The House of Elyot

1888 Part 8

Posted on: February 23, 2011

A Bohemian evening for Florence…

Swanson’s was tucked away in one of the narrow alleys that ran down from the Strand to the Embankment, but once inside it was a handsome establishment, spacious and expensively decorated and clearly very popular for post-theatrical suppers.

Florence and Molly were rapt for very different reasons when their winter cloaks were taken and they were led upstairs to the private suites – Florence had never been in such a public establishment and found herself bowled over by the noise and vivacity, while Molly was so elated at being taken for a lady that she could have laughed out loud.

“Lady Sangazure.  Miss Carter.  Miss Macaulay,” announced their guide, ushering the three into a high-ceilinged ornately-furnished room before making a discreet exit.

Florence did her level best to maintain a calm external demeanour while Jessie rushed over to the table to make introductions, but Molly could not help but gawp.  Plaster cherubs played plaster harps in the cornicing and around the ceiling rose, from which hung a huge and rather alarming chandelier.  Gilt was everywhere, even in the stripe of the burgundy wallpaper, and the settings on the table shimmered with the golden light of dozens of candles.  Portraits of distinguished patrons vied with satirical sketches and even…oh goodness…that looked like a drawing of a naked lady!  It was every bit as magnificent as Sir Rupert’s home, but somehow the atmosphere was quite different – warmer, looser, less pristinely uptight in its extravagance.

Her lady, on the other hand, was taking in the half dozen people at the table, lolling, chatting, smoking, drinking and laughing in a way rarely seen at home, if indeed ever.  Six men – no!  that was a woman at the far end, but dressed and comporting herself in such a mannish way as to instil ambiguity.  She wore a black frock coat and was smoking a cigar, her dark hair scraped back into a bun.  Of the men, most had hair that spilled over their collars and were wearing loose shirts and looser cravats; one wore a velvet beret, another had the most exquisite lace cuffs she had ever seen, a third sported a drooping green carnation in his lapel.  So these were the aesthetes of whom she had read in the satirical magazines!  She had almost wondered if they really existed, or were a figment of Lord Hunter-Fox’s imagination, since he was fond of lambasting their tastes and achievements.

“My dears, please come closer,” entreated Jessie, standing behind the chair of the longest-haired man, who was gazing at her so dotingly that the relationship between the two was easy to surmise.  “Let me introduce you.  Here we have Agatha; she is a poet and also very active in politics, with the Fabians.”

Florence and Molly smiled tightly at the mannish woman, both wondering what exactly a Fabian might be.

“This is John and this is Lawrence.”  A pair of fellows in monocles waved elaborately before returning to a no-doubt highly engrossing conversation.  “They are artists,” she explained.  “Roland is a wonderful musician.”  A dark-haired youth who looked as if the merest puff of wind might blow him away smiled, the side of his lip twitching.  “Alex writes divine poetry.”  Alex was a tall, fair-haired young man with an extraordinarily sensual mouth and the most expensive taste in clothes, it seemed.  “And finally, this is my beloved.  Vyvyan.”

“I am very pleased to meet you all,” said Florence primly, feeling out of her depth.

“Do sit down, dear.”

Alex patted the seat beside his, and she responded unwittingly, sitting herself down opposite Jessie and Vyvyan, while Molly found a place between Agatha and John.

It seemed to Florence afterwards that the evening passed in a dream.  Food appeared and was picked at, while the wine flowed in copious quantities, mainly at the behest of Alex, who appeared to be paying for everything.

Molly, quite bemused, listened in awe to the learned and witty conversation around her, trying to adjust her scant knowledge of cultural affairs to accommodate the new information.  Agatha liked to hold forth, regaling all with social and political commentary in between asides on the new books of the day.

“Where’s Oscar tonight?” she asked John and Lawrence between lectures.  “Is Alfred in town?”

“No such luck,” tittered Lawrence, giving John a knowing look.  “In-laws.”

Agatha laughed boomingly.  “Poor Oscar.”

Molly concentrated on her grilled sole and looked over at Florence, who was being quite monopolised by the handsome Alex.  Why hadn’t she thought to sit next to an eligible man, instead of this odd hybrid and pair of queens?

“Have you really read nothing but Dickens and Trollope?” Alex was saying, his blue eyes incredulously wide.

“Truly.  My father is very particular about what I read,” sighed Florence.  Goodness, Alex was a very good-looking young man; every time his arm in its capacious lawn sleeve moved beside her she found herself moving unconsciously closer until their shoulders almost touched.  He was educating her on what she needed to read, pleased to have such a blank slate to fashion after spending so many years navigating and overcoming hardened aesthetic prejudices.  And if the blank slate proved also to be pretty and biddable, well, so much the better.

He reached inside his jacket and brought out a slim violet-bound volume, handing it to his new project.  “Take this, Florence, and read it…why do you look so outraged?  We all use each other’s forenames here; we are not stiff old reactionaries.  May I not call you Florence?”

He was smiling teasingly, and Florence blushed, staring down at the book in her hand.  Collected Poems of Algernon Swinburne.

“Of course you may; I meant nothing at all.  You may call me Floss, if you like.”

“Floss?”  Alex’s smile broadened and he challenged her with his eyes until she was forced to look back up at him.  “That sounds as if you would like us to be friends.  Should you like that, Flossie?”

The silvery voice of Jess cut across the tension, and Florence looked up to see a momentary glint of jealousy in her friend’s eyes.

“Alex has taken quite a shine to you, Flo.  Have a care; he has a certain reputation.”

“Jess!  If I were not unfailingly gallant, I would have to take you to task for that.  Do you want little Floss here to run away?”  Alex’s words were light, but the look in his eyes was hard as steel.

“She is not accustomed to our ways, Alex.  Do not overstep your bounds.”

Florence was taken aback at the quality of their eye contact; it was not hostile exactly, and neither was it friendly; it was….there was something a little strange.  She cleared her throat.

“Indeed, it is getting late.  I think Molly and I must be going.  Could you arrange a cab for us?”

“Must you go?” wheedled her beau, but Florence nodded firmly.  The hands of the ormulu clock on the wall pointed to midnight, and she did not dare try to sneak back home with any more of the delicious wine Alex had plied her with inside her.

Goodbyes were said and the two guests allowed Alex to show them downstairs, where the proprietor would organise transport back to Half Moon Street.  Helping Florence into her travelling cloak, Alex took a gentle hold of her forearm, bending down from behind to speak into her ear.

“Floss, I very much hope we will meet again soon.  May I know where you live?  May I visit?”

“Oh…” Florence flustered.  “It is not easy.  I am here incognito tonight – my father…”

“Oh, Floss!  You little scapegrace!”

Florence felt a stirring of mingled excitement and shame at the handsome man’s words, spoken so directly into her ear that his breath warmed her lobe.

“Is there no respectable way to see you?  Then we must make a secret assignation.   Can I communicate with you via Jessie?”

“If…you want,” stammered Florence, pitching and tossing on a sea of foreign sensations and emotions.

“I do want, Floss.  And I will.  Good evening.”  He whirled her around and kissed her hand, keeping their eyes locked together until she had to break away.

He stood on the pavement watching their hansom retreat until they were no longer visible.  Then he turned and went back upstairs.

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