Prudence Newton wore her very best dress to take tea at the Dower House. It was one Lady Louisa had given her and, without doubt, had once belonged to one of that Lady’s granddaughters. Prudence had discovered long ago that it was no good refusing the Bloxley girls’ cast offs, as otherwise her own mother would never rouse herself enough to arrange for anything near as fine for Prudence to wear. Ever practical, Prudence had also learned early on that it was no good cutting off one’s nose in order to spite one’s face. However, spite did still enter into the matter, as both Valeria and Daphne never lost the opportunity to comment upon the fact that an ensemble worn by Prudence had once been worn by themselves. Although, to be fair, Valeria, the eldest sister, was by far more spiteful than Daphne, who occasionally surprised Prudence with a kind word.
The dress that Prudence wore today was a lovely shade of rose and made Prudence feel quite fashionable, despite the fact that she had disliked it upon first inspection, for it had had a flouncy lace collar and trim down the front of it and had looked for all the world like something an old woman might wear. Prudence had no doubt that the Bloxley sisters had been glad to see the back of it. Her mother had carefully removed the lace trimming and collar, saving it for something else, perhaps her own Sunday gown. However, altering the dress any further was far beyond her mother’s skill or energy. Prudence had then taken the gown to Mrs. Wilson, a widow who lived in the almshouses and who had, in her younger days, been apprenticed to quite a fine dressmaker in Dover. Mrs. Wilson welcomed Prudence’s commissions, as the work kept her occupied and helped her to feel as if she was yet of some use to someone. In return, Prudence supplied Mrs. Wilson with eggs and other odds and ends so that both women were happy with the arrangement. As usual, Prudence had also brought along some of the magazines that Lady Louisa kept her supplied with for educational purposes. These contained fashion plates and descriptions of the latest mode of trim and embellishments and allowed Prudence and Mrs. Wilson to come to an education decision as to how the dress should be altered. Some deeper rose cording was added to cover the removed stitches, and once re-trimmed, Prudence thought the dress much prettier. With its wide sleeves and tiny ivory buttons, it looked very good on her, indeed.
As always when she visited Lady Louisa and Miss Anne Humphrey, Prudence was expected to be upon her very best social behaviour. After all, these ladies had made it their missions for the past few years to school her in manner, speech and deportment, amongst other things. Conversation was paramount with Lady Louisa, who typically broached subjects that would have been contained in the magazines she had give Prudence the week prior. Today, after the tea had been poured, Lady Louisa asked, “Tell me, Prudence, did you read the biographical sketch on Queen Adelaide in La Belle Assemblee?” Prudence smiled. She had read the entire piece on the German princess who married King William IV years ago. And had almost fallen asleep. “I did, Lady Louisa. I found it quite interesting.” Lady Louisa raised a brow. “Really? I wonder what you found most interesting about it?”
“Well, actually I wondered how it was that she learned to speak English?” Prudence asked.
Lady Louisa grimaced. “Do try not to begin a sentence with the word well, my dear. As to Adelaide, what I always wonder is why those silly little German fiefdoms are more suitable than our own counties as breeding grounds for the wives of English princes? They are several generations removed from living in Hanover…”
As Lady Louisa went on in this vein, Prudence glanced about the drawing room, which to her young mind was the height of elegance. To sit here among the portraits, china statues and jewel-tone carpets, the mellow tables laden with little statues and bowls of roses…this indeed was a life Prudence wished she could aspire to…
“… but they must marry some preposterous title from a miserable little principality,” Lady Louisa went on. “There ar
e hundreds of alleged princesses. What could it possibly mean to be a German princess? Certainly nothing as significant as it is to be an English lady.”
Prudence was trying to think of a suitable response to this when the butler opened the door and announced Miss Bloxley and Miss Valeria Bloxley.
This sisters both kissed their grandmothers’ cheek and greeted Anne before bestowing the merest of nods in Prudence’s direction. Tea was offered and poured and then Lady Louisa said, “I’m surprised that you called today. You know very well it’s Prudence’s day for lessons.”
“Are we not welcome, Grandmama? Do you wish us to leave in order that you may devote your full attention to Miss Newton?” Valerie asked.
Lady Louisa was well aware of her granddaughters’ dislike for the rector’s daughter. No doubt it was based on some bit of adolescent jealousy or some other female nonsense, but it did not sit well with Lady Louisa, who said, “Nonsense.”
“We have been cooped up all morning sitting for our portrait,” Daphne explained, “so I suggested that we take the air and walk over to see you.”
“And how are your sittings with Monsieur Tournell progressing?” Lady Louisa asked.
“They are quite dull, Grandmama,” Daphne said.
“Yes,” Valeria agreed with a sniff. “Monsieur Tournell may be a fine painter, according to Papa, but his conversational skills are greatly lacking.”
“Other than greeting us when we first come into the studio, Monsieur Tournell says nary a word to either of us during the entire session.” Daphne added.
Prudence covered a bubble of laughter with a cough. Oh, but it was laughable to hear Monsieur Tournell spoken of so. She and Tournell always found interesting topics to discuss whenever they met and Prudence found him to be very entertaining and most willing to speak to her on any subject she broached to him. In addition, he was a very kind man. After learning that she wanted very much to learn to speak French, Monsieur Tournell had written out a few words for her to learn and to then use conversationally. He had written them out both in their French spelling and also in English, as they were spoken. Monsieur Tournell had explained to Prudence that she would learn the words phonetically. Another new word for Prudence’s ever evolving vocabulary.
“Have you had any more sittings with Monsieur Tournell, Prudence?” Anne asked.
Valeria’s eyes widened, “You? You are having your portrait done by Tournell?”
Prudence smiled, “Not a portrait, no. As you are aware, my family could never afford that. But Monsieur Tournell was kind enough to agree to do a few sketches of me so that I may give one to Mama for her birthday.”
“Well, at least he’s charitable, if not talkative,” Daphne allowed. Like so many of Daphne’s comments, this one left Prudence to speculate as to whether it was meant to be kind. Or not. Valeria, on the other hand, left no doubt as to her intentions.
“That’s a lovely dress you are wearing, Miss Newton,” she said now.
“Why thank you. It needed but a few alterations to bring it into fashion.”
“Oh, it is more than that,” Daphne said. “It never looked so well on Valeria.” Valeria, as one may expect, turned a death glare upon her sister, who seemed to take no notice. “You have a much fuller figure, Miss Newton, and it does justice to the gown.”
“Thank you,” Prudence said simply as she stood. “I will make my farewells, Lady Louisa, Miss Bloxley, Miss Valeria. And Miss Humphrey. I must…”
“Deliver your eggs?” Valeria asked sweetly.
Prudence kept her smile as gracious as possible. “No, I have something else to attend to today.”
“Pray, do not let us detain you.”
Prudence said her goodbyes to Lady Louisa and Anne, thanking them for having her to tea, and she bade goodbye to Daphne before heading to the door.
“Good day, Miss Newton!” Valerie called out, acknowledging the cut.
Over her shoulder, Prudence called back, “Au revoir, mademoiselle!”