I could almost feel a storm gathering in the prickles going up and down my neck. Leave, a small voice whispered. I frowned and shook myself. Don’t be ridiculous, I whispered back. Where would I go? Papa had sold the fine house he’d had when Mama was alive, and gone to live in a room in a tavern near Chatham dockyards, saying he wanted to save up all his money to get me a good marriage. I had to stay and do my best to navigate the tricky waters ahead. It was my duty.
Mr. Clayton continued his attentions, often seeking me out for conversation. I was both pleased and embarrassed, unsure of exactly how to respond, conscious that everyone was watching us.
“I’ve been noticing what’s going on,” Martha the cook remarked one day, out of the blue, as I dug my spoon into her delicious apple and blackberry crumble. October was now approaching, and the last of the apples were being picked. “You be careful Miss, or you’ll end up in trouble.”
I raised my eyes to her face. “What do you mean?”
She sat next to me at the kitchen table, her hands and arms white with flour and lowered her voice. “Do you remember that day when the French Lady visited you for the first time?”
My face burned. I’d woken up that morning to find blood all over my sheets and I’d cried out, believing someone had stabbed me. Mrs. Clayton had come in, wrinkled up her noise in disgust, and left me crying in my soiled sheets. It was Martha who’d come upstairs with clean rags for me to wear, who’d held me in her plump arms and told me not to worry, saying that it meant I was a woman now who could have babies.
“I can see the master has taken a fancy to you,” she continued, “but you need to be careful. Under no circumstances must you ever meet a gentleman in his bedchamber, and you certainly must not disrobe in front of him.”
“You mean take off all my clothes?”
“But why would I do that? It would be so embarrassing.”
She gave a short, sharp laugh. “You might do it if he ordered you to.”
I gazed at my plate. “I suppose so,” I said after a minute. “But why would he want to see me naked?”
She laughed again, then put her floury hand on mine. “It’s dangerous for a girl like you to be such an innocent,” she whispered. “I oughtn’t to tell you such things, it’s not my place. But you have no mother to advise you, and the mistress—well, she has her mind on other things. You must promise to keep it to yourself because well-brought-up ladies are not supposed to know.”
I nodded and leaned in closer.
“The reason why you must never disrobe is because it makes men so excited. It makes that lump of flesh between their legs hard, hard enough to put into that place where your blood comes from.”
I recoiled. “It sounds disgusting. Surely a gentleman like Mr. Clayton wouldn’t do that.”
She looked around and lowered her voice even further. “How do you think babies are made? Of course the master does it. He likes doing it. Haven’t you noticed how the mistress breeds every year? How do you think that happens?”
I looked at my hands folded in my lap, my face on fire. I just couldn’t understand how Mr. Clayton, with all his courtly manners, could do something so—so savage.
“But now the doctor has told him she cannot have more children,” whispered Martha. “So he’s turning to you. Men have these physical needs, it’s a fact of life. If they can’t find a wife, they’ll turn to vulnerable girls. Or they’ll go to the brothel.”
“Really?” I gazed into her face. “But he seems like such a gentleman.”
“All men are like that,” Martha said. “You’re growing up now, it’s time you realized that men will do anything to get you into bed. Especially someone like you.” [To be continued.]