Episode Twenty – ‘Corpses & Corporeality’, Part One

 

                                                    12 Gay Street

                                                     Bath,

                                                     31st March 1818

My dearest Lucy,

                       What a delight it was to receive your letter this morning but I am very sorry to hear that you are not able to join us here in Bath for another few days at least. I was so looking forward to hearing all your news! Of course, I understand that Henry must be very busy with his parish duties just now and it is only natural that you should be worried about travelling with young William so soon after his illness. But I do hope now that the doctor has pronounced him quite well you will be able to make your journey very soon and I solemnly promise to keep you up to date with all the news and gossip from Bath in the meanwhile.

        Mama and I have been in Bath almost a week now and are comfortably settled in our usual lodgings. Mama made her usual grumbles about the cost (Mrs Wilkins is asking an extra two shillings a week above last year!) but at least here one feels oneself to be in the very heart of society.

        Many of the old regulars are here again. The famous three G’s (by whom I mean of course Mrs Grace, Mrs Grant and Mrs Godwin) are opening up their drawing rooms and vying with one another to present the most glittering salon. Indeed, we already have invitations to so many ‘at-homes’ that I am afraid we will scarcely have time to set foot inside the Assembly Rooms!

        Genial old Captain Crowley has been at virtually every party so far – as full as ever of the most outrageous tales of life at sea! We are told he has married again, though we have yet to set eyes on his new bride as she is still visiting with relatives in Dorset, leaving Capt C to take up his usual lodgings with Mrs Rosscommon alone for the time being. According to Rev Miller, Capt C’s new wife is quite a bit younger than her husband and has been accustomed to the smartest society in London so it remains to be seen whether she will be content to join her husband at Mrs Rosscommon’s or whether her arrival will oblige a move to a smarter part of town.

        It seems that Lady Swannage has once again taken up residence in her grand old house at the top of the street but it has been whispered that she is here only to take the waters and does not intend to issue a single invitation this season. As you can imagine this has caused quite some consternation among the social set. For myself, I can hardly see how anybody could bear to be more than half an hour in Bath without plunging directly into society but I suppose it is different for someone of Lady S’s age and pedigree. We can only wait and see whether she might eventually relent and consent to give one of her famous parties.

        I do not think we shall lack for entertainment in the meanwhile for there are several interesting new faces amongst the old this year. You may perhaps have heard of Dr Worthing, the eminent London specialist. He has been a fixture at almost every party so far (touting for patients declares Rev Miller!) and has caused something of a stir by announcing that he intends to give a series of lectures on the latest breakthroughs in medical science which will be open to the general public. It all sounds quite thrilling but I am afraid that Mama does not think the lecture hall a suitable place for a young lady and will never agree to my attending.

        Also new to Bath are Mr Redgrave and Miss Everingham who have taken up lodgings just a few doors down from us and have become very swiftly embedded in the social whirl. Though he has been here only a short time Mr Redgrave, dare I say it, is fast becoming a rival to Sir Robert Farleigh for the title of Bath’s most eligible bachelor. Miss Durham actually went so far as to declare him the handsomest man ever to set foot in the Assembly Rooms and I will confess to you that he cuts a very fine figure and has the most charming manners. The one thing preventing his outright coronation is a slight question mark remaining over the size of his fortune. Rev Miller states he has it on good authority that Mr Redgrave is heir to a large estate in Yorkshire worth at least £3000 a year whilst Mrs Godwin is quite certain that he has claim to nothing more than a small manor in Derbyshire yielding just a few hundred. Until the matter is definitely settled one way or the other I am afraid all the mothers with marriageable daughters will be reserving judgement, even if the young ladies themselves might be willing to take a chance!

        As to Miss Everingham I find her a witty and engaging companion, though Mama would probably say she is too outspoken by far. She is certainly possessed of some bold opinions which she expresses in a most forthright manner! For example, only last night at Mrs Godwin’s she objected to a reference made by Mr Duncan to women as the weaker sex and demanded to know why women should not have every bit as much of a say in the running of the country as men. Naturally Mr Duncan, who is very proud of his seat in parliament, pooh-poohed this suggestion quite vehemently and said that it was quite clear to everyone that only men had the strength and stamina necessary to deal with affairs of state. But Miss Everingham was quite unabashed and asserted that if it were merely a question of strength then wouldn’t Mr Duncan be better off giving up his seat in parliament in favour of Farmer Howard’s prize-winning bull? This resulted in a great deal of laughter all round which I am afraid put Mr Duncan quite out of countenance for the rest of the evening.

        There is so much more that I wished to tell you but it is now time for me to get ready for Mrs Grace’s party this evening so I think I had better leave off my letter just now. I promise I will write again very soon. All my best to Henry and Baby William.

               Your loving friend,

                       Emily.

P.S. Do hurry to Bath just as soon as you can. It just isn’t the same without you and there has been so much excitement already that I am quite certain this will be the most thrilling season yet!

******************************

     “I have never been so bored in all my life,” I wearily remarked to Michael as we came together in the little nook by the grandfather clock. We had separated earlier in the evening to circulate around the party and the time it had taken me to do a tour of Mrs Grace’s drawing room felt like one of the longest hours of my life.

     “Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” returned Michael amiably. “You said yourself that an evening of civilised conversation makes a pleasant change from our usual adventures.”

     “One evening maybe,” I conceded. “But four nights in a row is more civilised conversation than anyone can stand. Why are we still accepting all these dull invitations?”

     “You know perfectly well why,” replied Michael with a heavy sigh. “One of these houses must be host to a hidden room of Sturridge’s prison and so we’ll keep on accepting dull invitations until we find it, even if it means visiting every house on the street.”

     “We could have set ourselves up as coal merchants in order to visit every house on the street,” I suggested, “thereby saving ourselves a lot of tedious twaddle.”

     “If we’d set ourselves up as coal merchants we could have visited every coal cellar on the street,” corrected Michael, “but you can be sure we’d have got no further. Which means your plan would work fine if Sturridge’s hidden room is located in a coal cellar. Otherwise…”

     “Yeah but if we’d set ourselves up as coal merchants we would at least have scored an invitation to the Servants’ Ball next week,” I explained, “which sounds very much like the closest you can get to having some actual fun around here. Mary, Mrs Grace’s parlour maid, was telling me all about it. It’s held in a massive barn on Farmer Howard’s land, the place is absolutely swilling with booze and you can dance until the early hours.”

     “If you’re that desperate to go dancing we can always visit the Assembly Rooms again,” offered Michael.

     “I’m talking about proper ‘grab your partner and fling ‘em round the room’ dancing,” I objected. “Not the kind of choreographed mincing that goes on in that place.”

     “You can forget any ideas about partner-flinging until we’ve found this hidden room,” Michael sternly insisted. “I doubt that would go down very well in polite society and you’re already on pretty thin ice with some of the remarks you’ve made.”

     I threw him a fierce glare in disapproval of what I considered a very disloyal remark. My frustrations with our current scenario were undoubtedly exasperated by the fact that, in contrast, Michael seemed perfectly at home here. Maybe it was just the actor in him responding to a role or perhaps he simply had a more refined nature than I did but there was no doubt that he seemed to fit in around here alarmingly well. Of course things may have been made easier for him by the fact that his role in society was at least a little more relaxed than mine; for example, as a gentleman he was permitted certain luxuries that were denied to a young woman like me such as a glass of port after dinner or an opinion of his own.

     Perhaps recognising that he may have overstepped the mark a touch, Michael softened his tone before adding, “Look, you only need behave yourself for a few more days. At least until we’ve secured ourselves an invitation to Lady Swannage’s.”

     “You can forget Lady Swannage,” I told him flatly. “Word is, she doesn’t intend to issue invitations to anyone this year, no matter how well-behaved they are.”

     “Who told you that?” said Michael with a frown.

     “Mrs Godwin’s maid, Libby. If you want to know anything around here, ask a maid. They reckon Lady Swannage has grown tired of the society here in Bath and I can’t say I blame her.”

     “She can’t say she’s grown tired of us, she’s never met us,” objected Michael.

     “And I’m afraid she’s not likely to. Apparently, she’s already stated she’s only here to take the waters, parties are entirely off the agenda.”

     “So she’s a health obsessive, eh?” mused Michael. “In that case Dr Worthing might prove a useful ally.”

     “Him? He’s a complete quack!” I protested.

     “Well, we don’t need him to actually cure Lady Swannage, just so long as he interests her enough to get a foot in the door.” Michael paused to consider his plan. “Yes, I think if we were to spend a little time cultivating Dr Worthing…” he began thoughtfully.

     “You cultivate him if you like but leave me out of it,” I interrupted. “The man is seriously boring, he’s obsessed by money and status. The last conversation I had with him I was obliged to spend twenty minutes listening to him list all the features on the new carriage he’s just bought.”

     “I’d leave you out if I could but I have a feeling I might need you,” said Michael. “I don’t think it’s just money and status he’s obsessed by. A little feminine flattery might work wonders.”

     “Well I’m afraid my stocks of feminine flattery ran out three days ago,” I retorted. “I’ve been running on empty ever since.”

     “Oh come on, this is not exactly the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do in our hunt for Sturridge,” said Michael. “Look at it this way, at least a little boredom never killed anyone.”

     I was about to respond when I caught a glimpse of someone approaching out of the corner of my eye. Giving Michael a quick warning nudge, I fixed a somewhat strained smile on my face and turned to greet the interloper.

     My smile softened somewhat as I recognised the figure as belonging to Miss Emily Somerton, a bright young girl of around twenty whom I had come to regard as one of the more bearable personalities haunting the drawing rooms of Bath. In common with nearly all the young ladies of her era she was possessed of a simpering naivety which could be irritating in the extreme but in her case the genteel manners sat side by side with an eager curiosity and a keen sense of humour which more than compensated. She did come with one major drawback in the shape of a fearsomely stern mother who contrived to never be more than a few feet from her daughter, continually watching over her with all the mournful determination of a vengeful spirit. On this occasion however I could see that Mrs Somerton had been detained a few feet away by Reverend Miller, leaving her daughter with some rare breathing space.

“Hello Emily”

     “Hello Emily,” I said as she approached us.

     “Hello Natasha,” she replied. “Good evening Mr Redgrave,” she added, bobbing with a slight flush in Michael’s direction.

     “Good evening Miss Somerton,” said Michael with a bow. “Are you enjoying the party?”

     “Oh yes, it’s a splendid gathering, don’t you think?” Emily eagerly replied.

     I made an effort to stifle an instinctive snort. If there was one thing about Emily that did grate it was her boundless passion for Bath society, though I suppose if I were obliged to spend nine months of the year buried in the country with nothing more stimulating than a sewing kit for company I might be a bit more enthusiastic about it myself. There was no Mr Somerton, he having been carried off several years ago by a severe bout of flu, leaving Emily and her mother to struggle on in that kind of genteel poverty so beloved of secondary characters in Jane Austen novels. They had to scrimp and save to afford their customary couple of months in Bath, where for the last three years they had followed the standard itinerary in the hopes of netting Emily a husband, although so far her looks and charm had failed to overcome her lack of dowry.

     In an unguarded moment Emily had confessed to me that there had been a fella she had had her eye on but he had been as poor as she was. For a while their hopes had been maintained by the prospect of a small legacy from Emily’s uncle with which they might have been able to set up home. Unfortunately, rich old men can be fickle in their affections and at the last moment the Uncle had decided, without explanation, to leave the money elsewhere. As a result, Emily’s chap had decided to cut his losses and married another young woman who came equipped with just enough of a settlement to enable him to take up a curacy in a promising country parish. From the little she had spoken about it I could tell that the episode had wounded Emily badly but she strove to approach the fresh season with her customary enthusiasm nonetheless.

     Failing to notice my disdainful expression she carried cheerfully on. “I think Mrs Grace has quite outdone herself this evening, don’t you? There are so many people here I’m quite exhausted from all the conversation!”

     “You haven’t seen Dr Worthing about anywhere, have you?” Michael casually asked.

     “Yes, I do believe I saw him talking with Mrs Godwin and Captain Crowley not twenty minutes ago,” replied Emily.

     “Good, we were hoping we might catch up with him,” said Michael.

     “You were?” said Emily doubtfully.

     “You see? Even Emily thinks he’s boring,” I noted triumphantly.

     “Oh no, I didn’t mean to say…” said Emily quickly, flushing bright red. “It’s just that… Well, I do find his conversation seems to run on rather straight lines.”

     “He told you all about his new carriage then, did he?” I said sympathetically.

     “I’m sure the fault lies with me rather than Dr Worthing,” Emily insisted, quick as ever to make allowances. “I probably haven’t understood him clearly, what with him being such a great scientist.”

     This time I was quite unable to stifle my snort. “Great scientist, my…!”

     Fortunately, Michael managed to drown out the latter half of my exclamation with a discreet cough. “Why don’t we take another turn about the room,” he hastily suggested. “Would you care to join us Miss Somerton?”

     Emily was obliged to throw an anxious glance over her shoulder to seek permission from her mother but on seeing that she was still engaged with Reverend Miller she daringly accepted without further consultation. “Thank-you Mr Redgrave, I would be delighted,” she said, taking his out-stretched arm with a flush of pleasure.

     I made it clear by way of expression that I was a good deal less delighted but, not seeing much fun in moping alone in the corner, I consented to trail half-heartedly along beside them. It didn’t take me long to work out what Michael was up to. He strolled casually around wearing a bright smile, nodding politely here and there, but I couldn’t help but notice that he was careful to avoid being drawn into any conversation with any of the small groups we passed. That was until he finally spotted Dr Worthing holding court in front of one of Mrs Grace’s large bay windows, at which point he suddenly propelled both Emily and I forward with what was an almost unseemly haste.

     At the moment at which we joined the group Dr Worthing was busy listing in some detail the holdings of an aristocratic patient of his to a rather glazed audience of four. Mrs Godwin, a lady with many seasons in Bath behind her, seemed to have perfected the art of appearing to listen whilst really scanning the room beyond. Mr and Mrs Walton, a stout, middle-aged couple, wore the dull, helpless expressions of people who were just waiting for it all to be over whilst Captain Crowley had sunk down into the window seat beside Dr Worthing and appeared to have fallen fast asleep.

     They each greeted us eagerly at the first available pause in the conversation (well, all except for Captain Crowley who remained quite oblivious), clearly in the hope that our presence might help to steer the talk into more congenial waters. Their expectations were to be sadly disappointed when Michael’s opening remark was, “What was that you were saying Dr Worthing? It sounded most interesting.”

     Not being one to require much in the way of encouragement, Dr Worthing immediately launched into another lengthy monologue. For the sake of our mission I listened for a few minutes, doing my best to throw in the required nods and “oh yes?”s whenever circumstance dictated but it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm started to lag. Casting around for something to divert my attention, my eyes fell on Captain Crowley and I slid down into the window seat alongside him.

     “Good evening Captain,” I said to him in a low voice, hoping to spark off a diversionary conversation while Dr Worthing continued to drone on. To be honest, on the whole I found Captain Crowley to be a bit of a pompous windbag but while his tales of sea-storms and pirates were no more credible than Dr Worthing’s scientific pronouncements they were at least marginally more entertaining.

     Captain Crowley failed to respond.

     “Fine weather we’ve been having this week,” I persisted. It wasn’t perhaps the most inspired opening gambit but I thought to ease my way in gently.

     But the Captain must have slipped into a deeper slumber than I had realised for he still didn’t answer.

     “I expect you’ve seen some crazy weather on your many voyages,” I continued, raising my voice slightly and giving him a nudge.

     Still nothing.

     It was only now, when I turned to him, that I noticed that his usually florid complexion had gone strangely pale and that his mouth seemed to droop slightly to one side. I reached out and took his hand, finding it cold and clammy. Anxiously, I pressed my other hand to his forehead and found the same. Grasping his wrist, I felt for a pulse and so engrossed was I in my fruitless search that I completely failed to notice Dr Worthing’s droning voice come to a distracted halt behind me.

An unresponsive Captain Crowley

     “Miss Everingham, what on earth do you suppose you are doing?” His words, sharp and loud, made me jump. I turned to find the whole group staring down at me with puzzled expressions.

     “Is something the matter?” asked Emily in concern.

     “Well, yes, it is,” I was obliged to confess. “I think Captain Crowley’s dead.”

     “Dead! What nonsense! The man’s as fit as a fiddle,” barked Dr Worthing. “Let me see.”

     I stepped aside to let the doctor examine the patient. He prodded and poked and pumped the Captain’s arms up and down for a full two minutes before he finally turned back to us and exclaimed, “Good grief, he really is dead!”

     “Oh Lord!” cried Mrs Godwin.

     “Oh dear!” uttered Mr Walton.

     “How very unfortunate!” murmured Mrs Walton.

     “Must have been a stroke or some kind of apoplexy,” said Dr Worthing with a shake of head. “He seems to have just sat down and slipped away.”

     As the news rippled away across the room in a succession of startled exclamations and Dr Worthing and Mrs Godwin fell into debate about what was to be done with the late Captain I couldn’t resist turning to Michael and quietly remarking with a light smirk, “What was that you were saying about a little boredom never killed anyone?”

To be continued…

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