The House of Elyot

1888 Part 13

Posted on: March 30, 2011

An illicit rendezvous in church…


“Have a care on the step, Florence; there is ice and you may slip.”


Florence leaned yet more heavily on her father’s arm as they ascended the steps outside the church they attended every Sunday.  The January slush had hardened into February ice and Florence wondered if they would have one of those famous episodes when the Thames froze over and one could ice-skate across its surface.  Unlikely, she supposed, as this had not happened since her grandparents’ day, but a Frost Fair would be lovely, and so romantic.  She imagined skating arm in arm with Alex across a polished sheet of ice towards the dome of St Pauls…their cheeks would be tingling and she would lean into his tall tower of warmth and they would laugh, oh how they would laugh…


She tripped delicately up to the Smythson family pew – only Papa and her today; Mama remained indisposed – while various of the servants, including Molly, found places among the congregational masses.  Florence found the church service itself dull, but she always relished the opportunity to scan the worshippers and take note of their attire and demeanour.  Who was fashionable?  Who had a new pelisse?  How did her hat compare to those of the other great ladies in the family pews?  She sat back with a little sigh of satisfaction on ascertaining that she, Florence Smythson, was still the fairest of them all.  The lugubrious tones of the Reverend washed over her, intoning something about the meek inheriting the Earth…and then she caught her breath and had to bite down on her lip to prevent an exclamation breaking through.


Two pews back on the opposite side of the aisle, a familiar head of tousled blond hair, the owner’s cool blue eyes staring directly at her with one eyebrow slightly raised.  Alex!  He put one hand to the dark green beret he was wearing, then feigned a mopping of his brow.  Florence took note of his whispered excuses to the people about him and watched him edge out along the bench, giving her one long look of unmistakable meaning before disappearing along the transept towards the porch.


Florence waited until the end of the Lesson, kicking at the hassock impatiently with one daintily-booted foot, then she turned to Sir Rupert.


“Papa, I feel a little faint.  I may go and take some air.”


“Floss, are you sure?  Should I come with you?”


“No, no, I will find Molly.  She will take care of me.  Do not miss the sermon on my account, I pray you.”


Florence did not wait for any further demurring on her father’s part, but instead flitted nervously up to the great oaken doors at the back of the church and through them to the cool sanctuary of the porch, where Alex stood flicking languidly through a Book of Common Prayer.


“When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive,” quoted the young man sonorously.  Then he laughed and put the book aside.  “And am I lawful and right, sweet Florence, to thus inveigle you from your righteous worship?  Or is it the most flagrant of iniquities?”


Florence gasped, twisting her fingers and needing to lean back against a table piled high with hymnals for support.


“I have never seen you here before,” she managed to blurt.


“I have never before had cause to be here,” he replied lightly, his full lips quirking into a flirtatious smile.  “To the great despair of my family, I am not a regular churchgoer.  And if I were, this is outside my parish.  But now, Florence, you are my church, and my parish, and my eternity.”


Florence, flummoxed, could think of no other response to this than a high-pitched laugh.


“You…you speak out of turn,” she faltered, struggling to locate a conventionally acceptable reaction to such sudden and ardent words of love.  “We are barely acquainted.”


“Oh, in the terms of the world only,” he said, striding over to Florence and towering over her, his face florid with passion.  Florence could scarcely resist when he took one trembling hand in his.  “But our souls, Florence…are they not acquainted?  More than acquainted – they are intimate.  They are divided twins, which have wondered alone for so many years.  Do not tell me you do not feel it, Florence – or why would you have followed me out here?”


“I…oh, I do not know…”  Florence fought her desire to accept his words, to drink them in and give herself to him then and there, for all time.  She knew it would spell social ruin to behave with such impropriety, for herself and her parents.


“You do know, Florence.”  Alex smote his brow, then gathered both her hands to his chest, and spoke low and quietly.  “You know it in your heart, even if your head protests.  I will give you this choice.  You can turn away from me and stay forever in your arid constraints of decency and dullness.  Or you can arrange to be in the grand hall at the Natural History Museum on Thursday next at 3 o’clock.”


“But how can I…?” began Florence in dismay.  How could she ever slip away and meet a man?  It was impossible!


“Love finds a way,” Alex assured her, one finger on her lips.  “Love is clever like that.”


He bent and kissed the top of her head, then he looked around to make sure they were unobserved and dropped the briefest of kisses on to her lips.


Then he was gone, away down and out to Mayfair beyond.


Florence reeled, still leaning heavily on the table, her heart in a thunderous steeplechase.  Was that real?  Had that just happened?  Surely she was dreaming.


A timid voice called her back to Earth.  “Miss, are you well?  Do you need me to help you back home?”


“Molly, don’t fuss, I’m perfectly all right,” snapped Florence, her breathing still somewhat uneven.  “I shall come back in with you now.”


The rest of the service passed indistinctly, surging in and out of the troubled girl’s consciousness when the babel in her head quieted for brief moments.  She knew she had invited this in her daydreams, but now it had happened – so soon, so unexpectedly – was it really what she wanted?  The congenial connection they had forged at the supper had fed her fantasies, it was true, but Alex’s declarations seemed too precipitous to be quite convincing.  Could he mean what he said?


And if he did, could she honestly say that she reciprocated his violent affections?  Did she have the strength to deny her father and renounce her name and be but sworn his love?  Was her true desire, after all, to settle down after the Season with that very chinless Lordling, the prospect of whom, she had found so derisory before?  Or could she follow her heart and become his, take on his love and name…but what was his name?


She stole a sidelong glance at her father, singing lustily along to ‘O God Our Help in Ages Past’, and thought she would break his heart.  As for her mother….well, she may never again leave her bed.  But was true love and deathless passion not worth this price?


She sighed gustily, but at the same time she fingered the Book of Common Prayer she had slipped into a pocket of her cape.  The one his fingers had flipped through.  Oh, he had held her hand…his lips had touched hers….she almost swooned afresh at the remembrance.  Surely this was a chance that would never come again?



2 Responses to "1888 Part 13"

Oh, Florence, Florence…

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel…

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