With the HeartbyEveHasFallen©
NOTE: This is the first part of a story/novel that I just started writing. It still needs polish, but I'd love comments and feedback. And, this part ends at an awkward section, but I'll update soon.
“The man who invented the corset should be shot,” Arabella Smythe muttered in frustration. At the present moment, she was holding tight to her bedpost while her lady’s maid, Margaret, trussed her tightly into a whalebone cage.
“That’s a bit drastic, isn’t it,” the maid asked, gritting her teeth as she pulled the laces tighter.
Arabella gasped in discomfort. “Indeed, he should be burned at the stake. Oh, enough!” Whether out of pity or exhaustion, Margaret relinquished her hold on Arabella and expertly tied the dangling strings into a bow. Arabella, one hand pressed to her stomach, grimaced and stepped away from the foot of the bed.
Margaret, having served as her maid for the last six years, since Belle was a child of twelve, automatically went to the wardrobe and drew out the ball gown that she was to wear that night. Inwardly, Margaret sighed with a sense of slight envy—of which she wasn’t even aware—as she gazed at the masterpiece of a gown. The bodice was square and low-cut with a row of seed-pearl flowers dancing around the edge. Made of a silvery fabric with a gauzy overskirt, dotted all over with the same hand-sewn flowers that adorned the bodice, the entire dress seemed like something a fairy princess would wear to meet her prince. Yet, Margaret admitted to herself, Arabella Smythe was hardly anyone’s idea of a fairy princess.
Though the two young women all but grew up together, with Margaret serving as maid and companion, the older girl was not oblivious to the reality that was Arabella. Of course, she was a wonderful, well-reared girl and she possessed the biggest heart of anyone that Margaret had ever met, but she suffered from a shyness and self-consciousness that she could not overcome.
As a child, Bella had been beautiful just like her two older sisters, in fact, when Margaret first saw her at twelve years old she’d been dressed so perfectly, her skin so flawless and her manner so impeccable that Margaret, though three years her elder, had been intimidated. But, she soon found that Bella, as Arabella insisted she call her, was one of the most interesting and entertaining people that she had ever met. Before that first week was out, ‘Maggie’ and Bella loved each other as well as sisters. Those days had been lovely for Maggie, for she’d never had a sister and barely remembered her mother who died of the sweat when Maggie was only three. But the Smythe family, while noble and quite wealthy, with familial connections to several dukes, treated her kindly from her first day of employment.
Thinking back, Maggie could clearly remember when she first discovered that the Bella she knew, was not the same girl that the ton was accustomed to. Maggie had hardly been employed at Edgewood, the countryseat of the Smythe family, for two months when Lady Smythe, Bella’s mother, decided to throw a garden party. The household was in an uproar for a week before the twenty guests were set to arrive and Maggie was so busy with other duties that she barely noticed Bella’s melancholy mood.
Absentmindedly, Maggie helped Bella dress and style her hair with the usual care, gently pushing her out of the bedroom door, saying, “Be sure to behave yourself, Miss, we don’t want any scandals before you’ve made your debut.” She meant it as a jest, but Bella didn’t smile back. Maggie was about to ask her if she was well, when she heard Mrs. Pipps, the housekeeper, calling her name from the direction of the servants quarters and she was soon so busy that she forgot all about Bella’s mood.
An hour or so later, Maggie was told to help serve refreshments on the east lawn, where the main party had gathered. As she’d been taught, she mingled her way unobtrusively through the revelers, supplying what they needed but remaining as invisible as possible. Thus, it was with surprise that she registered Lady Smythe calling to her from a few feet away. “Margaret, once you finish here, take some lemonade and teacakes out to the children, won’t you? The whole bunch has gone down with the governesses to see the pond.” What Lady Smythe called the ‘pond’ was really the size of a small lake, but Maggie bobbed an obedient curtsy, murmuring, “Yes, m’lady.”
With the help of another maid named Truth, Maggie made her way to the pond, careful not to tip the pitcher of lemonade or overturn the glasses on her silver tray. Summer air blew fragrant against her rosy cheeks, and she inhaled the sweet scents of the foliage with contentment. Some might wish to be part of the nobility, but I’d settle for never-ending summertime, she thought. The tree-lined path to the pond curved to the right, so as Maggie and Truth approached, they weren’t able to see the shore, but could clearly hear squeals of laughter. Maggie smiled to herself at the sound. The ton was so strict and controlled in its every tradition and social action, and surely, if the children’s parents were anywhere near they would all be much more subdued.
“Nice ta know tha the little’uns ken still act like little’uns,” Truth remarked in her Scottish bur, as she and Maggie rounded the corner and came into full view of the pond’s shore. Maggie kept silent, but whole-heartedly agreed. Automatically, her eyes began to search the shore for Bella’s figure. She half-expected the little imp to be up to her knees in the pond water in search of tadpoles or at the top of one of the nearby apple trees.
But she couldn’t find her.
The children, upon seeing the two maids, one bearing a tray of lemonade, the other one of teacakes, raced over and—contrary to their previously boisterous behavior—quickly formed a single-file line to receive their treat. Maggie and Truth exchanged an amused glance that clearly said: Good breeding has its merits.
It took almost five minutes for all of the children to be served, and Maggie realized that Bella hadn’t shown herself yet. Worried, it dawned on Maggie that if Bella had wandered off somewhere, she’d not have the slightest idea about where to begin to look for her. Casting her eyes about in indecision, she set her gaze upon a boy of Bella’s age. If she recalled correctly, his name was Phillip Cavendish, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his title. Setting her tray down on a stone bench, she approached the boy with a friendly smile. “Good afternoon…” she started, desperately trying to remember if he was a ‘Lord,’ a ‘Sir,’ or a ‘Mister.’ Frustrated, she gave up and finished with, “Good afternoon, Lord Cavendish,” at least if she’d guessed wrong it wouldn’t be an insult to his rank. The boy smiled at her, and the expression seemed to light up his whole face, Maggie knew for a certainty that he would be a very handsome man in the years to come. Tipping his head to her, he said, not rudely, “Lord Cavendish is my father, the Earl, I am Lord Rutherford, Baron of Rutherford Keep.”
“Indeed, forgive me for the mistake, Sir,” Maggie replied, liking the boy instantly for his kindness in light of her blunder. “But, I wonder if you might know the whereabouts of Lady Arabella. Has she gone back to the house, do you know?”
Lord Rutherford’s smile slackened until it was nearly gone and his eyes slid uneasily away from Maggie’s. “She…she went off around to the other side of the pond about three quarters of an hour ago.”
Maggie’s brow wrinkled in surprise. “She went alone? But, why?”
Lord Rutherford sighed. “Some of the other boys called her names. They…called her ‘Fatty,’ and a Plain Jane. I don’t think the governesses saw, but she ran away crying before anyone could stop her. No one wanted to be punished for teasing, so everyone held their tongues.”
Fury flared inside Maggie’s chest that anyone would dare treat Bella that way, especially when they were all guests on her parents’ estate. Suppressing the urge to grab the offenders by the ears and force an apology, she spoke quickly to the young lord. “If the children and governesses go back to the house before I return with Lady Arabella, inform Lady Smythe that I have gone in search of her, if you please, my lord.” She didn’t wait for a reply or bob the customary curtsy as she headed off toward the opposite side of the pond. Once she was blocked from view by a copse of trees, she broke into a run, not knowing if she was heading in the right direction, but needing to find Bella. After half an hour of clambering through open wood and vegetation, she heard a gentle plop-a-plop-a-plop coming from where the woods gave way to the shore of the pond.
Coming into the opening, Maggie immediately saw Bella sitting, knees drawn up to her chest, on a huge rock settled securely a few feet out into the pond. She’d gathered a well-sized pile of pebbles and was robotically tossing them one-by-one into the wind-rippled water lapping at the base of the rock.
Perhaps Maggie stepped on a twig or some other noise heralded her presence because Bella whipped around as she approached, only to relax when she saw who it was.
“I do not want to go back there,” she stated rigidly, before Maggie said a word.
“And I don’t blame you.” Maggie stood at the edge of the water trying to determine a way to get onto the rock without wetting her petticoats and maid’s uniform. Eyeing the hem of Bella’s formerly pristine dress, she noted the three-inch ring of wetness and gave up hope.
“And I don’t like boys,” Bella went on as if Maggie had never spoken. “Oh, how glad I am that I do not have brothers. They are dirty and smelly and rude and…and horrible.” She rested her chin on her knees, tossing yet another pebble into the blue-gray depths of the pond.
“Yes,” Maggie began slowly, unsure of how to go about this, “some of them can be, but not all are quite so horrible. Think of your father, Lord Smythe, for example. He was once a boy just like the ones visiting today, but he is a wonderful man, is he not?”
Bella was quiet for a moment. “Yes, but Papa would have never been so rude to me like Thomas, Lucas, and the others were today. They called me horrible things and I’d done nothing to them, Maggie!” Arabella turned to face Maggie, her nose and eyes reddened from tears.
Maggie’s heart ached for her. “Dearest, life is sometimes quite cruel, but those times help make us stronger. And, as for the boys who teased you today, in a few short years they will regret their words when you blossom into a more beautiful young lady.”
Instead of lightening Bella’s dark mood, Maggie’s words seemed to make it worse, for she began to cry in earnest. “But, that w-will never h-happen because I am f-fat and plain a-and timid!”
Maggie regarded Bella, at a loss for what to say. It was true that Bella was plumper than most girls her age, but Maggie had never thought her fat. Indeed, she’d simply imagined that it was Bella’s babe-hood plumpness and would diminish, as she grew older. To Maggie, Bella was an extremely lovely girl and had grown lovelier each day that she knew her. But for the first time, Maggie realized that she might not appear the same to those who didn’t know her. Bella was slightly taller than average, and her red-brown hair curled in wild waves rather than fall in a graceful cascade. Rose-colored freckles, from many days in the garden without a hat, kissed her skin and her green-brown eyes were framed in a round face that most of the world would view as overly plump. Despite the fact that Maggie now realized that Bella did not possess the outward beauty that the ton so valued, she ached for Bella’s realization of it; for she knew that it was something that the sensitive girl would take to her heart, something she might allow to hold her back from the rest of the world, when what she really needed was to take a bold step forward.
“Bella,” Maggie said firmly, “you must never, ever think badly of yourself. You are a beautiful person in every way that matters and that is all that you need think of. This ton, this noble society of yours may be quite shallow and vain,” Maggie said, not even thinking of the fact that her words insulted the very foundation of Bella’s way of life, “but you are better than that. You must always thank God for who and what you are, and never let anyone—anyone—make you believe otherwise.”
With a dejected sigh, Bella rose from her perch on the rock and hopped lightly from it to the shore. Maggie smiled at her and reached to take her hand. “Come, let’s go back to the house, your mother is probably wondering where you are and we can’t keep everyone waiting for you before they go in for tea.”
Maggie began the walk back to the house, and if she hadn’t been walking so near Bella, she might have missed it when the girl whispered to herself, “It is too bad I can’t become a lady’s maid and have you face them for the rest of your life.”
Maggie didn’t respond, but she was heartily glad that she couldn’t trade places with Bella, for she wanted no part of the ton.
“Maggie? Maggie?” The voice jolted Maggie back to the present. Turning toward Bella, she blinked a few times to clear her thoughts, still holding the ball gown she’d just retrieved from the wardrobe.
Arabella laughed at her bemused expression. “Now’s not the time for woolgathering, my dear, Mother will have my hide if I’m even a minute late to leave for tonight’s soiree.”
Shaking off the remnants of the past, Maggie bustled across the room to help Bella finish dressing. “Forgive me, I seem to have lost myself in thought.” She slid the silk over Bella’s head, allowing her to push her arms through the puffed sleeves, before beginning to button up the back. She worked in silence for a moment, before asking, “Do you know why Lady Smythe is so adamant about this ball? It seems a bit odd that she would care so much about one night out, when your family never has a lack for invitations.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I never presume to understand Mother’s reasoning, for she works in ways far beyond my ken.” She bit her lip in thought, and then gasped. “Perhaps, Lord Geoffrey has finally offered for Beth. That would explain why Mother behaved so oddly these past few days. Oh, can you imagine it, Maggie, our Beth a married woman!”
Maggie met Bella’s excited gaze in the cheval glass mirror that they were standing before and smiled, saying, “And then it shall be you, Miss.” Laughing quietly, Bella ran a hand across her chubby hips and stomach. “I think not, Maggie, for as the saying goes, ‘A plump pillow, and not a plump thigh, is the best welcome to the marriage bed.’” Bella laughed again, but this time there was a hint of sadness.
“That’s nonsense and you know it, Bella,” the maid chided. “You are beautiful in every way that matters and—“
“Any man worth his coin will see that,” Bella finished for her. Maggie had repeated the same phrase so many times since Bella’s society debut two years previous that it sometimes came out without Maggie even needing to think about it.
“Well, it’s true,” she argued, “and all that’s left is for you to realize it.”
“Alright, I surrender!” Bella laughed, “There is no need to beat it into me. I believe in myself. I am beautiful…etcetera and so forth,” she said with good-humored sarcasm.
“There, you see? If you were as witty,” Maggie said the word slowly, pretending that she doubted it was the correct usage, “with the ladies gentlemen of society, no one would think you the timid creature that you allow them to see. Wouldn’t you like to have a circle of ladies to chat with, or a real gentleman caller more often than you do?” She felt Bella’s shoulder tense a bit. “Dearest, I don’t mean to make you feel badly, but it frustrates me that the world doesn’t know the sweet, funny Bella that I do. If you would only open yourself up a little, you would be amazed at the change your life can take.”
Arabella stepped away from the mirror to sit at her dressing table, waiting for Maggie to arrange her hair. After a few seconds of hesitation, Maggie took up a brush and began to pile Bella’s hair into an intricately woven Grecian knot.
The silence between them stretched on for what seemed like hours. Maggie knew that her words angered Bella, but she would not apologize for what she knew was the truth.
“I am quite happy, you know.” Bella said at last. “ I have Phil and Ralph, Beth and Cathy, so I don’t believe I shall waste away from lack of contact with the human race.”
“You know that isn’t what I meant, at all.” Maggie protested.
Bella sighed. “Yes, I know, I’m sorry. I just…I can’t seem to speak to people like Beth and the other ladies are able. A gentleman might say, ‘My, you’re looking quite fetching this evening, Lady Arabella,’—lies of course—and all that I am able to respond with is, ‘Thank you, my lord, you are too kind.’ But, Cathy and Beth, oh, the brilliant things that they think to say. Once, I heard Lord Winterdale say to Cathy, ‘Good evening, my lady. I must confess that your eyes sparkle brighter than the clearest diamond tonight and rival every candle in this room.’ To which she replied, ‘Fie, my lord, I turn pink-cheeked to admit that holding a clear-cut diamond would make my eyes shine ten times brighter. Have you any on your person to gift me, that I might demonstrate?’ He laughed so loudly, kissed her hand and asked her to dance even though Sir Lionel was next on her dance card.” Bella sighed, and then went on. “I don’t possess the ability to flirt or carry on witty conversation. I become nervous and knock-kneed, always afraid I’ll make a faux pas or utter something inane.”
Finally finished with her hair, Maggie placed both hands on Bella’s shoulders. “You cannot go through life afraid of what others will think of you. How do you suppose Lady Elisabeth and Lady Catherine are able to do the things they do without faltering? It’s because they have faith and confidence in themselves, and they know that even if they make a faux pas it will not be the end of the world. The same is true for you, Bella, you simply need to realize that.”
Bella bowed her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me or why it’s so difficult for me. Perhaps if I weren’t so fat or if I were pretty—“
“Stop that right now,” Maggie said angrily. “It’s that kind of thinking that makes you this way. You are just as good as anyone else, if not better.” She stopped as both women heard a bell ringing in the entrance hall downstairs, signaling that the family coach would depart in a few minutes. Maggie spoke quickly then, “You are eighteen years old, lovely, brilliant and loving, and you deserve to be happy. Promise me that you will make it your goal tonight to converse—truly converse—with at least one gentleman and allow him the privilege to get to know the real you. And,” Maggie continued, when she saw Bella open her mouth to reply, “the gentleman cannot be one with which you are already well acquainted.”
Bella snapped her mouth shut in defeat, for she’d been about to promise, but meant to use Phil or her cousin Ralph as her ‘gentleman.’ “Fine, you gaoler, I promise to speak to one,” she emphasized the word, “gentleman and try to allow him to see the real me. What I don’t promise is that this will turn into the fairy tale you hope it will.”
“That’s all I ask,” Maggie said, hugging her shoulders before she handed her the dress’s matching wrap.
On the carriage ride to the Pinkford’s ball, Bella sat quietly next to her sister, Beth, as she conversed with their mother. She wished that she hadn’t agreed to Maggie’s silly little promise, in fact, she wished that she was still at home with a nice novel and a cup of tea. But, Mother had insisted that she come tonight, though she had yet to tell Bella why. That reminded her of her guess that tonight was to be Beth’s engagement announcement to Lord Geoffrey. It was true that Geoffrey’s family and the Pinkford’s were somehow related—though through whom, Bella couldn’t quite recall—so it would serve that since Lord Geoffrey’s father, a widower, preferred to stay in the country, that the Town betrothal announcement would take place at the home of a relative.