The Bodice Ripper Chapter 6

The Bodice Ripper
Chapter 6

Angus came into the room at once and began to help the Honourable and Reverend Hewbert Robinson into his clothes. The Hon. and Rev. Hewbert was perfectly capable of dressing himself, for in his days of extreme hardship, e.g. being imprisoned in the Tollbooth for preaching to more than nine Piskies in one place, he had learned how to do this and other servile tasks. But being a kindly man, he had never let on to Angus about his new skills, for Angus would have been crushed had he known and lost his sense of tolerant superiority that all servants used to have but in Britain is now confined to au pairs from Slovakia 

After Angus had finished his ministrations, the Rev. Hewbert looked as well as could be expected in his short black cassock, black clerical coat, black stockings, black velvet breeches, white stock, white frilled shirt, black shoes with gold buckles, grey powered clerical wig and black tricorn hat. He went downstairs, took his ivory-topped cane from the umbrella stand and went out to his covered carriage. By now the sun had disappeared, and a drizzling rain had begun to fall. Hewbert ducked inside and ordered John Coachman to depart. John whipped up the four matched bays, and they set off jingling over the cobblestones of the New Town.  

The elegant streets flashed past, and Hewbert settled himself in for some hard thinking along the road to Leith. As a rule he did not get along with this brother the fifth Earl of Bough, who cursed him as a preaching parson and mocked him for his adherence to what the cleric thought was the true religion. Henry had long since begun to attend Presbyterian services, not out of any sense of Christian duty or Calvinist conviction, but because it was the fashionable thing to do. The preaching of any minister, Piskie or Kirk, went in one ear and out the other with his lordship. However, Henry remained, the head of the family, and it would never have occurred to Hewbert to take any drastic step in his domestic life without consulting his brother. 

Before the rain cleared, the horses pulled up before a grand mansion in a park just outside the steaming slums of Leith. Henry's bewigged old butler Mr Adam, resplendent in his scarlet livery, came down the steps and opened the carriage door for the Rev. Hewbert. The ancient servitor held an umbrella and bowed low.

'Well, Mr Adam, and how are you this day?' asked the cleric kindly.

'Very well, Mr Hewbert, thank you. You will find his lordship in the billiards room.'

'Fie. At this time of day?'

'Yes, Mr Hewbert. Sir David Cameron and Sir Nicholas Cameron are with him, sir.'

At this news, the fond look in Hewbert's large dark eyes--for he had known Mr Adam from a boy--was replaced with a lighting flash of loathing.

'My cousins!'

'Yes, Mr Hewbert. If you would follow me, Mr Hewbert.'

Very straight-backed, Mr Adam led Hewbert upstairs and through the childhood home he had loved so much to the billiard room on the piano nobile of the east wing. It was a long, high-ceilinged room with a great view of the sea. In it the Reverend Herbert perceived his heavyset, black-browed brother Henry, their fair, fat cousin Sir David, and Sir David's slim son Sir Nicholas. Henry and David were wearing white wigs, but Nicholas had merely tied back his blond locks with a blue ribbon. He was only twenty-two and like others of his generation rather despised wigs. Wigs were alright for old fellows, servants, lawyers and clergymen, but not for young bucks like themselves.

Henry took his shot at the billiard balls and then straightened up to look at his brother. 

 'How now, Herbert? To what my I attribute this unlooked for honour? Adam, a glass of madeira for Mr Hewbert.'

'If I may say so, it is early yet for wine, but I will have a little whisky. Thank you, Mr Adam.'

'Very good, sir,' said the butler and departed.

'I have come on private family business,' said Hewbert. 'May I trouble you for a private word in your office?

'No, you may not,' snarled the Earl of Bough. 'I am in the middle of a game. Whatever you have to say, you can say before David and Nick.'

'Yes, damn me,' said the red-faced and corpulent David. 'Private family business, indeed. What are we, do you think? Boiled mutton? Out with it, man.'

'But it is a matter of greatest delicacy,' said Hewbert coldly. 'It concerns a Lady.'

'Even better,' said young Sir Nicholas, his blue eyes full of mischief. 'What better topic on a rainy day?'

Suspicion flashed into the earl's eyes, and he glowered under his black brows.  

'I hope you are not coming to preach to me about some town gossip, Sobersides, because I won't stand it from you. I am not a member of your congregation. I am the Head of this family, and I expect you to remember it.'

'I do remember it,' said Hewbert impatiently. 'That is why I am here. I am--.' He broke off to clear his throat. 'I am contemplating matrimony.'

There was a sensation marked by exclamations of disbelief. 

'With whom?' demanded Sir David.

'I can only imagine!' cried Sir Nick.

But the Earl of Bough put down his cue and looked narrowly at his brother. He nodded.

'It will be that Pewsey chit, I collect. You could do worse, Herbert. You could do worse.'

'You astonish me, Henry,' said Hewbert. 'How could you know? Thank you, Mr Adam,' he added and drank the proffered whisky. Mr Adam bowed and took the tray away.

'Half the town has been wondering how Grunstane will get his daughter off his hands, and it occurred to me that he might turn up at your door,' said the Earl of Bough. 'And since you stubbornly cling to the old religion and--I strongly suspect--regime, you have little hope of a better offer. Still, I may have to take my time to think about this.'

'Damn me, that's cold,' exclaimed Sir David. 'What's wrong with the girl?'

'It's not the girl,' said Lord Bough. 'It's her father. He might dance to King George's tune now, but everybody in Edinburgh knows he is still a Jacobite--and a Piskie into the bargain. Anglicanism is all very well for you in England, David, but in Scotland it is a different kettle of fish.'

'But I thought the Grunstanes were as rich as Croesus,' said Sir Nicholas. 'There's many a man in both Edinburgh and London who's wondered how to get a share of the loot.'

'They have always been wealthy, and never more so than in this generation with the money the Countess brought in. She was a Fairfax, you know,' said Lord Henry. 'But these are uncertain times. No-one wants to risk being on the wrong side if there's another attempt on the throne or even,' he shuddered, 'revolution.  You can always count on the Pewseys being on the losing side for all their gold.'

'Fie,' said Sir Nicholas, laughing. 'If you weren't my elder by some 25 years, I would call you an old woman. Who cares for politics? Is the girl young? Is she pretty? If she is to become family, I wish to know the particulars.'

'As to her looks, I could not say,' said Lord Henry, 'though she must be all of sixteen now. Have you seen the lady, Herbert?'

'I have, and in my opinion she is the loveliest lady I have ever seen.'

'Oho!' said Sir Nicholas. 'That is more to the point! Is she little or queenly, fair or brown, buxom or flat as a board? Tell all.'

'I am not going to discuss a Lady in such terms with you,' said the Rev. Hewbert stiffly. 'Perhaps I have said too much already. But I stand by what I have said. Lady Prudence is the most beautiful woman of my acquaintance. However, this should not be the deciding factor, and I have come to consult my brother.'

'Quite right,' said Sir David. 'Damn me, when it comes to lovely ladies, you can do worse than to consult Henry. Eh, Henry? You old dog!'

The three men laughed, but the cleric's eyes flashed and he coloured to the roots of his wig.

'That is not what I meant.'

'It should have been,' said Sir David. 'Damn me, it would be a fine sight to see how you deal on your wedding night, Hewbert.'

'Oh, to be a fly on that wall,' sniggered Sir Nick.

Herbert felt, not for the first time, that it was a sad business that clergymen did not carry steel, for he believed that his cousins would certainly profit by a sharp lesson at his hands.

'I thank you,' he said. 'But I imagine I would acquit myself as a gentleman, a Christian and a Scot, so keep a civil tongue in your heads.'

'Oh, come now, Hewbert,' said Henry, smiling. 'You have to admit you don't know the first thing about women. Why, I bet you would not know what to do if one fainted at your feet.

'I would, too,' said Hewbert hotly. 'I would free her of her constricting bodice with a steak knife.'

Surprise appeared in his brother's eyes, but the Earl said merely, "A bread knife.'

'Many authorities may recommend a bread knife,' said Hewbert, 'but for real ripping action, there is nothing like a trusty steak knife.'

'Oho!' said Sir David. 'Could it be that the Honourable and Reverend Mr Hewbert Robinson is not such a plonker as he looks?'

Hewbert hesitated and then made an ironical bow.

'A bread knife,' repeated the Earl. 'Everybody knows that.'

'A steak knife, though,' mused Sir David. 'I could see how that might be more effective, and yet I don't know. A bread knife has always worked for me.'

A thought seemed to occur to young Sir Nicholas, for he leaned forward and his eyes gleamed.

'Why not put it to the test?'

'What do you mean, boy?' asked his father.

'A wager,' said Sir Nick. 'I bet ten guineas that Cousin Hewbert with a steak knife can dispense with a bodice faster than Cousin Henry with the bread knife.'

'You're on,' cried the Earl.

'Hold hard,' said Sir David. 'How are we to put this to the test?'

'Simple,' said Sir Nicholas. 'Let Henry ring for a bread knife, a steak knife and two kitchen maids.'

'Kitchen maids?' repeated the Reverend Hewbert, frowning. 'Why trouble the kitchen maids?'

'My dear Hewbert,' said his young cousin silkily. 'They are the source of the bodices.'

'Fie,' said the Honourable and Reverend Hewbert, and his dark eyes flashed. 'I will have nothing to do with ripping bodices from kitchen maids. They will give themselves airs.'

'I suppose you think kitchen maids are occasions of sin,' sneered his brother the Earl of Bough.

'For some men, perhaps, and I collect I am looking at one such. However, if there's one thing we learned from Mr Richardson's masterful work Pamela, is it that attempts on the clothing of the lower orders lead to them giving themselves airs, simpering in corners, and getting ideas above their station. Besides, as a clergyman, I deplore wagers. And consider this, gentlemen: it was clothing for which the Roman soldiers diced.'

'Zounds, Hewbert, you are no fun at all. How I pity this Lady Prudence,' said Sir Nick. 'Let this be a contest between my Cousin Henry and my esteemed father then. I will wager 12 guineas on my father with the steak knife against Henry with the bread.'

'Capital,' shouted Sir David. 'Your blunt will be secure, my son!'

The Earl of Bough rang for Mr Adam, who appeared and bowed.

'Adam,' cried Lord Henry. 'Fetch us a steak knife, a bread knife and two kitchen maids.'

'Very good, your lordship,' said Mr Adam, though for an instant he hesitated. 'May I inquire as to which kitchen maids your lordship most particularly wants to see?'

'Sufficiently ripe ones,' said the Earl.

'With bodices of roughly the same material,' added Sir David. 'Damn me, I insist on fairness, Henry.'

'Of course, of course. Let them be sufficiently ripe as to require corsets and both wearing bodices of the same thickness.'

For an instant the old man's rheumy eyes sought Hewbert's dark, clear ones. They held a mute appeal. Hewbert raised his eyes to heaven and then gave a brief nod. Mr Adam repressed a sigh.

'Very good, your lordship,' he said, bowed and left the room.

Lord Bough noted this bit of by-play and would have been inclined to resent it, were he not so intent on the sport ahead. Instead he began to chaff his brother about his coldness to the fair sex and threatened to withhold his consent to Hewbert's marriage out of a sense of justice to the poor girl, who certainly deserved a kinder fate, etc. Hewbert's cousins joined in this raillery happily, and thus three men at least passed a happy quarter of an hour before the door opened and two kitchen maids came tripping in, followed by Mr Adam. Each maid carried a knife reposing on a cushion. They both curtsied.

Eight eyes fell upon the kitchen maids. Sir David's pink face grew pinker. Sir Nicholas smiled wolfishly. The Earl of Bough cleared his throat. Only the Reverend Hewbert remained unmoved. He sat on a settee and looked balefully at the scene.

'You may withdraw, Adam,' said Lord Bough.

'If I may be so bold as to--?'

'You may not, Adam. You may withdraw.'

With a last beseeching glance at Hewbert, Mr Adam withdrew. The kitchen maids stood uncertainly by the door. They were old for kitchen maids--perhaps sixteen--and though they were skinny, their small bosoms fairly spilled out of their cotton bodices. One kitchen maid was dark-haired, green-eyed and sallow, and the other was blond, blue-eyed and sunburnt.

'Turn around,' said the Earl.

The maids curtsied and turned around. Their bodices were laced up the back with strings.

'Definitely a job for a bread knife,' said the Earl. 'Nick, your twelve guineas are mine.'

'That remains to be seen,' said Sir Nick.

'Face forwards,' said the Earl. 

The girls faced forward, still holding the cushions stiffly before them.

'You with the steak knife, step forward.'

The dark-haired maid stepped forward, and the earl took the cushion from her, deftly picking up the bread knife and tossing the cushion to Hewbert, who missed. 

'Both maids turn around,' commanded the Earl.

But instead of turning around, the maids looked at each other and then down at the richly carpeted floor. 

'Both maids turn around,' repeated the Earl more loudly.

The blonde maid curtsied and said timidly, 'Please, your lordship, we--."

'Turn around, I said. Are you deaf?'

The girl began to tremble like a leaf, but she said, 'Please, your lordship, we are honest maids.'

'And I have an understanding with my young man Johnny at the dairy,' added the dark-haired girl.

'What has that to do with me?' demanded the Earl. 'I do not brook insubordination in my hirelings. Turn around!"

'Indeed, my dears,' said Sir David with a look he thought paternal. 'We do not mean to hurt you. This is all in fun.'

The maids stared at him for a moment and then threw themselves into each other's arms shrieking.

'Good Gad, what ales the women?' demanded the astonished Earl and added, for his young cousin was doubled up in laughter on a settee, 'Nick, stop howling like a hyena and come to my aid.' He grabbed both girls and tried to wrestle them apart. 'Stop it at once, you harridans. We aren't going to hurt you, you silly girls. We merely want to rip off your bodices for a wager.' He looked around the room for moral support, and his eye fell on Hewbert, who sat glowering with his arms crossed. 'There. Ask the Reverend if we mean any harm.'

The blonde girl, recognizing the Reverend's clerical raiment, tore herself free from the Earl and threw herself at Hewbert's feet. She clung to his breeches and wailed, 'Oh, please, sir. Please! We are honest maids, and Janet is engaged tae Johnnie at the dairy!'

'I collect,' said the Hon & Rev Hewbert, not unkindly, though he feared for his breeches, 'that you imagine my brother and cousin mean to rob you of your virtue. I assure you, madam, that this is not so. Their interest for the nonce is purely scientific.'

The kitchen maid glanced up with her forget-me-not blue eyes, and Hewbert had the most uncomfortable feeling that he had seen them somewhere before.

 'Scientific? I dinnae understand, sir.'

'No, I imagine not,' said Hewbert, and in the simplest terms possible, he explained the wager.

'But I have no other bodice,' said the girl and again began to tremble. 'Oh sir, if I go back downstairs with my bodice ripped, it will be almost the same, for the others will say I am no honest maid. The men will take liberties--and Johnnie will throw Janet aside. Oh Reverend Sir, have mercy on us puir lassies!'

'Mercy,' shrieked dark-haired Janet, and she too wrenched herself free from the Earl. She threw herself at Hewbert's feet and clutched the other leg of his breeches.

'Stop clutching my breeches, women!" shouted Hewbert, but instead of obeying, they cried and clutched and carried on.

'Damn me,' said Sir David, deeply disappointed. 'What a stramash.'

'Waa ha ha,' wailed Sir Nicholas, rolling about. 'Ha ha ha ha ha!' He was now weeping almost as much as the maids.

The Earl of Bough strode to the hearth and yanked the bell-pull so hard it almost came off in his hand. Mr Adam hurried in and turned white as he surveyed the scene before him. 

 'Your lordship?'

'I said ripe! Dammit, man, these are but silly little girls giving themselves airs. Take them back to the kitchen and send me Cook herself and also the housekeeper. Dammit, it brings the French Revolution home to one, it truly does. I am shocked, deeply shocked by the behaviour of your staff, Mr Adam. I never want to see either of these girls again. Turn them off at once without a character.'

At these words the girls' sobs grew louder, and they dampened Hewbert's handsome but horror-stricken legs with their tears. His stockings were drenched.

'Hold hard,' said Sir Nick, wiping his eyes. 'That seems unfair. What a waste of good kitchen maidenry, Coz.'

'Well,' said the Earl. 'At any rate, get them out of my sight.'

'Very good, your lordship,' said Mr Adam, bowing low. 'Come along, you girls.'

Sniffling the girls released Hewbert's breeches, got unsteadily up and fled through the door. Mr Adam followed.

'By Gad,' said Sir David, dropping the steak knife on the billiards table. 'It seems that we have again misjudged you, Herbert. You were correct about kitchen maids. Who knows what other wisdom about the fair sex you may possess?'

'If you care to come to the morning service tomorrow, you will find out,' said Hewbert coldly. 'Meanwhile, I hope you give up this trivial and ungodly wager.'

'Not a chance,' cried the Earl of Bough. 'My only mistake was to have do with the below stairs. My upper servants will know what is due to me their master!'

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