On the walk home I can think of little else, nearly forgetting to fill the trug with flowers. My legs are weary and I’m anxious to get back. I see a shortcut past grazing sheep and decide to take it. They stop to stare, as if they know what I’ve done. I walk faster, wondering how much I should tell John, or if I should tell him at all. He would surely send the constable to have the caravan removed, and the idea of batons and billy clubs swung by helmeted police makes me tremble. And what of my behavior?
I can see the brick and slate roof of the stables from the crest of the hill and an outline of the grounds keeper planting young trees. John stands near the door, laughing at the playful antics of a young border collie, his face obscured by afternoon shadow. Managing thousands of acres appears to agree with him, much more than the closed houses of parliament. He looks up and waves, moving quickly in my direction.
“What on earth happened to you, Ivy? Did you fall? Your clothes are soiled and your hair’s a fright.” He bends forward picking a rowan twig from my collar. “Are you all right?” I look at him, suddenly knowing I’ll say nothing. “Better hurry and change. Lord and Lady Higgins have sent a calling card. I’ve asked the cook to prepare lamb.”
Albert waits inside the front door. “Welcome home Madame. Shall I have the maid draw a bath?”
I am breathless with fatigue. The aroma of julienne soup wafts from the kitchen.
I nod to Albert, heading toward the stairs, while stealing a quick glance at the dining room. The table has already been laid with brocade cloth, and the sideboard prepared with serving dishes and silver. I have stayed away too long.
I sit in the bath, mentally preparing the evening ahead. Lady Martha is young and talented, though oddly plain. I’m sure she’ll share her musical skills to provide evening entertainment. Mendelssohn would be nice. I’ll place a concerto on the music stand. Then suggest neapolitan cakes and compote of cherries for dessert, ordering Albert to the cellar for Madeira wine.
I forcefully lather soap against my facecloth, not realizing what I’m doing until it escapes, splashing into clouded water. My hand is empty now and upturned. I step out of time, tracing the lines of my palm as the burgundy-cloaked woman had. She saw something there, a kind of recognition of my essence, a moment without words when she looked into my soul, as if identifing a secret. But what did she see? If only I knew.
I towel off, spending a moment with my reflection in the mirror, wondering. What would it feel like to be naked out of doors, to feel wind and water directly on ones skin? My mind begins to imagine the warmth of sun on exposed flesh and the tender touch of peach-colored lips on the nape of my neck. I wake from my reverie, alarmed. Have you completely lost your mind?