Authors: Ashleigh Bingham
Victoria Shelford was in a sombre, reflective mood as she walked home from her day’s work with the volunteers at the Bloomsbury Foundling Hospital.
This morning, for the first time, she’d accompanied a midwife on her call to a girl in labour and had stood by helplessly as a young woman died giving birth on the floor of a filthy, overcrowded East End tenement. The girl didn’t live long enough to hear that she’d delivered a daughter into the world.
With the tiny, unwashed creature wrapped in a hospital towel, Victoria had carried it away, past the other occupants of the room who stood hovering like vultures in the doorway, waiting to snatch a few rags from the corpse before it was taken to the morgue. The dead girl’s soiled linen petticoat still had remnants of fine lace on the hem.
The day’s events hung heavily on her mind as she made the long walk home. What misfortune could have brought that poor young woman to her wretched end amongst strangers? No one in that house had even known her name. And what future would be waiting for her daughter? Would the baby still be alive when she went back to work at the hospital next Thursday?
The lump in her throat grew tighter. How very different that side of life was to the privileged upbringing that she and her sisters enjoyed. She hoped that her father would be at home when she arrived; he was the only one in the family she’d be able to talk to about today’s tragedy.
‘Oi! Watch where yer goin’, miss!’ The angry shout startled her as she was about to step into the path of a wagon trundling along Oxford Street.
‘I’m sorry,’ she mouthed up at the driver, as she pulled back.
But further ruminations were diverted the moment she turned the corner into Hanover Square and saw her mother’s carriage pulling up at their house. The butler ran out to lower the steps and Emily, her younger sister, scrambled down, weeping into a handkerchief. Their mother, Lady Mary, needed assistance to alight, and even at a distance Victoria could tell that she was about to have one of her
Obviously, Lady Marchant’s tea party had not gone well today.
By the time Victoria swept through the front door, Emily had disappeared upstairs and their white-faced mother, leaning on the arm of her maid, was climbing unsteadily towards her bedroom.
‘Ah, here you are at last, Victoria! Tell your father that I wish to see him immediately. What I’ve been forced to endure today is beyond description.’ She swayed and held a hand against her forehead. ‘If you, my girl, spent less time with those foundlings and more with your own sister, Emily would not be the
she is today.’
Victoria bit her tongue and knocked on the door of her father’s study, well aware that this was not the moment to unburden herself to him about the tragedy she’d witnessed today in the East End.
Mr George Shelford MP, was a pleasant if ineffectual man, and in front of him lay the third draft of a very dull speech that he was due to present in the House tomorrow. When Victoria gave him her mother’s message, he sighed and walked slowly upstairs to find Lady Mary lying on a chaise with a cloth soaked in cool rosewater across her forehead and a glass of sherry in her hand.
‘George, something must be done about Emily! That girl made absolutely no attempt to be even remotely civil to anyone this afternoon and Lady Marchant – as well as that ill-favoured daughter of hers with a neck like a giraffe….’
Mr Shelford gave every appearance of listening, but he’d heard it all before. Their youngest daughter’s form and features had been designed by a divine hand to illustrate feminine perfection, and now when the sixteen year old entered a room it was not uncommon for gasps to be audible.
Yet the sweet child was cursed with a pathological shyness which was as paralysing now as it had been when she was five years old. She froze with strangers. And she never had much to say to the family either.
Mr Shelford shook his head and tut-tutted several times as Lady Mary described every detail of the wretched gathering where Emily had disappeared for a whole hour and was eventually discovered sitting on the floor behind a sofa.
‘Just imagine how I felt, George, when Lady Marchant – that old bag of bones – announced that she’d always considered Emily Shelford to be
and that this had just proved it! I was outraged, but then—’ Her hand shook as she gulped the sherry. ‘But then I overheard that appalling daughter of hers saying that Emily could hardly be expected to behave any better in society when she came from a long line of Smithfield butchers.’ She made a whimpering sound. ‘After that, of course, we left the house immediately.’
Mr Shelford gave a sympathetic murmur. Lady Mary had always been a highly strung creature who liked to remind him that her disposition was governed by a faint trickle of aristocratic Woolcott blood flowing through her veins. Though their wealth and influence had evaporated more than a century earlier, the Woolcotts still clung to their titles and the faded distinction of their old rank.
Lady Mary would never have married a man she considered to be so
far beneath her socially if she had not found the manners and the appearance of George Shelford to be perfectly acceptable – and his financial situation especially so.
From the time they’d met, he’d made no secret of the fact that the foundations of his family’s prosperity had been laid down by generations of hard-working butchers. They’d been shrewd men who’d bought property, sent their sons off to gain a gentleman’s education, and gradually inched themselves up the precarious social ladder – never moving too fast, never leaping too far in a generation.
George Shelford’s marriage to Lady Mary Woolcott had been useful in elevating his family another notch, and her connections had certainly been instrumental in helping him gain a seat in the House of Commons – by the narrowest of margins – as well as ensuring his acceptance into a couple of good clubs.
Yes, indeed, the butchers of Smithfield had come a long way in the last century, and now there were whispers in some quarters that Mr George Shelford MP might be in line for a knighthood. Bets were being laid on it in the clubs and the odds were growing shorter. He hugged the dream close.
‘Victoria should be giving more help to Emily!’ Lady Mary’s
was showing little sign of abating, so he refilled her sherry glass. ‘When are Caroline and Hedley coming back to town? Caroline must make a greater effort to take Emily under her wing, too.’
Mr Shelford didn’t mention that their eldest daughter and her dashing husband were already home from their latest country house party. Witty, vivacious Caroline, always the life of every party she attended, had called on him this morning, asking for his help to pay off some of the debts that she and Captain Hedley Ingram had yet again incurred.
In temperament, Hedley and Caroline were splendidly matched and Mr Shelford always considered it a great pity that his income couldn’t match their lifestyle. But, as a father, he was never able to refuse a
request from the delightful Caroline.
But neither could he bring himself to ask her if there was any truth in the gossip that had come to him regarding their outrageous conduct when she and Hedley were guests at a recent house party in Norfolk. He’d heard that she had been no more faithful to her husband than he’d been to her but, apparently, it had all been regarded as a great joke. The Prince of Wales had also been staying in the house at the time, and it was said that he’d laughed, too.
But if gossip was starting to spread about Caroline and Hedley’s wild behaviour, how long would it take for the image of Shelford respectability to become tarnished, and for the name of George Shelford to be dropped from the list of forthcoming knighthoods? He would never, never forgive anyone in the family whose actions brought about that disaster.
When Victoria went to her sister’s room, Emily had already dried her eyes and was sitting at her painting table beside the window. A folio of botanical prints lay open, ready for her to copy an exotic bloom – which would then join all the other uninspired efforts pinned around the walls.
‘Emmie, what happened today? What has upset Mama this time?’
‘It was awful, Vicky. The ladies were gossiping about everyone and I wanted to run to the other side of the world. I never know what to do when there’s a room full of people looking at me and expecting me to say something brilliant.’
‘Emmie, don’t be a goose! They’re only looking at you because you’re so pretty, and nobody ever says anything
in that society.’
Emily sniffed and gave a watery smile. ‘They were even talking about you!’
Victoria laughed. ‘Well, it must have been a very dull party indeed if they were reduced to that!’
‘It started when Lady Marchant remarked that you were already twenty-one with still no prospect of marriage. That horrible Eloise started to giggle. This was too much for Mama to bear, so she said that you and Howard Royston would announce your engagement the moment he came home from Barbados. Then Mrs Royston told everyone that, yes, she and Mama had arranged the match years ago.’ Emily’s clear blue eyes widened. ‘Vicky, what will you do?’
‘Absolutely nothing. And neither will Howard. We’ve always known what our mothers were planning and, while I’m sure we’ll remain the best of friends, there will never be an engagement. Anyhow, I think it’s likely to be a very long time before he comes back from Barbados.’
She said nothing further. In his last letter, Howard had asked her not to disclose the news that he was about to marry a lady on the plantation, a lovely, honey-skinned lady who was already the mother of his son. The gossip mongers were sure to have a field day when word of
event reached London drawing rooms!
After spending a week in her room doing little but copying one botanical print after another and carefully inscribing the Latin name of each exotic specimen under the illustration, Emily agreed to accept Caroline and Hedley’s help in overcoming her dread of facing strangers.
Generously financed by Mr Shelford, the couple threw themselves into the project with goodwill and promised that they would expose Emily to only their most respectable friends. They schooled her in the art of smiling while she recited appropriate little responses when they met acquaintances during their strolls through Hyde Park. And they took her to see lighthearted plays where they invariably met friends during an interval and often went on to supper with them afterwards.
Emily clung to Hedley’s arm wherever they went, smiling prettily and saying little. At the end of the fortnight, Caroline showed a flash of irritation.
‘Emmie, you’ve got to make an effort to be more sociable, even if you simply make a polite comment about the weather or about – about – something we’ve seen. Anything.’
‘But I don’t know what to say to people who show no interest in tropical flowers, or painting.’
‘Oh, Emily Shelford!’
In an attempt to expand Emily’s area of interest beyond the lacklustre watercolours lining her bedroom walls, Caroline and Hedley took her to see exhibitions of art in the great London galleries. She was elated by the experience, especially when she spied certain flowers hiding in the background of some masterpiece.
In desperation, they encouraged her to read various items of London news that they circled in
each morning, and attempted to rehearse her in the art of inconsequential social chatter.
Within a week they felt she might be ready to accept an invitation to a grand dinner party, and she was even persuaded to attend a private ball. When they called at Hanover Square a fortnight later, they were able to report a modicum of success.
‘I know that our Emmie is making a genuine effort to come out of her shell,’ Hedley said, as he sprawled elegantly in the drawing room, ‘but, by Jove, Vicky, I think your sister is the most boring girl I’ve ever met. We arranged for her to be seated beside an utterly charming fellow at a supper party last night – and she nearly had him nodding off to sleep while she went on and on again about all those wretched tropical flowers she paints.’
Caroline heaved a theatrical sigh. ‘Oh, Vicky, thank goodness you’re the one who’s been assigned to escort her to the Egerton’s garden party tomorrow.’ She gave a roguish wink. ‘Hedley and I are off to Ascot with the names of some sure-fire winners. We’ll be rich when we arrive home!’
Lady Egerton’s garden was at its magnificent best and, as Lady Mary and her daughters mingled with other guests, Emily was given
opportunities to recite the pretty responses she’d been rehearsing. Victoria and her mother exchanged frequent smiles. Yes, the afternoon was going splendidly.
When guests began to drift into a pavilion set up for refreshments beside the ornamental lake, Lady Mary entered on the arm of an acquaintance and Victoria looked around for her sister. Her heart sank. Where had she gone? Surely Emily had been beside her only a moment ago when she stopped to speak to a friend over there near the arch of white roses? When had she slipped away? Why? At no time this afternoon had Emily given any indication that she was feeling overwhelmed.
Victoria hurried into the house and looked for her in the ladies’ retiring room. And then, caught on a rising tide of panic, she slipped through the reception rooms, searching furtively behind sofas and curtains. It seemed ridiculous to be doing this now when Emily appeared to have been managing so well this afternoon. She stepped out into the garden with her anxiety turning into anger. Time was ticking away. If she wasn’t found before their mother realized that she was missing, Lady Mary would fly into another fit of hysterics. Emily, Emily, where have you gone?
A search of the shrubbery led Victoria along a path to a large greenhouse that held a virtual jungle of exotic plants and, through the dense foliage, a movement caught her eye. Then she heard her sister’s voice.
‘Oh, do come over here! See? This is another one that’s been wrongly labelled!’