Behind the headboard of Her Grace’s bed was a metal hook.
One had to get very close to see it—Alice only knew it was there because of the time she had to pick up Her Grace’s buttons. Several had come off the Duchess’s lovely jade silk ballgown and they must have rolled and bounced on the carpets, because they ended up in the oddest places.
The hook was a good size, perhaps as large as Alice’s fist. It was made of bronze and had a smooth finish, with no sharp edges and even the end of the hook was blunted. In the years Alice has worked at the Place, she has looked at the hook many times, trying to figure out its use. In all that time it had never taken on the tarnished appearance of bronze left too long unpolished, despite the fact that it was hidden. Alice sometimes wondered if one of the maids polished it while she was dusting and cleaning the rest of the room.
It was such an odd place for a hook, and she often considered asking someone about it. The problem, of course, was whom. If it was delicate, and anything to do with Her Grace’s bedchamber was delicate, then possibly she could ask Mrs Hull, the housekeeper. But Mrs. Hull was so very busy and this was really just an issue of curiosity. She had considered asking Lucille, the Dowager’s dresser, but Lucille was both French and very stuck up and Alice couldn’t abide being treated as if she was a child or an idiot.
That morning, it was quiet when she knocked on the door and entered earlier than the usual. The Duchess was supposed to be up and away early, but Mrs. Hull had told her and the other ladies maids that only the Duke and the other gentlemen had ridden out long before the late winter’s dawn. Alice wasn’t that surprised-- Her Grace could rise early, had done so easily when her babies needed her or some urgent matter demanded attention. But lately, she was still abed and deeply asleep when Alice comes in to wake her up. (Alice wondered if the Duchess was increasing again, and if so, what strange thing she’d be wanting this time. Last time it was strawberries in February and the Duke spent half a fortune importing the things, said Cook.)
She set the lamp on the dresser, and headed to the windows to throw open the drapes. The east-facing room caught the sun in the mornings, and Alice loved the moments when it was revealed, the light illuminating the beautiful old furnishings. She spoke quietly as she opened the curtains-- Her Grace said she quite liked the sound of Alice’s voice in the mornings.
“Good morning, Your Grace. It’s a lovely day today-- the snow is still packed on, though Harris says the lanes have been cleared.” She took one last look at the early sun sparkling off the snowdrifts before she turned back to the bed. “Did you sleep well, my lady?”
Duchess Honoria was sitting up against the pillows, covers pulled to her chest and she smiled. “Yes, thank you, Alice. If you could just--” she held up her arms, which were bare to the cool of the room except-- Alice stepped closer-- except for what appeared to be two lengths of cloth, a dark blue against the white of her skin, wrapped tightly around her wrists. Alice stared. “If you could untie me,” the Duchess shifted under the covers, “that would be lovely, Alice.”
For a moment, Alice stared at the Duchess’ wrists, taking in the contrast of cloth and skin, the fact that her mistress’ shoulders were bare. She suspected her eyes had gone wide and belatedly she leapt forward, hands fluttering. “My lady! What’s happened? Who’s done this to you?” Her gaze darted from the Duchess and the door and back as she asked worriedly, “Shall I send for Mrs. Hull?”
“No!” The Duchess nearly shouted, and a delicate blush began to stain her cheeks. Alice’s mouth dropped open. “No,” she repeated, calmer. “Thank you, Alice. I would simply like you to untie my wrists so I can get up.”
“But, my lady,” Alice found her gaze drawn back to the Duchess’s wrists, to the contrast of skin and cloth, and fought to look at her face. “Shouldn’t we send someone after him?”
“After who?” the Duchess asked.
Alice was bewildered. “The miscreant who’s done this to you, of course. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away!”
“Ah.” The Duchess adjusted the coverlet over her chest, then shook her head. “Don’t worry, Alice, when I catch the person responsible for this, he certainly will be made to pay for his actions.”
Alice stood there a moment longer and then, aware that she was disobeying a request, bobbed a little curtsy and said, “Of course, my lady, as you wish.”
She stared once again at the Duchess’ wrists, gaze following the lengths of—silk, perhaps?—to where they reached the wooden headboard and disappeared. The brass hook came to mind, and her cheeks went hot and she thought, ‘Oh.’
The Duchess waved her hands and Alice blinked. She measured the distance from the edge of the bed to the Duchess and bit her lip. “I’ll need to come up on the bed, my lady.”
The Duchess smiled. “Of course, dear. If you could come up quickly, that’d be lovely. I suspect our guests have a lot of questions and the sooner I can go to them, the better.”
Alice scrambled up on the bed and took her ladyship’s left hand, studying her wrist. Closer, she could see that the fabric was indeed silk and it was knotted quite tightly, enough that Alice wondered if she shouldn’t get the shears. She said as much to her ladyship.
The Duchess studied the fabric with her, then shook her head. “If that’s the best option, Alice.” Her blush deepened and for the first time, she seemed slightly embarrassed. “I thrashed around quite a bit, I must admit,” she said confidingly, “I pulled them quite tight.”
“Wait for just a minute, my lady.” Alice slid off the bed and hurried to the dressing room off to the left, where she kept her sewing things to repair her ladyship’s dresses. In moments she was back, heavy shears tight in her fist.
She climbed back on the bed and the Duchess shifted, bending her knee beneath the blankets and stretching her arm atop it to steady it. Alice worked the shears under the tight silk and then carefully drew the blade along the fabric. It parted with a shush, until the silk slithered away from her ladyship’s skin.
“Ah,” her ladyship sighed, and twisted her wrist and then her arm in circles. “That’s better. Now, the other one.”
Alice repeated the process on her right wrist, and then chafed her ladyship’s hands between her own, feeling the skin, which had been quite cold and pale, grow warmer. Her ladyship had such lovely hands.
“Thank you, Alice.” The Duchess smiled at her, then glanced briefly down at the silk. “If you can find a use for that, you may keep it.” Then she pushed Alice gently away and began to rise. “Now, I’ll wear the hunter green riding habit. Help me dress quickly. I need to see how our guests are.”
In the afternoon, once all the excitement had ended and Their Graces and their guests had retired to the drawing rooms, Alice gathered together with the other ladies’ maids under the watchful eyes of Mrs. Hull. It was nice have companions in her daily tasks of mending and darning, and the other Cynsters’ ladies’ maids were good company. Alice liked when Their Graces entertained-- it made the quiet winter months that much merrier.
The room was warm where they gathered by the fire, sharing lap robes and working busily. Alice sat next to Mary, Mrs. Patience Cynster’s maid and her especial friend. They listened to Mrs. Hull read the latest scandal sheets that had come up from London-- laughing as they heard about the latest adventures of Mr. Walpole and Lord Castlereigh, who were forever getting into scrapes. Mrs. Hull had just finished and was looking over the paper for another column when one of Cook’s assistants hurried in and bent, whispering, to Mrs. Hull.
Alice and the others watched as Mrs. Hull sighed, stood, and shook out her skirts. “It seems I’m needed, girls. Please continue your work and I’ll send Letty with some tea for you after I settle this.” Mrs. Hull turned and walked unhurriedly to the door, Cook’s assistant fluttering in her wake.
Alice could feel the change in the room the moment Mrs. Hull left and closed the door behind her. Mary settled a little more snugly beside her, cuddling close under the robe, though she didn’t stop her even stitching. The other girls stretched and slumped and generally relaxed, and then Anne, Mrs. Felicity Cynster’s girl, grinned and said, “Well, who’s got a tale for us then?”
It was Daisy, Miss Duncannon’s maid who had generally been quiet with them the last week-- no surprise as she was the only newcomer-- who spoke up. “Ladies, what rules govern you when you’re in company here and telling stories?”
The other girls stared at her, then turned to look at Alice and it took an elbow from Mary to remind her that as Her Grace’s lady’s maid, she was the senior in the room. She sat up straighter. “Why, the rules that always govern one of our profession-- nothing shall harm our ladies, no secrets shall leave this room.”
Alice felt the air move as Mary nodded, and watched as around their circle the rest of the girls did the same. She turned back to Daisy “You may, of course, feel you can’t share. That’s fine, we all carry our mistresses’ secrets. But in this room we are all friends, and we would enjoy a tale.”
She relaxed against Mary again, and felt Mary brush the back of her left hand against her right. It was the lightest of touches, but it made her feel lit up on the inside. For a moment she wished, as she did every Christmas, that all the Cynsters could remain in residence here year round.
Daisy pursed her lips and looked down at the chemise in her hands. Then she seemed to come to a decision as she looked up. Her work left in her lap, she leaned forward and tossed back her curls, eyes sparkling as she grinned. “Girls, you’ll never guess how I found Miss Duncannon this morning.”
“Stark naked and in Col. Delborough’s bed?” It was Kate, Mrs. Catriona Cynster’s maid, who could be terribly improper. They all giggled-- it was common knowledge belowstairs that romance was brewing between Their Grace’s newest guests.
Daisy tossed her head, laughing with the rest. “In Miss Duncannon’s bed, if you must know, and an agreement between the two of them well-settled-- they’ll be married before much longer.”
“Hurrah!” shouted Kate and Anne, while the rest of them offered felicitations.
“Nay, but girls,” Daisy said finally, after the merriment had died down a bit. “My lady wasn’t so happy this morning, what with Col. Delborough riding out early. She was meant to go with him.”
“What of it?” Alice asked, looking down in careful concentration on the blouse in her hands. “Her Grace was supposed to go early as well, but it seems like she, and all the ladies, slept late.”
“Well, this wasn’t just too tired from bed-sport.” Daisy dropped her voice and the rest of the girls, sensing a secret, leaned forward, fingers going still. “My lady was tied to the bed, two of the Colonel’s cravats holding her prisoner, and her unable to get free!”
Alice bit her lip as she looked around to all the other girls. Each one of them was blushing and several biting their lips too, twisting their hands in their laps. It was Kate, gone a brilliant shade of scarlet that nearly matched her ginger hair, who was the first to break. “My lady, too,” she said, voice barely above a whisper.
Next to her, Mary started, and blushed darker, and around the rest of the circle, the other maids murmured, “Mine too, mine too,” until finally Alice was the only one who hadn’t said anything.
“Alice?” It was Lilly who asked, the quietest of their company.
Alice looked around the room, and the bronze hook came to her mind again. Then she put on her most worldly smile, and said, “Oh dears, was that the first time your ladies have engaged in such games?”
Mary stiffened beside her. The rest of the girls stared at her, mouths dropping open and eyes wide. She smiled airily. “Of course, Her Grace wasn’t best pleased at being left in such a state with guests in the house. I’ll wager she’s making sure His Grace knows exactly what happens when he crosses his lady. And if I know the Cynsters, your ladies are doing the same.”
The girls looked at one another, then back at her. She watched as one by one their eyes turned inward as they considered that their ladies, that the Duchess, might enjoy such bedroom games. Alice smiled, and thought of the lengths of silk she’d tucked in her pocket this morning. She let her hand slide down Mary’s wrist, rest briefly against her pulse, and felt Mary shiver next to her. Then she took up her needle again. “Now, who else has a story?”