“You want me to do what?” Christopher Bennett looked aghast at his mother.
She returned his gaze levelly. “It's not so much to ask, son. She's a lovely girl, and I want to introduce you to her.”
Christopher rolled his eyes in disgust. Mother is such a romantic, sometimes it drives me mad. He counted slowly in his mind, trying not to snap at her, his eyes lingering on the surroundings outside the family's factory. Billows of eye-stinging smoke poured from several chimneys atop the multi-story brick structure. Even from the street, the hiss of steam boilers and the clank of machinery reverberated loudly. Inside it was deafening. The streets around the factory, filthy with ash and soot, and the buildings surrounding them – tenements slums – sat forlornly under a blanket of garbage and dirt. The chill, humid air clung to the mother and son, moistening their skin with a slightly musty dew. A breeze picked up, sending the cold straight through his coat, which he had flung hastily over his shoulders and left unfastened, and her wrap. They both shuddered. When the wind had passed the tenement, it had picked up a vile aroma of human waste and unwashed bodies. What a terrible place to live, so close to the factories. But for thousands of the poor of London, there was no choice. Thank the Lord none of them works for us. Christopher and his father paid wages too high for that. Their workers lived quite comfortably in comparison.
A small and skinny child sat on the step across the road, dressed only in a thin nightgown despite the biting January cold, playing with some unidentifiable piece of trash. The scene did nothing to soothe Christopher's temper, and his voice, when he spoke, sounded harsher than he’d intended. “Mother, I’m much too young for you to play matchmaker with me. I’m nowhere near being ready to get married.”
“What a shame,” Julia Bennett replied, sweeping a strand of fiery hair away from her forehead and tucking it back under her bonnet. “You’re twenty-four, just the age your father was when we got married. Please, son. I’m not asking you to marry her, just to let me introduce you.”
“Why?” Christopher insisted.
This time Julia had to take a moment. I hate being here. While she approved of what her husband and son were doing in this factory, she despised the heat and noise and filth of the place, not to mention its squalid surroundings. Tenements like this one are a breeding ground for cholera. She shuddered in disgust. Why the devil am I here? But she knew the answer, though she didn't want to explain everything yet. She had just had tea with her young friend and listened to the sweet-natured musician play the harpsichord – beautifully as always – and then Julia had seen something so… she shook her head. It wasn't the first time she had encountered such heartbreaking marks on the poor girl, and Julia longed to take her away and keep her. Alas, Katerina is my friend, not my daughter, and I have no right to interfere. Today, however, an idea had struck her. There is a way to make Kat my daughter, to wrest her from the care of that monster. It was an impulsive plan, fraught with potential disaster, but here she was anyway. She had left the house for the factory the moment the visit had ended. The cab in which she had ridden waited at the curb to take her home again.
Christopher regarded her expectantly. What to tell him? Something true… but not the whole truth. Not yet. “Because she's not very popular, and there's no reason for it. I want everyone to see there's nothing wrong with her.”
“Why do you care?” he asked.
She gave him a disapproving look, condemning his sarcasm, but answered nonetheless. “She's my friend.”
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How old is this woman?”
Julia threw up her hands in a gesture that recalled her less than genteel upbringing. “Don't look at me like that,” she exclaimed. The child across the street glanced sharply at them. Julia lowered her voice. “Katerina is not a dowager. She's nineteen, I believe, and quite pretty. Please, son, can't you do this one thing for me? Just meet her?”
I suppose I cannot refuse. Mother is a sweet woman, but stubborn. Once she digs her heels in, there’s no moving her. Since she had decided he needed to meet her friend, she would not let him hear the end of it until he did. Better to get it over with quickly. “Oh, all right then,” he agreed sourly. “I suppose you can perform the introductions tonight. I’ll meet her. I won’t promise to dance with her though. If she’s some kind of pariah…”
“Oh no,” his mother said quickly, making another of her famously unrestrained gestures, “just a bit shy, a bit of a wallflower. Nothing more.”
“Valentino,” Julia replied. Her eyes bored into him, but he had no recollection of any such name.
“Italian?” Christopher asked idly.
“Her parents came from Italy,” she explained. “Katerina, as far as I know, has lived in England her whole life. She looks rather Italian, but her manners and speech are very English.”
“I see,” Christopher replied. Inwardly he still recoiled at the thought of this obvious manipulation, but he kept his voice neutral. “Fine. Tonight, at the ball, I’ll allow you to introduce us, but that’s all. Any further actions I take will be decided by me.”
“I understand, son.”
Christopher stalked back inside, slamming the heavy oak door.
Once he withdrew, Julia sagged with relief. If he would meet Katerina, it would be a start. Something had to be done to help that poor girl about whom she had come to care so deeply, and Julia was willing to give all her resources, even her firstborn son, to accomplish it. She only prayed it would be enough.
“Bennett, glad you could make it.” James Cary, one of Christopher's friends commented, extending a glass of brandy.
“Of course, of course, Cary. What did you expect? My mother wanted to talk to me.” Christopher rolled his eyes, gratefully accepting the glass. He sank onto a high-backed sofa of carved wood with blue velvet upholstery; the best seat in the brick row house provided to Cary as vicar of a small, working-class neighborhood chapel. Cary's salary easily provided for his needs, but his tastes were austere, his interests esoteric. He would rather spend his extra income on a book of poetry and an expensive bottle of wine to enjoy with it than on some ornament, and so his parlor was decorated simply with a threadbare blue and black oriental rug on the floor and a mahogany table where he had arranged his prized collection of leaded glass bottles and decanters. The rich burgundy and brown hues of the liquors inside the bottles gleamed dully in the fading light.
“About what?” came a voice from one of the armchairs beside the fireplace. Collin Butler, Viscount Galway, the only nobleman of the group, sipped from his own glass, perhaps a little more deeply than was wise.
“A woman. What else?” Christopher replied, taking a more modest swallow of his own.
“Did she finally hear about your opera singer?” Collin asked, smirking.
James grinned. Christopher grimaced. That evening he had spent with the lovely Miss Montfort had had more to do with wine than desire, and he still regretted it.
“You know,” he drawled, “you two have gotten a great deal of conversation out of a single night. It was eight months ago. And anyway, she was really not worth the trouble. No, not that one.”
“Then who?” Collin asked.
Christopher rolled his eyes heavenward. “Mother wants to introduce me to her young friend. I fear she's matchmaking.”
“Oh, Lord. Who?” James asked, raising his glass to his lips.
“Miss… or should I say Signorina Katerina Valentino.”
Collin stared open-mouthed at Christopher's words, and James choked on his brandy.
“What?” He demanded. “Is she hideous?”
“No,” Collin said cautiously, “she's… powerfully timid.”
“Boring, really.” Cary added, “I tried dancing with her once. Felt badly she was standing alone. I don't think I saw her eyes once during the entire waltz, and if she said a word, I didn't hear it.”
That didn't sound promising. Christopher flung himself backwards against the upholstery and glanced out the window, taking in the details of his surroundings, as was his habit. In the brilliant crimson light of the sunset, the red bricks of the row house across the narrow cobblestone street seemed to glow, the light diffused by the particles of soot that always hung in the air. In a city whose population would swell to nearly six million in the next decade or so – with nearly all homes warmed by coal – smog and pollution were inevitable. The added soot of steam-powered factories only made it worse. The vicarage also sat uncomfortably close to the Thames. Raw sewage had been dumped into the river for a millennium or more, and in the half-century since the Industrial Revolution had begun in Britain, pollutants from factories had been poured in as well. The stench of the river could be overpowering at times and living near it was certainly no blessing.
“Well, I told Mother I would meet her, so I will accept an introduction. If she's nothing, at least I can say I tried.” Christopher sighed, resigned.
“So, gentlemen, what do we have to look at today? Something… intriguing?” he asked, changing the subject “That `newly discovered' Byron?”
“I read it. It was an utter fraud.” Cary dismissed it with a wave of his brandy glass. “I suspect a barrister-in-training. It reads like legal documentation. No, no. I have something we've never seen before.”
“What is it?” Christopher asked, leaning forward.
“The poet is called… Browning.”
“Elizabeth Barrett Browning?” Collin complained. “Her poetry is hardly worth our time. A lot of girly sonnets to be used on susceptible young women. I'm not trying to woo one of you.”
“No, idiot,” Cary rebuked his friend with a laugh, “her husband Robert. I've never read any of his works before, but the title is promising.”
“And that is?” Collin pressed.
“Porphyria's Lover,” James announced, lifting a folio from his side table and producing a crisp sheet of printed paper.
Christopher raised his eyebrows. “It does sound intriguing. Perhaps he'll be the next Byron. Who's reading?”
“I'll read,” Collin volunteered, grabbing the folio from James' hands. “`The rain set early in tonight/ The sullen wind was soon awake,’” he began, and then continued reading. As he progressed through the poem, James raised his eyebrows in pleasure as the young lady was described partially undressing and cuddling up to her lover. And then the poem took an unexpected turn.
“`I found/A thing to do, and all her hair/in one long yellow string I wound/three times her little throat around/And strangled her.’”
James' eyebrows snapped together, and Christopher had to tighten his jaw to prevent it from dropping open. This is no lascivious love poem. Collin started at what he had just read but bravely continued to the end, as the murderer embraced the corpse of the woman who had once loved him. “'And yet God has not said a word’,” Collin finished. At that last line, the three young men fell silent in the face of a terrible, violent poem.
“Good Lord,” James said at last. “What the devil was that?”
“I don't know,” Collin replied. “I've never heard anything like it. How… distasteful.”
They both looked at Christopher. The subject matter appalled him, and yet…a new thought germinated, took root, and grew.
“I think he was trying to make a point rather than a beautiful poem,” Christopher said cautiously. “Speaking out against violence towards women and all that. Social reform. Certainly, things like this do happen.”
“Are you defending it?” Collin's disbelief hung heavy in his voice. “It's terrible. It hardly rhymes. I'm going back to Tennyson. At least he's elegant. Besides, any girl stupid enough to trust such a madman deserves what she gets.”
“Perhaps.” Christopher’s thoughts remained on the poem.
“I think you've been talking to your mother too much,” Cary laughed. The teasing bark shook Christopher's mind back to the present. “It's only a poem. Don't read so much into it. As for me, I've had enough for one evening. Shall we go get some dinner at the club?”
“Yes, I think so,” Christopher replied, shaking off the somber mood of the poem. “Collin?”
“Sorry, no money.” The young nobleman shook off the offer with a shrug but hunger glowed fever-bright in his eyes.
“I'll pay for you,” Christopher offered.
Collin swallowed. “Very well.”