WARNING: Well, Charlotte was bound to say something.
Charlotte takes tea with the Ellington ladies whose father’s business she has plans for.
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London – 1839
Being Bran’s wife I wasn’t a complete novice in the social department. I’d picked up a few tricks, like if you’re bored, which you would be, nod enthusiastically or sympathetically in turn and sip plenty of tea. As it was the three Ellington ladies, and the other women present, were all born and bred society ladies so they were good at filling the empty air with even emptier conversation. Two years earlier I would’ve said they were stupid but I’d attended enough social gatherings since to work out that the women weren’t stupid they simply weren’t allowed to show intelligence. It was tiring in public, must’ve been even more so to keep up in private.
The tea urn was impressive though, a large silver confection set amongst more cake and sandwiches than I ever knew existed. That much silver would sell for a fair bit but they might notice if I tried to walk out with it.
‘Wouldn’t you say, Mrs O’Connor?’ Mrs Ellington asked.
‘Hm?’ I said and a dozen women looked at me expectantly, I quickly reeled back through the last few minutes in my mind. ‘Oh, yes, Bra – Mr O’Connor does like to play cards,’ I lied. ‘Fortunately he can afford to.’
‘Well, he wouldn’t have married you if he couldn’t,’ she observed as if it was a compliment, but I thought I detected some bitterness. ‘May we expect a little O’Connor sometime in the future?’ she asked.
‘Only God could say,’ I replied, uncertain whether she was asking because that was what young wives were for or if she was asking if my husband had sex with me. The problem with the perpetual need for society ladies not speak their minds was that they came up with all sorts of subtexts that mere mortals would find difficult to divine. No wonder Bran got embarrassed when I spoke so openly about sex. That, and having been a medieval catholic priest.
‘They do persevere,’ Lady Arton said, who looked vaguely bohemian with a peacock feather in her hat.
All the other ladies nodded sympathetically and I followed suit, sensing the history hovering in the air. I could… sympathise seemed the wrong word but I could understand, it was the way the world worked. You never knew which servants were reporting to the master, my career had been brief but there always seem to be one. It reminded me why I never wanted to be a wife; they couldn’t fend off husbands, either they’d be beaten or divorced. They might end up on the streets or in the workhouse. I had no idea what a wife could do, unless she wanted to stab her husband, throw him in The Thames and be hanged.
‘I hope find a husband like Mr O’Connor,’ the youngest Miss Ellington, Miss Emily, whispered beside me.
Her sister, Miss Elizabeth, giggled. ‘The way he looks at you. To be adored like that.’ She sobered suddenly at frowned at the teacup in her lap. Something told me her intended didn’t look at her like Bran looked at me.
‘Handsomer though and young, with pretty blue eyes,’ Miss Emily added, having perhaps not yet awaken to the grim light of life.
I tried not to stare at her. She was about the same age I was when I met Bran; there she was dreaming of handsome princes while I’d been dreaming of ways to get a man into bed for his money. I wondered what it was like to grow up like that.
‘Were your parents upset when you married an…’ she lowered her voice another notch, ‘an Irishman.’
‘My parents are dead,’ I replied, being entirely truthful for a change. ‘They died when I was very young.’
‘How did you meet? Was it romantic? Were you his ward?’ she asked. ‘What’s it like being married to him?’
‘Mrs O’Connor doesn’t want your questions, Emily,’ her sister hissed.
‘Mrs O’Connor doesn’t mind, do you?’ Emily said giving me a look that said I’d better not disagree.
I tilted towards them and whispered, ‘He’s the most amazing shag.’
There was a pause.
Suddenly they fell about laughing.
The other women looked over at us, the youngest, in our little corner. They looked at me disapprovingly as if I wasn’t there to be disapproved of. I had to wonder why I had been sat beside two virginal young ladies, unless there was so strange hope that the disgrace would teach them a little of the ways of men so the respectable women wouldn’t have to. There was very little I could tell them that they would wish to know.
What if I was mistaken? I’d always assumed that they all knew I wasn’t Bran’s wife, they were worldly women, but why? Half of them were married to older men. Why would they assume I wasn’t Bran’s wife if he said I was?
One rich man had called me a ‘cock-sucking whore’ but no others had. They’d simply treated me as a pretty little bauble to be seduced away from her older husband. That thought wasn’t really an improvement.
‘You shouldn’t say things like that, Mrs O’Connor,’ Miss Elizabeth said when she’d recovered from her giggles. ‘We’ll get in trouble.’
‘They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,’ I whispered. ‘And beneath the cover of this one is the biggest cock you’ve ever seen.’ Given that they likely never seen a man’s cock that wasn’t saying much.
They spluttered into their handkerchiefs.
‘What are you three talking about?’ Mrs Ellington asked from across the room. When I’d heard that Ellington had a young wife I’d expected someone more girlish and less severe but if Ellington treated his wife anything like his employees then life was giving her a battering.
‘I was just telling them about the time I used the wrong knife for the fish,’ I said.
There was a titter around the room.
‘This is what happens when the lower classes intermarry with higher ones,’ Lady Arton said, shaking her hand. ‘Shame on your husband for not teaching you before introducing you to society.’
‘Well, you know old men, so eager to show off their pretty young brides,’ I said.
There was a general murmur of consensus.
If Bran heard about that comment I might have to apologise for calling him old, not that he’d expect me to but he did enjoy my ‘apologies’.
Lady Arton sighed. ‘What can you expect from the Irish? No refinement.’
I resisted the comment, as far as they knew I wasn’t Irish, I was an English Rose.
‘We shall simply have to educate you ourselves,’ she added, as if she was offering to prevent me from shaming London society. It was then I understood I was there because they pitied me. They probably laughed behind their hands at me for being married to an old Irishman, whether he was rich or not. I doubted they’d be laughing if they knew the freedoms I had compared to theirs. It was strange thought to have about my ‘betters’.
Lady Arton came over to me, grasped my forearm and guided me to her chair to sit down. ‘To begin with you’re holding that cup completely wrong.’
It was going to be a long afternoon.