Honor

I walked into the doorway and peered in. She sat, reclining on the sofa, a hint of cigarette smoke lingering in the air. She sipped a drink. Vodka. It was almost always vodka. After a moment, she glanced up and turned. She patted a cushion and shifted to make room.

“Come. Sit.”

White Diamonds and Virginia Slims. Not the greatest combination of odors to encounter within two feet of your nose. But Mrs. Lancaster’s requests were always honored. Her demeanor and habits always tolerated. Smell or not, she wanted company. Again.

“I trust there are no other guests, hmm?” She traced a finger along my jaw line and fluttered false eyelashes. “The house is quiet. Empty. You know I hate to be alone.”

She wore a black silk chiffon dress that hugged her in all the right places. All the wrong places too. It had wrinkled and crumpled in the time she had lay resting. But she was drunk, it didn’t matter to her what she looked like. Among her guests, she’d put on her public face, ‘ooh’ing at the right times, displaying surprise and delight depending on which social giant with which she found herself conversing. Among her betters, her image stayed pristine and calculated. After they’d left, she relaxed as much as the botox would allow. But now, she looked through dangling curls (dyed black) and her eyes saw what she wanted.

Mr’s Lancaster’s requests were always honored.

She lit a cigarette afterward, which was appropriate, since the dirty, ashen feeling doesn’t go away after being subjected to such a trial by such a witch. The smoke stung my eyes, scratched my throat. My body tried to provide enough signs of repulsion, to no avail. There was simply no choice to be made.

“Henry,” she said. “You’re so good to me. So willing. I know you dislike me. But I know you have enough sense not to bite the hand that feeds.”

She slid off the sofa and, if not for a slight limp, practiced the walk of a vamp, if not possessing the body. Custom called for a return to roles. Everything back to how it was just before, everybody fully clothed and forgetful of all incidents. Hush hush. After all, what would the Clarke or Grayson houses think of Mrs. Lancaster and her peculiar relations with her house staff?

Status maintains inertia, and once a person gains or loses ground, the same path continues unless events larger than the hierarchies disrupt. Those towards the bottom (ironically carrying a majority) typically had little and relied on the higher levels for direction, payment, and support. Despite our increased numbers, the reliance on the wealthy and grand people we served compelled practicality. We had little, but little was more than nothing. In return, the wealthy and grand knew their secrets to be safe, because who would believe the butler or the maid when the lady of the household disputes their claims? Servants are infinite – there are always more.

The following day, Mrs. Grayson came visiting, planning on lunch with Mrs. Lancaster. Rather than the pantry, they selected from the wine cellar. Something about idle time allowed the elite to drink hours away. But then, the staff made time for whiskey and rum as well, so who can judge?

They laughed and gossiped and talked without consequence. After false kisses and farewells, Mrs. Grayson summoned her chauffeur. Mrs. Lancaster did her own summoning shortly after. Mrs. Lancaster’s requests were always honored.

The bitter, acerbic taste of her mouth lingered in mine, and any possible public shame never appeared in private. Not within her mind, at least. The second party, as it happens, carried the guilt.

She pranced in a silk robe, allowing it to drape over her body, sometimes concealing, but mostly revealing her sagging features. Thirty years before – the pictures proved it – she was a local star. A debutante, a pageant winner. A prize. That much was undeniable. But the decades had not been kind, and the breasts that captivated the minds of many young suitors hung nearly as loose as the fabric of her sleeves. This was the only moment of pity that she would inspire in my mind. Any male must admit that the loss of a perfect feminine figure is a tragic day. To find the possessor thirty years later seemed worse than the loss itself even, especially considering the circumstances.

My station in life showed no immediate promise of improvement, nor had it for months on top of years. Compliance in the face of indignity becomes tiring, but dependance becomes habit which becomes indifference. .

When Mrs. Lancaster’s attitude shifted from aloof and arrogant to harsh and virulent – ignored wages, humiliation of the staff in large gatherings, even violence towards her cook of forty years – a distinct plan never materialized. Observation of her tendencies and insecurities made it evident even before action became an option. We knew there was a risk, that she held influence over all of us. Yet while our deficiencies were many (but small) her weaknesses were significant within her world, and, should they become public knowledge, her world would collapse.

Every year at Christmas, Mrs. Lancaster served a banquet within the ballroom. Invitations spread from surrounding houses in northern Georgia and into Kentucky. For her, the event required an open-ended budget. Rich inheritors migrated south and she carried a reputation for extravagance.

She placed a caterer in charge of details of the banquet not related to the dining. Every year. The same caterer, every year, shouldered the same over-extended responsibilities and lost out on gratuity when certain aspects were less than expected. Or less than Mrs. Lancaster had expected.

The day that the guests arrived, Mrs. Lancaster carried herself in the typical manner. Drunk and disrobed. And in her same fashion, she demanded certain attention. For once, her demands were met with obliging grace.

It’s amazing the shock a woman can show when two hundred of the south’s finest families and figures arrive to see her embracing her butler on the same banquet table from which they gathered caviar and champagne year after year. With her in my arms, the chill she felt inside seemed to radiate out, through her pores. Her nails dug into my back when she heard the whispered confession that the date on the invitations had been changed to a week earlier. She was fuming.

And still, in a small part of her face, despite her outrage and embarrassment, she portrayed a sense of arousal rare to her kind. Amidst the scandalous gasps of her guests, she had a look of intense desire, and she could not take her eyes off of me.

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~ by Michael Engel on January 29, 2007.

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