Authors: Allyson Jeleyne
Linley, her father, and the team shuffled down the aisle along with the rest of the passengers. Mr. Talbot-Martin saw Berenice the moment they pulled into the station. He knew her squared shoulders and the impatient drum of her foot against the tiled floor of the platform, and it was just a matter of getting off the train to go and greet her.
As for Linley, it took Archie and Reginald holding both arms, and Schoville pushing from behind to move her down the aisle and off the train.
“It isn’t like you to be cowardly,” Archie whispered into her ear. “Where is the girl I watched take on half the Zulu nation and not even bat an eye?”
Linley swallowed. “I believe we left her in Natal.”
Her father led them across the platform, ignorant of the conversation taking place behind him. He stopped in front of a stout woman in a stiff alpaca suit, her red-tinged, obviously hennaed, hair partially hidden beneath an enormous feathered hat.
“Berenice?” he asked.
She blinked up at him, recognizing her cousin’s smiling face. “Bedford! How well you look after all this time.” Berenice then studied the group gathered behind him. “Heavens, are these all yours?”
Mr. Talbot-Martin laughed. “No, no. Only one—my daughter, Linley.”
Linley stepped forward and dipped a little curtsey to the older woman. “How do you do?”
Berenice made no effort to hide her scrutinizing glance as she sized Linley up. The girl stood shorter than was desirable, but carried herself well enough to hide it. Her face seemed pleasant—eyes a bit too large, her nose a touch too small, but she had good teeth when she smiled. The only irreparable defect of the girl’s countenance was her skin, which was marred by freckles.
“Have you always had these freckles, young lady?”
Linley was not put off by the woman’s frankness. “I don’t believe I was born with them, ma’am, but I cannot say for certain.”
“Let us hope rice powder can cover them,” Berenice said. “Society still favors a delicate complexion, and too much time in the sun could be seen as improper.”
Linley couldn’t imagine what the condition of her skin could possibly have to do with proper or improper behavior.
“Now,” Berenice said, “I have my motor waiting outside. If you all would please follow me, we can continue this conversation at home, where private matters are always best discussed.”
Mr. Talbot-Martin and the others collected their bags and followed Berenice to her motorcar. Only Reginald did not accompany them. During their time in London, he planned to stay at his family’s townhouse in St. James’s.
“You will behave yourself, won’t you?” Linley asked him as they went their separate ways.
“Of course,” Reginald replied. “My brothers will be in town for the season, and they do a fantastic job of keeping an eye on me. After all, someone has to uphold the dignity of the Bourne family these days.” With a tip of his hat, he disappeared into the busy street.
“Miss Talbot-Martin!” Berenice called from the open door of her automobile. “I hope I do not have to explain that it is quite rude to keep one’s company waiting!”
The trip from the station to Bedford Square was like nothing Linley ever saw before. Everywhere she looked, there were motorcars, omnibuses, and horse-drawn carts, not to mention the throngs of pedestrians darting between them and scurrying along the pavement. Advertisements for laundry soaps and bicycle repair shops decorated the streets, hanging from every available space on the sides of the buses and lorries that passed by.
Unable to help herself, Linley stared open-mouthed out the window. When they arrived at Berenice’s gray brick townhouse, she felt dizzy from the shock of the commotion. The busy streets of Cairo or Rome were no match for London. The city was more than she ever expected or could have ever dreamed in a thousand years. How had she gone her entire life and not experienced this place?
“The square and its gardens were named after the Duke of Bedford, who owns them,” her father explained, taking her hand and helping her out of the motorcar. “When your great-grandfather lived here, he thought there was no finer man than His Grace, the Duke. So he insisted I be called Bedford in his honor.” Linley did not seem at all impressed at that tidbit of family history, so he added, “And you’ll be glad to know we are only a short walk from the British Museum.”
“Really?” Linley asked. “Could we go there tomorrow? Oh please, Papa?”
He smiled down at her. “I think tomorrow might be too soon. Cousin Berenice intends to take you shopping. The sooner we order your wardrobe, the better, Button.”
Linley glanced from her father to Berenice. “What is wrong with what I have?”
The woman wrinkled her nose at the young girl’s faded traveling suit. “Every young woman can benefit from an update of her clothing from time to time. I’m sure what you have is very nice, but wouldn’t you like to have pretty new things?”
“I…I suppose so.”
Berenice nodded. “Very good. We will begin tomorrow.”
Linley hardly slept that night. The sounds of the city right outside her bedroom window proved too much for her. She peeked from behind the heavy silk draperies onto the street below, and to the lush private garden beyond. She had watched the street lamps come on, sat up with their yellow light all night, and finally saw them shut off. It was now mid-morning. A nanny pushed a perambulator. Motors came and went. Someone walked a pair of spaniels across the street. All of them oblivious to the excitement their mundane lives brought the young woman sitting in the second-floor window above them.
There was a knock at Linley’s bedroom door. A maid carrying a breakfast tray shuffled in. “Good morning, miss.”
“Good morning,” Linley replied.
The maid sat the tray on a small rosewood table. “I’ve brought your breakfast. Mrs. Hastings didn’t know what you liked, so she ordered you a bit of everything. Usually you’d serve yourself downstairs, but I thought you might still be tired from your journey.”
“That’s very kind.” Linley studied the plates—sausage, eggs, beans, and tomatoes. There was also toast and marmalade, as well as a glass of orange juice and a cup of coffee. “I hardly know where to begin.”
As she ate, the maid moved around the room. The woman drew back the curtains, filling the room with light, and then went to work tidying the bedcovers. “Did you not sleep well, miss? The bed’s hardly been touched.”
“I was too excited to sleep,” Linley said, taking a mouthful of beans.
The maid smiled. “I remember my first trip to London. I’d never known so many people could be packed into one place.”
“It’s really rather impressive, isn’t it?” Linley continued. “I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Once she deemed the room satisfactory, the maid slipped out the door. “If you need anything, miss, my name is Clare,” she said, and pointed toward the bell-pull on the wall. “Just ring and I’ll be right up.”
After breakfast, Linley bathed, dressed, and went to find Berenice. The woman sat in the drawing room going over the morning papers and dispatching orders to her housekeeper. Not wanting to interrupt, Linley stood silently in the doorway.
“Come in, dear. Come in!” Berenice waved her into the room.
Linley took a few steps forward and smiled at the housekeeper, who seemed grateful for the break.
“You are an early riser,” Berenice said. “What a very good quality in a young woman. I cannot abide those who sleep the day away.”
Linley did typically start her days very early, but she dared not tell the woman that, in this instance, she had not been to sleep at all.
“I’ve ordered the motor to be brought ‘round at eleven. Of course, it’s too late to even think of gowns from the best shops. They’ll be busy with orders for the season made well in advance. Mothers plan their daughters’ debuts for years. We are attempting to do it in weeks, so we will have to be more creative with our purchases.”
Linley nodded, pretending any of this made sense to her.
“I know an efficient little dressmaker on Holles Street,” Bernice continued. “At least she can see to your evening clothes. Suits can be bought and tailored if need be.” The old woman sat forward in her chair. “Do you have reliable shoes? And what of your under things?
That last question caused Linley to blush. No one ever asked her about her underwear before.
“I will add a few good corsets to our list.”
“Why?” Linley asked. “The one I have works quite well.” She ran her hands along her abdomen for good measure. Everything seemed to be in its proper place, so what fault could the woman possibly find with her figure?
“Proper foundation garments are imperative,” Berenice explained with a wave of her hand. “They aid the posture, improve breathing, disguise imperfections—”
“I don’t have any imperfections.”
Berenice pointed her finger in Linley’s direction. “Are you naturally that skinny or have you been ill?”
“I am naturally this thin.”
“Exactly. You have no shape about you whatsoever. With a good corset, we can give the appearance of a figure. Enhance the bust, define the waist.”
Linley huffed and crossed her arms over her flat chest. “Enhance the bust, my eye!”
She begged her father not to subject her to any more of Cousin Berenice’s assistance. It was humiliating to have one’s flaws discussed so openly! Never in her life had Linley felt insecure about her body or her clothing. Now, it seemed like there was nothing more important in the world.
“Papa, I don’t want a new wardrobe. There is no point in spending the money because I will never wear any of it ever again.”
He shook his head and patted her on the hand. “If it is a question of money, please don’t trouble yourself about that. I can spare you a few pretty things, Button.”
“It isn’t only about the money,” Linley said. “I just don’t see why it’s so important that I have a whole new collection of clothes. The two dinner gowns I have aren’t even a year old. They cannot possibly be worn out by now.”
“A normal girl your age can barely think of anything except new frocks and the latest styles.”
She threw up her hands in disgust. “I am not a normal girl.”
“And nowhere is it ever more obvious than here,” her father said. “I want us to make a good impression on society. I need you to look your best.” He held his hands out to her. “No doubt many will remember your mother’s untimely passing when they see you, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’ve done her memory a discredit by choosing to bring you up myself.”
Linley sighed. She never wanted to do anything that would damage her father or her late mother’s reputation. She wanted to make them proud. If going shopping with Cousin Berenice for new clothes, and attending every dinner party and ball in London was what it would take, then Linley would do it.
She marched downstairs to meet the woman for their assault on the London shopping district. Berenice already stood in the foyer, coat and hat in hand, as Linley descended the marble staircase.
“Obstinacy is a very unbecoming trait, Miss Talbot-Martin,” she said. “You’ll do well to try and reign in your emotions. No one likes a hardheaded young woman, and certainly, no man wants an unmanageable wife.”
Linley stood beneath the awnings at Selfridge’s studying the window displays. On the ride over, she thumbed through a copy of
La Mode Pratique
and found some styles she liked. Perhaps there would be something inside she might pick out for herself. After all, she was not opposed to fashion on principle. And even she was not immune to beautiful things.
Once inside the store, shopping for herself seemed much more daunting. There was so much to choose from! Ladies pushed past each other, all vying for the last of the better ready-made ensembles. Harried sales girls tried to keep order and peace among the customers, but it was no use. Linley stood in the middle of the chaos clutching a blue silk day dress to her chest. The matching hat rested high on a shelf, and she tried her best to flag down an employee.
“Pardon me,” she said. “I’d like to see that hat up there—the blue one with the white feather.”
The sales girl held up her hands. “I have to finish with my customer first.”
Another passed by and ignored Linley completely.
“Can someone please help me?” she asked.
“If you want it badly enough, climb up there and get it.” The young woman standing behind her pointed up at the hat. “Here, use my umbrella.”
“You can’t be serious,” Linley said.
“Oh, I’m more than serious,” explained the woman. “If you want something, you have to take it.” When Linley only blinked in reply, the young woman thrust the umbrella into her arms. “Take it!”
With a shrug, Linley gathered her skirts and stepped onto a wooden display table. Using the hooked end of the umbrella, she fished the hat down from the top shelf.
“See, it wasn’t so hard.” The young woman held out her hand. “Gaynor Robeson.”
“My goodness, you are brown!” Gaynor said, studying Linley’s complexion. “Have you spent time abroad?”
“Is it that obvious?”
She took one look at Linley’s freckled skin and frayed hems. “I am afraid so.”
“Wonderful,” Linley said, frowning. “I might as well have ‘outsider’ stamped on my forehead.”
“Some men like the exotic.”
“Not any that I am likely to meet.” She laughed in spite of herself. “This is my first time in London.”
“Then you have your work cut out for you.”
“And I have not the slightest idea how to go about it.”
Gaynor tapped a gloved finger on the blue dress and matching hat in Linley’s arms. “That is a good start, but you’ll need a great deal more if you want to be properly turned out.” She watched the sales girls weaving through the crowd of excited ladies, impatient children, and blouse displays. When one came within grabbing distance, Gaynor stepped out and cornered her. “This lady would like to be fitted.”
The sales girl opened her mouth to argue, but with one look at Miss Robeson in all her finery, closed it again.