Feature Writer: TamLin01
Feature Title: ‘Til Death
Story Codes: Erotic Horror
Synopsis: How far would you go for the one you love?
“All extremes of feeling are allied with madness.” — Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
It was sundown. The carriage reached the cottage on the cliffs. Porphyria followed the path to the door, but hesitated before knocking. Maybe I should go back, she thought. Maybe I should just throw myself off the cliffs instead. That would be better.
But she knocked, and when the door opened she went in without waiting to be invited or greeted. She had to duck a bit to fit through the door frame. She was a great, tall woman, with strong arms and broad shoulders and a hard face, but she was often called beautiful.
(A duke wrote a sonnet about her hair two seasons ago. She called the verses “quaint.”)
Hester was wiping flour—covered fingers on her apron. She was small and fine, and anyone would admit she was pretty, but gentlemen of every stripe stayed away from her, and no one would have dared write her poetry. She said nothing to Porphyria, but instead went back to the kitchen and continued rolling out dough on the sideboard. Porphyria waited as long as her patience would bear and then coughed. Hester looked at her.
“Well?” she said. “What do you want?”
Porphyria set a box on the countertop. Hester smeared flour on it as she picked it up. Inside was a diamond necklace. “How…pretty,” Hester said.
“My mother wore it at Queen Victoria’s coronation. Just one of those stones would buy all the land from here to Marblehead Hall. It should be more than enough.”
Hester turned the necklace over in her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I wouldn’t have a thing to wear with it.”
Porphyria scowled. “If that’s not good enough then what is?”
“You know my price,” said Hester, continuing to knead the dough.
“I won’t pay it.”
“Then you won’t. It’s your decision. But no one else can help you. You’ve traveled all over the isles and even to the continent, but no one who can do what I can.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know,” said Hester.
Porphyria seethed. Hester separated the dough into pans, singing under her breath.
“If I agree,” said Porphyria, “do you promise to give me what I want?”
“You know I will,” said Hester, without looking up.
Porphyria went to the window. She felt ill. Her eyes burned, but she refused to cry.
“Fine then,” she said.
Hester stood up straight. “We have a deal?”
Porphyria bit her lip. “Yes.”
Hester picked the necklace up. “I’ll keep the jewels too, if you don’t mind?”
“Not a bit.”
Hester hung up her apron. She washed her hands in the rain barrel and took her hair down one layer of brown curls at a time. Then he took Porphyria by the hand and led her into the little bedroom.
She turned her back as Porphyria undressed, but after several minutes it was clear that Porphyria was having trouble with her layers of undergarments. Hester bit her lip to keep from laughing. This went on for some time. Finally she said, “Let me help you.”
“I don’t need help.”
“Plainly you do.”
Porphyria made a noise very much like a growl but kept still long enough for Hester to undo everything. Then Hester stripped her down to her chemise and Porphyria sat on the edge of the thin mattress, hands knotted in her lap. Hester undressed by herself, and then both women stared at one another, seemingly unsure how to make the first move.
Finally, Hester leaned in and kissed Porphyria on the lips. Porphyria nearly fell off the bed. Hester kissed her again, with a bit more force. Porphyria’s body went rigid. It was like kissing an anvil. Hester sighed.
“This isn’t going to work,” she said.
“Wait!” said Porphyria.
“No,” said Hester, reaching for her dress. “It won’t work. You don’t love me.”
“Did you expect me to?”
“No, but I expected you to be a little more convincing.” Hester looked out the window. “Do you remember when my mother stood at this window and watched us play down on the rocks?”
Porphyria blinked. “Yes. I suppose. We were there almost every day.”
“Do you remember when your father took you away and made you promise not to come back, telling you that you should never associate with our kind? That day in particular?”
“Yes,” said Porphyria.
“I loved you even then. I think about that day every time I look out this window. Do you know what it was like for me when you married that man and went to live at Marblehead Hall and left me thinking I would never see you again?
“I could have had you for myself if I’d wanted. I could have forced you to believe that you love me. I have that power. But I didn’t. And you can’t even do this one thing for me, not even when you need my help. I gave up a life, and you won’t give me a night.”
“Give me a chance!” said Porphyria. “I have never…done…this before. It’s not easy. But I’m willing if you just help me.”
Hester had never heard this tone in Porphyria’s voice before. It almost sounded like pleading. Hester drummed her fingers on the windowsill, thinking.
“Maybe I should make it easier for you?” Hester said. She went to a shelf and took down a round box, then drew a pinch of something that looked like crushed flower petals from it. “Taste it,” she said. “Just a little.”
Porphyria came no closer. “What is it?”
“Something to make you forget for a while.” She held her hand higher.
“I don’t need witchcraft.”
“If that were true you wouldn’t be here.”
Hester touched the substance to Porphyria’s lips and Porphyria felt lighter. She sighed and then swooned, closing her eyes as she fell onto the bed. She was not sure where she was all of a sudden, but she felt too good to care.
Someone touched her bare arm. It felt very good. Someone else was in the bed with her, she realized. Porphyria didn’t recognize the woman, but the touch of her hand was soft, and warm, and sensual.
Porphyria closed her eyes again. She felt the other woman removing her last few underclothes and didn’t object. The sensation of silk against her skin was thrilling. Once naked, she stretched like a cat.
She forgot that Hester was there as soon as her hands went away, and then when she was touched again she experienced the surprise of finding another occupant in the room all over again. When Hester kissed her she pondered the sensation of another pair of lips, decided that she liked it, and responded in kind.
Hester was momentarily alarmed when Porphyria’s strong arms wrapped around her as tightly as they could. For a second she feared she couldn’t breathe. Porphyria’s tongue darted into Hester’s mouth, and then she bit Hester’s lower lip. Her hands pawed Hester’s undergarments and Hester only just managed to slip out of them before they were torn. Both women tumbled naked across the bed, limbs entwined. The night turned hot.
Outside, the driver wondered, idly, how much longer his mistress would be.
Porphyria felt like she was on fire. Everything that grazed her skin jolted her. She could concentrate on nothing for more than a few seconds before becoming distracted by a new thing.
She kissed Hester again, filling her mouth with the taste of the other woman. The more she had, the more she wanted. Hester barely caught her breath between kisses. She broke off long enough to kiss Porphyria’s neck, tongue moving in a circle. Porphyria’s red, red lips opened and she moaned. Hester cried out as nails raked her back.
Hester’s tiny, shapely breasts were pressed to Porphyria’s ample bosom. Her little fingers cupped Porphyria’s breast and squeezed as her teeth grazed the tip of one nipple. Porphyria convulsed. She took hold of Hester, strong fingers fondling her body, and Hester gasped, shuddering.
“Take me,” Hester whispered. “I’m yours.”
Porphyria’s hand slid between Hester’s legs as Hester’s tongue flickered out, licking her nipples, lapping around and around them before flicking the tip. Porphyria pressed on the back of her head. Hester began to suck. Porphyria’s hand pushed against Hester’s sex. Hester whimpered, whispering between the darting movements of her tongue:
“I belong to you. Own me. Use me. Do whatever you want with me.”
One finger slid inside Hester, then two. She was wet and hot, and she clenched around the invasive touch. She rocked back, breath quickening. Porphyria smiled as she pushed harder. Hester whimpered.
“Oh God!” she whispered, as Porphyria thrust a finger up into her again and again, causing her sex to quiver and ache. “Oh God, oh God, oh God!” she repeated. She was sweating all over. Porphyria’s other fingers nudged her clit, and she almost passed out. She was pushing down with her hips now, chasing Porphyria’s touch whenever it retreated.
Porphyria slipped a third finger inside. Hester’s eyes rolled back. Her body jerked and twitched. She tried to move but it was difficult, as Porphyria rammed her fingers up inside each time she did, reducing her to a writhing mess. She fell onto her back, legs splayed, knotting the blankets.
Hester was coming down off her climax when Porphyria grabbed a handful of her hair, dragged her up, and, before Hester could say anything pushed her face between Porphyria’s thighs. Hester was nearly smothered. Her lips parted instinctually and they met something wet. She pushed her tongue against the slit. Porphyria grunted. Hester opened her mouth, fixing her lips and running her tongue inside, tasting the inner rim, then went deeper.
Hester watched Porphyria’s breasts quiver with each breath. She was grinding against Hester’s mouth. Her breathing came in slow moans and little sighs, and then there came a deeper, harder panting sound, and an insistent growl from somewhere in her throat. Eventually she was screaming.
Hester moved her head up and down. Her tongue lapped over and over. She was legitimately afraid of what Porphyria might do if she stopped, so she concentrated entirely on the moment. Her fingers massaged the Porphyria’s inner thighs, her calloused fingers moving along the pale, delicate flesh of the other woman’s gleaming white nakedness. She tasted wetness. She found Porphyria’s swollen, trembling clit and engulfed it with her tongue.
The entire bed shook as Porphyria threw herself against the mattress. Her hands clawed Hester’s back. Hester didn’t stop. Porphyria ached all over. She was burning up inside. She tried to push the feeling out, but there was always more of it.
She screamed: “More!”
Hester went faster. Porphyria was covered in sweat, twitching all over. She buried was screaming non-stop now:
“More, more, more!”
She pulled Hester away and slapped her across the face. Hester blinked, stunned, and then Porphyria pushed her down again, and her mouth opened again, and they went on like that until Porphyria shuddered and screamed her last and collapsed, exhausted. Hester wiped her mouth and took a deep breath, then kissed Porphyria one last time, risking being crushed in another embrace.
They lay side by side for a little while. Then Porphyria’s stomach lurched and she ran to the window just in time. She spat bile into the weeds and brush.
“Sorry,” Hester said. “I should have mentioned that can happen once it’s run its course.”
Porphyria tried to reply but the pain made it too hard. Eventually she settled down.
“I don’t remember anything. Did we…” Porphyria said, and then realized that she was naked and sweaty and sore. She felt sick again, but dressed herself without incident. Hester seemed bored as she watched, sliding back into her own clothes.
Porphyria did not look at Hester, or seemingly anything at all, after they left the bedroom. She stared at the floor, and muttered:
“Well. You’re paid. Now give me what I came for.”
Hester went to the hearth and removed a loose chimney stone, taking a small leather bag from behind it. Something rattled inside. She put it into Porphyria’s hand.
“If this is a trick—” Porphyria said.
“Then you know where to find me,” said Hester.
Porphyria put her cloak on and left. Hester watched her from the door, but she didn’t look back. Her coachman had fallen asleep waiting for her.
“Danner!” she said, waking him and climbing into the cabin. “We’re finished.”
“Yes, mistress,” he said.
“The workman, they should have arrived by now?”
“And they’re reliable, and know how to keep their mouths shut?
“Yes, mistress.” Danner climbed into the bucket.
“Good,” said Porphyria, and it was the last thing she said the entire trip back.
“Heave, gents, heave!” said Danner. Rain dripped into his face from the brim of his hat. His boots squelched in the mud.
“Begging your pardon sir,” said one of the workers, “but we’ve been heaving all night.”
“Then perhaps you lack proper motivation,” said Danner. “Move that box or you forfeit your pay.”
The worker scowled, but wrapped the rope twice around his hands and braced himself against the fence to pull harder.
“Why aren’t they finished?” said Porphyria. She stood under an awning, watching the workman haul what looked like a great trunk that had become stuck in the mud. They were at the gate of the little churchyard on the other side of the estate, trying to pull the box out and load it into the waiting wagon.
Danner wrung his hat it out. “We had a problem with some of the men. Half of them refused to work when they found out they would have to open the mausoleum. The rest had some trouble with the coffin. They’ve almost got it now.”
“Have them take it to the old stable on the east side, the empty one,” Porphyria said. “Make sure that none of the house staff are around to see them.”
“Yes, mistress,” said Danner. “Shall I dismiss them after?”
“No. Send them to the kitchens. Wake the cook and give them whatever they want, then tell them they can sleep in the other stable tonight. Tomorrow they’ll take the coffin back to the crypt and seal it up again.”
“Back?” said Danner.
“Yes, back. Do you have any problem with that?”
“No, mistress, none at all. Just making sure.”
Porphyria watched the men work. “I suppose you’re wondering what this is all about.”
“Not at all. I do your business and I mind my own.”
“Good answer. Did you turn out the old servants?”
“There’s not a single person in the house who worked here while your husband was alive.”
“Excellent.” She paused. “I think it’s time for a drink. Take care of this lot, then join me in the study.”
Twenty minutes later Danner sat on a red velvet couch opposite Porphyria, sipping the absinthe she poured for him.
“Well,” she said.
“This seemed like a good occasion to talk.”
“If you like. What are we talking about?”
“You’ve been…very faithful to me, Danner, these last few years.”
“It’s been my pleasure.”
“I’ve been able to rely on you for everything, and I appreciate your services. And the discretion around them.”
“There’s no need to thank me.”
“I didn’t,” she said, though she smiled as she said it. “Do you have any regrets?”
“Not even about those mausoleums that you had a hand in filling?”
“Well, it had to be done.”
“Yes,” said Porphyria, looking far away. “It had to be done. It’s hard to find good help these days Nevertheless, as much as I value everything you’ve done, it should be noted that, as of tonight, certain improprieties in our relationship must be discontinued.”
Danner’s heart sank, but he didn’t show it. “That’s entirely your decision. I serve in whatever capacity you wish.”
“Yes. But you see, that makes me a bit nervous.”
“To put it bluntly, I’m just not sure if I can trust you now that certain…choice rewards are beyond your grasp.”
“There’s no need to—”
“And you know all of my secrets. I don’t like it when any person knows too much about me.”
Danner’s palms began to sweat.
“Given everything that’s happened, I’m afraid we have to part ways. Starting tonight. Starting right now, actually, unless I miss my guess.” Porphyria looked at her nails.
Danner paused. Something tasted funny about his drink, beneath the absinthe…
“Ah,” he said. “Oleander.”
“A good choice. I didn’t even notice it.” His limbs felt heavy. “But what do you intend to do with the body? I won’t be around to dispose of it.”
“You already have. You’ll be in the coffin when the workmen seal it back in the vault tomorrow. You’ll lie next to the Covel family’s ancestors until the end of time. A fitting reward for all of your services to the family, don’t you think?”
Danner’s vision tunneled. Even now, he had to admire her thoroughness. It was her most charming quality. She patted his hand.
“For the record,” she said, “It was…nice, while it lasted. Nice for what it was.”
He tried to answer, but his throat closed up.
“I would give you a kiss for old time’s sake, but I’m afraid it just wouldn’t be appropriate. After all…” She stood. “I’m about to be a married woman again.”
And that was the last thing he heard.
Porphyria rolled the body up in a rug, then slung it over her broad shoulders. She locked the study door and went to the old stable on the east side. As per her instructions, there was no one in the corridor to see her. The rain had stopped.
The coffin lid was unscrewed but not removed. She had worried that one of the workers might take the opportunity to rifle through for valuables, but it seemed that Danner picked a trustworthy lot after all. He was always so good. Such a shame to have to let him go.
The lid was heavy, but she was a woman of unusual strength, and she popped it free after a little work. A sour smell greeted her. She picked up the shape wrapped in the tattered winding sheet and laid it on the ground as gently as she could, then replaced it with Danner’s body and put the lid back on. Then she sat down on the casket, wiping her brow with a silk handkerchief.
Now, for the business at hand. She unwrapped the winding sheet and looked at the shrunken, moldering form inside. She did not flinch. Why would she? This was the man she loved.
She took the leather bag from around her neck. Unlacing it, she dropped something that looked like a dried, black walnut into her hand. There were more inside. Remembering Hester’s instructions, she crushed the black thing in her palm. It left a stain.
She pried open the mouth of the corpse, popped the crushed mass inside, and waited. First the body quivered. Then the bones rattled. Porphyria backed up a step when the arms moved. Then the whole thing sat upright, jerking and twitching. It turned its head, joints creaking, and opened its mouth. The rags of its clothes disintegrated as it stood up.
It walked toward her, one skeletal hand reaching out. Porphyria backed away. Was this how it was supposed to happen? Had she done something wrong? The dead thing came closer. A horrible noise came out of its mouth. Its empty eye sockets stared at her.
She closed her eyes. “Jonathon,” she said, “please come back to me. Please…”
She waited for the touch of those ghastly fingers. It didn’t come. She flinched in anticipation, but still nothing happened. Then she heard a voice:
She opened her eyes. In place of the horrible, ambulatory corpse was a young, handsome, virile man, dressed in the tattered remains of his funerary garb. His skin was fair, and his hair was long and dark. His expression was one of quiet bewilderment.
“Jonathan!” she cried, and threw herself at him. He caught her with some evident surprise, and before he could say anything she was kissing him over and over again, repeating his name between half—hysterical sobs: “Oh John, John, John, John!”
It was several minutes before she could say anything else. She sank into his chest, crying, and he, astonished, put his arms around her until she recovered.
“I knew it would work,” she said. “I knew you would come back to me, I knew it, I knew it. If you had any idea how long I’ve waited for this, everything I had to do—”
“Hello, miss,” he said.
“John, this is—”
“John?” he said. “You keep calling me…John?”
“Is that my name? John,” he said, as though trying it out.
She brushed his hair back, touching his face. “Yes dear, of course. You’re Lord John Covel.”
“I am,” he said, evidently unsure. “And who are you?”
“I’m your wife!”
“You are?” He pondered this, eventually appearing not displeased with the notion. “And where are we?”
“Darling, don’t you remember anything?”
“I don’t seem to,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve never seen you before in my life. And I have no remembrance of ever being called John. Although now that I think about it, I don’t recall ever being called anything else either. The last thing I remember is…being here with you. There’s nothing else.”
She looked into his eyes. “John, you can hear me, can’t you? This is real, isn’t it?”
He nodded, but his expression was blank. “Maybe if you explain more I’ll remember?”
She smiled. “Well, darling, you’ve been…gone. For some time. Five years. But now you’re home again.”
“Oh, but you must be freezing in those rags! Here, put these on. They’re yours, I saved them.”
She handed him a bundle of clothes. He seemed fascinated by the workings of the buttons and laces as he dressed. “Just as handsome as ever,” she said when he was done. He smiled like a child.
She led him into the house. Every other step she looked back at him, smiling. “It’s no wonder you can’t remember, you’ve been through so much. It will all come back to you soon, darling, you’ll see.”
“I’m sure it will,” he said. Then he gaped when he saw the interior of the grand entrance hall. Porphyria rang a bell by the central staircase. After a minute a tired looking maid appeared.
“Wake the kitchen staff,” Porphyria said.
The maid looked surprised. “Are you sure? You’ve had them up once tonight already.”
“Don’t talk back to me!” said Porphyria. “Do you see this man? This is my husband.”
The maid nearly fell over. ” Have you remarried? We had no idea. Which is to say, I had no idea. Which is to say—”
“Wake the kitchen staff. Tell them to begin breakfast. The sun is almost up in any case. Let them know that they’re cooking for the new master of the house. Don’t just stand there catching flies, go!”
The maid gaped again, but hurried away.
Porphyria took John to the dining hall, where he inspected each and every fork and candlestick on the table with rapt fascination while she talked the morning through, touching his hand every few seconds.
“This, of course, is Marblehead Hall,” she explained, “built by your grandfather. You lived here all your life, except when you went to France for your education.”
“I see,” he said, balancing a silver butter knife on his finger.
“I’ve kept everything in order while you were away, and—oh darling I just can’t believe that it’s true, that you’re really here again. I’ve missed you so much.”
“I’ve missed you too. Or I imagine I did,” he said, tracing the pattern on the tablecloth with the utmost concentration. “Why did I leave?”
“Let’s not talk about that now. Let’s just enjoy being together.”
John agreed that this was an excellent idea. At breakfast he ate enough for three men, and paid no mind to the stares of the servants. After, Porphyria showed him the entire house.
“John, do you remember the garden? Do you remember when the duchess gave us this fountain as a wedding gift?”
“John, do you remember it was this window where we stood together to watch the sunset our first night here?”
“Perhaps, just a bit…”
“John, do you remember when I fainted here, and you carried me up five flights of stairs to my bed and then rode all night long to find a doctor?”
“I can just barely remember something like that…”
It was well past noon when they reached the bedchamber. Porphyria shut the doors and threw her arms around her husband’s neck, kissing him. “Do you remember this?” she whispered.
He smiled. “Perhaps if you refresh my memory some more…” he said.
“Darling, you know you left before we could even have a proper wedding night.”
“How monstrous of me,” said John.
“Help me with this.” She indicated the laces of her dress. When her petticoats were taking too much time to remove she ripped them off instead and pushed John onto the bed, climbing on top, straddling him with splayed legs.
“I’ve been waiting so long for you,” she said.
“I would imagine.”
“Of course there have been others, but you must know they meant nothing.”
“Of course,” he said. She had stripped him half-naked before he could even think of objecting (not that he would), and she had his stiff cock in her hands, stroking it and running her fingers over the swollen head. His expression conveyed complete disbelief that he was, in fact, this lucky.
Porphyria had no patience to undress fully. She freed herself up just enough to allow access between her legs and guided him in, gasping as his cock filled her from one end to the other. Her head lolled to one side.
“It’s just like I imagined…” she said.
“Is it?” he said, face flushed. “I still can’t quite remember everything.”
“I’ll jog your memory,” she said, smiling. Working her powerful thighs she pushed herself up and down him. Her breasts strained against her corset. She felt him throbbing inside of her, the pulse from his body giving her a deep and abiding satisfaction.
“Tell me when you start remembering,” she said, kissing his fingertips and bouncing over and over. Up and down, in and out, slowly, from the tip all the way in. John’s eyes rolled back and he stammered something incoherent.
“Oh, God, the nights I’ve spent thinking about this.” She tugged the pins out of her hair, letting it fall. The bed frame groaned under the weight of their bodies and the constant, steady, rhythmic thumping.
John felt hot and flushed, the heat generated by all this activity trapped under the layers of clothes he still had on. He worked as fast as he could to free himself from coats and shirts without disturbing Porphyria, who was riding him with single—minded abandon. She caught one of his hands and stuck two fingers into her mouth, full red lips closing around them.
She moaned and continued to push herself up and down, up and down, her outer lips gripping his shaft. He thought her quite wanton for a well—born lady, but he did not disapprove.
Porphyria was almost doubled over now, lying across him, her face only a few inches from his. Her mouth was open and she was moaning again and again: “Oh John, John, John!” He felt something stirring. Her expression was disarmingly intense. “I want you to fill me.”
“But more than this.”
She clamored off of him and turned away, moving to all fours and gripping the headboard. He thought she might dent the oak. John positioned himself behind her. He put a hand between her legs and she moaned. My, my, he thought, rubbing and admiring the symmetry of her back and the firm, rounded flanks of her thighs and backside.
He put the tip of his cock inside of her and grinned when she squealed. Easy does it, he thought, sliding in. She pulsed around him, and her voice died in her throat when she tried to talk, although he was reasonably certain that all she was going to say was his name again anyway.
He reached under her body and took hold of her large breasts. What a sumptuous feast of a woman, he thought, pumping her from behind. She was wonderfully receptive, and when he accented his thrusts by bringing his hand down on her flank with two solid smacks she cried out and trembled. There was incredible power in her body, but she felt almost helpless to him.
When he sped up, so did she. When he slowed down she matched. She never seemed to tire, or more accurately, she seemed to be in a state of constant satisfied exhaustion, her head lolling to one side, eyes closed, mouth open, a growling moan her one constant utterance. Her legs, hips, and shoulders rocked back and forth with machine—like rhythm.
He squeezed her hanging breasts, tweaking each of the swollen nipples. She whimpered. He dragged the length of his cock out of her, all the way to the tip, and then slid it all the way back in at the same time that he twisted them, pulling down. She cried out again.
Her arms gave out and she half—fell onto the bed, smothering herself in the pillows and arching her backside in the air. John responded by going even faster. As afternoon became late afternoon he found himself exhausted. His limbs ached and his hair was drenched in sweat, but Porphyria showed no sign of giving out. Every little movement he made excited her more and more. She racked the headboard again, screaming
“Yes! Oh God, yes! Just like that! Fill me completely.”
“I will,” he said, “momentarily I think.”
“Oh yes, John, yes, yes!” She rocked back on him again and again, and he felt the pressure swelling, expanding, pushing, looking for release. She was going harder and harder, and in fact she had never decreased her pace even once, the entire process being one great quickening from beginning to end, until now she was going so hard and so fast that he believed she would harm herself if she continued.
That hazard was avoided when he felt himself swell and spurt, and she froze, keeping completely still, his cock buried halfway inside of her as it released. Her body jerked and twitched a few times as he groaned and continued gushing up into her, and when he was done she fell over, grabbing him, rewarding him with kisses and caresses and words of endearment, and finally she fell asleep in his arms, and whispered his name in her sleep.
Three days passed, and John professed to remember more and more. Porphyria followed him everywhere, answering all of his questions. He began to learn (or remember) the layout of the house, the names of the servants, and the details of his affairs. He commented how well she had got on in his absence, and she beamed.
He became a late riser because of the long nights she kept him up, and took to afternoon naps to recuperate from their daytime trysts. She, on the other hand, never seemed to tire.
On the morning of the fourth day Porphyria woke, smiling, to the sight of John’s face, but her smile vanished as soon as her eyes were fully open. She felt cold all over, and hugged herself. He put a hand on her arm and she pushed it away.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
She looked at him. “I saw your face, John. I saw how you looked at me when you thought I was sleeping.”
“You really don’t remember me at all, do you? You don’t remember anything, still?”
He hesitated. Then: “No. I don’t.”
She got out of bed. “Why did you tell me you did?”
“Well, it seemed so important to you. And you were sure that I would remember soon anyway…”
Porphyria dressed in a hurry. “I have somewhere to go. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“Very well,” he said. He was staring out the window, distracted. Then, as an afterthought: “Where are you going?”
“To see someone who has a lot of explaining to do,” said Porphyria.
Porphyria pounded on the door of the cottage. Hester’s lips were already set in a sneer when she answered.
Porphyria swung her arm, and the riding crop hit Hester on the cheek with so much force that it knocked her down.
“You lying bitch!” said Porphyria.
Hester rolled over and picked herself up.
“You cheated me!” said Porphyria.
“Why? Didn’t it work?” Hester said.
“Yes, for all the good it does me!”
She almost hit Hester again. She set the riding crop on the sideboard instead.
“He doesn’t remember me. He doesn’t remember anything!”
“Why did you think he would?”
“Because that’s what I wanted!” said Porphyria.
“Ah,” said Hester, applying a towel to her face.
“You tricked me,” Porphyria said.
“I did not. I said that a bezoar that old could cure a body of anything, even death. And it did. But you never asked about his soul. Even I don’t know how to heal that.”
“But you knew what I wanted, and you knew what would happen, and you didn’t say anything! You didn’t warn me!”
Hester looked away. “Why should I have, after you cheated me?”
Porphyria grabbed the crop up again. “Cheated? I gave you everything what you wanted, you disgusting slag!”
“No!” said Hester, coming at Porphyria so fast that she actually backed away. “I wanted you, but all you gave me was your body. So that’s what I gave you; a body. Like for like.”
Hester squared her shoulders, expecting another blow. It didn’t come.
“Isn’t there any way?” said Porphyria. A second ago her voice had been black with rage. Now it was dull and cold. “Isn’t there any way for me to really be with him again?”
Hester looked away again. “I don’t know,” she said. And then: “I’m sorry.”
Porphyria stood at the window again. She looked out at the cliffs.
“Hester, you really do love me, don’t you? You shouldn’t, but you do.”
“Some days I do.”
“Is there anything you wouldn’t do to be with me, if you could?”
Hester shook her head. Then she said: “Porphyria, what are you thinking of doing?”
“The only thing I can,” said Porphyria.
She went to the door, then stopped, came back, and, without warning, kissed Hester on the lips. Hester nearly fell over. Without another word, Porphyria turned and left.
She rode hard all the way home and found her husband reading at a sunny window in the study.
“John,” she said, taking off her riding gloves, “I want you to listen very carefully. There’s something I need you to do for me.”
Lord Covel counted the seconds. He looked at Porphyria, slumped in her chair, examining her vacant eyes and blue lips. He checked her pulse. Nothing. He picked up her empty glass and sniffed the inside.
“Ah!” he said. “Oleander.”
After ten minutes were up, he reached into the little leather bag that Porphyria had given him and took out a black object about the size and shape of a walnut. Exactly as instructed, he crushed the bezoar in his hand. It left a black mark on his palm. Then he fed it into Porphyria’s open mouth and sat back.
He watched, fascinated, as her skin flushed pink and her eyes began to move and her limp limbs unwound themselves. Then she began to breathe again, and all at once she was alive. She sat up, eyes shining, and looked at him.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I’m your husband, John Covel. You’re Lady Porphyria Covel.”
She blinked. “You are? I am? Are you sure?”
John considered this. It was, all things told, a very difficult question.
“You have always said so,” he replied, eventually.
“Oh,” she said.
He kissed her hand, and she blushed.
“And this is Marblehead Hall, my ancestral home, where we live.”
“I see,” she said. “Have we always lived here?”
“For as long as I can remember.”
“Well then,” Porphyria said, and stood. “I suppose if things are as they always have been then we have nothing to worry about.”
“Not a thing,” John said, and kissed her, and she kissed him back.
“To think,” she said, “we’re married, and yet it’s almost like meeting for the very first time.”
“I thought the same thing myself, not long ago.”
Porphyria picked up the little leather bag from the table. “And what’s this?” she said.
John took it from her. He remembered the last instructions Porphyria had given him before drinking the poison.
“Nothing we will ever need again,” he said. And threw the bag into the fire.