In a high attic, with a narrow paned window so dirty the sun was embarrassed to show its face through the glass, Celia Belvedere curled up on a bedevilled and bedamned old couch and paged through her book. At one particularly egregious passage she threw her half-eaten apple at the dusty stuffed raven residing on a dresser on the other side of the attic. She jumped when it toppled into the backboard and an age spotted mirror spun around to reveal an Other Girl gazing at her from the shadows. Celia stared at her reflection in some confusion. She was accustomed to thinking of herself as what her step-mother referred to as an ‘odd duck,’ with a long nose, thick brass spectacles prosaically perched on her nose, and ears that had always struck her young self as elephantine. Although, she supposed, the unfashionable way she had styled her hair, with her straight brown locks combed severely back from her face with none of the ringlets that a set of curling irons might bestow on those the Fairy of Beauty had snubbed, probably did not help matters. Nor did the dust smuts on her face. Alas, but there it was.
From the stairs below, she heard thumping, and the persistent calls of her step‑mother demanding her attendance. Celia cringed and curled up under an old horse blanket, hoping for anonymity for a few moments more.
It was not to be. Her step‑mother, Her Grace the Duchess of Kendal, emerged into the half-light in a terrible scold.
“Oh, ashes and cinders, girl. There you are, hiding again, when you promised me you would accompany me to the dressmaker at two o’clock. Mlle Meunier is so prestigious she never holds back appointments, no matter the quality of her clientele, and it will be another week before we can even get you in to be measured.”
“Oh, but Mama—” Celia protested. “Just look at it, won’t you? My great grandfather had an entire collection of Strabo’s Geographica stored in the attic. I didn’t even know the old duffer could read. I was so caught up in the stories I quite lost track of the time—look, here’s one about a courtesan called Rhodopis whose sandal was stolen by an eagle…”
“I don’t care, you dreadful girl. I asked you to do one thing for me today, and one thing only. If we don’t get you into a proper gown for your coming of age ball you might as well attend in rags and patches, and then what will all the eligible young men think? And their mothers, the interfering old besoms, who will say that I am shirking you a decent dress allowance out of spite and jealousy. However I am to get you married off, I do not know.”
Celia rolled her eyes. “I suspect, dear Alice, that my position as a Duke’s heiress without entail will be sufficient inducement for some ambitious fellow. As the gamesters might say, the odds of a proposal or three are likely to be in my favour.”
“Oh, you ungrateful child. After all that your father has done for you, sending you off to those foreign seminaries, encouraging you to bury yourself in books instead of learning how to, well, to ‘get on’ with people. And all those strange places you’ve been, and you did not bring back any proper pictures; just rocks and dirty coins and bits of carved stone—”
Celia threw her arms around her step‑mother. “Oh, Alice, the only kind thing my father has done for me since my own little mother died is to marry you. He sent me off on the Grand Tour early to get me out of the way while you were a young bride and he didn’t want to deal with the awkwardness. He’s quite selfish, really, easily as selfish as I am, and it takes a Belvedere to know one, it really does.” She nestled her head under Alice’s chin and continued:
“Please don’t frown and show your irked face to me, you know it wrinkles your forehead and you will be forever smoothing unguents on your alabaster brow in consequence, when you could be spending your evening reading Shakespeare to me instead. Oh, please, please. I shall go to the ball, I shall. I will smile and dance, even with the most odious fortune hunters, but only for you, my dearest. And you will promise me, dearest Alice, that any change in my living circumstances will be co‑incident with lengthy visits from my darling Mama. Only for you will I go through something so odious as a dress fitting.”
There were some wags who had jested that when the Earl of Uxbridge chose his second wife, a woman in straitened circumstances with a young child in tow, he was merely acting to minimise his housekeeping wages. The Earl, it was widely known, was accustomed to squeezing a penny until it shone brighter than a new pin, and the young Mrs Darlington had lacked the fortune that a typical lady of quality might bring as dowry in her putatively joyful match to a member of the aristocracy. Alas, whatever economies the Earl might have expected from the acquisition to his household of a woman of uncommon good sense and practicality; they were shortly disencumbered by the tragic passing of the lady only a year later of some putrid fever. There remained in his household, thereby, the young son of a gentleman, one Edward Darlington, who was considered a desperate drain on the Earl’s finances—as Uxbridge’s late father had been a gamester of some repute, and his estates were sadly encumbered, the addition of a third mouth to both feed and educate was considered a cack-handed arrangement by the Earl’s rather callow and drunken friends.
“Not that that has ever particularly concerned him,” Edward thought wryly, as he trotted along the streets carrying the heavy basket of the cook’s marketing. He paused outside a shop with olive green columns and discrete plate glass displaying its luxurious wares. “I really shouldn’t,” he thought to himself. He shouldn’t, but he ducked inside the hushed confines anyway.
In the velvet and wood panelled confines of the bookshop, the owners had set out a table displaying their finest new wares. Edward traced careful fingers over an edition he hadn’t seen before, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, with a finely tooled leather cover. He opened the book to the frontispiece and smiled at the picture of an angel comforting a little girl and a sleeping deer. He paged through and stopped at another picture; a girl in rags and ash smuts surrounded by a flock of doves.
“It’s very gruesome,” a pleasant voice said from above his head. He looked up startled, into wide bespectacled eyes; the pebbly lenses of the glasses making the girl’s face seem almost clownish. “Everybody ends up with their feet cut off, or ogres eating their children, or cannibal mothers.” She sighed happily.
Edward closed the book guiltily. “I haven’t read any of these German stories yet. I’ve read reviews in one of the periodicals, though.”
“You’ll like it.”
He cocked his head at this strangely forward girl. She was dressed in the sober browns of the middle classes, her hair sensibly dressed; but the cloth of her coat was good sound wool, and the muslin of the dress beneath was sprigged. All of it had the subtle finesse of cut that one looked for from the best dressmakers. She ducked her head, suddenly. “I mean, that is, I always assume that people will like what I like. It’s a dreadful habit. What were you here to buy? We can talk about your books, too, if you like.”
“The newspaper, actually,” he said, gesturing at the basket he carried. “Very pedestrian. But I like to look at the books when I come by. Ah…” he added delicately, “you don’t have your maid or a friend with you?”
The girl rolled her eyes. “And what dreadful fate would become me in Hatchard’s of all places. This is the nineteenth century, for God’s sake.” She looked both chagrined and proud of her swear. “Also, Alice says that books make her sneeze, and it’s too nice a day to be shut up with them.”
“Edward! Edward!” A callow voice emerged from the stygian darkness of the back of the shop. “There you are. We’re late for my fencing practice; the maestro sent a note asking my attendance this morning instead. Dratted boy, you’re never where you’re wanted. I’ve had to hunt in every shop on this street for you.”
“Ah, consider me the poor relation,” Edward said. “I have to go.”