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Chapter Ten

In which I visit my dear friend Polly



I sat for a long time in that room in the Brown Bear, but eventually I made my way to the home of my friend, Polly Mead. She is an actress of much talent, dark of complexion; some say mulatto, though I believe her mother was French and her father an Irish tinker. No matter, she is a good friend and I knew that she would help me and not ask a favour by return, though I wondered why she had requested my presence. Her home was in Charles Street, next to the gated passage where the privies are found. For this reason, she was not charged over much for her habitation and did not go out and make sport that often.

That afternoon, it being late, I found Polly readying herself to leave for the theatre. I knew her to have a small part in Elizabeth Griffith’s A School for Rakes, which I had not yet seen, but was desirous of doing so.

“You are in need of food and drink and by the looks of it, a new dress,” Polly remarked, on my appearance at her door. It was true; I looked as if I lived on the streets rather than in one of the better brothels in town. She gave me her shawl and shut the door behind her, locking it carefully and hiding the key down the front of her stays.

“I would not bother you, only I have nowhere to go,” I said, “and in any case, you left a message for me to come see you.”

We crossed the road, taking care where we trod for Charles Street was filled with horse manure. An open conduit ran the length of the road, making it difficult for us to cross without dirtying our footwear.

“Mother Shadbolt has not thrown you out, surely?”

“No, nothing like that. I had something of a disagreement with Craddock this afternoon. I do not wish to return home until I am calmer.” It was the truth, or at least, a part- truth. Polly knew nothing of my marriage.

“He is an evil man” said Polly.

“He’s not so bad,” I replied.

I do not know why I felt I should speak kindly of a man who used me and thought so little of the consequences. I suppose there are occasions when we are all guilty of using someone. A link-boy passed, followed close on by a crimson-coloured sedan chair. I waited for them to pass before I continued.

“Come, I will find you clean clothes and send out for food,” said Polly. “I haven’t eaten anything yet and I’ve a long night ahead of me. Do you know Lord Appleby?”

“No,” I replied.

“He has given me much to consider recently.”

“Really?”

“Oh yes. He has taken a house in in Cavendish Square.”

“That’s a long way.”

“Mary-le-bon,” Polly said, pronouncing it as if French.

“Oh. He wants you to be his mistress?”

“He has intimated as much. I have not given him an answer yet. He suggested I invite a friend to speak with him.

“He suggested?”

“Yes. He is concerned. I am dithering. I had mentioned your name on a previous occasion and he said why not ask you. Oh Kitty, you must see him. Tell me what you think, for I fear I am madly in love, but then again… I don’t know what to do. If I accept his offer, it may mean leaving my life on the stage behind. I am not sure I am ready to do that, although it is so very tempting.”

Though the rigours of the day had brought me to an exhausted and nervous state, I allowed her to pull me towards the stage door of the Drury Lane theatre, where all is bare board and stale air. I have always found the spectacle of theatre absorbing and ever more so when viewed from the actor’s perspective. It is all make-believe and we are thrown into a childish world where nothing is as it seems. Polly led me down a corridor. Darkness engulfed us until we reached the end, whereupon she opened a door to a dressing room.

“Here. It isn’t much, but it’s where we can be private for a while.”

She lit a candle and then pushed a chair against the door to prevent any other person from entering. 

“There are gowns a-plenty here,” she said, and reached into a chest to pull forth handfuls of material. “Take your pick. Your bodice is torn, but your stays are still good. You might find something that will suit.”

“Thank you. I don’t want to bother you with this, but I am grateful.”

“Nonsense. Think nothing of it. You cannot show yourself to Lord Appleby if you are dressed like a slamkin.” Polly laughed. “Mind you, I do not want you to look so good that he will steal you away and leave me in my garret.”

“He would not do such a thing, I am sure,” I said. I delved deep into the chest and found a soft, pink sateen petticoat, with bows and bodice to match. Pretty clothes always lift my spirits, no matter how glum I feel. 

“Oh, but that one is perfect,” Polly cried. “Here put it on.” She helped me into my new clothes and instantly, I felt the cares of the world drop from my shoulders. If you should think, kind reader, that this woman is fickle and easily pleased, then you are right, but so is any woman who finds herself dressed like a Princess. Doubtless, I would pay later with an intensity of guilt and a deep sense of dread.

“Now, tend to your hair and toilet, I will send out for food. Wait here,” said Polly, and she left me to myself for a short while. For a few moments, at least, I could luxuriate in the relative calm of Polly’s domain. When she returned, it was to tell me that she had sent the black boy out to the cookshop. He would return ‘ere long with our repast and we would have a glass of wine and put the world to rights. While we waited, Polly dressed in her costume, whitened her face and stuck a beauty spot on her cheek. I watched her with eyes absent of tears, yet full of pain. I must make small talk. I roused myself.

“So my dear, tell me about Lord Appleby. Where did you meet him? I am eager to know about the man who has captured my friend’s heart.”

“Here of course. Two weeks ago. He came to pay his respects after the performance.” Polly blushed. “I am no common strumpet. I have made him wait.”

“For what, dare I ask?” I knew full well what Polly meant. She played an old game. Making him wait would find out his true intentions. If he felt nothing for her, he would away soon enough when presented with another temptation.

“He is not young, nor handsome. In fact, he is quite old - at least forty. He is married, but she has left him. He has no one with whom to share his life.”

“Save the many whores he frequents,” I muttered under my breath.

“Kitty,” Polly exclaimed. “You do not know him.” She gave me a sly smile. “At least, I do not think you know him.”

“But you said he asked to speak to me? He knew my name?” I did not understand. Why would a man do this?

“Silly, it is because I mentioned you to him, as I said. He thought you might mollify my concerns. He is quite the innocent when it comes to matters of the heart. He does not approve of flirtation. He is made of higher stuff.” She fluttered like a bird on the wing. Oh, but she was flighty indeed.

I nodded assent. “I do not doubt what you say, but no man is immune to a pretty face and a well turned ankle and it has only been two weeks and already he would make you his mistress. What of the wife? Will she return?”

Polly sighed. “I doubt that very much. I hear she is on the continent. I fear I am but a lowly actress and truly unworthy of his attentions. We all know what people think of actresses. We are no better than…”

“Than the likes of me. Is that what you say?”

“No, no. Kitty you are my dear friend.”

“But I sell my body and, in my own way, am a good actress.” I toyed with her.

“That is true,” she said, and laughed. “You will think me foolish, but I need proof of his good intentions towards me. I know… I know I cannot be his wife, but perhaps in time… I want to know exactly what he thinks of me. I do not want to give up my independence to find myself slave to his desires.”

“But every woman is slave to the man in her life. It is the way of the world,” I cried.

A tap on the door announced the arrival of our meal and we allowed the black boy entrance. The food was piping hot and most welcome, now that I had calmed a little from my earlier worries. For a while we said nothing, but simply enjoyed our food. Ere long, I felt my belly groan and I wiped my mouth on a handkerchief and sat back in my seat.

“So, you wish me to test him for you?” I said. If nothing else it would take my mind from my problems for a short while. 

Polly nodded. “I want you to flirt with him and make him an “offer”. He has told me much of his spiritual nature, of his fixation on finding a good match for his daughter and of his experiments…”

I cut in, “experiments? What kind of experiments?”

“He is intrigued by electricity. He knows of an apothecary who uses electricity to cure the sick. He is preparing a presentation to The Royal Society.”

“Ah,” I said. “A great many men of science visit me. They meet in the Crown and Anchor. I have heard of an expedition they sent lately to the far side of the world.”

“You are so clever Kitty and here am I, a simple actress who has fallen in love with…”

“With a rich man whom you would like to know is honourable, or if he will drop you for the first van-neck to plump out her bubbies and flutter her eyelashes.” 

“Yes. You are right,” sighed Polly. “Will you do this for me?”

“I will.” I could not return home after all. Not yet, at least. 

Polly clapped her hands. 

“Good. He has a box. You will slip into it once the play is underway. Do not tell him I sent you… and it goes without saying that, if he is attracted to you and would take you to his bed, or fornicate with you in any way, you will decline and report all to me.”

I nodded in agreement.

“‘Tis done then and I have only five minutes left before I must go on. Come with me and wait in the wings. I will point him out and you may slip into the box once I am on stage.”

We embraced, kissing lips as sisters do sometimes, and she took me by the hand and led me through the aisles and galleries until we found ourselves in the wings of the theatre. The stage was lit by lamps and candles, whose reflections found illumination in mirrors such that the entire space was almost as bright as day. The audience filled the auditorium with their noise and the closeness of their bodies produced such smells as to make a lady reach for her handkerchief to give relief. Polly pointed to a gentleman with his back turned. He adjusted his seat and spoke with another, whom I could not see clearly.

“That is him,” Polly whispered. “I fear he shares the box.”

“No matter,” I said. “Leave it to me.”

“But if it is a woman… if he has brought another…”

“I do not think he is with a woman.”

Polly drew in a deep breath and prepared herself to make entrance onto the Drury Lane stage. 

“Good luck,” I whispered as she stepped forward into the light.

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