Madeline smiled and investigated Mrs. Florence's sitting room. A scanty costume made of gauze and clasps of semiprecious stones had been framed and hung in the center of one wall. On either side of the costume were carved trunks fashioned in triangular shapes to fit in the corners. “What do you keep in here?” she asked.
“Mementos from my younger days.” Mrs. Florence rearranged herself on a chair upholstered in painted velvet and nibbled from a plate of sandwiches. “You may look inside, if you wish.”
Needing no further encouragement, Madeline knelt on the Aubusson carpet and turned the key of the first trunk. A stale aroma of lavender sachets wafted upward. Carefully Madeline removed a stack of clothing neatly packed in tissue.
“That was what I wore as Hippolita, in She Would and She Would Not,” Mrs. Florence said, as Madeline unwrapped a military costume, complete with knee breeches and a plumed hat. “I was always good in tomboy roles—I had a nice pair of legs.” She leaned forward with increasing interest and enjoyment. “And that was my Ophelia gown.”
Reverently Madeline held up a costume of filmy white and green, adorned with hundreds of tiny embroidered rosebuds. “You must have been stunning in this!”
“There's a matching hairpiece in one of those smaller boxes,” Mrs. Florence said.
Opening a leather case, Madeline discovered elaborate jewelry; gloves of lace, silk, and leather; faded shoes painted with flowered designs; and an array of fans. Mrs. Florence commented on many of the items, telling tales of her days in the theater while Madeline listened avidly.
However, when Madeline came to a small green-lacquered case, Mrs. Florence's smile vanished, and an expression of anxiety and sorrow appeared on her face. “Don't open that, child. It's private.”
“Oh, I'm sorry—”
“It's perfectly all right. Just give it to me, please.” The elderly woman received it in her wrinkled hands, white fingers gripping the case tightly. She stared down at the object, seeming to forget Madeline's presence.
“Ma'am…shall I put everything away and leave?” Madeline asked softly.
Mrs. Florence started a little at the sound of her voice. There was infinite regret in her gaze. “It contains a set of miniatures,” she told Madeline, her thumbs passing over the lacquered case repeatedly, smudging the glossy surface. Slowly she raised the box and kissed it, then regarded Madeline with bright eyes. “Would you like to see one of them?”
Madeline nodded, drawing closer and kneeling by the elderly woman's feet.
Fumbling a little, Mrs. Florence withdrew one of the tiny gold-framed pictures and handed it to Madeline.
The painting was a portrait of a little girl no more than five or six, with large blue eyes and an angelic face. A huge bonnet was tied over her head, long red curls trailing beneath it. “How lovely,” Madeline said sincerely. “Who is she?”
Surprised, Madeline continued to gaze at the miniature. “I wasn't aware that you—”
“Few people ever were. She was illegitimate, you see.” She paused and surveyed Madeline's face, perhaps hunting for a sign of shock or condemnation. Finding none, she continued. “I wasn't much older than you are when my Elizabeth was born. Her father was a wonderful man, handsome and honorable, though not well-born. He wanted to marry me, but only on the condition that I leave the stage forever.”
“Did you love him?”
“Heavens, yes. If I ever felt magic with anyone, it was with him. But I turned down his proposal. I didn't want to sacrifice my career; it meant too much to me. When I found out I was expecting, I never told him. Eventually he married someone else, and to all appearances led a happy life. According to a mutual acquaintance, he died ten years ago.”
“Did you ever regret not marrying him?” Madeline asked.
“I don't allow myself to have regrets.”
They were both quiet then, staring at the portrait. “Where is she now?” Madeline asked.
Mrs. Florence's answer was barely audible. “Elizabeth died many years ago.”
“Oh, Mrs. Florence…” Madeline was filled with compassion.
“I never knew her very well,” the elderly woman confided, stretching out her hand for the miniature, her fingers curling around it tightly. “I kept her with me during her early childhood, but when she reached an appropriate age, I sent her away to school.”
“Life in the theater world wasn't suitable for Elizabeth—being exposed to my gentlemen friends and so forth. I wanted her to be sheltered and educated. I made certain that she had the finest clothes, books, dolls…anything she needed. Sometimes I would take her traveling on holidays. We never discussed my profession or the kind of life I led. I had dreams that someday she would marry well and live in a grand home in the country. Instead…” Mrs. Florence fell silent and shook her head.
Madeline's mind sifted through various possibilities until the elderly woman's expression of sad irony made the answer clear. “Elizabeth wanted to be like you,” Madeline said with quiet certainty.
“Yes. She left school of her own accord and told me that she intended to become an actress. I begged her not to, but nothing would change her mind. The desire to act always seems strongest in people with a great emptiness to fill. No doubt Elizabeth had many needs that were never met, especially the desire for a father and a family. I did the best I could for her. Clearly I should have done more.”
“What happened to her?”
“Elizabeth began on stage at age sixteen. She was greeted with ecstatic reviews. Her acting had a subtlety and power that far surpassed mine. I believe Elizabeth would have been one of the great actresses, even greater than dear Julia. Though I had originally disagreed with Elizabeth's choice of career, I had great hopes for her.”
Mrs. Florence sighed and slid the miniature back into the case. “Soon after her seventeenth birthday, she met a man. An aristocrat. Handsome, intelligent, and cold-blooded. She loved him insanely, enough to throw away her career and everything of value in order to become his mistress. When she became pregnant, she was radiantly happy. I never knew what he thought of the situation, but it was clear that he had no intention of marrying her. One day…” She stopped, her mouth twisting as if she found it hard to speak. “His lordship sent a servant to inform me that my daughter had died in childbirth.”
“And the baby?” Madeline asked after a long silence.
“I was informed that the baby didn't survive either.”
“I'd rather not speak of him, my dear. The man took my daughter's life and caused me more pain than I ever thought I could feel. I never let his name fall from my lips.”
“I understand,” Madeline said, reaching out to pat Mrs. Florence's hand gently. “I'm honored that you would share a little of your past with me, ma'am.”
The elderly woman smiled at her, folding her hands closely around the box.
“Are there other miniatures of Elizabeth?” Madeline asked.
“Yes…but I can't bear to look at those, or to show them.”
“Of course.” Madeline regarded her curiously, sensing that there were more secrets about Elizabeth that Mrs. Florence had chosen not to reveal.
When Madeline returned to the Capital the next morning, it was to discover that Arlyss Barry had fallen prey to the illness that had affected so many others. Her husband, who was also the head scene painter, had stayed home to take care of her. The duchess was clearly concerned. “It takes a great deal to keep Arlyss from the theater,” she told Madeline. “I want to visit her, but the duke has forbidden it. In fact, he's threatening to keep me at home for the next few weeks, until the illness has run its course through the company.”
“That sounds like a wise suggestion,” Madeline said. “Perhaps you should consider it, Your Grace.”
The duchess gave a frustrated sigh. “There's too much to do…and soon I'll be in confinement. I must stay here for as long as I can. In the meantime, both Arlyss and her understudy are ill. I wonder if you might consider taking the role during rehearsals until one of them is able to return?”
“Oh, Your Grace, I couldn't…” Madeline shook her head. “I could never act. I have no talent and absolutely no desire.…”
“You don't have to act. Just say the lines—you know them better than Arlyss herself—and move about the stage exactly as you've seen her do. You needn't be shy, Maddy. Everyone would understand you were temporarily taking Arlyss's place to make rehearsals easier for the company. Won't you consider it?”
“Mr. Scott won't like it,” Madeline said awkwardly.
“You leave him to me. Above all else, Logan wants what is best for his theater.”
Madeline didn't see Mr. Scott until the next morning. To her discomfort, she had been told that the rehearsal would be conducted with the players in costume. She was already self-conscious, assuming Arlyss's place; it was even worse, having to wear the character's gown, which was little more than translucent layers of blue and silver draped over her body. Because her measurements were smaller than Miss Barry's, the wide scooped neckline kept slipping down over her breasts, revealing far more than had been intended.
“What a beauty you are,” Mrs. Lyttleton said, standing back to view the costume with pride. “'Tis a pity Miss Barry doesn't have your lovely figure. You give the costume an ethereal quality that she doesn't.”
“I think Miss Barry has a fine figure,” Madeline said quickly.
“She would if she stopped eating sugar biscuits with her tea every afternoon,” Mrs. Lyttleton said darkly, swinging her mountainous girth around as she turned to a rack of costumes to be worn that day.
As she joined the players in the greenroom, Madeline went to the nearest corner, trying to remain inconspicuous. Unfortunately, the revealing costume left her open to a predictable amount of teasing. Charles Haversley was the first to notice her, greeting her with admiring whistles.
“My Lord, what a transformation!” he cried, rushing to her and seizing her hands. His avid gaze moved over her body, lingering at her half-exposed breasts. “Dear Miss Ridley, I had no idea what you were hiding beneath your usual attire. I'll admit, during my private moments I did wonder—”
“Charles,” interrupted the older actor, Mr. Burgess, who played the part of the bereaved father, “none of us, least of all Miss Ridley, wants to hear about your private moments.”
Madeline pulled her hands from Charles' enthusiastic grip. “Mr. Haversley…” she began in a chiding tone. Before she could continue, Stephen Maitland had joined them, his gaze locked on her bosom.
“Miss Ridley, I'll escort you to the stage. It's dark, and you might trip on the way—”
Their antics were interrupted by a quiet voice from across the room. “That's enough, gentlemen.”
Madeline looked toward the source of the voice and saw Mr. Scott standing across the room, a few pages of notes in his hand. He swept a glance across the assembled players, seeming not to notice Madeline. “Let's get started,” he said. “I have a few notes concerning yesterday morning's rehearsal, and then I want everyone to take their places for the first scene.”
Mr. Scott ran through the list of comments and changes, while the actors listened attentively. Near the end of his brief talk, he looked directly at Madeline for the first time. “Miss Ridley, I believe everyone is aware that you have agreed to take part in the rehearsal because Miss Barry and her stand-in are both indisposed. Our thanks for your assistance.”
Madeline felt her color rise, and she managed a small nod in response. He switched his gaze from her at once, his face unaccountably grim.
Quickly the players filed from the greenroom, Madeline along with them. She—or rather the character of the deceased wife's ghost—appeared in the first scene. As she passed Mr. Scott, who had stayed by the doorway, she stopped and looked up at him.
“Mr. Scott,” she said softly, careful not to let anyone overhear, “I know you told me to stay away from you, but the duchess asked—”
“I know,” he interrupted.
“You're not angry with me?”
His face was a mask of indifference. “Your presence won't affect me in the least.”
“All right,” she said, giving him an uncertain smile as she continued toward the stage area. As she passed him, she wondered why his hand was clenched hard around the door frame, the pressure making his fingers white. Dismayed, she thought that Mr. Scott hadn't been telling the truth. He was angry with her. She went to the wings with a heavy sigh, jerking up the drooping bodice of her gown.
Why had she picked a man who was so difficult to seduce? She may as well settle for Charles Haversley and be done with it. But Haversley didn't inspire any of the feelings she had for Mr. Scott…the giddy nervousness, the fear and delight that tangled inside her whenever he was near. She wanted to be in his arms and no one else's…to know the forbidden pleasure of being with him—
“Maddy,” came the Duchess of Leeds's voice as she entered the wings. Madeline ventured from behind the curtain.
“Yes, Your Grace?”
Julia sat in the first row of seats. A smile appeared on her face as she saw Madeline. “You look very nice in costume, Maddy. Before we begin, I want to assure you that no one expects you to do everything perfectly. Just follow along as best you can, and try to enjoy yourself.”
Madeline listened to Julia's directions. They were going to rehearse the opening of the play, in which the ghost of a young woman visited the loved ones she had left behind: her brother, played by Charles Aversley; her “parents,” Mrs. Anderson and Mr. Burgess…and of course, her husband, played by Mr. Scott.
“None of them are supposed to see or hear you,” Julia told Madeline, “but they all have an awareness that someone…or something…is there.”
“I understand,” Madeline said, retreating to the wings from which Arlyss was to make her first entrance.
The rehearsal went smoothly, with few interruptions. After a while Madeline lost her self-consciousness and imitated Arlyss Barry's previous performances as closely as possible, even matching some of her gestures and inflections.
“Very good, Maddy,” Julia said occasionally, as Madeline moved in and out of the scene, speaking to her unhearing companions and witnessing what had become of them since her death.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com