I've been taking a break from Devo Diary to work on revising my historical novel. I wrote the first draft a long time ago, some of you may remember I posted it on fictionpress years ago. It's super long, but my goal is to self publish it on Amazon in three parts. Ruth Madison very kindly paid to have the first book read by a professional editor, whose comments were very helpful. I've finally finished revising based on that feedback. I think it's almost ready for publication but it would be great if anyone here is interested in beta reading and/or proofreading the first book. It's about 60,000 words or 200 pages.
The novel is about a blind man in Covent Garden of the early 18th century, which was at the time the center of both prostitution and the theatrical world. The characters are opera singers and whores, rakes and wantons. The genre is historical fiction, not romance. I did a ton of research and really tried to be accurate with the language. The style is very different from my other writing. I know it's not to everyone's taste, but I'm hoping at least a few readers here are into historical fiction.
I'm posting the first chapter below here after the jump. If you like it and want to beta read the entire first book, please message me at devogirlfromparadevo at gmail. Thanks!
The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman
The Music Master
Dido and Aeneas
A great and gallant city.
All the streets are pav’d with gold,
And all the folk are witty.
Singing this tune quietly to himself, a tall, lean figure rapped with the chased silver head of his walking stick at the stage door of the Rose, a small worn-out theater, past its prime (if indeed it could ever have been said to have had one). A young stagehand led him to the gloomy interior, where the company was rehearsing for the latest production, a revival of Dido and Aeneas, an opera as superannuated as the theater itself. Still, a job is a job, and the rent must be paid.
Within was a scene of even greater confusion and noise than usual. Rather than arranging themselves in neat rows on the stage, the singers and dancers were pacing about, gossiping in small groups, and the musicians had ventured out of the pit to lounge among the stalls, while four finely-dressed men argued loudly to the right of the stage.
"I say, Frankie, what is Mr. Betterton cracking on about?"
The stagehand looked up in surprise at the man whose hand gripped his arm. "Ain't you heard, Mr. Finch?"
"Mrs. Fenton quit the company. Mr. Highmore engaged her to sing Rosamund at Drury Lane and off she goes. She only left a note for Mr. Betterton this morning."
It was not so unusual for a theater of higher standing to poach the talent of a lower company, and Mrs. Margaret Fenton was held in high regard for her wit and charm, if less so for her skill at singing.
"Oh ho, and why should our esteemed Mr. Betterton inform me? I am only the lowly conductor," Tom muttered, frowning. Indeed, his position in the company was somewhat less exalted than conductor. He had been hired only recently to conduct during the rehearsals and train the singers and musicians in place of the gouty maestro Mr. Holden, who would resume his lofty position in the pit once the performances began. If there was now to be any performance at all.
Pretending not to hear this grumbling, Frankie led Tom through the stalls to the edge of the stage where Mr. Betterton the stage manager was conferring at top volume with Mr. Holden, and Mr. Brookings the first violin, while Mr. Waxwright, the owner of the Rose, paced about in agitation, scratching at his head and setting his wig askew.
"Ah, Mr. Finch, late as usual I see," Betterton rounded on him as Frankie brought Tom nearer. "How kind of you to join us for the rehearsal."
"Your servant." Tom ignored the sarcasm in the stage manager's voice and executed an abbreviated bow. "Is the production to go forward, then?"
"And how are we to mount a production of Dido and bloody Aeneas without a Dido?" Betterton thundered.
"Sir, your language," wheezed Holden, seated beside them with one leg painfully extended to the side. "There are ladies present." He glared meaningfully in the direction of the stage.
One of the said ladies took this as her opportunity to step forward, a sweet-faced light soprano named Jane Carlyle, who sang the part of Belinda. "Sirs, if it please you, I have a suggestion," she called from the edge of the stage.
Mr. Waxwright stopped his pacing to stare at her. Jane was not very high in the company, this role being her first promotion from chorus girl to comprimario, but her father was sergeant-trumpeter to the King, and a man of some importance in the musical world.
"Well, what is it?" Waxwright demanded.
Jane curtsied. "If I may make so bold, sir, my father has through family connections been introduced to an excellent soprano who has just arrived in London from the continent."
Betterton made a dismissive sound and waved his hand at her, but Brookings, a small man with a kind face, whispered urgently to the theater owner, "Begging your pardon, sir, we should at least give her an audition, as we have no other options at the moment."
Waxwright sighed dramatically. "Very well, send for her."
"But sir," said Jane, "she is already here." She gestured behind her on the stage, where a young woman with brown curls dressed in a modest blue striped casaquin stood hesitantly. The entire company--owner, musicians, singers, stagehands, all turned to gape at her. Jane gestured again with more of a flourish. "May I present Mistress Tessa Turnbridge, just returned from a tour of the continent."
Tess curtsied very low with a formal, studied air. "Mr. Waxwright, Mr. Betterton, I am at your disposal." Her voice was strong and steady but the color stood out on her cheeks.
Betterton regarded her with suspicion. "Yes, yes the continent, so you say, but your accent suggests that you are a Londoner. What exactly is your training, pray tell?"
Tess straightened her back. "I spent my childhood in London, but I have trained these past eight years in Naples. Perhaps you knew my mother, Giovanna Battista."
Astonished whispers circulated about the company. Naples was the very seat of opera seria, home to the most exalted composers and the most accomplished singers. Among these, Giovanna Battista had been much fêted in London as the Italian coloratura, until her retirement to marry a British composer.
“Oh indeed!” Waxwright exclaimed, his attitude towards her warming noticeably. “I did not have the pleasure of hearing her sing in person, but I know her by reputation. And your father must be William Turnbridge. I know his works very well. My dear Miss Turnbridge, that is a remarkable pedigree.”
Tess colored even more, although this reaction was not unexpected. “You honor me, sir, but you must also know that they are both dead these many years, and have left me only their good names to recommend me.”
“That’s no small portion. Come now, let us hear your audition directly. You know the part of Dido, I trust?"
"I have studied it, yes," Tess replied.
"Then why are we still wasting time?" Betterton demanded. He clapped his hands, waving impatiently at the musicians to resume their places. "Mr. Finch, if you please!"
Tom, who had been lolling on one of the seats during this exchange, leapt to attention, one hand gripping his walking stick and the other reaching out into the air. Brookings guided him to the pit as the other musicians scrambled back to their neglected instruments. As Betterton cursed the orchestra for their lazy and slovenly ways, Tom took his place on the conductor's box and rapped on the stand. The cacophony of dissonant notes quickly resolved as the orchestra tuned up.
Tom raised his face toward the stage. "Very well, Miss Turnbridge, if you are quite ready, let’s have ‘I Am Press’d with Torment.’”
Tess nodded but Tom had already started the orchestra playing, so she missed her cue to come in by half a beat. Flustered, she stumbled through the first bars awkwardly, for while ordinarily she was as at home on stage, now with Tom's blank gaze aimed in her direction, she felt her throat constrict and her breath come but shallowly.
After a few more bars, Tom frowned and rapped again on the stand, stopping the orchestra. Tess quivered with shame and frustration. To her surprise, he did not comment on her poor performance, but instead pointed his baton unerringly at the hautboy.
"Mr. Hart, tune up for God's sake!"
The youth on the hautboy mumbled an apology as he adjusted his reed then blasted out a few strangled notes.
"Very well, that will have to do," Tom conceded. "My apologies, Miss Turnbridge. Shall we begin again? On three--"
With a clearer cue, Tess came in on the beat correctly. This time, she looked away from the odd conductor and sang out naturally, feeling the breath move through her easily.
Holden leaned toward Betterton, who was seated beside him in the stalls scrutinizing Tess's performance. "Finch did that on purpose to give her a second run at the aria, the sly bastard," he hissed.
Betterton smirked. "No doubt. How does he always know which tarts are the prettiest?" he replied in an acid tone.
"He'll be seducing her before the rehearsal is ended, mark my words," Holden added, shaking his head.
As Tess came to the end of the aria, she hazarded a glance at Tom's face, and found he was smiling.
"A very solid technique, d'ye think, sirs?" Tom observed, turning to where the stage manager and maestro were seated. "Our Jane would do well to emulate it, hey?" he added, causing Jane to turn away in a pique.
"She'll do," Holden intoned.
"Not that we have a choice," Betterton muttered.
"Very well, then," Waxwright called out to her. "Mistress Turnbridge, welcome to the company!"
The theater was instantly abuzz as the other singers, the dancers, the musicians, even the stagehands and the costumers weighed in with their thoughts on Tess' talents, her countenance, any idle gossip, real or imagined, attached to her person. The second violin heard from a cousin in Naples that Tess had come to England fleeing a bad reputation. An aged costumer was eager to share the tale of a dress she had once sewn for Signora Battista. It took the stage manager shouting and cursing at top volume, threatening to sack the lot of them, and dire reminders that there were dozens more singers and musicians waiting to replace them, before order was restored, with the singers seated in rows on stage and the dancers behind them awaiting their cues, while Waxwright and Holden retired to a nearby public house, allowing the rehearsal to proceed without them.
Tom rapped his baton on the empty music stand before him and started the orchestra in on the overture. Tess sat stiffly in her seat beside Jane, watching Tom, her head whirling. Just yesterday she had stepped off the carriage that had carried her to London, the last leg of her long journey from Naples, with nothing more to her name than a letter of introduction to Mr. Robert Carlyle. She had never dreamed that the very next day his daughter Jane would send for her with news of a possible role, much less that she would be cast already, and in such a curious company. The shabby old Rose was not what she imagined the theaters of London to be, and the company seemed far less professional than what she was accustomed to. This music master, for example. What a singular individual.
As the orchestra droned on through the overture, Tess leaned towards Jane seated at her right. "That man," she whispered, indicating Tom with her chin. "The music master. Is he blind?"
Jane stared at her with an expression of incredulity at the overly obvious question, then glanced at Tom and back at Tess and gave a quick nod. "It don't seem to bother him none," she added with a shrug.
Tess stared at the music master. About thirty years of age, he was very tall, smartly dressed in a dark blue surcoat with just a bit of heavy gold brocade, and his sandy brown hair was tied back with a wide black ribbon. He had a thin but handsome, well-proportioned face, with a long nose that looked like it been formed by nature to be straight as a razor but was now slightly crooked, as if it had been broken more than once. But what caught her attention were his eyes, which were an opaque, flat blue. Beholding that one deformity in an otherwise pleasing countenance gave her the queerest sensation in the pit of her stomach, like pleasure mixed with pain. It was not pity, but more like a kind of attraction she could not name.
Tom led orchestra as surely as if he were sighted, pausing here and there to point to the various players.
“You there, the second violoncello. Forgive me for not knowing the measure number, but at the part that goes tum tum tiddle, I think you’ll find it’s an F sharp, not an A.” He sang the phrase perfectly on pitch, naming each note.
“Yes, sir,” said the second violoncello, staring down at the score in consternation. “You have the right of it, sir.”
“Right then,” Tom said, pointing his baton toward the first violin. “The measure number, Mr. Brookings?”
“Thirty-two, sir,” the first violin replied.
“At thirty-two,” he ordered, and they were off again, with Tom smiling and nodding as he waved his baton.
Tess leaned over to Jane again. “You know the gentleman? Pray, what is his name?”
Jane gave a quick laugh. “Why, he’s Tom Finch, of course, but I wouldn’t call him gentleman.”
"Why ever not?" Tess raised her eyebrows in surprise, watching as Tom again chided the hautboy good-naturedly for falling out of tune. Instead of answering, Jane gave a rather unladylike snort, just as the overture came to an end.
“Silence, if you please!” Tom snapped, never losing the rhythm as he conducted. Tess turned dark red and clapped her mouth shut. “Now then, Belinda, Dido!" Tom ordered.
Tess stood up along with Jane, and again her first notes came out in a tight, thin voice, to her shame. This was not how she had envisioned her brilliant career in London at all. She had imagined taking the opera world by storm, quickly rising to the most prestigious stages just as her late mother had. But here she was at the Rose, a lucky break to be sure, but in this strange company, and even worse, giving a poor performance. She would never fulfill her lofty ambitions like this. If only that odd music master were not distracting her.
Again she shifted her gaze away from Tom's frowning face and fixed instead at the empty space at the back of the theater, until she was able to relax and let the notes flow out of her with a rich, open tone, giving voice to the laments of the unhappy Queen Dido.
By the end of the rehearsal, Tess was faint with exhaustion, but at least she had managed to sing through her part passably well. As she was preparing to leave, Mr. Betterton the stage manager stalked over to her, never dropping the scowl affixed to his face throughout the entire rehearsal. Jane repeated the formal introductions, and Tess curtsied low, again thanking him for giving her the part.
Betterton looked her up and down. "You're comely enough to sell tickets, but Waxwright and Holden have made it a condition of your casting that you take lessons with the music master."
"I beg your pardon?" Tess said faintly.
Rather than replying, Betterton gestured impatiently for her to follow him down from the stage and into the pit.
Tom was deep in conversation with Brookings the first violin, but Betterton clapped him roughly on the shoulder without even asking leave, causing Tom to jump slightly in surprise.
"You're to give the new Dido lessons," he barked, "See to it." He stalked off, leaving Tess gaping after him.
"Ah, Mistress Turnbridge? Are you here?" Tom asked, his blank eyes searching sightlessly. The color was so very blue. Tess again felt a sharp, twisting sensation.
"Yes, it is I. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Finch," she murmured.
Tom gave an elaborate courtly bow, showing a leg very neatly, and Tess curtsied unthinking, carried on by force of habit. Was it proper to curtsy even though he couldn’t see her? What ought she to do?
At these close quarters, she could see his clothes were of a fine cut, but perhaps a bit threadbare. Real silver buckles on his shoes, white hose, with silver buttons at his knees. His close-fitting surcoat flared stylishly at the waist and wrists, but the gold trim was frayed, and the elbows were shiny and worn. A few stains stood out here and there.
“My dear Miss Turnbridge, I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” Tom said, and put out a hand.
Tess extended her hand as well, then paused for an awkward moment as she realized he would not grasp it unless she put her hand into his own. He waited patiently, and when at last she placed her hand on top of his, he pulled her unexpectedly close. He brought the back of her hand to his lips, caressing her palm at the same time. Even when he lowered it again, he did not let her go, but stroked the back of her hand and wrist with his long, slender fingers. Tess felt the blood rise to her cheeks, but made no move to escape.
“Sir, I must beg your pardon most sincerely for disrupting the rehearsal,” she said, but he only laughed.
“My dear, think nothing of it!” He flashed long white teeth in a grin so open and honest Tess could not but feel more at ease. “The company is lucky to have you. Just returned from the continent, have you? I thought I detected something Italianate in your voice.” As he talked, his eyes twitched upward of their own accord, as if he was looking up over her head. It was so odd, yet Tess could not help staring at him. He seemed prepared to continue with their conversation, but Brookings pulled him away with a pressing question, and Jane swooped in to pull Tess away in the opposite direction.
Jane gave her a sharp look as she led Tess back to the stage to collect their cloaks and scores. “I’ll give you a bit of advice--I would watch yourself with that one,” she warned. “I tell you, he’s a terrible rake.”
“Is he now?” Tess replied a bit defensively.
The music master was joined by a man much closer to the profile that Jane had painted of Tom: a shorter, heavier man in flashy brocade, with colorless hair tied into a queue, and a curved mouth that moved easily into a sneer. Now there is a rake, Tess thought. Tom greeted the man as if they were the best of friends.
“And who is that?” Tess prompted, for by her disapproving look, Jane clearly knew him as well.
“Jem Castleton, an unrepentant rogue. You see what sort of company your Mr. Finch keeps.”
Tess watched as Betterton handed Tom a small purse of money, which he weighed in his hand then pocketed, under Jem's considering gaze.
"My Mr. Finch?" she mused, her eye still on Tom.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Jane replied darkly.