Venus and Mars

Written by Glassdarkly, October, 2009

The two ladies were standing under the Botticelli when Samuel first noticed them. They were arguing, heads close together, making little attempt to keep their voices down, despite the bad-tempered echoes reverberating off the high ceiling of the great chamber.

Around them, the crowded walls bristled with nativities and crucifixions, cardinals and sinners, while above their heads, Venus – a knowing piece, one couldn't help thinking – appeared to be listening to their girlish squabble and be secretly amused by it.

Or rather, Samuel realised, not a squabble as such, for the taller, more plainly dressed young lady had fallen silent and was listening meekly, head bowed, like a schoolgirl being scolded by her governess, while the shorter lady continued to harangue her.

They hadn’t noticed him, so he indulged himself in one of his favourite pastimes, admiring the graceful contours of their forms, which their tight outdoor costumes served to accentuate. The veils on their elegant hats obscured their faces, but something told Samuel they were beautiful. One was blonde, he noted, like Venus in the painting, the other dark, and the contrast was very pleasing, especially to someone with artistic sensibilities as keen as his.

The blonde young lady was gesturing at the painting now and Samuel's attention was drawn once again to Venus's bland face with its hooded eyes and faint, almost sinister smile. His gaze travelled further, taking in the indolent, semi-nude form of the goddess's sated lover – and how sated, one could well imagine.

Inevitably, the suggestive nature of the scene and the proximity of the quarrelsome young ladies to it reminded Samuel of his poor foolish mother's expression of horror at the notion of nice young ladies being allowed to visit art galleries unaccompanied.

"Think what sights they will be subjected to, Samuel." Mamma's soft face had crumpled with concern. "They will be ruined, poor things! Not fit for any decent man to marry."

Mamma did tend to exaggerate of course, like all women, but Samuel couldn't help feeling that in this instance she had a point. The fair sex were so very suggestible, and certainly, if he’d had a sister, he would never have permitted her such licence. Who knew what strange fancies were going through these young ladies' heads right this very moment?

Surely it behoved him to offer himself as guide and correct their foolish misconceptions, which no doubt had led to a quarrel about the meaning and content of the picture? A short, pithy lecture on Early Renaissance iconography couldn't come amiss, even if it was a little above their heads. And it might, as it had before, afford him an opening for some mild flirtation – and who knew where that might lead?

Of course, he hadn't been introduced, but given their presence alone in the gallery in the first place these young ladies probably weren't too particular about the social niceties.

Samuel glanced at his pocket watch. This close to closing time, the gallery was almost empty. In fact, it had been unusually quiet all afternoon, what with the torrential rain that hadn't once let up. But from his point of view, the rain was a good thing. Fewer visitors meant there was less chance of him being observed by anyone that knew him – or crucially, by any acquaintance of Mamma's, who might go running to her with stories about her only son and heir accosting fast young ladies in public.

One didn't want to alarm the poor creature by appearing to realise her worst fears. At least, not before one came into one’s inheritance and could do as one damn well pleased.

Samuel fingered his moustache, a habit of his when undecided, and which he hoped might encourage it to grow better, as it was still rather on the thin side. As he did so, the dark haired young lady tore her gaze away from her companion and looked straight at him. Her eyes widened. Then, she laughed out loud.

"Oh no," she exclaimed. "That won't do at all."

At once, the other young lady's head whipped round, to discover the source of her companion’s amusement, and Samuel found himself gazing at a very vision of loveliness – a golden haired goddess, like Venus in the painting, whose green eyes pinned him to the floor.

Hastily, he raised his hat and bowed.

"Ladies, please forgive the intrusion, but may I offer you any assistance?"

When he rose from his bow, both ladies had raised their veils, giving him a clear view of their countenances. At once, he realised that he had been mistaken as to certain particulars. The blonde lady, his Venus, was older than he had thought –no girl but a mature woman, albeit with the face of an angel. The brunette, on the other hand, despite her taller stature, had an oddly childlike expression –an effect of big, pale blue eyes in a delicate heart shaped face.

His goddess was frowning, her smooth white forehead slightly creased.

"Do I know you, sir?"

Samuel blinked. If he wasn’t mistaken, her accent was American. That might explain her rather bold expression and forthright manner of address.

He bowed again. "Forgive me, ma'am, but no. I hope you will excuse the presumption. I could not help overhearing the tone of your conversation and was concerned that perhaps you ladies were in some distress. Have you lost something?"

The goddess stared at him a moment. Then her frown cleared, and when she spoke again, her voice had taken on a softer, more womanly tone.

"You are of course right, sir. I had indeed lost something, or very nearly."

Samuel replaced his hat. "Then please permit me the honour of helping you to search for it."

The goddess smiled – a glorious moment, like the sun breaking through a veil of clouds.

"Why, sir, I believe I have already found it, but thank you for the kind offer."

"Oh." Samuel tried hard to hide his disappointment at the rebuff – more deeply felt than it might otherwise have been, given the promise hinted at in the lady's boldness. He took a step backwards, while the dark-haired young lady, who had turned back to her perusal of the painting, laughed once more, a tinkling, oddly chill, sound.

The blonde goddess frowned again. Taking the dark young lady’s hand firmly in hers, she rustled forward, the wet hem of her neat town dress – the very latest style and colour, Samuel couldn't help noticing - leaving a damp swathe behind it on the polished floor.

"You mistake me, sir," the goddess said. "When I said I had lost something, I assure you I referred only to my patience, which is being sorely tried by my companion and her endless questions."

At this, the dark-haired young lady made an odd sort of mewling sound, like a kitten in distress.

Samuel found his eyes drawn to the girl, despite himself. She could not be a governess, he decided, for his goddess would hardly need one. One would think her an overly favoured ladies’ maid, or perhaps a paid companion, were it not for her very strange behaviour.

The dark young lady stared back at him, unblinking, and he felt an unaccountable shiver run the length of his backbone. It was a matter of some difficulty to tear his eyes away from her and address his goddess again.

"I am sorry to hear that, ma'am. If the young lady has questions regarding the paintings, which you are unable to answer, permit me to offer my services? I dabble in the fine arts myself and have some understanding of the subject." He turned again to the dark-haired young lady – a poor relation, perhaps, sent to her rich relatives to be ‘finished.’ "At your service, Miss…?"

"Miss! Missss! How nice he speaks" the girl returned, in a mocking tone and with an accent and manner considerably lacking in refinement, while the goddess tugged hard on her hand, hissing, "That's enough, Drusilla, behave yourself."

Samuel found he had taken another step back without meaning to. The dark young lady was beginning to occasion him some alarm, not least because her outburst had caused him to suspect he had committed a terrible social gaffe.

Glancing around, he was reassured to see that he and the two ladies were now alone in the room, save for a single uniformed attendant slumped half-asleep in a chair. No one of note had observed the exchange.

When he turned back, it was to discover the dark young lady suddenly very white faced and subdued, as if in pain, and his goddess once again smiling her radiant smile.

"Please forgive my ward, sir," his goddess pleaded. "She was very badly brought up, I’m afraid, and while one does one’s best, correcting others’ mistakes is always a lengthy business." The smile –his goddess had the most brilliant, white teeth – became even more dazzling. "But we have not yet been introduced. How shall I address my valiant rescuer?"

Samuel felt himself colouring at this rather extravagant description, but the expression on his goddess's face gave no hint of mockery, and her words had reassured him somewhat that their stations were not so very far apart. He raised his hat again.

"Samuel Bentley, at your service, ma’am."

"Bentley – Bentley." His goddess’s face grew pensive. "Would that be of the Gloucestershire Bentleys, or the Devonshire?"

"The Devonshire." Samuel made another small bow. "I have the honour of being second cousin to Sir Thomas."

"Really?" His goddess was looking at him with new interest. "How singular that we should meet like this. Why, at one time, my husband and I were close acquaintances of Sir Thomas's brother, Mr Eustace Bentley." Her face grew solemn. "This was before his tragic death, of course."

Samuel composed his features to mirror his goddess's solemnity. It would not do to appear unaffected, despite the fact that Cousin Eustace's rather convenient demise had left him Sir Thomas's likely heir.

He flattered himself, too, that he hid his disappointment at the revelation of his goddess's married state rather well, though really it was very unlikely that at her age, such a glorious creature would not be married. At the same time, a prickle of excitement stirred at the back of his neck. Acquaintanceship with Cousin Eustace was not to anyone's credit, least of all a lady's. If his goddess - like Venus herself – proved to be rather less than a paragon of virtue, perhaps he might derive more from this encounter than he'd initially hoped for.

"Singular indeed," he said. "I had no notion that Cousin Eustace had ever visited the new world."

"New world?" His goddess was frowning again. "What has that to do with anything? I met him in Exeter."

"Oh." Samuel felt his face grow warm again. "Forgive me, ma'am. From your accent, I had assumed…"

But his goddess cut him short. "Think nothing of it, Mr Bentley. You are not the first to say such a thing, but really it is quite tiresome. I speak as I have always spoken, and it is the world that has changed, not I."

Samuel blinked, unsure how to respond to this strange remark, and in the meantime, his goddess went on,

"I am Mrs Aurelius, and this is my ward, Drusilla."

Both ladies curtseyed and Samuel was forced to bow yet again.

When he straightened this time, it was to find the ladies flanking him on either side, though he hadn't seen them move. The dark one, Drusilla, was staring at him, head slightly tilted, like a bird, while his goddess – Mrs Aurelius – had placed her gloved fingers lightly on his arm.

Close to, he could smell a faint odour of roses from the scent she must have dabbed behind her dainty ears, each of which was adorned by a lustrous pearl. Large eyes looked up at him, changeable as the sea in summer, fringed by thick dark lashes that could not quite hide a certain knowing, world-weary quality hidden in their depths.

Head whirling at her closeness and at the sensation of those slender fingers on his arm, which seemed to promise greater intimacy to come, Samuel took a deep breath, trying to get himself under control, and began to extemporise.

"So, the painting before you, Botticelli's Venus and Mars, was acquired by the gallery earlier this year and hung in this room with other works from the Tuscan school." He gestured in the direction of a nearby Madonna and Child. "There is another example of his work. You will observe, ladies, that in both instances, the artist has used the same model."

He was pleased to see their eyes obediently follow his gesture in the direction of the other painting, less pleased when Drusilla hissed like an angry cat and shook her fist at it.

"Nasty thing – so pale and insipid." She turned an accusing gaze on Mrs Aurelius. "You promised me lepers, but I don't see any. All that goodness makes my poor head hurt."

"Nonsense, dear. It's only a painting." Mrs Aurelius spoke sharply, though a faint hint of distaste in her expression suggested that she shared her ward's feelings. But all sign of it was gone when she turned back to Samuel.

"What was her name – this muse?"

Samuel hid his bemusement at the odd display as best he could.

"Simonetta Vespucci, ma'am, the great beauty of her age. She was the wife of Giuliano de Medici, brother of that great patron of the arts, Lorenzo de Medici."

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that the lady in question had been somewhat free of her affections, rather as he hoped Mrs Aurelius might prove to be, but it was too early in the game for such talk.

"I see," Mrs Aurelius said, in what struck Samuel as rather an arch tone. "Given his…disposition, I suppose it must have been her renown and influence that drew Botticelli to her."

Samuel blinked. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow, ma'am."

Even as he spoke, it dawned on him what Mrs Aurelius appeared to be hinting at.

But no, it couldn't be. He must be mistaken. She could not possibly mean that. Probably, she had merely meant to imply that Botticelli was as attracted to wealth as he was to beauty.

A little flustered, he indicated the Venus and Mars again.

"This work is of course a fine example of the flowering of the arts under the Medici, and the debt owed by civilisation to the rediscovery of the lost works of Greece and Rome. The painting was probably commissioned as a decorative panel for an item of furniture and is thought to be apotropaic in nature – that is, designed to ward off evil. In this case in the…" He hesitated, a little embarrassed despite himself.

"…bedroom?" Mrs Aurelius finished for him.

"Why, yes," Samuel stammered, torn between shock at her boldness and glee at what it promised, while his goddess turned on her companion.

"See, Dru. What did I tell you? It is meant to ward off evil, and therefore can have nothing whatsoever to do with Angelus."

"What?" Samuel had not meant to question Mrs Aurelius's words, but they were so peculiar he could not prevent himself.

They had moved, he realised. Somehow, the ladies, with their gentle grip on his arms, had manoeuvred him so they stood once again right under the painting, gazing up at Venus's slender curves and Mars's louche, somnolent form.

Suddenly, the sight of all that nude, male flesh in close proximity with a clothed female made Samuel feel faintly uncomfortable. The direction of Venus's gaze invited the viewer to admire Mars, as she was doing, as if he were a feast laid out for her sole delectation. It was all….wrong somehow, like Mrs Aurelius's innocent – for surely it must be innocent- remark that seemed to hint at Botticelli's sexual depravity.

Samuel made a mental note to visit his favourite female nude before he left the gallery. The thought that he might be looking at Mars with an invert's gaze, let alone a woman's, was quite revolting.

Meanwhile, the ladies were arguing again.

"It is Daddy," Drusilla said, stubbornly. "He looks just the way he always looks after you…."

"Shut up, Dru." Mrs Aurelius's voice rose to drown out what else Drusilla might have said. "Please forgive my bluntness, Mr Bentley, but if you knew Drusilla as I do, you would appreciate that failing to speak plainly can only make matters worse."

Still disturbed by the rather unsettling direction his thoughts had taken, Samuel looked at Drusilla, to find her unblinking gaze on his face again. At once, out of the blue, it struck him, and very forcibly, that the girl was stark raving mad.

He smiled nervously at her, and Drusilla smiled back, which somehow made things worse.

"Mr Bentley? Are you quite well?"

Mrs Aurelius sounded anxious, and when Samuel turned back to her, she wore a long-suffering expression on her lovely face. Evidently, this Drusilla creature was a millstone around her patroness's neck that his angel of beauty was for some reason – family pressure, or perhaps misguided charity - unable to cut loose.

Annoyed at his moment of weakness, Samuel reminded himself sternly of his goal. Having made such a good impression, he would be foolish to abandon the pursuit of so delectable a quarry before the attempt was even made.

Besides, he would go a long way to have a woman as beautiful as Mrs Aurelius gaze at him with such flattering concern, should she have twenty mad companions.

"I am well, I assure you," he said, "and in answer to Miss Drusilla's comment, I believe that Mars was not painted from life, but depicts an ideal masculine beauty."

Drusilla's gaze was still on the painting. "Like Daddy's," she said, dreamily.

"I beg your pardon?" Samuel's jaw dropped. He glanced around again to be quite certain they were unobserved, and most of all, not overheard. The girl's talk became more scandalous by the moment. If Mamma should ever hear of it, his allowance might be cut off indefinitely – or until he could talk her around.

"Oh Dru, for goodness' sake!" Mrs Aurelius's grip on Samuel's arm grew hard enough to make him wince. "Mr Bentley, pray, pray take no notice of the girl. She does not know what she is saying half the time."

"It's quite all right, ma'am," Samuel hastened to assure her. "No harm done."

"It's not what you think," Mrs Aurelius went on, a sudden tremor in her voice. "Poor Drusilla refers of course to my husband, her guardian, a man she admires greatly - who is indeed a fine figure of a man - but alas – "her voice dropped to a whisper "- I fear she will never learn to keep her words within the bounds of propriety, and it does make it very difficult to take her anywhere."

"I…see." Samuel cleared his throat. Would it be a good tactic, he wondered, for him to hint that he understood Drusilla's troubles, and sympathised with her put-upon wardress?

Mrs Aurelius solved his dilemma for him. Giving Drusilla a fond, but long-suffering look, she hissed in a confidential tone, "I fear she has not been quite right since her youngest sister died. With her whole family gone, her reason was overthrown and she has never recovered."

While Mrs Aurelius was speaking, Samuel became aware that Drusilla was humming to herself. The tune was unfamiliar to him, but juxtaposed with her patroness's revelation, its childish cadences made him uncomfortable. To lose one's entire family was not unusual but nevertheless still pitiful in one so young, and to lose one's reason over the tragedy doubly tragic. Certainly, Mamma would have said so.

"I am sorry for her loss," he said, as gravely as he could, but he could not look at the girl.

"You are very kind, Mr Bentley." Mrs Aurelius had let go of his arm to retrieve a dainty lace handkerchief from her reticule, with which she dried her eyes. Then she replaced her hand and gestured towards the painting.

"You were in the process of explaining it to us. I fear we had got ourselves into a dreadful muddle over it."

Samuel was glad to put the moment of gloom behind him and be reminded of his self-appointed task. "Yes, indeed. I inferred from the tone of your conversation, ma'am, that the painting had occasioned some disagreement, but perhaps I was mistaken?"

"Not at all," Mrs Aurelius assured him, while on his other side, Drusilla continued to hum softly to herself. "Poor Dru was convinced that the painting was of myself and my husband, and no words about the impropriety of such a notion could dissuade her."

"Ah." Samuel gave his painted rival a withering look. If Mr Aurelius did indeed resemble Mars in any respect - not least in the somewhat daunting length of his lance - he was indeed a handsome fellow, if foolish, to let his women off the leash. He would have to redouble his efforts to compete.

"In fact, ma'am, perhaps Miss Drusilla was not wholly mistaken, for, according to the philosopher Marsilio Ficino, the painting does indeed attempt to convey the notion of how all of us, even the most masterful of men, are tamed by beauty and love – thus Venus's victorious wakefulness and warlike Mars's somnolent surrender at her feet."

Even as the words left his mouth, he feared he had gone too far. His tone was too warm, his words too fervent. His quarry would take fright, or at least offence. But when he glanced down at Mrs Aurelius, it was to see her gaze fixed on the painting, an expression of indescribable rapture on her face.

"How exquisite," she murmured, "and dare I say it, Mr Bentley, how exquisitely expressed."

"Oh, you may, my goddess, you may," Samuel thought, though he didn't say it aloud, while a rush of desire flooded through his body. She was beginning to yield to him, he was certain.

"Of course," he went on, warming to his subject under Mrs Aurelius's admiring gaze, "in this context love can be interpreted in many ways – not just in its carnal form, but also as the expression of the best in human nature, humanitas, as it were."

He gestured at the other paintings in the room, most of them of religious subjects, some quite primitive in comparison to the Botticelli.

"You ladies are probably unaware of it, but Botticelli was part of that great Renaissance flowering of the arts, which attempted to marry the noble ideals of antiquity, as exemplified in the works of Plato, with Christian teachings. As such, everything in the painting has a double meaning, beyond the depiction of mere satiety, though that - " and he was careful to look at Mrs Aurelius as he said it – "of course has its place."

Mrs Aurelius didn't even blush. "Fascinating," she breathed. "You are so very clever, Mr Bentley," and a moment later Drusilla echoed her in a dreamy tone. "Fascinating."

"I'm glad you think so." Samuel couldn't help puffing out his chest a little. "I flatter myself that I have some small knowledge of the subject."

"Small indeed," Mrs Aurelius said, and smiled sweetly. "Now that we are such great friends, Mr Bentley, I would like you to call me Darla. Say that you will, pray do?"

"I…" Samuel found himself at a loss for words, not least because he had the vague apprehension of having just been insulted. Instead, he stared at the beautiful face in front of him and imagined what it would be like to kiss those petal-soft lips. "I will," he said, at last. "Darla."

At once, her gaze seemed to sharpen – to become more knowing. She nodded her head imperceptibly. Samuel felt another shiver of carnal desire. A boundary had been crossed, and all thanks to Venus and Mars.

He indicated the painting. "Take a good look, ladies. You will not see its like today. They were gods then. Now we are mere mortals."

The ladies obeyed him, gazing up at the painting, at Venus's remote, steely gaze and Mars's languid form, and it seemed to Samuel that for that moment alone, all three of them– even the mad girl – were in perfect accord.

Then, Darla broke the spell. "Thankfully," she said. "How late it is. We really must be going, Dru." She let go of Samuel’s arm, seized Drusilla’s hand and began to walk away, with a careless, "Good day to you," spoken over her shoulder.

Samuel stared after the women's retreating figures, mouth once more agape. He felt horribly deflated. Just moments ago, he’d been basking in his goddess’s admiration, with every prospect of enjoying a great deal more. Now, she had turned her back on him and had seemingly already forgotten his existence.

He turned back to the painting, and now it seemed to him that Venus’s serene expression was not only brazen but verging on smug.

"Cheap trull," he muttered, crossly, while Mamma’s words about ‘ruined girls’ seemed to echo in his ears.

Suddenly, he was angry. Very angry indeed. He’d given this Darla woman the benefit of his expertise and this was how she repaid him? Before he could even think what he was going to do when he caught them up, he was striding in the direction the two women had taken, very aware of Venus’s mocking eyes boring into his back.

The great rooms of the gallery were almost empty of visitors. On either side of Samuel, painted masterpieces begged for his attention, but he had no eyes for them now. A passing attendant tipped his hat to him and bade him good night, but Samuel ignored him too, intent on his quarry. They must be walking very quickly, because they were almost out of sight – just the swish of full skirts, damp at the hems and dragging on the floor, around a distant corner. He thought he heard Darla's soft, accented voice, followed by Drusilla’s chill laughter.

He caught up with the women in the vestibule, just inside the great double doors. Outside, it was still raining, hard enough for the drops to bounce back off the flagstones. Dusk had fallen, and the gas lamps around Trafalgar Square were lit, their bright penumbras hissing and steaming as the rain struck them. The last remaining visitors were leaving the gallery, pausing only to raise umbrellas as they plunged into the deluge in search of carriages and cabs.

Darla and her ward were huddled together, staring at the rain in dismay. As Samuel came level with them, Darla turned to him, for all the world as if she had not just broken off their intercourse so rudely. Dark eyelashes fluttered.

"Oh Mr Bentley!" she exclaimed. "It is still raining, and there is no sign of our coach. Our coachman is a worthless fellow and has no doubt taken himself off to the nearest public house. Meanwhile, the gallery is closing. Whatever shall we do?"

Samuel opened his mouth to reply hotly that she could go to the devil for all he cared, but the words died on his lips at sight of her imploring gaze. She was so very beautiful.

Darla must have divined his mood, because her large eyes widened with hurt, while Drusilla clung to her like a wounded fawn to its dam.

"Please help us, Mr Bentley," Darla implored. "I place myself entirely in your hands."

Her gaze never wavered from his as she spoke, and Samuel could almost hear the unspoken invitation. At once, his anger sputtered and died. How foolish of him not to recognise that time-honoured female ruse of feigning flight while hoping to be caught.

At once, his ardour was rekindled. He puffed out his chest and gave his moustache a stroke for good measure.

"Have no fear, ma'am. I shall do my utmost to assist you."

Turning to one of the porters, who stood ready to close and bar the great doors, Samuel raised his voice.

"You – fellow. These ladies' coachman has gone missing and will no doubt be found at the nearest public house. Go and fetch him and his vehicle."

The porter, a surly fellow with a red face, who looked as if he could sink a glass or two himself, shook his head.

"Sorry, sir. Can't leave my post, sir."

Samuel glared, though in truth he had expected the man to say such a thing. Fishing in his trouser pocket, he brought out a shilling and held it out.

"This is yours if you'll go."

But the porter shook his head again. "Not on your life, sir. The ladies'll have to shift for themselves, I'm afraid, unless you'll shift for 'em."

Samuel's mouth dropped open in surprise and outrage, but the porter remained stony-faced.

Glancing over his shoulder, Samuel saw the two women huddled where he had left them, looking even more anxious. For a moment, he felt only exasperation at the sight. His offer of assistance had envisaged nothing more onerous than a pleasant excursion in their carriage, once found, during which he and Darla would become more intimately acquainted. Instead, thanks to them, he was about to get a drenching.

Still, their helpless dependence did suggest a way for him to make certain of their gratitude.

"Wait here," he told them. "I'll try and flag down a hackney coach."

At this, Darla looked aghast. "Why, Mr Bentley! That would hardly be proper."

It's a little late to think of that, Samuel thought. Aloud, he said, "It can't be helped, ma'am. There are a great number of public houses in the vicinity and your coachman could be in any one of them."

"Cab stand down by Charing Cross, sir," muttered the porter. "I'd go myself, but I can't leave my post, see."

"Yes." Samuel glared. "You said so."

Turning his back on the insolent fellow, he set his shoulders, pushed his hat down firmly on his head and plunged out into the rain.

His feet slipped on damp cobbles as he ran, down Charing Cross Road with St Martin's in the Field on his left and the bright lights of the Strand in front of him, a golden haze through the deluge. In moments, his gaberdine was wet through.

The gutters were more like rivers. Cabs and carts splashed through puddles, sending fountains of dirty water, liberally laced with horse manure, hurtling into the air. Twice, Samuel had to dodge back to avoid a complete soaking. As he ran, he reflected that at least the destination that he now had in mind always provided its patrons with a good fire. And he would not be needing his clothes.

A whole row of cabs – a mixture of hansoms and growlers -stood empty at the stand, the dispirited horses drooping in their traces, while the drivers had retired inside their shelter out of the rain. Samuel gave a smart rap on the door before flinging it open, to almost choke on smoke and tobacco fumes and the smell of sweat and damp woollen clothing. He peered from one hostile face to another.

"I need a growler up at the Gallery. Quick now."

The cabbies shifted their feet. Out of sight at the back of the throng, someone hawked and spat loudly.

"Sorry, guv'nor. We're waitin' for the rain to ease off, see," one responded at last, a sallow faced fellow with a drooping red moustache.

Samuel clenched his fists. It was obvious what that meant.

"I'll make it worth your while," he gritted.

The red haired cabbie narrowed sly blue eyes, looking Samuel up and down, from his hat to his boots, as if weighing how much he was worth. "You will, will you?" He grinned suddenly. "Anything for a gent like you, sir."

Picking up a dirty looking horse blanket that had been steaming near the fire, he flung it over his shoulders and gestured Samuel out into the rain.

"After you, sir."

After such an inauspicious beginning, Samuel was glad to find that the growler was in reasonable condition. The bodywork was a little scratched but the equipage had obviously been painted within living memory and the wheels were not too worn. What's more, the horse wasn't some old nag, but a decent looking beast, though still somewhat thin and undernourished.

Samuel climbed into the interior, which smelt of sweat and leather but was otherwise reasonably clean as growlers went, and at least dry. He watched through the dirty front window as the driver clambered up to his perch. A moment later, the cab jerked into motion and they were off back up Charing Cross Road to the bottom of the Gallery steps with a smart clip-clopping of horseshoes on cobbles.

Their destination reached, Samuel rapped on the window with his knuckles.


The growler lurched to a halt, and he climbed out, back into the rain.

"Wait here while I fetch the ladies. Once we return, you are to drive us to… " Samuel named a seedy hotel near the Haymarket where he meant to make himself Mars to Darla's Venus. "And mind you listen to me, not them, whatever they promise you."

"Right you are, guv'nor." The cabbie winked and tipped his hat to him.

As he made his way up the steps, Samuel heard a loud cough behind him, followed by an odd gurgling sound. He winced. The lower orders were so dreadfully vulgar.

One leaf of the great doors had been closed. Darla and Drusilla were framed in the other, outlined by the dim light from inside the gallery. The red-faced porter stood beside them, looking well pleased with himself. Samuel frowned at the sight. Had the fellow been poaching on his territory in his absence?

But the porter was already turning away to close the other door.

"Here's your cab then, ladies. Good night to you, and to you, sir."

"Good night, Mr Smithers." Much to Samuel's fury, Darla favoured the man with her bewitching smile. "And thank you."

"My pleasure, ma'am." The red faced porter grinned, tossed a coin – a half-crown from the size of it - into the air and pocketed it, before slamming the door in their faces, while Samuel stared at Darla, outraged.

He almost blurted out, "You were flirting with him, you trollop!" but managed to stop himself just in time. "What an uncouth fellow," he said, crossly. "I shall write a letter of complaint to the director about him."

Darla laughed a tinkling laugh. "Please don't, Mr Bentley. I found him most… obliging."

Oh, you did, did you? Samuel thought, but he didn't say it. Beautiful Darla might be, but drenched and soon to be out of pocket because of her, his desire had become mixed with sullen resentment. Only the knowledge that once she stepped into the cab she was as good as his rendered him capable of politeness.

He would have what he wanted from her – and perhaps from this mad Drusilla girl too for good measure, for there was nothing wrong with her body.

"I've found a cab," he growled.

"Oh, good." Darla began to descend the steps at once. "Come, Dru. Angelus will be wondering where we've got to."

"Oh yes!" Drusilla hastened after her. "It wouldn't do to keep Daddy waiting."

Samuel followed them. Mamma was right, he thought. Nothing good could come of women gallivanting around on their own like this, and once he was rid of these two whited sepulchres, he would write to the Times to say so.

At the kerbside, the growler remained where Samuel had left it. The driver was huddled deep into his blanket, hat pulled well down over his eyes. He made no attempt to climb down and open the door for the women, so Samuel was forced to do it himself.

He handed Drusilla into the cab then turned back for Darla.

The beauty of Darla's pure oval face was undimmed by rain, though the plumes on her hat were drooping badly.

"You'll accompany us of course, Mr Bentley. You must meet my husband." Her hand gripped his arm as she set one foot on the step.

"Oh yes!" Drusilla bounced in her seat. "He must come home for tea. He must!"

"I would be delighted." Samuel tried to inject innocent enthusiasm into his voice. Time enough to reveal their true destination when he had the women at his mercy in the moving cab. "Though I fear I cannot stay long. I am expected elsewhere this evening."

"I insist." Suddenly, Darla's grip on his arm became viselike, and before Samuel knew what was happening, she had yanked him bodily into the growler and he was sprawled at her feet on its dirty floor, almost under the seat.

"Wha-" He tried to rise but a dainty foot in a hob-nailed boot held him down and equally dainty, but unnaturally strong, hands prised his mouth open and stuffed a wad of material into it, almost choking him. Meanwhile, another pair of hands had snatched his silk cravat from around his neck and used it to bind his wrists together.

Then Darla's voice called, "Drive on!" and the growler lurched into motion again.

The growler fairly flew along. Samuel could hear the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves, almost at the gallop, and the crack of a whip, while the wheels splashed through puddles and, once, shaved the edge of the kerb, causing the vehicle to tilt alarmingly sideways.

It was all most unpleasant, but at least the near-accident caused Darla to remove her foot from his back in order to remonstrate with the driver.

"Slow down, you idiot!" she called, a new and vicious edge to her voice. "If you tip us over, I’ll make you rue the day you were ever born."

"Sorry, ma'am," a muffled voice replied, that to Samuel's straining ear didn't sound like that of the red-haired cabbie. He remembered the odd gurgle he had heard, like the sound of a man being throttled.

More than a little unnerved, he squirmed his way upright and onto the seat opposite the two women. Outside, dimly seen through dirty windows, rain-swept streets flashed by. But they had left the fashionable areas behind and Samuel saw no familiar landmarks.

He strained against his bonds, but in vain, nor could he expel the wad of increasingly sodden material from his mouth. What's more, his clothes were covered in filth from the cab floor. It was all most unpleasant.

He’d been a fool, Samuel realised. His finer feelings had made him easy prey for these women and their criminal master - because they could not have thought of this kidnapping scheme for themselves. Probably this so-called husband of Darla's was the brains behind the operation – this Angelus person. And what an absurd name that was?

Absurd or not, the thought of confronting the fellow made Samuel rather uneasy, given the cabbie's likely fate, and given that Sir Thomas had been in very good health the last time Mamma had heard from him. Who knew what misapprehensions these wretches might be under about Samuel's immediate prospects and ability to pay a ransom? He must find a way to effect his escape before they reached their destination.

Setting his shoulders, he glared at Darla and Drusilla, who sat close together on the seat facing him. Their skirts were spread demurely, their expressions anything but.

Drusilla’s unblinking blue gaze was fixed on him in that unsettling manner of hers, Darla, meanwhile, to his outrage, ignored him.

"Well, Dru," she said, "Eustace Bentley was right. His cousin is a pompous young fool of predictable habits and very easily caught. But now we have him, he's yours if you want him."

Drusilla swung her foot idly to and fro, childlike. "It's a very kind offer, Grandmother, but no thank you."

"Don't call me that, " Darla snapped- almost snarled, in fact. "And he'll do perfectly well, surely? His looks are tolerable, though that dreadful moustache will have to go of course, and he can act the gentleman, even though he has the instincts of a scoundrel, like his cousin."

Pompous young fool? Scoundrel? Samuel glared at Darla indignantly, but she continued to ignore him. Drusilla's mad stare, meanwhile, never wavered. There was a curious darkness in its pale depths that chilled him to the marrow.

"But he's an artist, Darla," Drusilla said, in a patient voice. "We already have an artist in the family, and besides, like Daddy, he has eyes only for you. What would I want with him? "

Darla sighed an exasperated sigh. "This, perhaps? He may not have much else to recommend him, but he fills out his breeches quite well."

Then, she reached out, clasped Drusilla at the base of the neck and drew her in for a kiss that struck Samuel as a great deal less than chaste. He stared, round-eyed, his predicament temporarily forgotten, as Drusilla opened her mouth with a sigh of pleasure and Darla's pink tongue darted inside it, while her small hand fondled Drusilla's breast.

The two women seemed totally oblivious to his presence, and bound and helpless as he was, Samuel could only stare, trousers growing uncomfortably tight at the crotch, as they did to each other what he had meant to do to them.

Abruptly, Darla broke the kiss. "See?" she said. "It is not only Angelus who knows how to pleasure a woman. Besides, who do you think taught him? I can teach this Bentley fellow too. And when I'm done with him, you shall have him, Dru."

Drusilla squirmed a little. "No thank you, Darla. I must wait for my own white knight. He will be a painter in words, not pictures. Like the other William."

"Silly girl." Darla huffed. "What on earth are you talking about? Which other William would that be?"

"Why, Mr Shakespeare, of course." Drusilla's cat-like smile grew secretive. She tapped the side of her nose with a gloved finger.

"I am but mad north, north-west," she intoned. "When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."

"Give me patience!" Darla exclaimed. She sat back in the seat, frowning irritably. "I suppose we must be rid of him, then. I certainly don't want him."

Samuel stared from one woman to another, his excitement wilting rapidly, while he listened to this bizarre exchange. They were both insane. There was no other explanation.

Darla was looking at him now, he realised, and her expression had grown sly.

"Perhaps we should ask Mr Bentley for his advice? He is bound to know what we should do better than we."

"Oh yes!" Drusilla almost squealed with excitement. "Let us ask him, Darla."

There was a flurry of movement too rapid for Samuel to follow and then they were sitting on either side of him, arms linked through his, and Darla's small fingers were prising the obstruction from his mouth.

It was her handkerchief, Samuel realised, now wet through, which she dropped on the dirty floor with a little moue of distaste.

Samuel's heart was pounding uncomfortably hard in his chest, but he stiffened his back, reminding himself sternly that he was a gentleman and they but common criminals. Besides, he'd be damned before he'd let himself be bested by these harpies.

"You don't scare me," he said, on his dignity. "You'd do well to let me go. My family have some very powerful connections."

Darla laughed. "How delicious. That’s what your cousin Eustace said you would say. In fact, he said the exact same thing just before we killed him, with as little effect on the outcome."

"Killed…?" Samuel’s jaw dropped. Suddenly, there was an uncomfortable, loose feeling in his bowels.

"You remind me of him," Darla went on, in a musing tone. "Not nearly as handsome as he thinks he is, and far too full of himself for a scion of minor gentry, whose tastes exceed their income. Though unlike you, Mr Bentley, at least your cousin had some raddled charm to sugar the pill. Nor was he a resounding bore."

"What? How dare you!" Samuel tried to adopt a menacing scowl. He must not let this dreadful woman guess how unnerved he was.

"Yes, bore," Darla repeated, while Drusilla giggled and drew patterns on the steamed up cab window with her finger. "And while one can put up with a bore on occasion, an ill-informed one is beyond the pale."

"Ill-informed?" Samuel's jaw dropped. This was an insult too far, and in an instant, his anger overwhelmed his fright.

"I’ll have you know, madam," he blustered, "I have attended many lectures at the Royal Academy."

"Ah." Darla didn't look much impressed. "That would explain a great deal."

She leaned close and spoke in Samuel's ear, each word a strangely chill puff of air that made the short hairs on the nape of his neck bristle.

"I was in Paris in April, Mr Bentley. And do you know what I saw there?"

Drusilla's head whipped round from her contemplation of the window. "Paris!" she hissed. "Nass-ty place. I didn't like it."

"Hush, Dru." Darla glared at the girl, which caused her to mewl piteously again. "I asked Mr Bentley a question."

"Of course I don't know what you saw in Paris," Samuel shouted, still fuming. Why, oh why, he asked himself, had he not shown the women a different picture? Rubens's Rape of the Sabine Women, for instance? "Now, I demand that you let me out of this cab or I shall be forced to – to do something regrettable."

"Really?" Darla laughed again, while Drusilla echoed her, "Really?"

"Yes, indeed I shall." Samuel surged to his feet, the women hanging on his arms, attempting to throw himself bodily at the cab door to burst it open and escape.

A moment later, he found himself firmly back in place, and on either side of him was not a woman, but a hideous monster in female form, each with yellow eyes under lumpen, misshaped brows. No longer goddesses but gorgons.

Samuel yelled aloud in shock and fright, while they regarded him, grinning like fiends.

"Manners, Mr Bentley," the demon in Darla's place hissed in Samuel's ear. "I've not finished yet. And mind you don't crush my dress with your thrashing about. I've waited sixty years for the fashions to become wearable again." And she twisted Samuel's arm so hard, he screamed, while tears started in his eyes.

"Now, where was I when I was so rudely interrupted?" Darla mused. "Oh yes. Paris. While there, Mr Bentley, we were among the few who attended a certain exhibition. Have you heard of the Impressionists?"

"N-no," Samuel managed to gasp, and Darla laughed again, revealing a set of fangs that would not have disgraced a lioness.

"A pity you will not live to discover more. They are the future, and very soon the world will be as tired of your fusty old masters as I am tired of men like you."

"Help! Murder!" Samuel tried to rise again as Darla lunged towards him, teeth-bared, but at that moment the cab jolted through a pothole, throwing him sideways, almost into Drusilla's lap. She pushed him back towards Darla, and he felt something sharp pierce his neck, and all movement was stymied. Then there was an exquisite, pinching pain that grew worse and worse until the air rang with his screams, while Drusilla watched him, head tilted on one side, yellow eyes glowing like lamps, still with that same mad, unblinking stare.

"Is he scared yet, Grandmother, do you think?"