Millicent paused before hammering in the next nail. It was jolly hot! The afternoon that is, not the nail. She wiped a few delicate, jewel-like beads of perspiration from her gently glowing forehead and set down the hammer.
She half wished she had never taken the job on, but no, building an opium den for Mamma was a quite admirable task for any capable young lady. Especially one who had graduated from the Young Ladies Practical Skills College – “equip your young lady for life.” To Millicent, nothing was quite so thrilling as a superbly crafted tongue and groove.
In any case, Mamma had taken to smoking her fix in the greenhouse, where it was so chilly in the winter months. They had found her there once in mid January, happily comotose but with frosted eyebrows.
How long ago that seemed. On this sultry July afternoon, the icy grip of winter could have been in another age. A weak breeze stirred the tops of the poplars, Papa’s favourite wolf was stretched out on the terrace, panting in the heat, and the only sound was some desultory birdsong, just caught on the breeze from the far side of the half-acre lawn.
Or was it? Just audible, on that very same breeze, came a faint popping and banging – the sort of noise Papa made when attempting to take potshots at the undergardener. The noise became louder, and louder, until a strange contraption came in sight. Millicent recognised it at once as a motor bicycle – she was after all a modern young lady – but more intriguing to her was the rider, wrapped up in tweeds and goggles, intent on controlling his steed.
With a final rattle and pop, the dreadful machine rolled to a stop, right next to where she was working. The rider jumped off and sauntered over. He was clean shaven, slight but lithe, and with a dashing silk cravat tied carelessly about his neck. When he raised his goggles, his eyes were revealed to be of piercing blue. Quite involuntarily, Millicent caught her breath…then lost it….then caught it again. It was most tiresome.
“Afternoon. I’ve got a spot of business with Lord Bulstrode – know where I might find the old cove?”
Well! Not only was the young man addressing her as if she was a common work person, but they hadn’t even been introduced! With a frosty haughteur, Millicent replied, “I think you’ll find him in the library,” turning quickly back to her work to indicate that this unwelcome interview was at an end.
Annoyingly, the young man didn’t leave. Instead, he was surveying Millicent’s half-finished opium den with a critical eye.
“If you don’t mind me saying,” he said with the hint of a sardonic smile on his surprisingly full lips, “your tongue and groove looks a little rough around the edges. You need to use a finer grade of sandpaper.”
Before she could reply, he was off, bounding up the front steps two at a time on surprisingly slender legs. It was just too annoying for words.
That night at dinner, picking up her Sabatier (cook would undercook the turnip so) Millicent casually asked her father about the mysterious visitor. “Oh, him, young Andrew. Just business, knew his father. Something peculiar about the family though – sent him off to a young ladies finishing school instead of Eton. Never understood it meself.” Pappa turned his attention back to the turnip – he was using a bowsaw.
At breakfast, Millicent picked at her devilled kidneys. She had had a restless night, thinking about the mysterious young man and his surprisingly graceful neck. But just why, she could not say. “Is something wrong dear?” “Oh no, Mamma,” she replied quickly to her mother’s concerned enquiry, “Just a problem with the opi…I mean the new greenhouse.” She had stopped herself just in time. Mamma had an even more delicate constitution than Millicent and preferred the term ‘opiate drawing room.’
Later that morning, Millicent cycled into the village – she needed more nails and, though it pained her to admit it, some finer grade sandpaper. Having made her purchases from the two gentlemen who ran the ironmongery (and slept in separate rooms in the cosy flat above the shop) Millicent prepared to ride back to the Hall.
She was just about to leave when she spotted Andrew. Andrew! He was striding purposefully along the street, and with barely a pause, turned rapidly into the artists’ commune that fronted the high street. Millicent was rooted to the spot. Surely Andrew could not be consorting with those dreadful women.
It was true, all of the artists were women (certainly not ladies) and their comings and goings had caused quite a to do in the village. Some of them wore trousers and there were rumours that a few of them smoked pipes. But not for much longer. The Parish Council had finally had enough, and ordered the community to pack its jolly silly canvas bags and leave. As for the large house they occupied, a purveyor of illicit cinematographs had been invited to take their place. The men of the village seemed jolly excited at the prospect, but Millicent could not understand what they found so interesting in films with such titles as ‘The Frisky Plumber Rides Again.’ Give her a double-lapped joint in hardwood any day! Dear old Alderman Smith had proposed that a licenced brothel be given the premises instead, but had been narrowly voted down. By all accounts, it had been a close run thing…
“Hello, Milly. Nice to see you again. How’s your tongue and groove coming along?”
Andrew! Millicent didn’t know what to be most shocked by. Andrew’s over familiarity, his knowing smile, or the fact that he had emerged from the community of artist women. With a great effort, she gathered herself.
“How can you associate yourself with those…ladies?” she asked with as much iciness as she could muster.
“Oh, they’re not such a bad bunch you know,” he replied cheerfully. “A tad unconventional perhaps, but very giving, if you know what I mean. Now then, can I offer you a lift up to the Hall on the back of my bike?”
Millicent felt the colour rise in her cheeks, but kept in firm control. “No thank you. I have my bicycle. Good day to you, er, Andrew.” As she cycled off, Millicent couldn’t help wondering about Andrew. Not just about his slender waist and surprisingly full chest, but why was he visiting those women? Perhaps he was an investigative reporter? Or an undercover detective chief inspector?
Suddenly, there was a bang as the Millicent’s front tyre burst dramatically. She tumbled from her machine, remembered sprawling into the dusty lane and then…blackness, until a pair of strong but surprisingly slender arms scooped her up, balanced her on the back of a motor bicycle and set off…back to the village.
* * *
“Ah, feeling a little less groggy are we?” Millicent opened her eyes cautiously. She was lying in a comfortable bed in a small, trim little bedroom. Before her stood a large, jolly looking woman in plus fours and a tweed waistcoat. Her hair was cut very short, and there were splashes of paint down her bare arms. It dawned on Millicent that her rescuer – whoever he was – had brought her back to the dreadful artists women commune! Her host was puffing contentedly at a briar pipe.
“You took a proper tumble and no mistake! But no harm done, just a flesh wound. One of m’chums whisked you back here. Andy,” she called down the haul in an impressively booming baritone. “Yer damsel in distress has come round, and very nice too, if ye don’t mind me saying!”
Andrew’s surprisingly slender figure appeared, silhouetted in the doorway, and Millicent caught her breath at the sight. Hardly surprising – she had after all been the undisputed champion of girlish breathlessness at the Young Ladies Practical Skills College.
In almost a single movement, Andrew strode into the room and within seconds was holding Millicent in a tight yet surprisingly tender, almost feminine, embrace. What else could she do but melt into his arms, which as we may have mentioned earlier, were surprisingly slender. “Oh Andrew darling,” she breathed, “We have found each other at last! But…why are you wearing nail varnish, and that rather fetching azure necklace…and isn’t that perfume rather…feminine?”
“Well Milly,” Andrew drew back momentarily, “you see, my real name is Andrea and I bat for the other side. What we have is a beautiful thing – the love that dare not speak its name.”