The House of Elyot

1888 Part 16

Posted on: April 22, 2011

“May I take your cloak, Madam?”

For a moment, Molly failed to realise that the obsequious uniformed man to her right was addressing her. ‘Madam?’ She was Miss at best, and more usually ‘Oi, you, girl’.

But then, so caught up was she in the pleasure of masquerade that she hardly took in the surrounding scenes until Sir Rupert extended the crook of his arm once more for her to take, drawing her into the red and gold room with its hum of conversation and the constant clink-clink-clink of coins tossed on to green baize.

Knots of finely-dressed gentlemen huddled around tables, engrossed in games of cards or dice, while tight-bodiced, feather-coiffed ladies fawned at their sides, very clearly a few degrees shy of respectable but none the less glamorous for that.

A gentleman played popular tunes on the piano in the corner while other low-decolletaged women floated about the room with silver salvers of champagne glasses. In darkened booths at the back of the room, private conversations and flirtations were taking place among people whose silhouettes were only just discernable.

Molly’s eye moved away from them and up towards a huge and ornate golden chandelier that bathed shimmering light over the scene. She was used to the opulence of the Smythson home, but she still never failed to be impressed by magnificent surroundings, and she turned to Sir Rupert and beamed excitedly.

“Oh, Sir, what a fine place this is!”

“Hush, Molly, you must call me ‘darling’ while we are here – no standing on ceremony, dear girl. All who patronise this establishment understand the virtue of discretion.”

“Then they will think I’m….your wife?” Molly’s incredulous tone drew a chuckle from her titled lover.

“Oh, I don’t think the people here labour under many illusions, Molly. But they all have exquisite manners and would not dream of voicing any suspicions in the open.”

“Oh.” Molly thought this through, finally realising that her status as Sir Rupert’s mistress would be tacitly understood but never mentioned.

Sir Rupert took a glass of champagne for her and ordered himself a vermouth cocktail before escorting the saucer-eyed servant girl over to one of the more popular tables. Molly had never before seen this manner of game – the men placed coloured discs on a numbered grid before a wheel was set spinning and a ball thrown on to the whirligig, jumping and dancing between the ridged partitions until it slowed and stopped, to the accompaniment of elated shouts or despairing groans.

She watched it curiously for a few minutes, enjoying the fizz of the champagne but noting with a hint of alarm that the ball never seemed to land where Sir Rupert wished it to. Then her attention wandered across the room, back to the shadowy booths, wherein sat mysterious personages….oh. Crossing the room purposefully towards one of the unoccupied sanctuaries were two familiar figures. One was that Jessie’s fella – the painter – such a distinctive man, with his hair so long he had tied it in a black ribbon. With him was Florence’s dreamboat, the Greek Godlike Alex. What were they doing here?

Molly touched Sir Rupert’s elbow. “Begging your pardon, S – darling, I need to powder my nose.”

Sir Rupert waved an impatient hand at her without moving his demented gaze from the roulette wheel, and Molly slipped away, concealing herself behind a Chinese silk screen in the corner of the room, close to where the two young men had taken their seats.

“The strongest liquor you have,” Vyvyan was saying to the waitress who hovered close to them. “I have need of fortification tonight.”

“A whiskey for him and a red wine for me,” clarified Alex, and the waitress swanned away. “Seriously, Stanford, don’t you think you are taking this a little too much to heart?”

“You didn’t see it,” moaned Vyvyan. “It’s not like Jessie to…do that kind of thing. Yes, she is a hedonist and a sensualist, but only among friends, Alex, you know that. She told me so many times that she only intended to sell her smile and her company, but if you’d seen the look on her face…” Vyvyan paused to shudder. “It was the face of a woman who had sold her soul.”

Alex’s voice cut in, low and assured. “Oh, that’s very poetic, Vyvyan, but shouldn’t you remind yourself why she is doing this. Every farthing she makes from this enterprise is for you – to support you, to keep the fire burning in your grate and the inspiration flowing from your brush. She loves you, Vyvyan, and everything she does is for love of you.”

There was a lull in conversation while the drinks were delivered, and then Vyvyan spoke again, in a broken tone. “You didn’t see her, Alex. If you’d seen her….”

Alex heaved a sigh. “You have had an unpleasant shock; you will recover. Do not go too hard on Jessie. But who is the man concerned? Did he give her a name.”

“Oh yes, he gave her a name,” said Vyvyan, now querulous and spoiling for a fight. “Hi, girl, another whiskey here! But the name was not his. He works on behalf of an Archduke Heinz-Werner from some tinpot Prussian fiefdom. Have you heard of him?”

“Heinz-Werner,” said Alex thoughtfully. “Lower Teutonia, I think.”

“Mmm, yes, I think so. Apparently the exalted Archduke himself merely requires Jessie’s company, but his emissary took it upon himself to…to…sample the goods.” Vyvyan spat out the last words, then took up the glass that had been refilled.

“So the man concerned was a foreigner? Well, you know, perhaps its some filthy germanic custom…”

“No, no,” blurted Vyvyan. “Now you’ve mentioned it, that’s a rather rum thing. He didn’t sound in the least German. He sounded very English.”

“Oh.” Alex absorbed this piece of information before casually remarking, “Jessie’s a spirited girl; if she’s as tigerish in life as she is in bed, she’ll have Heinz-Werner eating out of her hand…what was that?”

It was this sentence that had caused Molly to drop her champagne glass; its tinkling shatter was plainly audible to the young men in the booth, even the by now rather befuddled Vyvyan.

Alex left him to embark on his third double Scotch and leapt up, peering around the screen to find a very abashed and red-faced Molly wringing her hands there.

“Molly? It is Molly, isn’t it? What on earth are you doing here?”

Molly scarcely knew where to look; she was filled with confusion. Could she admit to Alex that she was here with his flame’s father? But if he was sleeping with Jessie, what was he doing with Florence? Should she be angry with him, friendly with him, afraid of him? It was all to much to consider at once.

Alex grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the booth, where Vyvyan was slumped, head on arm, moaning indistinctly into his shirtsleeve.

“Molly, I don’t know what you’ve heard or why you’re here but…I must ask you not to tell Florence anything.”

“Why not? She is my friend. Why would I not tell her such a very important thing?”

“Ah, Molly, but it is not important, not at all. Jessie and I have had a friendly arrangement in the past, but you must understand that my intentions towards Florence are entirely serious. And honourable. Do you believe me?”

Alex’s earnest agitation struck Molly as sincere. She nodded, her brown eyes huge.

“I hope I can trust you, Molly,” he said. “Let me get you a fresh glass of champagne.” He hailed a waitress and replaced Molly’s drink. “Molly, I am a young man about town, and sometimes I have behaved in ways that might shock you. They would certainly shock Florence, I imagine. But I am not a bad person, and now that I have met your mistress, I have resolved to change my ways. I am a reformed character. I mean to make myself worthy of her, Molly. You would not dash a man’s hopes, would you? I sense that you are a kind and gentle girl, Molly. Am I right?”

Molly, still blushing furiously, simpered into the champagne bubbles.

“I hope you mean it, Sir,” she said softly. “Miss Florence’s heart would break if you was toying with her.”

He smiled, a row of perfectly even white teeth dazzling her with their uncommon uniformity.

“I shall make her my wife before the year is out, Molly. But you must swear that you will not speak a word of this to her. We have plans to meet tomorrow and I would prefer that she heard it from me!”

Molly was stunned. Why, they had met twice – could Alex really be considering marriage? Well, he was a poet, she supposed, and they were all for that wild love-at-first-sight malarkey. Still, she could not help feeling a tiny bit envious of Florence, to have such a handsome and passionate man at her feet.

“So then, Molly. May I ask what a sweet young thing like you is doing in a….” he lowered his voice to a whisper, blue eyes twinkling, “…gambling den?”

“Oh…well…I, er…I ought to get back to my…friend, begging your pardon.”

Alex homed in on Molly’s discomfiture, following the line of her anxious eyesight to rest on the somewhat dejected figure of Sir Rupert Smythson.

“And is your friend the gentleman over there with the fine waxed moustache?”

Molly was silent, in an agony of shame.

“Molly, surely he is Sir Rupert? Florence’s father?”

“I’ll bid you goodnight, Sir…” Molly made to rise, but Alex halted her, closing her forearm in one strong hand.

“Just a minute, sweetness. Don’t look so frightened. There, now. I mean you no harm. Sit down.”

She sat back down, hiding her face in her hands to conceal the unwanted beginnings of tears in her eyes.

“Molly, Molly.” Alex’s voice was gentle, if a little cajoling. “I fear for you, dear girl. Smythson is a rat; he will let you down. He doesn’t deserve you. Please find yourself a new place, Molly, before he gets the opportunity.”

Molly looked up, her face damp and stunned. “You know him?”

“Most people in London at least know of him,” averred Alex. “A gambling womaniser, Molly. A weak and foolish man who would be in the gutter without the patronage he has benefited from. Find yourself a good, honest man, Molly, and escape his clutches as soon as you can.” Alex reached over, brushed a stray lock of hair from her brow and she suddenly, instinctively grasped his wrist and held on to it as if it were floating debris on a treacherous sea.

“Don’t let him ruin you,” whispered Alex, before unclasping her and watching her scurry back to her illicit lover.

*

“Oh, you’re back,” said Sir Rupert vaguely, his brow furrowed and one eye twitching slightly. “I’m down, Molly. A long way down. I have no more left to wager.”

“Should we go?” she asked shyly, needing to get to bed to turn over that extraordinary conversation in her head.

“Go? Gad, no. It’s not yet midnight. Come over to one of the booths and sit on my knee, eh? I have need of a sweet pair of lips to rest my mind. And yours are the very sweetest I know.”

The compliment knocked the rebellious wind from Molly’s sails and she tripped obediently after the morally bankrupt baronet for a little slap and tickle in the dark.

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