Authors: Helena Harker
“Read it.” Phineas reaches into the leather case beside the
bed and pulls out a small card.
Strong-willed, opinionated, full of potential. Sometimes
stubborn, brooding and withdrawn. Months spent on Silverton Square caused much
damage to her sense of self. Shows no interest in pleasing her patrons. Would
rather be anywhere but here, but the prospects for her elsewhere are grim. Spends
so much time reading novels, I fear she has a distorted perception of reality.
Reminds me of myself in my earlier days, when I dreamed of becoming a thespian.
Perhaps this explains my keen interest in helping her kindle a passion for her
She wanted to be an actress on the stage? Interesting and
unexpected. “An accurate assessment of my character,” I admit.
“Rowena believes you are terribly frightened of her—”
“Indeed I am!”
“But she has your best interest at heart. She cares for all
“Phineas, she threatened to throw me back into the street!”
“Her threat is designed to motivate you. She will not act on
it unless she feels it is absolutely necessary. Trust me.” He raises my hand to
his lips and kisses it.
“I enjoy lying here with you. Affection is not generally
forthcoming in this profession.”
“It can be. You need to cultivate a list of clients who see
you regularly. You will learn that many men, particularly married ones, seek
affection in addition to sexual relations.”
Surprised, I raise my head. “Truly? I did not realize this.
It is important to be touched and spoken to.”
“I agree. In my experience, the women who seek my company
desire conversation as much as congress.”
“Since you have studied sexology for so many years and have published
so many papers, do you find there any areas you have not yet explored?”
He hesitates. His mouth opens and closes again. “Yes…”
Why doesn’t he wish to speak of it? He hasn’t held back at
all this evening. Every step of the way, he was open and communicative. “Pray
“Some consider this act…a perversion.”
Frowning, I consider deeply. “Animals?” I whisper in
He bursts into hearty laughter. “No! Men who indulge in…the
sin of the Greeks.”
“You wish to study men who copulate with other men!”
“It is always best to experience these relations for
yourself before analyzing them, hypothesizing about them and subsequently
publishing a paper.”
He is entertaining the idea of bedding down with a man as
some sort of experiment? Phineas has thoughts of being a—I can barely think the
word, much less say it aloud—Uranian!
Then I remember my reaction to Madam Rowena’s probing
fingers. My Sapphist reactions stunned me, yet I quite enjoyed her touch.
Perhaps some men find it pleasing as well, although I have difficulty imagining
it. After all, what orifice would they enter?
Oh, oh, that orifice! Oh my. Even the
not contain images of this type of congress. It speaks of multiple partners,
but never between individuals of the same sex. This is undoubtedly another
subject that is covered by the confidentiality clause and I must refrain from
speaking of it to anyone.
“Are you not worried about the legal ramifications of your
actions?” I question. “Men who are caught committing this pernicious vice face
a year of hard labor.”
“It is merely a thought, India,” he says. “I have never
engaged in this type of activity and it is highly unlikely that I ever will.”
“I have another question, Phineas.” Part of me is reluctant
to ask. “Please do not think me perverse.”
“Feel free to broach any subject.”
“Since I enjoyed sitting on top, and the
calls this the man’s position, does this mean I have…Sapphist tendencies?”
“Not necessarily. You are a woman who enjoys taking charge
and that is unusual in our society. It is in no way perverse.” He kisses my
forehead. “You are much like Rowena when I first met her.”
“The more I consider the idea of members of the same sex
engaging in relations, the more I believe it is simply a difference, or perhaps
a form of experimentation. It is not an aberration, although the Creationists
would not agree. The church deems all sodomites to be deviants, since the only
purpose of copulation is procreation.”
“Are relations between women viewed in the same light?”
“King Augustus ruled that such behavior did not take place
between females, so the penal code contains no sanctions against women who bed
The king is obviously shortsighted, since we have a Sapphist
wing here at Carnal Pleasures.
Phineas yawns. “Tomorrow evening, I will return for you.
India of Rajasthan has a meeting with the Steam Society. Dress appropriately.”
His breathing deepens and soon he falls asleep, his arms still wrapped around
Late in the afternoon, Madam Rowena sends me her tailor, who
enters with yards and yards of diaphanous cottons, gauzy muslins, and textured
silks. He carries so many bolts of material that I barely see his bald head
shining over the top of a sheet of gold-embroidered cloth.
“A sari is at once a simple garment,” the short, pudgy man
states, unrolling bolts of fabric on my bed, “and a highly complex one. It
consists of one length of cloth, between six to nine yards, wrapped around the
body. There are many ways to wrap the cloth, depending on the effect one wishes
to have. Traditional. Gown-like. The possibilities are numerous.”
Soon, my room is a textile merchant’s dream, draped in
billowing fabric of every imaginable texture and color. When Madam Rowena
enters, she appears stunned by the array of choice.
“You are using your creativity, India. In only one day, you
have made remarkable progress.” She seems genuinely pleased, calmer and more
relaxed than usual.
It makes me happy to see her this way. For once, I do not
feel my usual sense of apprehension when she is near. Even her clothing is
understated, a somber burgundy skirt and a black bustier girdled with
Madam Rowena handles a particularly stunning emerald silk,
the one I prefer over all the others, and fingers its edges, which are gilded
with a glittering pattern. She holds it against my skin. The tailor makes eye
contact with her and nods.
“I would suggest this shade,” says Madam Rowena, holding it
against my bodice. “It complements your complexion.”
“I agree.” For the first time since setting foot in Carnal
Pleasures, I smile at Madam Rowena, and she smiles back.
“Do you know the story of the sari?” The tailor walks
stiffly across the room, lays the selected fabric on my bed and cuts a great
swath of fabric.
“No,” I say.
“A weaver wished to capture the essence of a woman. He
dreamed of the colors of her varied moods, the sweep of her hair over her
shoulders, the shimmer of tears on her cheeks, and the satin touch of her skin.
All of these he wove into a cloth, and thus the sari was born.”
“A beautiful folktale,” acknowledges Madam Rowena.
For a second time, Madam Rowena and I agree. As the tailor
sews the edge of the cloth, my mind draws me into the past, during my childhood
when I lived in a rundown tenement by the Thames. Indian house servants were
all the rage, since they were a sign of colonial power and wealth. They
replaced poor white servants in many homes, including my mother, whose skills
as a charwoman were not needed elsewhere. As a result, she resorted to begging
Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering,
because the fire in our tiny room had gone out. She was not there and I did not
know how to rekindle the embers into flames. All alone I waited until she
returned when the light of dawn appeared in the filthy windowpane. She always
held a small handful of coins, and I wonder now if she committed acts more
shameful than theft.
Many Indians lived nearby, squatting in abandoned homes,
doing their laundry in the Thames, beating brilliant lengths of fabric against
rocks, and hanging them to dry in the sun. The sheets wafted and billowed,
furled and unfurled. Never had I seen such a flamboyant sight, like a vision or
a dream. When the women beat their clothing on hot summer days, they wore the
traditional sari, albeit draping their bodies more modestly than they would in
India. No bare bellies or shoulders, and the skirt revealed only the tips of
their toes. Rows of men stood on the shore and gawked, lusting over the exotic
yet impure women.
Indians earned little respect, and in many ways were treated
like the Gypsies who swooped into Lower London during autumn, appearing
overnight out of the aether. The population of Upper London despised and feared
the Gypsies, who were known for their cunning and treachery. They stole,
cheated, told false fortunes, and when their pockets overflowed, they vanished
into the aether from which they came.
I remember one particularly beautiful Indian woman, the wife
of a rich merchant, one of the few Indians to attain a status of respectability
in English society. Her clothing was a stunning blend of the unfettered
subcontinent and the conservative West. She was respectable yet alluring,
sensuous yet sensible.
“I would like a mixture of Indian and British fashion,” I
tell the tailor.
It goes without saying that I cannot dress like a true
Indian woman with bare shoulders, midriff and ankles. There is a way to make
subtle alterations to preserve my exoticism and show that I have ingrained in
me the values and sensibilities of British society. While I do not want to
cause a scandal in the streets, I want to turn men’s heads.
“It is common to wear a form-fitting blouse beneath the
sari,” says the tailor. “Perhaps you already have one that will enhance the
emerald hues of this silk?”
“Hmm. Let me see.” In my wardrobe I find a blouse that fits
close to the skin, a shimmering gold shade that matches the gilded patterns on
“Perfect,” says the tailor. “Put it on. And a petticoat. But
no corset. Then I will begin.”
While I change, the tailor turns his back. Madam Rowena, on
the other hand, regards my figure with great interest and helps me button my
blouse even though I do not require her aid. Her fingers press against my
breasts and she does every single button with slow, careful movements. Yes
indeed, Madam Rowena’s fingers are skilled. Heat flushes my cheeks.
When I am ready, the tailor drapes the cloth sensuously
around the curve of my waist, pleating it with care. Then he winds it around my
middle, over my ample breasts, and the last yards of fabric drape over my
shoulder, cascading to the floor in a glimmer of green and gold.
“You have heightened your status, India,” says Madam Rowena
in admiration. “In this manner, you will be deemed a courtesan, not a prostitute.”
“Precisely.” Standing before the mirror, I evaluate the
effect of my sari. I exude the mystery of the land of spices and monsoons. I
possess the grace and sophistication of a fine English lady. Most importantly I
am an enigma.
And men cannot resist an enigma, especially when it comes
with such alluring entrapments as my full lips and dark eyes. I thank the
tailor profusely as I continue to gaze at myself in the looking glass.
Footsteps tread up the stairs, steady and unhurried. Phineas
appears in my doorway, still carrying his leather case. The moment he sees me,
he is swept away by my beauty. The breath is trapped in his throat. His eyes
tell me so.
“You are ethereal,” he says after recovering. “Angelic.”
“Thank you, Phineas. Madam Rowena’s tailor is most skilled.”
“Are you ready to attempt to enter the Steam Society?” He
touches the scintillating sari.
The colors of my sari are a startling contrast to his formal
attire, a black jacket, black trousers, black top hat, and a white silk shirt.
“Attempt?” I arch my brows and straighten my shoulders. “You say it as though
my chance of success is slim.” With Phineas by my side, I did not believe
gaining entry would be difficult.
His hand glides down my arm and he does not meet my eyes.
“I wish you luck, India,” says Madam Rowena, placing her
fists on her hips and glancing sideways at Phineas, “because despite my
efforts, even I have never been granted access to the Steam Society.”
* * * * *
Swathed in my sari, I—India of Rajasthan—glide across the
marble floor with poise and grace, my hand on Phineas’ arm. The lessons taught
in finishing school are still fresh in my mind. Do not stand too close to the
gentleman lest passersby deem you overly familiar. While you are to hold his
arm, do not allow any other part of your body to brush against his. Do not walk
like a commoner. Grace and fluidity are essential.
Glide, glide, glide
,I think with every step, and with every step I remember Madam Rowena’s
“How am I to be granted admittance if Madam Rowena herself
has been barred from the premises?” The fact that Phineas kept this detail from
me irks me to no end. “Did you not know?”
“Then you should have told me.”
The Steam Society is located on the top floor of Upper
London’s Private Gentlemen’s Library, which contains all manner of scientific
texts in addition to texts of a lascivious nature that are considered
inappropriate for well-bred ladies. An entire shelf must be devoted to Phineas’
work. When we reach the foot of a winding staircase, Phineas bids me to wait.
“I will make inquiries and return in a moment.” He climbs
swiftly up the stairs.
A few men enter the building, look at me with curiosity, and
head into the library. I wonder what manner of texts they will be perusing. The
ones dealing with lust, no doubt.
A scant few minutes later, Phineas descends the stairs, a
crestfallen air on his handsome face. “I’m sorry, India. The Steam Society
refuses to give you entry.”
“Outrageous.” At the top of these stairs are men I would
like to consort with, not the crass dunderheads from Silverton Square, not the
middle-class gentlemen who are the primary clientele at Carnal Pleasures. These
men are intelligent, cultivated, the upper crust of society, and I want them as
my clients. How dare they refuse me! “I will not accept rejection. I have
already dressed for the occasion and have no plans to return empty-handed.”
“I did not anticipate this unfortunate turn of events. What
do you propose?” he asks.
“I propose to knock upon their door and introduce myself.”
“And when they close the door in your face?”
“No one closes the door in the face of India of Rajasthan.”
I glare at him. He is responsible for this predicament. Does Phineas actually
expect me to give up and return to Carnal Pleasures without a man on my arm?
Absolutely not. I ascend the stairs with the grace of a swan and the
determination of a hound on the hunt. “Come, Phineas.”
He follows meekly behind me. At the top of the stairs, I see
a massive door with an iron knocker the size of my head. Seizing it with both
hands, I rap three times with great authority.
Inside I hear shuffling and the sound of muffled voices. My
heartbeat quickens. What if I am rejected? What if I suffer the same fate as
Madam Rowena? In reality I am nothing but a girl born into the cradle of
poverty in the refuse-littered streets of Lower London.
But in my imagination, I am so much more.
the essence of success
, my deportment teacher used to tell me. I must
believe in myself.
A butler opens the door, clad in a stiffly starched white
uniform, including spotless white gloves. “Good ev—” When he sees me, he is at
once spellbound and confused.
Taking advantage of his muddled state of mind, I flutter my
eyelashes at him. “Good evening, sir. May I enter?”
He is taller than I, with narrow shoulders and unruly dark
hair. A thick beard covers his face. Most unattractive.
“This is a private gentlemen’s club. Women are not
permitted,” he says coldly as he snaps out of his trance. “It is the rule.”
“Every rule has exceptions.” A coy smile plays on my lips.
“Men only, I’m afraid.” His nostrils flare.
Is he irritated or merely sniffing my perfume? Both, I
believe. After all, he did not address me with a title worthy of respect, such
“I should like to speak to someone with more authority,” I
He fixates on my breasts and his jaw hangs open. What a
dullard, incapable of doing anything more than opening doors, polishing
utensils and fetching drinks. Soon he will be fetching a glass of sherry for
India of Rajasthan, I guarantee it.
The heavy door begins to swing shut. Under no circumstances
will I turn back. I will cross the threshold whether this man wishes me to or
not. Before the door closes completely, I take a brazen step forward.
Alarm crosses the butler’s face, for if he does not prevent
the massive door from closing, it will slam shut on my foot. If I cry out and
fall down injured, he will be held responsible. No man, especially an ordinary
butler, would dare hurt a woman. Since I am a prostitute, he will not lose his employment,
but the event will cause quite a stir, and the last thing a private men’s club
needs is a disturbance.
As expected, he stops the door from shutting. As demurely as
possible, pretending he is holding the door open for me, I squeeze through the
“Thank you, sir.”
Unfazed, he attempts to halt my progress by standing before
me. A poor effort on his part. I simply forge ahead, knowing it would be
extremely rude if he allowed me to plow into his chest. A gentleman should not
make physical contact with a woman. Any woman. Flustered and perplexed, he
quickly backs away.
There. I have gained access to the Steam Society.
Satisfaction blooms in my breast.
Why did Madam Rowena not employ this strategy?
I am vaguely aware that Phineas has entered after me. He
stays off to the side. All eyes are upon me. I feel their weight. Their
disapproval. Their curiosity. Their lust. With one sweeping glance, I study the
expressions on the faces of a dozen men. The four oldest ones, well into their
sixties, probably with withered members hanging limply between their wasted
legs, glower at my presumption. They sit on plush leather chairs, smoking pipes
and scowling. Younger men stand by the mantle, seemingly quite entertained by
my unexpected entry into this forbidden world. They smile and whisper among
themselves, undoubtedly imagining how to unwrap my sari. Two men, perhaps
thirty years old, conversing by a model of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, seem to
welcome the fact that I overstepped society’s strictly prescribed limitations.
The dark-haired one holds my attention. His lips are luscious and his skin so
tanned it resembles my own. It is unusual for a gentleman to spend so much time
outdoors that his complexion becomes dark. It gives him a healthy, robust appearance
compared to the other men in the room. I give him a slight nod and he nods
back. Excitement tingles down my spine.