The House of Elyot

1888 Part 17

Posted on: April 29, 2011

“I can’t believe as that can be real, Miss. Surely it must be a hoax?”

“Oh, Molly,” scoffed Florence, “far superior intellects to yours have proven them genuine dinosaur skeletons. If you wish to go and tell the distinguished Professors that they are wrong and a skivvy is right, then you have my blessing to do so.”

Molly pinched her lips and said nothing. Florence had a cruel tongue on her sometimes; it came of being a spoilt madam, she supposed. She had even tentatively suggested as much to Sir Rupert during one of their trysts but he had frowned and rejected the accusation.

“Young ladies are precious things,” he had told her, his hand sliding slyly down past the elastic of her bloomers. “We must treat them as such. Florence has been brought up to expect the very best, and by God, she shall have it. Please excuse my blasphemous language. Oh Molly, what a tight little cunny you have.”

She shook the disquieting memory from her head, concentrating instead on the icthyosaur skull on the plinth before her. Florence could wait for her illicit friends in silence then.

This arrangement suited Florence very well. Her pulse was galloping and she was so nervous she could barely focus on any of the exhibits in the echoing Hall, let alone discuss them with the semblance of erudition. She took yet another turn around the frigid chamber, fists clenched fiercely until she heard skirts swishing towards her and the bell-like voice of her old friend cutting through the rarefied air.

“Flo! How wonderful that you could make it. I have been longing to see you.”

“Jess! How have you been? I have been thinking of you every day.”

The two girls embraced, sizing each other up as they did so. Florence noted that Jessie was most unconventionally dressed again, in some kind of sweeping purple velvet thing underneath several fringed shawls. She looked rather gipsyish and mystical, almost as if she should have a crystal ball stowed away somewhere under all the layers. Jessie, for her part, observed that Florence seemed to have taken even more care than usual with her appearance; her hair was ringletted within an inch of its life and she had apparently relieved the town of Cologne of its entire supply of eau. And furthermore, she was trembling slightly, her proferred cheek icy cold.

“You seem very nervous,” commented Jessie. “Come and sit down.”

They took a viewing bench before an enormous replica of a tyrannosaurus, leaving Molly to wander blithely around the room alone.

“Jessie, will he come?”

“Oh, Florence. Has he captured your heart so quickly?”

Florence looked away. “Of course not. But I do enjoy our…literary discussions.”

“My love, you have met him twice, and one meeting was much too brief even for discussion of the weather, let alone the great works of the English language. He is a handsome and charming young man; I believe he has turned your head.”

“Oh, Jessie…please don’t tease me.” Florence’s voice sounded thick, as if tears were not far away, so her friend allowed the subject to drop.

“Flo, we’re planning a marvellous party for next month. I do hope you’ll be able to come.”

She stared at Jessie vividly. “Is it in the daytime?” she asked tentatively.

“Well…no. It’s an evening party; it will probably go on all night. Do you remember Roland, the young musician you met at Swanson’s?”

Florence nodded, a vague memory of a reed-like dark-haired boy blurring in her memory, once she had squeezed past the enormous totemic presence of Alex there.

“The premiere of his cello concerto is to take place at the new Royal Albert Hall on the sixth. There will be a huge party at Swanson’s to celebrate. Everyone will be there; it will probably go on until dawn. I’m sure Alex would love you to come. He is the host, after all.”

Florence caught her breath. More than anything in the whole world, it was now imperative that she should go to this party. If she had to knot her bedsheets together and climb out of her second floor window, she would be there.

“Oh, if I can be there, Jess, I will, I swear. Papa seems distracted these days; it is a little easier to slip out of the house without his noticing. I’m sure I will soon run out of pretty trinkets to bribe our coachman with though.” She giggled, the life returning to her pale face.

“That’s the spirit, Flo! Freedom, pleasure and love!”

“Freedom, pleasure and love,” echoed Florence faintly, then her heart leapt and a filter of explosive colour seemed to cross her eyes as they processed the entrance of Alex into the chamber. For a moment, he stood beneath the arch, peering around, noticing Molly first and smiling at her before turning to the two confederates and strolling languidly over.

“Ladies,” he opened, making a deep and formal bow. “What an unexpected delight to find you here.”

Jess snorted. “Unexpected my eye,” she mocked.

Alex raised an eyebrow at her. “Have you seen the pterodactyl’s teeth, Jess? They are said to be quite fascinating, and enormously sharp.”

She humphed and took the hint, swishing off over to Molly.

Alex took her place on the bench, turning to face Florence, who had lost the power of speech and was staring furiously down at her lace-edged handkerchief, fiddling with its border.

“Vyvyan should be here to paint this,” he said softly. “Such life amidst these old dead carcasses – beauty amid the beasts.”

Florence made a sound that was half-laugh, half-hysterical blurt.

“Sweet Flossie, are you afraid of me? Can you not look at me? Come…look at me.”

Florence was genuinely concerned that she might be blinded by the glaring white light of his presence; the preceding days had seen her build her image of him higher and higher until he seemed like an insurmountable peak of brilliant perfection, surely too divine to be taken in by a dullard like her. She had pestered Molly to buy her a volume of his poetry from the booksellers, and had sighed with awe on reading his voluptuous verse. Alexander Winterton, the author of Villanelles in Violet, a genius of his time. And yet she still knew so little about him on a practical level. Was it enough to know the secrets of his soul, through his golden words?

She felt his fingers lightly on her chin, pulling her face up and towards him.

“But you aren’t pleased to see me?” he lamented. “I have dreamed of this, and now you are going to send me away?”

“No,” stammered Florence. “Please don’t go. I am pleased to see you. I…hardly know how to act…I have never…”

“I understand,” he murmured. “You have never loved before?”

She shook her head, unable to say the biggest of words.

“Nor I,” he assured her, which brought speech stumbling to her lips.

“But your poems…the lady in My Heart is Dry…?”

Alex laughed delightedly. “You have read my poems? Oh, Flossie, now I am mortified. What a foolish milksop you must think me. Ah, well, I will not deny that I have had boyish infatuations. But you, Florence, you are not one of them.”

“How can you say this? You hardly know me at all.”

Alex took one of Florence’s white-gloved hands in his, stroking the flap until his thumb burrowed underneath to her sensitive wrist.

“Love does not require introductions, Flossie. Love does not sit making smalltalk over a glass of sherry, or ask for details of family background and annual income. Love enters like a brigand and throws you over its shoulder, robbing you of your mind and your manners. It takes possession of you, it bends you to its will. It is an unprincipled blackguard, Flossie, and it will have its way.”

Flossie stared at him open-mouthed, flushed at his passionately spoken words and the exquisite touch of his skin on her wrist. The blood was coursing through her, rushing to her head, draining from her face…oh…she was going to…

“Flossie! Angel!” Alex fell to his knees, panicking as his inamorata slid to the floor in a dead faint.

Jessie and Molly rushed over to lend their assistance.

“Here, let me unlace her corset,” offered Molly. “She always makes me pull those stays far too tight, especially today. Sir, if you wouldn’t mind leaving the room for a moment…”

Alex wandered off to the neighbouring gallery while Jessie fetched a screen to conceal the ailing young lady.

“There is sal volatile in her reticule,” Molly advised, working hard on pulling the ribbons through the eyelets in the whaleboned satin beneath Florence’s dress.

Jess rummaged through the little bag, eventually finding the small bottle of smelling salts Molly had mentioned.

“What on earth can Alex have said to bring this on?” she wondered aloud.

“He is a very fine gentleman, ain’t he,” said Molly wistfully. “So kind. And so handsome.”

“Careful, Molly, or you’ll be another slave to his charms,” said Jessie drily.

“Well, I wouldn’t be the only one, would I?” said Molly, with a significant upward flicker of her brown eyes.

Jessie stared, stony-faced. “He is very popular,” she said blandly.

Molly returned to her task of freeing Florence’s constricted ribs from imprisonment, blushing furiously. Jessie wafted the unstoppered vial beneath her childhood friend’s delicate nostrils, waiting for the breath to become less shallow and the peaches return to her cheeks.

Eventually Florence’s eyes burst open and she moaned with mortification at finding herself beached on the cold tiled floor with her gown unbuttoned at the back and her corset quite undone.

“Are you all right, Miss?” asked Molly tentatively. “You fainted.”

“No, oh no, where is Alex? Has he gone?”

“He is just outside, Flo, do you want me to bring him in?” offered Jess.

“Oh no! How can I face him now? Oh dear, oh dear, he must think me quite ridiculous! Please don’t let him come back!”

Jess stroked Florence’s ringlets. “Dearest, he will be devastated. You know how much he has wanted to see you.”

“It is impossible! He cannot! You must send him away! Molly, go and tell him so. Oh!” She placed her hand on Molly’s black-clad arm, arresting her flight. “But tell him I do want to come to his party. And to please not think ill of me.”

Jessie helped Florence to recover herself while Molly rushed out to the botanical gallery, where Alex was musing on the life cycle of the acanthus.

“Molly,” he hailed her. “How is she? I am afraid I have said something to offend her!”

“Oh, she will be well,” said Molly, lowering her eyes shyly to the level of the exhibit. “She is very embarrassed, though, at fainting in your presence. She does not want you to stay.”

“Oh!” Alex exclaimed in disappointment. “But when shall I see her?”

“She says she will come to your party next month.”

“But that is weeks away! I must see her before then.”

“I am afraid we are all going away to the country for a short visit. We will not be back until the end of the month.”

“Where? Where will you be?”

“At Lord Hunter-Fox’s residence. Fawkelands; do you know it?”

“Yes,” said Alex slowly. “I know it. Thank you, Molly. You have been a great help.”

He bent to give her hand an impetuous kiss before striding away towards the exit. Molly tittered and held her hand against her breast for a moment or two, before returning to assist her mistress.

2 Responses to "1888 Part 17"

Intrigue! And fainting! Fainting must have been so useful…

I know – must have got women out of some very tight spots, despite the very tight stays.

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