Title: Rich and Strange
Word Count 2370
Rich and Strange
It was altogether strange.
She had wondered of course, as long as she could remember-- what it would be like. She had feared it, as a child. It would be for the getting of children, and that led to the bearing of them, breaking and splitting, a woman's lot.
Boys and men, were so strange and different. As little boys, were always flourishing those things around, pissing on walls. They had to be told to cover up. Then they became men, and covered, and there was that mystery to them, some additional quality that made them fight and strut.
So the wondering had been there, along with the fear. And later, since Christopher, the want. So much want, she itched with it, her skin hot, she lay flushed in her bed, unable to sleep. He said he was the same. Picturing him that way too made it worse. But she had been willing to wait. Better to wait, until they could afford to marry, maybe next year...
She had not said 'Because you might drown, Christopher. You might be crushed, pierced, amputated, sickened, imprisoned.'
She had not said any of that, and neither had he. They had sat in chairs, and talked of waiting and want. He had not wanted her to be left in unmarried shame, if they gave in, and then something happened to him.
She had not said 'I would rather die anyway, without you.'
She had not said it, not only because the thought alone was a sin, but because her words would stay with him and hurt him.
Separate chairs, so they could push the want aside and think. Decided then, they had lunged across the room, and kissed and kissed, until she could hardly breathe, and his face had rasped hers, and her mouth went all swollen and numb. She had put her hand down to touch. He said she could,touch him that way. He said he wanted her to do it. A cylinder under her hand. It was hard as wood. She had squeezed, to feel the strength and shape of it. She had chafed it a little, moving it under the wool of his trousers. And his face had cringed as if she had slapped him, and he had burrowed down against her neck, breathing rough.
That had been a month ago. Since then everything had changed.
Christopher had spoken often of his Captain, of course. Saphronia knew of his stern kindness. She knew about his loud voice, and his red hair, and the way he saw everything, knew everything, just as a Captain should. That was fine, he was frightening, but he was fair, and far away. Meeting the Captain's Lady on the streets of Portsmouth was another matter.
Saphronia had not known where to look. She had heard Christopher presenting her, his arm under her elbow as she dipped her knees. And the Captain's Lady had dark eyes, and was kind. She took Saphronia's hand, and her own and her hands were a mother's, and strong. Lady Pellew had smiled.
Lady Pellew obviously knew Christopher. She asked after his doings. He answered with correct respect, but Saphronia could tell that he liked her. And that was that. The encounter was brief, the day swept them on. It was a precious day with Christopher. They had so few that she spared little thought for anyone else. Beyond having a face to imagine for the Captain's wife later, Saphronia thought little more of it.
So the letter from Mrs Bracegirdle had come as a complete surprise. Saphronia had written back the same day. After several letters, they met. Nobody could be afraid of Hannah Bracegirdle. She was tawny and round as a setting hen. She was utterly forthright.
“I have usually found it best,” she said, “To say what I think.” And she smiled. And she poured Saphronia a dish of tea. Then she proceeded to say what she thought. It was jaw dropping.
Aunt and Uncle were no obstacle. Aunt had embraced her, sniffled a little, helped her pack. They were quite glad not to have to wait for her to marry.
The Bracegirdles had a fine house. It was very different from Uncle's house. It was full of books, for one thing.
Mr Bracegirdle was kind. He came and went at strange hours, sometimes home to eat and gone again, sometimes spending the night, and leaving with the dawn. Sometimes she found him in the sitting room, reading. He always greeted Saphronia with a quiet smile. And he told her stories about Christopher that she did not know. He worked to put her at ease, to make her laugh. He laughed with her.
And last night he had come home in the forenoon. And in the evening, Christopher came.
Hannah had looked up at the knock. She set her sewing aside, but did not rise up. “ I think that you should get the door, my dear,” She said. “Yours is the face he wants most to see.” And she smiled, and picked her stitching up again, pushed her spectacles up her nose, and looked at it, rather pointedly.
Christopher had stood on the doorstep, with his hat beneath his arm. He was precisely on time, as a sailor should be.
She had not quite dared to kiss him; but she had taken his cold hands in her own. He had given a little breathless laugh, risen up on his toes a moment, as if he were dancing.
“I am at liberty,” He said. “I don't report back until noon. I am to stay the night.” His voice was a rushed and happy whisper. He squeezed her hands and smiled.
All through dinner his foot rested against hers. He ate, and praised the meat, and drank, and toasted, and all the time his foot was wrestling hers. He had even reached down once, quick, to touch her knee. She had squeaked then, and turned it to a cough. Mr Bracegirdle had looked up from his meat and smiled across at his Hannah.
The cake plates had been reduced to crumbs, the coffee cups empty when Mr Bracegirdle stood up. “Delightful, as always, my dear,” he had said.
“Mr Cleveland, shall you join me for a cigar, and a turn around the garden?”
Saphronia had watched from the window, in the darkness, the glow of the two cigars-- the deep contented rumble of their two voices. Her heart had kicked beneath her clothes -- this, the beginning of mystery.
Time was sprinting now, speeding forward, stumbling. She had gone up, and there was her best shift folded on her bed, new and white, fresh from the flat iron. Hannah must have done it.
It had slid over her head to rest against her, and her skin shivered. She sat on the bed, clasped her hands together tight, and she had watched the candle shadows stretch-- waited for his step outside the door.
And there he was. She found herself in airless laughter, and he was laughing too. The candlelight wavered in the breeze of the shutting door. The shadows had raced over his face, but her arms were around him now. He was hers, and nothing could be strange. She knew him by everything-- well almost everything.
“The Bracegirdles-- they know. They know what we are about to do.” She had to say it, not that it was going to stop her.
“Wives come to the ship in port,” his voice was hushed.
“Mrs Bracey comes onto the ship and they---”
“And everyone knows?”
“Well, everyone assumes. I mean after six months, or whatever -- and Bracey has a real cabin, with a door that shuts.”
“But, with everyone knowing, I mean, picturing?”
“Things are more close, like, on a ship. Most of the men would think little of it-- or be just be happy for him.”
“Does he have a hammock, like you? He's so, so old, I can't imagine it--” He was not only old, but somewhat plump. Her lip curled, imagining.
“He may have a hanging cot now, but he has spent years in a hammock remember. And you can get two in a hammock, 'Fronia. They do it below decks, often.”
“You've seen?” Why did this thought warm her?
“Well--” his hand at her waist, touching, slowly moving. Did it warm him too, to think of such things?
“It's not that I've gone below to watch, like, but you do have to walk by--”
And now he was backing toward the bed, drawing her the few steps across with him.
He sat down, and pulled her to stand between his knees. She looked down, and he looked up. The candlelight lit his face, his eyes were wide and so soft and strange.
“I don't ever want to hurt you.” It was a bare whisper.
“I'm not afraid, Christopher,”
He leaned his head against her, burrowing against her, gasping, sighing.
Kissing now, they were drunk with kissing, slow and foolish as bumblebees in the garden roses. His face moved against her breast. There, the heat of him, through the thin linen. He was pressed against the curve, his eyes shut, his mouth slack. It was she who reached for her buttons, who drew his mouth to her skin.
He fell back, pulling her with him. Buttons-- her hands on the skin of his chest. Not so strange yet. Just skin, like the skin of her own arm. His chest under her cheek, his heart, his hitching breath.
“Are you sure you want this now? I can wait, if we--” His fingers traced her spine, questioning. Her answer was fierce.
“I want this now. I can't think. Don't you feel the same?”
She reached for the hem of the shift, pulled it over her head.. She set it on the bedside chair, and he reached to stroke it, as if it were part of her too, and she knew it was warm from her skin.
She knelt beside him, in the cool air, and she was naked now, under his gaze. And never before, and there was no going back. Her hair had fallen into her eyes. She tucked it behind her ears, and looked at him.
He nodded, swallowed dry, wiggled his trousers down and off.
He reached for her, drew her down close to lie in his arms. The heat of his skin, the slide of it against her own, was so much more. No wonder people like to do this-- she thought dazedly. It is wondrous.
He nodded. He had brown curls on the lower slopes, darker than her own, very like his side-whiskers. And there was the item she had tried so often to picture. It was nothing like the pinkish snail-looking things of little boys. But it was not frightening. It, and he were shaking slightly. She trailed her fingers over the curve of it, the skin was as soft as his mouth.
He gasped again, as if she had hurt him, though she knew she had not. He rolled her above him.
“I think I can--”
Her legs either side of him, and it was oh, because she knew now how it should be, and his eyes were closed but hers were open, and he was holding her there, letting her push down over him. She bit her lip, against the burn and pushed down strongly. He rocked up. It was working, they were working together.
She braced her hands on his heaving chest. He was slick, under her fingers. Her legs were shaking, he moved his hands, to take her weight.
“All right, that's--”
Perfectly there. The pain receded, and she could see how, on some other day it might be quite nice. She rocked a little, experimentally, just to see. If she moved to lie on him it changed the--
It was warmer now, warmer this way, so close and she kissed him, and rocked a little more. Really, she could see how it could be quite--
Christopher made a tight and frantic sound.
He was shaking, rising in counterpoint. He pushed once, hard, and she moved with him to ease the strange ache. And then he was falling away, and soft against her own soft, and just himself again, in her embrace.
“I'm so sorry Saphronia.” His head was turned to the side. He was not looking at her.
“It's all right. It did not hurt so much--”
“No,” he said, and he looked so sad. “It should have been better for you. Should have lasted longer, you didn't get to--” But he did not finish his thought, just made a half angry flapping gesture with his hand. So she did not find out what it was that she did not get to do.
Saphronia caught both of the hands in her own. Christopher's hands were hard on the bottom, scarred on the top. They were half again as wide as her own. They tasted very different from her own.
“Ice skating,” she said.
“Have you ever been ice skating?”
“Yes, what about it?” He looked wary, still ready to be sad.
“Mrs. Bracegirdle said it would be like ice skating. She said that people think they can do it gracefully right away, but it is not always so. She said it takes time and practice. And then we shall become very good at it.”
“Ice skating-- really?”
“So she assures me.”
“Perhaps we do need more practice,”
He was smiling now, rueful, amused. He pushed himself to sit against the headboard, naked as he was, but beloved, and not so strange. She moved up to sit close against him.
“I always did like Mrs Bracegirdle.” Christopher said.