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When a Lady Misbehaves
By Michelle Marcos
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Michelle Marcos
All rights reserved.
I hate this place.
It was the first thought of every day, but this day in particular.
Squirreled away in the still womb of the pantry, April had finally managed to steal five minutes away from the windowless scullery to read the Society pages. Clutching a pilfered candle and her newspaper, she could follow the chronicles and scandals of the titled elite, and pretend that she was among their number. And just when she began to disappear into the realm of the haut ton, she heard that irritating rhyme that seemed to have caught on at the brothel.
"April Jardine, come clean!"
Pluck a duck! Her hands were still stinging from the steaming dishwater, and raw from the carbolic soap that loosened the grease on the mutton pans. Now there was more cleaning to do. She shook her head, ignoring the summons from one of the working girls. But as the seconds ticked by, the remembered warning from the Madame grew louder in her head until she could no longer focus on her fantasies. She shoved the Morning Post into the pocket of her apron, grabbed the mop and bucket, and trudged up the stairs.
Vomit. It was all over the carpet in Glenda's bedchamber. Her customer had had too much to drink and had heaved his mysterious-looking supper onto the floor.
April stood in the doorway, her lip curled in disgust. "What in bleedin' hell ..."
Glenda walked gingerly around the chunky puddle, lifting her night rail to her knees. "Hurry up, love. He's passed out cold, but he'll be awake in a minute. With a little luck, I can convince him he's already had his go and make him pay again."
April's gaze sank from the groaning mass lying facedown on the bed, to the disgusting mess on the floor. "He's your customer. You clean up after him!"
"You're the scullery maid! It's your job! And don't you give me any more of your lip or I'll tell the Madame."
April mumbled a retort as she dropped to her knees in front of the bucket.
Glenda adjusted her gelatinous breasts over her corset. "You're a silly girl, you are, April. I don't know why you do it. Slogging in the kitchens day after day, when you really don't have to. If I were you, I'd take the Madame up on her offer. We need someone to replace poor Deirdre. Why don't you come work with us girls? In the right light, you could pass for pretty. Besides, you're woman enough for a man in his cups. You could make a damn sight more money than scrubbing pots and floors all day."
April lifted a defiant gaze to Glenda's overpainted face above her. "I'd rather bend my back than lie on it, thank you very much."
Glenda put her hands on her wide hips and wriggled in derision. "Oh, look who thinks she's so bloody noble ... the Dustbin Duchess!"
"Stop calling me that!" April cried, her green eyes shooting daggers at Glenda.
Glenda laughed heartily, her hennaed curls quivering over her freckled shoulders. "I've seen you aping them nobs when you think no one's looking, talking all genteel and putting on airs. D'ye honestly think you're going to become one of them toffs in Hyde Park, all la-di-da and how-do-you-do?"
"Sod off!" April snapped.
"You mark my words, April Jardine," she said, her breasts spilling over her corset as she bent forward to face April, "this is as good as it gets for the likes of us. The minute you start filling your head with ideas above your station, somebody's going to whack it off."
A long, low groan came from the bed as the man stirred into consciousness.
"Bugger! Hurry up, girl, he's almost come to!"
April crawled over to the vinegary splatter of vomit, her face twisted into a grimace of revulsion, and poised the damp cloth over it.
"There you are!" exclaimed a voice from the doorway behind her.
Jenny Hare, April's best friend, grimaced at the mess on the floor. She was already in costume for the evening, a transparent chemise cinched under her breasts, and a pair of white stockings rising up to red garters. "Madame's been looking for you."
"She'll just have to wait," Glenda interjected. "April's got to clean up this mess first."
Jenny arched her shapely black eyebrows. "Then you go up there and tell her that yourself. I'm not letting April get into hot water with the Madame for you. April, you'd best go on up and see what she wants. Let Glenda clean up her own mess."
April climbed to her feet and offered Jenny a grateful smile. Jenny gave her a conspiratorial wink and handed April's cloth and bucket to Glenda, who now stood helplessly agape as Jenny shut the door behind them.
It was a typically noisy Wednesday night at the Pleasure Emporium. The tinny music from the pianoforte filled the dim salon. Waves of boisterous singing, punctuated by raucous laughter, swelled throughout the house. A girl shrieked as she was groped by a customer, and he roared in triumph when he finally hoisted her over his shoulder like a sack of meal and pounded up the stairs toward an empty bedchamber. April flattened herself against the wall to allow them to pass her, and then made straight for the Madame's study and knocked on the door.
April lingered by the open door. "You sent for me, Madame?"
The older woman looked up from her ledger and scowled. "A half hour ago. Where have you been?"
"Sorry, Madame. I didn't hear you."
"No doubt you were engrossed in another one of your silly fantasies."
"No, Madame. I was just ..."
"Never mind. Mrs. Critchley has been taken ill. You'll have to clean the upstairs rooms tomorrow afternoon, before the customers arrive."
"Yes, Madame." Old Mrs. Critchley was rarely too sick to work, because she could ill afford to lose a day's wages. Nevertheless, April blessed her own luck. Cleaning all the bedrooms was a load of work, but at least it would take her out of the suffocating scullery for the day.
"When you're done with the bedrooms, you can tidy up my study. I'm going to sell some of these books, so I'd like you to box them up and take them downstairs."
Stacks of books were piled high in each corner, carved from the shelves that lined each wall of the Madame's study. April puzzled over why the Madame would be selling her precious books, but dared not ask. No doubt it had something to do with the way she was frowning over her ledger.
The Madame leaned back in her chair with an exasperated sigh. "Sit down for a moment, April."
April perched herself on the edge of the chair the Madame had indicated, and waited as the woman lit a cigarette. Despite her exacting manner and brusque demeanor, Madame Vivienne Devereux was a singularly handsome woman, with the high cheekbones and wide mouth characteristic of French women. Her pale skin, though creased around the eyes and mouth, was still lovely. Her once-blond hair was now dulled with gray, but the flash of her icy-blue eyes belied her age. The Madame wore an arrogance that April always admired, a mask of quiet confidence that came from years spent in the company of nobles and royalty. A courtesan of some repute in her youth, the Madame never looked or behaved any less a lady, even now. April always wondered why she lived here, in this hovel of a bordello, instead of exchanging racy witticisms in a Paris salon, where she seemed to belong. But the Madame never spoke of the turn of events that brought her from consorting with European princes to eking out an anonymous existence in a smelly Whitechapel brothel.
"Avril ... dis-moi. Qu'est-ce que tu as décidé?" Although April was born in England, her father was French, and she was the only other person at the brothel who could speak with Madame Devereux in her native tongue.
April blushed. "I'm sorry, Madame. I'm grateful for your offer of promotion, but I don't really want to join the girls."
The Madame's full lips tensed. "Why not?"
"I'm just too ... bashful."
"The shyness will pass. It is the first casualty of our profession."
"I'm not as pretty as the other girls. No one will ask for me."
The Madame delicately expelled the smoke through a sideways smile. "And modesty is the second."
April shifted uncomfortably. She was running out of excuses. "I don't mean to insult you, Madame, but that isn't the way I wish to earn my living."
The Madame's eyes grew wide with incredulity. "No doubt you prefer the stench of the scullery?"
"No, Madame." She couldn't say so to the Madame, but it was a damn sight better than spreading her legs for any man with a few coins to spare.
"I would have thought a year on your hands and knees would have changed your mind in favor of less taxing work."
April didn't know how to answer. Nothing could be worse than working in the scullery. Except that.
The older woman leaned back in her chair. "You are an unusual girl. Very different from the sort of woman who comes to work for me. But you must understand, April. You are young and pretty, and your place is in the front of the house, where the men are. I let you work in the scullery for a time, hoping it would soften your maidenly resolve. But I cannot afford to keep being patient. I can get any old woman to work there. I must put you to work where you can be of greatest service."
April squeezed her hands. "But I can serve in other ways. I can read and write —"
The Madame shook her head. "Those skills are of no use to me here. In fact, the only thing of any value to me you will not part with yet. You are still a virgin, yes?"
April tried to hide the rising color in her cheeks by hanging her head. It was a humiliation to be a virgin in a place like this. "Yes, Madame."
The Madame leaned forward over the desk, her clear blue eyes glistening brightly. "Do you have any idea of the high price that you would fetch? There's a king's ransom to be had for your maidenhead. Most men have forgotten what it is like to have a virgin in their bed, and they would pay handsomely for a second chance at having a fresh girl. It is a great advantage. In one night, you would earn more money than any of the others could make in a month. What do you say to that?"
She could not respond outright. The thought of giving herself to one of these ale-swilling, unwashed barbarians filled her with dread. In a single night, to be branded a low-class whore for the rest of her life — a perpetual consort to this pack of fishmongers, sailors, and pickpockets. It was unthinkable. She wanted better than that. To sell the only thing that truly belonged to her, her dignity ... it was too great a price for too little a reward.
"Madame, I can't ..."
The Madame pursed her lips in frustration. "April, I think you had better reconsider. I have never forced a girl into the profession, and I don't intend to start now. My customers come to my house because my ladies are willing and eager to please. It is a pity that you would prefer to ruin your young beauty with manual labor, but if you wish to remain in my employ, I must make use of you as best suits this establishment. My greatest need for you is in the front. It is not easy work by any means, but it is considerably more profitable than working in the kitchens. I will give you until Friday to decide. If you trust me, I will find you a generous man who will be gentle with you. If not, then I'm afraid you'll have to find employment elsewhere."
The blood drained from April's face. "Oh, Madame, please don't do that to me. Can't I just stay on in the kitchens?"
She cocked her head imperiously. "You seem to be wearing out your welcome there. Cook has been complaining that you're not putting in a full day's work."
"It's a lie! I work plenty!"
"She says that you're forever droning on about the aristocrats you read about in the papers, and that if you put as much effort into keeping the pantry as organized as you do your royal gossip, you would make an extraordinary servant."
"Cook's got it in for me, that's all."
"Is it true that you sneak away to bury your nose in the scandal pages?"
"Of course not. I can't imagine where she should get such a ridiculous notion."
The Madame walked around her desk and stood beside April. She leaned over, pulled the folded Morning Post out of April's pinafore, and held it aloft.
"Oh." April's earthy complexion reddened more. "I ... it's just to pass the time."
"Pass the time? If you have the energy to follow the idle exploits of the haut ton, then clearly you must not be busy enough. You're lucky you're not living in France now, April. To be such a Royalist would earn you a stroll to the guillotine." She shook her head. "You and your fancies. It is a waste of your time to revere these ridiculous people," she said, waving the newspaper, "who do nothing all day but play at being gods and goddesses. And not just because they will never accept you, but because one of these days you will learn that these nobles you worship so much are anything but that."
Her words were pregnant with meaning, but April was only desperate to hear that she could keep her present job. "I won't do it anymore, Madame. You'll never hear another complaint about me, I swear. Can I stay on with Cook then?"
The moments lengthened as April waited for a declaration of amnesty.
"Unfortunately, April, circumstances dictate our choices. If it were not necessary, I could let you stay on in the kitchens. But with Deirdre in her grave these past three months, it has become impossible to make the payments on this house. We are already in arrears, and with the slow winter months coming, I cannot see us surviving into the next year. I need a new girl, and I need her now. And a virgin auction is just what this house needs to stay in business." At April's horrified expression, the Madame placed a papery hand on April's trembling one. "There is no difference between the men of St. James Place and the men of Battersea Park. When it comes to sex, ma petite, one man is as insignificant as the next."
"But I don't want any man," April said defensively.
The Madame's voice deadened. "That may be true. But without a husband or at least a lover, it will be impossible for you to survive."
April lowered her face, unwilling to betray her failing hope. Despite her ambitions to improve her station in life, it was foolish to believe she could ever be more than a common scullery maid. But less?
Her mind reeled at the prospect of herself in a virgin auction. She had seen it done before, and she shuddered at the thought of presenting herself before a gathering of the Madame's eight or ten most solvent patrons, dressed in nothing but a transparent shift. She would have to let their glazed eyes drink their fill of her nearly naked form, and watch as they frantically outbid each other, until only one was left. She would then take the arm of the man who won her body for the evening, and lead him to an upstairs room. She would allow his dirty hands to wander all over her body as he pressed his whiskered face onto hers, and inhale the putrid odor of alcohol in his mouth. She would feel his tongue lave at her neck while he pressed his freely perspiring body onto hers. She would open herself up to him as he tore through the wall that kept her free and pure, forever imprinted by him as her first. She would have to hear him grunt while she dutifully cooed and purred in his ears ...
"I can't," she said, shaking her head slowly.
The older woman clasped her hands on the desk. "I offer you the promise of a better life, April, one which will benefit both you and me. The alternative will make neither of us happy. The choice is yours. Think about it. In two days, I will have your answer."
"But, Madame —"
The Madame's voice took on the resolute quality that was the hallmark of her final word on a subject. "That will be all. Return to your duties. I will call you tomorrow when you may clear away the books." She extinguished her cigarette in a saucer and picked up her quill.
April got up from her chair and silently closed the door behind her.
THAT NIGHT, IN HER ATTIC ROOM, APRIL sat up awake.
Trapped. That's what she was. Like a moth in a jar.
Excerpted from When a Lady Misbehaves by Michelle Marcos. Copyright © 2007 Michelle Marcos. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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