Our intermittent correspondence continued for some years after she took up residence at Blithe Lodge. I would send a brief note every few months, to enquire how she did, and whether she was in need of anything, and she would reply to say that she was going on very well, that her employer was kindness itself, and that she wanted for nothing. Then one day, in the early months of 1853, I happened to be in the vicinity of St Johns Wood and thought I would call on her, to see for myself that all was well, and (I confess) to satisfy my curiosity that she was still as beautiful as I remembered her.
I was admitted to an elegant drawing-room, displaying both taste and means. The door opened; but it was not Bella. Two giggling young ladies, unaware that a visitor was within, burst into the room. On seeing me, they halted, looked me up and down, and then looked at each other. They were a most ravishing pair, one blonde, the other dark; and both had an unmistakable look about them. I had seen it a hundred times, though rarely in such sumptuous surroundings.
They begged my pardon (unnecessarily: I would have forgiven them any liberty they had chosen to take), and were about to withdraw when another figure appeared in the doorway.
She was as beautiful as I remembered her; dressed to the highest point of fashion, coiffured and bejewelled, but still possessed of a natural grace of carriage, and displaying that warm and open expression with which she had greeted me when I had first come to her fathers house. After her fair companions had departed, we walked out into the garden and talked away, like the old friends we were, until a female servant came across from the house to tell Bella that she had another visitor.
Will you call again? she asked. I seem to have spoken only of myself, and would so like to hear more about what you have been doing with your life, and what your plans are for the future.
I needed no further hint, and said that I would come again the following day, if it was convenient.
Neither of us had said anything concerning the true character of Blithe Lodge; there was no need. She saw, by my look and tone of voice, that I was not in the least shocked or disgusted by what she had chosen to become; and for my part, I could see that as she had told me so often she wanted for nothing, and that her professed contentment with her lot was unfeigned.
I returned the next day, when I was introduced to Mrs D herself; and the following week attended a soirée, at which were assembled some of the most eminent and well-placed of the capitals fast men. Gradually, my visits increased in frequency and soon brotherly solicitation began to transform into something more intimate. By special dispensation, I was not required to make any contribution to the domestic economy of the house. Youre most welcome here any time, my dear, said Mrs D, with whom I had quickly become a great favourite, just as long Bella aint distracted from her professional duties.
Mrs D being a widow with no dependants, it had long been settled that Bella, who had become like a daughter to her, would in the course of time assume the reins of power in this thriving carnal kingdom. On this account, I would call her my little heiress, and she would smile contentedly as I pictured to her the days of ease that lay ahead once the inevitable mortal release of Mrs D, now in her sixty-first year, delivered the succession into her hands.
I dont like to think of it too much, she said, as we lay together in the dark after the incident in Cain-court, talking of Mrs Ds impending retirement, seeing how fond I am of Kitty, and how kind shes always been to me. But, you know, I cant help feeling well, a little satisfied at the prospect, though Im sure I dont deserve it.
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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