by Madeleine Robins
As is quite often the case in small households, it was soon spread about from scullery to nursery that Miss Prydd had that afternoon received a letter bearing the frank of the earl of Boskingram. This, in a household the size of Mrs. Winchell’s, was cause for some excitement, although Miss Prydd herself did not discover the letter until she returned, some two hours late, from a visit to the neighboring Dumsford parish, by which time all in the house, from Mrs. Winchell to Addie, the scullery maid, were agog to know what the note portended. On entering the house, Miss Prydd was apprised no less than three times of the letter and its noble origin, and was directed to the drawing room, where her aunt was keeping the note for her.
“Dear child, come and see what has arrived! I’d no idea you had such connections!” Mrs. Winchell, a large, indolent woman currently employed in toasting plump feet by the firedogs and tracing a silhouette from an outdated issue of La Belle Assemblée, waved her handkerchief, in what she imagined to be a suitably languid fashion, in the direction of the letter. A large, extremely orange, and plebeian cat stared balefully up at Miss Prydd from the seat of the only other chair near the fire. “Kubla, move, if you please!” Mrs. Winchell commanded automatically, but not until Miss Prydd switched at him with the famous envelope did the cat relinquish his throne.
“Good heavens, ma’am, an earl! I’ve no notion who belongs to such a household among my acquaintance. No.” She continued positively, after a moment’s reflection while wrestling with her bonnet. “No, Alison Cartmell married the second son of a duke, and Maria Ervine married a baronet, and poor Claire Seabank has been engaged these last ten years and more as a governess in Lady Amblemere’s house, but no one that I know could procure a frank from an earl! I suppose I had best open it and find out….”
Since this was precisely what Mrs. Winchell and her entire household had been waiting for all afternoon, Miss Prydd heard no objection. From the envelope a large, heavy card was produced, bearing the arms of the earl of Boskingram. In a clear, secretarial hand, Miss lphegenia Prydd was bidden to the wedding of Miss Althea Ervine and Sir Tracy Calendar, at the express wish of Margaret, Dowager Countess Boskingram. “Well, that makes all clear, doesn’t it?” Miss Prydd exclaimed cheerfully, to the frustration of Mrs. Winchell, who was still uninformed as to the letter’s content.
“Makes what clear?” her aunt said helplessly. “My child, nothing has explained anything to me.” But lphegenia was already halfway through the second note, a thin slip of paper, which had fallen from the envelope at the invitation’s removal. At its completion, she briskly folded the note back into the envelope and launched into her story.
“The note is from Maria Bevan, ma’am, whom I knew as Maria Ervine at school. It seems that her sister Althea is to be married, and to the nephew of this Lady Boskingram, and I am invited, and to bear Mary company fora while…. She seems to regard the whole affair as very trying, although if Lady Boskingram is to be responsible for the wedding—surely that is a trifle unusual, ma’am?”
“And do you mean to go, Genia?” Mrs. Winchell asked vaguely, trying to make some sense of this scattered narrative.
“Surely, Aunt Ellen, that’s more your decision than mine. I should dearly love to go, but can you spare me?”
“My dearest child, if Lady Boskingram requires you, who am I to say her no? Of course, I cannot make much provision for your travel or your clothing or such expenses as—” she began, as some of the negative aspects ofher niece’s absence began to dawn on her.
“Oh, no, ma’am.” Miss Prydd interrupted before her aunt could begin what would doubtless be a very long and detailed list. “Only see, Mary says that a chaise can be sent for me, and my gown as an attendant upon the wedding party will be the gift of the bride, as well it might be, for if it is to be something grand out of reckoning what use would it be for me, and what use would I have for it ever?”
“Quite right,” began her aunt. “And—”
“And I do have my own money, although I grant ’tis not much, but it should see me through a short visit, even if it is to London. So you see, I shall be no charge upon you at all.”
“As I said, Genia, you may certainly go, although we shall be quite hard-pressed to do without you. Still, if you plan to be gone only a short time…”
“Indeed, Aunt,” lphegenia agreed artlessly, if not with entire truth. In fact, Lady Bevan’s note had suggested quite a long stay, as Lady Bevan herself was well into her first pregnancy and hoped her dearest school friend might be prevailed upon to stop some months with her, and to help with the tiring, trying, and somewhat frightening task of setting up the nursery.
“When does Lady Bevan propose to send for you?” Mrs.Winchell asked, trying to calculate how many long-planned projects she might ask Genia to complete before her departure.
“Wednesday next, unless she should hear elsewise from me.”
“Wednesday! My Lord, child, does she think we have a household such as hers? Six days, and poor Samantha still confined to her room with the toothache, and half a dozen shirts still unfinished for Michael when the boys go off to school again next month, and I suppose that you will need the seamstress from the village to fashion a few gowns for you—and you needn’t shake your head at me, for I will not countenance sending you off to London without even one new ensemble. Well, really, it is rather inconsiderate of your Lady Bevan to ask it of me on such short notice,” Mrs. Winchell continued, feeling somehow that relinquishing her niece to the dowager countess of Boskingram was easier than to a mere Lady Bevan.
“If you had rather I did not go…” Miss Prydd trailed off suggestively. She had not misjudged her aunt, who, in a rapid calculation, had weighed the value of a niece in London by special invitation of Lady Boskingram against the convenience of having her stay in Dumsford to continue her usual duties.
“Iphegenia, please. It is a most marked attention, and I could never reconcile it with your dear mamma’s memory were I to neglect to do all in my power to see that you accept this invitation!”
Genia, wincing at this particular piece of bombast,reflected that her mamma, never partial to her eldest daughter, would in this situation have found some way for Cassandra or Persephone to go in her stead. From the time she had returned from her school at seventeen and been revealed, to her mother’s critical eye, as no sort of beauty at all, lphegenia had made the best she could of seeing her younger sisters given every preference over herself. Even when Cassie and Persephone had married, Mrs. Prydd had had little use for her oldest girl, treating her as an unpaid companion or, as she ungenerously referred to it, training the girl to the sort of life she was undoubtedly to lead. Iphegenia, on her mother’s death two years earlier, had gone thankfully to her aunt’s to take up residence there.
“Then I may write to Mary and tell her I will be ready to leave on Wednesday next?”
“Yes, my love, of course,” Mrs. Winchell agreed absently, again absorbed in La Belle Assemblée. Genia, after a moment spent in rereading her note, begged her aunt’s leave and removed to the nursery.
Upstairs, Rebah, the nursery maid, was trying to comb out Elizabeth’s hair and at the same time to control a battle already in progress between Miss Annabelle and Master William Winchell. Although the children were all of such an age that a governess would have been a suitable addition to the household, it had been tacitly agreed, six months earlier at the departure of the last nanny—Miss Greengaugh, who had decamped in a flood of tears and with hysterical mutterings of snakes in the wardrobe drawers—that since Simon and Michael Winchell spent most of their year at school and William was to join them shortly, there was really no need for a nanny. Genia and the amiable Rebah were left to themselves to control and instruct the younger Winchells.
“Lizzie, pray stop making that dreadful noise at once. I’m sure you are driving poor Samantha to distraction. And Willie, stop plaguing your sister; ’tis not in the least a chivalrous thing to do.” With these pronouncements, Genia settled comfortably into a chair and ran a tentative finger again over the letter she held. William who had lately discovered a book on King Arthur’s court and was affecting, when he could recall to do so, the prowess and courtesy of the Round Table, flew to his own defense.
“Belle was being a Saracen,” he stated heatedly.
“Belle, darling, whatever a Saracen is, I suggest that you cease to be one immediately. No—” she continued, as Annabelle would have started a counterattack. “Give over, and I’ll tell you something exciting. I’m to go to London to visit my old friend Mary, and to be in her sister’s wedding.”
“What will you bring me?” Elizabeth asked, eminently practical.
“What will you wear?” Annabelle asked next, and William, disgusted by this paltry conversation, sniffed “Weddings!” and began to search about for a book he had thought of reading. Rebah cooed appreciatively and reached with her iron grip for Annabelle, to begin again her offices with the hairbrush.
“I shall bring you something, certainly,” Genia agreed. “And Lady Boskingram—who is responsible for the wedding, and is a real countess!—will give me my dress.”
“Satin and velvet!” Annabelle predicted.
“Good heavens, darling, in May? Muslin or silk would be more like. But I shall be getting a few new things to go to town with, and yes, you may come and watch the fittings, if you are very quiet and do not bother Miss Bleakings—and do be a good girl and keep from stepping through my flounces!” In self-defense, Miss Prydd was forced to stand and allow her cousin to vent her strong emotions at such an opportunity in a ferocious hug. When she had been proclaimed the best cousin in all the world, and had assured William that she would see the Tower in his stead and send him great descriptions of it, she made her way from the day nursery into the night nursery, to check upon the progress her cousin Samantha was making. The child was asleep, however, so Genia left quietly for her own room, to form the small plans and dreams to which her good fortune naturally gave birth.
The period extending from Genia’s receipt of Lady Bevan’s invitation to her departure from her aunt’s house was fraught with the usual mishaps common to households with several small children, an absentminded master, and a mistress whose primary concern is her own comfort. To the normal squabbles and crises were added the supernormal ones of the dressmaker’s reign in the spare bedroom. lphegenia found that she could in no way do without at least two morning gowns, an evening dress, and two afternoon walking dresses; or rather, Mrs. Winchell informed her so—although she was not so obliging as to inform her niece as to how she should pay for them. Fortunately, Mr. Winchell, emerging from his study long enough to be told of lphegenia’s impending departure, had first looked warily around the room to recall to himself which one she was, then murmured that it was quite right, and it must be time the girl made her come-out. And in the privacy of the library hall after tea, he presented her with a draft for one hundred pounds. Genia, too shocked to speak, kissed his cheek, listened dutifully while he instructed her to be a good girl while visiting her friends, and forgave his addressing her as if she had been a hopeful girl of eighteen rather than, as she herself admitted, a hopeless antidote of seven and twenty. The dressmaker had, of course, pronounced the whole project entirely impossible, and then, practically in the same breath, endeavored to persuade Miss Prydd to purchase as well a riding dress and a spencer of striped jacquard.
Despite all dire predictions, and Annabelle Winchell’s severe disgust at a wardrobe containing no velvets or satins to speak of, all was finished and neatly laid in bandboxes with tissue and pomander by Tuesday night. Genia spent her last night in the house playing fox-and-geese with William and Annabelle, and later, when the tea tray had been brought down, in sewing hems on Michael Winchell’s new shirts. If she felt that this was hardly a fitting way to begin what she referred to as “my one and only real adventure!”she kept her peace and minded her aunt’s repeated advice on how to conduct herself in the town.
When a comfortable-looking chaise bearing the discreet Bevan crest wheeled up to the door the next morning, the bandboxes had been in the hallway a good two hours, and Master William Winchell, who had been playing lookout, announced to all that his cousin wasn’t by half going to London in proper style. The driver knocked at thedoor, admitted that he had been sent to fetch Miss Prydd, and that a Young Person—he sniffed disparagingly—had been sent to accompany her, and waited in the chaise. All was safely loaded on, and Mrs. Winchell, who had worked herself into a sentimental pother, was deprived (much to her patient husband’s relief) of the chance to exercise it when Miss Prydd made her brief farewell and swiftly entered the carriage. Amid the homely, unlovely, familiar clatter of this family parting, the coachman folded up the steps, raised himself into the seat, and turned the chaise in the direction of the post road. After waving for a moment at the crowded yard behind her, lphegenia turned to her companion, a doughy-faced, moping maidservant, and said brightly, “Well, our trip is well begun, isn’t it?” The girl stared at her idiotically, and lphegenia, hoping this was not to be the first sign of her adventure’s failure, turned her attention to the roadside instead.
by Madeleine Robins
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-070-5