“That’s monstrous!” Charlotte Sumelin gasped.
Maria Fluart looked up from her needlework and asked mildly. “What is it my dear? Has your sister finally decided which of the dreadful men who are courting her she will marry?”
“No, it’s not that, though it is a letter from Harriet, she writes to ask your help.”
“Why, am I so monstrous?”
Miss Sumelin giggled, “Of course not, but she thinks you are the best person to help sort out the terrible problem they are having in Exeter.”
“What is she doing in Exeter and who are ‘they’.”
Charlotte looked at the letter again, then began.
“My sister has been staying with her aunt, Mrs Williams, who is married to one of the Canons.”
“Sounds boringly respectable, has she been sent there to get away from one of her lovers?”
“Stop that, or I won’t continue.” Replied Miss Sumelin, “Actually Mrs Williams isn’t boring at all. Her husband may spend most of his time in the cathedral, but she is very interested in literature. As a result she has gathered together a group of local gentlemen and ladies and established a theatre.”
“That sounds fun, is it just for them to play in, or a proper one?”
“Oh, it is a proper one, actors and actresses come from London to play there.”
“So have the actors and actresses been causing trouble? I know a Canon’s wife might find some very dubious.”
“Oh no, they are very respectable, at present Miss Foote is appearing. Apparently Harriet says she is delightful.”
“Really?” Maria Fluart looked curiously, she knew of Miss Foote’s history, and had heard how carefully she had managed to adjust her reputation to hide the more dubious aspects of her past.
“So what is the problem?”
“There is a group of young men, who are attacking women.”
“Why aren’t the magistrates involved?”
“Because the attacks aren’t like that. They began by squeezing young ladies in the crush at the entrance to the theatre. You know what that can be like?”
“Of course, that could pass as an accident. But you said they are getting worse.”
Charlotte looked down at the letter and read carefully;
“Yesterday a friend of our aunt tells me that a cousin of hers was at a performance, when she felt a hand inside her skirt. She cried out but no one heard her, she was so shocked she didn’t notice who it was, as the hand was withdrawn.”
“A pickpocket?” wondered Miss Fluart
“No, because apparently he was squeezing her, down there.” Charlotte gulped, “and others have been attacked in a similar way.”
Maria Fluart sat in silence, “Yes,” she spoke slowly, “I have heard of such things before, it will get worse. But if it is known who these men are, why has nothing been done?”
“Most girls are too ashamed to say anything, also the leader of the men is a notable shot. If a man accused him, he would call him out and almost certainly be killed.”
“And I have been asked to help because I am a notable shot whom no man would call out.”
Now Charlotte laughed, “Naturally. Will you help?”
“Of course my dear.” She stood up. “Now, would you like to go to the theatre?”
Exeter, in the time of Miss Fluart
A week later a carriage carrying the two young ladies, their servants and luggage, stopped outside a comfortable house on the edge of the cathedral close at Exeter. Over tea they learnt that the attacks had continued, fewer women were going to the theatre but as yet no word of the attacks had leaked out.
Mrs Williams was delighted to meet her niece and her friend, even more when her friend proved to be very interested in the new theatre. The next day they went to the building and were given a full tour and, of course, were invited to attend the performance that night. Harriet was surprised that both women appeared in slightly old fashioned dresses.
“Why, Charlotte, Miss Fluart used to be so fashionable. That gown must be four or five years old at least, as is yours. I thought you said you had learnt a great deal from her.”
“Miss Fluart has her reasons Harriet.” She paused, “As have I, and hopefully tonight you will see what I have learnt.”
The three women were carried in sedan chairs to the theatre, Mrs Williams led Harriet straight in, Miss Fluart and Charlotte deliberately held back to make sure that they were seen. Charlotte bent and whispered to her friend,
“The young man with fair hair, he is the one Harriet mentioned, he has seen us.”
“Good, then let us be seated.”
The women took their places, they sat together, with empty seats on either side. As the performance was about to start the fair man came and sat on Miss Fluart’s left hand, glancing she saw that his lieutenant had taken his place by Charlotte. It was almost at the end of the first act that she felt the hand, it was sliding over her thigh, she waited until it was in the right position, then she pressed down with her hand.
There was a sharp crack and a gasp from the man, Maria pressed down hard on her lap. She whispered to the man, who had bent forward, his face white.
“The ingenious man who built the device under my skirt said it could break a man’s fingers. Now, do you think the bones have snapped or are just crushed.”
“Release me you bitch.” The man replied, Maria slid her own hand under her skirt and twisted something, the man pulled his hand out, by the dim light she could see the fingers were twisted.
“Now leave, if I see you again it will not be so easy for you.”
The man stood, his face pale, he looked across Miss Fluart and her companion to his friend, now he looked shocked. His friend was also grasping his hand, a trickle of blood ran from between his fingers. Charlotte turned to smile at him, and raised a bodkin, she then turned to the man, took his sleeve and wiped the bodkin clean.
“Goodbye Sir, I hope we never meet again.” She nodded politely to him as he slipped from his place.
As the act ended, the women rose and were met in the lobby by Harriet.
“I was so worried, where have you been? Are you all right?”
“Of course we are.” Replied Miss Fluart, “Though I fear a couple of your patrons may be leaving early with sore hands.
Harriet gasped, her sister smiled and took her arm.
“Now we want to see the rest of the play, but you will have to tell us what happened at the end of Act One, we were a little distracted at the time.”
The crush at the entrance to the Theatre
The following morning Miss Fluart described what had happened to Dr Williams, the Canon. He was shocked.
“You should not have put yourself in such danger, you should have told me.”
“Perhaps, but this way the men are punished and cannot make any response.”
“Might they not try and hurt you my dear,” replied Mrs Williams.
“I don’t think so, but I would like you to send this note to them. It points out that if they try anything against us or any other young lady then the story will come out. And I don’t think they could face the idea of being bested by two young ladies.”
“Oh yes.” Said Harriet, “I know Charlotte had a bodkin but what did you use?”
Miss Fluart lifted a wood and metal object from her basket.
“It was designed to trap rats by a clever blacksmith.” She tapped the trap with the poker, there was a loud snap and a metal bar cracked over and down.
“That was why we wore older gowns, there was more room under the skirts for the trap.”
The Canon looked at it.
“A terrible device, a true man trap.”
“Oh no, a rat trap and it caught a rat.”
The Canon gasped, the friends grinned at each other.
After discovering the intrepid Miss Fluart as I described in an earlier post, I felt she deserved another outing. So here is my continuation.
Some of the people, the kindly Mrs Williams, Canon’s wife and enthusiast for the theatre was a real person, as was Miss Foote the actress who was a pioneer in the art of manipulating her public reputation.
Similar assaults to the one described did take place. Ladies skirts had slits in the side through which they could reach their pockets, and men sometimes took advantage of this. On at least one occasion a lady behaved like Charlotte and took a bodkin to her attacker.