Sunday, 18th of December, 1870
Lady Hartwood raised the opera-glasses to her eyes and swept the theatre with her gaze. The singers on the stage were performing admirably, but what really interested her that evening were all the gentlemen and the ladies crowding the boxes, high-society men clad in dark suits and jewelled women lavishly dressed in all fashions and colours. In comparison, Amelia’s choice of attire almost looked plain: a copper-brown bodice trimmed with black lace, with a row of polished brass buttons running down from the collar to the waist, and a dark chocolate ruched skirt, with a generous ruffled bustle. Simple yet tasteful, for the lady did not lack her fair share of womanly vanity, as evidenced by the way she had her raven-black hair neatly parted and pulled in a large chignon, held on the back of her head by a pearl-studded net matching her pearl earrings.
A particular spectator had repeatedly piqued her curiosity, a woman dressed in a dark-violet gown, sitting in a box on the side opposite to her own, a lady that more than once she had noticed leering at her only to look away upon being discovered. Amelia picked up her ivory-white fan and once again turned her binoculars towards her, this time catching the lady busy acting coquettish with the man sharing her box, a tall officer in a navy uniform.
Unaware of being so attentively observed, the couple continued to flirt for a few more minutes, then Amelia saw the captain raise and walk towards the door, taking leave. He had not yet left the box, when the woman in violet turned towards her, a purple fan open in her left hand, held in front of the face. Amelia gasped and almost dropped her glasses from the surprise, but she nonetheless held her gaze; her suspicions were true, the lady was interested in her. Intrigued by such an enigmatic behaviour and eager for a meeting, she calmly lowered her glasses and raised her own closed fan in response, touching its tip. When she brought the lenses to her eyes again, the woman was still steadily holding the fan in the left hand while smiling at her. Lady Hartwood raised from her chair and quickly reached for the door; she would not refuse the invitation.
Amelia entered the box just in time to take a glimpse of the next scene beginning on the stage. Her attention though was all for the lady that, seen up close, looked even more imposing. Green-eyed, with high cheekbones and thin lips, her luscious chestnut mane tied on the crown of her head by a big black ribbon in the shape of a rose, with thick ringlets falling on her nape. A cameo pin was holding the collar of her plum bodice, finely embroidered and tight around the corseted waist, and a voluminous flounce skirt was cloaking her legs in dark amethyst.
With the grace of a dancer and the solemn demeanour of a matron, the lady moved closer and extended a hand gloved in mauve. ‘Good evening, Lady Hartwood,’ her voice was husky and deep, even deeper than Amelia’s contralto one, yet still unmistakably feminine, ‘I am Lady Catherine Engelton, and I am glad to finally meet you.’
Amelia’s heart missed a beat. She knew that name, everybody knew that name. Lady Catherine Patricia Engelton, a name people had to be cautious about even uttering, so much was the influence and the power of the woman bearing it. A woman whose presence alone was enough to elevate someone reputation and whose absence was enough to make it go to ruin; a woman whose words could decide who would be popular and who would become laughing-stock; a lady whose web of connections and informants had been at times something frightening, seemingly able to provide her with knowledge about everything and everyone.
Amelia did not know why the thirty-six years old dowager had took an interest in her, only that regardless of the circumstances, that courteous brunette was not a woman to be trifled with. ‘Good evening,’ she answered before letting her astonishment last too long, taking the still extended hand in her black-gloved one, ‘I am… honoured.’
‘I trust you are well, I have heard you have been ill.’
‘Why thanks, I have been indeed.’
‘Pray, sit down,’ said the lady in violet, releasing the grip and beckoning a couple of padded chairs
‘Thank you,’ replied Amelia, moving to take the seat on the right as the brunette moved to take the one on the left, skirts and petticoats rustling on the wooden floor. Catherine’s manners were making her suspicious, though: they were demure and amicable, yet she could not help but perceive a sliver of well concealed hostility behind all those cordial and formal gestures.
The drops of amber dangling from Lady Engelton’s earlobes swayed and glittered as she sat down and promptly asked, ‘It is not the first time you see this operetta, isn’t it?’
‘Of course not, it’s one of my favourites, I never get tired of hearing it,’ answered Amelia, arranging her skirt over her legs and resting her hands in her lap, keeping her eyes on the stage as she talked
‘I presume you already know how it ends, then. The queen leaves with the her lover, and everyone cheers them as they depart. Pars pour Cythère et que rien ne t’arrête, they sing.’ Catherine paused and grinned. ‘But we all know how the story continues, how much strife and conflict her action leaves in her wake, don’t we?’
‘There is no need to play with allusions.’ Amelia smiled, she knew where her interlocutor wanted to veer the conversation. ‘Yes, I am aware Lady Withersby left us and yes, I am glad it happened.’
‘It is curious though, how her presence still lingers, isn’t it? Then again, our beautiful Helen left behind her a lot of unfinished business.’
‘Not with me.’
‘But surely she did with me. Me and her were supposed to meet on the last saturday of october. Needless to say, we never did.’
The smile disappeared from Amelia’s face and her breath grew shallow as she felt a sudden constriction in her chest, and not because of the corset. What she had dreaded had finally happened, her disastrous fight had ceased to be a secret.
Still looking at the stage, Lady Engelton had noticed the distress her words had caused. ‘You seem agitated,’ she said, ‘Has that date any significance to you? What were you doing that afternoon?’
‘Nothing of relevance,’ answered Amelia, hoping to be good enough at lying, ‘The usual things, a walk in the park, a tea in the garden… It was a day like any other for me.’
‘Was it? According to some of my… acquaintances, Chartresfield Hall received a guest that afternoon, a guest which, apparently, nobody was there too see. A guest which would then leave on the evening of the day after, in total secrecy. I have good reasons to believe that Lady Withersby was that guest.’
‘May I hear said reasons?’
‘Well, she was seen leaving her home on the early afternoon of the 29th, and returning during the night of the 30th. And, like you, she would then claim illness and remain secluded in her chambers for no less than a week. A quaint coincidence, isn’t it?’
‘Nonetheless a coincidence.’
‘Who was that guest, then?’
‘I am sorry. I indeed received a guest that day, but I also gave my word about not divulging its identity. And that is a promise I intend to keep.’
‘Of course you do.’ Catherine flicked her fan open and began waving at her face, then continued. ‘Hear what I think happened and give me your opinion, then. After years upon years of attempts at destroying one another, both you and Lady Withersby realise how your never-ending spats have become an integral part of your lives and how you can not bear the thought of not seeing each other anymore. So you arrange for a meeting, alone and far from indiscreet eyes, to discuss… well, that is not really important. What matters is that that day a duel took place, and…’ she cast a quick glance at Amelia, only to found her stoically expression-less, ‘…and I am reasonably sure Helen was the victor.’
‘Conjectures,’ stated plainly Lady Hartwood, agitated but firmly aware of how all the brunette had were speculations and mind games. ‘Conjectures and fabrications. But let’s assume what you are saying is true,’ she continued while fidgeting with the folds of her skirt, ‘You say that that day a duel betwixt me and Lady Withersby took place and that I lost it. Fine. You could have used this information to smear my reputation. But you haven’t yet.’
‘It is a quite credible story, I have to admit, and people will easily believe it. But telling me about it now, only gives me time to find a way to counter the rumours; therefore, simply ruining my name is not your intention.’ She paused for a moment, before asking, ‘You want to goad me into doing something, don’t you?’
Lady Engelton closed her fan and placed it on her lap, clenching her gloved hands around it. ‘I like your perspicacity. And I think you deserve an explanation,’ she began in a serious tone, her eyes fixed on the stage, ‘Helen was an insufferable trollop, I do not think I need to explain that to you. But you were not her only enemy, certainly you were not the only one with whom she had issues to settle. When I heard the she was going to leave, I immediately asked for a meeting, to solve some old disputes we had, face to face. An offer she had ostensibly accepted but… but when the day came for us to meet on the field of honour…’ She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then continued, ‘Helen left her home that day, I know she did. But she never arrived at mine. A maid came instead, bringing a message telling me that her mistress had more pressing and important matters to attend.’
Amelia swallowed; she opened her mouth and tried to speak, but no words came.
‘I hope you are smart enough to understand how grievous an affront this is,’ continued the brunette, her tone growing angrier with every word, ‘You stole her from me. You depleted her. And for what, in the end? For nothing. You didn’t even had the decency to give her the comeuppance she deserved. No, I can’t let it pass. I have ruined the lives of more powerful and more prestigious ladies than you, and for less severe offences. But…’ she paused and slowly turned towards Amelia, taking a languid look at the raven-haired woman, ‘… but your naivety amuses me, so I will be magnanimous and give you a chance at salvaging that little, worthless reputation of yours.’
Lady Hartwood inhaled sharply and raised from her chair so abruptly she almost made it topple. Being belittled in such a deliberate way was more than her pride could bear. ‘As I said, conjectures and fabrications,’ she flared, turning and heading towards the door in the most haughty countenance she could muster up, ‘Our conversation ends here. Farewell and–’
‘What if I tell you I am in possession of a certain document?’
The words struck Amelia like a knife in the guts. She stopped, too frightened to even look back, her face a ghastly pale. And over the japes coming from the stage, she could hear, from the hissing of the dress and the muffled thumping of her steps, that Lady Engelton had raised from the chair and was approaching her from behind.
‘A document detailing how you and Lady Withersby met and duelled,’ continued Catherine, with a gentle voice yet a grin so mischievous Amelia could feel it even without looking, ‘and how despite all your efforts, you could not reach a conclusion by blades alone. A document describing how you therefore continued with your bare hands and nails. A document where your big, elaborate signature stands next to an admission of defeat.’ Amelia gasped and almost jumped upon feeling two hands grabbing her shoulders and a cheek pressing on her hair. ‘Imagine it printed on the pages of The Times,’ whispered the brunette, nuzzling her nose behind the ear, ‘Imagine the scandal, the humiliation…’
Lady Hartwood turned abruptly, shaking Catherine off her shoulders. ‘How did you get it? Helen told me she would give it to a–’
‘To a trusted friend of hers?’ Lady Engelton covered a chuckle with the back of his hand. ‘She did, in fact. And her friend was very trustful indeed. But every woman has her little secrets to protect, her little shames that must remain unknown, no matter the cost.’
Lady Hartwood could not conceal the fear gnawing at her heart anymore. ‘Why are you doing all this? What do you want from me?’
The brunette stepped closer. ‘What do I want?’ she replied, smiling and softly lifting Amelia’s chin with her gloved forefinger, ‘I want what is mine by right. I want the clash I could not have. I want the duel you denied me. I want to fight you…’ she brought her face almost nose to nose with Amelia’s, her green eyes piercing her interlocutor’s brown ones, and added, ‘…whore!’
Before having time to reply, Amelia found her nostrils filled with the smell of makeup and her lips locked with Catherine’s. A hand grabbed her nape and another wrapped her waist, pressing her body and her head against those of the brunette. An eager tongue began twisting around her own and for a moment she closed her eyes, tempted to reciprocate. The singing reminded her where she was.
She moaned and shoved Lady Engelton away, taking a step back. ‘Have you lost your mind?’ she growled, ‘People can see us here.’
It seemed to not bother Catherine, which licked her lips before replying. ‘Then we better continue somewhere else,’ she said, a sardonic smile stretching on her face, ‘I’d like to invite you to my city residence, for a little chat and a cup of coffee. It happens to be nearby, and the privacy of my chambers will allow us to settle our little disagreement unseen and undisturbed.’
Amelia wondered if what was happening was nought but a trick of her imagination, if she had drifted into slumber after the overture and all of this was an absurd dream. The fight she had for so long lusted after, but resigned to never had; why was fate being so kind to her, all of a sudden?
‘So?’ Lady Engelton’s face was betraying her growing impatience. ‘Mind you, there are people who would risk everything for a chance to be alone with me, if only for one night…’
Lady Hartwood had already made her decision, but she would not let the brunette know how eager she was. Hiding her excitement behind an appearance of indecisiveness, she asked, ‘What if I refuse?’
‘Then, tomorrow morning all of London will read about you and Helen.’
‘If so, I am pleased to accept you invitation,’ she replied, with a smile and a slight bow of her head. ‘When?’
‘This very night.’
‘Perfect. Let’s go at once.’
‘No, later.’ Catherine’s rebuff was rather rude and spiteful, ‘I am here for the music, not for you.’ She turned with a swirl of her skirt and walked back to her chair with a swinging gait, continuing to talk to Amelia without even looking at her, ‘I will be waiting outside at the end of the second act. I trust you will be there too.’
‘Do not worry,’ hissed Lady Hartwood, ‘I will.’
Amelia adjusted her fur hat and stepped out of her clarence, down on the footplate and on the cobbled pavement. Tightly wrapped in her cape, she looked around at the surroundings, but all she could see was a street like any other, deserted and silent. That evening, London was shrouded in a dense fog, so thick the lights of the street-lamps appeared as hazy glows amidst the humid grey permeating the air. The sound of a door creaking on its hinges called her attention.
Clad in a long black coat, Lady Engelton was waiting for her, with a hand extended towards an open doorway. ‘After you, my dear,’ she invited, her voice crisply audible over the mist smothering every other noise
With the cold prickling at her cheeks and her breath turning into puffs of steam before her mouth, Amelia did not need to be persuaded to move inside. She turned to the coachman that had brought her there, and nodded. The man nodded back and, after climbing back to his seat, set the horse to a calm trot. The carriage clattered away, most likely headed to the nearest pub, and the lady waited for its figure to disappear in the fog before gathering her skirt and moving. The clicking of her heels cut the silence as she climbed the few steps raising the door from the street level and entered, walking past her host.
The hall was dim, illuminated only by the trembling light of the two candlesticks on the big table in the centre of the room. ‘Are we alone?’ asked Amelia, while removing her hat and unbuttoning her cape.
Catherine closed the door behind her. ‘Of course not. My maids are here with us,’ she answered, picking a little brass bell from somewhere in the darkness and ringing it.
Two servants dressed in dark frocks appeared and curtsied; young and, judging by what could be seen of their faces, probably sisters. Lady Engelton pointed at Amelia and said to them, ‘La Signora Hartwood sarà nostra ospite stasera. Una di voi la conduca nelle mie stanze, l’altra prenda il suo cappotto e ci serva il caffè.’
‘Come desidera, signora,’ they answered in unison
Catherine turned to Amelia. ‘Would you kindly let Lucrezia take custody of your coat, and then follow Emma to my chambers? I will be there in a moment, but I first need to pick up something from the study.’
As she disappeared in one of the adjoining rooms, one of the maids approached, waiting for Lady Hartwood to slip out of the cape to bring it away. The lady handed it to the girl, which curtsied and left. The other picked one of the candlesticks. ‘Mi segua per favore,’ she said, motioning towards the staircase. The noblewoman complied and followed close behind.
‘Le consiglio di togliersi gli orecchini, se non vuole finire con le orecchie strappate,’ warned the girl, as she and Amelia made their way up the flight of stairs in the scanty and reddish light of the candle
‘Désolé,’ apologised the lady, ‘je ne comprends pas.’
The maid stopped and turned, with a puzzled expression. ‘Orecchini,’ she repeated, pointing a finger at her ear.
‘Oh,’ exclaimed Amelia, finally understanding the warning.
She removed her earrings and let the girl took custody them, before following her up the remaining steps. They were on the first floor and, after a brief walk down the corridor, the maid pushed open a double-door and ushered the lady to her mistress’ boudoir.
As her eyes accustomed to the light provided by the lamps, Lady Hartwood examined the room. It was a warm, square chamber, with a high ceiling, panelled walls and a single, large persian rug covering almost the entirety of the floor. On the opposite wall to the door, heavy maroon curtains reaching to the floor were covering the window; on the wall to her right, betwixt a chest of drawers and a dressing table, there was another double-door, leading to Catherine’s bedchamber. The big fireplace on her left was lit but going out, and Emma had moved to feed the grate some fresh logs and restoke the flames. In the centre of the room stood a low oval table and a couch large enough for two persons, with crimson brocade cushions. The lady advanced and turned towards the heart; the corner to her left was hidden behind a folding screen, the other one was occupied by a bookshelf overflowing with tomes.
The main feature of the room, though, was the big portrait hung over the mantelpiece. A remarkably realistic portrait of Lady Engelton, seating on a piece of column and playing the harp, dressed in a flimsy white peplum and with her hair loose and falling on her shoulders. The maid stepped aside, allowing Amelia to get got closer and analyse the details: the painter had not tried to make the depicted woman look younger; on the contrary, every sign of maturity had been depicted with care and made attractive in its own right. Clearly, the portrait was not meant to be seen outside the private quarters of the lady, for the dress was so décolleté, and the fabric so translucent, that only a clever use of lights and shadows was ensuring some resemblance of modesty. Amelia looked away blushing, upon discovering how her eyes had been drawn to the generous chest of the depicted woman.
‘That picture is so inaccurate…’ Catherine commented, entering the room in a rustling of petticoats and underskirts, ‘I play the cello, not the harp.’
Lucrezia entered shortly after, carrying a rattling tray heavy with chinawares. She left it on the table and reunited with her colleague.
‘Grazie,’ said Catherine to the girl, before addressing both in a kind but imperious voice, ‘E ora lasciateci sole. Sapete cosa fare.’
The maids curtsied and left, closing the door after them. In the quietness of the room, Amelia could hear distinctly the sound of the key being turned in the lock. And with a quick glance, she noticed how her host had also removed the jewellery from her ears.
‘Please, have a seat,’ said Lady Engelton, beckoning the couch
Amelia walked to the sofa and lowered herself on the cushions on the left side, arranging her skirt over her crossed legs. ‘Your hospitality is remarkable, my compliments.’
‘Why thanks,’ said Catherine, sitting at her right and leaning forward to fill both cups. ‘You may be interested in knowing that this room was the one where Helen and I were going to duel. I have kept it in the same state since then, waiting for the right time and the right person to put it to use. Sugar?’
‘No, thanks. May I ask if you are getting impatient? You have spent such a long time waiting, after all.’
‘Yes, I am. But I do not want to hasten things.’ The brunette lifted her coffee and drew back, softly blowing away the smoke, ‘We first need to finalise the terms of our affair of honour.’
‘Indeed. Like the choice of weapons. May I suggest swords?’
‘Too impersonal. And I think the space at our disposal is too limited to use them them effectively.’ Catherine brought the coffee to her lips and drank in short sips. ‘Pistols?’
‘Too chancy,’ answered Amelia, bending forward and picking her cup, ‘Besides, it would be ridiculous for us, to risk killing each other over Lady Withersby, of all things.’
‘That leaves us only the weapons nature gifted us: our hands, nails and teeth.’
‘Do you find using them beneath you?’
‘On the contrary, I find it more than agreeable. And to make our duel more meaningful, I say the winner will become the rightful owner of that stupid piece of paper.’ The brunette nodded towards the tray; a slightly wrinkled envelope with a broken red seal was lying discretely amidst the decorated saucers.
Amelia recognised it instantly. ‘That piece of paper is not stupid to me,’ she said, her throat suddenly parched, ‘My reputation depends on its content remaining a secret.’
Lady Engelton snorted. ‘Of course. Your little precious reputation…’ she said, putting down her empty piece of chinaware, ‘You were not so concerned about it when you and Helen scuffled like two hysterical prostitutes though, weren’t you?’
Lady Hartwood was getting tired of the brunette’s arrogance. She brought the cup to her lips and savoured the smell, glad about not having to restrain her contempt anymore. ‘Helen and I hated each other, and lost control,’ she retorted, smiling knowingly, ‘But you… you consciously searched for me to pull me in. What is your excuse for acting like a depraved vixen?’ She drank calmly, the coffee was bitter and at the right temperature.
Catherine squinted at her and pouted her lips; the insult had obviously not been appreciated. ‘And what did you do during your month of seclusion?’ she replied after a brief pause, ‘I mean, besides making your servants fight amidst themselves for your own wicked pleasure?’
Amelia startled and almost chocked on her drink. She turned to her host with eyes wide open. ‘Who told you?’
‘You did,’ answered Catherine, with a catty smirk, ‘Right now.’
Lady Hartwood turned her head away and quickly finished her coffee. ‘That’s enough,’ she growled, putting down the cup, leaving a faint smear of red lipstick on its rim.
She brought her hands in front of her chest and began removing her gloves, slowly drawing one finger at time and taking care for her nails to be in full view of her host. They were lacquered in black, long and well sharpened. She uncrossed her legs, raised to her feet and, turning to Catherine, dropped her gloves betwixt her and the brunette, a gesture as symbolic as superfluous. She began tingling with anticipation upon seeing her rival standing as well and acting likewise, unsheathing her own violet talons and flinging her gloves on the table. Dresses rustled as the two drew closer, arms stretched along their eager bodies and fingers ready to scratch and tear. Scornful gazes met and a weighty silence fell, broken only by the occasional crackling of the fire. The two noblewomen stood still for what to them felt like an eternity, on guard and ready to leap at the first twitch. Both knew what was going to happen, but each was taking pleasure in irritating the other by protracting the waiting just a little more.
Lady Hartwood was the first to move, extending her arm towards the brunette’s mane and gently coiling a strand of hair around her finger. ‘I hope you are not particularly fond of this filthy mop you call coiffure,’ she said, ‘because tomorrow morning, several pieces will be missing.’ Butterflies were flying in her stomach and her hearth was thumping in her chest so loud she feared her adversary could hear it.
‘Well, then I hope you are not particularly fond of this tawdry dress of yours,’ responded Lady Engelton, grabbing the front of Amelia’s bodice with both hands, ‘because I doubt you will be able to leave wearing it.’
Amelia cared little for her gown. She grabbed a fistful and gave a yank. ‘Shut up, you pompous toffer. I’m tired of your threats.’
Catherine winced and bared her teeth before retorting by spitting in her face. ‘Then stop blabbering and fight me, whore!’
‘Wretched hussy!’ shouted Amelia, flinging a slap just as Catherine pulled her close. Any tactic either may have planned to use, was quickly discarded and forgotten as the two found themselves embraced in an awkward grapple. Skirts flapped and whipped while heeled feet frantically tried to plant themselves on the carpet, searching for stability. Lady Hartwood felt the body of the brunette pressed against hers and her hands instantly went for the hair, fastening on the back of Catherine’s head and puling downwards. Lady Engelton grunted an insult but did not answer in kind; instead, she clung on Amelia’s torso and, clutching tight, tried to bend her foe and make her lose balance. Embraced and staggering, the legs of the couple hit the table, knocking it and sending the crockery rolling on the floor.
‘Miserable harlot!’ roared Catherine, pushing forward with all her energies and slamming her enemy against to the door of the bedchamber. The impact resounded like a drum and Amelia’s chignon failed to soften the blow to her head, stunning her for a second. It was all her enemy needed, and immediately a fist hit her in the side; the whalebones of the corset dampened the strike, but not enough to stop her from losing her breath and her concentration. Catherine, quickly and unopposed, grabbed her by the hair, and threw her aside. A little pouf was in front of the dressing-table and it ended up right in the way of Amelia’s legs and skirt, making her trip over it and sending her ruinously down on the carpeted floor; she extended her arm, searching for something to grasp, but only managing to find and sweep off the flasks of perfume and the tins of makeup.
As Lady Hartwood tried to push herself up on the elbow, with the head still ringing from the blow, Lady Engelton approached slowly, her chest already heaving visibly. ‘Is that all, strumpet? Why was it so hard for Helen to defeat you then?’ she sneered contemptuously, one hand on her hip, the other pulling off the ribbon from her half dishevelled hair. ‘You are such a disappointment,’ she continued to gloat, shaking her head and letting her mane flow down her shoulders, ‘I was expecting a fi–’
‘Shut up!’ yelled Amelia, hurling a brush at Catherine. The brunette shrieked and brought her hands to the face, ducking to avoid the projectile, and by the time she turned back to Amelia, the raven-haired woman was already on her feet again, charging at her. Their bodies slammed together, locking in a mutual embrace, and reeled against the sofa. Stomachs raised to their throats and both women gasped and yelled as the couch overturned from the force of the impact, crashing down and unloading them on the floor on other side. It did not deter the two ladies that, even more tightly entwined, rolled over and over, grunting and snarling, hands buried in their manes ripping off chunks of hair, and nails buried in the flesh of their cheeks, smearing their lipsticks and raking nasty red trails across their gracious faces.
The wall put an end to the rolling and Catherine found her back against the curtains. One of her arm was trapped under her own body and Amelia’s hands were tightly clasped on the locks on her temples. The brunette raised her free arm and flung a slap down to Amelia’s cheek; once, twice, thrice, the slaps echoed in the room. Lady Hartwood endured the pain, before releasing a hand to throw a punch, only to have her enemy catch it. Skirts fanned out around the legs as leather boots began trying to hit one another, restrained and hampered by all the layers of underskirts. Emboldened by her momentary superiority, Catherine clamped her fingers around the wrist and pushed, bending Amelia’s arm behind the shoulder, a move the raven-haired woman had no way to counteract. Lady Hartwood tried to resist, but after a brief and futile struggle, she found herself pinned on the floor, crushed under the weight of the brunette.
‘Lurid trollop,’ snarled Catherine, holding Amelia by the wrists, ‘When I’m through with you, no amount of powder will be enough to make you look pretty again!’
‘Oh, you ought to know something about it,’ snarled back Amelia, ‘given how you cake your face like a parisian whore to conceal the crow’s feet!’
So enraged Lady Engelton was from the insult, that she had to release one hand and fling a backhanded slap. Amelia’s head rocked to the side, her cheek reddened and stinging. But with a free hand she was now able to strike back. She clenched her fingers and her punch caught her foe right in the mouth, tossing her to the side. And taking advantage of the dizziness of the brunette, Amelia extricated herself from the tangle.
‘Come here, you tart!’ yelled Lady Engelton, scrambling to her feet and launching herself at a still fleeing Amelia. Lady Hartwood’s big brown skirt whirled as she turned and grabbed the curtains, putting them betwixt her and her foe and stepping to the side. Catherine hugged the heavy damask fabric instead of her adversary, but quickly disembroiled her arms and charged again. This time Amelia was ready for her.
The two locked arms and began struggling; back and forth, the two pushed and pulled, stumbling around, neither capable of overpowering the other, the seams of their sleeves straining audibly as fingers tightened their grip. The noses of the two ladies were almost touching, when Catherine suddenly pulled her head back and then thrust it forward, trying to strike at Lady Hartwood’s teeth, or acting as if that was the intent. The raven-haired woman instinctually recoiled, closing her eyes and bringing the hands on the mouth.
But instead of the expected blow, she felt her foe’s hands getting a firm grip on the fabric of her dress and pulling her to the side. In a whirlwind of brown and violet skirts, the couple spun and, after an almost complete circle, the buttons of Amelia’s bodice finally popped out, letting the front of her dress burst open and separating her from her enemy. Amelia let off a yell as her body flung backwards and slammed against the bookshelves.
Under her bodice, Lady Hartwood was wearing a black ruffled blouse, but in that moment her appearance was the last of her concerns: Catherine had quickly discarded the brown rag and was leaping at her.
A book was protruding from its row, and Amelia’s hand had, by chance, ended up on it. The lady grabbed and swung it, trying to bludgeon her assailant. But somehow, Catherine was able to catch it before it could hit her. She yanked, trying to pull it off of Amelia’s hand; Lady Hartwood held tight.
‘You want to steal this too? Like you did with my Helen?’ snarled the brunette, tugging at the leather cover
It did not took long for the book to break in half. A loud ripping sound preceded the shrieks of the two women reeling back in opposite direction. Catherine staggered and tripped, falling on her arse but cushioned by her voluminous skirt.
Amelia collided a second time with the shelves and remained upright. Dozens of pages were scattered on the floor, some were still floating in the air, and some had clung to the piece of cover still in her hand. Out of curiosity, she looked at the title-page, and chuckled. ‘It looks like you Cent Nouvelles have just become Cinquante,’ she said, dropping the piece and pulling a strand of hair from her eye; the net holding her hair had been snatched at some point and her black mane was disarranged and straggling down her face.
Catherine slowly got back to her feet. ‘I had not yet finished reading it,’ her voice was a slurred growl.
Amelia scrambled to the side, trying to put the overturned couch betwixt her and her enemy, only for the brunette to do the same and end up in front of her again. Both were breathing heavily and with beads of perspiration already falling down their foreheads. Faces were red and scratched and, unable to withstand the abuse the two ladies had put them through, the seams of their gowns had burst open in several places, revealing the white of the petticoats beneath.
In a move that surprised Lady Hartwood, the brunette brought her fingers to her collar. Deliberately and one by one, her slender fingers unbuttoned the front of her dress. Amelia stood and watched as the brunette let her bodice slip down her arms, uncovering a violet blouse. She needed some respite and curiosity was having the better of her.
Catherine pushed her hair back over the shoulder and brought her arms up in a boxer’s stance. ‘Shall we?’ she asked, her mouth widening into a devilish grin.
Amelia smiled and, without much thought, mirrored the stance, taking a timid step forward. She was being reckless and she knew it. She had neither training nor actual experience in boxing; all her knowledge came from a book she had read and from the sight of her two maids trading punches. Catherine, on the other hand, had the appearance and the attitude of someone who knew what she was doing.
Lady Engelton took a little step to the side, waiting for her enemy to make the first move. Lady Hartwood obliged and bolted forward; she tried to drive a fist at Catherine’s face, only to have it blocked and deflected; the retort came fast and well aimed, catching her right in the mouth. Her head rocked to the side with the rest of her body and she stumbled two steps back, feeling the taste of her own blood on the lips. She charged again; for a second time Catherine parried her blow and answered by hitting her just under her left eye.
Amelia stepped back, moaning from the pain, but nonetheless raised her arms a third time and approached again. But she would not try another attack; this time, she would instead wait for Catherine to give her an opportunity. Maybe an opening would present itself, maybe the brunette would make a mistake, maybe she would get tired. It was not a winning tactic, but it was the only one within the reach of her capabilities.
And so, spurred by Amelia’s apparent ineptitude, Catherine attacked, fast and powerful. Lady Hartwood put her arms before her head and yelped as the knuckles struck. On and on, she parried and endured, stepping back, groaning and suffering yet negating her foe a decisive blow. Her forearms hurt, but it was better than being hit in the face. As the punches rained on her, though, she realised she would not be able to keep her guard up forever; she had to counterattack, somehow.
The chance finally came when Catherine, visibly frustrated by her inability to struck at something significant, let off a snarl and stopped aiming her punches, letting anger guide her hands instead of her sense. Amelia deviated one of the brunette’s punches with her left arm, ducked the following one and struck with her own right fist, catching Catherine in the cheekbone and stunning her; a swing of her left arm followed quickly, landing a jab on the brunette’s jaw.
Lady Engelton was trying to regain her focus when the final blow struck her chin. She stumbled backwards and crashed on the carpet and Amelia promptly darted forward to launch on her. But too eager in her charge, she realised too late that the brunette had raised one of her feet in defence. A heeled boot hit her stomach, two hands grabbed and pulled her wrists, and up and down became one and the same as the whole room spun around her. Her shriek turned into a loud moan of pain as her back hit the floor with all the force of her weight.
A queer silence fell as the battle ceased for some minutes. Weak as they were, both combatants were still able to move, yet neither was willing to do so at the moment: the longer a truce could be maintained, the better they would be when the fight would begin again. Eyes stared at the ceiling and chests rose and fell, gasping for air as the two ladies lay on the carpet, their hair fanning out around their heads like flowing rivulets, brown and black strands crossing one another.
Amelia laughed. ‘It must be a new experience for you,’ she said, ‘finding someone who isn’t afraid of standing up to you and your caprices.’
‘A mere inconvenience,’ Lady Engelton swept the perspiration from her forehead, ‘which will make my victory all the sweeter.’
‘You’re just a bitter hag.’
‘Shut up, bitch.’
‘Make me, cunt.’
Someone knocked at the door.
‘No! Non abbiamo ancora finito!’ shouted Lady Engelton, somehow able to gather enough breath to accomplish it, before pushing herself up
Amelia did not move; she was vulnerable and her instinct was urging her to get up, but somehow she knew she could trust her enemy to not attack her.
‘Stand up and take off your clothes,’ ordered the standing brunette, her voice strangely compelling
‘You heard me.’
Amelia could not see what Lady Engelton was doing, but she could hear the sound of clothes sliding off and being thrown on the floor. It was not without curiosity that she raised to her feet, less tired than she had thought she would be, and turned towards Catherine.
The brunette had already took off her blouse and bared her corset, pink and trimmed with white lace, and was in the process of removing her skirts. There was something undeniably sensual in the movements of the brunette, in the way she was slipping out of her attire; something which, Amelia reflected, was probably aimed at making her disoriented or uncomfortable. And yet, even knowing that, she could not divert her eyes from such a physique. Upon noticing such an interested gaze, the brunette smiled flirtatiously and kicked aside the petticoat she had just finished sliding down her legs. A pair of black leather boots was reaching up to her knees, with the black wool of the stockings disappearing under the white cotton of the drawers.
Amelia did not waste time and undressed herself, modesty was not a concern anymore and she could not allow the brunette to move more freely than her. She found that two buttons of her blouse were already missing and hastened to open the rest. Her own corset was black and trimmed with black lace. She slipped out of her skirts and kicked them to the side; her legs were not differently clad than those of Catherine.
‘You thought I was one of those ladies that swoon at the mere mention of violence, didn’t you?’ said Amelia as the two began circling, their heels thumping on the carpet
‘I admit I underestimated you,’ answered Catherine, pushing her hair behind the shoulders and flexing her arms, ‘But don’t flatter yourself, slag. You being better than expected doesn’t mean you will be good enough.’
‘Oh, I will–’
The words were still on her lips, when her foot stepped on a saucer, which broke and croaked under her boot, distracting her. She cast a glance at her feet, to understand what was that noise. And in a moment, the brunette was on her.
Caught by surprise, Amelia could not withstand the assault and fell, embraced with Catherine. The couple tangled and writhed, each woman trying to subdued the other, arms flailing and slapping, legs kicking and kneeling aimlessly. On and on, each would found herself on top, only to have her hair pulled, or her head dragged down; then the other would roll on top herself, just to suffer the same fate. Ultimately, the two found themselves hugged tightly, too close to hit one another yet unwilling to separate. Amelia reached down to her enemy’s drawers and grabbed its white cotton; she pulled, eliciting a moan of pain from the brunette. She pulled harder, only to yelp upon suddenly feeling her own undergarments sliding up her crotch and rasping her skin.
‘Filthy slut!’ she snarled through clenched teeth
Faces were distorted in grotesque grimaces, when the fabric finally gave and the scuffle resumed. Amelia ended up under the brunette and, realizing how the chunk of cotton was still in her hand, tied it around her enemy’s neck and tugged. Catherine grunted upon feeling her head yanked away and retorted by cocking her arm to fling a punch; Amelia yelled and released everything to cover her face. The two were not entwined anymore and Catherine was the first to took advantage of it and try to get out of such a chaotic grapple; she pushed and kicked away her enemy, before scrambling to her feet to put some distance.
Lady Hartwood would not let her escape. ‘Come here, you hussy!’ she shouted, leaping on the brunette and grabbing her from behind, by the waist
‘I’m going nowhere!’ shouted back Lady Engelton, twisting her torso and coiling an arm around Amelia’s neck.
The two ladies stumbled and lose balance, falling to the floor and ending side by side. With an arm blocked under the brunette’s body, Amelia had no possibility of escape, but no need either; with her free hand she grabbed a clump of brown hair behind the ear, twisting it and tugging it. The brunette yelled upon having her head jerked so brutally and answered by grabbing the clumps of black hair loose on Amelia’s forehead and wrenching them just as viciously. Trapped inescapably in their knotted embrace, both pulled, both winched and suppressed a scream, but neither gave. Eyes filled with tears as little locks of hair began popping out of their roots.
‘Looks like you’re going to need a new coiffure, whore!’ growled Catherine
‘Then I will make some rats out of the pieces of yours, cunt!’ answered back Amelia, raising a leg and slamming a heel on one of her enemy’s shins
A loud scream echoed in the room. Lady Engelton weakened her hold on both the hair and the neck of Amelia, which quickly disentangled herself and scrambled away. Still on all four she turned, ready for Catherine imminent charge, only to discover how the brunette was still sitting on the carpet, moaning and rubbing her sore leg.
Lady Hartwood desired nothing more than to launch herself on the brunette again, but her tiredness convinced her to use the lull to regain a little energy.
She got to her feet and waited for her enemy to do the same. The brunette looked back at her with scorn, but did not move. Both women’s most private parts were exposed, their hairy bushes clearly discernible through the large gashes in the bottom of their ripped drawers. No words were exchanged. Both were visibly tired, although with still plenty of determination to continue the battle.
Either to breath easier, or just to provoke Catherine, Amelia brought her hands to her back and untied the laces. Feeling her lungs free of constriction was pleasant, but she had not time to indulge. She unlocked the busk and discarded her corset. Her chemise was already ripped in several places, and slid off without difficulty; her tattered drawers, which were all but hanging from her waist and clinging to her skin, fell off at the first pull.
Lady Engelton seemed to be entertained by the sight, to the point of giving Amelia time and opportunity to remove even the boots. When Catherine finally raised and began removing her own undergarments, Amelia did not say a word and let her do it. The fire in the heart was blazing furiously, flooding the air with a yellowish, quivering glow, and the two ladies were standing almost naked, their skin glistening with sweat, each wearing only a pair of black woollen stockings, held by lace garters. With her dishevelled mane loosely falling on her shoulders, Catherine was just as sensuous and beautiful as the portrait depicting her, if not more.
Amelia pushed her hair behind the shoulders. ‘Cow’s tits,’ she spat, breaking the silence, ‘Sagging, worn-out cow’s tits.’
The brunette snorted. ‘So, we’re down to insulting each other tits?’ she retorted, her voice dripping with contempt, ‘How vulgar. Then again, I knew from the instant I first saw you what kind of unrefined sow you were.’
‘Oh, because you think of yourself as the better lady, don’t you?’
‘No, slut,’ Catherine tossed back a strand of hair, ‘I think of myself as the better woman.’
‘A bold claim, cunt!’
Catherine bared her teeth, livid, and took a step forward, raising her arms. Amelia was not scared, she was ready to meet her. Both ladies let off a deafening roar and sprang forward at the same time, leaping at each other like lionesses, and it was as if the last appearance of civility had been abandoned along with the last pieces of their attires. They came together in a furious grapple, arms and hands hitting and slapping and attempting to get a grip, legs kicking and trying to trip one another. They spun and writhed, each blow accompanied by grunts and groans, until the fury of the two led them to slam against the windshield; it had, until then, managed to stay out of the battle, but hit by the combined weight of both combatants, it toppled and went to pieces. Both tumbled and found themselves tangling on the floor again, amidst the scraps of wood and board.
The fight went on, without even slowing down. Nails raked at the flesh and hands pulled at the hair, in a heap of entangled limbs where it was impossible to determine who was who. Suddenly, in the confusion, Amelia felt a hand searching for her crotch and finding it. Two fingers invaded her, cold and sharp, and began clawing her womanhood. She screamed and, led by nothing more than her instinct, clamped her mouth on the brunette’s nearest shoulder, sinking her teeth into the sweaty flesh. Her snarl was covered by the shriek of Catherine, who stopped her foul attack and grabbed Amelia’s head, shoving her away.
Both scrambled to their feet and began circling, panting heavily; their knees had difficulty in keeping them up and their stocking were in tatters.
‘Sorry,’ mocked Amelia with a strained voice, ‘but if something must be inside me, I prefer for it to be a man.’
No further time was wasted as Lady Hartwood charged again, wrapping her arms around the waist of her foe and trying to throw her to the floor. The brunette tried to resist, but her feet failed to plant; she fell backwards, but not before bending and pulling Amelia down with her. The couple hit the carpet in an awkward position and, in the confusion of the fall, Lady Hartwood ended up with her head betwixt Catherine’s tights; the brunette instantly tightened her legs, pushing the face of her rival against her fleshy mound. The musky and aromatic smell of Catherine’s loins filled Amelia’s nostrils as she tried to push her enemy away, to no avail; she tried to hit at the body of the brunette, but unable to see and aim, most blows went wasted; she tried to roll to the side, yet Lady Engelton would not let her escape the hold. Desperate, she finally resolved to ignore decency and parted her lips, sliding her tongue into Lady Engelton’s wet inside.
The brunette moaned half in pleasure and half in surprise and her body relaxed for an instant, allowing Amelia to pull herself out and resume her assault. She grabbed Catherine by the wrists, trying to immobilise her and the two pushed and rolled until Amelia came on top, face to face with her enemy.
‘Give!’ she shouted with what little breath she had
The brunette ignored her words. ‘I did not know you were so libertine,’ she taunted, her voice and breathing similarly strained, her lips curled into a sly smile, ‘neither I knew you had such a long tongue.’
‘I said give!’
‘And so, the next time someone will kiss you, it’s the taste of my quim the one he will feel.’
‘Oh, whoever he may be, I’m sure he will recognise the stench without difficu–’
Catherine thrust forward her head and her forehead collided against Amelia’s with a nasty knock, leaving both women stunned and disoriented. Amelia fell to the side; it was as if a spike had gone through her brow and her head was spinning uncontrollably. Catherine tried to raise, only to lose balance and ruinously fall again before being able to complete the second step. Nothing of the beauty the two had flaunted earlier in the theatre had remained, both bodies were now naked and drenched in sweat, reddened and ravaged; little chunks of hair were littering the carpet along with the tatters of their stockings.
But the fight had not yet reach its conclusion. Amelia raised to her knees, too dazzled and tired to risk standing, and let herself fall over a still laying Catherine. The brunette groaned and tried to push her away, but she was too weak to accomplish that. Amelia felt her head heavy; her sight was fuzzy, her hearing muffled and distorted, and she knew she had only a handful of minutes before fainting.
In a last effort, she grabbed her foe’s face, digging the nails and covering the mouth and the nose with her palms. Catherine moaned upon realizing she would suffocate and retorted by flailing her arms in the direction of Amelia. She scratched and slapped, before finally finding her jaw. Her thumbs slid inside Lady Hartwood’s mouth, somehow evading the attempts at biting them off, and her nails stabbed the inside of the cheeks. Amelia let off a muffled scream and recoiled, letting the face of the brunette slip out of her grip.
Lady Engelton breathed a lungful and promptly tried to seize the opportunity, but Amelia was faster. Before having time to do anything, Catherine found two hands clamped on her temples and felt the back of her head slamming against the carpeted floor. She went completely limp, stunned, but Amelia did not seem to realise it and kept slamming that brown-mopped skull, again and again. The force of the blows was actually rather weak, but the brunette was depleted, and what Amelia lacked in strength she made up for in frustrated anger.
‘No! No! Stop!’ Catherine began wailing, as Amelia pulled at her head for the umpteenth time, ‘Please stop! You won. You won.’ Her voice was a feeble whimper and tears from her watered eyes were running down her cheeks, ‘You won…’
The fire was down to a few glowing embers, when Emma and Lucrezia decided to finally enter. They unlocked the door and walked in, cautiously and stealthily, as if worried about disturbing the silence of the scene. Around them, the room was immobile, bearing all the signs of the fierce battle which had took place in it: half of the furniture was overturned, any visible object was broken and in anything but its place and the air was heavy with the pungent smell of sweat. Barely conscious, two naked women were lying on the floor, their laboured breathing a clear sign of their exhaustion.
Emma knelt beside Lady Hartwood and swept a clump of black hair from the brow of the lady. ‘Signora, mi sente?’ she asked, softly slapping her cheek, looking for any sign of reaction.
Amelia slowly opened her eyes. All she could see was the blurry shape of a maid leaning over her. A hand was tapping her face, but the touch felt dull on her skin. ‘Cynthia, is it you? What are you doing here?’ she asked, her voice feeble and her mind still too confused.
A hand pushed on her nape and the cold rim of a glass of water touched her lips. She grabbed it with both hands and drank eagerly, barely aware of Emma gesturing to her colleague, saying that the salts would not be necessary. An arm slid under her shoulders and pulled her up to her feet. Her legs were weak and shaking but, to the amazement of both the lady and the maid, able to keep her standing. Her memory was still murky, but a quick glance around was enough to remind her of where she was and what had happened.
She searched for Catherine and found her seating with her back against the wall, coughing, with Lucrezia holding a little bottle under her nostrils. Her figure was almost unrecognisable from the gracious one that had greeted her earlier that evening: a swollen and reddened face and a bruised and scratched body, grimy and glistening with sweat, her chestnut mane in complete disarray. Amelia teetered towards the brunette, and the aching of her own body left her little doubt about how her conditions could not be too different.
The gazes of the two ladies met. ‘Of course, that document,’ said Catherine, as if answering to a question. Her voice was raspy and faint. ‘It should be there…’ she gesticulated towards the centre of the room, ‘…somewhere.’
Emma found it before Amelia had the need to search, and handed it to the lady; the paper was smeared with coffee and a heel had pierced a hole in it. The lady opened the document and read it one last time, before staggering to the heart. She flung it onto the cinders and stared, silent and smiling; the paper burst into fire, curling and blackening as the flames devoured it.
‘Your eyes are sparkling,’ remarked an amused Catherine, before erupting into a fit of cough. She had, in the meantime, managed to got back her feet with the help of Lucrezia.
Amelia turned and, upon seeing the brunette slipping into a white dressing-gown, suddenly realised that she was still naked. The maid handed her another dressing-gown, identical to the one of her mistress, which the lady hastened to wear. The silk felt pleasantly fresh and soft on her ravaged skin.
‘Emma will remain at your service as long as you will remain here,’ said Lady Engelton, ‘Feel free to treat the guest bedroom as your own and…’ she paused and covered a chuckle with the back of her hand, ‘…and to plunder liberally from my wardrobe. The spoils of victory are yours after all.’
Amelia could not help but chuckle as well. ‘Thanks, but I will just borrow a dress and leave at once. I do not want to abuse your generosity.’
‘As you wish,’ sighed a displeased Catherine. ‘A pity, truly. I would be lying if I said I did not enjoyed your company.’ She stepped closer, cordially extending a hand, ‘But we will meet again, will we not?’
Lady Hartwood took her host’s hand in her own, as firmly as her strength allowed her, ‘It would be… a pleasure.’
The first sincere smile of the evening widened on Catherine’s face. ‘Marvellous!’ she replied, overjoyed
Amelia blushed, even though disoriented by the brunette’s sudden change in behaviour.
There was a vigorous shaking of hands as the two ladies bid each other goodbye. Lady Hartwood turned and headed towards the door, with the help of Emma. All sorts of thoughts were buzzing in her mind, but every single one of them fell silent upon hearing Catherine’s voice calling. Amelia stopped and turned.
‘One last thing,’ said Lady Engelton, ‘would you please be so kind as to leave a calling card? I know several ladies which will be very interested in you and your… abilities, once they hear about our little affair. And I am sure they would be delighted in making your acquaintance.’