An Evening at Vauxhall Gardens, Part IV
In our last installment, Susana suffers a panic attack as the crowd stampedes to view Madame Saqui’s performance on the tightrope—which she found quite remarkable for the early nineteenth century—and makes the acquaintance of the son of the Marchioness of Hertford and finds herself in the company of the Prince Regent himself!
“Why Isabella, it has been over a year at least… since the Royal Wedding, I believe.”
With His Royal Highness the Prince Regent at Lady Hertford’s side, Lady P could not avoid acknowledging him, nor introducing them both to me, since they were both looking from her to me with puzzlement in their eyes.
“Your Royal Highness, how delightful to find you taking in the delights of the Royal Gardens this evening!”
She performed an elegant bow and then took my hand. “May I present to you my American friend, Miss Ellis? She is here to visit relatives, and was eager to see the famed Vauxhall Gardens.”
My muscles were quivering so much I thought I was going to faint, but one look at the expression in Lady P’s eyes was enough to motivate me to get myself together. I did my best to emulate her regal bow, which was sadly inelegant. Still, I managed to stay on my feet, and as Lady P has often told me, my American status was enough of an excuse for my awkward behavior.
“Your Highness,” I managed, my hand flying to my chest in an attempt to slow my racing heart. “I’m so—thrilled—to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you. I never thought to meet an actual king of England.” Lady P squeezed my shoulder, and I scrambled to correct my error. “That is, a future king of England.” Another squeeze. “And, of course, Lady Hertford. You have such a lovely home.”
I stopped myself from saying more, but it was too late. I’d visited the former Hertford residence on Manchester Square more than once on my trips to London, as it has been open to the public—together with the exquisite furniture and art collected by some Hertford family member or another—for a hundred years or so. But that hadn’t happened yet. Oh dear.
I swallowed. “Or so I’ve heard, your ladyship.”
With the entire party giving me looks that could be described as incredulous, surprised, or furious—that last was Lady P—I added quickly, “The word of your exquisite taste in art has reached across the pond.”
Lady Hertford tapped her son’s arm with her ivory fan.
“Gracious me, I cannot accept any credit for the collections. Francis here is the true connoisseur. Why, after his Grand Tour, we had boxes and crates delivered to our door for weeks.”
The Prince Regent cleared his throat, and we all turned our attention back to him.
“Miss Ellis, it is a pleasure,” he said, his scowl belying his words. “Isabella, dear, we are expected at Carlton House.”
Lady Hertford smiled. “Of course, Your Highness.” She gave us an apologetic smile. “We really must be going. It has been good to see you again, Agatha. And to meet you, of course, Miss Ellis. A visit to our home can be easily arranged, if you would like to see it yourself. Apply to the housekeeper for an appointment.”
I believe I managed to convey my thanks as they took their leave of us.
“Well,” I said. “I have met the Prince Regent.”
Lady P rolled her eyes. “The less said about that, the better. Perhaps we should return to the future now.”
“Oh no! The evening is still young!” I protested. “And I’ve been invited to Manchester Square!”
Her ladyship snorted. “Invited? That was no invitation, my dear Susana.”
I blew out a puff of air. “Well, perhaps not. But I still want to go.”
“That’s not what we agreed and you know it. One evening at Vauxhall Gardens. And then you return to your own time. I won’t be responsible for disrupting the space-time continuum.”
I burst out laughing. “What nonsense! You do that all the time! What about those gifts to your grandchildren…?”
“A lapse in judgment. In any case, Henry has had them all destroyed.” But the flush that crept across her face told me I had made my point.
“Look, I’ve already mortified you in the presence of the Prince Regent. What else could possibly go wrong?”
Famous last words. Tune in next week to see what happens when Susana explores the mysterious and ever-so-scandalous Dark Walks…
Historical Note: Francis Seymour-Conway, 3rd Marquess of Hertford and the son of Prince Regent’s last mistress, was an avid collector of art, as were his son and grandson. It was his grandson who left the house and art collection to his illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, whose widow bequeathed it to the nation. The Wallace Collection was opened to the public in 1900 and is open today, free of charge.