He had an unnerving sensation that he had met 'Lydia Languish' before...
His parents had never understood how insufferable Eton was after the House of Lords Inquiry. The archaic air of Establishment was a prison sentence as much as the prevailing stance among students was one of anarchy. They boasted how they’d locked up one of the masters a while ago. Soldiers, special constables and armed farmers were called to the scene where the Riot Act had been read.
The boy had entered the school as Lord Dursley but was called Fitz Berkeley by his peers. News of his parents’ long-suppressed marriage had caused tremors on the grapevine. Few believed the story. From the outset, the boys had been infected with adult scepticism. There was a campaign of bullying under cover of the fagging system and some of the older boys picked fights which decidedly did not adhere to the Broughton Rules. They called Fitz ‘the Young Pretender’ with the inference that his Papa was the Old one, although it was Lord Berkeley’s word rather than his birth that was for conjecture. Fitz was herded together with all manner of grand fellows whose expectations were assured. He stood his ground with courage, but grew deeply aggrieved. It wasn’t as though his actual parentage was at issue; it all hung on the existence of a fusty old bit of paper. His Mama actually was the Countess of Berkeley. He didn’t know what all the fuss was about. His frustration knew no bounds so that acts of rebellion, like attempting to scale Lupton’s Tower, seemed the only outlet. He remembered thinking, as terror compelled him upwards, that this whole edifice might give out. The brick and stone were only compacted dust. And he remembered the sheer hegemony of looking down upon the Godolphin statue of Henry VI in School Yard, from above his crown, and realising, in a moment of time, how small everything was, how Lilliputian the human race, and how absurd was an order that rallied under the Orb and Sceptre. Yet he could not for the life of him see any other means to distinguish himself.
Eton College had chewed him up and spat him out and he felt nothing but profound relief. There had been a hellish interview with Dr Heath in the presence of Lord Berkeley. Since then, his father had scarcely uttered a civil word to him. His mother gazed upon him with a sorrowful Madonna countenance and irritated him with her everlasting fortitude, as if she were the injured party. The race of women needed putting in its place. There were too many of them scribbling away in plaintive humour about the inequities of their lot.
Such feelings as these congested Fitz’s mood on the opening night of The Rivals. He had more or less resolved to put Amy Knight out of his mind – the highways and byways did not lack sportive nymphs – but that meant she would have beaten him. He had no wish to look like a desperado, but in order to keep self-respect he had to win.
The actress fully embraced her role as Lydia Languish. She seemed to relish the stereotype and find freedom in it, which was odd. Her ringing declamations stirred a barrage of emotions. Fitz wanted to vault the balcony separating them and land at her feet from the gods.
The interval saw him quitting Craven’s box and its occupants, Edward Berkeley Portman, William Craven and Louisa Brunton (Harriette was in the wardrobe!) to seek Miss Knight’s dressing-room which he made no bones about entering without leave.
She was still attired in her silk velvet costume of emerald and turquoise and a cockeyed creation upon her powdered wig trimmed with loops of ribbon and ostrich plumes. Seated at her candlelit mirror in a provisional attitude, she seemed agitated over the particulars of the script which she was discussing with a gentleman inclined towards her. “Pray, don’t refine upon it, my angel,” he was saying soothingly. “The number of people who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves...”
Both started at the intrusion, he in an even more farcical manner than the actress.
“Lud, sir! You frightened me half to death!” she gasped, her hand flying to her palpitating bosom. “My lord!” She jumped up at once and curtsied.
“If it ain’t young Viscount Dursley himself, forsooth!” exclaimed her companion whom he recognised as Richard Brinsley Sheridan.
“Miss Knight. Sherry.”
“I’ve been putting Miss Knight’s mind at ease. She thinks herself a wilderness of faults and follies.”
“A veritable wilderness,” she echoed, rolling her eyes. “I declare if twere not for dear Sherry directing my turns, I should never be out of the undergrowth.”
“And refreshing your phrases, O Sweet One.”
“Exactly. I could not have put it more aptly myself.”
“You wish for an autograph?” enquired the playwright. “Hers might be a worthier offering, but mine will pay your tailor...if you have one.”
“Stop playing the ass, Sherry,” said the Viscount tersely. “I’m here to speak with Miss Knight. Alone.”
“Then I shan’t usurp your role any longer.”
“No, wait, Sheridan,” the actress bade him. “This fellow is minded to join the players. He hopes to offset my Juliet with his Romeo. What think you of that?”
“Does he now? May I presume to give you a little advice, sir? Give the quean the hemlock at the beginning...! It will save a lot of trouble and we can all go to bed in a sanguine frame of mind.”
“Your lordship, I note, takes after his aunt.”
“The Incomparable Mrs Baring, Mrs Edge that was. Now there was a fine actress...lost, alas, to our Continent. I sent her to the Fishamble Street Theatre to try her fortune on the Dublin stage. I believe it was where the poor widow met the late Mr Heyward upon his travels and achieved the apotheosis of her career.”
The Viscount was astonished. “I know nothing of all that. I thought him her first husband.”
“Ah! I perceive you a man of swift calculation,” said Sheridan. “Now, let me see...it is so very taxing to the intellect to recall the precise sequence of Mrs Baring’s oeuvre...”
The five minute rallying call came from the stage manager.
“Never mind that now, Sherry,” said Amy Knight airily. “I must compose myself.”
Sheridan bowed with many a florid gesture and withdrew. The Viscount suddenly felt like a vessel beached. The walls were papered with playbills, evoking an atmosphere of the legendary and the esoteric. For some reason, the actress smiled tenderly upon him so that he was emboldened to ask: “I wonder, Miss Knight, my I take you to supper at The Star after the performance?”
“Your lordship is most kind,” she said, dropping another quick curtsy and fluttering her lashes, which in itself seemed a concession from this diva, “but I think...”
“I implore you...” he interposed in spite of himself.
The one minute call came to beginners of the next Act. She hovered in genuine turmoil, then bestowed upon him gracious assent.
“Please allow me a little time to change and attend to my toilette.”
“In which hiatus, I trust you will not disappear.”
“You have my word,” she said.
He could not concentrate on the rest of the performance, not even upon Amy. She had mended the situation and soothed all his abrasions. He experienced a kind of tingling disconnection from himself and from the rest of the world. Amy had promised to have supper with him!
“Craven, you go ahead in the carriage,” he said at the end of the evening. “I shall make my own way.”
Craven’s brows shot up in amusement. “Scandalous,” he tut-tutted. “Quite scandalous. The lady has all my sympathy.”
The Star was a first-class establishment with elegantly-swagged supper rooms at one end of the Piazza. Seated in a discreet alcove below the soft light of wall sconces, Fitz confronted his charmer. Rouge-pot and lip salve had conspired to enhance nature a little, but her complexion was no longer embalmed in ceruse. He saw that she was older than he had supposed. Whilst her bearing was mature, especially when her hair was swept high, he had not taken her for more than twenty. The black eyes, full of orient mystery, fed on his soul and were constantly vigilant for response. Tonight she had cast off her Lydia Languish caricature which was a good deal more innocent than she was. But Fitz had no power to focus her. She was juggling her offstage masks. The challenge drove him to wade through thistle and thorn. He would break if he did not conquer her.
“Amy...I hope I may call you Amy...is that your given name?”
“I was baptised Amaryllis,” she said.
“It should have been a darker appellation. Anemone would have better suited.”
She burbled with laughter and searched his gaze as though daring him to venture into new and shocking realms.
“You’re a strange boy."
“I rather fancy that’s no bad thing,” he responded, slightly nettled.
Champagne was brought to the table. The cork was slickly drawn by the sommelier. Fitz supped and savoured the black grape skins in a riot of bubbles.
“Well, Sweet Amaryllis, not Adieu, Bonjour! Bonsoir! Bonne Nuit!”
“We’ve already done the parting,” she said.
“You have heard Mr Wilbye quoted before,” he observed dully.
“It goes with the territory,” she said.
The remark brought him down to earth just when he had begun to take flight.
“I perceive you ain’t easily typecast, Amy.”
“Versatility pays the rent, sir.” She raised her glass to that and half-drained it. No delicate sipping for Amy Knight. She was an emancipated woman.
“And how long have you been in the theatre?”
“Faith, I’ve been treading the boards since the French declared war! My debut role, though, was as Foible in The Way of the World. I reckon that was just after Dr Jenner inoculated Jamie Phipps with the ‘pox. Ninety-six, was it?”
“I believe it was,” Fitz agreed, startled, “for I and my brothers were also inoculated. But what made you think of that?”
“I knew the family,” the actress said succinctly.
“I believe I’m distantly related to the dairymaid from whom the cowpox lymph was taken.”
The Viscount thought this admirably candid and marvelled that she had not fabricated a more genteel history. Undoubtedly an air of breeding had been acquired via training in elocution and moving among the nobility and gentry, but she was inclined to lapse into hints of the vernacular in offguard moments, when fatigued or a little tipsy. “You have roots in Gloucestershire?” he asked in surprise.
“The same county as you, sir.”
Some echo sounded in the recesses of his being. “I knew we had common ground!” He struck the table so that the silver cutlery clinked upon its lace and linen cloth. “Inexplicably, I sensed it when I first beheld you. It begs the question why you left?”
“My mother died. My brother and sister were both married. My father never came back from the American wars,” she shrugged, a touch wistfully. She didn't mention that he was her stepfather. Born out of wedlock, she assumed the name of her natural father for the stage. “I went into service to further my chances. If I’d played nursemaid to my nieces and nephews, I should have been tramping the same treadmill for ever, not a moment to lift my head and watch the lark rise.”
He became aware that he was stealthily gaining her confidence. Or was it another act? Did she have leisure and inclination to watch the lark rise? Why should it concern him?
“And do you go down to the country often?”
“We run at Bristol and Cheltenham two or three times a year.”
“I’d certainly have remembered if I’d seen you there,” frowned Fitz, racking his underused brain.
“I visit my sister a little oftener.” She was raking his gaze for an inkling of his mind. “My lodgings are in Cockspur Street.”
“Indeed? Next door to Spring Gardens. Our house is shut up at the moment. The family's down at Berkeley for Yuletide. In Town, I sponge off my Craven cousins. The country can be devilish dull in the depths of winter. The sport is excellent, but it means having the pater breathe down my collar.”
She was silent, as if coming to a decision, and then added: “I live quite alone.”
“None. I don’t have the call. We’re on the road as often as not.”
They dined on oysters and lobster bisque, quail and lemon syllabubs. White burgundy followed the champagne and enveloped the world in a golden mist. Fitz was beginning to feel truly adult, in charge of himself as never before. He almost wished he had not chosen a shaded corner, for he fancied there were older fellows ogling the two of them, whispering to their wives and comrades that the young dog was earning as raffish a reputation as the old one, but carried himself with superior aplomb. Well, he didn’t have to stoop to abduction to get what he wanted!
“So you’re ready to be a trouper, my lord?”
“With spit and polish, I might come up to scratch,” he grinned. His knife and fork were resting akimbo across his plate while he studied them. “Why...? Why did you give me the slip last summer? Not even a crack in the wall through which we might talk!”
“It wouldn’t do to be too breezy, now would it? There’s a gaggle of cheeky fellows around the stage door with bouquets on the first night. By rights, you should be way down the queue. Where are my roses and lilies, sir?”
“According to the poets, lilies fester, roses become cankered, but a hearty supper feeds body and soul.”
She considered this, thinking that he had always been precocious. For a young man of seventeen or eighteen, he possessed undue pessimism. “You are not of a romantic turn of mind, I apprehend.”
“I believe I’d sooner shoot our feathered friends than write odes to them!”
“The child is certainly father of the man,” she observed in teasing humour.
She spiked his gaze for a split second. His flesh prickled with electricity. “Who are you?” he queried under his breath.
“Honest to God, you were a right little tearaway when you were growing up. It was all your mother could do to keep behind you. She shut you in the boot cupboard for answering back. You’d still be there if Mr Chapeau hadn’t intervened.”
“Chapeau? By Heaven, I’d long forgotten all about the silly fellow! Lily! Lily Tudor! I never knew your name was Amaryllis.”
“The same surname as your Mama.”
“You were a nursery maid at the Castle. You ran off to London.”
“I went into service just before little Francis was born and left not long after the poor mite died. You created Bedlam, you three boys.”
“I was not the most compliant charge, I’m sure.”
“Your Mama was against me leaving. She well knew what could befall an unprotected female. I didn’t stay long, not in London. First, I went to The Red Lion as a chambermaid. Then I got a place at Nettlebed.”
“I know it. We have hunting kennels there.”
“Later, I took up with an actor and singer.”
“And what happened to him?”
“I soon discovered he had a roving eye for the ladies. He took off with Mrs Crouch. It didn’t last. She’d get no fifty pound notes from him to eat in a sandwich!”
The Viscount laughed heartily at this allusion to the Prince of Wales who had once tried to buy off the actress too cheaply. Charitable souls peddled the story as evidence of her essential virtue.
“Well, well! How different you look without a mob cap!”