Gulf of Aden, Arabian Sea, 1878
With a shriek of her whistle, a sudden belch of smoke from her twin funnels, the liner Poonah nosed majestically into the glittering waters of the Gulf. She turned about, carving the waves like some colossal black blade, before anchors plunged from her prow to hold her fast: a rakish, narrow, offshore island. Eager tourists spilled onto the decks to glimpse the barren, exotic lands that surrounded them; others formed queues for the lighters that began to erupt like floating seeds from the adjacent port, ready to transport them on adventures that might or might not involve sheikhs and camels and alluringly-veiled women.
Somewhere amid the throng, if one looked closely, there was a perfect couple. He was a handsome, young, immaculately and ostentatiously dressed Anglo-Indian - scion of a well-established Calcutta banking dynasty; as eligible as it was possible to be. His name was Delwyn Pendleton. She was a tall, slender and quite remarkably beautiful 21-year-old, possessed of strikingly ice-blue eyes, set within a deep, ovoid face with subtle cheekbones and an unexpectedly strong chin, inset with a delicate dimple. Her sharp, faintly freckle-dusted nose had the daintiest upturn, and below it lay a narrow yet exquisitely-shaped mouth; its upper lip a perfect Proscenium arch barely covering incisors of gleaming pearl. Shining, pewter-blonde hair framed that face, the bulk of its mass carefully piled and pinned: just a few select strands spilling down about her slender neck and shoulders. Her name was Audra Pendleton, though it had been so for only a matter of days. They were newly-weds, on their honeymoon, and seeing them together one might conclude that their relationship was one of limitless, mutual bliss. Appearances, however, are like the shady market traders that set up shop in ports the world around - they frequently deceive.
“Well, Darling?” Delwyn enquired, taking his lovely wife by the arm. “Fancy a quick jaunt ashore?”
She pulled back, rolling her eyes and wrinkling her nose with consummate disdain.
“Good Lord, no. In this heat, jostling among dirty, smelly natives? I bet the place is filthy with
beggars and pickpockets and swindlers of every stripe.”
He cocked an eyebrow.
“I don’t quite know how to break this to you, Darling, but you’re going to see a great deal more of all that, once we get to Calcutta.”
“I shall not,” she harrumphed. “I am going to stay in our house, in the cool, and interact only with the servants and those of my own social standing. I have no intention whatsoever of rubbing shoulders with the poor.”
Delwyn took a deep breath.
“Yes, my darling - whatever you say. So - if we are not going ashore, what do you propose we do with the rest of the day?”
“I intend to get out of this damnable heat, so I’m going back to the cabin.” She touched his elbow meaningfully, turning her cerulean gaze full on him. “You could come with me…”
He stared at her a moment, then shook his head.
“No, best not. Think I’ll go down to the billiards room, cultivate a few contacts, sniff out potential accounts - always pays to be on the job, as it were. Oh, speaking of which, I have some good news: we are invited to dine at the Captain’s table this evening.”
Audra was momentarily blank with surprise, then joy flooded her cherubic features. She leapt
forward, embracing her husband and showering him with kisses.
“Oh, Darling, that’s wonderful. Oh, what a clever, clever man you are!”
She held him close, pressing her mouth to his ear.
“I’d really like you to come back with me,” she whispered. He stiffened slightly, then, gently but quite deliberately, disengaged himself.
“I’ll see you later,” he said, pleasantly. “Have a nice time.” And then he briskly walked away.
Hours later, in their luxurious cabin, Audra awakened from a fitful nap, to find herself still alone. She took a lingering glance at the second, unoccupied bed that lay next to hers - close, but not quite close enough. With a sigh deep as the ocean she took up the travel guide that had been thoughtfully provided by Peninsular & Oriental, and began yet again to read.
“I am on my honeymoon,” she said to herself aloud, and the blades of the ornate ceiling fan above her head seemed to rattle a tad, almost as if they were laughing at her.
Delwyn returned, chipper as ever, with just enough time to change into another of his splendid suits. They dressed largely in silence, the day ripening around them, etching into the lingering dusky pink of evening. Primped and preened to perfection, they linked arms and strode to the restaurant - sparsely attended, to Audra’s chagrin: she would have preferred a bigger audience to see her moment of social triumph. A steward greeted them, and then with all due ceremony led them to the table of Captain Jerome Harville. He rose in greeting, a uniformed vision of deepest blue and glittering braid.
“Mr and Mrs Pendleton - a pleasure to make your acquaintance at last.” His handshake was
appropriately firm, commanding.
“Oh please Captain, call me Delwyn,” was the response, as Audra’s husband slipped into the easy,
familiar manner that was his trademark.“Rather quiet in here tonight, what?”
“I suspect a lot of people are still enjoying their time ashore,” replied the Captain genially. “As you are probably aware, Aden has numerous distractions, but I will endeavour to compete. In fact, I have arranged a small entertainment with a local flavour, in case anyone feels left out.”
“I notice you have a fourth place set, Captain,” Audra observed. “Do you anticipate another guest?”
“I do indeed, Mrs Pendleton - one who has only just joined our cruise this very day, and will be with us later. A rather important passenger, truth be told: we’re all rather excited.”
“Celebrity, eh?” Delwyn responded. “First I’ve heard of it…”
“Really, Darling?” interjected Audra. “Did none of your contacts in the Billiards Room mention this?”
Delwyn said nothing, but shot her such a venomous, fleeting look that she was stunned into silence, a vivid blush flaming her cheeks. The Captain, diplomatically ignoring this moment of tension, ushered them to their seats. But no sooner were they all settled, than he jumped to his feet once more.
“Ah,” he said, “I do believe she is here now…”
Audra turned, to be confronted by a figure that might have come from another world. A very tall woman, expensively and exquisitely dressed - Audra judged her a few years older than herself - quite stunningly beautiful, in a serious, unaffected sort of way. High cheekbones, so perfectly shaped they seemed chiselled from Carrera marble; a strong, almost masculine chin and jaw; a perfectly symmetrical, sinuous mouth that curled upward ever so slightly at its corners, from beneath an elevated, immaculately straight, dignified nose. None of this was particularly shocking, though its combined effect was to light a green glow of possessive jealousy within Audra. No, what moved this creature into the realm of the surreal was her hair: even pulled back, banded and restrained, it poured down from her head like water from a high peak, cascading from a central parting like a million beams of glittering, golden sunlight; spilling down the course of her spine to hang below her waist, below her bottom, even. It was spectacular, unreal, perhaps even a touch unseemly - and Audra could not help openly staring, until the verdant stab of her newborn envy bade her glance sidelong at her husband, who seemed intrigued but otherwise unimpressed. The Captain, however, was all but falling over himself as he strode forward to meet the newcomer.
“Miss Forncett,” he gushed, “It is an absolute honour to have you aboard. May I present to you our
newly-weds, Mr and Mrs Pendleton…”
“My congratulations,” the woman said, her voice soft, deep and burring. Audra felt the penetrating thrust of her cobalt gaze, the power of her handshake; saw the slight - ironic? - twist of her matchless mouth.
“Miss Forncett, of course, needs no introduction,” Captain Harville blurted, then came to an abrupt halt as Audra and Delwyn looked on in abject puzzlement.
“What the Captain means,” said the woman, settling at her place, hauling the massive strands of her hair to one side as she did so, “Is that I have a certain notoriety back in the Mother Country. Delia-Jayne Forncett - at your disposal.”
Further questions were obviated by the arrival of the wine. The Captain poured, a tad self-consciously, evidently wondering if he had committed a faux pas in his selection of dinner companions. Audra took a rather deep gulp of her glass, then plunged in.
“So - are you an actress, Miss Forncett?”
That gaze, like a deep blue lighthouse beam was turned upon her: the mouth curled in that semi-
smile; detached, possibly mocking.
“I am sometimes required to play a public role,” came the measured response, “But no, I cannot claim any ability at acting…”
“A dancer, perhaps?” Audra ploughed on, trying to pin down this strange being; to reclaim her assumed position as table matriarch.
The Captain coughed.“Miss Forncett is well-known as a campaigner and social reformer. She
wields great influence in the highest of circles, quite extraordinary for one who is, I believe, barely twenty-six years of age.”
“You flatter me, Captain,” the woman smiled, genuinely. “It is my wealth that carries the influence, and that wealth is entirely down to my father.”
“I do not flatter, Madam, and you are far too modest. I have heard reports of your remarkable oratory - did you not once move an esteemed missionary to tears?”
Audra felt another pang of jealousy at Harville’s all but obsequious manner. Wasn’t this supposed to be her moment to shine? Bad enough the place was half-empty (was it deliberate, that their selection should occur on this evening?), but to have the moment usurped by some freakish newcomer was beyond the pale. She drained her glass, a touch aggressively, and a waiter instantly materialised to refill it. She was about to ask a most impertinent question when, thankfully, her darling Delwyn asked it for her.
“Excuse me, Miss Forncett, but I have to inquire - how do you come by that most peculiar hair?”
The woman raked him with a glance that flashed purest ice, though the smile on her face never
“My hair, good sir, is a political statement. I made a vow, some years ago, that I would not have it cut until a certain goal had been accomplished…”
“And what goal would that be?” Audra cut in, rather more snidely than was necessary.
“Why, women’s suffrage, of course,” came the blunt reply. Delwyn snorted into his glass.
“In that case, your hair will be down to the floor soon enough,” he chuckled. “Really - as if politics weren’t confused enough, you want females to be involved?”
She glanced at him again, and though her face remained fixed, Audra thought she detected a definite flash of hostility. Audra felt so proud of her husband: together they were rounding upon this pathetic, deluded creature; and she lifted her glass in a surreptitious toast to his rapier wit. The Captain dabbed his brow with a handkerchief, doubtless wondering how he had managed to schedule such a mismatched group around his table. Fortunately for him, at that moment a slight commotion in the wings offered respite.
“Ah,” he ejaculated, almost sagging with relief, “I do believe our entertainment has arrived…”
Onto the restaurant’s central floor space loped a pair of colourfully-dressed but rather seedy looking men of Arabian cast, the one toting an enormous set of bongo drums and the other a bulbous, broke-necked stringed instrument that Audra’s memorised guide identified as an oud. As they settled rather self-consciously to one side of the floor, waiters scurried about dousing lamps to create an atmosphere of intimacy. This accomplished, the men began to play. What they produced was not, to Audra’s ears at least, readily identifiable as music - more a chugging, slightly off-kilter rhythm free of any such encumbrances as melody or tune. It was a sound at once slightly irritating yet somehow hypnotic, seeming to resonate within one’s skull and chest, agitating and insistent. Audra was about to turn to Delwyn and deploy some suitably cutting comment when the sudden arrival of a third figure rendered further comment moot.
‘Twas a young woman, with skin the shade of milk-dashed coffee and a figure of remarkable voluptuousness - all of this quite obvious as the costume she wore was, to Audra at least, distressingly brief. From beneath an ornate, bejewelled headdress long, straight tresses of blackened umber spilled, splashing over her bare shoulders like dark ink. Two simple bands of colourful fabric crossed over her bust, barely restraining immense, bulging breasts; a broad, heavy metallic belt sat low on her wide hips, exposing her entire, slightly thickened midriff; a deep, perfectly circular navel showing like some opal gem in the soft bulge of her belly. From the belt hung a skirt of glittering, diaphanous fabric, clearly showing legs that, while graceful, had a stocky, powerful caste to them; stopping short of thickened, bangle-festooned ankles and broad, bare feet.
Overcoming the initial shock of overall impression, Audra noted the tiny, ringing finger cymbals covering the woman’s long, red-nailed, slightly stubby fingers - with a vague sense of intellectual satisfaction she identified them as zills. Audra felt a strange, flushing mixture of shame and intrigue as she looked at this creature’s face: full and rounded, with softened cheekbones; faint, delicate brows arching over immense, coruscating dark eyes; a slightly flattened, flaring nose; an extraordinarily full, vermilion-painted mouth. She seemed ostensibly quite young, but there was something aged about her expression, a hint of tiredness about her mien. Audra realised that the exotic, unsettling world of her guide book - the one she had sought to avoid in real life - had finally taken fleshy, perturbing shape before her. It made her feel dizzied and not a little ill.
With a tinkling trill of her zills the woman struck a dramatic pose, lifting her arms high above her head, interlacing her umber fingers to form a diamond frame. After a beat, the musicians picked up their former pulsations and, still staring defiantly out, she began to dance. At first it was mere slight swaying, as of a reed in the wind, but her then head was rocking from side-to-side, rolling on her stout neck in a somewhat inhuman manner, as if she were a cobra helplessly charmed. Lowering her arms she began to roll her shoulders, a sinuous motion that caused her bosom to undulate in an outré and distinctly salacious motion. The music powered on, accelerating its tempo, and now the woman’s whole being was in motion, her hips rocking violently, causing her stomach to ripple and quiver, sparkling with bright beads of perspiration. Disgusted yet sickly fascinated, Audra took a gulp from her glass to ease her suddenly dry throat - tearing her gaze away she glanced at her companions: the Captain looked on in mute fascination, seeming utterly enthralled; Delwyn, she noted to her immense satisfaction, seemed utterly bored by the whole proceeding; and as for the Forncett woman… she was, horrifyingly, looking directly at Audra, nodding slightly, a knowing smile playing about her lips. Audra blushed desperately, had no choice but to return her eyes to the ongoing spectacle, which had only grown yet more frenetic and lewd.
Then all at once, the music ceased abruptly. The woman held a final, triumphant pose for a moment, two moments, before fleeing from the room; the men scooping up their instruments and following as quickly as they could. In their wake was a stunned silence broken here and there by smatterings of strained applause. The waiters returned the lighting levels to their previous brilliance, and slowly the hubbub of conversation reasserted itself like a sleeper awakening.
“Well,” said Captain Harville, still seeming somewhat stunned, “What did you make of that?”
“La danse du ventre,” replied Delia-Jayne coolly. “I saw it once before, in Paris - that girl is really rather good. Would you happen to know her name?”
“I’m sure I’ve no idea,” the Captain harrumphed, apparently slightly offended by the question.
“Didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid,” said Delwyn, with a slight chuckle. “What about you, Darling?”
“I thought it was revolting,” Audra spat. “That brown hussy was practically naked…”
All three looked at her strangely, as if she had spoken wildly out of turn.
“Steady on, old girl,” Delwyn muttered. “We are in the Tropics, after all…”
Luckily, it was at this point the entree arrived to ease the returning tension. The quartet spooned their soup in rather self-conscious silence until, unexpectedly, the Miss Forncett was next to speak.
“So, how are you enjoying married life?”
Not until she looked up from her bowl did Audra realise that she was being addressed, the cerulean stare again locked intently upon her. The query was so sudden and unanticipated that she almost stammered her response.
“Why, it is… the highest estate a woman can aspire to. I feel… honoured to have such a husband.”
She looked at Delwyn, who seemed oblivious to the compliment, as though he had not been listening. Glancing back towards the Forncett woman she thought she caught a slight curl of an
eyebrow; another fractional twist of the mouth: Audra was convinced now she was being mocked; and had been all evening. Face burning, she focussed on her soup, glancing sidelong to check her glass was topped up; feeling unduly reassured that it was.
The conversation was grinding, faltering - as host, Captain Harville felt he needed to give it some spark.
“Mr Pendleton is a Calcutta banker, Miss Forncett,” he announced. “I understand Calcutta is your destination…”
“One of them,” Delia-Jayne shrugged. “I have several cities on my itinerary.”
“And what exactly is your business in India, Miss Forncett?” Delwyn asked bluntly. She did not answer him immediately, but lapped up the last of her soup before carefully setting down her spoon.
“It is a continuation of my work in England,” she said quietly. “I campaign tirelessly for the repeal of the Social Diseases Act…”
Audra all but dropped her spoon. Had this vile woman actually said those words?
“Excuse me?” Delwyn chortled. “You have some objection to the control of social diseases?”
She flashed him a look that was quite openly hostile.
“Yes I do, Sir, when it involves the systematic abuse of women.”
“But surely they are mere harlots,” he countered, with a disbelieving chuckle.
“Maybe so, but the definition of a ‘harlot’ often lies entirely at the discretion of a particular police
official. And under the Act, any woman may be detained for the most intrusive of examinations,
subjected to the most grotesque misuse, all on a gentleman’s say-so. Given the right circumstance, I
myself could be detained, or our rather impressive dancer there, possibly even your lovely wife…”
Cheeks searing like skillets Audra glanced around, noticing that couples on adjacent tables were ceasing their own conversations, and inclining themselves slightly to eavesdrop on this scandalous dialogue. Draining another glass she seethed: this was their - her - moment of the cruise, and it was turning to utter humiliation.
At this point waiters descended en masse, to clear away the remnants of the first course, and begin serving the main. Audra desperately hoped the interruption might signal a change of course for the discussion, but under the Captain’s hopelessly indulgent moderation, her husband stupidly waded back
into the morass.
“Alright, so these girls get hauled in for a medical exam,” he reasoned. “But seriously, where’s the harm in that? Isn’t it worth the inconvenience, to ensure these unpleasant contagions are restrained?”
Delia-Jayne twirled her fork elegantly, before stabbing a succulent slice of meat.
“There is no requirement for the examination to be specifically conducted by a doctor,” she intoned.
“Any man with pretensions to authority may undertake them. The woman’s genitalia are subjected to intrusive manipulation, usually with the fingers, occasionally with implements. The procedure is
painful, humiliating and sometimes actually scarring. And should a woman be deemed‘infected’, ‘unclean’ or whatever euphemism serves the purpose, she may be detained for however long the passage of her ‘illness’ requires. In extreme cases, that detention may be indefinite.”
Audra was beginning to feel distinctly queasy; her fine meal suddenly unappetising. Silence had descended across the restaurant - even the waiters seemed to be listening in. But still her husband, like
an idiot, would not stop provoking the demon.
“And do you think your campaign has any chance of success?”
“I believe it has every chance of success,” replied Miss Forncett confidently. “Each day, more and more men and women of influence are lending their support to the cause. It is simply unfortunate that the Raj should be adopting this pernicious legislation, but I am hopeful that, with the right words in the right ears, I can prevent Indian women suffering the same ill-treatment as their English sisters.”
“Well,” said the Captain, raising his glass jovially, “I think that deserves a toast: to Miss Forncett’s campaign, and to her ultimate victory…”
Audra would never quite know precisely what motivated her to do what she did next: was it anger, drunkenness, or frustration? Whichever, her forearm fired upwards like a distress rocket, the ruby liquid surging from her glass, glinting almost seductively as it pirouetted in seeming slow-motion through the air, before descending in decisive splatter all across the face and bosom of Miss Delia-Jayne Forncett. For an absurd, frozen moment she looked as if she had been shot: her chin dripping red; her expression one of studied consternation. Then, the whooshing gasps of shock, rippling away from them to the edges of the restaurant; a single pulse of judgemental, scandalized dismay. Audra shot to her feet, took in the unified expressions of horror all about her, and promptly fled the room. Out on deck the cooling sunset air hit her more forcefully than any tidal wave, snapping her awake and
sober; the reality of what she just done descending like an avalanche of dread. She waited stupidly for several moments, expecting stewards to come arrest her, and angry mob to emerge - but no one did.
Not even her husband.
Audra was already weeping as she blundered towards the stern, drawing concerned glances from the handful of other people promenading along the deck. When she reached the rail she clung onto it as though the ship was pitching wildly in a storm - in truth, the sea was millpond calm. The sky was magnificent: shading all the way from vivid pink at the horizon to a deep, bruised purple above, pricked
with stars. The lights of Aden glimmered gaily to her side, but she could not take in any of it. She felt dizzied, sickened: her stomach cramping ferociously as though she had been winded. She wanted to
vomit, but was denied the violent relief of the actual occurrence - only the tart, lingering torture of
nausea. And then…
Beneath and below, she saw something in the water. It was quite motionless, and she might not have seen it at all, had it not shown intensely black against the sky-reflecting water. Though it did not move, she was immediately and irrevocably convinced that it was a living creature - she guessed its length as roughly equivalent to the height of a tall tree; easily matching a fair number of vessels in Aden harbour. At one extreme was a blunt, rounded appendage she assumed was the animal’s head, and behind a line of eight triangular fins showing proud of the waterline like a serrated edge. The thing was clearly visible for perhaps half-a-dozen heartbeats before it sank under the water, silently and without fuss, with nary a ripple to mark its passage or existence.
Audra stared down at the water for several seconds, hoping for a reappearance. When none came, she glanced about for other witnesses, but she was alone at the stern. Fired with sudden zeal, her earlier transgressions momentarily forgotten, she strode exuberantly back into the restaurant and exclaimed loudly,
“Everyone, you must come and see! There is a sea monster right outside!”
Some faces turned immediately in her direction, then looked away immediately. There was a faint ripple of laughter. She blundered between tables while the diners studiously ignored her, seeming
suddenly fascinated with their desserts or empty plates. At the Captain’s table her husband still sat, looking shrivelled - there was no immediate sign of that disgusting Forncett woman.
“Delwyn!” she called gaily. “Delwyn, you must see this - it is the most extraordinary thing!”
Captain Harville intently regarded his napkin as Delwyn all but erupted from his seat. Roughly he
took Audra by the arm and began to haul her back out of the restaurant. For a moment she was excited, thinking he was taking her advice, but the death-grip on her elbow and the speed at which he moved
soon told her that he was simply removing her from public view. Jaw grimly set, he did not speak and did not relax his hold until they were safely out on deck again.
“All right,” he said, “So where is it?”
“Well, it.. it’s under the water at the moment,” she stammered, suddenly very unsure of herself. “But if we wait, it might reappear…”
“So what did it look like, this ‘monster’?”
“It was huge,” Audra gabbled, “With a great big head, and it had all these fins trailing behind it like, like…” she let her voice tail off. Even to hear own ears her voice, her words, sounded ridiculous.
“Like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” she finished, feebly.
Delwyn leaned heavily on the rail, emitting a barking, bitter laugh.
“Well, my darling,” he sighed, “You’ve certainly made a spectacular botch-up of your night at the Captain’s table. You humiliated him, his Guest of Honour, and of course, you’ve humiliated me - I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
“Delwyn, what are you saying?” she retorted, anger hot and vivid in her cheeks. “That dreadful
woman deserved it - you know she did, with all her talk of diseases and disgusting things. And the Captain is an idiot, for letting her go on like that…”
“And you’re drunk,” he spat back, his words stinging like a whiplash. “You’re drunk, and you’ve made a complete fool of yourself - first by abusing that woman, and now with this ‘sea monster’ nonsense.”
“But I saw it,” she all but whispered, sounding and feeling pathetic.
“Oh, for God’s sake, woman. You’ve ruined this cruise, you’ve ruined our honeymoon, and you’ve severely compromised my reputation - that woman might be ridiculous, but she‘s rich and she has contacts; contacts I could have used. God, the hours I may have to put in at the billiards room, just
to try and put things back in order - doesn’t bear thinking about.”
He turned away from the rail, and began striding purposefully along the deck, hands in his pockets.
“Delwyn?” she called out, suddenly panicked. “Where are you going?”
“Back to the cabin,” he snarled. “To compose a long letter of apology to the Captain, before he throws us off the ship.”
“But… but what about me?” she pleaded.
He glanced behind him: one swift, sardonic glare.
“If I were you, I’d stay out on deck - perhaps by morning the fresh air will have sobered you up…”
He vanished along the promenade. To her left Audra could see a knot of bystanders watching from the door of the restaurant - amused, titillated. Cheeks aflame she turned to the water, adding to its slow
stirring mass the tender salted droplets of her own tears.
How long she stood, she could not say - certainly long enough for darkness to fall, and a slight chill to set about her. The lights of Aden winked seductively, tauntingly - she had never felt so alone. Her hair had fallen wildly out of shape, her fine gown was crumpled: she was dishevelled and wretched So enwrapped in her misery was she that she did not notice anyone approaching, and when a light touch landed on her arm she started violently. Turning, she was confronted with the face she least expected, and least desired to see: Delia-Jayne Forncett.
“There you are,” she said, without malice. “I was hoping I’d run across you.” As ever, her
look was neutral; the slight smile playing about her mouth.
“What do you want?” Audra’s retort was intended to be waspish, but it came out empty, enfeebled.
“Nothing in particular. I just wanted to make sure you were alright - I gather you’ve been having a little adventure out here.”
Audra blinked at her.“You know about that?”
Delia-Jayne smiled, without irony.“It’s not that big a boat - gossip travels awfully fast. Where is the charming Mister Pendleton?”
“He has returned to our cabin,” Audra blurted. “We are… temporarily estranged.”
“Then you must come along to my suite. You will catch a chill if you stay out here…”
Audra stared at her, wide-eyed, her vision blurred by a webbing of stranded tears.
“Why are you showing such concern for me?” she asked, with almost childlike earnestness.
“You are a woman of spirit,” Delia-Jayne responded, with equal seriousness. “I admire that. Also,
you threw a glass of wine over me, which hasn’t happened since I last addressed a Tory meeting - I wanted to thank you for stirring my nostalgia. Now: come…”
She held out her hand. Audra, hesitated a moment, bemused and embarrassed. Then, essaying as firm a smile as her still tremulous lips would permit, she took it, and allowed herself to be led.
Audra was frankly overwhelmed by Miss Forncett’s suite. It consisted of several huge rooms and appeared to occupy such a large part of the ship that it was like some sort of optical illusion - a distortion of relative dimensions in time and space. It made her and Delwyn’s cabin seem cramped and almost steerage in comparison. Ushered by her host into a parlour that would not disgrace a stately home, Audra was faced with an intimidating selection of seats, opting at last for an ottoman nearest to her.
“I’d offer you some tea,” said Delia-Jayne idly, “But given the pallor of your complexion, and the iciness of your skin, I think something a trifle more medicinal is called for.”
She decanted fine-looking brandy into a glass, handing it to Audra who, with a distinct lack of connoisseur cool, took a substantial gulp. She spluttered a little as it went down, burning and warming on its way. Delia-Jayne watched her patiently as the colour returned to her cheeks; as she began to
feel, if not at ease, at least less troubled with herself.
“So: tell me all about this monster,” Delia-Jayne offered.
“What’s the point?” Audra sighed. “You won’t believe me.”
“Try me.” Miss Forncett’s look was open, non-judgemental - there was something deeply persuasive about her eyes. Audra shrugged, took another sip of brandy, and told all - such as it was.
Afterward, she looked directly at her hostess.
“So - do you think me a liar, or a lunatic? Or perhaps both?”
Delia-Jayne smiled warmly, with a slight shake of her head that set those awesome tresses rippling.
“Neither. Suppose I told you that a creature almost identical to the one you describe was reported by the crew of the Osborne last year, off Sicily, if I recall correctly. You will of course be aware that the Osborne is a royal yacht - her crew implicitly trustworthy.”
Audra’s eyes bulged. “You mean, you believe me?”
“Indeed. Why should I not?”
Audra slumped a little, cradling her glass.
“Delwyn - my husband - didn’t believe me. He thinks I was drunk, that I made the creature up, or imagined it - actually, I don’t know what he thinks. He’s right about one thing, though, I have made a fool of myself, and I had no right to abuse you as I did. Please accept my apologies, Miss Forncett.”
Delia-Jayne waved a hand dismissively.
“Think nothing of it. As I said, I found it rather fun, though I do somewhat fear for the future of that particular frock. As to your husband, I am sure he will come around - young love is often easily bruised, but it heals just as quickly. However, for the immediate duration, you are welcome to spend the night here - I have space to spare, as you will appreciate.”
Audra smiled, tentatively, warmed in the melding glow of brandy and kindliness. Yet she remained intimidated by Miss Forncett’s direct, searching gaze.
“Tell me something,” said Delia-Jayne, after a pause. “Do you feel any different?”
Audra stared a moment, disarmed by the question.
“I feel… upset, embarrassed, and somewhat bewildered by all that has happened. I also, I must confess, feel somewhat intoxicated. But different? No, not really -why do you ask?”
“Oh, it’s just…” Delia-Jayne hesitated, which Audra intuited as being far from her usual style. “No,
forget about it,” she blurted, a little too quickly. “’Twas just a notion, nothing more.”
None the wiser, Audra drained her glass. A silence descended between them, and she became
acutely aware again that this was the same woman who had talked so freely and offensively about harlots, about diseases - the same woman over whom she had triumphantly flung her drink. Images of
the evening were still flashing through her mind, unstoppably: each one cringe inducing, escalating her tension back up another ratchet notch; stiffening her spine with shame.
“You still seem on edge,” Miss Forncett observed coolly. “Would you like some more brandy?”
Audra shook her head. She felt slightly queasy, and unbearably tired, but her mind was racing.
“If I may be so bold,” Delia-Jayne continued, eyebrows curled in mild provocation, “I know of an almost infallible means of relieving tension, should you permit me to try it. All it would require is for you remove your shoes and stockings.”
Audra did not know quite how to respond to this proposition - it seemed vaguely salacious, in a manner she couldn’t pin down.
“You have already shown me kindness enough,” she responded feebly, suddenly gone quite shy.
“Oh nonsense,” Miss Forncett smiled, standing up and taking the glass from her hand. “It is my sworn duty in life to help women in distress, whatever their station. And you, my dear, are most
assuredly distressed, so why not grant me the satisfaction of helping one more, in some small manner?”
Feeling slightly admonished, Audra peeled off her shoes and then, discreetly as possible, gathered up her skirt and petticoat, disconnected her suspenders, and rolled down her stockings. To her flushing discomfiture, Delia-Jayne watched her fixedly throughout the entire process, expression still maddeningly neutral. As her bare feet touched soft carpeting, and her hems slid over her exposed
knees, Audra felt strangely vulnerable.
“You have the most beautiful legs,” said her hostess, quite matter-of-factly. “So long and lithe, like
a gazelle’s - our dancer friend would be positively envious…”
Audra’s faced burned ever more scarlet at this unexpected, unseemly compliment. Why was it that most every word that fell from this woman’s perfect lips left her mortified? And then Delia-Jayne did something truly shocking: she stepped over and knelt down before Audra, her skirt billowing with the motion and her hair splashing and splaying out on the floor. Gently but firmly she took a hold of one ankle, lifting it. Cradling Audra’s heel with one hand she slowly, delicately, began to stroke the sole with the long fingers of her other.
The effect was so immediate, so overwhelming, that Audra gasped, and a tremor passed through her. The sensation was shocking, literally electric -’twas as if all sensation had fled her body save for that one overlooked and ill-considered spot.
“Do you like that?” Delia-Jayne was smiling up at her, eyes aglow and expression dreamy.
“I…” Audra could not find words, not immediately. But as the initial shock of touch wore off, as Miss Forncett’s fingertips played over the rippling softness of her sole like another woman’s might the strings of a harp, she realised that her whole being was beginning to resonate with lulling, unadulterated
pleasure, throbbing in time to the suddenly furious drum of her heart.
“…Yes,” she breathed at last.
“I have always found it so very soothing,” Miss Forncett continued, her voice hushed, almost hypnotic. Her fingers brushed the top of Audra’s foot in slow, painterly strokes, then probed delicately between her toes - a sensation at once tickling and tranquil, that made the younger woman shiver.
“Of course, when one has such pretty feet as yours, ministering to them is a positive pleasure,” she
added, studying her handiwork. And then she lowered her head, almost reverentially, and softly kissed
the cradled foot.
Not for the first time that evening, Audra was shocked speechless. She watched dumbly as Delia-
Jayne dabbed the top of her appendage with light, dry kisses - her body seemed to have become perfectly still, save for her heart which pounded with incongruous fury in her breast. With great care the woman curled and twisted her foot in her hands, applying her lips to the ruffled, yielding skin of the sole, just abaft of her toes. This kiss was different: open mouthed, voluptuous and moist; Audra felt the wet brush of a tongue-tip, and it made her gasp.
“Miss Forncett…” she tried to say, tried to frame some sort of protest, but her mouth would not cooperate and the syllables seemed mushy and indistinct to her own ears. Delia-Jayne ran her tongue, silvery moist, in one long expansive sweep from toes to heel and back again, and Audra shocked herself by actually moaning aloud, overwhelmed by surging sensation. She put a hand to her mouth, but was too late: the damage was done; her pleasure inadvertently expressed.
Craftily, Miss Forncett teased Audra’s big toe free of its siblings, drawing it into her mouth and suckling with slow, silken pressure. Audra felt heat flood her, prickling her pale slenderness with pink blush and beads of perspiration. Bewildered but beguiled, dizzied yet detached, she watched in breathless awe as Delia-Jayne precisely isolated each of her toes in turn, drawing them into the warm
wet cove of her mouth. Audra let this moment engulf her, and with a drawn-out sigh that was part melodrama, part surrender, she swooned; falling back gentle as a leaf onto the ottoman’s stoic support.
She lay, a helpless, panting butterfly: unresisting, almost - so she might tell herself later - unaware as her hem and her petticoat were pushed up to expose the full ivory length of her legs. She closed her eyes, mind floating free as if divorced from her body, aware of all that transpired yet somehow apart from it: silent spectator at her own seduction (if such this was). Satin lips and velvet fingers brushed the tendons of her ankles; caressed her calves, her knees, her thighs. She felt Delia-Jayne’s hair sweeping up over her lower body like some gilded, gossamer blanket; shuddered in vicarious anticipation, biting her lip.
Her legs were parted, and between them her body hummed sweetly, a pulsing, warm ache that both soothed and unsettled; a heretofore unacknowledged need raw as hunger, ephemeral as taste. She understood only that it was somehow sinful, somehow bound up with her feelings for Delwyn; an obscure betrayal of her husband’s love. She understood also that there was no way she could, or would, deny it. Her undergarments rustled softly, being interfered with, deftly set aside: the secret flesh, the sinful seat for so long hidden, from her husband, even from herself, outrageously exposed.
“Please stop,” she mewled, as much for form’s sake as any genuine opprobrium.
“Oh, I don’t think you really want me to stop, now do you?” replied Miss Forncett calmly.
Audra made no response, staring up at the ceiling, trying to will herself away from this salacious scenario, yet ineluctably a part of it. She closed her eyes, held her breath…
Something wet touched Audra’s aching raw flesh, and her whole body clenched, palpitating with unimagined pleasure, making her cry out a wordless paean of undiluted joy. Tears filled her eyes, and she dared not open them, dared not attempt to comprehend what was happening, lest the slender thread of her virtue, her innocence, be forever severed. The clenching came again: a surging, irresistible swell breaking over and through her. She arched her back and called out to someone - was it her husband? Her mother? Was it God? And then wave upon wave of quivering, rapturous release that left her both enervated and utterly at peace. There was no time, no time to contemplate any of it: she drew the deepest breath she had ever drawn, her head reeled sweetly, and she sank into a sleep so deep she could as well have been an infant in her crib - free of husbands, free of women, free of fear and of responsibility. Free of everything…