Authors: Shirley Kennedy
"We shall all be drowned," declared Lady Rensley, wife of George Winton, Earl of Rensley. She dug in her heels and pressed her palms to the wooden sides of the bathing machine.
"No, we shall not, Mama," answered Lady Flora Winton, Lady Rensley’s older daughter. As usual, Flora exercised great patience in her reply, having long since learned to curb her exasperation with her supremely cautious mother.
Flora’s younger sister Amy declared, "If Flora says it is safe then it is safe, Mama." Her firm voice echoed her sister’s confidence, although she, too, looked a trifle unnerved as the bathing machine, which resembled nothing more than a tiny, steep-roofed house set atop a wagon, jolted toward the sea, pulled by a sway-backed horse that had seen better days.
"Quite safe," Flora murmured, only half listening.
The ocean at last
. Eagerly she peered through the small opening at the front of the wagon. For as long as she could remember, her family had taken their summer holiday at the seashore, yet never had she stuck so much as a toe directly into the surf. Not that she hadn’t begged countless times to be allowed to bathe in the ocean, but her mother always refused, citing vague tales of unsuspecting bathers swept out to sea by precipitous tidal waves, or eaten whole by nameless monsters suddenly arising from the deep.
And the immodesty
The very idea of a lady exposing her delicate complexion to the dangerous rays of the sun, to say nothing of the intrusive intimacy of the coarse, salty waves, was too shocking even to contemplate.
Flora pleaded in vain until this summer when her deliverance finally arrived in the form of her mother’s dearest friend, that pillar of society, Lady Constance Boles. Advised by her doctor to seek the sea’s curative effects for her lumbago, the ebullient Lady Boles immediately embraced the sea by announcing her intention to bathe daily in the ocean. Sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, she stoutly declared, insisting that one or the other was a cure for every disorder of the stomach, blood and lungs known to mankind. No one could catch cold by the sea. No one could possibly suffer from want of appetite, or lack of spirit.
Under this barrage of enthusiasm, Flora’s mother, who held all Lady Boles's opinions in high esteem, quickly relented. "If Lady Boles says it is so, then it is so," she said, adding under her breath, "I do
n’t have to like it, though."
Whether her mother liked it or not, Flora was most grateful. She had lived the twenty-two years of her life under her parents’ strict rules. When her mother relented, it was like a gift from heaven, even though Flora was forced to endure once again her mother’s favorite lament.
"Well, Flora, you've gotten your way again, haven't you? I trust you're grateful for my change of heart. Perhaps you should return the favor and in future be more amenable to finding a husband."
"I am simply awaiting the right one," Flora declared, not for the first time. "If I'm not madly in love with him
, he won't do."
"But what if you don't find him?" Here came her mother's meaningful, eyebrows-raised look which Flora knew so well. "Daughter, I fear you will end up a bitter old ape leader."
"I do not give a fig."
"And this latest—do you really intend to skip the next London Season?"
"I'm sick of the marriage mart. Never again shall I be paraded about as if I were someone's prize cow."
"But what on this earth could be more exciting than the London Season?"
Flora tossed her head. "To me it's just three months of utter boredom. I cannot stand another moment of those vain London dandies comparing my skin to peaches, the color of my eyes to violets, the softness of my hair to baby's breath. Am I nothing but a botanist's delight?"
"Well, I just can't stand the stupefying artificiality of it all. I can think of nothing more delightful, more gratifying, than not having to travel to London this spring."
"So what will you do?" asked her mother.
"I shall stay home at Sweffham Park for at least a year. How I shall adore the peace and solitude instead of the awful noise and stifling air of London. I shall take lovely, quiet strolls, write poetry, study history, and—" she scowled at her mother "—I would ride if only you'd let me have a decent horse."
"You know how I feel. Much too dangerous." Lady Rensley set her thin, near colorless lips into a prim, non-negotiable line.
"But I'd be ever so careful," Flora protested in frustration. Years ago, one of her cousins, around her age, had gotten thrown off her horse and killed. Since then, her mother had decreed that both Flora and Amy could ride only old Buttercup, an ancient nag who couldn't have gotten herself into a gallop if she'd tried.
Lady Rensley regarded her sharply. "Really, Flora, how many times have we been over this before?"
"All you want to do is daydream," her mother accused, highly annoyed. "So you might as well stay home. I declare, you'd rather dream of a handsome husband than actually find one."
Flora didn't answer. In truth, she knew she daydreamed too much. Why she did, she wasn't sure, except that daydreams helped her escape the chains of her circumscribed life. How else but through a fantasy could she soar beyond the farthest limits of her existence to wherever she wished to go?
Her mother finished her diatribe with her usual warning: "Mark my words, there will come a day when you'll listen to your parents. You will see we were right in all things. That's when you'll marry, settle down and start caring for a husband and children, which is why God put you on earth in the first place."
Flora had long since arrived at the point where she deigned not to answer. What was the use? She had explained again and again that she was not going to marry just anybody, so her mother had best not even try to foist some arranged marriage upon her.
In return, Lady Rensley sighed but said no more. Despite her rigid rules, she dearly loved her daughters. In truth, Flora was a delightful companion, witty and wise, and although Lady Rensley lamented her lack of grandchildren (Lady Boles already had seven), at least she had good-natured Amy, who, at eighteen, showed every sign of wanting to marry soon. The problem was, Amy was so plain she hadn't attracted many beaus, whereas Flora, who turned up her nose at marriage, had more suitors than she knew what to do with, and didn't care.
The bathing machine swayed as Mrs. Duffy, a gruff, old woman of large and rather intimidating proportions, guided the horse and wagon to the water's edge. Amy squealed. Lady Rensley, wide-eyed with alarm, fervently declared, "These contraptions should be outlawed."
Flora answered, "Mama, just because you don’t like the bathing machines, other people do. They’re a great attraction."
Lady Rensley did not appear in the least placated. "There had better not be any men lurking about." She glanced back toward the shore. "Lady Boles says some of the Corinthians bring telescopes to Brighton so they can ogle the lady bathers. The very idea
Flora suppressed a smile. "Let them look. Who cares?"
Mrs. Duffy turned on her wooden seat at the front of the wagon. "Rest assured, m'lady, they're warned to stay away. No man 'ud dare lurk around 'ere." Her firm jaw jutted determinedly. "They’ud have to deal with me, mum. I’ve got my rules and I stick to 'em."
"I am still uneasy." Lady Rensley glanced at her daughters’ bathing costumes into which they’d just changed from the bathing dresses they’d worn to the wagon. "Bathing in the ocean–the whole idea of it is scandalous. And those skimpy costumes!"
Skimpy? Flora wanted to laugh aloud. Not only did her bathing costume cover her from neck to ankle, she wore ruffled pantaloons underneath. "I’m wearing so much clothing now that when I get over my head I shall doubtless sink like a rock."
"Don't be flippant, Flora. This is no laughing matter."
Why not, Mama? Flora wanted to ask. Why was nothing a laughing matter with her sober-sided mother? Her father, too. Although she loved him dearly, she found him much too somber, too guided by society's onerous rules. Worse, his daily life was much taken up with dosing himself with various medicines, since he fancied he had every affliction known to mankind.
All four wheels of the bathing machine were now in the water. "Here’s where you go in," announced Mrs. Duffy, letting down the green hood at the front of the wagon. She hooked a ladder into position. "Go down slowly. When you’re in the water you must walk a little and constantly move around." She scowled at her charges. "But do not go jigging and prancing about. Young females who do so defeat the whole purpose of bathing."
Flora’s mother peered over the edge and nodded in agreement. "Do as Mrs. Duffy says, girls, and mind you don’t stay in too long. Lady Boles says saline immersion should not be prolonged lest depression and languor set in."
Flora only half listened. Eagerly she started down the ladder. When her feet touched the shockingly cold water, she did not hesitate but immediately waded out to where the water was deeper. "Here I go," she cried. Arms spread, she dropped into the gently moving waves, gasped, and called, "The deuce, but it's cold
"Flora, your language is most unseemly," admonished her mother.
Flora ignored her. Gasping, she started moving her arms and in a few seconds grew accustomed to the tingling cold of the sea water and the surge of the waves lapping past her. She hoped she wasn't over her head. Carefully she extended her feet downward and was relieved to find they could be firmly planted on the bottom. Perfect. Mrs. Duffy was called "The Queen of Dippers" with good reason. She had indeed found just the right spot.
At first, Flora's eyes were dazzled by the brilliant shimmer of the sun on the sea, but as her vision cleared and her body grew accustomed to the chill temperature of the water, her spirits lifted. Smelling the tangy salt air, she lifted her face to the warm sunlight and saw gulls gracefully flying to and fro against a background of bright blue sky. A sudden joy spread through her as the satiny water lifted her slender body in its rhythmic flow. "Oh, it's lovely
," she called. Never before had she been totally immersed in water. What a buoyant feeling! "Hurry and get in, Amy."
Her sister still clung hesitantly to the ladder, but hearing Flora, stepped into the water. After a cry of shock from the cold, she, too, smiled, waded in deeper, and, despite Mrs. Duffy's warning, began splashing about. "Oh, it's grand," she called to her mother, "you should have come in, too."
"Never," their prudent mother called back from the bathing machine. "I'm only here to chaperone."
Flora held her tongue. As if she and Amy needed a chaperone when the Queen of Dippers was watching their every move
They spent the next few minutes paddling about, never too far from the bathing machine. Flora was enjoying every moment. As an undulating wave lifted her gently, she mused how glorious it was that here, buoyed by velvet water, she could drift and dream to her heart's content. She could be...yes, a princess
. In a ship that was just sunk by pirates and she was struggling in the water...
Look there, sir, there's a woman in the water," cries the sailor as a ship with skull-and-crossbones pulls alongside. The pirates! Terror fills her heart as she bobs up and down in the waves.
"Fish her out," says a tall, dark, swarthy man who, she can tell by the arrogance in his voice, must be the captain.
"No, let me drown
," she calls, but they pay her no heed and soon she is lying on the deck of the pirate ship, dripping wet and glaring up defiantly at the tall, powerfully built captain grinning down at her.
"What have we here?" he asks.
As he bends over her, she is intensely aware of the muscles rippling under his white shirt, of his ruggedly handsome face, and the menacing cutlass hanging at his waist. "Throw me back," she boldly declares, "I would rather drown than have anything to do with bloody pirates."
He gives her an easy smile as his eyes rake her boldly. "I have no intention of throwing you back to the fish, my beautiful princess. Don't worry, I won't ravish you, much as I..."
"You're drifting out too far, Lady Flora."
. The swarthy pirate and his ship disappeared fast as vapors. As Flora dutifully paddled closer to the bathing machine, a vague thread of discontented yearning began to run beneath her pleasure. At first, she didn't know why, but she'd just discovered the ocean was a fine place to meditate as one paddled about in the lovely sunshine, and she soon had an answer. Why, she wondered, did it take twenty-two years before she had this lovely experience? Despite her cumbersome bathing costume, despite her mother and old Mrs. Duffy watching every move she made, she felt a new freedom of movement which, in her tight little world, she had never felt before. Why?
God's blood but I live a boring existence
Rules, rules, rules. In her mundane world, every moment of her waking day was planned and organized. Breakfast at nine; half-hour stroll at ten; embroidery at eleven; a light lunch at noon, then calling on friends in the afternoon, no visit to exceed precisely fifteen minutes; dinner at eight; to bed at ten. Next morning start all over again. And so her life went, day in, day out. She would marry some day, but only if she found a man she could truly love, which so far, she had not. Would she ever? Perhaps not, and that being so, the frightful possibility nagged that until the day she died, she would continue doing the same old boring things, relieved only by her dear friends and her love of poetry and books.