In this chapter, Tom and Tess go on an 18th century date and get to know each other a bit better...
Chapter Three: St. James’s Square
In Tom’s estimation, the next rehearsal of Dido and Aeneas proceeded tolerably well. He only had to remind the hautboy that he was out of tune five or six times, and the violins missed their notes only in the trickiest passages. Even better, during the break, he was able to put off Brookings pestering him with notes and avoid the prickly Miss Carlyle long enough to have a moment of private conversation with the new Dido.
Tess greeted him hesitantly, a reserve that Tom guessed was due to her wounded pride at being forced to take lessons. In an effort to put her at her ease, he invited her to meet for a walk in Pall Mall the next day, before beginning formal lessons later. To his surprise, she agreed.
With some anticipation, Tom picked his way down Maiden Lane, away from Covent Garden, across Charing Cross Road and Haymarket, and thence to the Mall. He judged by the tenor of the crowd–the more refined accents, the wafting perfumes–that he was in the right neighborhood. He pulled out his pocket watch, lifted the glass, and carefully brushed his fingers across the face. Right on time. He paused for a moment, letting the crowd flow around him, then strolled indolently along the walkway. The new Dido would have to find him herself.
He did not have long to wait.
“Mr. Finch! Mr. Finch!” A warm, pleasing voice rose above the din of the crowd. He stopped and turned towards it, then felt a firm plump hand take his. He bowed formally and brought her hand to his lips, breathing deeply as he did so to catch the lush, fresh scent of her. He straightened with a smile.
“Mistress Turnbridge, I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you agreed to join me for a stroll.”
Tess found herself utterly disarmed at the sight of him. He still clasped her hand in both of his, keeping her close to him. His expression was the most unguarded and unstudied she had ever seen, and now his friendly grin only communicated to her unalloyed pleasure in her company. His face pointed in slightly the wrong direction, as if he were looking over the top of her head, his brows lifted in anticipation, his opaque blue eyes darting right and left, as if searching for her.
She felt confounded, not merely because Jane had warned her to stay away from Tom, while her position in the company demanded she seek him out. Having spent her life on the stage, Tess was hardly one to be scandalized easily, or to shrink from the company of men. But she was only too aware that the division between the actress and the whore was a slender one. If she was to fulfill her ambitions as a singer, she would have to walk the knife’s edge of pleasing men, perhaps even taking a patron, while not allowing her reputation to become too sullied. She would never be a fine lady, but she had to pass for one on stage. This odd music master did not figure in her plans for her career. However, resisting temptation had never been her strong suit.
She withdrew her hand from his. “Shall we take a turn about St. James’s Square?”
Tom replied that would suit him very well, but Tess made no move forward. Guessing at the cause of her hesitation, Tom held out his hand invitingly.
“Come now, my dear, if you will allow me to hold your elbow, I trust you will steer us clear of any collisions and we shall proceed quite easily. I promise you, none shall think it improper.”
Somewhat stiffly, she held her elbow far from her side, allowing Tom to settle his left hand in the crook of her arm, and led him into St. James’s Square. As they walked, Tom ran his thumb along her sleeve. She was wearing a glossy silk gown that crinkled and rustled as she moved.
Tess carefully steered them through the well-dressed crowd on the promenade, now and then stealing a glance at Tom. He had his head cocked to one side, with one ear pointed forward, and he held his heavy walking stick at a slant in front of him. Yet his posture was relaxed and confident, not hesitant. A few people stared, but most either nodded politely or ignored them. Walking with Tom on her arm rather than with her on his, that is, with the natural order reversed, Tess found a curious sensation, one she rather enjoyed. Even through her dress she could feel the warm pressure of his hand on her arm.
“Tell me, Mr. Finch, how long have you been with the Rose?” Tess asked as they began their second turn about the square.
“Only since the start of this production a few weeks ago. I assisted here and there in previous productions but this is my first formal appointment. So you see Miss Turnbridge, it is the maiden voyage for both of us.”
“Oh indeed,” she said faintly.
“I understand that you are not best pleased with the requirement to take lessons from me.”
Tom cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Miss Turnbridge, I sympathize with your position. It were inconsiderate of Holden to make such a demand on you, an insult to your talent to be sent to study with a lowly music master, and one of so little experience to boot.”
“Mr. Finch, please, you put words in my mouth. I mean no offense to you.”
“Not at all, in fact I agree with you. What could I possibly have to teach the daughter of the exalted diva Signora Battista? And d’ye know, my true profession is not music master at all, but composer of broadsheets.”
“I’m sure it is a lively profession,” Tess said politely, for this was indeed a very low position. Still he did not seem at all ashamed of it, but never wavered in his laughing good humor.
“It’s the trade given me by my uncle, although he was in life a bit of a rover. I believe you have seen my friend, Mr. Castleton? He is a composer as well, of no little talent, but he is kind enough to assist me by writing down my compositions, and we give them to a publisher to sell. Should you like to hear my latest endeavor?” he asked eagerly.
Tess nodded, but as he continued to wait expectantly, she prompted herself, “Yes, I should like that very much.”
He sang another verse of the tune he had been working out all week:
There our English actors go
With many a hungry belly
While heaps of gold are laid
God wot! On Signor Farinelli.
The tune was quite charming, and Tess found herself relaxing enough to laugh a bit.
“So I take it you are not among those entranced by the heavenly Farinelli?” she teased. She was not quite ready to admit it to Tom, but it vexed her that lately the best parts all went to the men with high voices. Men already ruled in every other area; why did they have to take the soprano roles as well? It would not do to speak too loudly against the most popular opera singer in all of London, but Tess was secretly delighted that Tom was not afraid to tease the great Farinelli.
“Ha! There are those who would call me afflicted, and believe I rise every morning lamenting my fate, but I tell you, I had rather be blind and a bastard than a castrato.”
Tess burst out laughing, then caught herself. “Oh! I did not mean—”
“Did not mean what? Perhaps you hadn’t noticed, but it’s true, I cannot see at all.”
“Mr. Finch, you tease me!” Tess protested, blushing slightly.
“Oh, did you mean the other?” Tom continued in a playful tone. “It is also true that I am a bastard. I make no secret of it. I believe all of London knows the story of my infamous birth. In fact, I assumed Miss Carlyle had told you already.”
“No, never,” Tess lied. Jane had whispered in her ear before rehearsal that Mr. Finch was the natural son of a person of some importance, although she didn’t say who.
“Hmm, did she not?” Tom drawled in a tone that clearly conveyed he did not believe her, but he did not press her further.
They continued on their revolution around the square in silence for a time, their shoes crunching on the gravel. Tess was a bit taken aback at this frank confession, but his easy, guileless manner encouraged her to ask the question that had been on her mind since she first saw him.
“If I may ask, I have seen you arrive at the theater unaccompanied, and leave again on your own…” She paused, uncertain how to phrase it.
Tom smiled. “You are going to tell me it is unsafe for one such as I to walk the streets unescorted?”
“Why, no, nothing of the sort. I was merely going to inquire how you do so.”
“My dear, you may take it as boasting, but it really is the most singular thing,” Tom said, his smile broadening. “I tell you, I can hear everything about me, by which I mean not only the footfalls of other people, but even the buildings and other obstacles all around me. Even here, I know that St. James’s is a large open space, but we are surrounded on all four sides by tall houses joined together, several stories, and in the center is a large fountain, for I can hear the water.”
“That is indeed remarkable,” Tess replied.
“And as for the direction,” Tom continued, “nothing could be simpler. I have a map of most of this part of London in my head. I have walked these streets so often, I know exactly how far it is from place to place.”
Tess marveled at his skill and confidence. “And have you always been thus?” she asked, “since your childhood?”
Tom nodded. “When I was a young child, I could see, but only dimly, the shapes of objects and colors, but by the time I was a lad, even that had faded. Now the brightest sunlight or blackest night, it is all the same to me. As my uncle always said, what can’t be cured must be endured.” He admitted this with such apparent unconcern that Tess was strangely moved to compassion.
“Then it is really no affliction to you?”
“Not at all, my dearest Dido,” Tom replied. “On the contrary, I consider myself the luckiest of men. For observe, were I not a bastard, but my father’s legal heir, I should almost certainly have been disinherited for my affliction, as you call it, so there is no great fortune I have lost. I have three older brothers who, like me, are also bastards. Two of them are in the navy and one is in the army. Were I not blind, that would certainly have been my fate as well, and a worse one I could not imagine. However, as it is, I was raised gently and with the greatest kindness, and now have the freedom to pursue a musical career, which I should never have been afforded otherwise.”
They both laughed heartily at this, and Tom was greatly encouraged to hear a lack of restraint in Tess’s laugh, which suggested she was not an innocent in the world.
“A girl on her own on the continent, without any to protect her—surely you enjoyed a great many adventures.”
“I did no such thing,” she rejoined with some heat. “I was at all times under the guardianship of my mother’s relatives. I assure you it was all perfectly proper and dull.” This last point was not quite true, but she had no intention of expanding on it at present.
Their discourse was interrupted by a change in the weather, the sun gradually giving way as they walked slowly around the fountain, to skies that turned darker, and now it began to rain.
“Oh dear, shall we hire a carriage?” Tess suggested.
“Yes let’s, only you must hail it, for I am fairly useless at such a task,” he told her, not mentioning that he hoped she would also pay for the carriage as he was equally unable to do so.
Unwilling to cut short their conversation, Tom directed the carriage to take two more turns around the square before taking them back to Covent Garden. As they settled back into the swaying gloom at the back of the carriage, he grasped both her hands in his, then slid his hand up the side of her arm to the shoulder and toyed with the glossy ringlets he found there. A sudden jolt of the carriage brought him closer to her, his face directly beside hers. His eyes shone white in the darkness.
“Tell me,” he said, his voice much lower than before. “What color is your hair?”
Tess’s voice was equally husky. “It is dark brown, like my mother’s,” she replied. “I’m told I am her very image.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said, moving his hand to her neck and then to her cheek. It was wonderfully soft and smooth. With both hands, he carefully traced the outlines of her face, from the gentle curve of her eyebrows and thick lashes to her shapely nose, her full round cheeks and soft lips. As he had expected, she was an enchanting combination of bold and delicate, her prominent features softened by a lush, fleshy femininity. Under his long, sensitive fingers, she shuddered slightly, then exhaled, blowing a sweet heady breath at him. With a slight moan, he buried his face in her neck, wrapping one arm about her waist.
Tess froze. The sensation of his face against her neck was unbearably sweet, and she was seized with a strong desire to pull him closer, for she was no innocent, but something of a libertine due to being brought up in a rather unconventional musical family. Why did God grant us pleasure, if not to enjoy it? But bitter experience had taught her that if she were to fulfill her lofty ambitions as a singer, she needed to take greater care of her reputation. Already she had ruined her chances in Naples. She could not make the same mistake in London.
The carriage gave another sudden jolt and brought her back to herself. She pushed him firmly off and rather breathlessly said, “Mister Finch, you mustn’t compromise me like this.”
He leaned back immediately, although he continued to clasp her hands tightly in his own.
“Never, Miss Turnbridge, I assure you, I hold you in the highest esteem, and would never seek to compromise you in any way.” Although uttered in a tone of utmost concern, his sincerity seemed questionable as he kissed her hand lingeringly on the palm, breathing in her scent as he did so. “No, nor would I for all the world compromise the friendship which has grown up between us. If it will set your mind at ease, I shall alight at once.”
Tess glanced out the window. “Are you certain? How will you find your way home? Even I am unsure what street we are on.”
Tom laughed. “I don’t mean to impugn your superior powers of perception, but you must allow that I know the city better than one who has just arrived here.”
Tess was about to argue further but just then the carriage rounded a corner and the Great Piazza of Covent Garden came into view, which she reported to Tom. He rapped on the floor with his walking stick, which caused the driver to pull up.
“I thank you for a lovely afternoon,” Tom said, pausing halfway out the open carriage door. “I understand your reluctance to take lessons with me, but let us think of it as merely for show to satisfy Mr. Betterton, just between us, hey?”
Before she could reply, he touched his fingers to his hat and stepped down to the street. She called a hasty farewell as the driver slammed the door and jumped back up onto the box. As the carriage turned towards her lodgings in Aldwych, she leaned back on the seat, running her fingers along her neck, still hot from his touch.
This odd music master did not figure into her plans in any way. She would speak to Mr. Betterton again. If she must have lessons, surely he could find someone more suitable. She did not reflect until she had returned home that Tom had left her to pay for the carriage on her own.