The House of Elyot

1888 Part 7

Posted on: February 16, 2011

Florence and Molly embark on an adventure…

Florence risked a peek through the window of the hansom cab, noticing how its wheels sliced through the black slush on the cobbles, though the horses had less luck with the treacherous stuff, causing the carriage to lurch drunkenly with each occasional slip.

Although it was not as if anybody respectable would be crowded on to the pavements of the Strand at this hour of the evening, her heart had taken residence in her mouth and extravagant fantasies of her discovery and its consequences repeated themselves incessantly in her head.

“Are you sure we were not seen, Molly?” she enquired urgently of her maid for the fifth time.

“Hush, Miss, no, nobody saw. I’m certain. Cook has the evening off, and all the others were playing whist in the basement. You saw yourself that the kitchen was deserted.”

“But could we have been seen?” persisted Florence anxiously. “From a back window perhaps?”

“Why, Miss, the back of the house was all in darkness. And the stairs from the yard were pitch black; we almost stumbled and slipped on the ice, didn’t we? Who could have seen us?”

“No, no, you’re right, Molly, you’re quite right.” Florence sat back in her seat but she continued to fidget restlessly with her green satin gloves. “I had no idea that so many people populated the streets at night. Who are they all?”

Molly scanned the ranks of people shivering on the winter streets, pitying their plight and hoping they had warm grates to sit beside on their return home. “Mostly they’re trying to make a living, Miss. Selling things – pies, spoiled fruit, sheet music, anything you’d care to name. The flower girls have gone now, but most of the others can’t go home till they’ve made the few pennorth they need to eat and pay rent.”

“Really? They live like that? Hand to mouth?”

“Of course, Miss.” Molly stared. “That’s how ordinary folk live, at least where I come from. They ain’t all selling though. Some of ‘em are out for the night, going to see a show or get a drop of ale.”

“I see. I’ve never been to an evening performance before; Papa always took me to the matinée. It’s like…another world.”

“Yes, Miss.”

Florence gasped and moved her face away from the window sharply. Standing outside a restaurant, talking with some other men, was the unmistakable looming height and menacing profile of Lord Hunter-Fox, illuminated beneath a gaslamp while his companions faded into shadow.

“Miss? Are you all right?”

Florence steadied her breathing and turned to Molly. “I swear that man is everywhere. He is impossible to elude. I believe that he will be waiting for me at the pearly gates of Heaven.”

“Oh. Lord Hunter-Fox?”

“Indeed; who else? He is intolerable.”

“I’ve heard he has a scheme to send Lady Adelaide away for treatment,” said Molly diffidently, wondering if she was rising above her station in discussing such matters.

“You’ve no right to gossip about my mother,” snapped Florence, their fragile camaraderie frozen over in the space of seconds.

“Oh…no, Miss. I’m sorry,” said Molly meekly.

The rest of the journey passed in silence. Florence reviewed the few days that had passed between renewing her acquaintance with Jessie and coming to watch her at the Savoy. They had been cold in all respects; her mother had refused to receive her daughter at her sickbed while her father had had one of his rambling heart-to-hearts imploring her not to take up this foolish friendship. Aunt Julia had been loth to accompany her on any more excursions after the gallery, so Florence had been largely confined to the house. When the letter and tickets from Jessie had arrived, she had been as determined as she possibly could be that she would escape her restrictive existence, even if only for one night. Without hesitation, she had called Molly into her bedroom and concocted a plan to slip undetected from the house. The last two days had been full of suppressed smiles, stifled giggles, discussions of what to wear and whom they would meet, and whether they should invent aliases.

“Perhaps we should be sisters,” Molly had suggested, her eyes dancing with excitement, but Florence had been aghast at the idea.

“Oh, no, not sisters. Goodness, no. Who would think you were a lady? No, we will be lady and maidservant, of course. But I will be…Lady Sangazure!”

“Don’t you think people will realise that that’s a …a character from one of the operas? I mean…if they like Gilbert & Sullivan?”

“Oh, does it matter?” said Florence with an airy wave of her hand. “I like the name, and I intend to use it.”

“Very good, Miss.”

*

“Oh my goodness, flowers on the second night? That’s unusual!”

Tilly Crowle paused from trowelling rouge on to her somewhat hollow cheeks to raise an eyebrow at her chorus-mate, Jessie. Jessie had had the biggest and best bouquets last night as well – even some of the principals had been jealous – and now here was another tissue-wrapped hothouse bouquet. It was a rum do, that’s what it was.

Jessie merely smiled back at the curious girl and tilted her head to hear what the stagedoor Johnny who had brought them had to say.

“Oh. No. You must tell him I am otherwise engaged tonight. But I would be delighted to take supper with him later in the week, if he has the time. Thank you, Reginald. You’re a darling.”

“Secret admirer?” asked Tilly archly, sidling over to help Jessie clip her wild tresses up on to her head.

“Oh, just a family friend up in town for the night,” she said, not even the trace of a blush staining her alabaster skin at this outright falsehood. Tilly humphed, privately thinking that Jessie must have an awfully large extended social network. It would be nice if she would share the wealth a little with the other girls.

“But you’re otherwise engaged? You should have said; I wouldn’t mind being bought supper tonight.”

“Tilly, he’s a crashing bore. Eighty if he’s a day. Utterly incapable of talking about anything but dogs and horses. Please spare yourself!” She caught Tilly’s slight pout and relented a little. The girl was envious and a little malicious at times, but she was pretty enough, if a little on the skinny side. “Listen, if you really want to meet some…gentlemen…I could put in a good word for you. Perhaps.”

Tilly half-smiled. “I wish I had your admirers, Jess. But they love your red hair and your white skin. A thin sallow thing like me gets overlooked.” She sighed. “I’ll think about it. Oh, listen, that’s Frederic and Ruth’s duet starting. We’d better hurry or we’ll be late.”

Powders and paints flew out of their tins, stays were tightened and bustles fitted. It was time to take to the stage.

*

Molly’s neck was on a permanent pivot, her eyes drinking in all the fine silks and fob watches and hats with feathers and white-gloved male hands in the foyer. Clusters of people, all smelling of lavender and freesia and shaving soap mixed with the cold smoky air of the city, shivering under fur stoles or clapping their hands together, glancing around through lorgnettes or kissing each other’s hands. Molly very much wanted to stay and mingle, sighting several rather dashing fellows in top hats, but Florence was hell-bent on getting to their seats with the minimum of delay, pulling her through the throng and into the auditorium in seconds.

Their seats were reasonably good ones in the stalls, but Florence was used to the family box and found it novel, perhaps a little uncomfortable, to have to sit side by side with complete strangers. Molly settled quickly into the plush tip-seat, patting her skirts down and pulling a tin of lemon-flavoured pastilles from her reticule.

“Would you like a sweet, Miss?”

“Oh…no thank you, Molly.” Florence was gazing through her opera glasses, her head moving in sweeping left to right gestures, leaving no seat unexamined in her quest to feel safely unrecognised.

Molly shrugged and popped one of the little yellow ovals into her mouth, starting in surprise when a man leaned over from the aisle and passed her a note.

“Florence Smythson? This is from Jessie.”

Florence took the note, which contained instructions for their meeting after the show, smiled and hid it inside her beaded evening purse. Suddenly her anxiety was replaced by a rising exhilaration and she put away her opera glasses, replacing them with a fan behind which she was able to partly conceal her face.

The orchestra began to tune up in the pit and Molly resolved to cast all other thoughts from her mind and concentrate on enjoying this new experience.

It was surprisingly easy to follow, she found. She had wondered if it would be all singing, with lots of high-falutin language that would go over her head, but the puns and jokes were mainly of a kind popular in the kitchens and there was plenty of conversation between the tunes.

Once the final encore had been shouted and the last echoes of applause had died away, Florence and Molly moved as quickly as they could away past the masses blocking up the exits to a side door by the curtains. They were ushered inside by the man who had passed the note from Jessie and they wandered up stairs and along corridors, past pirates who tipped their skull-decorated hats politely until they arrived at a curtained door attended by an elderly gentlemen.

“This is the stage door, I think?” Florence enquired of him.

“It is, Ma’am,” he confirmed.

They did not have to wait long; five minutes later Jessie barrelled out of a distant door, hair flying, wearing only a loose velvet dress and a wrap.

“Oh, Flo, dearest, I am so pleased to see you! I hardly knew if you would come!”

“We have had quite an adventure of it,” grinned Florence, allowing herself to be taken into Jessie’s arms and kissed on the cheek.

“Well, the adventure shall continue,” promised Jessie, stepping back and including Molly in her warm smile. “And who is this?”

“I am Molly, Miss Florence’s maidservant, I thank you kindly.”

“Oh, you needn’t stand on ceremony with me, Molly. I’m Jess; pleased to meet you!”

Florence was vaguely shocked at Jess’s egalitarian attitude, but told herself that, after all, she was just a humble Camberwell girl and knew no better. She smiled uncomfortably and waited for Jessie to escort them from the theatre.

“We will be eating at Swanson’s,” Jessie said airily, leading the feminine triumvirate out into the icy darkness. “Do you know it? They have private dining rooms upstairs where we will take supper with some of my friends. Oh, Flo, you will love them and they you! They are longing to meet you.”

“What manner of people are they?” asked Florence, eyeing a pair of toothless women in gaudy sateen frocks on the corner as they passed.

“Oh, all manner of people. Artists, poets, thinkers…true free spirits, Florence.”

“Good heavens,” said Florence mildly, though her heart was racing and her imagination filled with vivid scenarios. Free spirits! What qualified one to be described as such? She was eager to find out.

2 Responses to "1888 Part 7"

Oh, JE, with all this glorious titillation I shall never be content to play whist again!

How about a quick round of quadrille?

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