She stands by the window. Lady Petra, the Bishop’s wife, wearing a flamboyant gown from her youth. But the corset is pulled too tightly, and you can see the threads struggling. She is neither as thin nor as fair as she once was, but she paints her face to give the illusion of youth. An illusion many of the passers-by fall prey to. They are easy to fool. She watches the young men of the village go by, happy with their wives and their newborn babes. They are oblivious to the jealous eye of the vile Lady Petra. Oh, woe to the man who catches her eye! His moral mettle is no match for the beguiling charm of the Bishop’s wife.
As the Bishop’s wife, of course, she must follow the rules he sets rules for the town. Lady Petra is faithful; she does not break her vows. But there is no rule to say she cannot bend them for her amusement. Especially when her husband is as flat and boring as he is!
Many a young man has been swept into her curse. She hides in the shadows, whispering sweet nothings over the telephone in return for a pledge, a word, a sigh. She stares — oh, yes, she stares! — at the men passing by as she rides through her carriage, silk fan in hand, the neckline of her dress cut just low enough to be noticed. She is a flirt, a tease. But she never goes all the way.
The Bishop’s wife is cunning, to say the least.
Today, the Lady Petra sees a familiar face pass beneath her window. Not a man, but a woman. It is her young sister, the fair Lady Anne, walking with a stranger. Lady Petra licks her lips. He is quite handsome, this strange man. Why has she never seen him before?
The stranger passes Lady Anne a small pouch. Petra’s eyes widen. What is it? Money? Jewellry?
But Lady Anne doesn’t open it. She only curtseys and leaves the man standing alone, his eyes following Anne all the way out the gates of the manor.
He never once glances up at the window, where Lady Petra stands. Petra is outraged. How dare a man not notice her, while noticing her pathetically noble sister instead! She is the Bishop’s wife! She is the one men worship!
Not that wretched Lady Anne.
Later that night, Lady Anne and her maid arrive at the Bishop’s house to pay their respects. Both of them have arms full of fresh fruits and breads from the market. The Bishop is cordial to them, perhaps because they have brought his favourite sweetmeats. But, behind him, Lady Petra is furious. She corners her sister as soon as the Bishop excuses himself.
“Who is he?” Petra asks, her voice laced with venom.
“Who is who?” says Anne.
“Don’t be daft,” says Petra. “Your secret lover. The one you were walking with today.”
“Lover…?” Anne asks, confused.
“You can tell me,” Petra says, swinging an arm over Anne’s shoulders. Adultery is punishable by death. Petra can only imagine the glee if Anne’s lover is a married man. “It stays between the two of us.”
“Ain’t been no one new, mum,” Anne’s servant chimes in. “Less’n you mean Chris.”
“Chris?” Petra says. Is that his name? It sounds so plain!
“Oh, Chris!” Anne laughs. It sounds forced. “Don’t be silly, Nina.”
But it is too late. Petra has caught up to her game.
“Who is ‘Chris’?” says Lady Petra. “Is he tall and dark, with a moustache and an unshaved face?”
“No!” says Lady Anne. “He is our new garden gnome, who tends to the cauliflowers and carrots, and helps Cook with the stew.”
“Oh,” says Petra. A gnome? She knows that Lady Anne is famously generous, but employing a gnome seems a bit too much, even for her.
Petra decides her sister is lying. “Then who was that gentleman you were seeing earlier? The one who gave you a gift?”
“Oh, that man!” Anne laughs again. This time, it is genuine. “He is the herbs dealer. We’ve had a long winter, and the forests aren’t full as yet. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed him as yet. He is often around.”
Herbs dealer, Petra thought, as her eyes darkened. I suppose I could work with that.