Nowadays, in the seventies, it is not the done thing to make liberal use of make-up, at least not if one wishes to maintain an air of respectability which Mabel and Minnie certainly do. Their particular needs, however, demand that face powder should be applied as heavily as it is possible to do without attracting attention. The painted ladies of the theatre and the whore house are not the section of Victorian society with which they desire to be associated.
A little eye make-up? Yes, but just a little.
“Go easy with the rouge, darling.” This is Mabel observing Minnie from beneath her lightly tinted eye-lids.
Leaning forward towards their shared mirror, and tilting her head from left to right, Minnie assesses her handiwork before replying.
“My dear girl, you fuss too much. You know as well as I do that gentlemen are aroused by the sight of a woman with colour in her cheeks.”
“So it’s the country girl look you’re after, now? Shame on you, you little hussy,” mocks Mabel affecting the accent of a cockney tart so that both characters abandon themselves to a brief moment of sisterly mirth.
“Seriously, though, darling,” she continues, on recovering. “After all we’ve been through, it would be sensible to show some restraint, at least for a while. Don’t you agree? Openly courting the gents means courting trouble at the moment and surely we’ve had enough of that for a while.”
Minnie simply purses her lips and shimmies her shoulders as though shrugging off the caution, despite being aware that her friend is, of course, quite right. Lord Albert is still missing. They are not completely out of the woods yet.
The American, Frank Watson, and Bertie, with the two girls in tow, swaggered confidently into the foyer of the Adelphi Theatre, completely unaware of the diligent Inspector Homer Forbes who had trailed them all the way from the house in Regents Square. The foursome made its way to Bertie’s private box where no more was seen of them, neither during the performance nor indeed for half an hour after the show had ended.
Inspector Phorbes found this decidedly fishy and later wrote in his notes – “I smelt a rat!”
It takes time for Mabel and Minnie to prepare themselves for the evening. Apart from the delicate question of make-up, their outfits require careful consideration, as does their hair. On this occasion, Mabel opts for a tightly constructed bun, a touch more severe than is usual, but softened with an ornament of fake emeralds.
Minnie, on the other hand, selects, from her extensive repertoire, a wide and loose confection which Mabel describes as a bread basket.
“What do you mean, bread basket? Why bread basket?” demands Minnie.
“Well,” replies Mabel. “You have to admit.”
“The brim. There’s the brim like a basket, you know, woven. Very pretty. And then everything piled up inside like a heap of bread rolls.”
“Well I think it suits me,” pouts Minnie.
“Did I say that it didn’t?” retorts Mabel and the pair relax into a brief moment of mutual admiration before she adds… “It just looks like a bread basket.” In response to which Minnie hurls a loaded powder puff at her friend’s head which misses its target, bouncing instead from Mabel’s chest and on to her lap where it disappears into the open crotch of the bloomers. And, inadvertently, during the ensuing struggle to retrieve the dusty missile, the victim of the attack exposes more than was intended.
“My goodness!” exclaims Minnie. “The trollop!”
It was Lord Albert who first felt the hand of the law on his unsuspecting shoulder.
“You’re nabbed!” announced Inspector Homer Forbes.
Watson attempted to leg it but two lively constables broke from their lurking, shadowy cover to grab him by both arms.
“Well done lads.”
Minnie, too, considered making a run for it, but with knee length bloomers, two layers of petticoats and an ankle length dress she thought better of it.
Mabel simply froze, her mouth becoming instantly as dry a Bible.
“You’re under arrest – the lot of you.”
And, as they were dragged away to the dark interior of a waiting vehicle, Minnie remembered the theatrically confident voices of their companions railing against the situation.
“Do you know who I am, good fellow? Desist with this outrage or, I can assure you, that your career will be over.” And such like from Frank Watson.
“My father should know of this. He hunts with the Minister, you know. I demand to be released.” Bertie, it has to be admitted, came across as significantly less confident.
The ride to Southwark Constabulary, in the back of the van, with Watson bashing the walls with his fist, Lord Albert sinking into silent despair, Minnie crying and Mabel repeating over and over again that they should get their stories straight provided blurred memories for all four arrestees. At the police station, however, Minnie was able to latch on to a few words which, appeared to be repeated over and over again – soliciting, unnatural, magistrate, prosecution – but, without any grammatical context for the vocabulary, she remained unconvinced that any of it related to her.
Mabel, on the other hand, understood perfectly. She remained silent even when she was led away and subjected to an intimate search by a police surgeon who stank of brandy and was plainly drunk. Indeed, it was only the burly support of a bearded sergeant that kept him upright. She could only imagine how Minnie would react to such an intrusive inspection and her fears were born out when, on release, her friend confessed that a further charge of assaulting a police officer had been added to the list for which she would be required to account.
“Oh dear,” said Mabel. “Oh dear.”
“Do you remember Sailor Sam?” asks Minnie, a short while after the powder puff incident when a more subdued mood in the room allows period of reflection. There is an air of wistfulness in her voice.
“Sailor boy Sam,” repeats Mabel. “Of course I do… Captain Sam, actually, I think.”
“No, no … Admiral,” corrects Minnie.
“Certainly admirable, and no mistake. Do you remember the joke?”
“The joke… ah, yes. How did it go now?”
“When I was young…” begins Mabel.
“I had more seamen…” continues Minnie. “Than..? What was the next bit?”
“It varied. Sometimes it was The Household Cavalry; sometimes a lifeboat full of Nancies; occasionally a house full of Dollymops.”
“Or a bull elephant!” adds Minnie.
“Did he say that?” queries Mabel. “I don’t remember that one. Are you sure?”
“Perhaps not. It could have been that Dicky Thomas from the Burlington Arcade. But he was a card though, wasn’t he, the old Sailor Boy… never a dull moment.”
“But always a gentleman,” says Mabel abandoning, for a moment, the final adjustments to her hair adornment.
“Indeed,” agrees her friend. “A perfect gentleman.”
“Such a shame.”
“Jumping ship like that.”
“And in the middle of the Channel.”
“Another victim of the Labouchere Amendment.”
“It wasn’t just the prospect of two years in goal, though…. at least I don’t think so,” says Minnie. “It was the disgrace he couldn’t face… the humiliation of standing up in court with the mob jeering from the gallery; his wife sobbing in the stalls.”
“Oscar said it was the thought of living the rest of his life in France!”
With bail set at £20, only Lord Albert and Frank Watson walked free after the arrest. Unable to pay such a vast sum, Maud and Minnie, pending their appearance before the Magistrate, remained in custody for forty-eight hours during which time they were required to remove their dresses and underwear in order to adopt the attire of male convicts.
With amazing sleight of hand, Frank Watson disappeared into the American Embassy and was never seen again this side of the Atlantic.
Bertie, too, evaporated from the scene and, for a few days, his absence was speculated upon by The Times, The London Chronicle and a clutch of other publications until, one by one, they lost interest and moved on to other stories, the most notable of which was the Whitechapel murder that later achieved notoriety as the first strike of one Jack the Ripper.
Appearing side by side at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, Mabel and Minnie listened attentively as one of three elderly magistrates, with a hint of amusement in his voice, read out the list of allegations. Both, as instructed by their young and ambitious solicitor, entered defiant pleas of not guilty understanding fully that, should the hearing go badly, they would end up in front of a beak at the Gray’s Inn.
Luck was with them, however, as the youthful legal beagle, whom they had come across by chance, appeared to be on a mission to make a name for himself. His deft and aggressive questioning rapidly established that the prosecution had no evidence to support the charge of soliciting other than Inspector Homer Forbes’ outburst which ran along the lines of – “Well what else would louche characters like these two be doing in the company of distinguished gentlemen?”
Similarly, no proof of acts, natural or otherwise, could be established as the police surgeon, nursing the mother of all hangovers, failed to make it for the occasion and Forbes, once again, emerged from interrogation with a generous helping of egg on his face. “I knew they was up to no good” – was the best he could offer.
Furthermore, the mystery of the party’s non-appearance in Lord Albert’s box was adequately explained by Mabel who, in response to a desperate grilling by the prosecution, showed great calm and good humour, winning over the two magistrates who remained awake.
“It had been,” she asserted simply. “An unusually dull play.
And, finally, when the weary barrister turned his attack upon the sartorial elements of the offence, the elderly magistrate interrupted, barking that he had heard quite enough and that the prosecution’s case amounted to little more than a crime of fashion, (thus coining a phrase that years later would find its way into the Oxford English Dictionary).
Naturally, the two defendants walked free.
“It’s getting late,” says Minnie as she observes the light fading over Soho square.
“Better get a move on,” comments Mabel while, ruefully, adding more powder to the chin and jaw in an attempt to hide her secret.
“Need a piss before I go,” confides her companion as she removes her bread basket hair and places it carefully on the dressing table.
“Well don’t forget to lift the bloody seat,” admonishes Mabel. “And for God’s sake take proper aim for once. It stinks in there.”