In our last installment, Susana meets Lady Hertford and her son—and the Prince Regent himself!—and mortifies Lady P when she makes two embarrassing faux-pas in quick succession.
Lady Pendleton [lips pressed together]: The Dark Walks are dark, Susana, and there is nothing of interest to be seen there.
Susana: But isn’t that where rakes meet loose women to—
Lady P: Indeed. Precisely why the place is of no interest to us.
Susana: But I want to—
Lady P: I know you do. But I refuse to countenance it.
Susana [scowling]: I never knew you were such a stick-in-the-mud, Agatha. As I recall, you were the one who insisted on going to that male strip-joint in Detroit. I was always looking over my shoulder hoping not to be seen by any of my former students.
Lady P [with a snort]: I shouldn’t think there was much likelihood of that, considering that outlandish mask you wore.
Susana: But I had to take it off to drink the piña colada. And that was when one of the dancers winked at me. [visibly sweating] He looked a lot like that kid who sat in the back row—what was his name—Jason something, I think. How humiliating!
Lady P: Poppycock! That-er gentleman bore no resemblance to an adolescent of ten and three. In any case, you are no longer teaching.
Susana [brightening]: That is true. Sometimes I forget that. So there’s no reason I can’t take a walk down the Dark Walk.
Lady P [hands on hips]: There most assuredly is! Do recall that I still must live here, with these people and their social mores. [Frowns at Susana’s snort]. Your conduct reflects on me, and I shan’t have you poking around the bushes gawking at ignominious behavior.
Susana [eyebrows raised]: Ignominius? What a great word! I shall have to use it more frequently.
Lady P [chin high and jaw set]: Susana…
Susana: All right, all right. I did promise to follow your lead. But I have to say I never knew you to be such a fuddy-duddy, Agatha. Especially considering your history with the Devonshire set…
Ignoring my last remark, she turned back toward the Orchestra, and after a longing look down the mysterious, shadowed walks, I followed her. I could hear sounds of tiny raindrops on the roof of the covered walk and wondered if the weather might prevent the fireworks display later in the evening. The sprinkle was accompanied by a light breeze, but it was nothing I hadn’t seen before on the Fourth of July. Still, fireworks were dangerous in general, and I wasn’t sure what safety precautions were taken in the nineteenth century. Not that that would dissuade me from watching them while I had the opportunity to do so; as a historical author, I was just as interested in watching the watchers of the spectacle).
The orchestra (musicians) had left the Orchestra (building), and standing on the stage was a single gentleman dressed in a red uniform with gold braids that reminded me of the Duke of Wellington’s portrait at Apsley House. A harmonica of sort was strapped around his neck (I think) so he could blow into it while his hands were free to strum the guitar, strike the triangle attached to the guitar or the Chinese cymbals on a tall stand next to him. A drumstick with a bell cymbal on the opposite end was attached to his knee for either striking the bass drum or the other bell cymbal, and I watched in fascination while he deftly reversed ends with a shake of the knee to switch from one to the other.
When the current piece ended, a boy of twelve or so came out with a wooden chair and deftly helped divest him of his other instruments so that he could accommodate the largish harp standing nearby. His voice as he sang Robin Adair—a song sung by Jane Fairfax in Emma—was clear and strong and and well-received. Members of the audience chimed in at the conclusion, whistling and cheering as he bowed and beamed.
“A pleasing rendition,” said a woman next to us, “but not as splendid as John Braham’s performance at the Lyceum in 1811.”
“No indeed,” I replied, “but I don’t suppose he played so many instruments.”
After that he played “Sweet Gratitude” on the Pandean pipes while accompanying himself on the guitar. After the enthusiastic applause, there was an intermission of sorts and people began to move around and chat.
“He can do bird calls as well,” confided a lady next to me. “I heard him at the Concert-Room at Newcastle.”
“Signor Rivolta is awesome—er, astonishing,” I agreed, recalling my Regency persona just as Lady P’s elbow connected with my upper arm.
“Dear Agatha! Such a surprise to see you in Town after all!”
Lady P whirled around and her hands clenched briefly at the appearance of two women approaching them.
“Your Grace,” she said with a brief nod, “and Mrs. Lamb. I am sorry I could not attend your rout the other evening. Indeed, I was out of Town, but returned unexpectedly when my friend here—” she pointed at me with her chin— “insisted on visiting Vauxhall Gardens before she returns to America. Soon.”
The ladies gave me a quizzical look, and Lady P hurried to introduce me.
“Allow me to present to you my friend Susana Ellis, a friend of a friend, who is here on a very brief visit from our former Colonies. Miss Ellis, this is Her Grace the Duchess of Devonshire, and her daughter, Mrs. Caroline Lamb.”
I was stunned for a moment, aware that Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, had been deceased more than ten years and had no daughter Caroline, besides. But then I recalled that the Duke had married his mistress, the third of their scandalous ménage à trois, after Georgiana’s death, and that prior to becoming the second duchess, Lady Elizabeth Foster had born him two illegitimate children, one of which was a daughter called Caroline. Who apparently had married one of the Melbourne miscellany. Something I had not known.
Lady P cleared her throat, and I became aware that something was expected of me.
I bobbed rather inelegantly. “A pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. And Mrs. Lamb too.” I craned my neck to survey the crowd. “Is the Duke around? I would love to meet him.”
There was silence until I remembered that the 5th Duke had died as well, and the 6th Duke, Georgiana’s son, disapproved of the Foster clan and wasn’t likely to have accompanied them on a pleasure outing.
“She’s American, you say?” said the Duchess at last, staring at me from beneath her eyelashes. “Peculiar, is she not?”
“Mama,” said the younger woman, whose cheeks were flushed, “You have met Americans before, you know.”
“Yes, but there is something very singular about this one,” replied the Dowager Duchess, as she studied my gown (Butterick pattern B6630 and not the most authentic of the bunch). “I’ve never seen trim quite like that on your pelisse, Miss Ellis.”
Of course not, because it was from the 21st century. Lady P was glaring at me, and I knew I was in trouble again. But she would not convince me to leave before the fireworks. Even if it started to rain cats and dogs.
“An American innovation,” I said sweetly. “Perhaps it will reach your own modistes in a year or two.”
Lady P and Susana Visit Vauxhall Gardens, Part I
An Evening at Vauxhall Gardens, Part II
An Evening at Vauxhall Gardens, Part III