Chapter 7

 

 

 

    I was soon to discover that most of the business of the monarchy took place at the Court of St. James, that is, at St.James Palace. My uncle’s London house in Pall Mall was thus at a convenient distance.    Almost immediately after our arrival, uncle set off for the palace whilst aunt, exhausted, repaired to her bedroom.  I took a short rest but was much too excited to sleep.  I wanted to get out and look around as soon as possible, but there were problems.  Even before arriving at Pall Mall aunt had strongly advised me not to walk out alone.  I found out later that uncle shared a liveried coach with a friend at Court, and he kept a Sherington coach in town.  However, neither of these were available to me, so I hired a Phaeton.  The driver was an accommodating man and when he discovered that this was my first visit to London, he drove me around for, I believe, a reduced charge.   We went into Green Park, past Buckingham Palace, which was now the home of the Royal family and the birthplace of the present King. Then along Kensington High Street and back to Regent Street and Bond Street.  I was amazed to see so many shops.  Dublin was never like this.

Within a few days I found that Jenny, the diminutive maid who brought my hot water and looked after me, was a London lass and knew her way around. For a few days aunt kept to her room and uncle was always otherwise engaged, so no–one restricted my movements and Jenny was a good walker.  She had to be, as did all those who had little money, but she also enjoyed walking and she was happy to being my guide – it brought her a new kind of freedom.

Daily, we set off to explore new areas.  Only belting rain prevented us. The streets were full of people, and after my relatively recent relocation to the peaceful part of Essex, the noise was incredible.  In the early morning men and women were out selling pies, flowers, fish, bread and vegetables – all ringing their hand bells to attract customers and shouting about their wares as they walked.  Organ grinders seemed to be playing on every corner. Butlers, maids and footmen would appear from below the street to make their purchases, climbing up the area steps into the outside world like rabbits from their burrows. At the end of the day the Receiving Houses would close their shutters and sort the letters, getting them ready for the mail coaches.  Then the letter-carriers would come out again clanging their brass bells to take letters from anyone wanting to catch that night’s mail, with the payment of a ‘late fee.

I was reminded of Dublin when Jenny advised me to tread carefully, especially crossing the road: the dung from the horses was everywhere, as well as straightforward mud.  And we had to keep a sharp lookout for cabs and coaches – which, if the street was relatively clear, would charge through at a dangerous pace.  This was rare as it was so often filled with carts, and their metal wheels clanged on the cobblestones.

My father had once told me never to show that I was shocked, no matter what I saw. In London I fancied there were as many, possibly more, beggars, and poverty–stricken, little barefooted children in rags, than in Dublin. Pickpockets and cripples were, it seemed, everywhere and I found it difficult not to react.  Nearly all of them had running sores on their faces and hands and most looked very woebegone – with good reason.  But I was astonished at how many could raise a smile, or even a laugh, at the least provocation. 

One afternoon, I was surprised to see a young, very dark-skinned boy.  Jenny had pointed him out to me:  “Ever seen a blackamoore afore Miss?”

“Never.”

Following his employer into her home,  at a respectful distance, he seemed quite young and was beautifully dressed,

“Where has he come from and what does he feel like in this utterly foreign environment?”  I wondered, thinking aloud, but Jenny answered:   “I ‘ave spoke to one or two.  They knows there ain’t no ‘ope of going back to where they come from.  If they get a good mistress they learns to live wi’ it.  They’re alus grinnin and they laughs a lot.  They don’t grummle and make a fuss like what we do.”

“Do you make a fuss Jenny?”

“Well, only to meself miss.

“Perhaps they do that, too.”

 

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    Aunt Em was evidently not a good traveller, but once recovered from the journey, she seemed to be delighted to have me staying.  I too loved ‘The Play’ (which was the collective, colloquial name for the theatre), and since she was obliged to take a companion, it was convenient for us both. Fortunately, Aunt Em arranged for her dressmaker to make me an ivory satin gown to attend a comedy called “The Wedding Gown” at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden we saw the “Masked Ball” followed by “Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog” or “Harlequin.”

Theatres assumed the title Royal, I discovered, once they had been granted the Royal Licence, which they tried to obtain as a form of protection against riots, and undesirable intrusions.  But it was stupid to call each one The Theatre Royal, so I did as others did and used the obvious topographical description. In February we went to Drury Lane to see Macbeth – a fine production.  Later at Covent Garden we saw a fiery ballet entitled “The Revolt of the Harem”.  I recalled Charles’s remark ‘You’ll return talking theatre, like Mother.’ and I resolved that I must try not to do that. 

Sometimes Aunt Em’s old school friend Melissa would drive over from Woodford, where she lived, to join us. She was aunt’s regular theatre–going companion and just as involved and star-struck as aunt.  They were especially interested in the ladies who had, of course, replaced men playing their roles two centuries before.  Their normal practice was to attend performances on three successive nights, then Melissa would return home.  They continued to do this and I went along.  However, Aunt Em really was an addict, and with me as a resident companion, we attended as many productions as possible. Unlike aunt, I might have tired of this, but I was only visiting and saw sense in seizing the opportunity.

Occasionally aunt found it necessary to attend one of the Royal receptions, if only to appease uncle, who was somewhat distressed by her indifference.  I was rather excited at the prospect when uncle proposed it, but I was soon able to see aunt’s point. I was to discover that these were pompously formal occasions and the conversation was arch to say the least. 

Sometimes aunt and I would spend an evening at home in the family withdrawing room on the first floor.  It was an elegant room with three long sash windows, and beautifully moulded ceilings. The drapes around the windows were made of a simply gorgeous red and gold material, sent over from Italy, and the alcoves, which were lined with red silk, contained white Meissen porcelain birds and other creatures, forming a collection built up by both aunt and uncle, as it was an interest which they did share.

As long ago as 1817, or thereabouts, Pall Mall had been selected to be the first place in London to use gas lamps for street lighting.  Aunt Em. would make a point of looking out to see the lamplighter on his rounds, but disliked the idea of introducing it into her home. She preferred the candlelit chandelier which reflected in the overmantel, doubling the effect of the light.  This was not only attractive but also practical as everyone hated the tax on candles.  The flickering of the fire shimmering in its stainless steel grate made the room very inviting.

We would sometimes while away the time playing Spillikins or one of the card games aunt enjoyed.  More than anything else, however, aunt Em enjoyed my playing the piano for her.  There were so many new compositions – all inspired by the piano made popular by Ludvig van Beethoven.  We both enjoyed trying them out.  Aunt Em would not play for me:  “Only for my own ears and pleasure.” she would say with determination.  However, she had acquired a considerable selection of sheet music.  Every time she went out she added to this, buying duplicates for me.  The etudes and preludes of Frederic Chopin were a particularly delight to her.  Franz List excited and sometimes frightened her.

Listening to music  or to be at The Play, was to see  aunt Em at her happiest.  She was neither interested in foreign countries nor current affairs – and certainly not in politics. 

 “Your uncle John covers that topic sufficiently well for both of us.” she told me, with a twinkle in her eyes.

 

It was customary for friends or acquaintances to call in the afternoon. They would be received in the reception room, on the ground floor, adjacent to the front door.  Coffee, sometimes tea, and occasionally small cakes, would be served, interlaced with often spicy gossip.  This was lost on aunt Em who was simply not interested.  Her greatest pleasure was to choose how her evenings would be spent. At the end of such an evening she would delight in taking her drink of hot chocolate over to the long windows.  These overlooked Pall Mall and she loved to show her ‘niece from the country’ all the carriages and cabs returning from The Theatre or The Assembly Rooms.  On one such occasion she said: “I never tire of watching the many people, who move around in London at night.   With their coach lamps shining into the darkness, reflecting on to the beautifully dressed occupants as they spill out into their homes, they make such a colourful scene.   Perhaps I am just a born spectator, not a participant.”

She often judged herself like this, but she was non-judgmental of others and I loved to spend time with her as she was so kind and such very good company in her own chosen surroundings.

Uncle spent his time at St. James’s or in his study/library.  Occasionally he joined us, perhaps envious of the relaxed nature of our evenings.  He told me he was impressed with my playing and suggested that I might be prepared to play at a soiree. He must have taken my silence for acquiescence because a short time later I received an invitation from a Duchess, who was known to him.

 Aunt again kindly arranged for her dressmaker to come to my rescue and she made a beautiful dress for me.  It was of the deepest blue silk, with an overlay of Nottingham lace died to the same lovely colour.  Cut in the still popular Empire Line, introduced during the time of the Prince Regent, the skirt fell straight from below the bust. This was described as a high waist.  With a scooped-out neck and deep décolletage, I thought it very elegant.  Since it was sleeveless I wore gloves of a pink oyster colour, which reached nearly to the top of my arms. These gloves were matched by a headband worn straight on my forehead, with blue feathers rising from it on the left-hand side.  Aunt lent me some excuisite sapphire and diamond jewellery, consisting of necklace, earrings and a bracelet.

As we set out, I felt we were all very grand, as uncle was wearing his finest cream silk cut–away coat and a waistcoat embroidered with pink, maroon and green flowerets, and aunt was wearing a deep-red gown and jewellery set with rubies,  which suited her well.  They both wore powdered wigs which the older generation continued to do – my own hair, elaborately dressed by clever Jenny, was lightly powdered.  Just before we entered the venue, aunt whispered:  “I am so happy you are here – you give me hope for humanity in the face of all this formality.”

I had chosen a varied programme of modern composers.  For the older guests I included some pieces by both Mozart and Hadyn adapted to the new pianoforte from the harpsichord. There were about thirty people present and when uncle led me to the piano I felt rather nervous, but once my fingers touched the keys I forgot all about the audience and played for my own pleasure.

I later learned that His Majesty had come in just after I had begun to play but had remained at the back of the room and had now moved to join the card players.  Uncle said he may ask to meet me, and a young ‘buck’ who had been hovering around me, appeared to simper with delight to witness that.  Fortunately, I was not called upon to be presented, even though uncle had reassured me that the King was quite relaxed and informal.

Much more delightful was a surprise visit from Charles.  He was in London seeing a lawyer called Woollaston, on estate business.  Arriving at Pall Mall after we had left and hearing that I was to play, he had put on some appropriate clothing, kept in London for the purpose, and arrived just in time to hear the end of my first piece.  It was such a pleasure to see him.  In his elaborate green silk cut-away coat and embroidered ivory waistcoat, he stood out from the rest because his tanned and healthy-looking face was such a pleasing contrast to the powdered-and-rouged assembly.  His un-powdered hair looked so natural, just taken back and tied, and as he walked towards me he seemed to bring the freshness of the country with him.  I enquired after Louisa and found she was moderately well (and thus still pregnant, I presumed) then he asked:

 “So Mitty, how are you finding London?  Enjoying yourself?”

 After realising from my reply that I found some of it too artificial, he pointed out:

 “This is not all there is to London – there are some very intelligent folk, if you know where to look.”  Embarrassed, I started to make an attempt to explain.

“No explanations Mitty, I understand your feelings perfectly,” then bending down he whispered: “I think many of the people here fit your description and there has been no word from Cowper,” he told me before I could ask., “Jackson has been well primed and will know what to do.  How long are you planning to stay?”

 “I very much enjoy your mother’s company – she tells me she is an observer rather than a participant, and although that doesn’t really describe me, I am nevertheless enjoying being an observer for the moment. Being at Pall Mall also  takes my mind off  the inevitable appearance of Cowper Rochford at Fynes.  I have noted that another vessel has docked recently from Madras…”

“The news of anticipated arrivals is immediate in The Times, so perhaps he may arrive next month.

We joined Charles’s father who told me that a Countess had requested my services, and would I object?  Charles raised an eyebrow and turned away smiling. We were at the height of the London season, so the next musical soiree was to take place the following week.  At first I did not mind, I thought it would help me to keep my playing up to standard, since I was forced to practice for each recital. It also satisfied my curiosity about house interiors, as I was invited into many impressive town houses.  But, after a while, being treated as a superior sort of servant, became tedious.  Because my co-operation was useful to my uncle, I found it difficult to invent sufficiently good excuses. I obviously could not say I did not wish to play the piano because he was aware of how much I enjoyed that. In the end, the age–old feminine headache seemed to serve, although men tend not to  countenance that, they find it hard to refute.  After declining several times, uncle took the hint!

However, the remark that Charles had made about Cowper possibly (probably?) arriving next month played on my mind and made me anxious. 

Yet I had still not mentioned anything of it to aunt Em.

 

 

 

 

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