“Come on, luv. Help me off with this dress.”
Jena Christie’s slender hands fumbled with the buttons on the back of Lucy’s dress and she cursed her own embarrassment at the voluptuous blond woman’s nudity. After three months she ought to be used to the casual immodesty of the actresses in the dressing room. The last button was pushed through the loop and Lucy’s bosom burst free of the nest of pink netting which made up the skimpy bodice. Casually the woman stepped out of the dress and tossed it to the red-faced seamstress.
“Thanks, dearie,” Lucy said. She made no attempt to cover herself as she strutted to the long, mirrored dressing tables, chatting easily with the other women in various stages of undress. “The boys in the pit are in rare form tonight. I sang a chorus too close to the edge and one of them tried to grab my bleedin’ foot. Right saucy little bugger, he was.”
Jena shook out the pink dress, looking it over carefully for any rips or torn seams. As her fingers found a jagged tear in the skirt, she wrinkled her nose in annoyance. She tried not to listen to the lively conversation among the women. As usual they were absorbed in itemizing the physical and financial attributes of the men in the audience. When Jena first came to work at the theatre, the women had delighted in her shocked expression and had tried to outdo each other in scandalizing the young innocent. They were all too aware that Jena was an outsider, from her softly enunciated words to her air of modest propriety. Thankfully, the novelty of Jena’s presence had worn off now and for the most part they ignored her.
Wearily she folded the pink dress over her arm and then walked down the line of six chairs, picking up articles of clothing strewn on the floor. At the end of the dressing table, the room widened to accommodate the racks of costumes needed by the actresses. Surrounded by the colorful array of materials, Nanny Ginthner sat enthroned in a scarred rocking chair. The plump little woman was enveloped in a blue smock similar to the ones she wore in Jena’s nursery days. From under the edge of her lace trimmed mopcap, one white curl corkscrewed out and dangled saucily against her wrinkled cheek. Jena’s grey eyes kindled with warmth and she hesitated, thinking the old woman was asleep. She tiptoed forward when Nanny’s lids rose, spearing the young girl where she stood.
“No need to cat foot around, Miss Jena. I wasna sleepin’. Can’t a body shut her eyes for a minute?” The sharp words were softened by the twinkle in her brown eyes.
“Even with your eyes closed you know what I’m up to,” Jena said in chagrin. “You never missed anything that went on at Dunton House, Nanny.”
A vision of Jena’s family home rose unbidden at her words and the old woman pursed her lips, her face grim with memories. The young girl sighed, knowing how much her life had changed since the death of her father. Then Jena straightened her shoulders, angry with herself for sliding back into the past. This garish room, the gaudy costumes and the blowzy, overly made up women were the present. Dunton House and her life as the pampered daughter of Sir George Christie would never return. It was up to her to make a new life.
“Sit down, child,” Nanny said anxiously. “You’re looking plumb peaky tonight.”
Jena wiped a hand across her forehead, brushing a stray black curl behind her ear. She sat down on the stool poised beside the rocker and automatically reached into the sewing box on the low table in front of her. Extracting a needle and a spool of thread, she smiled at the old woman whose wan face reflected her own tiredness. As she threaded her needle, Jena watched the gnarled hands take tiny stitches in the patchwork skirt and was comforted by the familiar rhythm. She was unaware that the actresses had left the room until the unaccustomed silence broke in upon her thoughts.
“Just another hour, Nanny. Then we can go home,” Jena announced, forcing her voice to sound more cheerful than relieved.
“Home, hah! A wee squalid room on a dirty side street!” Nanny spat the words out bitterly. “It’s a sorry day when Lady Jena Christie should call the likes of that place home. Want of money, want of comfort.”
In times of stress, Nanny quoted proverbs. When Jena was growing up she had enjoyed searching for the meaning behind each solemnly spoken adage. This time she had to agree that the dingy little room in a working class section of town could hardly be termed comfortable. But they had very few options.
“Now, Nanny. Don’t go getting yourself all in a pother. We’ve neither the money nor the connections to turn down Mistress McGuire’s boarding house. Who’d ever have thought London would be so expensive.”
The old woman shook her head from side to side, clucking her tongue to indicate her own amazement. Her blue veined hands rested quietly atop the patchwork skirt she was mending and her rheumy eyes searched Jena’s quietly sewing figure. From the moment that the tiny squalling babe had been placed in her arms, Nanny had adored her little mistress. Jena’s father, Sir George Christie, had doted on the child, never blaming her for her mother’s death of childbed fever as many another man might. But it was Nanny who took on the day-to-day loving of the child, watching over her with the same fierce protection as a natural mother. And her babe had grown into a lovely girl, the old woman thought for the hundredth time.
Tendrils of black hair had worked loose from the heavy braid that hung down Jena’s back. The wispy curls lay against her neck, in sharp contrast to the rosy tint of her flawless skin. Her flaring brows were bunched over her eyes as she concentrated on her stitches. Sadly, Nanny noted the girl’s hands, no longer soft and delicate as befitted a society lady. Jena was now a member of the working class. Sensibly dressed in a brown high-necked merino wool dress, devoid of ruffles or trim. Well-worn, short boots peeked out from beneath the hem of her skirt.
Despite the soberness of her dress, there was a glow that surrounded Jena which had far more to do with her temperament than with her beauty. She had accepted her situation with a willing practicality, refusing to dwell on what might have been. Nanny, more than Jena, viewed the present with bitterness.
“It fair breaks my heart to look at you, Miss Jena. You should be wearing fancy gowns and out walking with suitors, instead of rubbing shoulders with the likes of those women.” Nanny waved her hand in the direction of the stage, her mouth set in condemnation of the actresses.
“They’ve been kind enough,” Jena said pacifically, bending her head over the rip she was sewing.
“No better than they should be, the lot of them,” Nanny snorted. “Your father should see the fine mess you’re in. Gambling away your very inheritance, hah!”
“Please, Nanny.” Jena rapidly blinked the tears away as she thought of Sir George, her profligate father. She had loved him dearly and despite her near-destitute state could never think of him without smiling. In the stables at home, Jena had tagged after her father, listening to his stories about each of the horses. She had gone to the racetracks with him and watched in fascination as he mingled comfortably with noblemen and their servants. Strangely enough her father was more at home in the company of the trainers and grooms, since he believed these were the people that knew the actual worth of the horses. Sir George had an expansive charm and generous heart, but his weakness was gambling. When he won, he shared with his friends, especially those down on their luck. Unfortunately he did not win as often as he lost. In the end he died as he had lived, surrounded by friends commiserating over the loss of a race.
“Ah, Miss Jena, if only you’d been able to stay on at Dunton House,” Nanny said, leaning her head on the back of the rocker.
As always when she thought of her home and the breeding farm, a hard knot of anguish formed in Jena’s breast. Her father’s debts had been far worse than she ever suspected. In order to pay off the creditors the horses had to be sold. She had watched dry-eyed as each one was taken out of the stables, but her heart bled as though a part of her life was being torn away.
“There was no use in staying. With no income from the farm, we’d have starved along with the servants. By leasing the house, the servants were kept on and we have some money for necessities,” Jena explained once more.
She thought of all the people who had worked for her family for generations. Even now they depended on her and at times Jena felt weighted down by the responsibility. Leasing Dunton House was only a stopgap measure. She tried not to panic as she thought of the carefully hoarded gold pieces that dwindled each day. But the servants were her friends and when a crisis arose, she felt she must offer what help she could. Jena had already used most of this month’s allotment. Finding work in London had been far more difficult than she imagined. It had taken a month to find this job and then the wages paid had really been for Nanny’s skills not Jena’s.
For the most part, Jena had been raised to take up her predestined role in society. She had been taught to run a large establishment, learning to deal with the servants at an early age. Of prime importance, she was instructed in the social graces as befitted her rank. However since her father supervised her development, there were considerable lapses and leeway given to her education. She was given more freedom than most girls her age. She had never learned to sketch or to do proper needlework. Talent and patience were needed for both and Jena knew in these instances she had neither. She had learned to play a guitar instead of the piano so that she could take her music with her when she roamed the estate.
Jena had enjoyed an unusual friendship with her father. He believed that she would one day take over the running of the stud farm, so he prepared her as he would a son. He brought in tutors to teach her subjects normally forbidden to females. Geography, philosophy and science were added to her curriculum. He himself took on the task of educating her in the management of the farm. Unfortunately with his untimely death, Jena’s major accomplishment, running a stud farm, became useless.
Arriving in London with high hopes of employment, Jena discovered the brutal realities of life. For all her other education, Jena discovered that her social and domestic accomplishments were not in demand. Because of her background there were certain avenues of employment that were closed to her either out of pride, propriety or ineptitude. Her diction and accent marked her as too high-toned to be hired as a servant. She had neither references nor skill enough to apply as a governess or a shop assistant. And her moral code prohibited her from accepting several generous propositions which had been extended. When the job as theatre seamstress was offered she accepted with alacrity. But Jena felt nearly desperate when she saw her money supply disappearing faster than she could replenish it.
“Don’t worry, lambie,” Nanny said as she patted the young girl’s hands. “After a typhoon there are pears to gather. Sumthing will turn up.”
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