‘And your name?’
That name is as good as any other – it is not hers. She does not ask mine and I do not offer it. Her voice is young – low and sweet. By the smooth whiteness of her hand I would judge her to be about 25 years old; the black lace of her domino conceals her neck and bosom, the flesh of which I have found is the most reliable in estimating a woman’s age. I raise her fingers to my lips and keep them there long enough that she may feel not just my kiss but my breath upon her skin. I lift her other hand then and kiss the palm, and note the ring she wears – la fede it is called here: faith. I wonder if her husband is present at this levée, if he watches us now, if they have arranged it so. I cannot say what colour are the eyes glittering behind the mask, for by candle-light we all have eyes like onyx marbles. She may be a whore, a lady, an initiate. With the mask all distinctions are erased.
I gesture towards the tables.
‘Will you play?’
‘No, sir, that is not my game.’
Excellent. She has come here with some other purpose. Her English is good, charmingly accented; evidently she is used to our Grand Tourists. But whilst those boys of twenty may have enthusiasm, what they lack is finesse, believing their prowess to lie in their capacity to rise, and rise again, not knowing that any lady who wishes to do more than scratch an itch prefers the expertise of a man of five and forty. She rests her hand lightly on my wrist, and insinuates her fingers beneath the lace ruff. They are cool; the graze of her nails on the skin of my arm prompts my arbor vitae to raise his sleepy head in expectation of adventure.
I lead her to admire the paintings that look down on us: Bathsheba at her bath, Susannah surprised by those drooling old men, naked Phryne gazed on by the judges. I ask her, leaning close, ‘who would you most be?’
‘Phryne’, she murmurs. My fingers stroke her palm – now warm and damp.
‘They are many. Many eyes.’ Hers glisten.
‘Might two suffice?’
These are mere pleasantries, but when a man is led by his prick and has the scent of a woman’s skin in his nostrils, then wit matters little to him.
I have used this establishment before, but if Ippolita has been to this house of assignation before she betrays no sign of it. The bedchamber is hung with tinted engravings designed for encouragement: white-skinned pliant girls and gallants engaged in that oldest act on canopied couches like the one here, or in rivers or woodlands – none of them show the cold-eyed melancholy that so often follows. I stop her disrobing; I want to undress her myself, so that if there is to be a moment of regret it is postponed as long as possible. I untie the black lace first and turn it back across her shoulders, then pull the muslin handkerchief out of her bodice – I was correct in my assessment of her age – then relieve her of the stiff little peplumed jacket. Presently she is naked but for the dainty tricorn, the lace, the mask. I take my own away without thinking, but stop her hand as she reaches to hers.
‘Giù!’ I say, and realise this is a command given to a dog. She lies down obediently.
And then at last I untie her mask.
There is nothing amiss with any element of her face. It is a perfect oval, all its features in fine proportion. Her eyes – I see them now to be hazel – are the right distance apart, giving a serene aspect to her brow, her nose straight, mouth neat and rose pink. I have found that the hue of the mouth will often correspond to that of a woman’s sex, and so it is here. She smiles up at me and I see her teeth are still sound. But more than any physical deformity could what revolts me is that this is a commonplace face, an insipid face or – let me speak plainly – a stupid one. Those few words I heard her utter were not mysterious and alluring, the promise of some sphinx-like revelation. No, she simply had little to say, all prompted by me.
She looks up at me dully, and parts her legs.
‘Madam, humour me in something.’
She regards me warily. Perhaps she expects me to beat her, or be beaten by her. I slide from the bed, and am pleased to note that my pego takes courage from what I am about to do and hoists his standard once more, for he had shrunk from his duty the moment I removed the mask. I lift the domino off the floor and gently tie it over her face anew, and place the little tricorn at a rakish angle on her pillowed head, arranging the dark lace around her throat and shoulders. This is already better. Now all I see are her eyes, darkened by the shadows of the eye-holes, and note that they are wet, and that where the mask ends her chin trembles. My usual practice is to ask a lady to open her mouth before she opens her quim. I adore the sight of that perfect O, but I do not entirely trust my poor prick to acquit himself honourably given the shock he has sustained. Besides, when a woman weeps, one ought to fear her teeth. It is my habit also, for I am a gentleman, to ensure that a lady precedes me with her crisis, and I am adept at the deployment of fingers and tongue to ensure this. This sense of duty is not usually shared by the little Tourists – or at least was not when I was younger. An advantage of my gallantry is that a lady is made both snugger and wetter for me, but on this occasion I decide to attack without any preliminary skirmishes.
One final insult, which I justify as simple prudence. I reach into my breeches and bring out my faithful adjutant, Corporal Cundum. As I am after all fully roused, he fits neatly, and with practised fingers I secure the little pink ribbon to hold him in place. I do all this in front of her, as though she were a common whore, though I know she cannot be, or there would not be these tears.
I spend quickly, for she is tight after all – her weeping has made her so.
I rest my head briefly on her breasts. My regular innamorate know that I do this always, but Ippolita takes this for affection, for I feel trembling hands stroke my neck and cheek. I have not removed my wig, not intending to remain there long. I raise myself, ease Corporal Cundum off me and take him to the ewer standing on the credenza, where I fill him with water. I pinch him closed, and note approvingly that the sheepgut does not drip. By the window I give him two shakes, open the casement, and shake the contents into the dark canal. I hear a faint splash as my seed joins the water.
She cries openly now, and the mask shakes with it, but she does not move or speak. Her body lies pale and splayed, like a frog on its back, two days dead. Something stirs in me. If I did not know myself better, I should call it pity. I dampen a towel with the water in the ewer and gently wash her neat furze, her wet nether lips, which I notice now have a pleasing prominence. When she is clean I raise her posteriors on one of the pillows and proceed to tease her gently with the point of my tongue, advancing slowly in my worship of that tiny bud of pleasure. What gentleman would not wish to dry a lady’s tears? Her shuddering slows, and she responds. She pulls my wig off and kneads my scalp, then holds my ears in fear I should stop too soon. Her cry seems to come from her flesh as much as her throat.
Afterwards I dress quickly without looking at her, avoiding my own eyes in the mirror. Then I take a small gold ring from an inner pocket, and place it by the ewer in such a way that she hears me do so. A ring is the most perfect solution, for it answers so many demands. It may be construed as a fee by a harlot, or a gift any lady may accept, or a wistful expression of a lover’s despair that the lady who has conquered his soul is already (safely) married. She lies still and speechless, her pale thighs still wet, but her eyes follow me. I touch my fingers to my tricorn, and turn the door-handle quietly as though she slept.
Tomorrow I depart for Padua. My sleepy manservant prepares my effects. I shall pay a visit to the famed anatomy theatre at the University, and see displayed the secrets of the human body at its most vulnerable. I wonder if the patient will be man or woman.
I read these lines again now at a distance of fifteen years or more. My sap still rises, yet sluggishly. Today I visited the blacksmith’s widow who is installed in a cottage on my estate. Her fatherless sons pull ploughs for me; her youngest, who has a glance that reminds me of my own mother, is with his regiment at Boston, quelling the Americans, his commission purchased by me. Hetty’s resentful look is one reason why I am now best acquainted with her haunches, bent over a couch (I realise that since that night in Venice this has been my preferred means of attack). I have remonstrated with her about the tremulousness of those haunches, for since Hetty became a lady of leisure she has rather inclined to fat. For her part, she sometimes looks at me with disdain; I am not the man that I was. Yet I have a good figure still, which I put down to greater exercise on horseback. The truth is that I do not like to pass the crossroads where her husband lies and so must take the long way round. I do not understand why if our Lord (if indeed He exists) made the earth and all that cross its crust, that some indifferent scholar in bands and surplice (dependent for his living on a man like myself) should decide that only that part of creation within a churchyard wall may be considered sacred – and the rest fit only for the interment of suicides. We were without a blacksmith for some time, and the forge had to be torn down and rebuilt elsewhere, at my expense, for no-one wanted to pass beneath that beam, convinced that the corpse still dangled there. Hetty is the nearest I have come to having a wife, for like a wife she remembers my faults, the chief of which is my running away to Venice in the midst of the scandal, leaving her to face it alone. A witless business; I ought instead to have kept a woman in Town.
My neighbour’s heir is lately returned from his Tour, and has recounted to me a curious tale of his sojourn in the City of Pleasure at the time of Carnival – a chamber in a house of assignation where a party of gentlemen may repair to observe a woman on a couch, naked but for her domino, being serviced by her gallant. She is no longer a girl, but so adept in her work that she captivates all. He tells me that the spectacle inflames one so, that numerous observers, himself included, are prompted to purchase the lady’s favours in private. Fine Soave and cake is served as they wait their turn in an antechamber, her fees collected by a stooped, palsied man, also masked – reputed to be her husband. No-one knows her real name, nor has seen her face, for masked we can be who we really are.