Authors: Christianna Brand
Court of Foxes
Open Road Integrated Media
MINUTE BEFORE CURTAIN-UP
on the second act, she came back to her box; and there fell upon the restless house that silence that nowadays, after each interval, greeted her return. A moment of silence as she moved quietly forward, the bouquet in her hand; a moment of silence and then — the rustle of excited whispering, the flutter of laced cambric handkerchiefs in exchange of signals over intervening heads, a voice crying out, hushed but exultant: ‘Mine!’ And one word tossed between boxes and gallery, grand circle, dress circle, stalls, all eyes on the flowers placed carelessly on the ledge of the box before her: ‘Lilies!’
For the bouquet had been sent among a score or more of others and the chance that she carried it would win for its sender, in wagers, a thousand guineas or more.
She seemed unconscious of it all, however, laying the lilies serenely in their place, moving serenely to her solitary chair; lovely as a lily herself, in her lily-white dress, her waiting woman stout and defensive at her shoulder. She wore no jewels, there was about her no single touch of colour; even her lips were pale against a complexion dazzlingly fair, her eyes were a light grey-blue; only, heaped in the high artificial sculptured coiffure of the day — her hair, unpowdered, was the bright lacquered orangey-yellow of marigolds in the sun. In all the fashionable London of King George III, there was not such another flame of hair.
The lights grew dim, the curtain rose, the play continued upon its interrupted way. In other boxes the fashionables laughed and chattered together, the doxies held court, vying with one another as to which should have the greatest number of admirers paraded here to the public view. But the Marchesa Marigelda d’Astonia Subeggio sat quiet and alone and if she attended to the acting was probably the only person present to do so. When the lights went up again she would be gone, slipping quietly back into the tiny flower-filled room behind the box; to return once more after the interval — holding a fresh bouquet. Meanwhile the gallants would be gathered outside in the foyer to congratulate the winner, pay over their debts and lay new wagers as to whose offering would be carried when she came back for the third act. Remote, serene, touched with an exquisite melancholy — knowing no one, admitting no acquaintance, plainly indifferent to the sensation she created, if she was even aware of it — in a few brief weeks she had become the toast of the town.
Two young men strolled into the foyer, entering by different doors, one coming from the auditorium, the other from outside, having only just arrived: the one small, dark, elegant, almost womanish in appearance, the other taller and fair, with friendly clear brown eyes. If they knew one another, they gave no sign of it, though between them there was in fact, despite the difference in height and colouring, some strong touch of resemblance. The darker seemed, indeed, less than willing to admit an acquaintance, avoiding the other’s eye, checking his step when he saw him, remaining standing quietly in the shadow of the curtained doorway. The fair man, however, was claimed by a dozen friends, introduced all about. ‘David Llandovery
of the family of Tregaron’ — Dear Dai of Carmarthen they call him, down among the mountains of his beloved South Wales.
The young man laughed, with mock indignation disclaiming. He said, to draw attention from himself: ‘What have we here?’
For in the centre of the foyer, two men were engaged in a quarrel, faces flushed, voices increasingly raised; both men of fashion, yet with something about them that spoke rather of the country than of the
the one in russet-coloured coat, red-haired, wearing no wig, the other in dark green brocade, powdered. ‘Two blades in a passion. This fellow, the red-head — some hick from the shires, I believe, not knowing his manners has sent a jewel of some sort concealed among his flowers—’
The red-headed man overheard at least the last part of the sentence. ‘And why not, I say? I’ve as much right as any to send her a diamond.’
‘It’s not in the rules of the game to offer more than a bouquet.’
‘The game? — what game? Isn’t all the world sending her flowers?’
‘What lady is this,’ said David Llandovery, ‘to whom all the world sends flowers? It’s evident that I — and our friend here—’ he bowed, including the stranger, bent in his own kindly and delicate way upon pouring oil on troubled waters — ‘are not fully informed in this matter. I am but very lately up from Wales, passing through town on my way with my family to Europe. And you, sir?’
‘From Gloucestershire. Rufus B-Bredon, sir, from G-Gloucestershire.’ He spoke with a slight stammer. ‘And with as much right, say I, to s-send jewels to the lady—’
‘I know nothing of this lady.’
Lord Calne, Sir Harry Stone, half a dozen more, burst into exclamation. ‘Why, man — in the white dress! You saw her in her box tonight?’
‘I was delayed — am but this moment arrived at the playhouse, to catch the last piece.’
‘Ah, then you know nothing of the charmingest mystery in town.’ They stood bright as peacocks, all, in their silks and brocades under the glitter of the big central chandelier, a-sparkle with candles; Llandovery indulgently laughing, the two antagonists cooling off, the dark man standing in the doorway behind them, taking no part but drinking in every word of it. ‘It’s six weeks now since first she made her appearance and since then she’s attended two or three times a week, as the play is changed; always alone, always dressed in white, wearing no jewels though she’s said to have an Aladdin’s Cave of them…’ The speaker paused. He said, losing for a moment the modish flippancy of his tone: ‘She has no need of adornment.’
A murmur of assent rumbled through the group: David Llandovery, astonished, saw that here and there a face went a little pale, as though a young heart turned over at that recollected beauty. He said: ‘But who is this lady? How has she gone so far unknown?’
‘A marchioness — the Marchesa d’Astonia Subeggio.’
‘An Italian? That accounts for it.’
‘No, no, she’s English, but having resided in Venice, it seems, for her husband was an Italian.’
‘What — a widow? I thought you were speaking of some young creature—?’
‘So she is: married off at fifteen or sixteen, no doubt — the husband it seems was a hundred years old and died within a year or so, leaving her a great fortune.’
‘Yet the widow is inconsolable,’ said Sir Harry. ‘Shuts herself up in her house, goes out not at all except for these excursions to the play, where she’s guarded from intrusion by two footmen and a dragon of a waiting woman; refuses all acquaintance…’
‘Need this be grief? The lady is simply particular as to who are her friends.’
‘No, for Lord Calne has seen her for himself, the picture of disconsolence. He and half a dozen others now, but ’twas he set the fashion. Didn’t you, Calne? — climbed a rail and looked in through a window…’
Till this moment it had been but an escapade, a piece of bravado to satisfy the general curiosity, a triumph of daring; but in face of the steady gaze of David Llandovery’s brown eyes, the adventure seemed suddenly a little shoddy, not the act of a gentleman. ‘My intention was simply to follow her home,’ said Lord Calne, ‘and find out where she lived. All the world was wild to know more of her. I rode after her carriage. A small house — one of the new little houses in South Audley Street. It told me little, however, from the outside and presently, a kitchen boy or some such wretch appearing from a lower entrance, I questioned him and so learned the little we now know. He took me, I suppose, for some lovesick Romeo, for on my exceeding his hopes in the matter of gratuity, he offered that I might catch a glimpse of milady by putting a foot here, and a handhold there, and so gaining a window…’
‘And you did this?’
‘Well — yes. The temptation was there and I succumbed to it. But she was but sitting at a table, after all, drooping like a lily, the waiting woman trying to press upon her a glass of wine. “My lady can’t sit grieving for ever, my lady is young, she must learn to smile again.” But my lady wouldn’t smile, just sat there among the flowers — and more beautiful than any of them, drooping like a lily, yes, but a lily crowned with a pollen of gold…’ His voice too for a moment lost its drawl. ‘She has some — quality — about her…’
David Llandovery was puzzled and intrigued. ‘Some quality, indeed! — why your very voices falter when you speak of her. And these flowers—’
‘It was I that first sent her flowers,’ said a new voice, the voice of the man in green brocade who had been quarrelling with the red-head. ‘They make a game of it now, but it was I that first fell in love — never having spoken a word to her, simply from seeing her sitting there, so far away, so beautiful, her face so pale, her hair the colour of marigold petals… I searched all London and at last found country marigolds and sent them to her. The footman received them at the door of her box: he knocked and took them into the little waiting-room behind. I saw the serving woman take the flowers. She looked at my message — saying simply that all I asked was that the lady should accept them — and came to the door and gave me a sort of half-gracious smile and a curtsey, “Compliments and thanks, sir, and I’ll give the flowers to milady”, and so dismissed me, closing the door in my face. But in the next interval, the lady carried my flowers when she came back to the box.’
‘Mr Edgar Frere — a gentleman of some small estate in the Cotswolds — so he modestly claims,’ said Lord Calne, introducing the speaker to Llandovery. He added, laughing: ‘But otherwise a great boaster. The house rang with his triumphs — so much so that I said to Sir Harry here — you know Harry Stone? — “Damned if I don’t send her flowers,” I said, “and see if she’ll not carry those.” “Why then and so shall I,” said Harry, “and confound you, for she’ll carry mine!” “She’ll carry mine,” says Mr Frere, “as she did tonight. I shall send her marigolds — for her hair — every night she attends.” And he flashes fire and puts his hand to his sword hilt — which however isn’t there — and cries out: “What will you wager that she’ll not carry mine?” And so the thing began. Half the rakes in town attend the play every night she goes — spies lie in wait to know of it in advance — and twenty, thirty, forty bouquets a night must be in the room behind her box by the time she arrives—’
‘And half as many again by the time she leaves,’ said Sir Harry. ‘Disappointed in the first interval, we spend the second bespeaking another bouquet that may better please.’
‘A wench sets up a stall outside the theatre for no other custom. On the nights the lady isn’t here, she folds up her tent after the first curtain-up and goes away.’
‘But beyond carrying this bouquet or that, the lady gives no sign?’
‘No sign. And remains the Unattainable She. The flowers are chosen, apparently, without fear or favour, doubtless at random: names mean nothing, a gentleman with “a small estate in the Cotswolds”—’ Lord Calne smiled and bowed to the sender of the first bunch of marigolds — ‘appears as much favoured, and as little, as a peer of the realm.’ The first bell rang for curtain-up and as they turned to go back to the auditorium, he added: ‘What reception a gentleman from Gloucestershire will get who sends what he describes as “a diamond” — we shall see.’
A footman came through the archway, for a moment intercepting their progress. He carried a huge bouquet of mixed flowers, holding it out before him in both hands as though it had been on a tray. The wrapping paper had been disarranged; now there was pinned to it by a magnificent brooch, a small, folded note.
The red-headed man stepped forward. He took the letter, roughly pulling the jewel from the paper and thrusting it into his pocket. Then into an electrified silence, with shaking voice, he read the note aloud.
Marigelda, Marchesa d’Astonia Subeggio, does not accept presents from gentlemen; and from those who offend by offering them, will no longer accept even flowers.
‘Well, well, well, a young woman of spirit, it seems!’ said the dark young man to himself, still standing watching from the shadows of the portico; and turned and went alone to his place in the stalls. And, ‘A paragon of virtue!’ said David Llandovery to
self, and also, with his friends, went into the auditorium.
And the bell rang for curtain-up; and she came into the box. A door opened out of a room banked with flowers, the stout waiting woman, sombre in black, passed through, stood aside, handed a bouquet. She took the flowers, came forward, placed them on the broad ledge of the box, near the gilded chair; stood for a moment looking tranquilly down on the hushed, expectant, upturned faces below…