“Ambrosia Jane Summers!”
I turned to my mother, who was characteristically unimaginative in her use of my Christian names, spoken at high volume and with a clipped tongue, such as mothers of a certain class throughout the ages have been wont to do.
“Yes, Mother?” I answered innocently, though I was well aware of the reason behind Mama’s exasperation.
She pointed a long finger at the newspaper lying on the round oak table that sat in the middle of the sitting room. Sadly, it was only the two of us, since Papa had work, and my only brother, Victor, was busy riding camels in Tunisia and drinking barrels of French wine like the wild young man of leisure he was. As were most of the grand residences in the town, ours is wallpapered to death with bold colours like the ever-present jade-green and ruby-reds stamped with gold detailing. I often wonder the point since nearly every square inch has been covered in large paintings with wooden frames painted a shiny gold, mounted quite haphazardly, and with no theme to speak of. In the Saunders house alone, the images go from pleasant pastoral scenes to gruesome hunting montages and include everything in between—portraits of Queen Victoria and the late Prince Albert. It’s so sad that he’s died. Though it’s been eight years, the Queen still mourns, and so must the rest of us.
“Ambrosia!” Mama pursed her lips and raised a pointed brow. “Is it true that Deborah Harvey is engaged?”
“Yes, Mama,” I said with a note of regret. “Just last Tuesday.”
“And you didn’t find it worth mentioning?”
The Harvey family is much esteemed, and those of us in certain circles chase our tails to keep up with them. The scandal flashing behind Mama’s eyes wasn’t that Debbie was engaged, but that she’s become engaged before I have, especially since Lord Gold has been paying me court for some time.
“It slipped my mind,” I said as I sipped my tea. Hardly, since it was all the sisterhood could talk about. The four of us—Debbie Harvey, Josie Foster, and Bess Garnet and I—shared a room at Miss Rodgers’ Finishing School in London and are my best friends in the whole wide world. There is nothing the four of us won’t do for each other, including keeping big secrets.
Debbie hadn’t wanted us to tell anyone about her engagement until it made the papers, precisely so she’d get a reaction from the elite, such as my mother. Of course, I had been dying to tell Mama, and the fact that I kept my lips sealed proves my devotion to the sisterhood.
Mama’s tone softened. Her fringe covered the lines on her forehead, and all the ringlets Lucy, her lady’s maid, had created with a hot iron, made her look younger than her forty years. “The Pettigrew family is well-established. Which brother is she engaged to? Thomas? No, Reginald. A bit of a rogue that one.”
Reginald Pettigrew has a reputation for “sowing wild oats”, but his parents believe marriage and responsibility will mellow him down. At least, that was what Debbie said.
“Eighteen is rather young,” Mama continued. “Honestly, I couldn’t picture you marrying right now.”
All of us in the sisterhood are the same age, and I was affronted. “Eighteen is a respectable marrying age.”
“I suppose it is,” Mama said with a sigh. She adjusted the high collar of her blouse. The mere suggestion she found her corset uncomfortable made mine suddenly itchy.
“Debbie wants a long engagement,” I added,
“Whatever for? What else is a girl of substance supposed to do besides marry into a good family? Waiting is rather a waste of time.”
I now felt as if Mama would soon view me as an old maid if I don’t marry within the year. And hadn’t she just said eighteen was young? I held in my contempt and refilled my teacup.
She eyed me with her striking blue gaze, a look that often had me quivering in my younger years. “What is keeping your suitor?”
“Is there more than one?”
I refrained from snorting out loud. “We’re taking our time.” As if I control the timing that a young man chooses for such things. I gathered my skirts as I pushed away from the table.
“You don’t mind if I take a carriage, do you? I promised Bess she could ride with me.” Bess and I are natives of the village Chesterton, while Debbie and Josie live in the neighbouring town of St Albans.
“So long as you tell me absolutely everything when you get back. I couldn’t bear to suffer the humiliation when I meet the ladies for luncheon tomorrow if I turned out to be the only one who didn’t know.”
I smiled at Mama. She was the queen of gossip. I could hardly imagine her being the last to know much, which is why Debbie’s well-kept surprise was such a coup.
Burton drove Bess and me to the Harvey residence, a less than comfortable ride as we jostled along on muddy lanes, which were sometimes deeply rutted, and it the town, the carriage slid on bumpy cobblestones. He hunched up against the rain in the carriage’s open seating, and I felt a twinge of pity. I tightened my fur stole around my shoulders, thinking about how Bess and I were dry and covered. Burton, however, was dressed in thick leather with a wide-brimmed hat hiding his bald head. Mama said he was sturdy like a horse. Horses didn’t chill during a spring rain.
After nearly an hour, I was relieved to finally arrive. Burton hurried to assist Bess and me out of the carriage and reached inside for my umbrella.
“I can manage it,” I said. Mama always makes the man carry her umbrella for her, but I think it presumptuous and rather awkward.
“Yes, miss.” Burton opened the black umbrella and handed it to me. “What time would you like me to collect you, miss?”
“Two hours ought to do it.”
Burton bowed, jumped into the carriage, and snapped the reins to encourage the horse to trot. I had no idea how long we’d be, but if I ran longer than two hours, Burton would simply have to wait.
The Harvey residence is the envy of St Albans, with a dozen prestigious chimneys shooting smoke into the sky. Mama is ceaseless with her nagging of Papa to have more built onto our house, which is humble in comparison. Papa hasn’t budged since the latest one in the kitchen was installed. “Too much dust and bother,” is what he says.
The butler ushered us into one of the Harveys’ drawing rooms, where we found Josie and Debbie seated in two matching green wingback chairs trimmed with gold. Debbie sprang to her feet and strutted back and forth, showing off a new dress with an excess of lustrous lavender cotton, embellished with deep-purple lace and an enviable bustle.
“It’s new,” Debbie announced rather unnecessarily. “I can’t wait to show it off to Reginald. He’s taking me to the theatre.” Though I knew she’d seen us enter, Debbie finally made a show of it. “Brosie! Bess! Finally! What took you so long?”
Bess was quick to pass the blame. “I was ready, but Brosie had trouble getting away.”
I made my excuses. “Mama insisted I have tea with her, and the rain slowed the carriage down. We’re here now. That’s what matters.”
Debbie’s slender fingers played with a stray blonde tendril that floated along her long neck. Like us, she wore her long hair pinned up at the back in elegant knots only obtained by an experienced lady’s maid. A small bush of blonde curls rested on a regal forehead.
“I was just telling Josie about a musical performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming to the Royal Albert Hall.”
I took a spot in an empty chair by the fire, and Bess took the opposite one. A maid was quick to bring us each a cup of tea and place a plate of biscuits on the small, round table between us. “Pray, do tell,” I said to encourage Debbie.
“Reginald wants to take me to the opera. Mama will give her permission for the weekend but insists on sending a stuffy chaperone.” Debbie’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “But I think I can convince her to allow you girls to come along instead! Won’t that be great fun!”
Once her grand announcement was made, Debbie collapsed onto the settee.
With her round face and mousy-brown hair, Bess, the plainest of our quartet, asked, “Won’t Mr. Pettigrew find it odd?”
Debbie flicked her palm in dismissal. “He won’t mind.”
“I rather think he’ll puff up like a peacock with so many females following him about the city,” Josie said. She smiled, but it didn’t hide the hint of jealousy that lingered beneath. Josie is a pretty girl but pretty can’t compete with beautiful. Or rich. And though Josie’s and my families are wealthy—poor Bess is only the daughter of a vicar, sent to finishing school by a well-to-do aunt—but we don’t hold that against her. Debbie’s family have made their money in the steel industry and had us all beat when it came to overall wealth.
Neither bother me. Too much beauty or money can be a curse, attracting leeches who use women rather than offer genuine friendship. I’m grateful to my sisterhood that I needn’t be the most attractive or the wealthiest to be included in their confidences.
“I think it will be fun,” I said. “We three can scamper about on our own while the lovebirds have time to get better acquainted.”
I admit, the latter part of my comment was a sly poke. Artie and I have been stepping out for over a year. Reginald Pettigrew and Debbie are newly attached.
“We mustn’t forget that we’ll require permission from our parents,” Josie said.
Bess pouted. “I can already tell you that mine will never permit me such an adventure. Not without a chaperone.”
“Let us bring a chaperone, then,” I said. “We mustn’t miss a chance to go to a performance of a Mendelssohn.”
Josie’s chin darted upwards. “We might see someone famous there. Maybe catch a glimpse of Queen Victoria!”
Bess’ demeanour cheered immensely. “Oh, Debbie. You’re so terribly lucky. I wish I were engaged to be married. It’s so grown up.”
“It’s childish to speak of us as if we weren’t already grown up,” Debbie said uncharitably, but then added, “but it’s lovely of you to cheer me on so.”