Character: East Driscoll “Hammers Over The Anvil”
Disclaimer: No claim of ownership or reassignment of copyright or copyrighted material is intended, nor should such be inferred by the publication of this work. Any and all references to any copyrighted material shall be removed from this story at the request of the respective copyright owners. In other words, I’m only borrowing East Driscoll and am returning him unharmed (I promise, Kath!).
Any resemblance, real or imaginary, to any individual or individuals, is completely unintentional. No animals, whether real or virtual, were harmed or injured in any way in the making of this story. Neither the use, ingestion, or incorporation by any means of any illegal or controlled substance, nor the illegal or improper use of any medication is encouraged or condoned by the author.
To the extent any snobbery, prejudice, or racism appears within this story, it is merely for the purposes of reflecting the narrowness and stratification of Virginia society at the beginning of the last century.
No reproduction or re-use of this story, its elements, or ideas is permitted without the express written consent of the webmistress of the Gaslight Hotel.
Notes: There really was a fire at Wellesley College in 1914. The great College Hall burned to the ground in a matter of minutes. Amazingly, there was no loss of life. All second, third, and fourth year students (at the time, freshwomen were housed elsewhere and chaperoned to and from their classes!) escaped without harm. And now, without more ado, onto our feature presentation….
Grace kissed East’s forehead gently. The blue-green eyes swiveled to meet her gaze. Some of their focus had returned during the voyage. Landing at Southhampton, she’d transported him to her sister’s home in Sussex.
The mild weather, never as hot or as sunny as that in South Australia, coupled with the quiet of her sister’s home all provided a place in which he continued to heal.
His progress, however, had slowed, and that frightened her; so much that she decided when spring came that she could not permit him to ride. She had not feared anything but reprisal from her husband until then. Frankly, when her husband’s reprisal came, she wondered why she’d feared that. Divorce and its attendant ignominy — she did not care. She could live here happily at her sister’s country house, if only East would improve.
Contemplating the man pacing restlessly outside, Eugenie lowered her teacup into its saucer. She’d shown East the headline two days after it was published: TITANIC SINKS — DREADFUL LOSS OF LIFE. Grace had been aboard, crossing to New York City. From there, she’d planned to take a train to Boston, to Harvard College, to meet with Dr. Robertson. The holder of the Adams Chair in Neuroanatomy had made great strides in treating the brain injured. Grace had persuaded her to hock Mother’s pearl and ruby necklace. The proceeds, she’d learned from her slow correspondence with the professor, would probably cover his fee to treat East. But first, he needed to meet with her, show her examples of his successes, and verify that the young man had the sort of injuries responsive to care. No, don’t bring the patient; just yourself, he’d commanded. I am a busy man, I don’t want another patient about until I decide whether to admit him to my program.
The headline meant nothing to East — Eugenie recalled only after showing it to him, when he turned the page upside down, crying “Grace? Where’s Grace?” that her late sister had said he could not read. It was only after she found and showed him a dead sparrow and said “dead — Grace is dead” that he finally understood.
He could not stay at Penderbrook. The servants were afraid of him and his rages. He walked the hallways at night, crying.
The aslyum was just a short motorcar ride away, in Chichester. He would receive the best of care. Grace would have approved, she was sure.
The sophomore screamed, and there was nothing Iris could do to save her — or herself. She opened a fifth floor window — mistake! Flames from the floor below lept into the breach in the bedroom wall. Iris screamed as the flames raced across her bathrobe.
“That nightmare again? Poor child,” Grandmother had soothed. Iris had been brave during the College Hall fire, returning into the building, leading the terrified students out by routes she’d discovered during her first four years at Wellesley. Now a master’s candidate, she treasured each of the sophomores, juniors, and seniors as younger sisters. Each must be safe, for each was a surrogate of her dear Chlöe. Neither she nor Mama could save her vivacious sibling from scarlet fever ten years earlier.
“Here, drink this; you will feel better.”
“Laudanum! But that’s been a controlled substance since 1905.”
“Doesn’t matter. Her grandmother had some stockpiled from before the time it was removed from legal sale. Thought she was helping her granddaughter out by giving it to her. Now, of course-” he gestured at the one-way mirror. The young woman was shivering and writhing with abdominal cramps on the tiled floor. “Now, not only is she still having the nightmares, but she’s addicted.”
Iris’s father spun the brim of his hat around in his hands. “Please, I will spare no expense to have her cured, but she can’t be treated here. Everyone in the diocese would learn of it. Her chances for an appropriate marriage would be dashed.”
The family physician looked into his friend’s impassioned visage. They’d grown up together. Crewed on the James. Hunted at his family lodge near Lexington. Attended the University in Charlottesville. Married debutantes who came out during the same year of the Greenbrier Ball. Linwood was correct. Linwood had told him that Iris’s fiancé had been told she had taken ill with diptheria. Gallantly, he proclaimed his willingness to wait for her recovery; postponing the wedding until next June. If Edward learned the truth, he would surely jilt her. Iris would be humiliated before every member of the First Families of Virginia.
“On my last crossing, I became acquainted with director of a hospital in Sussex. His facility — to any observer it is a charming country estate — treats those with nervous maladies. If the press writes that Miss Linwood and her father have traveled to London for the season, that will rouse no suspicions.”
“But then, what when I return without her?”
“Did not one of her best friends marry a baronet? Say she has decided to visit with the woman. I am certain the lady will honor your story to the world.”
The attendant was walking the new admittee to the sunroom. Unlike the day of her arrival, earlier in the week, she was fairly calm, whimpering only slightly, though her trembling had not abated.
“George! Pssst! The new gardener wants to throw the dice!” Sam leaned into the hallway from an outside door. George smirked. He had ever so carefully carved his dice from the bit of bone. One had a hair too much on one edge, a tad to little on another. Not enough to be visibly different from its two siblings, but enough to enable George to win at craps with it, once he surreptitiously substituted it. Damn — he had to act fast, before the green one was warned by the other groundskeepers.
He looked appraisingly at his charge — she was shaking, but hadn’t moved, even to a corner, to hide from any hallucinations when he’d stopped in the hall. She could manage by herself a bit.
He tossed Sam his room keys. “Second drawer on the left” he said, identifying his storage place for his dice. “I’ll meet you and the mark in the main toolshed in five minutes.”
The brain-damaged Australian was in the sunroom. George sized him up. Probably harmless. Had never attempted force whilst a patient.
“Stay here,” George growled at his female charge. Yes, it was an infraction of the rules to leave a female patient alone with a male. But he needed money — he’d seen a gold ring at the village pawnshop. Waving that in front of the nose of Alice at the pub would ensure him a pleasurable night off.
She shivered more noticeably at his harsh tone, but she didn’t cry out. Good. As long as no one heard her, she wouldn’t cause him any trouble before he returned. George abandoned his patient in the sunlit room.
Iris scanned the chamber. It was brightly lit, but that did not mean They would not come, out from behind the pothos, the aspidistra, the dracaena potted by the far set of windows. A soft cry rose from her throat as she searched vainly for a place to hide. There were no divans or other large pieces of furniture under which to crawl; just the spare Mackintosh chairs. Circling now in terror, she rocked, back and forth at the waist, clutching herself.
East recognized her problem straightaway. Skittish; she’d been spooked. He dimly recalled this happening among his stock. What had he done then? He’d copied what stallions did to calm such fillies down, before their panic spread to the rest of the mares in the herd. The stallion would move slowly towards the nervous young horse, nickering softly. Then he would stroke the filly with his soft lips and chin.
“Sssshhh.” He approached her from an angle, careful to circle as she did, to retain that position relative to her own. Her eyes widened and rolled as he touched her, and she reared back — but he’d already reached an arm behind her. “Sssshhh.” Slowly, gently, he pulled her to him, rubbing his hand along her back as he did so.
A place to hide, realized Iris. She burrowed into the man’s arms, closing her eyes. Her shaking eased to her constant, addicted shiver.
Cooing reassuringly, East led her to the bank of Palladian windows away from the plants — it was something about those that had her so frightened. He sat down on a chair, and pulled her atop him.
Iris was aware of the feel of the man’s lips against her neck and in her scalp. Reaching up, she removed the clips holding her tresses and they cascaded down her back. East, his arms still enveloping her, began to braid her mane as he would a mare’s he was readying for sale at the shire fair.
Her snuggling body felt so sweet, so good. Like Grace’s had been. Grace had left him and died. He felt the agony of his abandonment once again. A low, animal groan of pain rose from his throat.
The sound startled Iris from her thoughts of the things hiding in the plants. For the first time since the laudanum binge that had almost killed her, she felt an emotion for another human being. His blue-green eyes had filled with tears. He was frightened too. She withdrew an arm from under his. Tenderly she brushed the faint images of scars on his forehead and cheek with her fingertips.
“That’s the last time you’ll use these!” George tried to lurch upwards from where he’d crouched to throw the dice. He’d taken Alf’s money six months ago, and had been careful to avoid being alone with the furious orderly ever since.
His last thoughts, as Alf gleefully pummeled him into unconsciousness, was that it had been a trap.
“Their clothing was on?” The hospital administrator demanded a complete description as to how the couple had been found. The chief attendant nodded, praying silently. I’ll lose me job. Please God, I can’t lose me job.
“Yessir. Not so much as one button or lace undone.” So no harm, right? In his mind, the attendant begged, desperately hoping the administrator would agree.
An exasperated sigh. “I’m demoting you to assistant chief attendant, effective yesterday, the first of the month. Your pay will be docked accordingly.”
“No buts,” replied the administrator, as harshly as he could without raising his voice.
He did not want to agitate any patients who might hear. It was enough to deal with those who’d seen the bloodied, unconscious body of George Dixon as it was loaded into the stretcher and taken to the infirmary. “We’ll lose our license if word of this gets out.”
The man and woman had been found, she curled up upon his lap, their arms about the other, their hands exploring, their mouths joined. When the female was removed, it was immediately determined that the male was in an aroused state. He became violent upon her removal and her screams, protesting that he would not be abandoned again- it was the longest speech anyone recalled he had made during his three years at the asylum. It took several of the strongest orderlies to restrain him as the female was carried away.
Iris paced furiously around her room. Just one little sip, she’d begged, as they’d pawed through her personal effects and found the bottles she’d hidden. Just one, to relieve the pain. She retched onto the floor and rang the attendant’s bell. Let them clean the mess up — it was their fault. Now sweating, she started to unbutton her shirtwaist after determining that the window to her room would not open.
She wept. The only time she’d felt whole, like a human being again rather than a conduit for the drug she craved or a vessel filled with nightmares, was in that man’s arms. He hadn’t poked or prodded her, tried to examine her, stuck her with needles, covered her with mustard plasters, or any of the other silly cures the various quacks had attempted during the past eight months. He was just there — a kind face in the sea of hallucinations and terrors that now surrounded her. ‘Grace’ he’d wept — a woman’s name. She didn’t care if he still loved this woman; he had a generous heart, and was using it to comfort her.
In the straitjacket, in the dark, windowless room, the black mood in East’s head abated to grief. Grace was no more. He struggled to form a thought — how long had she been gone? He recalled warmth, the grass tall, green and sweet-smelling near the field where he’d been permitted to exercise — the horses would like that. Then it had been cool, and wet. The leaves of the elms had become sunny-colored. Then there had been frost. The concept of ‘snow’ danced at the fringes of his consciousness before entering. He held up a finger for each cycle. One more than the number of his hands; the word ‘three’ shimmered into his mind. He felt despair, though he did not know the term.
The woman who’d appeared. The fresh scent of her hair, the warmth of her body, the feel of her soft lips; he felt like Nero in the spring, lusting for a mare. She had caring in her eyes, like the lost Grace. He was so lost — where was the woman? Where were his horses? He was so lonely.
Weeks passed. The American patient’s physical symptoms had abated, but her temper brooked no denial. Her outbursts caused two female attendants to quit. Only natural light was permitted in her room — she’d broken the lamps and become hysterical when a candle flame caught a curtain afire. The hot and cold bath treatments only made her angrier.
There was only one way to calm her. As a high-strung Thoroughbred is often stabled with a quiet cat, so Iris seemed to be pacified by the lonely Australian. The staff, recognizing this, and desiring to preserve their collective sanity, decided to skirt the rules. They arranged the schedules of the two colonials so that the two would ‘accidentally’ meet alone– in the sunroom, the rose garden, within the confines of the yew maze. ‘A half hour’ they would warn the woman. Somehow she explained it to the man so that he no longer panicked when the two were separated. The resulting peace within the facility afforded a welcome respite for all.
One or two of the male attendants would, upon occasion, watch, hoping their charge would strip the female and have sex with her. He disappointed them; his most shocking behaviour was only to hold her and kiss her. From time to time, he would try to talk — short sentences struggling to have meaning. Her replies were too low for their eavesdropping ears.
This morning, however, she’d not been permitted her meeting. The new nurse assigned to Iris was a stickler to the rules. In retaliation, Iris had bitten her and escaped from the bathroom. When questioned, the orderlies proffered the same tale- they’d searched everywhere for a small, wet, robed female.
Ready to cable her father and demand that he retrieve her, the administrator strode to the sunroom to enjoy its autumn light whilst he reviewed Miss Linwood’s file. Reluctantly, two orderlies stepped away from the door so he could enter.
The file contents scattered onto the floor. There she was, rocking and weeping softly, in the arms of that blasted Australian with the brain injury. He was another one the administrator wanted to dismiss.
“No!” East hissed as the administrator took a step closer. The male patient balled a fist in readiness.
The administrator’s blood chilled when the woman turned her face from the male patient’s chest to speak. “Separate us again, and I shall inform my father that you attempted to force yourself upon me.”
Damn and blast them both! “Unnecessary,” he said coldly, using the minimum number of words to convey his dislike and his decision. “Stay with the bloody bastard. I shall pack you up and send you to London in the morning. You may cross the Atlantic or poison yourself again — I care not which.” Perhaps her ship will be sunk by the Germans, he wished.
The young woman’s eyes glittered with her victory, then she frowned. “And this man? East?”
The Australian smiled at her use of his name. She must have asked him for it, the administrator supposed. So East had given an appropriate response to an intangible request? Most interesting. But the funds the Lady Eugenie had sent for the young man’s maintenance were running low. The administrator was running a business, not a sanctuary. He consulted his watch.
“Tomorrow I shall telephone the individual who sent him here and demand Mr. Driscoll’s removal by nightfall.”
The female attendant backed awkwardly out of Iris’s way as she walked hand in hand with East into her quarters. When she’d run into the sunroom, he’d laughed joyfully at the sight of her, pulling her towards him and swinging her into a slow dance with music only he could hear. Now, in her room, she motioned to the victrola she’d set up by the window, then turned the hand crank.
The man spun her about in perfect rhythm to the tinny Strauss waltz. How graceful he was. Grace. She had to know about this man, and about the mysterious Grace, before he was taken from her.
He held her closer. She saw no pity in his eyes, or blame. He accepted her, hurt as she was, just as she accepted him.
“Thank you.” Her heart swelled with emotion as she uttered the phrase. East slowed his step — when had her shaking cease? She was no longer skittish, or spooked. He’d helped her stop that. He pulled her closer. She tilted her head up in question, and he took advantage of the position of her lips.
Their breathing became ragged. The presence of her robe was superfluous, an irritant, like his clothing. Her mouth stayed joined to his, their tongues interwoven, as he tore off the terry cloth and twill from their bodies. Nickering softly, he backed her onto the bed, spreading her legs apart as he did so. His erection touched her thighs.
Her eyes widened and sought his reassurance. This he gave her in tiny kisses starting with her eyelids and advancing to her throat. She gasped, but did not cry out, as he slowly entered her and pushed aside her delicate membrane. He held himself still within her, watching as the mixed sensations of surprise and desire, pain and pleasure, played across her face. He wished he still had his ring, so he could place it upon her finger. He yearned to tell her how he felt, but his tongue was thick and his head more so. Instead, he lifted up one of her legs, seeking to wrap it around his waist. She understood and followed suit with the second as he lifted her up.
The movement of East inside her caused Iris to cry out. She pressed her calves into the small of his back to arch herself away and then return, seeking to bury his member ever deeper within herself. The comfort he had offered her before was nothing in comparison to this. She wanted to join with him forever, skin to skin, and soul to soul.
The pain of his loss, the shame he’d discovered when he’d dimly realized how he differed from other men — all this was swept away by Iris’s adoring kisses. He would tether himself to her — they would not be separated. In silent agreement, her channel, slick with her need for him, gripped his every thrust, causing him to abandon himself to his urge for release. He came in waves, her body climaxing in unison with his as he sent his hot liquid deep within her.
“Love, love,” he nickered, nuzzling her ear. His passion triggered a long-lost memory — of his house among the rolling plains, and the hot Australian sun. He wanted, somehow, to take her there, to caress her under that sun.
“Dear East,” he heard her whisper. She was as addicted as ever — but to him, and she desired no cure. He watched as she removed a ring from her finger. It barely fit above the first knuckle of the little finger of his left hand. He kissed her now-bare hand. He had his little mare — she would stay with him.
East woke to her stealthy movement. “No,” he reached for her, holding her gently but firmly.
“I’m not leaving you;” she spoke slowly, so his fears would be calmed. She would have to adjust her plan. “You may come too. We must be quiet.” She pulled on her nightgown; he followed suit with his pants. In bare feet, she opened her bedroom door.
East followed Iris closely as she made her way along the hallway, cautiously circumventing a loose floorboard that squeaked, and two flights down the back stairs. The Australian recalled the conversation of two orderlies. Iris had been sick because of something she drank? He hoped she was not looking for that drink again. In trepidation, he watched her movements as she turned a doorknob.
The files were alphabetical. ‘Darrowby — Dennis- Dillon — Driscoll.’ She pulled the latter out and retraced her steps. Once returned to her room, she strained to read by the moon’s pale light.
East watched in curiosity as she made sense of the squiggles on the pages and jotted others on a piece of foolscap she withdrew from a beige silk box. When she had read
to her satisfaction, she hid the file within her portmanteau, then sleepily returned to bed, smiling contentedly as East followed suit. He spooned against her, his lips upon her shoulder, his hand protectively draped across her breasts.
So it was when the female attendant entered the room in the morning.
Eugenie alighted from her motorcar, perturbed by the administrator’s brusque demand. She could not possibly spare another pound for the Australian’s maintenance — as it was, her home was encumbered and she lived on the strictest of economies whilst her husband gambled away his future inheritance at Whites.
She was startled to see the smartly-dressed young woman sitting so closely to East.
“How do you do?” The woman, an American by her accent, extended a kid-gloved hand.
Eugenie eyed the hobble skirt she wore in envy; for its soft peach colour and the buttons narrowing the hem. “Are you visiting a patient here?”
“No, I was one.”
Eugenie stared in disbelief; the American was so self-assured — she could not imagine her having a nervous complaint.
“I understand you are Mr. Driscoll’s guardian.” It was a statement, not a query.
“It is a long story,” Eugenie replied. “My late sister, Grace, brought him with her from South Australia. Grace died on the Titanic. I, ah, thought it improper for a single young man to remain with me alone, at my home; my husband travels frequently to London, you see, on business.” She bit her lip. The war had turned everything topsy-turvy; the return of Grace’s guest might frighten away those few of her servants who had not enlisted or been conscripted.
Iris saw her opportunity. “His return will cause the same — awkwardness, then. But perhaps, he need not return with you.”
Eugenie tried to hide her feelings. “How could this be?”
Iris withdrew a glove, and pulled out a piece of foolscap from her beaded purse. “My father owns a breeding farm outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. I understand Mr. Driscoll was- is a horseman-”
“Yes, but my sister would not let him ride upon his arrival at my home, for fear he might fall and injure himself further.” Not that there were any good riding horses about anymore — those had been conscripted too.
Iris cocked an eyebrow at this intelligence, but made no comment. “I suggest he could earn his way in America. Unless, of course, you feel a familial relationship to him?” She knew what the reply would be.
“Mr. Driscoll is no relative of mine. He is free to travel as he chooses. Oh, yes, of course I’ll sign to that effect.” Scanning the text Iris had written on the stationery,
Eugenie took the proffered pen and drew her elaborate signature.
“Home?” asked East, watching the landscape race past from the window of the train car. He gripped Iris’s hand tightly; he could retrieve so few memories from his injured brain, but those of loss and loneliness were fresh and keen; he did not want them repeated. She nestled against him, and he was reassured.
As they approached Victoria Station, she shifted her sapphire ring to her left hand. The haberdashers on Jermyn Street did not question the identity of the couple, although the tailor thought the quiet husband left the decisions regarding his clothing rather more to his wife than was ordinary. The front desk at Claridges was pleased to welcome Mr. and Mrs. Driscoll to the suite they would occupy during their brief sojourn in London. Visitors from abroad were so rare in these troubled times.
Iris snuggled contentedly by East’s broad shoulders, her hands idly tracing designs across his muscled chest, her eyes enjoying the now-familiar sight of his naked body. The swaying of the ship – the only one, it seemed that had not been converted for troop transport – added to the motion of their bodies in lovemaking. East’s morning arousal had awakened her, spooned against him. She had turned to face him, silently, smilingly inviting him into her arms. He had rolled upon her, his weight pressing her deliciously into the down mattress except where his hands had cupped her buttocks upwards to augment his penetration. Greedily, she had pressed her hands against his bottom, inviting him to thrust ever faster, ever harder.
Now his neck and shoulders were reddened with her tiny love bites, his back traced with the movement of her nails across it. It had been ten days since they had left the sanatorium, and half as many lovemaking positions.
“Which do you prefer?” His eyes were sleepy slits as amused, he listened to her. “Me on top of you or below? Riding you or covering me, as your Nero would cover a mare? Holding me in your arms while I hold you between my legs, or — is there some way you have not shown me yet?” she ended saucily.
She had sat up. He gestured for her to curl back against him. Then he took a long, possessive kiss, filling her mouth with his tongue. “All,” he murmured, laughing.
If Iris had thought persuading her papa of the rightness of her decision would be easy, she was wrong. He was a Linwood. His mama was a Randolph, and her mother a Peyton. Her connection to a nobody from Australia was unthinkable; why she had a fiancé waiting for her in Richmond! Edward had just built the most charming house in town, in the Fan District, off of Monument Avenue, and close to his law practice. Certain tiles on the slate roof had been colored to resemble flowers, as if the dwelling was an in-town cottage. Not only was there ample space for servants and the anticipated grandchildren, the house had every modern convenience — in fact, all the lighting was electric. St. Paul’s had already been reserved for the ceremony and the invitations were being prepared at the engravers.
The fact that she was no longer a virgin was neither here nor there, he explained. Edward would likely be in his cups at bedtime; her maid could slip a bit of chicken blood on the sheets. Edward would be none the wiser.
“I shall permit the Australian to stay with us. If he is as good a horseman as you say, I will hire him. I need a new stable manager now that Tom has left,” her father grudgingly offered. But you shall marry Edward; that is final.”
“What if I become pregnant beforehand?”
“Are you aware how many fat premature infants have been baptized at St. Paul’s?”
“But the wedding — it is not to take place for seven months.”
Linwood wrinkled his nose in distaste. She must have picked up this impudence at that females’ school up north. He should have sent her to Southern Seminary in Lexington. He tapped his foot while he thought. He knew her willfulness and resourcefulness too well to expect that she would honor his demand for abstinence. “Dr. Childress will obtain a device for you to use. But no display of affection in front of the other servants.”
“Thank you, Papa,” she stood on tiptoe to kiss him, then hurried off upstairs. Linwood exhaled. He would explain to the cook that Iris was resting, and requested her dinner to be kept warm and sent up later, on a tray. No, no, she must come downstairs to eat it, for the servants would surely find Driscoll in her bed. There was no doubt but that Iris had that hot Randolph blood in her veins.
The horses’ breath clouded the frosty air; the hounds’ bays sounded in counterpoint to the soprano and baritone chatter of the riders. It was early November, time for the first hunt of the season, and every member of the Deep Creek Hunt Club was in attendance.
East turned to admire Iris. Her red coat, which he’d heard the toffs refer to as ‘pink,’ fitted snugly over her curves. He laughed, recalling how he’d taken pleasure from those curves last night. Iris had excused herself early from the hunt club banquet and met him, heading towards the stables to check the horses. They’d made love in the leather-scented tack room before adjourning, up the servants’ stairs, to Iris’s mahogany fourposter. She had awakened when he rose to dress and give the horses their morning care — for Linwood, impressed by his horsemanship, had eagerly offered him the position of stable manager. Iris had caught him before he buttoned his pants. It was only his sense of duty that empowered him to leave. ‘Later,’ he’d promised them both. He hoped she’d eaten well at the hunt club breakfast; if he had his way, she’d be too busy for a midday meal.
Feeling his gaze, Iris sidled her mount, a dainty chestnut Arabian mare, up to his. She offered East a tiny embossed silver flask. He took a swallow. It was a warming alcohol — but it was sweet.
“What is this?” He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his black coat.
Now, while forming her reply, Iris had an excuse for staring at East — as if she cared whether she had one. His hunting coat set off his broad shoulders; his riding breeches revealed his muscular thighs. She’d seen a number of the women participants making lingering appraisals of the Australian. She didn’t blame them, but she was the only one who’d seen him naked and by God, it was going to stay that way.
“It’s bourbon. Father imports his from Kentucky, along with his breeding stock. That’s why the drink tastes so good and the horses have such excellent conformation. He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Is that far away?”
“No,” she replied. She licked her lips and spoke slowly, so he would understand her flirtation. “I myself have imported a lover from Great Britain, out of Australia. If you join me in my dressing room, as soon as the hunt has ended, you may meet him.”
East caught the look, the lips, and the words ‘lover’ and ‘join me as soon as the hunt has ended.’ He swallowed hard. He would make sure the fox was found quickly.
From ‘fox’ he thought of other vermin. He swept his gaze over the other riders. “Who is Edward?”
Iris saw her lover clenching his fists around his reins. “The dark-haired fellow on the great gray gelding. He’s talking to the Master of the Hunt.” Iris was irked that her father had not invited East to the hunt club’s banquet. It would have presented a splendid opportunity for her to hint to Edward that his attentions were appreciated, but not desired. For that matter, she was peeved at East’s participation in the hunt as a worker, an assistant to the Master, rather than as a member. This morning, she and the other club members had dined on shirred eggs with oysters and crabmeat, Smithfield ham, and hothouse grown asparagus and strawberries, which they’d washed down with fine champagne. East had eaten with the servants — she refused to think ‘with the other servants.’ No matter how devoutly her father might wish, East was his own master and, as far as she was concerned, hers, to the extent male-dominated society required her to have one.
The Master signaled for the participants’ attention; the hunt was about to begin. The big-boned Thoroughbred Linwood had loaned East snorted and pawed the ground, sensing the excitement of the humans. Antares he was called, because his eyes glowed against the blackness of his coat. East stroked the horse’s neck fondly, whispering in his quivering ear, stroking his huge haunch.
The horn sounded. A mass of riders and foxhounds trotted out to Godwin’s field. Then, pell-mell, the race began. East reined Antares in — the horse could easily have galloped ahead of most of the pack- so he could watch for riders or horses in trouble. Edward might be one of those — he did not have a good seat, and he had too much horse for his capabilities. Iris, on the other hand, flew blithely along on her smooth-moving mare. She had been nervous about riding earlier in the week until they’d trotted out together several sunny afternoons. Last year at this time, she’d told him, she was very ill from bad medicine and had no interest in riding. I will keep the bad medicine away from you, he’d vowed, and she had smiled.
Several younger dogs, their tails wagging, began to yelp at a flash of orange-red in the underbrush by the creek. Four hunters wheeled their horses in a sharp right from their previous course; the more savvy riders continued ahead. The fox would not stay where he was spotted.
A sorrel gelding balked as his hooves hit the wet mud by the rivulet; his rider toppled off. East urged Antares over, and dismounted.
“My ankle,” the handsome woman winced. Gently, East placed his arms under hers and a hand on the small of her back and helped her rise. He set her top hat upon her blonde chignon. Panting, she leaned into his chest to catch her breath. East felt an arm lock around his waist. Just like the sheilas in Clare, he grinned. He laughed — he could remember the name of his home. The woman, embarrassed, averted her eyes and dropped her arm. She thought he was laughing at her.
“Can you ride?”
She nodded, still blushing. “With this ankle, I can’t mount.”
“No worries,” he replied.
The woman gasped as the handsome foreigner scooped her up in his arms and set her upon her horse as easily as if she’d been a child.
“Ride him back to the house,” he recommended. “I’ll follow you.”
Iris’s horse clambered on, up the steep hill the fox was leading them, or so she thought. Their quarry was laughing probably. He must be a seasoned veteran from last year’s hunt to be so wily. The dogs were also confused — their baying sounded from several directions.
Suddenly a hand fell across her shoulders.
“Never thought I’d catch up with you,” came the familiar drawl. Iris turned, her heart pounding at Edward’s voice. Until now, she’d avoided being alone with him. She coughed in an attempt to take a deep breath to calm her nerves without being obvious.
“Say, tomorrow, after church, let’s travel to Richmond and see our home. And we need to talk — Maisie’s hoping you’ll choose her for maid of honor. I told Sis I thought you would, but perhaps you have one of your blue stocking friends from that Yankee school in mind?”
Might as well start telling him now, Iris reasoned. Ten or twenty ‘no’s’ and perhaps she could convince him.
“My illness gave me time to think, Edward. I do not wish to marry you.”
Edward’s full lips twitched. His mouth smiled, but his eyes did not. “What do you mean? Why?” He nudged his horse up to hers so that they were side by side, and reached for her hand. Iris noticed that although his touch was gentle, his grip was quite firm. “I’ve waited, very patiently, I think.” He lowered his voice, as if there were others around who might hear their conversation. “I know you did not have diptheria, my dear. Your upstairs maid is very fond of one of our family’s grooms, and tells him everything under the sheets.”
Iris made a mental note to suggest to her father that the maid be given her walking papers. “I appreciate that, Edward. You have been- you are- very much the gentleman, but-”
Edward’s grip tightened into a painful vise. “The maid has said- how can I say this delicately? She has heard a male voice in your room, that is not your father’s.” Edward’s voice began to shake. He yanked her hand roughly. If she had not been riding astride, with a split skirt, she would have been dragged off her English saddle. “I am willing to forgive you this, provided it stops now.”
Iris felt a knot of fear growing in her belly. She’d seen expressions such as that worn by Edward on patients at the sanatorium before they became violent. She could hear two bluejays arguing with each other in the trees bordering the field, but no other human voice; they were quite alone. If he did something to her, it could be made to look as if she’d taken a bad fall. If she accused him of harming her, might he not respond by leaking word of her addiction, and her affair? Even in these modern times — women might soon get the right to vote, she hoped — society would always side with the man.
Though she loathed, it she decided to try the ‘weak woman’ maneuver. She scrunched up her face as pitifully as she could. “Oww, Edward! You’re hurting me!”
The 250 year old tradition of southern gallantry towards women, coursing through Edward’s blue-blooded veins, ruled his actions. He relinquished his hold. Iris didn’t waste a moment. ‘Sorry, Alchemy,’ she thought to her mare, stabbing her with the spurs. The Arabian bolted forward.
“Good girl!” cried Iris, encouraging her mount to her fastest gallop towards the point in the next field where the creek widened and the properties were divided by a tall zig-zag fence. Edward was a mediocre jumper; that was her only hope. If she could just stay ahead of him. But Quicksilver’s stride was greater than Alchemy’s.
East, topping the hill upon his return from helping the injured rider back to the hunt’s starting point, saw the race. The pair were flying in the opposite direction of the fox’s last sighting and no other riders were about. The bloody ponce was threatening Iris — his mood shifted into a black Irish fury. He urged Antares forward.
Sighting the Australian, Edward ceased his pursuit of his fiancée and dashed towards East.
Iris’s fear now turned to terror. Edward liked to carry a small pearl-handled revolver in his inside vest pocket. It was unlikely he would have left his treasure home today. She raced her mare towards an apple tree. There were some fruits still hanging on branches she could reach. She plucked several and headed towards the male riders. Her two throws were wide of her intended marks. Disgusted with her wretched tossing and aiming skills, she started to fling the last pippin on the ground, but then the fruit gave her an idea.
“Listen to me!” she screamed. “Edward, no shooting, please!” He had already placed his right hand inside his vest. “Both of you — no fighting!” Her pleading gave them just enough pause for her to lope her exhausted mount up to the pair. “I’ll make it up to you,” she whispered in Alchemy’s tiny ear. I just need one more gallop from you today.”
Iris circled the men as she spoke, careful to keep her mare moving so the muscles in her finely-built legs would stay loose. She noted that East was surreptitiously encouraging a similar action from Antares — the horse was dancing from side to side. Edward, frozen with anger, held Quicksilver stock still.
She had to drag this out, to give Alchemy a chance to get back her wind. After she circled three times, Edward began to vent. “Are we supposed to stand here then, your fiancé and your — your” he sputtered, unwilling to utter the word ‘lover.’
Iris circled again. “I want you all to listen to me when you, when you all have calmed down.” The black mood flashed within East’s eyes; he looked down, trying to make it cease.
“Edward, throw down your revolver.” The sight of the weapon, grudgingly withdrawn, emptied of its bullets, and dropped onto the short grass, surprised Driscoll. Spots burned between his shoulder blades and just above the nape of his neck. He knew the Virginian would have aimed for those points. If he’d had the gun, he certainly would.
Iris made a mental note of where the gun lay. If her plan was successful, she shuddered, she would have to retrieve it.
“We shall have another race. Because your horses’ legs are longer than Alchemy’s you will give me a head start. When I am in line with that apple tree, you all will begin. The winner will catch me before I reach the zig-zag fence.”
Edward removed his top hat to scratch through his brunet thatch. “And if neither of us captures you?”
“I shall turn Alchemy at the fence and the chase will continue.” She tossed her remaining apple from hand to hand.
Edward scowled. “This stablehand is a better rider than I; Iris, this is not fair. If you catch her-” he turned his angry gaze at the Australian, “I challenge you to a duel. Fifty paces, my revolvers.”
“No!” cried the woman, but East’s “you’re on, mate,” was all Edward heard.
Dear God, thought Iris, feeling worse than ever about her plan. This must work.
“Think sweet feed and the best rub-down of your life,” Iris whispered to her mount, gunning her forward.
As she approached the fruit tree, she could hear the pounding of hooves behind her, overlaid by the angry shouts of the men, each accusing the other of starting too soon. She hunched low over the Arabian, cajoling her to fly, giving her free rein except where she thought she saw a hole or depression in which the horse’s small hooves might catch.
Knowing the motion would slow her, Iris glanced behind her shoulder. As she expected, East was several lengths ahead. He caught her gaze and smiled adoringly.
He won’t like this, she thought, but I have to do it. She waited until Antares was at Alchemy’s haunch, then tossed the apple. East had superb control of the stallion, but the beast still startled at the hard, round object coming towards him.
That caused just enough delay for Edward to hurtle past him.
Stunned and hurt beyond measure, East continued to race, merely for the sake of competition while paces ahead of him, Edward roared, laughing at Iris’s twist on the Greek myth and the misfortune of his competitor. Since she was no longer a virgin, he knew how he intended to celebrate his victory this afternoon.
Iris kept galloping as if the outcome were still uncertain. Amused, Edward slowed Quicksilver’s gait, staying just behind the smaller horse. The fence hove closer.
East watched as Iris’s mare just barely cleared the fence. Edward’s horse balked, throwing his rider across the barrier.
Dismounting, East saw Iris, rock in hand, poised over the unconscious man. Gently, East removed the rock.
The funeral at St. Paul’s was suitably solemn and black crepe-adorned for a scion of one of Virginia’s oldest families. The fiancée, sitting with the deceased’s family in the frontmost pew, wore a heavy black veil under which she passed handkerchief after handkerchief.
In the rear, with the family’s servants and retainers, sat the foreigner who’d laid the body across his horse and returned it to the other members of the club.
They’d spotted another fox — yes, Jenrette and Talliaferro, the oldest riding members of the club recalled there was indeed a second fox living on the Godwin property. The trio, unaware this animal was not the star of the current hunt, had mistakenly given it chase.
The coroner’s report was a foregone conclusion. Edward had died instantly from a blow to his head incurred from his fall.
Several weeks after the funeral, the Richmond Intelligencer-Dispatch carried a notice in its society pages. Miss Iris May Linwood, of Padgett Hall, grieving fiancée to the late Mr. Edward Mason Norris, was embarked upon a lengthy voyage. The time of her return not stated.
The motor car slowed at the dusty, gravelly intersection of the country road with the start of the small South Australian town. The passenger gave the driver a reassuring kiss. She returned it, grateful for his confidence, his love, his help, and his silence.
“This is home,” he said quietly. “We’ll be happy here.”
Author’s Note: If you are unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Atalanta, you may look it up at http://www.loggia.com/myth/atalanta.html
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