Views: 307 Created: 2017.03.24 Updated: 2017.03.24

Arabella and the rod by stephen rawlings

CHAPTER 8 - PALERMO

The end of October is not a time generally recommended for a passage to the Mediterranean, but her Goddess was with her and arranged fair winds and a well-mannered sea in the Bay of Biscay though, in her sore state, even this moderate motion was unkind to her battered body. She had been fortunate to board a fast packet from London within days of taking her resolve to join her brother, and now, with November not yet half spent, she and her baggage, not to speak of a sea-sickness ravaged maid, arrived at the gracious town house, where William discharged his not very onerous duties as Vice-Consul, and his more taxing and highly unofficial task of keeping an eye on the unstable politics of the region, and British interests in general among the local nobility. William greeted her warmly, though her still unhealed body flinched in his bearhug. He raised a quizzical eyebrow but made no comment, and introduced her to a handful of guests assembled in the salon. After a few minutes only, he asked the company to excuse his sister, who had arrived only that afternoon from England. As she made her adieus and escaped he said quietly, so only she could hear.

"I must see to my guests, but I will be with you later, and hear all your doings."

"What doings might those be?" she wondered. Had some rumour arrived ahead of her, even here?

That evening William came to her room as she sat up in bed in wrapper and night gown, reading.

"Well, Sis, you've no idea how glad I am you decided after all to visit me, even if at little notice. I missed your company, and all we shared as children, and, indeed, later." He laughed. "You were the best brother I never had."

"Oh, Will, I'm so glad to see you too, but I have a confession to make. I had not thought to come until after New Year, but things grew a little hot in London, and I judged it better to be out of Town these next few months." She grinned in her turn. "You might say I've retired to lick my wounds."

"Ah, now. I've heard something of that."

"But how could you? I came on the fastest sailing for years, I'm told."

"But Aunt Julia had her letter off days before you, and it was delivered yesterday. No, don't worry," he reassured her, "it was a very private account, and shall remain so. Moreover, I doubt if anyone else here is likely to get news of this kind from London for a long while yet. Your brother is the greatest expert on intelligence and rumour in these parts, and my ears are very sensitive."

He took her hands in his. "Come now, though. What is this all about? Aunt Julia spoke of a duel with a woman, and some very fancy wounds. I noticed you flinched when I embraced you, and I don't think I've lost your affection that quickly."

"It's true, I'm afraid, brother mine. No. Not that I don't love you still," she hurried to explain, "about the duel, I mean. Beatrice Darnley called me out over that poor crazed half-sister of hers, and we fought with whips and bare breasts. What you used to call my 'apples' were more pulp than pippin by the time I'd finally got the better of her."

"No wonder you winced when I hugged you." He released her hands. "May I see?"

They had been familiar with each other's bodies from childhood through puberty, and no more embarrassed at their nudity than brothers might have been. Without any hesitation she threw off the wrapper and slipped the straps of the night gown off her shoulders, working it down to her waist.

William whistled softly at the multi-hued stripes still covering the white mounds, and the battered nipples with the remnants of black scabs showing how they had split under the merciless whip.

"If you were the victor, Bella, dearest, I do not want to think in what state the vanquished lies. Those poor pink nips I used to flick to tease you have quite lost their shape, and your apples look as if a tiger's clawed them."

"You think my teats misshapen now? You should have seen them ten days back. Mulberries couldn't have matched them for colour or shape. Or for the red juice they oozed, for that matter," she added ruefully. "Still, they're on the mend, and the way I'm going I'll be able to peep them at your friends by Christmas, or soon after."

"If you're to wear the fashions they affect here in the evening, that's just what you will be doing. The women vie with each other to see how much nipple they can show without the tip actually coming free, and winking in the candlelight. The latest dodge is to have their nipples pierced for rings, which they slip under hooks sewn into their corset tops and adjust until decency, or what qualifies as decency in this sport, is barely maintained."

"Well, I don't think I can compete just now. Another pin-prick to my nipples would be nothing after the lacerations they have survived already, but I think my tiger stripes might start a little talk." She grinned. "Perhaps it would become all the rage, and they would vie with one another there too. Can't you just see them standing with their bubs thrust out, screaming at the maid 'Harder, Maria, whip harder. Madame Fifi's stripes were twice as strict as mine last night, and I will not be outdone!'"

"A tasty sight indeed, and many of us men would be pleased to assist with their toilette, but I hardly think it would do. I have it. We shall say that you are still in mourning for Great Aunt Ernestine, and only the most modest dress is suitable, but that you will be out by

Christmas. Right out, the way you rise to such challenges, I shouldn't wonder." he added with a laugh.

"I'm afraid I and my challenges have got me into more mischief than I care to think of." said Arabella, ruefully, and proceeded to relate all that had befallen since her brother had gone overseas. How she'd nearly bitten off more than she could chew in challenging the village women, the Gypsies' whips and fires, the games at Georgina's and the

contretemps with Chloe, and how Chloe had played on her impetuosity to lure her into a contest common sense, and a cool head, would have made her avoid like the plague, and finally how, when she thought she was in control of herself again, Beatrice had called her out, with the results he was now not only viewing but caressing with gentle comforting fingertips.

When she had finished pouring out her follies, he bent forward and kissed her softly on the lips.

"Poor Sis," he said, "you have been in the wars. We shall have to find you a strong man to rein in your worst excesses. A nice young Post Captain would be just the thing. These navy men understand how to extract obedience and the use of the lash to enforce it."

"Will, I'm no milksop, that can do nothing without a man. I can find my own way."

"But Bella mine, you've just admitted you can't. It's not the milksops that need discipline to survive. They do very well in their weakness, taking excellent care that they never get hurt, and making sure that they find themselves the kind of man that, by sulks and simpers, tears and tantrums, they can rule with an iron rod wrapped in delicate silk. But a woman of spirit, an adventurous female like yourself, she is the one that needs a strong hand, not to break her spirit, but to save her from herself from time to time, with a sharp check on the reins, and a flick of the whip to drive the message home."

Arabella shook her head as if uncertain. "Perhaps you're right, Will. Something like that has crossed my mind at times." Her mood lightened. "So where are these iron willed men of the sea who will lash me to a grating and flog some sense into me? I saw no Navy ships in the harbour when we arrived. I thought the Two Sicilies were crawling with

licentious British sailors."

"Twenty-five years ago, in Nelson's time, you would have been right, but now the Navy has tightened its grip on Gibraltar and Malta, and the Captains and Commodores keep their Mistresses in pretty little houses in Valletta, rather than Palermo and Naples," her brother explained, "Oh, they still come by on so-called courtesy visits to tumble the local ladies, but the stormy season is come now, and we shall not see them again before New Year. Just as well perhaps, since you will be in mourning for Great Aunt Ernestine," he added with a grin.

Arabella grinned back. "Actually, I was genuinely fond of her. She and Grandmother had unusual views on a woman's place, which is why

Grandmother was so generous to me when she died."

"Ah, I was forgetting." William gestured expressively. "You're not just a bed-worthy body, but a considerable heiress too. I expect we can add the Admirals to the list of suitors."

"Well, you'd better make sure they understand that anyone that marries me gets my body and a very comfortable income, but they will not touch Grandmother's fortune. It is tied up with iron bands, and no husband can touch it. It goes to any children I have when I die, or to you if I die childless."

William laughed. "I'm surprised that you dare risk yourself in my hands, so far from home. Aren't you afraid I will have you done away with, to seize your fortune?"

"Not a chance of that, Will dearest, after all we've been to one another. Grandmother knew that too. She was very fond of you, you know. She would have put you in her will, too, if you were not so warm already, and the expectation of a great deal more to come.

"Besides," she continued, "if you were really after my money, you wouldn't be encouraging me to abandon my wild ways and settle down to matrimony and motherhood. Then your expectations would be nil. Mind you, keeping me out of a marriage bed would not be enough to save your prospects, any bed with a man in it would do the trick, for one of Grandmother's little tricks was to specify heirs of my body born in wedlock or out, so you see, nothing but a nunnery will do." "Ha!" Will snorted, "You cannot fool me that you'd let yourself breed if, or should I say when, you take lovers. Don't forget you passed on all Nana Constanza's woman secrets just as soon as she whispered them. I know all about your little trick with the sponge and oil. It always makes me smile to see the delicate vessels the Ladies of this place keep by their beds. Hinged silver shells, with Venus rising from the foam engraved on the lids, and Limoges Porcelain boxes adorned with painted Cupids and flowers. They think a mere man does not understand why they contain a little pool of olive oil."

Arabella arched an eyebrow. "And how comes it, brother mine, that you see the interior of so many ladies' bedrooms, and the intimate articles they contain?"

"Oh, duty, Bella. duty I assure you," he replied with mock solemnity, "you know it is one of my duties to remain abreast of the thinking among the local Nobility, and what better way than to be on intimate terms with the Ladies? After all, they are the best gossips."

"Oh, you poor boy," she laughed, "I can see that it is a most onerous task. I do hope the strain will not imperil your health and strength." "I dare say I will contrive to endure it," he smirked, "but I do have a full life here, which you shall share, with due regard for your mourning of course, though I may not be able to escort you to every function. However, I have a very good friend here, who would make an excellent guide, while mourning and your wounds rule out the wilder diversions. Carlo is a widower, with a house in town and property in the country. Although he is twice your age, I'm sure that, out of friendship to me, he would consent to show my hoyden of a sister round the City, which he knows well. Although so much older, I'm sure you'll find him an agreeable companion until the fleet is back."

"I'm sure I will. It will do me good to have a fatherly presence while I recover from my recent excesses. Besides, any friend of yours is always very welcome with me."

"That settles it then. I'll call on him in the morning, and persuade him to take you under his wing." He leaned over and kissed her warmly on her ready lips. "Now it's getting late, and you must be exhausted by your travels and adventures. Go to sleep now, and we'll meet again in the morning."

William came in, in high spirits, while she was still breakfasting on chocolate and hot rolls. He had not had to call on Carlo after all, as they had met while both enjoyed an early ride.

"He was most kind, and offered to call for you later today, if that is agreeable to you. In the summer no-one would stir in these parts after mid-day, but at this time of the year it will be very pleasant in the afternoon. I must go out myself later, but I will stay to introduce you, then you may make your own arrangements."

At noon their visitor was announced. "Il Conti di Petraverdi" William's butler declaimed.

Arabella raised one eyebrow at her brother.

"Oh, did I forget to mention it?" said he. "Carlo is a full blown Count, with something like a private Kingdom up in the mountains." Arabella thought the old gentleman might turn out to be quite

interesting after all.

She was right. Amazed, she watched William greet a vigorous, dark, athletic looking man, not all that tall, in fact only an inch or two above her own height in the heeled boots she favoured, but with a face that suggested a familiarity with command. He bowed gracefully and kissed her hand as she tried to conceal her embarrassment at the total misjudgement she had made.

"Carlo, this is my notorious harum-scarum sister. I hope you will not come to regret being so obliging as to undertake her escort for a little while."

"Signorina, I love your brother very much, but I will have to rebuke him for misleading me so. I thought I was doing him a favour by looking after some tiresome girl, and in reality I was being granted the pleasure of being in the company of a beautiful woman whose spirit and intelligence strike one like a blow to the heart."

"When you know her better, Carlo, you'll find that those are not the only blows she can strike, I warn you now."

Arabella found her voice. "Dom Carlo, Please excuse my unmannerly brother. I blush to say he misled me too, and I had been expecting an elderly escort. I will deal with William later," she promised, darting a venomous look in his direction, "for now just let me say I am delighted to meet you, and look forward very much to our acquaintanceship flourishing."

"Well, now you've made your pretty speeches, and thanked me so generously for introducing you, I must be off. Remember, Carlo, my warning about her wilful nature, and keep her on a firm rein. Good-bye Sister mine, and try to curb your rebellious instincts."

Carlo dispersed the slight tension he left behind him with a laugh. "We will have to forgive him. I believe he actually sees you as the hoyden of yesteryear, although I do worry for his sanity if he cannot see the woman you are now. As to painting me as an elderly gentleman, why so I am, but you, I am convinced, are going to make me at least feel young again."

"Well, Count, If you can forgive him, I will try to as well, though he is most provoking. Meanwhile let us put him out of our minds. Where do you propose to take me today?"

"Shall we say, first a tour of the City, then a little excursion to the hills above the town, to visit the great monastic church of

Montreale. The mosaics there attract visitors from all over Europe, and it has become an indispensable stage on the Grand Tour. I think that will be quite enough for one day. Then perhaps you would then do me the honour of dining with me at my own house."

The afternoon passed into evening in a pleasant progress or

interesting sights, the markets, the fine houses with their

characteristic architecture and elaborate wrought iron balconies. The mosaics of Montreale were everything he had promised, and last but very far from least the Count's conversation was fluid and interesting, and his presence oddly commanding but comforting. Arabella arrived at his elegant town house in a happy and relaxed mood, to be delivered over into the charge of a lively elderly female that Carlo introduced as his Aunt, who often acted as Hostess and Duenna in his home. She would assist her to freshen up after the day's outing, ready for dinner which, in the usual Mediterranean fashion, was served rather later than in England.

At the conclusion of the meal the Aunt excused herself, saying she was growing too old to stay up so late, although her lively conversation all evening had hardly suggested fatigue, and they were left alone together.

"My brother tells me you have an estate in the mountains, indeed he described it as a private Kingdom. Is this, indeed, so and how did it come about?"

"Yes, my family estates are in the mountains, and we have always maintained an independent way of life there. Hardly a Kingdom, but the Count's word has been the law for the local people for centuries." He paused.

"Go on," she urged, "I want to hear all about it." "Then I must obey your commands, My Lady," he said, in mock humility, though Arabella sensed that he habitually obeyed no commands but his own, "first you must understand the nature of the place, for that has formed the people and my family. Petraverdi stands on a knoll in a deep bowl in the mountains. The bowl itself is difficult to reach through narrow defiles in the mountains, and many of the countless occupations of the Island, by Saracens and Normans, Franks and Spaniards, scarcely touched us. Those that got to the basin in the hills found themselves faced by an impregnable fastness, for the top of the knoll is a

protuberance of solid rock with sheer faces a hundred feet high, all around. One narrow winding track climbs to the summit, where it is guarded by a gate house in the wall which fringes the rocky plateau. In times of trouble the upper part of the track was rolled down the hillside, after the people, with their goods animals and grain, had taken refuge."

"But surely no place is resistant to siege forever?" Arabella objected. "At the least supplies of water must have been scarce on a rocky summit."

"Now you have hit on the very core of the matter," said Carlo approvingly, "indeed, water has been the downfall of many apparently untakable keeps, but therein lies the secret of Petraverdi, and the origin of its and my name. By some curious geological freak water, which falls plentifully on the mountains high above the fortress, is trapped in the rocks and emerges in numerous springs at the base of the cliffs. Thus the hillside, which would otherwise become dry and sere in summer, stays moist and green all year, hence the 'Green Rock' in the name. Moreover, by cutting wells down from the summit, following the natural planes of the rock which are nearly vertical, one soon comes to an almost inexhaustibly supply of water. Indeed, in summer, besiegers camped below the hill for they would be subject to all manner of missiles if they settled at the foot of the cliffs, would soon feel the lack of water themselves. Since the land around the fortified rock is very fertile, it was always possible to maintain long term stocks of basic foods, sufficient to sit out any siege."

" A very fortunate situation. I begin to see why William called it a private Kingdom."

"Why, yes," Carlo agreed, "our situation has made us nearly independent of any higher authority. Of course we take care not to deliberately offend the titular ruler, for obviously we could not stand for ever against the determined effort of an entire Kingdom with modern arms, but so long as we do not provoke, no-one in their senses would think it worthwhile to mount the necessary effort for such small gain, and we are left in peace."

"And has this special status led to ways of life different from that of other regions, more susceptible to invasion?" Arabella asked. "Some, but not as much as more imaginative minds might suggest. We, the family that is, have not been cut off, only secure, and being moderately wealthy, have always maintained houses in the capital where we have mingled with the other island Nobility and from time to time brought in new blood to keep the line healthy. Even the peasants have found brides from outside the valley, to keep the stock good. I think the main effect of the continuity of rule is a respect for discipline by all classes. It is fortunate that we've bred no monsters in the family, for their absolute power might have led to ugly deeds, but all we have suffered from has been a tendency to overdo the rod from time to time." "Now that will do for one night, on the subject of Petraverdi," Carlo declared, "besides I hope that you will come and see it for yourself soon. It is your turn now to tell me about yourself. I gather from William that you have had an adventurous time recently."

Arabella was shaken. "You mean he has told you what has happened to me before I came out here? How could he, the beast!"

"You do him wrong. He has told me nothing of what occurred, only that you had been perhaps, a little rash, and you had some trouble as a result. He made it clear that if I wanted more, it would have to come from you. And now you will tell me all."

To her own astonishment, Arabella found herself doing exactly that. She retold her tale exactly as she had told it to William, and in the same intimate terms as she had used with the brother who was almost a part of her. When she concluded by describing the duel and the injuries that had resulted, his calmly asked exactly as William had last evening,

"May I see?" and to her even greater astonishment she found that, all unprotesting, she had bared her breasts for him.

He traced the lines with a gentle finger and circled the still bruised nipple, then looked her steadily in the eye.

"If you are to be saved from yourself, you must have a firm hand on your rein, and one not afraid to use the whip."

"What is it with you men?" She burst out. "Why do you all compare us to mares? William used the same terms yesterday."

"Because, Bella Bella, the simile is so apt. The blood mare is, like yourself, a lovely animal, beautiful, spirited, strong, intelligent and brave, but left to herself she will run wild. One must give her head, but remain vigilant for her safety. She must pick her own path, but needs a steadying hand on the rein to stop her dashing too recklessly near the edge, and to gather her for her jumps, and when her high temper makes her restive, or throw caution to the winds, she needs the bite of the whip to bring her to herself again." He held her gaze." Do we have understanding?"

Arabella returned his look and nodded.

"Yes. I understand," she said in a low voice.