Monday, 3 November 2014

Nano 2014: Day 03

The sisters arrived at their aunt's house late in the evening. Darkness had already descended and the choking smoke and stench of the city had driven Helen from distress to despair. The improved quality of air as they reached the wealthier part of the city wasn't enough to cure her, and even being inside their aunt's home – scented beautifully of lavender, beeswax and warmed wine – couldn't soothe her, although it delighted Rose.

The servants were expecting the sisters and were all miraculously available and required to help bring in luggage and whisk the girls into the required room. Even the cook found it justified to come upstairs carrying a platter of delicate cakes and biscuits for the girls to snack on. Within half an hour the entire household were gossiping delightedly about Miss Rose, while even the nicest, most forgiving individual was unable to attribute to Miss Helen a quality more appealing than having a “very pleasant voice” when she declined the special treats laid before her.

Their aunt shared the opinions of all her staff, although the knowledge would never be admitted by the separate parties. She had previously held to the opinion that the elder should be presented and wed before the younger could be admitted into society. Witnessing the girls before her now, she was convinced that Rose would never have had a chance if that rule were adhered to. That being so, she refrained from making the speech she originally intended which had been expressly designed to inform Rose that while she may be in public, she must at all times be no more than a shadow as it was truly Helen's presentation and Rose was here merely on sufferance and instead calmly observed that as both girls were being presented together she would ensure that they were subjected to the same preparation lessons.

Helen, wan and wilting after the journey, allowed the words to wash over her. Rose alternated between excitement over the plans being made on her behalf and concern for Helen, but as she had herself firmly under control and was eventually able to sip delicately at a cup of tea, Rose soon became consumed by her enthusiasm for the plans over the next few months including, but not limited to seemingly endless amounts of shopping, dance lessons, dress fittings, parties, picnics, morning visits, afternoons driving through parks, potentially horse rising lessons, musical soirées, a multitude of balls and even one masked ball.

As she became increasingly animated, her aunt marvelled at how the sparkle in her eye and the light flush in her cheeks enhanced the beauty of her facial features. Casting a baleful glance at Helen, she wondered, with some slight resentment, how she was ever going to get the elder sister off her hands once the younger was married. Helen was oblivious to her aunt's burgeoning hostility and for some reason the lack of response to an attitude her aunt felt slightly ashamed of only caused her to feel irritated that Helen was such an insipid, dull, grey wisp of a thing.

Sighing internally, she asked the girls if they knew sufficient card games to join in a little light entertainment at quiet house parties. Not, she averred, that they should gamble to excess, but they must be able to participate in the lighter entertainments that were offered to young maids. Rose happily regaled her aunt with tales of the specific games they knew and evenings with the son of the local pastor as young girls as well as parlour games at their seminary. The picture she painted of her sister as gaily leading a pitched battle of wits against the headmistress on a weekly basis, with teams supporting either side and the celebrations afterwards caused her to regard Helen with a quizzical eye and a sudden realisation that perhaps few women look their best after a few days of travel.

That being the case, she decided they should all retire early as they had a terribly long day ahead of them. Both girls assented, although Rose seemed a little disappointed at the abrupt end to her evening and briefly wondered if her story had offended her aunt. The insistence that they call her “Aunt Agatha” rather than the “ladyships” and “ma'ams” that had so far littered their conversation went some way to assuaging that fear. Aunt Agatha rang the bell vigorously and directed the girls to their rooms. When they arrived and Helen realised she would be sleeping alone, she was as fearful as Rose had guessed she might be. However, the shame she felt of her dreams caused her to internalise any feeling related to them as much as possible and even in her exhausted state she was able to disguise a response that the vast majority of people would consider odd enough to remark on.

Rose said she would check her own room, change into nightwear and revisit before they slept. Helen assented, relieved, and one of the aids that had escorted them up helped her disrobe and guided her to bathe in the warm water at the basin. The maid then sat her before the mirror and spent twenty minutes brushing her hair out until it shone. The unaccustomed luxury lulled Helen beyond anything she had ever imagined and when the maid coaxed her into bed and she discovered, instead of the chill sheets of the seminary, the damp sheets of a public inn or the hard mattress of her childhood she had been provided with a luxurious feather quilt, several blankets and a deep, soft mattress which had been perfectly and evenly warmed. It was like climbing into a full body hug and although she propped herself up on the copious pillows provided intending to wait for Rose, the maid hadn't even closed the door before she was soundly asleep. Peeking through the door ten minutes later, Rose smiled and blew out the majority of the candles before returning to her own room and sleeping herself.

The next morning Aunt Agatha, herself an early riser, had instructed the household staff most strictly that they were on no account to disturb either girl. Consequently, it was almost 11 am when Helen, blinking, pushed herself upright in a brightly lit room, decorated in emerald and teal colours, picked out in gold. The vibrant colours after years of practical greys and browns made it seem like a fantasy. In addition, she had been so physically and mentally exhausted by the rigours of her journey that she had spent the night in a deep dreamless sleep and the feeling of blissful, rested contentment that resulted was vaguely alien to her. She slid out of bed and spied the night coat cast across a sofa. It was so luxurious and soft that she slid into it, even though the room was beautifully warm and smiled as she looked around the room.

She spied a pair of matching slippers and eagerly climbed into them. Before she had the second on, she was interrupted by the maid peering cautiously around the door. Seeing the bedcovers cast to one side she made her way into the room and bobbed a curtsey to Helen. When she rose, she was unable to hide the surprise she felt.

“Oh!” Helen saw her expression and immediately feared she had done something wrong. “Am I not supposed to wear the robe? I thought it had been put there...” trailing off, she gazed, wide eyed at the maid who was vigorously shaking her head and bobbing a series of apologetic curtseys.

“No, miss, no indeed miss, I'm so sorry miss. I didn't mean to stare.”

Walking forwards, Helen touched the maid gently on the arm. “No, I should apologise, I obviously startled you. Would you please tell me how?”

Helen's voice, which had been discussed as pleasant the night before, now she was rested, happy and relaxed was soft, gentle, warm and musical. It carried with it the essence of Helen's gentle personality and made kinds of promises about what she could do as a singer and the maid, as so many before her had, immediately fell under its spell. Deeply flushing and wishing she had something nice to say, the maid confessed that she looked like a different person this morning.

Helen burst out laughing.

Startled, the maid gazed wide eyed at her for another moment before recalling herself and dropping her gaze to the fingers she knotted wildly before her. Helen soon stopped laughing and next time she spoke her voice was once again a new kind of joy to listen to. The smile on her face was audible as she reassured the maid that no-one would disagree as she was renowned for being a poor traveller; and when the maid cast her eyes up into that face she was shocked once again by the difference a genuine smile made in the face of this young lady.

Her eyes, so big and grey had acquired shades of sparkling blue and green, her skin was tinted with the faintest coral tone and her lips curving upwards pushed out her cheeks and turned her long thin face into a heart shaped, well balanced arrangement of features that were delightful to contemplate. In comparison to her sister – the epitome of a Snow White princess – she would always be considered washed out and faded, but by herself she possessed a grace, charm and quiet beauty that appealed to many without them quite understanding why.

The maid felt her own lips quivering upwards into a timid smile and when asked for her name confessed she was called Emily.

“Well, Emily, it's lovely to meet you. Would you please direct me to my clothing? I haven't eaten properly for a few days and I'm in need of some sustenance.”

Emily bobbed into yet another curtsey and asked a series of polite questions about whether Miss wanted to wash, what she wanted to wear, whether she wanted a bonnet put aside for afternoon activities. Helen dealt with each enquiry in the calm manner which made her seem accustomed to such a thing, while inside she still marvelled at her surroundings and the bewildering upgrade in her circumstances now she had left school. Although she had grown up in similar circumstances of wealth, as a child she had never experienced them for herself – schoolrooms and governesses were not, in her limited experience, palaces of delight and young girls were certainly not permitted to have someone run around after them.

Eventually she was seated, mostly dressed, before her mirror again as Emily dressed her hair. Curious about the household, Helen had encouraged Emily to talk and it had already been revealed to her that Rose had risen two hours before and breakfasted well. She was currently in the morning room flitting between playing idly on the pianoforte and playing with the various decorative trinkets that festooned the surfaces of the room. Aunt Agatha had been awake since before 6, and had breakfasted alone, spending an hour with her Bible in the quiet of her own dressing room as was her custom. Each lady had a dedicated maid who was currently either cleaning, unpacking, preparing or, in Emily's case, preparing her mistress for the day. In the afternoon they were expecting a hairdresser and modiste to visit the house so the maids had been set the task of identifying clothes that must be discarded: those that could be modified and those that were suitable for town wear. Aunt Agatha's maid was searching through her wardrobes to see if there were any dresses of her own that could be adjusted for the girls – her expectation (which would shortly be justified) being that neither girl would own anything that couldn't be worn by a fifteen year old.