A Pocket Full Of Fame: Kitty Fisher -Veiled Women Series
Lucy Locket lost her pocket
Kitty Fisher found it
Not a penny was there in it,
Only ribbon ’round it.
Kitty sat before the looking-glass, pushing a lock of dark hair from her languid eyes. Turning her chin this way and that, she caught her reflection in the dancing candle-light. Her skin was pale now. Pale enough to need no powder to aid its translucent complexion. ‘Wan has always become me.’ she thought and threw herself an arch and coquettish smile – the same smile she had used a thousand times before upon fashionable young men of wealth. The same smile she had thrown irreverently to lovers as they undressed her with a hungry gaze. But with the next turn of her head she caught the ominous shadows dimpling her gaunt cheeks and resting heavily below her eyes. They besmirched her blanched face – smudging her beauty and revealing the ghastly shades of her ashen features. Her smile darkened and then twisted itself into an abrasive cough, bursting coarsely from her lips as rudely as a lover bursts from twisted bed sheets when exposed in an illicit tête-à-tête.
‘Rouge. Just a dusting of rouge will bring life to me yet!’ she said to herself as she delicately wiped the rose-stained spittle from her lips with her embroidered kerchief. She then folded it carefully into a small square, which she held in a damp and rumpled ball within her tightly curled fist. Not once did she move her eyes from the mirror’s reflection; not once did she drop her own gaze.
She searched her fading features. Could she still see the face of the fair and glorious Cleopatra in her own? Cleopatra, the powerful and intellectual Queen. A living goddess. Cleopatra the debauched and salacious temptress. A wanton whore. She had heard the Queen of Egypt called both.
Yet could not the same have been said of herself – Catherine Maria Fisher? For she, like Cleopatra, had wilfully refused to march to the drum of social expectation. She had cut her silk and satin cloth far beyond her supposed means and yet had lived as richly as a queen. Richer perhaps, for she had not been bound by the rules of politics and religion that a queen must be tied to. Her own court was that of fashionable London and – like any queen – she had been both adulated and vilified in equal measure. A painted woman. How apt she should be a depicted by Reynolds as the whore queen of Egypt, dissolving a pearl in a chalice. A poison chalice, perhaps? For that is what society had offered her and she had willingly sipped from its depths.
‘I am pearl before the swine!’ she laughed suddenly, causing the candlelight to flicker and dance in a staccato euphoria, her face a play of light and shadow. Yes! Her allure, her boldness and her reputation had been trampled into the ground by the newspapers and gobbled up by the masses. She had been almost child when she had been introduced into society. Barely of age. And since then she had been violated and consumed by them. She was their sustenance and their fodder. But she had played them a their own game, hadn’t she! She had played them hard – she was no shrinking violet! She had courted them and made love to them all. She had dined out upon their fickle infatuation with her. And she had dined oh-so magnificently, had she not! Her fingers had grown plump with corpulent diamonds and her belly rounded with guineas that had been served upon slices of buttered bread.
Kitty shook her head and sighed. How ridiculously indulgent that sounded, even to herself. It had not been a thousand guineas she had consumed but a single bank-note. And she had done so only to call attention to the absurdity of a banknote as a gift – after all what sort of lover gives his mistress a banknote as an offering of his intimate attention? But it had made a good story, one she was famed for and it had given her quite the reputation for profligacy and avarice. Even that had been to her benefit. It had given her a certain fascination. A further allure with which to hook them in – what was a woman with limited means to do in such times?
So she had thrown decorum to the wind and ridden upon the tide of her fame and fortune as if it were a great stallion between her fine thighs. She had broken it in but never quite tamed it. With her audacious spirit, she had gripped onto it with all her might, even as it bucked and reared. Upon her journey she had reached dizzying heights. And if she had fallen off once or twice – if she had crashed to the ground and had fallen from grace? Then what of it! She had always given them a show, by all means. She may not be an actress, but that did not mean she could not out-perform the best of them. She may not have been a Lady but that did not hold her down for long. Like a nymph she flashed them with her most intimate smile – pink lips glistening in the sunlight. She had picked herself back up, dusted herself off and demanded that a sedan chair should take her home instead. They had rarely seen her tears. They had not glimpsed her pain – at least, barely.
And she had fed their beast! She had fed it with such rare delicacies that it could not resist her and all too soon it had been tempted back. Yes, she had offered the beast such a delectable feast, in order to mount it again. And again.
She was voracious! Or at least, she had been. Kitty leaned forward, holding her fine fingers up to the frigid surface of the looking-glass, inspecting the woman there. Touching her cold face. Cold as death. The woman in the mirror stared back, but her eyes were dull and hollow. Kitty shuddered and pulled her shawl closer about her thin shoulders.
‘It’s as if something had walked over my grave.’ she thought and immediately regretted such a macabre vision. She would speak to her husband about the fire. This winter had been harsh and the building they had taken was far too cold; she could never seem to get warm enough. Her hands and feet were like marble, cold to the touch and her lips were tinged blue. Surely the waters here in Bath would ease her malaise? They had healing properties, everyone said so! And her physician had been quite optimistic. Why, as a modern woman in 1767 she lived in a modern medical age and she was still young and full of vigour. She would soon feel right as rain, she had no doubt. Kitty pressed her palm against the face in the looking glass, covering it and then turned away. She would not consult her reflection any longer; it was no longer a friend. It betrayed her.
Diamonds! Now, they were a friend. They never dulled, they were full of glimmering fire and they could not be dissolved. This is what she wished to be. This is how she would be remembered! A dazzling creature of magnificence and splendour. A light shining brightly within the grey city of London. If she had not been born the fairer sex, she would be known as a libertine and both celebrated and detested for her hedonism. So why should she not be venerated as such just because she was a woman? She had as much charisma and charm as the infamous Casanova! And she may have been a courtesan but she also had the head for business. Publicity. Selling more than her body – selling her image. And she had played her part well. Her name had been both famous and infamous, her discourse had been lively and her bed livelier still. She had payed her price and it had been high but, like any woman of sense and intelligence, she knew her greatest asset was the plump silken purse she kept hidden beneath her fine, billowing skirts. No ribbon was needed to keep its contents safe and no coin was ever placed in it, though it could never be said that it did not bring her a coin or two!
She knew, too, that the bloom of her cheek would fade all too soon. Her youthful beguilement would not last forever. So she had been an alchemist – she had discovered the secret of melting down her sublime youth into untold treasures, and converted her perishable beauty into solid gold. Something that would never tarnish. Never dull. She had learned how to live a life of splendour. She had been the admiration of every eye. And then – before the flush of her young face had worn off, she had married and she had married well. Respectably. A man of family and fortune, no less. And now she was a Lady and mistress of Hemsted. What more could a woman ask for?
She stood up and moved to the window, leaning against the frame to support her. How tired she felt. How wearied! Life had grown exhausting and her masks heavy. From the moment she had been introduced into the elite circles of high-society she had donned her vivacious masks and become a skilful social butterfly. Always invited to the most lavish balls. Always there at the best parties. She had quipped oh-so wittily and frolicked oh-so prettily with feathers in her hair. She had chirruped and tweeted like a little bird to amuse them and she had flown from engagement to engagement with little time for rest. She was always at ease in the bright and tawdry lights of the ballrooms, playing them all a for merry dance. And she had taken the greatest of pleasure in being ensconced within the dark and secluded boxes with a gentleman or two at the theatres of Drury Lane.
Oh! What a guided cage she had built for herself! Such comforts and yet such confinement. The life of a courtesan was one of constant social and personal fornication. Teasing and pleasing them. Tantalising and titillating. Inciting their desire and their curiosity. Men, women and newspapers alike. Pamphlets focusing in graphic detail, of her amorous pursuits could easily be bought for a small price and portraits of her could be purchased in print-shop windows but despite their clamour for her, who truly knew the woman she was? Who knew the harlot behind the hype.
She had been a flame and they the moths, foolishly fluttering into her dazzling blaze. Poor fools! No lover ever lasted long, for there had been no love in her heart. Her flesh had been warm, her spirit sultry but her heart had been glacial. Like the Virgin Queen! Aloof and unresponsive. She could be dripping in jewels presented to her by the wealthiest of men and she could be swathed in the most precious ornaments money could buy for her but they were nothing more than pretty accoutrements for her uniform. Mere baubles. Another layer to her armour of disguise. An armour she never dared to take off for fear that beneath she was no more than a skeleton. Her flesh eaten away by their obsessive captivation and her soul no more than a void. Had she played such a dangerous game? And had she won or lost?
Kitty looked out into the darkness of the evening, the lamps were being lit. Soon she would be out again, attending yet another social function, but now it would be respectably upon the arm of her husband Sir John Norris. An honourable lady and wife with an admirable life. Married for but a few months, she had been glad to retire from her former high-life. Cheerful to pass the poisoned chalice to the next young beauty that would take it. All in all, when contemplating the evidence she felt she had won the game at last! And she was ready to settle into her new role.
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted as her body was wracked with a convulsive frenzy of choking coughs. They gripped at her throat as if they would strangle her and left the bitter taste of metal in her mouth. Blood gorgeously painted her lips and coated her teeth. And as they subsided there was her reflection, mocking her. It stood like a spectre in the window-glass, a ghost that insisted on haunting her. Her reflection’s face was obscured and hazy but all its finery – the favourite silk ball gown, the frippery and furbelows – could not hide the diminishing swell of its breasts nor the deep hollows that scooped beneath its collarbone. Kitty unconsciously lifted her arms to cover her chest, as if to shield herself from the empty gaze of her shadowy counterpart. Though still it stared at her as if accusing – daring her to look back. However, when she met the challenge of the reflection, she glimpsed something even more ghoulish. For a moment she saw not her own reflection but a corpse. A shell of a woman who had once been so full of life and vigour, her arms crossed in death, her favourite ballgown nothing more than a shroud. Her face grave.
A sharp rap at the door and the voice of her maid was a welcome interruption to such a hideous and morbid phantasm. Kitty turned on her heel, a determined set to her jaw. She would not allow a cough to frighten her, nor overhang like a dark and ominous cloud upon her evening! Whether it be a mere fantasy or a ghastly premonition she would not allow it to spoil her enjoyment, for how many more evenings did she have? Gliding with an elegant stride across the room she patted the pearls adorning her ebony hair, opened the chamber door and stepped over its threshold – more than glad to close the door to the horror of her visions and leave her spectral image behind her.
Kitty Fisher (1741-1767) was a famous English Courtesan. She eventually married John Norris, MP for Ryein 1766 four months before her untimely death in 1767 – probably from tuberculosis. She was buried in her favourite ballgown at Benenden on 23 March of that year.