It was the second week in November and the evening, at last, of the mysterious and superbly adaptable (not to mention gifted) Mam’selle Hélène de Noir's third and final performance. It was scheduled to be staged again at the Aldwych Pits, just off Drury Lane. It seemed that all of London Society, and its cousin, had turned out for this final recital, eager to get a glimpse, yet again, of the mysterious French chanteuse - who, after all, had been compared to a Venus, - who could sing with the voice of a nightingale.
The King, so ‘twas rumoured, had himself enquired after the enchanting performer after her debut appearance, and the backstage of the theatre was choc-a-bloc with bouquets, trifles, bon-bons and other gifts, plus of course, hopeful fans anxious to glean a pre-performance eyeful of their current idol.
To avoid any premature revelation of her true identity, yet, for Lord Seyton Clover was adamant that she should be shrouded in mystery until the excitement and interest of Society and the common lot was at fever pitch - Charity had been evident at the theatre, but paraded as a humble stage-hand. Her task - to help the other actors and actresses with their wardrobe, make-up and the like. Although Lord Seyton Clover had ensured that she perform the minimum of work; he did not want his star to be overtaxed before her own performance.
Who, after all, would have suspected that the shy, mouse-like young maid was none other than the imposing, regal and awe-inspiring artiste, Hélène de Noir? She had been shown an even more secluded and hidden dressing-room than the one she had used previously: Lord Seyton Clover had not wanted a repetition of the incident concerning his cousin. Charity was perplexed as to how exactly he had arranged this, but had credited him with one more laurel to the crown invisible he wore upon his titled head.
Charity was apprehensive. Her fingers trembled as she changed - with the help of a hired maid this time, and that maid sworn to secrecy - not that she would have been able to speak of her knowledge, being a deaf mute. It had been this ‘attribute’ which had greatly coloured her selection by Lord Seyton Clover. Not only that: Molly Fibbins was the sister of his man, John.
The maidservant helped Charity change into an assortment of veils and flimsy gauzes - which this night formed the greater part of her apparel. She had slipped a pelisse of midnight blue satin over the veils, though this did little to disguise the fact that, in certain light, the veils were all but transparent.
It was easy to discern the firm, full breasts, crowned with their auras of pinky nipples, swaying beneath the fine fabric.
Although Charity had wanted to demure the donning of such a costume, one look into the liquid eyes of her mentor had persuaded her that ‘Art’ after all, was ‘Art’. Besides, had it not been pointed out to her, by His Lordship, that the stage would once more be mainly in darkness? She would have various mantles of glimmering stuffs to cascade about her, not to mention the perfumed smoke which would also thinly veil her performance.
Her own golden hair was bound tightly about her head as she donned a silver-grey wig, white with powder. She applied lead-white paint to her face, with highlights of bright rouge high up on the cheekbones and scarlet ’pon the lips. Her eyes were darkened with some fabulous cosmetic and her thin eyebrows painted in to look more arched than they normally did.
Above the eyelids and fringing the forehead, she applied spangles and glittering materials. About the wig were added gauze streamers, so that on the final analysis, as she moved, one was reminded of a sunset or dawn.
This performance was split into two, which meant a few, slight, cosmetic changes: for she was twilight in the one part and dawn in the other. As the roles were intrinsically the same, Lord Seyton Clover was being temperamental about which part she should perform first.
He therefore had begged her to darken her lips for ‘Dawn’ and then to make them pale for ‘Even’. At length she heard the noises of the audience die away, a hush seemed to have fallen upon the packed house. She was even more fearful than previously.
But, before she was due to take her cue, Lord Seyton Clover stood in front of her, fixing her with his glittering eyes. How his words soothed away any anxiety she might have held; how he made her feel confident that she would be glorious, sensational! She did not even register concern as he told her she should have to make her own way home that evening. He had to be away fast from the theatre, and on urgent business!
She heard the notes of the first piece of music begin to sound. Still half-musing upon the directions he had uttered to her, sedan chair engaged for her, locatable opposite the ‘Black Swan’; leave by North exit, she began to drift her way forward, through the backstage audience of actors, actresses, stage helpers, and, the idle curious.
Lord Seyton Clover, for his part, looked totally the epitome of the femininely-inclined Mediterranean genius of wayward brilliance. None who knew him would have taken him for their very own comrade, associate or equal, Lord Seyton Clover of Amblevale.
Up went the baton, down dipped the violins. On she walked, to the deserted stage. The almost putrid heat of the gathered masses hit her in a moist warm wave. She did not notice overall. Nor had she been aware of the animated chatter which had followed her before the loud hushings made those who talked in low but pronounced whispers shut up completely.
Charity was in a nebulous, trance-like state. At length, she was upon the stage. The curtain was drawing open to thunderous applause. Banks of candles flickering festooned the right hand side of the stage. She was away! Dancing, leaping, whirling: the music and she, all of one piece. Silence. She raised high her arms. The candle-light seemed to flush her pale golden and pink, like the roses heaped upon the satin sheets draping the dais. Eyes closed, hands clasped together before her, the drift of feathers suggesting doves’ wings, flowing from her arms.
She breathed in: the heavy redolence of the flowers sharp and sweet to her nostrils. She awaited the notes which would lead her into her aria. The audience chilled into mesmeric raptures. Not a sound. It was as though all present had ceased breathing for some seconds - to stare at this apparition before them. A ghost made fleshly tangible. At length, the piece drew to a close and, with frenzied abandon, she tore several of the veils from her body.
They settled into gauzy pools on the stage.
Her bosom was heaving, the thin fabric of the remaining veils straining, her nipples hard and red flushed, straining to break the fragile encasing of her coverings. Darkness. Silence. Quickly she paled the lips so that her face, bar the accentuation of her eyes and brow, seemed to have dispensed with those features.
She was evening. An evening of tantalising titillation; of seduction; promise: her knees forced themselves to the floor, her thighs apart, the veils barely covering her rose-tinted flesh.
Over she rolled, sighing, singing, shimmering, leaping chameleonlike up and up, the loose gauze moulded to her limbs, the pert buttocks enticing in the glow of the pale lights. Then the turn; the stare, myopic into the crowded auditorium, the pits. The voice coaxing, wailing, pleading: the fine scarf covering her breasts falling to the ground. She back now upon the dais, her legs draped over its edge, the breasts jutting, magnificent, yearning; - then, with a final heart-rending wail, her bosom clutched between her hands, she stood up, inclined forward. Shook with the agony and the ecstasy of the music, her arms falling: she was down and silent. Finale!: The curtain came down.
With a leap, Lord Seyton Clover had found his way onto the perfumed and smoke-shrouded stage. He threw a cloak loosely about his protégée’s shoulders and clasped her hand. The audience, at first shocked into total silence, now let rip with wild shouts, roars, thunderous applause. Lord Seyton Clover drew Charity’s hand towards his own lips, kissed it, keeping a sly glance upon the audience, then threw her hand wildly up into the air.
A liveried court messenger delivered a bouquet from the King himself. Blushing, Charity accepted it and looked towards the Royal Box. She curtseyed. At length the curtain rolled down again and seeing that the time was prudent, Lord Seyton Clover delivered ‘Hélène de Noir’ into the hands of her maid. She bade a glassy-eyed ‘Adieu and Farewell!’ As he turned from her, despair and fatigue all but stamped upon the perspiring swan-like neck she turned to him. He disappeared like a wisp of smoke and Molly Fibbins slammed the little cubicle door flush to.
With brisk fingers and unthought-of alacrity, Charity was soon divested of her costume. These were hurriedly packed away, as was the wig, once lifted from its anchorage upon her own hair. Off came the make-up, bar, that is, the whiteness of the lips and the suggestion of sparkling bangles across her brow.
She donned the servile clothing and then, with Molly Fibbin’s help, quickly navigated her way through the milling crowds backstage to the assigned exit. But the crowds all but threatened to suffocate and trample under their feet the two ‘backstage doxies’ as they made their way out of the theatre.
“’Taint no good tooting fer business tonight me lovelies. There’s too much attraction goin’ on in peoples’ minds by the likes of what they jus’ seen showin’ ’er all that they should be hard-pushed to get you two maids to play ’er role!”
If only they had known, thought Charity, pummelling shoulders and arms out of her way. Molly seemed quite a past master in the art of negotiating past stubborn bodies, however, and soon - the picture of silence - had soon hauled Charity to the door.
Charity breathed a heartfelt ‘Thank you’ and smiled at the girl, before she recalled that the girl would not, of course, be able to hear her. But gaining the drift of Charity’s thoughts, the girl nodded her head up and down rapidly as though to convey that she comprehended.
Still shaking slightly, Charity stepped outside into the welcome briskness of the November evening. Molly Fibbins took hold of Charity’s sleeve and began tugging it frantically: this was as far as she could accompany her. Charity was a little perplexed at first, until she understood that the girl’s payment was yet to be collected.
Smiling faintly, for she had noticed the girl’s wielding of the heavy valise in their perambulations through the theatre's corridors, she acquiesced and, “Yes, the girl must get her fee” and “No, she, Charity, would, she felt sure, be perfectly fine now.”
Grasping her by the hand, the mute girl shook it up and down heartily and then thrust the case into her open hand. With a whisper of petticoats the girl had disappeared, back into the theatre, en route to collect her earnings.