Celebrity watching, 1814 style
A few days ago, Nicola blogged with an extract from her story in Loves Me, Loves Me Not, the RNA's 50th Anniversary Short Story Anthology. Nicola’s story The Elopement is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek tale that I’m sure everyone will enjoy.
My own story in the anthology takes place in London in 1814, during the celebrations for the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (London wasn’t to know that Napoleon would escape from Elba and start it all over again, of course.) The city was full of foreign royalty. Everyone, from the highest to the lowest, wanted to be able to see these illustrious visitors. Like today’s celebrity watchers, Londoners wanted to be able to tick off all the names on their lists. And that’s where the trouble starts…
The Trophy Hunter’s Prize
After the searing brilliance of India, London seemed subdued, like a watercolour by a novice artist who had mixed his paints too thin. Andrew Mortimer shivered a little, in spite of the summer sunshine.
He straightened his elegant new coat and continued to stride down Piccadilly towards the park, where there should be open space, and fresher air to breathe. Before long, however, the dense crowds slowed him almost to a standstill. Yet they seemed good-humoured. With a nod here and a word of excuse there, he might make his way through.
‘’Ere! Wot d’you think y’re doing?’ cried a large florid woman when he tried to edge past her. She looked him up and down, noting the expensive clothes and the unusually brown skin. ‘Furriners,’ she muttered darkly. ‘Never did ’ave no manners.’
Still, she had made a little space for him to pass. Andrew managed to reach up to touch his hat and said, in his most affected English drawl, ‘Why, thank you, ma’am. Most kind.’ The woman’s jaw dropped. Very satisfying.
He had gone only a few yards further when he was forced to stop altogether. The huge crowd seemed to draw breath, as one, then it let out an ear-splitting roar and surged forward towards the Pulteney Hotel, carrying Andrew with it. He had to put all his efforts into keeping his balance. When he was at last able to look about him, he saw that the Tsar of Russia had appeared on the hotel balcony above them, which was clearly the reason for the lusty cheering. And, not three yards from where Andrew stood, a small figure in a pale dress was being trampled in the crush.
He yelled a warning. No one seemed to hear. If she was to be rescued, he would have to do it himself. He flung himself at the men who barred his path. He shouted at them. No reaction. There was just too much noise. As he pushed and pushed, his mouth came close enough to yell into one man’s ear. The man moved a fraction.
Andrew forced his body through the tiny gap. He could almost touch her now. Just a yard or so more. Her muslin skirt was spread across the filthy roadway. How was it that these men did not realise the harm they were doing?
They were all gazing up at the Tsar, their arms raised, their mouths open to bellow their delighted approval of the hero who had defeated the tyrant Bonaparte. The London mob had made its choice of the young and virile Emperor of Russia over their own fat, frivolous Regent.
Andrew was close enough now to see her. She was dirty, young, and frightened. She seemed to be screaming for help. But he could hear nothing. With a huge effort, Andrew shouldered aside two men who were in danger of treading on the girl. He reached down, grabbed the little figure by the arms, and heaved.
Nothing. He redoubled his efforts and heaved again.
It was like pulling a difficult cork. One moment her body was stuck fast. The next it had popped out and Andrew was toppling backwards with her. But he did not fall. The wall of people held him upright.
In his arms, the girl was still screaming and now, with her head against his shoulder, he could hear it very well. It hurt. He used his chin to nudge aside her broken straw bonnet and put his lips against her ear. ‘Pray hush. You are safe now, I promise you.’
She uttered one final, piercing scream. Then putting her mouth against his ear, she cried, ‘Safe? You are like to ruin me, you numbskull. Look at my gown.’
He looked down. Her skirt still lay spread on the ground in a drift of filthy muslin pinioned by enormous boots. Like pressed flower petals edged with footprints. The lady in his arms was dressed in little more than a shift, and torn stockings.
The girl in the ruined dress is Kate de Lacey, named for Little Black Dress author and RNA stalwart, Kate Lace, to whom my story is dedicated. But if you want to know what happens to my Kate, you’ll need to buy the book. You won’t regret it if you do; it’s a gorgeous collection and I’m very proud to be part of it.
Best wishes and happy reading