In our last installment, Susana and Lady traveled by carriage to the Royal Vauxhall Gardens, bespoke a supper-box, chatted with a waiter, and partook of shaved ham “so thin you could see through it,” as well as other delicacies.
After our meal, Lady P excused herself to visit the “ladies’ retiring room.” Curiosity induced me to follow her to a large tent in a secluded area, where a young woman dressed in servant garb brightened at our approach. When Lady P shook her head slightly, the woman shrugged and looked hopefully behind us for another potential “client.” Her ladyship whispered to me that such women were there to collect tips for assisting ladies who had come without maids to help with their private needs.
Peering into the darkly-lit interior, I saw a half-dozen women seated on what appeared to be wooden seats similar to those scene in outhouses when I was a child (or the latrines at Girl Scout camp). The better-dressed ladies had maids attending to them, but I didn’t get a good glimpse because Her ladyship squeezed my shoulder and I could see by her tight jaw and raised eyebrows that it was not the thing to be staring in such a place.
Not being especially inclined to use such things as outhouses and porta-potties except in case of emergency—and I decided I could wait until I got home—I abandoned the tent and strolled about a hundred yards away until I had left the unpleasant smells behind. From my position, I had a good view of the dancing in front of the Orchestra. It was so amazing to see the vibrant colors of the ladies’ gowns—as well as the gentlemen’s waistcoats—and I could not help but marvel at the sight of the diversity of the dancers. A soberly-dressed gentleman in charcoal gray who was partnered with a woman in serviceable blue circled among an older, elegantly-dressed couple and an energetic young couple dressed in servant garb, and they all seemed to be having a good time. Among the bystanders I could see a gentleman looking through his quizzing-glasses at me, and fearing that he might be thinking of asking me to dance—Lady P would kill me, and in any case, I have two left feet and have never waltzed in my life—I backed a little further back into the hedges, and nearly trampled a little girl.
“Oh dear, I’m sorry! I didn’t see you there, sweetheart. Are you all right?”
The child—about six or seven I thought—blinked rapidly after she had moved a safe distance away. Wavy dark hair curled around her childish round face, tied at the top with a pink ribbon. Dressed in white, her gown trimmed with pink bows, she didn’t have the appearance of a child who would be abandoned on her own in a place like Vauxhall.
Her eyes widened at the sound of my voice, and before she answered, she gave me a long glance from head to toe. My hands started to sweat, knowing that my gown—beautiful though it was—would not stand up to close scrutiny, created as it was from an unauthentic pattern and materials made with 21st century technology.
“You speak strangely,” she said. “You’re not from Hertfordshire, are you?”
“Uh no, I’m from America.”
She nodded as though her suspicions were confirmed. “That’s a great distance from here.”
“It is,” I agreed. “I came to visit my friend Lady Pendleton.”
She smiled. “I like her. She invited me to come to tea with Emily and Theodosia.”
Emily and Theodosia are two of Lady P’s grandchildren. [They appear in A Home for Helena.]
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting them as yet.”
She tilted her head. “They live in Kent. Sometimes they come to London to visit their grandmother. I visit mine as well, but she is quite ill at present.” She crossed her arms in front of her. “She is an important lady, you know.”
“She is?” I was quite eager to know the identity of this child, but I had a feeling I shouldn’t be encouraging her to talk to strange people. And I know Lady P would have a fit. I gave a quick glance behind me in case she was approaching, but the coast was clear.
“Yes. And my mother as well. She is one of the patronesses of Almack’s.” She inclined her head toward me. “Have you attended there?”
I smothered a laugh. Me? At Almack’s. Not likely. But then… who could have imagined I’d ever be at the Vauxhall from two hundred years ago?
“No, I’m afraid not.”
She smiled. “You do not have a voucher? Perhaps I can prevail upon my mother to get you one. You are a proper lady, are you not?”
Now that was a loaded question. I was pretty sure Lady Pendleton would not describe me thus, and I certainly didn’t feel like a Regency lady.
“I am quite certain Lady Pendleton would not invite me to her home otherwise,” I prevaricated. “I am Susana Ellis. I’m a novelist.”
“More like Miss Austen,” I said before I could stop myself. I knew that Jane Austen had published her novels anonymously at first and wasn’t sure when her identity was finally revealed.
She wrinkled her brow. “Miss Austen?”
Fortunately, I was saved from responding by the sudden appearance of my time-traveling Regency friend.
“Dear Susana, I see you have found a friend.” There was a hint of irritation in her voice. “Lady Emily, have you accompanied your parents here this evening? I wonder why you have been left alone without your maid.”
Lady Pendleton’s voice was firm but kind as she viewed the little girl. Lady Emily fidgeted under her gaze. “I came with Mama and Lord Palmerston. Alice was too ill. I’m just here waiting while they finish the dance.”
Her ladyship shook her head. “I shall give your mama a talking-to when next I see her. Leaving her child unaccompanied indeed!”
Lady Emily flushed. “No! Please don’t do that! I am meant to be sitting with the Howard party.” She bobbed us a curtsey and made her adieux. “I must return in all haste.” She fled just as the music stopped.
I turned toward Lady P. “Is that—?”
“Lady Emily Caroline Catherine Frances Cowper,” confirmed my mentor. “The daughter of Lady Emily Cowper and the granddaughter of the Melbournes.”
I let that knowledge sink in. Then I giggled. “She offered to help me get a voucher to Almack’s!”
Her ladyship lifted an eyebrow. “Indeed. And what did you say to her to elicit such an offer?”
“Nothing!” I insisted. “All I said was that I am an American visiting you, and she told me she knew your granddaughters and asked me if I’d been to Almack’s…”
Lady P snorted. “Because she knew you hadn’t, of course.”
That stung a little, but I knew she was right. I’m not a proper Regency lady and never will be. I was there to observe—and that in itself was a rare privilege.
Our conversation was interrupted with cheers and applause as a rotund little lady in a blue gown with a laced-up bodice and an enormous cap topped with colorful flowers that accentuated the roundness of her face, stepped up on the stage in front of the musicians, giving a deep bow at her introduction by the organist, Mr. James Hook. She—her name was Mrs. Bland—proceeded to sing a charming little song called “Pray Excuse Me,” that had everyone smiling and cheering for more. Her exquisite voice and cheerful vivacity more than made up for the incongruity of her appearance. Following that, she sang “Jesse o’ the Dee” and several other other songs until it was announced that the musicians would take a short respite while Mr. Hook entertained the crowd with his lively organ-playing. In spite of that, I noticed the audience starting to thin out, many heading in the same direction.
“Madame Saqui!” I breathed. Lady P nodded, and we set out to follow the crowd to the venue where the popular French tight-rope dancer would perform.
More next week, same bat-time, same bat-channel!
An Evening at Vauxhall Gardens, Part II