Behind the Courtesan’s Mask – Excerpt
London, Summer 1818
Constance gazed admiringly at the portrait. A likeness, she noted, taken by one Thomas Lawrence in May 1817. Barely a year ago. The subject, with her famed rope of pearls providing a lustrous contrast to her olive skin, was reclining on her stomach on a red chaise longue, her luxuriant auburn hair trailing down over the curve of her back. She was all but naked, a lace peignoir draped casually over her bottom, her back, ankles and feet bare, and so much of her full breasts on display that Constance was almost certain she could see a hint of nipple. The smouldering beauty was not looking directly out of the portrait, but at some other point, some male lover perhaps, her heavy-lidded gaze seductive, her full lips pouted into a lazy smile.
It was a provocative portrait, blatantly erotic, which Constance found somewhat disturbing. Touching the pearls, now worn around her own neck, she felt like she was looking at another version of herself. A mirror image she had not known existed. An sensuous alter-ego which had been trapped, for all those years, within the constraints of the respectable life she had led.
A gauze of tears blurred her vision. Annalisa! She had never known her in the full bloom of beauty and notoriety which had made her La Perla, the most sought-after and exclusive courtesan in London. The frail woman who had arrived so dramatically and unexpectedly on Constance’s doorstep had been a pale shadow of the lustrous beauty in the portrait, her body wasted by the consumption which was eating its debilitating way through her body.
Annalisa. La Perla. Her identical twin.
Constance wiped her eyes on a lace-edged kerchief. Annalisa’s kerchief, as was the house she was occupying, the dress she was wearing. It had felt strange at first, this urge to inhabit her sister’s life, but instinctively she felt that by doing so, even just for a few hours, she might somehow come to know and understand the exotic creature whose very existence she had been unaware of until six months ago.
Turning away from the portrait, Constance ran a hand over the satin bedcovers. Crimson. Scarlet. Vermillion. The colour of sin. A frisson of excitement shivered like a puff of summer wind across her skin. Sinful. Redolent of sin. That is how Granville, her departed husband, would have described Annalisa if he had ever met her. Granville, the man of the cloth, who had performed his marital duties as he performed his Sunday confessions, with something akin to fastidious distaste. Yet the little Annalisa had disclosed about her sinful life had made it sound illicitly and shockingly pleasurable, enough to make Constance wonder, to make her wish, just once, to experience such pleasure for herself.
Above the bed, fitted into the ceiling, was a large mirror. Beside the bed, in a polished walnut chest, lay a selection of exotic items, the uses for some of which Constance could not even begin to imagine. Rope sheathed in velvet, large plumes of coloured feathers. The sweetly smiling faces and elaborate dresses of what she took at first to be dolls concealed a length of carved ivory shaped to simulate, Constance realised blushingly, a man’s shaft. Not that Granville had ever been so hard or so large.
Dipping her fingers into scented oils, slipping her wrist through what looked like a swansdown manacle, Constance tried to conjure up the dark and pleasurable world which her sister had inhabited. What would it be like? How would it feel, to be her? To sin with a virile man, a potent man, a desirable man? A man who found no shame in indulging his desire? She closed her eyes, caressed her cheek with the feathers of the manacle, and shivered. Here in this temple of the flesh which was Annalisa’s domain, it was almost possible to imagine the exquisite pleasure that might result. A tantalising frisson of arousal rippled through her.
Giving herself over to the decadent ambiance, Constance wandered through to the dressing room, where another chest contained swathes of exotic undergarments. Sumptuous colours, gorgeous textures, clearly designed to tantalise, excite, provoke. Slowly, she put on a pair of black stockings, enjoying their silky caress as she rolled them over her legs. Another cupboard was full of slippers with jewelled heels. She selected a scarlet pair, to match the ribbons on her garters, lifting her gown to view the seductive and tantalising effect in the mirror. She smiled provocatively, emulating Annalisa’s portrait, and found she no longer recognised herself. The woman who stared back at her was a familiar stranger. Confidently alluring. Voluptuous. Constance had never thought her curves voluptuous before.
In a locked box, beside her jewellery, were Annalisa’s potions, presumably the arts she used to prevent the consequences of all that sin. They were both childless, though for Annalisa it had been a choice, for Constance a tragedy. Barren, Granville had called her. His barren wife. Wincing, as the familiar pain squeezed her heart, Constance quickly locked the box again.
As she did so, the front door bell clanged, making her jump. There were no servants in the house, Annalisa having closed it up when she left, knowing she would not be returning. Constance hesitated. Who could it be? No-one knew she was here. The bell clanged again. Picking up the navy blue satin of her half-robe, she made her way cautiously down to the entrance hall. The layers of lace petticoats rustled seductively. Her satin slippers with their ridiculously high heels clacked on the marble tiles. The scarlet garters which held up her stockings fluttered. The bell clanged again and again. The knocker had been removed, but a heavy fist began thumping impatiently on the door.
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