The House of Elyot

1888 Part 2

Posted on: January 12, 2011

Moving on from the grim scene in part one, you are cordially invited to make the acquaintances of Miss Florence Smythson and Miss Jessie Carter.

1888 Part 2

There were few bright sides to a visit from Aunt Julia, but one of them was her convenience as a chaperone when the four decorative walls of Miss Florence Smythson’s gilded Mayfair cage became too oppressive.

“One cannot help but ask oneself when this idiotic Pre-Raphaelite fad will gasp its last,” sniffed Aunt Julia, curling a disdainful lip at a portrait of the Blessed Damozel picked out in muted greys and golds.

“Oh, I believe it is still a highly fashionable style,” replied Florence mildly, biting back the temptation to pour artistic scorn on her companion. She was surely to be pitied rather that censured, in her primitive state of Philistinism. Besides, Florence had keenly anticipated this exhibition visit for some weeks, and the plaintive mewlings of some bitter old spinster were not going to besmirch her pleasure. Instead she made her usual reflexive nervous gesture of pulling one flaxen curl to reassure herself it still possessed the optimum quality of springiness and stepped onward to the next canvas.

“Vyvyan Stanford is garnering quite a reputation as the new darling of the Aesthetic movement,” said Florence, swooning down to the viridian depths of the oil-painted pool into which a flawlessly beautiful Narcissus gazed.

“Tch, that boy is barely clothed,” clucked her scandalised aunt. “It is not fitting for young ladies of breeding to be looking at youths in…loincloths. Your father will not be pleased.”

“Oh, father will not mind,” averred Florence carelessly. “You must not pester him with such trivialities, Aunt. He has grave business concerns to attend to, as you know.”

“Florence, your tone is altogether too disrespectful…” began Aunt Julia, and Florence sighed inwardly, noting that the puckered wrinkles around the maiden relative’s thin mouth signalled the opening of a long and indignant lecture. She had made all the customary preparations for this eventuality, closing off her mind and allowing a blurred film to descend over her eyes when her attention was diverted by somebody calling her name.

“Is it you? Florence Smythson? Can it be?”

Florence turned her head to see a warmly smiling red-haired girl approaching her, arms outstretched. The blonde heiress frowned in an effort of recognition which was thrown somewhat off-balance by the unconventional appearance of the young woman. Surely she did not have the acquaintance of a lady whose hair cascaded untrammelled down her back, and who furthermore did not even appear to be wearing a corset? She was sure she had no dealings with such a coarsely presented person.

“Oh, it is, I am sure! There can be no mistaking those sea-blue eyes. Oh, Florence, do you not know me? Have you forgotten how we played together at whipping tops in the street in Camberwell?”

Florence sucked in air so hard she had to fend off a coughing fit. In a confusion of deep blushes and fond reminiscence, she cried, “Why, Jessie! Jessie Carter! Oh, you have grown up!”

Jessie laughed delightedly, throwing her head back so that extraordinary russet hair swished about her elfin features.

“Well, of course, Flo! It has been eight years since we were bosom companions. How my heart broke when you had to move away. I swear I thought I should never recover.”

“And I also.” Florence smiled back and dabbed away the threat of a tear from the corner of her eye with her fine lace handkerchief. “Goodness! Jessie!”

“Why did you never reply to my letters? I sent them every day for months afterward.”

“I…letters? I received no letters.”

Aunt Julia, visibly disconcerted, began casting vaguely around her for some excuse to break up the reunion. Sensing this, Jessie turned to her and said brightly, “There is excellent cake in the tea room. Why don’t you treat yourself to a slice while Florence and I revisit our childhoods?”

“I…not sure it’s wise…”

“Ah, do, Aunt Julia, please,” entreated Florence, widening her cerulean blue eyes in a way she knew her father always found quite irresistible. “I am accompanied, and no harm can come to us in a public exhibition hall, I am sure.”

Aunt Julia shook her head so that the black ostrich feather on her bonnet swayed amusingly, then capitulated. “Very well. I shall give you half an hour, and then, Miss, we must depart to dress for dinner. You know we have company tonight.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, kindest and sweetest of aunts,” cooed Florence, embracing the discomfited but slightly mollified woman, who humphed and sailed off to the tea room, secretly relieved to be away from all those godless paintings.

Jessie’s green eyes sparkled with delighted mischief. “Now then, Flo, darling, we can really talk! Come with me; I know a place we can be private.”

Florence followed her old friend through the galleries. “Do you work here?” she asked, confused.

Jessie laughed tinklingly. “Oh no, dear. But I am a great friend of the artist, and I have access to the private viewing room.”

“You are a friend of Vyvyan Stanford?”

She laughed again. “You will love him – and he you. Come – but Florence, you must promise not to be shocked. Do you?”

Jessie paused to pull aside a heavy velvet drape, revealing a door with brass fixtures.

“I…what might shock me?”

“The pictures in the private viewing room are…well, let’s just say Aunt Starch-Bloomers would not approve!”

“Ohhh,” breathed Florence, feeling a dirty little pang of guilty excitement at the base of her stomach. “Perhaps I should…cover my eyes?”

Jessie snorted. “You needn’t look, Miss Puritan. Come on then.”

Florence stepped after her friend into a more intimately-sized room, halted in her tracks by the sight that confronted her. The cold January sunlight that poured in through the pitched glass roof illumined a variety of sketches and paintings whose lascivious nature illustrated scenarios that had not occurred to Florence even in her most abandoned daydreams.

“But Jessie!” she half-screamed, before finding herself hustled across the room to a small office from which the lewd artwork was only peripherally visible. Florence sat down and sighed with relief at escaping the half-disturbing half-alluring scenes, watching while Jessie located a crystal decanter of a jewelled red liquid and two glasses.

“Do have a drink, dearest. It’s just a light red wine.”

“Thank you. I rather need to settle my nerves.”

“Oh dear, you were shocked, weren’t you?” An exasperated tenderness glowed in Jessie’s eyes. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. When they took you out of Camberwell, they took Camberwell out of you too, didn’t they? You are quite the fine young lady these days.”

“When Papa made his fortune, everything changed for me,” confided Florence. “He hired a governess and I learned to sing and play and where to find all the countries of the world on a globe. We have the best of everything now. Papa doesn’t like to be reminded that we were ever in Camberwell and it is so seldom mentioned that I had almost forgotten myself.”

“So you do not miss it?”

“Not Camberwell itself. It is an undistinguished enough suburb. But I do miss…I did miss…most awfully…having a friend. I’ve never had a real friend since you, Jessie.”

Jessie impulsively grabbed Florence’s hand. “Oh, you poor thing,” she crooned. “And to think, I was jealous of you! Fine clothes, meat every day, balls and card parties. I used to dream of that life every night after you left.”

“Oh, I like the clothes and the meals well enough, but I have not attended a ball yet,” smiled Florence. “I am to be presented at Court in April, so all that is to come. I suppose I ought to look forward to it but…I find it all so tedious.”

“I can understand that. The very idea of ‘the Season’ makes you all sound like a collection of game birds, to be shot at until you are bagged. It’s rather…inhuman. Don’t you think?”

Florence giggled. “Jessie Carter, you are a radical. But you echo my own thoughts on the matter. Of course, Mama and Papa are set on moulding me into a perfect porcelain society belle with no thought in her head beyond snaring some chinless lordling and deferring to his half-baked wishes evermore.”

“That isn’t the Flo I know,” said Jessie slyly, refreshing Florence’s glass. “She had a mind of her own.”

Florence sighed. “They’ve tried their best to cultivate it out of me. You know, I’m so glad we’ve met again. We must rendezvous often. You have reawakened a dormant spirit in me!”

Jessie clinked Florence’s glass. “To our indomitable spirits!” she proclaimed, and the two girls dissolved into ringing gales of mirth.

“But how do you live now, Jessie?” asked Florence. “How do you come to know Vyvyan Stanford?”

“I have taken to the stage,” whispered Jessie with a mysterious wink. “I am in the chorus at the Savoy.”

“Then you work with Mr Gilbert and Mr Sullivan? Oh, how absolutely thrilling! I quite dote on their operettas! Why I had to pester poor Papa until he took me see The Mikado eight times!”

“Indeed? Then perhaps you will be pleased to know that there will be a revival of Mikado in the Spring, pending the new show at Christmastime. Before that, we are reviving Pirates. Have you seen it?”

“Why, no, I have not – I was too young when it was first performed, though of course I know most of the songs.” She broke into a brief snatch of Poor Wand’ring One, into which Jessie joined with gusto until their laughter forced them to abandon the tune.

“I can get you free tickets if you’d like,” offered the redhead.

“Oh,” Florence sighed, “I doubt Papa would want to come.”

“Then come alone. Or with a friend.”

“Alone?!” Florence was aghast. “That is quite impossible.”

“Then bring…I don’t know…your aunt.” Then, at Florence’s hollow laugh, “Or your maid. I suppose you have one?”

“Oh, yes. Yes, I do. Oh, but Jessie, do you think…?” An unquenchable mischief seemed to have taken possession of the young demoiselle, and the thought of creeping out of the house to see a theatrical presentation filled her with violent glee.

“You must come! I’ll have tickets held for you at the box office. Then afterwards you can come backstage and we’ll go and take supper together! It will be the most delicious fun!”

“Yes, yes. It will!” Florence’s mischievious inner sprite allowed itself a pensive moment. Fun. She had almost forgotten what that might be; a concept that had been left in the dusty gutters of Camberwell along with her favourite marbles.

“Then it shall come to pass!” declaimed Jess. “Come, we should find your aunt. If you drink any more of that wine, you will be hopelessly sloshed, and I shall get the blame.”

6 Responses to "1888 Part 2"

sweet girls 🙂

You won’t believe the wringer I’m going to put them through…(well, perhaps you will ;)).

Ooh, you do “period” so well! Kudos!

Thank you so much, Jeremy! That means a lot to me. Mind you, I wrote this 2/3 years ago, and it’s not quite the way I would do it now. It’s a ‘just for fun’ though, so I’m not going to fuss with it.

I love it, I love it – can’t wait til next week 🙂

Yay, Lexie – so pleased you’re enjoying it!

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