Fiction
The Perfect Sin
Plucking the Cherry
Plucking the Cherry II
Verona
Art Feature
The Valet of Vicksburg
by A E Franzen

"For King and Country, Georgina, would it really put you out terribly to slice my morning crumpets on a bias? Those vertical slices are so terribly unseemly. They make a woman look twice her age. Absolutely no one of any consequence has cut crumpets vertically since George III was deemed unfit to rule! Now tell me, Georgina -- are you unfit to slice?"

Lady Deloria huffed as she adjusted her olive-green bodice with a strict twist. She was a woman of importance -- a woman to be heard, as well as seen. A woman to be reckoned with. And everyone in Vicksburg knew it.

Georgina, the family handservant, was on the brink of tears. She would do anything to please her mistress, but she was so intimidating! Georgina had been lucky to even be accepted into the LeFolii household, let alone promoted to the position of first handmaiden. She speculated that her fine singing voice had endeared her to her stern mistress, who was a great patron del arte in their parish. But at the moment, it would take a great deal more than pretty tunes to delight the Diva of the household.

"And where is my carriage?" snorted Lady Deloria. "I distinctly recall requesting you to summon it a full five minutes ago...or were you too busy mutilating my petit dejeuner?"

Lady Deloria enjoyed flaunting her grasp on French, almost as much as her equally vise-like grip upon her devoted husband, Lord Daniel of Whittiershire. Georgina inhaled sharply, ashamed of her incompetence. What was it about Lady Deloria that filled her with such anxiety, to the point where she could not carry out the simplest domestic tasks? Rushing to the gilded doorway of Lady Deloria's sunlight parlor, she managed to mumble some pathetic placation to her glowering governess.

"I...ah...I... I will see to it, ma'am!"

"I should certainly hope so," replied Lady Deloria coldly, and she took a strong pull of Earl Grey from an imported Russian carafe. "At least my tea is satisfactory."

***

After Georgina had fluttered away, her pink cheeks moist and her brow furrowed with self-doubt, Lady Deloria reclined lavishly upon her burgundy chaise lounge, teacup in hand. She hadn't intended to be so harsh on the girl, but for God's sake -- she could scarcely be expected to import gentle civility before she'd imbibed her morning tea! Her life was far too busy to indulge slovenly slatterns like Georgina. What with her social engagements, her estate to manage, the theatre, the music hall, her various employees and recipients of generous patronage…and then of course, there were the children to think of. There were matters far more meaningful than manners, she concluded with a prolonged sigh of ennui.

And the first matter this morning was the new Valet.

With Lord Daniel attending to legal matters in the Colonies, Lady Deloria was intolerably lonely. Georgina, with her flustered countenance and insufferable ineptitude, had proved a stupendous disappointment. Lady Deloria needed someone trustworthy to assist her in successfully striding through life's daily troubles. Someone to anticipate her every need, to tend to her every whim, to satisfy her every desire. And while male butlers were usually only employed by gentlemen, Lady Deloria was never one to conform stiffly to the times. She wanted a Valet. And a Valet she would have.

Mr. Rufus Reginald III had come highly recommended by Lord Daniel's American business partner, Mr. Frunton. Frunton had sent a handwritten note, embossed with his official seal, in praise of Rufus, whom he purported to have known personally for several years. Lady Deloria affixed her silver monocle in order to peruse his notation at length:

Nov 14th, 1818

Dearest Deloria,

May I begin by expressing my apologies with regard to your wayward husband, that incorrigible Lord Daniel. He is simply too fine a barrister to release to you just yet, and I'm afraid my American colleagues have insisted that he remain in Virginia for a few more weeks. He is currently immersed in his study of our relatively youthful legal system, and has been asked to advise a newly forming council of gentleman scholars like myself on the topic of integrating Greek practices of ethics and morality into everyday culture and legality. I am sure you can see why his services here are truly invaluable, and I thank you for your generous understanding. I can assure you that he will be home in time for the Christmas holidays, by way of the HMS Leonora.

Now to the real business at hand: it has come to my attention that you are in dire need of a Valet. I may have just the solution to your predicament. My manservant, one Mr. Rufus Reginald III, has expressed to me in no uncertain terms a strong interest in visiting Mother England. I will soon be retiring to my winter estate and will happily spare him to your service until the spring. Of course, should you find him compatible, we can discuss a more permanent arrangement, as you deem appropriate.

Words can do no justice with regard to Mr. Rufus. I cannot fathom any circumstance in which he would disappoint you. Simply know that he is full of delightful surprises.

Yours Sincerely,

Patrick Frunton

Well, let us hope so, thought Lady Deloria, as she took one final sip of steaming, subtly sugared tea. She had been informed via telegram that Mr. Rufus would be arriving no later than 12 noon today, and she —

"Lady Deloria?" a meek voice inquired tremulously from the doorway.

"Yes, Georgina?" Lady Deloria replied without casting her gaze upon the girl.

"I, ah, your carriage is here, but it seems you also have a visitor. A Mr. Rufus, ma'am."

How extraordinary. Lady Deloria had hardly expected her Yank Valet to be punctual. Would wonders never cease?

"Tell Mr. Rufus to prepare himself for a carriage ride. He will be accompanying me to the city. That is all."

Georgina disappeared in her typical mousy fashion, carrying herself like a broom that had seen better floors. Lady Deloria sighed, and extended herself upward in one fluid movement. With one fond glance at the framed portrait of Lord Daniel that adorned the hearth, she descended the marble staircase and entered the foyer.

"Let the day begin, if indeed it must," she muttered.

***

The brisk English autumn air greeted Lady Deloria like a Catholic headmistress's stiff smack with a pandybat. She gasped momentarily, running a be-gloved hand through her auburn tresses as she blinked in the cool, white sunlight. A guiding hand suddenly pressed gently, yet firmly, into the small of her back. Lady Deloria turned with a start, emitting another small gasp as she took in the sight of the strange man who was presumably her new Valet, or possibly an overly attentive trespasser on her grounds. And what a sight indeed! Standing nearly six feet tall in flat, polished boots, he was a slight, yet sturdy fellow with a dignified waist and long, artistic-looking fingers. His strong jaw line reminded her of a divine portrait of a Viking warrior she had once chanced upon in a Swedish gallery, and his charcoal black hair was softened by a soft breath of silver about the temples. He wore a fitted grey jacket that draped past his knees in a daring fashion. A crystalline white ruffled shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons added a feminine, yet not effeminate touch to the starkly masculine figure.

Lady Deloria lifted her eyes to rest upon his countenance, which could only be described as ruggedly intelligent, yet not overly worldly or withered. A peculiar white eye-patch made of silk was fastened with another mother-of-pearl bauble and arranged to cover his left eye, giving him the appearance of an extraordinarily wealthy, unusually refined pirate. Lady Deloria mulled for a moment, and then decided that she liked the curious accoutrement. It added character, and a good one at that.

"Lost in thought, Madame, or in step?" A mellifluous tenor voice entered Lady Deloria's be-jeweled ears, and she gave an involuntary shiver. Gathering herself, she countered, “Perhaps it is you who has lost his place." Nodding graciously in understanding, the mysterious stranger withdrew his hand from Lady Deloria's corseted waist.

"I meant no harm, good Lady. You merely appeared stunned and imbalanced by the garish sun, and I would scarcely have my Lady fall before I had properly introduced myself."

"Are you insinuating that this Lady has fallen without knowing her companion's Christian name on previous occasions?" she countered with a half-smile.

"I was not suggesting that she was a Fallen woman, not at all," the stranger returned smoothly. "But even the best among us are known to stumble."

"Well, in any case, I am not sure I can stand for any more of this banter," she laughed crisply, unconsciously resting a slender finger upon the sumptuous topaz stone that adorned her collar.

"Nor should you have to, my Lady. Shall we press on?" He removed Lady Deloria's ruffled parasol from her right hand and replaced it with his left. With the grace of a dancer and the assurance of a steed, he guided her towards the ready carriage.

"On second thought," Lady Deloria sang out suddenly, with a flutter of her hands to her hips, "let's take the horses. It's a beautiful day — and I'd like to see how you ride."

"I can assure you that you will not be disappointed," stated the man with a debonair bow from the waist.

"Oh, that's what I've been hearing," smiled Lady Deloria with a devilish batting of her curled eyelashes. "But I'm the sort of woman who likes to learn of her own experience."

***

The stranger did indeed prove to be Rufus Reginald III, formerly esteemed Valet to Patrick Frunton. As Mr. Frunton had promised, Lady Deloria was wont to find a single thing amiss in his character, countenance, composure, or cooperativeness. As the autumnal weeks flurried into winter, Lady Deloria grew increasingly impressed by Rufus' breadth of skill and knowledge. He was not only an efficient and earnest man-about-the-house, but he proved himself a worthy and charming dinner companion, a gracious and congenial theatre goer, a selective and sincere reviewer of literature, and a man of surprising artistic abilities.

One evening, Lady Deloria returned from a soirée at Lady Martina's country manor to find Rufus hard at work on a new oil painting. Embarrassed, he initially refused to reveal the portrait, but Lady Deloria puled and mewed until he finally indulged her fancy. She was surprised at both the quality of the painting (excellent) and the content (her Ladyship). From that moment forward, Lady Deloria imagined a hint of humbleness in her new Valet's cornflower blue eye (as the good reader will recall, the other eye was strangely hidden beneath a silken eye-patch). All in all, Lady Deloria had never met a less disappointing — or more mysterious — man.

One wintry afternoon, just a few days before Christmas, Lady Deloria received a telegram of the most distressing nature from her husband, Lord Daniel. It read, bluntly: "Darling. STOP. Won't be back by Christmas. STOP. Frunton wants Valet back post-haste. STOP. Love to offspring. STOP. Ta. STOP."

Heavens! Was it really so? Was she to spend Christmas alone, with neither beloved husband nor esteemed Valet to warm her cockles? Was she simply to "lie back and think of England," as the vulgar saying goes, and accept such a vile fate? With a moan of piercing dismay, she reached out for her silver Valet bell. If there ever was a moment in which she needed his services, this was surely it.

Before her trembling fingers had slipped through the pale green ribbon that held the bell, a firm, yet respectful knock rapped upon the door.

"Oh, do come in!" she wailed. It could be bloody Georgina for all she cared.

Rufus placed one foot inside the sanctum of her bedroom, his head turned conservatively towards the hallway in case his mistress should be indisposed or indecent.

"You'll forgive me, Madame," he answered with an unexpectedly husky, oaken tone, "but I simply sensed your distress and thought I might inquire if you needed anything. Anything at all."

Lady Deloria shook her head in impudent frustration, and then froze, her blood rushing toward her scalp. A hot flush glowed beneath her skin, and suddenly she knew exactly what she needed. Arranging herself atop a cloud of imported Chinese pillows and tear-stained, satin bed sheets, she allowed one feathery strap of her emerald-colored nightdress to drape in a most unrespectable fashion. Emphatically, she snuffed the luminescent candle that was resting on the burnished silver tray beside her canopied bed. Her hazel eyes, freshly watered with tears, burned from the heavy, scented smoke.

"Come in, damn it. Come. In." Her usually silvery voice was strained with emotion.

"Sit. Sit beside me," she demanded.

Rufus sat. He uncovered eye betrayed deep emotion, though he held himself stiffly, almost sternly.

"Snuff that damn candle, Mr. Rufus."

"As you wish, my Lady."

"Rufus--?"

"Yes."

"Ah, no."

"No?"

"No. No, yes!"

"Yes or No?"

"I don't know."

"Rufus?"

"Yes?"

"I never thought I'd want it. I never thought — it would come to this. I am disgraced. I want to be — a fallen woman. I want you! Yes, Rufus. I do."

"My dear," said Rufus, with the faintest touch of a smile. "You shall not fall, nor are you fallen. You have merely fallen for me — again. Just as I have fallen for you — forever."

"For -- what?" gasped Lady Deloria, clutching at her breast in bewilderment.

In one swift wolf-like movement, Rufus threw his Lady upon the bed, and with one hand tore the eye-patch from his face. His charcoal locks spilled forth, and his silver temples glowed in the rising moon. Lady Deloria be-strode him, her hands searching his chest, then framing his face, and then encircling him in rapture. She sobbed upon his bare shoulder, then lifted her eyes to meet his own, which, in turn, filled with manly tears.

"My own Lord Daniel! What folly! You trickster! Whatever did you do it for?"

Lord Daniel shrugged, and gave a choked laughed as he gripped his wife with newfound fervor.

"What began as a mere game became an elaborate ploy…falling in love with you and having your love returned over twenty years ago, my Lady, was quite simply the most exquisite experience of my sordid life. Forgive me for my impetuous greed, but I could not bear to think that I would never experience that same glorious pleasure again. I reinvented myself as a Valet that our love might be renewed, anew."

"You silly man!" Lady Deloria cried, with a playful slap. "So all this time it was you? I can hardly believe my own folly, my ignorance—"

"They say love is blind," laughed Lord Daniel, cradling his wife and caressing tears of joy from her still-stunned face.

"In that case, I have not seen clearly for over two decades, and I shall surely be blinded for the rest of my days."

"Thank goodness that monocles are still in fashion, then" chuckled Lord Daniel.

"We can surely thank goodness, indeed."

And with another quiet laugh in unison, the lovers turned to watch the rising moon cascade its light through the paned glass, sending a prism of moon-light across their joined bodies. Leaning closely and wrapping his arms about her, Lord Daniel recited the words of that fashionable poet of the day, Lord Byron, in his silvery tenor into his true love's ear:

There be none of Beauty's daughters
With a magic like Thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean's pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull'd winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o'er the deep,
Whose breast is gently heaving
As an infant's asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer's ocean.

"I must say, Mr. Frunton was entirely correct," sighed Lady Deloria, turning to give her wanton husband a soft kiss. "You certainly are full of delightful surprises."

© 2007 A E Franzen

At age twenty, A.E. Franzen abandoned the trappings of life in Los Angeles and spent the next three years flying helicopters, fixing computers, drawing comics, and frolicking about New Zealand. These days, she lives in Minnesota with her goldfish, Atticus Fish. She is thrilled to be making her erotic fiction debut in Lucrezia. You can check out her blog and strange, rambling podcast at This is Out of Context.