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The Act of Living

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“Harcourt seeks to starve me back into his home,” Isabella spoke calmly despite her raging emotions.

Lady Josephine Granfield was one of two from the peerage who retained an acquaintance with the Lady Fitzwilliam. It had been a year since Isabella broke from her brother and gained her independence. Her naivety led her to trust Harcourt to provide her with half the holdings from their father’s various endeavors in addition to what was due her monetarily. When it became evident he had no such compunctions, she thought if she rationed well she would still be able to live the life of which she was accustomed and keep her daughter in that life after her eventual passing. Shortsighted. That was the word she used to describe her situation to her last remaining, dare she say friend?

Lady Josephine sipped her tea as she mulled over Isabella’s predicament. “He has disparaged you to every family who has holidayed in Paris for a full year,” she replied.

Isabella rubbed the deepening crease between her eyebrows. “I shall abscond to America before I return to that god forsaken house.”

Lady Josephine sat the cup onto her saucer then placed the set on the table they sat around in the dining room. “You must invest a portion of your inheritance in land or some trade.”

“I have been researching—,” Isabella started.

“How? Who will speak with you?” Josephine’s face broke into a grin, “You don’t mean through your harlot do you?”

Isabella felt her face and throat flush. “She is not mine, though her acquaintance does afford me meetings I otherwise would not be able to secure in my current situation.”

Josephine nodded, “Fair point. You were always cleverer than Harcourt ever accredited you.”

“And thanks to him I have learned a shrewdness I did not know myself capable of,” Isabella mused, she turned a polite smile to her friend to soften the venom in the words.

“I wait with baited breath to witness the fruits of your machinations,” Josephine replied, “Unfortunately, I must take my leave.”

Isabella nodded and rose from her chair. She rested her elbows on the stiff pannier beneath her gown with her hands clasped together lightly. She followed her friend to the front door and waited as her butler, Richard, closed it behind her. With a small sigh, Isabella walked back toward her library. She leaned the side of her head against the door frame, both in support of the heavy wig on her head—which she had grown accustomed to not wearing—and the heavy thoughts swimming in her mind. She watched her daughter with the governess she had hired. She smiled as Sophia recited a mathematics lesson. It was admittedly unusual for a young woman to be taught topics generally reserved for the men, but Isabella would happily damn herself a thousand times over if it meant Sophia would never be forced to be beholden to anyone. She would free her daughter of that necessity so that she may dare to stand on equal footing with a suitor of her picking.

Sophia caught Isabella’s eye and sat straighter in her chair. The smile Isabella wore was one of pride and a kind of contentment of which she never dared dream. She winked at her daughter and slipped out so to not distract Sophia from her lesson any further. The house was quiet, despite the bustle of St. James Square. Isabella climbed the stairs to her bedroom and sat at the vanity where she began unpinning her hair from the wig. “Allow me, my Lady,” a voice over Isabella’s shoulder made her jump.

“Oh, Abigail, you startled me,” Isabella replied.

“Sorry ma’am,” the young girl replied as she worked on slipping the remaining pins from the tall brown wig.

“Oughtn’t you be in the lesson with Sophia?” Isabella asked.

“I was, your Ladyship,” Abigail replied as she placed the wig on its stand, “Miss Ayres had me copying lines while she tested Miss Sophia’s division. I finished quicker than she thought.”

Isabella’s heart swelled with pride at her newest charge. It had taken no small sum of money to find the young woman after she fled Golden Square but Isabella had been dogged in the pursuit. She could not erase what Harcourt had done but she was determined to make it right for the girl. Employing her as a lady’s maid for herself and her daughter, giving her a wage, and an education. It was the least she could do to ensure Abigail the chance to make the life she wanted for herself. “What would your Ladyship like to wear this afternoon?” Abigail interrupted Isabella’s thoughts.

“I haven’t the faintest, Abigail. Something far less involved than this. If you’ll just,” Isabella reached her arm over her back to try and loosen the bow keeping her held together.

Abigail quickly untied the knot and loosened the petticoat, letting it fall to the floor. Isabella sighed in relief. “I can do the rest, thank you, Abigail. You need to learn your maths as well. If Miss Ayres tries to avoid teaching you she’ll have to contend with me.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Abigail stifled a laugh and quickly hung the dress in Isabella’s armoire.

Left alone, Isabella sank tiredly onto the bed. This year of social isolation had left her unprepared for the vigor it took to entertain her peers. Now that she was coming out of her only partially self-imposed seclusion, Isabella found she had little stomach for unnecessary niceties simply to appeal to the vanity of the peerage. She blamed Charlotte. Her fingers unconsciously traced the line of her lower lip thinking of Charlotte. She shook herself and resumed stripping down to her corset and chemise. From the small chest at the foot of her four-post bed, Isabella pulled a pair of black pants. Her mother would be scandalized if she could see Isabella. She pulled the black velvet over her legs. She was quite pleased with her handiwork as she made the clothing herself. The shirt on the other hand was one of her father’s which she found folded away in a trunk in the attic.

Isabella tucked the front of the shirt loosely into the pants then slid on a pair of slippers. She casually unplaited her hair. Her fingers hung on a knot which she took the brush off her vanity to carefully work through. When she finished brushing out her long hair, she eyed her features in the mirror. There was a slight puffiness under her eyes that shone through the blanc smeared on her face. Isabella took a cloth from the side of her water bowl and wet it. She carefully swiped her face clean, vigilant to remove all the blanc and rouge. There was a time where viewing her skin clean of makeup left her with a bit of terror in her ribcage. Now, the fine lines around her lips and at the outer corners of her eyes simply spoke to her determination to survive. Her face, rid of its mask, finally felt like freedom.

The top half of her hair, Isabella braided loosely and wrapped a ribbon around base of the braid. She laughed at her reflection that looked more like a boy than an Heiress. Harcourt would be scandalized. Isabella bit back the bile that rose in her throat as she involuntarily flinched recalling his expressions of displeasure. She forced her eyes to look in the mirror and see her reflection alone there and took a shaky breath. Those moments grew fewer as the days had stretched to a year, but she was still haunted. She wondered briefly if she would ever truly be free. Isabella pushed away from the vanity. Her body floated separate from her mind as she made her way down the stairs toward the kitchen. “Ma’am?” the voice of her maid, Ginny, cut through the fog.

“May I have a cup of tea, please, Ginny?” Isabella smiled weakly.

Ginny nodded, “Take it in the library, ma’am?”

Isabella watched the small Irish woman fill a kettle with water and set it on the stove. She shook her head, “The girls are still having their lessons. The music room, I think.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ginny replied with a smile.

The music room had become a solace and her main office since she turned the library over to the girls for their studies. With the help of Richard, her butler, Isabella had a desk from the library moved to the music room. She placed it in front of the wall lined with bookcases. One of the tufted white arm chairs was pulled up behind the desk to use in lieu of a wood chair as Isabella often found herself sitting at the desk for hours on end. The bookshelves behind the desk, she filled over months with her favorite literature along with music composition theory books and volumes of plays and poetry. The bookcases were a rich mahogany which matched her long, sleek desk. The opposite wall held her most priced possessions. Her harp, which she enlisted the help of a butler still in service at her brother’s house to secret to her home, stood next to her violoncello case. There was an ancient harpsichord she found on auction which she obtained for a song. It was terribly out of tune still and the wood was rough and splintered from lack of care for the instrument. The harpsichord was to be Isabella’s restoration project. Once she determined her investments and saw a return, it was the first thing she planned on having repaired.

Ginny pushed the music room door open further with her hip. She carried a tray with a cup and saucer and matching teapot in her hands. Once the tray was laid on the corner of the desk, Ginny pulled open the heavy forest green curtains covering the windows. Sunlight streamed through the glass warming the room immediately. She tied the curtains back with thick gold ropes. Isabella poured the tea into a cup while Ginny worked. The sound of a sugar cube plunking into the cup drew Ginny’s attention away from the bustle of St. James Square. “Anything else, ma’am?” she asked.

“No, Ginny, thank you. If you would like to sit for a while, I would not mind the company,” Isabella offered, “If you should like a cup to have some tea?”

Ginny smiled, “Thank you, ma’am, but I’ve supper to prepare for you and your guest this evening.”

Isabella’s cheeks flushed. She had forgotten. “Then thank you, Ginny.”

Ginny curtsied and closed the door to the music room behind her, leaving Isabella to her thoughts. The three floor to ceiling windows lining the outer wall of the music room showed carriages trotting up and down the street. In the distance she could see the greens of the trees in the park. Isabella blew over the top of her tea to cool it enough to drink. She picked up the small stack of papers on her desk and read them for the fifth time.

A small theatre off Drury Lane near Covent Garden. That was the object of her interest. A hundred pounds to buy the building. She knew without doubt the price was a gauge because of her disfavor. She had done the math a hundred times already. She knew what repairs needed doing, she knew the staff she would need to hire, she even had gotten in contact, through intermediaries of course, with a theatre troupe willing to be her first act once she was ready to open the doors. All that remained was signing the contract. That is where she hesitated. Once she did this she was committed, for better or worse, to a path she knew admittedly little about. It was a gamble and despite what she had her brother believe, she was not fond of risk—monetary or otherwise.

Isabella flung her long legs over one of the arms of the chair. She placed her cup back on its saucer and chewed her bottom lip as she again priced her tickets, employees, and repairs. One year, god willing, and she would be in the black. One more year and she would have her autonomy. Harcourt be damned. Isabella uprighted herself and dipped her quill in the inkpot.