Read an Excerpt
“Put the book down, darling,” my mother said from her chair beside the mirror.
“The chapter’s end is only a short way off,” I replied, reaching out with my other hand to flip the page. Despite the ache in my shoulder from holding the book at arm’s length so the dressmakers could work on my gown, I didn’t want to give it up.
“For heaven’s sake, you’ve read it a dozen times,” Mother said, rising to snatch the book from my hand. I half lunged for it, an action answered by the jabs of a dozen pins in places sensitive enough to ensure the book was lost to me for now.
“It improves each time,” I told her, letting my arms fall, the sensation of the blood rushing back into my fingertips too brief before the dressmaker nudged one elbow upward again.
“Please, miss,” the woman said, gesturing at the bodice, managing to sound even more exasperated with me than Mother had.
I lifted my arms again, posing as if I were about to take flight. According to some, I was. My debut had come, bringing with it Mother’s long-awaited opportunity to parade me about in front of all of London. The dress wrapped itself around me in tucks and folds of silk the color of cream as it stands on the top of a cup of tea, waiting to be stirred in. The trim at the neckline was exquisitely wrought in lace Mother had warned me more than once not to tell Father the price of. I’d pleaded unsuccessfully to have this particular dress made from a shimmering red sari fabric my brother had sent home to me from India. Mother was firm that red was perfectly unsuitable.
She was right, of course, as she was about most everything. She was right that this color was far more appropriate for a girl making a debut, that it would allow me to fit and stand out at the same time. I wasn’t sure I was ready to do either yet. And I was relatively certain I wasn’t prepared to step into society as Mother’s protégée. I adored my mother, but I didn’t want to be her. Not yet, anyway.
“You really might at least pretend to be more diverted by all of this,” she complained, turning down a corner of the page of my book before placing it on the dressing table. I fought the urge to beg her to use the scrap of lace I’d employed as a bookmark. I didn’t want creases in that particular copy of Mansfield Park. But the damage was done. And Mother was incensed enough with me already.
“On the contrary, Mother,” I said, balancing on my left foot just long enough to scratch the back of my right knee with my toe, “I find the prospect of this evening’s entertainment so overwhelming that it helps to have something to occupy my mind.”
Mother almost smiled. “It does promise to be an affair. I’m sure I’ve waited long enough before agreeing to be seen at one of these events, don’t you think?”
“Never be the first or the last to adopt fashion,” I said, echoing her words dutifully.
“But you must be the first to make an impression on our host this evening,” she said, a smile beginning at the corner of her mouth. Mother had declined two earlier invitations for parties of this sort. But when this one from Lord Thomas Showalter came so fortuitously timed with my debut, Mother accepted with haste. I couldn’t blame her, exactly. Lord Showalter was exactly the kind of man she or any other eager mother wanted for her daughter. He might have been the most sought-after man in all of Hyde Park, if not all of London itself. He was charming, handsome, and rich.
I rolled my eyes, whispered, “E ’una verità universalmente riconosciuta che un uomo solo in possesso di una fortuna deve essere in mancanza di una moglie.”
“Don’t mumble, dear,” she ordered.
This time I slipped from Italian to Russian and spoke a bit louder. “.” I loved the way Russian insisted on tickling the back of my throat.
“Agnes.” Mother’s tone carried the warning for her.
I translated the line again, this time to German, so Mother might recognize it at last. “Es ist eine allgemein anerkannte Wahrheit, daß ein Junggeselle im Besitz eines schönen Vermögens nichts dringender braucht als eine Frau.”
She stiffened, crossed her arms. “You know how it vexes me when you show off—what man will stand for that, I wonder?”
Finally, I all but shouted at her in French. “C’est une vérité universellement reconnue, qu’un seul homme en possession d’une bonne fortune doit être dans le besoin d’une femme.”
She took a moment, narrowing her eyes to tiny slits. “It’s not enough that you must cavort about in tongues that no respectable girl has any business speaking, but you must quote those books in the bargain? Honestly, Agnes.”
I smiled sweetly. “I was agreeing with you,” I said, “or at the very least A Lady was.” I looked down at the younger of the two dressmakers. “It’s from Pride and Prejudice,” I said. “‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Have you read it?”
The girl’s eyes lit up and she began to nod, but Mother cut short her reply. “Of course she’s read it. Half of England has read it, which is why it’s vulgar to quote it.”
“Half the world has read the Bible and we quote it all the time,” I teased.
“I’ll pretend you didn’t just compare the scribbling of a female novelist to the words of our Lord,” she said. “Whatever will I do with you?”
I sighed. “Marry me off to a rich man before he sees how clever I am. And with me in this gown at this evening’s most romantic of events, it appears your task is half done already.”
Mother sat again, placated a bit by my apparent acquiescence to her plan. “The entertainment he has chosen is gruesome, but it will provide a stunning foil for your beauty.”
We’d agreed that we would both politely decline actively participating this evening if pressed to do so. But Mother would not risk staying clear of the party outright. She was sure that Showalter was finally ready to seek a wife after several years in our London society and that if I weren’t there to be seen as a candidate, my chance would be lost.
I didn’t have the stomach to tell her that part of me wanted to stay here in my room and reread an A Lady novel or continue working on my Hebrew translations.
“Lady Ershing told me they do this sort of thing all the time in France. But so many of the fancies out of Europe have to be weighed against good English judgment and civility, I always say,” my mother mused.
“They trim their gowns in red lace in Paris, ma’am,” one of the seamstresses offered. Mother had brought the dressmakers here in order to preserve the secrecy of my gown. She couldn’t bear the thought of my first debut gown being copied or seen by anyone before I’d had a chance to wear it. Her paranoia knew no bounds on this score. Already she’d been favoring the shop far from Bond Street and the prying eyes of her friends and neighbors. But bringing the dressmakers to our home was extreme even for her. She’d already arranged to do the same with the final fittings for my presentation gown, but that dress was still being pieced at the shop.
Mother jabbed a finger at the girl. “How dreadful. Just because the French do it doesn’t mean we should. England is her own sovereign sensible state.”
“And may we stay that way for eternity, God save the King and damn Napoleon!” I said.
Mother’s gaze darkened. The two dressmakers pretended to be fascinated with the pleats. “Take care to find a way to voice your patriotism more appropriately,” my mother warned.
“Yes, Mother.” I sighed. But I felt the same about the mad little man across the Channel as anyone in England. Napoleon had more lives than a cat, had been the villain of the newspapers and in our household since I was a child. Before I even properly understood that he aimed for nothing less than ruling the world—and England with it—I used to spy on my brothers as they staged reenactments of the Battle of Trafalgar in the nursery.
Ten years Napoleon had haunted us. And with his most recent return from exile, the threat had gained strength anew. It was enough to make me wonder if debuting under such a shadow was at all sensible. I’d tried once to persuade Mother on this point. Her reply had been swift and certain: The very best affront we could offer the French would be to continue on with our lives as if Napoleon and his ambitions worried us not at all. Solid English tradition scoffing in the face of danger. She’d sounded as though she belonged on the floor of the House of Lords at Father’s side.
Mother seemed to read my thoughts. “It is so important that you debut now, Agnes,” she affirmed. “It is your duty. Our duty. To David and his compatriots, that they may know we have confidence enough in them to protect us. To those of the lower classes who need to see their betters continuing with the important traditions and rites that make ours a great nation . . . and to flout Napoleon, the little cockroach!”
I rolled my eyes. “I can hardly see how my debut will cause old Boney to flinch, Mother.”
She sat up straighter, her chin lifting. “Principle, Agnes,” she said gravely. “It’s the principle of the matter.”
“To say nothing of your principles,” I teased. Mother had waited longer than she wished for my debut season to arrive. Her own season had resulted in a triumphant match with my father. I suppose I couldn’t hold it against her that she was eager for me to find such happiness.
Mother hesitated, softened a bit, and then spoke. “Well, I have been very patient, haven’t I?”
“Mother, I’m barely seventeen!” I said, falling as easily into the argument we’d been having for the last two years as I might into my own bed.
“I debuted at sixteen,” she replied, on script. “And married your father at seventeen. Of course custom dictates a longer engagement these days. Though I think anything longer than two years is a bit absurd. . . .”
Mother suddenly sprang to her feet and worked her way in between the two dressmakers. “This pleat does not lie properly. It will not do.”
“You’re not so eager to marry David or Rupert off,” I complained.
“David is years from being a suitable husband. And Rupert . . .” She paused, shook her head. “Even with your father’s fortune, I do not know that he will have the same sense to marry so well.”
“No one could marry as well as Father,” I said sweetly, even meaning it.
Mother smiled, swatted at my hand. “You’re a good girl, Agnes,” she said. “And you’ll make an excellent wife. Though I shudder to think what kind of home you’ll keep.” She nodded to the wallpaper. “I still can’t account for those.”
I smiled at the golden walls, flecked with shimmering pink cherry blossoms and snaky green dragons peeking through the branches. I’d begged Father to bring me something special when he’d gone as part of a delegation to Japan when I was nine or so. He’d brought the paper, telling Mother that the empress herself had it hanging on the walls of the throne room and that it was perfect for his dear princess.
The dull floral that had been on my wall since my grandmother’s time gave way.
“I’m sure you’ll be at hand to advise me,” I said quietly, looking about the room at the other objects that Father had brought home during his years of travel, or that David had sent from various ports while at sea. The pointy little slippers from Turkey, the delicate toy drum from the Indies, and the dozens of books in various languages, some of which I’d managed to read, others still waiting to be unlocked.
Mother looked at me. “Lord Showalter’s tastes do run quite the same direction as yours.”
It was true. I’d been to Showalter’s twice before, and the house was chockablock with curiosities, the bulk of which had been ferried over from Egypt. Nothing went together. Strolling through his sitting room was like rummaging through the world’s attic, so varied and odd was the collection of items he possessed and displayed. He even had a small golden idol shaped like a bird on his mantelpiece.
“Perhaps you’ll even be so kind as to decorate our entire house so that I might have time to concentrate on my studies?”
Mother shook her head. “Education is for children. And you’ve already had far more than your share. I let your father keep finding those language tutors for you, but there comes a time when every girl must step out of the schoolroom and into the life that awaits her.” She held my eye. “And that time for you is come at last!”
At this, the seamstresses stepped away and looked to Mother. She circled round me, studying every stitch and hem and pleat and ruffle and fall of fabric.
“Very good,” she said finally.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Still a girl in a lovely dress, my auburn hair pinned back, waiting for Clarisse to do with it what only she could.
But what that girl in the mirror felt surprised me. I’d spent months arguing with Mother about allowing me to continue my studies, pleading with Father to convince her to delay my debut. And yet, in this dress . . .
I looked beautiful. How odd a sensation. Mother was beautiful. I was not. And yet in the dress I looked like a girl ready to make her debut, a girl who belonged at a party, or a coronation or something important. And then an even odder shiver ran through me: I wanted to see what could happen at parties and dinners for a girl dressed like I was. At least it would be something new, possibly exciting, even if it was a quick step into the rest of my life.
Suddenly all of me couldn’t wait to wear this dress tonight.
Mother must have noticed the change.
“You wear it well,” she said.
And for once I could not argue.
© 2011 Jennifer Bradbury