[Previous and following episodes may be accessed via the PREV and NEXT buttons on the bottom of the page]
On the appointed day, the girls presented themselves at James Perry’s address. It was late afternoon and the light was fading in a blaze of rose-tinted bronze behind the buildings. They hoped to find their lawyer friend enjoying a respite from his books and had chosen their time accordingly. Cheeks aglow, they ran up the winding staircase and paused outside his door, suppressing a giggle before knocking. They need not have hesitated, for he swept them in with an effusive welcome, bade them sit by the fire and called for chocolate and muffins. He could not afford tea, he told them, and hoped that they would not look for such luxuries when they came to visit him! Currently, he was editing a newspaper called The Gazetteer in order to finance his studies.
Mary discarded her muff. “You’re a journalist, Mr Perry?”
“I have been many things, Miss Cole,” he replied. “When my father’s business ventures failed in Aberdeen, I turned to acting, a course not crowned with success: I’d a heavy brogue I’ve since chaved to tame! Then I came to London to try my luck as a hack.”
Susan yawned and cast a lacklustre eye towards the well-thumbed volumes piled up on the desk. “I was never of a studious turn of mind,” she owned. “I swear it took me a twelvemonth to master my hornbook.”
“Feint the danger of you becoming a bluestocking, then!” The lawyer retrieved the newspaper he had thrust down on his chair when he answered the door. “Now the Morning Chronicle… There is an admirable publication. Candid! Fearless! No unctuous toadying to the Monarchy.”
“You must be a Whig, Mr Perry?” Mary said, pleased to have overheard the gossip of her father’s cronies.
“Why, certainly! And proud to have made the acquaintance of Charles James Fox and the playwright, Mr Sheridan, men with the sharpest minds.”
“But have you met the Prince of Wales?” Susan wanted to know.
“Depend upon it, I shall! He is chief-like with Fox and those politicians who abhor the way he is kept imprisoned in Buckingham House and needs the dispensation of the King every time the daftie chooses to appear in public. Far from bridling him, it makes him run wild.”
“Oh do tell!”
Perry was not sure that he ought to enlarge on the follies of this flower of the Hanoverian dynasty upon whom all his hopes for the future were founded, especially in the presence of canty wee lasses. The dietary regime of George III angered him. “Well, I suppose the embroiling with Mrs Robinson is no secret…”
“Oh,” broke in Susan, “she is a very great actress, is she not?”
“Second only to Sarah Siddons, and a celebrated beauty. The Prince first met her three or four years ago when she played Perdita in A Winter’s Tale at Drury Lane and was enchanted by her.”
“Love at first sight!”
“Feuch! He cast off a certain damsel of the Court there and then. If Mary was Perdita, he was to be Florizel. But, of late, I fancy there’s a change in the wind. Mrs Robinson takes her position a shade too seriously, something such fellows are apt to find tiresome.”
“And will His Royal Highness now discard her also?” asked Mary, reflecting wryly on the lot of women.
“Who cares a fig for that,” put in Susan, “if one has been the mistress of a Prince?”
“You’re a couthie soul, Mary,” said the lawyer, moved to drop the formalities, “but don’t waste your pity on Mrs Robinson, for she holds all the aces. She’s a bond worth twenty thousand pounds and a large bundle of billets from the Prince. Such assets go a long way towards mending a broken heart.”
Had the sisters been of gentler birth, Mr Perry would not, perhaps, have introduced this delicate topic, but it served to open the younger girl’s eyes. She had listened intently to the conversation, unaware how these illustrious names were to exert a powerful influence over her destiny.
Their companion went on to say that he thought the day of the Whigs not far hence. The present Coalition could not last. Fox and Lord North were ill-assorted bedfellows, the one being the King’s man and a Tory of the bluest dye, the other a confirmed partisan of the son’s camp. Fox was all for the Commons electing its own Chief Minister. He was a witty, eloquent, thick-set little man in a hurry who had quickly amassed a band of supporters. Judge how flattered the young Prince was to be courted by so charismatic a person, as engagingly shabby as the Prince was impeccable. However, the real impediment was the Earl of Bute, said the lawyer. His lordship was well past the peak of his career but in former times had been the King’s tutor and had instilled some rigid notions of monarchy.
They were interrupted by an elderly servant who shuffled in with a tray of refreshments which he set down on the games table by the sofa. “That will do nicely, Wheeler,” Mr Perry nodded, spearing a muffin with his toasting fork and thrusting it towards the fire.
“Enough of my ranting, ladies! You’ve not come to hear me discourse on the government, though what I do have to tell you is not unconnected with Bute. Regarding your search for situations, I might have found the very thing! The grapevine is a remarkable plant.”
“Where? Who with?” Susan sounded wary.
“With Lady Talbot whose husband is a friend of Bute’s. They live in Berkeley Square and need a couple of housemaids. You are from Gloucestershire, so it was the neighbourhood of first choice.”
“Dear Mr Perry, thank you!” Mary cried. “We will go tomorrow, directly after breakfast.”
The muffins were scorching hot and delicious and all three tucked into them eagerly. Outside, the last embers of a setting sun died and the glow from the hearth deepened.
What Mary could not have known was that these were the last moments of unalloyed pleasure she was to know in a very long time.
Mary’s first impression of Berkeley Square came sharp as a premonition. She marvelled at the sun-dazzled Venetian windows of its august houses, the lawns and laurel groves where Daphnis and Chloe might have roamed, the soft echoes of an Arcadian retreat where doves chirred and doorbells created a happy assonance of their own. It was all so different from the Southwark Street of the sisters’ lodging-place and the bustle of Piccadilly only a stone’s throw away. There the peddlers of gew-gaws, primroses, linnets and brooms, broke into shrill cries and the organ-grinders vied for alms. Chairmen cut across the pedestrian and coach-drivers came to blows.
In Berkeley Square, the carriages came and went in an orderly fashion, keeping to the left. A knife-grinder plied a lone trade and all the scullery maids in crisp aprons and caps ran out on the cobblestones to have their cutlery honed. “Fancy!” marvelled Susan. “When you think of the way Pa sometimes used the doorstep!”
Going into service was like starting out of a dream, or of being reborn. It was a world of unfamiliar values and customs where polished manners disguised a dissipation that had little in common with the ribaldry of the Taproom of The Swan Inn. Life was lived strictly by the clock, not the sundial, and the ‘London Season’ had a meaning of its own.
The girls were interviewed by Lady Talbot’s termagant of a housekeeper. Mrs Thwaite was a Yorkshire woman with steel-grey hair scraped into a bun and a tongue that would have ‘clipped clouts’ in James Perry’s idiom. She was jealous of her dominion below and above stairs. This brusque daughter of Calvin was accustomed to quote the more vengeful texts of Scripture to keep the maids in check and looked the hopeful pair from the provinces up and down as though reluctant to be impressed. “You’ve no references, I see.”
“No, ma’am,” Mary said earnestly. “This is our first employment.”
“Rely on men to vouch for you, do you?” was Thwaite’s tart response.
Not until later did Mary understand the full meaning of this innuendo, but her sister was goaded to retort: “To be sure, we’d not be here if we did!”
The housekeeper bridled, but it was plain that she quickly conceived a grudging respect for Susan. “There’s no hanky-panky goes on under this roof. It’s aching backs and calloused knees and three square meals a day. Seven guineas a year the mistress pays to keep you in pins and worsted stockings.”
Seven guineas a year! It sounded a fortune. But oh, they worked hard! Within days, bruised shadows circled Mary’s eyes. No sooner had their heads touched the cambric pillows and the night-soil carts had come rumbling into the Square, than they awoke to the first rays of dawn and another day of backbreaking chopping and mopping, mending and scrubbing, wringing and polishing, ironing and starching. Before breakfast, there were rooms to be swept, ashes to be raked, fires to be stoked and drawn with great bellows, churns to be heaved and rolled off the milk wagons. Hard work had never daunted Mary, but her unaccustomed body protested at so barbaric a rhythm.
Susan fared better but was work-shy and resented being told what to do. She larked with a footman and earned a reprimand from Mrs Thwaite. Jackson, the butler, and Tabitha, the cook, looked at one another over the griddle. Notwithstanding, Susan was emboldened to address the master of the house, whom she encountered twice on the main landing, with a hint of coquetry. He was a distinguished fellow and she could tell that she did not displease him. A subtle contact had been made. Mary begged her to behave in a more seemly fashion and not to flout Mrs Thwaite whom they relied on for bed and board.
“Who cares a button for that?” Susan said with a defiant toss of the head. “I don’t mean to be stuck here for long. It’s not servants they want, it’s slaves. Anyway, the old battleaxe mightn’t find it so easy to be rid of me. I’ve a strong notion, the Earl could be induced to miss me, what with Lady Talbot and the boys away in Ireland and no one to warm his bed!” They had yet to meet Lady Talbot. There was a Joshua Reynolds portrait of her in the hall, cast as Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom, learning and the Arts, which showed her to be as remote as she was beautiful.
“For shame, Susie! I know you’re chaffing but...”
“Am I? I’m not a prude like you, Mary. I was born to have lovers. There are pleasanter ways than this of keeping body and soul together.”
The teasing strain had vanished from Susan’s voice. Her sister saw that she meant it. Isolated from their own community, the new pressures had brought into relief the differences between the two of them. Mary’s head was throbbing with the onset of a chill. “We were brought up to be honest and decent,” she protested weakly. “You’d break Mother’s heart if she could hear you.”
“Well, she can’t! Anyway, Mother’d be the first to turn a blind eye. Your fine scruples are all very well when there’s a man to provide for you. It’s time you accepted the world as it is. God helps those who help themselves.”
“The Bible says it’s the meek who inherit the earth.”
“Oh, that old fustian put about by Mr Wesley to keep folk in their place! I’m sure the citizens of Gloucester rue the day they turned out to gawp at the meddlesome old fool.”
“Mr Parsons says that there will be an uprising in France because the rich grind the poor down. He says there will be bloodshed and that the same might happen here but for Mr Wesley teaching people not to want what they can’t have.”
“I want my blessings in this world, not the next! Listen Mary, you’d do best to own that men call the shots. If we’re not to be helpless creatures at their mercy, we must learn to shake the dice to our own advantage. Play their game and you can have anything, be anything, you want. For I swear you’re too pretty to rot below stairs. You’ll end up marrying a footman and living in a poky cottage by the Thames with a clutch of brats around your skirts!