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Placing the Yoke

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The young woman sat in the perfectly appointed railway carriage. The leather straps to the windows were of virgin newness; the new luggage racks immaculate as if they had reflected very little; the bulging upholstery in its luxuriant, regulated curves was scarlet and yellow in an intricate, minute dragon pattern, the design of a geometrician in Cologne. This background, together with her blue dress and light red hair, in a great bandeaux right down over her ears, made her look like a picture of Our Lady by Fra Angelico. And even if you looked closer, the illusion was quite persistent: her very oval, regular face; her expression of virginal lack of interest.

 

'I'm bored,' she said. 'Bored! Bored!'

 

There was no answer, just the smoothly running train and the faint smell of varnish, mixing rather unpleasantly with her own perfume. It made her long for a cigarette. But she was always longing for a cigarette, these days. Longing for anything, really. Anything to take her mind off, well, the thing.

 

She had been too beastly shy to consult a specialist, or even her own mother, but in the end, one had to tell someone. And as her mother always told her what she should do, and what would be appropriate, or advantageous, or approved of by her cousin the Duke... Well, this was the one time her advice would be welcome. So she wrote the damned letter. I had been not so very different from writing a business letter, and then she had just addressed it to her mother instead.

 

She had received her mother's answer just before leaving for the weekend.

 

“I was not scared until then. Well, not compared to now,” she said to herself.

 

Of course, she had been afraid of the ruin it would mean: of the pain, of death. But it had also been new, and rather interesting. Exciting, even. But her mother's letter... It was, like always, very opinionated. But it was not useful. Not at all. She did not need scolding. She needed to do something. But what was one to do about it? And that ghastly weekend party! There were no distractions to keep the whole thing away from her mind, just dull people making dull conversation, not helpful at all.

 

She closed her fist around her medallion of St Michael, the patron of soldiers and healers, laughing madly. The joys of her faith... A saint for every situation. But even if she had a doctor, what good would it do? One could not, as a Catholic, get rid of the thing. Father Consett would make her say twenty Hail Marys, just for the thought. A soldier, now... Perhaps it was best to go into this as one went into battle.

 

She clutched the small golden pendant even tighter. There should be some solution to it. That was the pact made for you at your baptism. One stuck with the rules that God and the church decreed. Well. One stuck with the important ones. And when there was no way but to break them, God and the church had better offer a different solution instead. How else could it be? It would be one or the other. She would not go into retreat for a year, and come back to everybody knowing. That was like not coming back at all. It was worse than not coming back at all, really. If God decided that the only decent way out was for her to die, fine. But then he would have to take care of that himself, as she was not allowed to... But she did not want to die. It had not been that enjoyable, not at all. Not enough that she should have to die for it. That would not be fair. She wanted a chance, a fighting chance, like every man who went into battle. She kissed her medallion again. Twenty Hail Marys it was. And then, St Michael for a fighting chance.

 

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee...”

 

There was some noise from the corridor. A lot of noise. Heavy footsteps, trampling along. Luggage being banged against the walls.

 

“The sheer cheek of it. The clattering. The noise. Like an ox, driven through the corridors where people of quality might want to contemplate” Sylvia thought.

 

The door opened: It could not be.

 

There was, indeed, an ox in her compartment. Large and clumsy he walked in, storing his luggage over her head with immense, sweaty hands. An ox. Who else would carry his own luggage, but an ox?

 

But even an ox was welcome right now. Anything different was welcome right now. She presented him with a very bright smile.

 

I cut away early from a ghastly weekend party,” she said.

 

He smiled at her, nodding. Good God, it was a silent ox. What diversion could you get from something that would not even talk back to you? Her smile fell from her face.

 

Are you going up to town?”

 

She could, she flattered herself, tell the amount of empressement which a man could develop about herself at the first glance--the amount and the quality too. There was a chance here. She could pull at the reins of this one quite a bit, she supposed.

 

Yes,” he stuttered, having finally found his manners. “My name is Tietjens.”

 

I'm Sylvia. Satterthwaite” she said, letting a bit of that smile come back, rewarding his good behaviour.

 

I know,” Tietjens answered. Just for these two words, he assumed a new face; a new voice. It was as if they came from someone different; someone not an ox.

 

Sylvia became electrically rigid on her seat, and then started to laugh hysterically to hide it. That voice... oh, that voice, and those words, but how could he? How could he know? And how could he, suddenly, change his voice?

 

She said to herself:

 

“He does not know. He knows nothing, he is just an ox, it is just, oh, a trick of your brain, like a trick of light. Even I... Even mother doesn't... then how could he... how could he know about the thing?”

 

But then, he might know something. Drake might have told other men. Men stuck together. It might be too late already. Too late to come back, everybody knowing. That short look he had just given her. That swine. Well, he was a man, and all men were swine. Drake must have talked behind her back. And to learn that now, when she might be... It was beastly.

 

She wanted a cigarette, right now, and she would have it. He would not like that. He was an old-fashioned man, wearing old-fashioned suits, and surely he disapproved of the habit in women. That would banish the voice, burning tobacco instead of frankincense. It would bring out the ox in him again. That was good.

 

Do you happen to have a cigarette?” she asked, as if it was the most unimportant subject in the world. She was twisting her medallion nervously, and cursed herself as she noticed it.

 

Yes, of course,” Tietjens said. He offered her his open cigarette case. Only one cigarette was missing. She let go of her St Michael and took another. Did he really not disapprove? Oh yes, he did. But he disapproved of saying no to a woman, a beautiful woman, even more. One could build on that.

 

Thank you,” she said.

 

He offered her a short smile. Quite a sad smile, really. She could not understand it. Men offered her admiring glances, besotted smiles; disapproving looks, when their little wives could see them. Not sad smiles. Not after such a look as he had given her, not after knowing...

 

He offered her a match, and she lit up her cigarette. Oh, the first draw from a freshly lit cigarette! She looked back at Tietjens. He was putting his matches away and crossing his legs. Such sadness. And such guilt. And what a thing to do... to cross one's legs! She let a measured glance travel, from the right foot diagonally up the ironed fold of the right trouser to the watch pocket, diagonally still, across the shirt front, pausing at the stud and so, rather more quickly, away over the left shoulder. Oh, those men: how suddenly they started to cross their legs! They came, they saw, they wanted. That was the way of men. It was repulsive.

 

Tietjens. Tietjens. There was a Tietjens of Groby. Older then this Tietjens, much older. The old Tietjens had some sons, that much she knew. And this one wore a signet ring on his little finger. Only a signet ring. A son, then, not a cousin or nephew, not married. She knew that none of them were married. There was a married sister, but none of the sons were married, she would have read about that. It was an old-fashioned family. And before her was an old-fashioned man. Probably one of the younger sons. Probably an honourable man. One of those who would do the right thing. Or not. But even if not, there was nothing to be lost. It would make no difference.

 

She drove her nails into her hands, and then bit her lip to stop a groan. This was it. One might, after all, get what one prayed for: It was a chance. A fighting chance. A call for battle. She might fight him, instead of the... the thing.

 

She took another drag from her cigarette. Tietjens' face had become blank again. But here were other signs, signs she had learned to read very well, and those could not be hidden, especially not by crossing one's legs. Really, that was like a confession. Revealing what his face hid so well. But she would make him... She would see it in his face: the want, the need, the admiration.

 

So, battle it would be. Time to muster the troops.

 

“Good God,” she said. “Is there no ashtray in here? It seems that there are no ashtrays anywhere in this day and age.”

 

Slowly she stood up, looming over him with her immensely tall figure. Then she turned around and left the compartment, keeping Tietjens in the corner of her eye. He had not stood up.

 

Oh, the wincing and squirming; from his condition, certainly, but also from the breach of etiquette. Sitting there while a woman left the room. Anguish on his face. So sweet, on his dull face. But she was preparing for battle. This was just a short triumph. Rational battle plans.

 

 

 

She closed the door behind her and turned the key. The smell from the water closet was abominable, but the room would provide privacy, and that was important. She lifted her skirts and petticoats, arranging them carefully in one hand. It would not do to appear untidy. Then she took a deep breath, despite the stench. But it had to be done. This was war, and so everything was allowed. And to think of... just to think of the thing, that would... it would have to come out that way, too... No. No. Shut out that thought. Never think about a crisis while it lasts. She kissed her medallion, and then brought her hands down. Suddenly, it came to her. Finally. This was why; why you wore them; the reason for these slits in women's undergarments. She laughed. No wonder the nuns would ignore her questions. And to think of it now. But it was to her advantage now. It was. She would be quite rational about this. One had to make rational battle plans.

 

Her own fingers felt strange down there. Thin and cold, and clumsy, not sure what to do. There was no musk, and when she tried to push a finger in, it hurt. Not a lot. Not like that first time, or even the second time, but still... It would not suffice. She brought her hand up again and spat. Oh, this could be fun. She had not spat for a long while. Father Consett had disapproved of spitting in young women. Perhaps he had known about this? About this very use for it she herself had just discovered? He used to hear the confessions of so many young girls; some of them must have thought about this earlier than she had.

 

Quickly, before her spirits could leave her again, she coated herself with it. And now, you had to stroke it a bit. It would encourage the production of musk. She tried to think of the last time Drake had done that, touched her, there. It was more pleasurable for a man, too, if things were nice and wet, she thought. He usually did it like that, except when it was so very urgent, like during the first time. But then, there had been the champagne during the first time. Another liquid to ease things along nicely. But for this, she needed some musk. And beside that, there must be something in the smell, surely...

 

She felt her breasts ache, and she wanted to touch them. What a thought! Father Consett would refuse to hear her confession again, if she went on like this. She remembered Drake, and how fascinated he was by them, always touching and kissing. And it was quite nice, once you were used to it. She tried the finger again. Better. It went in an inch, and without pain. What would Tietjens look like, when he was in there? No more blank looks - - no man was allowed to look at her blankly like that. Once one had started a collection, one was always on the lookout for new pieces. She rotated the finger slowly, trying to widen... It would have to do. If she sat down on him with some force, it would work.

 

She let her skirt fall to the floor, but made sure that the petticoats stayed up and out of the way. Finally, she dried her fingers on her neck, using the smell like perfume. There was a mirror, and she made use of it, making sure that she looked tidy. A tidy uniform to go on parade; to go into battle. She was all right: high-featured: alabaster complexion--but that was mostly the mirror's doing--beautiful, long, cool hands--what man's forehead wouldn't long for them?...And that hair! What man wouldn't think of it unloosed on white shoulders! She rearranged her décolleté, making sure one could see as much as decently possible. She kissed her St Michael.

 

“St Michael, patron of soldiers, pray for me.” she said silently.

 

Why was the train running so smoothly? She supposed it would not matter, in the end. It would have to be fast, and there would be no time for questions. Oh, the shock on his face. She would be very amused by his face.

 

She entered the compartment again, and Tietjens stood up. No. Oh, this would ruin... Why would that ox stand up now?

 

He had placed his hands strategically, and you could see nothing at all. Those large hands had some uses, you had to give him that. Had he managed to compose himself? Surely not. It was not possible. She had to sit down; there was nothing to be done about it. Rational. Only think of the crisis when it is past.

 

She smiled at him, and they both sat down. After half a minute, she opened her handbag and began a frantic search.

 

“Oh dear,” she said finally, standing up quickly. He was slow, and she would catch him if she was quick enough.

 

There was a slight motion of the train, and she fell into his lap, her legs already arranged neatly around his, and only one skirt in the way. She put her hands firmly on his shoulders to steady herself, making him bear her weight, keeping him in place. She was putting her yoke on the ox.

 

And what a fitting image that was. He was looking up at her, mouth hanging open, hands on her hips, as if to steady her. His breathing was fast through his mouth, heavy and moist, his eyes wide and glued to her face.

 

She let go of Tietjens' shoulders and leaned back into his hands, making sure that she would fall as soon as he let go of her. He would be forced to keep his hands on her or let her fall to the floor, and he knew it; she could see how it dawned on him, and he tightened his grip. His fingers would leave marks, she was certain of that. What an image it would be. Two sets of fingerprints, mingling on her skin in black and blue.

 

She did not dare -- deign to look at him again. It might break the spell. Keeping her eyes down, she moved her right hand forward, and touched him. There.

 

“Ah,” he breathed.

 

She had him. With a smile, she removed her hand, keeping it half an inch away from him. One, two, three, four, five, six long seconds passed, and then he moved, pressing himself against her. Oh, she had him indeed. He rubbed himself against her hand, such tiny movements, already unable to stop himself. Better to go for it before it was too late.

 

Leaning forward again, she went for his fly, opening the buttons as quickly as possible. Time was of the essence. He had kept his hands on her hips, but his grip relaxed somewhat. His hands were large and warm, and right now it felt rather nice, just being held by him on his lap. She wanted to see his face. Had he closed his eyes? Or was he looking at her? She wanted to see the want, the need; She wanted him to look at her, just at her, as if she were everything desirable in this world. Oh yes, that look... It meant they would do anything... anything to get what they wanted from her. To conquer her. But there would be only one conqueror here this afternoon.

 

It would be new... to see what a man looked like when she did not tell him no. She had looked at Drake, probably, but it was all a haze of champagne. It did not matter. Anyway, it could not be as entertaining as refusing them... the expressions on their faces...

 

His fly was open now, but she would not open his undergarments like that. There was no need to see that, really. She pulled out the skirt from under her legs, until it was covering Tietjens' lap. She could feel his trousers now, quite rough against her skin, not at all like the silk that lined her skirt. She took a deep breath. A strange mixture greeted her lungs. Smoke and perfume, and the dark smell of musk, his and hers, all brought together.

 

Only a few buttons to remove, and it would be done. She could hear him breathing, fast and heavy as if from hard labour. But he had done nothing. Would he? How was one to know about all these things? Drake had known what to do... what he wanted to do... but this... she would have to do this herself; take him in herself. But then, she had learned everything about men and women by herself. She would learn this, too.

 

Everything was open now. She touched him. It was... not as bad as one expected when looking, and very different from feeling it... inside. Warm and hard and smooth, a lot smoother then the trousers against her legs. He was shivering. She could feel it. Oh, that was nice. She started to move her hand a bit, very slowly, and it twitched. She repeated the movement and again, there was that twitch, and a groan, and the hands tightening around her for a moment.

 

She could feel something wet against her hand. Had he? No, there was always some leaking first, but better to hurry up. She went up on her knees and moved towards him, pressing her other hand against his chest for leverage. She could feel him now, down there, against herself. That was more familiar territory. A bit of fumbling was needed, but he was very still, not moving or edging her on, just holding her, taking a bit of her weight. When she was sure that the position was right she removed her hand and relaxed the muscles in her thighs, preparing for the pain when she would slide down.

 

But nothing happened. He just held her there above his lap for a long moment. Then he started to lower her. Slowly. So very slowly. There was barely any pain at all, just a strange feeling of being opened; being stretched. Well, of course one could do it slowly, too. It just had never occurred to her. And it was a lot nicer like this. Not only not painful, but different. She found herself wanting it, wanting him faster, all the way. But he just kept his pace. It was – sweet agony. That was the word used in novels, was it not? She never would have thought that it was a real thing. That one could actually feel it. She almost regretted using her skirt as a cover, wondering what it would look like, this slow invasion, this trapping.

 

Finally, he was in her. She sat on him, feeling rather comfortable. She had him now, too late for him to draw out, and so she looked at his face.

 

His eyes were open, looking at her, but she could not read his gaze. That was a disappointment. She would have liked to know... Very well. She gave him a wide smile, and he smiled back. It transformed his whole face. Perhaps he was not so dreadfully ugly after all.

 

And then his patience ran out. He started to lift her, to move under her, lifting her up and pushing her down again. She put a hand on his shoulders and joined in.

 

It was quite ripping, if she said so herself. His eyes turned half shut and she could hear him now, moaning every time he pushed into her. This would not take long, and to her own surprise, she nearly regretted that. It was getting faster and faster, and she joined the moaning a bit. Only to urge him on, like you would use your crop to urge a horse. Actually, it was a lot like that. Riding a horse with a man's saddle. One could let it run, slacken the reins, but if one did not like it... well, the rider was the one in charge.

 

She only wished that he would look at her, that she could see his face better. He was not supposed to do it like that, staring slightly to her right. Well, really, it did not matter at all where he looked. Only what he did, that he did... and if he would, afterwards. But this one would. He had stopped her from falling twice; surely he would not let her fall after...?

 

Oh no, he was one of those men who would not. She had done it. She had won the battle, won the war, even. All of it done in one afternoon. The medallion was dancing in front of her eyes, up and down and up and down and up and down... She felt quite light, as if some heavy burden had been lifted from her shoulders, and nearly lost her balance over it. At the last moment she gripped the luggage rack, throwing her head back. And she laughed. Oh, she laughed so hard, she nearly missed it when he finished inside her, but he gave a loud moan one could not miss. It was done.

 

He pulled her closer, wrapping his arms around her back, burying his face between her breasts. She could still feel him inside her, more clearly even then a few minutes ago, twitching and shaking and shrinking, and hanging on to her as if she was the only thing that kept him from falling over. She removed her hand from the rack and put her arm around his shoulders. He made a small, happy noise. Thus encouraged she let her other hand wander through his hair, stroking through the grey and blond mess. It was nice hair, even like this, sticky with pomade and sweat. She could feel his hands on her back, mimicking her gestures. And he was muttering words now, while kissing her breast through the fabric.

 

“Vergehen. An meinen Küssen vergehen soll.”

 

This was taking quite some time. But there was no stop for the next half-hour, and no reason for anyone to come in. He had slipped out of her now. That had not been a pleasant feeling, not at all like him pushing in. Like a snail, gliding down over its own slime. And it was dripping out of her now, leaking, while he was still going on about something. In German, of all languages:

 

“Vergehen. Gerichtet. Gerettet.”

 

She frowned. Was this really necessary? He was done, wasn't he? There was no reason for this at all. But there was no way of getting out of his grip, and so she sat there, waiting for him to get on with this. It was done, and she wanted it done now. No reason to draw it out even longer. The battle was over, and she was victorious.

 

She shuddered with pleasure at the thought, and at least he loosened his grip, letting her go. Not knowing how long this would last, she took her chance and got away quickly. If you were fast enough, you could do anything with Tietjens, she realised. He was slow, too slow to get her if she did not want him to. Standing there she looked down at him.

 

Oh, better not to have done that. All the careful work under her skirt had been useless now. He sat there, eyes closed and mouth open, panting, his hands holding on to the armrests in tight grip. The ox. And there it was. Like a snail, white and fleshy and soft, and with a trail of slime all over his trousers.

 

“All men are repulsive,” she thought.

 

“I say,” she said aloud; “This is bad form. Seducing young women in train compartments. And just lying there afterwards, making one look at a heap of soft flesh.”

 

If this did not make him move...

 

But it did not. Oh, his mouth fell open even more, and he opened his eyes to stare at her, but otherwise, he did not move. He just gaped at her. But it was lovely to watch his face. All his innards were laid open. Horror and shame and disgust of her; of himself.

 

Tietjens' eyes became shiny, then wet, and then a single tear rolled down his left cheek, leaving a moist, glistening trail before vanishing into the folds of his chins. That made him move. He put himself away, taking forever to close the buttons with shaking fingers. And all the while, his mouth stayed open, quivering lips moving, working as if he wanted to speak, but no words came to him.

She could not stop smiling. What a triumph it had been. She should join the war office, really. Who ever heard of a war won in one single afternoon? Her hand moved to her St Michael, touching it briefly. Tietjens cleaned his hands on his handkerchief, and then he was done, too. Still just sitting there, looking at her like a kicked dog, begging her to tell him what to do.

 

“You can't expect me to stay in here with you, can you now? You should escort me to an empty compartment. Who knows what kind of people one might not meet on a railway journey. One might run into the wrong sort.”

 

She turned to leave the compartment, not daring to look back. Surely he would not follow her?

But there he was, walking behind her.

 

She marched through the door, and further along the corridor. He was following her; she could hear the heavy footsteps. But she did not dare to turn around. He would vanish if she turned around. A woman must never turn to look at the things. Gods disapproved of that, and God surely would disapprove of what she had done there. But it had been the only way out. The only way to keep the important rules was to break the small ones. And had not St Michael fought at her side? God could not turn on her with a champion like that.

 

He followed her, like an ox being dragged along on a leash. She stopped at the next empty compartment and turned to face him. His face was wooden again... that was a disappointment. She had been hoping for a bit more entertainment, before the dullness started again, but it was already too late. Too bloody late.

 

“I... that is... Miss Satterthwaite... we...”

 

He really should be silent, if all he could do was stumble on like that.

 

“So lovely to make your acquaintance, Mr Tietjens. Mother and I will make sure to call on you while we are in town.”

 

She gave him her most brilliant smile, and shut the compartment door behind her, not wanting to see that wooden face any longer; afraid that he might find the right words yet and ruin it all. But he would not follow after she had closed the door. He would do a beautiful woman's biding.

 

She sat down slowly, making sure to put her petticoats between her legs. He was still leaking out of her, and she could not go back into that closet now, not for all the privacy it would provide. Not while there was the least chance that the ox was still out there, waiting.

 

This would have to do. She grasped her medallion, and looked at it. She should say thanks now, probably. After all, she had won. She had. Had it been wrong to leave like that? Would it make him turn on her in the end? But she could not. She could not stand to be in the same room with him, not after this, not after throwing herself at him. It had been her battle, her fighting chance. But he did not know that. He must not be allowed to know that. Better for him to think of her as a whore. It was true enough. But if his face had slipped, and she had seen him thinking it... She could not bear that.

 

Oh, what would Father Consett have to say about this? He had been so shocked after Drake, refusing to be in the same room with her until she had completed the punishment for her sins. What would he have to say if she told him about St Michael leading her into fornication? Oh, what fun it would be.

 

And then there would be talks, talks with mother, talks with Tietjens, and letters of business being sent back and forth. It would all be perfectly dull. And then there would be the thing... the child, and most probably, she would survive that, too. God did not go back on one like that.

 

And then, nothing. A dull, dull life. Just her and the ox. That wooden ox, and the child. It would be boring, oh, so boring. She looked at her St Michael again.

 

What I want,” she said “is to die.”