By the time she arrived at Rand Park, in the spring of 1877, there could exist not the slightest doubt that Miss Rebecca Adams would take the path of the naughty coquette. She herself, at any rate, had none.
Practically since her eighteenth birthday, that delicious day when so many things had become possible to her despite her precarious situation in society, Rebecca had known of her liking for the opposite sex, and of the serious, even outrageous implications of that liking’s strength. Mrs. Thacher, the headmistress of Rebecca’s school, had even noticed the way Rebecca looked at the ploughboy on the farm the girls could see from their schoolroom window, and scolded her for it.
“One more look out that window, Miss Adams, and I shall have to fetch the birch from its cupboard.”
But the birch had never come from Mrs. Thacher’s cupboard, and all her pupils knew it. Rebecca had had nothing to worry about from that quarter, and she had never had a single qualm about flaunting the special status that came from being the daughter of a duke, even if the fact could only be spoken in whispers because her name was the common Adams and not her father’s regal Lourcy.
Everyone knew who had sired Rebecca Adams, however, though the Duke of Panton could not acknowledge her in any official way through the cruelty of his estranged but powerful wife. Indeed, Rebecca felt sure that her status as a natural daughter gave her both the special right to follow the coquette’s path and a special, if unacknowledged by the world, superiority over the ignoble, respectable girls around her at school.
No scolding from the weak-willed Mrs. Thacher had had the power to stop Rebecca Adams upon the road she had chosen. If she had enjoyed looking at the ploughboy in his shirtsleeves, his muscles rippling beneath the homespun and his square jaw dripping perspiration—if she had enjoyed imagining what he would look like without that shirt and even without his breeches, when his male part, her eighteen-year-old friend Thomasina had told her, would stand straight up so that he was ready to make a baby inside a pretty girl like Rebecca—no headmistress would have been able to stop her, birch or no birch.
Nor had any headmistress needed even to bother herself with regard to the matter, for Rebecca had known enough not to give her maidenhead to a ploughboy, handsome though he might be and stiff as his manhood might rise. In her mind, upon her little bed at night in the dormitory, she might have thought of how a ploughboy could lead a girl into a barn and lower his breeches to show her what a man had between his thighs, might ask her roughly if she would not like to know how it felt to have a man atop her, his hardness thrusting in the place that Rebecca sometimes couldn’t seem to keep from touching despite all Mrs. Thacher’s warnings.
She might have bitten her lip to keep from crying out as she thought of what Thomasina had said she saw a newly married couple doing—the heaving of the husband on top, the flashing of his manhood inside his wife’s young but now womanly furrow, open where Rebecca’s still had its girlish barrier of innocence. She might have lain upon her bed, wondering what would happen if the ploughboy crept into the dormitory and climbed atop her, spreading and raising her knees and whispering that she must take her night rail’s collar in her teeth so that she did not cry out when he thrust his hard thing into her down there.
She might have imagined such things, and have touched down there under the hem of her night rail and under the counterpane, in the moonlight that had streamed in from the ploughboy’s world. Mrs. Thacher need never have been the wiser, though the fragrance that had wafted from her bedclothes in the morning had made even Rebecca blush a little, when she had seen it once, after Rebecca had pictured the ploughboy without his breeches for hours and hours the night before, draw a reproachful look from the parlor maid. No embarrassing fragrance or parlor maid’s glance could have stopped Rebecca upon her road any more than a headmistress could, though.
That road had already led her, during her holidays, to many fine homes. Now, and most important, it brought her to that of Mrs. Gerald Rand, whose husband sat as member of parliament for one of the duke’s dependent boroughs, in the summer following her eighteenth birthday and consequently also her emancipation from Mrs. Thacher’s care. Rebecca noted the instant she arrived in the carriage sent by the Rands to fetch her from the station that the household had two footmen, one of whom seemed to have nothing in particular to recommend him, being tall and strong, as necessary to do service in such matters as carrying luggage and moving furniture to suit his master’s and mistress’ occasions, but being also dark in coloring, with brown hair and brown eyes unlike the ploughboy’s flaxen hair and sky-blue gaze.
The other footman, though, who carried Rebecca’s trunk to her room and had just left it when she arrived to freshen up, had that same coloring, and stood at least as tall as the strong laborer outside the window of the school to which Miss Rebecca Adams would never now return. That golden-haired footman, too, looked at her, as he passed her in the hall, in a way that made her face feel hot and her eyes turn downward.
Despite her bold choice of the naughty path, Rebecca had a feature that she knew could very likely make that path difficult for her. Her complexion was of the milkiest white, and showed every passing emotion upon her cheeks, though those cheeks were framed ever so prettily by the golden ringlets that Mrs. Rand and other matrons had declared her glory.
She knew with vexation that the footman must have seen her blush, and must think her a missish sort of girl. But she rose proudly and—Rebecca thought—naturally to the challenge. As the footman passed her, his eyes now lowered and his mouth murmuring, “Good day, miss,” she said, first being careful to ascertain that they were alone in the corridor, “What is your name?”
Rebecca had the considerable pleasure, then, of seeing the hint of a flush come to the footman’s cheek, though perhaps that only resulted from the weight of her well-packed and recently deposited luggage. His tawny hair and blue eyes had seemed to catch the Norfolk sunlight that streamed in through the window at the end of this spacious hallway in the Rands’ large country house. His skin, of a slightly darker hue than hers, did not betray its owner the way Rebecca’s did, and in any case the color departed quickly if it had ever been there.
“William, miss,” he said in a deep voice that put all lingering thoughts of ploughboys from Rebecca’s head.
“I hope I shall see you soon, William,” said Rebecca, using the tone she and Thomasina had practiced on the walks into the village allowed them by Mrs. Thacher—the meaning tone Thomasina thought coquettes used in town, when they wished a beau to know they would not object to an assignation.
The footman’s mouth turned up at the corners, then. He seemed to know what she meant, and that brought the awful warmth again, unexpectedly, to Rebecca’s cheeks. Should the footman know what that meaning tone meant? She bit her lip.
“Yes, miss,” he said. Then, to her astonishment and her deeper blush, he said, “I take a walk of an evening, when it’s my day off, out to the little woods you’ll see in back. Monday’s my day off.”
Then, with startling insouciance, he turned and walked toward the back stairs, leaving Rebecca to wonder precisely what he had meant—or rather to pretend to herself that she wondered, when she thought she knew very well what the footman had meant, and she did not wish to confess to her heart that she knew.
She knew that if she went to the little woods Monday evening, three days from now, something would happen that would place her feet forever on the coquette’s path.
Even in the Rands’ fine front pew in the little parish church, on Sunday morning, Rebecca could think of nothing else, though ordinarily she would have been discreetly turning her head during the psalm, the anthem, and even the general thanksgiving, to see whether anyone had thought to admire the beautiful (though of course simple and appropriate for the occasion) gray muslin gown her papa had sent from Paris.
“My, Rebecca,” Mrs. Rand said as they walked back along the hedgerows to Mr. Rand’s house, “how you blushed during the confession! Have you anything to tell me?”
Rebecca affected a gay laugh. “No, Mrs. Rand, I assure you. I suppose I blushed to think of how much I have not yet experienced, and how greatly I yearn for it, though of course never so as to have anything wicked with which to stain my character.” She delivered this pretty speech very well, she thought, but she also knew Mrs. Rand too well from previous visits to think that her hostess would believe such nonsense.
“I believe that just as much as I believe that Mr. Rand has told me all his losses at the whist table,” Mrs. Rand said amiably. “I do know, however, that you speak the truth as to your longing for experience, and I do not believe it any terrible thing that a girl like you should have a season or two to enjoy herself before she settles down.”
Rebecca smiled into the matron’s face in gratitude at this acknowledgment of what she herself thought only natural.
Mrs. Rand turned serious, then, however. “Mind it is only that, though, for whilst all will agree that your personal charms are very great, your social position is…”
Rebecca frowned, and turned her face down the lane. “Precarious. Yes, of course, Mrs. Rand. Thank you.” She remembered what she had thought of during the confession, when they all had dutifully recited, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. She had remembered William the footman’s face, and the way quite a different part of her to her heart had felt the desire—indeed, even then in the front pew of the church, felt it—to meet him in the little woods and learn what he might teach her about what it meant to be a coquette.
She blushed again as she felt the desire return, at this terribly inconvenient moment, and could not press back the scene Thomasina had narrated, of the newlywed couple seen through the keyhole, husband atop wife, bent legs and male plough in female furrow, thrusting and thrusting. Would William make her do that? Would he tell her to lie upon the ground, so that he might raise her petticoats and perhaps even take down her pantalets, to look upon the newly fur-covered place Rebecca had touched in bed just the previous night as she thought about him walking in the little woods?
Mrs. Rand, thank goodness, took the blush for something quite different. “Do not be angry, Rebecca,” she said in a conciliatory tone. “I beg of you. I wish only for your happiness, and I have every hope in the world that you will indulge yourself in your flirtations with nothing but the most innocent intentions—to enjoy yourself, and to give joy to others, your papa most of all. I am no prude!”
Rebecca chewed the inside of her cheek as she darted a glance at Mrs. Rand’s well-meaning face. For an instant she wondered whether she could tell the matron of the desires of her heart, and of the place lower down, below her waist, whose desires seemed much worthier of confession and much less subject to reason’s rule. She saw kindness and understanding in Mrs. Rand’s face—but she knew somehow that not to be a prude did not mean the same thing as to hear sympathetically the admission of a young woman’s burning natural desires: her intention to play the coquette, her intention to go to the little woods on Monday evening.