From Charles Enitan’s A History and Record of the Women of the Demi-Monde, Chapter 7: Miss Heather.
In the gilded, secretive world of the courtesan, there is more than one way to sell yourself. To attract clients, one must have a hook, some specific attraction that sets you apart from your competition. In previous chapters, we have seen Miss Flannery’s unparalleled skill in throwing dinner parties and salons, and Miss Brett’s remarkable energy and stamina, which she incorporates into her bedroom play. Now, however, we shall turn our attention to a most unique method of getting attention.
A description of Miss Heather is in order first. She is a wispy little thing, with only the faintest of curves. She also possesses an incredible paleness, not only in her skin but in all aspects. Her eyes are mercurial, looking either blue or grey depending on the light, and her blonde hair can very easily be mistaken for white. The whole impression is of a young woman who needs to be taken care of, which many a man has been willing to do. Underneath that frail exterior, however, is a shrewd business sense. The vulnerable act is all part of her hook. It appeals to the protective side of men, who wish to make sure she is looked after, well fed, and kept warm. Through this method, she has received absurd sums of money from some of her lovers, which she uses to great effect.
If that were the end of it, she would be nothing more than a footnote in this book. However, Miss Heather has found a rather unique method of turning her supposed weakness to her advantage, and it deserves to be documented in full.
For those in the market for such things, there have always been a variety of drinks, powders, and oils that supposedly increase virility and heighten sexual desire. Miss Heather has taken that mindset and extended it to her own person. Some believe her abilities are genuine, others think she is merely taking the malicious gossip spread about her and turning it on its head. Whatever the reality, one cannot deny the effectiveness when it is seen in action.
Miss Heather’s popularity always increases in the winter months. On the whole, she is a healthy individual, despite her appearance, and does her utmost to make sure she is in good health, in all senses of the word. But in the winter, she allows herself to be a little more reckless, staying out until early in the morning, wearing thin gowns that expose her shoulders and back. She will continue these practices until she is seized with a case of chills upon waking up in the morning, and that’s when the news spreads around town; Miss Heather has taken cold and shall be convalescing until further notice.
It was on a chilly day in early January when I was allowed to visit Miss Heather to see her in action. The door was answered by her maid, Senka, a young woman who was carefully selected to fade into the background as much as possible, to put Miss Heather’s visitors at ease. I was expected, and Senka led me through the simple but elegant rooms until we came to the main drawing room. There, pressing upon what appeared to be a simple wall carving, a secret passage was revealed. A chair was already placed flush against the door, and once I was seated in it, Senka drew the door shut, but left it open just wide enough for me to get an unobstructed view of the events that followed.
After a few minutes of waiting, Miss Heather finally emerged into my line of sight. While she normally moves with a tentative, gliding grace, now, she appeared to hobble, as though it took all her energy to move across the floor to the settee that graced the center of the room. Her slimness was heightened by the shivers that caused her shoulders to bob up and down almost continuously, and despite the fevered flush in her cheek, she seemed paler than ever. Her hair was what I would call “attractively mussed”, tangled and sticking out in all the right places, and I must wonder if she arranged it on purpose. However, no amount of makeup could hide or accentuate the positively scarlet tinge to her nose, which was obvious even from my hiding place. Coupled with the presence of several handkerchiefs on the table, it was obvious that her nose was the part of her that gave her the most trouble during her illnesses.
Upon reaching the settee, Miss Heather stretched out upon it, turning herself sideways to face the chair that had been set up nearby. Senka draped a blanket over her curled legs, and another one over Miss Heather’s shoulders. Once it had all been artfully arranged, Senka disappeared from the room, while Miss Heather picked up a book and began to read. Unlike the other courtesans I visited for this book, she had not arranged for me to come to a specific event; the way she operates, it is more a matter of blind chance who will or will not come.
For a time, nothing happened. Miss Heather read, coughing or sniffling every minute or so, and rubbing regularly at her nose with one of the handkerchiefs. Just as I was worried that I would need to come back at another date, Senka’s voice floated across the room;
“Mr. ‘G’ to see you, milady. He says he has come to inquire about your health.”
The book was down at once. “Show him in, Senka.”
Another minute or so was spent rearranging the blankets around herself. She had just finished when I heard footsteps, and a male voice said “Oh, my dear Heather, you look dreadful! Is it a bad cold?”
Miss Heather smiled and held out her hand for G to kiss. “It is not the worst cold I ever had,” she said, her voice softer and weaker than when she had been speaking to her maid, “But it’s quite exhausted me. You can hear how congested it’s made me.”
G clucked in sympathy. “My poor dear. I hope you have been keeping warm.”
“I’m doing my best,” Miss Heather gave him a smile, sniffling yet again, “Please, won’t you sit down?”
During this conversation, I hadn’t failed to notice the bouquet of flowers that G had been concealing behind his back, the stems tied together by a diamond and emerald bracelet. Upon being given the invitation, he displayed them for Miss Heather. “A get well soon present. I hope these can help brighten things up a bit.”
“Oh, G, you shouldn’t have!” Miss Heather said, delighted, taking the flowers from him, “However did you get these? It’s the dead of winter!”
“I have my ways,” G said, no doubt with a faint smile, “And nothing is impossible, especially when I have you to motivate me.”
“You flatterer, you,” she said, caressing the petals and unclasping the bracelet in a subtle motion. As she attatched the bangle to her wrist, she examined the bouquet. “Your ways must be very impressive indeed, G. Roses, camellias, and even orchids. I’m overwhelmed at your generosity.”
“I hope you’ll look at them and think of me.” G said, sitting down in the offered chair and leaning forward.
“Indeed I will.” Miss Heather said, before lifting the bouquet to her face and taking a deep breath of the various scents. Almost at once, she let out a tiny, hitching breath, and lowered the flowers. Even from my hiding spot, I could see her eyes flutter close and her nose wiggle. Then her head tipped back involuntarily as the tickle in her nose overwhelmed her completely.
Miss Heather’s sneezes are an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, they suit her delicate appearance perfectly, with the tiny build-up and the soft feminine sound of the sneeze itself. On the other, the volume is surprisingly powerful for such a slender woman, though perhaps this could be due to her cold. Still, there is something entrancing about the sight and sound, the barest hint that there is more to Miss Heather than it first initially appears.
During all this, G had been watching her intently, and indeed, seemed to move still closer to her. As a result, he had been directly in the line of fire, and was simply drenched in the effects of Miss Heather’s sneeze. But he didn’t seem put out in the least. “Bless you, my dear!” he said, “It must be that rotten cold of yours.”
“Perhaps,” Miss Heather answered, dabbing her nose carefully, “But it could be the flowers.”
“How could that be?” G asked, sounded genuinely puzzled, “I sent you roses all throughout summer, and I never heard a sniff out of you!”
“I highly doubt I’ve developed a case of hayfever,” Miss Heather reassured him, “But my nose has a tendency to become extra sensitive when I have a cold. It could be that the petals or the pollen are just irritating my poor nose. There’s only one way to know for sure.”
With that, she brought the bouquet to her face and inhaled again, taking a much deeper breath. Her breath caught at once, and she barely had time to lower the bouquet before the sneezes came upon her.
“Ah…APSHH! KSHH! ETCHH!”
Once again, G was thoroughly sneezed on, though he made no move to wipe his face. He merely waited until she had stopped sneezing before offering another “Bless you.” One would have thought this was an everyday occurrence for him.
After her fit, Miss Heather wiped her nose again. “I’m dreadfully sorry, G. But I can’t control my nose when I’m like this. It’s like it has a mind of its own.”
“It’s quite all right,” G said tenderly, laying a hand on her wrist, “I’m sorry for unexpectedly irritating it.”
“It couldn’t be helped,” Miss Heather said, reaching for a small bell and ringing it. The faint tinkling noise seemed too soft to be heard from where I sat, but apparently it was audible, because a minute later, Miss Heather was holding out the bouquet. “Senka, please take these upstairs and put them in water. Set the vase near my bed, if you could.”
Senka appeared briefly, lifting the flowers and vanishing from view. “There, now,” Miss Heather said with satisfaction, “Now we’ll be able to chat uninterrupted.”
They then proceeded to converse about social matters for about five minutes or so, and then G looked at his watch. “I’m so sorry, Heather, but I can’t stay any longer. I have an obligation in town.”
“I understand. I don’t want to keep you. Thank you for looking in on me.” She smiled up at him as he got to his feet. As he bent to kiss her hand once more, her smile grew a little more knowing, and she said what I would come to realize was her signature phrase. “Bless you, and enjoy your pleasures.”
And that, readers, is the secret to Miss Heather’s success. Just as a hairstyle or perfume can be sold if a certain lady is known to wear it, Miss Heather markets her colds. It is said that catching a cold off of Miss Heather will pass on not only the illness, but also her talents in bed (though apparently the latter requires a direct transference from her). For the sake of honesty, I cannot say if there is any truth to these claims, but since she is still doing quite well for herself, it seems that the public believes it so, and perhaps that is enough.
As with my other subjects, Miss Heather had agreed to allow me to observe her for the whole day. I had thought that one visit would have been enough for me to get a sense of her, but I felt obligated to stay. And it was a wise decision on my part, for it turns out that Miss Heather’s methods of passing on her colds are numerous and varied. She doesn’t want her callers to wait on her nose to decide it’s time to sneeze, she is much more pragmatic about it, as can be seen in the next example.
After the departure of Mr. G, there was another stretch of nothing, with Miss Heather reading while I jotted down notes on what I had just seen. I was interrupted mid-scribble by Senka’s voice. “Mr. ‘H’ wishes to pay his respects, milady.”
“Does he have anything with him?” Miss Heather asked, fiddling with her new bracelet.
“Not that I could see, milady.”
Miss Heather nodded and put a finger to her chin for a moment. Then she lowered it and settled back into what I was coming to think of as her “invalid position”. She waved a hand at Senka. “Quickly, run and fetch me paper, ink, and quill. Then send him in.”
It didn’t take long for Senka to procure the items, along with a small wooden surface to act as a desk. While we waited for Mr. H to arrive, Miss Heather arranged everything in order and bent over the paper, writing something. She was just dipping her quill in the ink when her suitor arrived. “Milady Heather. I trust I find you better?”
Miss Heather looked up at him with a small smile and gestured for him to sit in the chair. “I suppose I am a little better. My fever has gone down, but now I must deal with all the thickness in my nose and throat.”
As if to emphasize her words, she coughed politely into her handkerchief. Mr. H leaned forward, concerned. “Has the doctor been?”
She shrugged. “I don’t believe I need to trouble him with this. It’s just a slight cold, that’s all. I should be fine if I make sure to stay warm and rest.”
H was still tensed, apparently unconvinced. Miss Heather brushed her fingers over his knee. “I appreciate your concern for me, H, but I have had my fair share of colds. I know how to deal with them. Should my fever get worse, I promise you, I will send Senka out to the doctor immediately.”
It was enough to reassure H, who finally allowed himself to relax into the chair. Miss Heather returned to her paper. “I hope you’ll forgive my rudeness, but you caught me right in the middle of penning a letter to one of my friends. I should be finished in a few minutes.”
“Take as much time as you need,” H said magnanimously, and was rewarded with a warm smile before she bent over the letter again. I believe it actually was a letter, having been put off until she had need of it, because the pen moved as if it was actually writing letters instead of sketching random lines to give off the appearance of writing. She continued in this manner for a minute or so, and then lifted the quill to her lips, as if searching for the right word.
However, the quill was a particularly long one, and the tip of it began to brush underneath her nose, wavering slightly as she breathed. Miss Heather’s nose wrinkled visibly, but she just shook her head and returned to her letter. However, I couldn’t help but notice that she had angled her head in just the right way to allow the feather to continue to brush against her nose as she moved it across the paper. Mr. H had noticed as well, because he suddenly slid off the chair and crouched before the settee. “Please, allow me, milady,” he said, gently positioning his hands under the wooden plank, “Now you can have your hands free.”
“Th-thank you.” Miss Heather said, voice stumbling as the feather poked the tip of her nose. She continued to write the letter, but her pace was slowing, and her breath was starting to come out in small, desperate pants.
“Are you all right?” Mr. H asked, a note in his voice suggesting he knew the real answer.
“F-fine…” she stuttered, “It’s j-just my…my…”
At that moment, the quill brushed against the side of her nose, and the itch grew too much for her. It came on too fast for her to even make a pretext of reaching for her handkerchief, and she just snapped forwards instead.
Even she seemed surprised by how quickly the sneeze had come on. She blinked for a second before gasping. “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to spray ink in your face!”
“It’ll wash off,” he assured her, “Go on, finish your letter.”
“Are you sure?” she said, “My nose is a bit sensitive from my cold. This will probably happen again.”
“A gentleman never abandons his duty,” he answered, taking a firmer grip on the plank, “And I insist on seeing this through.”
I caught a quick glimpse of a smirk. “Well, then, if you insist…”
So she continued to write, but now that the itch had been triggered, the sneezing occurred with much more frequency. Every minute or so, she would crane her head over the top of the plank and let loose with a wet sneeze. Then she would sniff and rub her nose before returning to work, acknowledging Mr. H’s blessings with a nod. Occasionally, she would rub her nose with the hand holding the quill, which would inevitably cause a second sneeze. Then she would apologize and laugh, good-naturedly cursing her absentmindedness.
Other than a brief twitch whenever he was sneezed on, Mr. H’s hands were steady on the plank, and soon enough, Miss Heather took the plank from him and set it and the ink pot aside. “Thank you for your help,” she said, finally rubbing at her nose with her handkerchief, “I’m so lucky to have had you here to help me.”
Mr. H straightened up, smoothing his clothes. “I assure you, it was a pleasure.”
“Now that I’m finished, I can devote all my attention to you. Shall I ring for some tea? Perhaps a deck of cards?”
“I wish I could, believe me,” he said regretfully, “But I’m expected at the club. Perhaps I’ll call upon you again later this evening.”
“I’d like that.” she smiled.
He nodded and moved out of my line of sight. “Perhaps the worst of your cold will be over by this evening.”
“Perhaps it will,” she said, lifting a hand in goodbye, “Bless you, and enjoy your pleasures.”
As soon as Mr. H’s footsteps had faded, Miss Heather rang for her maid. “Take these away,” she said, gesturing to the letter, “And tell the cook to prepare some soup.”
Once Senka had departed, silence descended once more. Now intrigued by what I had seen, I scribbled down my notes furiously, not bothering to look up until I heard Senka’s voice.
“Mr. ‘I’ is here.”
“Ah, dear Mr. I…” Miss Heather sighed, “He’s surprisingly late. I would have expected him to be first in line, like always.”
“I’m sure he’ll explain himself, milady.”
“No doubt. Send him in.”
Miss Heather actually pouted when Mr. I finally made his appearance in the drawing room. “Where have you been?” she said, her voice both accusatory and lonely, “I’ve been waiting all morning for you!”
“I’m terribly sorry!” Mr. I said, and his voice sounded quite sincere, “But a friend insisted I come out with him to watch him break in his new horse. I tried to get out of it, really I did, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I got away as soon as I could. Can you ever forgive me for not being here in your hour of need?”
“Of course I can, sweetheart,” she said, squeezing his hand, “You’ll have to make it up to me, of course, but sometimes, there are things beyond our control. Why should I blame you for them?”
Mr. I sighed audibly in relief and took his seat in the chair. “How are you feeling?”
She gave an elegant roll of her shoulders that might have been a shrug. “It changes from hour to hour. Sometimes I’m overcome with a case of the chills, sometimes I cough for minutes at a time, sometimes my nose plagues me with tickles, and sometimes, I’m mostly all right. For now, I’m in that last stage.”
“My poor dear…” he said. There was so much tenderness in his voice that it became obvious that Mr. I was a man who genuinely cared for her health. Even if he was taking advantage of her particular hook, his primary goal was to look after her well-being. All of her clients cared for her in some way, but this was something special.
Miss Heather seemed to realize this too, because she smiled warmly. “Now, don’t worry about me, Mr. I. I certainly know how to deal with colds. In fact, I’m having the cook prepare me a bowl of soup for lunch. It’ll warm me up and has some herbs that will help with the fever.”
“Splendid! Keep eating like that and you’ll be back on your feet by the end of the week!”
Miss Heather had just opened her mouth to reply when Senka returned to the room with the soup. “Thank you, Senka,” Miss Heather said, reaching for it, a corner of the blanket wrapped around her hands to keep them from being burned, “It looks delicious. Pity I can’t smell it at the moment.”
Senka set something on the arm of the settee. “The steam and spices should help with that, milady.” She said mildly, before leaving the room once more. Miss Heather lifted a mouthful of soup to her lips, blew on it charmingly, then swallowed it. “Is it good?” Mr. I inquired.
“It’s warm, at least,” she said with a faint laugh, “Perhaps a little spice will cut through the congestion.”
She reached for the item on the settee, and as it caught the light, I realized that it was a small vial, probably full of pepper. Miss Heather overturned it and started to shake, though she held it high above her head, so that just as much of the pepper landed on her hair and face as it did in the soup. She didn’t seem to notice at first, tasting the soup, shaking her head, and adding more spice. But then, she gave a loud sniff, and her nose twitched again. “Oh dear…I believe the spice is g-getting to me…”
Mr. I was off his chair at once, taking the soup from her hands. “I won’t have you scalding yourself,” he said, “You don’t need to be dealing with burns on top of a cold.”
She nodded her thanks, already struggling with the sneeze. “Heh…hih…”
Mr. I perched himself on the arm of the settee and put his arm around her as if to steady her. “Go on, let it out. It’ll help you get rid of this cold.”
She looked up at him, smiled…and then sneezed. “HISHH!”
“Bless you,” he said, withdrawing a handkerchief and putting it to her nose, “Come on, let’s try to force that pepper out.”
She spent a minute or two sniffling into his handkerchief, then gestured at the soup. “I think I’m all right now. Give me back my lunch. I’m starting to realize just how hungry I am.”
“A good sign,” Mr. I said, taking the soup and holding it carefully, “But you’d better let me hold it in case the sneezes come on again.”
And so he proceeded to feed her the soup, pausing whenever her breath hitched. It seemed she had overseasoned the soup, and her nasal passages had cleared just enough to be irritated by the scent of pepper. Every few minutes, she was forced to stop and sneeze, though at least she managed to swallow her current mouthful of soup before doing so. After each sneeze, Mr. I would tend to her nose with his handkerchief once more. It very much looked like a scene that might have played out between a husband and wife, and I was hard pressed to decide if it was all an act on Miss Heather’s part or not.
At last, the bowl was empty, and Miss Heather smiled warmly at him. “Thank you for your help, Mr. I. Please, leave your handkerchief with me; I’ll make sure it’s properly cleaned and pressed. It’s the least I can do after you let me borrow it.”
Mr. I handed over the cloth. “Would you like me to stay a while?” he asked, almost tentatively, “Or would you rather I leave so you can get some rest?”
“I’d like you to stay,” she said, “After all, you were late.”
“Very true,” he said with a chuckle, sitting down on the chair again, “What shall we talk about?”
In the end, they sat and discussed innocuous things like politics and the latest performances at the theater for a good hour. It was an unusual display, and yet, nothing seemed forced about it. I couldn’t help but wonder what the two of them were like when Miss Heather was at normal health, but of course, it isn’t my place to speculate, just to observe.
Finally, Mr. I got to his feet and cupped Miss Heather’s face tenderly, planting a kiss on her forehead. “Do try to get well soon, Heather.”
“I will,” she promised him, “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“Of course,” he said, “Nothing will be able to keep me away this time.”
“I look forward to it,” she said, waving him off, “Bless you, and enjoy your pleasures.”
Almost as soon as he was gone, another door creaked open. “Forgive me, milady, but Mr. ‘C’ arrived half-an-hour ago. I sent him to the library, but he’s starting to grow impatient. Shall I send him in?”
I was a little surprised at the name; as you’ll have noticed, Mr. C has made an appearance in every chapter so far. Perhaps he fancies himself a connoseiur of the demi-monde. If he continues to indulge this habit of his, though, I imagine he will burn through his considerable fortune very quickly.
Miss Heather cursed very softly, but quickly recomposed herself, hiding Mr. I’s handkerchief from sight. “Send him in. Forgive me, Senka, but you’ll have to…”
I was unable to see Senka from my position, but she must have agreed to something, because Miss Heather smiled and relaxed back into position. A moment later, Mr. C entered, all boisterous energy, as usual. “Heather!” he boomed, “How have you been?”
“I’ve seen better days,” she answered dryly, “But on the whole, I would say I am satisfied with my lot in life.”
“Splendid!” C said, kissing her hand with an audible smack before throwing himself into the chair. Miss Heather smiled faintly. “Shall we play a hand of cards? Sooner or later, I’ll beat you at your own game.”
“Perhaps eventually, but today is not that day,” C chuckled, “Don’t expect me to go easy on you just because you’re ill.”
Miss Heather rang for Senka. “A deck of cards, Senka. Mr. C is interested in a game.”
“Very good, milady,” Senka said, before hesitating, “I’m sorry, milady, but I’ve dusted all the other rooms in the house. This is the only one left. Would it be all right if…”
Miss Heather waved a hand. “Go ahead. Just try to be quick about it.”
Cards were quickly procured, and Miss Heather and C became lost in their game. Through the small crack, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of Senka moving back and forth, brushing a feather duster or a rag over the walls. I was getting into the rhythms now, and leaned forward, waiting for the inevitable.
After about five minutes, Miss Heather’s sniffling seemed to increase. “Senka, try not to be so vigorous. You’re stirring up an awful lot of dust.”
“I can only be quick or methodical, milady. And you made your preference quite clear.”
“Oh, very well. At least do your best to be careful. You know how sensitive my nose is when I have a cold.”
“Yes, milady.” Senka said, though I saw no change in her motions. And shortly afterwards, Miss Heather set down her cards, lifting a finger to her nose.
“Oh dear…I’m sorry, Mr. C, but there’s too much dust in he…heh…”
Mr. C immediately set down his own cards and leant forward. Even as her eyes fluttered closed, Miss Heather noticed, and allowed herself a slight smile as she lowered her finger. “Het-CHH! CHH! TCHI!”
“Bless you.” Mr. C said, nodding in quiet satisfaction as he picked up his cards again. Miss Heather rubbed her nose and glanced over at Senka. “At least try to dust the farthest ends of the room, Senka.”
But Senka’s efforts in dusting were hardly needed. Apparently, Mr. C was satisfied with what he had received, for once they had finished their hand of cards, he stood up and bowed to her. “An excellent game, Miss Heather. I’ll call upon you again once your cold has passed to see if you can beat me. Keep up your practicing.”
With that, he stood up, kissed her hand, and left before she could even give him her blessing. Miss Heather seemed put out for a moment, then sighed and rolled her eyes. “Typical. I suppose I won’t see him again unless we meet at a card party. But at least whatever he sends me will be spectacular.”
“Shall I continue dusting, milady?” Senka asked from a corner of the room.
Miss Heather shook her head. “It can wait until I’ve gone upstairs. My nose could do with a rest.”
Senka departed, and for a while, Miss Heather returned to her book. The pause gave me enough time to make notes on the two encounters I had just witnessed, with time to spare to observe her. It was only now that I realized that I had never heard her sneeze outside of her visits. The reason for this—she was holding them back for her guests, a cold that didn’t generate many natural sneezes, or Miss Heather not being a particularly sneezy person—I couldn’t say. What was certain, however, was that her nose was redder than ever, and that she was shivering faintly, even under the blankets. I highly doubted it was for my benefit; by now, she’d almost certainly forgotten that I was there. A glance at my watch revealed that she had been doing this for four hours. Even for someone practiced at this, exhaustion would surely be setting in by now.
But when Senka reappeared fifteen minutes later with a “Mr. ‘J’ is here.”, Miss Heather looked up with no trace of tiredness in her eyes or posture. “Bring him in,” she said with a smile, “And then fetch my sable.”
When Mr. J entered, he exclaimed at once, “Oh, my dear, you look a fright! Why don’t you have more blankets around you?”
She smiled playfully at him. “There’s no need. I only just started feeling shivery, and Senka should be supplying the cure for that any minute now.”
As if she had been waiting behind the door (and indeed, perhaps she had been) Senka appeared, a brown bundle in her arms. “Your sable, milady.”
“Thank you, Senka,” Miss Heather said gratefully, sliding her arms into the coat and pulling it snug around her as she settled back into her invalid position, “Now I’ll be sure to be warm.”
Mr. J reached out and stroked the fur. “I see that my little gift has been serving you well.”
“It’s been just what I needed whenever I’m battling the chills,” Miss Heather agreed, “And it’s caused heads to turn whenever I wear it out in public, too.”
“All the same, I don’t want you wearing it out,” J said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin, “When you’re well, I’ll take you to one of the shops and you can pick out something else that you think will suit you. I saw a lovely white coat that would set off your hair. And there’s also an elegant chinchilla that will be stunning with some of your gowns.”
Miss Heather’s eyes glowed. “You’re wonderful, J, absolutely wonderful. I can’t wait to see the coats for myself.”
“I’ll make sure to have the shopkeeper set both of them aside for you, so you can decide which you like best. Who knows, perhaps you’ll like both.”
“Perhaps I will.” she mused, giving him a sparkling grin. She drew the coat around her possessively, burying her face into the collar and giggling slightly. I couldn’t stop a smirk of my own; it was very obvious where this was going.
Sure enough, she pulled away a second later, her nose twitching. “Oh, dear,” she sighed, rubbing at her nose, “Not again.”
“‘Again?’” J repeated, cocking his head. There was a smile in his voice, however, and I got the distinct impression that this was a well played out scene between these two.
“I love your coat, really I do, J, but, well…sometimes the fur tickles my nose. Even when I’m not ill, it can surprise me into a sneeze. When I do have a cold…even the slightest brush is enough to set me off. If it touches my nose again, I won’t be able to stop until I’ve taken it off.”
“Perhaps you should take it off, then,” J said, “You could have your maid light a fire to keep you warm, or bring you more blankets.”
Miss Heather looked aghast, and clutched the coat to her again. “But I love wearing this coat! It reminds me of how much you care for me. And it’s so warm! Sometimes, I almost forget that I’m ill, sneezing or no sneezing.”
“Well, if you’re sure…” J said with a faint shrug, “Just take care not to sneeze on the fur.”
“I’m always careful when it comes to my gifts.” she answered, petting the coat tenderly. Then she looked up at him with a wicked grin. “But if you’re so worried, you can move the collar away from my face whenever my breath starts to hitch.”
Even as she spoke, the fur brushed against her cheek, and her nose twitched again. “Wh-what did I tell you?” she stuttered out, before the tickles took over in earnest. “Ih…ehh…”
In an instant, J was on his knees beside her, pulling down the fur. She seemed to smile before…“ETCHH!”
“Bless you.” J said, as she reached for a fresh handkerchief. When she lowered the cloth, he let go of the fur, which sprang back into place and only served to tickle her nose again. “C-careful!” she laughed, before her breath caught again. “Hih…hihh…”
J pulled down the collar again, and after her sneeze—“HISHOO!”—was a little more gentle in releasing the fur. “My apologies, my dear Heather. You know how impulsive I can be.”
“I know,” she answered, patting his shoulder, “That’s why I like you.”
She then proceeded to ask him about his athletic activities, encouraging him to preen, pausing every so often to let the fur brush her face and cause a sneeze. They seemed to encourage each other, really, with J telling her to bundle up every time he caught a hint of a shiver and her waving for him to continue his story even as her breath caught. They clearly knew each other well, and played to each others strengths.
At last, J regretfully stood up. “Alas, I wish I could stay and chat about the upcoming race, but it’s getting on four and I have a tea to go to. I’ll come back in a few days and tell you how the race went.”
“I look forward to it.” Miss Heather assured him, “Bless you, and enjoy your pleasures.”
J had just vanished from my line of sight when Miss Heather said, “Oh, one more thing, J…do you think the white fur or the chinchilla will be as prone to tickling my nose as this sable is?”
“You’re the only one that can know for sure,” J said, a chuckle hiding in his voice, “But based on touch alone, both of them are incredibly soft, softer than the sable. The chinchilla in particular is marvelous to the touch. If your nose gets as sensitive as you say, it’s highly likely it will make you sneeze, perhaps even more than the sable does.”
She grinned. “I’ll believe it when I feel it.” Then she waved him off. When his footsteps had faded, she rang for Senka.
“I believe that’s all I’m up for today, Senka. Have my bed turned down and a warming pan prepared. Send any further gentleman my regrets.”
Senka nodded and disappeared. Miss Heather sat up for the first time, letting the fur coat drop down her shoulders to prevent it from tickling her nose, and then, it seemed, glanced right at me.
“We have a few minutes until the bed is ready. If you have any questions you wish to ask me personally, now would be the best time.”
Startled but gratified, I pushed open the door to the secret passage and walked towards her, only now realizing how stiff my legs had come from five hours of sitting. When she gestured to the chair, I shook my head. “I prefer to stand.”
“Of course,” she said, before gesturing to the pen and paper in my hand, “Feel free to ask me anything. Now is not the time to be discreet.”
Since she had given me that permission, I decided to begin with the most obvious, and the most personal question. Still, I had to clear my throat before I asked “During your colds, do you and your guests ever…”
Perhaps I flushed, because she smiled slyly and interrupted me with the answer. “Sometimes. Generally not during the height of my cold; I’m too weak to really make a good show of it. But in the later days, when I’m down to a bit of sniffling, some men like to pay me a visit. Some of them are hoping I can still pass on my cold, and others were previous visitors who want to ‘make sure I get the full benefit of my gift.’” she laughed lightly at that. Encouraged, I asked the follow-up question.
“And when you’re not ill? Is there any trick you use then?”
She shook her head. “At most, I sweetly encourage men to do what they will, that I’m not as fragile as I look. Many of them are surprised at just how hardy I can be. My build and voice generally do most of the work for me during the spring and summer.”
I nodded and wrote down the answers. “How many visitors do you get during these colds of yours?”
“There’s no set number. I have a few regulars, most of which you saw today. On average, I’d say I get a good dozen men paying me a call, not counting the aforementioned repeat visits.”
Somehow, the next question felt even more sensitive than the first one I’d asked. “And how many of them visit you when you’re not ill?”
She ran her fingers over the fur. “It’s true I’m most popular in the winter. And once some of them get what they want, they don’t return until my next cold. But like anyone in my profession, I’ve built up a clientele who enjoy my company, cold or no cold. Of the ones who visited today, I think you can tell which ones they are.”
I nodded, giving an apologetic smile. “That’s all I can think to ask. Is there anything else you think I should mention in my book?”
“Not that I can think of.” She paused, then chuckled. “It’s too bad Mr. ‘K’ didn’t show up today. He would have been particularly amusing to your readers, I suspect.”
“And why is that?”
“He positively adores my sneezing. Even when I’m not ill, he likes to make me sneeze. He always carries a snuffbox with him and encourages me to take a pinch. ‘Clears the sinuses,’ he says.”
I grinned, now regretting the fact that he hadn’t come. She had an almost tender smile on her face as she continued “He’s a dear man, though. I find that little quirk of his endearing. It’s just so amusing watching him fidget and swallow as my nose tickles and I fight against the sneeze. And the flush on his face when I tease him sets off his eyes.”
There was silence for a moment as I wrote that down, planning on working it into my book somehow. Then she looked up at me, head on one side. “Are you sure you don’t want to partake of this cold? You’ll be able to write your report far more accurately that way.”
I smiled faintly. “No thank you. I wish to remain neutral in regards to the ladies I write about. Besides, it will add to your mystique.”
“Very true,” she laughed, “In that case, I appreciate your neutrality.”
Senka reappeared in the doorway. “Your bed is ready, milady.”
“Thank you, Senka.” Miss Heather said, the relief evident in her voice as she rose to her feet, drawing her coat around her shoulders once more. “See Mr. Enitan out, if you would.”
I waited for her to leave first. “I wish you a speedy recovery, Miss Heather. Livelihood or not, colds are never enjoyable.”
She gave me one last smile over her shoulder. “Thank you. Do send me a copy of the chapter when you’re finished. I’ll be interested to see how I’m portrayed.”
With that, she was gone, and I turned to follow Senka out of the house. “Do you enjoy working for Miss Heather?” I asked, wanting to try to get a complete picture of this woman.
Senka shrugged, but her voice seemed to soften slightly as she answered “She pays me well, and doesn’t ask all that much of me. It’s a comfortable enough life, and so I am content.”
“What does she do when she’s not receiving visitors?”
“When she’s ill, you mean? Mostly she stays in bed and tries to recoup her strength. That little display aside, she’s just like everyone else when she’s ill. That’s why she doesn’t move all that much; the men think it’s because she wants them to work for it, but mostly it’s so she won’t get tired out as fast.”
“I can understand that.” I answered, feeling a pang of sympathy for Miss Heather. After all, she was an ill young woman.
“Well, maybe there’s a little bit of the chase in there too,” Senka amended with a bit of a grin, “She knows what her visitors want, after all.”
We were at the door by then, but I lingered to ask one last question, both for the sake of my book and personal curiosity; “Will she see people tomorrow? Or does she take a day to recover?”
“Oh, no, she’ll be back on that couch tomorrow. A few men will pay her another call, though just to visit, and those who didn’t get a chance to get exposed to her cold will be sniffing round soon enough. They want to wait until they’re sure the cold has taken its full effect.”
There was a touch of bitterness in her voice. “You disapprove?” I asked.
“Only the ones who somehow expect her to cater to their every whim, despite her being ill. At least she recognizes the type, and makes sure those particular visitors don’t stay around long.”
“How does she do that?”
“She starts powdering her nose on the pretext of hiding the redness almost as soon as they come in. Before they can open their mouth to make demands, her breath starts hitching. A few sneezes, and they’re out the door again.”
I took the hint and opened the door. “Thank you for speaking with me. And thank your mistress for allowing me to observe her at work.”
“It was nothing. What better way to know you’re a success than to have a chapter dedicated to you in a book? And now she’ll be immortalized in print. She’d have been a fool to turn that down.”
“Others have rejected me, you know.”
“And those others can’t see beyond today’s conquests. None of them will amount to anything, you’ll see.”
“Perhaps I’ll draft an epilogue to my book ten years from now.” I said, amused.
“You do that,” she said, waving me out the door, “Good luck with the writing, Mr. Enitan. Perhaps we’ll see you at a party sometime.”
The door closed behind me, and I quickly turned up my collar and headed out into the street, looking for a cab. The last thing I wanted was to fall ill myself. I had so much more to do.
And thus, I have told you all I can about Miss Heather and her methods. Any men intrigued by my descriptions, feel free to call upon her, but do remember, she is human like the rest of us, and should be accorded the same respect, gift or no gift.
While I never expected to see Miss Heather again except in passing, she did make an unexpected appearance in my life once more. I saw her at a party given by the woman who is the subject of our next chapter…