The Blue Room bell rang again. One of the maids came out of the kitchen and shouted, "That"s the second time Miss Cora"s bell"s gone, you had better get up there, Bertha."
Bertha jumped. "I have to go now. I"ll come and find you later, once the ball gets going. Don"t go until I see you." She tried to conceal her relief at the interruption with the vehemence of her tone.
"I"ll be waiting for you, Bertha," the hummingbird man said.
The bell jangled again. Bertha walked as fast as she dared up the servants" staircase. Running was forbidden. One of the housemaids had been dismissed for going down the marble staircase two at a time. Disrespectful, Mr Simmons the butler had called it.
She knocked on the Blue Room door and went in.
Cora was almost crying with frustration. "Where have you been, Bertha? I must have rung three times. Get me out of this infernal thing."
She was tugging at the leather bands encircling her body. The spine straightener, which had been made to Mrs Cash"s special design, had all the buckles at the back and so was impossible to remove without help.
Bertha tried to appease her. "I"m sorry, Miss Cora, the man with the hummingbirds had news from home, I guess I didn"t hear the bell."
Cora snorted. "It"s hardly an excuse that you were listening to gossip while I was trussed up here like a chicken."
Bertha said nothing but fumbled at the buckles. She could feel her mistress twitching with impatience. As soon as she was free of the harness, Cora shook herself like a dog trying to get dry, then she spun round and grabbed Bertha by the shoulders. Bertha braced herself for a telling off, but to her surprise Cora smiled.
"I need you to tell me how to kiss a man. I know you know how, I saw you with the Vandemeyers" groom after their ball." Cora"s eyes were glittering with urgency. Bertha drew back from her mistress.
"I don"t think kissing is something you can tell," she said slowly, playing for time. Was Miss Cora going to let Mrs Cash know about her and Amos?
"Show me then. I have to get this right," Cora said fiercely and leant towards Bertha. As she did so, a low shaft of light from the setting sun hit her conker-coloured hair, setting it ablaze.
Bertha tried not to shrink away. "You really want me to kiss you the way I would a man?" Surely Miss Cora was not serious.
"Yes, yes, yes." Cora tossed her head. The red mark from the harness was still visible on her forehead.
"But Miss Cora, it ain"t natural two women kissing. If anyone were to see us I"d lose my place."
"Oh, don"t be so squeamish, Bertha. What if I were to give you fifty dollars?" Cora smiled enticingly as if offering a child a sweet.
Bertha considered this. Fifty dollars was two months" salary. But kissing another woman was still not right.
"I don"t think you should be asking me this, Miss Cora, it just ain"t fitting." Bertha tried to sound as much like the Madam as she could; she knew that Mrs Cash was the only person in the world that Cora was frightened of. But Cora was not to be put off.
"Do you imagine that I actually want to kiss you? But I must practise. There is someone I need to kiss tonight and I have to do it right." Cora shook with determination.
"Well " Still Bertha hesitated.
"Seventy-five dollars." Cora was wheedling now; Bertha knew she wouldn"t be able to hold out for very long when her mistress wanted something that badly. Cora would just persist until she got her own way. Only Mrs Cash could say no to her daughter. Bertha decided to make the best of the situation.
"All right, Miss Cora, I will show you how to kiss a man, but I would like the seventy-five dollars now if you don"t mind."
Bertha knew quite well that Mrs Cash did not give Cora an allowance, so she had every reason to ask to see the money. Miss Cora was a great one for making promises she couldn"t keep. But to Bertha"s surprise, Cora produced a purse from under her pillow and counted out the dollars.
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