tagNonConsent/ReluctanceWomen of New York: Flora

Women of New York: Flora

byJ G Parkes©

"Please, Flora," implored the handsome young man. "Just one little kiss."

"Really, James, you should try and control yourself."

"I'm only asking for a kiss."

Flora's eyes twinkled. "On the cheek?"

"Well......" The hapless young man suddenly frowned. "Dammit, Flora, I do believe you're laughing at me."

"Why not? When you look at me like that you remind me of a hungry puppy begging for his dinner."

James Metcalfe drew himself up to his full height of five foot seven. "If you will excuse me, Miss Phipps, I believe it is time for me to take my leave."

He gave a quick, short bow and strode out of the room, followed by the sound of Flora's laughter. It would be some time before the anger generated by his humiliation would abate; some time before he could compose himself sufficiently to smile at another pretty girl - an hour, at least.

As for Miss Flora Phipps, she was feeling very pleased with herself for obtaining another conquest. A little under medium height with gold brown hair, violet blue eyes, rose cheeks and lips, her teeth were as white as pearls and her figure trim and well-proportioned. She was lively and full of confidence, envisioning her future as an endless waltz with the most handsome and charming man in the world. She hadn't met him yet - James Metcalfe falling well below on both counts - but she was certain the day would come. The heroines in the novels that she read so avidly always found their ideal partner and Flora had no doubt that she would share their fate.

At the moment she was located, with her parents, in a suite of rooms at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, the biggest and best in New York. They were visiting for a couple of months from their Chicago home. Mr Phipps was a self-made man. He had arrived in America in 1845 with only a smattering of learning, no money, but a sharp sense. He obtained a post as a porter in a provision store and worked his way up from clerk to head clerk, to partner to boss.

The Civil War brought death to thousands and fortunes to a few. Cornelius Phipps was one of the few. His firm secured a government contract, for which they paid dearly, and for which they made the government pay even more. The army of the North was provided with pork which was bought for a song and sold at an average profit of 300 per cent.

The result was a life of ease and luxury for Mr and Mrs Phipps and their daughter, Flora. All three were thoroughly enjoying their holiday in the great city, taking every opportunity to see the sights, visit museums and attend the theatre. A particular highlight was an excursion on a boat taking them along the entire length of the East River front, with Brooklyn, Williamsburg and Long Island on the opposite shore. It also passed the islands of Blackwell, Randall and Ward. The view of New York and Brooklyn from the water was magnificent.

On this bright, sunny spring afternoon she was full of joy and confidence, in the knowledge that she was mistress of her destiny. She burst into her mother's bedroom.

"Mama, isn't it an absolutely wonderful, splendid, marvellous day!"

There was a low groan from the bed where Mrs Phipps was laid out, a black mask covering her eyes; this, despite the fact that heavy curtains were drawn across the windows.

"Please, Flora, don't shout. It's unladylike."

"The carriage will be here in ten minutes, Mama."

"Ooooooh!" A long sigh emanated from that good lady. "I don't feel like going out today, Flora. I'm absolutely exhausted with all the gallivanting around."

"But Mama, it's a beautiful day," Flora protested. "I want to go for a drive in the park." She pouted her lips like a spoiled little girl, for indeed, that's what she was in many ways.

With another long sigh, Mrs Phipps slowly pulled herself up into a sitting position and removed the black shade from her eyes. She was now revealed as being barely twice as old as her daughter and showed no signs of losing her good looks. Like Flora, Mrs Phipps had been considered by all the eligible men - and some not so eligible too - as a very good catch.

She looked into a mirror and pulled a face. "Ugh! I look as bad as I feel."

"The fresh air will do you good," said Flora brightly. "Come on."

"Give me time to make myself presentable."

"Five minutes, that's all." Flora headed for the door.

"Five minutes!" exclaimed her mother. "It can't be done."

"Mama - " the young girl poked her head back into the room. " - you can do it."

With that, she was gone.

"Oh, why couldn't I have had a sympathetic son who'd leave me in peace?" With a sigh, Mrs Phipps rose from the bed and began to dress herself.

The daily parade of fashionable carriages through Central Park was in full swing by the time Flora and her mother arrived. Everybody knew everybody else, so there were constant acknowledgements and, sometimes, a pair of carriages would be stopped whilst their occupants exchanged gossip and information. However, their carriage proceeded serenely along, totally unhindered; they were strangers to the city and its fashionable society.

"There's dear Charles," said Mrs Phipps, a slight turn of her head being the only indication that she was drawing her daughter's attention to a smartly dressed man sitting astride a horse.

"Goodness, Mama, don't smile at him. He'll come across to us."

"Why shouldn't he? I find him most pleasant."

Flora pulled a face. "Pleasant! He's dull and pompous."

Charles Dunne was fifteen years older than Flora, but behaved as if he had the addition of another twenty. His father was something in Wall Street - exactly what was never made quite clear - and Charles had followed him into the business. They were the only people in New York known to Mr and Mrs Phipps, Charles' sister having married a friend in Chicago.

"He's a very good catch," Mrs Phipps continued. "Wealthy, quite handsome and polite."

"Polite!" Flora exploded. "Do you mean he doesn't curse all the time?"

"Of course not. I mean he knows how to treat a lady. I think he has quite a fancy for you, my dear. You should encourage him. Your father would consider that a very good match."

"In that case, Papa can marry him."

Flora sat back in a sulk, trying to make herself invisible as Charles Dunne rode alongside the carriage.

"Good afternoon, ladies." He tipped his hat. "A beautiful day."

"A blinding day," said Mrs Phipps, wearily. "The sun is too bright."

Charles smiled. "Having a holiday can be rather exhausting. But I trust you're enjoying your visit to New York."

"Immensely."

"Perhaps I can increase that enjoyment. There is a ball at the Stewart house tomorrow and I am at liberty to issue an invitation to you all."

"A ball!" Flora excitedly raised herself from her slumped position.

"Perhaps I might have the pleasure of a dance with you?"

"Well, Mr Dunne, I will have to see if I can find room on my card." Flora smiled sweetly.

"I see." Charles looked more than a little offended.

"That's extremely rude, Flora," Mrs Phipps reprimanded her daughter. "You will apologise at once."

"I'm sorry," Flora ungraciously mumbled.

"Accepted. Maybe you're expecting to be surrounded by eligible young men. No doubt you will be. Perhaps, Mrs Phipps, you would do me the honor?"

"Why, of course," replied the mother in some surprise.

"I look forward to it. I shall bring a carriage for you at eight o'clock tomorrow night. Good day, Mrs Phipps -- Miss Phipps."

Charles raised his hat and rode away.

"How could you, Flora? I thought I'd brought you up to be more polite than that. You're a grave disappointment."

"Oh Mama!" Flora flung herself into her mother's arms. "I'm sorry, sorry, sorry. It just came out. I find Charles so pompous. He never seems to smile. But I'll be good. I'll dance with him -- at least once."

Further along Fifth Avenue from the hotel there was a large house designed and decorated exclusively for the use of persons giving balls, suppers or receptions. It was so large that several events could be held at the same time without any inconvenience to the different parties. Everything was provided by the proprietor down to the most minute detail, and though the service was very expensive, most of fashionable New York thought the outlay well worthwhile.

Naturally, both the female members of the Phipps family required to buy new ball gowns for the occasion and a new string of pearls also became a necessity. With each bill presented to him, Papa went a little more red in the face, but not a word of protest did he utter.

Mr Phipps was well aware that to be fashionable took a lot of money and he had that in abundance. He regretted not one cent spent on maintaining his position; after all, had he not come up from nothing? Did he not have a beautiful wife and daughter who needed and deserved to be shown off to their best advantage? Was it not his duty to make them happy?

The answer to all those questions, in the mind of Mr Phipps, was an unequivocal 'yes'; therefore, he was only too pleased to pay their bills.

The large room was filled with the sound of chatter and the music of an orchestra playing in a far corner. Mr and Mrs Phipps, with their daughter, arrived at the top of a grand staircase leading up from the entrance hall to the ballroom. They were greeted with a smile and a few words of welcome from a haughty couple who, according to Charles, were giving this little ball for their son's birthday.

"Little!" Mr Phipps exclaimed. "There are hundreds of people here."

Charles nodded. "I believe fifteen hundred is the figure."

"Good heavens! It must cost a fortune."

"Ten to twelve thousand dollars."

Mr Phipps gasped. He considered himself to be a wealthy man, but he most certainly couldn't afford to spend that amount on an evening's entertainment.

"My goodness." Mrs Phipps looked around at the glitter of the room and finery adorning the women. "I feel quite shabby."

"Nonsense, my dear," her husband assured her. "You're absolutely splendid."

"I agree," said Charles. "Both you and Miss Phipps look enchanting and the equal of any woman here. Shall we proceed?"

There were chairs ranged along the walls, allowing plenty of space for the dancing. They were tied together in pairs, denoting that 'The German' was to be danced later in the evening. There was very little dancing, however, before midnight. The members of New York society mingled and chatted, their voices almost drowning the orchestra.

Charles introduced his guests to several people who barely acknowledged them. They were not New Yorkers, but came from the sticks; hardly worth bothering about.

"I find everybody rather snooty," Mr Phipps complained.

Flora was disappointed. After the initial excitement of arriving, no one did anything but stand around and talk. As she knew nobody and was totally ignored, the image of a fish out of water came to mind. It was most unfair. Wasn't she their equal? Wasn't she beautifully dressed? Didn't she have charm and grace? She almost wished they hadn't come.

Then, suddenly, he was there. A tall, fair-haired, slim young man of perhaps twenty-six or seven, stood before them.

"Good evening, Mr Dunne."

"Oh -- yes, good evening. Erm....may I present my guests. Mr Ambrose Phipps from Chicago, his wife, Matilda and their daughter Flora." There was a noticeable chill in his voice.

The young man bowed. "Count Henry Dunois."

"Count?" gasped Mrs Phipps.

"Oui, madame." He gracefully picked up her hand and kissed it. "From Paris."

"Oh. Pleased to meet you." She did her best to suppress the little school-girl giggle in her voice.

"Mam'selle." He kissed Flora's hand, lingeringly, almost caressing it with his lips, whilst his eyes gazed into hers. "I shall have the honor of a dance -- oui? Perhaps the fourth."

"Of course," said Flora, thinking he could have every other dance as well.

It was only one dance, but from that moment Flora was smitten.

Charles Dunne disliked the French count. He also distrusted him and was very sceptical about his claim to a distinguished background and being heir to a fortune. After the ball, where he was completely ignored by Flora, he was also filled with resentment and jealousy.

Charles viewed the young woman as an ideal wife who would look good on his arm and give him two or three children. He was not overly fond of children, but the line had to be continued and, anyway, between his wife and a nanny, he would have little contact with them. He had it all planned out. He had even patiently waited for Flora to become old enough. But now.....now, his plans were in tatters.

Hiring a little ferret of a man who proclaimed himself to be a detective - 'ALL ENQUIRIES DILIGENTLY PURSUED. TRACING AND RECOVERING STOLEN PROPERTY A SPECIALITY' - was a demeaning experience for a pillar of society, but Charles was determined to unmask the count as a fraud.

"Find out everything you can," he instructed the detective.

"Do you want him followed?"

"Yes."

"It'll cost you."

"Naturally."

"Ten dollars a day, plus expenses."

"I'm not going to quibble about the money, man. Just get the job done."

And so it was that every movement of the noble French count was noted in a little black notebook, whilst at the same time his noble pedigree was being investigated. Thick tomes in the New York public library detailing the French nobility proved to be particularly useful.

"He's a fraud," declared the detective a week after beginning his surveillance. The details are in my report." He handed over an envelope. "Do you want me to continue watching him?"

"Yes."

"He's seeing a lot of a young lady," he referred to his notes. "Miss Flora Phipps. Staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Carriage rides in the park, dinners, balls, lunch at Delmonico's, that sort of thing. But always in the company of one or both of her parents. He's also a frequent visitor to a house of assignation."

Charles' lips curved in a half-smile. "Is he indeed; interesting."

"I've made some discreet enquiries and the lady in question seems to be married to a legal man."

"Good. Thank you."

After the detective had gone Charles opened the envelope and began to study the contents of the report. It confirmed everything he had suspected. Give the impostor a little more rope to hang himself and then Charles would take great delight in exposing him.

It was rumoured that the count was heir to a property worth millions of francs and he was considered to be a good catch. It was also rumoured that he was a dab hand at borrowing, and that he was remarkably unlucky at cards and at the races.

Flora and her parents however, were ignorant of such gossip. From the moment she saw him she knew what it was to be in love. All her waking thoughts were centred on the count, and many of her dreams too. There was no other man in the world. The Frenchman seemed to be similarly struck, much to the satisfaction of Mr and Mrs Phipps. Hardly three weeks had passed when the subject of marriage was mentioned.

"A most suitable match," said Mr Phipps.

"Do you think they'll live in France?" asked his wife.

"I believe that's Henri's intention. He has a large estate not far from Paris. We'll be able to visit once a year."

"At least once a year," said Mrs Phipps firmly.

It was a beautiful spring evening, with only one cloud on the horizon; in two days, Flora and her parents were returning to Chicago. She tried not to dwell upon the end of her holiday and think only of the future. Henri had proposed and been accepted by all three members of the Phipps family.

On this pleasant evening, they were all taking a stroll on the Ramble, a labyrinth of wooded walks with small bridges over brooks, wild flowers and vines. Everything was so simply and naturally arranged it was hard to believe it wasn't the work of nature. Henri and Flora were walking a little distance ahead of her parents.

"It is a bore," said Henri, sufficiently loud for Flora to hear, but low enough to defeat eavesdroppers.

"Walking with me?" she queried, a little pout appearing on her mouth.

"No. Always being observed. Your mama and papa are always watching."

"Yes, you're right. It is a bore."

"What can we do about it?"

"I don't know."

"Sneak out after everyone is in bed."

"I can't. There's a man guarding every door."

"That can be no difficulty. A little sum of money changes hands and - voila!"

"Voila?"

Henri smiled. "The guard looks the other way."

"Oo, yes!" Flora felt a flutter in her breast at the very thought of an adventure. "Where would we go?"

"Leave that to me. You will see New York at night. The excitement, the crowds, the noise. You should see Broadway."

"But I've seen it."

"But not at night, I wager. You have not strolled the streets at night. Daytime is different. At night Broadway really comes alive. I shall take you."

"When?" Flora eagerly asked as the music was coming to an end.

"Tomorrow. Your last night in New York. Eleven o'clock."

"Eleven!" gasped Flora, scarcely able to believe that she would leave the hotel at that time by herself. No, not by herself. Henri would be there to escort her. She would be perfectly safe. "Yes, yes! They'll want to have an early night because we're travelling the next morning."

"Then it is arranged."

"Yes."

Later, in the hotel, when bidding goodnight to them all, Henri first kissed the hand of Mama, and then Flora. "Tomorrow," he murmured.

The detective had placed himself in a position to watch, unobserved, as his quarry approached a private entrance on Broadway of the Fifth Avenue Hotel. He witnessed the surreptitious handing over of money to the guardian of the door and then, a few moments later, the emergence of a cloaked female figure on the arm of the count. The ferret made a note of the time in his book; two minutes past eleven.

Broadway was always constantly thronged with a dense and rapidly moving mass of pedestrians, carriages, wagons, carts and omnibuses. As the day wore on, so did the pace ease a little. The promenaders were out to gaze at the rich, beautiful and tempting displays in the windows of the Broadway stores. The side-walks were always crowded, even in the summer. The bustle and uproar were so great it was generally impossible to converse in an ordinary tone. From early morn till after midnight the throng poured on.

At night the scene was different. Only carriages and omnibuses were on the street; strains of music and bursts of applause were to be heard coming from the places of amusement. Restaurants and cafes were ablaze with light. As Flora and Henri walked along, the theatre audiences were beginning to swell the crowd. She tightly clutched her escort's arm, hardly able to believe she was in the midst of all these wonders with a young man and not her parents.

"Thank you, Henri."

He looked at Flora. "For what, ma cherie?"

"Bringing me here. It's so thrilling."

"It is my delight. But I would like to do so much more."

"More?"

"I feel so....how you say? Frustrated."

"Frustrated?" Flora queried.

"I am annoyed because I cannot show you how much is my love for you. Frustrated. That is the right word - yes?

"Yes, but you do show me how much you love me."

Henri shook his head. "No, no, no! I make play and push away my real desires. Always with people. Your mama and papa are like hawks circling and watching. In Paris this would not happen."

"No?"

"In Paris I would be able to take you anywhere - to the theatre, to the park, or a restaurant or on a boat. Wherever we wish to go. By ourselves. No one to shake a head or tut-tut because I whisper in your ear or put my arm around and hold you close. We could even kiss."

"In the street?"

"If we wished. But here.....everybody is so tight, so....so forbidding."

Flora laughed. "I've never thought of my parents as forbidding."

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