thirty-five            

            Felicia rises, pink and steamy, from her bath salts. Priscilla lends an arm for support as a well-arched foot slips daintily over the brim of an heirloom porcelain tub. Thick-pile terrycloth (pressed toasty by a bed-warmer) hugs adolescent flesh. The servant pats; the Mistress savours attention while anticipating lunchthough lunch will not be served for a full three hours hence. Shifting to her vanity—its triptych reflecting comprehensive views full-length—Felicia glances left, her waist dramatically tapered to a corset-bound ideal. She is young and firm and scarcely reliant on whalebone to mould her shapely figure. Carriage is the key. A regal bearing can disguise the gravest flaws—of which she has few. Shortnot petite, not some wisp-of-a-thing apt to whithershe is correspondingly ample in bust, hip, and thigh. Glancing right she marvels unabashedly at the splendour of her skin—fair as polished ivory. Avoid the sun at all costs. Wear bonnets. Carry a parasol. Use moisturizing creams—Parisian, if available. And douse oneselfalbeit sparingly, tastefully, subtlywith one (from a virtual treasure-trove) of elegant colognes. Though her family's wealth is not excessive, Daddy has been rather indulgent—as Zachary must be hereafter, now that Felicia Squire is his lawfully wedded wife. Looking straight ahead she assesses the shape and size of her well-formed breasts, if just a trifle droopygravity an enemy whose onslaught even puberty fends off not-for-long; and pregnancy will doubtless spell utter surrender. Until that time, however, it amuses her to primp, to tuck in her belly for dramatic effect, to inflate her roseate bosom, to bracket her waist with palms and thereby maximize its convex grace, and to fill her idle days with the delights of juvenile self-absorption.

            A draught? Priscilla, at the slightest hint of goose bumps, drapes her naked Mistress with a comfy-cosy robe.

            "I think I'll wear my hair up today, Priscilla."

            "Mistress look real purty with her hair up. I'll do it jus' de way you likes it."

            Priscilla fetches grooming implements while Felicia studies the fullness of her pucker, the fine-line arch of her brows, the azure brilliance of her irises, admiring the smoothness of her sixteen-year-old throat below a somewhat stingy chin. Not a sign of age; Felicia dreads the very thought. Youth is beauty. She is never going to allow herself to age. Perhaps, when she reaches thirty, she will kill herself, mix some painless poison in a julep or sweet liqueur and sip her way from this world into the next. God will not mind. God would rather she appear before Him beautiful—not wrinkled and arthritic and covered head to foot by those doubly-ugly spots her mother is accumulating. Felicia shudders.

            "Still cold, Mistress? Do you wants dat I should stoke de fire?"

            "The fire. Tongue between the teeth, Priscilla. The. That."

            "The fire."

            "I think I'll don my slippers."

            "Yessum. Here they is."

            "Are."

            "Are. Just slip them purty toes..."

            "Those."

            "Those purty toes... Wait, whilst I warm those."

            "Them! What's the matter with you, Priscilla? We've not been here two months and you sound like one of Zachary's ill-bred pickaninnies."

            Priscilla haws her breath into the slippers, then kneels at Felicia's feet, while the latter fingers cold cream onto either cheekbone, deciding this morning to outline her eyes with kohl. On the small side, her eyes can be made to look huge with the skilful use of kohl... plus highlighter... once carefully plucking her burnt-sienna brows and pencilling them burnt-umber. Most any man would notice; hers, she dearly hopes, will prove no exception—hers, of late, seemingly indifferent to his bride's untested charms.

            "Prissy?"

             "Yessum?"

            "Do you think I'm desirable?"

            "Of course you is—are. Don't you ever doubt it. Why yo' so purty any man with eyes be glad to stand in line to catch a lucky glimpse."

            Felicia readjusts the lapels of her robe, exposing more cleavage.

            "Oh, I'm pretty enough. That's not what I mean."

            Her tongue licks counter-clockwise, moistening slender lips. Eyes half-closed, she flutters their insubstantial lashes... evaluates the effect... ultimately frowns. She reconfigures her mouth, working it open and shut like an aspirating goldfish... frowns again. She bares one shoulder and brushes her cheek against it... rolls her eyes in disgust and plants both elbows on the vanity, squashing her spic-and-span face between fists clenched with petulance.

            "That good-for-nothing loafer Randolph Bates keeps trying to lure my Zachary off to Charleston. If Zachary goes, I swear, I'll slit my wrists."

            "Oh, Mistress, don't say such things!"

            "I will. I know what those two do whenever they visit Charleston; I made Zachary confess all his past misdeeds; he told me himself. I do declare, I came very close to banishing him forever from my boudoir... and I would have, too, save for his solemn oath on Zachariah's grave, he never, ever would stoop to such conduct again. Can you imagine what people would say if my husband went with prostitutes after we were married?! I'd be ruined. Absolutely ruined and humiliated. It is scandalous enough that he went with them before."

            Priscilla proceeds to comb Felicia's soggy hair, tugging to straighten its curls and to disentangle knots, stroking with less and less force as tresses conform, relax, relinquish their bouncy tension—much as do the muscles of Felicia's face, neck, and shoulders, worries about her status, his fidelity, their mutual reputation put gradually, soothingly, blissfully (if equivocally) at ease.