In Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Chapter 15

Copyright © Isabella Dalzell 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, Mid-Summer 1791

Drowsy in the heat, Lucinda could hear the small waves slapping against the sides of the boat as it made its way upstream to Vauxhall. She had not been to the Pleasure Gardens before, their being considered less salubrious than the Gardens at Ranelagh which she had visited with Richard Meadows just a few years ago, her heart full with such soaring hopes, but she knew of them through reputation. As the small craft glided through the water she looked curiously at the riverbank. They had left the looming white mass of the Tower and its sinister, moss grown Watergate entrance far behind them, and she could see the vast edifice of St Paul's jutting up on the skyline beyond the mudflats of the shore and she fancied that the grand Cathedral held her in its protective gaze.

 

The current was swift and soon the power of the river had carried them swirling through the arches of Westminster Bridge. Alert now, Lucinda felt the prickle of dread crawl up her spine as she looked at the huddled forms of ragged beggars lying precariously atop the starlings, surrounded by the lapping waters, asleep in the filth. Her heart tore as the boat swept past the forlorn figure of a woman, leaning towards them with outstretched hand, her head swathed against the heat, clutching a baby to her chest, clamouring for alms. Lucinda had nothing to give her and these desperate sights strengthened her resolve.

 

Passing from the shadow of the bridge into the bright sunshine once again, the cool breeze from the water brushed Lucinda's cheeks, giving a welcome respite from the hot, suffocating air spreading over the summer-hazed city. As they journeyed on, she reclined against the bow of the wherry once more, overcome by weakness and trepidation. The burning air scorched her skin, even through the soft muslin shield of her dress. She rearranged the draped shawl at her neck to provide more cover from the sun’s rays, grateful nonetheless for its intense warmth, which relaxed her muscles and freed her arms from their customary pain. The waterman echoed her thoughts,

 

“If you’ll pardon my curiosity, why is it that a young lady such as yourself, is going to the Pleasure Gardens alone? Don’t you know that they have the most prodigious bad reputation, and ain't no place for a lady unaccompanied?”

 

She opened her eyes warily, brushing back the beribboned curls of her hair to more clearly see as the ancient and sinewy mariner paused in his muttering, his breath coming in rasping synchrony with his rowing. She made no reply and he, shaking his head, continued,

 

“You mark my words. You'll get into trouble there, sure as eggs is eggs. What with all them Bucks and Dandies seeking their pleasure, not to mention cutthroats and rascals and whatnot lurking on them dark pathways, ready to rob and murder folk for a few shillin'. Harlots adancing in the moonlight and tobymen and tipplers aswigging their ale ready for a fight. And the Lord knows what else besides.”

 

He smacked his lips with satisfaction at the wisdom of his own words and when he again received no reply to this monologue, coaxed in a gentler tone, 

 

"Will you be meeting folks there, dearie? A young man, perhaps?”

 

His questions hung in the air, since Lucinda herself could formulate no adequate answer. She balked at putting into words the desperate hopes that urged her to try the one and only way she could think of to free herself from the trap her life had become. Suspecting that the waterman would try to dissuade her further from her purpose, and not yet admitting it fully to herself, she remained silent.

 

The pulsing late afternoon heat was giving way to a misty grey twilight when the boat finally nudged its prow onto the muddy slopes of the shore at Vauxhall. And yet a layer of gauzy heat still hung suspended betwixt the waters and the shore, dazzling her eyes. She could hear the noisy blare of the crowd beyond its gates and excitement surged through her.

 

Gingerly bunching up the flimsy layers of her skirts to free her legs from the wet tangle, Lucinda climbed onto the wooden slats forming a bridge between the water's edge and the glutinous, stinking, sleek brown mud of the shoreline. She was grateful for the waterman’s strong grasp upon her elbow as her eyes scanned the near horizon. Unleashing the bunched cloth between her fingers as she touched land, she let it fall groundward, fanning it outward so that its drapes were once more restored and fell in a gentle cascade from the red sash at her waist. The hem was damp and snatched uncomfortably at her ankles as she turned toward the waterman and proffered him some coins. He counted them carefully before slipping them, jingling, into his waistcoat pocket,

 

“Now, mind you take a care, Miss, mind you take a care,” he warned, “I’ll be coming back along this way about midnight, should you need a ride home. You just look out for old Jonas.”

 

He shook his head dubiously as Lucinda thanked him, before making her way across the boardwalk towards the invitation of the Gardens before her. Walking across the crunching gravel pathway she mounted Vauxhall Steps and went determinedly in through the long gloomy corridor leading through the proprietor’s house. She handed over her shilling before emerging into a spectacular blaze of glowing lanterns lighting the tree-lined walkways and statued arbours ahead.

 

Walking rapidly down Kennington Lane toward Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, William relaxed as he breathed in the warm air…