The Olympia Theatre was located across the river, in a destitute borough of south London. If Mrs Harper had seen these streets she would never had let her out, Celine thought. Most of the women were hat-less or, worse in Celine’s sheltered view, in shapeless things of felt or straw. The pavements, where they existed, were strewn in all manners of litter: excrement, rotten food, paper. She watched a skinny cat wind its way through the railings of a ramshackle church, weeds as tall as the tombstones that marked graves that had at one time been cared for.
‘It’s not the best area,’ Maria agreed with Celine’s silent judgement.
‘Why are we here then?’ Celine asked.
‘Because it is the only theatre that would give Daniel work. And because my husband has grand ideas. He is keen to take over the lease next month. He thinks that he can educate these peasants.’ She waved a hand towards the window, indicating the local population.
‘Why did Daniel invite me? I am assuming that is why I am here.’
‘Because he’s a foolish romantic,’ Maria said. ‘Perhaps you are too or why did you come?’
Celine opened her mouth before realising she did not have an answer.
Maria laughed. ‘I apologise, I am only playing. You do not need to explain yourself to me. We will watch Daniel perform and then I’ll take you backstage to meet him. You shall be under my protection so don’t be afraid for your reputation. At the end of the evening I will take you home and you need never see Daniel again. Unless of course you want to.’
It all sounded so practical. How could Celine object to such a well thought out plan? She followed Maria like a puppy into the crowded theatre, pushing through the women who stared at her finery and the men, a couple of these making unwelcome comments on Celine’s attire. Climbing the stairs to the boxes, she was relieved to find that the two women were seated in their own, separate from the hordes. She had been to Covent Garden several times with the Harpers but this was no opera house. The noise was incredible, deafening, the bodies crammed into the pit beneath her, swarming the gallery above. And people were throwing things! She pulled her head back from peering over the side of the box wall just as a handful of shrimp shells was cast from higher up.
‘Watch yourself,’ Maria warned. ‘Part of their sport is to antagonise those who outside these walls would be their superiors.’
A hush fell as the curtain was lifted, Celine close enough to hear the crank mechanism as it was wound up. And there he was. Right in front of her, staring up at her and speaking his first lines to her.
‘He is a fine actor,’ Maria whispered, leaning across to her. ‘A fine man and a good friend.’
Celine nodded, unable to take her eyes from him, her potential future flashing before her in an instant. The meeting backstage. Their first kiss in the corridor outside the green room, standing on tiptoes and holding on to his soft cotton shirt. The guilt of proving Adelaide right. The wrath of her father as he realised that his eldest daughter was not coming back to France.
It was a shame, thought Maria as she watched Celine, noting the flush that crept from the younger woman’s neck, flooding her cheeks with colour. That such pain and sacrifice surely lay ahead for this happy pair did not seem fair, but then such was the price of love. She knew that better than anyone.