Charles gagged on the revolver in his mouth. It tasted cold, hard, and sour. The unmistakeable tang of trench mud and gunpowder burned his tongue. His first reaction was to pull it out—some natural instinct of self-preservation working against him—yet he shoved it deeper, until the blunt end of the barrel bumped the back of his throat.
He had to cram the gun in as far as it could go. God help him if it slipped. He wanted to kill himself, not make things worse.
Frowning, he removed his old service revolver, wiping saliva on his trouser leg. There were other ways to shoot oneself, of course. He’d seen it done in France, and in the aftermath of peace. Charles pressed the warmed barrel to his throbbing temple. How he longed to blow his brains out. He’d dreamed of nothing else for weeks.
In his fantasies, he sat alone in his darkened room, with only the crackle of a fire burning in the grate. No footsteps. No voices. Only blessed silence. He’d have to be sober—the job called for a steady hand—but didn’t see the harm in a good meal and a glass of wine before. Perhaps roast beef and raspberry tart, washed down with the Château Mouton he’d been saving for just this sort of occasion.
Charles had planned it all, down to what clothes he intended to wear, and how he wished things handled after the funeral. He even knew the exact moment he would take his own life—the night of his thirtieth birthday. Ten years after his injury, because he couldn’t imagine suffering ten more years of headaches, seizures, and angry outbursts. For Charles, whom every waking day was agony, death would be sweet release.
Speaking of release…he remembered the one thing he would regret, the only thing he hadn’t managed to do in his thirty miserable years on this earth. Charles hated the idea of dying a virgin.
Before the war, he’d been much too young to think of sex and marriage. Afterward, both seemed out of the question. He could not leave his house, much less attend a dance, or even take a girl to the cinema. If, by some miracle, he found one on his doorstep, what woman would go to bed with a chap who pissed himself if he weren’t careful?
Then again, he’d arranged everything else, planned his suicide with military precision—why couldn’t he arrange a little something for himself? One last hurrah to send him to the afterlife with a smile on his lips.
He could have Wicks, his manservant, procure a girl. He’d pay well for her time and her discretion, but the details of the transaction were unimportant. He didn’t care where the whore came from, or what she looked like, so long as she was pretty enough to whet his appetite. She didn’t even have to be clean—a spot of V.D. wasn’t going to trouble a dead man.
Charles only wanted to feel a warm embrace on a cold night, and a hot body writhing beneath him. He wanted to kiss a girl. To squeeze, fondle, and taste what he’d only ever dreamed of. He’d also like to come somewhere other than his hand, just once, if he were being honest.
Tucking the revolver back into its drawer, he tidied his desk to hide all traces of his plan. No one could know about his suicide. Though they were only servants, the people who worked in his home seemed to care about him, and would surely try to save him.
To be stopped now, so close to liberation, would be the cruelest blow of all. He must keep his plotting a secret. Hide the gun, the will, and the letters he still had left to write.
He could tell Wicks the whore was for his birthday. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, and it wasn’t exactly a lie. Once he’d lost his virginity, Charles would spend his last day on Earth eating good food, loving on his dogs, and penning his suicide note. Then, he would bid his staff good-night, climb the stairs to his bedroom, and turn the lights out one final time. Until the gunshot popped, no one would be the wiser. By then, it would be too late.
He’d finally be free.
Agnes ducked the coal scuttle being chucked at her head. The pail hit the wall behind her, leaving a sooty dent in the rose-sprigged wallpaper.
“Careless girl,” Mrs. Priggins said. “You’ve left smudges all over my walls!”
“ ‘Smudges?’ What you call that, then?” Agnes pointed to the damage behind her.
“That is all your fault. The repairs will come out of your wages!”
She scoffed. “You can’t! If I’d broke a dish or spilled a pot, well, that’s one thing, but I ain’t payin’ for something I didn’t do.”
“If you work in this house, girl, you’ll do as I say. And mind you don’t give cheek.”
Agnes reached for the broken pail, scooping bricks of coal scattered across the carpets. She’d tried her best to do good work, to please her employer. She wanted to be a success—not be a housemaid forever—but long hours and little sleep made her clumsy.
Her injuries, though mostly healed, made her weak. Agnes couldn’t carry pails of coal or buckets of water up and down stairs all day. She couldn’t rise at dawn to stoke the fires and serve breakfast, run baths, make beds, dust, sweep, scrub, and scour.
Long after her employer retired to bed, Agnes was left in the kitchen, washing the day’s dishes just so they could be dirtied again the next morning. If she fell into her lumpy, creaky, narrow bed by midnight, she’d be lucky.
On top of all her housemaid’s duties, Agnes also had her studies. Twice a week, Helen Neill—her dearest friend and surrogate mother—gave her books on grammar, and lessons in deportment. If she wanted to break away from life as a slavey, she’d have to polish her speech, and learn to act like a lady, not a former whore.
Agnes had tried. God help her, she had. But this was simply too much to bear!
She stood, rattling the coal in her scuttle. “You cannot treat me like I ain’t nothin’!”
“You are a servant. I’ll treat you however I please.”
“I might clean your toilets and clear your supper, but Mrs. Neill told me to never let anybody say I ain’t just as good as they are! I am the same as any woman. I deserve respect, too!”
“Agnes, you are only here as a personal favor to your beloved Mrs. Neill. I promised her I’d train you in the ways of domestic service so that you can support yourself, and keep off the streets. In turn, you would start at the bottom, and work your way up in the world. Yet you are obstinate, careless, and lazy!”
“I ain’t! I work hard, Mrs. Priggins, but I cannot keep up. I can’t do it all on me own!”
Her employer frowned. “The last girl could.”
“But me injuries…” She pressed a soot-blackened hand to her abdomen.
“Are healed, Mrs. Neill assured me, or else I would not have brought you on.” She stared her down. “Are they healed, Agnes, or will there be a problem?”
Agnes swallowed. “No, ma’am—there won’t be a problem.”
“Good, now clean this mess. I shall take my tea in the drawing room.”
Grumbling to herself, Agnes began the painstaking process of sweeping coal dust and scrubbing the walls. She wanted to be a good girl. Helen and Marcus Neill had been so kind to her, paying for her surgeries, finding her work, and being her friends. They never treated her like a whore. They asked her over for dinner sometimes, and introduced her to their family.
They made her feel like she was family, which was the only reason she hadn’t caved Mrs. Priggins’ head in.
Damn, life was easier making a living on her back! At the brothel, she’d had someone to do her washing. She’d had money to go to the cinema, and time to sit in a pub, or sleep ’till noon. Working as a slavey, Agnes never had any money, no time for enjoyments, and barely any sleep. She had no privacy, no freedom.
Sure, it was easy to say she was better off making an honest living. She wasn’t in danger of being arrested, raped, or robbed. No one was going to hurt her like they’d done before. She didn’t have to spread her legs for strangers.
Not that she’d really minded that—not all the chaps were bad. Truthfully, there were nights when she missed having a man. Missed the attention the good ones gave her. Missed affection that anybody gave her. As a domestic servant, if she weren’t being scolded, she was largely ignored.
This wasn’t the life she wanted. Agnes dreamed of working in a shop, selling ribbon, and helping ladies choose hats. But, because of her facial scars, no one would hire her. She had to keep out of sight, even in the house. If Mrs. Priggins had callers, Agnes was to bring the tea, and then make herself scarce. The sight of her would turn their stomachs—or so her employer said.
Even she knew the scars weren’t that bad. Agnes had almost got used to seeing them when she caught her reflection in a mirror. Her once pretty face was nicked all over with small, crescent-shaped marks from where her attacker had used his belt to beat her, buckle-first. The deepest gouge lay over her eyebrow, curving around to meet her cheek. If one knew where to look, they’d notice her right eye sagged a bit now.
She was no beauty, but neither was she a monster.
She was certainly no animal to be kept caged, and worked half to death. Agnes scrubbed the wallpaper, smearing the coal stain wider. It would never come clean. The paper would have to be replaced—an entire room’s worth, to make it all match. Not only would she be looking after Mrs. Priggins for free, but she’d be paying to have her drawing room renovated, too.
Agnes hadn’t even thrown the scuttle! It wasn’t fair. She should not have to break her back for nothing. Compared to this, she’d rather return to the brothel.
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