A Story by Peaslee
Saturday, 29th of October, 1870
It was just like the day of her debut, the same apprehension, the same lump in her throat, the same butterflies in her stomach. But Lady Amelia Hartwood was not an ingenue girl anymore, she was a grown woman of thirty-two.
It was well past three in the afternoon and she was waiting upon the steps before the portico of her country house, waving her black lace fan at her slightly made up face and staring at the carriage making its way up the tree-lined driveway. The autumn sun was shining on her neatly coiffured hair, raven-black and parted in the middle, secured in a voluminous chignon on the back of her head by a golden brooch, with two loose ringlets dangling on her temples and framing her grecian brow. Clad in a tight, high-collared red bodice embroidered with floral motifs and a maroon draped skirt, she was looking as stately as the manor behind her. Her trusted maid was standing by her side, more serious than usual.
‘Is everything ready, Cynthia?’ she asked, her soft contralto voice cutting through the clatter of hooves and wheels
‘Exactly as you instructed, ma’am.’ answered the young girl
Tension and fervour grew and mingled inside her as she watched the clarence finally slowing down and stopping in the centre of the forecourt. The lady’s big brown eyes gazed attentively at the coachman getting down from his seat and hastening to the side, swinging the door open and dutifully bowing to the dismounting passenger. Lady Hartwood was all too familiar with the oval face and the sharp nose of the woman stepping down on the footplate holding up her bustle skirt, but her heart skipped a beat nonetheless as Lady Helen Withersby alighted and came into full view, her ice-grey eyes narrowing as they re-accustomed to the light. Of equal age and no less beautiful than her host, she was wearing a teal jacket over a frilly white blouse and a prussian-blue pleated skirt, with her honey-blonde hairs neatly piled on the top of the head and curls over her forehead. A tall maid dressed in grey descended after her.
Seething stares started crossing the few yards separating the two women as soon their eyes met, prompting each maid to discretely and silently took a step closer to her own mistress. For a minute that felt like an hour both ladies stood still, neither of them uttering a word but each waiting for the other to act first. The blonde woman was the first to move, taking two steps forward, the gravel croaking beneath her heeled boots. Amelia closed her fan and stepped up to her and the two noblewomen met in the middle
‘Good afternoon Lady Withersby, and Welcome to Chartresfield Hall,’ greeted Amelia, extending a red gloved hand, ‘I am so glad you have accepted my invitation.’
‘Good afternoon, Lady Hartwood,’ replied Helen in her nasal soprano voice, firmly taking her host’s hand in her own black gloved one, ‘I can assure you the pleasure is all mine.’
‘How was the voyage?’
‘Tedious. The scenery was so terribly repetitive: fields, meadows, fields, meadows… I almost felt asleep.’
‘I presume you do not wish to waste time, then,’ said Amelia as both ladies released the grip and withdrew their hands, their gazes still locked
‘You presume correctly.’
She gestured towards the front door with her closed fan ‘So, shall we?’
‘Gladly.’ answered Helen, gathering her skirt and moving towards the entrance, a delicate scent of violets lingering in the air as she passed.
Lady Hartwood smiled and let the blonde woman walk past her, before gathering her voluminous skirt as well and turning on her heels, going after her guest. As the carriage clattered away towards the stables, the four women disappeared inside the house, each maid to the side of her mistress.
The landscape welcoming the ladies as they emerged from the other side of the building was worth of a painting, so simple and yet so elegant. Finely pruned bushes had been carefully planted here and there in a calculated disorder, spread on a meadow gently sloping downwards from the manor to a large decorative lake, the placid waters mirroring the flaming orange and yellow canopies of the birch woodlands extending beyond it. The air was crisp and clear and the sky was terse and blue, brushed only by a few fleecy clouds. The previous week had been unexpectedly warm and an almost vernal atmosphere had graced that day.
Skirts and petticoats rustled on the evenly cut grass as the four woman strode along towards the banks, near which two wrought iron chairs and a round table covered by a creamy-white cloth were waiting for them.
‘Is this some kind of trick?’ asked Helen, taken aback by the peculiar arrangement
‘Oh, not at all,’ answered Amelia, lowering herself on one of the chairs and turning to Helen ‘I simply thought that it would be a pity to waste such a beautiful day by confining ourselves inside a stuffy room.’
‘A nice arrangement, I have to admit.’
‘Why thank you,’ she said, smiling and beckoning to the empty seat in front of her, her arm extended over a finely decorated tea-set ‘Would you like to oblige?’
‘I don’t see why not.’ answered Lady Withersby quickly reaching for her chair and sitting down, arranging her skirt over her shapely, crossed legs
‘You were expecting for us to begin at once, weren’t you?’
‘I was expecting for us to be alone.’
‘What do you mean?’
Helen made no reply, but tilted her head towards the manor. All eyes, those of the two ladies and those of the two maids who had followed them there, turned to the ancient house and its numerous windows overlooking the park.
‘Oh, no need to worry,’ quickly replied Amelia, regaining the attention, ‘almost all of the servants are away. I gave them some days off to let them visit their families, and the few remaining had been instructed to turn their eyes somewhere else. Assuming they are not too busy already with their tasks.’
‘And how many people know about our meeting, then?
‘Me, my maid, yours, the coachman who brought you there, the horses, and no one else. And you, obviously. Although I admit, I have toyed with the idea of inviting some of our friends and peers to witness us, I am sure they would have find it very amusing. But matters of such nature ought to be carried out in private. Don’t you agree?’
‘I agree wholeheartedly.’
Amelia smiled and took the teapot, pouring herself a cupful ‘I have heard you are packing luggages,’ she said, ‘So, the rumours were true, after all. You are leaving England.’
‘Yes, they were. I am moving abroad and I am reasonably sure I will never return.’
‘May I ask where are you going?’ she inquired, putting down the teapot
‘You may ask,’ answered Helen, taking the teapot and filling her cup ‘but I won’t answer. Where I am bound to and why is no concern of yours.’
‘Your silence hurts me,’ declaimed Amelia, putting her left hand on her chest with melodramatic exaggeration, with a blatantly pretended tone of displeasure, ‘I thought that by inviting you in my abode and treating you cordially, you would have reciprocated by telling me about your plans.’
‘Your kindness is admirable, but I owe you nothing.’
Lady Hartwood sneered and got serious again. ‘I hope it’s France,’ she said in a low voice, picking her cup and lifting it to her mouth, ‘You would like Paris. I’ve heard it’s very lively as of late.’
She sipped with deliberate slowness, feigning indifference but keeping an eye at her guest doing the same. Rarely she had been able to observe the blonde lady from such a close distance for even if the two had often attended the same gatherings, they had usually preferred to avoid each other for fear of causing a scene.
‘That said,’ resumed Helen ‘I would like to sincerely thank you for your discretion in inviting me there. My house is bustling with activity and people seeing us together would be… most unconvenient.’
‘Such an understatement. The way we have always acted towards each other is quite notorious,’ said Amelia, taking a towel and dabbing the corners of her mouth, ‘but you are indeed right. Especially since they would treat what we are about to do as spectacle. We are not actors and this is not a farce.’
Amelia’s eyes narrowed slightly as she studies her guest; she could not help but find something strange in Helen’s parlance: the way the blonde was agreeing to the words without resistance, her usual loquacity replaced by short, dry assertions. Was the blonde was lying to her? Or mocking her? No, she was not, she concluded; those were not the manners of a liar, but those of someone telling the truth whilst still hiding something.
Lady Hartwood chuckled, covering her mouth, and continued ‘How funny. It may be the first time we genuinely agree on something in… what? Twenty years? We are at risk of becoming friends.’
‘Fourteen. You know, I have often thought about that, actually,’ Helen rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward, ‘We are so similar, after all. Why didn’t we, in fact, became friends?’
‘My dear, it’s exactly because we are so similar that we did not,’ answered Amelia, smiling, ‘Look at us: we are of equal social standing, equally accomplished, and regarding beauty… do I need to recount all those occasions in which the lover we were both vying over could not decide?’ Amelia could not believe she was praising the blonde. The smile left her face; she lowered her gaze, as well as her voice, and continued, ‘But mostly it’s because we are both too stubborn and proud, always trying to outdo each other but always too alike to accomplish it.’
‘Which I presume has something to do with your decision to challenge me to a duel, hasn’t it?’
‘Duel?’ answered Amelia with false naivety ‘I don’t recall using that word in the letter I sent you. I invited you there so we can have a private chat far from unwanted gazes and settle our–’
‘Would you please end this damn charade?’ snorted Helen, bringing herself upright ‘It’s exasperating. You are exasperating. I have never seen someone spouting so much words just to not say a single one.’
‘And I have never seen someone so brazenly scorn at my attempts at not being vulgar,’ snapped Amelia
‘Oh, ever the proper lady, aren’t you?’ snapped back Helen, ‘Listen, the letter you sent may have not been explicit in its phrasing but the message was unequivocal,’ she started counting with her fingers, ‘a secluded place, no witnesses, the maids to assist us… I guess it’s because you want me to hear your pretty voice, right? So speak clearly, please: are you challenging me to a duel or not?’
‘Yes I am,’ shouted Amelia. ‘Yes, I’m challenging you,’ she continued even more loudly, ‘I, Lady Amelia Ann Hartwood, am challenging you, Lady Helen Louise Withersby, to a duel.’ She stretched out her arms, ‘Is it clear enough now? Are you happy now? Do you want me to sing it too?’
‘No,’ shouted back Helen ‘I simply wanted to hear you say it clearly.’
‘Fine,’ snorted Amelia, turning her head away from Lady Withersby to stop herself from replying with words she might have regretted saying. Such had been the way every conversation betwixt the two had always ended, with both storming out to stop the altercation from reaching a less than civil conclusion. Indeed, had the noblewomen decided to start the duel immediately by leaping over the table, the maids were already prepared to step in and pull their mistresses apart.
The yells were left to dissolve in the air as both ladies remained speechless for a minute, listening to the silence, their visibly heaving chests pushing against the corsets tightened around their waists. Tolerating each other’s presence was hard for both, but this would have been their last chance to talk and neither wanted to waste it on petty small-talk, or to have it spoiled by their own impatience.
Helen closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. ‘Just one last question, then,’ she resumed, calming down, ‘We have been rivals for almost fifteen years, and yet you have decided to challenge me only now. Why?’
Amelia pondered carefully, then asked, ‘Have you ever heard a musical performance end on its penultimate note? How did it make you feel?’
‘Uneasy. It was very annoying. Outright jarring, I dare say.’
‘Well, such has been my state of mind since I heard of your departure a month ago,’ said Amelia, leaning back, ‘Initially, I was so delighted I almost gave a ball to celebrate. But the more I thought about it the more I felt… empty.’ She paused, looking at the table to avoid meeting her interlocutor’s eyes. ‘I have spent too much years and too much energies in detesting you, to let everything just… vanish. I need closure. Make no mistake, I am glad I will never have to suffer your presence anymore, but I want to remember you as a closed chapter, not as an unresolved issue.’ There was another little pause, ‘And you?’
‘Pardon?’ asked Helen, raising an eyebrow
‘It takes two to dance,’ replied Amelia, looking at her with a sly smile, ‘Those are the reasons I invited you, but why did you accept? You could have simply ignored my missive and went, enjoying your newfangled liberty.’
Lady Withersby snorted and took the teapot, pouring herself another cupful, ‘Because you asked. I had other business to attend to, but I could not refuse the offer.’ Resisting the temptation of throwing it at her host’s face, she brought the cup to her lips, a faint trembling in her fingers, and continued, ‘You are and always had been everything I despise, but you are…’ her cheeks blushed imperceptibly, ‘…you are important to me. And, like you, I think our little private war needs to reach a conclusion.’ She drank her tea in short sips.
‘Quite flattering, even if hard to believe.’
‘Believe what you want, I am wholly sincere.’
Amelia remained silent. The blonde smirked, ‘I think we have wasted enough time chattering,’ she said, putting down the empty piece of chinaware, ‘We should begin.’
‘With no attempts at reconciliation?’
‘It’s too late for that.’
Lady Hartwood waited a bit before replying, it was clear the time for courtesy had passed. ‘I concur. There is no reason to wait any further,’ she said raising and taking two steps round the table, her standing figure towering over the seated blonde.
‘Isn’t it curious?’ said Helen, unfazed, turning her head to admire the woodlands across the lake, ‘How we have endured all those years and yet how now we can barely bring ourselves to be patient for another few minutes…’
‘Curious indeed,’ said Amelia, the words almost chocking in her throat
Thin ripples appeared on the surface of the lake as a long, soft waft of wind came sweeping over the park, rustling through leaves and grass and tugging at the skirts of the two ladies. The barking of a dog came faintly from the distance.
Lady Withersby exhaled and raised to her feet, arranging her gown. She turned back to face Amelia and stepped up to her host, hands on hips.
‘Shall we?’ she asked, serious
Amelia turned abruptly and moved away from the table and the chairs. ‘Cynthia,’ she commanded, her stomach tied in a knot despite her stern face, ‘fetch us the weapons.’
By the time Cynthia reached them, the ladies had already removed their bodices and slipped out of their blouses. Over her chemise, Helen was wearing an ivory-white corset, Amelia a crimson one trimmed with white lace. The maid approached, carrying a long and narrow cherrywood case which had hitherto laid concealed behind a nearby bush and which upon being opened revealed a lining of blue velvet and a pair of smallswords, sharpened and polished and gleaming in the sunlight. Each lady’s gloved hand picked a sword and the two took two steps back, their legs still buried beneath the voluminous skirts.
‘Is this your first time against another woman?’ asked Helen, taking some slow swings at the air to familiarise with the weapon’s weight
‘Yes, it is. But I am adequately prepared nonetheless. My education was not limited to literature and music.’
‘So, first blood, last blood or exhaustion?’
‘First blood, of course,’ answered Amelia, gathering her skirt with her left hand, revealing the white frilly hems of her underskirt and petticoat, ‘I do not mean to take your life.’
Helen did likewise. ‘And I do not mean to take yours,’ she remarked, ‘I will merely cut you once or twice.’
Amelia frowned and stood silent, studying her adversary. Her opponent was of similar height and physique, but with slightly larger shoulders, most likely matching her in strength. And whilst Lady Hartwood was confident in her own fencing abilities, the blonde’s brashness suggested Lady Withersby was feeling no less confident in hers.
‘Nice swords,’ commented the blonde, ‘they look old, but well maintained. A family heirloom?’
Lady Hartwood remained silent, appraising her surroundings to ascertain to be safely distant from any possible obstacle. Then she turned to Helen and answered, ‘Sort of. Are you ready?’
‘En garde, then.’ said Amelia, raising her sword
Helen raised her own and the two women began moving in circle, the tips of the blades almost touching, and for a minute the only audible sound was the faint thumping of the boots on the ground as both ladies looked for the right moment to start. Amelia waited for Helen to end up with the sun in her eyes, then tightened her grip on the hilt and suddenly launched forward, raining a series of quick blows; low, low, high, low again, the surprise forcing Helen to step back. The blonde could only defend herself, but she was quick in moving her blade in the way of her attacker’s as slashes and thrusts rained upon her. And too eager in her attack, Amelia extended her arm too much, giving Helen the opening she was searching for. The counter-attack came energetic and methodical; left, right, left, left again and it was Amelia’s turn to retrocede. The blonde pressed forward, each blow following right after the previous; a thrust, then another, then a swing, faster and faster. It looked like Amelia had already lost, but what should have been the decisive sweep came too slow and hit too close to the hilt. The locked blades scraped on each other as Amelia pushed away and jumped back, putting enough space betwixt her and Lady Withersby to be out of immediate reach.
‘Your technique is good, but you are too rash,’ she remarked, breathing heavily
‘It was nothing but the initial exchange,’ answered Helen, the brief pause giving her some respite, ‘Do you think that’s all I can do?’
‘Ha! I hope not. I want my victory to mean something. Please, don’t restrain yourself.’
Helen dashed forward and the scraping of the blades and the clinking of steel on steel filled the air again. The blonde got the initiative but not the surprise and Amelia had little difficulty in parrying and countering each strike. It was one of such parries that banged with enough force to send Helen’s blade almost out of her hand; Amelia promptly seized the opportunity and drove the blade straight at her foe’s waist. Helen shrieked as she pulled her side away just in time, the tip of the sword brushing her corseted midriff but cutting only the air. That instant was all Amelia needed to catch her adversary with the guard down; her sword flashed violently a second time and for a second time the blonde leapt back at the last moment. The cut went wasted on the fabric of her skirt, but balance was lost and Helen tripped backwards. Laying on her back, she raised her sword, ready to meet the incoming assault; the assault did not come. Panting noisily, her chest raising and falling starkly, she stared at Lady Hartwood looming over her.
‘I could end the duel now and win,’ the black-haired woman said, lowering her blade and taking two steps back, ‘but I am not that kind of woman. Stand up.’
Helen quickly sprang to her feet and gathered her skirts again. They resumed circling, studying each other. Both were visibly tired with beads of perspiration rolling down their foreheads, necks and cleavages, but also still determined and willing to continue.
And so they lunged forward, both at the same time, and their swords met again. This time, Lady Withersby’s thrust darted forward, aimed at Amelia’s right shoulder, but Lady Hartwood had no trouble in deviating it aside. It was what Helen wanted to happen. Her blade swished horizontally and Amelia had to bent backwards to avoid getting cut in the neck. Immediately another slash followed. This time the black-haired woman managed to block it. She let her foe’s blade slid down her own till the guard.
‘You wretch!’ she shouted, pushing forward, forcing Lady Withersby to took a step back, then quickly attacking once more. It was a strange dance the one the two ladies were engaged in: their bodies approaching and withdrawing and moving in circles as their skirts swirled around them, accompanied by moans, grunts and the unrhythmical clanging of steel on steel; a gracious ballet, beautiful in its choreography but ferocious in its execution. Back and forth the two went fighting, attacking and retreating, defending and pushing forward. And yet, neither woman could ultimately gain a real advantage or find an effective opportunity to strike the winning blow.
It was the aching in their pale arms that persuaded the two to stop. Both ladies had reddened faces, were sweating profusely and breathing heavily, but their bodies were still untouched and their alabaster skins unscratched. Clothes, on the contrary, had came out of the fight completely ruined: their chemises were drenched and several gashes on the the dark fabric of their skirts were revealing the white of the petticoats beneath.
‘Stalemate?’ asked Amelia, panting
‘Yes, stalemate,’ answered Helen, similarly exhausted, before erupting, ‘Because of course it was going to be another bloody stalemate!’ she shouted, angered and exasperated, ‘Why does it always have to end that way betwixt us? Why can’t we for once reach a conclusion with a clear winner and a clear loser? Just this time. Is it too much to ask?’
Amelia might have replied, but Helen’s actions surprised her before she had time to find an answer. She stared in bewilderment as the blonde threw her smallsword away.
‘I’m tired of being civil, of behaving properly,’ continued to shout Lady Withersby, removing her gloves and hurling them to the ground, ‘It never solved anything.’
Amelia stepped back and lowered her sword. Although no less frustrated than her opponent, she was still able to maintain her composure, ‘Do… do you wish to end the duel?’ she asked
‘Of course not! I won’t leave without a clear outcome. I say we continue, but with different weapons.’
‘What do you mean? What weapons?’
‘Those that we naturally possess as women,’ the blonde answered, stretching her arms and raising them in front of her, flexing the fingers. ‘Think about it: You will bee able to slap and punch and scratch my face with your own hands and,’ it was a venomous smile the one widening on Helen’s face, ‘and I will be able to do the same to you.’
Amelia was so incredulous her fingers went numb; the hilt of her sword slid out of her grip and the blade hit the ground with a dull metallic thump. She was speechless, those words sounded so surreal. Only in her most private fantasies the lady had dared to imagine such an act, but this was decidedly not a dream and the offer was coming, direct and unambiguous, from the very mouth of her rival. Her mind was insisting on how Lady Withersby was obviously not thinking clearly and babbling absurdities, but her guts were urging her to accept and take advantage of the unrepeatable occasion. After all, nobody was there to see them, nobody would know it had happened. She could not deny how much she wanted to do it, but she was and had always been a proper lady, and proper ladies don’t brawl like drunken wenches. And as her thoughts debated what to do, she found herself mesmerised by the sight of Helen’s nails, lacquered in green and sharp like talons.
Lady Withersby’s voice pulled her back to reality, ‘Do you accept my proposal? Please, don’t tell me you are afraid…’ the blonde sneered, clearly trying to provoke
‘I’m not. But I am thinking about how… undignified it would be.’
‘More dignified than you deserve,’ she paused briefly, before adding deliberately, ‘Hussy.’
A shiver of rage went through Lady Hartwood. That single word was the last straw, she would tolerate no more slights from the blonde. ‘You… You pathetic excuse for a lady,’ she growled, clenching her fists tightly enough to strain the seams of the gloves, ‘How dare you calling me that, in my own home?’
‘Oh, I offended the little ladybird, didn’t I?’ smirked Lady Withersby, hands on hips and stepping closer, provocatively swaying her large skirt left and right at every step. She got to Amelia’s face and her scornful eyes met and locked with the sullen ones of her rival. And suddenly, a loud slap hit Lady Hartwood on the cheek, rocking her head to the side, the crack lingering in the air.
The maids inhaled sharply and audibly, holding their breath, their eyes widened in fear. There was something fascinating in the sight of two aristocratic ladies on the verge of tearing each other apart yet also something frightful. They were paralysed, neither girl moving for fear of sparking the blast.
Amelia could not believe what had just happened, she refused to believe it had happened. With an almost absent mind she removed her gloves and slowly raised a trembling hand to her face, caressing the reddened flesh of her cheek; it felt on fire and throbbing. She took a deep breath and locked eyes with Helen again, smiling. ‘Cynthia, take away the swords,’ she ordered, without diverting her gaze. Her voice sounded calm, almost cordial, the last veneer of propriety over the rage boiling inside her. ‘And don’t even think about interrupting us.’
‘Y– yes ma’am,’ answered the maid, wasting no time in gathering the weapons and rejoining her colleague out of reach of the two noblewomen.
‘So, you want to fight like that, don’t you?’ said Lady Hartwood, taking two steps back, ‘Fine, I will humor you and your sordid desires.’
‘And I will accept it as your parting gift,’ answered a satisfied Helen, likewise taking two steps back.
It was not clear who moved first or on what cue, but in the end it did not matter.
At an unspoken signal, both ladies darted forward, slamming together almost mid-air. Naked arms immediately entwined around each other’s bodies and the two ladies spun wildly around, planting their heeled feet on the ground at awkward angles. Amelia’s hand reached for Helen’s nape and clamped on her hair, the sudden jerk causing the blonde to lose balance and fall, dragging Amelia down with her. Both gasped as stomachs raised to the throats and both moaned as their body hit the hard ground. Back and forth they rolled, still coiled together, snarling and grappling and throwing punches, scraps of grass and smears of dirt clinging to their skin and clothes as they tangled on the ground shrieking, grunting and exchanging half-chocked insults. It was Helen who came on top first, holding Amelia by the wrists and pressing the lady’s body under her own. Amelia arched her back trying to get free, to no avail; She grunted as she tried again, finding her kicking legs hindered by the skirts; a third time she pushed and a third time the blonde kept her down.
‘You like lying beneath, don’t you?’ Helen taunted, ‘Being taken like the bitch you a–’
Amelia’s spittle caught her right under the left eye before she could finish. The blonde winced in surprise and disgust, a distraction which allowed the raven-haired lady to free her right hand. Fingers clenched promptly and the punch hit Helen on the left cheek, tossing her to the side and allowing Amelia to roll on top. Black-nailed hands grabbed Helen’s mane by the temples and started repeatedly slamming her head on the ground; green-lacquered nails went to Amelia’s jaw, sinking into her flesh and pushing her back by the neck. Amelia let out a muffled groan but held and strengthened her grip and suddenly, seemingly in response to the pain, one of the blonde’s hand finally let go. The other did not and with her face held in place, the slap cracked inescapable on Amelia’s cheek. A second one came, then a third. And with a loud snarl, Helen gathered her strength and shoved aside a dazed Amelia.
It was an awkward position the one the two find themselves in, lying on their sides, their arms and hands frantically slapping and punching at necks, sides and backs, their legs searching for each other, trying to kick through the layers upon layers of fabric of the skirts and petticoats. After a minute of ineffective tussling their hands reached to each other and their fingers locked, putting the two into a standstill, every attempt at raising up being countered by a tug pulling back down.
‘Stupid tart, we are accomplishing nothing,’ snorted Amelia, trying to push away her adversary, ‘Fighting this way is pointless.’
‘So do you want to stop it and start again?’ snarled back Helen as another kick strained against her own skirt, ‘Let’s remove those encumbering dresses, then.’
‘Fine! We can fight naked for all I care.’
Almost in unison, both pushed the other away and released their grips. They scrambled to their feet, stumbling back and putting several steps betwixt them. After some seconds of wary waiting, Amelia’s fingers went to the back of her corset to unlace the strings tightening it. She hurried, eager to resume the duel, and whilst unfastening the busk on the front her eyes went back to her enemy, catching Helen in the process of slipping out of her dark bustle skirt. The blonde acknowledged Amelia’s gaze and, almost defiantly, slipped her shoulders out of her chemise and let it fall to her ankles; not to be outdone Amelia did likewise and the two faced again, naked above the waist. Lady Hartwood could flaunt a voluptuous body, with a decently ample bosom: round, firm and, more importantly, slightly but visibly larger than Helen’s.
The two ladies raised their arms and started circling again, their chests now free of constriction raising and falling and filling with fresh air. Both were panting and covered in sweat, with their womanly hips concealed under white cotton drawers reaching just below the knee and their long legs wrapped in woollen black stockings and black-leather, heeled boots.
‘Of course you had to be the strumpet suggesting to forgo modesty,’ scoffed Amelia, pushing a strand of her dishevelled hair away from her face, her brooch lost during the tangle.
‘You, calling me a strumpet? Look at yourself,’ retorted Helen, her face twisted in contempt and her long and now untied hair cascading on her shoulders, ‘naked like a slattern and talking like one.’
‘Says the one who proposed to fight like two streetwhores squabbling over a client.’
‘Indeed, an aptly way to fight for the whore you are.’
‘Enough of your insults, bitch!’ shouted Amelia, leaping forward.
Lady Withersby was waiting for the charge. The two locked arms and began struggling to throw each other down, their bodies writhing at weird angles and their now free legs thumping on the ground and occasionally kicking at each other’s shins. Tired of the apparent inconclusiveness, Amelia got her arms off from the hold, sliding them under her foe’s ones and latching her hands on the hairs on the back of Helen’s head, eliciting a moan of pain from the blonde. Lady Withersby promptly responded in kind and the two found themselves tightly embraced, their naked and sweaty bodies pressed against each other and their heads on each other’s shoulder. Amelia adjusted her grip, clamping her fingers even more tightly, and tugged downward. The sound of those blonde hairs popping out of their roots was strangely enticing, especially when coupled with the sight of Lady Withersby’s face wincing in agony. The blonde stopped pulling and for an instant Amelia thought her enemy was going to give. Then fists started pounding at Amelia’s back, every blow sending a spasm through her body. But Amelia’s fingers remained tightly coiled, for Helen had to be equally suffering, if not more. The blonde’s hands reached again for Lady Hartwood’s black mane and Amelia felt her head jerked backwards. Tears started coming out of both women’s eyes, but neither let go, moaning and grunting as their feet scrambled to keep them upright. It was a struggle to see who would have succumb first to the pain, although it was not clear who was winning.
‘Give, cunt,’ hissed Helen through her teeth
‘No. Not to you.’
Suddenly, instead of the ground, Lady Withersby’s feet found the branches of a shrub. She tripped and fell, pulling Lady Hartwood down with her. The impact on the ground disentangled the two combatants and in the confusion Amelia lost sight of Helen. She raised to her knees and turned right, searching for her foe, only to feel her head being violently pulled to the left. The punch caught her in the mouth, rocking her head to the side. The blonde leaped on a dazed Amelia and pushed her down, pinning her on the stomach and grabbing her head by the hair, rubbing her cheek against the grass. Lady Hartwood wailed and felt the taste of her own blood on her lips as the bitter smell of dirt filled her nostrils, her limbs futilely striking and kicking the air, turned in the wrong direction and unable to hit the woman astride on her.
‘I’ll ask again hussy, you give?’
‘And I’ll say again,’ growled Amelia, ‘No.’
For a second the raven-haired lady did not move, seemingly subdued. Then, gathering all her energies, she arched her back, unsaddling Helen and sending her tumbling forward. In an instant, she was on the blonde, engaged in another furious tangle. Open hands and clawing talons went to every inch of exposed skin they could find, scratching and slapping and pulling at each piece of fabric or clump of hair they could grab. It was in the middle of such a chaotic grapple that Amelia found herself with her back on the ground and her heeled feet right on Helen’s stomach. She pushed, hurling Lady Withersby backwards and sending her into collision with the table.
The piece of furniture noisily toppled from the impact, the chinaware flying and rolling towards the lake, with most of it ending up swallowed by the waters. As the table rolled to the side, Lady Withersby stood up. ‘So long to your precious tea-set,’ she joked, with a sardonic chuckle, ‘The fishes will be thankful.’
‘A fair price if spent on giving you an humiliating defeat,’ replied Amelia, raising to her feet and slipping out of the tatters that had once been her drawers, throwing them away.
The battle had took a toll on both their bodies and what little clothes they were still wearing. The white cotton of their drawers was splotched and ripped, their stockings were laddered. Their heaving chests were covered in scratches and sweat and dirt, whilst their plastered hairs were completely dishevelled and filled with bits of grass. But even if completely ravaged, their figures were still proudly magnificent. As Lady Withersby removed her own tattered undergarments, after sweeping her hairs away from her face, Amelia could not help but gaze upon the amazonian body of her adversary.
‘Something you like?’ joked Helen whilst pushing her mane behind her shoulder, noticing Amelia’s interest
‘Just observing… Now I know why you need a corset so badly, you fat cow,’ was the catty response, ‘No wonder it was so easy to snatch your lovers.’
‘Ha! Still better than your pair of sagging udders, you filthy sow,’ the blonde retorted, the verbal exchange giving her and her foe some needed respite, ‘Tell me, do your ‘conquests’ still remember you face? Or do you need to raise your skirt for people to recognise you?’
‘And do your clients recognise you by the top of your head? Because I fear they will not be able to do it anymore…’ Amelia smiled venomously, nodding towards the clumps of hairs strewn on the grass around them, in equal amount blonde and black.
‘Oh, you unrefined pig, I don’t know who will win, but if you think you’ll leave this fight in a better state than me, you’re more naive than I thought.’
Another thing she did not know was how close she was to the water. And before the blonde could notice it, Lady Hartwood let off a yell and charged forward, seizing Helen by the waist. The two fell together into the water and for a moment they disappeared under the surface. They emerged gasping for air, water dribbling down from their drenched hairs and onto their glistening bodies and waves lapping around their knees. Amelia’s hands lunged for Helen’s neck, but the blonde put her own in the way and diverted them to the sides. Their body slammed together and the fight reignited immediately in the most unladylike of fashions, the two women grappling and striking at each other with an almost primal fury, exchanging punches, slaps and kicks, the increasingly brackish water splashing everywhere around them. Neither the weight of their filled boots and soaked stockings nor the sludgy bottom preventing them from planting their feet could deter the fighting couple, yet in the midst of the confusion, Lady Withersby managed to disentangle herself and shakily reach for the bank. Determined in not letting her foe escape, Amelia leaped on her, pushing the duel on solid ground again.
The ferocity of the battle was evident in the reddened and grimacing faces of the two women, but the slowness of the action and the weakness of the blows were clear indications of how energies had begun abandoning them. Tightly hugged the two rolled back ad forth, slowly, until Amelia found herself again under Helen’s body with her head crushed against the blonde’s bosom. Lady Hartwood felt like suffocating, too fatigued to push her enemy away or to escape from the arms coiled around her head. Her hands went to Helen’s back and her nails sank into the wet flesh. The blonde groaned in pain as Amelia’s black talons raked the pale skin, but she did not let go. Lady Hartwood pushed her claws even deeper, desperate to get free, and a stab went through her ring-finger as the nail cracked. She attempted to scream, but one of Helen’s breasts filled her mouth as soon as she opened it; her muffled yell turned into a grunt as she sank her teeth in the damp flesh and, with a shriek, Helen finally let go, allowing Amelia to roll to the side and get away. On all four, the two eyed each other, eyes full of hate and teeth bared like wild animals.
No words were spoken as the two rose to their knees and approached. They locked fingers, struggling to throw each other down, panting and groaning, but so weak they were, it seemed as the two were actually keeping each other up. A push in the same direction by both broke the deadlock and almost made them fell. Amelia released the grip and, with a quick sweep of her arm, cracked a slap against the blonde’s cheek, knocking her down on her side; but with not enough strength to follow with another, she could not stop Helen from raising again. Lady Withersby retaliated in kind and with the full weight of her body, sending the raven-haired woman to the ground as well.
‘Cunt, why don’t you give?’ howled Helen, her tone in equal parts desperate and irate, ‘How long do you want to go on?’
‘Till you board the ship if necessary, bitch,’ answered Amelia, raising and throwing another slap. She was as tired as Helen, but intentioned to fight till exhaustion if necessary.
Lady Withersby fell, but promptly got on her knees again and slapped Amelia back. It looked like the two would have kept slapping each other endlessly, but each slap was weaker than the one before. Realizing how they would be soon be exchanging caresses, the two ladies stopped to gather their strength for what both knew would have been the last and decisive blow. They rose to their knees, their sweaty, naked chests heaving and their hateful eyes locked. Lady Hartwood felt her head light and wobbling, the sounds reaching her ears muffled and distorted and her sight blurred as though being underwater. She was depleted, what little strength she still had would soon be leaving her. And in front of her, Lady Withersby still stood, opposing her, like she had always been. Amelia began to silently twisting her shoulders to pull back her right arm. She saw Helen flexing her fingers and doing the same. They paused for a moment. And then screamed, flinging their hands towards each other’s faces.
Amelia felt a darkness she could not see. ‘Ma’am? Ma’am?’ a voice was calling her from afar, familiar and enticing. ‘Cynthia, can it be you?’ she asked, or thought, she could not tell the two apart. ‘Ma’am, answer, please,’ the voice rang again, closer and louder yet still out of reach. A biting smell of vinegar and a coughing fit pulled the lady back into consciousness and reality slowly faded back into existence. Fresh air was caressing her face, white brocaded draperies were hanging above and white smooth blankets were covering her body.
Lady Hartwood found herself under the sheets of her own four-poster bed, surrounded by a silence broken only by the cadenced ticking of the long-case clock in the corner of the room, the orange light of the sunset shining through the open french window. At last, her memory slowly returned: the fight, the duel, the chat, the tea, Helen. She turned to her left and found her maid, intent on putting away the bottles of smelling salts back in their container.
‘What happened?’ she asked, her voice barely louder that a whisper ‘Where is Lady Withersby?’
‘You… she… You were both barely conscious so Maud and I brought you inside and washed you as best as we could,’ answered the maid, turning towards her mistress, clasping her hands before her and lowering her head. ‘Lady Withersby is currently in the guest bedroom, attended by her maid. Her conditions are no better than yours, ma’am.’
‘I… I lost, didn’t I?’
‘Y– Yes, ma’am.’ The young maid seemed more sorry than her mistress. ‘Her slap caught you an instant before yours could hit her. It was simple luck.’
Little consolation it was. In a few days most of the physical signs would begin to disappear and in a few weeks her body would be beautiful again. But Helen would also disappear forever from her life, leaving no chance for a second encounter. The knowledge of her defeat would remain. However, she had no regrets; she had faced her enemy and got the closure she was longing for, although not the one she would have favoured.
Someone knocked at the door. ‘Come in,’ said the lady.
Helen’s maid slipped in and approached cautiously. She stopped two steps from the bed, looking to the floor, clearly intimidated by the lady’s presence.
‘Good afternoon Lady Hartwood,’ she said in a soft voice, doing a curtsy, ‘Lady Withersby… has a… a request.’
‘What request? Come closer please, so I can hear you,’ said the lady, planting her elbows and pushing herself straight, leaning her back on the cushions piled against the the bed-head and grimacing with pain as every fibre of her body ached from the effort.
Almost embarrassed, the maid said, ‘She demands a written account of the duel, including an admission of defeat on your part.’
‘She what?’ the lady snapped, her attempt at shouting resulting in another coughing fit. ‘How much does she wants to humiliate me?’
‘You have her word that it will be entrusted to an honourable friend and not divulged,’ the maid answered, ‘Should you decide to talk about the events of this afternoon, then and only then it will unsealed and revealed. Lady Withersby just wants to be sure you will not make false claims in her absence.’
Lady Hartwood had to swallow her pride and persuade herself that it would have been hypocritical to refuse; after all, had she won, she would have done the same. Besides, Helen was the victor and it was her right to do so.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, remaining silent for several seconds, before saying, ‘Fine, I will write it.’ She turned towards Maud before continuing, ‘But tell your mistress that, should she decide to not uphold her word, she will be grateful about not being in England anymore. If she tries to make me the laughing stock of the London social circles, I guarantee that I will drag her reputation down with mine. You can go now.’
‘Thanks, m’lady,’ the maid said, doing a curtsy and leaving the room.
‘The devil take her!’ growled the lady
Silence fell and a minute passed before Amelia spoke again. ‘Help me to the mirror, I want to see how battered I am,’ she said, uncovering her legs and turning to sit on the edge of the bed, only then realizing that she was completely naked.
Cynthia would have preferred for the lady to remain resting in bed but, after years of service, she knew how her mistress would seldom give a command without meaning it. She took Lady Hartwood’s arm over her shoulders and helped her lady to limp to the tall, oval mirror.
An elegantly dressed woman had stood there earlier that afternoon, before leaving to meet her guest at the entrance; a comely beauty with a finely powdered face and carefully coiffured hairs, with smooth, alabaster skin and a proud bearing. The same lady was now looking back at Amelia with a scratched face, a swollen cheekbone and a blackening eye; with a weakened body barely able to stand, covered in scratches and bruises and still splotched where the maids had not be able to clean; with plastered, dishevelled hairs amidst which an observant eye could have spotted the missing patches.
‘Tell Lady Withersby she can stay as long as she need to recover,’ said Amelia, staring at her ravaged figure, ‘But also that her presence here must remain a secret. Make sure no one sees her.’
‘Yes ma’am. Now–’
‘Especially me, for even if can barely stand, I could not restrain myself from assaulting her again, should I meet her,’ the lady’s tone was as hard as her faint voice could allow it to be. ‘Now, help me back to my bed, please,’ she continued, staggering as she tried to turn, ‘I need to rest and forget about this whole affair.’