In our last installment, Susana and Lady P made the requisite trip to the “ladies’ retiring room,” which Susana declined after a brief perusal of the facilities. Returning to the fringe of the dancing, she made the acquaintance of a child who offered to obtain a voucher for her to Almack’s (!!!), and listened to several songs by the sweet-voiced warbler, Mrs. Maria Theresa Bland.
A bell rang and the organ music stopped as we were swept away with the noisy crowd to the end of one of the walks where we could see a tall pole (a ship’s mast, as it turned out). A trio of young hooligans elbowed their way past us; at least one trod on the train of my gown and nearly knocked me down. Lady P threw her arm around my back and kept me vertical, but in the second or two it took me to recover, the impatient crowd behind us tossed us a few angry looks and impolite murmurs as they pushed past us. A rush of heat came over me and I could hear my heart racing, so I knew a panic attack was coming on.
“Can we get out of this crowd?” I asked her ladyship, trying to peer over the heads of the crowd in search of escape.
After one look at my face, she put on her stern “countess” face and aimed it at the crowd behind us. “Susana, my dear,” she said loudly. “I believe that is the Prince Regent waving at us from the Rotunda.”
A slew of people behind us stopped in their tracks and craned their necks to peer at the Rotunda. Lady P and I took the opportunity to duck out of the crowd and into a clump of trees on the right, where she took out her handkerchief and wiped the moisture off my face. The floral scent on the linen had a calming effect on my nerves, and gradually I began to feel more myself.
“Is the Prince Regent really here?” I asked her when I finally caught my breath.
“I do hope not,” she answered, lips pressing into a white slash. “Because if he is, I shall have to pay my respects, and more than likely, he will wish to be presented to you, and with you not having the slightest idea of court etiquette…”
My eyes were bulging. The thought of seeing the Prince Regent would be a thrill beyond my wildest dreams, but to actually be presented to him was a far more intoxicating notion. I started to feel a bit dizzy.
“Susana!” Lady P pounded me on the back. “Get hold of yourself or I shall have to put my hartshorn to you.”
“No, no, I’m fine. I just need to sit down.”
Fortunately, we espied a white wrought-iron bench behind a clump of trees in the near distance. Just as we were seated, we heard the sound of fireworks, and suddenly the sky was ablaze with colored lights and smoke, brief images of crowns, hearts, initials and other indistinct figures flashing in the haze.
“It’s starting!” I said, jumping to my feet, still feeling a bit dizzy, but not willing to miss the main attraction. “Let’s move ahead of these trees!”
We cleared the obstructions just in time to see a tiny figure dart out of the darkness and smoke, her feet moving with surprising agility on the narrow rope toward the summit of tall pole, which had to be at least eighty feet high and a steep climb. I wondered what it was her husband did to her shoes to keep her from sliding backward. [I knew from my Vauxhall blog series that her husband was the only one in the family who was not a rope walker, but that he had important other responsibilities.]
Rockets exploded all around her, causing the spangles on her skirts to sparkle and make her a magical figure. The long ostrich feathers on her elaborate hat dipped and swayed as she ascended, and I found myself holding my breath like the others in the crowd lest she lose her balance or the rope become severed by a rocket [even though I knew from my research that she died of old age, her life taken over by her nostalgic memories of the past]. Reaching the midpoint, she paused for a moment to make a slight bow in our direction. Following her gaze, I looked behind us and saw a rotund figure with a familiar face about ten feet away.
“… the Prince Regent,” Lady P hissed. “Don’t stare.”
Turning my attention back to the spectacle at hand, I saw Madame Saqui take the final quick steps to the top of the pole, where a man seated there [her husband, I assumed] grabbed her hand while she turned around and made a rapid descent amid a flash of blue lights, again stopping at the center, this time making bows in both directions and executing some graceful balletic moves before continuing her descent and dancing her way back into the smoke.
“She dances exquisitely on the horizontal rope,” said a voice behind us. “I’ve seen her at Covent Garden. As graceful as a ballerina on a stage.”
We whirled around to face a middle-aged gentleman with a smattering of reddish brown hair still remaining on his balding pate. He bowed briefly to Lady P and sent a questioning look in my direction. “A pleasure to see you again, Lady Pendleton. I hope you are enjoying yourself this fine evening.”
Lady P gave me a look that I interpreted as a “don’t-even-think-of-embarrassing-me” warning as she plastered a smile on her face and bobbed. “We are indeed, Lord Yarmouth. On a fine night such as this, Vauxhall never fails to delight us.” She nodded in my direction. “Your lordship, I’d like to present my good friend, Susana Ellis, from America. Susana, I’d like you to meet Lord Yarmouth, the son of the Marquess of Hertford.”
I swallowed and tried to gather my chaotic thoughts. Hertford. Something to do with Lady Hertford, the Prince’s mistress? What should I do? Any schooling on polite discourse I’d ever had from Lady P disappeared from my brain. I vaguely recalled her own actions and did my best to reproduce her bob. “A pleasure to meet you, Lord Yarmouth.” To my ear, it came out squeaky and I could feel my cheeks reddening. Don’t faint. Lady P will kill you if you do.
He bowed in my direction, his eyebrows furrowed. “American, you say. How delightful. They seem to be everywhere these days.” His voice signaled boredom, however.
I was saved from having to answer that by the voice of a woman calling to him from behind. “Come along, Francis! We’re removing our party back to Carlton House for dinner and dancing.”
Lord Yarmouth gave us an apologetic-yet-relieved smile. “My apologies, ladies. It seems I must take my leave of you.”
Lady P let out a deep breath, no doubt relieved that she would not have to present me to royalty after all, and then the woman behind the voice approached us.
“Agatha? Is that you? It’s been an age. How are you faring these days?”
Approaching us in all her royal blue splendor was a woman I assumed to be the prince’s mistress, Lady Hertford, and behind her was the magnificent royal dandy, His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, the future George IV, and he was looking at me!
More next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel!
An Evening at Vauxhall Gardens, Part III