‘Then I asked her for a third dance, and she accepted! Of course, I had asked Miss Finch for the next one, but it turns out she was extremely agreeable as well.’
Rose didn’t bother to look up from her toast. Hank had been prattling on for the better part of half an hour, livelier than she had ever seen him. His apparent success at the ball was all that he spoke about, presenting his family a play-by-play of each young lady he had met.
Aunt Sally hummed in amusement, taking a sip of her tea. ‘And you, girls? How was your first ball?’
Both Rose and Lydia had been silent for breakfast, pushing their potatoes around their plates. Rose woke up adamant that she would be tight-lipped about the embarrassment of last evening, though she hadn’t a clue as to why Lydia was so withdrawn.
A silence lingered for a moment after Aunt Sally’s question, prompting Rose to clear her throat. ‘It was fine.’
The governess’ eyebrow raised at that, but she pried no further. Instead, she directed her interest to Lydia, peering at her over the brim of her teacup. ‘Lydia? I’m certain you would have danced to quite a few songs, surely.’
‘Yes, ma’am, some gentlemen were generous enough to offer a dance.’
Quite the understatement—Rose almost scoffed aloud. Lydia hadn’t sat for the entire evening, swarmed by young men as soon as each song had ended. She had accepted each dance, smiling serenely as others watched on, dazzled by the jewel of the night. In comparison, Rose had only left her seat to refill her punch cup.
‘You don’t seem very happy about that, Lydia,’ Aunt Sally said.
Lydia fiddled with the tablecloth for a moment. ‘To be honest, ma’am, none of the gentlemen particularly interested me.’
‘None?’ Rose burst out, unable to help herself. Three heads turned to her: her father was far too busy with dining to be able to concentrate on the conversation. Rose, deflated, backtracked from the indignation in her tone. ‘What I mean is, I’m surprised that none of them were to your liking. I would have been flattered to dance with a lawyer or an officer.’
Hank then launched into a tirade about Miss Finch and Miss Montgomery’s fathers’ occupations, stealing Aunt Sally’s attention again. Lydia still looked at Rose, her lingering gaze thoughtful. It made Rose’s cheek itch.
The clatter of cutlery on a plate gave a reason for her to turn away from her cousin to the head of the table, where her father wiped his mouth with the tablecloth and finally looked up.
Rose pushed her chair back and stood. ‘Papa, I’m going into town to fetch your herbs.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ Lydia announced.
‘Oh, I—well, I suppose…’ Rather than stutter out nonsensical excuses, Rose gave a wan smile and conceded.
The sign outside the apothecary swayed in the salt-scented wind, creaking on the metal hooks. Rose readjusted her bonnet, glancing nervously at the girl beside her. During the walk through the seaside village, townsfolk both familiar and unfamiliar had stopped to gawk at the blonde nymph wandering past.
‘You don’t need to come inside with me,’ Rose said. ‘It’s a rather boring chore, really.’
‘Not at all,’ Lydia replied, flashing her too-perfect teeth.
Rose internally sighed and opened the door to the apothecary. The bell above the door rang loudly, triggering the appearance of her closest friend. Samuel’s smile was much more benign to see, imperfect and kind.
‘Ah, Rose!’ he greeted. ‘Will you be here for–’
She signed outwardly this time, knowing all too well what had cut his sentence short. The shadow of her cousin blanketed her from behind. She mustered a greeting between the two, waving a hand. Samuel gave a polite smile, still visibly non-plussed. It reminded her of her own reaction to meeting Lydia, and that fact comforted her.
‘I’m here for my father’s herbal remedy. The arthritis one.’
Samuel nodded, bustling about behind the counter to gather the herbs. He lifted his head to give her a pointed look, and she turned to Lydia.
‘You can look around. This may take a little while.’
‘So,’ Samuel began quietly as Rose reached the counter. ‘That’s the legendary Cousin Lydia.’
‘That’s her,’ Rose said, sighing again. Lydia wandered the shop, browsing the jars of minerals and plants suspended to dry. ‘Do you now understand what I’ve been saying?’
He shrugged, as he was wont to do, and tied a string around the herbs in his hand. ‘I daresay she is… shocking to see. A favourite of the suitors at the ball, I presume?’
It was an unsubtle nudge to recount the ball, an urge that Rose had resisted at breakfast but leapt to respond to now. ‘A favourite, indeed! If only you were there to see, Samuel—it was as if there no other ladies expect Lydia. Would you like to know how many men asked me to dance?’
She didn’t let him answer before whispering, ‘Not one! I sat lonesome the whole night, it was humiliating. I can only hope that my prospects improve at the next ball.’
Samuel laughed, then apologised at her umbrage. He opened his mouth to continue but ducked his head and busied himself with wrapping the herbs. Rose glanced to the side to see Lydia approach, face unreadable.
‘Do you serve herbs for reasons other than medicinal?’ she asked.
Samuel blinked. ‘Erm, no.’
She nodded, then turned and left the shop, to the bewilderment of the other two. Rose scrambled to pay and grab the bundled cloth before following her cousin, shouting a goodbye as she went. Lydia stood waiting, unfolding her arms as Rose exited the shop.
‘What’s in that remedy?’ she asked. Rose realised that the expression she wore was one of curiosity, albeit not quite as innocent as a cat’s.
‘It’s Papa’s arthritic medicine. I’m not sure what—ginger, willow bark.’
Lydia hummed and slid her hand in the crook of Rose’s arm, pulling her along. ‘I’ve thought about what you said, Cousin—about the ball. You are right, I should be more flattered that I’ve caught the attention of suitors.’
Words escaped Rose; she felt guilty for her outburst in the morning. Whatever her feelings were about the disregard of the gentlemen there, her cousin was still newly orphaned and uprooted. In fact, a lack of excitement over the ball was perhaps the most rational behaviour that Lydia had displayed thus far.
‘I promise to make more of an effort,’ Lydia continued. ‘I will take this social season as seriously as you do, my dear cousin.’
Rose frowned, nearly stumbling. ‘That’s not necessary, Lydia. You don’t have to appease me–’
‘Nonsense. I promise you, Cousin.’
Sure enough, as the girls arrived back home, two maids stood waiting in the vestibule with armfuls of bouquets. They were all addressed to Lydia. She plucked a bouquet from the closest maid, lifting the tag to read. Rose waited anxiously before Lydia met her eyes and grinned.
‘It’s from a gentleman named Mr Keats.’
Mr Keats was a Cambridge graduate and apprentice barrister, Rose learned at the following ball. Lydia hadn’t remembered anything about the fellow, only that he was most likely introduced to her by Hank. Despite her failing memory, Lydia was fixed on her unwarranted promise and endeavoured to speak to him. Hank, who was proving to be quite the social butterfly, had pointed him out and swiftly disappeared into the crowd.
Lydia’s random selection only further cemented Rose’s envy. Mr Keats was handsome, from a fortunate family, and planned to relocate to London once his apprenticeship finished. Rose wanted to cry. It was hardly fair a perfect pathway to the Geographical Society was standing right in front of her, with eyes only for her cousin.
‘Of course, with my father being a judge, it was only natural for me study law,’ he drawled, swirling the drink in his cup.
For all his handsomeness and success, Rose’s only comfort was that he wasn’t very interesting in conversation. The yawn that she hid behind her hand was attributed to boredom, for she still hadn’t danced. She supposed that standing by Lydia’s inane conversation was better than wallowing in self-pity in the corner of the room.
Lydia, on the other hand, was a master at feigning fascination. She nodded along and asked questions at the right time. At least, Rose assumed that Lydia was pretending, since she didn’t know any of her cousin’s interests. She had refrained from asking about her past lest she dredge up painful memories.
‘I’d still consider myself humble, however. My best friend is a simple soldier—there he is now in the red uniform. Watson! Watson, come here!’ Mr Keats called out.
The contrast between Mr Keats and Mr Watson was near comical. Mr Watson was an unremarkable oaf, tall and wide, and gave an incoherent grunt as his friend introduced him. Mr Keats slapped him on the back and encouraged him to ask ‘the agreeable young lady here to dance.’
Rose wanted the floorboards to collapse and swallow her up, but she accepted the offer. She reasoned that it would make for an interesting recap to Samuel later in the week.
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