Excerpt of The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox
(Page 5 of 7)
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Oh, my America, I declaimed theatrically, my new-found land!
Oh, Eddie, she cooed delightedly, it does so thrill me when you say that!
Am I really your America?
My America and more. You are my world.
At which she threw herself upon me with a will and kissed me so hard that I
could scarcely breathe.
The establishment of which Bella was the leading light was several cuts
above the usual introducing house, so much so that it was known to the
cognoscenti simply as The Academy, the definite article proclaiming that
it was set apart from all other rival establishments and alluding proudly to
the superiority of its inmates, as well as the services they offered. It was
run along the lines of a highly select club a Boodles or Whites of the
flesh and catered for the amorous needs of the most discerning patrons
of means. Like its counterparts in St Jamess, it had strict rules on
admission and behaviour. No person was allowed entry to this choice coterie
without the unequivocal recommendation of an existing member followed by a
vote; blackballing was not infrequent, and if a recommendation proved
wanting in any way, both applicant and proposer faced summary ejection,
Mrs Kitty Daley, known to the members as Mrs D, was the entrepreneuse of
this celebrated and highly profitable Cyprian resort. She went to great
lengths to maintain standards of social decency: no swearing, profanity, or
drunkenness was tolerated, and any disrespect towards, or ill-treatment of,
the young ladies themselves was punished with the utmost severity. Not only
would the perpetrator find himself immediately barred and exposed to public
scandal; he would also receive a call from Mr Herbert Braithwaite, a former
pugilist of distinction, who had his own highly effective way of making
delinquent patrons understand the error of their ways.
Signor Prospero Gallini, Bellas father, the impoverished scion of a noble
Italian family, having fallen on hard times, had fled his native creditors
in the year 1830, and had made his way to England, where he set himself up
as a fencing-master in London. He was now a widower, and an exile; but he
was determined to give his only daughter every advantage that his limited
means permitted, with the result that she could converse fluently in several
European languages, played exceptionally well on the piano-forte, had a
delightful singing voice, and was, in short, as accomplished as she was
I had lodged briefly with Signor Gallini and his alluring daughter when I
first came to London. After his death I maintained an occasional, but
friendly, correspondence with Bella, feeling that it was my duty to watch
over her, in a brotherly sort of way, in gratitude for the kindness that her
father had shown to me. Signor Gallini had left her little enough, and it
became necessary for her to leave the little house in Camberwell, to which
her father had retired, and take employment as companion to a lady in St
Johns Wood, whose acquaintance we have already made. She had answered an
advertisement for this position, which was Mrs Ds way of recruiting new
blood for her stable of thoroughbreds. Very few who applied found favour in
Mrs Ds discerning eye; but Bella instantly charmed her, and was not in the
least shocked when the true nature of her employment was revealed to her.
Although she began her career as the most junior citizen in The Academys
little state, she quickly rose through the ranks. She was exceptionally
beautiful, talented, discreet, and as accommodating as any gentleman could
wish. If there is such a thing as a vocation in this line of work, then
Bella Gallini may be said to have possessed one.
Excerpted from The Meaning of the Night, copyright (c) 2006 by Michael Cox. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, W.W.Norton and Company. All rights reserved