"Can you set aside your scruples now?" she said, holding out the bills.
The maid hesitated for a second and then took the money and tucked it away in her bodice. Seventy-five dollars should stop the hummingbird man looking at her like that. Taking a deep breath, she took Cora"s flushed cheeks gingerly in her hands and bent her head towards her mistress. She pressed her lips against hers with a modest pressure and drew back as quickly as she could.
Cora broke away impatiently. "No, I want you to do it properly. I saw you with that man. You looked as if, well," she paused, trying to find the right phrase, "as if you were eating each other."
This time she put her hands on the maid"s shoulders and pulled Bertha"s face towards hers and pushed her lips to Bertha"s, pressing as hard as she could.
Reluctantly Bertha pushed her mistress"s lips open with her tongue and ran it lightly around the other woman"s mouth. She felt her go stiff for a moment with shock and then Cora began to kiss her back, pushing her tongue between her teeth.
Bertha was the first to pull away. It was not unpleasant kissing Cora, it was certainly the most sweet-tasting kiss she had ever had. Better than Amos, who stank of chewing tobacco.
"You taste quite piquant," said Cora, wiping her mouth with a lace handkerchief. "Is that all you have to do? You haven"t left anything out? I have to do this correctly." She looked earnestly at Bertha.
Not for the first time, Bertha wondered how anyone could be as educated as Cora and yet so ignorant. It was all Mrs Cash"s fault of course. She had raised Cora like a beautiful doll. She wouldn"t mind having Miss Cora"s money or her face, but she sure as hell wouldn"t want to have Miss Cora"s mother.
"If it"s just kissing you"re having in mind, Miss Cora, then I reckon that"s all you will require," Bertha said firmly.
"Aren"t you going to ask me who it is?" Cora said.
"Begging your pardon, Miss Cora, but I don"t want to know. If the Madam was to find out what you"re about "
"She won"t, or rather, she will but by the time she does it will be too late. Everything will be different after tonight." She looked at the maid sideways as if challenging Bertha to ask her more. But Bertha was not to be drawn. So long as she didn"t ask questions, she couldn"t be made to answer them. She made her face go slack.
Cora, however, had lost interest in her. She was looking at herself in the long gilt cheval glass. Once they had kissed, she was sure that everything else would fall into place. They would announce their engagement and she would be a married woman by Christmas.
"You"d better get my costume ready, Bertha. Mother will be here in a minute, checking that I have followed her instructions à la lettre. I can"t believe I have to wear something so perfectly hideous. Still, Martha Van Der Leyden told me that her mother is making her dress like a Puritan maid so I suppose it could be worse."
Cora"s dress had been copied from a Velázquez painting of a Spanish infanta that Mrs Cash had bought because she had heard Mrs Astor admire it.
As Bertha took the elaborate hooped skirt from the closet, she wondered if the Madam had chosen her daughter"s costume as much for the way it restricted the wearer"s movement as for any artistic considerations. No gentleman would be able to get within three feet of Miss Cora. The kissing lesson would have been in vain.
She helped Cora out of her tea gown and into the farthingale. Cora had to step into it and Bertha had to fasten the harness like shutting a gate. The silk brocade of the skirt and bodice had been specially woven in Lyons; the fabric was heavy and dense. Cora swayed slightly as the weight of it settled on the frame. It would only take the slightest pressure to make her lose her balance entirely. The dress was three feet wide so Cora would have to go through all doorways sideways. Waltzing in such a dress would be impossible.
The American Heiress. Copyright © 2010 by Daisy Goodwin Productions.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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