The Three Sisters

Volume 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 herself. As it was, she had a headache yesterday evening and could barely speak. I was reading Papi's latest letter to her, that is all. It was all she was able to bear, and it seemed to soothe her."

Diana tossed her head, stung by Sophia's hint. "I was too preoccupied last night to do Mama any good; I am certain you made my apologies. But I do not understand you, Sophie. This may be the most important day in our lives, and you did not ask Mama a thing about it? 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 printed 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. Her sister's politic prudence had grown like a weed since their arrival in Portsmouth. As Diana was always conscious of how she was seen and thought of by others, she had developed a keen instinct for London society. Sophia was often quietly amazed by how her sister had caught the frothy, inconsequential London tone, navigating new neighbors and acquaintance with equal aplomb.

It was doubly astonishing when one considered that neither sister had ever before been to their mother's country. They gleaned what understanding they had formed of England from newspapers and novels.

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

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

Diana, catching her sister's keen eye, smiled. "Do not worry. You look lovely, and our aunt could never guess your dress is not new. Your secret is safe with me."

"Thank you. You are the very soul of discretion."

For a moment, there was silence between them, broken only by the tinkling jingle of carriage harness and brisk hooves clattering on cobblestones. 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," Sophia patted Diana's hand, "Remember, I depend on you to keep me from making a fool of myself in front of the quality."

Diana shook her head, "As if you could ever be a fool. No one I know—including Father—has ever had sense like yours. I would never doubt it; I pray you do not."

At this kind speech, Sophia smiled into Diana's earnest gray eyes.

"Well, now I never shall." She would have preferred to dispense with the comparison to their father, but she was touched nonetheless. "Now, compose yourself. If I am not mistaken, that was the turn into Harley Street."

Diana gasped, tearing away to press her nose to the carriage glass. 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 November 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 heavy, closed carriage rolled to a stop shortly after; the footman helped them alight in front of a well-appointed home, 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.

Sophia saw a faint expression of surprise and disdain on that haughty face as their eyes met; when they passed on, Sophia felt herself dismissed, unworthy of notice.

Perhaps she ought to have worn a new dress. She banished the thought with a jerk of her pointed chin.

Fortunately, Diana had been too busy to notice the woman's gaze fixing squarely upon them, too preoccupied in fluffing and arranging her layers of lace, flattened during the journey.

"Come along now," Sophia could not bear to see her fuss, "You look well enough."

Arm-in-arm, they approached the front door. Sophia's hand had scarce touched the bell when that great portal opened to reveal a liveried and powdered butler.

He regarded them with the same lofty air as his mistress. "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 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 to wait, Miss..." he paused.

"Herrera."

"Miss Herrera. I will announce you to my mistress."

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

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."

Diana smiled, but the butler's reappearance forestalled any reply. He led them into a drawing room, lined in panels of chartreuse brocade and filled with furniture of the newest style, upholstered in matching fabric. Her ladyship did not stir from her chaise.

The two girls curtsied as the door closed behind them.

"Well, 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 you are Diana?"

"Yes. I must beg your pardon, Lady Worthington," Sophia said, "but the journey was difficult for my mother and she has not yet recovered enough to go into company. She sends her best wishes, 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?"

It was early, but Sophia nodded. "Your ladyship is very kind."

"Well, and how do you find London?" Lady Worthington kept one eye on the street as she spoke. "A far cry from...where was it my sister eloped to?"

"Cádiz, your ladyship."

Diana put in, "London is quite different, but very beautiful. There are so many things to see."

Lady Worthington sniffed. "The season is not yet begun. If my husband did not always insist upon arriving early, I should be in Surrey still. The trials of a politician's wife, you know. He has his acquaintance in town, while I am forced to make do with nothing," it was unclear whether she considered the sisters to be something, "But I suppose that even a thin London must have far more to interest than...oh, remind me?"

After a moment's thought, Sophia was able to supply, "Cádiz," the sisters exchanged a glance, "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 and the newest theater, but Cádiz 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," Lady Worthington shook her head, "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. Her color was alarmingly high.

"Our mother is very pleased to be back, the more so since she may see her family again. And we have been so happy to meet everyone."

"Indeed. 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, I am sure. A good scandal never quite dies, does it?"

The question was not for them, so neither bothered to answer. A brief interlude of tea tray and cake 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, alluded to by Diana, 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, a subject of much interest, was too fraught with danger to approach.

In the end, the sisters encouraged a lame discourse on fashion, carried mostly between Diana's passion for designing her own gowns and her ladyship's high-handed proclamations as an arbiter of London style.

Sophia was just wondering 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! She had never known minutes to drag so, like stubborn mules in harness.

"...yours for instance, Miss Diana, is precisely what I myself would have made up were I a younger woman." For the first time, a smile showed on her ladyship's face as she regarded how well Diana's gown suited her, "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. Diana's swift defense would have to be comfort enough.

"Sophia looks lovely no matter what she wears," she said, "I defy any woman to show better taste."

Sophia was very glad to be relieved of the need to absolve herself of the compliment. 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.

Once the carriage door closed safely behind them, Diana let off a sigh like a whistling 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?"

Free to laugh, Sophia did, drawing down the shades so she could rest against the carriage 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 your common sense? I am certain that Lady Worthington possessed both, once upon a time. Her fortune, at least, is still evident."

"I should never have asked my suitors to forsake their sense," Diana retorted, not to be calmed by her sister's forced indifference to their slights, "The way she spoke to us; to you! And we are chained to her for the duration of our stay in London!"

"I cannot but agree," though she did so with a sigh, "but as you say, we are chained to her. Yet, she is perhaps the key that will unlock 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 close, dark silence.

"You are right, of course," she admitted, "Yet, is not finding a husband challenge enough?"