Three Sisters

Part I

I

"What do you suppose we should call her?"

"Her proper title is Lady Worthington. Until she invites greater intimacy, perhaps we should err to one side of formality."

"Perhaps? Do you mean to say you spent all last evening closeted with Mama and never asked her how we should address the woman upon whom our futures entirely depend?"

"If the matter was so important to you, I wonder you did not visit Mama yourself. As it was, she had a headache yesterday evening and could barely speak. I was reading Father's latest letter to her, that is all."

Diana tossed her head, restless as an unbroken horse. "I do not understand you, Sophie. This may be the most important day in our lives. I was awake half the night arranging the details of my dress—"

"I know," her sister sighed, "Our rooms adjoin and the walls were not near thick enough."

"My dress," Diana repeated, not to be talked over, "About which I am still not satisfied. Yet you behave as though you have not the slightest care, wearing, if you please, the same muslin morning gown you wore at home the day before yesterday."

"What would you have me do?" Sophia adjusted the sleeves of her gown, pleased with how the simple frock set off the rich darkness of her hair. "Have a new dress made up simply to visit our aunt?"

"Our aunt by marriage only. It is prudent to cultivate the best possible impression, especially since Mama is not here to prove the family connection."

Sophia turned away to hide her smile. This new call to prudence was a new development in her sister's character. She believed she could date its virulent growth from the day their ship had docked at Portsmouth. Yet she could not fault Diana's instinct for London society; gleaned from novels and newspapers though it was. Had she not watched in quiet amazement as her sister had caught the frothy, inconsequential London tone, greeting their new neighbors and newfound relatives with equal aplomb?

Aplomb Sophia had, along with the straightforward civility their mother insisted upon, but bubbles and froth escaped her still.

"Perhaps you are right," she said, studying the way Diana adjusted her ribbons and frills.

Diana smiled. "Do not worry, sister. You look lovely, and our aunt could never guess the dress is not new. Your secret is safe with me."

"Thank you," she said, "you are the very soul of discretion."

For a moment, there was nothing but the tinkling jingle of harness and brisk hoof beats on cobblestones filling the silence between them. Then, clear as a church's Sunday bell, the two sisters laughed a merry peal.

"I hope I do not shame you overmuch, my dear. Remember, I depend on you to keep me making a fool of myself in front of the quality."

"You are never a fool," Diana, missing the jest, clasped her elder sister's hand between both her own. Tears shone in her earnest gray eyes. "No one I know—including Father—has ever had sense like yours. I would never doubt it; I pray you do not."

"Well, now I never shall," it was imperative to hide her smile again, but she returned the pressure of her sister's grasp. "And now, dry your eyes. If I am not mistaken, that was the turn into Harley Street."

Diana gasped, tearing away to press her nose to the carriage window. Harley Street indeed stretched before them, an expanse of clean cobbles and well-dressed men and women taking the air by foot, barouche, or phaeton. The September air was not yet too cool for such displays, and so Diana had more to remark on, in appearance and dress of the crowded street, than her eyes could possibly take in.

Their own stodgy, closed carriage rolled to a stop shortly after; the footman helped them alight in front of a well-appointed house, which tall windows were framed by wide-open curtains. A woman sat on a chaise before one of them, eyes darting from one figure to another as they crossed her view.

Diana's hands danced like birds, too preoccupied in fluffing and arranging the lace flattened during the journey to notice the woman's gaze fixing squarely upon them as they arrived, but Sophia met those prying eyes with a tilt of her pointed chin.

"Come now," she hissed, tucking her sister's arm beneath her own, "you look well enough."

Sophia's hand had scarce touched the bell when the door was opened by a liveried and powdered butler.

"Good morning. May I help you?"

"Miss Herrera and Miss Diana Herrera to see her Ladyship," Sophia was pleased her heart only fluttered an instant in her throat as she spoke.

She read unease in the furrow of the butler's brow, but he merely bowed as they passed him in the foyer.

"If you would be so kind as to wait, I will announce you to my mistress."

No sooner was he gone than Diana turned to the nearest mirror, whetting one finger and attempting to set a troublesome curl to rights. Her plump mouth pouted at its reflection.

Sophia met her eyes in the glass; this time it was the elder sister comforting the younger. "You needn't fret, dearest. No one who knows you could fail to love you."

The butler's reappearance forestalled any reply. He led them into a beautifully-furnished room, where her Ladyship did not stir from the chaise.

The two girls curtsied as the door shut behind them.

"Well. When I received my sister-in-law's letter, I assumed she would be with you when we met first. I take it you are Sophia," she gestured with a lacy handkerchief, "and youare Diana?"

"Yes. I must beg your pardon, Lady Worthington," Sophia said, "but the journey was difficult for my mother and she is not yet well enough to go into company. She sends her best wishes however, and hopes you received her letters."

"Yes, yes, but who can find time to write letters nowadays? I suppose it does not matter; we shall meet again one of these days, doubtless. What are you still standing for? Sit down, sit down. No need to stand gawking. Tea?"

"No, thank you. Your ladyship is very kind."

Lady Worthington rang. Sophia did not object.

"Well, and how do you find London? A far cry from...where was it my sister eloped to?"

"Madrid, your ladyship. London is quite different, but very beautiful. So many things to see."

Lady Worthington sniffed. "The season is not yet begun. If my husband had not insisted on arriving early, I should be at Bath still. The trials of a politician's wife, you know. But I suppose that even a thin London must have far more to do than...oh, remind me again?"

After a moment's thought, she was able to supply, "Madrid," Sophia pressed her sister's hand, "Indeed."

"Spain is very beautiful," Diana spoke up stoutly in defense of what she loved, flushed pink as the gown she wore, "London may have more shops, but Madrid has its own culture and quality. I am sure if your ladyship were acquainted with it, she would find much to appreciate."

"To be sure," she nodded, gaze drifting towards the window again, "but to be sure, Spanish culture, my dear...I cannot understand why your mother took so long to bring you back to England. Surely she felt how wrong she was to deprive you of your true heritage."

It was necessary to keep speaking, if only to keep Diana from doing so.

"She is very pleased to be back, and especially to see her family again. And we have been so happy to meet everyone."

"To be sure, to be sure. Well, I am very pleased to have two such lovely ladies to add to my circuit this year," one laconic eye swept them from head to toe, "Yes, yes. You will be the talk of the town. A good scandal never quite dies, does it?"

The question was not for them, so neither sister bothered to answer. A brief interlude of tea tray, cake, and late-summer fruit followed, during which Diana drank a full cup and poured another before the bright splotches of anger faded from her cheeks.

Sophia sipped her tea at strategic intervals, as when her imagination failed to supply her with a single topic on which they might all comfortably converse. New books and plays were swiftly run through, as her ladyship remembered little of the ones she had seen and cared even less for the ones she had not; family history was too fraught with danger to mention; in the end, she found herself encouraging a lame discourse on fashion, carried mostly between Diana's passion and her ladyship's high-handed proclamations.

Sophia was just wondering at how behindhand their footman was in returning for them when the clock chimed. Surely they had not been speaking for a mere quarter of an hour!

"...yours for instance, my dear Diana, is exactly what I myself would have made up were I a younger woman," for the first time, a smile showed on her ladyship's face, "ah, me. What a pity youth fades so quickly! Your sister now, she dresses very sensibly for a girl her age."

At only four and twenty, she found this compliment a bit difficult to accept, but even her pride was not too great a sacrifice to burn on the altar of family peace. The pale expression of choked indignation on Diana's face would have to be comfort enough.

It was also the last sacrifice they had to make between them. The bell's ring was swiftly followed by the butler announcing the arrival of their carriage. From there, nothing more than a series of insincere effusions and half-feigned wishes to meet again stood between them and the safety of privacy.

Diana let off a sigh like a steaming kettle. "I have never in my life met such a..." words failed her, "Our mother always spoke so highly of her brother. How could he marry such a...a woman?"

Sophia laughed, drawing down the shades so she could rest against the cushions without fear of judgment. Lady Worthington had provided more than enough of that for one day, perhaps even by London standards.

"Surely you have had enough suitors to know how men may find a pretty face and a prettier fortune enough to rob them of their common sense?"

"I should never have asked my suitors to forsake their sense," she retorted, not to be calmed by her sister's forced indifference. "The way she spoke to us; to you! I hope we never meet again."

"I cannot but agree," though she did so with a sigh, "but as you said, Lady Worthington is perhaps the key to our lives here in London. And if we mean to do what our father wishes..." she shook her head and did not finish.

Diana laid her head against Sophia's shoulder, careless of the hot-pressed curls she had woken an hour early to perfect. They rocked together in dark, close silence.

"I wish we did not have to marry."