MISTRESS & MAIDS

Thorpeness, Suffolk, 1931

Frederick Sorn was, as they say, a man of considerable means. Owner of Wenderley, a substantial pile in the West Country; a skilled trader in pretty much anything that could be traded (he had turned a large fortune into an even larger one); possessor of a gracious, beautiful wife and a fiercely loyal staff - none more so than formidable housekeeper Miss Leanne Mitchell, who had commenced in his employ aged fourteen as a scullery maid, working her way up through the domestic strata to her present exalted position at just 28 years. Miss Mitchell (one rarely achieved first-name status with her) had a temperament to match her head of fine auburn hair and would, but for her lowly status, have been considered quite a beauty in her own right: a broad, sharp-cheeked, slightly squared face with penetrating (even scolding) brown eyes, a delicate nose and full mouth; a firm, somewhat manly chin alleviated by the most subtle of dimples. Miss Mitchell had repaid her employers faith by making significant additions to (not to mention deductions from) the staff, most recent among them the perky and promising eighteen-year-old housemaid-cum-cook Nelly Thompson.

All was bliss - or as near as could be approximated - until the winter of 1930, over which Mrs Sorn fell ill and despite the best efforts of numerous doctors did not recover, dying not far short of her 45th birthday. While his household was plunged into grief, Frederick Sorn reacted to his bereavement, in the opinion of many - Miss Mitchell in particular - by going a little mad. No sooner was his wifes body interred than he left house and business almost entirely to their own devices and set off on a world tour, returning in June 1931 with, amongst other souvenirs, a brand-new wife guaranteed to cause scandal on three counts: first, she was American; second, she was, at twenty-five, exactly half her husbands age; third, she was, if anything, even more beautiful than the first Mrs Sorn had been at the same still-tender years.

And, no sooner had the newly-minted couple arrived back in Blighty than they were off again - it being deemed that they had not, despite constant travelling, actually partaken of a honeymoon. Thus it was that Frederick Sorn loaded himself, the new Mrs Sorn, Miss Mitchell and a surprised and delighted Miss Thompson into his spacious Bentley and set off eastwards, oblivious to the chorus of wagging tongues that his behaviour had provoked. Their destination was a place of curiosity, of magic, or, if you prefer, the demented dream of an individual even madder than Frederick Sorn had become - the invented seaside resort of Thorpeness, in Suffolk.

Unfortunately, they arrived in the fabled land of mock-Tudor architecture and the House in the Clouds only to find it likewise in a state of shocked bereavement, its creator and owner having himself died a matter of weeks earlier. But the citizens of Thorpeness understood the imperatives of commerce as well as anybody, and dutifully strove to provide a welcoming haven for their paying guests even as their immediate futures were being thrown into flux. Blissful in their dewy-eyed affection for each other, the newlyweds were oblivious to this underlying tension - Misses Mitchell and Thompson, however, were not.

Bloody hell, this place is like a mausoleum, Leanne harrumphed, flinging open cases and trunks as she and Nelly laboured to make their hired holiday cottage a suitable habitat for the master and new mistress. It was a pseudo-Elizabethan effort that, like most buildings in the village, succeeded in being both grandiose and ridiculous at the same time.

I rather like it, answered Nelly blithely. Its peaceful. And I havent been to the seaside since I was right little.

This isnt the seaside, the housekeeper scowled, Its the back end of beyond, a dead mans fantasy. God knows what possessed the master to come all the way out here.

Where has he gone, anyhow?

Damned if I know. I think he said something about going to the boating lake. Miss Mitchell cranked open the doors to a wardrobe like she was expecting an angry bear to be hiding inside. I try

not to pay attention to anything he does with that woman.

Nelly guffawed. You really dont like the new mistress, do you?

My loyalty to the Sorns is absolute, Leanne snapped, hanging clothes with a quite extraordinary vehemence. But it takes more than a ring and a change of name to be the true mistress of Wenderley.

Shes very pretty, said Nelly dreamily. Leanne sighed heavily, looked across at her charge. To be fair, Nelly herself was no slouch in the looks department, a fact not lost on the Wenderley estates male employees (who had already decreed Miss Mitchell a lost cause, for all her finery): an open, apple-cheeked face with a sharp yet elegant chin, a firm nose and a curving, full-lipped bow of a mouth with permanent smiling creases at its corners. A froth of chestnut curls framed bright, grey-green eyes that seemed utterly guileless, but to Leanne - who had, after all, engaged the girl in the first place - remained something of a mystery. She suspected there was more to Nelly than her undoubted ability with stacks of laundry and a silver tray, and was quite intrigued to discover what. At the moment, however, the maid was simply being stupid.

Yes, she intoned savagely, She is pretty. And that makes it all right, hm? That makes it fine and proper for her to just waltz in and take everything over, does it?

Mollified, Nelly hung her head.

I was just sayin is all, she muttered.

Right. And I think its about time there was less saying and more doing. If youre finished with those boxes, wed better go and make the kitchen serviceable - no doubt theyll be wanting supper when they get back.

*

Supper did not go well. Oh, it seemed to, at first - smart in their uniforms Misses Mitchell and Thompson attended the happy couple as they dined at either end of an impressively large table. Despite her deep-seated prejudice Leanne could not help herself studying the new mistress as she ate and drank and occasionally smiled at her husbands rather laboured witticisms. Yes, it was true - Lilah Sorn (nee de Winton) was pretty, although the precise nature of her prettiness was difficult to pin down. Like many American women, she was fresh-faced and tanned, high-cheeked, firm chinned; sweeping sandy hair cut fashionably short. Soft, quick brown eyes beneath lush brows; a sharp, slender nose; a ripe bow of a mouth always parted to reveal a gleam of incisor - all these details, while fine in themselves, were unremarkable. Yet somehow they coalesced into a greater whole that Leanne could only ascribe to allure - quite unjustifiably, it made her hate the new mistress even more.

The trouble came with dessert. Apple pie & custard, the masters favourite - but not, as it turned out, the mistresss. With a flash of her eyes and a beckoning finger she drew Leanne to her side.

Miss Mitchell, she said, with calm condescension, I appreciate that English food may lack the subtlety of other cuisines - even American - but this substance you call custard? I do believe I could plaster the walls with it

The master coughed, and Leanne reddened. Nelly bravely took a step forward.

Beggin your pardon, Mistress, she said, But that would be my fault. I let the mixture go a bit longer than it should have - it wont happen again.

Be sure that it doesnt, Mrs Sorn replied, with the faintest twist of a sardonic smile, and though she seemed to be addressing Nelly, her eyes remained locked upon Leanne. I set a high standard for my household, and I am not one to retain staff purely for sentimental reasons. If changes need to be made, be sure I will make them. Now, would one of you be so kind as to take this concoction away?

Leanne nodded dumbly, removing the offending plate. She stole a glance at her master, who was

resolutely studying his napkin (his own plate satisfactorily empty). So, that was how things stood: it was going to be war.

*

For reasons known only to himself, Frederick Sorn had booked one of the smallest holiday cottages in Thorpeness for his post-nuptial excursion. The practical consequences of this were that, while he and his wife naturally occupied the master boudoir, Leanne and Nelly were obliged to share the only other bedroom, and indeed bed. The potential for embarrassment, in terms of dressing and undressing, the carrying out of ablutions etc, was considerable - but that first evening Nellys immediate concern was calming Miss Mitchells rage, in case it robbed her of any chance for sleep that night.

Bloody woman! Leanne snarled. Who does she think she is?

Shes the new mistress, Nelly replied, reasonably. Dont take it to heart - shes just showing you whos boss.

Ill boss her, the arrogant trollop, Miss Mitchell thundered, hands on her hips and head tossing in a ripple of fiery copper. Not here five minutes and shes already playing at Lady Muck. Oh, and while were about it, what were you playing at? You know full well that was my custard mix, done just as the Master likes it

Nelly shrugged, smiling feebly. I dunno, I - I just didnt want to see you get in trouble, is all. After all, youre the one give me this job in the first place I suppose I owe you.

Huh. Well, Ill thank you this time, but dont do it again. Im perfectly capable of fighting my own battles, thank you very much, and itll take more than some Yankee harridan to get the best of Paddy Mitchells daughter. If changes need to made, be sure I will make them, she added, in a forced, pseudo-Texan twang that made Nelly giggle despite herself. Hells bells

The situation at least partly defused, the co-workers quickly established a procedure by which one would undertake to undress while the other attended the bathroom and vice versa. While this arrangement satisfied propriety it was somewhat disappointing to both parties - Leanne would have appreciated knowing the full extent of the charms that made Nelly so popular with her male colleagues, while Nelly herself had a natural, youthful curiosity about the bodies of others, very few of which shed had any opportunity to see. Alas, such a degree of intimacy could not be permitted given the crucial difference in status between the below-stairs bedfellows.

But being bedfellows was unquestionably, excruciatingly intimate. The pair of them lay in warm, suffocating darkness, their backs turned to each other, fully aware that given the unfamiliar surroundings and extraordinary circumstances, sleep for either or both of them was going to be nigh impossible.

Miss Mitchell, Nelly eventually whispered into the deepening night, Are you awake?

Of course Im awake, Leanne replied, grumpily jiffling under the covers. Ive not got anywhere near sleeping.

Do you think the Master and Mistress are in bed yet?

Theyd better be - theres a full English on for tomorrow, and were not burning any eggs on her account.

Well, do - do you think well hear them at it? Nelly blurted.

Leanne cringed: Gods honest truth, to that point it had not occurred to her, but given the extreme proximity of the other room

Oh God, I hope not, she sighed. Thats a thought I dont want to be having, and you should

ashamed of yourself, Miss Thompson. Now, lets try and get to bloody sleep, just in case they do start

And sleep did indeed eventually steal upon the both of them, with no disturbance from the other side of the wall.

*

If things had gone slightly pear-shaped on that first day, they were destined to become positively pumpkin-like on the second. First, master and mistress were indeed extremely late down for breakfast, and only skilful sleight-of-hand from Nelly saved the eggs - even so, Lilah Sorn picked with almost archaeological caution at her food, as if suspecting something nasty lurked under each rasher of bacon. Then, right in the middle of eating, Frederick Sorn suddenly shot to his feet, announcing that he had to go and make a telephone call immediately, this taking sufficient time that his meal was an unsalvageable, congealed mess upon his return. This was compounded by a further announcement, that he was obliged to drive into Ipswich for unspecified purposes, and that he would be gone most of the day. In full view of the shocked servants he pecked his wife on the cheek, advising her to go out and amuse herself. His sweeping departure was so abrupt that in the immediate aftermath, nobody moved.

To her credit, Mistress Lilah maintained her composure. Dabbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin, she raked her stern, slightly mocking gaze across the still-frozen staff.

Well, she said, I dont suppose either of you have any idea what it is Im supposed to do with myself?

Leanne returned her look with one of her own, that was only mildly insolent.

Youre the mistress - it is entirely your decision.

Nelly coughed discreetly, again pricking the bubble of tension.

Scuse me, Miss Mitchell, but we are at the seaside - surely the best thing would be to go to the beach

Lilahs look directed at Nelly was so penetrating it seem to go right through her, beyond the exterior walls. She sighed heavily.

Very well - the beach it is. If you girls would care to pack something suitable to eat, I will go and make myself ready for the seaside. I sincerely hope it is all its cracked up to be.

*

Well, yes and no. It was at least a very fine June day: blue sky, bright sunshine and a wispy onshore breeze guaranteed to take the edge off later heat. The trio presented an interesting sight as they passed along the perpetually sleepy streets of Thorpeness - Lilah striding ahead with all the brash confidence of the New World, swathed in a chic, sweeping shawl and affecting an ostentatiously demure pillbox hat; Leanne in uniform and scowl marching just a step behind, carrying a burlap bag the Mistress had insisted on packing herself; Nelly, also uniformed, struggling behind with a laden hamper. What none of them had taken into account was that Thorpeness centred around its man-made boating lake, and in fact effectively turned its back upon the sea. Breaking out from the huddle of curious buildings, they were presented with a vista of bare beach, the sea shimmering slightly shamefacedly beyond.

Huh, Lilah announced, Not exactly Coney Island.

Nonetheless a blanket was spread upon the sand, and preparations begun for the inevitable picnic to subsequently occur. Leanne had never felt quite so ridiculous, wondering if she and Nelly were seriously expected to spend an entire afternoon dancing attendance on the new mistress (evidently, indeed they were). Despite the sunshine, the sea and the fresh air, she found herself longing for a

return to Wenderley, to her normal routine - but sadly that routine had always revolved around the first

Mrs Sorn.

And then Lilah Sorn took her clothes off. To be exact, she doffed her hat, then slipped the shawl from about her shoulders, revealing a sleek one-piece Jantzen bathing costume that revealed her trim, long-limbed curves in all their glory. As the maidservants looked on in open-mouthed stupefaction, she kicked off her shoes, rummaged in her bag for a matching swim cap and began with elegantly swaying strides to make for the seas foaming fringe. Halfway down the beach she stopped and turned.

I dont suppose either of you two thought to bring swimming gear, did you?

Nelly shook her head vigorously, while Leanne merely stared with muted hostility.

Thought as much, Lilah shrugged. Shame - I would have enjoyed a race

I cant swim, Nelly mumbled under her breath, as the mistress turned away.

I can, Leanne growled. But I wouldnt want to share even the North Sea with that cow. What does she expect us to do with ourselves while shes playing at mermaid?

I know what Im going to do, Nelly responded brightly, flicking off her cap and pulling up her skirt so she could roll down her stockings. Im going to catch meself some sun.

Leanne was all set to chide the girl, but she realised that this was, in fact, the only sensible solution. Squinting into the light she watched with ill-concealed venom as Lilah, her pert bottom wriggling provocatively, reached the waters edge. She dipped an exploratory toe, then waded out determinedly until buoyancy was achieved, whereupon she pitched forward and began slipping through the calm water with practised ease - within a few seconds being so far out she was hard to spot. A fine swimmer indeed - Leanne irrationally decided to count that as another strike against her. Exposing as much flesh

as decorum would permit, Miss Mitchell lay back on the blanket beside Nelly and let the sun beat down upon her.

One thing youve got to give the Mistress, Nelly opined, Shes got a smashing pair of legs.

Cant say as I noticed, Leanne muttered.

Oh come on, Nelly giggled. Youve got to give her that, at least. Yknow, its a funny thought, the Master being stuck in between them

Nelly! Leanne snapped. Thats a disgusting idea.

Whats disgusting about it? They are married, after all. I wonder how many times theyve done it? Dyou think last night was the first one they havent?

I really wish youd stop thinking about things like that

I cant. It makes me go a little bit gooey, just like I do when Ivor cuddles me an kisses me on the cheek

Ivor Plunkett? The under gardeners son? I thought youve been walking out with Jebson the stable boy?

I was, until two weeks ago - bugger tried to get all frisky in one of the stalls, didnt he? I said, I appreciate the ardour, but Im not havin straw round me fundament, thank you very much. Dumped him on the spot, took up with Ivor two days later.

Youd better be careful, my girl - youll be getting yourself a reputation.

Oh, Im alright - its just a bit of fun. They all know Im saving myself for someone special. Anyways, you were the one they all fancied, before the new mistress came along.

Oh, now youre just being facetious, Leanne snarled.

Im not! All the boys love you, Miss - why dyou think none of them take jobs outside the estate?

I refuse to listen to any more of this rot, said Leanne forcefully, thus curtailing the conversation. Grumpily she settled, closing her eyes, listening to the soft footfalls of the distant waves, the far-off keening of the gulls; feeling the warmth of the sun on her face and in her bones. Droplets of perspiration formed on her upper lip - she licked them away, drew a deep breath, and was asleep before she knew it.

In her dream she was the centre of attention for all the household boys and a significant proportion of the girls - even Lilah was paying her blush-making compliments. She took it all in good part, though the reason for her sudden popularity was lost on her. It not until she chanced to pass along one of Wenderlys spacious corridors and came upon a full-length mirror, only to freeze in abject horror: save for her cap and apron she was completely naked.

The scream that woke her was not, thankfully, her own. Blinking, she stirred, with the disorienting conviction that a significant amount of time had passed. Beside her Nelly was sat up, paralysed, her face a disturbing amalgam of fear and wonder, her finger pointed tremblingly towards the sea. Leanne followed it, and her jaw fell in utter stupefaction. Something immense was moving in the water, coming out from beyond a distant sandbar. It showed as a series of humps, very dark against the sunlit sea, but it was not until the first of these humps resolved itself into a rounded, swinging head that Leanne knew that what she was looking at was actually alive. As the following humps showed fleetingly in a long string, she mentally calculated the length of the beast as that of 4-5 rowing boats - perhaps fifty feet or more. Transfixed as she was, she forced herself to scan the horizon for a tiny, bobbing dot in the water, and found it.

Oh hell, she muttered, Oh bloody, bloody hell

And then she was on her feet, running down towards the waters edge, discarding articles of clothing as she went, her shoes flying off like ricocheting bullets, bits of her uniform rising and fluttering briefly on the slight breeze like ill-conceived, doomed kites. By the time she reached the line of surf she had on nothing but corselette and stockings - the water crashed with unexpected force against her calves and knees as she thundered into it, her underwear rapidly becoming saturated and dragging but there was nothing else for it. The thing, the creature, whatever it was, loomed in the distance as she hauled herself through the water, but she forced herself to concentrate on her smaller, nearer target. To her astonishment, when she reached Lilah, the mistress was simply treading water, watching the beast draw level with her. Leanne reached out, roughly grabbed her arm and kicked for the shore.

Come on, she barked. Lilah offered no resistance, but continued glancing over her shoulder.

Oh, isnt it marvellous, she called, with a slight giggle. I dont think Ive ever seen anything so wonderful

Leanne grit her teeth and kicked on, feeling rather like a leaky tugboat well past its prime. Marvellous and wonderful did not really enter into her calculations - for all she knew, the thing was a man-eater, and even if she did hate the new mistress, she was not about to stand by and let her be swallowed by some leviathan. But the combined drag of her sodden garments and Lilah was quickly causing exhaustion to set in: inadvertently she swallowed sea water and began to splutter; one last mighty effort took her into the shallows and she crawled on to the shore, chagrined to find Lilah loping past her like a gazelle. Nelly had overcome her stupefaction and come down to the water, Leannes discarded outerwear bundled in her arms - she offered a welcome hand to pull the gasping housekeeper to her feet. Together, the three of them turned to watch the creature - it had drifted on, past their location, and now executed a sweeping turn back out to the open sea. As it did so it created a terrific disturbance in the water, and Leanne fancied she saw two immense lateral fins kicking up the spume, almost like the wings of some colossal bird. She and Nelly watched until the beast was lost from sight,

but Lilah had already turned away, striding back to where blanket and picnic lay abandoned. Leanne started to follow, but found she was still quite shaky, gasping for air - Nelly offered a supportive arm and helped her up the beach, Leanne feeling ridiculous and prematurely aged, strands of lank hair hanging across her forehead, dripping in her eyes.

By the time they caught up to their mistress Lilah had already towelled her arms and legs, and was in the process of sweeping the shawl once more about her shoulders - there was the briefest glimpse of her wet costume clinging with unseemly adhesion to her body, taut nipples clearly delineated beneath the filmy fabric.

Well look at you, she addressed Leanne with a mocking smile, You are a sight. Better get out of those things and dried off before you catch a chill. Honestly, what were you thinking, you silly girl?

Leanne could only stare back at her with barely-concealed hate, and even Nelly was for once speechless. But then Lilahs grin turned abruptly slack-jawed: she touched her hand to her face.

Oh God, she whispered, Oh my dear God - it really was

Her eyes went unfocussed and she fainted, dropping onto the blanket like a particularly fetching sack of flour.

Twas a bizarre and slightly comical threesome that made its way back towards the cottage - fortunately there were very few people about to see them. While Lilah had recovered consciousness quickly (before Leanne could resort to the drastic but highly anticipated tactic of slapping her face), she was still, in her own words, woozy, therefore Leanne and Nelly were obliged to take an arm each and steer her along like an invalid, a particular trial for the former who was still trembling from muscle fatigue, and deeply uncomfortable with dry clothes hurriedly donned atop her wet under things. Fortunately, the compact bundle of strength that was Nelly managed to steer them to safety.

What followed initially resembled a major accident in a laundry - clothes flew everywhere as the erstwhile swimmers, each repaired to their separate rooms, frantically exchanged damp clothes for dry ones. Nelly raced between them, gathering and sorting, in the process blushingly obtaining candid views of both her mistress and overseer en deshabille. Desiccate and dignity restored, Leanne took charge of the situation, ordering Lilah into a nightdress and bed respectively, and Nelly to begin boiling water for a restorative broth of her own devising. This was just being administered when the whole sorry mess was compounded by the return of Frederick Sorn, whose deep concern at finding his wife apparently taken ill phased rapidly through disbelief to eventual hilarity as the three women spun their unlikely tale.

A sea monster? he chuckled. In Thorpeness?

He was sat in the kitchen with his servants, helping to polish off the rather careworn remains of the picnic, which was the only food immediately available - this struck Nelly, in particular, as a strangely intimate breaking of the barriers twixt upstairs and downstairs.

We all saw it, Sir, said Leanne firmly.

Oh, Im sure you all saw something, he replied, warily regarding a rather dry chicken leg. A line of seals, perhaps, or even a flock of low-flying birds - that bright sun can play all sorts of tricks.

Nelly was about to open her mouth, but a glare from Leanne forestalled her. They finished the food - what was still edible - in silence. Afterward, the Master said,

Nelly, my dear, would you be so kind as to go check on my wife? If she needs anything, Ill take it up for her when I retire

Nelly rose, and with a slight curtsey left the room. Miss Mitchell knew her employer well enough to see the purpose behind such a vague dismissal, and waited for him to speak.

Leanne, how long have we known each other?

Nearly fifteen years, Sir.

And in all that time Ive trusted you implicitly, never once doubted your integrity, is that correct?

I believe so, Sir.

Then why dont we drop this cock-and-bull story about sea monsters and cut to the chase, hm?

Im not sure I follow, Sir, Leanne answered, blushing guiltily nonetheless.

Well, the truth seems plain to me: before you went to the beach, you dropped in at The Dolphin, and the three of you got a little bit tipsy. Lilah goes swimming, leaving you and the girl on the beach, possibly dozing, then gets into difficulties; whereupon you have to wade out and save her. Thats what really happened, isnt it? This monster nonsense is a smokescreen, to spare your collective blushes - but its all right, Im not going to be angry, provided you tell me the truth.

Leanne, who had never set foot in a pub in her life, stared levelly back at him.

Everything happened as we told you, Sir - Gods honest truth.

Frederick Sorns faced clouded. He rubbed his temples in a gesture of sudden weariness.

Well Leanne, I dont know why youre persisting in this fiction, but it shows great loyalty to my wife and I suppose thats laudable in its way. However, I am going to have to insist you take better care of her from now on, in my absence.

Your absence, Sir? Are you going away again?

He sighed, slightly but audibly. Im afraid I have to go back to Wenderley tomorrow - there are certain administrative matters that need to be dealt with straight away. Its nothing Lilah need know about: I want her to stay here and have a good time, away from it all. Think you can keep her out of trouble for the next few days?

Ill do my very best, Sir.

Good - Ill return to collect the pair of you soon as I can - end of the week at the latest. Oh, and what about the girl? Ill take her back with me if youve no further need of her.

Leanne didnt hesitate.

Nelly has proven a valuable asset, both to the Mistress and myself, she announced decisively. We would prefer that she stay.

The Master nodded, and at that moment the subject of their discussion returned to the kitchen. The Mistress required nothing save the company of her husband, at the earliest convenience. Frederick Sorn rose to his feet.

Better go and give the bad news, he said gravely.

What news? Nelly blurted, only to be hushed by Leannes stern look and wagging finger.

*

It was as the maidservants readied themselves for bed that Leanne - with careful editorialising - finally brought Nelly up to speed with events.

Rum honeymoon this is turning out to be, the girl muttered. Why doesnt the Master want the

Mistress to go with him?

I dont know, Leanne answered truthfully, though she was beginning to have her suspicions.

Well, I know one thing, said Nelly, leaping into the bed with childish glee, She wont be wanting any more days at the beach - far too much excitement.

With considerably more decorum Leanne slipped in beside her, then extinguished the bedside light. In the darkness they settled, but Leanne found her mind was racing, trying to process the days bizarre train of events, endlessly repeating fragments of recollection so that sleep was once again elusive. She assumed that Nelly had drifted off straight away - she was wrong.

Miss Mitchell? Nellys sweet voice suddenly sounded, after a stretched, incalculable interval.

What?

That that thing we saw - it was real wasnt it?

As real as you or I, Leanne answered. Thinking back on her conversation with the Master only strengthened her conviction.

It was so strange. Its fair rattled me, that has.

Try not to think about it, said Leanne, wishing she could heed her own advice.

I cant stop, Nelly mewled. Then, after a pause: Miss Mitchell, I know its an awful imposition, but would you mind cuddling me?

I beg your pardon? Leanne turned to look at the girl, though all she could make out was a pale

outline in the gloom.

Its just, when I was little, and I got frightened, my mum would cuddle me in bed - it always helped me get off to sleep

Hesitantly, Leanne slipped her arms around the girl, drawing her close - it was astonishing, and faintly perturbing, how warm and soft she felt. Leanne couldnt shake a sense that there was something vaguely illicit about this simple act of kindness.

That all right? she whispered.

Mm, Nelly purred contentedly, Thats lovely

But while she relaxed, Leanne became ever more tense, concerned that boundaries were becoming blurred, although she couldnt precisely define which, or how. For her at least, sleep was becoming ever more impossible - then, to cap it all, there came a sound from the other side of the wall. At first it was a slight but persistent creaking, like a cradle being rocked. Then it suddenly, dramatically escalated to a distinct, percussive thump, overlain with the unmistakeable panting of a woman under physical duress. Leanne blushed hotly and invisibly while Nelly snickered.

Hear that? Theyre finally at it

Please, Leanne hissed, I told you I dont want to think about that. I especially dont want to think about her.

Oh, come on, Nelly chided gently. You cant hate the Mistress as much as you let on - when you thought she was in trouble, you went rushing into the water without a thought. You were going to do whatever it took to save her

I was going to do whatever it took to keep my job, Leanne grunted. Nelly wriggled faintly in protest.

No, its more than that. I saw you looking at her when she was in that swimsuit - her legs, her boobs, her bum. I think, despite what you say, youre a wee bit sweet on our Lilah

Leanne stiffened. Thats a revolting thing to imply.

No, its all right, Nelly countered innocently. I rather like her myself, as girls go. I dont think shes pretty as you, though.

I dont wish to pursue this conversation any further, Leanne snapped, struggling not to raise her voice. She thought about withdrawing her arms, but concluded this might excessively churlish - instead she slacked her embrace a little, a subtle gesture of annoyance completely lost on Nelly.

The sound from the other room had subsided as quickly as it had begun, and the silence now was leaden, oppressive. And then Leanne felt something soft and moist upon her cheek.

Miss Mitchell, Nellys whisper was honey at her ear, Im ever so grateful for you getting me into Wenderley, and I just wanted you to know that if you ever want to, um, play, then Im here for you - anytime.

Leanne was too mortified to even breathe, let alone think.

I thought, she stammered, I thought you didnt

Nelly snickered. I told you I was savin myself for someone special - I didnt necessarily mean a boy

The lips brushed Leannes cheek again. Her heart pounded sonorously, but her mind had become like a saturated sponge, unable to process this last incomprehensible twist to a day filled with them.

Go to sleep, she hissed, and again wished that she could take her own advice.

*

A tense, sullen morning that not even the promise of further sunshine could alleviate. In spite of their evident consummation - or possibly because of it - the formerly happy couple breakfasted in strained and studied silence, while their staff conducted their duties with as much physical separation as was possible in such confining circumstances. Miss Mitchell was still unwilling to concede the precise nature of her juniors offer, while Nelly appeared properly contrite as if she had unthinkingly overstepped numerous boundaries, which of course she had. Leanne was willing to put most of what had occurred previously down to a certain amount of hysteria - it was not, after all, every day that one saw a real-life sea serpent. This, however, did not change certain facts: that the Master was indeed leaving them again to their own devices; that she now found within herself a curious sense of almost maternal loyalty towards the new mistress (for whom she had, after all, instinctively risked her own well-being, not to say life); and that the proximity of Nelly, much as she tried to restrict it, produced a vague but undeniable thrill, a hint of licentiousness that was as much physical sensation as emotional state. Leanne assumed that both of these feelings would dissipate in due course - indeed they had to, for the alternative was unthinkable.

With stilted farewells and an almost furtive lack of ceremony, Frederick Sorn took second leave of his wife and drove away with nary a backward glance. Bereft of its focal point, silence and stillness fell upon this transient household, the remainder uncertain just what to do. At length Lilah rose to her feet.

I really think I need a bath, she said wearily. Could you see to it, Miss Mitchell?

Of course, Maam, Leanne nodded, fully aware of Nellys meaningful gaze as she did so. With a glare and a gesture she bade the girl deal with the breakfast things, while she followed her mistress in the direction of the stairs. Instinctively she drew a bath as the first Mrs Sorn would have liked it - temperate, filled with foaming salts. This completed, she collected a fresh towel from the closet, and knocked upon the master bedroom door.

Come in, called Lilah.

Your towel, Mistress. Will there be anything?

The remainder of the question was stillborn on Leannes lips, and the towel fell from suddenly useless fingers. The last thing she had expected to see on entering was Lilah naked, indolently stood at her dresser, doing something fussy and frivolous with her hair. The tanned, bare body seemed to burn itself upon the rooms very air - even looking steadfastly away, Leanne could still see it clearly, all soft hips, tawny-nippled breasts; shock of black hair beneath taut belly.

Begging pardon, Mistress, she mumbled, fumbling to recover the lost laundry. Your bath is ready

Good, Lilah smiled, quite unconcerned, taking the towel from her and flipping it indolently over one shoulder as she sashayed towards the bathroom. Leanne tried to focus intently upon the wallpaper pattern, as opposed to the rotation of surprisingly ripe buttocks.

Will will that be all, Mistress? she managed to croak, a blush like sunburn filling her face.

Actually, no, said Lilah, dipping a dainty, exploratory foot into the faintly misting water. Id like you to stay a while - that is, if youve nothing better to do...

Leanne could not frame an answer to this. She dithered at the bathroom door, feeling like it was her first day at Wenderley all over again, while Lilah slid as gracefully into bathwater as she had the sea.

I wanted to thank you, said Lilah, sinking beneath ivory foam, For what you did yesterday. Im sorry if I appeared ungrateful, but I knew I was perfectly safe. I could outswim that creature, if I had to - I can outswim anything

If you say so, Maam, Leanne replied, her voice unnecessarily gruff from a bone-dry throat. Lilah looked up at her, those brown eyes searching.

You were very tight with the first Mrs Sorn, werent you, Leanne? she asked, jolting Miss Mitchell with the use of her Christian name.

Im not sure what you mean, Mistress, came the cautious reply, Leanne intently studying the bathtubs ornate, pseudo-clawed feet.

Oh, Freds told me all about it, how you doted on her. I realise we havent exactly gotten off on the right foot, you and me, and thats largely my fault - I suppose I was a little bit jealous, and tried to overcompensate. But you took a chance for me yesterday, and I appreciate it.

She shifted in the water, a tide of foam ebbing from the projecting islets of her bosom. The prickle in Leannes face seemed to have spread to her entire being. Lilah smiled.

Do you think you and I could start again, Leanne? Do you think you could be as close to me as you were to your first mistress?

I - I suppose so, Leanne stammered. Her heart was thudding so violently she was surprised the water did not ripple in sympathy.

Thats good. She settled back in the water with a sigh, closed her eyes. For a blissful instant Leanne thought she was dismissed, but then Lilah spoke again.

Lord, I needed this bath. Ever since last night, Ive felt so unclean - no doubt you and Nelly heard all what was going on.

By now Leanne could not swallow at all, and her tongue seemed mildly paralysed.

I dont believe either of us heard anything, Maam, she muttered. Lilah snickered.

Oh, youre sweet, and such discretion. No, I know you heard - to be honest, I think Fred wanted you to hear, so the whole household would eventually know wed done it, consummated as they say. Well, Im not gonna lie to you, Leanne - I found it embarrassing and quite painful and Im glad its over with, for now.

She made a sudden, violent splash, scattering flecks of foam like snowflakes, then settled. She looked up at Leanne expectantly.

There: Ive vouchsafed you one of my intimacies - going to tell me one of your little secrets? Or dont housekeepers have secrets?

Head throbbing, Leanne forced herself to meet her mistresss eyes.

No, maam - we do not.

I thought as much, said Lilah, a touch wearily. Listen, could you do me a favour?

Of course, maam. Leanne felt her heart rate increase a little more.

Would you mind rubbing my feet with that pumice? I think they got a little blistered on the hot sand yesterday

Mechanically, Leanne knelt beside the bath, resting her elbows upon its edge and gently taking Lilahs lifted, ballerina-point foot in her trembling fingers, before lightly abrading with rough, hollow-seeming stone. Lilahs toes were perfect and tiny, almost like a childs - Leanne resisted an overpowering urge to curl her fingers beneath them. She seemed to feel the mistresss gaze intent upon her as she worked, and she prayed the steam would mask her scarlet face and perspiration. After a minute, half involuntarily, she released the foot, and it hit the water with a precise, pebble-like plop, to be immediately replaced by its companion. Leanne worked on in suffocating silence, as if polishing some precious diamond.

You know, I think I might take a walk into the village today, said Lilah idly, abruptly withdrawing her foot from Leannes fumbling grasp, wriggling like a fish as it slipped below the froth. I think I can manage the rest for myself, thank you.

It took a moment for the housekeeper to realise she had been dismissed, and somewhat curtly at that - she was at once mightily relieved and mildly affronted. She rose on stiffening knees, replaced the pumice, nodded and slipped directly across the landing to the room she shared with Nelly. Sitting on the bed she was at a loss, unable to disentangle her feelings and the images seared into her consciousness - the black shock of Lilahs pudenda; the buoyancy of Lilahs breasts; the softness of Lilahs sole cradled in her fingers. Her heart and pulse still raced; she felt clammy and uncomfortable. She listened to the sudden, waterfall whoosh of her mistress finally leaving the bath, the faint whisper of that towel enwrapping bare flesh. Soft footfalls crossed to master bedroom: a door creaked shut. Leanne knew anguish as she pictured Lilah towelling herself down; knew greater anguish as she imagined herself participating in the operation. There was a long, near silent pause - Leanne visualised a dozen outfits into which Lilah might now be pouring herself - each one a source of frustration and allure. To picture the Mistress applying her makeup was almost painful. Then at long last the door opened and closed again decisively - there was a clatter of heels upon the stairs; the front door slammed shut.

Leanne was still sat there when Nelly breezed into the room with freshly-aired towels.

Oh, Miss Mitchell, I didnt realise you were still up here.

Setting down the linen she paused expectantly, awaiting some instruction, but none was forthcoming. Instead Leanne rose, crossed to the door, and closed it. Turning back to the maid she simply stood, silent and staring. A slow, knowing smile crept across Nellys face - she set down the linen, removed her cap, and with artless insouciance began to undress.

Beyond shock now, Leanne was merely numbed by this banal spectacle. The new body being unveiled before her eyes was superficially similar to Lilahs, but there were crucial differences - above all it was significantly curvier, less delicate, albeit with its own kind of heavily athletic grace. Nelly was unquestionably a ripe young woman - no wonder men prowled around her like ravenous dogs. But even now, Leanne could not deduce what she made of such a creature.

Nelly was not shy about displaying her charms. Divesting herself of the last of her underwear she shuffled backwards on top the bed. Laying back, she slid one forearm beneath her bosom, elevating and projecting her full round breasts; she opened her legs wide and slipped her other hand between them, indulging in a shimmering moment of private pleasure before fixing Leanne with a sultry, provocative look.

Dyou like what you see, Miss Mitchell?

Leanne, eyes wide, face frozen, had no idea. But she knew what she wanted - twas something she had never before contemplated, even in her most private dreams and moments. It was a notion unimaginable to her until - when? The tending of her mistress in the bath? The sight of Lilah naked? The bawdy chats with Nelly in bed and on the beach? Lilah in her swimsuit? The sea serpent? She swallowed hard, drew a breath, began mechanically to remove her clothes as Nelly looked on with evident, anticipatory approval.

Being naked briefly equalised them - both tanned and slightly weather-beaten from menial labour. But when Leanne at last slid tentatively onto the bed Nelly reached out and pulled her on top, physically deferring. Leanne shuddered and gasped at the sudden, immense brush of cool skin against her own; the voluptuous press of breasts and bellies; the complex, silky entanglement of arms and legs.

I dont know what to do, she breathed in a rush.

Do whatever you fancy, Nelly tittered indulgently. Im yours, Miss - all yours

It seemed safest - and most appropriate - to ape what little Leanne actually knew of conventional carnal congress betwixt man and woman. She began to oscillate her body, tentatively at first but with increasing vigour, rubbing against her companion with as much of her flesh as she could manage. It was at once illicitly thrilling, vaguely disappointing and more than a touch ridiculous, though Nelly seemed to take it all in good part, wriggling beneath her overseer and panting in a sultry but strangely appealing manner.

Kiss me, she blurted suddenly, girlishly - Leanne shocking herself by doing just that. And what began as a simple - if intense - press of lips morphed with indecent rapidity into something fiercely intimate, lusciously lewd: Nellys mouth opened, a warm, wet blossom; Leanne was obliged to follow suit, her tongue slipping forth into foaming depths that were simultaneously flavourless and succulently sweet. Nellys tongue curled up to greet her own: their quivering, entwining oscillations like mating molluscs; a microcosm of their greater coupling. Leanne felt her excitement flare and race, her being feverishly quivering; between her legs an unseemly sense of heat, of molten pouring. All her extremities seemed to flex in unison, of their own accord - a strange, unbidden sound, half scream of horror, half sob of resignation, bubbled up from her throat to be expressed in the humid softness of Nellys welcoming mouth. A whirling, dizzying moment, fringing a faint, then Leanne collapsed against her underling, trembling uncontrollably, panting for breath, misted with febrile sweat.

What what happened? she managed to gasp. Nellys laugh was a tinkling of wind chimes at her ear.

You came, Miss Mitchell, she said, and for all her amusement there was tenderness and pride in her voice. Ive made you come

So soon? Leanne felt more disappointment than anything - the experience was so quick, so overwhelmingly sudden, she wasnt entirely sure if she had even enjoyed it. She slumped regretfully into Nellys embrace, feeling somewhat of a failure.

Its all right, Miss, Nelly soothed, gently stroking her hair, her neck, her shoulders. Youre a girl - girls can do it as many times as they want. Like me to show you?

Leanne sniffed and nodded, unaccountably moved by Nellys alacrity and her own schoolchild eagerness. Their roles had reversed with almost polar symmetry - the housekeeper now fully in her maids thrall. With tenderly controlled power Nelly pushed her up and off.

We need to swap over, she instructed, as if directing a game of tennis. You lie down here with your legs apart, like I did

As she skipped athletically to the bottom of the bed, all bouncing breasts and buttocks, Leanne obeyed. Her body, just a moment ago so enervated and lifeless, now hummed again with pulsing, crackling anticipation. Though she blushed vividly she did not hesitate to part her thighs wide, exposing the focus of her need, her shame. Nellys appreciative look set her blush to sunburn intensity, and had her lowering her eyes like a shy, seduced maiden. For indeed, was this not what she had become?

With an unnervingly wicked smile Nelly mounted the bed, crawling up between her superiors stoutly elegant thighs. Before Leannes shocked, adoring gaze she dipped her head like a pouncing cat and put her lips to the scented, enflamed, abhorred rent; her tongue gliding into despised and aching flesh to send a blistering rash of sensation through every nerve and fibre. She gave a banshee moan, her body curling up either in tribute or protest, overwhelmed with sensations pleasurable beyond reckoning and painful beyond endurance.

Nelly, she gasped, Oh Nelly, what are you doing to me? My God, wherever did you learn such a thing?

Nelly glanced up at her, eyes bright and absurd above the lush black thicket of Leannes pudenda, alight with purest mischief as her tongue-tip found the precise spot that sent spasms of unbearable delight shimmering though her, had her writhing and sobbing in near-delirium. She knew fine that she was making a fool of herself, but she was beyond caring: knew fine that she ought to be struggling, protesting this despicable onslaught, but all resistance had left her. Filled with a sense of delicious, depraved inevitability she arched her back, tossed her head and screamed with trepidation and release, giving herself up to her second orgasm of the afternoon; the second orgasm of her yet-young life.

After a few beats Nelly slithered up level with her, sweet smile glistening, all but dripping with a substance Leanne did not care to attempt to name, knowing full well that it had issued from her very person. She knew also that she ought to be revolted, but instead there was a pulsation of tenderness for the girl that was so intense it almost moved her to tears. She lifted quivering fingers to Nellys cheek, tried to say something but found she had no voice. Nelly merely nodded, seeming to understand, then stooped to kiss her. And as the girls tongue slipped once more between her passive lips, this time drizzled with a loamy, treacly sweetness, she knew not horror but contentment: happy to be weak, for her skin to be touching another; happy to be holding the one who could show her so much blinding joy.