Rose Pembroke fancied that most of her young life had been leading up to her debut into society.
She didn’t strive for much, she believed – simply for a rich husband that could fund her career aspirations. It wasn’t uncommon for young ladies to be ambitious these days. The Geographical Society had begun to entertain accepting submissions from women, she would often reason, only to be shushed.
Ambitions were for the aristocrat girls in London or Oxford, not hare-brained debutantes restricted to the seaside.
Or so her elder sister told her.
‘You will have to welcome your cousin like a sister,’ Mary told her in the carriage ride home from the town courthouse, where the Pembrokes had been deemed the guardians of a recently orphaned relative. ‘She’s experienced hardship that you can only imagine.’
Rose wanted to tell her sister that she had lost her mother too, but the rustling of her father sorting through documents beside her kept her quiet.
‘She’s your age as well,’ Mary continued. ‘So that means the both of you will be debutantes together. Oh, the poor girl. Lost her parents, shipped to distant family, and immediately sent off to a ball in a white dress. I can only hope that some young men show interest in her.’
When Cousin Lydia arrived at the manor two weeks later, Rose realised that a lack of gentleman interest was not going to be a problem.
Rose flew down the stairs at the sound of horses outside. Despite the stern instructions she had received from Mary, she had begun to eagerly anticipate meeting the new addition to her home as the weeks passed. She imagined scenarios of dancing the night away with her cousin as good-looking, rich young men watched on in admiration – of late nights spent swapping secrets as the candle melted to a stub, and of dress shopping in the streets of London during the social season.
‘She’s here!’ she shouted, practically buzzing as the door to her father’s study opened. He peered out, bewildered, blinking behind his spectacles.
‘Does she arrive today?’ he asked.
‘Yes, Papa, she’s already here. Now, where’s Hank? We need to welcome her!’
Before she could yell again, her brother appeared at her shoulder with a grin.
‘After you, Papa,’ he said.
With Mr. Pembroke at the head of the procession, the family exited the manor and approached the stopped carriage. Their maid was already at the horse-led coupé, opening the door and fussing with the luggage. A delicate shoe appeared from within and set down on the gravel. The Pembrokes watched with bated breaths as a young woman emerged.
Her hair shone golden, rivalling that of the sunlight that beamed down onto her. Her skin was healthy, rosy, and reflected the light like a glass window. As she raised her head to meet the gobsmacked gazes of her new family, she smiled. Her lips parted to reveal a dazzling set of teeth and the apples of her cheeks rose to make her eyes squint endearingly.
‘Hello,’ she greeted with a voice that matched her appearance: angelic.
Only Mr. Pembroke was unaffected. ‘Yes, yes, hello. Wonderful to meet you, too. This here is my son, Hank, and my youngest daughter, Rosanna, and, erm, where’s Mary?’
Rose stepped forward, shaken from her daze by her father’s forgetfulness. ‘Mary is married and lives with her husband, Papa.’
She turned to Lydia and gave what she hoped was a welcoming smile, unnerved by the girl’s glittering eyes now settled on her.
‘Cousin Rosanna, I hear that we’re the same age. I’ve been very eager to meet you—to meet all of you. I cannot thank you enough for allowing me into your home.’
Deciding that greeting time had concluded, Mr. Pembroke turned on his heel and walked back into the house, leaving the maid and coupé driver to scramble after him with hands full of luggage. Hank broke his statue-like composure and rushed to take the bags from their maid, only to be scolded by her.
‘I apologise on behalf of my father,’ Rose said, the familiar spiel rolling off her tongue. ‘He’s really not as rude as he seems, just very scatter-brained, you see.’
Finally able to find words, she gestured for Lydia to walk with her towards the house. ‘My elder sister, Mary, will visit tonight with her husband for supper. Tomorrow, you will meet my governess, Aunt Sally – although I do suppose that now she is our governess. She will help us prepare for the social season, which begins next week.’
Rose paused, looking at Lydia with guilt. ‘If you feel unprepared to debut into society, however, I am certain that Papa would never force you to–’
Lydia grabbed Rose’s hands, stopping in the vestibule. She clutched them to her chest, gazing imploringly into Rose’s eyes. ‘My dear cousin. There is nothing that I would like more than to debut into society at your side.’
‘She is like Aphrodite herself. The definition of fine English breeding.’
The apothecary threw his head back and laughed, pushing his sleeves up further. ‘“Fine English breeding”, you say? Then what does that make me?’
‘Fine Scottish breeding, obviously,’ Rose replied.
‘If she is indeed as enchanting as you say, perhaps I should steal an invitation to the ball tomorrow night. I could even catch a glimpse of your silly dress.’
Rose groaned and dropped her head onto her folded arms resting on the counter. ‘There is nothing silly about wearing an evening gown, Samuel.’
The young man shrugged, amused, and folded a cloth over the herbs that he’d finished preparing. To his credit, he had listened quite intently to Rose’s ecstatic babbling about preparation for her first social season, and even voiced his support in her motives for marriage. He agreed that marrying rich would likely be the most successful path to her career ambitions.
‘I am afraid that Lydia’s debut will affect prospects for myself,’ Rose quietly admitted, drumming her fingers on the panelled wood. Samuel begged her pardon, and she sat up. ‘I said that I’m afraid our debut will affect prospects for the other girls.’
‘Oh, the other girls. Yes, I imagine the new young lady in town will garner the most interest. Yet, she can only have one husband.’
Samuel pushed the herbs, now tied in a clothed bundle, across to Rose. He waited until she looked up from them and met his gaze before continuing.
‘Don’t fret, Rose. Believe it or not, there are young men in this town who value intelligence over beauty.’
On the ride to the first ball of the season, Rose fidgeted with her gloves. Lydia had been nothing but charming and thankful, yet her overt enthusiasm left Rose dizzy. She had expected to comfort and bond with a grieving girl, only to become the one chasing her tail as Aunt Sally took them for dress fittings and dance lessons.
The girl in question was clueless to Rose’s unease, peering out of the window and cooing in awe as the abbey came into view. Even half-obscured by her hood, Lydia was a vision in blue. Aunt Sally had spent an hour pinning Rose’s hair into place, yet only a moment to comb through and braid Lydia’s fine locks. Rose would never admit to the prick of envy that she felt; she was hopeful that her cousin would find a good husband after experiencing such tragedy. She was simply shocked at how keen she was.
The carriage rolled to a stop and the footmen opened the door to help the ladies out. Rose and Lydia exited, followed by Mary, who was to chaperone the girls, and Hank, as a suitor himself.
Lydia flipped her hood back and gazed at the lit-up abbey in wonder, sending Rose a grin over her shoulder. She went to ascend the steps, only for the back of her cloak to be caught by Mary.
‘A moment, Lydia, if you will. I expect you both to be on your best behaviour in here. Don’t drink too much punch, don’t turn down any offers to dance, and please, for God’s sake, do not mention the Geographical Society!’
‘Don’t use God’s name in vain,’ Hank chimed in, scratching at his freshly shaven chin.
Rose scoffed at the last instruction specifically directed at her. ‘I am only being plain in my intentions.’
Mary ushered them up the steps and into the building, following the stream of people. The party removed their coats and approached the entrance of the leisure room. Mary nodded at the wigged announcer at the threshold, and he cleared his throat.
‘Mr Pembroke, Mrs Warwick, Miss Pembroke, and Miss Garvey.’
Immediately chatter hushed, and all heads turned towards them. Almost in unison, their eyes strayed to the golden-haired whirlpool beside Rose, finally putting a face to the name of Lydia Garvey.
Author: Kyrah Honner is a Wiri Luritja writer based in Meanjin. She likes to write disturbing fiction. You can find more of her previous works on ScratchThat.
Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.
Editors: Brock Scholte and Breeh Botsford