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Miss Fitzjames' Carnevale

Chapter Text

London 1845

 

Billy

 

Billy attached the final button to the frock coat he had been working on. The order was for a polar expedition, so Billy had reinforced the heavy broadcloth with layers of wool batting for warmth. The fibres had hung around in the air until it hurt to breathe.

D.W. Gibson and Sons had their premises in a handsome three-story building on Saville row. David William Gibson, Billy’s grandfather, had made his fortune clothing Lord Wellington’s officers and the establishment was well known for its military dress uniforms. Billy was a dab hand at sewing braid and piping. His goldwork had earned them their first royal warrant, his work immortalised in oils for Prince Albert’s portrait. At only twenty-two he was on his wat to matching his father in skill and attention to detail. The six other men under their employ had begun to look to him as a leader even though half of them were older than him and more experienced.

“Well done lad. I daresay it will set a fine example in those uncharted territories,” his father said.

“I’m sure it will,” Billy said.

“Will you come home tonight?” his father asked, “Not that I’m not delighted that you’re taking the business seriously but there’s nothing that needs doing urgently and your mother does worry so.”

Nothing would cause him more discomfort, an itchy morning coat, strangled by tightly fastened collars and neck ties. Trying to be civil to his father’s child bride. A barrage of awkward questions from all sides.

“When has Mary ever worried about me?”

“She does, and it causes her great anguish when you are so cold towards her. I know she’s young….”

“Young? We’re the same age.”

“…but she is still your stepmother and is entitled to the respect that position deserves.”

“Of course,” Billy grimaced. He had been living above the shop for nearly two years now. The attic still had straw mattresses and a small stove in it from when they still housed apprentices and a small room with a bunk where the overseer used to sleep that Billy had claimed as his own. Occasionally the other tailors would use the attic as a dormitory when they were on a tight deadline and needed to work late, but most of the time Billy had the place to himself. He had been sorry to leave his sisters behind, trapped in that house with Mary and far too many children, but he couldn’t stand it any longer. Here in the shop, he could lounge around in his nightshirt and dressing gown and read by candlelight into the small hours. He could go to a public house without getting a lecture on the importance of temperance. He could work all through Sunday to take his mind off the loneliness. He could wonder the city alone without having to account for his absence.

“Do say you’ll come. You’re nothing but skin and bone,” his father said.

“Very well,” Billy sighed. He went upstairs and changed out of the workman’s smock that he was wearing, (he claimed it kept the wool fibres off his day clothes, but he liked to wear it because it hid his body), and changed into the dreaded morning coat, a striped jacquard waistcoat and black overcoat. The pair took a Hansom cab back to the Gibson home in St Pancras.

His eldest sister, Charlotte, rushed to greet them from the drawing room and embraced her brother before he even had time to take his hat off.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said, “Are you quite well? You look like a walking skeleton.”

“Yes, quite well,” Billy said, “I’ve just been tired from this order we’ve been working on.”

“Well, you can rest easy now that you’re home,” Charlotte said, “Mrs Holloway was just about to serve supper.”

Even though he felt completely out of place, Billy had to admit he had missed Mrs Holloway’s cooking. After two years of suspicious pies and questionable street meats, the beef shin and oyster stew she had made that evening was best thing he had ever tasted. Billy did his best to be pleasant to his stepmother. His youngest brother had died recently at only eighteen months old, and Mary was still wearing full mourning attire. Billy hadn’t seen her since the funeral, and she seemed much altered by her grief. Charlotte and his younger sister Mary-Ann also joined them, the younger children had already been fed and put to bed.

“That young pastor’s coming to dinner tomorrow,” his father noted. “The one Charlotte’s sweet on.”

“Won’t you stay a while and come to church with us, William?” Mary asked, earnestly. “Mr Irving has been such a comfort to me these last months.”

“Oh, well…” Billy stammered. He didn’t know if he could face Mr Irving again, not after their last conversation. John Irving was young and passionate about his calling. He was always working on some project or another, preaching to the unfortunates of St Giles, running soup kitchens in blatant defiance of the poor laws. He was as beautiful as he was pious, and at the time Billy had been quite infatuated. Two years ago, they had struck up a friendship, and Mr Irving had been a regular guest at their house. His stepmother had been thrilled by his fresh approach in his sermons, Charlotte had fallen for him just as easily and his other siblings had all vied for his attention, but Irving had been devoted only to Billy, giving him shy smiles, and stroking the back of his hand with his thumb as they joined their hands in prayer at the Gibson’s crowded dining table. How could he have got it so disastrously wrong?

“You work so hard, but it’s important to find time for the Lord,” his stepmother pressed.

“You’re right. Of course, I’ll stay,” Billy conceded defeat. In his stepmother’s mind, there were no excuses for missing church. He turned to his sister, “So, Mr Irving? Is it serious?”

“Don’t be silly William, he’s only a friend,” Charlotte said as she blushed furiously. Billy tried his best not to feel jealous. Charlotte was five years his junior and was about to make her debut in society. She too was tall and slender, and her fair hair had a charming natural curl to it, but where Billy’s features were harsh and angular, Mary’s were delicate, and her complexion was as perfect as a rose petal where his own was freckled.

“Well, she could certainly do better in my opinion. Oh, Mr Irving’s a good man, I’ll not doubt it. His grandfather may be a gentleman, but he’s the youngest son of a youngest son. He won’t inherit anything, and he’ll be on a fixed stipend all his life,” his father said.

“Not everything is about money, Papa.” Mary-Ann protested.

“No, my dear, but it certainly helps,” the old man lectured, “Especially if one is overwhelmed with children.”

*

Billy retired early to bed, finding to his relief that his room had been kept much the same aside from being used as a guest room. All the sounds of their crowded townhouse, the creaks in the floorboards, the chattering of his sisters in the next room, should have kept him awake but the bed was so soft that he fell asleep almost immediately, though his dreams were no less disturbing than usual. Mr Irving was standing at the pulpit, pointing at him accusingly while his family and the rest of the congregation looked on in horror.

Contrary to the dream, Mr Irving’s sermon the next morning was all about Elisha and the Shunammite woman. Billy had given his parents a wary look, only to see his stepmother openly weeping in her black crepe. He wondered that Irving’s choice of topic that day might be in poor taste. He did his best to fade into the background, seated as he was at the very end of the pew but at one point, Mr Irving looked up from his notes and looked him straight in the eye. That was it. He couldn’t in good conscience stay for Sunday dinner with that man’s accusatory gaze upon him. Once the sermon was over, he made some excuse to his father about not feeling well, then slipped away before he could protest.

“Mr Gibson, might we speak privately,” a familiar voice called behind him as he strode through the cemetery. Billy turned to see Mr Irving running lightly to catch up with him.

“Oh, uh…yes,” he replied, embarrassed at being caught. Mr Irving led him to a more secluded corner of the cemetery, by a tomb with a crumbling statue of an angel keeping its stony vigil.

“It gladdens me that you have returned to us. Your mother tells me you moved into a room above the tailor’s shop. Is that right?” Irving began.

“Stepmother. And yes. I often work late. It’s easier for me to stay there rather than walk home in the dark.”

“But for two years?” Irving protested, “And you haven’t attended church in that time either, unless there’s one in Mayfair that’s taken you from us.”

“No there isn’t.” Billy said.

“I truly hope it isn’t because of me and our…misunderstanding.” Irving sighed, “You mustn’t stay away on my account. Not when your family needs you.” He glanced over to the other side of the gardens where the Gibsons were putting flowers on graves of Billy’s mother and the daughter she had lost, and the shiny new headstone of little Stuart. Billy felt a wave of shame wash over him. He hated himself for the despondency he had fallen into, barely able to be present for the most basic of human relationships. Why was he so useless? 

“I’m simply doing as you suggested," he said, "Setting my mind to other things.”

“But such solitude can’t be healthy. I understand your predicament, it’s natural to be faced with… temptations, but the solution isn’t to hide yourself away but to dedicate yourself to a good and righteous community.”

“Is that why you organise all these things?” Billy sneered. “To avoid temptation? The painting lessons, the improving lectures, the choir practises.”

“It’s better than falling into sin,” Irving sighed. “Loneliness makes us vulnerable to all sorts of things.”

And didn’t Billy know it. As much as he tried to stay away, he always found himself wandering back to the same haunts, the darker streets of St Giles, St James Park before they started locking it up at night, Hyde Park where gentlemen of a certain sort loitered around the statue of Achilles. Billy would come away from these encounters feeling more alone than ever.