The strident chords of the church of St. Anselm and St. Cecilia bells rang in her ears as Elisabeth hurried along the murky, damp streets of Bloomsbury. Head down, her threadbare shawl drawn tightly around her thin shoulders in a feeble attempt to ward off the bitter chill and drizzle of an autumn morning in London, she hugged her tiny bundle to her chest. The soot-blackened slum dwellings of Whitechapel where her journey had commenced were behind her now. Two and three storeys high and each floor home to at least three families, the sounds of another miserable day dawning could be heard as she left her own damp hovel for the last time. A consumptive cough here, and there the plaintive wail of a hungry infant. A woman’s voice, grown harsh, sharpened by the cares of so many mouths to feed and no obvious way of doing so.
It was a sentiment familiar to Elisabeth. Since the death of her husband two months ago, trampled under the hooves of a brewery dray horse as he hurried through the dank fog to his work as a cobbler, she had been without income. No money, no food, and soon she would no longer have so much as a roof over her head. Her rent remained unpaid, she had no funds to appease her landlord and his patience, such as it was, had been exhausted. The place was no more than a slum but it had offered some semblance of shelter though little in the way of warmth since she could not afford wood for her fire and had long ago burnt most of her furniture.
Already her meagre possessions were piled in the street outside her former home where they would remain as she had neither means to collect them nor a place to convey them to. The pile in the street was not huge but it represented all that she possessed in this hostile, ungenerous world.
This night she would have spent on the streets herself were it not for the kindness of her loyal friend. Agnes McRae had been apprenticed to the same dressmaker as Elisabeth some eight years ago. They had toiled together in the poky workrooms at the rear of Mrs. Baker’s emporium in fashionable Bond Street, stitching undergarments and millinery for the fine ladies of Park Lane, Piccadilly or Grosvenor Square. Their earnings would never amount to enough that they might themselves aspire to parade about the leafy walks of Hyde Park with the fashionable ladies who wore the clothes they laboured over, but the wages were enough to feed them and Mrs. Baker permitted them to sleep on the workroom floor.
Elisabeth had left her job in the emporium when she married Daniel Perkins, the love of her life. His death had come as a devastating blow, and not just because the tragedy left her penniless and destitute with an infant of just four weeks to bring up alone. She had adored her husband and missed his gentle humour and comforting presence. In particular she yearned for his warmth in her bed. His loss had ripped out her heart. She did not believe she would ever find cause to smile again. There would never be another of his ilk. She had already resigned herself to a lifetime of despairing loneliness.
She turned to the woman who hurried along at her side.
“Are you quite sure this is the way?”
“Aye, that I am. The foundling hospital is situated in Bloomsbury, not five minutes from here.”
“Are you sure they will take her? And she will be safe there?”
Agnes linked her arm with Elisabeth’s. “Aye, I believe so. She will have enough to eat, a warm, dry bed. And when she is older she will learn a trade and they will find her honest employment.”
“But, will they love her? She needs to be loved…” Elisabeth halted in her tracks. “I cannot do this. There must be another way.”
Agnes enfolded her friend in her arms. “I wish there was another way. There are no openings for seamstresses but Mrs. Baker will take ye back on tae help in the scullery and allow ye tae share my room in her servant’s quarters, such as it is. We can take it in turns to sleep in the bed as ‘tis too small tae share, but she won’t allow Eloise to come wi’ ye. No babies, that’s ‘er rule, even those born in wedlock. I see nae other way. If ye keep her wi’ ye, ye’ll both be on the streets an’ that’s nae life fer a wee bairn, what with the winter just around the next corner an’ all.”
Agnes’s soft brogue spoke of her childhood in Edinburgh. Elisabeth did not always comprehend all that her friend said as English was not her native tongue, but they got by. She had herself grown up in Paris, in the area known as Fauberg Saint-Antoine where her mother eked out a living making lace dolls to sell on the more affluent streets. They had come to London eight years previously when Elisabeth was just twelve years old because her mother had heard it was easier to make a living in England. Sadly, there was little demand for lace dolls in London and Madame Deloitte has quickly been reduced to making her living in a brothel. Determined that her daughter would not follow her, she had secured the apprenticeship with Mrs. Baker. The last Elisabeth heard of her mother was the report of her death from an unspecified infection and fever.
Elisabeth had known not a word of English when she arrived in the harsh, grey capital of England but she had quickly picked up enough to get by. Her fingers were naturally nimble and she enjoyed needlecraft, but at the age of eighteen she discovered that she enjoyed the tender kisses and deft touch of Daniel Perkins rather more. They were wed after just nine weeks of walking out together and Elisabeth was blissfully happy. Her baby girl completed her delight.
Then, one damp, foggy Tuesday morning, neighbours carried her beloved husband’s lifeless body back to her home on a board and her world changed forever.
“I cannot.” Elisabeth wept and tightened her grip on the tiny bundle protected from the elements beneath her cloak. She lifted the soaked fabric to peer at the sweet little face beneath, the picture of innocence, contentedly sleeping. “I cannot leave her with strangers. She is all that I have left…”
“I ken that, lass. I truly do, but ye have nae choice. If ye love her, an’ I ken that ye dae, ye will leave her where she’ll be safe.”
“But she will not know me. She will not remember…”
“It canna be helped.”
“She will believe that I did not care for her, that I abandoned her.”
“She may not. In her heart she will ken the truth.”
Elisabeth lifted an anguished, tearstained face to meet her friend’s solemn gaze. “Do you really think so?”
“Aye, I do. An’ it is for the best that ye be strong now.”
Elisabeth nodded. “I know. I know what I must do, but I shall come back for her. One day, when I have the means to support us both, I shall return and claim her.”
Agnes patted her arm. “O’ course ye shall. Now, we should be getting on. Mrs. Baker is expectin’ us an’ it’s best we nae be late, nae on yer first day there.”
The pair trotted on, along Theobald Road, then Boswell Street.
“Not far now,” murmured Agnes as they crossed Great Ormond Street and marched on past the ornamental gardens in Russell Square.
This area, though not the wealthiest in London, was respectable at least and a far cry from the stews of Whitechapel where her infant daughter would otherwise be condemned to eke out a meagre existence. Yes, Elisabeth told herself over and over, as though repeating the mantra might make it true, yes, this is for the best.
The brick facade of the Foundling Hospital reared before them. Elisabeth halted, stared up at the forbidding frontage. The building was plain, with two wings and, she understood, a chapel within. The hospital was constructed around a courtyard so at least the little ones housed within would be able to enjoy the fresh air, cleaner in this part of the city.
The main entrance appeared to be a huge double door up two stone steps.
“Do we ring the bell?” she enquired of Agnes.
“I suppose we must.” Agnes mounted the steps and seized the bell pull.
Before Elisabeth could tell her nay she had pulled on it. A resounding clanging resonated from behind the solid portal. It was all Elisabeth could do to remain where she stood. Every instinct screamed at her to put an end to this madness, to turn and run as hard as she could, and to never let her baby daughter go.
But she did not. They waited, in silence. It was almost a full minute before they heard slow, plodding footsteps approaching the door, then the sound of a lock turning. At last the door creaked open and a plump woman of middling years peered out at them. She looked the pair up and down as though assessing them and finding them wanting.
Sure enough… “Round the back,” she snapped and started to close the door.
“No, wait. Please…” Elisabeth knew she could not go through this again. If she walked away from this door, now, she would keep on walking and that would spell disaster for her and her child. “Please, I need your help.”
“You look as though you do. And like I said, you need to go round the back.” The woman was formidable in her certainty.
“Please, I have a baby. She is but a few weeks old…” Elisabeth drew back her cloak to reveal the now wriggling form. The chill in the air had disturbed the child and she screwed her little face up in readiness to wail her disapproval. “She is hungry, but I have nothing…”
“A familiar tale. Foundlings to the rear entrance.”
Agnes stepped in, taking the squirming infant and thrusting her at the woman barring their entrance. “It canna make no difference which door she comes in at, a foundling’s a foundling. Here, ye must take ‘er.”
This was not strictly true. For some years the Foundling Hospital’s original policy of taking in all children brought to their doors had ceased and they were more adept at selecting those they might help. Although no money was supposed to change hands, it often did. They would only take illegitimate children and then only the first one since subsequent indiscretions were deemed to be wholly the responsibility of the feckless mother.
Agnes’s vehemence was more than a match for the other woman’s obstinacy. The matron took the baby in her arms and glared at her in distaste. “Is the child clean? And well? No infections or infestations?”
“N-no,” affirmed Elisabeth. “She is in good health.”
“Three months. Her birthday is—”
“Never mind that. The father?”
“He… he died.”
“Aye. They all do.” The matron clearly did not believe the tale of a recently deceased father but cared not a jot. “An’ I suppose you’ll be wantin’ to come back for her at some stage. That’s what they usually say.”
“I do. I will.”
The woman coughed. “We shall see. If you want to claim her back in the future you’ll need to leave a token of some sort and be able to tell us what it was when you return. Without a token, there’s no getting her back.”
“Yes, I know. “ Elisabeth fumbled in the pocket of her plain grey skirt and produced a small thimble. It had been a wedding gift from her Daniel and it was very precious to her. Almost as precious as the tiny child she was to part from, here, on the Foundling Hospital steps.
The matron shifted the baby onto one arm and with her free hand took the thimble. She rolled it around in the palm of her hand. “Is it made of silver?”
“Yes,” Elisabeth confirmed. “And it is engraved with the crest of the Embroiderers’ Guild… See?”
The matron squinted at the minute writing and gave a noncommittal grunt. “If you say so. There’s not many here who can read.”
“But she will be able to. She will receive an education, training for good, honest work. That is true, is it not?” Elisabeth contemplated even now snatching her child away.
“Aye. She shall have plain but wholesome fare, clothes to wear, and enough learning so she will be able to make her own way when she grows up.”
“I see. Good.” Elisabeth took a step back.
“So you’ll be leavin’ her, then?”
“Yes. I have to, you see, I—”
“Right.” The matron retreated back inside, taking Elisabeth’s precious bundle with her.
“Wait!” Elisabeth darted forward just as the door slammed in her face. “Her name is Eloise,” she called, leaning on the dull paintwork to weep afresh as the matron’s footsteps receded and she was left with nothing.
The bell above the door jingled and over the noise of the traffic outside, Eloise barely heard it from her position crouched behind the counter. She was rearranging the ribbons in a drawer. Lifting her head, she peeped over the counter to see a couple walk through the shop door.
He wore a top hat and ascot tie with a grey three-piece suit. A portly gentleman of middling years and older than his companion, a young woman with red hair. His wife, Eloise assumed, and she was beautiful; Eloise felt an immediate pang of jealousy. Why was she not blessed with such a glorious complexion and shiny hair? She straightened up and dashed around the counter to greet them by bobbing her head and dropping into a tiny curtsey.
“Sir, madam, how might I be of assistance?” Eloise was alone in the shop. Mr. Drake, the proprietor of Drake’s Drapers and Haberdashers rarely bothered with shop front matters and his wife was out on an errand. With nobody to watch over Eloise, she felt emboldened with her responsibilities. She could pretend to be the shopkeeper. She stuck out her chin and puffed out her chest, just like Mrs. Drake did when somebody important walked into the store.
The man glanced at the bales of cloth on the back shelves and pointed at them with the brass end of his walking stick. “Red, didn’t we decide, my dear?”
“I believe so,” the young woman said with a tantalising smirk.
“Any particular fabric, ma’am?” Eloise asked.
“Silk, or maybe satin,” replied the man.
Using the small set of steps, Eloise fetched down three bales of cloth, each a shade of red. This side of the shop, behind the long counter, was a wall of oak shelving rising from floor to ceiling. The bales were arranged by fabric, then colour or pattern; the popular knitted tartan at one end, the white linen at the other. Prominently on display in the middle shelves were the finest bolts of cloth and most expensive. She laid them side by side on the cutting table. Eloise knew better than to comment on the price of the fabric. The lady had lace trimmings around her sleeves and a low bustle with a large bow sewn into the end while the gentleman had a monogrammed initial on his tie. Given their apparel, they were probably able to afford whatever they liked.
“Satin. Would this be for an evening gown, ma’am?” Eloise asked, rolling out a yard for inspection.
“Yes,” she replied softly.
“Do you have a pattern in mind? We have our own designs and our dressmaker will be happy to make it for you.” Mr. Drake insisted on the advertisement for his other services. Given their long hours, the trio of dressmakers who worked upstairs rarely had the time to pop in to visit the shop.
“Thank you,” the gentleman replied. “That won’t be necessary. The dress is to be made with specific requirements in mind.”
His companion lowered her eyes. She carefully removed her gloves, placing them to one side, and stretched out her slender fingers to caress the satin.
“So smooth,” she remarked.
“It is our finest weave,” Eloise said.
“Imagine it, my dear, following the line of your figure. Especially with a tight corset beneath.” He chuckled, and the lady’s cheeks blushed.
Eloise took a step back. How embarrassing for his wife to have her underwear discussed in public.
“Sir, please,” the woman hissed.
“Now, now, Imogen,” he said. He rested his hand upon her wrist. “Please show a little gratitude.”
“Of course, I’m sorry. It’s only that I have nothing to match this colour, no pretty ribbons or buttons.” Imogen retracted her hand.
“I shall ensure you are beautifully turned out, do not fret.” He pointed out the bolt of cloth and asked the price.
Eloise quoted the price per yard. He did not blink, never mind baulk at the extravagance.
“How many yards, do you think?” he asked Imogen.
She frowned. “I don’t know. I’ve never made a dress before from cloth. I buy them partly made and Ma finishes—”
The rebuke was more than a stern stare. “Shhh, Imogen,” he said curtly.
“But, sir,” she added. “I’m only saying—”
He dropped his hand below her waist and there, right in front of Eloise, he patted her bustle with such a forceful manner that he must have made contact with her rump. Imogen flinched and raised her hand to her mouth to muffle a soft cry. The tips of her ears turned pink.
Eloise shuffled her feet further backwards. The couple stood for a few seconds as if frozen. His arm remained draped around her back, poised as if to strike once again, while he maintained the austere expression of a schoolmaster. However, Eloise caught something else in his eye: a twinkle of mirth.
Imogen turned her head a fraction, glancing over her shoulder in Eloise’s direction, and she too, far from appearing angry at his smack, appeared equally amused. The couple relaxed, seemingly happy that the moment of disagreement was over.
Eloise should have looked away and allowed them privacy, but she could not help her reaction. She was intrigued and agog at the strangeness of their behaviour. Given the way Imogen addressed him, and referred to her mother, Eloise was starting to suspect they were not man and wife. What manner of relationship would permit a man to lay his hand on an unmarried woman and do so with little care for her honour?
She wanted to ask them, but she stifled the questions by pressing her lips firmly together. Her blatant curiosity in the past had often landed her in trouble with her current employer and before that the staff of the foundling hospital where she had been raised. But other than a rap on the knuckles or a spell locked inside a claustrophobic cupboard, she had never had her backside disciplined.
“Miss,” he summoned her back to the table. “Be so kind as to measure my companion so that we can calculate the length of cloth required for the dressmaker.”
Eloise picked up the measuring tape. “It will only be an estimate, sir. Without the pattern, I can’t possibly—”
He waved a dismissive hand. “Overestimate it then.”
“If you would like to come this way.” She gestured to a small screened-off area.
“Oh, here will do.”
Imogen stared at him, opening and shutting her mouth. Once more, his hand seemed ready to aim a strike at her bottom.
“Please, be quick,” she murmured to the astounded Eloise.
The longer they spent in the shop, the greater the risk somebody else might walk through the door or that Mrs. Drake would return. Eloise could see little of the outside through the myriad items on display in the bay window. The weather outside was dull and quiet and the voices of pedestrians on the pavement muffled.
“If you would be so kind as to stand before the mirror here,” she suggested. The mirror was at the back of the store and afforded them a little more privacy.
Imogen smiled. “Thank you.”
Eloise’s hand shook as she stretched out the tape along the length of Imogen’s arm. She was not perturbed at measuring limbs and waists—she had been trained by Mrs. Drake herself—but with the man watching intently whilst swinging his stick with a flick of his wrist, she fumbled with the tape.
She wrote down the inches on a scrap of paper, hoping her basic schooling would suffice enough for her to calculate the quantity of fabric needed.
“Lift your skirt up a little, my dear,” he instructed Imogen. “So that the girl can measure to your ankle.”
Don’t call me a girl, Eloise nearly retorted. She was twenty-one and an apprentice, and not an idiotic child taken in off the streets. Imogen raised the hemline of her skirts above her boot laces and exposed a dainty ankle clad in silk stockings. Eloise stretched up to reach her waist and let the tape tumble down the skirt until it touched the wooden floorboards. From there, she adjusted its length so that she had the measure of the woman’s leg.
She noted the details.
“Come, come,” the gentleman said with increasing impatience. “How much is required?”
Eloise totted up the amounts and calculated the cost. As she did, the lady remained standing there with her ankle still bared.
“Sir,” Imogen said quietly.
“Oh, very well. You may cover it.” He sounded disappointed by her request.
The longer they spent in the shop, the more Eloise suspected the relationship was based on something illicit or bound by an agreement other than marriage. The man had complete control of the situation and although polite, he ordered the young woman around with a confidence that befitted his appearance. However, the manner of his arrogance was not disagreeable, Eloise thought. It was something else, and she could not quite put her finger on what it was that made her heart flutter with excitement.
Upon his instruction, Eloise cut the fabric and wrapped it in tissue paper and tied the package with a string. Imogen held her arms aloft and Eloise draped the parcel over her arms.
The man fished out his wallet and paid with crisp pound notes. Eloise handed him back the change and he pocketed it without checking the amount. So, he trusted her, which was something that made her glow inside. She had played the part of shop proprietor convincingly.
“Good day,” she said with a bob. “I hope it makes a fine gown.”
“I’m sure it will.” Imogen smiled sweetly.
It was after the door closed behind them that Eloise noticed the gloves on the table. She picked them up and raced to the street outside. A black coach with a crest on the side was drawn up outside the shop. Imogen had vanished inside the dim interior and the man had one foot on the step.
“Sir, sir.” Eloise held out the gloves. “You forgot these.”
He pivoted and his bushy eyebrows furrowed. He scratched his beard and shook his head. “She’s very forgetful,” he remarked. “Thank you, young lady.” He thrust the gloves through the door and a pale hand retrieved them in silence.
“I guess she has much on her mind,” Eloise ventured.
He snorted. “Can’t think why.” He paused and gave Eloise his full attention, as if she was an object on display in the shop window. “You did well in there.”
She was not sure what he meant. “Thank you,” she opted to say in lieu of anything else.
He rummaged in his pocket. “I never gave you a tip.”
“Quite unnecessary, sir. As you can see, I’m in charge—”
“I think not,” he said with amusement. “I think Mr. Drake and his wife are out at the moment and you are alone. But, all the same, you did well.” He held out the coin.
She could not resist the shiny guinea. She needed money. With a quick glance over her shoulder to check they weren’t being watched, she picked the coin out of his gloved palm.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“You guessed that Imogen is not my wife?”
Eloise blushed. “Tis not for me to comment, sir,” she said.
“Well, she isn’t. But she is important to me,” he added. “You look like the kind of young lady who might also need somebody to take care of them. And, I suspect, given how your eyes widened when I offered you a guinea, that you are struggling with monetary matters.”
“Oh, not at all,” she lied. She tried hard to hide her scuffed boots from Mrs. Drake, but there was little she could do to improve her lot on her meagre wages.
He delved his hand into his breast pocket. Another tip? No, he retrieved a calling card, the kind a gentleman gives to another. The lettering was gold as was the trim. He offered it to her.
“If you ever have the need, then do call upon Madame Irene.”
She read the small print—Madame Irene, Owner. The Velvet Glove. The address was in Mayfair.
“Is she a dressmaker?” Eloise asked.
He laughed. “No. She is far more accomplished than that. It is a gentleman’s club.” He winked and tipped his hat before climbing into the carriage.
The groom raised his whip and with a crack, the two horses drew the coach away. Eloise was left by the roadside clutching the calling card.
“Eloise!” a woman bellowed from further down the street. “What are you doing outside? Get in there now.”
Mrs. Drake was storming down the street with clenched fists. Eloise grabbed her skirts and hurried back indoors. She hid the card in her sleeve. On her day off she might take a walk to Mayfair and introduce herself to Madame Irene. She was not afraid of a little adventure. Quite the contrary, taking risks had become a habit of hers that might be her undoing one day.