The Mistress of Blackstairs

This is a short extract from my book, The Mistress of Blackstairs, intended to accompany a post I wrote for the Meet My Main Character blog hop. I hope it proves distracting.


[...] Can there be a more pleasing distraction in all of London than Madame Moineau on her midday trot on Rotten Row?
If there is, then we declare that we have yet to find it; this lady of the veil should be regarded as one of the finest sights this city holds. [...]
George, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to The Honourable Charles James Fox, August, 1784


She wore scarlet, of course.
What other colour would do for the queen of Covent Garden when she moved amongst her subjects on a cold autumn evening, a cool yet benevolent smile painted across her red lips? 
The court might be a coffeehouse, the courtiers a favoured collection of gentlemen who should know better and the throne on which their sovereign sat was nothing more regal than a simple wooden chair but in this smoky darkness she was as exotic as an empress and just as unobtainable.
Every eye squinted through the gloom to rest on Madame Moineau, firelight dancing across the rubies that encircled her slender wrist, the gems at the base of her pale throat blazing when they caught the flames from the grate. Where there had been a thunderous clamour of voices there was now only the spit and crack of the logs and the whispered conversation of the audience, loath to break their Queen’s concentration with their needless chatter.
Thirty pairs of eyes moved as one from her gloved hands to the veil that concealed her face and back again, more than one or two straying to the slight suggestion of pale bosom above the scarlet bodice. These glimpses would fuel heated dreams in some of the men tonight and if any had ever hoped to see more of her than her fashionable wardrobe revealed then he had long since learned that his ambitions were to remain unfulfilled, Madame Moineau’s affections as rarified as the crown jewels.
The ladies of Blackstairs are not only as beautiful as Athena, but discrete with it, Boswell commented after a weekend spent enjoying the delights of the house; if only the mistress were for the bedding then one could die a happy man but no, she thinks she’s oil on canvas.
That woman gives herself to nobody, she doesn’t even deign to show what Reynolds swears is the face of Aphrodite.

And what the gentlemen of London wouldn’t give to see behind that heavy veil, to lay eyes on the enigmatic Madame Moineau.
After all, those soft, gently continental tones held such promise of beauty...
Such French poise... A world away from the broad Yorkshire vowels of the the young Georgina Radcliffe, rambling the moors twenty five years earlier and dreaming of silk and lace.
A veil could hide so much more than just scars.
A veil could hide a whole lifetime.
And a veil could make a clerk’s daughter into the mistress of her own destiny.
There was an air of ritual in the usually chaotic establishment as she paused, the cards held loosely in her gloved hands and beneath the dark veil her green eyes swept across the room and found nothing new, nobody unfamiliar. Tonight was as last night had been, as tomorrow night would be if she chose to come out for coffee.
Perhaps I will stay at home then.
We shall see.
As the cards flickered through her fingers at a speed that seemed impossible the firelight twisted in on itself and she looked across at the opening door with a frown, chilled to her bones. The interruption disturbed the silence and a few catcalls were thrown in the direction of the stranger who had entered and brought the autumn in with him, spoiling this moment of peace. She looked back at her cards as the tall shadow paused in the darkness of the doorway, his eyes adjusting to the firelight.
“Close the door if you’re staying, sir,” Charlie called from behind the counter with laughter in his words. “Or you’ll have us all laid up come advent.”
That simple observation seemed to break the spell that had fallen over the coffeehouse and as the door closed with a bang Georgie turned her attention back to the task in hand, spreading the cards momentarily on the table top with a flick of her wrist. 
“Et bien,” she said to no one in particular, sweeping her palm over the deck to gather it again. As the men watched her hands, she in turn watched the newcomer, finding some small fascination in him simply because he was somebody new, something unfamiliar. As he approached the counter he glanced back over his shoulder and then turned away to address Charlie quietly, showing him a piece of paper that elicited a momentary shake of the older man’s bald head. At that the stranger looked back into the room and pushed his hand through his hair, clearly unhappy with the response.
There was something self conscious in that simple gesture and as Georgie watched she found herself wondering if he felt her gaze on him in the gloom, dropping her eyes immediately. A few moments passed and then he turned and looked around the room for an empty seat, eyes settling on the table a couple of feet from where she sat.
Years beneath the veil had robbed Georgie of any lingering suspicion that she could be seen and she lifted her gaze again to watch him negotiate the crowded tables without fear of comment. She saw that he watched her in return as he drew closer, obviously surprised to find himself in female company in such a place but his fascination with her was fleeting and as soon as his eyes settled on Georgie, they moved off again to roam the faces as though looking for someone. 
His back was turned to her when he sat on the vacant chair and after a moment he leaned forward towards the fire and clasped his hands together. There was a barely perceptible movement in his shoulders as his whole body seemed to relax and then he sat unmoving, glancing up only to thank the girl who set a coffee pot down on the table beside him.
You look so cold, Georgie thought suddenly, frowning beneath her veil; it’s too dark a night to be amongst strangers.
“Madam, I’m sorry,” his voice was a murmur, growing louder when he turned to address her. “I’m blocking the fire; I didn’t-”
“No,” Georgie replied quietly, “I am quite warm enough, I think.”
And the cards are shuffled enough, I know.
“Bon,” she said with a curt nod, her French accent as perfect as that of a native after nearly a decade as the Madame. She cut the pack one last time and then handed it back to the man who had entrusted her with the task. “Let there be no more talk of cheating, gentlemen; now back to your game, leave me to my reading.”
Waving away their thanks, Georgie let her eyes move across to the stranger once more and when he remained unmoving she picked up her newspaper, peering at the smudged print through the gloom. The distant bells of St Paul’s began the first of ten chimes and she stifled a yawn as the door opened again, ushering in another refugee from the chill.
“Bloody hell!” 
Georgie felt her whole body stiffen at the familiar voice and as the door creaked shut she ducked her head slightly and watched the latest arrival, her mouth setting into a tight line as she did so.
That girl will be the death of me.
It was strange enough to find a woman in a coffeehouse who wasn’t serving the drinks but to find an eleven year old girl in one without a broom or scrubbing brush in her hand was just about unheard of. Neither of them should be here but Georgie was Madame Moineau, the brothelkeeper of Blackstairs, she was practically royalty, no door in Covent Garden was barred to her... 
Molly Peel had no such excuse. 
And I might adore you, Georgie told herself, but you’ll be in some trouble tonight, my girl.
Molly waved her hand and fielded the greetings that people threw her way as she bounded carelessly across the floor, dodging expertly just as the stranger had stepped carefully around the tightly-packed drinkers. As she went, she slipped out of her coat and called out to nobody in particular, “Cold enough for you?”
With a practised carelessness that she probably thought gave her an air of weary authority, Molly propped her narrow elbows on the counter and laughingly clicked her fingers to attract Charlie’s attention. The Irishman came to greet her with a cry of recognition, trying every way possible to alert her to Georgie’s presence without making it obvious. His ticks and twitches went unnoticed by Molly as she fished in the pocket of her oversized coat and Georgie let out a long sigh when she heard her ward’s next words.
“All right, Charlie,” Molly smiled, tipping over the bar until her feet were a couple of inches off the ground and she showed the burly man something she held in the palm of her hand. “Could you sort us out with some brandy?”
“I don’t-” he began, shooting a beseeching look towards Georgie and Molly followed it, giving a cry of annoyance at the sight of her mistress.
“Oh, bloody hell!”
“Bonsoir, Mademoiselle,” Georgie called, standing up straight behind her table; there was a moment in which Molly clearly weighed up the wisdom of simply abandoning the coffeehouse but instead she shrugged, the attempted winsome smile more of a grimace.
“If you please, miss,” Georgie told her, crooking her finger to beckon the girl over. “There will be no brandy this evening or any evening for a good many years.”
Her earlier vigour replaced by teenage insolence, Molly dragged the soles of her shoes as she sloped towards Georgie. Though her head had dropped in contrition and her chin now rested against her breastbone, Molly's dark eyes were large and innocent, lingering pointlessly on her guardian. She trailed her coat along the ground and Georgie smiled beneath the veil despite her annoyance, seeing not a single flicker of genuine humility in Molly’s performance. 
“Where have you been?” she asked as the child perched on the edge of the table, folding her skinny arms over her chest. "And where would you have made the money to buy brandy?"
“I found it,” Molly scowled, her chin thrust forward in characteristic defiance. “I was telling Nan about the hanging and she got in a right lather, ended up running me off with the broom like a rat. I thought bugger this and out I came to look for something better to do."
“I assume you were going to do that after you had drunk your brandy?”
“Well, I wanted to toast the hanging, didn’t I? Not everyday Black Jack Chambers goes to hell, is it?”
A movement in the corner of Georgie's eye caught her attention and she glanced at the stranger as he shifted slightly in his seat, tensing at the words. It occurred to her that he was making every effort to listen into the conversation now Molly had arrived, no longer content with the cracking of the fire before him. 
“A man has died today; we shouldn't celebrate that,” Georgie told her, though she suspected she was in the minority this evening. “It doesn’t matter what sort of life he led.”
“There’s not many would agree with you at that,” Molly smiled, her eyes sparkling in the firelight. “You could hardly get anywhere near Newgate; I mean, I stuck the elbow in and got down the front but you should’ve seen it, everybody was out.
“Not quite everybody,” she interjected. “Some of us had better things to do with ourselves.”
“I was this far away from Black Jack when they brought him out,” Molly confided, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch or so apart as she leaned forward. “I could’ve reached out and picked his pocket if he’d had anything worth pinching. He looked like he didn’t care a damn and all; Nan says he’s the devil him-”
“Get your girl in order, madam,” the stranger spat suddenly, turning in his chair to show a blaze of anger in his eyes. “I didn’t come in here to listen to the idiotic wittering of children.”
“I beg your pardon?” Georgie asked, astonished by the outburst. “Are you addressing us, sir?” 
“I should have known this place wasn’t worth a farthing when I saw a woman shuffling the cards but children too? Is it too much for a man to enjoy a drink in peace in this Godforsaken city?” He shook his head and gestured towards Molly as he added, “She gloats and jests about a man’s hanging and you sit there and coo? God help her with you for a mother, madam.”
"And what do you know about it?” Molly shouted, snapping her head round as Georgie reached across the table for her. “He was a bloody monster; he got what he had coming!”
“Perhaps you haven’t been in London for long,” Georgie said in a level tone, patting Molly’s hand in an effort to calm her before the situation got even further out of hand. “The man who hanged today was not well-liked in these parts, sir; not many mourn his passing.”
“But should we really celebrate it?” he challenged, his voice low and steady now. "Should our children treat it as entertainment?"
A swell of annoyance plucked at Georgie's heart and yet she felt as though she couldn’t look away from his eyes, his gaze somehow studying her despite the dark veil that concealed her face.
And why would I want to look away, she found herself asking; a shame that your temper is so unpleasant.
“I’m not having a bloody party,” Molly murmured and the spell that had held her was broken, Georgie releasing the girl’s hand as she added, “Didn’t mean nothing by it, did I?”
“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” Georgie told her, turning her eyes back to the man. “But perhaps the gentleman might be happier if he didn’t spend his time listening to other people’s conversations.”
“I could hardly miss it,” he countered, nodding in Molly’s direction. “She’s loud enough to wake the dead.”
“Keep your bloody nose out!” Molly erupted afresh, turning furiously on the stranger. “If I want to celebrate because they hanged Jack Chambers, I will! It’s got nothing to do with you!”
Molly's new outburst was loud enough to bring Charlie lumbering towards the hearth with a speed that belied his bulk and at the sight of him the girl shot the stranger a triumphant smile and said, "Told you to shut it, didn't I? You’re in trouble now, sir."
“If I know Madame Moineau, he won’t be the only one,” Charlie told her and she fixed him with a scowl as he turned his attention to his customer.
“We talk to ladies properly in here, sir,” Charlie explained with a joviality that wasn’t matched by his clenched fists, burly arms folding across his chest. There was no sound now but his voice, every other conversation hushed in anticipation of the entertainment to follow. “If that’s not to your liking, find yourself another place to drink.”
"A capital idea," the stranger agreed briskly, Molly's smile turning into a smirk of victory and it was the look on her face that prompted Georgie into action despite herself.
“It’s a cold night,” she told him quietly, a sly tone in her words as she reached out to touch his arm. “And you won’t find better coffee in all of London, nor a warmer hearth.”
"And," she added as she turned her eyes on Molly, "This is no place for elven year old girls."
Every eye watched the scene beside the fire, anticipating the always entertaining spectacle of Charlie ejecting an unwelcome patron. A little sport would put the perfect ending on a day that had already seen Jack Chambers on the Newgate scaffold, after all.
“What’s your pleasure?” Charlie asked, Molly edging behind her mistress for protection from the trouble that she had so expertly stirred, her fingers closing around Georgie’s hand for a brief second.
“I’m sorry,” the man said with a brief nod of contrition that caused an audible murmur of disappointment among the onlookers. “I shouldn’t have spoken as I did.”
The barest hint of a nod passed between Georgie and Charlie and the burly coffeehouse keeper kept his eyes on the stranger for a moment longer before he said finally, "Thank you very much, sir; we like a quiet house."
It was only then that Georgie realised her hand was still resting on his arm and she drew it away quickly, letting him go back to the fire as the silence was shattered by the sound of a hand of cards hitting the table somewhere across the room. With her sport ended, Molly folded her arms again and mused, "Some folk never know when to shut up."
"And you, miss, are the worst of them," Georgie advised, Molly shrugging her disinterest. "Now get yourself home, child."
Molly opened her mouth to protest as she added, "And perhaps we shall take the new mare along Rotten Row tomorrow?"
"I was going anyway," the girl told her with a smile. "Sure I shouldn't wait for you?"
“This isn’t a place for girls; go home and let Nan alone, little monster.”
“Later then,” Molly shrugged, turning with such speed that she collided with the stranger’s seat and spluttered, “Sorry, sir, sorry.”
His hand darted out to catch Molly’s wrist and she let out a startled yelp, something clattering to the floor at her feet. The girl twisted uselessly in his grip as he stooped to retrieve a silver crucifix and chain, his eyes falling wordlessly on the would-be-thief.
“It was a joke,” she explained in a feeble voice as he released her, her wide eyes moving imploringly from her victim to her keeper. “I wasn’t going to keep it or nothing.”
“Go home,” Georgie hissed, cheeks reddening at the girl’s pickpocketing, “And to bed; I shall talk to you in the morning.”
Molly tossed her hair in a gesture of apparent defiance but Georgie saw the slight frown that she wore, knew her well enough to recognise the look of shame that flashed in her eyes. For a moment Molly stared at the stranger and then she turned away and walked across the room, pulling her coat on as she went.
“See you, Charlie,” Molly called as she opened the door. “I’m still after that brandy!”
Georgie narrowed her eyes until the door closed and then Molly passed the window, her act already forgotten as she drew herself down into her coat and hurried away into the night. She waited another moment and then assumed her most charming tone and said, “I hope your evening hasn't been spoiled, sir; I do apologise for my ward."
"This city gets no better," he replied, the necklace still help in his palm. "It’s going to hell."
It depends on who you ask,what you do.
Perhaps you have been looking in the wrong places. 
"I do not think you are from London," Georgie observed, taking in the signals that he was hardly a city gentleman despite the finely tailored dark suit he wore. The dark hair that skimmed his collar was too long to be fashionable as was the shadow on his unshaven jaw and a sun stronger than England’s had left his skin with a glow that stood out against the pale men who chattered around them. “And this was hardly the best introduction to the city.”
“You see a lot despite your veil," he told her, his voice thawing slightly. "I used to know this city as well as anyone but it seems that I’m out of practice; I’m happy to keep it that way.”
He dropped the crucifix into his pocket as he said that and stood, offering her a nod. “Goodnight, madam.”
“Sir,” she replied, her eyes watching him pick his way to the door and then he was gone without a glance back. 
“Molly,” Georgie murmured in frustration, wondering for the thousandth time how she could curb the streak of mischief that seemed to be so much part of the youngster, Molly still all too happy to pick a stranger’s pocket when she felt entitled to someone else’s riches.
“Pardon me, Madame,” the man who had taken the cards said, "Shall we deal you in?"
“I am for my bed,” Georgie told them, silencing the moans of disapproval with her hands. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
When she stood to leave it was as if someone had sounded the royal fanfare and almost as one man the assembled customers rose to their feet, marking her path to the door with bowed heads. Georgie paused at the door to fasten her mantelet and then, with a last look back at her court, she stepped out into the Covent Garden night.


Anonymous said...

This inspired me to write a poem called She Wore Scarlet. Thank you. Kristine Byrne

Catherine Curzon said...

Oh, that's wonderful! If you feel like sharing, do get in touch.

Gem Twitcher said...

Congratulations,Madame.I can tell that your imagination is working well!

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, sir!