Frederica in FashionBy: Marion Chesney & M.C. Beaton
The Six Sisters 06
‘Dear Minerva,’ Frederica Armitage wrote. ‘By the time you receive this, I shall be Far Away in a Foreign Country.’
Frederica was shy, dowdy and timid. But family circumstances had caused the worm to turn.
She had decided to run away from the ladies’ seminary in which she had passed a sedate year being groomed with all the boring educational arts considered necessary for a young lady of fashion.
The blow of her mother’s death had been severe, and almost as severe had been the one delivered by her father, the Reverend Charles Armitage, vicar of the parish of St Charles and St Jude. He had blithely announced his intention of marrying again. Frederica’s new ‘mama’ was to be the young vicarage maid, Sarah Millet – Sarah with her flirty, bouncy ways and her supreme vulgarity.
Had Frederica been as beautiful as her five sisters, the famous Armitage girls, then she might have borne her lot with better fortitude, knowing that marriage would provide an escape from her home after her first Season. But Frederica was the youngest and sadly plain. Her early promise of beauty had faded. Her dark curls had changed to faded wispy locks of an indeterminate colour. Her eyes seemed to have no colour at all. Sometimes they looked blue, sometimes green, sometimes grey, but most of the time – just colourless.
She was very small for her seventeen years, only just above five feet high. Her figure was slight and her ankles neat, but her bosom was disappointingly small.
Her sisters had all made stunningly successful marriages; Minerva, the eldest, had married Lord Sylvester Comfrey. After her, Annabelle had married the Marquess of Brabington; then Deirdre, Lord Harry Desire; Daphne, the rich Mr Garfield; and, a month ago, Diana had married Lord Mark Dantrey.
Frederica dreaded the idea of a Season in London. She had nightmares about sitting in hot ballrooms, propping up the wall.
But more than anything else did she dread the idea of having Sarah Millet for a stepmama. Frederica’s term at the seminary was to finish in a month’s time. Her father had written to say that Sarah would arrive on that day to escort her home. It was not the fact that Sarah was a mere vicarage maid that dismayed Frederica – it was Sarah herself: Sarah, with her bold, wandering eye and cackling laugh.
Frederica had sadly decided flight was the only answer. She had some money saved from the generous gifts sent her by her sisters. But she knew that would not last forever. She would have to find a job. She knew she was far too young to find a post as a governess. She would need to find work as a servant.
After some hard thought, Frederica had determined it was not the rank or position of servant that mattered, it was the standing and nature of the employer.
It would need to be some establishment far enough away from the school to escape notice, but not too far. It would also need to be a place with a very large staff where she would have less chance of being noticed, one of those large mansions which were like small villages.
From gossip in the seminary, she had learned that the Duke of Pembury’s country seat was some ten miles distant. Maria McLellan, one of the pupils, had been there with her parents on the day of the duke’s annual fête and had said the servants were as well-dressed and well-fed as fine ladies and gentlemen.
But in order to gain employ in any household, let alone a ducal one, references were needed. With great ingenuity, Frederica had set about forging two. She wrote one letter purporting to come from a Mrs Betwynd-Pargeter which said that Miss Sarah Millet – Frederica had decided it would be a nicely ironical touch to use Sarah’s name – was a neat and exemplary sort of person who had started work as a kitchen maid, and, by dint of hard work, diligence, and honesty, been appointed to the position of chambermaid. The second letter, from a Mrs Hamworth, lauded the praises of this chambermaid-extraordinary. Frederica had decided the post of chambermaid would not be too fatiguing or demand too much expertise.
The trouble was that she dare not write from the seminary, applying for a post. She would need to escape from the school and turn up at the duke’s kitchen door with her letters, and leave the rest to fate.
The last letter she had to write was the hardest one of all. She could not bear the thought of her family worrying themselves ill over her disappearance, and so, after much thought, she decided to write to her eldest sister, Minerva.