Rivals in the City went through a huge number of revisions, so I had a lot of deleted scenes to choose from. My favourite, though, might be this one. It’s a scene I wrote in order to take the emotional temperature between Mary and James, eight months after Mary achieves financial independence – an event that entirely transforms her understanding of life.
I was reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, at the time, and was thrilled to learn that Dickens regularly dined with his mistress, the actress Nellie Ternan, in restaurants. Sometimes they had friends with them, but sometimes they appear to have been alone together. I’m not sure what they called it, but to me it sounds just like a date.
I couldn’t resist taking Mary and James on a date, too. I cut the scene – didn’t even finish it properly – because it contributes nothing to the actual plot. But the scraps remain. And because I spend so much time propelling Mary and James from one peril to another, sometimes it pleases me to imagine them doing something as mundane as going on a date. In Dickens’s favourite restaurant.
— The Deleted Scene —
When her bell rang that evening at a perfectly punctual five minutes before eight o’clock, Mary checked her appearance in the hall mirror one last time. It was quite a transformation from her usual minimal toilette. She was fragrant with her favourite soap and wearing, for the first time, her only evening gown. She’d taken care with her hair. She only half-recognized the young lady in the mirror: the thought would have amused her, had it not also made her uneasy.
After securing her cape over her shoulders, she carefully descended to the front door on a staircase suddenly made steep and narrow by her large crinoline. Anticipation and unease united to make her fingers stiff and awkward, and she fumbled with the doorlatch for a moment. At last, though, it opened to reveal James on the step, freshly shaven and wearing an evening dress coat.
“Good evening, Mr. Easton,” she said to James, in her most demure tones.
“Good evening, Miss Quinn.” After the briefest of hesitations, he bowed and kissed her hand. “I’m afraid our conveyance isn’t quite up to our gorgeous behaviour.”
Mary glanced past his shoulder and grinned at the sight of a hansom cab waiting at the curb. “I wondered how you’d escort me, under the new rules,” she confessed, slipping her hand into the crook of his arm. “A closed carriage is clearly indecent.”
“The streets are far too filthy for walking.”
“And I never learned to ride a horse,” she confessed.
“Plenty of time for that,” he said, offering a hand to help her into the cab. “I’ll teach you.”
She smiled at that. “By that time, we’ll be able to ride in all the closed carriages we want.”
“I can’t wait.” He stroked the inside of her wrist, finding the fraction of bare skin between her glove and sleeve, and she shivered.
Despite the hansom’s open design – they were clearly visible to anybody in the street who cared to look – it retained an air of privacy: a small space in which they fit together neatly, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. James took both her hands and smiled when she interlaced her fingers with his. Even through two pairs of gloves, his and hers, this felt indescribably intimate.
The cab turned with a creaking of leather and springs, and set off at a leisurely pace. “How was your meeting with the new client?” she asked. The question itself made her smile slightly, with its overtones of wifely concern.
He squeezed her hand, clearly hearing the same domestic notes. “Quite long, in the end. There’s talk of building a second railway line, to allow a fast train directly from the ferry port in Gravesend to London. They wanted my opinion.”
“That sounds promising.”
James made a non-committal face. “Possibly.” He was always guarded, pessimistic, about new business. “How was your day?”
Mary considered this invitation to change the subject. Anne Treleaven’s visit weighed heavily on her mind but she shied away from introducing threat and tension so early in the evening. Why shouldn’t she and James enjoy the novelty of dining together for once, free of threat and tension? They could discuss the case after dinner. “Varied,” she said, eventually.
A half-smile. “Sounds exciting.”
“It never quite seems to be a simple case of ooh-I-ordered-a-new-hat-and-had-luncheon-with-Miss-Smith.”
“If you ever said that, my first instinct would be to call a physician.”
“You have very strange taste in young ladies.”
He squeezed her hand again. “Someone’s got to.”
Verrey’s shone like a beacon in the fog, a miracle of gleaming plate-glass, burnished brass, and gaslight. A doorman in gold-braid opened the door with an obsequious bow, and Mary and James entered the building arm-in-arm. To all outward observers, they were just another rich young couple going to dinner. Privately, Mary hoped the shaking of her knees wasn’t also making her skirts tremble.
An attendant showed her to the cloakroom, relieved her of her cape, and indicated a small table at which she could make any last-minute adjustments to her hair and gown. Mary stared at her reflection, rendered unfamiliar by the blazing lights and plush furnishings. She didn’t look like an interloper; she was entirely plausible here, in this elegant setting. A good detective ought to be a chameleon, but the realization was startling nonetheless.
When she rejoined James in the dining-room, escorted to her table by yet another lackey, he was already seated. He glanced in her direction, looked away, then did a sudden and distinctly comic double-take at the sight of Mary in an evening gown, neck and shoulders on rare display. His eyes flashed with surprise and he half-stumbled to his feet. A sudden smile curved his lips. He pivoted slightly, until he stood between her and the attendant, and murmured, “Stunning.” Though his voice was nearly inaudible, his admiration rang in her ears, making her giddy.
It was a relief to sink bonelessly into the drawn-out dining chair. As James slid her chair towards the table, he stroked her spine with the gentlest of fingers, sending a powerful shiver down the length of her body. Speech was impossible. After a few moments, she remembered to breathe.
He sat down across the table and gazed upon her for a long minute. “Well,” he finally murmured, “if there are rumours flying about town tomorrow about my involvement with a young actress or dancer, you’ll know who she is.”
She smiled. “Outrageous flattery. I think, however, that I see a genuine celebrity in the far corner. Over your left shoulder, is that not Mr. Dickens?”
James craned his neck and was met with a frown of reproof from the eminent gentleman. He turned back to Mary with a small smile. “Indeed. Dining with a genuine actress, Miss Ternan.”
Mary met his gaze with a wicked smile. “Tell me again why you’re so set on perfect propriety when all the world knows about Mr. Dickens’s highly irregular domestic life?”
James swallowed his riposte as a waiter glided up to their table. Their meal was a beautifully cooked affair, accompanied by good wine and capped with French cheeses. As they dined and talked, Mary thought she would always remember this evening with perfect clarity. There was something about the exquisite staging of the restaurant, the dazzle of lights and elegantly pitched conversation. Perhaps it was knowing that this artful serenity existed within a dark, fog-choked, raucous city. For the first time that she could recall, Mary gave herself up to decadence. She felt nearly at home amidst such luxury.