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, sometimes worse.
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 beautiful.
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
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