A group of writers in Chichester coming together once a month for inspiration, collaboration and sensation
John Mant leaned back in his chair, loosened his top button, and adjusted his tunic. A few spots of wine darkened his cuff; red on scarlet and partially hidden by gold braid, but conspicuous nevertheless. John’s valet knew all the tricks of his trade though.
John caught the eye of the lady sitting opposite him; Eliza Lee returned the look with a faint smile. He gestured toward her fish-knife, still gleaming and untouched upon the starched tablecloth, then tapped his own fish-knife, lying neatly on his plate. A pink flush rose upward from Eliza’s neckline, illuminating her cheeks with a hot glow. Her hand shook a little as she lifted her knife, and quickly dropped it among the bones of her half-eaten sea bass. She gripped her glass and took tiny sips of water, her head lowered, not looking up again until the blush had subsided.
John raised his glass toward her. “What this family needs is new blood. What do you say, Miss Lee? Or are we too old and fusty?”
Eliza’s eyes widened and flitted around the dinner party guests’ faces. John’s mother raised a hand to stem the flow of conversation; Eliza was centre stage.
“I – I don’t know what you mean, I’m sure, Captain Mant,” Eliza said. She twisted a napkin; her raw, scrubbed hands pink against its crisp whiteness. The footmen had started to clear the plates and for a little too long the music of fine bone china was the only sound to be heard.
John’s mother nodded slowly; then her gaze slipped away from Eliza, settling on one of the other ladies. “Miss Frobisher, how good of you to grace us with the latest Paris fashion. We may be old and fusty, but we’re not past appreciating modern couture.”
Confident and beautiful, Eleanor Frobisher blossomed, flaunting her damson silks and bejewelled coiffure. Eliza’s shoulders had slumped and she was tugging at a frayed piece of lace around her sleeve. So ended her first and only contribution to the evening’s conversation. John was unable to come to her aid, being caught in a conversational crossfire; flirtatious smalltalk from the Frobisher woman on his one side and terse instruction from an Aunt on the other.
At last John’s mother rose, and she and the ladies retired, leaving the gentlemen to their port and tobacco. Free of distractions, it was only then that John noticed Eliza’s chair was already empty, although for how long he could not say.
John half rose from his seat, but his father ordered him to stop messing about, damn it; the port was on its way round. John slowly reseated himself and fidgeted for a short while, until the decanter reached him. He splashed the ruby liquid into his glass, some of it sloshing over the sides. Before his neighbour had so much as removed the decanter’s crystal stopper, John had tipped the glass’s contents into his mouth and stood to leave the table. He silenced his father’s ruddy-faced protestations with a raised palm and a mumbled assurance of his imminent return.
John padded down the carpeted corridor, deftly side stepping a startled footman as he went. He rounded a corner into the tiled hallway and found Eliza, already with her coat on and pulling on the calfskin gloves that John had given her to protect her hands from the cold. The housekeeper, Mrs Rosier, was holding the door open for her.
“Wait,” John called, causing both ladies to jump. He thanked Mrs Rosier, telling her Miss Lee need not leave just yet. The older woman withdrew quietly.
John took Eliza’s hand. “The evening isn’t over yet. Come back inside.”
Eliza’s gaze slid past John’s shoulder, toward the front door. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Dad likes to lock up by eleven.”
“The street lamps haven’t even been lit yet. Stay a little longer; Mother will want to speak with you, get to know you.”
Eliza hesitated, her hand still lying gently in John’s. A smile spread across her face; it was the first he could remember having seen all evening.
She came close. “Come on then, Captain. The old lady’s waiting, is she? I’ll make you proud yet, see if I don’t.”
A rush of cold air ruffled John’s dark hair and there was the hiss of heavy rain. He had neglected to close the front door, and it was now wide open, with a gasping middle-aged couple crossing the threshold.
John glanced at the internal door Mrs Rosier had disappeared through. “Brigadier Stewart, Mrs Stewart—”
“Good heavens, Mant.” The Brigadier was brushing the rainwater from his sleeves, then glowered at Eliza. “Can’t your mother’s people be trusted to close the door?”
Mrs Stewart was peering into the hall mirror, her face so close that the mirror was misting up. She made some minute adjustments to her hair, turned to present her back to Eliza, and began to shrug the coat from her shoulders. “My dear, would you mind…”
Eliza looked sidelong at John and pursed her lips. John blinked; he was certain the Stewarts had declined the invitation. And where had Rosier got to?
“Sir, I hadn’t expected … I mean …” John’s head alternated between Eliza and the Stewarts. “Sir, may I present—”
He hesitated. Eliza was holding Mrs Stewart’s coat, draped over her arm, her eyes downcast.
At last a footman came to usher the Stewarts to the party and the moment was gone. John went with them, glancing over his shoulder. Eliza had backed into a corner and was chewing her bottom lip.
John’s mother took Mrs Stewart under her wing, while the Brigadier put his feet up, filled his glass, and helped himself to one of John’s best cigars. As the room filled with billows of smoke, John found an opportunity to slip away and return to the hall. Eliza though was already gone.
He went outside, where all was dark, but for the flickering lamps mounted on a procession of Hansom cabs, queuing past the house and heading west. Rain misted John’s vision, but he screwed up his eyes and peered down the street; despite the bad weather, the pavements were teaming with people, walking to and fro, hunched under their umbrellas.
Eliza would be wanting to get home. John clattered down the steps and began striding eastwards. He weaved through the crowd, scanning both sides of the road as he went. There, up ahead, among the shadows, the figure of a young woman, bustling along, her head bowed.
“Eliza,” John cried, but a stranger’s wide-eyed face turned to meet him. John mumbled an apology and broke into a run.
An omnibus rattled by, its wheels splashing through dark puddles, spraying his uniform. There was a bus stop not fifty yards down the road; John increased his pace, overtaking the bus which had stopped, juddering, while it waited for a cab to dispense its passengers.
The bus stop was surrounded by a horde of dark figures; then their faces, all turned toward the oncoming bus, were illuminated by its headlamps. Some sidled toward the road’s edge, and there was Eliza, near the back, impassive to the jockeying for position. John slowed down, breathing hard, and swept wet, lank hair from his eyes. He stepped into the headlamps’ watery glow, at which Eliza folded her arms and huddled into the queue.
Some of the bus’s passengers had wiped away condensation to see through the windows. Their dull eyes were trained on John.
“You’re soaked, go home, get yourself dry.”
John shook his head. “Not without you.”
By now, Eliza had stepped onto the footplate, but John reached out and held her arm.
“Not without you,” he said again, failing to keep a tremor out of his voice.
The bus conductor’s hand was poised on the bell cord. “You getting on, or not?” his voice raised over the rattling engine.
“Stay,” John said. “Just for a moment.”
Eliza slowly stepped back. The bus conductor rolled his eyes and gave two hefty tugs. A tinny bell chimed, the engine roared, wheels turned through standing water, and the bus was gone. Once again, they were in the dark.
Eliza pulled down the brim of her hat and began to walk, still heading east, her arms folded tight across her chest. “I’m not coming back with you,” she said, quietly; then cleared her throat and added: “It’ll get ruined, your uniform.”
John shrugged. “How am I supposed to understand if you won’t talk to me?”
Eliza stopped to face him, her face angled against the sweeping rain. “That’s exactly it,” Eliza said. “You’re supposed to know.”
John rubbed his mouth, wiped his eyes, and shook his head. “Then there’s nothing I can say … or do?”
He paused, but there was no answer.
“The next bus won’t be for ages,” he said. “I’ll hail a cab for you.”
John began to raise an arm, but Eliza pulled it down again.
“But the rain—”
“I don’t use cabs,” Eliza said. “I never have, doubt I ever will.”
A street lamp sparked into life and cast its yellowish glow around them.
“You there,” John held an arm out to stop a passer-by. The man – gaunt, shabby, and dressed in black – scowled at John from beneath a vast umbrella.
“A pound for the umbrella,” John said.
“Give away me brolly, in this weather?” the man said, though his eyes were fixed on John’s fingers, as John opened his purse.
“A guinea then, if it pleases you, but no more.”
John took the umbrella. The man turned up his collar and with no further word, pressed on. John passed the umbrella to Eliza. She reached out, but rather than take it straightaway, placed her hand over his and leaned toward him. Her lips brushed against his cheek and she whispered into his ear:
“That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
Eliza turned away.
John watched her go. For a while he could see her umbrella bobbing up and down, but then it was swallowed up, disappearing among the crowd.