It was never going to be that easy to escape the news, however. Mavis and Maud Connolly had rarely to be seen after six o’clock of an evening, especially since Maud began to fade so badly. The sounds of operatic or classical music could often be heard wafting from their quarters of an evening, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan being particular favourites. This day, though, there on the porch, stood the octogenarians awaiting Louisa’s arrival home.
“Isn’t it just too exciting, dearest?” Mavis said by way of a greeting as a tired Louisa Tavistock ascended the steps. Even Maud, ill as she was, had more colour in her cheeks than had been seen for many long days.
“Exciting? What’s exciting?” Louisa asked.
“Now, dear, don’t play coy with us,” Mavis chided affectionately. “It’s not every day that the Courtenay-Hooper’s invite dinner guests”.
“Oh, that,” Louisa said, trying to sound off-hand and casual but failing miserably. A broad grin broke across her pretty face and she allowed herself to be swept into a motherly hug by both sisters at the same time.
Their excitement was infectious and for the first time since the invitation had been given Louisa allowed herself to enjoy the novelty. Even the niggling question of quite how two elderly woman who were apparently remote from the hustle and bustle of daily life learned of Louisa’s news before she had the opportunity to tell them herself was quietened by their unalloyed delight at her good fortune.
“Her grand-daddy was a big fan of ours, you know.” Mavis told a seated Louisa as she poured a cup of tea into a fine bone-china cup. “Such a fine, handsome man, too, wasn’t he Maud?”
“Oh, yes, quite the dashing gentleman. Even then it was obvious he was going to be somebody important.”
Mabel wheezed and coughed, her face wan and sickly-looking again.
“Are you alright, Maud. Is there anything I can get you” a worried Louisa asked.
“She has these turns, dearie. She’ll be fine in a minute or two.” Mavis said kindly.
Louisa was not blind to the worry in Mavis Connolly’s expression nor to the strain etched into her features.
“What are you going to wear, Louisa, dear?” Maud asked, her whispery voice crawling spider-like into Louisa’s consciousness.
“Oh my goodness, I have no idea!” she exclaimed. “I have never been to a formal dinner, ever. Is there a protocol for this sort of thing?” she asked her landlords, the thin edge of panic in her voice.
“Certainly there is, darling.” Mavis said as she sat herself on the chair beside her sister. “One must wear a proper gown, at least.”
“But I don’t have a gown or anything remotely like it!” Louisa cried, tears springing to her eyes. “I can’t go, really I can’t!” she wailed.
“Oh, hush child!” Mavis said sternly, her gentle and caring demeanour submerged under the tone of an authoritarian matriarch. “Why do you think Maud and I waited for you on the porch? Why do you think we invited you in to our rooms for tea? Why do you think we are as excited about your dinner date as you are?”
“I’m sorry, Mavis, I don’t understand.” Louisa said, wiping her eyes on the back of her hand.
“Silly girl!” Maud muttered “We want to help you” she puffed breathlessly.
“Help me? How?” Louisa asked. “I can’t take money off you!” she declared hurriedly as if it were the most unpleasant suggestion she had ever heard of.
“Louisa, dearest, we are not talking about monetary help.” Mavis said in her more usual kindly tone. “There are other ways to be of assistance. Believe it or not before we got old and developed these fuller figures we were both slender little things just like you are,” Mavis continued, smiling affectionately at the young woman. “If you would like, Maud and I can loan you a wonderful dress to wear to the Courtenay-Hooper’s on Thursday.” she offered.
For several long moments Louisa just stared at the older woman, completely dumbfounded, whether by the offer or of the image of the two stout ladies as the girlish waifs they once were was debatable.
“Speak, child.” Mavis said, chuckling to herself.
“Why…, yes…, that is so… Thank you!” Louisa burbled, leaping to her feet and embracing the slightly elder of the two sisters. “Thank you so much, both of you.” She added as she bent over to kiss Maud’s powdered cheek.
There were tears in her eyes again, but this time they were tears of joy and gratitude.
During their long stage career the Connolly Sisters act had accumulated more than one thousand dresses and other outfits, many of which had been sold off over time. However, the two women had determined that there were certain dresses that for a variety of reasons would remain with them until they passed on. Those dresses were kept in special storage in a spare room in the spacious house. It was to that room that the elderly sisters and their young lodger repaired after their respective evening meals had been cooked and consumed.
The dress hugged her trim figure. The pale blue silky fabric clung to her curves and the cinched waist allowed the ankle-length skirt to billow freely with a susurrating whisper. The lacy bodice was cut low exposing the creamy whiteness of her breasts. Louisa had been self-conscious of such a brazen display of her attributes, but was reassured that the accompanying Chinese silk scarf could be employed to cover her embarrassment should it be required. Her thick blonde tresses had been artfully styled into a classic French braid, which hung down her back. Completing the ensemble was a small silver tiara that Maud had insisted Louisa wear in spite of her protestations otherwise.
Never one for vanity, when she had finally been allowed to look at herself in the full-length mirror that Mavis had deliberately kept covered during the dress-fitting and hair-dressing process, Louisa knew that she looked good. She could not thank the Connolly sisters enough for their help and kindness towards her, thanks that was accepted with serenity and dignity.
Both ladies stood and watched as Louisa was helped into the large black Rolls Royce car that eased to a sleek stop at the kerb on the dot of seven-thirty on Thursday evening. Waving genteelly the sisters watched until the car disappeared from their view before returning to their rooms.
“My goodness, Louisa,” exclaimed Lady Adeline when she greeted her at the door “you look… spectacular!”
“Thank you, Lady Adeline.” Louisa replied as her hostess linked her arm through Louisa’s and led her to a large sitting room.
Chatting amiably between mixing drinks and discussing the menu with a cook, Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper did her best to help her guest feel relaxed. A glass of red wine helped immensely and by the time Louisa and Lady Adeline were seated at a small intimate dining table Louisa was feeling the calmest she had felt ever since the invitation to dine had been extended.
“I do have an ulterior motive for asking you here apart from wanting to meet you and to get to know you better,” Lady Adeline said as the plates from the first course were discreetly cleared away.
“Really?” Louisa said, smiling. She sipped her wine, savouring its dryness and flavour. She was not an experienced wine drinker by any means, but she was fairly sure that what she was imbibing was not something she would have been able to afford on her salary. She did know, though, that it was wonderful!
“Yes, really.” Lady Adeline smiled. “You see, Miss Louisa Tavistock, you have made quite a name for yourself since you joined Deschamps du Paris, a very good name.” she told her guest.
“Really?” was the only response she could think of to make.
“Darling, you have almost single-handedly dragged that fusty old place right into the twentieth century. Before you arrived there it was, well…, very dull and boring.” Lady Adeline confided.
“I’m sure all I did was my job, Lady Adeline.” Louisa protested, blushing furiously as her hosts’ soulful brown eyes looked at her.
“Indeed, you always did your job to perfection, Louisa. That is why I would like very much to offer you a new job, a different role.”
“Me? A job?” Louisa blustered.
“Yes, silly girl!” Lady Adeline giggled. She paused to allow her main course to be placed in front of her before taking up the conversation once more.
“I would like for you to come and work with me, here, at this house. I would very much love you to be my personal assistant, my clothes selector and my dresser. What do you say?”
“Oh, my!” Louisa gasped. “Oh my!”
Lady Adeline forked another mouthful of meticulously prepared Dover sole into her mouth and watched with amusement as her guest struggled to assimilate what she had just heard. Aimlessly she placed food into her mouth, chewed and swallowed without necessarily tasting the delicious fish.
“That is an incredible offer, Lady Adeline, it truly is.” Louisa eventually managed to gasp. “I am incredibly flattered, I truly am.
“I didn’t ask you to work with me to flatter you, Louisa Tavistock. I asked you to join me because I like you and because you are the very best at what you do. I think that together we will have a lot of fun and we will be brilliant, too!” Lady Adeline enthused.
“Again, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.” Louisa said with the utmost sincerity.
“You are most welcome, Louisa. Believe this, if I had not asked you today someone else would have done so sometime in the very near future. Your name is on the lips of some very prominent people in this town. You are a prize catch…”
“A prize ca…?” Louisa began.
“Sorry, that’s not quite what I meant.” Lady Adeline interrupted. “What I meant was that you are very much wanted by a number of people who see you as someone trustworthy, with integrity, a hard worker with excellent ideas and skills they would like to put to good beneficial use. I did not mean you any disrespect.”
“Oh, of course. My mistake.” Louisa backtracked.
Both young women concentrated on their respective meals in silence for several minutes.
“Please can you tell me more about what you would like me to do?” Louisa asked after their plates had been cleared by the waiting staff. “What would my job entail?”
Lady Adeline Courtenay-Hooper, warming to her topic, outlined how she saw the pair of them working together as a team, if not quite on an equal footing basis, but as equal a footing as she, Lady Adeline, could make it and as social convention would allow. Her enthusiasm and obvious excitement at the proposal began to filter through to Louisa as her host talked. By the time she was leaving she had made Lady Adeline a promise that she would give her offer her most serious consideration and would have a definite decision for her one week hence.
“Please do, darling,” Lady Adeline said as she hugged her guest, “I promise that you won’t regret it.”
In the end it was a decision that was not too difficult to reach. Telling her friends and colleagues, both new and established, was one part of her decision that did not come easily to her. However, telling her beloved landlords that she was, after all this time, moving out was an emotional and tear-filled occasion. All three women sobbed, hugged, kissed and consoled, waving tear-soaked handkerchiefs at one another as Jenks, the Courtenay-Hooper’s driver, loaded her much expanded collection of belongings into the same sleek car that she had ridden in before. As Jenks drove her away Louisa continued to wave until the two old ladies were no more than indistinguishable specks in the distance.
To be continued...