Petticoats and Promises — Finalist, Lesbian Historical Fiction.
“Serena, darling!” My mother called as I walked past the open door of the parlour.
Mama smiled up at me, her lap a mess of fashion plates sent down from London. “I’m thinking this one for morning wear,” she said, pointing to an elegant, understated dress of plain muslin. “But do you think in pale green or in yellow?”
My coming out ball was a few scant weeks away, on the first day of March and my debut in London timed for shortly afterward. Clothes—accessories—ball preparation: these things were filling the minds of my mother and me.
Indeed, I believe my mother was almost as overexcited about the occasion as I was, and although my father pretended that he was just humouring the women in his life, I think he too felt a deep interest in his heart.
“Oh no,” Mama corrected herself, not waiting for my answer. “Not yellow. If we could dress you in a bright buttercup yellow, perhaps, but with your beautiful dark hair”—she reached up and touched me lightly on the head—“pale yellow will look too dull, don’t you think? Now Clara, I imagine, would look beautiful in pale primrose.”
Clara was not, as you might think, my sister, but my closest friend. Our fathers had been fast friends since the days of their Grand Tour. As they lived less than five miles apart, in the two largest houses in Winterton, Clara and I were thrown regularly into each other’s company. For the first eighteen years of our lives we played together: dressing dolls, fighting dragons, and sharing secrets. There was no one in the world, not even my own mother, who knew me as well as Clara did; certainly there was no one I loved better. I had no siblings—Clara, only one, a younger brother—but I felt no sense of something missing. Clara took the place of playmate, confidante, and sister, all in one.”
“Mauve?” I suggested uncertainly. There were so many confusing rules about what a debutante might and might not wear, I found it hard to keep track. Certainly pastel shades were expected, but whether there were limits even within those, I was not sure. A pale purple sounded innocent enough, but who knew?
My mother looked me up and down, thoughtfully. “Mauve,” she repeated. Then she smiled. “Yes, why not? Mauve it is. And now, what about hats and gloves?”
I sat down beside her, and we talked ball arrangements for the next hour, until we were called for lunch. But Mama was not the only person with whom I talked about the upcoming debut. Between Clara and me, it was also an oft-discussed subject.
Our fathers had agreed that we might share the occasion, which suited Clara and me. Doing anything, let alone participating in something so world-changing as this ball—The Event of our young lives—without my friend was unthinkable. Clara and I sat in her room one afternoon, talking, and our conversation turned to our futures.
“Of course,” Clara said wisely, “one’s debut is equivalent to announcing one’s availability in the marriage market.”
My own thoughts had been resting more on the idea of dancing and late nights. I gave Clara an anxious look.
“Do you think so?”
“Certainly.” She nodded her head. “My mother has been giving me reams of practical advice as to how to ensnare a man.” She mimicked Lady Maria’s refined tones. “‘Remember, my dear’” (Clara’s mother always referred to her as “my dear,” with limited truth), “‘gentlemen do not like a lady to be too forward. Pray rein in your usual vigour; your manner should be more sedate. And make sure never to venture an opinion of your own.’”
I giggled. The idea of Clara lasting ten minutes without giving her opinion on each and every thing that caught her fancy was ridiculously improbable. Clara grinned at me.
“Now, now, Serena,” she said with mock seriousness, “there is no need to take that attitude. Catching a husband is a solemn business, you know.”
I fiddled with a strand of my hair, wrapping it round my finger.
“My mama only told me to be sure not to drink too much champagne,” I confessed. “You don’t…you don’t really think that we are expected to marry in our first season, do you?”
“Why not? We don’t want to run the risk of being left on the shelf,” Clara retorted.
“I don’t think I’d mind.” I tugged at my hair nervously, and Clara slapped at my hand.
“You’re too old to still be doing that, Serry.” Then her tone changed. “Can’t you imagine, though, how much nicer it would be to have a house of one’s own? Not to have to listen to ‘Clara, my dear, do this’; ‘Clara, behave with a little more decorum’ all day long?”
I said nothing for a second, trying to put my thought into words.
“But wouldn’t you be swapping one duty for another?” I ventured. The words of the wedding ceremony flitted through my mind. “To love, honour, and obey…”
She shook her head. “Oh no, I’d only marry someone who would give me my own way in everything.” She flashed a smile at me. “Someone like you.”
“I don’t want to marry.” The words forced themselves out of me, unbidden.
Clara looked at me. I don’t know what she saw in my face but her own expression softened. “Why not?”
“I wouldn’t want to marry someone I didn’t love,” I said, “and…and…”
“And what, Serry?”
“I can’t imagine loving anyone as much as I love you,” I finished simply.
For a second Clara was silent. “You mean that?”
Her hand slipped into mine, her blue eyes gentle. For a long time we looked at each other, then Clara unexpectedly leaned toward me, an expression on her face I had never seen there before. “Serry,” she said quietly, “I—”
There was a soft tap on the door. Clara jerked back, her sentence unfinished.
“Interrupting secrets?” teased my mother as she pushed the door open. However, she left no room for a reply, instead smiling across at me. “Come, Serena,” she said. “It is time we were leaving for home—if, that is, I can drag your father away from his godson!”
We laughed. Clara’s younger brother, Horace Battersley, was my father’s namesake and godchild. Father maintained that by spending time with Horace-the-younger, he was merely doing his duty as a godfather—a fiction that I fear the rest of us didn’t even pretend to believe was true. As we all knew, it was my father who had dragged his godson out to fly a kite that afternoon, not the other way around! Similarly, I could not conceal my unwillingness to leave Clara. I desperately wanted to know what she had been about to say, but since our childhood Mama had been used to tearing us apart despite cries of woe, and she saw nothing strange in my behaviour.
“Come now,” Mama said, gently but firmly, and with a last wistful look at Clara, I stood.
* * *
I had too long to wonder what Clara might have said if Mama had not interrupted us. I saw the tableau in my mind: Clara, her blond hair escaping (as it so often did) from its restraints and fluttering down around the sides of her face. She had been leaning forward, her hand in mine, and those words on her lips. “Serry…I—” What had she been about to say? And, indeed, what had I wanted her to say? To tell the truth, I hardly knew; yet there was something—something. Oh, how I wished Mama had not chosen that particular moment to come in!
* * *
Two weeks later, a stroke of good fortune for my father meant that Clara and I would again have a chance to be alone. As Father looked up from his post at breakfast, he announced with pleasure that he had received excellent news.
“About what?” my mother asked.
“The East India Company.” Father was beaming. “Profits have trebled since last year. I knew it! I knew that the future lay in trade between countries. Did I not say so?”
Mama smiled lovingly at him across the dishes. “You did indeed. I’m so glad, my dear.”
“Now that that rascal Napoleon has been laid by his heels, the company will go from strength to strength,” prophesied my father. “It was only that wretched war which brought so many problems. Well! I think this calls for a celebration, don’t you agree?”
“Certainly,” my mother agreed. “You mean to invite the Battersleys for dinner, I take it?”
“For dinner?” Father waved an indignant hand. “They must stay for the night, Elizabeth! You will arrange all that is necessary, I know.”
“Of course I will,” Mama said. “Perhaps,” she added teasingly, “that is wiser than obliging them to drive home so late—or perhaps I should say, so early—after you and Mr. Battersley have been celebrating with a glass of champagne, and then a few more. I know how these evenings end up!”
“Now, Elizabeth!” my father protested. “Think of the impression you must be giving of me to your daughter!” But he was laughing, and we both joined in.
“All the same,” said Mama to me after Father had left the table, “I don’t imagine that Lady Maria will find the same satisfaction in the news as your father has. In her opinion, trade—whether successful or not—is beneath the notice of any true gentleman. Oh well. We must trust that she will say nothing to distress Father. And,” she added, smiling at me, “I don’t doubt you are filled with delight at the idea that Clara will stay. Perhaps it is just as well that Horace is back at school, though; it will be trouble enough with three guests. What Mrs. Brown will say, I do not know.” By virtue of having held the role for more years than anyone cared to remember, our housekeeper was not backward about coming forward with her opinion on everything that happened in the household. It seemed all too likely that she would not appreciate being told she needed to make up three beds by the following evening. “Well, I shall not find out by sitting and waiting,” Mama said as she stood, bustling away even before she had finished speaking.
I found that my heart was beating in a most peculiar way at the idea that I was to see Clara again. It seemed to speed, and then halt, until I felt almost sick. With the gentlemen celebrating in style, and Mama entertaining Lady Maria, it was certain that Clara and I would get some time alone. Would she tell me what it was that she had been about to say? Or would she have thought better of whatever impulsive utterance it might have been? At one moment I felt I could not wait until I saw her; at the next, I feared what she might say.
Two evenings later, I found the arrival of Clara and her parents strange, however—simply because everything appeared just as it ever did. The carriage pulled up a prompt five minutes before it was due—Lady Maria was a strong believer in punctuality, which in her mind equated to always being early—and the Battersleys descended. Mr. Battersley, as usual, was smiling jovially, already looking around for my father. Clara tumbled out of the barouche in slapdash fashion, more haste than elegance, and was rebuked by her mother for her lack of care. Finally, Lady Maria stepped down, her evening dress as neat and fashionable, but her expression one of barely concealed distaste. It was hard on the woman; Clara’s father and mine had their shared youth and schooldays to bind them, and Clara and I were warm, devoted friends. Lady Maria and my mother, however, coped with each other’s company in smiling mutual antipathy. Save having daughters of roughly similar ages, I dare swear they had not a single thing in common. My mother was interested in the neighbourhood, in all the minutiae of daily life in Winterton. She spent time with the villagers, knew all of them by name and a good deal about their situations, and took a genuine interest in their lives. She was always ready to help if asked, but never pushed her assistance on anyone who did not wish it. It was a delight to walk into the village with her and see people’s faces light up simply because they saw her. Clara’s mother, on the other hand, would (I often thought) have preferred it if no one breathed the same air as she, let alone lived close by. The idea of taking an interest in other people was frankly bewildering to her, and especially any interest in those of a lower social class than her own. She had her husband, her children and her dogs (the dogs probably the most loved of the three): who needed more? An evening in our company was more tribulation than joy to Lady Maria, as Mama and I knew all too well from previous experience. The Battersleys had visited many times in the past, and Mama had once commented that the only time she ever saw Lady Maria smile was when she left. This occasion, therefore, was no different to any other—on the surface. The difference lay only inside me, in the way I found myself staring at Clara as if we were meeting for the first time, in the curious sense of shyness which overcame me. But Clara soon swept away any reticence on my behalf as she bounced toward me, her eyes gleaming with pleasure.
“Hello, Serry! We’ve arrived!”
Behind her, I heard Lady Maria cluck disapprovingly at her exuberance, but as Clara took both my hands and swung me round in a circle, I found it hard to care. Then she was off, chattering about this and that which had happened since we’d last been able to talk, telling me how much she’d missed me.
“It has only been a couple of weeks,” I protested.
“Has it?” Clara’s voice changed; she sounded almost wistful. “It seems longer.”
“Yes,” I said quietly, “it does.” I glanced up to where my father was in enthusiastic dialogue with Mr. Battersley, while my mother was politely conversing with Lady Maria about the flowers currently blooming in her respective garden. Our garden would soon be ablaze with daffodils, currently just budding, but ready to produce bright yellow trumpets to sway in the March breeze. I rather suspected that Clara’s mother found their vibrant colour vulgar; she much preferred the elegant snowdrops that presently graced her own land.
“Later,” Clara whispered, her gaze following mine.
After which, of course, the evening seemed to crawl past. We all sat around politely in the drawing room, split up into three distinct pairings but close enough that there could be no private conversation. Over dinner, chatter bounced among everyone at the table. Clara and I joined in the discussions with as much vigour as any of the adults. I was used to this; my parents had always encouraged me to speak when I chose, but I knew things were very different in Clara’s house. Lady Maria firmly believed that children should be seen but not heard, but if indeed they must be heard, the best etiquette required one only to talk to the person on one’s direct left or right side. General conversation was distinctly ill-mannered in her opinion. The subject of Napoleon’s defeat and exile to Elba took centre stage, and was loudly acclaimed—not only on nationalistic grounds but because it had, after all, led to my father’s trade success.
It was only later, when we were excused to retire to our rooms, that Clara and I got our first moments of privacy. I took Clara to her bedchamber (there was no real need, since she always had that room when she stayed), and as I hesitated between leaving and staying, Clara caught my hand.
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