Caroline's Storybook

Another Kind Of Devotion

by Caroline Ashbee

At its best, most aromatic, softest, warmest, moistest, immediately after a sleigh ride in the January afternoon, when home, changing before going down to meet the others for tea - jasmine, perhaps, or keemun, pale, thin, scented, drunk without milk or lemon, sipped to accompany madeleines and palmiers, and trivial conversation, and secret smiles and knowing glances shared with Maximilian before the crackling apple-wood fire - in the bedroom when boot, woollen stocking, silken hose have been stripped away, while Eulalie, in the dressing-room lays out the afternoon silk and puts away the sable coat and toque, and the long, soft, Spanish leather boot, her unwashed foot is now snugly, tightly, enclosed in its little silken slipper, as she lolls on the bed, en déshabille, feeling wicked and decadent, smoking an unapproved of cigarette.

As usual Eulalie, complaisant, withdraws discreetly when Maximilian knocks, as usual, enters, as usual, in gold-frogged, crimson, brocaded silk dressing-gown, curled and cravatted, a hussar of the bedchamber, to pay his usual homage. It makes her smile now, when at first, in her own way, as he still was in his, she had been embarrassed; but he wanted it so much, and why not? So as usual he kneels down beside the bed and she sits up, dangling her foot over the side. First she draws up her petticoat, and he cups the little stump in his hands, holding it, squeezing and stroking it gently. She lies back, closing her eyes as she surrenders herself to the feeling, enraptured, borne away by voluptuous sensation, always artificial and strange yet already becoming familiar. After a while he kisses the stump; this is for her, to give her pleasure: she had wanted it so much, and why not?

Then respectfully he takes her foot in his hand. Ceremoniously he takes off the slipper, and raising it to his nose he inhales the perfume, reverently, as a connoisseur might savour the bouquet of a glass of Château Lafite '59, the last of the pre-phylloxera clarets. First the exploratory sniff, then the great gust of scent drawn into the nose. Once, wickedly, when they had just begun their ritual she had filled her slipper with white pepper, and then giggling at first, but afterwards shocked, ashamed of herself, and very fearful, she and Eulalie had nursed him through the paroxysm of scarlet-faced sneezing that seemed on the verge of precipitating him into apoplexy. Afterwards she had promised never to repeat the trick, but he had never quite trusted her, and like the connoisseur who samples a little wine from the new bottle, sniffing circumspectly to make sure it is not corked before hazarding his palate on the first sip, so Maximilian, in his own way sampled her particular bouquet. Then the kiss and the long engulfing, as the toes, each one of them in turn, are taken into the mouth, and the salty curd between them is sought out, savoured by careful discriminating tongue.

The smell of sweat is due to several causes. There are the apocrine scent glands that secrete the fatty acids, formic, acetic, butyric, and propionic, ketones, esters, sexual hormones, the scent of woman's flesh that ripens and sours to ripen once again with the sequence of her cycles. There is the acid adrenalin sweat of terror and the sweeter sweat of exercise, secreted to cool the over-heated flesh, with its own dilute solution of salt and urea, that evaporates quickly from naked skin but enclosed provides the humid substrate and environment for the moulds and bacteria that generate the corrupt ripe-camembert scents and flavours. Like cheese, feet too can be under-ripe and bland, or over-ripe, pungent, and ammoniacal. Napoleon favoured ripeness in women it is said: Before he returned to Paris after campaigning he would send word ahead to Josephine and she would eschew the bath for the week before his return.

And then he does what he occasionally does, and what he still cannot believe will happen happens. He tickles her foot and she lies back upon the bed, sighs, but makes no other response. It was after the pepper trick that he tried to take revenge by tickling her. He succeeded once, tickling her until her ribs were aching with laughter; but the second time he tried it she was ready: She had taught herself to relax through the tickling, to make herself remote from it and though it happened noticeably it remained in the background and there was nothing more.

'It is better' she thinks, 'than the other thing.'


Friday 7th July 1995
© Caroline Ashbee 1992-1995