Chapter 3 – Frank discussions and extravagant fashion
They were heading into the village, both carrying linen wrapped bundles containing the gowns from their wardrobes that had been deemed suitable for refurbishment. The autumn wind was already promising the winter days to come, cutting through the thin woollen cloth of the girls’ spencers, and lifting their bonnets hard against anchoring ribbon ties. A little further back, their mother walked with Mrs Johnson, an elderly neighbour who they had met on their way to the small collection of shops and houses.
“I think you are right,” Anthea said grimly. “Mr Pitwater has that air about him, doesn’t he?”
“What will you do?” Lily asked.
Anthea steered her sister around a large puddle in the deeply rutted road. Their half-boots were already coated in mud; it was going to take an age to get them clean again.
“A smart girl would marry him,” Anthea said. “He has position, prospects and a decent livelihood.”
Lily shook her head. “You mean, a desperate girl. He is so …” She paused, obviously at a loss to describe the vicar.
“Crumbly?” Anthea provided. “Pompous, opinionated, hypocritical?”
Lily giggled. “I take it, then, that you will not accept?”
Anthea stopped. “How can I, Lily? Yet, it is a way, isn’t it? If I marry him, you and mother would only have to share the income two ways. I would have my own household. We could all be more comfortable.”
“No.” Lily started to walk again, pulling her sister back into motion. “He may fulfil the requirements of comfort and income, but you do not feel any affection for him. You do not even feel respect. To marry him would do both you and him a disservice.”
Anthea hugged her sister’s arm. “O wise one, you speak the truth.”
“I do,” Lily said. She sighed with relief as the village came into view, the wide central street already busy with shoppers, carts and horses. “Perhaps we will meet nice men at Lakeside.”
“Lord Dansworth, perhaps?”
They both laughed.
“He does sound very bad,” Lily said.
“If what Bernice says is true.”
The sisters exchanged a glance. Bernice was not always beholden to the truth.
“Perhaps all he needs is a wise wife to steady him,” Lily said. “And since we both know I am wise…”
“Good luck to you,” Anthea said. “I would not want to marry him. I want a man of sense, not a reprobate. Nor do I want to marry a soldier or a navy man.” She could not help the note of bitterness that had crept into her voice.
“Why ever not? Papa was a soldier!”
“That is exactly why,” Anthea said, although it was not the whole reason. As the time for their departure to Lakeside loomed, she was not so sure she could face Commander Hayden again. “You see how Papa’s loss makes mother suffer, even now after three years.”
“Yes,” Lily said softly.
They both stole a glance back at their mother. She still wore her mourning greys.
“Girls,” Mrs Stanwell called, noticing their attention. “Go on to Madame Celeste’s. She is expecting us even now. I will assist Mrs Johnson and see you in a few moments.”
Anthea waved their understanding. The two girls quickened their pace, eager to take refuge from the wind, their bundles swinging from the string ties.
Madame Celeste’s salon – dealing in fine cloth, haberdashery, headwear and gowns for the discerning lady – was set a little apart from the centre of the main village trade. For those who visited the village, finding such an establishment in such an out-of-the-way place always elicited surprise. The salon was more suited to a big town or, if one actually saw a Madame Celeste creation, even Town itself. As it was, many ladies from the surrounding area journeyed to the village to purchase from Madame. The story of how such a talented mantua-maker ended up in their midst always brought a sigh to the listener, for it was high danger and grand love that had brought her amongst them.
Over twenty years before, Celeste Le Croi had been rescued from the Terror by a young man– the son of a local gentleman – at the end of his Grand Tour and unluckily caught up in the horror. Love had blossomed. They had married and returned to his home, setting up the salon to instant success and acceptance into local society. Not even Monsieur Bonaparte’s tyrannical ambitions had soured the good opinion of the local populace about their favourite émigré. Three years ago, Madame’s dear husband had died, around the same time that Mrs Stanwell’s husband had perished in Spain. That unfortunate circumstance had built a special bond between the two women, and the Stanwell ladies had become firm favourites of Madame Celeste. She was, of course, aware of their situation, and did everything in her power to stretch their modest wardrobe budget without causing offence. She was also aware that it did no harm to her business to have her creations worn by three such lovely women.
Anthea pushed open the red painted door of the salon and entered, the warm air of the room like soft silk on her cold cheeks. Lily followed, calling out a salute to Madame Celeste who was supervising the placement of some stock on a shelf.
“Bonjour, Madame. Comment êtes-vous?”
Madame smiled a welcome and gave a small bow to the two girls. “Très bien, Mademoiselle Lily. Et vous?”
“Cold,” Lily said, lapsing back into English. Mrs Stanwell had not had much success teaching her younger daughter the accomplishment of French. “It is like winter already out there.”
Madame Celeste’s apprentice curtsied and hurried forward, taking the bundles from the girls and collecting their bonnets.
“Is your Mama not with you?” Madame Celeste asked.
“She is on her way,” Anthea said. “She said to start without her.”
“This is very pretty.” Lily stroked some ivory sarcenet displayed near the window. “Is it new?”
“Oui, from Paris. Do come through.”
Madame Celeste ushered them into the private chamber at the back of the salon. There was no hardship in understanding how she had captured the heart of her Englishman so long ago. Madame Celeste had a vivacity and natural elegance that showed in every movement. Her fine-boned face still commanded attention, although interest was now mainly centred upon her eyes – dark, wide-set and alight with a keen intelligence that was always tempered with warm kindness.
It was not long before the two girls were seated on the brocade sofa and studying the latest La Belle Assemblée, and The Lady’s Magazine. Their mother joined them soon after, and the business of the day began.
“It is full dress that I am most concerned about,” Mrs Stanwell said, casting her eye over Anthea’s old evening gown already laid out for consideration. “These old ones will do with some changes, but both girls will need at least one more dress for evening with some possibilities for embellishing them.”
“A new gown each, mother?” Anthea said. “But –”
“You will be dining in the company of lords and ladies, Anthea. While you will not be expected to have an extensive wardrobe, some change to your appearance – however small – must be made each evening.”
Madame Celeste nodded. “It is so. Mademoiselle Lily has already seen the new sarcenet, which will suit her complexion. I have a very pretty cream satin with embroidery upon it for Mademoiselle Anthea. We will make both with the longer sleeve to be buttoned in or taken out. Oui?”
Mrs Stanwell smiled. “Excellent.”
“For the possibilities...” Madame Celeste shuffled through the magazines. “Voila!” She flicked open to a page. “Silk westkits to wear over the bodice.”
Anthea leaned across to look at the coloured fashion plate. The willowy lady depicted wore a blue silk westkit – a short, feminine version of the vest – laced over the high waisted bodice of her white muslin dress. The westkit fitted over the bodice so exactly as to create the semblance of a new gown.
“How ingenious,” Lily said.
“Oui. I think perhaps a bronze silk for Mademoiselle Anthea, to bring out the gold in her eyes, and a green for Mademoiselle Lily? And if we are clever with our cut –” Madam Celeste paused, allowing a moment for the fact that she was always clever with her cut, “ – the Mademoiselles will be able to exchange and create another possibility.”
Mrs Stanwell smiled her agreement. “Now, their day dresses. The latest double lines of hem flounces are pretty. What do you think, girls?”
As Anthea listened and voiced her opinions, she was torn between the delightful prospect of new clothes – an evening gown, a muslin day dress, a pelisse and the bronze westkit – and the knowledge of what such extravagance would cost, doubled by Lily’s wardrobe. Not to mention the addition of unmentionables, gloves, and evening slippers.
“It is all around that you go to Lakeside,” Madame Celeste said to Mrs Stanwell, folding a rejected length of spotted muslin and handing it back to her apprentice. “There is much talk about it.”
“I can imagine.” Mrs Stanwell raised an eyebrow, amused. “What do they say?”
“Oh, this and that. Much of the green eye, I think,” Madame said. “But there is one who knows the family Rydges, and she said to me something of interest.”
“In confidence?” Mrs Stanwell asked tentatively.
Madame shook her head. “Non, not at all. She says they experience difficulties with the money. The gambling, you see.”
“Of the son?” Lily asked with a knowing glance at Anthea.
Madame gave a very Gallic shrug. “All of them, I think.”
“That would explain some of the other guests,” Mrs Stanwell said.
It was Madame’s turn to raise her eyebrows.
“Two heiresses,” Mrs Stanwell continued. “Lady Davinia Rambold, and Miss Cecily Tait.”
“Ahh,” Madame said. “It is time for the son to marry.”
“Then why have they invited us?” Lily asked. “We have no fortune.”
Anthea picked up a pink silk flower she had chosen for a bonnet trim, and rolled the stem between her fingers contemplatively. “Lily is right. If I were a mama intent on marrying my son to an heiress, I would not invite us. The more heiresses to choose from, the better.”
“Yes,” Mrs Stanwell said. “Perhaps their circumstances are not so urgent, after all.”
Anthea recalled the few times she had met Lady Rydges. There had been a restless dissatisfaction and ambition about the woman that had simmered beneath the surface of her gracious manners. Anthea had come away from Town with the opinion that Lady Rydges, for all her delicate appearance, was as shrewd and unyielding as a fishmongers wife.
“Or perhaps Lady Rydges thinks that we are so far from eligible that we will round out the numbers and not get in the way of her two marriage choices for her son,” she said.
“Anthea!” Mrs Stanwell exclaimed.
Madame Celeste laughed. “Mademoiselle Anthea has clear eyes.”
“And an impertinent tongue,” Mrs Stanwell said, her tone a warning. “Lady Rydges is doing us a great kindness. Keep that in mind.”
“Of course, Mama.”
Anthea lowered her eyes to the silk flower in her hand. She had a feeling that neither she nor Lily would be able to forget the kindness of Lady Rydges, at any time, while they were at Lakeside.
Next Time: Confusions and Fond Farewells
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