A short story written as part of the Summer Prose Competition 2011 Challenges 1 and 2
The silver moon shone, a distant ruler, over the deep purple night. Beneath the blanket of stars, many slept alone in bed or beside another, protected. I did neither, for I was awake. I felt myself being helplessly flung to the walls of the wooden and fabric cage in which I sat. The hansom carriage, although upholstered in luxurious materials, provided little comfort. The constant jolting and swaying of the carriage prevented me from giving into the natural desire I had to sleep. The day had been a long one, one which had drunk deeply from my emotional reserves. Feeling the full weight of the day once more, I readjusted my hat and brushed my hand across my deep crimson dress. I watched the small motes of dust as the lingered in the air, silent and small.
Presently, the carriage drew to a sudden halt. A few seconds elapsed before I heard the driver jump down from his seat at the rear of the hansom, his feet crashing against the cobbles. I moved my hand and gently lifted the privacy curtain to learn why we had stopped. I saw the bay horse that drove us shaking his head from side to side, his dark eyes wide in obvious pain and his ears flat against his head. The driver’s face soon appeared at the door, pursing his lips as he rested his hand on the roof of the cab.
“It appears, milady, that the horse has managed to tread on something sharp, which has penetrated the footpad in one of his hooves.”
“Are you unable to help him?”
“I am afraid, milady, that this object has pierced too deeply for me to deal with at present. We shall not make it back to the estate as expected.” The comfort, the reward I had looked forward to for my efforts that day, became impossible. I sighed. The driver was obviously tired, and I did not wish to burden him further with my own complaints. I had but one query.
“Where are we to sleep?”
“By some act of providence, we have come to a stop by an inn. I am sure that we can make do for a night.”
“Of course,” I replied to Joseph, for that was his name, “we are capable of living without luxury for a night.” A rather forced, but well meaning reply from Joseph followed.
“Indeed, milady.” He proceeded, by way of confirmation, to unfold the set of steps from the hansom and offered me his hand as I descended them. I closed the door of the carriage, clutching my small bag of luggage tightly. Joseph found the waiting stable hand and explained the situation to him. As I stood by the carriage, I heard the boy mention the calling of an equine physician and breathed a sigh of relief. The stable hand called to two other boys and they separated the horse from the hansom, leading both away. As the cab was led away, I saw the facade of the inn, and gasped.
The glass in the lower left window had been smashed, the wooden frame showing signs of damage. The paint on the door was fading and the apparent attempt at beautifying the place, a bed of flowers, had been choked with weeds. I turned and looked right and left, searching desperately for an alternative, but found none. Joseph opened the door and nudged the faded sign above it. I made out the faint title of the inn; ‘The Nag’s Head.’ Resigned to my fate, I followed Joseph through the door - a door that seemed to lead to another world.
The inn was filled with the scent of stale smoke, a scent which clung to every surface, every person, filling every orifice. The pungent smell of cheap alcohol was also apparent. As a woman passed me, her face caked in makeup and her clothes bordering on highly inappropriate, a third scent, cheap perfume, became noticeable. The culmination of all these putrid aromas caused me to feel quite ill; my head began to ache and the pits of my lungs seemed physically pained. There were many people there, a mass of warm bodies, many intoxicated. Joseph led me to the reception, where I quickly paid a very low price for the best room they had. According the standards of the establishment, this meant that the door worked and the beds were clean. Accepting inwardly that sleep would prove difficult that night, I took my key and passed Joseph my luggage, quickly ascending the creaking staircase, avoiding the lewd gazes of many intoxicated men as I went. We hurried to the second set of stairs, afraid of what we would discover if we lingered too long. Eventually, the room we had rented for the night appeared before us. I passed the key to Joseph. As the door slowly opened, I was hit with a sickening realisation.
“There is only one bed!” I gasped.
“Milady, I assure you, I shall sleep on a chair, or the floor if necessary.”
“Joseph, I am sure I shall not sleep anyway, I am far too troubled to sleep in such conditions. You should take the bed. I shall read, or think, or count the stars. You need to sleep.” Joseph, bound more by his contract rather than his conscience, did not comfort me.
“Milady, with the greatest respect toward your good intentions, I must state that I would be a terrible servant if I slept in a bed while my lady did not. At the least, it would be most ungentlemanly.” I finally agreed to take the bed, assuring him that I would give him one of the pillows and a blanket to provide some comfort. Too tired to do anything else, I slipped behind a dirty screen to change into my shift. Having managed to maintain my decorum up to this point, tiredness washed over me, and I stumbled out from behind the screen to see Joseph without his shirt. I drew my hand over my eyes.
“I apologise profusely, Joseph, this lethargy is causing me to behave improperly!” I moved towards the bed, my hand still over my face, and went to sit down, when suddenly, Joseph rushed to my side, grabbing my arms. My hand slipped as I saw Joseph’s brown eyes shining in the moonlight.
“Milady, the bed is here. You should not disable yourself for decorum’s sake.” I continued to avert my gaze from him. “Come now, it is merely the male torso, as the Lord intended.” He let go of my arms as I reached the bed.
“Now, try to get some rest.” I slipped beneath the blanket as Joseph took his and curled up in the moth eaten armchair. I blew out the candle and lay down, unable to rid my head of the day’s activities.
The day had required me to wear a mask, one displaying contentment and interest in all the dreary gentlemen I had been forced to talk to. These men, of matching rank and wealth, had been suitors. I was entirely disenchanted with the idea of marriage, the tactical union of a man and woman with no interest in each other, merely producing heirs, pleasing parents. Now, I had peeled off my mask, and thought of my parents awaiting me at home. The gathering of gentlemen had come about at my sister’s request while I stayed with her and her husband; she was pregnant for the third time. I could see through her mask easily, the dullness of her eyes had given her away to me. I felt salt water on my lips as a broken voice escaped them.
“Anna, am I destined to suffer the same fate as you?” At this, more tears flowed, almost silently, down my cheeks. The candle was suddenly lit.
“Milady, I know I have no right to pry into personal business, but you certainly are troubled.”
“You could not possibly understand.”
“If I may be allowed to listen to what is troubling you, I might have a chance of comprehending it.” His soft tone and gentle words pried the confession from my mouth.
“I do not want the same life as my sister. She has children, whom she loves dearly, but she has never had affection for her husband. She has been used as part of the adhesive in an inter-family relationship, I feel. I deplore the idea of marriage.”
“Milady, I think I understand. But I feel something needs clarification. When you say that you deplore the idea of marriage, is it the entire enterprise, or marriage without love, that you despise?”
“Joseph, I am sure that if I did fall in love, then marriage would be another matter, but I cannot see how the one-dimensional men I am doomed to marry could ever capture my affections. I would be trapped in a world of perpetual pregnancy and cold, meaningless kisses.” A pause ensued, one in which I realised how close I was to Joseph. I turned away and closed my eyes, blinking back the tears. Something warm brushed my face. I opened my eyes to see Joseph, his hand on my face and his dark hair suspended as he drew closer.
“Milady, Christiana, what if your husband, kissed you like this?” For a moment, his face lingered over mine. Joseph brushed his lips across mine, as I felt his breath, before he gently pressed his mouth into mine, forgetting decency, forgetting propriety, discarding the world for a brief moment. Taken aback by this my jade eyes widened, before I felt the warmth and closed them. When I opened my eyes, I turned on my side and felt the tears again, feeling the effect of this rebellion, hating that I had succumbed, and found pleasure in it. Joseph moved his hand from my cheek, running his fingers through my dark hair. He lowered his voice to a whisper as dawn breached the windowpane.
“Christiana, run away with me.”