A Lady of Resources
By Shelley Adina
Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
Munich, the Prussian Empire
“Of all the infernal instruments man ever made, the corset is the worst.” Lizzie de Maupassant struggled with the hooks on the front of the glossy brocade undergarment, which one had to wear in order to make everything that went on top of it hang properly. “Look at this, Maggie. It bends where it oughtn’t and pokes everywhere else.” She smashed the placket together, which only made the hooks she’d managed already pop apart. “Argh!”
Lizzie flung the wretched thing across the Lady’s room, where it landed on the windowsill like an exhausted accordion.
“Fits of temper won’t solve anything.” Her twin’s tone held no criticism, only reason. “Come on. Let me have a go.”
Maggie rescued the poor corset, bought new for the grand occasion of the graduation of Lady Claire Trevelyan, the girls’ guardian, from the University of Bavaria, and passed it about Lizzie’s chemise- and petticoat-clad form.
“I don’t miss the old lace-ups,” Lizzie said, feeling calmer as Maggie’s clever fingers made short work of the row of hooks, “but I’ll say this for them—they were more forgiving of a mort’s curves than these new ones. Even if it were made specially for me.”
“Don’t say mort.”
“Ent nobody here but us. We don’t have to be so careful about our diction and deportment—” She mimicked the squeaky tones of Mademoiselle Dupree, the mistress of their class by that name. “—when we’re on our own.”
“The Lady says that’s the test of a true lady—that she does the right thing even when nobody’s looking.”
“Aye, more’s the pity,” Lizzie sighed. “We might pass our exams, but we’ll never remember everything she probably knew by the time she was ten.”
The door opened and the Lady herself breezed in. “All who knew? Goodness, Lizzie, we’re to be in the ballroom in two hours and you’re not even dressed, to say nothing of your hair.”
Maggie patted the corset and released her. “Won’t be a tick, Lady.” The corset now lay obediently where it ought, hugging Lizzie’s waist into a satisfyingly narrow width, and flaring out over hips and bust, which possessed dimensions not quite so satisfying. The Lady said to give it time, that she herself had been eighteen before resigning herself to a sylph-like silhouette rather than the majestic curves fashion now favored. But if one didn’t have an idea of one’s silhouette by now, then the odds weren’t very good, were they?
“Darlings, now that you’re sixteen, you really must call me by my given name.”
The twins, having only the vaguest idea of their birth date, had chosen the first day of spring when they had to make it official, such details being necessary when they had arrived in Munich and begun their formal educations at the Lycee des Jeunes Filles. By this reckoning, they had turned sixteen three months ago, and upon their own graduation from the fifth form at the end of June, would be considered young ladies, permitted to call an unmarried woman by her first name.
Young ladies now … out in society two years from now. A whole other problem. Lizzie shoved it from her mind and gave the Lady a hug, marveling once again that she was nearly as tall as the young woman to whom she and Maggie owed their very lives.
“But you know why we call you that in private,” she said. “And it’s got nothing to do with age, innit?”
The Lady hugged her back. “Not one bit. I suppose that if you were to stop altogether, I’d quite go to pieces and fear you didn’t love me anymore.”
Maggie laughed at this impossibility. “If it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t be here. Wouldn’t have lived in the cottage and learned our letters and numbers.”
“Wouldn’t have gone to the Texican Territories or the Canadas,” Lizzie added. “Or come here.”
“Or been shot at, blown up, or starved nearly to death,” the Lady said ruefully. “I’m afraid my skills as a guardian have been tested rather sorely.”
“Nothing wrong with guarding our own selves,” Lizzie said stoutly. “And you, even, sometimes.”
Claire laughed at the reminder. “Too true. There has been many a time when I’ve been thankful we were all fighting on the same side. The affair of the Kaiser’s nephew, for instance.”
Maggie crinkled up her nose. “Frog-face, you mean.”
“Precisely. I don’t think his dignity has recovered from that fish-pond yet.”
“If he wouldn’t propose to ladies who can’t stand him, such things wouldn’t happen,” Lizzie said.
“Ever my practical girl.” Warm fingers touched her cheek, and Lizzie felt a surge of love mixed with exasperation—a familiar feeling, and one she had struggled with since the very inauspicious moment of their first meeting.
She adored the Lady, and had for most of the six years they had known each other, but tangled in with the love was the uncomfortable knowledge that she could never be like her guardian—so calm, so competent, so sure of what to say and do in any circumstance, from breaking a mad scientist out of Bedlam to curtseying to the Empress.
Oh, dear. The wretched bloody curtsey.
“Lady, do I really have to go?” came out of her mouth before she could stop it—something that seemed to happen with distressing regularity these days.
But instead of a crisp “Of course,” which was all such a babyish whinge deserved, the Lady took Lizzie’s gown from the wardrobe. It was her first real, grownup gown, the palest shade of moss-green silk, with glorious puffed sleeves and a neckline trimmed with lace as fine as a spiderweb that dipped just low enough to show her collarbones and no lower. Considering there wasn’t much below that to show off, it was just as well.
The cool silk slid over her head, and when she emerged and the Lady began to fasten the hooks behind, Lizzie thought perhaps she had decided not to dignify her whining with a reply.
But no. “Of course you do not need to go, if you don’t wish it,” Claire said quietly. “You are sixteen, and able to make up your own mind about such things. But I should like you and Maggie to be there. I should like to know that you are proud of me, and that when you write to Tigg and Jake and Willie, you will be able to give a good account.”
What a selfish wretch she was! Lizzie turned into the Lady’s arms as her cheeks heated with shame. “Of course I’ll come, Lady,” she said into her neck. “I wouldn’t miss it for anything. I’m just afraid I’ll do something stupid, is all, and embarrass you.”
“Nothing you could do is any worse than I could do—or have done—myself,” Claire said on a sigh. “Just ask Julia Wellesley—I beg her pardon, Lady Mount-Batting. Come. Let’s practice the curtsey one more time so it’s fresh in your mind, and then Lady Dunsmuir has lent us her maid to do our hair. We must give her time to produce perfection.”
Lord and Lady Dunsmuir had arrived the night before and were the honored guests of the Landgraf von Zeppelin, as the engineer of the Zeppelin airship and the director of the worldwide “empire of the air” was known throughout the Kingdom of Prussia. But to Maggie and Lizzie, he had become Uncle Ferdinand, the man who smelled of pipe tobacco and bay rum, who kept peppermints in the pockets of even his business suits, and who had changed all of their lives so astonishingly five years before.
MacMillan came in as quickly as if she’d been listening at the door, and proceeded to brush, braid, coil, and generally subdue Lizzie’s dark-honey mane so thoroughly that she hardly recognized herself in the cheval glass afterward. The French braid in a coronet about her head was awfully pretty, though. And beneath her wispy fringe, her green eyes sparkled with nerves and anticipation.
“The same for you, miss?” MacMillan asked Maggie.
They’d never dressed or done their hair alike—because before they’d met the Lady, they’d never had anything better than what they could filch from the ragpicker’s pile, where finding a matched set of anything was impossible. But MacMillan’s fingers were skilled, and Maggie’s gaze so admiring, that Lizzie said, “Do, Mags. You’ll look lovely, to be sure. We shall be as pretty as the princesses themselves.”
And she was. When MacMillan was done, Maggie turned back and forth before the glass, her nut-brown hair far more used to order than Lizzie’s was, her hazel eyes set off by the pale amber—“the color of a fine muscatel,” Uncle Ferdinand had said—of her gown. It was fortunate that the Prussians didn’t believe that young girls should wear white until they were engaged, like they did in England. Lizzie appreciated a bit of color, and while the Lady tended to go about in navy skirts and blouses with sleeves she could roll up, her eye for color and what lines suited a figure best was keen.
“And for you, milady?” MacMillan asked as Claire took her place at the dressing-table. “I’ve seen a new look many of the ladies are wearing since that Fragonard gentleman had his exhibition.”
“Oh?” Claire’s eyebrow rose. “Have you seen the exhibition yourself?”
“I have, milady. That one called Anticipation caused quite a stir, with that young lady lazing about with hardly a silk curtain to cover herself.”
Claire smothered a smile. “But her hair, MacMillan. I thought it particularly striking at the time, and wondered if you had seen it.”
“Seen it and marked it for her ladyship. But I wouldn’t mind trying it out on you, if you don’t mind.”
“Have at it,” Claire said, settling back in the chair. “I just hope it doesn’t fall down when I curtsey to the Empress. If she finds time to attend.”
“No coiffure of mine will fall down under any circumstances, milady, empress or no.” MacMillan took down Claire’s simple chignon and brushed out her thick auburn waves. “It will look as though you had tossed it up and wrapped it about with a bandeau, but under it will be as much engineering as young Miss Elizabeth’s corset.”
“MacMillan, you are a treasure.”
“Thank you, milady. Her ladyship thinks so.”
Motionless under MacMillan’s authority, Claire caught Lizzie’s eye in the glass. “Does it feel strange to think that our time here is coming to an end? It does to me.”
“But it isn’t at an end for you, Lady,” Maggie put in. It was clear she was trying not to move very much, for fear of mussing herself up. Lizzie was tempted to reach over and give her braid a tug, but discarded that idea almost immediately. The wrath of MacMillan over her damaged handiwork was not worth the risk. Maggie went on, “You’re to join Uncle Ferdinand’s firm. Or have you changed your mind again?”
Claire rolled her eyes at herself. “I change my mind as often as my shoes—and with less success. But we were not talking about me. You girls have some decisions to make once the term ends in two weeks.”
“It’s not fair that you graduate so soon and we have all our exams yet to go,” Lizzie moaned. “It should all be the same.”
“You may certainly take it up with the Regents on the State education board.”
Lizzie felt rather proud that her five years in the lycee had enabled her to control the urge to stick out her tongue at the Lady. But she came close, all the same.
“How are we supposed to decide something as serious as this?” Maggie asked from the upholstered chair, where she had gingerly seated herself, back straight, feet flat on the floor, hands folded in her lap.
“Too many choices,” Lizzie agreed. Heedless of wrinkles, she folded herself onto the end of the bed and leaned on one of the turned posts with the pineapple on top. She ticked them off on her fingers. “Finishing school in Geneva … two more years of sixth form here … or sign the exit papers, graduate, and go back to London.”
“We’re going back to London for the summer, anyway, same as always,” Maggie pointed out.
“Well, yes, but in September? What happens then?”
“I should think it would be quite straightforward, miss,” MacMillan said. “What do you want to make of yourself?”
“That is the question,” Lizzie sighed. “I suppose I want to be a fine lady, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get to be.”
Claire straightened, then winced as MacMillan inadvertently ran a hairpin into her scalp. “I do beg your pardon, milady.”
“It’s quite all right, MacMillan. I should not have moved so suddenly. Lizzie, what do you mean? Why should you not be a lady and move in the finest Wit circles in any country, as you do here?”
How could she explain this without either offending everyone in the room or sounding like a fool? “Lady, you know as well as I do that it’s different here. Here, everyone’s accepted, as long as you’ve got a brain. I suppose that’s why you’ve decided to stay, innit?”
Claire’s expression softened. “I must admit it’s rather refreshing, considering the way I grew up.”
“But that’s just it. You grew up a lady, with a posh family, no matter what you chose later.” Lizzie swung her legs over the foot of the bed and wrapped an arm around the post, as if anchoring herself in a stormy sea. “Can you really believe that a mort who started out an alley mouse—who still is, never mind all the elocution lessons and walking about wi’ books on me ’ead—” She let her accent deteriorate on purpose. “—is going to be accepted in the drawing rooms of London?”
“Every drawing room that accepts me will accept you, Lizzie.”
And that was the part that she found so hard to believe. The part that was so frustrating. “Lady, I think you’ll find that isn’t as true as you think it is.”
Now it was MacMillan’s turn to catch her eye in the mirror while she carefully threaded a pearl-studded bandeau through the coils and waves of the Lady’s hair. “I think you’ll find that with Lady Dunsmuir as your sponsor for your come-out, there will be no trouble with any drawing room in Mayfair, should you want to set foot in them.”
“What?” Claire straightened again and twisted around to look at MacMillan directly. “What did you say?”
“Milady, you must sit still while I secure this comb. You don’t want to come unraveled in front of the nobility.”
“I rather feel I have come unraveled now. What did you mean, MacMillan?”
Ooh, look at the Lady’s face. Lizzie couldn’t tell if she was astonished or angry. But she couldn’t be angry. Not at this. Lady Dunsmuir was forever springing surprises of a most delightful nature on them, but they usually came in the mail or in an unexpected visit, not by way of her lady’s maid.
“I’ll say no more now, but you’ll want to know that her ladyship is going to find a way to speak to you about it. At least this way you’ll be able to give it some thought.”
“Sponsoring a come-out.” Claire wilted back into the chair, right way round again. “This will require some thought—especially since it never entered my head.”
Lizzie thought back to the time the Lady had explained what coming out was. She’d been educated on the subject quite a lot since then, but her original ideas had not been so far off the mark. “She really does intend to put us in a window with fancy paper round our feet?”
Claire smiled. “At least you will have the correct posture, and your feet will be together in a ladylike manner. Lizzie, I do not know how you manage to slouch like that when I saw Maggie hook your corset myself.”
“It’s a gift.”
“I don’t know if I want a come-out,” Maggie said, her voice quiet in that way it had when she needed to speak but didn’t want to give offense. “It doesn’t seem real for the likes of me and Liz.”
“You and Liz are as worthy of society’s attention as any girls in London or Europe,” the Lady informed her crisply. It was not the first time she had said so, and not the first time Lizzie had not believed her. “In any case, it is still two years off. The more pressing decision is what you will choose to do with yourselves in the interval.”
This was why the Lady was so good in the laboratory. She refused to be distracted by nonessentials.
“What about finishing school?” Lizzie surprised even herself at the words that came out of her mouth. The Lady and Maggie looked dumbfounded as they both spoke at once.
“Aren’t you coming back to London with me?”
“Of course I am.” How could she make Maggie understand what she could hardly put in words herself? “For the summer, to see Lewis and everyone at Carrick House, and to go up to Scotland with the Dunsmuirs for shooting season. But in September … Mags, if her ladyship is to see us presented, oughtn’t we to do what we can to—to give her a good bargain? With finishing school, we’d be a little closer to being ladies, at least.”
“But—but I thought we’d go home,” Maggie said, her eyes huge, her voice a disconsolate whisper. “Or at the very least, stay here and do the sixth-form classes so we can stay with the Lady. You can’t go to finishing school, Liz. Why, we were laughing at the idea only the other night.”
So they had been. Claire seemed to be having difficulty marshaling her words together, so Lizzie took advantage of it. “But that was before we knew what Lady Dunsmuir was up to. This changes everything, Mags.”
“It does not.” The Lady had finally gotten her tongue under control. It was a lucky thing MacMillan had finished her work, because Claire leaped to her feet. “Lizzie, I am utterly astonished at you. Finishing school? You?”
She wasn’t slouching now. “What’s wrong with me going to finishing school? See, Lady, this is exactly what I mean. You don’t think I’m good enough to be finished, never mind presented, do you? Do you?”
Two spots of color appeared in the Lady’s cheeks, and too late, Lizzie wondered if perhaps she ought to have kept her real opinion to herself.
“I cannot believe you just said those words to me, Elizabeth,” the Lady whispered. “Not to me.” Her cheeks blotched even more, and to Lizzie’s horror, tears welled in her eyes and fell, dripping past her chin and into the lace that edged her decolletage.
“I—I—” She looked to Maggie for help, and found none. She had hurt the Lady horribly—the one person in the world to whom she owed everything, the one person who had never shown her anything but respect and consideration and love.
Oh, drat her uncontrollable mouth, that let words fly like birds out of a cage so that she could never call them back!
“Lady, I didn’t mean it,” she mumbled miserably, unable to look into those gray eyes any more. Outside the window, a pair of swans beat the air, on their way to the lake that was the main feature of the enormous park in front of the Landgraf’s palace.
Lizzie heard the door close quietly, and when she dragged her damp gaze back into the room, the Lady was gone.