With many, many apologies to Dr. Johnson.
Despite her best efforts, Elizabeth had turned out to be a bad wife after all. She really put her heart and soul into it, spending every moment of the day either cooking or cleaning, always presenting Richard with a picturesque household. But there was one thing she had not given him, and that was a child. At first it had been simply a quirk of fate, but then as time went on her failure to conceive became more and more apparent. Richard wanted a son to continue the family line and a daughter to marry off and move themselves further up the social scale, and Elizabeth had provided him with neither.
Richard began to sulk around the manor, sitting usually in his study reading some dour poet, smoking a pipe. When Elizabeth went up and tried to talk to him, he would brush her off and go out to the lounge. They hadn't made love in weeks. He had even begun to go down to the village and drink with the commoners, returning red-faced and heavy-footed, cursing at her under his breath before falling onto the bed as inert as a sack of potatoes. He had the general aura of a man betrayed.
When Elizabeth had her friend Mary over for tea she broached the subject with as much subtlety as she could muster. Mary just laughed. "Well, the way I see it he's got no right to be so sulky, and you should bend him over and spank him for acting that way. Just because he wants a child doesn't mean he has to act like one."
Elizabeth sipped her tea while contemplating a response. Mary always amazed her. She was so polite and demure around men, but once they were gone she was fiery and opinionated, usually getting so wrapped up in a conversation she would lean forward and jerk her hands around passionately until she inevitably knocked over some knicknack or piece of china. More than that, she was beautiful – long flowing straw-coloured locks, a bust that looked like it was always about to break her dresses, golden skin that never seemed to have a blemish. Sometimes, in her darker moods, Elizabeth wished she was Mary.
"Do you know if there's anything I can do to, er, aid in conception?" Elizabeth found herself chewing her lip. The conversation was somewhere in the vicinity of sex, that great unspeakable thing, and she worried that it was inappropriate even to venture within sight of the subject.
Mary shrugged. "I'm not a doctor. It's probably not even your fault. It seems to me that the trouble could just as easily be with the body of Mr. Alexander, correct?"
Elizabeth flushed. "Don't say such a thing. There must be something I can do..."
Mary got up and walked behind her friend, currently sitting on one of the stiff red chairs that seemed to decorate every parlour recently. She looked over Elizabeth's body like a butcher would look over a cow before naming a price. Abruptly she reached around and cupped Elizabeth's breasts, pinching them between her fingers. Elizabeth let out a little whinny. She had no idea what to do in this situation.
"No, you look like you're in fine breeding shape," said Mary. "It must be a problem with Richard. How frequently are you two intimate?"
Elizabeth had no response. Her cheeks felt so warm she was sure they were about to burst into flames.
"Oh come on, you can tell me. We're friends, aren't we?" Elizabeth had no idea how Mary could be so brazen. Here she was, talking about the most sacred and secret part of a marriage as though it was a question of what she had for breakfast.
"I ... well, I ... we are friends, of course, but even so..." Mary just stared at her, apparently content to sit there in silence until she received an answer. "I'll just say that I have, um, not been remiss in my wifely duties and the two of us have been very ... marital.
"I see," said Mary. "Well, in that case there may be nothing you can do. Just keep trying and keep praying, I suppose. If it is meant to be, the Lord will find a way."
Elizabeth was somehow not terribly comforted. "Yes, of course. Well, I don't mean to shoo you out, but I simply must begin work on dinner."
"I never understand your insistence on doing all the work around here yourself. Surely a servant or two..."
Just as Elizabeth's flush was beginning to go down, it returned now hotter than ever. Why did Mary have to drop these little references, every once in a while, to the gap between them? Couldn't she simply admit that Richard and Elizabeth were doing well for themselves, even if they didn't quite have the lavish, old money lifestyle that Mary and her family did? But Elizabeth strangled her anger and buried it far beneath the surface. "But it would be such a waste for just two people. Perhaps a governess when we start having children, but for now, we're doing just fine. Besides which, a little work helps to keep a person honest."
Mary got up and shrugged, a wave travelling down her hair. "I've never subscribed to those ideas myself. I'm a dedicated hedonist – as little work and as much pleasure as possible."
Elizabeth felt like responding that little work and much pleasure was not possible for very many people, but once again held her tongue, wondering at whether the Devil was trying to speak through her today. She got up, smoothed out her skirts and escorted her friend to the door.
"That does remind me," said Mary. "I'd like to invite you to a society that I'm a part of."
Mary pressed a small card into Elizabeth's hand. On the card read "Ladies' Society for Leisure and Friendship" and listed a biweekly meeting time and a location in London. "Don't worry, we aren't one of those pious charitable societies that always bother you for money. It's just a group of women getting together to socialize and let our hair down without the men around to bother us."
Elizabeth looked at the card and frowned. "I'm not sure ... London is so far away."
"Oh, posh." Mary waved her gloved hand dismissively. "I simply won't excuse you not coming to our next meeting. It's bad for you to be cooped up in this little manor all the time."
"It's not that little."
"No, no, I didn't mean to imply that. Well, thank you for having me, and a good day."
Elizabeth watched Mary's carriage leave. She never had any idea what that woman was thinking. And now she was babbling about societies? If it wasn't simply a stealthy attempt at a charity, then she didn't understand the function of this Ladies' Society. What would a group of woman do in a room in London that they couldn't do in the comfort of their own homes?
Richard surprised her by saying that she should go. Elizabeth had brought it up haltingly in the middle of dinner, as kind of an oh-that-Mary story, expecting him to laugh at the concept like she had. Instead he had begun to wax nostalgic for his days in a men's club, filled with hunting and sport and all of the things men did without women around to civilize them. He said he had no clue what women would do without men around, and that he suspected that was the point.
It was a strange thing, Elizabeth thought – this idea that each gender was imprisoning the other by their very presence. She couldn't think of anything she wanted to do but couldn't do around Richard. Something emerged at the back of her mind, but her cheeks flushed and she shoved it back down. That would be improper. Sinful.
"So you think I should attend?" Elizabeth said, after a long silence in which she had been weighing her thoughts.
"I think it would be a good experience," said Richard. "Of course, if you don't want to..."
"I'm still thinking about it."
That night they made love. It was as it always was. He would get on top of her and Elizabeth would feel herself vaguely dislocated, like she was a ghost watching a man use an object, a doll that he could thrust his cock into. Then as time went on she began to feel sensations creeping up her body, sensations that were actually quite nice, but he grunted and spilled his seed in her and left her with nothing but frustration.
The day had snuck up on her. Still uncertain, Elizabeth decided to go, at least for one meeting. She thought it would be impolite to Mary not to. So after dinner she hired a carriage to take her into the city. She shivered with the cold, not used to being out at nights. She wondered how other people stood it, all this darkness, not being able to see what was five feet from your face.
Once they made it into London proper things were a bit better, with gas-lamps and torches providing enough illumination so that she was no longer afraid of monsters hiding in the dark. In London the monsters did not hide at all – filthy men with long beards laying on the sidewalk, staring up at her with dull eyes; prostitutes on every corner in their rags; children that darted in and out of the traffic with suicidal glee.
Elizabeth buried her face. "I had no idea it was so terrible here."
"We're only moving through a bad part," said the driver. "Don't worry Ma'am, we'll be out of here soon."
Sure enough, they eventually arrived in the area of the meeting which was, if not upscale, at least quiet. The building written on the piece of paper appeared to be some sort of inn. It didn't look that seedy, but Elizabeth still triple-checked the address. She tentatively told the carriage driver to wait there and ventured inside the building.
The lower floor of the inn was a public house that looked to have the kind of tawdriness and greasiness as Elizabeth had always heard about, although she had never actually been inside one. The barkeep, a man who looked to be keeping a spare loaf of bread in his belly, barely even looked up at her. "The ladies are upstairs."
.... There is more of this story ...