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Part 4: Her Afternoon
Back in her room, she was seated and her pot mask was removed revealing her sweat-drenched and pale face which was immediately wiped and freshened with a warm flannel whilst she flexed her jaw with pleasure after hours of it being held open by the large gag of the mask.
Then it was lunchtime. Woakes fed her a ham sandwich with the crusts delicately cut off and a cup of tea. Then, for dessert, there was a rather delicious cream cake. All of this put her in a much better mood, especially since her lessons were over and her governess had sent message that today she hadn’t made a single mistake. No punishments and no lessons till Monday! And that mood was even further improved when Woakes announced that there were some visitors who wanted to meet her and were waiting with her uncle downstairs. They were the first of the guests for the soiree tonight, a small and most refined event in honour of her uncle’s birthday that she was most looking forward to as evening events with dancing meant time free of both her mask and monoglove. These three were Mr. and Mrs. Greenwood, close friends of her uncle whom she had met many times before and a Mr. Cavendish, a nephew of her uncle on his sister’s side who was twenty-three years of age and had just returned from a posting in Her Majesty’s Indian Empire.
To prepare her for the afternoon, a new dress was required. As the day was sunny, a light cotton one in white was chosen. After Woakes had removed her morning dressed, she tightened up the stays, reducing her waist by half an inch or so, partially to account for any “settling” which may have taken place during the morning but also to help accustom her to her ball stays which she would be wearing that evening and which were to be laced to an excruciating – yet supremely elegant – 14 inches.
Once the new dress was fitted her monoglove was replaced and a new cover – which complimented the gown – fitted over it before then the replacement of the mask with its attached gag. Thus, elegantly trammelled and completely incommunicado, she was helped to her feet and escorted downstairs.
The three guests were seated in the drawing room along with her uncle. The men rose to greet her when she entered the room supported by Woakes although Mrs. Greenwood stayed seated and still. Like her – and what she was told, all fashionable ladies – Mrs. Greenwood lived her life behind a pot mask to protect her flawless complexion and her arms were usually ensconced in a monoglove to ensure elegant posture. Thus it was that, although they had met countless times, she had rarely been able to converse with Mrs. Greenwood, although from what she had learned at soirees and the like when both women had been unmasked, it seemed that Mrs. Greenwood, prior to her marriage, had lived with her uncle for several years just as she did, her uncle rescuing her from the orphanage too after her parents had died. Many people remarked on how noble and charitable he was, taking in orphaned girls and treating them as his own until they were old enough to be married. Indeed, she had to admit that her own life would have been very different without his interventions although at times she wondered if, whilst she would have doubtless ended up poorer and less elegant, the freedom of a common girl may not have been more pleasant. With wealth and status comes duty and restriction.
Mr. Greenwood commented on how pretty she was looking, and that was echoed by her uncle who then introduced the fourth visitor, Mr. Cavendish. Through the pinholes of her mask, she had to admit that he did look rather a handsome young man and under the pottery she blushed when he congratulated her on being a “vision of feminine perfection”. Several years ago she would have considered such comments ridiculous as he could not see her, only her corseted middle and doll mask but her training and mode of life had by now knocked such thoughts out of her head: she was her corseted waist and her identity was the blank china doll that everyone saw.
After she was seated, tea was served – for the men only of course – who discussed matters of politics and the forthcoming soiree whilst the women sat still and silent as, of course, elegant women of fashion always do. Then, to her surprise, Mr. Cavendish stood up and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the day is glorious and yet we are sitting in here in the gloom. Why don’t we relocate ourselves into the garden which is glorious and sip our tea out there?”
“That is a capital suggestion, sir,” said her uncle, “but it presents a problem as the ladies are not attired suitably for the garden. Wearing their armbinders, they may trip and fall.”
“Then, and ladies, please forgive my imposition, may I suggest that they are removed and then you sir, can assist your lady wife whilst either our host or I can support the charming young lady here.”
“Well, it is a break in their training which could adversely affect their posture and so I am sure both ladies will be angry at me for saying this as they have dedicated their entire lives to being as feminine and elegant as possible, but I say, as it is my birthday, we make an exception today and remove the armbinders in order that we may all enjoy the delights of the garden.”
Hidden beneath her mask, she almost cried with joy and the handsome Mr. Cavendish was now seen to her as a veritable knight in shining armour!
Woakes stood her up and unlaced the armbinder. Thankfully the tight kid gloves from the morning had been left on her hands so they were protected from the sun’s harsh glare. Then a huge, wide-brimmed sun hat with a large red ribbon was affixed to her head. And then, to her delight, Mr. Cavendish put one of his hand around her corseted waist and took a gloved hand in the other to support and steady her as she minced outside on her en pointe boots with their spindle heels.
“I say chaps,” said her uncle when they had reached the terrace, “what say you to taking the ladies for a stroll around the grounds whilst I make sure the servants prepare us a new pot of tea and perhaps a small cake or two?”
“Capital plan!” replied Greenwood and so, to her delight, she now walked further with Mr. Cavendish only this time they were alone and out of earshot of the others. He guided her through the rhododendron bushes as they walked he said, “Forgive me for saying this Miss Witcombe, but I find you absolutely charming, I really do. Over the years I have met many young ladies of distinction and breeding yet none have reached the levels of feminine perfection that you have. When you sat there, so demure and still in the room, I was entranced by your beauty and walking here, my arm around your delightfully small waist, I long to know you better and learn about your life. Now, I know that you are securely gagged as all ladies of society should be, but if I ask you some questions, can you answer me yes or no by raising your right or left hand. Let us sit on this bench and do so?”
Beneath her gown her chest surged up and down, partly through the exertion of the walk but more from what he was saying. So, this was what it was like to be wooed and courted by a handsome young man! How glorious! Could Mr. Cavdenish be the one to take her away from her and make her a wife? Even though she had not heard a thousand words of his tongue’s uttering, she dearly hoped so.
He helped her to sit on the bench and waited as her breathing calmed a little. Then he asked questions like, ‘Do you prefer cats or dogs?’ or ‘Is blue your favourite colour?’ and she answered with her hands. Although non-threatening and superficial, such human conversation with a man thrilled her and her heart gave a flutter as he took her gloved hands in his and squeezed them. This was heaven, it was…
Then her reverie was broken by a shout. “Tea’s up! Can you make your way back to the terrace please!” It was her uncle’s voice.
“We can’t stay here now,” said Mr. Cavendish, “much as I would like to do. But before we return, I am going to be forward and improper.” And then, leaning towards her, her encircled her corseted middle with his manly hands and then kissed the pottery lips of her mask with his real ones.
“And tonight who knows, perhaps I shall kiss the real lips behind those painted ones?” he whispered after the kiss had ended. She didn’t hear though, as she had swooned right away.
The rest of the afternoon was spent on the terrace with the others. Although they were not alone and no conversation was directed towards her, Mr. Cavendish sat by her side and glanced towards her regularly whilst she returned those glances, drinking in his manly features through the tiny pinholes that her mask allowed.
Not everything was so pleasant though. The afternoon sun was hot and, despite her sun hat, her face under its pottery covering was getting overheated and streamed with sweat. What is more, she was feeling full down below as the tea which she had drunk at lunchtime had made its way through her. Consequently, whilst it meant being parted from Mr. Cavendish, she was actually glad when, at four Woakes came to take her away to begin her preparations for the evening soiree.