to die away. It was the music, it was the light, or else it was the wine that the servants brought her after every few sets. Mrs. Hill could never resist a good bottle of gin, but this was not gin — this was wine of a calibre she did not even know existed. It went down her throat like satin, and her head began to grow very dizzy with it. She laughed louder, became more flirtatious, and danced with greater abandon, all the while Lady Dorothea indulged her as one might a pet.
“Why do you like me?” Mrs. Hill asked finally, grinning up at her. “I’m nothing like your other guests — is it a breath of fresh air, what?”
“Do you wish the hear the truth?” Lady Dorothea murmured, touching her left hand to Mrs. Hill’s cheek.
“The truth, always,” Mrs. Hill confirmed.
“You remind me of someone I used to love very much,” Lady Dorothea said. “Anacosta was also very—” She frowned. “No, I would rather not spoil the night with bitter memories. Suffice to say, it was a long time ago, but I have not lost my taste for spirited red-haired women with a healthy appetite.”
“You, my dear, have excellent taste,” Mrs. Hill informed her. Then a servant brought her another flute of wine — this time silvery and bubbly — and she laughed in delight as she reached out for it. “Thank you, thank you! Yes, I believe I shall have more!”
The night passed by very quickly, and then it slowed down, and it became very long. Mrs. Hill found, later, that she could not recall most of it. She must have danced for quite a while, for when she woke up in the middle of the night, her feet were as sore as if she had run across cobblestones all day. She must have also imbibed a great deal of wine — that much went without saying. Otherwise, she could only recollect two particular events:
The smile on Lady Dorothea’s face as she guided Mrs. Hill up the stairs to to her room, a smile followed by kisses as rich as cocoa, Lady Dorothea’s arms pressing Mrs. Hill down to her canopied bed, Mrs. Hill laughing uncontrollably as Lady Dorothea parted her skirts—
—and glancing over her shoulder just one moment before she departed the ballroom, to take in the sounds and the rush of the party, and to glimpse, as she stood on the edge by the orchestra, Glaive’s stricken expression.
Mrs. Hill woke under a mountain of blankets, and shook her head sharply. Damn head ached. Damn joints hurt too. Her tongue felt like a furry mountain in her mouth, and she croaked, “Water.”
Lady Dorothea sat naked at her escritoire, writing a letter. She leaned over and poured a glass of water, handing it over.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Hill rasped. “Is it morning yet?”
“Not yet,” Lady Dorothea replied. “But nearly.” She set down her pen and reached over again, stroking an inky finger down Mrs. Hill’s cheek. “Did you have a good sleep, the precious few hours you obtained it?”
“Ha,” Mrs. Hill said. “That sounded quite lascivious.”
Lady Dorothea got up from her desk and crawled onto the bed. She kissed Mrs. Hill, pressing her up against the headboard. “No, my dear, this is lascivious.” She spoke with her tongue against Mrs. Hill’s mouth. “I hope you have no regrets. I enjoyed myself greatly.”
“Honestly, I don’t even remember what we did,” Mrs. Hill. “But you are naked, and I am naked, so it must have been some fun.”
Lady Dorothea kissed her neck, making Mrs. Hill giggle. It tickled. “You are a born Sapphist. I do not know why you wasted all those years on men.”
“Cock, mostly,” Mrs. Hill said.
“Well, I have one too. In that drawer over there.” Lady Dorothea pointed. “May I interest you in trying it out later on?”
Mrs. Hill sighed and stretched, wriggling her toes. It was a very fine bed, and she was happy to steal the opportunity to lie in it. “Later, sweetness,” she murmured. “I do not want to move a muscle right now.” In response, Lady Dorothea kissed her one more time before moving back to her escritoire and resuming her letter-writing. Her wrist as it guided pen over paper was as smooth as a lake’s surface. Mrs. Hill was content to watch her for a while, surprised by her own lack of discomfort — it was true that she had never taken a woman before, but bedding was bedding no matter what the genitals involved, and Mrs. Hill had always been at ease when directed anywhere near a bed.
But then a memory swam into her head, a name.
“Anacosta,” she said out loud.
“Mmm?” Lady Dorothea murmured, no longer truly paying attention.
“Oh, never mind me, just nattering to myself,” Mrs. Hill said. Where had she heard that name before? Anacosta. Oh yes! Lady Dorothea’s great love, the one Mrs. Hill reminded her of. But now that she mulled it over, she was certain she had heard the name even before then. She was sure it had been spoken in a very brisk tone, coolly professional and — ah, well, that could be none other than Glaive. But why in the world would Glaive know the name of Lady Dorothea’s former lover?
Mrs. Hill began watching Lady Dorothea with less affection and more critical facility.
Then it came to her, like a pie falling out of the heavens: Anacosta Jamison. The Duchess Longfield. She who had once possessed the Glory of Sappho.
Mrs. Hill watched Lady Dorothea continue to write. She was left-handed.
In the ever-present war between flesh and the intellect, Mrs. Hill would easily confess that she was bannerman for what God put between her legs rather than what He put between her ears. However, once a thought entered her head, it stayed there like a bedbug, where only fire would put it out, and there was no fire in Lady Dorothea’s manor, only air and light and stolen kisses. Mrs. Hill walked by many the morning after the ball, finding couples entwined in the most unlikeliest of places, including a dishevelled Miss Allgood as she popped up from behind a chaise.
“Ack!” Miss Allgood exclaimed. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, vying for studied calm and only halfway succeeding.
Mrs. Hill tried to peer behind her, dying of curiosity. She caught a flash of woodland brown hair and a mole above a lip — thus recognizing Miss Allgood’s late night dancing partner for one of the pretty young chits who had gone hounding with them, a girl who often appeared in a yellow dress. “This is rather humorous,” Mrs. Hill admitted. “If I had to guess, I would have thought you had feelings for…”
“I have feelings for…?” Miss Allgood questioned.
“Why, Miss Thorpe,” Mrs. Hill said plainly. “Doesn’t everyone? And you seem very sweet on her.”
“Miss Thorpe!” Miss Allgood looked astonished. Her mouth opened and closed in quick succession. “I — I suppose I can see why you would think that. Miss Thorpe and I are dear friends, but I assure you, my feelings towards her are perfectly sororal.” She smiled down at the girl hurriedly getting dressed from behind the relative privacy of the chaise. “No, Miss Thorpe has nothing to fear from me.”
“No harm in my asking then!” Mrs. Hill said. That worm squirmed in her head again, and she pulled Miss Allgood aside. “Might I ask you another question?”
“Ask away,” Miss Allgood said magnanimously.
“I fear I don’t know much about our host, Lady Dorothea. Very rude of me! All this time and I have not bothered to find out.” Mrs. Hill spread her hands. “Yet I heard a rumour last night. About Lady Dorothea and Duchess Longfield, the woman who lost the Glory of Sappho? Could this possibly be true?”
Miss Allgood sighed. “Quite true, and a sad story too. They were our two queens, Lady Dorothea and Lady Anacosta. An inspiration to the rest of us. As inseparable as the two sides of a coin. It was Lady Dorothea who tracked down the precious jewels from the ruins of Lesbos and commissioned the Glory of Sappho for Lady Anacosta.”
“I see!” Mrs. Hill said. “How did matters go so badly then?”
“The way all love affairs go badly,” Miss Allgood said. “Time. Disinterest. Boredom. In this case, however, it was…” She lowered her voice. “I do not know all the details, you must understand, but Miss Thorpe has spoken of her aunt’s history, and from what I can surmise, the reason was this: Lady Dorothea loved Lady Anacosta more than was returned, and that will always spell tragedy.”
“Poor Lady Dorothea,” Mrs. Hill said. Inside her head, she was thinking. Thinking about gifts and love and the end of beautiful times. A shape was beginning to form in her thoughts, and she could see the edges of it, hefty and solid.
“I wonder where she went last night,” Miss Allgood continued. “One moment she was dancing with you, and the next, she was gone.” She smiled with a sudden impishness, and Mrs. Hill smacked her on the arm.
“What are you saying, little vixen.”
“Nothing,” Miss Allgood replied, still smiling. “I was just thinking that Lady Dorothea has been in an ill humour as of late. You might be the one to change that.”
“She seemed perfectly amiable to me, my dear,” Mrs. Hill said, watching the brunette from behind the chaise finish dressing and make her appearance. Miss Allgood took her by the arm and led her away, exchanging with Mrs. Hill a genial farewell. Mrs. Hill watched them go, smiling softly at the whims of the young. Then she tucked her hands in the folds of her skirts and went onwards, to her own room, where Glaive was just about to leave. They bumped into each other.
“Did you have a good night?” Mrs. Hill asked innocently.
Glaive looked anything but. Her face was drawn and tight, and she had deep circles beneath her eyes. “Excuse me. I have an appointment.”
“With whom? At this hour?”
“Yes,” Glaive said, fingers clenching on the doorframe.
“Will we never speak properly to each other again?” Mrs. Hill asked sadly. “I lost my temper last night, but you know how quick I am to forget. What were we even arguing about? Must we let a simple country party ruin what we had between us?”
“What we had between us? You know I do not speak well of…. softer things,” Glaive said, working through the convulsions of her throat. She seemed entirely removed from her usual self, and Mrs. Hill realized she was dismayed to see the transformation. She would rather have Glaive imperious than downtrodden, and she would never want it to be her own fault. Whatever else they were, they were friends.
“I suspect I know who the jewel thief is,” Mrs. Hill offered. She waited for a proper response, for Glaive’s eyes to lit up in arrogance and indulgence as it was wont to when Mrs. Hill gave her conclusions on a case.
But this time, all Glaive said was, “I know you do.” There was another look, strange and lingering and rueful. A hard humour touched Glaive’s mouth briefly. Then she was gone.
It was their final day in Wessex, and it passed lazily, the way a sunbeam might through a mirror, bending every which way. Mrs. Hill breakfasted with Miss Allgood and her new paramour, and then listened to Miss Thorpe practice the pianoforte in the afternoon, curled up in the music room with a cup of steaming hot tea. It was comfortable, and warm, and all the while she turned her mind towards the essential problem that had been plaguing her since she last left Lady Dorothea’s bed: how to return to it for answers.
It was a shame to catch her, of course. Lady Dorothea was a generous woman, and she had been kind to Mrs. Hill. Love, even spurned, was a purer motive than anything, but if there was one trait of Glaive’s Mrs. Hill had taken on for herself over the years, it was that criminals must be made ashamed of their criminality. Their sentences could be softened, or forgiven depending on the circumstances, but let a criminal believe she was undetected and free, and one bred a thirst that could last a lifetime. Steal a loaf of bread one day, steal a baker’s purse the next.
In the end, however, wriggling her way back into Lady Dorothea’s rooms turned out to require no complex solution at all. Mrs. Hill simply waylaid a chambermaid, mentioned she had forgotten an earbob in Lady Dorothea’s room last night, watched the maid grow flustered, and then followed the maid as she unlocked Lady Dorothea’s door. It was clear she believed Mrs. Hill a particular friend of Lady Dorothea’s, and she seemed new as well, uncertain yet in the etiquette of her position.
Mrs. Hill found herself shamelessly pressing the maid’s naivete to her advantage, and by then she was alone in Lady Dorothea’s chambers, the maid needing to rush off to the kitchens or else be scolded by the cook. “I will be fine, you needn’t worry about me!” Mrs. Hill soothed, and squeezed the chambermaid’s hands in a gesture of trust.
Silly girl. Mrs. Hill was sorry to use her so.
Lady Dorothea’s boudoir was exactly as she had left it this morning, save for the bedsheets, which had been folded and tucked from their previous disarray, and the letters Lady Dorothea had been writing, which were nowhere in sight. Mrs. Hill stood in the midst of the chamber with her hands on her hips, surveying her new battlefield. She knew Lady Dorothea was downstairs with the rest of the guests. She would have no reason to return soon. Even so, Mrs. Hill must need work quickly. She made a plan in her head, divided the room into quadrants, and began searching the first, upturning vases and peering under cabinets.
There was no surety that Lady Dorothea would keep any evidence of her crime in her bedroom, when there were so many other chambers in the manor. But Mrs. Hill rather thought she knew what kind of woman Lady Dorothea was by now, and she seemed the kind to keep her treasures close, where no one could touch them. A boudoir was a very private place in the midst of a party where friends and acquaintances roamed one’s home. Very private save, of course, when one flung it open for a nosy, opinionated Scot.
Mrs. Hill finally found her prize underneath the escritoire, in a box tucked inside a periwinkle hat box. She lifted out the tiny safe between two hands, holding it as gently as an egg. The lock gleamed with its silver teeth.
“Lady Dorothea,” she said good-naturedly when she heard the sound. “I know you are standing behind me.”
Lady Dorothea cleared her throat. “Then you have the advantage of me in knowledge, for I do not know why you are here, without my permission.”
Mrs. Hill turned around with the silver safebox. Lady Dorothea closed the door with a sharp click, and her face had frozen into glacier sheets; so cold it was, so cold. There was nothing left of the aristocratic woman who had licked a stripe up Mrs. Hill’s belly last night, or who had touched her cheek with the tip of a finger, expressing her utmost admiration. No, there was no admiration in Lady Dorothea’s eyes, and Mrs. Hill understood she should be afraid — there were some very deep wells behind the manor, after all — but Mrs. Hill never did do what others expected of her.
“We’re neither of us stupid women, your ladyship,” she said. “Me and Glaive, we came here looking for the Glory of Sappho. You must know.”
“I suspected,” Lady Dorothea said slowly.
“And tried to seduce me to make me weak, eh?” Mrs. Hill said. “A jolly plan, all in all.”
“Why would I need to seduce you? For protection? My name protects me,” Lady Dorothea said. Her voice grew hard. “I seduced you, my dear, because you reminded me of her. And because, quite honestly, I thought you were a feather-brained little cook too dimwitted to cause me any problems.” Her eyes flicked to the safebox. “Where is Glaive? Lurking outside, I presume?”
“Glaive has no part in this,” Mrs. Hill retorted. “She knew the thief was a Sapphist, she knew the thief would likely be at the party — but I’m not so feather-brained, and this is just between you and me.” She rattled the box. “A lady as rich as you shouldn’t steal. Even if it’s from another rich lady. It just isn’t right.”
Lady Dorothea barked out a shot of laughter. “You are London street trash! Now you are lecturing me on morals?”
“I’m London street trash,” Mrs. Hill said, “but you are a crook.”
“Oh yes?” Lady Dorothea sounded amused. “It seems to me, dear heart, that you are at an impasse. You have no key for that lock. You have nothing to show a constable. Perhaps if I were a laundry maid on the East End, a whiff of suspicion would taint me forever, but I am not a laundry maid, and you are an exceptionally dimwitted little fool.” She scratched her neck idly and raised her perfectly drawn brows.
“You are right,” Mrs. Hill said. “I have no magic powers. I can’t open this box, and no copper would ever take my word over yours.” She shrugged. “But we aren’t only talking about coppers, are we?” Lady Dorothea’s face was uncomprehending. “The women,” Mrs. Hill added helpfully. “Your guests. All the wayward lovers. Perhaps the coppers won’t believe me. But they might. Then they might wonder: that Lady Dorothea, what’s she up to? What’s she got in her head? What’s she going to steal next? A vengeful grand dame; well, we want none of that!” Mrs. Hill smiled. “That’s what they might say.”
Lady Dorothea darkened. “How dare you—”
“Dear heart,” Mrs. Hill said tenderly, “I’ll ruin you. I’ll talk and I’ll talk, and I’ll ruin you. Not in the larger world, oh no! Not there. But here, in this little circle, in the private whispers between women. I’ll make sure no one trusts you again.” She shifted the safe from the crook of one arm to another. “But I don’t have to, you see. You did it for love; so just return the Glory of Sappho, and we’ll forget all about this nasty matter, shan’t we? We can—”
Lady Dorothea was already lunging at her, so quickly that Mrs. Hill did not have time to mount the appropriate defense. Lady Dorothea tumbled into her, and the both of them went down, the box flying across the room. Mrs. Hill hit the floor with an oomph, and Lady Dorothea fell atop her, but then Lady Dorothea was grabbing her by the wrists and pinning Mrs. Hill to the carpet, hissing in her face, “You little cunt! You nasty little piece of sewer cunt!”
Mrs. Hill rolled around, trying to buck Lady Dorothea off. But the countess’ rage was too great. It lent her an inhuman strength, and she slammed Mrs. Hill’s poor head against the floor, yanking at her hair. The wrath seemed to explode from Lady Dorothea like mold spores from a piece of bread, and Mrs. Hill, frankly, was shocked by it. She had expected the woman to be angry, naturally, but this! This was beyond the pale! No wonder Duchess Longfield had grown tired of Lady Dorothea’s love!
She grabbed Lady Dorothea with the edges of her nails, clawing, but Lady Dorothea slammed one knee against Mrs. Hill’s stomach, forcing the breath out of here.
“Now see here!” Mrs. Hill wheezed. “This is — not — necessary!”
“I rather agree,” said a voice from above them, and then someone was yanking Lady Dorothea off Mrs. Hill, yanking her and tossing her aside. Oh Glaive! Oh Glaive! Oh Glaive!
Lady Dorothea landed on her rump. She was a fright, with hair falling out of pins and the edge of her skirts torn. She tried to stand up again, rearing for retaliation, but there was a loud sound, and Mrs. Hill looked up from her dazed state to see Glaive cocking her pistol at Lady Dorothea’s face.
“Is that not a bit much?” Mrs. Hill managed to ask.
“Oh, would you like me to let her go? The two of you can have another round of wrestling,” Glaive replied acerbically.
“Never mind then. The gun is quite sufficient.” Mrs. Hill pulled herself up from her knees. “But Glaive! Why are you here? How did you know?”
“We can explain later,” Glaive said.
“You have a pistol at the poor woman’s face. She is not about to trot off anywhere,” Mrs. Hill said firmly. “You can tell me now.”
Glaive pursed her lips, but in the end, she complied. “You do realize I planned for this. I have known Lady Dorothea to be the thief from nearly the very beginning. Hence why I wrangled an invitation to this party, and hence why I brought you along. I know her preferences, and I know that you are easily flattered by attention, no matter if it is from a woman rather than a man.”
Disbelief overcame her. Mrs. Hill sputtered. “You used me then. All this time!”
“If you must put it in those descriptive terms,” Glaive said. She threw a look of distaste towards Lady Dorothea, who simmered in the corner like a caged tiger. “I knew you could get closer to the lady in question than I could. Therefore I borrowed your services. It would not do to tell you — you are an atrocious actress. You cannot lie at all.” She rubbed her finger against the trigger. “Now,” she went on, addressing their prisoner, her voice growing clipped, “there is a duchess who wants her jewels back. I will take them with me, and you will not object. Do you understand? For all the reasons Mrs. Hill so acutely laid out, and more. There was a time when Lady Anacosta loved you. There was a time when you might have even been worthy of it.” She nodded at Mrs. Hill. “Go. Pack your belongings. I will meet you at the front door. Ready us a coach.”
“For London?” Mrs. Hill asked. “Gad, I am eager to leave.”
“No, for the heart of the West Indies,” Glaive snapped. “Of course for London. Go!”
Mrs. Hill, though her knees ached and she had horrible bruises blossoming on her skin, though she was dreadfully curious now about what Glaive would do to Lady Dorothea, though she was all of these things, as well as mildly peckish with hunger — she went.
The sun was daffodil-warm as she carried her valise and Glaive’s out the door and to the stables. Dogs howled in the distance. Roses were being pruned. A footman scurried from one end of the lawn to the next on business. Mrs. Hill threw the bags into the back of the coach when it was pulled up for her, and she turned her face eagerly towards London.
Though it did not smell it, what with the supper she had forgotten to clear from the table before she left, home was sweet. Mrs. Hill’s first action upon return was to throw herself in her armchair and remove her shoes with utmost haste, sighing with pleasure as she rubbed the skin between her toes. “That was a very interesting end to a very interesting week!” she said out loud, while Glaive puttered around behind her. “If we never do it again, I will die happy.”
“It was not to your liking?” Glaive asked, carrying her bags in. “All the attention paid to your person? All the pretty ladies?”
“Are you jesting with me, my dear?” Mrs. Hill asked in delight. “Well, if thieves and spurned lovers puts you in such a genial mood, perhaps it was worth all the fuss after all.” She thought about it. “The cakes were delicious. I cannot lie about that.”
“The cakes,” Glaive agreed. “And the music. And the books in the library. And the hounds in the field.” She finally undid her coat and settled into her own armchair opposite Mrs. Hill’s. “To tell you the truth, however, I must agree with your initial sentiment. I found the entire week incredibly wearying.”
“But all the pretty ladies!” Mrs. Hill teased. She looked Glaive straight in the face. “You can’t say you didn’t enjoy Miss Thorpe’s company, at least. I have eyes. I saw the way you were with her.”
Glaive was sitting very straight in her chair, like a mannequin. “Miss Thorpe was witty and sweet-natured,” she said. “In another life, I could have been very weak to her.” She fiddled with a book by her side — Mrs. Hill watched in fascination, for Glaive almost never fiddled or used her hands idly. “In this life, such an attachment was not possible,” Glaive said at last.
Mrs. Hill leaned forward. There seemed to be a heavy air between them now, heavy and thick, rimmed with warmth. “Why is that?” she wanted to know.
Glaive swallowed. A soft net settled inside Mrs. Hill’s own throat at the sight of it. A deep breath passed through her lungs.
“You know—” Mrs. Hill began.
“—there are improbable endeavours, and then there is the impossible,” Glaive said. Her voice came out quick and harsh. “I could not fall in love with Miss Thorpe because my feelings lie elsewhere, as useless as it is. The branch that does not bear fruit still struggles to try.” She slapped her palm against her knee. “Now! We shall speak no more of it. Mrs. Hill, I would like some hearty tea.”
“No,” Mrs. Hill said, “if you want tea, go get it yourself.”
“Well!” Glaive exploded.
“Or else be more brave!” Mrs. Hill said loudly. “Say what you mean instead of dancing around it! Why did Miss Thorpe not capture your heart? Why did you look so unhappy that night I went with Lady Dorothea?” She threw her hands up in the air. “You are supposed to be a consulting detective. Know your own heart!”
“I know my heart!” Glaive shot back, eyes sparking. “It is yours in question!”
“Mine?” Mrs. Hill echoed. “How is my heart in question? I feed you! I clean for you! I let you live with me for nearly no rent at all! I attend Sapphic parties with you where vengeful countesses try to bash my head into the floor!”
“That is not love!”
“It is love!” Mrs. Hill raised her voice to a bellow. If folk heard it on the street, then they heard it on the street — what she did care right now? She had stood up and was advancing towards Glaive, who sat rigidly in her armchair, not moving a muscle. “My dear, for all that you know the ways of the law, you are like a schoolgirl in your understanding of what goes on between two people! It is love, and so is this.” She lunged forward and grabbed Glaive by the collar, pressing their mouths together.
Glaive sputtered. “What are you doing!”
“If you need to ask!” Mrs. Hill snapped, and Glaive pulled away from the wet kiss to glare at her with great disdain. Mrs. Hill chose to ignore it, for once, and shoved Glaive back into her chair. This seemed to irritate Glaive even further, for she reared forward, put one hand on Mrs. Hill’s hip, and pulled her down. Mrs. Hill fell onto Glaive’s lap, and she laughed as wrapped her fingers through Glaive’s coiffed hair before kissing her once more.
“Stop laughing,” Glaive murmured against her mouth. “You are meant to be angry. I used you all week. I deliberately made you jealous so that you would fall prey to Lady Dorothea’s attentions. I fed you half-truths and pointed your ignorance where I needed it to be, like a weapon.”
“Little fool,” Mrs. Hill said tenderly, and oh, what followed was a sweet kiss indeed. Mrs. Hill arranged both of her knees to bracket Glaive’s, and she refused to let go — she held onto her dear uncertain Glaive with all the strength in her arms, and Mrs. Hill was no dainty maiden. She had strength aplenty for her infuriating lodger, her intrepid detective, and they kissed for several messy, dishevelled moments. Mrs. Hill took great joy in every single one of them, finally relaxing her hold on Glaive’s arms to undo the knot of her hair. “My beauty,” she breathed, and Glaive went stiff, but Mrs. Hill kissed her earlobe and said it again.
“Are you sure?” Glaive asked, turning her head so they could see each other properly. “Not about my beauty, which is non-existent and irrelevant. But you are a lover of men — are you sure you can be otherwise?”
“Look out the window,” Mrs. Hill replied. “See what century it is. We are modern women. We can be anything.”
“Not anything, not yet,” Glaive said, and there was a snaking tendril of bitterness in her voice. Mrs. Hill kissed it away, turning bitterness into unwilling gasps as she began fiddling with Glaive’s skirts, pushing them aside to slide one clever hand up Glaive’s thigh.
“Do you like that, my peach?” Mrs. Hill purred. She skirted her fingers over Glaive’s soft skin, dancing them upwards, undoing the drawstrings of Glaive’s underpants. She glanced up to see Glaive staring out the window now, battling the blush on her face. Mrs. Hill cackled. “Oh, I think you like it all too well,” she said.
“It does not displease me,” Glaive said hoarsely.
“I am glad to hear it, pet,” Mrs. Hill said, and promptly forwent flirtation to stick her hand against the mound between Glaive’s thighs.
“Will you stop with those infernal nicknames — ahh!” Glaive bit down on her lip as Mrs. Hill rubbed her. When Mrs. Hill saw how much Glaive liked it, she rubbed her even more purposefully, choosing all the places on her own body that she so loved. Seducing a woman was not so hard, at that, she thought, and Glaive was pearling underneath her ministrations, becoming quite wet. Mrs. Hill started breathing heavily at the feel and smell of it, kissing Glaive because it suddenly hurt too much not to.
“When did you first love me?” she asked, licking Glaive’s cheekbone.
“As if I would ever tell you,” Glaive huffed, but then she closed her eyes and squirmed as Mrs. Hill slid one finger inside her. “You are very — mmm! You are skilled despite your general lack of experience with your own sex.”
Mrs. Hill smiled against her neck. “God made me to give pleasure.” She pushed her finger in and out of Glaive, who whimpered. The colour on her cheeks was growing as red as a deep, expensive wine, and Mrs. Hill watched it in besotted fascination, increasing the number of fingers from one to two, twisting them inside of Glaive while her thumb rubbed the little nub tucked inside the folds of Glaive’s mound, where she knew there would be pleasure — and there was. Glaive was breathing erratically when Mrs. Hill kissed her again, her hips jerking upwards. Mrs. Hill was lost in the sight and sensation of her, in Glaive’s dark hair falling out of its pins and onto her shoulders, in the half-moon slit of Glaive’s eyes as she gasped and opened them, looked straight at Mrs. Hill, and promptly climaxed.
“Ernestine,” Mrs. Hill said, breathing out the name like a prayer. She watched Glaive crest and swell against her fingers. “Oh, Ernestine. I am sorry I never knew.”
Glaive continued to shudder. Then, when she seemed to come to herself somewhat, she grabbed Mrs. Hill and kissed her with an edge of violence. Mrs. Hill went eagerly into her arms.
“Do not call me Ernestine,” Glaive said a great while later, when they had taken their activities from the armchair to Mrs. Hill’s bed. Mrs. Hill lay tucked beside Glaive’s side like a comma, rubbing her thumb over Glaive’s lovely breasts.
“It is your Christian name, is it not?” Mrs. Hill asked. “But yes, I rather see your point. Ernestine is such a convoluted caravan of a name.” She pulled herself onto one elbow and smiled at Glaive. “I do prefer ‘Glaive.’ The word is much like you. It starts out smooth in the mouth and then grows sharp and thorny.”
“How uselessly fanciful. Are you a poet now?” Glaive grumbled.
“If I am a Sapphist, why can I not be a poet also?” Mrs. Hill said. Glaive snorted rudely under her breath at that, but stretched out her exquisite fingers on the streets between them and took Mrs. Hill’s hand. Mrs. Hill sighed happily, made some more room on the mattress, and then promptly fell asleep.
So Mrs. Hill took Glaive into her bed — and life went on. The changing nature of their relationship, as she discovered, was not a deafening clash of cymbals in a tempestuous orchestra, but rather, it was the sound of a single clear bell’s cutting through years of stuff and nonsense. Mrs. Hill knew herself to be changed when she woke in the mornings and kissed the nape of Glaive’s neck, smiling against the bristly hairs, followed by the even more menacing bristles of Glaive’s personal character as she ordered Mrs. Hill to cease being so sentimental and commence cooking breakfast.
Mrs. Hill did cook breakfast, though more often than not, she was able to convince Glaive to eat it in bed. What did it matter if they spilled sauce on the sheets? It was not Glaive who laundered them.
In a rare moment of sensitivity, Glaive said, “I could. If it is too much on you.”
Mrs. Hill had stared at her for a whole minute before both of them burst into laughter, Mrs. Hill’s rich and rolling, Glaive’s soft and dry. “I can manage,” Mrs. Hill finally said, wiping a tear from her eye. She slung one thigh over Glaive’s and kissed the breadcrumbs from Glaive’s lips. “I will think of other uses for you.”
“Am I your mistress?” Glaive mused. “Your painted whore, to lie here in bed and submit to your wild whims?”
Mrs. Hill smiled broadly. “That hardly sounds terrible to me.”
“There are cases, you know,” Glaive replied, but she let Mrs. Hill climb over her lap and demonstrate her affection. “I do have a profession, even if you do not always understand what it is I do — God damn it, Hazel, let a woman speak without you grabbing for her breasts!”
But Mrs. Hill did not comply. She kissed said breasts, taking one in each mouth and rolling their tips over her tongue before replying: “Yes, I know. You have cases, you have clients, you are a very busy and important member of society — now finish your breakfast and make love to me.” She stopped and faced Glaive, waiting for her decision. She did not have to wait for long. Glaive was, it went without saying, gifted in the brains department.
They received no new invitations to Sapphic parties, or any parties for that matter. As the weeks went by, Glaive finished her monograph and prepared it for presentation at the Royal Society, a process which lent her an irritable air as she waited for the Society’s judgement of her proposal. “Those old fussy men!” she fumed as yet another day went by with naught in the mail, and Mrs. Hill baked her a cake to mollify her. The cake helped, somewhat, but was not a true balm until later in September when the letter, at last, came.
It did not come alone. Arriving at the same time as the post were two ladies who looked as if they had just stepped off a train: Miss Thorpe and Miss Allgood.
“Oh!” Mrs. Hill cried. “I did not expect to ever see you two again, but I am so very glad that I was wrong. Come in, come in.” She led their guests up the stairs and into their sitting room, telling them they were not to mind Glaive’s little messes, no matter what fumes or grotesqueries lay within. Mrs. Hill busied herself with boiling a pot of tea, while calling over her shoulder, “Glaive! Glaive! Stop napping and get out here, you old bat. We have company!”
Glaive emerged from what was now their shared bedroom, hastily dressed and rubbing her eyes. When she saw Miss Thorpe and Miss Allgood, she stiffened.
“Hello,” Miss Thorpe said cheerfully. “We were in town and we thought we would pay you a visit. Aunt Dorothea would roast me if she knew, but I don’t care much for what Aunt Dorothea says, not as much as I used to.” She gazed around. “What a lovely place the two of you have.”
“It suffices,” said Glaive. Since Mrs. Hill had directed their guests to occupy their only two armchairs, she remained standing. It did her well; her tallness lent her an intimidating aspect. “I assume you are not here to enact her justice then?”
“Hardly,” Miss Allgood replied. She crossed her legs. “Aunt Dorothea has always been kind to us, but with her tempers and her draconian habits — well, we are not overfond of her.”
“‘Aunt Dorothea?'” Mrs. Hill asked, popping her head around the corner. “I understand why Miss Thorpe calls her that, but you, my dear?”
Miss Allgood smiled wryly. “I am sure Mrs. Glaive could tell you the story behind it. She seemed to have discerned the truth while we were all in Wessex together.”
Mrs. Hill looked at Glaive suspiciously. Glaive replied, “They are sisters. Fraternal twins, if we wish to be more precise. There was an… indiscreet matter over the subject of their paternity, and their mother chose to pretend she had only birthed the one daughter. Miss Thorpe was as blond as her foster father, but Miss Allgood, with her auburn hair, would never be able to pass as Mr. Thorpe’s progeny.”
“The midwife took me away,” Miss Allgood filled in. “I was sent to live with a distant cousin and was never told of my true origins until a few years previous, when I met Miss Thorpe because of our mutual interests.”
“I would have never guessed,” Mrs. Hill said, shaking her head.
“That is because you do not properly look,” Glaive told her. “Did it not strike you that both Miss Thorpe and Miss Allgood share one unusual trait? We discussed it directly, even, and no, I am not speaking of their romantic tendencies, though there is some interesting science to be done on that subject as well.”
“I am sure I cannot think of it,” Mrs. Hill said. “Why don’t you tell me, since you are so scientific?” She strode from the kitchen and touched Glaive’s arm, observing the curious way it drew both Miss Thorpe and Miss Allgood’s attention. Glaive did not seem to mind; or rather, she did not immediately throw Mrs. Hill off, which was tantamount to a love confession, for her.
“We are both ambidextrous,” Miss Thorpe designed to explain. “We have always been, ever since we were young.”
“Oh!” Mrs. Hill said. “That. Yes, that was a bumble in my bonnet when I believed either one of you to be the thief.”
Miss Allgood turned to Glaive. “Why did you make Mrs. Hill suspect us? If you knew all along it was Aunt Dorothea.”
Glaive raised her eyebrows. “I wanted Mrs. Hill to be aware there was a thief in our midst. But I knew that if I told her it was Lady Dorothea, she would go in charging like a bull. There would be no subtlety, no finesse, no retrieval of the jewels. Better to slowly push Mrs. Hill into Lady Dorothea’s embrace and let her piece together the truth for herself.”
“You are insufferable,” Mrs. Hill informed her. “Right insufferable.”
“Yes,” Glaive said, and smiled very slightly.
Miss Allgood was studying them with open thoughtfulness, her chin cupped in one hand. “The moment you arrived at the manor, I did not think the two of you would suit. You are too warm, Mrs. Hill, and you are too cold, Mrs. Glaive. You told us you were lovers, but I did not think it was true.”
“Did you think that, truly?” Miss Thorpe said. “I always knew.”
“You did not, you little liar.”
Miss Thorpe laughed. “Mother always says you have the intellect and I have the beauty, but I tell you, I knew!” She leaned and jabbed Miss Allgood in the ribs. “Now, pay me what you owe me.”
“Never,” Miss Allgood vowed, and Mrs. Hill could not hide her smile at seeing the two of them together, young and vivacious, a matched set — how could she not see it, now that she knew? How could she have ever been so obtuse? Ah well, that was what she had Glaive for. She glanced up, chuckling, and saw that Glaive was watching her.
“What is it?” she asked tenderly, and Glaive’s eyes cut towards the window before drifting back to her, reserved and hopeful and embarrassed at the same time. Each emotion passed through as quickly as a train, but Mrs. Hill was slowly improving in her ability to grasp them, however briefly.
“Nothing,” Glaive said. Misses Thorpe and Allgood continued to tease each other while outside they could hear the mid-afternoon sound of hansom cabs and costermongers, government clerks and urchins; all the sights and sounds of 65 Guthers Road as it went about its daily business. Glaive flicked a tongue over her lips.
“I find I am happy,” she said.