Mr Bishop and the Actress

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The bed is the only piece of furniture in the room, which is decorated otherwise with a few drifts of dust and what must be a garter, lying sad and abandoned on the bare floorboards. The bed is huge and ancient, its posts dark with age and carved with leaves and flowers, the hangings a dark red silk. A bed made for sin.

She trots up the wooden steps necessary to get into the behemoth, and arranges herself on the red coverlet, ankles prettily on display.

“Look, Mr. Bishop, how beautiful the painting of the tester is!” She points above her head and pats the bed with the other hand, as though inviting me to join her.

I take a step forward and angle my head to catch a glimpse of cavorting fleshy gods and goddesses, protected inadequately by wisps of cloud and surrounded by beaming fat putti. “Very fine. And when do you intend to move this bed out, Mrs. Wallace?”

She rests on one elbow. “They say Queen Elizabeth slept on it.”

“And you must sleep on it elsewhere, ma’am.”

She twirls a lock of hair around one finger. “Regretfully at the moment I cannot afford to move the bed.”

“Until you have another protector, I suppose.”

“Precisely.” She smiles, not quite shamelessly, but as though this is all just business for her. I suppose it is. I don’t like the idea of this woman skipping carelessly into the arms of the highest bidder; she looks too fresh and pretty.

“If you were my sister…” I begin.

“If I were your sister, sir, you would arrange for me to enter into a similar arrangement blessed by the Church; nay, a lesser arrangement, for I’d be trapped for life with nothing of my own, not even a bed such as this.” She pats the coverlet, this time as though caressing a favorite dog.

I walk across to the window and prop myself up on the sill, wanting to move as far as possible from her and the huge bed. “Why, ma’am, you would have nothing but your honor.”

“And very nice for them that can afford honor, I say.”

I wonder what this woman’s story is, that she came to such a pass; and who, and where, Mr. Wallace is, even if such a person exists. She is not repentant, she is not resorting to tears or threats; she is remarkably stoic—or giving that impression—about her plight.

“I quite loved Charlie,” she says, taking me aback even further.

“Indeed.”

“Oh, yes. But it’s possible, Mr. Bishop, to love someone who you know is not the right person for you. Are you married, sir?”

“No, ma’am, I am not.” The last thing I need is a philosophical discussion with this woman. Or is she eyeing me up as her next protector? “I presume we can expect no unfortunate results of this liaison?”

“Oh, sir!” She looks quite shocked. “Do you talk, sir, of babies? Unfortunate results, indeed.”

I ignore her. “Well, are there?”

She looks me in the eye. “No, sir. I have made sure of it.”

“I presume Mr. Fordham owes you no money?”

“No, sir. He owes me nothing.”

“Very well. You’ll remove that bed, Mrs. Wallace, and I trust you will have no further commerce with Mr. Fordham.”

She smiles. “Of course, sir, although is that not up to Mr. Fordham? He does achieve his majority in a few months, I believe.”

“I hope he has better judgment.”

She pouts and twirls a loose curl between her fingers. “You are not very flattering, sir. I am a woman of good sense and, whatever you think of my profession, I have a sense of honor. He’d do better with me than anyone else, and I’d keep an eye on his accounts next time.”

“Mrs. Wallace, I don’t intend to flatter you.  My instructions are to make sure that you will not come to Mr. Fordham with any claims of a financial nature in future; in short, that you are out of his life. As for your honor, I think you will find the rest of society does not concur with your definition, so I advise you, ma’am, to find another profession.”

This room, with the looming great bed and its pretty occupant, is becoming a trifle close for my tastes.

“Oh, an excellent idea, sir.” She beams at me. “You know, I have always fancied the law. Or perhaps I should try for a commission in one of His Highness’s more fashionable regiments? I should look well in an officer’s uniform, I think.”

Of course I should be outraged by her frivolity. I should bow with outraged dignity and stride from the room. I should certainly not be thinking of Mrs. Wallace’s slender neck rising from a black gown, a horsehair wig atop her curls; or worse, flaunting a set of regimentals, tight-trousered as any shameless actress. Good God, the woman is impossible—and possibly more accomplished in her current profession than I had first thought.

Mr Bishop and the Actress

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